Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Day 157, Beer 157 - Wye Valley's "Butty Bach"

Today's Beer

Name – Butty Bach

Brewer – Wye Valley

Classification – Premium Ale

Strength – 4.5% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Caramelised, honeyed apricot.

On the nose – A whole world of malted buttery loveliness.

On the tongue – A proper classic-style bitter. Nutty, fruity, and laced with pleasing hints of British woodland foliage. Sounds great doesn't it, so why am I sobbing in the corner? (Read on...)

On the subject – Herefordshire's Wye Valley Brewery have, courtesy of this beer, brought my entire life to a crucial moment. (Read on...)

On the market – This company's reach has been increasing of late, with various supermarkets now getting the message which, obviously, is great for them. If only this could be said of so many other fabulous British breweries of similar size. I weep. Anyway, contact the brewery direct for sales info.

On the

Full Review

There ain't nothing wrong with this beer.

Now, it could be argued that opening lines such as the one you have just read are deliberately ambiguous. Sometimes, sentences of this kind in beer reviews are significant purely in terms of what they don't say.

After all, just because a brew is largely free of faults, it doesn't necessarily follow that it's overrun with plus points.

Personally, I'd say I must have imbibed hundreds of 'faultless' beers which I'd completely forgotten about seconds after they've been swallowed.

An awful beer, on the other hand, will almost never leave you alone, even if you only took a couple of sips from it over twenty years ago. This is a devastating reality which ruins not only individual evenings, but can also set back careers, break up families and end worlds.

I'm exaggerating only very slightly there, as anyone who's ever had to politely sit through an entire glassful of their mate's rubbish home-brew will know only too well.

But the far more widely experienced reality here on Earth comes in the form of that extensive bunch of beers which fall into the rather curious category of 'being perfectly pleasant.'

In fact, probably the majority of the beers we'll ever taste will fall within that catchment.

Now, given that I'm talking in these terms here today, you would be forgiven for suspecting I'm going to include Butty Bach in this pretty enormous group of ales.

Well, for a while, that's exactly what I thought was going to happen, until I took a moment to put the sampling of this beer into context, and what happened next was rather profound.

Before this beer, I had reviewed several beers which represent (in stunning fashion) the very best of what is increasingly referred to as either 'contemporary', 'new wave' or perhaps most commonly 'craft' beer.

I'm talking about beers such as Oakham's 'Green Devil IPA', Odell's '5Barrel Pale Ale', Moor's 'Revival' and Thornbridge's 'Chiron' – each of which is quite simply 'big' in its impact upon your body and soul. As is arguably the defining characteristic of craft beer, 'more is always more' with these creations, whether it be in terms of flavour, process, or the sheer amount of ingredients.

As my reviews of these beers make clear, I happen to like these brews a heck of a lot. I've welcomed all beers of 'this kind' to the party and I sincerely hope they stay until the very end.

But my response to these beers has triggered an unfortunate side effect.

When I subsequently sit back down with a beer like today's – which faithfully represents the sort of drink which got me interested in 'beer' in the first place – the closest I can get to a full-on positive reaction is nearly always the same...

“There's nothing wrong with this.”

For someone who has loved beer for so long, this is a pretty grim experience to find yourself having.

I'd really like to hear from anyone else who has faced this situation head on, either now or previously, because I'd very much like to know what can be done about it.

In the meantime, let me just say that Butty Bach, for all I know, is probably an exceptional example of a beer style I'm a little bit indifferent to right at this moment. It's got some excellent malt elements – rich and buttery, nutty, with soft caramel and granary loaf undertones – it also has a good range of fruit notes, it's woody and herbal in just the right places, it's bitter but not harsh, it's sweet but not syrupy... it really sounds like I'm talking about a very good beer here.

And I probably am.

Maybe Wye Valley could take everything this drink is already doing and simply 'ramp it up' a little, and make it come at me with a bit more conviction, perhaps even with a little bit of a swagger. But wouldn't that just be inviting the beer to cross over into the 'other' camp, thereby depriving it of the very identity it always intended to have?

I think I'm a bit confused.

I think my allegiance to all my 'old favourite' beers is probably now officially in question.

I think perhaps 'craft beer' has lot of bloody explaining to do.

For now, though, let me end like this...

Butty Bach is a very good example of a classic style English premium ale – and the significance of that conclusion is very different today to what it would have been 157 beer reviews ago.

And I honestly don't know how I feel about that...

