Category Archives: Large brown bottles

Ticketybrew tasting notes – 2

Jasmine Green Tea Pale 4.0% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, jasmine green tea, lemon rind, yeast 9/10
Pale yellow, clear, light but effective conditioning. A fresh-tasting golden ale with a bit of body; faint herbal overtones keep things interesting, and there’s a distinctive tannic bitterness on the finish. The overall effect is clean but slightly medicinal, in a good way: the first time I tasted this I was on my way home from a beer festival, and it felt like a healthy choice. (On the other hand, I was on my way home from a beer festival, so my judgment wasn’t perfect.) The bitterness builds: after a while I notice bitterness buzzing on the tip of my tongue between mouthfuls, as well as at the back of my mouth; as I get further down the glass I start to get bitterness at the edges of my tongue as well. A pleasantly bland golden ale in mid-mouth, surrounded on all sides by medicinal bitterness – it’s an interesting combination, and rather pleasant.

Before I go much further with this review of a series of beers with additions, I should say that in general I’m not a fan of beers with additions, particularly where the additions seem designed to replicate flavours that can be found in beers without them – look at all those Christmas beers with cake spices or soft fruit added for flavour, or BrewDog’s Elvis Juice (craft beer that tastes of grapefruit because it’s got grapefruit juice in). So the realisation that the green tea here is carrying some of the aroma and bittering duties that the hops ought to be doing should really put me off this beer. It doesn’t, though, because the beer works so well – really pleasant, drinkable without getting bland or boring. Perhaps they should go the whole hog and leave the hops out – anyone for a Green Tea Gruit?

Marmalade Pale 4% Malted barley, oranges, malted wheat, hops, ginger, spices, yeast 8.5/10
Amber, clear, decent conditioning. Fresh, mildly citric foretaste, building to a substantial sweetish body with a bitter finish. So far, so ‘best bitter’, but I should add that I got bitter oranges in the body and, in a more pronounced form, on the finish; after a while I could taste orange peel on my lips as well. In short, yes, I was tasting the pith.

What impressed me about this was its balance and drinkability. A marmalade beer sounds like a gimmick, and in many brewers’ hands it would be – it’d be a jangle of jammy sweetness, harsh bitterness and obtrusive orange flavouring. This doesn’t have any of those things – it drinks like a best bitter, but one that happens to take a lot its body and bitterness from bitter oranges. It’s a surprisingly unified and un-spiky flavour profile, and it goes down very easy.

Ginger Beer 4.1% No ingredient list (but presumably includes ginger); 500 ml bottle 9/10
Golden, clear, lively conditioning. An initial biscuity heaviness – with just a hint of sweetness – dries out rapidly to something more like a golden ale, with a touch of that ‘gassy’ mineral quality; there’s a bit of soapiness coming through from the ginger, too. A definite but not extreme bitter finish is rounded off very satisfactorily by ginger heat. The overall effect is of a three-way cross between old-school best bitter, pilsner and ginger beer – but a ginger beer that’s been left to ferment out, so that the sweetness has gone but the ginger remains.

I’ve got two touchstones for ginger beer – Marble‘s Ginger Marble and (a distant memory of) Brendan Dobbin’s West Coast alcoholic ginger beer. Neither of them is/was at all sweet, a test which most ‘ginger beer’s fail badly; the West Coast beer, in fact, tasted almost exactly like (an even more distant memory of) home-made ginger beer that had fermented in the bottle. The clean and dry flavours of these beers, backed by the ginger hit on the after-taste, make them serious thirst-quenchers. This one is worthy to stand alongside them.

Peach Iced Tea 4.6% Malted barley, peaches, malted wheat, sugar, hops, tea, yeast 7/10
Golden, slight haze, low but adequate conditioning. Peaches in the aroma, unquestionably; sweetness and fruit in the foretaste. Not sickly or heavy, but doesn’t open up or dry out very much in mid-mouth; becomes a bit fresher, but stays fruity. The bitterness at the end is all tannic, with a touch of herbal perfume (China tea?).

