Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Day 129, Beer 129 - Traquair's "Jacobite"

Today's Beer

Name – Jacobite

Brewer – Traquair

Classification – Strong spiced ale

Strength – 8.0% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Dark brown doing a very decent impersonation of jet black. It had me totally fooled.

On the nose – Understated berry fruits, over some equally muted licorice malts.

On the tongue – Rich sweetness, deep fruits, subtle spices, tremendous smoky/oaky 'feelgood' warmth. But there's something suspiciously 'different' going on here... (read on)

On the subject – If, for some reason that I cannot reasonably conceive of, Traquair suddenly decided to have all of their awards melted down, they'd probably have enough metal to build a fleet of ships. This is only a very minor exaggeration. Considering they only brew three beers, their enormous success and formidable reputation is all the more impressive.

On the market – Not one you'll find lining the aisles in every supermarket across Britain, but that's 'coz it's dead posh. Try online at Only Fine Beers.

On the

Full Review

There's been a tremendous surge of 'funky' new black beers cascading onto the market over recent times, which is unquestionably fantastic news for the industry as a whole.

But it's not good news for everyone, least of all for the black beers who were 'funky' around ten years ago – long before the craft beer storm of the century had begun.

Jacobite is one of those beers.

This mighty brew had been one of benchmarks for British dark beers for well over a decade, it had blazed an elegant and dignified trail for ales of darkness with it's all complex richness, it's unique use of spice, and it's nobly non-conformist edge.

You would suppose that when a beer has been as finely crafted as this, there's every reason why it should stand tall in the face of any newer kids on the block.

But, it pains me to say that something is not quite right here. Rather than rise to the challenge posed by these cocky upstarts, this old favourite seems to me to have taken the unusual step of heading upstairs to bed.

Quite literally - right in the midsts of these dynamic days of globe-spanning experimentation, wild creative abandon and unbridled ingenuity - this venerated classic tastes dormant. Like it just can't be bothered.

Or, in another sense, it almost seems as though the beer itself is concious of the new threats to its high status, and it's now holding elements of itself back due to a fear of rejection.

One way or another – something feels lacking, and it has never tasted that way before.

The edges feel blurred, the previously formidable 'spirit' of the drink feels oddly subdued, and as a consequence – the whole build of the beer feels off-kilter.

Now, you have to understand that I'm talking about very small degrees here. The craftspeople at Traquair are simply too adept for this to have become broken beyond repair, but it does feel like a different drink to me, and there are all manner of things that might have caused this to have happened, many of which could be far beyond the control of the team in the brewhouse. It really wouldn't be fair for me to speculate on those causes.

But the effects are clear.

The chief problem is one of specificity. The whole things feels slightly mushy. Cluttered. The knock-on of this overlap of flavours is that the beer has gone from being slick, nuanced and enigmatic – and become soupy, one-dimensional and predictable.

After my previous encounters with this beer – I'd never have thought it possible for it to be anything but deeply complex and invigorating, so I'm actually somewhat alarmed by what I found today. Not least because my recent encounter with this brewery's other famous beer went so spectacularly well.

But let me put things into proper perspective. This is still pretty good stuff. It's got all the rich cocoa, dark berry and licorice intensity that you'd expect from a beer of this kind, and the addition of spices (chiefly coriander) does lend a unique, genteel quirkiness to the character. It's an ideal ale for a winter's night – just as it always has been.

It also delivers plenty of what I can only describe as 'feelgood' warmth. Yes, it's easy to argue that any beer of this strength has the capacity to 'influence the mood', but there's always been something unique about this ale's power to please, and I wouldn't be surprised if that 'spice' was involved in this somehow.

So it's not all bad, by any means. This beer has still got some of its mojo operating as well as ever, but there is a definite sense that it's just not at the top of its game right now, for reasons that remain unclear to me.

A recent change of personnel, location or recipe? It's hard to tell. But there has been a change of something.

I took the unusual step of taking a quick look for 'wider opinion' before posting this, and the first place I looked (one of those multi-user opinion/rating websites) showed that this was a massively highly rated beer – but which had many recent reviews taking a real nosedive, with some commentators mentioning differences or a drop in quality.

Initially, my heart leapt to see this correlation with my response, but then it rapidly sank when I realised the probability that something was amiss was now even greater.

Again, this is not a crisis I'm talking about. In the greater scheme of things these differences are almost microscopic.

But for a beer with such a heritage – with a reputation based largely on power defying nuance – microscopic change is all that's required to upset all of those the finely tuned subtleties and intricacies.

