Thursday, 30 June 2011

Day 100, Beer 100 - Traquair's "House Ale"

Today's Beer

Name – House Ale
Brewer – Traquair
Classification – Strong Scotch ale/'Wee heavy'
Strength – 7.2% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance
On the eye – Very, very, very dark. Possibly room for at least one more 'very'. Faint sunset orange when backlit. Very. There, I said it.
On the nose – Huge aromas. Oaked, char-grilled malts. Zingy, almost grapefruit hops. Peat whisky overtones.
On the tongue – A banquet of rich, dark-beer complexity.
On the subject – Trading significantly on the fact that their home, Traquair, is the oldest inhabited house in Scotland, there is little doubt that the occupants have learned a thing or two about the art of beer production whilst in residence. The house itself is something of a multi-faceted industry, serving as a venue for corporate events, weddings and a high-end bed and breakfast – the brewery is merely a part of a much wider operation. You'd think, though, brewing was the only thing these folks had ever done.
On the market – Not the world's most freely available product, but worth seeking out as a matter of grave urgency. Try online at Beer Here.
On the whole9/10

Full Review
Well, here we are. The 100th bottled beer review here on The Year.
It's been quite a journey so far – as an examination of the Beer Year Chart will clearly demonstrate – and it was always going to be tricky deciding which brew to select for such a momentous occasion.
I wanted to have a special beer for this review, but it also had to be one that was entirely new to me. My decision, therefore, could only be based on what I believed might be a special ale.
In the end, then, it all boiled down to presentation. It became about the bottles themselves, and which gave the greatest hint that its contents were likely to be superior.
After surprisingly little deliberation, Traquair's exquisitely presented House Ale became that choice.
Very few beer bottles have this much visual allure. I've actually had two requests for this empty bottle once I've finished with it so that it can be used as either a candle holder or a bookend, depending on who I give it too. The fact is, though, I might just keep it for myself.
This, you see, is seriously sexy glassware.
However, having made my choice of beer based purely on these fairly arbitrary factors, my only fear was that the drink inside would go on to disappoint.
I can say right now that any such fears were utterly without foundation.
This is not only among the best packaged beers around, it's also one of the best brewed.
This is an unceasingly delicious, rich and powerful, highly complex strong ale with all the charm and elegance of a fairy tale prince, and all the rugged Gothic ferocity of the legendary beast he must slay.
The dominant flavours constantly interchange – the signature of a truly complex beer – and those flavours vary from licorice, cocoa, dark chocolate and black treacle to the zesty stings of ultra-high citrus and herb notes from blackberries, gooseberries, nettle, wild-grasses and more.
But as intricate as this interplay might be, there's very little point in pretending that this is not a properly fearsome brew. At 7.2% ABV – it is almost obliged to be. But the alcohols don't dominate as much as they might, because the ultra-delicate construction of the ale simply does not allow for it. In other words – it has just been too well brewed.
It has exactly that 'home made' feel that it's label suggests, whist also being possessive of a strong sense of heritage and established excellence.
And the sense of geographic placing is also in evidence here – this is very much a Scottish strong ale, with all that full bodied richness, the sheer potency of flavour, and the inevitable sweetness – which in this particular case comes in the form of an almost unending caramel fruitiness in the finish, which is a taste experience as rewarding as any beer could hope to deliver.
It's an ale of tremendous character and self-awareness.
I was fond of it right from the off.
In fact, I was somewhat in awe of it.
I suspect I always will be.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Day 99, Beer 99 - Orkney's "Northern Light"

Today's Beer

Name – Northern Light

Brewer – Orkney

Classification – Pale ale

Strength – 4.0% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Muted, yet vivid straw-gold.

On the nose – An atonal, sharp and reasonably aggressive high pitched scream of a scent. Nothing at all like the drink that follows.

On the tongue – Quite a different story. A veritable collage of rich citrus, faint herbs and spices and the subtlest of malt bases.

On the subject – The company motto at Orkney Brewery is “5000 Years In The Making”, and I reckon such a wait is probably just about worth it for beers such as this.

