Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who likes to waffle – especially when carried away with a subject I’m passionate about – I find getting to the point sometimes difficult. The phrase ‘Good things come to those who wait‘ may have been cleverly co-opted by the big stout men few years ago but it’s a tenet I like to live by. I generally find it to work out, too.
I can signpost lots of events in my life through TV Shows – I’m as interesting in TV writing as I am books. The little box in the corner of the room needn’t be the devil – although that entirely depends on your viewing taste, I guess. I’ve my parents and grandmother to thank for my affectation towards Forteana, and I’ll watch most things with a hint of the supernatural about it, or stories wrapped in darkness. First came shows like The Twilight Zone, Eerie Indiana and Dr Who; later The X – Files, Millennium and the daddy of them all, Twin Peaks. TV shows – good ones – offer slow-burn and involvement on a level that film can’t. Not better, per se – but different. You have to live your lives with these people; especially if you tune in week on week as opposed to binge-watching.
True Detective is my latest obsession. If you’ve not seen it, it centres around a murder case investigated by two Louisiana state detectives in the Nineties that has repercussions on their lives as they grow older. Carrying more than a whiff of the occult and and a fist-full of menace throughout, it’s involving stuff and a show that improves if watched at night. It’s finished now, but I can’t recommend it enough. But it’s not a show that you can dive in and out of; you have to be present… be involved.
The same is true of two beers I purposefully chose to enjoy whilst watching it over the last few weeks. First up, a mutant brother to an old favorite; Big Job by St Austell. Taking the already potent Proper Job and throwing in even more hops and strength, Big Job is a beast; weighing in at 7.2% abv yet remains fairly light in touch. The aroma competes with any of the US-inspired IPA’s out there, all tropical fruit and soft red fruit but with that candied-peel sweetness that Proper Job has as a little reminder of its familial roots. The finish could be a little longer, granted – it does make an exit quite cleanly (which isn’t particularly desirable for an IPA), but the latent strength ripples underneath it all, waiting to catch you out.
Staying in the south, Adnam’s Jack Brand Innovation (6.7%abv) was a Silver award winner in 2013′s Stockholm Beer Festival. Pouring burnished gold, the nose transports you to the countryside ; all meadows, wildflowers and malt floor. It’s the malt bill that leads the charge here; a thick, generous body of ginger biscuit and gentle, warming spice. Add a little marmalade to that - and a finish that’s only fleetingly sweet before drying right out with a resinous citrus – and you’ve got a beer you don’t want to rush, lest you miss some of its charms.
Much like the best television.
There’s something about the term Farmhouse that just gets me. True, I am a hopeless romantic, easily swayed by such terms – especially when it comes to beer and food. Label something rustic, homely or plain old-fashioned and I’m yours. I’m an old-fashioned soul, a Luddite, in fact. Which is why, dear reader, I picked up this bottle of Farmhouse IPA. I’m glad I did.
As the backstory on the website goes, Stuart Ross headed to the wilds of Stavanger ( I have no idea if it’s wild, by the way, it just sounds like it should be. My only previous knowledge of Stavanger is when Leeds United play pre-season games there – we have a voracious Norwegian following) to brew with locals Lervig Aktiebrygerri. The result was this Farmhouse IPA; a typically fresh IPA dosed with Belgian and Brettanomyces yeasts.
Fast – forward a few months and I’m sitting in my garden – wholly unexpectedly – under blue skies and unseasonably warm weather, drinking it. It’s a corker – and the aroma alone elicits groans of pleasure; pale gold in colour, all lemon sherbert sweets, forest floor and that hard-to-describe in writing Bretty note. Barnyard. In a good way. Earthy. On the sip there’s champagne-like effervescence, bubbles carrying more pithy citrus and sweet, honeyed notes all the way through the sip.
The bitterness lasts and lasts, reminding you of its hoppy credentials – although it tastes nowhere near its 6% abv billing; the package is almost ethereal in weight. All in all, Magic Rock and Lervig Aktiebrygerri should be proud of what they’ve done here. It sounds simple, to dose up an IPA with Brett or other funky yeasts - but as we know, to pull it off well is another matter entirely. I wish I’d have bought a couple to lay down and compare in a little while , in fact. If you see it about, fill your boots – spring is only around the corner, and this is when this Nordic beauty will really come into her own.
