Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Day 91, Beer 91 - Wadworth's "Malt & Hops"

Today's Beer

Name - Malt & Hops

Brewer - Wadworth

Classification - Premium seasonal ale

Strength - 4.5% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Mango gold.

On the nose - Buttery and zesty in equal measure. You can literally smell how this beer's name came about!

On the tongue - Full-on bitterness and loaded with rich fruits. Intense.

On the subject - Wadworth produce a total of six seasonal beers covering most times of year, this is their early Autumn brew.

On the market - Rare even when it is available, which is (technically) only around September and October as it's only brewed for a very short period prior to then. Fortunately, bottles keep, so the restriction is less of a problem once you've got your hands on the stuff. The brewery keeps a stock, so try their own online store.

On the whole - 7.5/10

Full Review

The label of this beer reveals the ugly truth.

It reads "Brewed for only four weeks of the year. When it's gone - it's gone."

Few truths could be uglier.

The simple reason why this truth is so appallingly ugly is the fact that this beer is so very good. Therefore it has no business being a limited availability seasonal offering. But then, I find this a lot with 'seasonals' from all kinds of breweries, and I often wonder why decisions to keep good beers restricted are ever made in the first place. I mean, who benefits from this?

Let me be clear though - this brew is not for all tastes. It is, in a word, 'strong.' Not in the alcoholic-content sense of the word (though it is hardly the world's weakest beer in that regard) but rather it is strong in flavour. The zesty bitterness and the rich floral fruitiness are pitched for maximum impact - so much so that it would be hard to imagine consuming much more than a couple of these during any one session. The fruits even take on a slight 'sweetshop' feel at certain points, which could eventually become a little overwhelming even for me, I suspect.

But a single jar of this is very rewarding experience, and there is a overall sense of fun about this beer that I found highly endearing.

Wadworth ales are never shy and retiring, and very rarely are they subtle in flavour.

What they are though is absolutely packed with personality, and there is no better example of this than the distinctive and characterful Malt & Hops.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Right on Traquair!

The latest glamorous arrival at stage-door here at the Haymarket is this quartet from Scotland's Traquair.

Founded by her father, Peter, in 1965, Catherine Maxwell Stuart has since taken the reigns at this renowned brewery, and she has done so in some style - with the global impact of the brand reaching ever wider and the awards continuing to stack up.

The two beers to sample and savour are :-

Traquair House Ale (7.2% ABV) - Their flagship brew. A strong, quintessentially Scottish ale.

Jacobite (8% ABV) - Strong, dark ale. Initially brewed as a commemorative beer, but proved way too popular.

As soon as these bottles arrived here at the theatre, their striking appearance caused something of stir backstage, resulting in me agreeing to bring back the empties in order for them to become candle holders or display items in showbiz homes all across London.

Given the obvious visual appeal of these beers, it seemed only right to bring in a professional to photograph them, so, man of many talents Jim Crieghton did the honours here.

These powerhouse ales have mighty reputations.

If they taste anything like they look - I could be in for a couple of real treats.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Day 90, Beer 90 - Dorset Brewing Company's "Jurassic"

Today's Beer

Name - Jurassic

Brewer - Dorset Brewing Company

Classification - Premium ale

Strength - 4.7% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Rich gold, almost mango tinged amber.

On the nose - Robust sweet malts.

On the tongue - A rare beer of bitter sweet extremes.

On the subject - Priding themselves on their locally sourced ingredients, this ethically pro-active company brew some of the freshest tasting beers I know of.

On the market - Certain lucky enclaves have decent supplies, but mostly this is pretty hard to come by. For online options go to West Country Ales.

On the whole - 8/10

Full Review

Usually, a beer is either predominantly bitter, or predominantly sweet.

Rarely is it both.

In fact, to be both - absolutely simultaneously - is pretty nearly scientifically impossible, and in this respect I can safely say that DBC's Jurassic seems to have comprehensively reinvented science.

This, in other words, is impossible beer.

Just how one of these increasingly popular 'flavour indication' systems could properly describe this distinct peculiarity is hard to imagine. Indeed, the limitations of these 'beer i.d. systems' - such as Cyclops for example - are quickly exposed in cases like this when they are limited to flying single word or single image banners to indicate individual aspects of a beer's character.

After all, it's hard to answer an overly simplified question like "Is this beer bitter or sweet?" when the only honest one-word answer is "Yes".