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Day 156, Beer 156 - Odell's "5 Barrel Pale Ale"

Today's Beer

Name – 5 Barrel Pale Ale

Brewer – Odell

Classification – Yup, you guessed it, this is a pale ale!

Strength – 5.2% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Lustrous beeswax amber. Utter glory.

On the nose – Massive orange, massive dark rum-infused malt, massive smiles.

On the tongue – Boundless complexity and dynamism. Tangerine, black treacle, ginger, wildgrasses, exotic herbs and spices, and a further list of flavours as long as your arm. (Assuming your arm is around seventy miles in length.)

On the subject – Colorado based Odell's have been central players in the US 'craft beer' movement from the onset having started out long before any such concept was conceived way back in the mid 1990's. The beers they produce are among the best examples of what 'craft' really is. If you haven't yet been introduced to this distinctive new world of beer creation, I can think of few better places to start.

On the market – Tragic UK availability. I'm not kidding, it's seriously upsetting. It's hard enough finding great contemporary British beers here in Britain, but finding a great American version is about as easy as discovering Atlantis, or Valhalla, or a trustworthy car dealership. I got this sample from The Real Ale Store, and only similar specialist outlets can sell this brew to you at the present time. To those of you who currently reside in the US, I hereby transmit relentless waves of jealous rage.

On the

Full Review

Some reviews are harder to write than others.

Even for the most passionate beer aficionados (shameless geeks) it can be tricky to appear enthusiastic about a beer you found more or less coma-inducing, when perhaps the only redeeming feature of the brew was how delicious it looked in the moments before you tasted it and learned otherwise.

Fortunately, such beers are rare, making the challenge of having to write about them equally uncommon.

Terrible beers are easy to write about because they tend to make you angry, and anger has a canny knack of assisting with writing, as any sports journalists assigned to Nottingham Forest over recent years will testify.

Excellent beers, similarly, tend to stir the soul sufficiently to ensure the compilation of any subsequent appraisal is a fairly straightforward task.

However, in addition to dull beers, awful beers and generally marvellous beers, there's a certain other kind of brew which comes along only very infrequently, which can drag your mind and spirit into unpredictable territory, and transform the task of sitting down and writing into a particularly daunting task.

I'm talking about the beers you love.

Yes... those beers.

I'm talking about beers which generate primal reactions of such intensity that they can render otherwise competent brains utterly redundant.

I'm talking about beers which leave tongues tied, minds empty, typing-hands clammy, and which can lead to sentences like this one being rephrased up to twenty times before being completely deleted, only to be retyped all over again.

I'm talking about the instant favourite beers. Those which steal your heart in a single moment and never give it back to you.

Specifically, in today's case, I'm talking about a beer named '5 Barrel Pale Ale.'

Oh boy...

(Weighty pause...)

The experience of drinking this beer is so profoundly enjoyable that – even if I possessed the necessary talent to do so – I would not be fully able to share it with you here today without risking arrest on various charges of gross indecency.

I'm not even kidding.

The only reason I didn't weep with joy throughout this tasting was because my tear-ducts physically removed themselves midway through and ran off to buy a bottle of their own. These are the unbridled extremes of pleasure that we're dealing with here.

So, given the (presumed) legal limitations imposed upon me, and given that I'm actually finding it increasingly hard to see anything due to my eyeballs being without moisture (my tear-ducts have been gone a while now), I'm going to make a brief attempt to outline the key elements of this modern-day miracle.

Ridiculously vivid tropical/citrus/intergalactic fruits – chiefly mango, apricot, blood orange, grapefruit – have been perfectly aligned with soft wildgrasses, exotic spices and fresh herbs, and then let loose upon a malt base infused with the deep restrained sweetness of honey roasted nuts, French toast and molasses, which complements all those hop-derived higher notes every bit as well as wide open sea does to wide open sky. It really is on that level of 'made-to-measure' perfection that these elements are coexisting. The flavours in this beer fundamentally belong together – is the overriding impression throughout. And for this many flavours to have been so intricately and successfully assembled, reveals beyond any doubt that there are people with unusual levels of ingenuity, vision and plain old skill currently at work in the Odell's brewhouse.

The body has that quintessentially 'US craft' feel to it - with simultaneous firmness and lightness defying the laws of science and vying deliciously for your attention, the aromas are staggering in their unrelenting complexity, and the stuff even manages to look amazing.

This beer is quite simply vast.

