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Ilkley Beer Festival: Cask Ale, Abbey Cider, Tasty Pies and Craft Keg

February 12, 2012 17 comments

Ilkley Beer Festival is one of those events that I always hear about before the event itself, but after tickets have sold out.  In the past I’ve tended not to mind too much, because it’s a festival organised by the Ilkley Round Table rather than CAMRA: what could the Round Table know about beer that CAMRA doesn’t?

However, having had the chance to go to the festival on Saturday afternoon as a friend had some spare tickets, I can say that they did an excellent job, and I’ll be quick to snap up tickets for next year.  This is partially due to the long list of corporate sponsors for the charity event: local solicitors, accountants, architects, bankers; the great and good of this predominantly middle-aged, middle class, West Yorkshire spa town which lies in the commuter belt for Leeds and Bradford.

However having a lot of money to throw at a beer festival doesn’t in itself lead to a good festival.  The venue’s pretty good: the King’s Hall in Ilkley is a good size and ornate, certainly a step up from certain other festival venues I’ve been to. The festival also benefits from a stall from the local butchers, Lishmans, which offers hot pies, sausage rolls and “Yorkshire pasties” for a voucher (£1.25) each.

Oh yes, I meant to mention the beer.  I would find it hard to put together a much better list of English cask ale breweries, including Buxton, Mallinsons, Roosters, Thornbridge, Marble, Oakham, Bristol Beer Factory, Dark Star, Red Willow, Hawkshead, Magic Rock, Brodies, Revolutions, Stringers and of course Ilkley Brewery.

I most enjoyed Brodies Citra (on the recommendation of @misterfrosty), a great beer for 3.1%; Hawkshead NZPA and Buxton Wild Boar IPA, both excellent strong, citrusy IPAs; and Revolutions’ Milk and Alcohol, a silky milk stout that Leigh and Dean had a hand in. Another highlight was the superb Ampleforth Cider, as made by a German monk in North Yorkshire, which was a steal at £1.25 a half, given that it’s 8.3% and usually costs upwards of £7 a bottle.  I’m afraid I missed the whisky cask-aged cider from Udders Orchard.

One interesting footnote is the “craft keg” section of the beer list, which had a single British keg offering from Ilkley Brewery, alongside two American (Brooklyn Lager, Flying Dog Pale Ale) and two German keg beers (Jever, Flensburger). All but the local Ilkley beer would have been “permitted” by CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival as “Bières Sans Frontières”, which does seem a little odd.

However I think we’re in real danger of making the term “craft keg” look absurd pretty quickly if we start using it to refer to Jever: a very tasty lager from a large scale brewery which is part of the Oetker Group, the food processor which also owns “a maritime freight business, a bank, a publishing company, an insurance outfit […] and a number of high-class hotels all over Europe”.

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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.

The Black Dossier: Black Rocks v Proper Black v Kernel Black IPA v Raven v Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale

July 13, 2011 14 comments

I’ve avoided tasting posts recently, as I realised some months ago that it wasn’t my forté.  However, with five black IPAs in the fridge, it seemed a shame not to do a little experiment, so here we go:  five black IPAs enter the ring; only one will emerge victorious. With a style this nascent, but already verging on passé in some quarters, it’s worth seeing what it really has to offer, eh?

Buxton Brewery Black Rocks 5.5%

Prior knowledge: Nice on cask, from a very promising new brewery who specialise in hop-forward but drinkable beers.  I met the guys from the brewery at North Bar recently and they were lovely.

Label-derived facts: Contains Columbus, Cluster and Southern Cross hops.

Blackness: Pretty bloody opaque to start off with, in a full glass. Not priest-sock black, but cola-like round the sides as it gets to the bottom.

Aroma: Nice light citrusy aroma. Bodes well.

Taste: Good, very slightly oily mouthfeel. Acidic, citric taste (unspecific fruit) and a little blackcurrant, some background espresso roastiness. Is light roastiness good or bad in a black IPA? Bad for the illusion, but when you boil it down, perhaps this is the genre’s USP?

Turning to the dark side rating: 7/10. A good very, drinkable beer and a fine example of the form. Smells great, but I would prefer a more malty US-style IPA or a pale ale with some fresher fruitiness. For more on Black Rocks, see Hopzine.

St Austell Proper Black 6%

Prior knowledge: Black version of Proper Job, which is an excellent bold IPA and arguably the best widely-available cask beer in Cornwall. Original beer named after some Cornish regiment’s involvement in quashing the Indian Mutiny, presumably explaining the strikingly bitter aftertaste.

Label-derived facts: Brewer’s Gold, Chinook, Centennial, Cascade hops. Their own yeast. You can’t have any of St Austell’s yeasty goodness. Their mycoculture is their castle.

