Session 120: Brown Beer

Session 120: Brown Beer

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This month, Brighton-based Joe Tindall hosts the 120th Friday Session and has chosen a topic that comes with some emotional baggage: brown beer.

He explains:

“The colour brown has certain connotations, some of which I won’t dwell on. But used in reference to beer, it can signify a kind of depressing old fashioned-ness – to refer to a traditional bitter as ‘brown’ seems to suggest it belongs to a bygone corduroy-trousered era. As breweries who pride themselves on their modernity focus on beers that are either decidedly pale or unmistakably black, the unglamorous brown middle ground is consistently neglected.

So for Session 120, let’s buck the trend and contemplate brown beer. This might be brown ale, or the aforementioned English bitter; it could be a malty Belgian brune, a dubbel or a tart oud bruin; even a German dunkel might qualify.”

Joe is absolutely right. It’s time to ditch this lazy prejudice. I have ripped off my corduroy trousers and thrown them from the upstairs window.

This also gives me an opportunity to add a local slant – I want to talk about a gem little known outside its native borders: Death or Glory by Tring Brewery.

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There are only a handful of long-running cask strong ales across Britain and this is Hertfordshire’s. Heavy abv beers have become legion over the past few years but this ale is an old-timer by comparison. Tring Brewery was founded in 1992 and Death or Glory was first brewed in 1994, so celebrates its twenty third birthday this year. It’s a 7.2 abv beer traditionally brewed on 25th October to commemorate the charge of the Light Brigade but is now produced numerous times a year.

It’s billed as a strong ale though if you wanted to shoehorn it, you could call it a barley wine. It features Styrian and Challenger hops and Maris Otter, Crystal and Chocolate malt.

It’s a beer that would mellow over a few days but doesn’t often get the chance; when it does the rounds across the beer engines of Hertfordshire, the cask can be completely emptied by the pub-goers on the day of tapping. You usually have to be quick on your feet down to the local to score some.

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What was noteworthy when it was first made is that it was aged – a process given to few beers at the time in Britain. It’s always matured for a month before release.

It’s in the midst of modern beers going into the citrussy hop jungles that this beer stands out even more. It’s of a different time and disposition. There is fruit but it’s not the modern pale oozing tropical juices – it’s more typically British. It reflects the climate; the conserves and the pickling. This has the taste of jams and chutneys, nods to brown sauce and Worcester sauce.

When it’s dispensed from a bottle, there’s an appropriate whoosh of carbonation when you crack it open but there are no runnels charging up the inside of the glass because the beer is too rich.

On the eye it’s like dark treacle. The aroma is of tar, stewed dark fruit, polished wood and bitumen. The palate reflects notes of black cherries, dandelion and burdock, iodine, molasses or brown sugar and that funfair staple – candied apples encased in a caramel amber. It’s viscous and sticky like the thrush-strewn berries along autumn gutters.

It laminates the tongue and inner maw like a glaze. It’s everything in all directions with the fruity hops in there somewhere clinging to flotsam in the maelstrom. It goes sweet, sickly sweet then bitter and retraces this circuit.

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I wanted to give an idea of this beer on cask so I rang the brewery. I was told if it would be anywhere it would be in the Lamb in Stoke Goldington in north Buckinghamshire. I contacted this pub and found out it’s on as a permanent! At my earliest opportunity, I embarked on a quest into this exotic county that borders mine – a proper Ernest Shackleton, me.

There’s a more rounded feel to the beer when it’s dispensed from beer engine. When you swallow it, it’s vaulted from the condition in the cask – it gives it more life and at the same time spreads it out more. It feels less adhesive and carries itself more lightly.

What really completes this ale is to understand the context it’s from. Currently, we’re in the middle of winter and the tarmac and cobbles have a zinc sparkle from the frost. It’s that time of year when we have to get up earlier to defrost the car and drive slower. It’s that time when walking, you lower your centre of gravity rounding a corner to get to the village inn and this is where Death or Glory comes into its own. It’s sitting here in a rural pub with an open fire that completes it.

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You grin daftly from the warmth and morph into a happy Christmas bauble. As you sit by the crackling hearth, you wonder whether mankind built stone dwellings and harnessed fire simply to complement a beer like this rather than the other way around.

