Not Just Any Old Beer
Em Marshall-Luck savours some special beers
We’re moving away from wines this month, as my attention has been diverted to the splendid Imperial Beer Club; plus a super whisky and equally excellent gin that I would also like to recommend to readers.
Wine clubs are rife, but beer clubs? The Imperial Beer Club set about to fill a gap in the market; and that it has done with superlative élan. This isn’t about just any old beer – these are incredibly carefully selected, immensely characterful craft beers from small, independent breweries. The presentation from the Imperial Beer Club is of the very highest standard – the beers come carefully packaged in a neat box, along with a tasting booklet which devotes fulsome space to each beer, along with serving suggestions and both information and quirky comments. Each monthly delivery box contains 10 beers and costs £42.
The Imperial Beer Club’s strapline “Only for the Strong” rather came into play with the first beer I tasted in my pack. Northern Monk / Smokin’ Bees Imperial Whisky Honey Smoked Porter is a stunning drink. Don’t be put off by the fact that it comes in a can rather than a bottle; it is superb quality.
The quirky and very modern image – greyscale with flashes of gold – depicting bees smoking pipes / cigarettes / cigars gives an insight into the eccentric and idiosyncratic minds of the makers of this beer and prepares one for an amazing, almost otherworldly, experience. The porter is black with the faintest of red hints, and is thick – almost tar-like in appearance. The nose is surprisingly fruity and high – rather unlike the dark, deep, low tones that one is about to taste. First is an impression of smoothness – the beer literally glides onto the tongue and oh so smoothly rolls over it. Then the first taste – fruit and flowers, followed swiftly by a strong hit of banana. At the back of the tongue are black tastes – tar and petrol; a good fiery bite of spice; and then a tempering dose of sweetness from the 100kg of wild flower honey that is added at the end of the boil: this is a dark, liquorice-type of sweetness, though – molasses rather than icing sugar. The deep smokiness of peat fires enables the beer to be likened to a single malt whisky (hence the name); with a hefty thump of alcohol. The aftertaste lingers exceptionally long for a beer – a tingling of spice, and a contradictory black sweetness. Imperial Beer Club recommend pairing this with pancakes, smoked bacon and maple syrup and – apart from the fact that to drink this at breakfast would probably render one senseless for the rest of the day – one can see that such pairing would work amazingly well.
Next up, Brave New World from Tempest Brewing Co. came in a bottle with a simple, yet arresting, label design: a lime-green border top and bottom, with the various textual elements demarcated by means of black lines – the whole redolent of old-fashioned railway inventory forms, an impression that is reinforced by the font, a ‘rubber-stamp’ type. As the tasting notes state, the beer has a slightly hazy amber colour, and has a good depth without being forbiddingly dense. The taste is bright and citrusy (perhaps the label’s borders are designed to highlight this characteristic), with mineral overtones; a good substance leaves a lasting impression on the palate whilst retaining a refreshing, yet not cloying, sweetness. This one was a very individual beer which would work well on its own or with Indian food.
Bastard Brag from By the Horns brewery was the only slightly disappointing beer in the pack. From the design of the label, it promised to be a rather rough beer: a chunky sans-serif font heading a picture of a gentleman who looks as though he hasn’t shaved for about four days, cigar hanging out of one corner of his mouth, too-small trilby askew, and with tie (presumably not Windsor-knotted) at half-mast. The somewhat dubious-sounding name, ‘Bastard Brag’, is apparently a card game (Contract Bridge presumably not having the same degree of rough-hewn ‘ruggedness’). It was somewhat startling, therefore, to find that the beverage contained in said bottle was somewhat anaemic in flavour and texture – indeed, rather thin and watery. The nose had notes of liquorice and a slight mustiness, but the initial taste was rather unfocused and indeterminate. Hops are evident, but the tasting notes’ promise of charcoal, grapefruit and pine eluded me. The finish was short- to medium-lasting, but unfortunately it did not yield much in the way of extra dimension to the taste.
Schwarzwalder Kirschetorte from Mad Hatter Brewery was more interesting: a thick, viscous dark brown beer with a nose that hints of cherry but has a touch of washing up liquid about it too (an aroma which doesn’t come through on the taste, perhaps fortunately!). It’s quite a high nose, almost floral and with some red berries in there as well. The taste is darker than the nose, with some bitter tamarind, roasted malt, some tart red berries, and slight cherry sourness (the name is German for black forest gateau). It’s not as thick or heavy in texture as a traditional stout or porter, and is also quite dry, especially on the finish. I enjoyed the bottle image, with its simple colour scheme of red, black and white, and the image of presumably a march hare with a pair of cherries dangling from his ears in the middle of what looks like a round table bearing fir trees; I found this a refreshing change from the slightly edgier images found on many of the other bottles.
