Fancy Dress Beer

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The creatures in this image wouldn’t have been conceivable a year ago, but might only seem tentative twelve months from now. We have an imperial Gose made with beetroot, lemon peel, coriander and black salt. We then have an ale suffused with lobsters, cockles, seaweed and “sea herbs”, and finally a kaffir lime Saison blended with a coconut stout.

So to recap, beer with taproots, crustaceans, molluscs, coconut, salt, fruit, algae and plants.

How should we define brews like these when they stray so far from the traditional four ingredients? Beer in its glad rags? Masquerade ale? Bière de grand guignol? I settled for fancy dress and what we’re here to ascertain is whether they wear these garbs proudly or just got changed in the dark.

Is there anything in this qualified experimentation? Are these three concoctions still actually beer?

And so to the fancy dress ball…..

Beerbliotek is a Swedish brewery from Gothenburg. For this venture, they’ve teamed up with A F Brew from St Petersburg. This is the beetroot, lemon peel, coriander and black sea salt candidate. The name of this beer is as abundantly Craft as the brewery itself:

Alternative Fact 1984: Beetroot Is The New Hops (can 6.6 abv):

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It pours an ectoplasmic pink like the brightest flush of rhubarb. The short-stay head is fluffy and as flamboyant a hue as candy floss. I notice small particles swirling in the vortex. There’s no mention of can-conditioning so this might be beetroot pulp.

On the nose, it smells like a well-used flannel; soaking wet and sweaty – this will no doubt be the salt that represents a Gose. The divisive Gose – I don’t think I’ll ever get used to sipping a beer and licking the salt from my lips. There’s also a tart citrus rind note in there.

I swig it. I’m happy to report it’s not only carbonated but refreshing too. The first taste I pick up is bittersweet like a blood orange but then the beetroot starts to come through loud and clear. Think of the sweet cytoplasm you get pooling on the chopping board when you grate the imperial purple one.

So, unsurprisingly, it’s like drinking a beetroot salad. If you enjoy Pimms, you might be cool with this. I could imagine drinking something like this in summer, and not just because the colour makes me nostalgic for cherry Slush Puppies (do they still exist?).

It contains corn, wheat and rye malt in the grain bill so this kind of fills the role of the yoghurt in a smoothie.

Out of this trio, Wild Beer Co is the producer I know most and hold in high esteem. Even given their infamous creative wont, this beer just seems mad with the addition of lobster, cockles, seaweed, sea salt and star anise.

Of The Sea (bottle 7 abv):

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Emptying into the glass, the liquid is a gorgeous glowing straw gold and is crystal clear. A huge lily rocky head lunges up and it sticks around. It looks like a Pilsner but that’s as far as the comparison can be pushed.

The aroma is elusive. It takes me a lot of swirling, cupping, inhaling etc to get any handle on it. My first approximation is strawberries and cracked pepper but then this ripens and I get a facial tan of sweet rich crab meat like unscrewing the top off a jar of Prince’s crab paste. I should say at this point that I’ve never had lobster so don’t recognise it. I’ve had langoustines/Dublin bay prawns but remember little of their taste or fragrance.

I take my first mouthful. I’ve never tasted a beer like this before and I’m afraid it’s simply my previous analogy writ large: I’m eating crab paste sandwiches on white bread – this beer is the sludge I chew it into. What you get on both on the nose and the palate is a complete side swipe to what your eyes tell you. Blindfold, this would be murky. Instead, the beer looks like clarified honey.

I get a touch of heat – a little spice that might derive from the star anise also used in the brew.

It impresses me by dutifully fulfilling Wild Beer Co’s mission statement to create a beer based on a lobster bisque. That’s been achieved.

It has carbonation and malt but in no way is it refreshing.

Wild Weather Ales have collaborated with Weird Beard Brew Co to pull off what’s possibly the whackiest offering so far by blending a kaffir lime Saison with a coconut stout:

Such A Bohr (can-conditioned 7.3 abv):

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It decants a dark treacle brown but this turns immediately to a foam that fills the glass. It’s one of those beers that you glaze over watching to settle but eventually it does. The expanded head is toasted, velvety and stubborn.

It smells like sweet coffee or coffee cake with a sprinkling of Demerera sugar.

I sip it. I get the levity – the fluorescent green of the limes followed by a full roast coffee nebula. I then get the stringy gnashy coconut too.