It's a genuine craft beer beacon, illuminating the full extent of the possibilities here in this super-exciting age of contemporary beer creation.

Frustratingly though, I'll never be able to properly convey the true nature of it's impact to you because, try as I might, I just can't find the words.

That's what love can do to you.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Day 155, Beer 155 - Thornbridge's "Chiron"

Today's Beer

Name – Chiron

Brewer – Thornbridge

Classification – American Pale Ale

Strength – 5.0% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Deep, rich, comic malevolent laughter inducing orange amber. 

On the nose – The aromatic equivalent of an earthquake. One whiff will literally tear your house down. Apples, pears, grapefruit, nectarines, lime, black pepper, shaking walls, falling masonry...

On the tongue – A bewilderingly complex, exuberant, but refreshingly mild mannered, perhaps even 'gentle' expression of modern brewing capability.

On the subject – I think I can safely say Thornbridge is one of the best and most revered craft breweries in Britain today. Yes, I think I can safely say that. The only objections to this claim might be about my use of the word 'craft', and demands might follow about what exactly I mean by that. I will point those making such complaints in the general direction of their own backsides.

On the market – Well, given their ever enlarging reputation, the reach of Thornbridge is better than most 'craft' (yes, there it is again, just deal with it) breweries, but that really serves to illustrate my point about how poorly represented all the best contemporary UK beers are in the wider marketplace. Anyway, contact the brewery directly for sales info, or try The Real Ale Store.

On the

Full Review

Okay, there's been a certain amount of specific 'talk' about this beer lately, so let me just get right to the heart of the matter.

As many of you will know, Thornbridge brew a beer called Jaipur, which is considered a modern classic by the majority of idiots like me who enjoy beer so much that they sit down and write about it.

Comparisons between these two stable-mates have sparked quite a bit of discussion in the murky realms of beer appreciation.

So here's my contribution to the debate...

I do not prefer today's beer to Jaipur.

There, I said it.

However, upon further inspection, this declaration is far more nonsensical than it might first appear.

It's rather like saying - “I don't prefer this snowflake to that other one.”

Actually, it's even closer to saying - “The bright star up there on the left has less appeal to me than its equally twinkly neighbour”.

Now, it could be very easily argued that one snowflake is different from another, but it would take an exceptionally well made argument to successfully convince a neutral observer than one snowflake is better than the other.

Likewise, what evidence could back up a claim that the heavenly body we call Sirius twinkles more pleasingly than that which we've name Polaris? Sure, one star might appear bigger to us... but better?

I think you get my gist. 

Jaipur and Chiron are both stunning examples of their kind. Quite simply, Thornbridge have developed a habit of creating individual products that are all stellar* in their own right.

(* - Not to be confused with 'Stella', for more reasons than I could list in one lifetime.)

Indeed, in many ways these two beers are pretty similar. The are both highly hopped, underpinned with delicate savoury malt base, and chiefly characterised by a super-complex matrix of citrus, floral, tree fruit and soft spice flavour themes which drop your jaw and keep it dropped till it damn well hurts. So numerous are these two beers' similarities, that I reckon someone who's never drunk beer before might not even spot a difference. (After all, we all still know people who think 'bitter' is just 'brown lager.')

But the reality is there are a whole bunch of differences, and although I like a lot of the elements which set Chiron apart from Jaipur, there are few aspects that just don't hit my own personal 'B-spot' in the quite the same way.

It's not the flavours that (microscopically) miss the target. Oh boy no! Chiron thrills with delectable swathes of elderflower, rosewater, grapes, watermelon and mango. It's wonderfully vibrant, fresh, uplifting to the taste.

I think, if anything, it's the intensity of the overall experience which would lead me to opt for one of these beers over the other. Chiron is a subtly gentler giant, providing a slightly more 'laid back' experience throughout. That's all very well and good, and there will be folk who will instinctively vote in favour of that very quality. But for me, I just found myself wishing for something infinitesimally 'additional' from this beer. 

I wanted it to be exactly what it was – but be it a shade more.

At a considerably less potent 5.0% ABV, I did wonder if this is just the difference a slightly less robust alcohol content can make to the character of a beer. And maybe that's what also accounts for the slight sense of comparative thinness in the body which, again, is the kind of thing that suits some people more than others. Personally, with beers of this kind, I've found all kinds of consistencies can work very well, and I couldn't say that was a problem for me here.

(Incidentally, many beer writers refer to the aspect of a beer's physical characteristics as 'mouthfeel' – a term I dislike enormously and avoid using because it always makes me imagine sexually repressed dentists.)

