Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Thornbridge vs. Schlenkerla: Battle of the Bocks

I’ve often thought that one of the Thornbridge brewery’s strongest suits is their respectful approach to beer styles, along with an interest in slightly more esoteric or niche styles less often attempted by other UK brewers. A copy of Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion and access to Thornbridge beers can teach a novice beer drinker an awful lot – I know, because I learnt a lot this way myself. Craft Beer Co. in Brighton seems to have at least two of their brews on at any one time and so as I read about, for example, kolsch beer, I was able to sample Tzara – surely the next best thing to a visit to Cologne, and way more satisfying than any imported bottle. Similarly, my first taste of Bière de Garde orginated not in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, but in the Peak District. When my dad returned from a trip to France with a couple of bottles of Dyuck Jenlain Ambrée, I was amazed at how true to style the Thornbridge example, still fresh in my mind, had been.

Considering this, I recently realised I had a bottle of both Thornbridge’s Bamberg and Schnlenkerla’s Urbock in my cupboard. This, I thought, could offer an opportunity to see just how well Thornbridge’s beers hold up in comparison to the classics of their style. And so, I decided to taste the two beers side-by-side. Now, I want to make it clear from the get-go that this is purely a bit of fun. There are many reasons why a comparison of this kind isn’t totally fair, not least the fact that strong smoked beer is kind of a palate scorcher. But the beers are both smoked bocks, with similar ABVs (6.5% for Schlenkerla, 6% for Thornbridge), and Thornbridge are acknowledging the influence of (if not inviting comparison to) Schlenkerla by naming their version after the city that famously houses that brewery. Still, the following is not intended to be anything other than a light-hearted experiment; apart from anything else, the tasting itself was really fun to do.

To help me with this venture, I enlisted the help of my other half, Sidony, who took me to Bamberg earlier in the year and became a Schlenkerla devotee in the process. We began by pouring each bottle into two glasses, after which I attempted a blind taste-test by closing my eyes and asking Sidony to hand me a glass without telling me which of the beers it contained. An unscientific element came into play immediately, however; whilst pouring, the aroma of the Thornbridge beer hit me very strongly. After smelling the two glasses, I predicted the one with the most intense, ham-like aroma was Thornbridge, but my guess was based on this prior information rather than a true blind test. The glass with the more powerful aroma unsurprisingly tasted stronger and smokier, too, and this glass actually turned out to be Schlenkerla.

Schlenkerla’s Urbock is, in every sense, a bigger version of their classic marzen. The meaty smokiness is just as strong, but more nuanced – flavours I haven’t detected in the marzen are apparent here, such as tobacco, oak, liquorice and certain herbal notes, and once the smoke subsides, there’s a poke of citrus sharpness. The elevated ABV is evident and, together with a fuller body and pleasantly oily mouthfeel, this slips down easily and leaves a warmth in the chest. Sidony uses an analogy rarely called upon in the beer world – make-up. There are many types of primer (something that is applied pre make up application). Some are gels & creams that often hit the skin and dry down almost immediately, making whatever comes after it apply roughly, whilst others have a more silicone feeling to them, which lets anything come after it glide on. Drinking the beer is a similarly seamless sensation; it's smooth and silky, slippery, easy drinking.

In comparison, Thornbridge’s Bamberg seems a little puny. To again acknowledge the flaw in this test, it is a little mean to taste this after such an intense beer as the Schlenkerla bock. I rinsed my mouth out with plenty of water in order to best compare them, but my palate was undoubtedly affected by the previous beer’s smoke. The smokiness is far milder here, but Bamberg also seems to me like a much cleaner (if stronger than average) lager than your typical rich, warming bock. The body is noticeably thinner, with more carbonation, and the colour resembles a Vienna lager, far lighter than Schlenkerla’s dark copper. Sidony doesn’t like it at all – for her, it neither warms nor refreshes and it’s neither a summer nor a winter beer. I’m much keener; admittedly, after Schlenkerla, it barely tastes like a smoked beer anymore, but then I think I’d enjoy an unsmoked version just as much, because for me it’s a robust but crisp lager. I’d prefer a slightly lower alcohol content, though, because I don’t feel the boosted ABV brings anything to the beer; the body is no fuller than your average lager, and you don’t get that tingling booze warmth.

As I said at the beginning, this was purely intended as a fun little experiment, and there’s no slight on Thornbridge intended – they remain one of the UK breweries I most admire, and to say that any brewery makes a smoked beer that doesn’t quite measure up to Schlenkerla is truly no insult. Apart from anything else, I really enjoyed Bamberg in its own right, and fully intend on trying it again on its own to appreciate it properly.

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