First up, Woodie’s in Headingley has transformed – via a very swift refurbishment – into a self-styled ‘Craft Beer House’. Owned by Greene King, Woodie’s is one of Headingley’s old-school and now sits alongside Arcadia in offering Real Ale and, well, craft beer. I haven’t visited yet, but Ghost Drinker has.
Speaking of refurbishment, Cooper’s (Market Town Taverns’ Guiseley outpost) has also increased its Cask Ale offering and added even more keg lines. Whether the new look gets rolled out across all of its pubs remains to be seen, but given MTT’s hit rate and expertise at creating well-stocked, attractive alehouses, I’d wager it’ll be a success.
Sticking with bars and pubs, Leeds heavyweights North Bar won ‘Best Drinks Selection’ in last week’s Publican Awards. Richly deserved too - as the blurb states, Matt, Kath, Jim and the team work incredibly hard to keep North delivering hit after hit. If you’re in Leeds and want to toast them, they are currently holding their annual Lowlands event. Not that you need much excuse to drink in North.
Leeds Brewery also beat off competition to bag the ‘Best Microbrewing Pub Company’ award at the same event. Leeds’ pub estate is a true success story; the recent opening of The Duke Of York marking the brewery’s first foray outside of Leeds. I’d imagine it won’t be their last. Well done all.
The Nook Brewhouse in Holmfirth are hosting a suitably Tour De France themed Spring Beer Festival, kicking off on the 10th April. Pictured is their stunning poster, which was too nice not to post up here. You can check out details of their new monthly specials – including a collaboration Breakfast Stout with Grumpy Mule Coffee. Also, there’s a new independent Beer Festival on the scene – Wakefield’s Festival of Beer. It takes place in May, and keep an eye here for more details as they appear.
Speaking of monthly specials, Ilkley have created a eye-catching yearly Mayan calendar to help you figure out what’s coming next.
…And finally, Great Heck Brewery will be hosting a meet the Brewer event at Northallerton’s Tithe Bar. Denzil Vallance, Great Heck’s self-styled overlord, tweeted last week that the brewery will be expanding in 2014, which is testament to the popularity of his beers, both bottled and on cask.
‘It tastes…’ I stop, mid-sentence, and take another sip. I’d committed that naive sin of just lobbing the first sip of this new beer down my throat, trying to keep up with the conversation rather than taking time out to enjoy the beer. The beer, deeply gold in the glass, aroma all yeasty spice, pear-drop aroma and muscular, warm sweetness, has knocked my senses sideways a little. I take another sip. ‘It tastes a little like…Duvel?’ I’m conscious that I’ve inflected the word Duvel upwards; completely underestimating the beer at hand. The beer at hand, by the way, is Brass Castle’s Heretic; a saffron-infused strong golden ale in very much the Belgian tradition. And it’s wonderful.
Quite a few of these moments occurred during the afternoon spent at BeerTown in Malton this weekend. Pleasant surprises, little re-adjustments of your senses, those ‘I’m glad we came‘ kind of moments. It’s not unusual to be enjoying good beer in this small Ryedale town; Suddaby’s, sitting behind the Crown pub, had been serving solid, tasty beers for some time. But Suddaby’s is no longer in Malton itself - and punters waiting for a new brewery to champion since then now have two to crack on with.
Malton – sitting just north of York and 30 miles or so from the long shadow of Tadcaster, was home to both the Rose, Russell and Wrangham breweries – with Russell’s being founded in 1771. As is often the way, mergers and buy-outs led to the demise of all three, and Malton became one of these towns whose residents get used to saying that brewing ‘used to be’ part of life here.
I say this with authority, but I’m happy to admit that I hadn’t heard of the Wrangham or Russell breweries before. I steal the Bad Seeds themselves – Chris Waplington and James Broad for a quick chat over the small -but- perfectly-formed – exhibition of salvaged breweriana in one of the rooms just away from the hustle of the main festival, and soon realise that…well, I’m not alone.