But that's kind of the answer that this extraordinary ale demands, and the result is a playful and quite mesmerising drink experience.

Basically, at work here is the most remarkable co-existence of sweetness and bitterness that I've so far come across. It comes fully loaded with sharp, crisp citrus and floral sweetness, which is instantaneously counterpunched by a bitter hop dryness the likes of which can usually only be found in a strong, straight-up iced tea.

Of the fruits - apple, pear, grapefruit, melon and green grape make the greater impact, but there are many others there to tantalise and delight.

The malt base is evident and lands with sufficient weight to add balance without ever attempting to intrude. The cereals here are more functional than cosmetic.

There are some wonderful aromas, but they are far sweeter than the drink ever becomes in the mouth, which makes the complete exercise a little bewildering after a while, albeit in the most enjoyable way.

This is a sophisticated drink, but it's also enormous fun - and I like that's a likeable blend of characteristics.

'Impossibly bittersweet sophisticated fun.'

That sounds like good beer to me.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Day 89, Beer 89 - Tring's "Side Pocket For A Toad"

Today's Beer

Name - Side Pocket For A Toad

Brewer - Tring

Classification - Premium amber ale (As distinct from the 'session ale' cask version)

Strength - 4.5% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Orange amber. Particularly 'fruity' looking.

On the nose - Zingy gooseberry hops, subtle biscuit malts.

On the tongue - An adeptly brewed citrus-heavy dry beer. A bit different. A bit special.

On the subject - Named after the Hertfordshire market town where the brewery was founded in 1992, this firm has been on a quiet march toward market dominance ever since. On this evidence, I'd say it's time to make that march a great deal louder.

On the market - By no means everywhere. In a fair world, it would be. Try online at My Brewery Tap.

On the whole - 8.5/10

Full Review

What's the real difference between a shock and a surprise?

Is it that one is essentially good and one essentially bad? Or is one simply a more extreme version of the other?

Well, whatever the differences, I'd say this beer is probably both. A 'surprisingly' sophisticated and complexly flavoured brew from a 'shockingly' unheralded brewery.

Tring is quite clearly a hive of richly creative industry.

Aside from the branding of this ale - which I wouldn't miss if they ditched it instantly and entirely - this is a beer worthy of serious national recognition.

Stylistically, it falls somewhere between a bitter and a golden ale - with all the citric and floral sharpness of a 'gold', but with all the full bodied hop dryness and firm malts of a jolly decent bitter.

That malt presence is understated and not at all sweet - bringing it nicely in line with the current fashion for intricate, highly hopped beers - which is another reason why a bit of rebranding might do this drink the power of good. The label suggests 'novelty ale', whereas the reality is a far more chic and refined premium beer. (The label is also somewhat confusing - it's really quite tricky to work out what the drink is actually called. You also have to turn the bottle fully around to discover who brewed it! A truly bizarre act of anti-self-promotion!)

Anyway, to hell with the branding - the most important thing is that this is a properly first class English beer, with a sense of superiority that punches far above it's micro-brewery weight.

A vivid, elegant, nuanced ale, with a very persuasive citrus kick, a thirst-annihilating crispness, and with a broad enough appeal to satisfy all lovers of fine ale.

Look beyond that label and buy one.

Just do it.

You'll either be shocked, surprised, or both.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Day 88, Beer 88 - St. Peter's "Organic Best Bitter"

Today's Beer

Name - Organic Best Bitter

Brewer - St. Peter's

Classification - Please don't make me write 'organic best bitter'! Please!

Strength - 4.1% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Rich, elegant amber.

On the nose - Gloriously sumptuous malts. Smooth but vivacious hops.

On the tongue - Ultra dry, ultra bitter, ultra good.

On the subject - St. Peter's pay more attention to the 'organic' end of the market than many breweries. The fact that they brew the same style of beer in both ways makes for some great opportunities for comparison. There are two 'Best Bitters' for example. Both are very different drinks but, sadly, they brew both versions a little too well for there to be any clear winner.

On the market - Pretty decent national coverage. Larger supermarkets are almost guaranteed to stock this. Try the brewery's own online store.

On the whole - 8/10

Full Review

This is a dry beer.

Let me say that again.

This is a dry beer.

Believe me, one mention of this simple fact would have been entirely inadequate.

The immediacy of the super dryness is as breathtaking as it is delightful, with the bitter citrus hops wasting no time in launching their delicious assault on the mouth with ruthless efficiency.

