Reviews and events

The Session 120: Brown Beer


For this month’s Session topic, Joe Tindall who writes at The Fatal Glass of Beer has nominated a tricky subject to blog about. I say tricky, because in the discourse of modern beer ‘Brown’ has become a inexplicably maligned descriptor, and brown ale as a style is often overlooked or derided.

Brown is what your parents drank. Brown is dull and lifeless. Brown is  unfashionable, and comes in clear bottles, from brands that no longer exist as independent entities, so passé that they’ve become a joke even amongst the communities that they sprouted from. However, Brown ales are also flavourful, rich, moreish, and despite the negatives, are still one of the most satisfying styles around, even more so when brewed with care and creativity.

My original intention for this post was to find a couple of the classics, and drink them side by side with some newer examples. I quickly realised that it would be a pointless task, mainly because the likes of Newcastle Brown and Mann’s have been reduced to pointlessness by a indifferent beer market and the financial pressures of supermarket discounting.

Also, as most contemporary brown ales available are jazzed up and trend-driven, a comparison would be uneven. So instead of digging up the time capsule and finding nothing but a mouldy newspaper and a badly spelled letter, I picked up two bottles that I thought would be at distant ends of the modern Brown ale scale.


Blackjack Brewery are one of Manchester’s new wave of railway arch Brewers, nestled up in the Green Quarter on the edge of the city centre. The River is a Farmhouse Brown that is billed as ‘far from ‘brown’ as it gets’. There is certainly a extreme funk in the air as I pop the cap, and a small gush of foam – the yeast in the bottle has certainly been working away – but the liveliness still sprays out a nutty aroma that screams brown ale.

To taste, I’m getting a lot of banana esters and also a sweet toasty cocoa. The yeasty, brett-like funk gives it an edge that seems a little strange, almost distracting at first, but as a counterpoint it works. I would have liked a bit more spice, perhaps, but it’s a good concept and pretty well executed too.


Odyssey Brew Co are a new, but increasingly lauded brewery hidden away in deep countryside between Hereford and Worcester. They’ve attracted a lot of attention for their range of aggressively flavoursome beer, and this imperial oatmeal stout fits in with that ethos.

My bottle is full of vanilla, coffee and chocolate, and is thick, with a sharp boozy finish – almost akin to a bourbon aged stout. However there is also that characteristic brownness underneath, with lots of sticky caramel and a gentle bitterness. My only criticism would be that on the finish the vanilla slightly overpowers the other flavours.

To be honest, my previous Odyssey experiences didn’t leave me reeling with excitement, but this beer shows why they’ve got a lot of praise. A real hefty pudding of a beer.

With these two beers, and others I’ve tried recently – North Brewing Co’s Bulkhead and Magic Rock’s The Stooge, both excellent from cask – there is clearly life in the style amongst UK brewers, even if the parameters of the style are being ever more stretched. 

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Opinion and rants, Reviews and events

Session 119 – Discomfort Beer

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This post is a contribution to Beer Blogging Friday where a host volunteers to choose a topic for bloggers to write about and then collates the responses.  This time,  Alec Latham has chosen the topic of “Discomfort Beer”, and contributions are focused on beers that challenged, disgusted, or changed the opinion of the writer.

Back in about 2011, I thought I ‘knew’ about beer, mainly because I’d successfully booked a trip to Brussels in 2006 and it coincided with the annual Brussels beer weekend – not that I knew it was on. My partner and I enjoyed it so much that we roped in a few others for a return trip the year after, and the year after that.
With these repeat visits, I had chucked back what I thought at the time were exceptionally strong beers, in a rather typically cavalier youngish Brit abroad fashion. We shared and tried a list of beers that I cannot recall in much detail, and I certainly didn’t really make any attempt to learn much about them at the time. Beer was beer, even Belgian beer. We laughed at the silly outfits of the brewers at the parade, and even made some jokes about the name of some bloke called Michael Jackson sitting in a tent with a load of books he was signing.

As the quote goes ‘the past is a foreign country’, and although in this instance that was literally true, it was my last visit to the Beer weekend in 2011 that demonstrates the figurative truth behind it, and which relates to the topic for this session.

‘One Boon Gooze please’, I said as I approached Boon’s stall. ‘Ok…coming up’ said the hesitant server who had obviously dealt with plenty of oblivious tourists ordering his produce that weekend, and pulling the same mystified/disgusted expression that was to wash over my face in approximately three minutes. My last few tokens of the weekend were handed over, and I looked forward to my last beer of the festival on a Sunday afternoon that had been mercifully dry, compared to the heavy showers of the other sessions.

