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BrewDog Leeds: The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost Deer

March 15, 2013 5 comments

BrewDog Leeds opened this week, seemingly against the odds. I’ve previously discussed the difficulties this bar had obtaining a licence, which raises its own issues as to whether all drinkers should be tarred with the same brush.

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In the time since it was announced, I’ve had several doubts about BrewDog Leeds. It’s a terribly small site. It’s at an end of town that’s already loud, boisterous and overcrowded on weekend evenings. It’s just another bar in a chain.

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All of those things are true. First, the size issue: I think it would be uncomfortable to have more than around 60 people over the two floors. But there are a couple of nice booths upstairs, comfortable stools, shelves to rest a beer dotted around and, overall, the space is used to its full potential. And cosy can be friendly: on the shareholder night, we chatted to our neighbours about the beers and got to know people we hope to see again, as the trains rolled by outside the windows.

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It is at an overcrowded end of town. However there are good places to eat nearby and some pretty decent bars on Call Lane, although five year-old memories of others do still make me shudder.

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It’s also not a million miles away from North Bar and you could easily do Leeds’ new holy trinity of small craft beer bars (North, Friends of Ham, BrewDog Leeds) in an evening and still make it back to the last train.

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And yes, it’s a part of a chain. This one looks exactly like the others: reclaimed gym floorboards on the walls, brick bar, stripped-back grey industrial chic. But that works well and right now the BrewDog bars remain a great chain with an ethos that credits its customers with an interest in and enthusiasm about good beer.

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I’ve not been to a BrewDog bar that I didn’t like, where I didn’t get excellent service, or where I wasn’t a little excited by the selection of beers, particularly the imported ones. On the opening night, I enjoyed beer from Ballast Point, Mikkeller and De Molen, and even managed to squeeze a couple of BrewDogs in around the edges.

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So if you live in Leeds, be sure to add BrewDog Leeds to your list of regular haunts. If you happen to be visiting Leeds city centre for a few beers, that holy trinity of North, Friends of Ham and BrewDog Leeds is worth the pilgrimage.

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Next month I’m going to Sweden and should be there for the opening week of BrewDog Stockholm, provided the ship full of gym floorboards and trendy beards makes it through the Øresund strait. It’ll be another bar in a chain, but I still can’t wait.

See also: Rob’s post at Hopzine and this interview with manager Sophie at Leeds List.

BrewDog Leeds, White Cloth Hall, Crown Street, Leeds, LS1 7RB @BrewDogBarLeeds

BrewDog Leeds: Appellant Alchemist

September 19, 2012 16 comments

Further to my previous post on the initial licensing decision and as you may have read elsewhere, BrewDog were successful in their appeal of the initial refusal to grant a licence to their Leeds premises, and the new bar is intended to open in early 2013.

The initial decision concentrated on the crime figures linked to the existing late night economy in the immediate area. The District Judge was apparently rather more convinced by BrewDog’s submissions about promoting the educated appreciation of craft beer and their discerning clientele. I found the following paragraphs of District Judge Anderson’s* decision particularly interesting:

No doubt when the 2003 Licensing Act came into being, no-one foresaw the emergence of an operation such as Brewdog. They are a Scottish company specialising in craft beers with a devoted clientele. They do not operate large public houses selling cheap lager or cheap food. They have outlets in other cities including in cumulative impact areas where they operate well and without police objection. Now they seek to come to Leeds. […]

The company takes a didactic approach, with books on brewing, and customers invited to watch instructional videos playing at their premises. Their customers could be described as “alcohol geeks.” They are not run of the mill or everyone’s cup of tea, but there is a demand for outlets selling a good quality of beer. […]

If I accept, as I do, that the enterprise sells expensive beers in expensive measures, then I think I can conclude that the people likely to be attracted are not “get it down your neck” drinkers but rather better heeled customers. The type of clientele a premises attracts has a material part to the play in the decision, because if I am not worried about their clientele and am impressed by the running of their bars elsewhere, it follows that it is unlikely that their clientele will have any adverse impact on the area here.