Almost as immediate - is a sense of this beer's freshness, but the 'organic' status of this drink doesn't leave it lacking in refinement or elegance. In fact, this is a very polished and composed drink experience.

The precise source of that citrus thwack remains somewhat elusive, but grapefruit, gooseberry and wonderfully peppery celery each take a punt at winning your affections - to ceaselessly enjoyable effect.

There are faint hints of sweetness, which wash in and out of focus in split second bursts like a dream sequence from some sixties art house movie. It's a very clever, playful brew in that respect.

But mostly it's a full-on brute of a beer, with that dry bitterness dominating proceedings in the most thrillingly relentless fashion.

As regular readers will have noticed, I don't make a habit of suggesting foods to accompany the beers I sample. Mostly, I do like to give my beers some space all of their own, untainted by such horrors as chewable matter. But this beer - more than any that I've yet stumbled upon - made me long for a roast dinner, with parsnips, roasted sweet potatoes, buttered vegetables and a huge leg of Welsh lamb. The toasted caramel sweetness of slow roasted grub would compliment this beer astonishingly well.

Any beer which makes you want to eat a Sunday roast just has to be a decent one, and this one is quite a bit more than decent.

But there's one thing that St. Peter's Organic Best Bitter is more than anything else...

This is a dry beer.

It was easily worth saying that for a third time.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Day 87, Beer 87 - Badger's "Tangle Foot"

Today's Beer

Name - Tangle Foot

Brewer - Badger

Classification - Premium amber ale

Strength - 5% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Rich, mango/orange. (Which, ironically, is also a bit like how it tastes at times)

On the nose - Floral cake mix malts and soft citrus hops.

On the tongue - (See 'On the eye') Okay, I'm kind of kidding, but this is a typically fruity, floral and consequently sweet Badger ale.

On the subject - A mighty presence on the British beer scene, Badger have spent hundreds of years building a wide and loyal following. This ale is among their best sellers.

On the market - Everywhere. Only specialist stores might avoid this due to it's well established popular appeal. The brewery has a decent online store.

On the whole - 7.5/10

Full Review

I can't be too savage with this beer because it's really not anywhere close to being a bad ale.

In fact, it's far closer to being a very good ale, but I have to be honest, this taste test has forced me to face up to an inconvenient and potentially controversial truth.

I have an issue with Badger beers.

There. I've said it.

Now to clarify...

Badger beers are packed with character, of that there is no doubt at all. In fact, a Badger ale can be identified fairly easily among the creations of all other breweries - and this in itself is a heck of a feat. They are truly ales of distinction.

But it is the manner by which they achieve this distinction which bothers me somewhat, and it's purely a question of personal preference.

In short, Badger beers are nearly always fruity and floral by definition, and I'm just not all that excited by the way in which they emphasise these themes with such unceasing regularity and conviction.

Predominant sweetness is the result, and again, I'm naturally more inclined toward the dry side of the scale when it comes to ale, so all in all - I'm sort of built to have trouble with Badger beers.

What frustrates me about this fact, is that it is perfectly obvious that Badger brew quite wonderful ales, applying very high standards to the process and taking great care with the blend of fine ingredients which they source and include.

I just wish my taste buds would allow me to enjoy more of the Badger party, instead of forcing me to lurk by the buffet like a killjoy.

For those lucky folks who are able to fully enjoy it, this beer drinks like a Victorian cottage garden - complete with shrubberies, berry bushes, wildflowers, orchids, apiaries and fully ripened tree fruit.

It really is very well executed, easily enough for even me to notice. The fact that it's one of the UK's best selling bottled ales adds further weight to the theory that this is pretty good stuff.

I just wish this sort of beer was my cup of tea.

But then, I stopped putting sugar in my tea a very long time ago.

I guess that sort of sums it up.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Day 86, Beer 86 - Royal Tunbridge Wells' - "Royal"

Today's Beer

Name - Royal

Brewer - Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewing Co.

Classification - Best Bitter

Strength - 4.1% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Deep, rich chestnut. A very nice looking beer, providing you ignore the lumps of matter lying on the bottom of up your glass. ('Oh dear, not this again', I hear you cry...)

On the nose - Sniffable darkness. Treacle, liquorice. 'Darth Beer.'

On the tongue - A revelation. Multiple beer styles, combined and refined to unique effect.