As with the Jasmine Green Tea Pale, my immediate reaction to this is that they’re using additions to get flavours that (with the right malt, the right hops and the right technique) could have been wrung out of malt and hops alone. But let’s park that and just ask whether the beer works. I suppose there are two questions to ask of any beer whose flavour profile is dominated by additions. One is whether you feel like you’re drinking something distinctive, or just a bland base beer with a bunch of flavours dropped on top of it; the other is whether you feel like you’re drinking beer, or the flavourings have taken over to the extent that it might as well be an alcoholic version of (whatever the flavour is). The first of these, the PIT passes with flying colours: it’s an interesting combination of flavours, well combined and none of them obtrusive. On the second I’m less sure; there wasn’t really enough hop character to keep it out of the ‘alco-pop’ zone. Nice stuff, though, and I was still smelling peaches half an hour later.

Summer Fruits Stout 4.6% No ingredient list, but includes raspberries, blackberries and vanilla; 500 ml bottle 9/10
Black, good conditioning. Opens with a sharp – raspberry-flavoured – sourness; as the flavour develops this is replaced by a mellow, dark chocolate bitterness, lightened with some sweetness and a distinct edge of vanilla.

I’m having to rethink my position on beers with additions. I think back to Titanic‘s Damson and Vanilla Stout; despite the obvious similarities, that was nothing remotely like this. The Titanic beer tasted like a stout, but also tasted of damsons – the fruit flavour emerged out of the flavour of the beer. What Ticketybrew seem to be doing with these beers is quite different. The ‘sharp opening, smooth bitter finish’ combo is very characteristic of stouts. What’s unusual about this one is that both the foretaste and the finish come from the additions – just as the sweetish ‘best bitter’ body of the Marmalade Pale comes from the oranges and the dry ‘pale ale’ finish of the Jasmine Green Tea Pale comes from the tea. These are Frankenstein beers, with hops-and-barley flavour profiles duplicated – and heightened – by the use of additions. It’s a really interesting approach, and mostly it seems to be working really well.

Rose Wheat 4.7% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, yeast, rose water 8.5/10
Pale gold, clear, light carbonation. Sweetish foretaste, perhaps slightly heavier than most of these; develops to a light, fresh flavour with a bit of that lager-like ‘gassy’, almost menthol edge to it. No bitterness on the finish – just more of the same and a return of that (rose water?) sweetness.

Immediate reaction: “Goes down like an absolute dream, and I don’t even like it.” A beautiful beer, and very, very drinkable. I still feel vaguely as if I don’t like it (or maybe just that I ought not to like it?); it’s certainly sweeter than most things I drink, and the rose water addition is the kind of thing you get in those made-up beers marketed at women from time to time. But you can’t argue with an empty glass. It’s just a really nice beer – and I think it is definitely a beer, not an alcoholic carbonated rose water drink. Incidentally, I’m sure I remember an earlier version of this one having more additions – ginger comes to mind – but I’ve got to say it works fine as it is.

Coffee Anise Porter 5.1% Malted barley, malted rye, coffee, hops, star anise, yeast. 8/10
Mahogany brown, nearly opaque, very light but adequate carbonation. A surprisingly straightforward beer, despite the unusual ingredient list (malted rye and all). It starts out like a heavy-ish, dark-ish brown bitter – not much bitterness or overt sweetness – before an aftertaste dominated by the titular coffee and star anise. And repeat – like so many beers on this list, this is a beer that goes down surprisingly easily. The flavours are quite distinctive and wouldn’t automatically combine to make a good beer – in fact the first time I tasted this, on draught, I found the star anise a bit overpowering – but here they work together well. As so often, the secret is balance.

