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.
I mentioned in a recent post about this visit to Ireland that Irish craft beer had seen something of a renaissance in recent years, but that it appeared to me that the character of that resurgence, in terms of style (emphasis on stouts and “red” ales) and method of dispense (primarily keg and bottle), appeared to be strongly influenced by the unique conditions of Irish beer culture.
It further occurs to me that if Irish craft brewers want to export to consumers in the United States, they might consider it best to concentrate on those methods of dispense (with keg dominating US craft beer to a much greater degree than in the UK) and to focus on styles associated with Irish “tradition”.
The Irish Times article I mentioned in that post gives a good precis of The Porterhouse, which has grown since 1989 to comprise a chain of four pubs in Ireland (three in Dublin; one in Bray) and international outlets including Covent Garden, London; a temporary one at the Shanghai Expo in 2010; and soon a new pub in the financial district of New York.
Their brewing operation started on the premises in Temple Bar and now claims to be the largest Irish-owned brewery in Ireland (Guinness now being owned by Diageo). In fact, their expansion and influence is such that Irish Times article attributes the resurgence of Irish craft breweries to former finance minister (and recently departed Taoiseach) Brian Cowen introducing “a lower rate of duty for small breweries, largely due to pressure from the Porterhouse“.
The Porterhouse on Temple Bar has a nice interior with lots of natural light and exposed wood. Most of the seating are high stools and benches and old bottles are displayed behind glass. It’s welcoming and combines the modern with the traditional well, and doesn’t try to compete for the “Irish theme pub” crown, which seems to dominate most of Temple Bar.
We were lucky enough to visit during a festival of Irish craft beers, so there was a good range of craft beers from other breweries in the Republic and the North on keg and bottle. These included Messrs Maguire (a brewpub on the Liffey next to O’Connell Bridge); Trouble Brewing; Franciscan Well; Galway Hooker; and bottles from Northern breweries including Clanconnel and Inishmacsaint. Incidentally, without having looked terribly hard, I’ve yet to find Clanconnel or Inishmacsaint beers for sale in Northern Ireland.
I therefore was interested to try a bottle of Inishmacsaint White Island Wheat Beer. It had a lovely label and seemed to be a perfectly nice example of a style that I tend to find a bit dull. However I would note that wheat beer seems, in the form of Erdinger and others, to be reasonably widely available in the North at least, and I speculate that it might a growing style for Irish consumers.
The Messrs Maguire beer I had (which I think was their brown ale), was a deep dark ruby, with a pleasant, dry, liquorice bitterness. Franciscan Well Purgatory Pale Ale on keg had a nice crystal malt taste and a satisfying hoppy bitterness. However for me Porterhouse’s own beers were the stars of the show.
Porterhouse Plain Porter had a nice creamy head, light smell and a good roasted to chocolate taste. Certainly it was enough to entertain and enlighten a confused Guinness drinker who’d wandered in off the street. The Porterhouse Oyster Stout was really superb. Made with actual Carlingford Lough oysters shucked into the brew, it had a bracing sea air smell and a wonderful mellow, salty, soy-like sweetness that I’d love to try with some fresh oysters to accompany it.
However, for both Kate and me the favourite was the Porterhouse Wrasslers XXXX Stout. Allegedly based on a recipe used by Deasy’s of West Cork in the early part of the last century (“Clonakilty Wrastler”) which was supposedly Michael Collins’ favourite, it even features a picture of Collins on the label. It is apparently made with Galena, Nugget and East Kent Goldings hops, but given that Galena and Nugget hops are US varieties that didn’t exist before 1968 and 1983 respectively, I would query the claim.
Regardless of the authenticity of the recipe, on keg Wrasslers is surprisingly and exhilaratingly bitter, but with a very nice balance. What’s even more surprising is that it’s only 5%, although the complex bitterness is really too pronounced to gulp this down as a session beer, and you wouldn’t do it justice anyway.
Black IPAs are very trendy these days, but this well-hopped stout may well become one of my favourite beers, if ever I’m able to find any in England. Perhaps a trip to Covent Garden is in order?
Do you know what I am going to tell you, he said with his wry mouth, a pint of plain is your only man.
