Thursday, 28 April 2011

Day 83, Beer 83 - Belhaven's "80 Shilling"

Today's Beer

Name - 80 Shilling

Brewer - Belhaven

Classification - Classic Scottish ale. (In other words - it's an 80 shilling!)

Strength - 3.9% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Deep, sci-fi red. Martian sunset. Lovely.

On the nose - Autumnal forest floor. Spicy, rich, bold and fabulous.

On the tongue - Remarkably bold and complex. A bitter, sweet, spicy conflux.

On the subject - Dunbar's Belhaven have this brew to compete among the many other Scottish ales know collectively as 80 Shilling beers. There can surely be few better examples of this iconic style.

On the market - Speaking as an Englishman, availability is unacceptably rare. I protest! By all accounts, this situation is greatly improved north of the border. All problems can quickly be solved via the brewery's own online shop.

On the whole - 8.5/10

Full Review

This beer made me growl.

For many of you, this alone will be enough of an accolade to get you sprinting out of the door in the direction of your nearest stockist. (Though, if you don't live in Scotland - you may want to jog rather than sprint because you may be running for a good old while...)

The reason some of you may consider that opening line to be enough information, is because you know that any beer which gets you doing animal impressions simply has to be a good one.

However, as this is a beer review site - I do feel compelled to venture into a little more detail as to exactly why this ale produced such a primal reaction.

Well, the short answer is that this is a very special drink.

Packed with flavours - of the traditional and exotic kinds - it is every bit as aggressive, brutal and dynamic as it is refined, delicate and nuanced.

In fact, there's almost a multi-personality disorder at work here - in the most delicious sense of the term. For every dark ale element - such as those twangs of liquorice and eastern spices - there is are equal measures of contradictory golden ale fruit and floral themes to bewilder and beguile you into the most blissful of stupors.

"It's sweet," I thought to myself for a moment, until the next moment arrived bringing with it the thought "No, it's dry and bitter."

As you might imagine, this is hardly the sort of territory in which a beer reviewer feels entirely comfortable...

But the fact is that in whatever way this beer plays with your reactions, there's little doubt that it is an enormously enjoyable drink experience, made all the more enjoyable by this intriguing element of colliding characteristics.

In some ways, though, the most remarkable thing about this beer is it's alcoholic content. I have to admit that I searched around a bit for confirmation that it was indeed only brewed at 3.9% ABV, because it is so powerful, vivid and present in the mouth that for a good while I simply refused to believe it.

All in all, this really is a little marvel of an ale.

It's a unique beer. One which confounds, delights, and would stir into excitement even the idlest of souls.

It's a beer that gets you growling.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Day 82, Beer 82 - Wold Top's "Mars Magic"

Today's Beer

Name - Mars Magic

Brewer - Wold Top

Classification - Dark beer

Strength - 4.6% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Enigmatic, deepest rosewood.

On the nose - Intense, almost brittle sweetness. Brooding low notes.

On the tongue - Sharp, dry, fruity, with rich and lively malts.

On the subject - Wold Top Brewery have a huge range of ales relative to the small size of their coastal Yorkshire operation - not they are anything like as tiny as they were only a few years ago. The reason for their ever increasing presence in supermarkets is all too obvious to those who've tried their excellent beers.

On the market - Like I said, the Wold Top brand has a growing national profile. If you don't fancy yet another trip to your nearest megastore - try the brewery's own online shop.

On the whole - 8/10

Full Review

"Ale... the final frontier...."

For those already in a mild panic - fear not - because I'm going to rapidly abandon any further Star Trek references... but in a sense, a beer review site really is a voyage of discovery in the style of that original 60's series format.

But Wold Top's Mars Magic is the first actual planet that my particular expedition has yet come across.

Or do I mean 'landed on..?'

Anyway, the great irony here is that there is nothing remotely extra-planetary or even vaguely science-fictional about this brew, which is actually just a very typical (though also a very fine) example of a well loved drink variety, commonly known back on it's home world as 'beer.'

