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.

a predilection for sour?

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Llyn Padarn (Padarn Lake) with Llanberis on the far shore. This lake is a remnant of the last ice age.

It hasn’t taken long for sours to take off in Britain. From the Benelux countries northwards, sour fruit has been at the coxycc of desserts and fermentable drinks. In Britain we’ve traditionally sugared it up into jams and chutneys. In Poland, what they can’t do with plums and cherries isn’t worth knowing. The further north you go, the more varied the yield; colder climates – especially with altitude – seem to favour the dispersal of small fruit and berries. Norway, for instance, is rich with cloudberries, lingonberries, bilberries and loganberries.

My first taste of sour beer several years ago was a mild shock to the system but my palate instantly adapted and I’ve been wondering whether it’s been in there all along – a re-acquired taste. Looking back, it strikes me that the apples I always plumped for were the greenest – the ones that discharge electricity when you sink your teeth into them. Maybe I’ve had a predilection for sour because – in north west Europe – that’s the taste sensation I was actually brought up with.

I grew up in north Wales in the mid 1980s under the auspices of Snowdon in the small town of Llanberis. The area is dominated by slate, mountains, mossy bogs, sundew (our native little venus flytraps), ferns, glacial lakes and the ruins of miners’ dwellings and their chapels. It was a gorgeous landscape in which to be raised. When I taste things, my mind can go a long way back and it often gets sent back here.

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mountain goats on the ruins of miners’ huts. All buildings here are made from slate. The edge of one of the bonks blasted out by gun powder can be seen in the background.

Being reductionist, I could split my childhood experience with fruit down into three categories: satsumas, tinned fruit and wild fruit. The first was widely available when I was growing up in North Wales and little has changed – they came in a little red net bag from the local Co-op. Satsumas were also what were given to us each Christmas at school once we’d sat on Santa Claus’ knee (a diminutive teacher called Mrs Owen wearing a beard). The tinned fruit was the “official” food. Peaches and apricots swimming in sugared juices were doled out from industrial sized cans in the school canteen. The third category is more clandestine: the fruit or berries we’d scavenge from the countryside.

During the lighter months, upon leaving school, after flying around on a tree swing, scaling the rock screes or building dens in the undergrowth, we’d go off into a wooded area and sate our appetites in the bramble bushes. We’d always reach for the higher plunder and pick the fattest blackberries and dewberries. Each was scrutinised for mould, maggots or money spiders and then ingested. We sounded like pigs jostling for swill. Our sweaty little hands would turn pink and purple from the juices; it was like fruit henna. Fat berries contained the sweetness but lacked the cut through, the zing you get from the rosy sour ones lent a little frisson to the spine. There’s still some tartness when I buy blackberries from the supermarket now but they’re blousy and uniform in a bland way. I miss that little forager. His tastes were developed in the scrub.

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fallen crab apples bletting and mouldering

Sloping back roads had slate-encased drains on either side to channel the rainwater away and prevent the tarmac disappearing under floodwater during downpours. These smooth gulleys were fantastic when it was cold – the running water would freeze and we’d have a slalom. We’d adopt the pose of the Silver Surfer and plunge down scoring the lichen, moss and ivy stalks along the dry stone walls on the flight down. I recall the vapour billowing from my mouth in the dusk like the clouds trailing a steam train. Above, the sky evolved into a violet nebula pierced by powder scatters of stars. The ice channels glowed in the dark.

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the remaining turret of the Norman Castell Dolbadarn (Dolbadarn Castle) obscures Snowdon in the distant background.

Back home, our back garden was on a split level. The bottom half housed the coal bunker and the top half had a small lawn. There was also an old fish tank up there with gooseberries growing inside. Translucent and veined like mutant grapes, gooseberries are a shortcut to my childhood. The panes of the tank were broken and I tested the sharpness by gently teasing an edge with my index finger. There was a squelch as my flesh got unzipped by a shard. An inward gasp and I wrenched it free. Blood welled up immediately and I plunged the digit into my mouth. There was that rich taste of copper coins and that meaty sweetness of cytoplasm you taste when you cut into a joint. I still think about it when I write tasting notes. It can be found in beers as diverse as lagers and stouts as well as fruit sours. It’s not just the taste of fruit I remember.

I used to spend a lot of time at the lagoons. Like everywhere around Llanberis, the ground is a jigsaw of slate which makes it an ideal arsenal for for skimming stones across the still waters. Alder and willow trees border the lagoons. In the low canopies, siskins flitter. On the water, the silent aerodynamic goosander goes about its hunt. Clouds of midges congregate, each seemingly trying to get sucked up your nostrils. It’s where I used to go to swim.