Notwithstanding this eulogy, I soon found that the mass of plain porter bears an unsatisfactory relation to its toxic content and I subsequently became addicted to brown stout in bottle, a drink which still remains the one that I prefer the most despite the painful and blinding fits of vomiting which a plurality of bottles has often induced in me.
Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)
The post I did a while back on the Guinness Surger got me thinking more about Guinness. Guinness is definitely the beer I’ve drank the most of in my life. Given that Diageo own Guinness, Bushmills whiskey and Gordons gin, I dread to think how much money I’ve thrown their way since reaching adulthood.
My grandfather was a Guinness drinker. He moderately drank bottles of the stuff, generally warmed – for reasons that may now be lost to the ages – by setting it on the stove in the pub or on the fireplace at home. I fell into drinking Guinness, with its carefully crafted image of traditional Irishness and an air of sophisticated adulthood, as the best alternative to the hated lager in a beer desert. Few Guinness-drinkers in Great Britain get asked for ID, in my experience.
Moreover, I know where I am with Guinness more than any other drink. “Sessionable” (*shiver*) as it is, I’ve never gotten terribly drunk or ill off it. Although there was an unfortunate incident one morning when I was a hungover student part-time barman, when I went to the pub toilet for a discreet and brief vomiting fit between the first and second pour of the first customer’s stout. I don’t think he noticed.
Of course most Guinness is less “authentic” than it holds itself out to be. The accepted method of dispense of draught Guinness, the nitro-keg, has only been around since 1964, the year Brendan Behan died. Brian O’Nolan (Flann himself; another terrible man for the drink) only lasted another two years, so I wonder if he ever tried it.
The canned widget Guinness has always seemed to me a reasonable alternative to actual draught Guinness, for applying to the interior of your body when safely in your own home. But in recent years I’ve found them both terribly dull. So I went to the supermarket and Beer Ritz to purchase the materials for an experiment: four different types of Guinness, all with different ABVs and one of which almost twice as strong as the first.
Using half of the “Guinness Original” to make a beef and Guinness which was stewing away in the oven, we set about seeing how they stood up to each other with a side-by-side comparison:
Guinness Draught (4.1% ABV)
Perhaps it’s an unfair test to compare a canned product to four bottled ones, but I couldn’t find any widget bottles of Guinness and in any event cans are the future of craft beer according to some zythofuturologists, so Guinness can lump it too. We all know this one, and for me familiarity has bred, if not contempt, then certainly ennui and potentially an immunity to any taste.
I was going to say it tastes of tin, but I’m not sure if it doesn’t mainly taste of widget. There’s a definite dull metallic wateriness to it that it has in common with cans of smooth Tetley’s, Boddingtons and John Smiths and to me tastes of parties located near off-licences with a very limited range.
When held up to the light, like the Original below, there’s a definite red colour. The wateriness described above makes it very difficult to detect any distinct flavour, but there’s a very slight malt bitterness in the aftertaste.
Guinness Original (4.2% ABV)
Surprisingly very slightly stronger than the draught stuff, this is a real improvement. The flavours are still quite subtle, but the dryness is much more noticeable. Kate noted that the carbonation added to the bitterness and I agreed.
However the flavours are so delicate that they reminded us both of the weaker dark milds I wrote about here. Whilst there’s a very slight roasted flavour, again it’s much milder than someone who had never heard of Guinness would expect a “stout” to be.
Guinness Foreign Extra (7.5% ABV)
Ah, now it suddenly gets exciting. The head on the previous two was a similar light cream, whereas this is much more yellow to brown. The beer is almost totally opaque with a dark treacle aroma.
It tastes nicely bitter, with some caramel, chocolate and, whilst by no means smokey, definitely more roasted. There’s a solid alcoholic punch to the smell and the taste that numbs the tongue at first. The back label says it’s “brewed with extra hops and roasted barley for a natural bite“. It makes you wonder why they don’t usually bother. Very good indeed.
They’ve only released this in America this year, which seems odd, given that it seems to me that Americans love the brand image of Guinness and US craft brewers have done a lot of groundwork in creating a market for imperial stouts.
Guinness Special Export (8% ABV)
Whereas the Foreign Export has a slightly modern look, this beer – exported to Belgium then imported back to these islands to maximise the carbon footprint – has a pleasingly retro label. It was apparently commissioned for export by John Martin of Belgium in 1912 and was the first Guinness to be pasteurised. I would love to try an unpasteurised version of Guinness.
