Friday, 11 March 2011

Wee Beefy's bottled beer reviews

Hello thirsty folks,

I have decided, what with my 13 years experience of working in a specialist off license, and with a burgeoning collection of special, celebration or just strong bottle conditioned beers ageing around my house, that I should start trying to review the bottles I try.

Not just the towering delights of beers such as a 10 year old bottle of Thomas Hardy Ale (December 2009) or a 4 year old bottle of Fullers Vintage (same night, and what a fantastic beer!) but also the humdrum, mass produced , supermarket fosited and chain off licence over promoted stalwarts, as well as unusual and obscure stuff I either pick up on my travels or am fetched from afar by friends and family.

Today, I will tell you all about Hepworth and Co ales from Sussex, but before that, I should clarify the following :
BCA stands for Bottle Conditioned Ale - a beer with live yeast in the bottle which conditions much like a cask does, providing the drinker with an enhanced freshness and quality of flavour;
None BCA - any beer in a bottle, not containing live yeast.

Lets begin.

A : Brewey and Beer - Hepworth & Co Brewers Ltd - Sussex.
B : Strength - 3.5%
C : BCA or none BCA - None.

This is a bit of a departure for me. Whilst I don't think you can top a hoppy bitter pale ale at 5% or a strong thick stout or porter at the sort of strength that porter or stout deserves, that being 5.5% upwards, I do love the undervalued and often ignored delights of lower gravity beers. I think it makes a pleasant change to treat your tastebuds to something that they have to work for a bit, rather than wallpping them from the off with a massive beer whivh takes an hour to drink. I have time for, although can rarely find examples of to buy, the sort of beer you can sink a few pints of at lunchtime without spending the afternoon asleep, the milds, the light bitters, the old style luncheon ales, the bottles you find covered in dust on bar shelves in old regional brewers pubs.

However, its fair to say that, even having prepared myself for a light strength ale, and even having returned only a few months ago from the junior beer kingdom that is the saarf, ie Hampshire and Dorset, I was a little surprised at just how subtle the flavours were to my partly desensitised Yorkshire palette.

The Sussex, as the label proclaims proudly, is a wholly Sussex made product, and utilises Sussex Goldings and Admiral Hops and Sussex malted barley and is an honest light in colour and alcohol bitter beer, not dissimilar to Courage Georges Bitter Ale from the past, but perhaps having a little more edge.

The bitterness is slow to hit, the first taste is a pleasing if unabsorbing beery mouthfeel before a subtle malty note nudges in and the bitterness finishes the taste as you swallow. This would make an ideal starter for a tasting evening, especially if you get hold of some Harveys dinner ale or light ale to measure it against.

Overall a pleasant, but not incredible, bitter beer.

A : Brewey and Beer - Hepworth & Co Brewers Ltd - Pullman, First Class Ale.
B : Strength - 4.2%
C : BCA or none BCA - None.

A stronger stablemate of the above, from the same brewery, sadly this time a bit less forthcoming about which hops are adding the bite - I don't expect brewers to write their recipes on the side, but why the mystique ? Telling us they have expertly crafted malt and hops is a bit obvious when you start drinking their mixture of water malt hops and yeast. See Saltaire bottles - very well informed notes letting you understand the flavours and the ingredients used.

Anyhoo, I digress. Pullman is much more to my taste, having a little bit more bitterness, although its is still quite a subtle beer. This is not a hindrance to enjoyment however, as it lets the drinker appreciate the mix of hops that balance with the malt. The bitterness rides in a little earlier when you drink a mouthful and so mingles with the overall taste as you drink, which gives the beer a more satisfying edge.

A good bottled beer, moreish, and not too strong, so you could down a few.

A : Brewey and Beer - Hepworth & Co Brewers Ltd - Prospect - Sussex organic pale ale.
B : Strength - 4.5%
C : BCA or none BCA - BCA.

Hold on their Hepwoth ! When did you make this a BCA ? I am ashamed to say that I somehow managed to drink this beer without knowing it was bottle conditioned - the lively head created by the conditioning meant that I inadvertently left about a glass bottom covering in the bottle, hence avoiding any sediment.

This could be a complimentary celebration of the brewers art, because these days bottle conditioning is something of a dark art, almost as if it unlocks so many possibilities that few brewers seem to want to understand and learn about its full power. In not instantly noticing this beer is bottle conditioned, I would say that Hepworth know what they are doing; it shouldn't explode and fountain out the top, or take your nose off with the strong smell of yeast. It doesn't, ergo it is good.

