Monday, 9 November 2015

Who shares wins

Sharing beer with friends is great. That sounds obvious, I know, but I hardly ever do it. I sit down to drink with friends often, of course, but beyond the occasional “here, taste this”, or, “can I try a taste of yours?” we don’t share beer, and usually sit together drinking different things. The phenomenon of the bottle share clearly appeals to this desire for a group to experience the same beers together. It’s also a great excuse to actually open some of the special beers in your collection. It’s a near-universally acknowledged truth that once beers have been squirrelled away for a special occasion, this occasion never arrives. Some beers improve with age, but it’s a lot more fun to drink beer than to hide it in a cupboard.

In the absence of a more formally organised bottle share event, I recently invited a couple of friends round for a small but perfectly formed gathering of my own. The idea was to bring a beer that you wanted to share – not necessarily anything expensive or rare, though larger bottles are best, but something that you might not casually crack open and might benefit from some discussion.

We kicked off with Wiper & True’s plum pudding porter. I usually wouldn't start with a dark beer, but before I’d had a chance to raise the issue of sequencing, my friend Scott had eagerly popped the cap off with a lighter. An astringent, roasty bitterness is my first impression – this is something I enjoy in dark beers - followed by a boozy, brandy-like warmth. The plum and other additional flavours are far from overpowering, and in fact I might not have picked them out without being told they were in there. The fruit comes across as a general richness and depth of flavour, and whilst there’s some warming spice in the finish, it stops well short of tacky novelty Christmas beer territory. Classily done.

My own headlining contribution was BrewDog’s latest Born to Die double IPA. Despite having said I wanted to open something from my stash, I decided to go out and buy this instead. I've been reading a lot about US IPAs recently, and reports of fresh pours of the likes of Pliny the Elder and Heady Topper, legendary hop-bombs which I have never been lucky enough to taste, provokes a state in me which I can only describe as anguish. A beer like Born to Die is, I figured, the closest I’ll get for now. And, whilst I find the blundering BrewDog P.R. machine extremely tedious, they do pale and hoppy very well.

Born to Die smells like Haribo, and tastes like fruit juice. It’s very pale – IPAs of this strength are often closer to amber in colour. The object, it would seem, is to produce a beer as pale as possible, with little malt character, to further accentuate those fresh, juicy hops.  It’s citrus zest, pineapple and mango and, despite the hop dominance, to me it’s not excessively dry or bitter or extreme. The slick mouthfeel only makes it more drinkable. This might be my Platonic ideal of an IPA, or as close as I've come to it thus far.

Next was Wild Beer’s Ninkasi. I’ve tried this before and was distinctly impressed, and this occasion is no different. It’s instantly reminiscent of Orval in it’s peppery yeast character and dry effervescence. There’s more tropical fruit hop presence than I remember – as Scott points out, it actually tastes a bit like Lilt. It’s an indulgent, decadent beer, and I'm happy to have another bottle in my possession.

I’d also previously enjoyed Mikkeller’s It’s Alive! –specifically the Grand Marnier barrel-aged edition, which is exactly what my friend Ollie brought along. That was around two years ago, and got me very excited – it was probably the first beer I’d tried with such a prominent Belgian yeast character, and I remember exclaiming “this beer tastes like champagne!” Unfortunately, tonight’s bottle is an example of time being unkind to a beer. All the complexity I remember is gone, leaving behind a beer that’s flat, overly musty with Brett, and tasting overwhelmingly like sherry.

Thornbridge’s Rhubard de Saison followed. The recipe comes from a homebrewer who won the chance to have Thornbridge brew his beer. It smells bizarrely like Sprite (the second fizzy pop comparison of the evening), and my first mouthful seems to taste of almost nothing – it’s unbelievably bland. But the flavour builds and builds, and a beer of significant complexity reveals itself. The ever-so-slightly tart rhubarb and dry, spicy saison yeast is a perfect marriage, and a medicinal, herbal quality (eucalyptus?) adds depth. The body is a little thin for my liking, but that’s a small gripe.

I stopped taking notes then, though a few more bottles were opened. They were, from memory, Thornbridge and Wild Beer's Tart (disappointingly bland, especially as I really enjoyed it on keg), Duvel Tripel Hop 2015 (still great, though the hemp-like hop dankness has mellowed since I last tasted it, and more of the classic Duvel flavour shone through) and Buxton’s New World Saison (simply a beautiful, harmonious beer).

So if, like me, you haven’t made time to share beer with your friends in too long, clear a Saturday night and fill the fridge. It’s a lot of fun.

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