On the subject - Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewing Company is barely more a year old, but this beer suggests a far greater heritage. Simon Lewis is realising his dream in fine style. Him and his small team have to be one of the most exciting prospects for British brewing. One sip of today's beer would convince anyone of that.

On the market - Just inexcusably rare. Having said that, this beer (like so many other great beers from small micros) will never be a best seller whilst it is delivered with poorly executed bottle conditioning. Breweries who cannot afford to do this process well simply have to ditch their obsession with being awarded that ill-conceived CAMRA approval badge and focus more on sales. CAMRA may approve of bogey-like slabs of yeast in their bottled beers - but most ordinary consumers do not. Not one little bit.

On the whole - 8.5/10*

(* - Another fine beer marked down half a point due to the same old poor bottle-conditioning reason! Heartbreaking.)

Full Review

A tough review, this one.

In fact, it made me start thinking about not doing beer reviews any more.

I've grown monumentally tired of discovering wonderful beers which arrive in my glass in a state of self-inflicted ruination. I've grown even more tired with having to moan about it. I've also grown tired of feeling like I'm lacking the necessary PhD in 'Pouring Ale Correctly'. Most of all though, and in a nutshell - I'm tired of having to downgrade my rating of great beers because they've been spoiled by poorly executed bottle-conditioning.

Yes, the self-inflicted ruination I speak of is that which causes some beers to bring with them into my glass big solid lumps of horrid looking stuff which has absolutely no business being there. Or rather, they have no business being there beyond keeping CAMRA happy, who feel that - by virtue of the gloopy lumps being there at all - they can comfortably award the drink their badge of approval.

'CAMRA says this is real ale' - says the badge.

'Well, in that case I know it's probably full of gunk, so I need to avoid it' - says the ever growing number of enlightened consumers.

It's so terribly disheartening at the best of times, but I don't mind saying that when the drink being spoiled is one such as RTW's 'Royal' - it begins to feel less upsetting and more like a criminal offence.

This beer is quite simply sensational, and in honour of what this beer was before it was so very badly packaged, I'm going to set aside my grievances (even though those grievances are so severe that I will never buy this product until the essential changes are made) and I'm going to tell you what this majestic drink experience would be like in an alternate universe where only good bottle-conditioning techniques existed.

This is being sold as a 'best bitter', and I guess that's fine by me, but it drinks like no other 'best' I've ever come across, and although many of my favourite ales are classified in this way, I think this beer is being done something of a disservice by being labelled in this way.

Basically, this brew is far too revolutionary and unique to be adequately served by the best bitter name.

This recipe is off the grid by any conventional standards, and it shows that the people who plonked all that yeast into the drink at the last minute are the very same people who exacted the most scintillatingly high standards to every other stage of the process. This beer demonstrates tremendous flair and ingenuity, and it's clear that the majority of the work going on in the brewhouse is absolutely first class.

A brooding, darkly complex beer, which borrows greatly from the 'dark beer' model, and yet it is happy to grab elements from all other beer styles like stout, golden ale and even experimental spiced or fruit beers.

It's no car wreck though, all of these styles intertwine, compliment each other and enhance the overall effect. It really is quite dazzling. It sits comfortably alongside no single beer variety, but seems instead to rise above them all, like some one-label beer style all of it's own.

Treacle, gooseberry, cinnamon, grapes, parsnip, black cherry, passion fruit, grapefruit, caramel - all at the most quaffably judged intensity.

It smells like the beer version of a classic movie villain - menacing and darkly charismatic - yet it drinks like the smoothest of matinee idols. This is an epic scale, Cinemascope offering from a small micro, but the only way you'd ever know this beer was from a small micro, is by the way the whole magnificence of the experience is reduced almost to a none event by blobs of yellow grime that have no right to be there in the first place

Get rid of those blobs, and this beer can be enjoyed for what it is - an indisputable modern classic.

As things stand - it can barely be enjoyed at all.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Day 85, Beer 85 - Worthington's "White Shield"

Today's Beer

Name - White Shield

Brewer - Worthington

Classification - India Pale Ale

Strength - 5.6% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Deep tangerine. North African dawn. Lovely.

On the nose - Syrupy, chip shop malts. Tantalising hop presence. The faintest wafts of liquorice and treacle.

On the tongue - A glittering example of an English Ale . Sharp, bitter, with subtle but dazzling complexity.

On the subject - No surviving IPA has been around longer. Long before its relatively recent 'relaunch', this beer had already been around for almost 200 years. It's nearly always found in bottled form these days, with only rare appearances in casks.