This is very much an Earth Ale. No question about it. Rich berry fruits (commonly found on said world) faint exotic spices (not so exotic they aren't found under our own troposphere) and some haunting, highly energetic forest floor malts (again, very much of Earthly stock) - these are all flavours from this particular cosmic orb, that's for sure.

But, in spite of this beer being recognisable as a drink from our neck of the universe, what is less clear - is precisely what kind of beer this is meant to be.

There's a little too much going on in a little too many parts of the flavour spectrum to easily pin this ale down into any one category. 'Dark Beer' says a great deal about the colour, but this name becomes a bit of a (dark) red herring when applied to the kaleidoscopic flavour content of the brew.

Do not, however, take this as a bad thing. I nearly always like to be surprised by a characterful beer whose character is hard to quickly define. And more specifically, it's always an exciting moment when you discover that a drink doesn't taste the way it looks, if you take my meaning.

This beer is refreshing and yet comforting, complex and yet direct, dark and yet remarkably light in the mouth. It's a gutsy, powerful drink experience - but it never quite feels like it.

These are all pretty clever tricks for a beer to play, and probably pretty hard to achieve. For that, I commend the folks in brewhouse.

So, although I'm not entirely sure what this beer is up to, I can safely say that whatever it is doing - it is doing it in some considerable style.

It might not be particularly other-worldly, but really is quite magic.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Day 81, Beer 81 - Purity's "Pure Ubu"

Today's Beer

Name - Pure Ubu

Brewer - Purity

Classification - Premium amber ale

Strength - 4.5% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Possibly the best looking beer I've ever seen.

On the nose - A very finely poised battle between buttery sponge cake malts and citrus/ginger hops.

On the tongue - Dry, creamy and generally delightful.

On the subject - Warwickshire based but with a truly global reach via their distribution network, the 'own-brewed' beers of this company look set to become well known fixtures on supermarket shelves worldwide.

On the market - Purity beers have been criminally rare for too long - but that is slowly changing with major players like Tesco now stocking the range in selected stores. Try the brewery's own online shop.

On the whole - 8.5/10

Full Review

I used to find it rather odd whenever an ale was described as being 'creamy.'

This was partly because I don't actually like cream all that much, but I'm pretty sure that even if I adored cream - I wouldn't really appreciate it showing up in my beer.

However, over the years, I've gradually cottoned-on to what it means for a beer to be creamy, and Purity's Pure Ubu is as good a candidate as any to demonstrate why 'creaminess' in an ale can be a very wonderful thing.

Of course, a good creamy beer has very little in common with thickened, sweetened milk - it's really in the rich and smooth consistency of the liquid that the similarities lie - and this very sophisticated brew has that particular quality in spades.

In fact, the flavour of this drink could hardly be less like cream. Dry, bitter, with punchy spiced fruits and dazzling citrus undertones - all bonded together by some lovely smoked-caramel malt which never dominates but is always present, and what a very welcome presence it is.

There's a dried fig sweetness there too, which is so cleverly pitched that I deemed it worthy of a paragraph all of it's own.

It's a lovely beer, this.

But, by some distance, the very best thing about this drink is - speaking quite frankly - its jaw dropping sex appeal. As my 'On the eye' section has already hinted, this beer sits in the glass like some liquid supermodel on a coffee break - utterly gorgeous in an off-guard, unassuming, un-showy kind of way.

It is effortlessly but quite mesmerically beautiful.

Apart from all the other attractive elements of this beer's appearance - there is a shade of soft deep red at play here that you'll never witness anywhere else in the world. Neither nature nor science has ever produced this remarkable hue before.

What a gorgeous drink this really is.

It looks more like a fine ale than any such beverage that my feeble human mind could ever conjure-up - even in it's very wildest imaginings.

In truth, what it actually looks like is the most magnificent English ale ever brewed.

And, when all is said and done, that's really not too very far from what this beer proves to be.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Well, Well, Royal Tunbridge Wells!

Sat in an appropriately stately and regal fashion on the window-ledge of a certain beer-lover's dressing room here in London's West End - are four of the best from Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewing Company.

When deciding to send them over, I wonder if those clever folk at the brewery spotted the happy irony that their crown-adorned beers would be arriving at the Theatre 'Royal' Haymarket?

