Category Archives: Large brown bottles

Shopping

Dry January was never really going to be an option for me, if only because I invariably over-purchase before Christmas. If you can abstain for a month with a sizeable stash of weird and expensive stuff looking you in the eye every time you go for the hoover, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Last weekend I finally drank the last of this year’s pre-Christmas purchases; since this left my beer stocks looking dangerously low (1 x each of Duvel, Old Tom, McEwan’s Champion) I also did a bit of re-stocking. So here, without much comment, are two shopping lists.

22/12/2016 (Tiny’s Tipple, Chorlton)

Marble Earl Grey IPA (500 ml; remainder are all 330 ml)
RedWillow Thoughtless imperial stout (can)
RedWillow Perceptionless New England IPA (can)
Rochefort 6 nectar of the gods
Marble Portent of Usher imperial stout
Flying Dog Horn Dog barley wine
Hawkshead Oak Aged No 5 strong porter
Wild Modus Operandi barrel-aged sour
Cloudwater Mosaic IPA
Blackjack Devilfish saison
Blackjack/Garage Gyle 700 bretted double IPA
Chorlton Goldings Sour (can)
Siren Broken Dream oatmeal stout (I have no recollection of choosing this)

Price range: £2.70 to £5.00
Average price: £3.88
Price range per litre: £8.10 to £15.00 (predictably enough)
Average price per litre: £11.30

Bit spendy, really. Was it worth it? Well, the first five – everything down to the Portent of Usher – struck me as rock-solid stone-cold five-star classics, and the next three after that were pretty damn good. I won’t go through the last five, except to say that with my beer-judging hat on I’d rate them all as good to very good. There certainly weren’t any stinkers – but a couple of them, for me, would qualify as fairly expensive experiments.

29/1/2017 (Sainsbury’s, Salford)

Timothy Taylor Landlord (500 ml, as are the rest)
Adnams Bitter
Brakspear Oxford Gold
Harbour IPA
Fuller’s Bengal Lancer
Adnams Ghost Ship

I agonised over that Adnams bitter – it was that or a Proper Job – but in the end the idea of filling my bottle carrier with three old-school bitters and three pales appealed to me.

Price range: £1.80 to £2.00
Average price: £1.84
Price range per litre: £3.60 to £4.00 (again, predictably enough)
Average price per litre: £3.68

So far I’ve had the Oxford Gold, which I’m planning on writing about separately; my mouth is actually watering at the thought of the Harbour IPA, and for that matter the dear old Landlord. All that for two notes for the best part of a pint. On the other hand, I did really enjoy that Portent, which set me back £4.50 for 330 ml. But was it three and a half times as good as Landlord? Yeah… no… maybe.

What’s the point here?  Just to say that the market is segmenting, and that the prices on the ‘craft’ side of the street really are rather high, when you stop to think about it. On the other hand, having a segmented marketplace doesn’t necessarily mean that beer drinkers have to commit to one segment and no other, or even that brewers have to – although sticking to one market segment would save you the bother of managing multiple different price ranges, which would have to be a challenge. Playing both sides may even become a necessity. There may not always be enough people willing to pay the equivalent of £7-8 a pint for an unknown style from an unknown brewery (or collab); equally, there may not always be enough people willing to pay even a couple of quid for yet another familiar bitter from yet another mid-table brewery. Sadly, beer owes nobody a living.

…and with that gloomy thought I approach the end of Dry Tuesday (would have been Monday but my wife opened some wine). Twenty-four hours, no problem! Not going to stretch it to 48, though – there’s a Meet the Brewer with Ticketybrew at the Ford Madox Brown tomorrow night. More on that in due course.

O dark, dark, dark

Martyn waxes lyrical about old ales and Burtons, singling out Young’s Winter Warmer, Marston’s Owd Roger, McEwan’s Champion and Theakston’s Old Peculier. I’ve long been a fan of these styles & others in the same neighbourhood (e.g. dark barley wines, dubbels & ‘quadrupel’s). I’m a particular fan of one that Martyn didn’t mention, Robinson’s Old Tom, which for several years now I’ve regarded as one of the best beers in the world.

I’ve drunk all these beers & many similar ones, on draught as well as in bottle; I even did a comparison of several of them over a few weeks a while ago. What I’ve never done – for obvious reasons – is compare them on the spot, by drinking (say) an Old Tom followed by an Owd Roger and an Old Peculier. The one-shot nature of these beers, whose strengths range from 6.6% (Old Peculier, 500 ml bottle) up to 8.5% (Old Tom, 330 ml), makes it difficult to compare and contrast in this way. But where there’s a will there’s a way. With the aid of six small glasses – and a stash of 330 ml plastic bottles to hold the ‘excess’ – I’ve just done a blind taste test of some widely-available old ales and Burtons. I chose five – the Marston’s, McEwan’s, Theakston’s and Robinsons’s beers mentioned above, plus JW Lees’ Manchester Star – and rounded off the set with Chimay Blue. I was interested to see if the Trappist ale leapt out of the pack; if Old Tom lived up to my estimation; and if a couple of the others – Owd Roger in particular – lived down to past experience.

The procedure: I labelled six glasses, and drew off enough of the beer so that around 1/6 of a litre remained in each bottle. (This gives a total of 7.7 units, if you’re interested. Hey, it’s the weekend – and I usually keep Monday dry.) My OH then poured out the bottles into the labelled glasses and labelled each bottle to match its respective glass. I tasted them in order and made some initial notes, trying to be fairly systematic about colour, aroma etc, giving them an initial rating and having a guess at which beer was which. I then tasted them again in ascending order of my initial ratings, made some more impressionistic notes, and guessed again what I was drinking. Two beers I was certain I recognised, but for the other four I guessed differently each time – so between the six beers I made a total of ten guesses. (You may like to pause here and estimate how many of them were right.)