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the edge of the lake where the lagoons are. I have watched siskins in this very tree

For my ninth birthday I got a pair of flippers and I used them at the lagoon. They were obviously completely useless in such a small pool. I’d already been wearing them around the house – they made it very difficult to go up and down stairs but I insisted they would.

I’d ease myself into the pool, edging carefully in as you could both slip on the subaqueous slate or get cut by it. The water was chilled. Submerging the core between the groin and the chest was the point of no return – if you could push that under, you could swim but often my breath would hitch in shock hiccups from the cold. My abdomen used to display the tube map of green and blue veins under my pallid skin. Goosebumps would render my body the coarseness of sandpaper.

Below a certain depth, the slate became carpeted in green which was like walking on velvet. We were also aware of dangers in the waters of this post-industrial town: the water could hide the metal carcasses of ancient mining machinery. It could also harbour spools of rusting barbed wire. I know of one pupil at my school that got tetanus after such an encounter. I remember vividly the smell and even taste of the lagoon water. Submerged so just my nose and eyes were above the water, I got my own breath deflected back off the surface. It reminded me of salted vegetable soup. The salt was the mineral-rich lake, the vegetables the plants and algae. This recollection, believe it or not, comes back to me when I sample Goses.

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roseships or haws – the seeds are perfect for stuffing down the clothing of pupils you don’t like

After trying underwater somersaults and seeing my swimming trunks inflate from the bubbles I churned up from the floor’s organic bed, I came up for air and surfaced to an audience: there was a small group of little boys in perfect little suits pointing at me. They stared at me in disbelief – I could only stare back at them. The adults appeared behind them and I witnessed my first ever Sikh family identified by the father wearing a turban. The mother gave me a smile like aunties do and I recall finding comfort in it. That was the stand off: the little boys in suits gawped and the creature in the lagoon leered back. All I needed was a large lily pad to squat on. The thing that bound us was our common fascination. I went on to show off by doing forward rolls and when my quivering pot-bellied form emerged dripping up the opposite bank, It was Schwarzenegger’s torso from Commando.

I’ve taken you on a little detour here. What does this have to do with sour fruit? Let me take a few back steps. These lagoons were home to wild strawberries – small red bullets of sweetness in the undergrowth. The strawberries I buy from the supermarket suffer from gigantism and have no resemblance to their diminutive kith I knew from Llanberis. Wild strawberries are the size of a pea – concentrated sweetness unless they were still green in which case they tasted the same as their stalks and a bit like celery. There was a local government/council warning on sign posts about foxes and dogs urinating on or spraying strawberry plants which unfortunately always grow at ground level. We just never really paid much attention.

On the roads leading up the mountainside, rosehips or haws were everywhere along the fences. You can get rosehip tea and it’s been brewed with beer. However, we loved them because you could tear the flesh open and scrape out the fluffy seeds and dump down the back of the T shirt of the boy in front. As an itching powder, it’s unsurpassed and can actually leave welts.

As a rite of passage, you’d learn to tell the difference between stinging nettles and dead nettles by the drooping flower heads. This enabled you to show off by pretending you were so hard you didn’t care about getting stung. It could backfire sometimes if someone else thrashed you with real nettles thinking you were impervious. The best was when an uninitiate plunged his hands into a crop of real nettles to join in. A boy screaming from the pain and realisation has its own special pitch. From the welts caused by rosehip seeds to the swelling and hives from stinging nettle acid, why are young boys such bastards?

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sloes – the bitterest sourest flesh in the hedgerow

A vanilla pod nucleates anything you cook it with and dominates. It can be beyond sweet – sickly so. A Jamaican scotch bonnet sends the heat of spice soaring and can even be deadly for some people. In a similar vein, sloe berries sit on the throne for sourness. They were abundant where I was brought up. Visually they’re dull blue/green and absorb light through a fine coating of powder. They’re the most sour, bitter thing you can put in your mouth. I can recall my first foray – you bite into the matt flesh and there’s a pause. Then you can’t feel your mouth. Then as your tongue panics and searches for moisture, it finds fur growing on your teeth and gums. Try it yourself. The effect lasts quite a while too. My cousins and I used to chomp on these!

Is it any wonder I’m so comfortable with sour beers in my adulthood? Beers like these. Every beer has a backstory about how it came to be, but every drinker also has a backstory that can match it in taste. This was mine.