Thursday, 29 September 2011

Day 138, Beer 138 - Shepherd Neame's "Canterbury Jack"

Today's Beer

Name – Canterbury Jack

Brewer – Shepherd Neame

Classification – Bitter

Strength – 4.0% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Deep, vibrant orange gold.

On the nose – Nutty. In fact, this is a very serious nut-case, bordering on insane. (Yes, I know. Poor gag.)

On the tongue – Well, there's a real story here. (Read on...)

On the subject – Legend has it that the cask version of this started life as an occasional beer, but punter power was victorious yet again, and Shepherd Neame grasped the opportunity to entirely funk-up the recipe as well as the branding. And, for the benefit of all you cynics out there – yes, 'funk-up' was spelled correctly.

On the market – Perhaps not the most ubiquitous title of the Shepherd Neame range, but still found regularly in Tesco. For the housebound, the agrophobic and the downright lazy there's always

On the

Full Review

What do we really mean by 'proper' beer?

Well, due to the abundant variety of humanoids currently active in this mortal realm, I'd say we all mean something every so slightly different when we use such subjective words.

So let me quickly narrow it down and simply deal with what I mean by 'proper' beer.

I'm feeling the need to do this because as soon as I'd taken my first sip of today's beer, I found myself declaring (actually out loud) that 'proper beer' was exactly what this ale was.

But a few short moments later, and I began to wonder what this spontaneous statement actually meant, and I soon realised it's nothing like as straightforward as I'd first imagined.

Having eventually set aside a bunch of unsatisfactory definitions for 'proper' such as 'superior', 'conventional', 'normal' and even 'as God intended' - I was finally left with the only definition which seemed to comfortably fit with Canterbury Jack.

'Proper, traditional tasting beer'.

However, this was actually quite a surprising conclusion to reach, given the label's claim that this a 'contemporary ale', a claim which is ably enhanced by some uncharacteristically 'groovy' Shepherd Neame branding. (Uncharacteristic, but also rather nice.)

So what had gone wrong here? Why did the label and the branding say one thing, whilst the beer itself was saying something quite different, albeit deliciously so?

It didn't take long for this question to be answered, and the solution came in the form of a few further sips. Sips which revealed that some seriously clever work has gone on in the Shepherd Neame brewhouse.

What they've managed to do here, is create a beer which takes all the best aspects of 'traditional ale' and then puts the most marvellous and ingeniously subtle ultra-modern 'spin' on its own identity.

By steering clear of heavy syrupy malts, by keeping the malt flavour contributions limited to savoury biscuit and nut themes, and by then ramping up the citrus via some vividly bitter hops, they've created a beer which bridges that pesky ever-widening gap between the two increasingly divergent and resolute camps of 'old beer' and 'new beer'.

As such bridging attempts go (and there are quite a few on the market these days) this is easily one of the most successful. Whether these bridge beers will ultimately manage to keep the warring camps connected is yet to be seen. Many would argue that its a question of either/or, and there's no hope for the 'in-betweeners', but I'm pretty sure that fine beers like this one are enough to make anyone stop and reconsider.

I really can't imagine any beer lover not finding this brew 'perfectly drinkable' at the very least, and I can imagine plenty more who would notch it up as an instant favourite. It's just a question of those drinkers and these bottles coming together in the first place, and that all depends on bridging beers 'catching on'.

Personally, I think it's something of a missed opportunity in the industry at present. The recent surge in creativity and experimentation within the world of craft brewing has created a divide, everyone knows it, and these 'bridge beers' should now be announcing themselves as such, taking on a clear self-identity all of their own, rather than trying to appeal to both opposing factions all at once which can make them appear aimless, mercenary, or as something which ultimately reflects nothing that either side really 'stands for'.

With the creation an entirely separate 'third way' camp – a clearly defined middle-ground alternative wherein good all-round, well-balanced beers are the name of the game – a whole new following could be found.

I live in hope...

In the meantime, this is a perfect example of this new, connective kind of beer.

Nutty, biscuity, richly bitter, medium bodied, crisp, dry, and greatly enhanced by dynamic highly-hopped citrus – this truly is a beer to suit every taste.

And, on reflection, perhaps that's what I really meant by 'proper beer'.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Day 137, Beer 137 - Worthington's "Czar's P2 Imperial Stout"

Today's Beer

Name – Czar's P2 Imperial Stout

Classification – Well, quite unsurprisingly, it's an imperial stout.

Strength – 8% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Elegantly terrifying.

On the nose – Spiced berries and licorice. Bizarrely understated, considering what comes next.