The head on the Special Export is a step back to the whiter colour of the normal ABV versions. This is the first indication that the flavours are more subtle than the Foreign Extra. Again we get the treacle aroma, but although the ABV is higher, there’s less of an obvious alcohol smell.
The bolder flavours of the Foreign Extra contrast sharply with the dry, crisp bitterness of this, which seems like a logical big brother to the Original. Whilst being a surprisingly different beer, it’s also a revelation.
I have no doubt that a plurality of bottles of either of the last two would produce “painful and blinding fits of vomiting“. However it might even be worth it. Suddenly I think I might genuinely like Guinness again, although it’s a shame that the best stuff is about to get whacked with an idiotic tramp lager tax.
Oh, and it makes a damn fine beef stew as well.
On Wednesday evening I attended a “meet the brewer” event with James and Andy from Summer Wine Brewery at Mr Foley’s. I didn’t know that much about Summer Wine beforehand, other than they were a microbrewery in Holmfirth (hence the namecheck to Compo, Clegg and Foggy) and that Mr Foley’s have their beers on quite regularly. I’d previously only tried (and enjoyed) their Houblon IPA and their “Project 6 Brew 5”, the latter of which I’ll come on to in a moment.
I confess to not having taken any tasting notes at the event, but given that descriptors are not really my strength, I probably wouldn’t do the guys justice anyway.* However we tried a range of their beers and they were all excellent, lots of flavours but always superbly balanced. Tiberius was a nice, light hoppy session-strength ale; Portcullis was a surprisingly good, complex ESB; and Treason Treacle Stout was an excellent autumn beer (roasted coffee and, unsurprisingly, treacle).
Perhaps the most interesting thing that Summer Wine are doing is “Project 6”. They’ve released five different versions of a strong, American-style IPA onto the market and are about to release a sixth. We got to compare Project 6 Brew 5 (on cask) to bottle-conditioned samples of Brews 2 and 3. They were all really good and I’m not sure if I prefer 2 or 5 more. It’s notable just how different they were, whilst playing to the same strengths. I’m not sure about the ABV, but I think Brew 2 might be a slightly better companion over the course of an entire evening.
Beyond the fact that these were great beers, I thought there were two things that are especially of interest about Project 6:
Firstly, it isn’t simply the case that Summer Wine are foisting a bunch of rough drafts** of beers on the buyer. Whilst these are experiments, they work very well as beers in their own right and by no means is the drinker being short-changed.
James and Andy mentioned at one point in the evening that the first beer they ever brewed in bulk, they agonised over for about a week before deciding it wasn’t fit to release. Given the financial constraints facing a fledgling microbrewery (and the lack of consistency I’ve noted from certain others), it’s admirable that they should exercise such a commitment to quality.
Secondly, these are also genuine experiments, in the true sense of the word. They’re not just seasonal one-offs, or indeed limited editions for no good reason other than to exploit the collector-like impulses of beer geeks.
They’re trying to find a beer that they want to go on and brew on a larger scale. Summer Wine’s Project 6 is therefore the evolution of a real beer that we can enjoy.
James and Andy have big plans for Summer Wine, including upscaling their kit and getting Bath Ales to do bottling for them. They’re aiming to compete on the same level with interesting regionals like Saltaire Brewery, and I’ll be very happy to see more of their beers around. Currently they sell to Mr Foley’s, the Grove and the Cross Keys in Leeds and hopefully we’ll be seeing their bottles in places like Beer Ritz and on MyBreweryTap.com.
Other than the upcoming Project 6 Brew 6, we can also look forward to a new Black IPA from Summer Wine. I’ve just seen that James has a thoughtful blog, which I’ve added to my blogroll.
It’s a credit to Mr Foley’s and Dean that they held this free event and also threw in some nibbles. The exciting and constantly changing range of beers is the thing that keeps me coming back to Mr Foleys and, helpfully, you can keep up with what’s currently on at their It’s Your Round page.
I think Leigh from The Good Stuff (who interviewed James in June) and Fletchthemonkey from Real Ale Reviews were also there on Wednesday. Sorry I didn’t say hello, but I wasn’t entirely sure who was who with just their avatars to go on! I was looking out for a chimp who appeared to have been drawn in Microsoft Paint, though.