Salted Caramel Coffee Porter 5.4% Malted barley, lactose sugar, malted wheat, coffee, cocoa nibs, hops, yeast, salt. 7.5/10
Mahogany brown, opaque, very light but adequate carbonation (i.e. not flat). Heavy, with both sweetness and salt on the foretaste; doesn’t lighten much but builds to a rich malt-loaf flavour, finishing with bitterness (and a definite hit of coffee), together with a brief return of that salt/sweet combination. Grew on me as I got down the glass; there are some strong and definite flavours bumping into each other here, and the combination initially tasted a bit in-your-face and medicinal. By the end, though, it tastes like itself and nothing but.

Quite full-on, this one – it drinks its strength and then some. I’m not sure I’m really on board with the recent rediscovery of lactose, ‘breakfast stouts’ and all; I feel about this one rather as I felt about Wild‘s Millionaire, that the fact that you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. It’s different, though, and it certainly tastes like you’d expect a salted caramel coffee porter to taste. More to the point, it passes both the tests I mentioned earlier on – it’s a distinctive flavour combination, and there is recognisably a beer underneath it all (the Wild beer didn’t really pass this second test, as I remember). It’s not quite as seamlessly put together as some of the beers here, though.

Summer IPA 6% Malted barley, malted wheat, pineapple, mango, hops, spices, yeast 8.5/10
Pale yellow, hazy, good condition. A sweetish foretaste gives way to spiky and aromatic fruit flavours; thins out a little – to something like home-made lemonade – before a buzzingly intense bitter finish. You’d swear there was grapefruit in there.

Drinking this straight after the Spring IPA (see previous post) was interesting. Of the two, this is much more successful as a beer. I still can’t help feeling I’d rather be drinking an IPA that had got pineapple and mango flavours out of hops and malt – rather than out of pineapples and mangoes – but this is a very well put-together beer. So often, flavour additions swamp a beer and turn it into a novelty (looking at you, Marble Mango). This one has certainly got fruit flavours in it, but they don’t overpower the beer at all. (And the bitter finish is presumably just from the hops.)

Minor update 13/8. Seen on a shelf (in Whitby): Tea and Biscuits Mild 3.5% Malted barley, lactose sugar, malted wheat, tea, hops, yeast. BB March ’18, so presumably knocking on a bit. Although I’m an inveterate Ticketybrew-spotter, I didn’t buy it; this was partly because I was about to head off on a walk but mainly because the shop was charging £3 for it (as they were for just about everything else on the shelves). I’m used to paying over £2 for Tb’s small bottles (although it’s always nice when you can get them for under £2), but £3 – for a 3.5%er – was a step too far. Possibly the good people of Whitby felt similarly, which is why those bottles were still on the shelf.

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Ticketybrew tasting notes – 1

Munchner 4.5% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, yeast 7.5/10
Amber, clear, good conditioning; developed quite a satisfactory fountain of foam from the bottom of the glass. It’s a curious and distinctive-tasting beer; opens with bready malt (toasty, to be precise) and finishes with something similar; no sweetness (and definitely no caramel), but no bitterness either, even by the standards of a brown bitter. And I keep thinking of toast: both the foretaste and the aftertaste are strongly reminiscent of toasted brown bread, maybe toasted granary even. Between the two the flavour opens up into something fresh and citric, a clean taste with a subtle bitter edge that’s strongly reminiscent of German lager. I’m trying to specify that specific bitter edge more precisely, but my mental flavourbank is only coming up with ‘gas pipes’. It’s bitter, but it’s not caramel or burnt toast or charcoal or tobacco or woodsmoke or cloves or bitter herbs; it’s a clean, mineral bitterness, with an almost menthol quality, that tastes a bit like the smell of cooking gas. (So basically, if you’ve ever toasted brown bread over a gas ring, you’ve tasted this beer.)

I have to confess, I don’t entirely like this one, but I still go back to it – I buy a bottle from time to time to see if I’ve changed my mind. It’s certainly distinctive, interesting and well put together – and for all I know it’s true to style (if a Munchner is an unusually malty German lager).

