From the train station, we walk through Huddersfield in the wind and the rain, passing under the ringroad via an unappealing underpass before arriving at The Grove. We go into the left-hand bar, uncertain of whether this is what locals do, or whether the locals will care, whether there are codes and rules we may be violating. But the Grove only looks like that type of pub from the outside. Inside, no-one seems to notice, and in there we meet the familiar, welcoming faces who we have arranged to meet on this Saturday afternoon: the chef (who arranged it), the barman, the not-actually-a-beer-blogger.
Soon others will come – the brewer, the student of brewing, the cynic. There are other beer geeks here – from Scotland, no less. Kenny’s down for the football, others have popped over on the train after visiting the big festival in Manchester. At the bar I speak to a German with a shopping list of English beers half-crossed out in ballpoint pen.
We all pore over the taps, the blackboards and the bottle list. Each of us is excited by the choice, amazed by the prices, concerned about what we’ll get to try before we reach our limit, or have to go for the last train. I foresee my own lack of restraint, not enough water, the usual well-meaning but drunken overenthusiasm, the wrong words in the wrong order, “Shit, is that the time?”, and perhaps cold sweat and quiet misery as my body fights overindulgence on the train home. Still, it could be worse – the unfortunate barman has to go to work this evening.
Fortunately we have limited ourselves to a couple of hours in this place before we go for dinner, a 6pm reservation. This turns out to be wise. You need a reason to leave The Grove. So in the meantime we start buying beers, sharing and tasting, talking about them, exchanging news, getting to know people who were Twitter friends – but in reality strangers – until today.
The bar gets dark, the lights go on. Amongst the astonishing bottle list, the excellent cask ales from as close as West Yorkshire and as far as Kent, the exotic but bargainous keg beers, we are all excited to learn that in the fridges (but not yet on the list) is the new black IPA that we’ve all read about from the excellent new brewery down the road. We smell it, we taste it and the table’s opinion changes. A good first impression from the nose shifts as the beer reveals itself to be – whilst fruity – also unexpectedly roasted, smokey and liquoricey.
What is the purpose of a black IPA and does this deliver? The consensus is probably not – the malt is too dominant. You couldn’t trick a blindfolded beer geek into thinking it might be a pale beer (the Turing Test of black IPAs; not that you’d actually want to). Other black IPAs are hurriedly purchased for comparison – one from the Peak District, another from underneath a railway arch in South London. The London version smells and tastes of Starburst. It’s everyone’s favourite. Is the new, local beer miscategorised? I think it’s an interesting beer in its own right; but no, it’s not a new favourite. Not yet, anyway.
After two and a half hours we leave for the restaurant, only a little late. For all the strong beers I’m doing pretty well, but can see that tipping point wasn’t far off. I’m happy and enthusiastic about the pub and the company, old friends and new friends. Overenthusiastic, maybe – like I said, that happens when I’ve had a couple of drinks in good company. But even in the morning I’m smiling. Until I remember that I forgot to buy a carry-out.
You may never have heard of Brouwerij Van Steenberge, but they quietly brew an awful lot of beers. If you look on ratebeer, you’ll see that they make quite a few non-Trappist beers, to which you may have not paid that much attention: Augustijn, Gulden Draak, Piraat. It’s worth noting that they also brew the house beer for De Garre in Bruges, Tripel De Garre, and I’ve already explained how much I enjoyed drinking that particular beer in that particular cafe.
As Neil explains on Eating Isn’t Cheating, SAB Miller have entered into a distribution deal with the brewery for (at least) Augustijn Blonde, which they’ve rebranded, renamed and have put a marketing budget behind. This included taking some beer writers to Ghent for a brewery visit. Whilst I didn’t get a free trip to Belgium, I was sent two bottles of the beer to try.
St Stefanus Blonde (7%ABV) Pours very slightly cloudy with a large head, because I chucked the yeast in as I like to do that with Belgian beers. The aroma has a banana bread sweetness, a little like a wheat beer.
There’s a nice section on the label that tells you how the beer should evolve in the months after bottling, from 3 to 18 months. This is around the three month mark, as the seemingly handwritten (but perhaps not) date tells me it was bottled in October 2011, so it should be on the “fresh and fruity” end of the spectrum, rather than “complex and aromatic”.