On the tongue – A masterwork. Possibly the most sublime demonstration of 'dark beer' craftsmanship and ingenuity.

On the subject – The story behind this beer is every bit as complex as its taste. Wearing Bass Brewery's diamond emblem, but carrying only the Worthington Brewery name, whilst actually being the work of Molson Coors – this is a reproduction of a beer which used to be shipped over from Burton On Trent to St. Petersburg for the boozy folk at the Imperial Court. Incidentally, the Bass diamond is Britain's second oldest trade mark, which was once widely used to identify the stronger ales brewed by this illustrious company. The very oldest British trade mark also happens to be a Bass Brewery logo, in the form of the far more commonly seen red triangle.

On the market – Well, firstly you'll need to remortgage your holiday villa in Sicily. These very rare beers are more than twice the price of an average 500ml bottled ale. So, once you've liquidated sufficient assets, go online at The Real Ale Store.

On the

Full Review

By the gods, this is good.

It's debatable whether a drink of such rarity, power and complexity should be guzzled at breakneck speed, but I might as well admit that I could not prevent myself from reaching back repeatedly and often throughout the first half-glassful, only slowing down at all in order to collect some thoughts for this post.

The reality is that this beer might be strong in terms of its alcohol content, but it also happens to be among the smoothest, the lightest and the most easy-drinking strong beers in the known universe. Quite how they have managed to unify such boundless complexity with such delicacy, subtlety and nuance is nothing short of bewildering.

But I've never been more happy to find myself in a muddle.

Perhaps a beer of such ludicrous splendour is the inevitable result when you know you are literally brewing for royalty, as the folk working on the original recipe were. But it has to be said that the guys and gals responsible for reproducing that original brew have shown equal skill and flair, with an end result that is monumentally impressive.

The kaleidoscope of flavours includes blackberries, black cherries, plums, raisins, dark chocolate cookies, licorice root, soft spices, roasted nuts, treacle toffee, molasses – with each of these playing at the absolute top of their game. These beautiful individual themes combine and entwine with the most majestic grace and fluency. It's a genuine taste journey, a ceremonious procession through the full sensory spectrum.

But the flavour of this treasure is only one aspect of its gloriousness. The surprising lightness of the body, with its firm, slick, velvety smoothness enhances the moreish appeal tremendously. And although 'these kinds' of beers tend to vary hardly at all in terms of appearance, this ale even manages to look superior, with its creamy ever-present head laying proudly atop like a some dozing polar bear floating on crude oil. I could gaze at it quite happily for hours if it weren't so damned delicious.

The aromas – darkly fruited, slightly spiced, and underpinned with smoky cocoa and licorice – are initially relatively delicate, but they intensify exponentially as the beer warms in the glass, becoming every bit as delicious as the flavour by the end.

It's just unceasingly enjoyable.

With many beer craft beer lovers wary of big companies running micro 'styled' operations, I'm sure there are bottles of this remaining on shelves, victims of silent consumer protest. Add to such misgivings the high cost of this beer, and there's all the more reason for it to be left unpurchased.

But one bottle of this was more than enough to convince me that this ale is in very good hands indeed at the present time.

If you have just under six pounds to spare and 'morale grounds' are your only obstacle, I recommend you put aside those concerns for a few moments and buy a P2.

A 'few moments' is all this beer will need to dispel your fears forever.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Day 136, Beer 136 - St. Ives Brewery's 'Boilers'

Today's Beer

Name – Boilers

Brewer – St. Ives

Classification – Golden ale

Strength – 4.0% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Rich, deep and vibrant orange gold.

On the nose – Subtle tree fruit and popcorn.

On the tongue – A rarefied, elegant beer with some delightful citrus and a stunning bitter dryness.

On the subject – With the same entrepreneurial gusto that fuels the creation of so many micro-breweries these days, former licensee Marco Amura decided to ditch the pub and go it alone and is now producing his own beers with the temporary assistance of Wooden Hand Brewery in Truro. There's little doubt in my mind that if enough people discover this beer, it won't be long before he's got a mighty brewhouse all of his own.

On the market – Still only six months old, the reach of this brand is still essentially limited to Cornwall, meaning that Cornish beer lovers get to roll around in a state of permanent ecstasy, whilst the rest of us are forced into buying online.

On the

Full Review

To discover an entirely new brewery is always exciting.

But to discover an entirely new brewery which is producing properly excellent beer is quite something else.