Personally I’ll be glad that BrewDog has a presence in Leeds, if only so I can claim my shareholder discount, as a moderately-heeled alcohol geek who will buy expensive beer in expensive measures, provided I can convince myself I’m getting a bargain.

*Not to be confused with Judge Anderson.

Categories: Beer Tags: , , ,

Indian Summer: Brewfist v Bear Republic v Mikkeller/BrewDog for #IPAday 2012

August 1, 2012 2 comments

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?

First Fifteen: Celebrating North Bar

June 28, 2012 3 comments

North Bar is 15 years old, so it can finally rent Air Force One on DVD, which came out in the year of its birth. North Bar opened in Leeds at the same time as British rule ended in Hong Kong and since then has become an integral part of the renaissance of the UK beer scene. You can read a more indepth article about North’s founders and history from The Good Stuff’s Leigh Linley on Culture Vultures here.

North’s official birthday is Sunday 1 July 2012 and I’m looking forward to going to the party. In the run up that, They’ve been putting 15 very special beers on the bar, a new one each day, many of which were brewed specially for the event and some even with manager Matt Gorecki and the staff. You could almost put them to the tune of the 12 days of Christmas. Except it would have to be the 15 days of Northmas. Hmm…

On the first day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Roosters North Pale Ale ,
On the second day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Lindeboom Special Pilsner,
On the third day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: BrewDog Belgian Pale Ale,
On the fourth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Thornbridge General Sherman Imperial Red Ale,
On the fifth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: FLYYYYYYYYYYY-ING DOOOOOG! Kujo Coffee Stout,
On the sixth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: O’Dell Milk Stout,
On the seventh day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Nøgne Ø Oak Aged Sunturnbrew,
On the eighth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: FLYYYYYYYYYYY-ING DOOOOOG! In De Wildeman Farmhouse IPA,
On the ninth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Mikkeller Beer Geek Breakfast,
On the tenth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Marble Aged Little Jim,
On the eleventh day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Cantillon Gueuze on Cask,
On the twelfth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Sierra Nevada Solar Storm,
On the thirteenth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Kernel IIPA,
On the fourteenth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Gaffel  Kölsch from the wood…
 

That’s the makings of a veritable first XV from some of the most exciting British, European and American breweries, especially considering the strength of some of them. In the interests of surviving until North’s 30th birthday, I’ve managed to be fairly restrained and have tried just four so far: the O’Dell Milk Stout was lovely, the cask Cantillon was a wonderful experience (acidic pear/apple clean sourness, oddly drinkable), the Thornbridge General Sherman stands out as a superbly fresh hopmonster which tastes a lot less than 8.3% and the Gaffel Kölsch from a wooden cask had a wonderfully smooth mouthfeel and a crisp herbal bitterness.

North is a bar worth celebrating and these beers are worthy of toasting it with. What’s more, there’s still at least one more to come. See you there!

BrewDog, Craft and Consistency: “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

June 25, 2012 25 comments

Last week I went to a bar in Leeds that I wouldn’t normally associate with interesting beer, only to find they had BrewDog Punk IPA in the fridge.  And I really didn’t know whether to buy it or not.

I’m a BrewDog shareholder and, in a measured way, could be described as a fan of BrewDog’s bars and many of their beers. I would probably even qualify as a “scamp” (*shudder*). I do find some of their marketing tiresome, so I try to look past it; I’m not interested in paying a small fortune for their 330ml limited edition bottles, so I don’t.  The trouble I have is that, over the last year or so, their flagship beer, which was a favourite of mine (including after the new recipe), has become one of the least consistent beers I’ve ever experienced.   I’ve had bad keg, canned and bottled Punk. Now I’m close to giving up on it entirely.

Moreover, it’s getting a bad reputation.  It appears to me, from various drinkers’ and bar workers’ posts on Twitter, that there’s a serious and persistent problem.   There’s the odd great batch, but interspersed with terrible ones.  This reflects my own experience: a few weeks ago I decided to give Punk another chance to see if the problem had been resolved, so bought a couple of bottles from an off-licence. They were lovely, fruity and crisp – a real return to form.  A week later I bought two more bottles from Waitrose and they were undrinkable.