On the market – Specialist beer shops almost always stock Orkney ales, but wider availability is growing. And it's about time too after those '5000 years'! This came from The Real Ale Store.

On the whole8/10

Full Review

You'd think it was hard for a beer to have both subtlety and intensity as it's two principle features.

But this excellent ale from Orkney Brewery has no trouble combining those two elements at all, and I have to admit - the results are quite mesmerising.

This thirst-annihilating beer is easy enough on the mouth to sink in no time whatsoever, and yet the clarity of it's many flavours is utterly tremendous. Orkney have somehow found a way of focussing each of these flavours without powering them into the mouth by simply upping the levels to the max. The assembly of this beer has been executed with remarkable skill and care. Each of the many characteristics is given space to flourish whilst the overall effect is beautifully restrained and understated.

The result is an enormously enigmatic ale.

It never reveals itself all at once, and many of the delicious notes that strike you often do so only in short bursts, before vanishing for several sips only to pounce on you again later in the most bedazzling and playful way.

It's very clever stuff.

Those many flavours include melon, apricot, gooseberry, orange, peach, mango, wild-grasses, faint herbs and spices and even fainter honeyed-cereals. Each has been pitched with that palpable brain surgeons precision.

They say this is a pale ale, and who am I to argue. But it drinks very much like a blonde or pale gold beer to me, but then I'm stupid enough to be troubled by such things.

Whatever the variety – this is top class stuff.

It's classification might as well be 'lovely ale', because that would appear to define it better than anything.

On this evidence, I'd say Orkney's range is worth further inspection.

You have been warned...

Friday, 24 June 2011

Day 98, Beer 98 - St. Austell's "Korev"

Today's Beer

Name – Korev

Brewer – St. Austell

Classification – Cornish Lager

Strength – 4.8% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Vivid straw gold

On the nose – There's just way too much to say here (See full review...)

On the tongue – A very excellent assemblage of cleverly chosen and cleverly pitched flavours.

On the subject – It is becoming the done thing for breweries to have at least one craft lager on their lists among the usual crowd of bitters, golden ales, premium ales, milds, porters etc. This effort from St. Austell has to be among the best, and sits as well in their range as any other of their brews.

On the market A growing presence nationally would be great news for lager in general. In the meantime, try the breweries own online store.

On the whole – 8.5/10

Full Review

I have to begin with what struck me first.

This is easily one of the most violently aromatic beers I've yet uncapped (although 'unleashed' might be more appropriate term) here on The Year.

As I was setting up the 'pour shot' I was essentially being gassed by huge wafts of the most glorious vapour rising from the glass – which is all the more remarkable when you consider that the beer itself had been significantly chilled as the variety demands.

What a truly striking sensory experience the fragrance of this ale is!

But what about the next bit, which many would argue is ever so slightly more important?

Well, I'm happy to report that the taste of this drink ain't all that bad either. However, the flavours at play here – whilst they are in abundance and really quite wonderfully complex – are far more nuanced than that powerhouse aroma would suggest.

This, though, is no bad thing, because if those flavours were equally strong - this would doubtless be a very tough beer to drink any more than a few mouthfuls of, whereas in reality it's the sort of beer I could stick with all night with consummate ease.

A flurry of flavour themes – dry ones, citrus ones, nutty ones, peppery ones, grapefruit and berry bush high notes, tree bark and old leather low notes – all compliment and contradict each other with a playful quality that serves to dazzle and delight.

St. Austell have produced a master-work here. In some ways it's a very traditional and authentic rendition, and yet in other ways this is a quite visionary lager - which all lovers of beer should seek out and savour.

'Korev' literally means 'lager' in traditional Cornish language, which makes this a lager named Lager.

I think that name speaks for itself.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Newark's 'Real Ale Store' Is Online!

For those of you who are fortunate enough to live in the Nottinghamshire area, but who have not yet discovered the many delights of Newarks's boutique craft beer shop, here's a look at what you're missing.

Nice, eh?

But what's even nicer is that those of you are not sufficiently blessed to be living nearby can now dry your eyes because the shop has a very nifty online version of itself which will happily deliver these splendid goodies to your door. You will find The Real Ale Store website here.