As things stand, some of these details have become lost, leaving us with a beer which is merely good – rather than one which is utterly remarkable.

I know which one I preferred.

I hope to see it return.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Day 128, Beer 128 - Royal Tunbridge Wells' "Sovereign"

Today's Beer

Name – Sovereign

Classification – Blonde ale

Strength – 3.8% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Warm straw gold.

On the nose – An aggressive citrus kick from the hops proceeds a gentle toffee caress from the malt. By no means unlovely.

On the tongue – High impact citrus, high impact bitterness, high impact wonderfulness. A very impressive lower strength beer.

On the subjectThe Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewing Company's manifesto states that they are “...responding to the rise in demand from the discerning beer drinkers of Kent and beyond.” All I can say is, the discerning beer drinkers of Kent must be pretty darn demanding if this brewery's ales are the response. Quite simply, these are uncommonly good beers.

On the market – From the aforementioned phrase '...drinkers of Kent and beyond', I'd say there's still a fair bit of work to be done on behalf of those drinkers living on the 'beyond' side of things, but I'd also say that it's only a matter of time before these bottles are springing up everywhere. Whilst you're waiting, try online at Master Of Malt.

On the

Full Review

The British microbrewery scene is in such excellent health right now, I almost feel inclined to do excitement-fuelled cartwheels all the way to the pub and back.

On reflection, though, I'm not at all certain that the British microbrewery scene would want to see me hospitalised indefinitely on it's behalf, so I reckon I'll just remain motionless and express my strong feelings of joyous pride with the aid of carefully chosen words rather than poorly executed gymnastics.

Don't be too disappointed.

Today's beer is merely the latest in an ever extending line of top-notch, innovative, dynamic beers from young, small-scale companies spread across the country who are consistently pushing the major players into the shade with their artistry and craftsmanship.

Sovereign is a crisp, refreshing, high citrus gem, with that same invigorating sense of 'something new and different' which radiates from so many of these modern creations.

Most notable about this ale, is the manner in which it utterly disregards it's own alcoholic content, blasting you with an intensity of flavour and a rich complexity that leaves you staring in bewilderment at those low numbers on the label.

It's impact is quite incredible for a 3.8% beer, and it's crammed full of surprises – not least in the sublime finish, which swerves this way and that between an almost electrically-charged gooseberry note, to soft swathes of fresh buttermilk. This feature alone is stupendously delicious.

I cracked the first of my three Sovereign's a couple of months ago after they'd been delivered to me at London's Theatre Royal Haymarket (where I was being forced to thrill record-breaking audiences half to death with my comic acting skills at the time) and I was kind-hearted enough to share (microscopic) amounts of the beer with some of my fellow cast mates. Their reactions to it were quite dramatic. This was partly because some of them were non beer drinkers who were experiencing 'real ale' for the very first time and finding it nothing like what they had been led to expect, and partly because they were all actors – so everything they do is 'quite dramatic'.

It was at this point that I first began to see why the recent hop revolution had been such a huge hit. Aside from being quite lovely, all these hop dominant ultra-citrus ales are a giant leap away from 'beer' (as perceived by the unacquainted) towards a whole bunch of other types of widely enjoyed beverages. Wine drinkers, cocktail drinkers, cider drinkers and even juice drinkers (and who isn't one of those!) suddenly have a bunch of beers within which they can find something familiar.

I'd actually drink this again”, was the response of one of the more stunned cast members, renowned for her fondness of vodka and tonic. I could only smile knowingly at her like a smug git, in spite of all my efforts not to.

Of these new golden greats, Royal Tunbridge Wells' Soveriegn is the perfect representative.

It's certainly one to confidently offer to the proud non beer drinker in your midsts.

And among it's more immediate rivals in the 'under 4' category – this really is a stand out brew.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Day 127, Beer 127 - Samuel Smith's "Old Brewery Pale Ale"

Today's Beer

Name – Old Brewery Pale Ale

Brewer – Samuel Smith

Classification – Pale ale

Strength –5% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Sumptuous deep amber. Truly archetypal.

On the nose – The closest aroma to a draft ale that I've yet discovered in a bottle.

On the tongue – Dry, sharp, nutty, spicy, satisfying, and pretty near perfect.

