Sizzle, sausage or both?

IMG_2966Be in no doubt that this beer – Beavertown Lupuloid IPA – is a fearsomely good one. Rip open the tab and there’s already an aroma of juicy hop oil spilling out… tinged with pine resin. You pour it, and it’s a hazy, wheat yellow – that dusty, golden colour you can get when some yeast is lingering; the head was billowing large and tight, rippling up the glass side as it was decanted and settling only slightly – and there in that head was the scent of a tropical lemon grove where the workers have been feasting on lunchtime chunks of juicy, sweet mango and pineapple (with no cheese or cocktail sticks anywhere to be seen). Yes, it’s fearsomely good.  It has all the attributes of a proper sausage. Sustaining. Meaty. Rewarding. Enticing. A beer with real substance.

Yet this sausage also has sizzle. Look at the can. It would be rude, demeaning even, to call it a ‘can design’. This is a company who know what they’re about and see the packaging as a canvas to tell us, to sell us and to beguile us. You can’t see it here, but the can top is also a deep pink to match that iridescent pink sky on the can itself. The tab is green to enhance the hop-beast artwork / mural. It’s folksy; it’s threatening and it’s deeply, pugnaciously attractive. This is the bar to which all others aspire. This is proof that whilst sausage is vital, when it sizzles too, the result adds up to much, much more than the sum of its meaty, chunky parts.

Punchy

Last night I went for a run, and, as a beer zealot who recognises the isotonic refuelling benefits and mysto-alchemic properties of beer, decided to have an IPA as my recovery – bottle conditioned, so feisty and full of the effervescent pep that I so badly needed.

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 14.26.21I reached for a Lagunitas IPA, 6.2%, which had been subconsciously put there earlier. A beer that in their words is, “homicidally hopped”. And boy, did I want to murder it. Levering off the crown – Boof! Hop aroma, oily, resinous, wafting out before I even got close, before I even touched the bottle. I poured and sipped in small measures, teasing out a fulsome head (really, it needed no encouragement), sipping and replenishing, sipping and savouring. Beer enthusiasts will know this beer, so let me be brief: it dates back to 1995 when it was launched as a seasonal (I first drank it in the Napa valley in fact), and comes from the fifth biggest US craft brewer: it is spicy, with a bold citrus edge in the aroma and a well balanced sweetness all the way through; for a beer of such beefy strength, there is little evidence of that unbalancing, almost winey, ethanol. In short, here is a top class American IPA, very much of the style, very much of the quality you’d hope for. And good old Adnams bring it to these shores; doubly whammy.

What struck me as I polished the Lagunitas off was how few UK ‘new wave’ craft brewers deliver pale or India Pale beers with such uumph, such attack, such boldness. Oh sure, we treasure balanced drinkability over here, and of course, we serve in larger quantities, but I didn’t struggle to drink this beer. I wasn’t left with that cloying feeling of ‘Woah, boy! Better go easy’. On the contrary, here was an eminently quaffable beer, high on taste, higher on ‘goes down easy’. And ok, I don’t live in a part of the country that is spilling over with top class craft breweries or more to the point, top class independents retailers – it’s down to the supermarket with a bag full of pennies and a bucket load of hope for me – but even so, the brutal truth is, I haven’t yet had a British pale beer brewed with Lagunitas’ level of chutzpah – full stop. They’re either too tame, too listless – or, at the other end – attempting to be so extreme that they lose their point as a beer – overly hopped, overly malted, forgetting that refreshment, drinkability and intrigue are needed too.

Perhaps where we need to focus is back onto the pale ale & IPA styles that we can do brilliantly, with our ingredients – that feels like an opportunity.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

The Session #77: IPA: What’s the big deal?

the session beer blogging fridayThe craft beer movement is gaining momentum – in the U.S., U.K, Italy, Scandinavia, Australasia – drinkers in these traditional and mature beer markets are broadening their repertoires, hearing the voice of craft brewers and slowly opening up to a new philosophy – of difference, of experimentation and of expectation of choice.   And India Pale Ale, or IPA, is the poster boy of the movement – in its well structured, challenging yet rewarding, countenance – it stands for everything that large scale manufactured pale beer is not.  Yet it is in those pale, ‘lagery’ seeds of why IPA is a big deal.