American Hopfen Weisse 5.1% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, yeast 8/10
Pale gold, clear, good conditioning. A sharp citric foretaste, opening out to big fruit-salad flavours; smoky, herbal and musty overtones give a slight medicinal bitterness, which grows to dominate the aftertaste.

I’m not sure what a ‘hopfen weisse’ is, or what this beer is supposed to taste like. It’s not obviously a wheat beer, and it certainly isn’t a witbier. It does have a family resemblance to Duvel Tripel Hop – both of them taste like a base beer with an absolute ton of smoky American hops piled into it, which I guess is what they are. It’s good, that’s the main thing. In particular, it’s well balanced – the fruit is never bland, nor the bitterness harsh.

East India Porter 5.3% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, yeast 8/10
Dark brown, clear, slightly excessive conditioning – the (500 ml) bottle was a bit of a gusher. Begins like a stout, with those slightly sour ‘roast’ flavours; develops like a stout as well, on the full-bodied espresso/dark chocolate end of the spectrum, although not excessively heavy. The finish, particularly apparent at the front of the mouth, is an intransigent, tarry bitterness.

Is this a black IPA? I wouldn’t say so. The aromatic dryness that ‘East India’ might seem to promise only really develops in that tongue-scouring aftertaste – and even that wouldn’t be out of place in a stout. You don’t really look to Ticketybrew for hop-led beers, though. Considered as a stout – or as a porter if you’d rather – this works rather well.

Pale 5.5% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, yeast 9/10
Amber, clear, good conditioning. Sweetish, biscuity malt to begin with, opening out into… well, into more malt, to be honest; even the finish has a malty sweetness with a burnt-sugar bitter edge. But it’s not at all a heavy or cloying beer; the bitter finish builds steeply, drying out the flavour and rounding it off nicely. It’s a really interesting beer, doing something most new-wave beers don’t even attempt; it reminds me of old-school best bitters, but only the really good ones (Harvey’s Sussex Bitter, or Landlord at a pinch).

I go back quite a long way with the Pale; it’s not the first Ticketybrew beer I tasted, but it’s the first I fell in love with. These days it doesn’t have quite the endless depth and complexity it did back then – not in bottle, at any rate – but what’s there is still really good.

Blonde 5.8% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, yeast 9.5/10
Gold, clear, lively conditioning. Just a touch of citrus on the foretaste, but the main flavour is a smooth, almost creamy cleanness, with a slight herbal edge and a definite touch of that ‘gas pipe’ bitterness (I’ve got to find a better word for this). The finish: still clean, still creamy, just a little bit of bitterness to dry things off. The overall effect is French or even Belgian; if you tasted this blind and somebody told you it was from Huyghe, say, you wouldn’t argue.

Like the Pale, the Blonde has traded a bit of edgy complexity for stability and consistency, but tasting it now it’s hard to find anything to regret. When a beer really impresses me I sometimes catch myself just looking at it, partway down the glass, as if it could give me clues – what’s this, then? how do you do that? I did that with this one just now. It’s not the most complex flavour profile, but it works so well.

Spring IPA 6% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, yeast 7/10
Dark amber, hazy and over-conditioned – an uncontrollable gusher, frankly. Surprisingly fruity; the citric foretaste opens up into apples and peaches, with a slight medicinal edge. Doesn’t really ‘dry out’ at all; even the finish is more burnt sugar than clove oil or charcoal.

My difficulty getting the beer into the glass – and its unattractive appearance when I did – didn’t do this one any favours. But the actual flavour profile is similar to what I remember tasting when Ticketybrew had a keg IPA available; indeed, given that that one was also 6%, it may well be the same beer. In terms of contemporary style expectations, it’s an odd one: the fruity flavour isn’t tempered by that drying bitterness you tend to expect from an old-school IPA, but neither is it as aromatic and flowery as you’d expect a ‘craft’ pale ale to be. More than anything, it put me more in mind of a ‘fruity’ strong bitter like Wobbly Bob.