I know that consistency is not a problem that’s unique to BrewDog, and I’ve also experienced occasional disappointments in the consistency of certain other forward-looking breweries recently.  I know that BrewDog are aware of this problem and have said they would deal with it, but six months on from this post I’m yet to see the resumption of consistency and a corresponding restoration of trust.

I am conscious that BrewDog are in an interim phase in their growth, as they stand on the edge of crossover success, and that they’re having problems keeping up with the demand they’ve created with supermarkets.  However, “mainstream” drinkers are used to the rigorous quality control and consistency they get from the multinational brewers, so when they pick up a bottle of beer from the supermarket shelf, they rightly expect that it tastes like it was intended to taste.  For the “scamps”, or at least for me, if the “craft” ethos is to mean anything, it has to imply a minimum of quality and pride in your product: “first and foremost, great tasting beers.” 

I bought the bottle of Punk in the bar last week.  It was better than some I’ve had and actually drinkable, but still not as good as it should have been. Perhaps I’m simply judging each bottle too harshly because I’ve accrued such a prejudice against it.  Whatever the case, it didn’t have me scampering back to the fold. 

For discussions on wider consistency issues beyond BrewDog, see HopZine and Boak and Bailey.

Categories: Beer Tags: , , , ,

Market Forces: Dock Street Market, Leeds

Back in the mists of time, when everyone was on the previous version of the iPhone and the world was on tenterhooks waiting for Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott’s version of Robin Hood, there was a deli-come-grocery on the cobbled Dock Street in Leeds called Simpson’s.  Simpson’s was quite expensive, but the young professionals of Brewery Wharf and Clarence Dock liked the fresh bread and the impressive selection of bottled ales, including Ilkley and Saltaire beers.

Simpsons closed, possibly due to competition from a cheap but souless Tesco Express that had recently opened, and there was due wailing and gnashing of teeth about the death of independent shops and quite a lot of discussions about whether it could be re-opened as a social enterprise.  Of course no-one really knew what a “social enterprise” was, but that nice polite Mr Cameron seemed to be in favour of them, and anyone who didn’t really like the word “social” was in favour of “enterprise” and vice versa, so it seemed like a reasonably admirable idea at the time without really gripping anyone.

Ultimately, in November 2010, Dock Street Market opened on the site of Simpson’s, run by “a group of independent local food traders“.  I think the line-up may have changed over time, but at the moment there seems to be a deli counter, a bakery and a bar.  The bar currently sells cakes and Prohibition-chic “teapot cocktails”, which Kate enjoyed.

The fact that I was most interested in the selection of beer will not come as a surprise, but the selection itself might.  As well as cask Black Sheep (it’s still Yorkshire after all, even if it is young, hip, waterfront Yorkshire) there was also Anchor Steam, BrewDog Punk IPA and Ilkley MJ Fortis on keg.  The bottle selection was even more impressive, including Brooklyn Lager, BrewDog 5am Saint, Chimay Red, Orval and Anchor Old Foghorn.

I had a Goose Island Matilda, an Orvalalike which was initially surprisingly bretty, but later pleasingly so, followed by a De Struise Pannepot 2010, a darkly delicious but drinkable 10% spiced Belgian strong ale which really needs that bit of cake to soak it up.

As well as the beer selection, I was impressed by the relaxed atmosphere of Dock Street Market, which leaves it somewhere between a cafe, a bar and a common room; seemingly a successful third place.  Its neighbours, the Leeds Brewery pub Pin and Mitchell and Butler’s Adelphi are another matter: Pin, whilst similarly having an impressive imported selection thanks to James Clay, can seem sadly quiet and has stripped down its food menu.  The Adelphi, whilst being one of Leeds’ best food pubs and having a great historic interior, has had quite an unimpressive cask selection the last two times I’ve been in.