Here are my notes.

Beer 1
Mid-brown, translucent
Aroma: malt loaf
Big malt extract, caramel bitterness, slight metallic edge. 7
Second take: Malt party. Big dark bittersweet flavours, caramel and cake spices. Burnt sugar finish, but not just on the finish. 8.5

Beer 2
Brown-black, opaque
Aroma: not much; bonfire toffee?
Fruity dark bitter with burnt-sugar bitterness; a bit thin. 6
Second take: Quite an austere full-on malt character – fruity but not sweet. Some caramel but consistent throughout, not just on the finish. 7

Beer 3
Very dark brown, not quite opaque
Dark bitter backed up by caramel bitterness, plus a bit of Marmite. 5.5
Second take: A nice dark bitter, made to seem more interesting by a big burnt-sugar finish. 6.5

Beer 4
Black, opaque
Sweet, very slightly bitter; a lot like Coke. 4
Second take: Very strongly carbonated; not much flavour mid-mouth apart from sweetness; caramel-bitter finish masks the alcohol. Quite fun but a bit one-dimensional and too much upfront sweetness. 6

Beer 5
Black
Aroma: malt extract
Heavy, sweet, Coke-ish but with malt and a bit of Marmite. 5.5
Second take: Very like a less successful version of beer #4 – less carbonated, possibly a hint of acetone. 5.5

Beer 6
Dark brown
Aroma: bready malt
Heavy, thick-tasting, malt plus. 7.5
Very sweet but very interesting with it – odd floral and herbal notes. No bitterness at all – the flavour just develops then fades. Bitterness builds down the glass, though. Sophisticated stuff. 8.5

So the beers fell into three groups: big fruit-loaf ‘Burton’ or similar malt-driven style, done well (1 and 6); dark fruity old ale with strong burnt-sugar notes (2 and 3); big fruit-loaf ‘Burton’, done not so well (4 and 5). Combining my two scores, my ranking was 1, 6, 2, 3, 5, 4. I was convinced that 1 & 6 were Old Tom and Chimay, respectively. My four guesses for 2 & 3 included Old Peculier, Champion and Manchester Star, while my four guesses for 4 & 5 included Owd Roger, Champion and Manchester Star.

3 was indeed Old Peculier, and 5 was Manchester Star. The rest of my guesses… not so good.

Here are the beers behind those numbers. To say I was surprised when I discovered what I’d been drinking would be a sizeable understatement. (In fact ‘sizeable’ is a sizeable understatement.)

1: McEwan’s Champion
2: Robinsons’s Old Tom
3: Theakston’s Old Peculier
4: Chimay Blue
5: JW Lees’ Manchester Star
6: Marston’s Owd Roger

Or, in judging order,

1: McEwan’s Champion (good Burton, 16 – “caramel and cake spices”)
6: Marston’s Owd Roger (good Burton, 15.5 – “Sophisticated stuff”)
2: Robinsons’s Old Tom (old ale, 13 – “austere full-on malt character”)
3: Theakston’s Old Peculier (old ale, 12 – “A nice dark bitter”)
5: JW Lees’ Manchester Star (poor Burton, 11 – “Coke-ish but with malt and a bit of Marmite”)
4: Chimay Blue (poor Burton(!), 10 – “fun but a bit one-dimensional”)

A couple of shocks on that list, that last entry most of all. (To be fair to the Trappists, Chimay Blue does age particularly well, and there’s got to be a fair bit of sugar there for the yeast to keep working over an extended period; perhaps that’s how we should treat fresh bottles, as being best laid down for a few years.) It looks as if I can recommend McEwan’s Champion (stocked by Sainsbury’s) and Marston’s Owd Roger (which I found in B&M Bargains) every bit as strongly as Old Tom, and rather more so than Manchester Star (of which I’m rather fond).

One final note. If you take a particularly keen interest in the mechanics of blind tastings, you may have spotted an anomaly in my description of the set-up for this one. Pour 2/3rds of a 500 ml bottle into a resealable 330 ml bottle and drink the other 1/3rd, fair enough – you were probably thinking – but what have you done with the Old Tom and the Chimay (both of which are sold in 330 ml bottles)? If you’ve stashed half-full plastic bottles of these two, they’re not going to be in very good nick when you go back to them. Very good point – which is why I’ve poured them both into one bottle. Yes, I’ve got a bottle of Old Tom mixed with Chimay Blue – the bottle-conditioned Trappist sharing a bottle with the brewery-conditioned Stopfordian, the bland sweetness mingling with the austere malt. I’m guessing it’ll either be brilliant or terrible; I’ll let you know when I find out.

Remember the name

I bought four bottles of beer the other day – four different beers from the same brewer, that is. The supermarket was having a bit of a push on them; the four of them had their own little cardboard display unit. Plus they were included in a ‘four for £6’ offer, so it seemed like a no-brainer.

There was an amber ale, “brewed in Burton-upon-Trent”. It wasn’t very nice. It was quite a deep brown in colour and tasted of diluted malt extract, with a very slight bitterness on the finish and nothing much in the way of carbonation. Essentially it tasted as if someone had set out to imitate an old-school sweetish bitter, but done so on a very tight budget. This was the only one of the four in a clear bottle, but it didn’t taste skunked; it just tasted rather boring.

Then there was a pale ale; mysteriously, this one was “brewed in the UK”. It was certainly paler than the previous one, and tasted a bit lighter, with some acidity and less of that syrupy sweetness. I wouldn’t say it rose to the level of ‘pleasant’, though; it was a bit of a struggle to get through the whole 500 ml.