Having spotted a selection of these bottles purely by chance during a recent trip to St. Ives, I quickly telephoned my bank manager and pitched him the idea of my purchasing some. After several hours of heated negotiation, he agreed that I could buy a fifty percent stake in one bottle, with the remaining fifty to be paid back to him via quarterly instalments over the next five years.

I was thrilled to be given the chance, even though I did feel that the final settlement figure of seventy-eight pounds and sixty-seven pence was a little extreme for a single jar of ale.

However, having since opened it and drunk its contents – I think I got myself a genuine bargain

This is a gloriously bitter, dry, citrus-intense beer, with a slick smoothness of body, and a captivating orange zest and wildgrass finish.

There's an understated elegance and composure, a sort of casually aristocratic feel to the drink, the balance is superb, and the overall 'build' is impressively precise.

For a début offering, this is a massively precocious display.

Punchy, immediate, and engaging to the very last drop, its considerable impact is all the more remarkable when you remind yourself this is a relatively low strength beer. At 4.0 % ABV, this is entirely sessionable stuff, and that's just the best kind of reminder to receive when you're reaching the bottom of the glass. If only I'd struck a better deal with the bank, I might have gone on to have one of the best evenings of my life.

I have been blown away by this Cornish golden ale, it's been a real find, and I'd recommended this brewery as one you should rapidly be turning your attention to.

Some beers instantly reveal the promise of their creators.

This beer tells me that Marco Amura is going places.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Day 135, Beer 135 - Crouch Vale's "Brewer's Gold'

Today's Beer

Name – Brewer's Gold

Brewer – Crouch Vale

Classification – Golden ale

Strength – 4.0% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Pale gold of the most captivating kind. Just lovely.

On the nose – Granary loaves, white wine and soft spices.

On the tongue – It doesn't lie. (Read on...)

On the subject – The cask version of this beer won CAMRA's Supreme Champion Beer Of Britain in 2005. Not feeling at all content with that, it went and won it again the following year. That's fairly greedy behaviour by anybody's standards, but it's also massively impressive. It's one of only two beers ever to have achieved back-to-back victories in this prestigious event. (Timothy Taylor's 'Landlord' being the other.)

On the market – Not the most massive on-shelf presence in retail history, which is somewhat odd considering its award winning pedigree, but Crouch Vale titles are now appearing more and more frequently nationwide these days, which is fantastic news for all. Try online at Ales By Mail.

On the

Full Review

It's not often that I 'borrow' descriptions from a beer's label.

Especially not for the opening remarks of a review.

The chief reason being that it might create the illusion that I'm a shocking slacker who is incapable of having any decent ideas of his own.

(Here's a short pause to accommodate your inevitable witty remark...)

(And highly amusing is was too, I'm sure.)

But the other reason for not quoting from labels is to avoid spreading a brewery's public relations 'message', whatever it might be. I think it's important for reviewers to focus on their own reactions and avoid references to any marketing, otherwise we'd wind up having to tell our readers that a company like BrewDog is the cure for a sickness that is the British beer scene which, quite obviously, is a steaming pile of post-graduate level bullshit which has nothing to do with the quality of the beer contained within the bottle.

Personally, I disregard as much of the marketing razzle-dazzle as possible, because I've long since realised that it almost never properly reflects the experience I am about to have, and it can often lead to an anti-climax or a bout of irritating bewilderment.

I also find a great many labels are crammed full of totally irrelevant, boring old nonsense. Many breweries have caught the seemingly un-kickable habit of going into great detail about the 'story' behind a beer's given name – as though the ale might somehow become enhanced if the reasoning behind its title is known by the drinker.

I absolutely couldn't care less why a beer has been called 'Odin's Rash'.

All I need is the name (preferably not Odin's Rash), a nicely executed design, a brief description, and a well crafted beer.

And I'm delighted to say that's exactly what Crouch Vale have provided in the shape of their Brewer's Gold. But what's especially pleasing is that they also happen to have got that 'brief description' element absolutely spot on, and that's why I'm more than happy to borrow it.

A light thirst quenching brew" is how it reads.

And boy oh boy, is that accurate.

From the moment it's poured this beer oozes with refreshing summertime appeal. With its lightness of body and its gorgeous 'midday sun' pale-gold hue – it literally announces itself as a beer which could rapidly obliterate every single thirst in the room.

And that announcement is no hoax.

Well hopped, crisp and agreeably bitter, this golden ale is blessed with some very keenly judged levels of citrus sharpness (principally orange, grapefruit and kiwi) and this is held aloft with considerable style by some gently nutty and 'woody' malts.

It all makes for a very special overall effect.