Dock Street Market, for seeming to have come together at random and for its Cath Kidston-esque bunting and cake stands, has nonetheless ended up being perhaps the best place for a beer in the area.  They’re even planning a ticketed Anchor tap takeover/food and beer-matching dinner with Ben from James Clay on 6 June 2012, a US craft beer festival on 4 July 2012 and a BrewDog tap takeover on 1 August 2012, each of which is as good a reason as any to pay your first visit, if you haven’t already.

Atmosphere: BrewDog Manchester

It should come as no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog (hi, you two) that one of my favourite pubs is Mr Foley’s in Leeds.  As I’ve mentioned before, the careful selection of interesting cask, keg and bottled beers that makes Mr Foley’s what it is, has until now been down to the manager Dean Pugh.

In a trans-Pennine transfer, Dean has now moved on to manage the newly-opened BrewDog Manchester, becoming @BrewDogBarDean in the process.  A few of us went to see the new bar at 35 Peter Street on Saturday.

I was impressed.  If you’ve been to one of the other BrewDog bars (I’ve visited Glasgow and Edinburgh) you’ll know what to expect: an interesting range of keg beers, no cask beers, an excellent selection of imported bottles, good music and a stylish slightly industrial decor using reclaimed materials.  Manchester is over two floors, and I think it’s probably one of the biggest of the bars.

Kate and I enjoyed a few great beers.  On keg we had:

BrewDog Dead Pony Club, the rew 3.8% session ale, which had a lot of fruit flavour with a significant amount of grapeskin;

BrewDog Dogma, a pleasantly sweet dark honeyed Scotch ale; and

Mikkeller 19, a deliciously sweet and complex IPA using 19 single-hopped beers (and a successor to Mikkeller 10).

The bottles we enjoyed were:

Mikkeller Belgian Tripel, a pleasant example of the style brewed with coriander and orange peel;

Mikkeller Single Hop Citra, a single-hopped beer that Kate found enjoyable in its own right (rather than just a tutorial on the characteristics of the hop);

Port Brewing Mongo, a big, citrus-fresh Californian double IPA; and

BrewDog Anarchist Alchemist, the new 14% “triple IPA”, which tastes like Hardcore IPA with a bit more barley wine character, but not so much as to be overpowering.

With all those strong beers, it’s a good job that there’s some food on offer, and the burger and pizza menu (three of each) designed by Masterchef winner and occassional BrewDog collaborator Tim Anderson, is very tempting.  I tried a slice of a tasty veggie pizza with breaded aubergine and had a Milwaukee burger: an excellent pork burger with pickles and sauerkraut.

Manchester is already well-served with great pubs, from the Marble Arch to Port Street Beer House.  But if I were a Mancunian I would be very happy to welcome BrewDog to the city: a nice place to spend an afternoon with some great beers and good company.

Following the visit, I’m pinning my hopes on the BrewDog Leeds licence application being successful.  The recent AGM presentation suggests that, if it the licence is granted, BrewDog Leeds will open in September 2012.

Beneluxurious: North Bar’s Lowlands Bier Festival

March 26, 2012 5 comments

Why, Sir, you find no man, at all interested in beer, who is willing to leave Belgium. No, Sir, when a man is tired of Belgium, he is tired of beer; for there is in Belgium all that beer can afford.

— Not Quite Samuel Johnson

I loved our trip to Bruges last summer and got to drink some remarkable beers in lovely places, like t’ Brugs Beertje and Staminee De Garre. The one thing that I did notice, however, was that the amazing beer menus were almost exclusively Belgian. I had hoped that there might be some Dutch beers on offer as well, as I had become very excited about the range of innovative breweries in the Netherlands following my short visit to Amsterdam, and the fantastic In De Wildeman.

Fortunately, back in West Yorkshire, North Bar’s annual Belgian Beer Festival has expanded its remit and annexed Holland; the 2012 version, running from 22 March 2012 to 5 April 2012, is a Lowlands Bier Festival. Kate and I visited yesterday when North was quite empty, suffering slightly from the lack of a beer garden in the unexpected March sunshine. Along with a waffle, we enjoyed four really good beers: bottles of Watou Tripel and Struise/Mikkeller Elliott; and from keg De Molen Op & Top and Emelisse TIPA. So that’s really two Dutch Beers, one and a half Belgian beers and a rogue half a Dane.

