SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND: Great British Bottled Beers

3 Feb

Britain. It used to be Great Britain but I’m not so sure we can justify the name these days. A bit like countries that insert the words ‘The Democratic Republic of’ in front of their name in a bid to try and fool the rest of the world that everything’s fine, humane and not at all a bit genocidey. No, given that industry in the UK is all but dead and the financial situation is so dire that even our conflicting political parties have to house share to save on rent, ‘great’ is not really a word I’d use to describe our current state.

However, if there is one last glimmer of greatness left in us, it’s glimmering from the bottom of a British beer bottle. Yes, put down your fizzing glasses of continental blandness and rediscover your taste buds. According to CAMRA there are around 767 breweries in the UK, all churning out delicious, flavour-packed beer of staggering variety. 767!

Consequently I’ve been on a bit of a bottled beer adventure to put together a quick look at the stuff you should be quaffing instead of your Oz-pop. With the help of the ale drinking regulars at my local, The Goat and Boot in Colchester, we’ve heroically tasted our way through some of this country’s finest, and even though we’ve barely scratched the surface of the alcohol artisans that dot this Sceptred Isle, every single bottle included here is an excellent starting point from which to plan on your own beer adventure, an adventure that will lead to a taste reawakening, an introduction to the people putting the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain, and probably a substantial beer gut too. So, help boost the economy, support your country and get it down you. Oh and something about doing it responsibly, but I forget what…

Fuller’s 1845 Celebration Ale
ABV: 6.3%
Come back with me now to 1845, a year in which two significant events occurred in olde London town: Fuller’s brewery was founded and in the British Museum a drunkard knocked over and smashed the Portland Vase. Coincidence? Seems unlikely. Anyway, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the former back in 1995, Fuller’s released 1845 and – to borrow from the Bible – saw that it was good.

Very good in fact. While some booze producers bang on about complex aromas that only sniffer dogs could actually detect, Fuller’s claim that 1845 has a nose of fruitcake is bang on the money, fruitcake with liquorice thrown in for good measure. On the palate meanwhile it’s deliciously dry with dark malty flavours and a long hoppy finish that leaves you in no doubt that those 150-years were very well spent.

Morland Old Crafty Hen
ABV: 6.5%
Ah, your highness! Yes, an evening spent in the court of the Greene King is always an evening well spent, and His Majesty’s special bottled subjects will ensure it’s always a knight to remember. Ahem. Right that’s enough of that crap.

This is the copper coloured Old Crafty Hen from GK’s Morland Brewery range, a relative newcomer that blends Greene King’s Old 5X and a more powerful version of Old Speckled Hen, it’s got more flavour than Flavor Flav while the balancing act of malt and fruit is far more accomplished and entertaining than even the Cirque du Soleil’s most convoluted show. The aroma is rich and malty with hints of pepper and spice, and the palate throws raisin, vanilla, spicy hops, light oak and subtle orange into the lip-smacking mix before tailing off in a smooth, fruity, ultimately dry finish.

Not in it solely for the taste? Not to worry my alcoholic friend! At 6.5% the Old Crafty Hen is nicely over the average session beer ABV and will therefore guarantee a swift kicking from the fucked fairy, possible incontinence if consumed in epic quantity and a cast iron promise of trouble ‘toilet’ the following day. Perfect.

Greene King Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale
ABV: 6.0%
I like names that state exactly what the product is on the label, a bit like Ronseal which, interestingly, I sometimes drink when there’s nothing else left in the house/shed. And if ‘Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale’ doesn’t leave you in no doubt as to what to expect then Paris Hilton is going to sue you for image copyright infringement. Strong (6.0%) Suffolk (it’s, erm, from Suffolk, ooh arr.) Vintage (it’s a blend of the Old 5X and BPA, aged two years in oak) Ale (it’s not lager), simple as that. Well, the name is, but the rest is a bit more complex…

