06 September 2013

Picking sides

Last week I wrote about the Alltech Gathering held in Dublin in July, mentioning some of the internationally sourced beers they had available. I'm bringing us back to the press room for this month's Session which is hosted by Ding and is on the subject of USA vs. Old World beer culture.

There was a handful of American beers knocking around, and quite a few British ones as well. So I thought why not use them as a cross section of their respective brewing cultures and see how they measure up against each other?

Two particular American heavyweights came out of the fridge early -- an unspoken agreement among the assembled leeches and liggers that these ones weren't going to last long anyway. One was Stone's Old Guardian, an 11.6% ABV barley wine which shows the perfect balance-in-extremis that the San Diego brewery pulls off so effortlessly. Yes there's a certain sherryish heat to it, but not too much, and the heavy toffee tones remain smooth, soft and welcoming, not sticky. In amongst the cuddlesome malt there's a gorgeous herbal honey hop character, rising to an assertive, but exquisitely balanced bitterness. A class act from start to finish. Next to it, an IPA from Indiana legends Three Floyds. Blackbeard is created in the English style, they say, then oaked. I can just about detect the orange marmalade of pithy British hops but it's buried under a horrible plasticky sap flavour from the wood. It doesn't cohere as a recipe, isn't nice to drink and is a long way from tasting like any English IPA I've met.

We have to go downstairs to find what the Brits were up to with their pale malt and hops, and one that really impressed me was Sambrooks Pale Ale. I had previously associated this London brewery with reliable but not very exciting English styles, but this 4.5% ABV pale ale is bursting with sweet juicy mandarin and denser bitter jaffa notes. The complexity is topped by effervescent sherbet and spices, and all this through the application of local hops such as Admiral and First Gold. It takes a lot to impress an Irish beer geek with a 4.x% kegged pale ale -- we're swimming in the stuff over here -- but this multifaceted sessioner definitely stood out for me. I was less sure about Great Heck's Yakima IPA. This is 7.4% ABV but hides it well. It's one of those beers I had to take a walk around before knowing what to make of it. On first approach it smacked me with a sharp, funky and slightly musty flavour that took quite a bit of getting used too. I was most of the way through my half before my palate adjusted to it properly and after that it became more enjoyable. At the end I was still left with that mustiness, unsure whether to count it as a bug or a feature. I don't think I'd be running to this one again.

Back in the American camp, another strength-hiding IPA was Boulder's Mojo. 7.2% ABV this time, with quite an understated flavour, compared to the Great Heck beer anyway. There's the right amount of bitter kick and some beautiful smooth fresh peach flavours playing the good cop. The lack of heavy toffee in an American IPA is both literally and figuratively refreshing. A different kind of refreshing was offered by Abita's Purple Haze: a thin pinkish lager with a pleasant raspberry bite, but not a whole lot else to say for itself.

It still had the beatings of the UK's representative lager, though. Windsor & Eton Republika has won a number of plaudits lately but it just didn't work for me on the day, being heavy and sticky with a candy-sweet aroma followed by bananas in the flavour. Cleanness just doesn't feature.

Aha! So the UK is falling down on the refreshment front? Not so. We roll out the quenching big guns with Origin, a saison brewed as part of a side project at Stewart Brewing in Edinburgh. Masses of the exotic spicy mandarin notes I love in pretty much any beer (Galaxy, you beauty), but coupled with the light tartness and tickly prickle of a saison. I only had a taste but I could have handled a lot more.

Oh but America can do saisons too, albeit with a Belgian-owned brewery flying the flag: Ommegang and their Hennepin. It has a couple of ABV points on the Origin, at 7.7% ABV, pouring a wan cloudy yellow. The refreshing crispness I look for in this style is totally absent and instead there's lots of weissbierish banana fruit and a very obvious heat from the alcohol. We can safely award the saison contest to the Scots.

But we stay with Ommegang while we turn the lights down for the dark beers. Three Philosophers is a 9.7% ABV quadrupel, dark red and every bit as fruitsome and boozy as you might expect: plum, fig, some chocolate, but nothing that really struck me as different or interesting for this kind of strong Belgian-style ale. Founder's Porter was another that didn't exactly rock the style but it was highly enjoyable, laying on heavy liquorice and molasses to begin with, but finishing lighter and not sticky. That full-but-drinkable is always worth a few points when it's pulled off well.

Britain's sole contribution to the dark styles was Thornbridge's Wild Raven: a black IPA aged on brett. Yawn -- pointlessly piling hipster affectation on hipster affectation, with no real benefit to the drinker, right? Wrong! It hangs together beautifully, to the point where the brett funk is barely noticeable ('cos it's not there -- see comments), allowing the hops free rein. The aroma is a blast of fresh mown grass; the flavour a biting pithy bitterness. All this happens on a gorgeous creamy stoutlike texture. Textbook complexity, exquisite balance. I found the bottled form to be tough drinking bottled, but much easier on keg.

Despite the weight of numbers being against it, I think the UK wins out on this showing, but only by outdoing the New World on things that the New World is known for: big flavours, odd concoctions and non-traditional dispense methods. When the Americans tried to ape and improve upon native European styles, like saison or bitter, they just didn't achieve the right sort of effect, barley wine being a notable exception, of course.

Props go out to the US for encouraging more radical thinking when it comes to beer, but this random sample showed the British being better at putting it into practice.

Thanks once again to the Alltech team for assembling such a diverse selection and providing the opportunity to taste them.


  1. I'm surprised that there was "nothing that really struck me as different or interesting" about the Three Philosophers. I was quite the fan of the blend of the Ommegang Quad and the Liefman's Kriek, but then I get quite irrational in the presence of cherries.

    1. I didn't know about the cherries when I drank it, and didn't notice their contribution to the flavour. But then hurried sips out of plastic cups is far from the best way to fully appreciate any beer.

  2. Did someone there say that Wild Raven was on Brett?

    I ask because I heard it is simply a renaming of Raven, due to legal complications.

    1. Hah! Ooops! I appear to have completely invented both the brett, and my fact-checking stage. Thanks for the clarification!