I felt embarrassed that a red carpet hadn't been laid on for their grand arrival, but I'll be sure to make up for that by treating every last one of them with the kind of heightened respect due to your average monarch.

Or, failing that, I might just drink them.

The beers form part of RTW's range of 'Spa Fine Ales' and they are - (from left to right)

Sovereign - Blonde ale (3.8% ABV)

Royal - Best bitter (4.1% ABV)

Beau - Porter (4.8% ABV)

Dipper - Bitter (3.7% ABV)

The mysterious black, label-free bottle in the picture is of course the Beau, which usually wears a coat like this -

But, with this beer being grabbed straight off the production line, they sent the thing through naked.

Technically, this particular beer should be one of the freshest to be sampled here on The Year.

All four will get their own full features over the coming weeks.

I'm royally excited.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Day 80, Beer 80 - Woodforde's "Sundew"

Today's Beer

Name - Sundew

Brewer - Woodforde's

Classification - Golden Ale

Strength - 4.1% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Mango tinted gold.

On the nose - Peachy, tangerine delightfulness.

On the tongue - Crisp, elegant, fruity, refreshing but with a bad case of dandruff. (See below!)

On the subject - One of my favourite breweries as far as their cask versions are concerned - they, like many other breweries, have chosen the wrong method of bottle-conditioning their gorgeous beers, and I've just about had enough of this. Do, please, read on...

On the market - Quite scarce in bottled form, and on this evidence, popularity is unlikely to broaden unless changes are made. Simple changes - that would make an enormous difference. For those eager to put my views to the test - try the brewery's online store.

On the whole - 7/10* (* - marked down from 8/10 due to a 'technical issue'.)

Full Review

I couldn't finish this drink.

That is about as sad an opening to a beer review as you're ever likely to read, and it was certainly upsetting for me to have to write it - especially given that the beer itself was so delicious.

The reason why good ale went to waste is pretty straightforward. This (properly stored and carefully poured) brew was almost knee deep in fat lumps of yeast.

Huge asteroids of unattractiveness piled up on the base of the glass, while various other globules hovered motionless amidst the rest of the liquid.

Some darker ales might have got away with this, by camouflaging the offending particles. But a light golden ale like this had no such luck.

If anything, the lightness of hue did much to exaggerate the awfulness, and for a beer of such otherwise wonderful character and thirst-quenching appeal, it was so upsetting to behold.

The fact is, the ale being spoiled here is a very fine ale indeed. Soft citrus twangs, stronger floral bursts and a buttery malt undercurrent which balances the whole in the most excellent fashion - it's all pretty darn special really.

But, at the same time, it's almost impossible to enjoy.

To add to the misery, one can detect that this would otherwise be a beautiful looking ale, with a warm honey/mango glow which lends itself delightfully with the brew's cool, crisp summertime appeal.

This beer is so nice, that it's just the last sort of drink you'd wish to be the victim of such bottle-conditioned ruination.

But, alas, ruined it was.

Now, I refuse to blame myself for all this. That's what some folk would like me to do - accept responsibility for an error in storage or in my serving technique - but what a ridiculous state of affairs, when a drinker is blamed for the fact he can't imbibe a beverage - because someone else dumped too much unbridled matter into it long before he got it home.

I call on CAMRA to take a fresh look at their 'This Is Real-Ale' stamp of approval, and how it's awarded. The mere presence of yeast should not be enough to earn that badge, because what use is a 'real ale' that you can't enjoy?

Various systems of bottle-conditioning are at work within the industry and it's pretty damned obvious that some work far better than others. Arbitrarily chucking in yeast is a world apart from having modest and far more refined amounts secured (somehow) to the bottom of a bottle like some companies manage to achieve.

CAMRA need to start raising the bar here. They need to reward those who not only add yeast, but do it 'neatly' and in such a way that it does not murder the fine ales it's meant to be enhancing.

Breweries alone don't seem willing to sort this out, so CAMRA need to 'encourage' them to do so before the yeast backlash really gathers pace.

Speaking personally, I now actively avoid buying bottle-conditioned beers because financially speaking - the risk just ain't worth it.

