For IPA Day this year I thought I’d demonstrate why I don’t do beer reviews any more. I had three beers in my fridge which are all, to some extent, talked-about IPAs: Italian, American and Danish/Scottish. Reviewing really doesn’t get more half-arsed than this:
Brewfist Spaceman India Pale Ale
What we know: IBU 70, 7.0% from Codogno near Milan in Northern Italy. Has had some good press and, to my knowledge, has only very recently been available to buy in the UK.
Appearance: Orangey, slightly hazy with a nice white head which dissipates reasonably swiftly.
Aroma: The sweet breadiness that you’d get with a quite pedestrian English pale ale with some onions and grapes.
Taste: Pleasant, not too sharply bitter. Building dry bitterness, with a kind of dull, not quite savoury but perhaps slightly sour acidic taste to it. Nice enough, but a bit less citrussy than I would prefer.
Conclusion: The Babylon Zoo of beers: a lot of excitement and hype, but ultimately merely satisfactory.
Bear Republic Racer 5 India Pale Ale
What we know: 7.0% überhyped, überhopped US IPA from Healdsburg, Cloverdale, California. Similar hens’ teeth availability in the UK, fuelling that excitement as travellers to the US return to speak of it in hushed tones.
Appearance: Orangey-gold, clear as a bell, decent head.
Aroma: Immediate sticky sugary fruity sweetness, like a Wham bar. One of those plastic sweets that sticks to your teeth as you tear off a hunk.
Taste: A definite sweet orange-lime bitterness, but with an obvious alcoholic aftertaste. Thinner than a barley wine, so the alcohol doesn’t necessarily blend naturally into the mix until it sits for a while. Then it just adds to a really nice beer.
Conclusion: A massively enjoyable IPA. Lacking in depth, perhaps, but nonetheless a summery, citrussy, plasticky joy of a beer. The Californian ska punk of IPAs.
Mikkeller/BrewDog I Hardcore You
What we know: 9.5% Dano-Fraserburgian IPA blend from two archetypal US-inspired European “craft” brewers, each of which has grown large enough in influence, profile and perhaps even obnoxiousness to start suffering a minor backlash. One more so than the other, perhaps.
Appearance: Considerably more reddy-brown than the other two, with a creamier-coloured head.
Aroma: Clearly sweet, with toffee and even a little menthol, although the booze might just be confusing my nose.
Taste: Big, uncompromising, with a rough burnt sugariness immediately developing into a carbonic sourness. I immediately suspect that the other two beers have killed my palate. Swapping back to the Racer 5 though, it still has all the light treble notes whereas this is all big bass. I’m sure there used to be more mango in this beer – in fact I’ve had more than one conversation about that whilst drinking it – and I’m only getting a hint. Is this old or is the newest batch just not as good? It doesn’t help that there’s no date information at all on the bottle.
Conclusion: A bit too heavy for what it’s trying to be, or at least what I want it to be today. A love ballad by Black Sabbath. A lullaby from Joy Division.
Despite my poor, hop-ravaged tongue, the best of the bunch for me was clearly the Racer 5. If you want a rounded, sophisticated IPA you might go for something else, perhaps even something a bit more English. But for me, Racer 5 is the only one of the three that lives up to both the hype and my memories of it. Of the others, I prefer the Spaceman to the I Hardcore You, which doesn’t match my memories of the latter beer at all.
IPAs are great beers to have in your fridge and are a gateway drug for craft beer as a whole. However, in the last year my tastes have changed a little and each of these seem quite sugary and acidic to enjoy in large quantities. The best IPA I’ve had in the last two weeks is still an amazingly fresh bottle of Goose Island IPA, which (I’m surprised to say) I would pick over either of these three for repeated drinking. But right now, believe it or not, I just fancy an Orval; which is basically a kind of Belgian IPA, right? Right?
There’s a statue of the great Scot James Watt in Leeds city centre, but it’s the steam innovator rather than the award-winning young entrepreneur, controversialist and ex-fisherman who founded BrewDog with his schoolfriend and former Thornbridge head brewer Martin Dickie only a few years ago. However, last week James announced on Twitter that BrewDog will be making its mark in Leeds, having signed a lease on a new bar, with rumours placing it in a small venue near the Corn Exchange. [Update: More details here]
BrewDog are perpetually mired/revelling in controversy for a number of reasons, principally because they deliberately court it for column inches with a number of stunts and campaigns, which are undeniably effective. They have also made a few missteps, particularly in the customer service on their online shop (which has been acknowledged) and in the consistency of some of the canned and bottled Punk IPA which has recently made its way into supermarkets (which doesn’t yet appear to have been).
On balance, I maintain that BrewDog are A Good Thing. They are not the alpha and omega of the new UK beer scene, but they are, at the very least, a catalyst in the shift in both the industry and consumer expectation towards more interesting beer, with influences from American craft breweries. A great example of this is their new, keg-and-bottle-only bars, and in particular what we saw at BrewDog Glasgow on our honeymoon.