Things started to look up a bit with the red IPA (also “brewed in the UK”). Only a bit – I’m not saying I’d buy it again – but I could drink an entire bottle without too much effort. ‘Red IPA’ was stretching it, though. With a beer like Hardknott Infra Red, you get something like the ‘red’ (or brown) equivalent of a black IPA: tarry bitterness and hop aroma overlaid on a heavy, sweetish old-school bitter. This wasn’t like that (or anywhere near that good). Basically it was rather like a combination of the other two – so ‘red’ meaning ‘dark, sweet, old-style bitter’ and ‘IPA’ presumably meaning ‘sharp-tasting and vaguely hoppy’.

After one beer that was disappointing and two that were positively hard to finish, I wasn’t expecting much from the fourth; this was a special ale and “brewed in Burtonwood”. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I quite liked it. Another darkish, sweetish bitter, but this time with a more interesting flavour and with a bit of body and strength to it; it wasn’t a million miles from Fuller’s ESB, albeit less complex and a bit less sweet.

So what are these boring brown supermarket beers, with their conservative flavour profiles and their multiple brewery locations, and why am I bothering you with them? They’re Sharp’s Doom Bar, Atlantic, Wolf Rock and Sea Fury, respectively. (Incidentally, none of the labels claimed that the beers were brewed in Cornwall; the labels for Sea Fury and Doom Bar specifically said they weren’t.) As you’ll probably remember, Sharp’s was a small Cornish brewery, which sold out to Molson Coors in 2011. At the time there was very little wailing and gnashing of teeth among beer enthusiasts, partly because most of us only really knew Sharp’s through Doom Bar, which was pretty unexciting even then (although personally I rather liked it). Most of us followed Pete Brown in giving the news a cautious welcome; I certainly did, as you can see from my comments on that post. Pete’s argument at the time was, firstly, that this was a good move for Molson Coors (“This marks the creation, or reinvention, of a national brewer with a big commitment to cask ale”); secondly, that if Doom Bar did get blanded out by its new owners this was no great loss (“It’s only been going since 1994 and the original recipe was from a kit, so it’s not as if there is any heritage here that’s about to be trashed by a big corporate”); and, thirdly, that Molson Coors were promising that Sharp’s head brewer Stuart Howe would be able to do his own thing (result!), and if that didn’t work out he’d jump ship and go and do it somewhere else (also a result!).

I think these were perfectly reasonable opinions at the time, not least because I held them myself. However, with five years’ retrospect we can see that there’s a lurking contradiction between Pete’s first two points. Is it such a good thing for a mega-brewery to develop “a big commitment to cask ale”, if the cask ale they’re committed to is a shadow of its former self? Conversely, can we laugh off Doom Bar getting dumbed down & blanded out – we weren’t drinking it anyway – if the new and even blander Doom Bar is going to be in our collective face, thanks to that “big commitment”?

In retrospect, I think this contradiction betrays a blind spot concerning the difference between a product and a brand. It’s not surprising that the two should get mixed up in people’s minds – they’re thoroughly mixed up in practice – but it’s still worth taking a couple of philosophical steps back. Let’s say that you’re given a taster of a beer, without knowing its name or that of the brewery, and you like it enough to seek it out and buy a pint: in that situation, you’re buying a product purely because of the qualities of the product. At the other extreme, say that your name is Finlayson, you’ve gone to the pub to celebrate a win on the lottery, and the first thing you see is a pump dispensing Finlayson’s Lucky Number (NB not a real beer) – obviously you’re going to have a pint of that, but for reasons which have nothing to do with the quality of the beer. The product and the brand are different things, although they’re welded together by the act of actually buying the thing – you can’t give money for the brand without experiencing the beer, and vice versa.

What makes it complicated is that, in practice, there aren’t that many ways to brand a beer that are completely disconnected from the beer itself – at least, not since the ASA got all spoilsport-y about associating alcohol with “irresponsible behaviour, social success or sexual attractiveness”. So what you tend to get is the presentation of product quality as a brand. The goal, in other words, is to create the impression among customers that the name of a particular beer, or a particular brewery, is the mark of quality. From that point on, as far as customers are concerned their buying decisions are based on product quality – that’s why they like the brand. But the brewer doesn’t have to sell on product quality; all they need to do is sell the brand, while doing whatever’s necessary to maintain the association between the brand and product quality. This may mean keeping quality high, but it doesn’t have to; it may just mean keeping prices high (“reassuringly expensive”, anyone?).

You can see how this applies to Doom Bar. A brand which is supported by a history of product quality is a strong brand, one which a corporation might well want to own. But the product that’s associated with that brand, once it’s been bought, doesn’t have to continue that history. The brand makes the proposition about quality, backed – implicitly or explicitly – by history and experience. The product doesn’t need to live up that proposition – it just needs to be palatable enough not to drive repeat customers away. Consider Stella, again; AB-Inbev are still trading on the name and history of the Brouwerij Artois, 28 years after it ceased to exist.

So, what do you get when a large brewery buys out a smaller one? We get one less brewery, and the larger brewery gets the assets of the smaller one – including the beers themselves, the beer brands and whatever other assets the smaller brewery had: brewkit, plant and buildings, yeast strains, employees, distribution channels and so on. In the 1960s and 70s, the key assets would have been the tied estate; these days it’s the brands. Now as then, there are no guarantees for the people or the brewkit – or the beers. For corporate brewers – and for anyone trading much above the face-to-face, word-of-mouth, farmer’s market level – a strong brand is far more valuable than a high-quality product; and this is the case even when the strength of the brand has been built on the quality of the product. (I had Stella Artois once, in Belgium, in the 1970s. It was good stuff.)