According to the latest studies from the Neolithic Cerevisial-Archaeology Unit in Portland, Oregon* beer started as a bready, mushed up foodstuff, mixed with water in ceramic pots and left to stand whilst the Godisgood worked it’s magic and turned it into a hearty, safe, nutritious drug. And although brewed significantly better – beer remained a dark, chewy, opaque food replacement until the nineteenth century. No wonder people enveloped lagered beer so in a revolutionary embrace.  It was easier to drink, eminently refreshing and visually appealing – a beguiling, magical, experience – almost incomprehensible given everything they had drunk up to that point – it would be like having KFC Chicken Nuggets that actually contained chicken.  After two years of pretty much exclusively drinking pale ales and IPAs for the last two years, I lived through something of this experience when I recently cracked open a bottle of four of Pilsner Urquell (see http://www.beertintedspectacles.com/?p=369).

And then, a few days later, I reverentially removed a bottle Sierra Nevada Torpedo from the beer fridge, an ‘Extra IPA’, 7.2%, one of Chico’s finest.  Just levering off the crown led to an attack of citrus fruit aromas, then on pouring, a billowing, off-white head, beautifully constructed and lacing down the glass sides with each sip like tree rings showing their annual growth throughout the heartwood. The maltiness had a walnut bready character, biscuit but with some nuttiness – Hob Nobs maybe?  Yet despite its considerable punch, it was a refreshing, drinkable beer – all the things that I had experienced a couple of weeks prior but with a well brewed lager.

So I think the ‘deal’ is this:  Pale Ale represents two things. Like lager it is a base: a base for challenge, for experimentation, for moving beer on, for saying, ‘Oh, I like this, but I think I can do better’.  Pale Ale becomes IPA, IPA becomes Double IPA, Double becomes Extra, becomes Black, becomes Cascadian, becomes Indies, becomes Pacific.  It’s a becoming sort of beer.  Unlike lager though which over the last 40 years, has got progressively lighter in alcohol, less bitter and paler in colour, IPA turned left at the lights, not right, and we see some of the beers that writers fret, fete and fight over today.

And then there’s adoption.  It’s a simple human trait – we want to prove how we’re different. How we’re our ‘own man’, how we’re independent.  IPA is not my Dad’s beer, blimey, it’s not even my older brother’s beer…it’s mine…. but most of all, IPA isn’t everything else. It isn’t mass brewed, it’s revolted against its Burton on Trent, Imperial roots and become a tattooed punk with multiple piercings through places too tender to speak of;  a banner waving revolutionary demanding the end of the old order.

And we all have a bit of the revolutionary in us, don’t we?

*If only.

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

The Session #64: The Pale Ale Counter-Reformation

the session beer blogging friday

In many respects, CAMRA came into existence to save pale ale. Yes, I know it should be a broad church the Campaign For Real Ale, but the reality it was pale ale that was being decimated by the rockets of kegged beer with all the day to day, ‘operational’ benefits they offered. Worthington ‘E’, Watney’s Red Barrel, Whitbread’s Tankard, Ind Coope’s Double Diamond were most definitely not ‘head and body above the rest’ (to paraphrase). Rather, for drinkers who loved and appreciated the subtle nuances of cask beer, these insulted through their artificial, aggressive fizziness and tasteless or unbalanced flavours.  In a way, they did damage on two fronts: they hurt cask, and they hurt the reputation of great beers that happen to be sold in ‘kegs’ for future generations.   My first surreptitious underage swig of beer was from a party 7 of Worthington’s at a party my Mum and Dad were having. I should have been in my room, but I cagily snuck downstairs for an illicit snifter of some sort. The beer was close to hand and I tapped some into a plastic camping cup.

Oh my dear God. It was the most unpalatably rank, wretched, drain-stinkingly awful experience. It didn’t help that I hadn’t yet been on a rite of passage with beer at that point in my life, but goodness me. This stuff had an acrid stink like beer changing from just about drinkable to off, and a taste that was aggressively sharp with carbonation and mildly painful.

There were two upsides though. Firstly it was bad enough to put me off tobacco and other illicit substances.  Secondly, it was so truly awful that I knew that there must be better stuff out there. Saying that, I left it a fair few years to find out more, and I have never trusted my Dad’s taste in alcohol since.    But no wonder CAMRA had a powerful cause. Here was our beer, a style of beer that had dominated our landscape for almost 300 years being right-royally buggered by the same people charged with doing the right thing for it…to tend it, nurture it, pass it on in better shape to their successors. Some hope.

So the movement grew. Not just the CAMRA movement, although undoubtedly that catalysed the change. Time became a powerful ally too. For with time, so the wash of characterless premium lagers revealed the hidden skeleton in the cupboard. Through the ‘80s and especially into the late ‘90s, drinkers began to see that ‘international lagers’ – at first so sexy and alluring – were in truth separated only by their clothes. An interesting label. An unusual font. A pertly shaped glass.

But where, oh where was the flavour?   And why, oh why, must I consume a 5% + ABV lager to get a mere skittering of taste?

