Some beers in

I’m a bit of a solitary drinker – particularly at home – and I like a bit of variety, even if it’s only alternating Landlord with Proper Job and Ghost Ship. So the only quantity I usually buy bottled beer in is 1. I have occasionally wondered what I’d offer a beer-drinking visitor – or rather, not what I’d offer them (I’d offer them a beer, quite clearly) but how I’d phrase the follow-up question: “What would you like, there’s a Boltmaker and a Harbour Pale and an ESB and an 1845 and a Champion, it is a bit strong that one, although you’re welcome if that’s what you fancy, or if you want a smaller beer there’s an Old Tom and a Duvel and a Guinness Foreign and… What am I having? No, you choose first, I really don’t mind…“. But I only ever seem to meet beer-drinking friends and acquaintances in pubs, so as yet the problem hasn’t arisen.

So I’ve never really “got some beers in”, or not until recently. My first multiple buy was around the beginning of the year, when I bought six bottles of Greene King‘s limited-edition bottle-conditioned Vintage Fine Ale after being rather impressed by the first bottle. This wasn’t a huge success, as I promptly went off it; too malty, too heavy, too much like beer with a cough-mixture depth charge (I imagine). That said, I’ve gradually worked my way through the batch since then & can report that it’s starting to dry out; by the time I get to the last bottle it should be pretty good.

More recently, there was the Aldi promotion which saw bottles of Holden’s XB, Felinfoel Dragon Heart and – in at least one store – Dark Star Hophead going cheap. I bought six of each – why wouldn’t you? Shortly after that we got the sad news about TicketyBrew, which naturally made me want to grab whatever beer of theirs I could still find; an online beer merchant obliged with six bottles each of the Pale and Blonde, and four of the Dubbel. The same retailer had a deal on Tynt Meadow – six for the price of five – so I went for some of those as well.

So for the time being I haven’t just got beers, I’ve got a stock of beers; I can get out a couple of beers, or have a beer and replace it with an identical example of the same beer. It’s a novelty. The main use I’ve made of it is to drink nothing but Hophead, at least as far as low-strength beers in large bottles goes; any time I fancy a pint of bitter, or the closest thing to it in a bottle, I’ve gone for the Hophead. It’s given me a distinct sense of what a pint of bitter tastes like: loose in texture, thin yet oddly oily or soapy; strongly aromatic, herbal (rosemary? sage?); a fresh-tasting attack, sharp but not sour enough to be citric; then a long, bitter finish, persisting almost long enough to be unpleasant, then fading away, leaving your mouth dry and ready for a repeat.

It’s a lovely, lovely beer – and it is, quite definitely, what bitter tastes like. Although I may feel differently when I’ve drunk nothing but XB for a couple of weeks. Watch this space…

UPDATE Three weeks and six bottles of XB later, I can confirm that what a pint of bitter tastes like is… hard to describe. It’s not a complex flavour as such, it’s just hard to pin down. What you taste to begin with isn’t sharp or citric, it’s not strongly bitter and it certainly isn’t aromatic – but I wouldn’t call it bland, either. It just tastes like beer – or rather, it feels like it tastes how beer ought to taste. Perhaps the texture is what’s most striking to begin with; it tastes heavy, like a much stronger beer. It’s not especially sweet, though; it certainly doesn’t taste ‘malty’ or have that slug of caramel you get with some stronger old-school beers. The finish is much easier to describe: it’s bitter, in a complex, lingering way; not tannic (yet another negative!) but herbal, medicinal, a clean-tasting contrast to that heavy start. It’s then that you really taste the sweetness of the beer, in an odd sort of front-of-mouth aftertaste. Like the Hophead, it’s very much a session beer – one mouthful sets you up for another – but in a very different way; I don’t know when I’ve drunk a pint (well, 500 ml) so quickly while being so unsure what it was I was tasting. Lovely stuff. Not like anything else (apart from Batham’s), but lovely stuff. Now for the Felinfoel…

UPDATE Another three weeks and six bottles down, and I can confirm that what a pint of bitter tastes like is, in fact, remarkably easy to describe. It tastes like beer – you know, beer, that brown stuff, puts hairs on your chest. Beer. Beer like it always was. When brown meant beer, and darker meant sweeter but also stronger… You wouldn’t say ‘fruity’ exactly, and ‘malt loaf’ isn’t quite what it is, but if you take granary bread on one hand and damsons or black cherries on the other, and aim for somewhere right in the middle, you’d be about right. It’s well-conditioned and lively, but it’s big – heavy-textured almost to the point of tasting thick. No surprises – this isn’t one of those beers that do one thing on the nose, one on the tip of your tongue, another in your mouth and another again in the aftertaste; what you taste is what you get. It’s brown, it’s heavy-ish, it’s sweet-ish, it’s strong-ish… it’s beer.

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