Category Archives: Tastings

Two horsey beers and a short kipple

I know it's nothing to do with the beer, I just like the poster
I was lucky, I think, in having my first pint of Bengal Lancer IPA, Fuller’s latest offering, in the Prince Blucher in Twickenham, where it was in excellent condition: a couple of subsequent trials elsewhere in West London haven’t been quite as good, so to borrow an Americanism, “your mileage may vary.” But I don’t think I’ve ever made such lengthy tasting notes about any beer, a tribute in itself.

The first impression is of a BIG hit of hops on the nose, with passion fruit noticeable immediately. It’s a hop-filled mouthful, with a good oily feel, and one of those beers where you’ll find something different in every swallow. Indeed, teasing apart the different taste strands is one of the pleasures of Lancer: it’s a beer for sitting and appreciating. I was getting a hint of blackberry, something earthy in the background, peppermint, the “signature” Fuller’s orange note (though less strong than in many of their beers), all with honey maltiness underpinning the floral hops and a lovely long follow-through.

I’ve seen the beer criticised as being too sweet, but to me any apparent sweetness is more an artefact of the amount of “high note” hop flavour coming through that anything real, and while the emphasis is definitely on hop aroma rather than bitterness I found it ultimately quite dry: I’d be interested in seeing the attenuation figures. Certainly, if you watch the video available here from Fuller’s, the company’s brewing manager, Derek Prentice, implies it’s a well-attenuated brew.

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Ordinary to Britons, extraordinary to Americans

Had a great session last week with two Californian brewers, Mitch Steele and Steve Wagner of Stone Brewing in San Diego, who are in the UK researching India Pale Ale for a forthcoming book from the Brewers Association in the US.

Since I’m the man that has annoyed a large swath of the American beer drinking community by insisting that the story that George Hodgson of Bow invented IPA, a tale beer drinkers in the US grew up on, is completely untrue, they wanted to talk to me while they were in the UK. Thus we arranged to meet in the Dove in Hammersmith, which by no coincidence at all was serving Fuller’s new Bengal Lancer IPA.

I’m going to talk about Bengal Lancer in another posting, so I’ll say nothing about it here except that the new beer was evidently a success at the Dove: the barman told us that the pub was getting worried that it was running out, since the pub had a special £10 promotional offer curry night this week which was meant to include a free pint of IPA, and it was looking increasingly likely they wouldn’t have any IPA left by the time curry night came round.

Anyway, I love drinking beer while at the same time talking about beer and its history to an audience so appreciative it’s taking notes, so for close on two hours I talked about researching IPA and its roots to Steve and Mitch in the tiny public bar at the Dove. Great fun for me: not entirely sure it was great fun for them, especially Mitch, who appeared to be in a precarious position perched on the narrow public bar windowsill and scribbling occasionally. No idea what the barman thought, if he was listening.

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BrewDog Atlantic IPA: is it worth it?

It’s apparently fashionable now to be sticking one’s boots into BrewDog, since the Aberdeenshire duo revealed they had reported themselves to the Portman Group, the alcohol industry watchdog, just to get the publicity. I’m always happy to join in a fight if the other side is outnumbered, so let’s have a go at them for gross historical inaccuracy over the publicity for their Atlantic IPA.

Unless you’ve been stuck in a dark bar with no internet access for the past year, you’ll know this is the brew BrewDog poured into casks and then left on a trawler sailing the North Atlantic for two months, in an attempt to replicate what happened to the original IPAs as they travelled by sea from Britain to Bombay or Calcutta.

This, BrewDog proclaimed, would be “the first IPA aged in oak casks at sea for 200 years!” Oh, really? What were Bass, Allsopp, Hodgson and the rest doing in the 19th century, shipping chopped liver out East? I don’t know when brewers in Britain stopped sending beer in casks to India to be bottled (and neither do BrewDog) but it was certainly still happening not much more than a century ago. Here’s Cornelius O’Sullivan, head brewer at Bass, one of the great Burton export pale ale brewers, giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry in 1899:

“Do you export beer in the cask to places like India?”
C O’S: “Yes.”
“Which do you do most of exporting in cask or in bottle?”
C O’S: “We sell no beer in bottle. We export a considerable quantity of bulk beer in cask to India and also to Australia and America, not so much to Australia now but still what we send we export in cask. A large quantity of our beer is bottled by exporters and exported: we sell them the beer and they bottle it and export it.”
“Your beer goes out to India in casks?”
C O’S: “Yes.”

