28 April 2011

Now we are six

Grab your paper hat and curly squeaker thingy: my blog turns 6 today and I'm throwing a party for it. I need a game suitable for a 6-year-old beer blog's birthday celebration, and luckily BrewDog have obliged with their IPA is Dead fourpack: fun for three players, neatly packaged in a single box.

The beers are all 7.5% ABV IPAs, brewed to 75 IBUs and dry-hopped, but each using a different single hop from a different continent: Bramling Cross, Citra, Sorachi Ace and Nelson Sauvin. Loaded up on cake and with paper hats in position, I sat down with the two Party Guests to go through the four beers blind, picking a favourite and seeing if we could make any stab at guessing which beer was which from what we know of the respective hops' flavour profiles.

The first beer I found to be the dullest: lacking aroma and foretaste, it's quite acrid, creating a burning sort of bitterness. Its redeeming feature is a sort of gunpowder spice, but in a heavily dry-hopped beer I feel entitled to at least some fruit flavours, which this didn't deliver. Not knowing how to classify this I played my wild card, deeming it Sorachi Ace, the only hop of the four I'd never knowingly tasted before. Though there was no cross-consultation (all games at 6th birthday parties should be played in silence), Party Guest 1 agreed with me, reckoning there was something innately Japanese about the taste. We were both wrong. Party Guest 2 hit the nail on the head, spotting the English stylings of Bramling X.

From the start of the second beer I was thinking Citra, though the lemony flavour was rather more muted than I thought it would be. Like the previous beer, it's harshly bitter, if not quite as intense and leaving room for some of the fruit sunshine to come through. I'd nearly call it balanced. After checking along the row for signs of citrus in the others, I deemed this the most lemon-like and therefore Citra. Again, Party Guest 1 thought the same, however Party Guest 2 decided it was Nelson Sauvin. The shoe was on the other foot this time, and the scores levelled thanks to my and PG1's superior Citra-spotting abilities.

I got a real shock from the nose of beer three: an intense hit of tar or burning pitch. Once again the bitterness is stonking, and the first flavour is pure grapefruit skin, but when it faded I thought I could detect a subtle white grape note at the back. Despite that initial unpleasant surprise I kept coming back to this, getting more grape and less acid with each turn. By the end I'd decided it was my favourite of the bunch, though with the Citra not far behind. Guided by the grape flavour, I opted for Nelson Sauvin as my guess. Party Guest 1 detected none of the harshness of the others and decided this well-mannered example had to be Bramling X. Party Guest 2 couldn't get past the grapefruit, which screamed Citra to her. Three different guesses and the points went to me: I was expecting much more light and juicy things from Nelson Sauvin, but that's what it was.

And so we're down to the wire. Beer four was the most gentle, I thought: lots of orange pith and rough, perhaps, but not harsh. I had trouble believing that it was a full 7.5% ABV, and for all these reasons picked it as my nomination for Bramling X. Party Guest 1 described it as extremely wine-like so was in no doubt at all that it was Nelson Sauvin. Party Guest 2 found it an odd mish-mash of citrus and green veg with little by way of aroma so picked Sorachi Ace, and was, of course, correct.

Final scores: me 2 -- PG1 1 -- PG2 2. No-one really covering themselves in hop-related glory there, but at least no-one cried, threw up or had to be sent home to their parents early.

Apart from learning that too much of a hop can kill off a beer's best features, I was very interested in the demonstration of the yawning gap between IBUs and perceived bitterness. Though these were all, on paper, as bitter as each other, the difference in taste between Bramling X and Sorachi Ace was remarkable. Were I asked to guess their IBUs I'd have been saying 90 and 65 respectively. Bittering units aren't a metric I pay much attention to when compiling a beer recipe and I feel somewhat justified now in doing that.

Looking at these purely as beers-to-drink, I didn't enjoy them as much as the Mikkeller single-hop series. If BrewDog are planning a second set of these, or if any other brewery is contemplating it (it's a great way to get drinkers actively thinking about beer and what goes into it), I'd advise toning the hop levels down a little to let those distinctive flavours speak more clearly. Yes, that's my excuse for scoring so poorly...