This is everything in all directions at once. Each of the disparate and contradictory characters seem to survive with their identities intact in this maelstrom. This is a blend – they can so often be like mixing paints on a canvas and ending up with a muddy brown. This beer isn’t like that, it’s like the individual colours in refracted light.

No ingredient overpowers the others; this beer is a perfect socialist state.

Conclusion:

These chimeras each made me sit up in some way. None of them is horrible but each is trying to get its foot onto the same stage as beer and so should be judged accordingly. I’ll be curt: If I had to vote one out, with regret due to my adoration of the brewery, it would be Wild Beer Co’s Of The Sea. It tasted like something I want to eat. I love sausages but I don’t want my beer to taste the same as them.

I’d next drop Such A Bohr. Why? Because even though it demonstrates brewing craft, it’s just too busy. Less is more but does make me reflect on a lot of people’s reason for disliking black IPAs – a style I love. They don’t like the sensory contradiction of the verdant citrussy hops paired with the unction of roast coffee. This beer is almost a caricature of that – the style taken to its logical conclusion and where some draw that line at black IPAs, I draw it here. I think many would love this beer.

And so back to the beetroot. If I was going to drink any of these beers again it would be this one. Despite the shopping list of ingredients, it’s actually the simplest one in this line-up and remembers that one of beer’s strong suits is that it should be refreshing (not an absolute rule – an imperial stout certainly isn’t) and it hits that spot. The beetroot doesn’t replace the hops in their aroma and bittering capacity. One thing a great Lager will always have over this is the dry aftertaste that sends you diving back in for more. So no – beetroot is not the new hops it’s still just beetroot. This is a refreshing low-alcohol cocktail and about three of your five a day.

vertical whimsy

vertical whimsy

Like many bloggers, vloggers, geeks and enthusiasts I have an affinity with Cloudwater Brew Co’s series of Double IPAs.

In the height of the summer in 2016, I visited the same pub several days in a row to purchase two thirds of version seven. It cost five pounds but because it requires time and rumination to consume it, the price seemed about right. Craft beer – which for this paragraph I’ll choose to mean beer from new breweries dispensed from keg – has a much lower profile in St Albans than in London. Proof of this is that the visits I made were all watered from the same single keg. I seemed to be the only one drinking it.

Lone sipping suited the experience because each time I’d contemplate what beer actually is, what it used to be and what it’s becoming. I’d watch the debate unfold in the surface of the liquid. Colourful images and recollections had their cameos and form the basis of this post. For reasons I’m still not certain about, instead of doing a vertical tasting between three DIPAs, I want to do it with two of the things version seven reminded me of.

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I’m doing a vertical tasting of Cloudwater Brew Co’s DIPA eleven, the syrup from a tin of Del Monte’s fruit cocktail and Libby’s Um Bongo.

This is a completely unscientific experiment. It’s based entirely on whimsy and if you’d rather more serious and informed reviews, then stop reading here. This is not a parody either. I’m a genuine fan of the beer. I want to get inside it, dismantle, label each component and put it back together again. I just want to go at it from different angles.

DIPA version 11 (ingredients on label in image):

I open the bottle and hold it under my nose. The fragrance I get is of tinned peaches. This sours up a bit when poured into the glass to become more like gin and lime or even the cleaved grapefruit some narcissists eat for breakfast.

On the eye, it’s a grimy butterscotch yellow but I can still see trills of bubbles soaring upwards. When you sip it, it’s well carbonated – different to most other high ABV beers. It really helps to slosh itself all over the palate.

I get a hit of fresh celery with a citrus background which could be unripe satsumas, lemons or limes. Through some sense you’re aware of the alcohol too but it’s not on the taste per se. It broods under the surface just out of reach from the olfactory bulb. I think of Sauron not yet able to take physical form.

The last thing to say is that the feel of the beer is “graty” – harsh like a desiccated raspberry blown in the desert. I feel it on the back of the throat.

Del Monte fruit salad syrup:

All I know about Del Monte is that there’s a man in a panama hat that visits farmsteads in tropical locations. He has the air of a Mafia don. Downtrodden peasants give him a sample of their wares, he bites into it, pauses and if it appeals, gives a nod to which the farmer shrieks “the man from Del Monte – he say yes!” Cursory research (meaning Wikipedia) reveals that Del Monte was actually the name of a hotel the fledgeling company originally blended coffee for. That’s the best I can do for something interesting.

