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.

Impermanence

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Is not having permanent beers the future for craft brewing?
 
Last night in the White Hart Tap in St Albans, I was drawn straight towards the abstract Mondrianesque artwork on a Cloudwater pump clip. I’d made the decision to order a pint of this beer based on its maker before even scrutinising the style. It was a 3.9 ABV pale ale and like their other offerings, they have the power to beam lucid hop profiles as if through the clarity of a plasma screen. 
Regarding the choice to opt for that hand pull based solely on the brewery it’s from is a concession I make to just a handful of British brewers – they’re the usual raved about culprits from Finchampstead, Evercreech, Huddersfield, Bakewell, Bristol and Buxton. There is another “B” I can add to this list – Bermondsey and Kernel – the region’s brewing pioneer. I’m just as drawn towards its cork tile simplicity when I see it on tap. Writing a piece in 2015, I was curious to know how come its Table Beer’s ABV keeps changing:
Hi Alec,
Thanks for the kind words and glad you enjoy the Table Beer.
The variation in abv on the beer is more a matter of our openness than 
anything technical.  We don’t vary the grist ingredients by much, but as 
brewing (in the manner that we do) is a manual process, we inevitably 
have some batch to batch variations (which we enjoy and celebrate), so 
the abv will always vary slightly.  I would reckon that all breweries of 
our scale (and certainly smaller, and probably bigger) would have as 
much variation in the abv of their beers as we have in ours.  It is just 
that technically and legally brewers are permitted a margin for error on 
the abv declared on the label/bottle/pumpclip of + or – 0.5%. So if you 
have Brewery X Pale Ale at a declared 5% abv, it could (and probably 
does) range from 4.5% to 5.5% – but as the labels have all been printed 
before hand with 5% abv, they have no need (or way) to mention that any 
particular batch of that beer is of a slightly different abv.  As I 
mentioned before, we like to celebrate the uniqueness of each batch, and 
so we print the labels for each batch specifically for that batch, with 
the particulars of that batch, including abv, on the label.  So the 
variation is there in most beers, I would reckon, it is just that we 
make it clear.
Let us know if you have any questions.
All the best,
Evin
Thus Evin O’Riordain not only brews some of the best beer in the world, but kindly took the time to write that informed reply. My point here is that though Kernel bring out regular styles or single hop varietals, each batch is different. There is no equivalent of a Bishop’s Finger, Doom Bar or Jaipur – titles that are sought out by the public (for good or bad) which are made consistently to a specific recipe.
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It’s a question I asked at the White Hart Tap when I saw the pale ale pump clip. Do Cloudwater have any permanents? It doesn’t seem so. I asked them on Twitter:

@cloudwaterbrew Quick question – as a brewery do you have any permanent beers?

 

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Cloudwater Brew Co
@cloudwaterbrew
@LathamAlec We have permanent styles, but lots of variation within our range.
So, a similar story. Cloudwater also tie their beers in to reflect seasonality.
 
 
There are benefits to not having permanents. Arguably, you make the brewery the focus rather than the beer. Eyeing the brewery name almost becomes a chef’s recommendation – you just trust the expertise whether it’s a Chinook porter or a Columbus IPA. 
I also dwell on the acquisition of breweries by brewing giants. How could you ingest a brewery that doesn’t “do” permanents unless you give the head brewer 100% control over production? How could you make business predictions based on shimmering variables where each product is a one-off? If a brewery is successful without a regular portfolio, you can’t homogenise a range except by completely removing the reason people buy its beer and therefore, lose them. Camden Brewery is the opposite – easily taken on as it brews a handful of tried, tested and consistent good beers.
 
So could this impermanence (I don’t mean it in the Buddhist sense – but then maybe I do) be the future for craft brewing? A situation whereby a business’ fortune is based on its skill and reputation alone?