Tag Archives: Pale and India Pale Ale (et al)

Sparking clogs

We used to drive into Manchester past Maine Road (Manchester City’s old ground), through Moss Side and the always-steaming Royal Brewery of Scottish & Newcastle; then skirt past Whalley Range to the top of Deansgate just as the arced roof of GMEX came into view, or swerve a tighter left to Old Trafford, like Ryan Giggs cutting in from the wing. Moss Side remains my first impression of Manchester, a city which, despite years living in the Midlands now, still feels ‘mine’. But boy, what an impression: the street fronts then, as most are today, were Victorian terraces – strong, red, Ruabon brick, glossy but tarnished, clothed by plastic shop facades of a range of implausible businesses, 48 sheet poster hoardings and spray-paint tags. Behind was the urban ‘improvement’: low rise local authority dwellings where once were the back-to-backs; low-rise, red or blue flags fluttering depending on your allegiance, set off on battleship grey and cream concrete. Not far north of here is the city centre; back in the ’80s the blooming was only just beginning and this area was tough, rough and uneasy on the eye.

And Manchester’s beer weren’t that easy on the throat back then either.  I’ll be honest, whenever I drive home, I see my first Robinson’s pub (The Lawton Arms usually) and there’s a pang of ‘I’m home‘. But I never got on with their beer.  There was Boddington’s of course, Boddies, which had mythical status growing up – pale, strong, smooth, hardy somehow, brewed up next to the prison, it somehow erred on the boundaries of good and evil.  Then Whitbread got hold of it and turned it into a confection, a very successful one for a few years I grant you, what with all the ‘Cream of‘ and Blue Tits and Wafer Cones and that, but a confection nonetheless; a confection that today it is reaping the rewards from. It’s largely gone (unless you’re in a Whitbread owned Premier Inn, well known for their beer range) and it’s mythical presence is lost forever.  And there was Hydes, but they were confined to their own pubs so were off my radar. And that was it; my mental landscape: Manchester, rich, industrious, ambitious in all but beer.

It would be trite to say it’s changing – there are so many craft breweries now that even many villages have one – what am I saying? There’s one on top of a Moor – but there are Manchester beers that now have that ‘edge’ just as the city has in industry, in architecture, in music, in media, in sport.  So many in fact, that I worry – a worry that I know many don’t share – but I worry about how these breweries can survive in an environment where we are drinking less in general, drinking less beer in turn and where the big boys are waking up to the threat and the opportunity posed by craft.  The key of course, even if your exit strategy is to sell up, is to create a brand, and a brand built off beer that is superbly brewed and truly different.

That’s what Cloudwater are doing.  A tongue-in-cheek riff on Manchester’s rep for precipitation, the rainy season is at the heart of the brand – although every time I’ve been up recently it’s been unseasonably warm and bright.  Cloudwater are up round the back of Piccalilli Station and they’re brewing seasonal beers – seasonality in fact, is at the heart of what makes them different. Perhaps it’s the stories of queues round the block for Russian River’s ‘Pliny the Elder‘ that drew them to it; or perhaps it’s just a philosophy of ‘we’ll sell what we brew’ – a philosophy that takes you away from having to worry about the economies of brewing to a tight ‘product specification’ band, worrying more about brewing efficiently and consistently rather than the taste, a skill in itself (and a skill the big boys are better at than many craft players). That neck of the woods, Ancoats, is Lowry territory of course, and there are more than hints of it today. Victorian factories lying dormant or repurposed; narrow streets, still lain to setts or tarmaced over, the setts peeping through down the edges or where wear and tear has scuffed off the surface. From improbable nooks and crannies, buddleia springs out with its attendant insect life as if to warn that if we don’t reclaim the buildings, they will.

Cloudwater DIPA v3 2It’s this ‘when it’s gone it’s gone’ word of mouth that seems to be fuelling Cloudwater’s burgeoning reputation.  Their Double IPA v3 (DIPA v3) has a menacing, grasping hand jumping out as a greeting: it sports bittering hop in abundance and then four aroma hops Citra, Chinook, Comet and  Mosaic, a blend of east coast, west coast and the Pacific all raining down in Manchester. With the addition of brewing sugar, this beer is a whopper and it seems to cover every dimension of IPAdom: piney and tangy, like you’re shoes scuffing up pine needles in a forest; grassy and dry, with the aromas of newly mown lawns in Spring and that spiciness, both I think, from the prodigious hopping and the yeast strain. I drank it whilst reading the paper (at 9% ABV, I should say whilst I could read the paper – it got a little blurry after a while, but that could be age) and the ever-so off white head lasted and lasted as only the real cream of Manchester could.

Cloudwater Dark LagerI was actually more impressed though with their Dark Lager from their winter range. A more modest 5.5% ABV, but actually a ‘dark’ ‘lager’, i.e. it was dark from the more roasted proportion of the malt, but it’s many stratifications of flavours, its layers attested to good lagering. This wasn’t a mild ale that’s been laid-low for a week more and masquerades as ‘lager’. This had that rounded smoothness, that matured and assured depth of character where no single element overwhelms – and – and this is important, it is drinkable, sessionable, call it what you will.  A lager in name, with the character of a refined ale. And there is something of the Lowry about these beers; seemingly simple – from the labels, to the styles – but underneath it is beguilingly complex and fulfilling. A fitting revitalisation to a part of Manchester that has been under a raincloud for many years.

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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