In the meantime - here's another snap to click on and generally salivate over.

The stock is wide ranging and properly international, with the emphasis on high quality UK ale, cider and perry.

I recommend this outfit most highly.

Go seek it out either in person or on the net as soon as you can - it's a real gem.


Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Day 97, Beer 97 - Belhaven's "St. Andrews Ale"

Today's Beer

Name – St. Andrews Ale
Brewer – Belhaven
Classification – Premium Scottish Ale
Strength – 4.6% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance
On the eye – Deep cherrywood. Eye-catching carbonation.
On the nose – A sumptuous clash of sharp hops and buttery malts. Very nice.
On the tongue – Bold, rich, dry and fruity.
On the subject – Over the centuries, Dunbar's Belhaven have learned to keep things simple, choosing to stick with a small range of high quality ales rather than brewing themselves into a semi-stupour and announcing 'exciting' new labels every other day - as so many breweries seem obliged to do these days. The results are elegant and impressive.
On the market – Can be tricky when looking 'beyond the borders', but Belhaven's online store will be happy to oblige.
On the whole8/10

Full Review

Those of you who know and love golf will doubtless know and love St. Andrews. Considered by many to be the home of the game, it is about as highly regarded as a place can be.

So, to name a beer after such a venerated location is a pretty big deal, and Belhaven must have known the risk they were taking by doing so. It inevitably places a heck of a lot of pressure on the drink – before it has even been poured – and one just can't help but expect something altogether 'legendary' from it.

But does it deliver?

Well, I'd say it probably took me about a sip and a half to stop worrying about such trivialities as legends and comparisons, and from that point on I just knuckled down to the merry business of enjoying myself enormously.

This is a very drinkable ale, and it is imbued with enough character, charm and charisma to suggest it wouldn't give a damn what you thought of it.

Scottish ales are seldom afraid to make an impact on you, there is often a warrior-like quality inherent in these brews – and there are few warriors more noble and elegant than St. Andrews Ale.

The fruits are bold, tangy and robust, but they are countered by a deliciously salty bitterness which, along with the softly nutty malt base results in a nice sense of balance and enough overall complexity to keep you guessing throughout.

That guessing game will throw up all manner of delights including apple, apricot, elderberry, watermelon, cookie dough, wood chips, burnt toffee and faint spices. There's a lot to it, but it never feels like it's trying overly hard to bedazzle – everything feels measured and carefully controlled.

It's a commanding and assertive beer, but also a refined and satisfying one.

Whether it's worthy of a legend or not hardly matters.

It's a very enjoyable beer, and that's enough for me.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Day 96, Beer 96 - Badger's "River Cottage Stinger"

Today's Beer

Name – River Cottage Stinger

Classification – Organic ale

Strength – 4.5% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Warm, intense yellow gold.

On the nose – Delicious buttery malts with mesmerising, ultra-fresh zesty hops.

On the tongue – A vibrant fruit cocktail, with it's inevitable 'Badger' sweetness kept nicely in check by a cleverly pitched bitterness.

On the subject – Badger Brewery and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's well regarded River Cottage enterprise have collaborated on this brew, and the result – whilst still being an inescapably 'Badger' beer – is actually quite unique.

On the market –Not the most ubiquitous of Badger's labels (and that's a pity) but Ocado have cottoned on and more larger outfits are following suit. Hugh himself would probably prefer you to go online at Vintage Roots.

On the whole8/10

Full Review

Is there such a thing as 'lightly peppered, bitter-fruit honey'?

If there is, then I'm going use it as a handy comparison to this gently eccentric, enormously well crafted beer.

As soon as I'd tasted it, I knew it was to become one of my favourite Badger beers. Or, to be slightly more pedantic with the truth, it was only after a few sips that I remembered it was a Badger beer at all.

And the reason for this is simple.

That distinctive sweetness which all Badger ales seem obliged to contain (call it the Badger 'theme') is mercifully and gloriously understated here, and it merely forms part of the whole experience, rather than being allowed to dominate as is the case with so many brews from this famous outfit.