Mexicake Imperial Stout from Tempest Brewing Co. looks like black treacle when one pours it into the glass – thick, dark brown with a tint of red at the edges; immensely rich. The very strong nose speaks of liquorice, coffee, toffee and some dark chocolate, with some spices – chilli and cinnamon. The first taste is a luscious experience, and one immediately encounters a slightly bitter blackness. The taste spreads out, conquering every crevice of the mouth like an invading army, giving hints of vanilla and sweet liquorice before darker notes of black coffee. The spices come in last of all, burning the mouth pleasantly with fiery chilli and the warming cinnamon and leaves the tongue tingling and slightly numb (in a good way). It is some minutes, amazingly enough, before the finish is totally gone, and even then the taste lingers on the tongue for minutes more. The beer actually contains cinnamon, cocoa, vanilla and chillis, and all these ingredients are discernible in this immensely flavoursome stout. The bottle artwork pays homage to the Mexican inspiration behind the drink in colourful fashion.
Return to Madness from the Mad Hatter Brewing Company depicts a rather crazed looking hare on the bottle front, to a vibrant pink background. This IPA is an opaque golden brown with a nose of predominantly tropical fruits – plenty of pineapples and grapefruits. On the palate it is unusually smooth, rich and sweet – an initial prolonged burst of honeyed sweetness with some plump, ripe grapes and raisins leads to darker tones of burnt toffee and some black coffee, and a good tingle all round the mouth. The finish is long and lingering. An extremely unusual and exceptional IPA, well worth looking out for.
Hercules Hold Strong Scotch Ale from By the Horns is a rich brown-red colour, almost opaque, heralding an intense, full-bodied taste; although the head is almost non-existent. The nose has elements of roasted coffee and treacle, with an overtone of Friar’s Balsam – but the medicinal flavour thus implied should not be taken too seriously. A slight effervescence greets the tongue upon first tasting, which immediately lightens and lifts the texture; the treacle and the (now slightly burnt) coffee flavours make their presence felt on the front of the palette whilst, further back, notes of plum and tar are evident. The finish is long-lasting and just very slightly cloying: there seems to be a viscosity about the drink as it slips over the back of the tongue, although not to an unpleasant or intrusive degree. Altogether a complex beer which repays close attention – a handsomely sophisticated beverage.
Syd Strongs Cascadian Dark Tye Ale from Pressure Drop is a foamy dark brown ale with a nose of coffee and malt and a spicy, black taste. Immensely smooth, there is none of the sweetness that is slightly discernible on the nose – it’s a full-on, dark beer fully of hoppy bitterness and even a slight citric sourness at the sides of the tongue. Black pepper and a little bite of chilli linger in the finish. As the imagery indicates, the beer is named after a long-gone hairdresser on Camden High Street.
According to the Press notes, “Siren say their objective with Pompelmocello was to make a beer as grapefruit tasting as possible”. This it certainly is – the citrus aromas on the nose and on the palette deliver an instantly refreshing impact and make this a beer designed to boost flagging minds and spirits. The label is simple: a raspberry-red label with a florid line-drawing, redolent of the illuminated capitals that may sometimes be seen in printed books of the 19th century, whilst a subtle wave motif on the body of the label leavens its intensity. Although perhaps not having the most complex or multi-dimensional of tastes, this is a forthright, uncomplicated drink that makes a positive and lasting impression. Ideal to accompany early-evening convivial conversation.
Last, but not least, was Blacklight Banana, also from Siren craft brewery. There is a rather fascinating back-story to the name of this stout, which begins on the rear label of the bottle and can be read, in a more extended version, online: this explains the rather mysterious line-drawing of a roosting bat that adorns the bottle’s front label. The stout itself, mid-brown in colour, shot through with red overtones, has a strong nose – coffee very much to the fore, but with caramel also evident, and a powerful hint of banana, too. Such flavours also inform the taste, the coffee especially emphasised upon the front of the palette, with caramelised bananas making their presence felt further back and in the long, potent finish. This is a very distinguished beverage, heavy with old-world redolence and made for savouring.
On the whole, this pack from Imperial Beer Club opened up a new dimension of beers to me and enlightened me significantly as to the healthy state of craft breweries in this country. For anyone interested in beer, I cannot recommend this club highly enough, nor the breweries whose beers they present.
I’d like to finish with an exceptionally fine gin and whisky that come very highly recommended. The gin is Salcombe Gin Start Point, which is hand-distilled in copper stills in Devon using the finest hand-sourced ingredients, including 13 carefully selected botanicals, blended with English wheat spirit and pure Dartmoor water. On the nose we have a slight mustiness, but with pleasantly rich fruity tones, as well. High, almost spicy notes greet the tongue upon first tasting, and the taste gains in depth and maturity as it moves further back, with warm citrus flavours, liquorice and peppermint becoming evident as the flavour opens up. The finish is long and warming, with a real intensity if one gives oneself the time, and grants oneself the focus, to detect and savour it. From £37.50 from fine food halls, farm shops and delicatessens and https://www.salcombegin.com/shop.
Unusually, my whisky recommendation comes from India. Rampur is a single malt whisky, handcrafted and aged in Uttar Pradesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is a pale golden-amber colour, and has a warming nose with a slight fire to it; a fruitiness lurks as well – redolent of raisins, and a hint of citrus. These are borne out in the taste, although it takes some focus to discern them, as the fieriness is the most evident quality of this whisky, which deepens and broadens further back, without losing any of its intensity. This would be an unusual alternative to a fine Scotch whisky –
although adding a drop of water may be advised for those who wish to take the edge off the drink! RRP £41.95 from The Whisky Exchange www.thewhiskyexchange.com.
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Food and Wine Critic