The relatively moderate 4.0% alcohol content is worn with pride, no attempt is made to overcompensate with aggressive or overtly 'showy' flavours, resulting in a remarkably 'moreish' feel which many golden beers would envy.

It's a thoroughly enjoyable brew, which just so happens to be everything that its label claims it is.

In an era where so many labels confound us with tall tales, overblown claims and tedious nonsense, this bottle reminds us what is really meant by 'an honest ale.'

Honest... and pretty darned delicious.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Day 134, Beer 134 - Rooster's "Baby-Faced Assassin"

Today's Beer

Name – Baby-Faced Assassin

Brewer – Rooster's

Classification – India Pale Ale

Strength – 6.1% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Eerie fruit cocktail. The hazy dawn after a tropical apocalypse.

On the nose – Citrus of jaw dropping clarity, vividness, freshness, immediacy and intensity.

On the tongue – Not applicable. (This fluid interacts in an altogether new way with the human mouth. Read on...)

On the subject – Many of you will know that Knaresborough-based Rooster's Brewing Company has been evolving of late, and the new owners appear to have a determination not just to improve on the considerable success of their predecessors, but also to transport the concept of beer into an entirely new dimension. This sounds like the stuff of delusion and fantasy... until you crack the lid on one of these bottles... whereupon an entire alternate universe begins emerging from within.

On the market – Just 70 'prototypes' have been produced so far, and most of those were claimed well before going on sale. I've heard that 16 are available at Beer Ritz. (Or at least they were yesterday. Don't be too surprised if they laugh loudly for an hour or so when your try to buy a bottle today...)

On the

Full Review

I'm not going to give this beer a perfect score.

In fact, this will come as no surprise to you at all, as you will have already seen the score I've awarded to it and noted that it is not '10/10.' 

However, in spite of your prior knowledge, I felt I just wanted to add a little extra emphasis to the point. I want it to be perfectly clear that this beer is not going to be the first beer to get the biggest possible rating.

Oh no, no, no.

It is absolutely not going to be that beer.

No way.

I mean, what beer ever could be 'that beer', speaking rationally?

To score 10/10 would imply that the beer in question was perfect, and nothing - not a single thing whether in the natural world or the contrived world - can be accurately described as 'perfect'. It seems not even God was audacious enough to give perfection a try.

'Perfect' doesn't even exist in any real sense. It's merely a concept, entirely of human design. A fantastic and impossible ideal for us all to waste our time searching, striving and dying for.

Perfection is more of a motivation tool. A metaphorical dangled carrot. It's not an actual state of being.

So to suggest that a mere alcoholic beverage could suddenly pop into existence and defy all logic and possibility would be plain silly, and I'm not prepared to look silly for any drink, not even an outstanding one.

But making the decision not to award this beer a perfect score has presented me with a significant problem, because as a direct consequence I'm now faced with the near impossible task of having to find fault with it.

I'm going to have to identify an element of this beer that is manifestly not perfect, and as much as it pains me to admit it, there is a very real danger that my search for such an imperfection is going to preoccupy all the remaining years of my life.

Talk about a 'raw deal'.

But, for now at least, let me set aside what is not wrong about this drink and focus instead on what is oh so abundantly right about it.

I'm referring to it as 'it' because as much as I love the name 'beer', it just feels clumsy and awkward when applied to this fluid. It's not that 'beer' feels inadequate, it just that it doesn't feel altogether 'up-to-speed' or 'on message' in terms of being a relevant identification. It's almost as though this drink has brought the evolution of beer to a point where it is in need of a new description for itself. A new name. This just isn't beer anymore, not in the sense that all other beers have been up until now. Of course, a great many beers have helped to lead us to this point, and I personally (like many others) give credit to our American friends for triggering this transformative phase in beer's life, but I think this could be the drink that finally draws the line in the sand and steps right over it.

Baby-Faced Assassin is the latest and best evidence that we are in entirely new territory now. It has made it finally feel official.

Upon opening, this beer (which, for the sake of clarity, I'll go back to calling a 'beer') offers forth rich vapours of vivid tropical citrus fruits with a sense of clarity and freshness which significantly outperforms every other beer on the market. It's almost as though an entirely new process has been used to generate this effect. The fact that these aromas also happen to be extraordinarily delicious is almost a side-issue - so overwhelming is the impact and immediacy of the experience. It's one of those smells you can't quite believe is happening.

The great news is that all of these aromas translate directly into the taste, and there's a gargantuan heap of bonus flavours backing up the fruits, thanks in no small measure to some supremely refined and delicate malts.