In short, takeovers turn beers into brands – or rather, they turn a beer-with-a-brand into a brand-with-a-beer. Even when the new corporate owner of a beer is genuinely committed to maintaining its original quality, the corporate scale creates new dangers. Brakspear Triple survived two changes of ownership – Brakspear was bought out by Wychwood in 2002, Wychwood by Marston’s in 2008 – only to fall foul of fluctuations in supermarket beer demand. In recent years the beer has been brewed primarily (perhaps exclusively) for the supermarket ‘premium bottled ale’ market – a big market in terms of potential sales but a very small one structurally, putting the future of the beer in the hands of a few beer buyers. And so it was that, in the words of a Marston’s spokeswoman quoted in June’s What’s Brewing, “Due to the decline in demand from consumers, Brakspear Triple bottle-conditioned beer was delisted by key retailers which inevitably meant we were unable to continue with the production and sale of it.” This is not to say that everything would have been rosy if Brakspear had refused Wychwood’s offer; the brewery might just have closed down, historic double-drop vessels and all. But it does show that a takeover doesn’t secure the future of any beer, even where the new owners have a genuine commitment to the beer – and not just the brand.

Whether AB InBev’s commitment to Camden Town and Meantime is to the beers or the brands, time will tell. (Sorry, make that Asahi‘s commitment to Meantime.) But I think anyone who bet on the key personnel or the original recipes still being in place in another five years would be very optimistic indeed. The brands, on the other hand, have got a bright future ahead of them. (Well, Camden’s have; given AB InBev’s enforced divestment, I’m even less optimistic about Meantime.) Just like Doom Bar.

According to Pete’s blog post in 2011, Stuart Howe was officially going to “[stay] doing what he’s doing but supported by more investment in the brewery and greater distribution capability” (although Pete expressed some scepticism about whether this would work out). According to a comment on the post from Kristy McCready, who was doing PR for Molson Coors at the time, “100% of Sharp’s beers will be brewed at the brewery in Rock under the creative brilliance of Stuart Howe … no wing clipping, crass marketing, kegging, moving to Burton or anything other than business as usual for Sharp’s but with more investment behind it”. 100% of Sharp’s beers brewed at Rock? We’ve seen how that worked out. As for Stuart Howe, he left Molson Coors last year for Butcombe (which itself has recently been bought out by the Jersey-based Liberation group). Meanwhile, Doom Bar is going strong, an awful beer powered by the reputation Sharp’s built before the takeover – along with equally feeble beers like Atlantic and Wolf Rock (and the surprisingly decent Sea Fury).

The beer landscape has changed an awful lot since the 1970s, but in key respects it hasn’t changed that much. The big companies don’t want good beers for their quality, they want them for their market share and their branding – and those things don’t require high quality beer, even if high quality beer is what they were built on. One of three things happens when a small brewery is taken over: the beers are kept on with the same quality and standards; or they just disappear; or they’re kept on as brands fronting for inferior products, impostors standing in for the beers they used to be. I think history shows that the second is more likely than the first, and the third is most likely of all – particularly now that brands are such a key asset for breweries. In short, takeovers are (still) bad news.

 

German beer: not a review

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION This post isn’t “my views on German beer”; I’m aware that I’ve only tried a tiny proportion of the beers produced in Germany (although it is quite a large proportion of the German beers widely available in the UK). The question I originally intended to ask by trying these beers was what’s distinctive about German beers, even the supermarket variety? The question ended up being how deep do I have to dig to get to the good stuff? And the answer was “further than I thought”.

 

I wrote a while back about my experiences with beer in (north-eastern) Germany. The beer I tried – and I tried a few – were best described as ‘good but not spectacular’; a bottled Bock (Rostock) and a Kellerbier on tap in a restaurant in Berlin (Memminger) were the only beers I had which came anywhere near knocking my socks off. I remember tasting the Memminger and thinking here we are! – it had the kind of herbal aroma and complex, almost challenging flavours that you expect from a good pale ale over here, on a hazy, yeasty base. Everything else… well, the Köstritzer Dunkel was nice, in a dark way; the Schöfferhofer Hefeweizen was nice, in a yeasty sort of way; and all the pale beers I had were fine, in a ‘clean-tasting and a bit lacking in complexity’ sort of way.

On getting home I decided to further my education in German beer by buying everything German I could find in a supermarket (I came by a few others along the way). The original plan was to review the lot of them, in the hope that my palate would tune in to what was good about them. Unfortunately I didn’t get any more from them than I did from the beers I had over there, so my mental notes fall well short of amounting to a review. My palate remains resolutely untuned.

I did make a few discoveries, though, and here they are.

Not all Hefeweizens are equal. I had the usual supermarket selection – an Erdinger plus a Franziskaner – plus Something Imported from Aldi. I was quite excited about the third one, particularly when I looked at the label (which was in German and everything) and discovered it was made with actual hops only. It wasn’t that great, though. The Erdinger didn’t knock me out either, slightly to my surprise (although it was better than the Erdinger Dunkelweizen). Franziskaner is the first Hefeweizen I ever had (at a sausage restaurant in Barcelona) and it’s still pretty much my favourite – although I do like the Schöfferhofer.

Hefeweizen is nicer than the clear stuff. I had a Warsteiner, a Bitburger, Something Else Imported from Aldi, a Schlenkerla and a couple of others. With only one exception, they failed to impress; if anything, they bored me, I’m afraid. The best of them (that one exception apart) was only as enjoyable as the worst of the Hefeweizen. Thinking back to the yeasty flavours of that Kellerbier, I wondered if – for the less adventurous German brewers – ‘putting a bit more flavour in’ equated to ‘leaving a bit more yeast in’.

Bitburger is nicer than Warsteiner. I drank them one after the other to see if I could spot any differences. I could: one of them’s nicer than the other.

As for Oktoberfestbier… I should be tasting something, surely? Is it me? I supplemented the main test with three different bottles of Oktoberfestbier, all clear and pale, all around 6%… and all rather samey and uninteresting. There was a Hofbräu, a Spaten and a Schneider. The Hofbräu was the most interesting of the three, for what it’s worth.