(Don't worry, I'm seeking help...)

Look, I really am splitting hairs here. The fact is that Chiron is one of the best brews around. It really is that simple. Yes, it walks somewhat in the shadow of one of the finest beers of our time, and comparisons will always be made - but none of that is any of it's own fault.

It's an exquisitely crafted contemporary high-hopped beer, with a dazzling array of carefully assembled flavours and it's just about as rewarding as pouring liquid into your face can get.

It's another Thornbridge modern great, and you should go out and buy yourself at least one bottle of it at your very earliest convenience.

In the meantime, I'm going to continue wishing on that star just a little over to the right.

I almost convinced it twinkles better.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Day 154, Beer 154 - Williams Brothers "Joker IPA"

Today's Beer

Name – Joker IPA

Brewer – Williams Brothers

Classification – 'Contemporary' India Pale Ale. (It's about time we all started officially separating the classic style IPA's from these ultra-modern versions, don't ya think? What with them being about as similar to each other as Laurel and Hardy.)

Strength – 5.0% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Deep tangerine amber. Or, to state it in more technical terms - 'pretty damn lush.'

On the noseNo less lush. But surprisingly malty for a hop heavy beer, with the aromas of rich butterscotch and farmhouse loaves muscling out the far more placid scent of tropical fruits.

On the tongue – Well, well, well. What a clever beer this is. An entirely new, and distinctly 'Scottish' approach to this 'ultra-now' beer style.

On the subject – The Williams 'Brothers' are exactly that. In the final days of the last millennium, Scott and Bruce Williams decided to exploit the combative effects of sibling rivalry by turning their competitive energies outward into the wider world, and a formidable new brewery was the result. Their début beer, the astounding 'Fraoch' Heather Ale began turning heads worldwide in almost no time at all, and all manner of super-distinctive brews have since followed.

On the market – As far as the aforementioned 'Fraoch' is concerned there are no availability problems at all, but the rest of the range can take a little more finding. You could ask the boys themselves, or contact the benevolent provider of this wee bottle, The Real Ale Store.

On the

Full Review

Well, aside for being manifestly gorgeous, this is actually a fascinating beer.

Being the bold, expeditionary, innovative types that they are, Williams Bros have grabbed the concept of a contemporary, highly-hopped beer and sprinted all the way to the hills with it.

Significantly, those (metaphorical) hills weren't the mounts of just any old nation. This beer has clearly been given the good old fashioned Scottish treatment.

In very broad terms, the classic ales of Scotland are infused with a hearty malt-driven robustness, they're enriched with dark berried fruity themes, underpinned with toffee and roasted nuts, spiced up with all kinds of heathland wildflowers, and brewed with a general richness of flavour, body and alcoholic potency which is both unique and utterly delicious.

By and large then, they are enormously different beasts to the modern hop-heavy, super-citrus golden beers which are appearing in ever increasing numbers these days.

But in many ways, that very issue of 'ever increasing numbers' is becoming a tricky one for producers of contemporary highly-hopped beer. After all, how can breweries continue to find ways of making their versions stand out among this ever swelling crowd of grapefruit greats?

Well, Scott and Bruce Williams have found a pretty darn clever way. And it's one of those ultra-simple but eye-rolling ideas which head brewers everywhere must be wishing they'd thought of first.

With Joker IPA, this brewery has taken the key elements of what is (all too often) referred to as a 'hop-bomb', and thrown it together with carefully selected aspects of classic Scottish ale.

The result is every bit as remarkable as you might expect.

Big, super-high-pitched grapefruit, blood orange and apricot smack right into and fully intertwine with rugged dark hedge fruits, damson, well ripened plum, sumptuous suggestions of bracken and tree bark - there are even impossible traces of toffee and black treacle in here. It's really is the most beautiful carnage, and no two mouthfuls are ever the same.

Midway through, I did spend a moment wondering what the occasion might be in which I'd plump for one of these in place of either a more conventional modern 'hop-bomb' or a regular Scottish classic, but by the end of the bottle I was so damn miserable about not having another one to open - I figured there'll probably be a whole bunch of such occasions in the not too distant future. This is far too enjoyable to drink just once and be happy. 

By the time I'd got over the trauma of only having a single sample in my possession, I realised I'd learnt one thing for sure from discovering this beer. 

The Williams Brothers are no Jokers.

Be in no doubt.

These boys are deadly serious.