The other night I was thinking about how many Northern English breweries consistently impress and surprise me, and how many of them are relatively new. Thornbridge Brewery seems like an established veteran of UK craft brewing, but it’s only seven years old. Marble Brewery is positively neolithic in comparison to most, having started in 1997.
It is trite to say that the new wave of breweries in the UK owe a lot to the American scene. However, the enjoyment with which I’ve been drinking hop-forward beers like Buxton Wild Boar, Summer Wine Diablo or Magic Rock High Wire makes me wonder if I even really need to buy American beers any more. Certainly these English beers haven’t acquired either the age or the price uplift of their imported American inspirations by the time they make it to my shopping basket.
Then I wondered whether I really needed to drink beers from anywhere else at all. Between them, Marble and Thornbridge have been working their way through the canon of Northern European beer styles recently, from Vienna lager through wheat beers to Kolsch, saisons, dubbels and tripels. Summer Wine have also paid tribute in their own irreverent way with the Lime & Coriander Saison I’m drinking right now and the mind-bending but superb double Belgian Rye PA Cohort. Sure, I’d miss Orval, but I could certainly attempt to console myself with Durham Brewery’s Bombay 106.
This is not to mention the excellent quality of both traditional English beer styles and those newer styles which, although influenced from abroad and made with New World hops, are nonetheless peculiarly British: the barley wines; the strong stouts and porters like Hawkshead Brodie’s Prime; the cask session pale ales like Roosters Yankee, Ilkley Mary Jane or Hawkshead Windermere Pale; and yes, even the brown bitters that sell by the gallon.
After a bit of thinking, looking at Google Maps and (frankly) gerrymandering, I concluded that, if it came to it, I could probably cope with drinking only beers brewed within a 75 mile radius of my house in North Leeds. Provided, of course, that they had access to hops flown from the other side of the world. (I should note I hadn’t even considered Burton and it ended up within the area quite by accident – I was pushing north east and north west). That would allow me to enjoy beers (inter alia) from all of the following breweries:
Acorn, Black Sheep, Buxton, Coniston, Cropton, Daleside, Durham, Goose Eye, Hambleton, Hardknott*, Hawkshead, Ilkley, Kelham Island, Kirkstall, Leeds, Little Valley, Liverpool Organic, Magic Rock, Mallinsons, Marble, Ossett, Red Willow, Revolutions, Ridgeside, Roosters, Saltaire, Sam Smiths, Stringers, Summer Wine, Thornbridge, Timothy Taylor, and York.
Whilst I would scrape by on these riches, in quiet moments I would find myself yearning for Orval, Brooklyn Lager, St Bernardus, Sierra Nevada Torpedo or even Jever. I’d certainly miss Kernel and Brewdog; it would sting on a positively existential level to never enjoy another Irish stout. The worst would be to travel and not enjoy local beers: cursed to stick to the Watney’s Red Barrel in “Majorcan bodegas selling fish and chips […] and calamares and two veg“.
But I think this exercise has helped me to realise that one of the best things about beer is that someone in the smallest unit of an industrial estate in West Yorkshire can buy foreign ingredients and build on the innovation and tradition of other brewers, cultures and traditions, to make the some of best beer in the world, right on my doorstep. It’s a credit to those American, Belgian and other brewers that they have inspired them to do so.
You can’t say that about wine. As they say in Doncaster: bollocks to Terroir.
*Just about: I might have to add an extra half a mile…
Update: For a reply from Southern England, see Mark Landell’s blog.
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.
Don’t get me started on Sheffield. I spent 2 years there (September 2002 – June 2004) when there were (to my knowledge at the time) a few good pubs with decent beer selections, such as The Fat Cat, Kelham Island Tavern and The Devonshire Cat. However two of those were in Kelham Island, which was a fair distance from where I lived and also a pretty overt red light district. As a result I spent most of my time drinking in a few nice pubs with a passable beer selection (The Cobden View, The Hallamshire House) as well as a few rubbish ones, as students do.
So I’m slightly irked by the gall of the place; becoming such a beer Mecca after I left. One of the main culprits is Thornbridge Brewery, which set up its 10 barrel plant in 2005, 17 or so miles to the south west of the city. Not content with conspiring with Pivovar to establish up the annoyingly good Sheffield Tap in the railway station, their pub estate in the city then expanded to include The Greystones and even, to rub salt in the wound, the refurbished Hallamshire House! The pub that was literally behind my house in my first year in Sheffield is now a Thornbridge craftpalace!
I did the pub quiz in the Hallamshire House on a regular basis! I’m pretty sure the burglars who robbed our house three times in a month used to “case the joint” from there! Now, its almost certainly full of students guzzling down Halcyon like it’s snakebite and black. It probably even does great Scotch Eggs, or pork pies you’d swap your LLB for. I don’t want to know. It’s dead to me.
Nowadays I don’t get to go to Sheffield very often, but we were down for a few hours on Saturday for a trip to John Lewis to buy some dogs’ heads for Christmas. We decided to go to Dada for lunch, yet another Thornbridge pub that just opened at the end of October on Trippet Lane, in the building that used to be Trippets Wine Bar. I liked the decor, with its mixture of quirkly artiness (objet trouvé bucket lampshades) and glorifications of the pantheon of Sheffield’s music scene (Cocker; Hawley; Turner; him off of The Human League). The link between Dadaism, music and Sheffield is Cabaret Voltaire, but I don’t think that the reason really matters. Dada is “the abolition of logic … the abolition of memory“.