In a glass this actually looks attractive. There’s a gleam to the liquid – almost a sparkle – a bit like pearls. Some tiny suspended fruit particles also put me in mind of things trapped in amber.

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On the nose it’s horrible. It’s like a Care Bear’s fart or one of those odd “fruit” scented rubbers we used to have at primary school (by rubber I mean eraser – the school wasn’t THAT bad). I go back to inhale from the DIPA and by comparison, the beer now has a mustard aroma.

The texture of the syrup is a pure satin gloss. It doesn’t actually taste of fruit either. It’s just sugar throughout. Returning to the glass of Cloudwater, I get more new experiences. Version eleven now tastes grassy or like straw with hints of mustard seed – cracked black pepper, even.

Um Bongo:

I have fond memories of Um Bongo. At some point in my childhood we suddenly started doing a lot of driving between Wales and England and I acquired a big red lever arch file, which to my memory, had nothing in it but it went with me everywhere. It was my fetish item. On the front was a round sticker that had probably come free with a comic. It had an elephant with eyes like whirlpools. The slogan underneath read: “Um Bongo makes you wongo”. It made me daydream about the jungle in the Congo but it was actually born and bred in Cumbria! Here are some of the finest lyrics ever penned:

“Way down deep in the middle of the Congo,
a hippo took an apricot, a guava and a mango.
He stuck it with the others and he danced a dainty tango.
The rhino said, “I know… we’ll call it Um Bongo!”
Um Bongo, Um Bongo, they drink it in the Congo!
The python picked the passion-fruit, the marmoset the mandarine,
the parrot painted packets that the whole caboodle landed in.
So when it comes to sun and fun and goodness in the jungle,
they all prefer the sunny, funny one they call Um Bongo!”

It actually smells of something root-like crossed with sweet orange squash. There’s a note of warm plastic too.

It’s disappointing to behold in the glass. It’s roughly the colour of lemon peel but with no depth or glow. Just a uniform colour agent I presume. It’s a bit like the water you rinse paint brushes in.

When you sip it, it’s absorbed osmotically and you feel the insides of your mouth light up. Through the sweetness, there’s a note of pineapple.

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This makes me realise the roles carbonation plays in beer. Not only does it lift the aroma towards you and make the liquid react in front of you, it helps transport the taste, feel and aftertaste. It makes beer a layered experience in comparison. I sipped the DIPA again after the notes jotted for Um Bongo and counted that the full experience lasts about seven seconds – the more complex the beer the longer this might take.

It also revealed a taste I’ve read others attribute to beer but I’ve never had: I tasted raw white onions.

Conclusion:

Drinking the beer alongside the other test subjects made me appreciate just how many depths there are to a beer – and I’ve only really covered the initial ones.

It’s strange. When I sipped the DIPA in the Craft and Cleaver last summer, Um Bongo and Fruit salad syrup were the two main tastes that played on my mind. That version of DIPA was of course different to this one. It drank more lusciously fruity. However, I don’t think that would have made a huge difference here because when you get notes of something in a complex beer and then go to that culprit itself, it doesn’t align to your memory.

Put another way, the Um Bongo refused to taste like my recollection of Um Bongo and the fruit salad syrup didn’t spark synapses into recognition either. Whatever data I keep in my head about a particular ingredient doesn’t match it in real life. Memory, or mine at least, is very fickle.

Hertfordshire Stream Beer

Hertfordshire Stream Beer

In the midst of all the events taking place during the summer, I visited the Lower Red Lion in St Albans (the comparative prefix comes from the fact there used to be another Red Lion up the hill). On cask was an ale with an extra element that divided the customers: watercress. On the palate, there were sparks of green and blue in there amidst the chorus of orange and pink – that’s the synesthesia of my drinking recollection. This was a beer you rolled around the tongue.

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photo taken in the Lower Red Lion from the now distant summer

Watercress Ale is brewed by Paradigm Brewery in Sarratt. At first glance, Sarratt (pronounced to rhyme with carrot) looks like a place name from Brittany or even Catalonia but it lies to the south west of Hertfordshire near the Buckinghamshire border. Watercress will undoubtedly have been added to ale before – especially in the pre-hop days of hedgerow gruit, but I don’t recognise it as a thing and there are few breweries currently doing it.

