Please, Please Me
Five members of the Real Ale Festival staff recently participated in a non-blind tasting of 12 British imports. The purchasing strategy was to get a cross-section of newer brands, a mixture of styles, and beers from different importers. One (Monty Python’s Holy Grail) was chosen because it was a commemorative or “gimmick” beer that might draw the attention of consumers who ordinarily wouldn’t buy a specialty British import. Another (Old Jock Ale) was picked because it was offered on sale at a sizable discount. It turned out to be well past its ‘best by’ date, and so was considered accordingly. Two beers from a more established brand, Young’s, were included as controls.
The tasters are all very experienced BJCP judges who have traveled extensively in Europe: Roger Deschner, Tom Fitzpatrick, Mark Linsner, Randy Mosher, and Brad Reeg. They did not formally judge the beers, but instead offered their general impressions as if they were sampling them at home or at a bar.
The beers, alphabetically by brewery:
Black Sheep, Monty Python’s Holy (Gr)ail, 4.7% ABV, 500 ml, best bitter/golden pale ale
Broughton Ales, Old Jock Ale, 6.7% ABV, 16.9 oz, wee heavy
Burton Bridge, Empire Burton IPA, 7.5% ABV, bottle conditioned, 16.9 oz, English IPA
Caledonian Golden Promise Organic Ale, 5% ABV, 16.9 oz, organic golden pale ale
Coniston Bluebird Bitter, 4.2%, 500 ml, bottle-conditioned bitter/golden pale ale
Ebulum Elderberry Black Ale, 6.5%, 330 ml (11.2 oz), black ale with elderberries
Moorhouse’s Black Cat, 3.4% ABV, 16.9 oz, dark mild
Moorhouse’s Pendle Witches Brew, 5.1% ABV, 16.9 oz, strong bitter
Orkney Dark Island, 4.6% ABV, 500 ml, strong mild/old ale
Frederic Robinson’s Northern Glory, 4.4% ABV,16.9 oz, best bitter
Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, 5% ABV, 16.9 oz, dry stout with chocolate and chocolate essence
Young’s Special London Ale, 6.4% ABV, 16.9 oz, bottle-conditioned strong ale/IPA
The panel members had very consistent comments and rankings, albeit with the occasional dissent. Their top three beers received no negative remarks. Randy Mosher really liked the Ebulum, which he called “stout with a twist, super complex, big, clean, and creamy.” Roger Deschner found it a “great sipping beer,” while the others gave it high marks for uniqueness and complexity. Randy also was very impressed by the Young’s SLA, pointing to its “soft maltiness, hints of hops, woody, nutty undertones, and crisp, pleasantly bitter finish.” Brad Reeg liked its “creamy consistency, good hop flavor, and clean finish.” Tom Fitzpatrick called it a “good, balanced strong bitter” and Roger said it was “hoppy and pleasant.” Mark Linsner interestingly, noted that this sample appeared to be drier, softer, and less bitter than a newer version he had sampled from a 12 ounce bottle. Young’s Double Chocolate Stout drew smiles across the board, all agreeing that the chocolate was well pronounced and luscious. Tom cleverly coined it “Tootsie Roll beer” when others couldn’t quite put a finger on the beer’s unique character.
Monty Python’s Holy (Gr)ail surprised the panel, who had expected very little from a “gimmick” beer label. Tom and Mark both called it “very English,” pointing to its “classic British hoppiness” and “good, dry, biscuity malt balance.” Randy found it “creamy-fruity, with hints of banana and a walnut character—pleasantly husky.” Roger noted the “cute label,” later laughing that the “burning witch essence really adds a special touch!” On the other hand, Brad found it “thin and dry, with a bitter finish, good as a summer beer but otherwise not much.”
All but Randy were quite impressed by the Bluebird Bitter. Said Brad, “If a beer can smell dry, this does. It’s flinty, with slight fruitiness, some malty sweetness, and a dry, but not astringent finish. When it’s like this, it remains a classic.” Tom and Mark concurred. Tom called it a “classic hoppy, balanced bitter,” while Mark deemed it “firm, hoppy, and very nice.” Roger liked its citrusy aroma, which he found more typical of American pale ales.
Orkney’s Dark Island stood out because of a very pronounced peated malt aroma and roastiness. Mark compared it to a “peated porter,” also noticing some chocolate hints. Randy also found the nose “somewhat vinous,” but enjoyed the “nutty, creamy, dry finish.” Roger and Tom were more put off by the peatiness, but Brad really liked it, calling it “a very traditional Scottish malty/peaty nose.”
The next five beers all displayed clear signs of oxidation [usually a sign of age or damage during travel or storage]. Of these, the Golden Promise probably fared best. Roger liked its “beautiful golden hue” and Tom deemed it “smooth, malty, caramelly, and grainy.” But all noted the oxidation. The Old Jock had plenty of strength at 6.7%, but even that couldn’t cover the fact that it was many years old (this was the “sale beer” noted above). Tom pointed to its “big sherry malt aroma and flavor,” and agreed with Rog that it was “still interesting” in spite of its age.
The panel found the two Moorhouse’s beers both to be off. The off-flavors were more prominent in the Pendle Witches Brew than the Black Cat, which still could manage some more pleasant aromas and flavors of black malt, chocolate, and caramel. Northern Glory looked fine in the glass. Brad called the aroma “fruity and port-like,” but deemed the flavor to be oxidized. Mark was at least able to pick up “hints of toffee” and found the finish to be “light, dry, and easy.”
There are no comments on the Burton Bridge Empire, because the bottle gushed on opening and left very little to sample. Clearly something had happened to this bottle.
This was not a scientific sampling by any means, but what this tasting demonstrated is that buyers must be very careful when choosing among the new wave of British exports. Had I acquired the beers directly from the breweries or importers the results would have no doubt been more consistently positive. The normal consumer, however, must rely on the ability of the importers, distributors, and store owners to ensure quality down the sales chain. In this instance, the results were about 50-50. Given the price of imports, this is a very high risk indeed. To ensure that you get the best of the new British invasion, you’ve definitely got to do your homework.