Dubbel 6.5% Malted barley, candy syrup, malted wheat, hops, yeast 9.5/10
Dark amber, slight haze, good conditioning. Flavour-wise it’s oddly difficult to describe: begins with heavy sweetness, developing into sweet heaviness before a finish which is, um, not light or lacking in sweetness…  The flavour does develop, though, even if it’s basically variations on a theme: the initial sweetness gives way to a full body with some fruitcake complexity, with herbal aromas developing before a burnt-caramel bitterness rounds it off. Heavy but not dense, sweet but never cloying; it’s a really well-balanced beer.

Beers put together as well as this can seem simple and unchallenging, particularly if they’re outside the hop-led mainstream. I’ve underrated this one in the past; I saw the error of my ways when I drank a Westmalle Dubbel and discovered that the Ticketybrew version stood up rather well in comparison. A beautiful beer.

 

Strong and stable

I’m returning to Ticketybrew, and in particular to my plan from a while back to write a comprehensive run-down of their beers. I’ve been a bit less ambitious this time and confined myself to beers that you can get hold of in bottle – so no Invalid Stout, no Manchester Tart and no Grodziskie.

But why am I doing all this again, having devoted several posts to the brewery last September? One word: stability. The first time I tasted Ticketybrew Pale, I was knocked out by the ramifying depths of the flavour, which belied an initial sweetness. I went back the next night and was bowled over once again, but surprised by the initial sourness. The next time I tried it, I thought for a moment it was on the turn, before ‘tuning in’ and recognising the same massive, complex beer. The fourth time we were back to sweetness; I was surprised, but I wasn’t complaining. Something similar happened when I first had the Blonde on draught, or rather the first and second times I had the Blonde on draught; later, I had a similar “was it sour like this last time?” moment with the Golden Bitter, and then with the Summer Porter.

It’s obvious now what was happening: those beers were in fact going sour in the cask, quickly enough to be noticeable but slowly enough for the beer to remain drinkable. So far, so bearable; the Golden Bitter was nicer when it was new, but the Pale and the Blonde really seemed to thrive on a bit of staling. Then I started getting beers that were starting to go sour in bottle, and sometimes not just starting: I had to tell myself to ignore that initial citric edge in quite a few different beers (although never the really pale ones, like the IPAs or the Jasmine Green Tea Pale).

So stability was a problem for Ticketybrew, as Keri wrote on the brewery’s blog last November – but the issues were eventually tracked down to a persistent and hard-to-fix lactobacillus problem. Hard, but not impossible: since the beginning of this year, to my certain knowledge, the problem has been fixed. These are new beers: if you’ve ever drunk Ticketybrew beers before now, you owe it to yourself to try them again. (And if you haven’t, where have you been?)

Over the next couple of posts I’m going to review everything that’s currently available in bottle, tackling first the ‘standard’ beers and then the ones reliant on additions – from Marmalade Pale to Coffee Anise Porter. Duncan and Keri, and their ever-expanding team, are doing some really interesting things up in Stalybridge – and you can rely on these beers to taste like they’re supposed to. (And if some of us rather miss the unreformed, unstabilised Blonde and Pale, with their dirty edges and scary depths… well, some of us are awkward so-and-so’s.)

Brandwatch

It’s been a bit quiet around here lately, and I think I’ve worked out why. Work’s been busy, since I last posted here, but that’s not it; apart from anything else, in the same period I’ve written nine posts totalling 22,000 words on my other blog.

No, it’s a blogger’s problem: the stuck post. I had a couple of ideas for posts lined up, but I never got round to writing them, and after a week or two I’d lost interest. But somehow those posts kept their place on my mental to-do list; any time I thought of this blog, I thought yeah, ought to write that or thatand then lost interest in the whole idea.

You know what? I’m never going to be able to take an interest in this blog again until I get those posts out of the way; I’m just going to have to write them. Here’s the first.

