Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Beer Reviews

So you bought yourself a special* beer? It was probably more expensive than many other beers you could have purchased more easily. But you’re pretty keen on good beer so you’re willing to pay more than you would for a can of macro lager from your local supermarket. Maybe you’ve been ticking off the days on your calendar until the release date (even if that was just in your head)? Maybe this beer was an annual release or a small batch, meaning you had to go to some extra effort to obtain it? Like set the alarm a bit earlier so that you could buy it online while still in your PJs. Or travel out of your way to be able to drink it on draught/buy some to takeaway. Or perhaps you had to do some things which aren’t beer and needed to ask a mate to grab you some instead.

When you finally get your hands on this long-awaited beer it seems pretty unlikely you’re going to throw it into your face without even thinking about it. Surely you’re going to at least look at it, smell it and taste it with some consideration. And it’s possible that after you’ve done that you’re going to want to tell some people what you thought about it.

It might be that the first thing you’ll want to then is ‘check in’ your beer using an app or website where you keep a record of all the beers you’ve tried. There are many reasons people use such tools: to show off and/or share their experience with others, or purely for their own benefit. They might use them for 'serious' reviews delivered in an objective, dispassionate tone; or they could be the opposite – merely describing now a beer makes them feel at that precise moment; or anything at all in between. All methods of beer journaling are valid and specific to the individual.

Maybe after logging your beer you’d like to share your opinions, possibly discuss them with other people who enjoy beer? Maybe you’re interested in whether other people will agree or disagree with your thoughts? So far, so normal, right? Here are a couple of my recent experiences of this having opinions about beer thing. 

Beavertown Skull King

The long awaited double IPA from Beavertown. This is what we’ve all been waiting for. And it’s in a can as well? This is gonna be so good, right? Memories of Bone King, the spritzy, delicious and highly quaffable DIPA they brewed last year with Narpabier, come flooding back. WE CAN’T WAIT FOR THIS. WE NEED IT NOW. AMIRITE? There was a pretty big buzz about this beer on social media, people were excited - they were going to go and drink from the source the very minute the brewery opened its doors on the release day in April. Although I was trying not to get too excited myself, a couple of our friends had already tried it at the brewery and convinced me that it was very good. I’m a Beavertown fangirl, I've enjoyed almost every one of their beers I’ve ever tasted. What could possibly go wrong?

On the day of the launch I was doing stuff that wasn’t beer. Later on Twitter I saw people gushing about how good it was. When I tried my first can of it at home that evening I just couldn’t make sense of what had happened here. The beer had little hop aroma. The flavour was muddled and unclear. I’m not even going to mention murk or whatever because clarity in beer is seemingly overrated (but I’ll come back to that later). It was as if the sweetness was overwhelming any hop flavour that was trying to fight its way through. It also lacked bitterness to balance with that sweetness. It didn't have adry finish either, despite the mention of dextrose in the recipe. Maybe it was intended to be a sweeter rather than a dryer DIPA? I don’t know and I’m wary of imposing my own personal beer preferences for the style on this beer.

But it was nothing like Bone King though. Not that it had to be, obviously (although Beavertown suggested a link between the two beers by calling Skull King the “Bastard Son of Bone”). There's more than one kind of DIPA and I can enjoy a full on, dank and resinous old school West Coast DIPA, with sweeter malt presence balanced alongside the hops as much as the next person. Anyway, I didn’t enjoy drinking the beer and I didn’t finish it because I don’t drink things I don’t enjoy (which seems like a very obvious life choice to me). I gave it 2.5/5 on Untappd. In hindsight that was a little harsh (it reflected my huge disappointment though) and a 3/5 would have be fairer. That described what I felt at the time and I’m not going to edit it now. But obviously I needed to try it again and give it the benefit of the doubt, so I had another can a few days later and then tried it on keg the next week. I felt exactly same way about it every time.

My disappointment was one thing. The other thing was that I was a bit mystified as to why nobody else seemed to be saying anything like what I was thinking about this beer. I don't expect everyone to agree with me - we all like different things obviously. Still, the fact that other people seemed to love it fascinated me. I mentioned my bemusement about it in a members only discussion group and my right to express my subjective opinion of a beer was respected by most people. However, one person seemed to think that my opinion was unacceptable, that there was some pretension in claiming to have not finished this beer, that I was just saying this to appear ‘cool’. The accusation was that I was being contrary about a popular brewery just for effect rather than just telling the honest truth about how I felt.

Since when is an experienced homebrewer and drinker of a wide variety of beer not allowed to express their honest opinion of a beer?  Call me old-fashioned but that is the opposite of what we, lovers of beer, want. As homebrewers we have handed out our beer to many pro brewers (including Beavertown) and we have always desired honest feedback. There is no value in pretending to like something you aren’t enjoying. Also, fuck this idea that certain people who create something, whether it be it art or film or music or beer, are beyond reproach and may never be criticised. If you’ve paid to consume their creation I’m pretty sure you’re allowed to say, ‘I’m sorry, but I didn’t enjoy that because of X, Y, and Z’. Or even just ‘I didn’t enjoy it.’ – because I’m not convinced there is an absolute requirement to defend your opinion.