But then, there's another 'famous outfit' in the mix here, and perhaps it is the influence of Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall and his River Cottage tribe that has made the key difference here. After all, it is very easy to assume that this beer's sense of greater balance has been brought about by someone whose tongue is well practised at judging the intricacies of flavour management.

I give credit to Badger too, though, not only for having the vision to go ahead with this team effort (and for selecting a collaborator whose own perspective on things seems to complement that 'brewed from nature' feel which they like to instil in their beers) but I also commend them for allowing their co-conspirator plenty of room to lead the drink in a new direction. Because the reality is that this really is something of a ground-breaker for Badger, and whilst not being a giant leap away from their cherished formula, it is still significant enough to suggest they are beginning to entertain the notion of experimenting with new ways to brew beer – which I believe could be a very exciting move for this company.

Why then is it different? Especially since there is still a definite 'fruit salad' feel to the drink, with nectarine, melon and peach all being present from the word go... 

Well, it's partly to do with the fact that there are also present such things as nettle, wild-grasses, celery and a subtle but heaven-sent black pepper and sea salt bitterness which helps to bring all that floral fruitiness into line. But mostly, it's not even about what makes up the flavour of the beer – it's the manner in which the whole thing has been assembled. It's just feels so delicately and painstakingly put together. Hand-made, you might say. Bespoke.

It's a refined and elegant ale, with a freshness and a vitality which make for a very rewarding drink experience.

This is 'Badger – The Directors Cut.'

'Badger Plus.'

As successful a collaboration as you could ever wish for in this industry. 

Hats off to all concerned.

Monday, 20 June 2011

The Dog's Ballards!

With my West End theatrical shenanigans finally at an end, a sense of welcome normality has returned to Beer Year HQ, and that normality has now been further enhanced by the arrival at the door of yet another box of beer.

'O, the gladdening effects of ale's arrival.'

In this instance, the shipment is from Sussex-based Ballard's, who are now in their forth decade of beer production. And what a first rate reputation they have evolved in this time! I'm delighted to say that I'll soon be discovering what that considerable fuss is all about.

The beers are (from left to right) -

'Ballard's Best Bitter' - a best bitter, quite obviously (4.2 % ABV)

'Wassail' - a premium ale (6.0% ABV)

'Odd Couple' - a strong ale/barley wine (8.9% ABV)

'Nyewood Gold' - a premium ale (5.0% ABV)

I don't mind admitting that this bunch of utter Ballard's has got me genuinely worked up!

Look out for the reviews over the coming weeks.

(Permissions for all bad puns used in the making of this article were granted by The Poor Judgement League.) 

Friday, 17 June 2011

Day 95, Beer 95 - Wold Top's "Wold Top Bitter"

Today's Beer

Name – Wold Top Bitter
Brewer – Wold Top
Classification – Let's not bother with this bit, eh? It would only be embarrassing for all concerned...
Strength – 3.7% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Vivid mango-infused amber.
On the nose – Well rounded. Dominant fruit cake, with tantalising licorice hints.
On the tongue – A sharply dry grapefruit main theme, reinforced by an array of subtly complex supporting flavours.
On the subject – Wold Top are a classic example of a brewery in the midsts of the transisition from localised micro to significant national player. I've been thrilled to watch their continued growth because I have yet to find a beer of theirs which doesn't seriously impress me.
On the market – Spreading like the most pleasant wildfire. Supermarkets have an evolving interest in these beers, but if you're in no mood to travel try on-line at the breweries own web-based store.
On the whole8/10

