Questionable Urges

Tescos seems to be the least interesting supermarket for Britain’s growing number of zythophiles. It lags behind Sainsbury’s, Morrissons, Waitrose and Asda for beer choice but it’s not all bad; I’ve noticed that the beer range changes across the country so there is some reflection of local beers, albeit only from the big breweries. In all practicality though, the smaller breweries probably wouldn’t be able to deliver on sheer supermarket quantity. Slowly but surely though, Tescos is hastening its crawl to keep up with the growing demand for better social lubricants.

I’ve seen a bottle leering down at me from the top shelf of the drinks aisle that looks plain wrong – William Sharvatt’s London Velvet – a porter and cider marriage. I’ve never heard of Mr Sharvatt nor the term London Velvet before. After doing some research, I found it’s produced by Thomas Hardy Burtonwood – a subsidiary of Molson Coors. It’s mainly a packaging &  kegging plant in Cheshire. I get an image of people sat around a table indulging a slick young hopeful in front of a powerpoint presentation. His pitch strives to target the rustic market, the traditional supermarket ale market and the trendy new craft beer market. The website is professionally made and pretty interesting for all the wrong reasons. Apart from talking about what porter and cider are, no mention is made of the provenance of the ingredients – neither the malt or hops nor the apples or orchards. It does, however have a short section on the different kinds of porter a bit of history about them. William Sharvatt originally ran a timber merchants on the Old Kent Road and it partly still exists; it merged with another merchant to become Sharvatt Woolwich and is still trading today. He was also responsible (allegedly) for the import of cider into the capital which he’d blend with porter. The only thing we can know about this drink for sure is that it’s pasteurised as Thomas Hardy Burtonwood don’t deal with live beer. 

I also felt the need to reacquaint myself with Newcastle Brown Ale. I think this was brought on by the recent news that the beer is going to be sold in the United States. One of the conditions of its sale there is that malt should be used to give the ale its colour rather than a colouring agent. It has caused some outrage amongst aficionados – how dare the US improve the quality of the beer! My first ever branded beer glass was a Newcastle Brown Ale schooner. It’s been sat gathering dust at the back of my cabinet and it’s been a long time since I showed it any love. It’s cute but a bit twee for the bottle it’s designed to compliment. I just feel the need to taste the beer again to see if it’s still like I remember it – bittersweet and moreish. I used to session it all the time but it’s been years since I drank it. In its current form it might become extinct. It’s a bit like wanting to suck a rusk just to see if it’s as good as you remember it from toddlerhood. I finally gave in to these questionable urges and bought both drinks last night from Tesco’s. 

I wanted it ’cause it’s wrong

I started with the London Velvet – bucket on standby. Just for the boasting rights, I wanted this to be much worse than it actually is. It pours a very dark crimson/brown. A proud rocky off-white head builds up. The aroma is of beer rather than cider – I had expected the opposite. It honked of strip lighting bathed supermarket beer. The first swig was quite overwhelming. It started off as a malty porter but warped into a goosebump-raising balsamic. It made me wince but I was also glad it had the guts to taste of something. The second swig left the palate completely unperturbed – my buds had adapted already. It has the carbonation of an industrial cider. The cider actually starts to dominate – Appletiser with a granular coffee background note or maybe a coffee cake doused in cider vinegar. It does smooth out and leaves a mild malty aftertaste. It’s pretty dry and not too refreshing. The next day, I had a bit of a cider headache like I remember from my teens after a bottle of Woodpecker and I found myself belching into the afternoon.

Sometimes friends drift apart for good reason

So onto my old friend Newkie Brown – a bottle of dog. It decanted a dark caramel (I’d need a paint chart to pick out the right colouring agent). A big silver/grey spongy head ascends but quickly vanishes with a hiss. On the nose there’s a charcoal note that degrades to damp cardboard. Sweet taste – it’s of caramel, malt loaf or maybe raisins but it completely lacks any depth. There are no ingredients on the label – probably for the best. It’s a bit like the lack of satisfaction you’d get if you had hunger pangs and only had rice paper to eat. I get no aftertaste, malt depth or mouthfeel. You can forget about the hops completely. I can’t avoid the word – synthetic. Did it always taste like this?

Like asking a question you don’t want to know the answer to, this is what happens when you slake your curiosity. If I had to pick a favourite it would actually be the London Velvet. With good ingredients and craft, beer and apple pairings are possible. Ninkasi by the Wild Beer Co is a good example of a gorgeous beer made with apples but it’s helped by dedicated brewers and and alcoholic warmth. I therefore leave the door ajar on this beer being reproduced. The bold strategic move by Thomas Hardy Burtonwood’s forward steering committee might pay off. Newcastle Brown Ale however, needs not just tweaking but reinventing. I’d like to see if it achieves some potential on the other side of the pond. About £4 was spent on this little misadventure, but misadventure is still adventure.

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