But it’s not all bad news. My final finding was that

Schlenkerla Helles is very nice indeed. Lots going on there – proper beer (says my un-tuned English palate). If they all tasted like that, I’d be raving about all of them.

Next week on Mine’s A Pint Of Bitter: Belgian beer – monks, myths and marketing!

Deutsches Bier

2015-08-21 16.21.31

To you, six quid the lot

Just got back from a holiday in Germany. It was a two-centre holiday of sorts – we had a week in Wiek, a fairly remote Baltic coast resort, and three days in Berlin. The bottles in the picture above were bought in Wiek, at the local supermarket; one of them cost €1.45, but the remainder were between 88c and €1.15 including bottle deposit.

So that’s one of my impressions of Germany: good beer, and local beer – and if you’re lucky good local beer – is readily available in supermarkets & the like. (Above: seven beers from three nationally-distributed breweries and three locals – Rostock, Störtebeker, Vielanker. I could have bought fifteen or twenty different beers at that supermarket, about half of them brewed relatively locally. The rough British equivalent would be a Mace in the depths of Pembrokeshire or Cornwall.) Also, it’s insanely cheap. The strength of the £ helped – we bought our euros at €1.40 – but even at euro/pound parity this stuff would be… well, insanely cheap. Bar and restaurant prices, interestingly enough, were much closer to the British norm – usually €3 or above for half a litre of anything decent.

What else did I have? The rest of my beer drinking was done in cafes and restaurants: this was very much a family holiday with no bar-crawling element. On the plus side, this didn’t hold me back. “I can’t get over how you can drink, like, everywhere,” I overhead an American saying to another at Mauerpark (a park on land formerly occupied by the Berlin Wall, where a huge antiques fair/fleamarket/craft fair/mini-festival takes place every Sunday) – and you could certainly get decent beer pretty much everywhere, whether you were getting pizzas in a tourist restaurant, taking the weight off your feet at a beach-front cafe or getting a sandwich at the zoo. In ten days, in two different regions, I think we only went into one cafe that wasn’t serving beer – and not once was I reduced to ordering Carlsberg or Heineken, or even Beck’s. As well as the obligatory Berliner Weiss (brewery not specified), I had Bitburger, Lübzer and Berliner Pilsner, Köstritzer Kellerbier and Dunkel, Hefeweizen from Erdinger, Schöfferhofer and Memminger, a Memminger Kellerbier and a few others whose names I’ve forgotten. I also ordered something called Alsterwasser, which turns out to be what you or I would call a lager shandy, and tried to order a Fassbrause, which is an apple-flavoured lemonade (the barmaid kindly warned me off). (NB a Diesel is beer and coke, and a Potsdamer is beer and Fassbrause… we think.)

What was it like? Here’s where the good news gets a bit more qualified. With hardly any exceptions – one, to be precise – these beers were fine; clean-tasting, well-balanced, seemed like good examples of their style, etc, etc. The dud was the Störtebeker “Hanse-Porter”: sweet, heavy and strongly reminiscent of Coca-Cola; it got a bit better when I told myself to think of it as a Dunkelweizen rather than a porter, but only a bit. (The same brewery’s (helles) Hefeweizen was… well, fine.) And with only a handful of exceptions, they were no more than fine: 3s or 3.5s on a 5-point scale. The good ones were the Jever (natürlich); the Rostock Bock Dunkel, which (uniquely out of the beers I drank on the trip) was over 6%, and had the big, enveloping quality of a dark old ale; and a Memminger Kellerbier that I had on tap at a restaurant in Berlin. This was a fresh, aromatic, hoppy number that caught my attention straight away; it was the only beer I had in Germany that made me feel I was drinking something interesting.

It’s not surprising that I didn’t come across German craft beer – I wasn’t exactly seeking it out. (Family holiday, etc.) What is surprising is quite what a broad range of good, locally-produced beer I did find. My ideal for beer in England – the goal that I think CAMRA should work towards above all others – is a situation where locally-produced beer produced using traditional methods is available in every pub you walk into; whether any of those pubs would be serving beer in a multitude of different styles, or even beer from very far away, is secondary. In Berlin and on the Baltic coast, at least, it looks as if this ideal was realised long ago – if anything, it’s been realised in bars and then rolled out to cafes, petrol stations, roadside sausage vendors etc. And all this without blowing anybody’s tastebuds off or turning bars into multi-coloured beer style swap shops.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed that Memminger Kellerbier – and, after ten days of beer that was fine, but rarely any more than fine, I did start to hanker for a hoppy taste-bomb or two. I guess I’m living with the curse of sophistication.

News in brief

A few quick thoughts that don’t quite merit a post each.

“I Like This One More Than That One” – Local Man’s Shock Claim

A couple of cask/keg comparisons. The other day I had the opportunity to try Magic Rock High Wire on both cask and keg. The cask beer opened with an intriguing herby smokiness, which died away as I got further down; by the bottom of the glass it was just a light, rather sharp-tasting golden ale, perfectly drinkable but nothing outstanding. (I prefer Curious.) This raised my hopes for the keg – if they’d managed to, as it were, freeze-dry the initial hoppy attack so that it ran right through the beer, that would be rather special. I tasted it and it was… just a light, rather sharp-tasting golden ale, perfectly drinkable but nothing outstanding. My “Mysteries of Magic Rock Kegging” file gets longer.

A while ago I had Marble‘s Earl Grey IPA on cask & was rather impressed with it – more so than I remember being when they first brewed it. The keg comparison was unavoidable. I was startled to find that, as good as the cask was, the keg version was… hold on, I need to take a few deep breaths… the keg was… there’s no other way to put this, the keg was even better. Yes, it’s finally happened: I’ve found a beer that works better on keg than on cask (although the cask is really good). It’s the ‘Earl Grey’ aroma that tips the balance – in the keg version it comes through that much more clearly; it seems to hang over the surface of the beer as you’re drinking it.

