03 November 2010

From the weedpatch

It's a couple of years since Hall & Woodhouse's collaboration with River Cottage was the talk of the beerweb. Actually, you don't hear much from the Badger brand at all these days. I'd sort of forgotten about them until I spotted two of the River Cottage / Badger beers on the shelf of an off licence recently. I hadn't even realised there was a new one.

The original is Stinger, made with nettles for a "tongue tingling" sensation. Well maybe it takes a bit more to get my jaded old tongue tingling these days, but this wasn't doing it. The first thing I noticed was that despite the greener-than-thou organic badging and copious information on the hop:malt:fruit ratios on the label, there was no actual listing of ingredients. And when breweries throw odd things into their beers they usually follow it with a hefty bag or two of sugar, just to be sure. I think that's what's happened here: you get a heavy, thick, syrupy golden ale without much by way of aroma. There's a spice to it as well, buried quite deep, but I challenge anyone to drink it and tell me it tastes of nettles. Mind you, this is apparently what proper nettle beer tastes like, and this is a measure of its quality so maybe the bags of sugar were a good idea.

I expected more of the same from the dandelion one, called Dandelion ("Stinger" having exhausted the branding guys' imaginations). This time the sugar does add a bit of character -- it may even be brown sugar -- but beyond it there's absolutely nothing: another sweet syrupy ale with maybe a tiny herbal complexity at the back, but nothing that would make you think of dandelions.

I shouldn't really have consumed them back to back. I started to get a bit angry. I mean: how hard is it to do this sort of thing properly? Williams Brothers, for instance, turn out some fantastic beers with heather and spruce and seaweed. I've made one gruit ale once, flavoured mostly with yarrow and sage, and it was pretty damn drinkable. Marketable, even. So why is it that so many brewers, English ones in particular, think that when you break from the malt/hops norm you have to turn the whole thing into an alcopop? These ones may have organic credentials and a chef off the telly but they're really nothing more than Crabbie's in disguise, and a short skip through the meadow from blue WKD.

Stuff like this gives unusal ingredients in beer a dreadful reputation (though, granted, Dave in the links above isn't helping either). What's wrong with a bit more diversity?


  1. I was not impressed by that dandelion beer either. It is odd that 'weird' English beers are more wkd than cantillion

  2. What I feel is that many brewers, when they want to break the norm, often fall in the same trap. They don't want to scare the mainstream drinker with something radically different, but in the end, they don't make anyone happy, the mainstream drinker is a bit let down because they are not getting something THAT much different and the more "experienced" or "adventurous" among us get mad at all that blandness.

  3. Oh BTW I am fairly sure the problem with my nettle beer was with me not the nettles. I think I picked ones that were not fresh enough.

    I have had other homebrew nettle beers that used the nettle just for bittering that were lovely.

  4. What is the River Cottage connection? Over at H&W's Badger Website they make a big deal of it on the Dandelion beer & don't mention it on any of the others.

    Not sure I'll try these after that review, but I have got a certain amount of time for Badger. I was mildly addicted to Blandford Fly for a while, and I still see Tanglefoot as a supermarket banker.

  5. Conversely I've found most of their beers to be pants, with Golden Champion being a notable exception.

    I suspect the connection is that the River Cottage marketing people got together with the H&W marketing people, talked a bit about brand synergy, and then passed a product brief on to a brewer who immediately ordered a load of sugar.

    I think the making of Stinger featured in one of Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall's television programmes, but I've not seen it.

  6. They used to make Stinger with a nettle extract from his farm, but I don't think they do anymore.

    When my mum went to his restaurant for a work do, she said Stinger was the beer on offer. (With souvenir chalice glasses available for purchase...)

  7. Some comments from our head brweer at Badger Ales;

    "Technically you are about as far from an alcopop as you could get. The beer is brewed using organic malt with sourcing of barley from Dorset. The bittering hop used in the beer is Organic First Gold, a fine hop in its own right. However the main difference is that there is no aroma hop added at the end of the boil, instead it is replaced by organic stinging nettles harvested by hand from River Cottage. The aroma and taste we get from Stinger is unique to that beer and gives a slightly herbal, cut grass type aroma and flavour that we do not see on our other beers. The final gravity of the beer is akin to a standard bottle beer and considerably below an alcopop, so whilst there is a degree of priming it is not a sweet product."

  8. Thanks Rick. I wonder about the stability of that nettle aroma as it was all gone by the time the bottle crossed the Irish Sea and was poured into my glass.

    So it's not back-sweetened after fermentation, then?