Blackness: Less opaque than above, but black enough. At least as black as Guinness Original, I reckon.

Aroma: Less than the Black Rocks, light and citrusy but slightly bready too.

Taste: Thinner and certainly more savoury and traditional on the tongue, much more like an English pale ale. Fizzy with larger bubbles, despite also being bottle conditioned. Not exactly kicking my arse with the bitterness, immediately following the Black Rocks. More dark chocolate than coffee in the roastiness, as well as a little bit of nuttiness.

Turning to the dark side rating: 6/10. A pleasant beer but not one that really shows off the appeal of the style. Faced with this and a Proper Job, I might choose either depending on my mood, but would go for the Proper Job 66% of the time.

The Kernel Berwery India Pale Ale Black 7.2%

Prior knowledge: I like this. Glyn from the Rake collaborated in the brewing of it. Kernel are basically this one bloke who sold cheese at Borough Market and developed his home-brewing into his job.  Blessed are the cheesemakers.

Label-derived facts: It’s a black IPA from Kernel. It’s bottle conditioned. It’s best before March 2013 (really?).

Blackness: Quite black. It’s got a lot darker since I opened the first bottle so difficult to say. Basically they’re all dark brown really, but Dark Brown India Pale Ale isn’t as compelling a name for a style.  None of them are “priest-sock black”.

Aroma: Stunning. Big, heady aroma with passion fruit, lychee, all that tropical stuff that you get in cans of Rubicon.

Taste: A slightly fizzy mouthfeel that merits a bit more swirling to knock the bubbles out. After that much smoother. The rich and lasting tropical citrus bitterness is great and pretty much eclipses any roasted malt flavours until the death, where there is a smooth chocolatey whimper in the night.

Turning to the dark side rating: 8/10. Really nice, but I still prefer some of Kernel’s non-black IPAs. The brilliant distinguishing hoppy freshness of the Kernel range is very slightly cut short by the underlying roastiness. It is very lovely though. Mmmm…

Thornbridge Raven 6.6%

Prior knowledge: The first Black IPA I ever had, from cask in the Narrow Boat in Skipton on the day before my 30th birthday. It was sensational then, but I’ve rarely had it since and never from the bottle.

Label-derived facts: Nelson Sauvin, Centennial and Sorachi Ace hops. Maris Otter, Black and Chocolate malts.

Blackness: Espresso-coloured.

Aroma: Right from the first smell you get the roastiness along with the pine and fruitiness.

Taste: This mixture of flavours comes through to the taste. There is much more coffeelike maltiness than the previous examples, but it still doesn’t dominate and the fairly complex-tasting varieties of hops come together into a wonderfully sweeping mixture of bitterness. Not too bitter though, but a drink to really savour, with the warm booziness more obvious than the Kernel.

Turning to the dark side rating: 9/10. Suddenly Black IPAs make sense: a fantastic beer all round. There’s a good malt flavour in here that is perfectly balanced with the rich bitterness and solid ABV. However, it could easily be described as a light hoppy porter; you definitely would not mistake this beer for a normal IPA if you closed your eyes.

Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale 8.7%

Prior knowledge: 100/100 on ratebeer. Crikey. This one’s a bit old, unfortunately. Big hoppy Stone beers seem to be slightly past their best when they get to us in the UK and then I went and sat on this bottle for a couple of months. Idiot.

Label-derived facts: Blah blah blah “first brewed in 2007 as the Stone 11th Anniversary Ale” blah blah blah “thusly” blah.

Blackness: Black, ruby notes around the edge when held up to the light.

Aroma: Woah! Big, strong malty high-ABV US IPA smell, with even more molasses.

Taste: Dark, liquorice, bitter, very richly flavoured indeed; really big and viscous. Calls out for some food and a glass of water to break it up a bit. There’s a lot of slightly acidic bitterness, but no obvious fruitiness. Loads of dark fiercely bitter chocolate malt.

Turning to the dark side rating: 7/10. Perhaps less fresh than it should have been, this bottle is an enormous, dark, malty, bitter and interesting drink to sip slowly. It’s not an IPA though… or not any more, anyway.

The Black Gospel

Firstly I should say that I felt that I got value for money for each of these bottles.  They were all, at the very least, good beers from great breweries.  I think that I should caveat the above by saying the Stone beer was older than it really should have been, so don’t let me put you off a fresh bottle.

After trying all of them over a few nights, it’s clear there’s a balance to be struck with Black IPAs.  You can pretend that there’s no dark malt involved at all and try to surprise people, or you can embrace a limited amount of roastiness and make a great beer with [Greg Wallace voice] big hop flavours [/Greg Wallace voice].  That’s what Thornbridge Raven is: a wonderful, sophisticated, superbly balanced beer that expertly exploits the best features of the style.  But what else do you expect from Thornbridge?

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