This is where the beer was conceived and grew up. It isn’t refreshing but nourishing. It makes sense here in the biting jaws of January to help relax, thaw out and loosen sinews. It would make no sense in Sydney or in Palm Beach. It might have been fate that it was originally brewed at the end of October – just as we say goodbye to the sun and beer gardens.

Boring brown beer? Nope. Try endearing, satisfying, warming, luxuriant, complex, heartening, life-affirming, soothing brown beer. But like a lot of local staples the world over, you just might need to be in its land of origin at the right time to appreciate it fully.

Harvest Pale – the gateway beer

About a week ago I scanned the beer engines in a local and decided to have a pint of Harvest Pale from Castle Rock Brewery. This beer was awarded the Champion Beer of Britain by CAMRA in 2010 – roughly the time I started nurturing a serious interest in beer.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve had a pint of Harvest Pale. Like Landlord, Doom Bar and Tribute, it’s on permanently in pubs far from its home town – in HP’s case Nottingham. In my hunt for the new, I often neglect it simply to endlessly chart the rotating guests on offer.

It’s completely clear, golden and glowing with a glossy white head. There’s a grassy aroma as we’ve now come to expect from ales of this hue. Citrussy notes tantalise the lips before it’s even been transported across the gullet. These observations could be describing any number of modern pales.

It’s only after this initial introduction that an old school sweat returns; the humulone spritz segues into the warm greasy pastry from beers I moulded my palate on in the 1990s. This malty depth used to be hidden in plain sip as it haunted every pint of amber or golden cask ale.

The malt bringing up the rear – as dominant as the hops at the front – only registers now. It’s a character in itself and yet it’s been displaced during a time frame of little over six years. Taste and smell are hardwired to memory which otherwise fades. This is what makes this beer so special – it’s a sudden flashback to how things always were – suffixed onto the bouquet and palate of how things have become.

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There are other culprits that have had similar associations footnoted to them like Summer Lightening and Exmoor Gold, but this one is for the beer connoisseurs of my vintage. I don’t go back far enough for those beers to be game changers to me.

History gets faster and faster meaning the rate of change keeps accelerating. Culture turns. Social media pushes things forward. We strike out at the constantly new. Everything is in flux and few people are keeping tabs.

It seems that more has happened to beer in Britain in the six years since Harvest Pale won Champion Beer of Britain in 2010 than in the decades before it. For example, I don’t bat an eyelid when I see a DIPA on cask now. They’re being made by rural breweries who up until recently were trading on kitsch farming nostalgia on their pump clips. However, this time last year I’d never even had a DIPA via any dispense!

In 2010, CAMRA couldn’t have realised quite what a chimera this beer was. We talk of gateway beers but this made me think more of a bridge linking new beer with the old. For that reason, I now believe Harvest Pale is one of the most significant cask ales ever produced. I just never appreciated it up until now.

 

Session 119 Roundup: Discomfort Beer

Session 119 Roundup: Discomfort Beer

 

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Here is my roundup for Session 119 – Discomfort Beer:

Considering the squeezed time frame during the Christmas period with us bloggers hammering out Golden Pint Awards, Twelve Beers of Christmas and other festive gambols, I’m especially grateful to all who contributed.

Gary Gillman @beeretseq contributed a post within record time – almost before I’d sent out the request. He’s a true online grafter.

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He recalls an increase in ABV in beers from his native Quebec which caused sensory discomfort as well as the sharper hop profiles that started gaining a footing – particularly Cascade.

The Session: Exploring the Beer Discomfort Zone

Meanwhile from Boston USA, Mike Lynch @burgersbrews describes growing up disgracefully during his college days. His recollections also round on the Cascade hop as popularised by Sierra Nevada – a benchmark brewery for many.

Session 119: Discomfort Beer

The shock from pronounced hoppiness is echoed from this side of the pond too by Suzy from Lincoln in the UK @lincolnpubgeek. She recalls the trauma of hoppy beer colliding with a predilection for sweeter, darker ales – in this case the discomfort came from Brewdog’s Punk IPA. On realising how vast a magisterium beer is, she states:

“it was like getting on a ferry from Bangor and only then discovering that Ireland exists”
(just for the record – I was raised very close to the Bangor she alludes to in north Wales – not the one in Ireland. The latter would’ve added surreality to the quote).

Discomfort Beer – What is “hoppy”?