Bitter, sour, sweet, dry, crisp, rich, savoury, spicy, herbal, light, dark, up, down, left and right, backwards and forwards - it's such an endlessly complex flavour package overall. I'm quite sure you could gather ten people and have them list over a hundred flavours between them, or perhaps even a hundred each. For me, it's those fruits (with blood orange and grapefruit being the most dominant) and the softly spicy, softly herbal bitterness of various 'woody' 'grassy' and 'seed-like' themes which make the strongest impressions.

The body is very 'now' in feel, in as much as it gives you the impression that its in the very early stages of a journey toward becoming a solid. It's not heavy, but it there's a density, rather like you find in a freshly squeezed orange or grapefruit juice. (Which is a very apt analogy on many levels in this case.)

To say you have to try this one for yourself seems not only trite, but also unfair – as only this run of 70 bottles has ever been produced so far. The only silver lining there is that this beer is so ceaselessly exquisite that it will surely see itself in full production before very long.

My only concern about that is that some of the more finely-tuned aspects might be lost in mass production. A needless worry perhaps, but the sense of 'hands-on' craftsmanship here is more than palpable, and it would be a disastrous loss. You can literally taste the thought, the talent and the time that has been invested in this beer. It smacks of the same meticulous attention to detail that is found in a Fabergé Egg, or a Swiss pocket watch.

Elegant, dignified, outrageously classy and enormously enjoyable.

This really is beer of an entirely different kind.

It's a 750ml monument, built to mark a point in time wherein beer itself took an extremely positive forward step into an entirely different era.

This is Next Generation Beer.

It's still not getting that perfect score, but it's going to take many long years of painstaking fault-hunting before I can ever hope to explain why.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Day 133, Beer 133 - Windsor & Eton's "Conqueror 1075"

Today's Beer

Name – Conqueror 1075

Brewer – Windsor & Eton

Classification – Black IPA

Strength – 7.4% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Dark browns and and dark reds doing their very best not to look like black. And mostly failing.

On the nose – Smoky citrus. A veritable hurricane of licorice and tree fruit. Sort of impossible. Sort of magical.

On the tongue – A brief, sound bite appraisal? Of flavours such as these? Do me a favour!

On the subject – At this point in time, few breweries in Britain are generating so much unbridled excitement within my beer loving soul as Windsor & Eton. Irritatingly, I am by no means alone. Other pesky humanoids have also spotted the specialness, so it won't be very long before the whole world is singing their praises and they're being taking over by BMW or Microsoft. Success can be so wounding!

On the market – Growing rapidly for the brewery as a whole but this newbie bottle might be harder to find, initially at least. But there's little need to exert yourself, just go online at Beer Merchants or Ales By Mail.

On the

Full Review

However the hell it came about, and regardless of whether its very existence is even possible or not – there's one thing I can safely say about the recently arrived beer style known as Black IPA...

It's utterly marvellous.

It really is.

Today's beer – which is merely one of Windsor & Eton's two renditions of this classification – is nothing less than a mind blowing drink experience.

This is the beer that every lover of dark beer in the known universe should be consuming at their very earliest opportunity. But the truly remarkable thing about these Black IPA's is that this very same recommendation can be given to lovers of beers at the absolute opposite end of the colour/flavour spectrum. If you like light, golden, citrus rich, hop heavy ales – this is your essential beer, too.

Crudely put, this is a vividly hopped, citrus rampant, medium bodied and lavishly malted stout. There's so very much more to it, but that's a pretty decent starting point.

Grapefruit, lime, mango and gooseberry (to name but a few of the huge array of dynamic fruits at play here) swirl and collide with deep swathes of cocoa, licorice, smoked bacon and roasted nuts. It's an astonishing sequence of flavour events, and among the most invigorating taste experiences I've ever known from any source – let alone from a beer.

There are so many elements which make you instinctively disbelieve what your mouth is telling you, but at the same time, the whole thing makes so much sense that you can't understand how these kinds of beers weren't dreamed up sooner.

Quite simply, in terms of the open market, beers like this really didn't exist just a few short years ago, and yet these guys are brewing this one like they've been doing it for aeons.

That's a remarkable achievement.

But then, this is a remarkable brewery. And with all of their usual technical prowess, creative ingenuity and sheer class, they are brewing a remarkable example of a remarkable beer style.

Whatever kind of beer you think you prefer – Black IPA will rapidly replace it.

And be sure to drink a bottle of Conqueror 1075 before you shake your head in disagreement with that statement.

I can guarantee you won't be shaking it after.