I know for a fact I'm by no means alone.

Anyway, in summary, Woodforde's Sundew is an absolutely marvellous beer which, unless certain changes are made, I would never dare to buy.


Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Day 79, Beer 79 - Dark Star's "Espresso"

Today's Beer

Name - Espresso

Brewer - Dark Star

Classification - Rich Coffee Beer

Strength - 4.2% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Cocoa Chanel, if you see what I mean...

On the nose - Half full-bodied stout, half Javan ground coffee.

On the tongue - Well, I reckon this one goes way beyond a quick summary. (Read on...)

On the subject - From extremely humble beginnings, Dark Star is now growing, growing, growing! New premises, an evolving list of pubs, new beers appearing all the time. Who can possibly stop this awesome expansion? Where are you Superman?!!

On the market - As you may have noticed, Dark Star beer's cannot be found everywhere. As you may have heard, that is a great shame. The brewery recommend My Brewery Tap for online orders.

On the whole - 9/10

Full Review

Confession time.

Usually, during a taste test, I take a good mouthful of the beer in front of me, gulp it down, and take another mouthful immediately afterwards. It's not massively scientific (as you can clearly see) but it's a pretty decent way of exposing the drink to as many regions of myself that might wish to offer-up some initial feedback. This is also usually a point where I stop drinking for a moment whilst I scribble some of that early feedback down.

Now for the confession.

This beer made me break the rules.

Instead of sitting back and letting the brew 'occur to me' for a few moments, I reached straight back for another large helping like my life depended on it.

In my own defence - the beer left me with very little choice about this. I simply could not wait.

And the reason I couldn't wait is because this beer is that extremely rare combination of utterly delicious and utterly unique.

Frankly, whether this is a 'speciality' beer or not (or even a 'novelty' beer - as some misguided traditionalists will surely say), it is absolutely top-drawer stuff regardless of any mode of classification.

Quite honestly, when it came to trying to describe this ale's flavour - I repeatedly started giggling. I wouldn't be at all surprised if that was exactly the reaction Dark Star had in mind when they were conjuring up this recipe, because very little about what these guys do seems to happen by accident.

Clever brains lurk in dark stars.

By way of an attempt to assess the flavours at play here, I must at least mention Cuban cigars, almonds, Javan coffee beans, liquorice, some astounding top note themes involving all kinds of citrus and floral notes, and marshmallow - with this latter hint adding a certain welcome playfulness to what is otherwise a purely elegant and sophisticated affair.

Refreshingly light in body and full of gothic splendour on the eye - this is a revelation in terms of the exciting directions that a truly fine ale can go.

I urge you to drink this beer (fairly well chilled, crucially) at your very earliest convenience.

It is properly mind-bending, and properly good.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Day 78, Beer 78 - Robinsons "Old Tom"

Today's Beer

Name - Old Tom

Brewer - Robinsons

Classification - Dark strong ale

Strength - 8.5% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Rubied espresso. Vampire coffee.

On the nose - Black treacle and liquorice. Bold, rich and quietly terrifying.

On the tongue - Deftly complex and delightfully powerful. A dangerously easy-drinking high strength beer.

On the subject - This famous ale is now branded 'Original' due to the arrival of the variant 'Toms' - Ginger Tom (Beer Year review here) and Chocolate Tom (review coming soon).

On the market - Wide availability. For a case-load (consult your doctor first!) try online at MyBreweryTap.

On the whole - 8.5/10

Full Review

I reckon I may eventually need to finish off this review some other time.

I sensed after just one mouthful that any great detail, entered into at any great length, may ultimately prove hard to sustain.

The reason for this is simple, and it has something to do with the 8.5% ABV rating printed on this bottle's label (which, I've soon realised, is no typing error) and it also has something to do with the fact that this high strength does little or nothing to stop you popping rapidly back for more and more sips.

Deadly combo alert!

So, before my mind dissolves entirely into mush, let me quickly talk a little about flavour - because alcohol is by no means the only thing that this excellent ale is packed with. The deepest, richest and most vivid flavour themes are at work here.