And so the Pale Ale Counter Reformation began. And it began on many fronts.  Drinkers in the UK standing on the burning platform, with CAMRA helping them see what we were losing.  With the home brewers-cum-craft brewers in the U.S. challenging their beer norms and looking for interesting styles – sending ripples across the world.  This coincidental wave of drinkers unaccustomed, perhaps unaware, of this family of beers concentrated the flowing tide as it entered the mouth of the bay. To today, where it feels like Pale Ale is truly fighting back; is challenging the hegemony of international ‘lager’.

What a family of beers it is! From the unusual or less common Bière de Gardes, Blondes or Strong Ales, to the widespread, more accessible Bitters, American Pales or Burton Pale Ales.  Many of the bottles in the ale section of UK supermarkets today are pale ales; in the US no self-respecting bar would do without at least one great, often local (ish) Pale Ale on draft.  And pales are springing up all over now and gaining momentum.  In a bar the other night, I drank a Cooper’s (from Adelaide); a Sierra Nevada (from Chico, California), followed by a bottle of Llangollen Bitter (from North Wales) later that evening.

But let’s start with Burton Pale Ale. Not the first, but at their best, the style-definers.  Yes, you may beg to differ; and of course, the beauty of taste is how idiosyncratic and individual it is, but sorry, over this there can be no doubt. Burton didn’t earn its fame through fluke. It earned its fame because at their best, these Pale Ales were world class. At their best, they were beguiling, moreish, complex, rewarding, shocking and supremely drinkable. A combination that was….is…..awesome.

But there’s the rub. Where today are the pale ales that made Burton famous? In Pedigree, perhaps… but for me, still too unreliable when kept in the wrong hands and all too often these are the hands of Marstons publicans. And I do agree with my brother, who thinks it’s a bit ‘barnyardy’, a bit rustic, compared in his mind with the Daddy. With Bass.

But alas, alas. This, of all Pale Ales, a signature beer of its style, a world class beer, superbly balanced, flavoursome and nuanced, has been mugged by the shadowy yakusa of international brewer consolidation and left, breathing, but barely audibly, in a brewing back alley.  Once, not that many years ago, UK brewing’s biggest export, now a shadow of that, forced to become Disneyesque in Anheuser Busch InBev’s ridiculous attraction to serving it as part of a black and tan.  Damn you for wrecking this beer and damn you more for treating it with disdain.

Thank the Lord for Burton Bridge then. Their eponymous Bridge Bitter keeps Burton’s flag flying.  This is a beer with structure, with a delicate floral character but a spine to stand up for itself.  There’s just that drying, vaguely burnt, bitter linger that means your hand is lifting the glass for the next sip not long after the last one has been swallowed.  For like very few beers, great Burton Pale Ales have that quality that is so difficult to define:  tasty yes, but moreishly drinkable too.

Whilst Pale Ale found fame with the spread of the style from Burton, of course this is just a fraction of the story.  One of the interesting chapters is in Belgium; known of course for so many interesting, challenging, defining styles of beer, but a haven for Pale Ale too.  I travelled to Belgium a few years ago and met the chaps at Palm in Steenhuffel.  Palm Breweries is one of the larger national companies in Belgium today, but recent years have been tough.  Despite its reputation as a great beer nation, the reality is that the market is over 70% international lager and it’s as cut-throat as elsewhere in northern Europe.  So in the last decade Palm have redefined their business; adding true speciality brands like Rodenbach and Boon lambics.  And refocusing on Palm Speciale.

For many years, Palm Speciale seemed to play second fiddle to its Antwerp rival, de Koninck. A fine beer, no doubt, served in its bolleke (little ball or bollock). Palm seemed more grounded, less aspirational – it’s symbol of a Brabant Shire Horse the perfect manifestation.  Doughty and workmanlike.  Yet Palm is a terrific pale ale that shouldn’t be over-shadowed, and a great example of how the Belgians can appropriate and re-interpret different beer styles.  The base of Palm is undoubtedly a pale ale. A rich amber colour, a fruit-sugary crispness that you only expect from a warm fermented beer, but matched by a malt-led roundness. Cave Direct sell it in the UK (beermerchants.com) – look out for it, and look out for it’s cognac like bol glass, which doesn’t just add to the enjoyment but concentrates and directs the aromas in a way that enhances Palm’s drinkability. Only without the bolleks.

There are now so many pale ales in fact, with so much terrific variation that the style risks fragmentation. This may be no bad thing, especially when you consider how far the it has come in the last generation…from a time when it was on its knees, to today….a Pale Ale Counter Reformation, when for some, I drop to my knees and offer reverential praise.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012