So Atlantic IPA is certainly not, as BrewDog claim, “the first commercially available, genuine sea-aged IPA in two centuries” – very far from it. Nor can they have used “a 210-year-old recipe of a traditional India Pale Ale”, since there was no such thing as India Pale Ale in 1799: the name India Pale Ale did not come into use for another 30-something years, and what brewers were exporting at the time to India was almost certainly a standard strongly hopped stock bitter beer. Nor is it true to say that “India Pale Ale was born when brewers realised that together, hops and alcohol act as a natural preservative ensuring that the beer could withstand the voyage and arrive in good condition” – brewers had known about the preserving effects of alcohol and hops for centuries before IPA, and beers were being transported around the world from the earliest years of European exploration.

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Aged White Shield

The Long Ship, where I misspent much of my youth, was everything you would expect of a pub run by Watney’s on the ground floor of a 1960s office block. Its attractions for the students who made up most of the customers, however, were that it was central, large, mostly dark inside and, crucially, the bar staff never asked any questions about your age.

The beer, of course, was generally awful (Red Barrel! Star Light!), but the Ship did stock Worthington White Shield, originally called Worthington IPA, and named for the “white shield” trademark on the label .

Beer&Skittles beermat
The beermat produced to publicise "Beer and Skittles"

In 1976 my then girlfriend had bought me my first ever book on beer, Richard Boston’s Beer and Skittles. Boston wrote one of the pioneering columns on beer and pubs, in The Guardian, which started in 1973, and probably did as much as Camra to turn people on to a proper appreciation of the glories of British beer. Beer and Skittles devoted several pages to White Shield, then one of only five surviving naturally conditioned bottled beers in Britain, correctly describing it as one of the world’s greatest brews.

Because it contained a yeasty sediment in the bottle, Boston revealed to his wondering readership, White Shield altered as it aged. The beer came into prime condition about four weeks after bottling, Boston informed us, and would then stay in condition for up to another nine months. As this was the 1970s, “best before” dates were still in the future, and the only indication of when a bottle had been filled was through the numbers, one to 13, printed on the label, and the nicks, one, two, three or four, cut into the label’s edge. The nicks indicated which quarter of the year the bottle had been filled in, the numbers showed which week of the quarter.

After 10 months, Boston, said, White Shield went out of condition, and could develop a sulphury taste (not surprising, since it was made with the notoriously sulphury well-water of Burton). But if the drinker could hang on for “as long as fifteen months, one of two things may happen. If you are very unlucky, it will develop a really unpleasant flavour. Most bottles, however, should come back into condition with a flavour that is different from the original but which some connoisseurs consider to be even better.”

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Gale warning

gageleerYou know you’re a historic beer geek when … well, certainly when you immediately recognise a drawing of the plant bog myrtle on a bottle among the crammed shelves at Utobeer in Borough Market.

The name of the beer, Gageleer, from the Flemish word for the bog myrtle or sweet gale bush, gagel, confirmed what I had guessed from my initial glimpse: this was a Belgian brew flavoured with what was probably the most important plant used in pre-hop ales, Myrica gale, the heavily-scented heathland shrub that grows in wetlands throughout the British Isles, called gagellan in Old English, and also known as piment royale in French, Porst in German and pors in the Scandinavian languages.

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Mixing Fuller’s porter

I like most of the beers produced by Fuller Smith & Turner, my nearest big brewer, but I’ve never got on with their London Porter. I know, from recent comments on Stonch’s blog that it has some big fans, but I’m not one. Too sweet, too often: not just too sweet for the style (though I’d believe someone who told me it’s from an authentic recipe: there are hints porter became quite a sweet beer in the 20th century) but too sweet per se.

Some sweet beers can work very well: Cain’s, for example, produced a Bonfire Night beer a few years ago that was hugely caramelly and quite delicious. But sweetness in beer needs careful balancing, and to me Fuller’s porter, certainly when new, doesn’t have the balance. And I don’t like that much chocolate front and centre, either.