Quite dark for a Pale Ale, the aroma smacks of oaky vanilla, caramel and leather like the smell of a camp cowboy, and the taste is something quite exceptional – full bodied with ample helpings of oak, sherry, malt and fruit making this possibly the tastiest beer I’ve ever had; and I’ve had a lot. An immediate hit with my crack squad of enthusiastic amateur tasters down at the boozer too, Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale is one of Greene King’s most potent offerings at 6.0%, so you could say it packs some, ahem, Suffolk Punch! Ha, ha, ha! You could say that, but you probably shouldn’t…

The Blue Brew
ABV: 4.2%
Beer? Cheese? Cheesy beer! Yes, it may sound exactly like a product nobody in their right mind ever asked to be made, but The Blue Brew from the Belvoir Brewery was actually commissioned by the Stilton Cheesemakers Association and stands proudly as the world’s first beer to be made with Stilton whey… possibly destined to be the only. The result of this bizarre fusion? An aroma of strong Quavers and a real cheese flavour that split my in-pub tasting team right down the middle in a manner not seen since jars of yeast extract spread.

To me the concept is not dissimilar to brewing beers that taste of pork scratchings, pickled eggs, Peperami, Scotch eggs or indeed any other traditional pub snack, none of which is a good idea, and as a standalone brew I wasn’t that convinced The Blue Brew was a good idea either. But taste, even awful taste, is subjective as the continued existence of KFC proves, and perhaps if served with a ploughman’s The Blue Brew could be a work of what will now be known as cheenius.

West St Mungo Lager
ABV: 4.9%
Beer fact: Scottish beer-bringer West is the only brewery in the UK that produces all its liquid finery in strict accordance with the German Purity Law. Fortunately, however, unlike the most famous Teutonic lager known to drinkers in the UK, Becks, West haven’t forgotten to add flavour. On the contrary, in fact, this pale golden treat is bursting with the stuff like a beer piñata you’ve just savagely thrashed with your thirst stick. Fresh and buttery on the nose, tangy and zesty on the palate with a hint of pepper, St Mungo is naturally carbonated giving it a smooth feel, again separating it from hoi polloi piss-poority of the fizzy beer world. If you think lagers are not your thing – and I wouldn’t blame you for a single second given the ‘sex in a canoe’ stuff we get served over here – then this will change your mind from the first gulp like some kind of alcoholic epiphany.

Innis & Gunn Rum Cask Finish
ABV: 7.4%
A rum cask finished beer with a thunderously high percentage? Where do I sign? Given the massive appeal of a beer/rum fusion, I didn’t offer this one out for group testing at the pub, but rather greedily kept it for myself. And I’m glad because it would have been rum-cask beer before swine, for this is not mere beer, this is what beer would taste like if you lapped it from Kiera Knighley’s rum-soaked belly button from her days in Pirate’s of the Caribbean. Or so I imagined as I cracked into it.

Matured for 60-days, the nose of the Innis & Gunn has all the characteristics of rich, spicy rum (perhaps not surprisingly) with sweet toffee and chocolate notes coming through clearly to suit holics of both the choc and alc persuasion. Taste-wise, meanwhile, it’s as close to irresistible as you can come without your family arranging an intervention for you, with flavours of soft fruit, spice and mellow oak combining in a ménage et trois in your mouth… though far more pleasantly than I may have actually made that sound.

Wychwood Hobgoblin
ABV: 5.2%
Has anyone ever named an ale after Susan Boyle? Just wondering. Anyway, Hobgoblin – a brew that will be familiar to proper drinkers instantly – from the Wychwood brewery is, apparently, the official beer of Halloween. I’m not sure how you get to officially claim that or have such a title bestowed on you, but I’m keen to nominate myself as the face of Monkey Day (December 14), if that’s okay? Deal.

Back with the beer again, Hobgoblin’s a classic – dark ruby in colour, packing a nutty nose with caramel and malt, and blessed with a palate so full-bodied it could almost be an American, with sweet, fruity flavours of orange and raisin, added spice to keep things interesting, and a healthy helping of hops to complete the experience.