I already said that I love Beavertown. But that doesn’t mean I’m going pretend I thought one of their beers was great when I didn’t. I’ll be honest about how I feel. Ok, so one of the reasons that this experience with Skull King has stayed in my mind is that we have been drinking a lot of Bloody ‘Ell lately and the experience of drinking these two beers could not be more different for me. Bloody ‘Ell is zesty, juicy and refreshing, its bright citrus and pine flavours on top of a relatively light malt base along with a prickly carbonation make it frighteningly easy to drink. Whenever I see it, I buy it and whenever I open a can it just disappears. I find it difficult to drink it slowly to be honest. However, comparing Skull King with Bloody ‘Ell isn't really a fair comparison since they are different beers - from brewing through to drinking, these are different creatures. We’re comparing apples and oranges here. Instead we should try comparing oranges with oranges...

Coming swiftly on the heels of Skull King was another big beer in a can from Beavertown and this time it was a triple IPA rather than a double. Power of the Voodoo is a Beavertown and Boneyard Beer collaboration. Anyone who has tried the incredible Boneyard and Siren DIPA, Dippy and the Equinox, brewed at Siren in March would probably be curious to try this new TIPA too. I was extremely curious and but it was with some trepidation that I opened this can. The aroma was melons, honeydew and cantaloupe... MELONS! But with a faint savoury, almost onion-ish note in the very background. The flavour is more of the same:melon with a smidgen of savoury. This is a very different beast to Skull King. There is an appreciable hop bitterness, balanced by a malt sweetness which is pleasant without overwhelming the entire beer. This is not a gloopy, resinous hop bomb. In fact it has a lovely mouth-feel, making it oh-so-easy to take sip after sip while you try to puzzle out those hop flavours. Probably the biggest difference between this beer and Skull King is that we sat for a good five minutes discussing the hop characteristics of POTV. This flavour profile of melon and (for want of a more specific identifier) onion fascinated our palates. Looking at the hops used (Citra, Crystal and Mosaic) we wondered: where does this savoury note come from? You wouldn't expect it to be from Citra. Apparently Crystal can be grassy and even a bit veggie-like - so maybe that's where it's coming from? Frankly, at this point, nothing would surprise me from Mosaic. How an aptly named hop it is - it seems as if when it's combined with other hops all kinds of flavours can be teased out like coloured scarves from a magician's sleeve. But that's a topic for another post. ANYWAY... This beer didn't disappoint; it definitely gave us what we were expecting from it. It's bitter, it's juicy, and it's highly drinkable for the ABV.

Magic Rock – UnHuman Cannonball 2015

While we are talking about critical beer reviews, I’ve seen plenty of complaints about Magic Rock’s Unhuman Cannonball being disappointing this year. But the majority of the comments have been about the clarity. People are fixated on this issue. Some people seem to value clarity over flavour in beer, even rejecting any beer that isn’t bright out of hand as being faulty. But that’s a whole different discussion which I’m not getting into here. Anyway - it is interesting to consider what is arguably the UK’s biggest annual beer release and how the three different versions so far have compared with each other. In the 2013 I think we were all blown away by the IN YOUR FACE hop experience of UHC, as well as the beauty of being able to experience the Russian doll effect of sampling the Cannonball family all together. But in 2014, people’s minds were blown by the clarity of appearance and flavour (for us this was because there was such a big difference between the first and second versions, not just because 2014 was a brighter beer). We tried the 2013 and 2014 at six months post-release. The 2013 was pretty much ‘as expected’ for an older hoppy beer. But the 2014 version had aged incredibly well. This was fascinating to us from a brewing point of view – the brighter beer had some hop aroma present and it still packed an impressive hop flavour. Most imported US hop-forward beers would be smelling and tasting like a box of cereal by that age. Wow. We were knocked back by this and we told the brewers so. 

I think the ‘problem’ was that the 2014 version had set such a high standard that people were inevitably going to be asking why the 2015 version had less clarity and definition. For me, the 2015 release was a pleasant intense hop experience on the day it launched. A few weeks later we drank a bottle each and found it incredibly moreish and easy to drink. Nice work for an 11.5% beer. Was it as good as last year’s? Maybe not. But did it taste good? Yes. Did I want to drink more of it? Yes. Well that ticks all the relevant boxes for me when it comes to a TIPA. If other people thought it wasn't a good beer that is their right to say so. I don't agree with them but I'm not going to tell them they are wrong.

Here’s to you, Magic Rock, keep on making awesome beers and I’ll keep getting excited about them. I’m more than happy to give you the benefit of the doubt while you’re in the thick of the long-awaited expansion of your brewery. <3

Beer reviews are subjective. There isn't a correct answer. I doubt there are any beers out there that are universally loved without a single dissenting voice. The idea that any brewery is 'untouchable' and nobody is allowed to express a negative opinion of any of their beers is hilarious to me. If you didn't enjoy a beer, it is your right to say so... as long as you don't try to tell anyone else that they are wrong for expressing a view which differs from yours. Because that wouldn't be fair. Ideally, criticism should be constructive. But does it absolutely have to be though? Is this something that you as a consumer owe to the person/people who created the product? I'm not entirely convinced about that.

*special, in this instance, simply means a beer which is in some way out of the ordinary, e.g.  a new release or limited release beer