On the subject – Like a great many other humanoids, Samuel Smith is one of my all-time favourite breweries, but it seems there's been something very strange and unsettling hanging in the atmosphere around this British institution during recent times. A fair number of the staff either run or support an unofficial website which has been known to display the company initials 'SS' in a highly provocative way, which pretty much yells 'Help!' and 'Steer Clear!' at equal volumes. I've been glad to see this website mellowing slightly of late, and I hope this signals some positive internal change. The beer's still mighty good, but one wonders how long that could continue in what have clearly been some very fraught corporate circumstances.

On the market – Suspiciously hard to come by at present. There's no online brewery shop, which you may find odd for a company of such global repute, and a portion of the staff would seem to agree with you on that score. Try Only Fine Beer.

On the

Full Review

If you were to tell me that this beer alone was responsible for the recent explosion of the craft beer scene over in the USA – my face would register no surprise.

That's probably because my face has already had to deal with such claims way, way too many times.

My face is over it.

This beer, along with a handful of other British ales like Marston's Pedigree, Fuller's London Pride, Bateman's XXXB and Draught Bass – often get slipped the credit for inspiring the rise of the 'new wave', a wave which (as irony would have it) has caused these very same beers to be seen now as totally 'old school', and as representatives of everything that is wrong with the beer scene.

How amusing great beers like this must find the passing of time.

How tickled they must be by fashion, and it's forever ebbing tides.

Anyway, for those of you wondering how such an outmoded old brew could ever be indirectly responsible for the creation of the instant modern masterpieces which we all fawn over today (and I fawn as much as anyone) - let me try to explain.

Quite simply, this beer is an inspiration because it is monumentally good.

I think that explanation covers everything.

This being said, though, I was actually a little bit jittery when it came to opening this bottle.

I've been on quite a journey since The Bottled Beer Year began, and I've noticed huge shifts in my own relationship with beer, and in what I recognise as being excellent or utterly indifferent drinks. All these trendy new 'yellows' and 'blacks' have impressed me immeasurably, leaving me miles away from where I stood only a few months ago in terms of personal preference. I've also revisited some 'old favourites' recently and found them to be just a bit tired, 'lacking' in various ways, or generally underwhelming. Coming back to these cherished ales was becoming an increasingly disillusioning experience.

But not today.

Oh boy, not today.

This is just too much of an all-round beer experience. It's the genuine article. The real deal. Regardless of when it was first brewed. All of the elements are too well placed for time to make the slightest difference.

What was good about it years ago - is every bit as good about it today.

And so, so much is good about it.

It's dry, bitter, replete with nutty malt substance, and hopped sharper than nails.

It is as vital, as immediate, and as abundantly flavoured as any newcomer. The taste may be familiar, but make no mistake, that familiarity is not a fault – you are merely drinking from the original source of flavours much copied throughout the years since.

This is not just another tired old taste.

It's a liquid legacy.

On your knees, mortal. Show some respect!

But now that I've unburdened myself of all this enthusiasm and goodwill, I'm going to toss a grenade at the dance-floor by adding that this bottled version is a bit gassy. In the grand scheme of  things, it's really nothing more than a thorn in the little toe of a god, but it would be nice to see this product bottle-conditioned. In fact, so nice would that be, that it's something I'd like to formally suggest to the brewery right here and now.

But given the apparent problems within the 'SS' at present, I don't expect that suggestion to bear any fruit any time soon.

That's a pity, because I think with a bit of bottle-conditioning (done properly, as I'm sure this company could accomplish with ease) this beer might have been the only drink on my chart to have scored a perfect 10.

As things stand, a joint highest score will just have to do.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Day 126, Beer 126 - Ballard's "Nyewood Gold"

Today's Beer

Name – Nyewood Gold

Brewer – Ballard's

Classification – Premium golden ale

Strength – 5% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Deep gold. Hypnotically carbonated, probably due to the very decent bottle-conditioning.

On the nose – The word is 'gentle'. Gentle hops. Gentle malts. Gentle general loveliness.

On the tongue – The maltiest 'gold' in town. And it works a treat.

On the subject – Named after their location in Nyewood, Sussex, this beer is the second from Ballard's I've tried so far. It takes only two beers to spot an outstanding brewery, and you're reading about one right now.

On the market – Growing availabilty, and it could not grow fast enough in my opionion. Don't wait, go online at the brewery's web store.

On the

Full Review


It's a word many beers aim for.

Some beers, however, don't appear to have targeted uniqueness as such – it's almost as though they've achieved it via a sequence of happy accidents.