* My vocabulary in that respect just about stretches to “hoppy/grapefruity/malty/biscuity/chocolatey/coffee-ey”. Presumably if I ever get to try anything with Citra hops, “mangoey” will have be added to the list.
** This is not a pun. Please move along, nothing to see here.
For reasons which I shall go into at length in future posts, Guinness is an important beer to me, in a way that isn’t necessarily connected to how good it is. However, I do also think that it’s a good, comforting beer and in those (thankfully increasingly limited) number of places that I end up in with work or friends that has no cask beers, no interesting bottles and otherwise only lagers on tap, I’ll usually have a Guinness.
If you go to the Guinness visitor’s centre and read between the lines, you’ll quickly realise that Guinness has been brilliantly marketed over the years, going back to the 1920s at the very least. However it does make the occasional misstep, usually when it tries to be innovative or expand its range. These are rarely horrible disasters, but always seem short-lived and are presumably commercial failures (see Guinness Red).
The most successful Guinness innovation in my memory has been the widgeted can. Guinness developed the widget technology, launched it in 1989 and improved on it with the floating widget in 1997. It was an clever, scientific solution to the problem that draught* Guinness (i.e. the nitrokegged version which has been on bars since 1964) seemed like a very different drink to the original “fizzy” Guinness available in bottles or cans.
As an aside: I think my tastes may be changing as I learn more about beer. I might sit down soon and compare widgeted and unwidgeted canned Guinness. I suspect I might start to prefer the latter as I always remember it having a stronger flavour and being much less creamy, which put me off when I was younger.
However this does create a problem when there’s no Guinness on tap but you want to sell it from pub fridges. We don’t seem to like cans in pubs. I don’t know if they seem cheap, or perhaps fail to fit into the pub experience. I’ve caught a little bit of the current debate about American craft brewers using cans and it possibly being the way of the future. However I would say that, in my experience, beer out of a can always tastes slightly of the can.
Diageo’s (Guinness’ parent company) previous solution to this has been to sell widgeted bottles. I don’t really know what to do with one of them: they’re covered in opaque plastic and usually presented without a glass, so you can’t see the beer. Then you end up drinking from a glass bottle with a plastic widget (which is larger than the neck of the bottle) floating in it like a ping pong ball.
A can of “draught Guinness” and a pint glass is a more appealling solution to me, as at least you can see it settle. Diageo appreciate that the visual experience of a draught Guinness settling is something that is part of the attraction. Which has resulted in a new and peculiar delivery technique which I’ve started to see in pubs: the “surger”.
A couple of months ago I went into the Lazy Lounge (Wellington Street, Leeds) with work colleagues and saw that, contrary to my expectations, they had Guinness on the bar. I ordered it, except what appeared to be a Guinness tap actually turned out to be a “surger” point. The barman went to the fridge and pulled out a slightly unusual can of Guinness and poured some flat black liquid into a smaller-than-pint glass. He then put the glass of flat black liquid on a metal disc on the surger point. Ultrasonic waves passed through the glass and suddenly the usual cloudiness and creamy head started to appear.
Except… when I tried it, it tasted exactly like widget-canned Guinness: mainly like draught Guinness, but a bit tinny. Moreover, I felt I’d been cheated, as the thing on the bar looked like a tap from where I was standing. I can see the point of the system in that it adds a bit of a show to ordering a can of Guinness and gets a lit-up bit of black plastic that says “Guinness” on the bar, in the customer’s face. But frankly it just seems like an uneccessary piece of faffing – smoke and mirrors which doesn’t improve the beer in any way.
This Morning Advertiser article says that the that the Guinness surger was originally sold as a home device a few years ago but – and this is a wonderfully dry piece of journalism – “was dropped following ‘borderline’ success.” Following success in bars in the Asian market, it’s apparently going to be rolled out more widely in the UK to many more pubs that don’t have room for Guinness in the cellar.
As Tom Waits said:
I got the style but not the grace,I got the clothes but not the face,I got the bread but not the butter,
I got the window but not the shutter,
But I’m big in Japan, I’m big in Japan…
* Here’s where I show my ignorance: is it draught or draft? Is this an American English/British English thing? I’ve been trying but can’t identify consistent usage on either side. Guinness themselves use “draught”, albeit to refer to something which isn’t.