Liquorice, blackberry, dark boozy fruit cake, almond (as in marzipan), orange zest, red grapes, cocoa, faint aniseed - all blended and integrated with the kind of skill many breweries could only ever aspire to.

To be this strong and yet this nuanced - by heck that's an achievement.

The elegant lightness of the body is also worthy of mention - yet another aspect of this beer's frightening drinkability.

Just above that ABV rating on the label is written - with great pride, no doubt - a claim that this brew is (or at least it was according to the World Beer Awards back in 2009) the very best beer on the planet.

A reasonable claim?

Well, personally, I tend to spy a certain vulgarity when such impossibly subjective matters are stated like facts in this way (though I blame neither the brewery nor the organisers of this event for feeling the need to enter into the spirit of a good old public relations exercise every once in a while). I do also wonder whether an ale of such bloodcurdling power really ought to be hailed in this way on a global scale - looking at it from moral/public health perspective.

However, these small quibbles aside, there's really not a lot more I can say to counter the WBA's opinion because this beer is quite clearly a magnificent example of what a properly fine ale can be.

Anyway, I'm almost at the end of this glass now, so there's probably little or no point in trying to continue...

So, I'm just going to sit back and savour the last few drops of what some say is the single greatest beer of them all.

Don't be jealous.


Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Day 77, Beer 77 - St. Peter's "Suffolk Gold"

Today's Beer

Name - Suffolk Gold

Brewer - St. Peter's

Classification - Premium golden ale

Strength - 4.9% ABV

Verdict - At a glance

On the eye - A warm, apricot gold. Quite unique.

On the nose - Bold, rich, sumptuous malts. Very nice.

On the tongue - Dry, sharp, aggressive, and pretty darn marvellous.

On the subject - The extensive range of St. Peter's ales gets more impressive with every new example I try. Their rapid and unfaltering climb toward market dominance is making ever greater sense to me.

On the market - These days in the UK, there's very little problem finding something from the St. Peter's stable, though this one is perhaps a little rarer than certain others. Try the brewery's own online store.

On the whole - 8/10

Full Review

The first words I wrote for this review are not the words you are reading now.

Those first words have been moved up to the 'On the tongue' section above, because after I wrote them I realised they were in fact a perfect summary of the beer.

But what then struck me - was that the fact that this beer had been the very first here on The Year which had made the full breadth of it's character so instantaneously apparent. But, then again - it's really not difficult to explain why that is.

Basically, this beer is monumentally direct in it's approach to the human mouth.

It's staggering dryness - which transforms the very idea of 'dry liquid' into an entirely new concept - is so impossibly potent that you almost become aware of it even before the fluid touches your lips, meaning that all the tongue eventually does is provide conformation of it at a later stage.

The brutally sharp hop bitterness takes exactly the same approach - grabbing and gripping the taste buds with levels of aggression I have rarely encountered in almost any aspect of life - let alone within a glass of ale.

This feels more like a weapon than a beer, and I'm specifically referring to the sort of weapon that is designed to kill rather than merely maim.

I do hope I'm getting somewhere near to properly describing the impact of this drink. It really does feel exactly as I'm suggesting.

There's complexity here too, though, with an array of minor flavours - both floral and citrus in nature - teasing you with faint suggestions of an entirely separate drink experience that you might be having if only the main, power-house salty dryness weren't so utterly dominant.

But utterly dominant it is. It marches forth and tramples over all other features and qualities, it makes absolutely no apology for it's apocalyptic leadership techniques and, by and large, that is something we should all very be thankful for.

Ultimately, I couldn't decide whether I liked this beer or loved it. It's certainly one of the two, but I can't help thinking my affection is based more on the sheer 'event' of consuming this stuff - rather than for the brew itself.

At the end of the day, I don't suppose it matters why you enjoy something - proving that you do.

That rather puts me in mind of all the varied types of thrill-seeking that we often go in search of - situations wherein we essentially pursue happiness via the risking of our lives.

And perhaps that's exactly why I'm drawn to this beer. Because it scares me half to death.

I guess that's the thing to stress most here. The rush.

If thrill-seeking is your thing - you really do need to take a ride on this beast.

I've little doubt it will impress you immeasurably.