Today's modestly labelled golden ale is quite simply like no other I've tried – and I mean ever. By my reckoning, it could lay claim to be the pioneering ale of an entirely new genre.

But don't misunderstand that – this is not a 'work in progress'. It's not a quirky prototype or a 'concept' beer. This is the finished road-going model, and it's heading to a bottle shop near you in exactly this form.

And what a form that is.

The principle flavour theme in this beer – apart from being almost hypnotically delicious – is a malt derived flavour which, for a golden ale, is not exactly routine to say the least.

In fact, this is such a richly malty beer – it almost defies it's own classification. But it has to be said that I'm a little wary of using the word 'malty' because of the array of usual flavour suspects that this word is bound to bring to people's minds. Therefore, it is essential that I stress that this is an entirely different kind of malt flavour, one which is so distinctive that it had me frantically reaching for the label in a state of ecstatic bewilderment.

But what secrets did I learn from that label?

Well, they've used Pearl malt, apparently.

And of course there's nothing overtly revolutionary about that. Although it was interesting to see they mention the malt almost immediately, as though to give thanks to what they believe is the the chief source of all this loveliness. And that might very well be the case, but I'll wager that a single malt, however lovely it might be, is unlikely to be the full explanation for a flavour like this one.

I reckon Ballard's have got something else up their sleeve's here, something very special, and they're pointing the finger at the Pearl malt in order to divert attention.

This flavour is a rich, robust, playfully spicy, herb-like affair. It's not a million miles from ginger, but it's not ginger. It's not a million miles from cinnamon, but it's not cinnamon. This same 'not a million miles' principle could be applied to flapjack, various liqueurs, all manner of spiced pastries, and no small amount of things that you simply would never taste but suddenly wish you had – like wood chips, creosote, and rain soaked straw bales.

This is just one flavour (others do feature in this beer, many of them much more typically 'golden ale' bitter citrus flavours), it has tremendous presence in the mouth, never holding back or hiding away – but for all it's impact, it's a real tough flavour to properly identify. It's almost too vivid to detect, if that's not an utter contradiction.

For those people who faint at the thought of ordering a yellow beer, fearing little in the way of depth or balance – I suggest that you drink this ale at your very first opportunity. Not only is it deep and balanced, but it has these qualities in greater amounts than many copper ales, bitters or premium amber beers.

Actually, this brew is quite weird, in many respects.

But in many more respects – it's utterly wonderful, and it quickly became a very firm favourite for me.

A solid, impossibly complex, rich, malty golden ale – which retains all of that golden beer hoppiness – but then throws in a ton of other elements that you would never have expected.

This is golden beer of an entirely new kind.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Day 125, Beer 125 - Belhaven's "Fruit Beer"

Today's Beer

Name – Fruit Beer

Brewer – Belhaven

Classification – Premium flavoured ale

Strength – 4.6% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Deep chestnut red. By no means ugly.

On the nose – Potent rich fruits (quelle surprise!) and buttery roasted malts.

On the tongue – Fruity. There, I've said it. But this is by no means a one trick pony...(read on)

On the subject – And so, I reach the last of my Belhaven batch. (Sob, snuffle...). These are great beers. Their tendency to be full-bodied, malt-friendly and gently sweet make them traditional feeling Scottish ales for sure, but the range is varied enough and the individual recipes are dynamic enough to appeal to all tastes, without exception. I've certainly enjoyed every one of them.

On the market – Greene King's guiding hand is brining these beers to a wider market, but if your supermarket doesn't yet stock this one, go online at the brewery's own web store.

On the

Full Review

Boy, was I cautious.

You might even say I was wary.


I mean, 'Fruit Beer' is one heck of a name. The possibilities are endless in terms of what is actually about to enter your mouth, and given my long established difficulties with certain beers (from certain breweries) which habitually play the 'fruit card'... well, let's just say this could have been a real train wreck.

But it wasn't.

Not a single locomotive came to harm.

The good news doesn't end their, either, because far from being a disaster – this beer turned out to be something of a surprise hit.

It's actually quite lovely stuff.

In these days of increasing obsession with dark-berried fruits and high intensity citrus, this is actually quite a 'now' feeling brew, because there's plenty of all of that on show here.

Yes, there's slightly more of an overt 'sweetness' to the citrus than you might find in a 'modern trendy', and maybe the dark berries aren't as quite so deliberately potent and immediate, but then, maybe that's to be grateful for, because it certainly gives this drink a 'sessionable' quality which many of the new beers can lack. Quite simply, one of these is not enough.