If I’m honest, the official beer of Halloween to me should really be a brimming capture-vessel of eye-burning demonic bukake that causes instant oral prolapse – like Fosters – but Hobgoblin tastes fantastic, even with that other picture I’ve painted with words lodged in your head.

JW Lees Moonraker
ABV: 7.5%
The town of Middleton in Manchester has given the world some great things over the years. Well three things at least: Steve Coogan, me and the beer of JW Lees. And whilst in the case of the first two the word ‘great’ might be somewhat misplaced, in the case of Lees it’s an utterly apt description. The majority of their beers run from 3.5-4.5%, which is sensible. Moonraker, however, sneers at the sensible. Yes, weighing in at 7.5% this is definitely not a session beer and the review samples from Marketing Manager Emma even came with a friendly warning not to tackle them on an evening when you have things to do the next day… or day after that. Duly then, I ignored her.

But whilst Moonraker may have the strength of Geoff Capes at his car-flipping best it’s also packed full of aromas with chocolate, malt, caramel, molasses and tobacco at the fore and rich flavours of raisins, apple, brown sugar, nuttiness and a lot of malt following, but surprisingly  very little alcoholic bite despite its percentage.

Tasty and tasteful then, but with an ABV that will not only make anyone, absolutely anyone look more attractive by increases of 100% with each mouthful, but also make the town of Middleton itself look acceptable – and to do that for a remorseless dump clinging precariously to the tattered edges of civilisation by its rotten, broken, stained fingernails is no small feat.

Fuller’s Brewer’s Reserve No 1

ABV: 7.7%

Fuller’s is London’s only remaining family brewer – Beer Fact. It also has Mexican food hating James May as its ‘face’ because he may think the cuisine of US border bothering nations is “refried sick” but he definitely likes a decent beer. Which is what we have here – a decent beer at a seemingly indecent percentage. Yes, 7.7% may seem like the work of a madman, but this is a beer to sort the boys from the men, albeit very unsteady men who are finding the intervals between trips to the toilets becoming increasingly shorter.

Oak aged in single malt casks, this saucy mare means business right from the off with powerful, enticing aromas of orange, ginger and hints of whisky. Tangy hops are quite pronounced on the palate married with rich flavours of syrup, spice and thick marmalade (yeah, take that, Oz Clarke) and a long hoppy finish of figs, smoky vanilla and that ever present suggestion of whisky. If Hobgoblin is the official beer of Halloween (still waiting for an explanation as to how that is) then, with that combination of aromas and flavours, this should be the official beer of Guy Fawkes Night. Plus, I don’t know about you, but it makes me want to burn Catholics. Weird.

Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2010

ABV: 8.5%

Whoa there! Are you having a giraffe, as the locals cryptically say around here? Seriously, let’s check that? Okay, it is right – Fuller’s Vintage Ale is indeed 8.5%, making it the strongest beer in this round up and also this side of all that is sensible.

Each vintage is made from a blend of the year’s finest hops and malt and bottle conditioned to create a brew that even comes with its own serial number. And box. Yes, this one’s a keeper that you should really store until it’s nice and dusty before breaking open on a special occasion, even if that special occasion is just you needing to get more drunk on beer than previously deemed possible. However, if you can’t wait, pop the cap off this killer and what you’ll be treated to is a sweet aroma of caramel, malt, dried fruits and marzipan, like a cake in a bottle; cake in a bottle that’s trying to get you drunk for nefarious cake reasons. Flavour-wise there’s a bit of an oily feel (this is a good thing), pleasant maltiness and lots of toffee, honey and raisins.

In short then, it’s a pretty simple ale, but it’s a pretty simple ale done well. So if you’re looking for a dizzying combination of flavour and a savage release from the pit of despair that makes up the sober world, and aren’t planning on operating any heavy machinery for a few days afterwards, get guzzling. Actually, you’d better sip it… unless it’s a genuine suicide attempt, of course, in which case you should probably write your note first.