Full Review
From what I can remember from my cricket playing days (I was, mind you, a mere child at that time, and a cricketer of no class whatsoever, I might add) there are essentially three types of player in every team.
Natural bowlers, natural batters, and those who are naturals at both of those disciplines – and these are known as the all rounders.
When taking the first few sips of Wold Top Bitter, I reflected on the fact that there are – much like in cricket – three essential types of ale.
Those that are hop dominant, those that are malt dominant, and those brews in which neither of these is dominant. These latter ales are the 'all rounders' of the beer world, ales which we tend to call 'perfectly balanced'.
Once you factor in other features like medium body and rich amber colouring, you are talking about the kind of archetypal English-style beers which most breweries usually like to produce at least one version of.
This is Wold Top's version – and I'm happy to report that it really is very good one.
Dry, zesty with an abundance of subtly complex floral and fruit flavours all hovering above a sumptuous but refined granary loaf base - this a a laid back, sophisticated delight of a beer.
At 3.7% ABV, it comes perfectly pitched for session drinking, and yet the recipe feels considerably more potent, you would think you were ordering repeated jars of a beer that was well beyond session strength. That's a credit to the brewery, who have clearly exploited every flavour opportunity during the process.
This is a proper English ale to sit with and savour
It's modern-feeling drink, and yet reassuringly traditional.
It really is the perfect all rounder.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Day 94, Beer 94 - Otley's "O1"

Today's Beer

Name - O1

Brewer - Otley

Classification - Golden ale

Strength - 4.0% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Vibrant pale yellow gold.

On the nose - Understated warm malts, equally subtle zesty hops.

On the tongue - A delicate, dry, citrus cocktail.

On the subject - Wales based Otley have brought a highly unique ethos to the marketplace, both in terms of their branding and their beers. This is their flagship brew.

On the market - Otley beers do tend to bring out the explorer in you. Outside of their immediate environment they can be quite tricky to locate. Feel free to ditch the map and try online at Real Beer Box.

On the whole - 7.5/10

Full Review

The popular phrase 'less is more' is often used to describe clever use of understatement.

I think understatement and 'less is more' were what Otley were aiming for here, and they have done so with a fair degree of success - the ultimate result of this being that I was very much left wanting that elusive 'more'.

The only slight snag, though, is that I was left wanting more during almost every sip.

In effect, they've conjured up a marvellous recipe - but deliberately stopped short of including abundant amounts of each ingredient.

You get a sense of an excellent beer - without every getting the full effect of that implied beer. This makes for a tantalising experience, but also a slightly frustrating one. Personally, I'm all for being teased and tempted, but only when I finally get the payoff in the end.

The ale which they actually give to you is a good one - but the one they suggest to you is magnificent. By the end, I was astounded by the brew I might have just enjoyed - which is a very odd sensation I don't mind saying.

The beer in the bottle is dry and zesty, with a nicely judged saltiness to counter the fruits - but this balancing act is a miniature affair, like an excellent puppet show version of a grand Broadway show.

The bottom line is I liked this beer, but it filled me with the sense that I could have enjoyed it even more.

Soft waves of melon, gooseberry, peach and apricot combine wonderfully - albeit in a highly restrained way - and that salt bite makes for an experience which you could imagine repeating for a decent session, especially given the relatively inoffensive alcohol content.

But given the quality and breadth of the competition in the current 'golden ale' scene, it's hard to see how this one could stand out.

This is a pity, because all the elements are there for a genuine market leader.

It just needs those elements to shout a little louder.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Day 93, Beer 93 - Winsdor & Eton's "Guardsman"

Today's Beer

Name - Guardsman

Brewer - Windsor & Eton

Classification - Best bitter

Strength - 4.2% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Rich, deep, fulsome amber.

On the nose - Lemon, ginger cake, wild-grasses. Nice.

On the tongue - Drinks like a modern classic. High citrus hops over a gently nutty base.

On the subject - Windsor & Eton Brewery have an ambition to have their beers take a place among the most recognised sights in their illustrious town. In my opinion, they are setting their targets far too low, because their beers are just far too good.

On the market - Criminally rare. Decent local coverage but drinkers everywhere deserve access to this brew. Fortunately, someone invented the internet for just such a purpose - so try Ales By Mail.

On the whole - 9/10

Full Review

This is lovely.

I tried to talk myself out of kicking-off this review with that opening line - but this beer was in absolute control of what was to be written right from the start.

It is true to say that certain beers are so well crafted that they write the reviews themselves. With these beers, every element has been engineered with such precision that the experience of drinking them is a clearly defined one, and leaves no room or need for interpretation or embellishment.