The malts here are firm and delicious, but it's definitely a supporting role in this case. It's those juicy, newly ripened fruits – notably blackberry and strawberry, but with suggestions of peach, gooseberry and cherry – which steal the focus in this beer, and they do so in some style without ever overacting.

From start to finish, the fruits and the malts are offset beautifully with an essential and skilfully pitched bitterness.

It's a Belhaven beer for sure, and to be able to notice that is a credit to the team up in Dunbar, whose fabulously characterful ales I've enjoyed tremendously, and will certainly be doing so again.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Day 124, Beer 124 - St. Peter's "Honey Porter"

Today's Beer

Name – Honey Porter

Brewer – St. Peter's

Classification – Porter (Or 'honey porter', if you want to get all fussy about it)

Strength – 4.5% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – The devil's red. Dark, ominous, and a bit sexy.

On the nose – Rich caramel, abundant honey and rampant cocoa. Quite something.

On the tongue – Fudge, licorice, dark berries, cinnamon. Huge levels of cocoa bitterness, huge levels of honey sweetness, and even greater amounts of puzzled head scratching. (Read on...)

On the subject – I'm finally coming towards the end of my St. Peter's batch, and it's been a fascinating journey. They pretty much brew everything, often doing so twice what with the many organic alternatives. The range really is enormous, and with the brewery's emphasis being very much on their bottled output, that sense of 'specialism' really does find it's way into the glass.

On the market – St. Peter's beers are ubiquitous these days, this particular one may be a little more tricky to find, but worry not, as the brewery has it's own online store.

On the
whole?/10 (Look, I honestly don't know... You'd better read on...)

Full Review

My poor head.

I was shaking it, scratching it, very nearly bashing it against walls – and all of this from the very first sip of today's beer.

Even now (and quite uniquely for this project) I simply do not know what I think about it.

As hard as it may be to believe, and as much as it may sound like a lazy cop-out, I am literally unable to decide whether I even like this beer or not.

It's a strange and rather alarming situation to be in.

One thing is for sure, though. Drinking this beer is not a dull experience.

Not one little bit.

This ale is so mind-bendingly extraordinary that I'd say it needs it's very own website, with entire sections dedicated to each of its abundant features, facets, and characteristics. One review could never hope to dig close enough to the core of this beer.

But long before I could work out what was going on within the beer, I failed to work out what I felt about it.

I kept asking myself the same question – whether the experience of drinking it was an enjoyable one or not – but my opinion was forever lurching for one extreme reaction to another.



It's so endlessly complex!”

“It's too much.”

This is leaping straight into the top ten without a shadow of a doubt!”

“I can't drink it.”





At the halfway stage, I knew I had a real dilemma on my hands. I had a beer that I liked and disliked equally and simultaneously – which I had to sit down and write a coherent review about.

However, for this dilemma alone, the beer deserves some serious credit. Because to be so abundantly packed with so many thought-provoking features makes for an enjoyable event in itself – even if you do eventually wind up never answering even the most fundamental questions, like whether you actually enjoyed the stuff or not.

To properly describe this drink is a real challenge. And, believe me, it's a challenge that I'm not about to overcome in any great style, so don't go getting yourself all excited.

I'm going to try to describe it – but I'm also going to fail in that attempt. So, you have been warned, and here goes.

It's an Irish coffee. It's an ancient, multi-purpose herbal remedy. It's a rich, creamy, but also rather austere chocolate gateaux. It's a warm oven filled with dark berries and winter spices. It's an abandoned beehive in sack of fresh coffee beans. It's perfumed charcoal fruitcake. It's a cauldron of molten candy and tarmacadam.

It's conjoined twins, each with split personalities. It's a tortured genius. A role model and a rogue. 

It's an unending, unnerving, unsolvable mystery to me.

I think what I really should be saying - is that this is one of those beers which you just need to try for yourself.

You might fall in love with it, and that love might last forever. Or you could argue like hell with it and never see it again. But either way, this beer will make an impact on you, and you will not forget it in a hurry.

Few beers have ever left me so bewildered about my own reaction to them. Few beers have forced me think about them so intensely, and for so long.

It's been an odd pleasure, drinking this one. It will be interesting to visit it again some time, and go through this peculiar process all over again.

Maybe not for a while though.

I mean, it's going to be several weeks before I can even think straight after this ride.

As for a score out ten?




Something in between?

They all sound just about right.

In the interests of continuity, let's call it a 'tentative 7/10' and be done with it.