Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Green and Pleasant Land

One of the things I love most about craft beer (and one of the most wonderful aspects of the wildfire-like spread of craft beer in the US) is how, through local beer, you can get a sense of the location itself.

And so I titled my post as I did because in my beer tour of Britain I am reminded of the green and pleasant land from whence the beer came: It is subtle and mild, but rich with history and character.  The Brits have been at this for centuries and have a wonderfully soft touch - teasing out delicate flavor and nuanced character.  Centuries of iterations have led to a equilibrium style that is quaffable - good for long hours in pubs - and tastes of the land, touched my mizzel rain and cool air.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, at the far end of the new world - the windward edge abutting the vast expanse of the Pacific - we take our beers bold and strong, bitter and hoppy.  Our young new-world brewers just discovering the myriad of flavors and experiences craft beer can provide, surrounded by bold and exotic spices with which to flavor their beer.

It is thus a joyful enterprise to collect a variety of British beers, as I did, and enjoy a range of ales from the old country.  The Northwesterner in me led me to a disproportionate number of IPAs, but these are British IPAs, bearing little resemblance to their NW cousins.

They are all of a type however, characterized by a more malty and soft mouthfeel and by the restrained use of more traditional English hops (East Kent Goldings, Fuggles, etc.) that provide a delicate spice.  They were also characterized by the minerally water note that is most commonly associated with the water of Burton-on-Trent.  But I noticed the same even in Scottish beer causing me to wonder if gypsum is a common characteristic of groundwater island-wide or if British brewers add gypsum to mimic the Burton-on-Trent character.

I enjoyed all of the beers, but some definitely more than others.  Here is a breakdown of the great, good and forgettable. Oh and a note about the wonders of modern trade - one can amble down to the local bottle shop and trip through Britain, Belgium, Germany, wherever without leaving the house.  What a wonderful age in which we live.

The Great

St. Peter's IPA.  To me this was the quintessential English IPA, malty and minerally but with a gorgeous hop bouquet that was subtle yet perfect.  This would be a stand-by in my fridge were I in England and I look forward to trying more of their beer.

Belhaven Scottish Ale.  I wrote about this before, but I am generally not a fan of the style as practiced here in the States.  American brewers (or at least Pac NW brewers) have a knack for hop bombs but struggle with malt-forward beers in my opinion. The Belhaven Scottish Ale is perfect - malty but in a restrained way.  Not sweet, thick and sticky but light and balanced by a touch of hops. A real Winner.

Belhaven Twisted Thistle IPA.  Another winner from Belhaven.  Their twisted thistle is a wee more hop forward than the St. Peters and less English as is appropriate - for Scotland is a more wild and windy place.  I believe they use a little Cascade hops as well which gives it a slightly more floral aroma that we are so used to here in the NW.  It is worth mentioning that the Highland Stillhouse in Oregon City features Belhaven beers on tap including Twisted Thistle - it is especially good there). 

Thornbridge Jaipur IPA.  This, to me, is an English take on a Pacific NW IPA.  So it is halfway between a restrained English IPA and a NW hop bomb.  It works spectacularly well.  But it is very expensive, so caveat emptor.

Fullers ESB. Emphasis on the 'extra' - extra big, malty and spicy.  Not a session beer by any stretch of the imagination, but very good. 

The Good

Wells Bombardier.  This takes the prize for the best bottle of all: christened 'Drink of England,' and adorned with the St. George's cross it is all English pride.  Unfortunately my bottle was not in the best condition.  I think this beer is best appreciated on cask, but in the bottle (which is a higher alcohol version) it looses some subtlety.  Perhaps a fresh bottle would make a better impression but I woudl love to try the cask version.  Still, I plan to try again with a new bottle - how can one resist the 'drink of England'?

Greene King IPA.  I had high hopes, but was disappointed.  Could very well be the bottle I had as it lacked a bit of flavor and character.  Felt a bit bland and the aroma was a bit lost.  Not bad, mind, a quite enjoyable quaff, but not among the best.

Moreland Old Speckled Hen. Moreland is now owned by Greene King and I found it a very enjoyable beer but missing that particular something that makes it particularly wonderful.  I suspect, once again, that freshness is an issue. 

The Forgettable

Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted.  This is 'twisted' with Sorachi Ace hops which to some evokes lemon.  To me they evoke unpleasant dill notes.  Some love them, I dislike them.  If you like Sorachi Ace then you should give this a try, I suspect you'll find it very enjoyable.  I did not.

Williams Brothers Scottish Joker IPA.  Again, remember that these are bottles that have traveled far and long, but even given that, I found this beer to be entirely without character.  My 5 year old did like the bottle however...

One of the things I love about British beer is their mild subtlety and this is the very thing that makes trying bottles shipped all the way to Oregon a bit of a risk.  There are some beers that I sense would be superb on cask in England (Bombardier, Old Speckled Hen) that just lose that special character by the time they make it to my glass.  Still BOTH the great and the good beers here are well worth a try and are beers I would buy again without hesitation.  I especially recommend St. Peter's in the bottle and Twisted Thistle on tap.

But perhaps next time I can have them at the source.

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land


Jeff Alworth said...

Having a good bottle shop is absolutely critical to enjoying international beers. Since I was there when you bought these, I know you got them at Belmont Station. Kudos to them, and to you, for a very nice post.

Jack R. said...
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