over the last couple of weeks, as befits the cold wet slog of January, I've treated myself to one or two "luxuries" in the way of beers. Somehow the grim reality of coming back to work, the constantly wet feet and the dank wet washing aromas in your house, combine to persuade you that actually, you've bloody well earned a bottle - or more expensively a pint - of something strong. And recently, two such examples have particularly stood out.
The other night I was going home like a good boy to make some warming food and get an early night. No frol would pass my lips, no bar would see my money, and I'd be rested for another day pushing the dead-weight round the horse gin of failure. Or working for the civil services, as ts otherwise known. Despite these noble abstentions plans, I discovered Miss N and Matty were in the Sheffield Tap and it was suggested I might join them for one, on my way home. The Sheffield Tap is not on my way home. And one wasn't an option.
Matty had ordered me a delicious pint of Magic Rock High Wire NZ on cask so this was a pretty good start, and formed part of another night ending line up, like you see now and again at the Tap. The High Wire didn't hang around, and with my eye on the Dark Arts I was contemplating a slow, careful clamber up the ABVs to the Tapped Brew Co's excellent Roulette Imperial Stout. However, despite being able to have independent thoughts and make rational choices all of my own, when Matty asked me what I thought about the idea of having an imperial double vanilla stout at about a million percent. and despite my brain saying "No! That's madness!" my lips made other shapes and I seemed to have agreed.
I may have mentioned before that my initial opinion on Hardknott brewery was that, for whatever reason, they were weighed down by a lot of hype. I reckoned I ought to love their brews based on their excellent label designs, innovative brews and, well, I admit, their repute among my peers, but it wasn't until last year when I tried their Infra Red that I started to "get them". That night, I done gone and got completely got. Because Hardknott Vitesse Noir, perhaps absurdly, is already looking like the beer of 2014. Nurse - the screens!
If I'm right, having read a few reviews and Hardknott's website I think that Vitesse Noir is a triple imperial stout with vanilla chocolate and coffee. Now, initially there were numerous aspects to this beer that made me cautious. Not least its 11% strength, and the fact I was buying it in the Sheffield Tap, but also the prospect of the vanilla or chocolate being too overpowering and making it syrupy or cloying, or there being a burnt coffee bitterness that would wipe out the subtle sweeter and softer flavours. Luckily, with the exception of the price. none of these concerns were realised.
It was an incredibly smooth well balanced beer. Not a jarring roast malt or an overly sugary vanilla or chocolate hint to be found, this was just layers of perfectly balanced flavours enjoying each other's company in a glass. A precision crafted beer jigsaw where every piece had been made with care and passion. It was very very good indeed. Even considering that it was £152.96 a third at the Sheffield Tap*
Having assumed that the bar had been set well beyond the reach of any other beer I was quickly reminded that in an ever evolving and in my opinion improving beer scene, bars don't stay at one height forever. This week, after a lovely meal, cracking red wine and some admirable dark beers, I decided to open my bottle of Spire brewery Xtinguisher, a 12% barley wine.
One of the interesting observations about barley wine is that its a beer that never seems to sound as tempting as an imperial IPA or an imperial brown or a triple stout. This is not just a language or aesthetic consideration, I think this is a refection of the fact that when I first started drinking beer, stronger beers were, if I recall correctly, a bit, erm. Dumb? Huge sledgehammer morasses of lumbering malt and overwhelmed hops with sugar obliterating any flavour in the desperate chase for alcohol. Barley wine came in nip bottles, was inexpensive and therefore the choice tipple of wannabee outdoor lager enthusiasts, and had usually undergone a label revamp in 1975. In short it was so-o-o-o-not cool. So what would a brewery proud of producing some fairly traditional styles in it's range, do with a barley wine?
Well, the answer is succeed. With some aplomb. Despite being a few years old and starting off at a mere 12% the beer was disconcertingly easy to drink. Instead of the teeth tingling sweet honey flavours of other barley wines, there was a subtle Fullers like marmalade in the background which mingled perfectly with a sweet yet subtle mix of malts. Bottle conditioned, the beer was a great advert for why, when done right (must. not. discuss...crap...B.C.A.s.....) the conditioning can improve the beer brilliantly. The yeast added even greater complexity, and made the beer even easier to sup, and the carbonation was just right, creating a head the same size as you'd expect from a hand pulled pint.
The alcohol was also a factor, it was after all probably a smidgen above it's starting ABV, but the almost whisky punch was so delicate and sat so well with the marmalade and malt flavours in the body that not only did you feel like you were getting a treat, but you were able to tell that it was a strong beer commanding respect.
The above shows that even when you have a new beer at every turn and even when you have compiled a list of what you consider to be reliable breweries and beers, there are still surprises to be had, and expectations to be exceeded. There might not be huge similarities in terms of beer styles and online presence or even label designs to link Hardknott and Spire but both have created beers of exceptional quality which have illuminated nights where some very high quality beer was already being consumed.
Lets hope I encounter Vitesse Noir in a pub again soon - and that I can somehow get hold of another bottle of Xtinguisher to put away for a grim January night in 2018....
*Of course that would be ridiculous. The Sheffield Tap don't sell beer in thirds.....