As for Holt’s/Marble/Blackjack/Runaway Green Quarter IPA, I haven’t tracked it down on cask yet so can’t compare. The keg was pretty damn good, though. (Colder than it needed to be and gassier than it need to be, natürlich, but other than that it was excellent.)

Drinking keg and liking it – oh, the shame!

In Descending Order Of…

For a while now I’ve had my bottled beers arranged (under the stairs) in strength order – 3.8s and 4.1s at the front, 7s and 8s at the back. I decided a while ago that, rather than replacing bottles in ones and twos, I would drink my way through the entire stash (fourteen bottles at the time) in strength order. Not that I’d work my way through them all in one go, you understand, just that every time I fancied a beer I’d go for the strongest thing that was left. I thought this might be an interesting experience and that there might be a blog post in it. I’m now just over halfway through, and – while it has been interesting – there doesn’t seem to be a lot to say about it, except:

There’s a surprising number of ‘Burtons’ out there

McEwan’s Champion, Lees’ Moonraker and Manchester Star, Fuller’s 1845 and (perhaps) ESB, Marston’s Owd Roger, Robinson’s Old Tom… One of these things is not like the others, sadly. Owd Roger is a shadow of its former self: sweet and syrupy with a tell-tale whiff of alcohol on the finish. The rest are all good stuff, whether they put you in mind of a spiked fruit compote (McEwan’s Champion), malt extract off a spoon (Lees’ Manchester Star), or – somehow – both of the above (Old Tom, which really is the business).

In supermarkets, dark=strong and strong=dark

When I was growing up & first discovering beer, bitter was pretty much all there was; a dark beer would generally be sweetish, heavyish and at least half as strong again as the usual (think Bruce’s Dogbolter). That world’s long gone from pubs and bars, but it seems to be hanging on in the supermarket shelves: apart from Tesco’s BrewDog double IPA (which I didn’t have in when I started this), very few supermarket beers are both strong and pale. Instead, I worked my way through a succession of 6+% dark beers – those listed above plus a Robinson’s chocolate porter (from M&S) and Ridgeway Bad King John. (And what an odd beer that is: not a stout, not a porter, not an old ale or a Burton. By analogy with the way that two different flavour profiles come together in a black IPA, I think you could call BKJ a ‘black bitter’. Can’t think of another beer quite like it.) Shortly below 6%, though, I hit a turning-point: 5.9 was ESB, 5.5 was St Austell Proper Job. From here on it’s pale or amber beers all the way down. Watch this space.

Bester Festertester

When I got home from the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival I was in no state to be allowed on the Internet, and by the time I sobered up the moment had gone rather. To the best of my recollection it was a terrific festival. I wasn’t there on the last day, but from my personal perspective the policy of putting everything available on from the start worked superbly well; I’d rapidly built up a want-list including twice as many beers as I could actually hope to drink. Many difficult decisions, reluctant substitutions and spur-of-the-moment decisions later, here’s what I ended up drinking:

Cryptic 1049 Dead 4.9% [a mild I’d enjoyed at the Spinning Top]
Ticketybrew Coffee Anise Porter 4.9% [hmm – not sure the flavour combination quite worked]
Ticketybrew Black IPA 5.9% [this, on the other hand, was terrific]
Outstanding M 10% [a beautiful barleywine, perhaps just slightly overclocked on the alcohol front – an 8% version would be blinding]
Blackjack Dragon’s Tears 5.2% [“Dragon’s Tears”? I drank a beer called “Dragon’s Tears”? It’s a saison, apparently.]
Cryptic 1049 Grey 4.9% [dark mild flavoured with Earl Grey – two totally different flavours, which worked together surprisingly well]
Runaway Hopfenweisse 5.2% [identifiably a weissbier but hopped to the max]
Quantum Mandarina Bavaria 4.5% [my first exposure to the eponymous hop; it was terrific]
Buxton Pomperipossa 6% [sour cherry stout – rather good]
Squawk Espresso Stout 6.5%
Northern Monk Chennai 5.4%
Fool Hardy Renowned Ginger 4.4%

My recollections of the last few are a bit sketchy.

Looking down the list now, I’m struck by just how local those breweries are – three of them are actually based in Stockport, and most of the rest are within a ten-mile radius; the very furthest afield is Northern Monk in Leeds. Hand on heart, I had no idea of this when I was choosing beers; I genuinely picked these beers because I liked the look of them. In the words of the song, Manchester’s improving daily – and Stockport’s not doing too badly (on the beer front at least!).

The big, the bad and the Marble

Brewing at high strengths isn’t easy. Come to that, brewing isn’t easy – I haven’t got the faintest idea how to go about it – but you know what I mean: above about 7%, brewers face problems that aren’t an issue for session-strength beer, and the problems get more intractable as you go up the scale. Go into double figures, particularly with a pale beer, and you’re liable to end up with something that tastes – as I said of the celebrated De Garre tripel – as if somebody’s brewed a strong beer and then poured a glass of tequila into it. Alcoholic heat, alcoholic oiliness, even alcohol flavour – these aren’t things you want to be tasting in a beer.

I’ve tasted three high-strength ‘special brews’ (if you’ll pardon the expression) recently, and I’m sorry to say that two of the three fell right into this trap. The other week I noticed that one of my locals was selling Thornbridge Jaipur X (in bottles), and charging no more than a 50% markup on the retail price – which is to say, they were resisting the temptation to charge £10 for it (which they could probably have got away with). It’s Jaipur, it’s a tenth-anniversary special Jaipur, and it’s a 10% a.b.v. tenth-anniversary special Jaipur. And it tastes as if somebody had opened a bottle of Jaipur and poured a glass of tequila into it. The extra strength adds nothing, I’m afraid – if anything the effect is negative, adding a distracting, woozy note of pure alcohol. You know the first time you tasted Special Brew, and how you noticed it tasted different from ordinary lager? It’s like that; that’s the difference.