I wrote a while ago – both here and in the local CAMRA magazine (cheers, John!) – about brewery takeovers and what they mean for beer. My position then was that, from the moment a brewery is taken over, its beers are effectively dead. More precisely, from the moment a brewery is taken over, its beers may cease to exist – or be replaced by inferior substitutes – at any time, and there’s nothing anyone outside the new owner company can do about it. The new owner hasn’t bought beers, it’s bought brands and their market share. If the new owner is genuinely committed to making decent beer, the beer backing up those brands may continue to be good, but even that can’t be guaranteed – and, of course, the new owner can’t actually be held to account by anyone else. Even when the new owner continues to make a particular beer the old way, nobody can tell whether they’re going to start cutting corners or simply stop making it – let alone stop them doing so.

In the earlier post I gave Brakspear’s Triple as an example of a beer that had been living on borrowed time in just this way (Marston’s have now stopped making it, citing declining supermarket demand). The next time I was at the supermarket, Brakspear’s Oxford Gold caught my eye, and I realised I’d never actually tried it. I opened it a few nights later, expecting nothing much more than malt-and-caramel soup, and I was absolutely blown away – a sharp, citric foretaste, a big tannic finish and just enough malt in the middle to hold it all together. It reminded me of nothing so much as Harvey’s Best; it was a seriously refreshing beer. Naturally I picked up another bottle when the opportunity presented itself… and poured myself a big glass of malt-and-caramel soup, somewhere between Deuchar’s IPA and Doom Bar.

The brand! The brand! I thought to myself. They’ve lost the beer and kept the brand! I wondered if I’d been lucky enough to get one of the last bottles brewed on the old Brakspear’s kit, followed by one of the first of an awful bland imposter. But I thought I’d better at least make it the best of three, and got another bottle of Oxford Gold as soon as the disappointment had worn off. And it was fine; better than fine, it was really good. It wasn’t the same beer I’d had the first time, but it was well over on that side of the spectrum. Fourth and fifth bottles confirmed the impression – they weren’t as great as the first bottle, but they were nowhere near as bad as the second.

So I don’t know what’s going on in the Brakspear’s bit of Marston’s. Brakspear’s beers effectively died a long time ago – I stand by that – but I have to concede that Marston’s kept them on life-support very effectively until quite recently. Even now I’d say the Oxford Gold is worth a punt, as long as you don’t expect too much (the malt-and-caramel fog could roll in again at any time).

But rather that than Meantime London Pale in its dinky redesigned 330 ml bottle, which I bought on a whim and because I was bored with looking at the same beers every week (come on, Sainsbury’s, sort it out!). The label attempts an odd balancing act between the corporate scale and the artisan personal touch, acknowledging that the beer is produced by Asahi but crediting the Meantime brewery and Alistair Hook personally. (From Blue Moon to Camden, affectations of craftsmanship within a corporate setting are becoming typical of the ‘craft’ scene; BD are starting to look like the odd one out for still being independent.)

And the beer? Dear Lord, the beer! I’ve had worse, but not very often, and certainly not from a well-respected brewery. It was dreadful.

In other words, it didn’t just taste like a bland pasteurised bitter; it tasted like a bland pasteurised bitter made by someone who’d never actually drunk bitter and was more used to making lager on a budget. The first impression was a bland, maize-like sweetness, which gave way to nothing much (certainly no discernible hops); just a bit of malt and tannin in the middle, and the ghost of a bitter aftertaste.

I didn’t make my mind up about the Oxford Gold on the strength of one bottle; if I’d really wanted to be fair, I would have had to consider the possibility that this was a duff bottle and gone back for a second try. The thought of drinking that beer again – let alone paying money for it again – made up my mind for me: I’d rather be unfair. That is, I’d rather leave my findings provisional. What I can say is that, if that bottle is in any way representative, Meantime London Pale is about as much a craft beer as Boddington’s Bitter is the cream of Manchester – because Meantime, like Boddies’ (and Brakspear), isn’t a brewery any more; it’s just a brand. And you can’t trust brands.

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!).