last night I managed to finally get together 3 friends to help me sample a range of bottled beers, some bought over the past year, some in 2006 and in between, and all promising to be rather good. Postponed from November when I caught housemaids knee or similar, not even the snow and ice could scupper our plans, and since everyone brought along contributions of their own it was clear that we'd need a good go at getting through what was on offer.
We started low with a bottle of O Hara's Irish Red, a 4.3%, erm, red ale that was exactly that. Recognisable red malt made an interesting comparison between this and the more hop forward reds I have seen, meaning you could taste the malt a bit better.
Up next was a Bottle Conditioned Beer (BCA) from Ilkely Brewery, their Holy Cow Cranberry Milk Stout. There was much anticipation but little agreement on what we would find in this beer - in the end it was a pleasant milk stout with a fruity flavour, but not really cranberry (although Steff insisted she could taste it). Odd but enjoyable.
Anchor Brewing 2012 Christmas Ale followed. A reliable old favourite with a good blend of spices which I understand changes every year. An enjoyable reliable Christmas beer that was true to style.
Up next was the first disappointment. Kernel India Brown Ale, 5.6%, initially started well by being incredibly brown! Having been brought only an hour earlier the sediment couldn't be separated, but if anything slightly improved the flavour. The let down was, this was just a decent brown ale with a shit load of hops thrown in. Much debate followed about the laziness of taking an ordinary beer and ramming it full of hops, and also the important element of balance. This was not a balanced ale. We hoped the two Kernel stouts wouldn't be ruined by the same process.
Up next was disappointment number 2. I was looking forward to introducing my fellow drinkers to the delights of Dunham Massey brewery, since its not often you can buy it in Sheffield, and the Porter, which is usually excellent (and which I had already drunk 6 bottles of) was off. That's now the 3rd Dunham Massey BCA that's been off in a row. Not an impressive display, all yeast and sour acidity, but with plenty of date on the bottle. Quite a bit didn't get finished.
Next up was a slight ABV hike, what with two pale hoppy beers still to come before the dark monsters appeared, we tried a bottle of Thornbridge Imperial Russian Stout. This 9% beer is a recreation of an 1850's Courage recipe, no doubt similar to the Courage Imperial Russian Stout which they brewed until the mid nineties. It smelt of that beer straight away, but to be fair the taste was much more complex and intense, with a good balance of traditional imperial stout roasted malt and a licorice like flavour in the after taste. Excellent.
Flying Dog Raging Bitch was next, at 8.3% we figured it could stand up to the stout, although Ems passed on this one as she knew she didn't like it. I had reservations, but it was quite a pleasant Belgian style IPA, the Belgian yeast being prominent in amongst the punchy hops, but reminding me of the one flavour that I dislike about American IPA's, that sweet, yeast heavy background. Not bad.
The last "weak" (!) beer of the night was the Dunham Massey East India Pale Ale at 6.0%. I intended it to be an interesting comparison in IPA styles, and it was certainly that, but mostly because it was not well conditioned and again slightly off. I think the stronger alcohol perhaps carried it through, and it tasted better than it smelled, but this was another disappointing show.
A slight climb in ABV accompanied our tasting of the Kernel Export Stout (London 1890), a 6.7% stout with an amazingly smooth and satisfying burnt toffee aftertaste, which swiftly allayed any fears we had about any needless hoppyness, although, there was hop flavour in there. The sweeter malty aftertaste melded with the burnt roast malt flavours brilliantly. A really well executed beer.
From this point on, with the exception of the saison I'd put aside for cleansing our palates later, it was all very strong beers. Our next beer, Thornbridge Imperial Oatmeal Stout was 11% and quite simply stunning. Incredibly easy to drink for its strength, full of glorious roast malt and a milk chocolate almost burnt sugar aftertaste made all the more palatable by the oatmeal. Much debate ensued following the claim of a hint of coconut by Steff but nothing could detract from how brilliant and accomplished this beer was. Fantastic.
We then tried Fullers Vintage 2008, which nicely demonstrated that in some ways the earlier aged bottles highlighted more of the hops that are showcased, this time being Challenger and Northdown. That said though, this was an immensely well balanced orangey (Fullers yeast I reckon!) beer with a detectable alcoholic nose and satisfying malted barley aftertaste. Only Ems had tried this before, Jamie and Steff were new to it, and everyone seemed to agree that it was a fine beer.
Kernel Imperial Brown Stout London 1856 quickly showed up the holes in their India Brown brew sheet. This was a fabulously smooth roasted malt and bisucuity sweet stout, with some hoppyness and a fabulous vanilla aftertaste. At 10% it shows a heck of a lot of alcohol in the mix but is perhaps less easy to drink than he stronger Thornbridge Oatmeal. An excellent satisfying beer.
With tiredness setting in and weary palates, I introduced the Fantome Saison to give us a refreshing break. In the fridge for some 5 hours now it did exactly what it was supposed to - and, whether as a result of the beers tried prior to it or not, was as refreshingly lemony as I had hoped. Very little of the odd orangey bitterness that I had noticed before was present. All agreed that this was a much needed and highly enjoyable diversion. My faith in Fantome is restored!
The snow was falling faster now so we agreed to select the last two beers from quite a lot that were left. The first was the 2007 Thornbridge and Brooklyn Alliance PX Strong Ale Reserve. I had tried an Alliance not long after it was brewed and was disappointed by its fairly clumsy, overly sweet face-smash of unsubtle flavours. Now, after more than 5 years in the bottle it was simply stunning. The sherry cask flavour came through on a sumptuous base of malt and hops, with a sweetish, but not overly so, finish, perhaps reigned in by the massive alcohol present. The best bit is - I have two bottles left!
The final beer of the tasting was the Thornbridge 2006 St Petersburg Islay cask reserve at 10.2%. This was quite a strange one really, after so long in the bottle the massive peaty malt and phenols of the Islay whiskey had muscled in on the flavour. The stout seemed to have slightly disappeared in terms of the overall taste but was still offering a conciliatory roasted malt smoothness in amongst the huge alcohol present. Its interesting to note that I had the Highland Reserve only a few months ago and that was far more a stout, far better balanced and probably more enjoyable. Maybe over time, the mellower whiskies used provides a better balance. Still an excellent beer to end on though.
My fellow tasters departed through the snow in a taxi soon after and I decided to grab a bit more food and to finish on a beer of my own. The 2009 De Dolle Stille Nacht (12%) was the smallest I could find but was still so massive in flavour that I would probably have been better off sharing it. Its not a subtle beer, hence its an ideal finisher, but it was obvious from some of the other amazing beers we had tried that it lacked their poise and character, not to mention the subtle balance that made them so enjoyable.
So, a great night spent drinking really good quality (with a price to match) beers finally happened. My clear favourite was the Thornbridge Imperial Oatmeal Stout, but The Kernel Imperial Brown, the Alliance and the Fantome Saison were all out of this world. Can't wait to plan my next one for 3 years time!