Then there was Magic Rock Un-Human Cannonball, an 11% “triple IPA” (whatever that means). (So I’m reading this guy’s blog, and all of a sudden he goes “triple IPA, whatever that means!” Expect he was pissed they wouldn’t serve him a proper British pint. English, what are you gonna do?) I’ve never been crazy about Cannonball, but one thing it does do well – perhaps even a little too well – is to keep the alcohol well hidden; it’s a light, smooth, easy-drinking 7.4% skull-splitter. So I had high, well, fairly high, moderately high, sort of fair-to-middling hopes of the top-of-the-range Un-Human Cannonball. The first thing that struck me was that it was opaque – I mean, completely; chicken soup territory. The last time that happened to me it was an unfined (and badly handled) cask beer which was full of yeast, but presumably that’s not an issue when you’re drinking keg. (Unless it’s real-ale-inna-key-keg, I suppose – topical! – but even then you wouldn’t expect that much yeast, surely.) As for the taste… well, it was OK. It was stronger-flavoured than Cannonball and less balanced – and the comparison made me appreciate both Cannonball and the virtue of balance: the Un-Human version was at once less easy-drinking and less complex. And, once again, there was lots of alcohol going on there – very much as if you’d brewed a strong beer and then poured it into a glass of tequila.

Third time lucky: Marble Brew 900 was a 9% keg beer I ordered without knowing much about it, but having liked the brewery’s barley wine rather a lot. It was light and very drinkable, with a delicate, slightly fruity flavour; in fact, I thought as the bottom of the glass loomed into view, you could call it a tripel and nobody would be any the wiser. On inspecting the tap I discovered that Marble have in fact called it a tripel. A very nice one it is too – and with no alcoholic overtones to speak of.

Marble seem to be on the up at the moment. On the same visit to the Marble Beerhouse I had two cask beers – Antipodean, a newish pale ale with NZ hops, and the relatively well-established Earl Grey IPA. I don’t know if I’ve only just got the point of the Earl Grey IPA or if it’s improved recently; either way I was impressed with it in a way I hadn’t been before. Antipodean was terrific, too – pale ales have been Marble’s forte for a long time, but this didn’t have any of the rough edges they’ve sometimes had in the past. Marble have been coasting for a while – losing some of your best brewers will do that to a brewery – but on this evidence they’re definitely getting back on track.

Update 30/4 I did a bit more drinking last night & can add to both parts of this post. On the Marble front, another hit: Little Meiko is terrific. It’s a strong (7%) IPA, currently available on cask, and it’s got a flavour I can only describe as sproingy. (I mean that literally – if I could think of another word I’d use it. It just is… sproingy. Lots of hops. They kind of go ‘sproing!’.) On the strength front, it very nicely hits the spot between not drinking its weight and actually tasting strong. However, although it plainly is a craft beer, it doesn’t taste of grapefruit; it tastes of yuzu. So now you know.

More to the point, the shocked and horrified responses to the first part of the post (see below) persuaded me that I should give Un-Human Cannonball another go. Here are my tasting notes, as far as I remember them.

“Maybe ‘chicken soup’ was unkind. It’s not that cloudy. I mean, if you hold it up to the light… actually, no, it is that cloudy. It is in fact opaque. What did they put in it?”

“Mmm… OK. It’s true what they say about this one, there is a lot going on. There’s pine, and a kind of punchbowl of tropical fruit, with smoky notes in there too, and a big bitter finish, and it all sort of rolls over you propelled by the alcohol.”

“You can kind of taste the alcohol, though.”

“OK, good. Got it. All I’ve got to do now is drink the rest of the glass.”

“It’s kind of an exhibition beer, this one – you could drink a shot glass of it and you’d get everything, and it’d all be very impressive. But a whole third of a pint is actually going to be a bit of a slog.”

“Third of a pint. If you were out with a friend and he asked if you wanted another, and you had a third of a pint left, you’d just knock it back. If you knocked this one back you’d fall over.”

“It’s like beer but it’s not like beer. It’s like beer from Mars. This is Martian beer.”

And that’s pretty much all I remember.

Stylish

I really ought to drink more session bitter, I say to myself from time to time (sometimes on this blog).  I really ought to drink more traditional styles. Beer began for me in the mid-70s, in the (first) heyday of CAMRA: back when CAMRA was half anti-big business and half conservationist, when finding good beer was a matter of finding the pubs that were still serving it. And, back then, traditional styles were what there was – to be more precise, bitter was what there was, unless it was winter and you were very very lucky (mmm, Young’s Winter Warmer…). That’s in the south-east, at least; I never tasted mild until I came to Manchester in 1982. (Mmm, Marston’s dark mild at the Royal Oak in Didsbury…) Porter was something you heard mentioned in historical dramas; as for stout, for a long time I had a vague idea that there wasn’t any such thing as a cask stout – that you actually couldn’t make it to be served that way. As for bottles, I’m struggling to remember when I started buying decent beer in bottles; as far as I remember, (a) it was much later, (b) at first I mainly bought imports and (c) the British beers I did buy were bitters, old ales and barley wines, just like the cask beers I’d tracked down from the late 70s on.

So that’s what I keep feeling I really ought to get back to. It’s partly because I suspect I’m missing out (some session bitters that I know are utterly wonderful, so it stands to reason that some I don’t know will be too), but mainly because I don’t want to turn into a neophile – or, worse still, an extremophile. It’s just not how I see myself. Never mind your short-run barrel-aged bourbon saison infused with kopi luwak! I picture myself saying. Never mind your limited-edition single-hop Imperial Pale Gose! Give me a pint of bitter!