Copper Dragon Scotts 1816

ABV: 4.4%

Gordon Wilkinson is the Head Brewer at Copper Dragon and an alcohol alchemist. The proof of that? Scotts 1816. Not only is this one of the tastiest beers I’ve ever had, it’s one of the tastiest things I’ve ever purposely put in my mouth. There’s an awful lot going on, from the nose of hops, orange, apricot, malt and toffee, to the full-bodied, round palate of caramel malts, nuttiness, mild woody hops and hints of butterscotch, all beautifully balanced and ending in a long hoppy finish. It’s more event than beer.

What’s more the complex blend of flavours involved in Scotts 1816 give that magical quality of never quite tasting the same from mouthful to mouthful, which is a neat trick if you can pull it off, like only Gordon, oh noble brewer of beery bliss, can.

St Peter’s Fruit Beer – Grapefruit

ABV: 4.7%

Now you might think that fruit beer would only really appeal to certain types of people, and that a fruit beer that has grapefruit as its fruit would appeal to even fewer types of people. But you’d be even more wrong than if you were doing a wrong ’un up the wrong ’un. Alright, I admit I was interested but sceptical when it came to trying this, but I was in for an eye-opener. Far from the citric nightmare I’d anticipated what St Peter’s Fruit Beer delivers is aromas of wheat (unsurprising as they use their Wheat Beer as the base), citrus zest and enticing hop.

On the palate it is… something else. The pithy grapefruit gives it a somewhat harsh start that gently mellows into juicy, fruity, malty flavours with a hint of smoke and good bitterness, while the finish buses in caramel and even a hint of mint which, again, is unusual, but not unwelcome.

Probably one of the most unlikely, surprising and interesting ales around, even if the idea of grapefruit beer goes against all you hold to be acceptable, there’s an excellent chance it counts as one of your five a day, so it’s got to be worth a go.

Ringwood Old Thumper

ABV: 5.6%

Watch out, it’s the Beer Police! Yes, CAMRA take beer very, very seriously indeed. Normally to be found huddled in the subdued lighting of traditional alehouses, foraging for stray pork scratching in their beards and staring solemnly at a tankard of something brown, beer to them is all. So when CAMRA declare something the Champion Beer of Britain, it’s got to be something special. And so it was with Ringwood’s Old Thumper back in 1988, already incredibly popular thanks to its spicy nose and delicate fruit and hop flavours, it earned this highest of the ale accolades. Quite right too – it’s a remarkable drop, rich, balanced and with a bitter sweet finish, this disappeared quickest during the pub tastings, which says it all really.

Sadly I had to give up my CAMRA membership when it became clear I could never grow a beard of badger-losing density or get used to sitting sweating constantly in a matter-stained beer festival t-shirt dating back to the 80s.

Copper Dragon Freddie Trueman

ABV: 4.0%

You live in Yorkshire, you make real ale, but you’re stuck for a name for your latest brew. You want something that sums up the spirit of Yorkshire… and Aussie beating prowess. But of course – you name it after the great Fiery Freddie himself, a man who’s even more ‘Yorkshire’ than concentrated dour pessimism in a flat cap. And there’s my invitation to the brewery out the window.

A clear golden colour, there’s grassy hops, malt and caramel hints in the nose, while the flavours mix honey, mild malt, a sweet gentle fruitiness and a touch of bitterness and citrus together in a hugely refreshing mix. Frankly, I was bowled over by it… and I guarantee that puns of such blatant piss-poority have NEVER been used in conjunction with this beer. Ever.

Copper Dragon Best Bitter

ABV: 4.0%

If you had to sum up this offering from Skipton-based ale maestros Copper Dragon in one word, that word would be ‘balanced’. But not in a bland way like a tightrope artist who never pretends he’s about to fall, mind, more in the sense that just like punching Doris Stokes in the face it strikes a happy medium, placing itself between being mildly light and refreshing on the palate andjust hoppy and malty enough to leave a rich finish that keeps you coming back for more.

Most people, save those who prefer to spend their evenings in the company of Stella before engaging in an evening of spousal abuse, will know what a decent best bitter tastes like – it tastes like this and that’s all you need to know. Oh and if you do spend your evenings with Stella, please leave my blog immediately.

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