Jay Brooks is a Californian and makes clear his Discomfort Beer – it’s one I can agree with here in the U.K! I don’t believe I’ve ever had a chilli beer I can get down with and neither has he. Beer with chilli-infused food YES. Beer with chilli IN (often stouts – at least in Britain) – NO!

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http://brookstonbeerbulletin.com/session-119-the-discomfort-of-burning-mouth-beer/

Jack Perdue @deepbeer hails from Grasonville in Maryland and is working on crossing from one side of the beery planet – the rich quads and imperial stouts – to its antipode where sours, lambics and barnyard ales roam free. These more astringent numbers represent Discomfort Beer to him and he’s as determined to acquire their taste as he is to explore.

http://www.deepbeer.com/journal/2017/1/5/discomfort-beer

Back in Ontario, Alan @agoodbeerblog (abetterbeerblog427.com) talks about many beers but finally rounds on the hop-obsessed and often catch-all style of IPA – but not before going through some seriously unique tasting notes on Cantillon’s Bruocsella:

“quite plainly watery at the outset then acid and more acid…then one note of poo. Not refreshing to slightly sub-Cromwellian stridency”

Session 119: My Discomfort Beer

A nostalgic recollection takes us away from the hops and towards a critique of the body and what’s often seen as the cheaper stand-in for malts (though they can both be used to good effect by good breweries) – maize and corn. Leslie Patiño @lpatinoauthor lives in Texas and dwells on  some of the US beers of yesteryear that her father drank.

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Discomfort Beer

Mark Lindner @bythebbl is from Bend in Oregon. He is equally blessed and cursed insofar as he judges many beer contests but with a very discerning palate. He dislikes a lot of IPAs – something you seldom hear – and finds that his taste represents a thin sliver of a broad wedge. Pilsners, barley wines and imperial stouts are his favourites but getting an underwhelming one could be worse than sipping a bog-standard take on a more noxious style. His post is as analytical as it is complex.

Discomfort Beer (Session #119)

Also from Bend in Oregon and this time focussing on the malt (or in this case – as much what’s standing in for it), is @brewsite Jon Abernathy’s post about a beer he’s struggling to get acquainted with – white stout and the dubious lengths brewers go to to actually produce one.

The Session #119: Discomfort Beer

Kate Bernot @kbernot from New Jersey chose to talk about a beery cousin – mead. She recalls her first sickly sweet experience with a beverage that she ended up falling for and it proves that even when restricted to one element (honey), there is still a world of variety.

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this sumptuous image was taken by Jill McNamara – photo editor for Draft Magazine

http://draftmag.com/the-session-discomfort-beer-mead/

Back in Cornwall UK, Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey @BoakandBailey dissected the topic in their typically cerebral style. They point out that taste and discomfort are rarely fixed – over time, they’re as fluid as our tastes in anything else. The post image they use is also spot-on:

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http://boakandbailey.com/2017/01/discomfort-beer-saison-tripel-brett-and-kriek/#comment-71788

Andreas Krennmair @der_ak is from Linz in Austria but currently resident in Berlin. He brought his experience of home brewing to talk about his initial taste of Orval and goes into the associated history of “keeping beer” or stock pale ales. The link between Orval and these styles was an education to me.

My Discomfort Beer

Gareth @Coluleeds originally from Leeds UK (but now an Essex lad), recalls innocently ordering a glass of Oude Gueuze at a beer festival in Belgium. To be accustomed to a sweet warming Blonde or Brune and then get choked by the aggressive sour hands of a Gueuze must be a real shock. He also glimpsed a revered demigod meditating in a tent…..

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Session 119 – Discomfort Beer

Rebecca Pate @rpate has roots in Canada but dwells in and chronicles the frenzy that is brewing in east London. Here she reflects on the osmotic way she takes to new beer styles; her palate adapts to most and evolves accordingly. But she was given pause recently after trying a floral kuitbier. Definitely a new one on me – read on!

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http://www.brewingeast.com/home/2017/1/4/the-session-119-discomfort-beer

Joe Tindall @FatalGlass picks a beer style he initially disliked – and I can join him in reviling it – smoked beer or Rauchbier. He refers to how the palate adjusts to ever more bitter flavours – with hops it’s the lupulin threshold shift (I cannot wait to bring up this term in a loud voice next time I’m in the pub. Thank you Joe!). In Rauchbier’s case, the aggressor’s the smoked malt. He took on this demon and won.