But I fear it may be too late. Here are the last six beers I’ve drunk in pubs and bars:

2 pale ales
1 red ale
1 stout
1 IPA (keg)
1 double IPA (keg)

And the last nine beers I’ve bought in supermarkets – actually, one supermarket; this was the fruit of a single trip to Tesco:

1 best bitter
1 dark bitter
1 pale ale
1 red ale
1 Burton
1 old ale
1 stout
1 black IPA
1 saison

That’s an only slightly unusual range for a supermarket – there certainly aren’t any exotic (or exciting) breweries in there. Ten years ago you’d only have seen that kind of lineup in a specialist beer shop; twenty years ago you wouldn’t even have seen it there.

But look at that one lonely best bitter! Amalgamating the two lists you get eleven styles (counting ‘IPA’ and ‘double IPA’ separately). When CAMRA first got going, ‘best bitter’ was the only one of those styles that was at all easy to find in Britain, with ‘dark bitter’ a distant second; your best bet for finding a Burton or an old ale was to stop looking for a year or two and rely on serendipity. Of the other seven styles, one was more or less dead, one could only be found as an import and the other five didn’t even exist. (I’m counting ‘pale ale’ and ‘IPA’ in the five. Of course there were such things as pale ales and IPAs, but IPA in the 1970s meant ‘like bitter but very slightly different‘, and ‘pale ale’ basically meant ‘bitter in a bottle’; neither of them mean anything like the pale’n’oppy things that go by those names now.)

I don’t think I’m turning into a hipster; so far this year I’ve mostly stuck to my resolution to avoid beers that can’t be described in fewer than three words. But going back to session bitter may be a lost cause. There’s just too much else going on.

Tasting the difference

Morrison’s isn’t a supermarket I get to very often (although this may be about to change), and it’s taken me a while to get round to checking out their ‘own brand’ beers. In the past I’ve seen beers brewed by Titanic and Black Sheep in the range, but at the moment they all seem to be from Marston’s or Ringwood (owned by Marston’s since 2007). Last time I was in, I bought one of each – at £1.50 you might as well; here’s what I thought.

Dark (Ringwood) Not sure if this is a mild or a very dark bitter. Fairly thin, either way; competent but not exciting.

Amber A bit more full-bodied, with some of that satisfying hoppy prickliness going on. I say ‘some’, though – again, this struck me as a light beer, lighter than it needed to be.

Stout Light is the word, again; there’s some burnt-grain bitterness, but a lot of sweetness too, and the body’s thin. It’s as if a stout has been blended 1:3 with a dark mild. It’s not unpleasant by any means, it’s just not necessarily what you’d be expecting.

IPA Now this was more like it: tropical fruit a go go, a proper new-model IPA. I’ll be getting this one again. (Ratebeer says: ‘One of those that fall into the “I’ve had worse…..” category’, ‘Bit on the boring unremarkable side.)

For another set of comparisons, I bought the two separate Marston’s IPAs currently available at Sainsbury’s – their own “Taste the Difference” IPA and Marston’s Old Empire IPA. All three of them – these two and the Morrison’s – are within a couple of decimal points of a.b.v. (they’re all over 5.5 and under 6), and I wasn’t expecting there to be much difference. I was surprised.

Sainsbury’s IPA I was particularly surprised by this one, and not entirely in a good way. “Toffee apple” is the best flavour descriptor I can think of: the flavour’s dominated by a great wodge of sweetness and burnt-caramel bitterness, with some fruit in the background. It’s well within the style parameters of a twentieth-century IPA, but even in that context it’s rather offputtingly heavy. Taste the difference you most certainly will.

Old Empire IPA Ratebeer has strong opinions about this one: ‘bitter disappointment to notice that this has nothing to do with IPA‘, ‘Not IPA as it says on the bottle.‘, ‘I have no idea why they wrote IPA on the label.‘ Well, excuuuuuse me. It’s actually well over on the ‘tropical fruit’ side from the previous one; like Sheps’ ‘historic recipe’ IPA, it’s basically midway between the IPAs we were (occasionally) drinking in the 1980s and what the style stands for now. Not bad at all.

To sum up:

Morrison’s own-label beers are (currently) best described as ‘light’, nay, ‘undemanding’. This works better for some styles than others; for the IPA I think it works rather well.

Marston’s three* IPAs cover the range from 1980s toffee apple to 2010s fruit salad, and two of the three are pretty good.

*Unless, of course, you know different.

The stash

After a bit of pre-Christmas shopping, I find myself with 22 bottles of beer under the stairs (plus a couple which still need a few months’ ageing). Pausing only to check my window locks (there’s some excellent stuff in here, you know) here’s

What’s Under My Stairs

Thwaites’ Wainwright (all right, I didn’t say it was all excellent stuff) (Supermarket purchase)
Timothy Taylor’s Landlord (S)
Orval (local Off-licence)
Okell’s Aile (porter) (Bargain shop)
Corsendonk Agnus (O)
Harbour India Pale Ale (S)
Fuller’s Bengal Lancer (S)
Bosteels Pauwel Kwak (O)
Theakston’s Old Peculier (B)
Moortgat Duvel (S)
Robinson’s Old Tom (S)
Ridgeway Bad King John (S)
Adnams’ Broadside (S)
St Peter’s Christmas Ale (S)
McEwan’s Champion (S)
Thornbridge St Petersburg (O)
Marston’s Owd Roger (B)
Bateman’s Vintage Ale (Aldi (2013))
Rochefort 10 (O)
Paulaner Salvator (O)
Schneider Aventinus (O)
Goudale Abbey Beer (A)

Whether I’ll get through that lot before the next supermarket trip in the New Year is another question. But I’ll see what I can do.

Merry Christmas all, and best wishes for a happy, healthy and appropriately bibulous 2015.