It has a mild, bready, slightly banana taste, as the aroma advertised. Kate’s glass, without the yeast in, has a cleaner, less banana taste, but is sweet and slightly bitter with a floral hop taste. A slightly oily, moderately full mouthfeel works well, and coats your mouth well to appreciate the sweet bitterness on the swallow. In all, an easy-drinking and pleasant Belgian blonde.
Out of curiosity I also opened a bottle of Augustin Grand Cru (9% ABV), which does not yet seem to have been rebranded and which I bought myself with real money. This has a similar best before date to the St Stefanus Blonde, so I assume a similar age. It differs in a richer, more tart taste and a more noticeable grassy hop flavour.
The Grand Cru is just that little bit more interesting, but really it seems like the same beer, just a little louder. Neither matches either my rosy memories of Tripel De Garre or bests Orval, which is – to be fair – one of the best beers in the world. However it’s a nice brand which actually makes a feature of the bottle aging. If SAB Miller get few bottles of St Stefanus into the fridges of bars which would normally stock no Belgian beer (or perhaps only Leffe), I’ll probably find myself buying it in the future.
Imperialism: Black Sheep v Brewdog v Bristol v Buxton v Hardknott v Magic Rock v Mikkeller v Thornbridge
The adjective “imperial” in Imperial Stouts originally referred to export of these dark, high ABV English beers to the Russian Empire and the Baltic countries. However, it also seems an appropriate adjective in terms of its alternative meanings as having supreme authority, or being outstanding in size or quality. This is reflected in the subsequent appropriation of the adjective for “Imperial IPAs”.
Due to their uncompromising ABV, one should generally avoid an Imperial pint of Imperial Stout, much less open eight bottles in a week. However, in the name of art and of clearing the dark and frightening end of my beer shelf, I decided to take on the following:
Black Sheep Imperial Russian Stout (8.5% ABV)
This was brewed for the 2011 Great Baltic Adventure, which Pete Brown participated in. It had a creamy nicotine stain head, liquorice and dark chocolate nose, thick mouthfeel and a vinous, raisin and liquorice taste. It coats your mouth and throat like a pleasant boozy treacle, more sour than bitter. Black Sheep have brewed what I would expect of an Imperial stout: that rich alcoholic liquorice that interests me on occasion but I’m rarely in the mood for.
BrewDog Tokyo* (18.2% ABV)
This “Intergalactic Fantastic Oak Aged Stout” is very much one of the big boys, both in ABV and reputation. It has a very yellow head, with vanilla and maybe a slight woodiness detectable in the aroma. The taste is surprising, much sweeter and lighter than you would expect, although the mouthfeel is also quick thick. The sweetness conceals a little dryness, perhaps from the oak chips? Reading the bottle tells me it also apparently contains jasmine and cranberries, so with that and the vanilla and oak chips, there’s a lot more than just malt, hops and yeast contributing to the flavour. This results in a very boozy dessert in a glass, which becomes almost too thick and sweet to enjoy in quantity without, say, a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Bristol Beer Factory Ultimate Stout (7.7% ABV)
Ah, now this one confused me. One of BBB’s “Twelve Stouts of Christmas”, I assumed this was going to be their attempt at a classic Imperial Stout, perhaps in the vein of the Black Sheep. However something about the aroma reminded me of a Belgian Dubbel, with an unusually prominent yeast character carrying through into the taste. There was also a a vinous chocolate flavour with with a lack of hop bitterness on the swallow, but rather some sourness. In fact the label, read subsequently, clearly stated that it was made with a Belgian yeast. Imperial in a distinctly Belgian manner, and enjoyable in the same vein as Marble’s Chocolate Dubbel.
Buxton Tsar (9.5% ABV)
This “Imperial Russian Stout” aligns perfectly with my tastes. A dirty brown head and good aroma which preempts the welcome dry, slightly fruity hoppiness on a roasty malt base. It’s not sweet like many of the others, although it is a little bit oily; not overly so. A modern take on the classic style, expressed without any fancy additions. Just the beer to enjoy while the sun sets on your own empire.