Give it a little time in cask and it gets better: I went into the Fuller’s pub close to the Tower of London, the Hung Drawn and Quartered, early in November, when the London Porter arrived, and confirmed to myself, as I sat surrounded by homeward-bound bankers, that it was just as sweet as I remembered it. However, on a return visit last week the sweetness had died down and a pleasing hint of tartness was coming through. All the same, it still fell far short of knocking me out.

My visit was actually to see what the London Porter tasted like as a mixed drink. Despite what you will read elsewhere, porter itself was not born as a mixed beer. However, way back in the 1830s it was common to mix ale (pale, strong and “mild”, that is, unaged and quite sweet) with porter as a “half and half”. I wondered what a “half and half” of porter with other Fuller’s beers might be like.

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Thomas Hardy’s 2008 versus Thomas Hardy’s 1988

The latest, 2008 edition of Thomas Hardy’s Ale, the strong bottle-conditioned beer from the West Country, has just hit the shelves, with a special label celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first brewing of THA back in 1968.

That first brew, made by Eldridge Pope of Dorchester in Devon, was itself commemorating the 40th anniversary of the death of the novelist Thomas Hardy in 1928. Hardy lived in Dorchester, set one of his best-known novels (The Mayor of Casterbridge) in the town, eulogised the town’s beer in another novel, The Trumpet Major, and was a friend of the Popes, owners of the brewery. When the brewery refurbished a local pub called The Trumpet Major in 1968, it celebrated with a special 12 per cent abv beer.

It was another six years before Thomas Hardy’s Ale was brewed again, but the beer was produced in both 1974 and 1975, and from 1977 onwards Eldridge Pope brewed and bottled the beer every year. The last brewing in Dorchester took place in 1999, and the brewery closed a few years later.

Fortunately the American beer wholesaler Phoenix Importers, which had been selling Thomas Hardy’s Ale in the United States since the first brewing in 1968, managed to commission a new small brewer in the West Country, O’Hanlon’s of Whimple, near Exeter, in Devon, to recreate the beer in 2003 and it has been making the beer every year since then.

Waitrose supermarkets are currently doing a five-for-four special on the 2008 THA, which at £3.49 full-price, is worth investing in, so since journeyman journalism currently takes me near a branch of middle-class England’s favourite food outlet I bought a stash. I don’t have any 1968 versions (the oldest I own are a couple of bottles of the 1975) but I did have a bottle of the 1988, and in honour of the 40th anniversary brew I thought it would be fun to see how it compared with the 20th anniversary version.

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Going for a Californian Burton

After I had met Matt Brynildson brewmaster at the Firestone Walker brewery in Paso Robles, California, on his way to make a Californian-style pale ale at Marston’s brewery in Burton upon Trent, for this year’s Wetherspoon’s International Beer Festival, I was eager to try Matt’s brew.

The problem with the Wetherspoon’s festival, though, is that with 50 beers on offer and no one pub able to do more than eight or so at a time, finding the one you want in any random ‘spoons outlet is, at best, five to one against: indeed, some pubs, I found last year, weren’t carrying any festival specials at all.

But since I was on the eastern side of the City on Friday night I decided the Masque Haunt in Old Street was worth a punt: despite the poor reviews you’ll find at that link, this is, as pubs underneath office blocks go, not bad, I’ve been drinking there for a dozen years and the condition of the beer is generally good, the customers are no more wacky than anywhere else in the City after 8pm when anyone normal has caught the train home*, and, most importantly, it offered a very good selection of beers during last year’s festival.

Result! Not only was the Haunt stocking Matt’s California Pale Ale, it also had two of the other three “international guest brewer” beers on tap, Baron’s Black Wattle Original Ale, with the Sydney-based brewers coming to Banks’s in Wolverhampton to recreate their beer (two more different places than “Sinny” and “Walverampton” it would be tough to think up) and Yona Yona from the Yo-Ho brewery in Kitasaku, Japan, being brewed at Banks’s.