I was really impressed with the beer list, which also includes delights from the likes of Boon, Cantillon, De Dolle, all the Trappists you can shake a crosier at, as well as a couple of beers from rarely-seen breweries like Brouwerij De Prael, which I’ve never seen outside Amsterdam. I’m going back and this time I’m having cheese. I recommend you do the same.

If you’re above the Low Countries, perhaps preferring your beers single-hopped, Aberdonian and canine, on 28 March 2012 from 6pm North are also hosting a BrewDog IPA Is Dead Launch Night, a sequel to last year’s. The new batch of four single-hopped IPAs are Galaxy, Motueka, Challenger and HBC.

BrewDog Leeds: The best-laid schemes o’ dogs an’ men…

February 29, 2012 14 comments

Loiners are quite blessed when it comes to the craft beer on-trade, what with the North Bar group, Mr Foleys, Arcadia and the other Market Town Taverns, and the Leeds Brewery pubs. Nonetheless, it was exciting to see that BrewDog were hoping to open a small Leeds bar behind the Corn Exchange, especially given how much I enjoyed visiting BrewDog Glasgow.

However, as you may be aware, BrewDog failed to get their licence at a Licensing Sub-Committee hearing on 6 February. Thanks to the Council Website (and @ewanmitchell pointing me in the right direction), you can read the outcome of the hearing here.

In short, the reasons for the refusal were given as follows:

Whilst the concept of the bar and style of operation were welcomed, it was noted that the premises were within a violent crime hotspot within the Cumulative Impact Policy area. The Sub-Committee were regrettably not persuaded that the application would not add to the impact in the area, despite the undoubted experience of the operator.

This followed submissions from the West Yorkshire police that:

The premises was located in a violent crime hotspot within the Cumulative Impact area which was not covered by the Leedswatch CCTV system. Whilst much work had been done to try to address this, there were many problems and issues in that area. An additional concern was that Brew Dog would be likely to attract different people to it rather than those already using the area, therefore drawing additional people into the area which could exacerbate the problems there.

And @brewdogbarbruce‘s address to the sub-committee:

Mr Gray addressed the Sub-Committee in relation to his style of operation, indicating that he would hope to be a positive influence on the area by educating people to a different way of drinking. He informed the Sub-Committee that staff training was extensive and thorough and that customers were not allowed to become drunk.

Bruce’s witness statement also expands on the ethos of appreciation and education regarding beer, whilst noting that one of their other bars, BrewDog Edinburgh on Cowgate, is in an area associated with heavy drinking and a crime hotspot. Bruce’s statement is especially interesting in this comment regarding the Camden application:

…the local council were hesitant to grant the application, however once our concept was discussed with them the opinion (of both the police and the Committee) was that our concept is far more likely to decrease excessive drinking and antisocial behaviour than contribute to existing problems and hence the variation was granted. We have since had a great response both from local residents and Police.

I don’t intend to comment on the matter myself, but I think there’s an interesting debate to be had here: does an ethos of beer appreciation simply mitigate the damage done by another premises selling alcohol in an already-busy part of town, or can it actively improve the area? Does the calming influence of the beer geek pour hop oil on troubled waters?  Or, several thirds down, are we really just as antisocial as the rest, as this story might suggest?

From a selfish perspective, I admit to being a bit miffed that (at present) it appears I won’t be able to enjoy the BrewDog beers and other interesting imported beers that BrewDog Leeds would have stocked whilst claiming my Equity For Punks discount. At the same time I will admit that I probably wouldn’t have been visiting on a Saturday night very often, simply because I don’t find that end of town a particularly nice place to be when it’s packed with weekend revellers.

UPDATE: BrewDog appealed the decision and won at a hearing in Leeds Magistrates Court on 6 September 2012, as discussed here.  The bar opened in March 2013 and my review from the first week is here.

Categories: Beer Tags: , ,

Imperialism: Black Sheep v Brewdog v Bristol v Buxton v Hardknott v Magic Rock v Mikkeller v Thornbridge

January 15, 2012 11 comments

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.

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