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http://thefatalglassofbeer.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/wholly-smoke.html

Stan Hieronymus @StanHieronymus (the father of The Session) lives in St Louis in Missouri. He delves back to some of the earliest memories of drinking and the dislike it can kindle as a young spectator; viz his father drinking with friends and the stench of tobacco. Isn’t most people’s first experience of beer negative? I believe so. It’s the original acquired taste.

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The Session #119: Feeling comfortable

Finally, and perhaps fittingly for someone into endurance sport, Derrick Peterman @ramblings_oa_br from Campbell, California adds a new depth to this discussion: he talks about discomfort somatically and the way you push yourself psychologically to absorb the pain of running or to adapt to new beer styles. One style that just can’t grow on him though, is American Barley Wine.

http://beer-runner.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/the-session-119-dealing-with-discomfort.html

 

2017

2017

2017: a year that doesn’t roll off the tongue

Well 2017’s here. Whether it will be as full of upheaval and death as its predecessor, I doubt. But if it is, then current affairs will replace benzedrine this coming year.

I’m sharing with you not so much two new year’s resolutions as two statements of intent. They almost contradict each other:

1 – drink more German beer on tap (which will necessitate going to London).

2 – explore the shire in which I now live instead of constantly visiting London.

Statement number one reflects that the best beer I had in 2016 waited until late December. It was a glass of Lagerbier Hell from Augustiner-Bräu – Munich’s oldest brewery. It was dispensed from keg at the Beer Shop in St Albans. At the time, the town was in a fifteen tog duvet of freezing fog so imagine how much more appealing this beer would be in the swelter of summer. Speaking of which, I also had a brief fling with Kölsch at the end of May (this time just in bottle) so that’s twice I got seduced by Deutsches Bier in 2016.

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German bottled beer is delicious – but I’ve had a taste from tap now

Lager is like the tide sweeping in over a salt flat. When it’s good it’s the most ravishing beer. It’s gorgeous and it’s always been there for me to ignore. Why?

My ignorance of German beer might also be linked to the fact that the bottled version often pales against its tap version. Apart from a few examples like Franziskaner Weissbier, I rarely see variety of German beer on draught – even in London. That’s why the Lager from the beer shop was such an eye-opener.

It’s also in stark contrast to IPA which has in one popular guise put itself on a path of convergent evolution with Um Bongo. IPA is rapidly becoming the syrup at the bottom of tinned fruit both in taste and consistency. It’s lovely but it’s beginning to miss an elemental part of beer: the refreshment.

The problem is I have been fixated on the British and the American with small cameos from Belgium for years now. In part, I think it’s because I’ve subconsciously convinced myself to ignore beer from large established breweries (unless, hypocritically, it happens to be Fullers). It’s time to put that right in 2017.

The second statement isn’t a swipe against the capital. I love it. It’s in me and always will be. I’ve worked for the same borough council now for over ten years so come into it each week. On my adventures around Westminster, I often pass pubs I don’t know and peer through the windows to try and discern the outfit that runs it and the beer it serves based on the pump clip silhouettes. I always used to put down markers for when I was off duty. We moved out in 2011 but the compulsion to go to London during down time carried on.

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the main drag through Sarrat

But this means I have neglected Hertfordshire where I now live. It’s to my great shame that it wasn’t until 2016 I finally visited places like Sarrat and Watford on beery days out. The older pub-goers I know in St Albans that are or were plumbers, milkmen and builders all know the surrounding areas. The people that moved up from London tend to be completely ignorant of them. In St Albans’ case, this isn’t actually a new phenomenon as it’s always been a commuter town and owes its wealth to the big smoke. On the street I live on, most people still work in London so the north/south commute is the norm. The east/west axis doesn’t exist.

The villages and towns in Hertfordshire are connected by wiggly arterial bus routes that take time and often require you change at least once. Since moving to St Albans, I haven’t been on a single bus. I actually had to ask a local codger whether bus drivers take payment (my recent experience only being London) as I genuinely didn’t know. I was also given a piece of advice: never wait to get the last bus – it might never come.

But out there in Hertfordshire’s multiple ayots, garden cities and steads, there are breweries of mystery and brew pubs of legend. They are mine to discover along with the shaggy creatures that run and frequent them. I have big feet for my short body so I’d make an excellent hobbit. It’s finally time to cut across country in 2017.

Happy new year!