One swift gulp later, I was wondering what exactly it was that I’d ordered. Was this beer? It smelt like sweaty cider and cheese, and it certainly didn’t taste like what I’d come to expect from Belgian beer – sweet and strong, with or without fruit. Even the Coconut beer we made our friends order as a kind of initiation tasted more palatable than this. Still, not being a person not to finish his beer, I persisted and finished my glass. I thought ‘I’ll take a photo of this, so I don’t order it again next year’, which is the photo above.

My perceptions and reaction planted the seed of doubt in my head – what was this? Did I just not ‘get it’? And so I started looking into the brewery, and then the style of beer, and who Michael Jackson was. Five years on and I know that what I was tasting was almost certainly Boon’s Oude Gueuze, which for a novice to the style was probably the worst introduction. However, it had the effect of prompting me to expand my horizons in a way that the Blondes and Bruins and syrupy sweet Framboises didn’t.

I’m grateful that the person serving me at Boon’s stall didn’t pause to ask ‘have you had this before?’ and recommend something less challenging from another brewer. It’s been much more fun learning about beer following that uncomfortable experience

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Reviews and events

#12BeersofXmas – Day 9 – Holy Oak

After a few days of eeking out a share each of a 330ml bottle, we’re back in big bottle country tonight, and the beer that I am most looking forward to of this year’s selection.

Gigantic brew out of Portland, Oregon and had their fourth birthday earlier this year, they prepared to mark the occasion by flying Magic Rock’s Nick Ziegler out in advance to brew Holy Oak – a barrel-aged kettle sour designed to mimic a whiskey sour cocktail. The collaboration must have gone well as Gigantic made the return trip to brew Special Relationship – a Manhattan cocktail-style aged beer – earlier this year.

I didn’t get round to tasting Holy Oak when it was originally released, and I also thought that I’d missed out on a bottle due to my own inaction. Luckily, Becky noted my interest and picked a bottle up, which has been sitting in our kitchen waiting for the right moment. Which is now.

A satisfying hiss accompanied the popping of the cap, which is usually a good sign, and the beer poured with a thick dense foam. The aroma is obviously max bourbon, but also sweet citrus. The sourness of the beer is pronounced but it balances the oaky bourbon by providing a sugary, tangy hit on the aftertaste. Which isn’t to say that it is overly sweet – it’s designed to ape a Whisky Sour and does so to a tee.

Even the mouthfeel is spot on – slight hints of a thick creamyness, which I would expect from egg yolk in the cocktail – and it isn’t  light, throwaway like a lot of kettle soured beers are. It’s one of those beers that demonstrates it’s creator’s methods with extra layers. I’m very impressed, not only with the end result, but also with the level of thought that must have gone into the process. I think Becky is also pretty happy with this one.

‘It used to be that when Gareth had a sour he would ask me to try it then sit tittering at the expression of disgust on my face. Now however I know if the style of beer I’m trying is a sour that it’s pretty certain I’ll love it and this is no exception. Again another boozy number on the nose and the whiskey taste definitely comes through. Not sure I could drink more that one glass of this one as it feels really strong and is certainly hitting the spot tonight. I best stop now though or I’ll have a ‘Gigantic’ hangover again tomorrow.’

It’s fair to say I’ve certainly not been disappointed with Holy Oak, I’m a bit sceptical of beers that seem to be aping a different drink, but the success of both this and Special Relationship have shown that amazing results can be achieved.

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#12BeersofXmas – Day 8 – Tsjeeses

Today’s selection is another Christmas themed beer, and we’ve gone back to Belgium for a beer by De Struise. Near neighbours to the monks at Westvleteren, De Struise are renowned for creating many well regarded beers, including Pannepot (more about that later in the week).

The story behind the name of this beer is that De Struise had been brewing Christmas beers for a few years without finding a good name, until one year the head brewer tasted the latest creation and exclaimed ‘Tjeeses, what a beer’. Nice story. The label also has an interesting reason behind the character’s shades, more info here.

The beer initially pours with a bubbly head, although all carbonation rapidly dissipates. The aroma reminds me of Madeira wine, as does the deep reddish brown colour. The beer is lagered on various fruits, and I’d hazard a guess that cherries and plums would have been used, given the bittersweet flavours. The alcohol does hit post-swallow but in a good way, and the aftertaste is nutty, with a bit of vanilla. I think with a bit more carbonation this would have been truly memorable, but I’m unsure if time in the bottle would help or not. However, for a Christmas beer this is hard to beat in terms of depth and flavour.

‘Yay I’m sober so actually appreciating this lovely beer! Looking at it in the glass you’d think it was brandy rather than beer and it’s very boozy on the nose. Lovely and warming like drinking a spirit. Unfortunately because it’s so good I’ve pretty much finished it before coming to write this but if you like a strong Belgian beer this will be right up your street. Just wish we had more!’

Another well received beer overall, seems like we’re having a pretty successful #12BeersofXmas this year, here’s hoping the next few days keep up this standard.