Such beers reach you with an impossible sense of immediate familiarity - even though you never tasted them before in your life. It's a strange magic, and always intensely pleasurable.

This is as good an example of such a beer as any.

Where to start?

Well, there is a dryness to the high-citrus principle flavour theme which makes for one of the satisfying sequences of opening sips I've yet experienced here on The Year.

But that's only where the fun begins. As your bedazzled mouth gradually starts to come to terms with what's happening to it - a further string of highly pleasant surprises begins to play out, with all manner of complementary flavours mingling and interweaving at multiple intensities, ultimately amounting to an enormously gratifying glass of beer.

The label reads 'Oak Crafted', and I have to say that this made me a little wary before the pour - probably due to a mild phobia of 'oaked' wines that I've been unhappily developing over recent years. But, mercifully (and perhaps quite perplexingly) I could detect no sense of any kind of 'oak' at all. In fact, regardless of the role oak has allegedly played in the brewing of this ale, I can cheerfully report that it has had no discernible effect on it's taste. I can only suppose the oak was used to assist in the silky smooth feel of the drink, in which case it was probably a very wise move.

But, key thing is what this ale does taste like.

In short, it is veritable kaleidoscope of zesty bitterness, brought mesmerically into balance by an exquisitely delicate nutty base.

That skilfully pitched nuttiness provides a delightfully savoury backbone for the beer - the fruits are never allowed to rampage freely about the place as I suspect they would like to - everything just feels very tightly honed and orchestrated.

I like this brewery more and more with every new title I try. Every beer of theirs is excellent, but somehow every new one seems to outdo the last.

This is easily the best yet.

It is a quite glorious ale.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Day 92, Beer 92 - St. Austell's "Proper Job"

Today's Beer

Name - Proper Job

Brewer - St. Austell

Classification - IPA

Strength - 5.5% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye - Warm light amber.

On the nose - Cake malts. Faint but sharp top notes.

On the tongue - Intense peppery citrus, a hugely hopped grapefruit marvel.

On the subject - Cornwall's St. Austell have concocted a highly authentic version of this classic beer style. In fact, I'd say they this could well be the most faithful rendition of an original IPA currently available. The bottle-conditioning is nicely executed, which has allowed this beer to become extremely popular.

On the market - Pretty ubiquitous. In the unlikely event that you can't find one - try the brewery's own online shop.

On the whole - 8.5/10

Full Review

Historically speaking - this is the real deal.

The first India Pale Ale styles were characterised by fulsome use of hops, giving the beers a distinctive feel which, among other things, made them feel much more alcoholically potent than they actually were. The folks overseas - to whom these ales were shipped - quite liked that particular feature, and a classic was born.

With Proper Job, St. Austell have gone comprehensively back to the drawing board and conjured up a beer that is about as authentic as can be imagined. This veritable hop grenade simply explodes in the mouth, simulating the very same refreshment experience that those baking hot ex-pats must have enjoyed and marvelled at back in the day.

A jar of this makes you realise the whirlwind journey that this beer variety has gone on in recent years. This ale is nothing like the IPA which currently tops the Bottled Beer Year chart. The recent American-led IPA revolution has seen a huge shift in definition, but even before the U.S. intervention, the domestic IPA 'scene' here in it's birthplace had become largely populated by brews which had a far more balanced feel - often making them indistinguishable from standard bitters or premium ales.

There's very little that could be considered 'standard' about Proper Job. It really is quite special. Far closer to many golden ales found in the contemporary market, this beer zings with sharp citrus and zesty fruits. These top notes soar above the subtlest of malt bases and a delightfully pitched pepper theme strings the whole drink together with an elegance that beguiles, satisfies and excites.

It's very cleverly assembled, this beer.

It stands as an excellent example of the current trend towards highly hopped beers - and yet it makes almost no attempt to fly the flag for fashion, sitting happily as it does upon the shelf amongst the more traditional brews available in the modern mass market.

But it is right that it should do so, because this beer is as much a history lesson as it is a new sensation.

It's a beer with an ultra-radical feel, but which is actually nothing other than a museum piece.

That's a real achievement.

But then - this is a real beer.