On the market - Quite bafflingly elusive, considering its unparalleled heritage and its epic status within the industry. Although, there's nothing quite like cult status, and that can demand a certain level of calculated elusiveness. Try online at Ocado.

On the whole - 9/10

Full Review

Beware the ale whose mighty reputation strides before it.

I had to approach this beer with caution, simply because it is among the most venerated English ales in history.

Because of this fact, I knew the chances of it being manifestly awful were pretty slim, to say the least. But what were the chances of it being manifestly fabulous?

Well, after the first mouthful had me rolling my eyes and giggling like a child - it seemed the chances were extremely high.

There is no point wasting any more time - this is absolutely top-drawer stuff, and easily one of the most refined and perfectly balanced ales I've yet come across.

The perfection of that balance does not involve it being poised exactly in the middle of the malt/hop scale - indeed it is a far more highly hopped brew than I'd been expecting - but the relationship between these two extremes of the flavour spectrum is exquisitely judged and it is in that judgement that the perfection lies.

Super dry, subtly biscuity, and mesmerically infused with tropical fruits and wildflowers - I'd say this is probably the beer I would give to a visiting alien to represent all others.

In spite of it having been around longer than any other IPA currently available in the world, there's something inescapably 'now' about the recipe, and it could easily be mistaken for a recent offering from one of our more 'trendy' modern outfits.

It's a little too gassy in the glass to be my very favourite bottled beer, but the bottle-conditioning is among the best on the market, resulting in an effortlessly clear pour with no need whatsoever for tears or tantrums.

This, famously, is the beer that single-handedly saved one of England's most celebrated breweries from extinction.

I'd say that's actually a relatively modest achievement for a beer of this monumentally high quality.

An ale this good could save the world.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Day 84, Beer 84 - Crouch Vale's "Amarillo"

Today's Beer

Name - Amarillo

Brewer - Crouch Vale

Classification - Golden premium ale

Strength - 5.0% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - 22 carat liquid gold.

On the nose - High note spicy hops. Very dynamic.

On the tongue - A revelation. A supremely complex, vivid and delightful summertime ale.

On the subject - Against the backdrop of the relatively recent resurgence of the 'micro brewery', Chelmsford's Crouch Vale Brewery have been around for ages. 1981 is when they first began to brew beer, and their love of seasonal experimentation has clearly given rise to some real micro marvels. Today's beer being no exception.

On the market - Rare. I reckon that about sums it up, globally. So hard to come by in fact, that this bottle was left at my door by a secret agent (see below...) Local availability, however, is pretty decent. If you live in Essex, go to Tesco. If you live elsewhere, go to Essex. For an online option try Ales By Mail.

On the whole - 8.5/10

Full Review

This beer, which arrived in my midsts quite unexpectedly, is an absolute gem.

Had I not known that Gary Gooch of Oldershaw Brewery (a company with no business links to Crouch Vale, I hasten to add) had dropped this at my doorstep - I might have assumed it had fallen there from Heaven, because this stuff sure does drink like liquid manna.

Rarely have I encountered an ale which is so intensively vivid in its character. This beer grabs you forcefully on every sensory level, and it simply does not let go.

Tropical fruits - grapefruit, passion fruit - white grapes, peach, apricot, elderberry... this brew is so active with deliciously intense summertime wonderfulness that I was left slightly punch-drunk from the sheer barrage of vivacious flavours.

Without trying to sound like I've had my head buried in the sand over recent years during the march of the modern micro - I was taken aback by how such a small outfit had created a beer that was so staggeringly nuanced and refined but which also contained flavours of such tremendous immediacy and impact. Frankly, my mind began racing with conspiracy theories - I sold myself the idea that Crouch Vale was in fact a covert arm of a giant multi-national brewery, who used the label as a cover story for their secret experiments to find groundbreaking new beers with which to conquer the global market.

This beer is so distinctive and so sophisticated - I could almost believe this.

Many of you will know of this firm due to the success of the cask version of their Brewers Gold, which picked up CAMRA's Supreme Champion Beer of Britain in both 2005 and 2006, but I'd say this brand deserves to be far better known than it is right now.

Certainly, if Amarillo is in any way representative of what Crouch Vale are capable of - then these guys are magicians. No question about it.

Seek out this beer at your earliest opportunity.

Trust me, it's special.