Over the course of two visits we:
- enjoyed sharing a big bottle of Bear Republic Racer 5 out of Teku glasses, considering that this was what all honeymooners should do;
- heard a folk singer play;
- spotted Martin and James;
- admired the relaxed but stylish décor and use of space, deciding that the wood panelling on the wall appeared to have been recycled from the floor of a sports hall;
- observed some Group On purchasers tasting beer with the knowledgeable, helpful staff;
- enjoyed a buzzy, busy but relaxed pub on both occasions, with a wide spectrum of customers;
- saw someone order “your standard lager” and not complain when presented with 77 Lager;
- had a conversation with the bar staff regarding what I was tweeting about and the identity of @GhostDrinker;
- drank Evil Twin Yin and Yang, deciding that it was indeed better than the sum of its parts;
- nibbled on some olives and ate a great pizza which soaked up the ABV nicely;
- relaxed after an amazing visit to Kelvingrove Museum across the road, probably one of the friendliest and most diverse museums I’d ever been to, containing everything from Dali paintings to giraffes to tribal masks to Spitfires;
- drank a few very good Brewdog beers, including Hops Kill Nazis; and
- found it very hard to drag ourselves away.
Even James Watt would find it hard to claim to be able to transport Kelvingrove Museum from the West End of Glasgow to West Yorkshire; but if BrewDog Leeds is even half as enjoyable as BrewDog Glasgow, I will be a very happy Loiner indeed.
I still don’t think James will get his statue in City Square, though.
Saturday night in Leeds, exactly one week from Christmas Day. Snow on the ground; fridge full of food. Nothing else to do but make a spicy Cajun gumbo and work through the American beers in the fridge. Again I should warn you that my palate remains at best charmingly innocent and at worst unsophisticated.
I’d bought the Green Flash Le Freak some time ago in Beer Ritz and sensibly should have had it whilst it was fresher. Nonetheless what is advertised as an American Imperial IPA meets a Belgian Trippel matches that description and is quite thick and very slightly bubblegummy with a solid bitter aftertaste. Kate’s not a fan of Belgian beers so I soon had the whole (9.2%, 1 pint 6 fluid oz) bottle to myself.
The combination of the viscosity, sweetness and bitterness was nice but I didn’t fall completely in love with it. I suspect it might have worked better for me if the hop taste was fresher than the aged bottle I had. Perfectly nice though. You can see Rob’s video review of this beer at Hopzine here.
I still had three American IPAs in the fridge that I’d brought back from New York in November, so I thought I’d better have them whilst they were good. I had specifically decided not to come back from New York with a suitcase full of beer, but we had a few left in the fridge in the hotel room on the last day, and I wasn’t about to let them go to waste.
First was the Lagunitas IPA. This turned out to be an oddly bland beer with the hoppiness almost tacked on at the end. After a while it came across like a fairly dull cooking lager but with a bitter aftertaste.
Next was the Smuttynose IPA. I’d had this on keg in New York and really quite liked it. It was slightly lighter in colour than the Lagunitas. The bitterness was more complex although not too punchy, with a good mixture of lemon and pine. Although slightly cloudy, it was a really nice, light refreshing beer, with a hint of detergent.
The Smuttynose IPA was very good match indeed to the spicy meat gumbo from Jamie Oliver’s “Jamie’s America” book. Give the recipe a go if you get the chance.
Finally we had the Bear Republic Racer 5. I’d been looking for this beer for ages in New York, having read about it beforehand on Richard Burhouse’s blog amongst others. However, perhaps because it’s Californian, it was a bastard to find until I tracked it down on the penultimate day in a supermarket in Williamsburg.
Racer 5 turned out to be the best beer of them all: big flavours of mango, citrus and pine that worked really well together. If I had to drink only one American IPA for the rest of my life, it would certainly do, although right now I think my first choice would be O’Dell IPA.
On Saturday morning I’m going to New York. This might seem pathetic but, at 30 years old, it will be the first time I’ve left Europe. When I was a kid I wanted to go to New York because it was where Spider-Man and the Ghostbusters lived. I kind of still do.
But I’m also very excited about the beers. When I tell normal people that I’m looking forward to trying lots of great beers in New York, they look at me oddly. But since (repeatedly) going to North Bar’s North American Beer Festival and exploring the range of American beers in Beer Ritz, it’s been clear that America is the most exciting place in the world for beer. It seems equally clear that the influence of American craft brewers has greatly contributed to the revitalisation of the British beer industry and to those beers that have sparked my enthusiasm for it all.
So I’ve been reading Lew Bryson’s New York Breweries and Andy Crouch’s beautiful book Great American Craft Beer. I was keenly interested in Richard Burhouse and Pete Brown’s blog entries on drinking in New York.
I’ve discovered that, purely by chance, our hotel is only a couple of blocks’ (Blocks! Get me!) walk from The Ginger Man, Cask Bar + Kitchen and Rattle ‘n’ Hum. Moreover, Rattle N Hum has offers on Stone Arrogant Bastard, Double Bastard and Lucky Bastard all week. I don’t want to go completely mad and spend our entire holiday schlepping half-cut from bar to bar, but other options further afield I’ve considered are Blind Tiger; Mugs Ale House, Brooklyn Brewery and Barcade.
I don’t even want to get started on the beers I want to try, but I’ll be keeping a keen eye out for all the Brooklyn Brewery beers I haven’t tried, especially Brooklyn Winter Ale (recently reviewed by Leigh, with a lovely label) and also Bear Republic’s Racer 5 (recommended by Richard of MyBreweryTap, as well as Andy Crouch and many others).
So that’s what I’m most excited about. Anywhere else I must go or beers I must drink? Anything I’ve mentioned that’s not really worth it?