Brewing with botanicals has become a new norm. I hate the term botanical when it’s used in brewing because of its shampoo advert sterility. It should also be noted that the hops and the malt are botanical too but the moniker never applies to them! In any case, what’s rare in Britain is to find a brewer that exploits the local flora for these ingredients. There are examples – some of the mead makers in London use Hackney honey and some Kent brewers use native molluscs in their oyster stouts. Williams Brothers in Clackmannanshire have also made ales with local kelp and heather.

But nowadays it’s more typical to brew with imported ingredients whether that be tea, cocoa nibs, coffee, molasses, chilli, blood oranges, mangoes, vanilla, coconuts or the most imported ingredient of them all – the new world hops.

dscf4882In the context of cooking up the local greenery, Paradigm brewery makes me think of another rural producer: Jester King in Texas. Just hear me out here: Jester King’s website is basically Edenic rural porn. Each image is of glowing refraction through stemmed glasses, weathered casks, sunlight dappled across verdure, high fertile canopies and mountains of nature’s harvest: oranges, peaches, melons, squashes, lemons, loquats (look it up), apricots, grapes – all ripe and glorifying in the Texan sun. Well stick with me here – this is our toned-down home counties equivalent. Our version however, is a land of trickling, of wetness clinging to brambles, low mists and slate skies. A watercress bed is such a perfect emblem of the local geography of the Thames Valley. It bears the same gentle characteristics.

I visited Sarratt on Tuesday. I could see the first signs of winter – the grass in the churchyard bore a frosted tinge like the bleached highlights in hair. Breathing in was fresh and life-affirming but coupled with an urge to cover up the throat. The chill was tempered by the aroma from cattle which was strangely comforting. Tramping across the fields was like entering into a cloud and I loved it. The atmosphere hangs ancient and still as you descend into the cleavage of the Chess valley. Cool moisture, serene and refreshing. With the sun hidden, there were no shadows and the edges of everything disappear into the shroud. These are also fitting conditions to acquaint myself with true watercress; the aquatic plant packed with iron.

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The chalk streams of both Herts and Bucks are ideal for farming watercress beds. In the 19th century it was a business that thrived and the yield would get sold in London in places like Covent Garden. The adjacent land to the chalk rivers was also conditioned for the growing of wheat. The heads and chaff were used in the brewing and milling trades, the stalks were used in the straw plaiting process. Places like Luton, St Albans, Watford and Hemel Hempstead had literally thousands of people working as plaiters and hundreds of hat makers (hence why Luton FC fans are known as the hatters).

E Tyler & Sons Watercress bed straddles the river Chess. It has a well-weathered fridge in the front garden from which the public can help themselves to bags of fresh watercress and leave the money in an honesty box.

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the river Chess, a bank of watercress and the public fridge and honesty box can be seen on the left

My teeth rent into the leaves and stalks. Initially they tasted a bit like tonic water, then came the grassy chlorophyll followed by the radish-like dry heat. But then it reverberated like an iron sheet struck by a hammer – that metallic note just resonating like a tuning fork. You end up blowing clouds of vapour to try and reduce the temperature. I could still taste it when I got back home a couple of hours later. This is potent stuff. If the beer tasted like this it would be undrinkable. The tiny shamrock-sized leaves you get sprouting from a sponge square in small plastic containers from supermarkets are a world away from the lolloping triffids that thrive in the chalk streams of the Chess.

 

dscf48915 kilograms of watercress go into a 550 litre volume of beer. This is enough to cause the drinker to take notice but not enough to overwhelm. At 3.6 ABV it’s a gentle beer as restrained as the landscape it’s cultivated and brewed in. At the time of writing the liquid was fermenting in “Pinky” (the vessel in the background is Perky) ready to be bottled for the first time.

I like this ale for two reasons: firstly, I simply liked drinking it in The Lower Red. I had a trial half followed by a confirmatory pint. Secondly, it stands for a place, a trade, local flora and a heritage that all get captured in a fermentor and end up presented in a glass. It deserves Protected Designation of Origin status.

I’d love it if in a few years’ time in Colorado, a bearded customer in a baseball cap and shades scanned the chalk board to see the beers on offer and asked the host:

“What I was really looking for was a HSA. Do you have one?”
“Hertfordshire Stream Ale? Sure. We got this one. It’s come all the way from Sarratt” (except now it rhymes with cravat).

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