On my way out of the Franciscan Well winter beer festival at the end of January, Declan from YellowBelly gave me four bottles of his beer. It took me a while to get around to them, but here's the skinny.
The first was released under Declan's own Otterbank label. In fact, that's the only label on the thing and I knew only from memory that it's a damson-infused Berliner Weisse which I believe is called Damson In Distress, part of Otterbank's This Is Berlin series. It's the murky orangey-gold colour of a tripel and features a scattering of yeasty gobbets which stuck politely to the bottom of the glass. It smells like a faro: sugar-sweet with a bricky nitric tang. There's almost no foretaste but after a second or two the sourness pinches the side of the tongue while a highly attenuated wheaty dryness sandpapers the back of the palate. The fruit, which I'd be hard pressed to identify as damson, exists more as a vapour, hovering above the busy beery action before disappearing up the back of the nose. This beer is tremendous fun: not too dry and not too sour, but with a lot of the complexity you get in proper aged Belgian gueuze. It's definitely not one of your production-line easy-bake Berliners that are something of a fashion these days: this tastes like work went into it.
Now, damson Berliners are easy enough to identify with minimal research, but what about this dark and oily chap with a YellowBelly label on it? Steve has it entered on RateBeer as YellowBelly Imperial Stout so I'll go with that, though we seem to have suspiciously the only two bottles on record (edit: it was later released under the name "It's Not Vodka"). It smells of molasses and old coffee, with a scarier note of black marker pen. Dark chocolate and bourbon biscuit are the guts of the flavour, set atop heavy leather and cigar smoke, but there's also that somewhat acrid high-alcohol gasoline taste. It's not a beer to drink quickly, even though the texture is quite light for such a boozy beast. I suspect that it's just a bit green and beer like this needs a year or two some place quiet to mellow out.
To the big lads next: the first outings in the brewery's barrel-aged series. YellowBelly Barrel Aged Barley Wine is no. 1 and clocks in at 9.9% ABV. It's a murky chestnut red colour with a stable collar of white foam. My first impression on sipping is of sawdust: the barrel seems to have left behind a very fresh and sappy wood character with a bitter resin quality which I suspect has nothing to do with the English hops. There's a touch of grape fruit (not grapefruit) lacing this, while the beer is more felt than tasted: a soft and warming pillow of malt; a sensation of hard toffee; but no more than that. The sawdust and pine resins sweep back in and dominate the finish as they dominated the start. I won't lie: it's tough drinking, and a 75cl bottle is not to be attempted alone. Another one that's best placed in the stash for ageing, perhaps?
Second in the series is YellowBelly Barrel Aged Brown Ale, at a more modest 7% ABV. There's a fierce crackle as this pours and the big off-white foam subsides to a thin skim. The aroma gives of a sense of the marker pens found in the imperial stout, but also a more pleasant coffee confectionery smell. It tastes dry and lightly fruity. I thought there was no contribution from the Chardonnay barrel but hang on: aren't Chardonnays dry and lightly fruity? Maybe that's what's going on. There's certainly none of the raw wood found in the Barley Wine. The more I ventured into it, the more I found white grape to be the dominant favour in this surprisingly subtle beer, which is a very strange sensation, and especially when you're expecting the usual coffee and chocolate of a brown ale. It has the rounded estery greasiness of the style, but really very little of the flavour, just the lightest dusting of milk chocolate. While not madly complex it does make for enjoyable, relaxing drinking.
Cheers to the Lambert's team for the bottles, and the verdict? Big strong beers and barrel-ageing have their place, but a well made low ABV sour beer offers a quiet excellence that their bluster rarely manages to match. More Berliner weisse, please.
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