Sunday, 1 March 2015

More brown ale

Interesting developments in the brown ale world lately. I'm a little late to post it, but a few weeks ago Jeff Alworth posted an item about Newcastle Brown Ale's use of caramel colouring. They will now, we're told, use roasted malts instead. Jeff seems shocked - I'm not, really. It doesn't take much more than a sip to tell that the brewery don't care about what Newcastle Brown Ale, in it's current form, tastes like. I wouldn't mind tasting the new recipe, though. Perhaps the roasted malts might add some of the elusive flavour the current incarnation sorely lacks. I was also reminded of this post on Twitter showing a gift pack of Newcastle branded beer, including the brown ale, labelled 'original real ale'. I'm no CAMRA militant, but I do think that cashing in on the tradition of real ale (which Newcastle Brown Ale is not, just in case that wasn't completely clear) in order to shift units of your artificially caramel coloured piss is pretty weak.

More cheerfully, two forthcoming brown ale arrivals were announced on Twitter recently. The first is part of a series of collaborations between Ron Pattison and Peter Hayden as Dapper ales, and revives an old Barclay Perkins recipe. It launches on 28th March in selected Fullers pubs, and I hope I get to try some. The second, an Imperial Brown Ale from Beavertown and Bellwoods, launched yesterday. Beavertown have been killing it for some time now, and I'm desperate to get a taste of this beer whilst it's around.

And, finally, some brown ales I've tasted lately.

Having reviewed Hastings’ Slovenian Brown Ale in my original round-up, I was delighted to discover (via a tweet of Evening Star’s always excellent tap list) that they’d released a new version with the American Columbus hop, and headed over to the Star as soon as possible to sample it. I really like the idea of using a brown ale as a base for experimenting with different hops, similar to how, say, The Kernel do with their pale ales and IPAs; it’s such a loosely defined style that the possibilities are practically endless.

The nose is glorious, full of sweet peaches, as is the first sip, with plums and grassy hops, too. There’s a delicate almond flavour here which, together with the sweetness – this is far sweeter than any other brown ale I’ve tried – and a certain grainy, savoury, cereal-like malt quality comes off something like biscotti. There’s a comforting booze warmth at the end, but unfortunately, the bitter finish is a little much, and leaves an unpleasant hairspray flavour behind. Minus this unfortunate aftertaste, this would be another triumph to match the Slovenian edition, but even as it stands, it is mostly excellent.

You wait months for a brown ale only for two to come along at once; not one week later I popped into Craft and found a keg of Harbour’s India Brown Ale waiting for me. It pours an appealingly translucent reddish brown, with a small, creamy head that fades quickly. A blackcurrant aroma immediately makes itself known, and the first taste is full of summer berries with a strong, sweetish toffee note balanced by a slightly herby, savoury flavour.

The mouthfeel is smooth and silky, closer to what I’d expect from a cask ale – further investigation tells me that this beer is also available on cask, which is where I’d imagine it’s at its best. For a beer billed as an India Brown Ale (IBA?), the hop profile is very mild here; compared to the Hastings beers I’ve featured, the bitterness just really isn’t happening. Approach it as a regular brown ale, and there’s much to enjoy; it is quintessentially English, full of blackberries and sweet toffee, but at the same time quite unlike the other traditional brown ales I’ve tried.

I’ve been seeing this beer around for a while, but opted not to include it in my initial brown ale posts because I thought the smoky flavour wouldn’t make for a good comparison against unsmoked beers.  Everything I’ve tried from Anspach and Hobday has been excellent, and, with US-influenced styles so popular in the UK, I’m glad there are London breweries who are just as interested in the city’s rich brewing history; the smoked brown, for example, is based on the 19th century tradition of drying barley over open fires

This beer pours an opaque, murky brown, with a thin, rapidly vanishing head. Stick your nose in and you get plums and berries, with a hint of coffee and bitter chocolate. The meaty, smoky flavour immediately takes me back to Bamberg; it’s intense, but, as your palate grows used to it and the beer warms, sweet nuts, blackcurrant and raisins come through, followed by coffee and bitter chocolate. It’s like eating a Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut bar at a bonfire, and it’s delicious.

I was in Lewes recently and, as I always do on these occasions, I headed to the Harvey’s brewery shop. I was there to pick up a bottle of their enigmatic imperial stout – labelled not only imperial, but also extra and double and tasting like fortified wine spiked with funky yeast. I hadn’t realised, until it caught my eye on the shelf, that they brew another brown ale (as well as Lewes Castle, which I featured in my original brown ale round-up). Originally known simply as nut brown ale, it was renamed in honour of the Bloomsbury Group’s Duncan Grant, who was apparently a fan. I decided to give it a go, along with a bottle of Old Ale, featured here because it once went under the name Exhibition Brown Ale.

The alcohol content of both beers is very low – Bloomsbury weight in at 2.8%, Old Ale at 3.6%. Whilst I by no means believe that good beers necessarily require a hearty ABV, in my experience, most Harvey’s beers this mild in alcohol do tend to be rather light in the flavour department, too, and unfortunately these two bottles only confirm this perception. The brown ale pours a dark brown with a puny beige head, and has a little malt vinegar on the nose. The only perceivable flavour is a big hit of sweet caramel, and the mouthfeel is so thin that I cannot gain any satisfaction from drinking this beer – I almost want to down it one. The old ale tastes remarkably similar to begin with. The celebrated Harvey’s yeast can be glorious at times, but unfortunately, it makes their lesser beers all taste alike. It’s darker in colour, closer to black than brown, and a little richer in flavour, with sweet treacle joined by some savoury, grainy malt flavours very much hiding in the background. Interesting as it was to try these, I can’t imagine buying them again.

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