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Reasons to be a cheerful beer drinker, part 16645

Fullers Brewers Reserve
Fuller's Brewer's Reserve

There has never been a better time to be a beer drinker: and I’d like to submit as just one plank in the platform that supports this claim Fuller’s new Brewer’s Reserve, its 7.7 per cent abv whisky cask–aged ale.

Why is this the best time to be a beer drinker ever? Isn’t the dominance of mass- produced, lowest common denominator lagers and “extra cold” (that is, even less taste than normal) beers, the continuing decline in the number of old-established family brewers, ever-higher beer taxes, the ludicrous war on normal drinking under the pretext of attacking “bingers”, and the closure of a horrifying number of pubs every week enough to make this a deeply depressing time to be a beer drinker?

Well, that’s the bad news. But the real story, I believe, is the Everest of enthusiasm that exists among brewers in pursuing quality, exciting beer experiences, which is reflected in more innovation, more experimentation, more excitement in the brewing industry, even in comparatively conservative Britain, in the past five, ten, 20 years than in any comparative period, ever.

When the Campaign for Real Ale started 37 years ago, British beer consisted of bitter, mild, a few old ales and barley wines, a few brown ales and stouts, and the first, weak, imitation lagers. Since then we have seen the revival of porter, in increasingly authentic forms, the return of specialist stouts, the return of odd historic brews such as heather ale, and fruit ales, proper wheat beers, the broadening out of lager brewing in Britain to take in authentic Continental styles, the invention of an entirely new category in golden ales, and now the arrival of another previously unseen style, cask-aged beers.

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Lager: the truth (or some of it)

A flyer for Allsopp's lager
A flyer for Allsopp's lager

If not actually unique (always a dangerous claim to make), it was certainly a very rare sight in the cellar bar at Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire last Monday: four draught lagers on tap from four different British craft brewers, Meantime in Greenwich (its smoked bock); the Cotswold Brewing Company; Taddington, a new Derbyshire brewery, with Moravka; and Harviestoun (Schiehallion), and no draught ale at all. Thornbridge Hall, of course, has its own brewery, and it was also where the British Guild of Beer Writers held a successful seminar on wood-aged beers last year This year it was the first seminar on lager ever organised by the guild in its 20 years of existence (a shameful omission considering lager is the beer of choice for 70 per cent or more of British beer drinkers now) and prompted by the fact that, thanks to people like Alastair Hook at Meantime and Richard Keene of Cotswold, Britons generally are starting to realise there is more to lager than being fizzy, yellow and cold.

British beer writers, naturally, would like to claim that we knew that already. But even so there has been the unspoken feeling, I suspect, that lager was something they did “over there” (points across English Channel, North Sea and Atlantic) and we didn’t have to concern ourselves with it except when we went “over there” ourselves, where we could be free to pontificate about lagering periods and decoction mashing.

There was also, as Roger Protz, who was the first speaker at Monday’s seminar, made a point of saying, a misunderstanding among British beer writers for a long time that lager was a “new” beer, invented in the 19th century, “a modern style made possible by the new technologies of the industrial revolution.” In fact, as Roger illustrated, cold storing of beer was being practised in places such as Bamberg in the 14th century, and may well go back to the 11th century at Weihenstephan, near Munich. The documentary evidence for the depth of history behind cold-brewed lager beer, of course, has just been given firm scientific support by genetic studies of lager yeast that show it developed several hundred years ago, almost certainly in Bavaria.

Paul Buttrick, a former brewer with Whitbread, revealed that even Stella Artois used to receive a respectable 42 days’ lagering, against the seven to 11 days the beer receives today. Blame the accountants? However, if building a 300,000-barrel brewery costs £6 million for 40 lagering tanks in which the beer will be stored for two weeks, but £36 million for 240 tanks in which the beer could be stored for 12 weeks, and you can’t show a 12-week lagering period produces a beer so much better than a two-week lagering period that you could charge an appropriate premium to cover your costs, then you’ve got to give the accountants some sympathy.

At the same time, Paul said, technological advances have meant better handling for beer, giving greatly reduced oxygen levels in the final packaged product, so that a beer will remain fresh for three to four months after packaging, against the two to three weeks of 50 years ago. So “lager beer is certainly higher quality today – but does it taste better?”

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