Hardknott Vitesse Noir (11% ABV)
This “Triple Imperial Vanilla Mocha Stout” is in the vein of the BrewDog Tokyo with its use of vanilla, but with the further addition of coffee. The head is quite thin and the aroma is of a sweet black espresso. The taste leads with the coffee, giving way to sour fruit and liquorice. Not noticeably boozy, but with a quite silky mouthfeel. It’s a nice beer, with the coffee and vanilla lifting the experience above the heavy stouty richness.
Magic Rock Bearded Lady (10.5% ABV)
This “Imperial Brown Stout” has a coffee-coloured head and dark chocolate aroma. Slightly burning on the first taste, presumably from the alcohol, this gives way to bitter chocolate and then a noticeable hop bitterness on the aftertaste. Further tastes combine hops with dark chocolate deliciously. Very decadent and enjoyable.
Mikkeller Black Hole (13.1% ABV)
I paired this particular bottle with a documentary about the Higgs boson. However, in short order, it became quite hard to concentrate on particle physics. It had a big dense brown head, probably the largest of the eight. It smelled big, perfumed and malty. Whilst it was certainly thick and rich, you could easily convince yourself it wasn’t as strong as it is. After all, not many beers are this strong. Throughout, there is a sweet spiciness lifting it, which again probably owes a lot to the addition of vanilla and coffee.
Thornbridge St Petersburg (7.7% ABV)
“Imperial Russian Stout” with a cappuccino head. The aroma is floral and hoppy, which carries through to the taste. There’s a dryness here, like in a good Irish stout. It had a much lighter body than many of the others, with levels of hops to malt that, in relative terms, takes it closer to the territory of black IPAs. My lasting impression was of pot pourri and coffee, which probably doesn’t convey how good this beer really is.
So, what are the lessons of empire? Well it seems that these bottles fall into three categories:
1. Imperial Stouts with a thick liquorice profile dominated by the rich, dark malts (Black Sheep).
2. Imperial Stouts with a big hit of largely New World hops (whilst I do appreciate that the first Imperial Stouts were also very hoppy) to compete with the malt profile (St Petersburg, Tsar, Bearded Lady).
3. Imperial Stouts which add unusual ingredients to compete with the flavour of the malt and an elevated ABV (Vitesse Noir, Tokyo, Black Hole, to some extent Bristol’s Ultimate Stout).
My preference is for the dry or fruity bitterness of the middle category. The strong-but-sweet vanilla-infused beers were certainly nice, but I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth and find myself coming back to hops at every opportunity. Thornbridge St Petersburg, Buxton Tsar and Magic Rock Bearded Lady will always be very welcome on my beer shelf.
Belfast seems a much-changed place from when I was 18, but then so are most places since 1998. When I’m back, roughly twice a year, I still get the impression that there’s a long way to go in terms of beer in most of the pubs. Cask ale is still rarer than hen’s teeth and I’ve yet to see a Trappist in town.
But I need to explore much of the new Belfast more. Although many of the entries in the Good Beer Guide for Northern Ireland seem to be JD Wetherspoons (which indicates the work JDW does to promote and supply cask even where it isn’t commonly accepted) there are a few – The John Hewitt; Molly’s Yard – that I always mean to explore but never get to.
However, over Christmas I did get to Bittle’s Bar, a wedge shaped corner pub in an older building on the edge of the new Victoria Centre. It’s a pleasant little bar with walls covered in slightly absurd paintings of Northern Irish faces: one depicts Ian Paisley with his arm around Gerry Adams whilst Van Morrison, George Best and Alex Higgins look on.
No cask on the bar, but there was keg Whitewater Copperhead, a nice refreshing pale ale I’ve enjoyed from the bottle. I had a bottle of Pig Island Pale by Ards Brewing Co, a new brewery I recognised from a Beers I’ve Known post of a few months before.
The 4.2% beer was bottle conditioned and had a nice fresh hop aroma, which I really didn’t expect from a Northern Irish beer. It was a satisfyingly bitter pale ale with a slightly orangey aftertaste; very drinkable and probably excellent with seafood. I’ll be keeping an eye out for Ards next time I’m back.