Sadly, many years after widespread bottle conditioning of beers took off again, far too many brewers approach the process with an over optimistic mad professor slant, putting far too much and/or completely the wrong yeast in the bottle, resulting in cases of foul undrinkable yeast piss being sold to unsuspecting stockists and consumers alike. This is the failure of the brewing industry to understand or take sufficient care when bottle conditioning. Hats off then to Hepworth for seeming to understand what is required of them.

Prospect is hoppy with not too much malt to distract you and is very easy to drink at 4.5%. It pours clear very easily allowing you to appreciate its golden colour. The label info suggests this is simply a stronger, organic bottle conditioned version of Sussex, having the same ingredients, and this may well be the case - either way, its a cracking drink.

However, the bottle conditioning aspect is a tease - the bottle does not carry a banner or neck tie showing its BCA credentials, which is partly what made me miss it, but also does not sport a "CAMRA says this is real ale" logo. This is strange since Hepworth seem to be doing something that many brewers find impossible, that being producing good BCA. Yet at the same time, CAMRA allows its logo to be shown on some truly unthinkably bad bottled beers. Thus, herein lies the folly and failure of embracing BCA's without, seemingly, finding out what they taste like, or what quality control measures individual brewers put in place before CAMRA endorse the beer.

The county of Sussex is rich pasture for BCA's, with one former brewer leading the way in its heyday, and one continuing to produce them. King & Barnes of Horsham, the location, if not perhaps the same building, that Hepworth now come from, and of course Harveys of Lewes.

King and Barnes produced good quality reliable BCA's from their range, including the impressive boxed Millenium ale, which I rather foolishly drank by myself on new years day 2000, instead of leaving it to improve, and their excellent stewardship of White Shield, to name but two.

Harveys meanwhile dallied with a BCA version of their incredibly good Porter, released in February every year, and this may well still be bottle conditioned. Also, I think, they do occasional one off specials such as Firemans Ale, which was brewed in honour of those who fought a blaze at the brewery. There is however, a sting in this tale, which nicely illustrates why bottle conditioned products can bite you on the bum.....

Harveys brewed an impressive strong Imperial Stout at 9.0% which was corked, possibly at the time at George Gales, and could be laid down for years to mature. I bought a couple of bottles and was blown away by how fantastic they were, but at some point, possibly the last vintage they produced, the beer ran into difficulties.

Waiting 3 years to uncork a non-conditioned jar of sour molasses is disheartening to say the least. I had however purchased 4 or more based on the excellence of earlier vintages. I contacted Harveys who very kindly promised to send me a couple of replacements when they did their next batch, but this has never transpired. Worse still, it seems they knew that the yeast was not working quite soon after its bottling, but, crucially, did not pull the product or recall it from sale.

Waiting 6 years for a replacement is bad PR, but worse than that, the nature of such an ale means that it would likely be laid away to mature, and years down the line its often impossible to remember or prove which retailer you bought it from. I was promised this refund only after contacting Harveys myself, but who else went to that length ? The money had already left the pockets of suppliers and customers and there is a strong possibility that no-one has received anything in return.

So. BCA's are simultaneously brilliant and exasperating, as proven by the above, but CAMRA's role in this is no better. I can say that probably 20% of all BCA's for sale are undrinkable or at best amateurishly produced experiments not good enough to sell. Some people, who may buy a large range from across the UK, may well find that in their personal experience its a higher percentage. So poor have many of the offerings been that I have tasted, I have wanted the brewer them self to be there to tell me exactly how they think the frothing yeast soup in front of me represents their often award winning cask conditioned beer. CAMRA, keen to help popularise and make available BCA's, allows its catchy logo and tag line to appear on almost all BCA's now, but so many of these bottles are of unacceptably poor quality.

If a consumer pours a glass of some of the crap that I have had in bottles and then reads back the promotional line "CAMRA says this is real ale ", they must think " well what do they know ? This is not real ale at all ". Or worse "if this is what real ale tastes like I won't drink it again". It seems strange that CAMRA spent so long campaigning to save real ale from oblivion, as part of which they strove to dispel lazy and ill informed myths about it always being flat or cloudy or warm or tasting funny, yet they are happy for breweries to produce third rate apologies for their draught beer in bottles with their endorsement, that do nothing but suggest the old wives tales about beer are right.

Bad CAMRA, lazy CAMRA back in your box.

Wee Beefy.

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