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Reviews and events

#12BeersofXmas – Day 7 – #MashTag 15

‘Hey guys, we’re #cool! Let’s source the recipe for a #new #beer #on #Twitter #using #hashtags #and #polls’. Was my reaction at the time to the Brewdog mashtag crowd-created beer. It all seemed a bit ‘hells yeah’ and ‘totes’, even for Brewdog.

But I am a rapidly aging cynic, and even though the combination of suggestions that were chosen sometimes seemed like a bit of a dog’s dinner, I’d seen the 2015 in a beer shop and picked one up anyway. A black barley wine aged on oak chips didn’t sound too bad, after all.

Vanilla beans were also an addition to the brew and they figure strongly both on the initial aroma and dry, creamy finish. The mashtaggers also decided that the beer should have an IBU level of 100, and while this has faded, there’s still a tingly bitterness to put a full stop to the oaky, smoky heart of this full bodied barley wine.

I know Becky occasionally enjoys a barley wine and I thought this would be a slightly different proposition for her to try. ‘The few barley wine beers I’ve tried I have liked but I wouldn’t say they’re my go to beer. I have been driving for five hours today then drinking for the last six so my contribution is going to be minimal! This beer does smell lovely, definite hints of coffee and vanilla. Saying that on the first sip it made me pull my ‘yuck face’. However the warmer it got and the more I drank the more it’s grown on me. It has a warm flavour and is smooth to drink.’

So maybe #-ing a beer together on Twitter isn’t such a bad idea after all. I’m still not sure if I’d enjoy the 2016 creation, but 2015’s was delicious.

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#12BeersofXmas – Day 6 – Surt Til


I’m not really that bothered about getting boozed up on Christmas Day – far too much to do, games to be assembled, and massive amounts of food to be eaten. Things have died down a bit now though, so I’ve popped my second beer of the day.

Completing a hat-trick of To Øl selections is Surt Til, a sour table beer, designed to be a liquid equivalent of the pickled vegetables served alongside a Danish christmas dinner. As the blurb says, why eat your vegetables when you can take a drink? I’m inclined to agree.

The pour is lively, less ice man, more ice cream man, but the carbonation is just right. There are some salty notes and a bit of funk, but also a bit of a soapy, thin finish, which is not entirely unexpected for a table beer. The sourness is fleeting but crisp, with some typically savoury hints from the Mosaic.

Overall, this is a satisfying beer but not as moreish as Sur Yule. This was another of Becky’s choices for the lineup, and as she’s done most of the hard work today I’ve given her the majority of the bottle.

‘The only downside to doing the cooking is I sip all the booze I can get my hands on whilst chopping and stirring so I’m feeling a bit pickled! That being said I am once again regretting sharing my lovely To Øl beer with Gareth. Of the two I thought I would like the Sur Yule the best but this is divine. I love an easy drinker and this is incredibly quaffable. No flavours standing out it’s just clean and crisp and even (trying to make my contribution festive!). I could drink this all day long – I’m looking forward to getting my hands on more To Øl goodies in 2017!’

Hope you’ve all had a good day, and that you’ve got a fun evening planned.

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#12BeersofXmas – Day 5 – Sur Yule


Christmas Eve means another Christmas beer, and another To Øl bottle. We are both slowly recovering from last night, and not much has helped soothe our heads so far – fry up, fresh air, fluids (both soft and beery) – all have failed. We’re just glad that we chose to go out on the 23rd rather than inflict this on ourselves on Christmas morning. I am expecting we’ll be up early.

Sur Yule comes in a handily sized sharing bottle, and has been chilling in the fresh air all day (fridge too full of food). A pale sour with Cherries, it has a light rose hue. Cloudy with a snappy but brief bite, it has hints of a Kriek but less intense.

Whilst year round I will enjoy every type of beer style, at Christmas where the focus largely isn’t on what’s in my glass, something like Sur Yule is ideally what I aim to have in the fridge. A beer that, for me, is relatively easy going, yet high quality, shareable and with enough zip to cut through the post-dinner fatigue. I’m pretty sure that Becky is going to share my enthusiasm here.

‘As soon as I saw the tweet from Raynville with a picture of this one I knew I had to have it! I’m yet to find a To Øl beer I don’t love and this is no exception. Just from the smell I knew I would love it. The cherry flavour definitely comes through but in a more subtle way than a fruit Lambic. It’s very suppable! Just gutted I did the kind and generous festive thing and said I’d share with Gareth. Next time no sharing!!’

The spirit of Christmas there. I’m hoping Becky is feeling slightly less stingy tomorrow when she opens a couple of the beery gifts I may or may not have got her. We hope you all have a good day tomorrow, and that Santa brings you something tasty to slurp.

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