There was obviously a great range of beer on cask, keg and in the fridges (Buxton, O’Dell etc). However I had to drive later, so we only had a meat and cheese platter and a couple of halves. I restricted myself to a 4.3% Thornbridge Browne: an “Australian Brown Ale” which had the sweet citrus and light caramel taste of C&C brown lemonade (spot the Northern Irishman) with some hops thrown in. Kate, who thought that the Browne’s flavour was like what kids imagine their father’s bitter to taste like, was able to go for the 7.2% Thornbridge/Kernel Coalition Burton Ale, a lovely hoppy, more viscous rich ale.
So yes, yes; da, da. Dada is good. As the Dadaists would have it:
Dada comes from the dictionary. It is terribly simple. In French it means “hobby horse”. In German it means “good-bye”, “Get off my back”, “Be seeing you sometime”. In Romanian: “Yes, indeed, you are right, that’s it. But of course, yes, definitely, right”. And so forth. […] How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness.
For more on Dada, see Reluctant Scooper.
I said in a recent post that my love for Brooklyn Lager had recently been reawakened. It was certainly my first US craft “wow” and I even visited the Brewery last year, documented in a post no-one read.
It was also my first Vienna lager. Style icon Michael Jackson said Vienna is:
Amber-red or only medium-dark, lager. This was the style originally produced in Vienna. Brewers still talk of a “Vienna malt” to indicate a kilning to this amber-red colour, but the beer-style itself is no longer especially associated with the city.
One suspects that Brooklyn (supposedly an reimagining of a pre-Prohibition US style) is something of a style of its own, with the blend of Cascade and more noble hop flavours (Hallertau, Vanguard) reflecting a clever piece of US genre-merging.
I’ve been very pleased to see Brooklyn Lager increasingly available in the UK, in keg (North Bar claims to have been there first) and bottle, including in Sainsbury’s. However the Brooklyn in my fridge found itself elbowing for attention with a chippy novice from Derbyshire, Thornbridge Kill Your Darlings. Also a Vienna Lager, also from one of my favourite breweries; but which one’s best? There’s only one way to decide: a Viennese sandwich!
Appearance: From the moment they’re out of the bottle, you can see that Kill Your Darlings is a different beer to Brooklyn. Whereas Brooklyn is an amber, chestnut colour, KYD has the appearance of a much darker wood, mahogany perhaps. The heads also reflect a difference in the malt bill, the relatively clean ivory whiteness of the Brooklyn contrasting with the slightly nicotene-stained froth on the KYD.
Smell: The Cascade hops really shine in the New Yorker’s aroma, a lovely pine scent mingling with a light but noticeable sugary maltiness. The KYD is more malt-forward in its aroma with an inviting burnt-sugar smell dominating.
Taste: The malt continues to dominate the KYD, with the lovely rich, deep, dark, sweet maltiness that you might expect of a US double IPA, but without the heavy stickiness. There are also hops, with a pine and a light lemon citrus emerging especially on the finish. By contrast the Brooklyn lets the fresh piney and herbal hops shine throughout, more bitter than sweet but still with a smooth caramel base: a light, invigorating, very tasty beer.
It’s almost unfair to compare Kill Your Darlings to a world classic like Brooklyn, but this examination has demonstrated two things: (1) that Thornbridge have, once again, expanded successful and very enjoyably into a new style with a delicious and complex malty Vienna lager; and (2) that Brooklyn Lager has earned its success (as both a gateway beer and as a standard to return to over and over again) due to a perfect balance of hops and malt which come together in a very drinkable beer with hidden depths.
A good Sunday, on which we went to Sheffield to walk around John Lewis with a scanner to assemble a wedding list. This turned out to be less of a chore than it might have been (“Yep, if someone wants to buy me one of those, that would be nice”) , and we got a free pot of tea and cherry Bakewell bun each in the John Lewis cafe for our efforts.
Afterwards I was rewarded for good behaviour with a trip to the splendid Sheffield Tap for a few beers before the train back to Leeds. A bottle of Thornbridge Versa, the brewery’s new Weisse Beer, was very nice: pleasant and banana-ey, basically a well-crafted and unimpeachable version of a style that doesn’t really excite me. Magic Rock High Wire was on solid form on cask and Thornbridge Raven, also on cask, remains a truly great beer. A bottle of Urthel Hop-It (9.5%; crikey) was a nice blonde hoppy Belgian, but far from being the US-influenced double IPA that I had expected for no good reason. Note for the future: if you want a US double IPA, just order one.
The main point of this blog post, however, is to ask your opinion on a matter of some recent concern to me: pewter tankards. Beer can be drunk from pewter in the Booking Office bar at St Pancras, as well as the Fox & Anchor at Smithfield. In both North and Further North in Leeds, regulars have their own pewter tankards hanging on the wall by their names.
But are they really any good? Do they add or detract from the drinking experience? You certainly see less of the beer, but does it taste more metallic? Do they keep the beer colder than glass? I’m thinking of adding a Sheffield-make tankard to my wedding list and your comments would be a great help.
The Black Dossier: Black Rocks v Proper Black v Kernel Black IPA v Raven v Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale
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.
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?