‘We just wanted to bring something back to Malton,’ smiles Chris. ‘Malton is a beer town, and hopefully we can be part of it in the future.’ It’s as simple as that; but it’s one thing to say it, and another to do it – Brass Castle and Bad Kitty all deserve a pat on the back for making it happen. Chris and James shoot off to carry on working, and leave me (and Chris, my beer-buddy) to pore over the tin adverts for Roses’ King’s Ale, dark, regal and forthright in a cut-glass goblet, and listen to how Russell’s were told to stop using a triangle logo by a certain Burton brewer – settling on a much less litigious horseshoe instead.
So what of the modern Beer Town?
Pleasantly busy without being cramped all afternoon, Malton seems ready for a new celebration of beer. Try as I might to find a demographic here, it’s pretty tough – young and old, male and female, cask and keg. Again, this itself shouldn’t be a surprise; Malton hosts one of the most talked about food markets each month, and prides itself on being a ‘foodie’ town. And having Bad Seed and Brass Castle in residence , teaming up to bring you some of their favourite beers as well as showcasing their favourites, only heightens that. It’s the missing part of the jigsaw.
Since the success of Bad Kitty (a multiple award-winning porter doused with Vanilla that doesn’t last long whichever bar it appears on) a few years ago, the Pocklington brewer, now relocated to Malton, have become a local hero of beer drinkers in north Yorkshire. Part of me wants to say that Brass Castle play to a different audience than Bad Seed, but after tasting Heretic and their accomplished Brass Lager (Vienna style; all subtle breadiness and grassy snap to finish), I don’t think I can. Phil Saltonstall and Ian Goodall have taken every step of Brass Castle’s development in their stride, moving from solid cask ales to kegged esoterica without losing any of the initial promise and quality that Brass Castle promised.
Bad Seed - all hand-printed labels and primary colours – stand out a mile off on the bar. But, as we all know, eye-catching design ain’t worth a damn if the beer ain’t good. We don’t have to be concerned about that; Bad Seed’s beer is very, very good. They may not have the reach or profile of many of the region’s young start-ups, but thier hit rate is scary. Bad Seed Saison is one of my favourites in the UK, all crackle, zip and zing; South Pacific Pale Ale a fresh, gooseberry-led pale ale that is impossible to stop at one with. Hefeweizen in a triumph of sweet lemon, banana and clove wrapped up in a crisp, refreshing jacket.
I could go on. There wasn’t a bad beer in the bunch, to be honest (well, the Spiced Blueberry Oat Ale was a little rich – a good Christmas beer, perhaps, guys?) – and rest assured, dear reader, I did sample judiciously. Celt Experience’s Native Storm (4.4% abv) put the bitter in Bitter with an all-out attack of super-fresh cut Seville Orange slapping you in the chops. Liverpool Craft Beer Company’s Hop Beast (4% abv) turned out to be a gently floral, sweet and well-brewed amber ale with the potential to be a real summer sessioner.
Weird Beard’s Little Things That Kill (both sating my thirst and taking me back to my teens) and Tiny Rebel’s Full Nelson are as reliable as they are tasty – both in cracking condition, too – and a thumb to those who say that lower-strength Pale Ales are dull. Magic Rock’s Salty Kiss leaves the lips tingling (no sniggering at the back, please) and palate re-charged.
Add in brass bands, impromptu bluegrass concerts, delicious baked goods (always a bonus!) and excellent staff (well done, all) and you’ve got a local beer festival that’s a cut above. One that Malton deserves? Yep, I think so.
It may seem already – a few months away from the Grand Depart – that Yorkshire is already packed to bursting with Tour De France posters, bunting and promotional events, but mark my words: it’s only going to get worse. Whether you’re into cycling (and it seems everyone except me is these days) or not, you can’t deny it’s a coup for the region; those lucky businesses along the route will enjoy a bumper weekend in terms of takings, and visitors from all over the country get to see the best of what Yorkshire has to offer.
Breweries are just one of those types of businesses looking to support the Tour as only they can – by brewing themed beers. Some may see them as novelty, but as I mention here, there’s no harm in it. Events like this should be commemorated in beer; why not? Especially when that beer happens to celebrate the life of one of Yorkshire’s cycling heroes.
Brian Robinson was born in 1930 in Ravensthorpe, and later his family moved to nearby Mirfield. In 1952 (as an amateur cyclist) he entered an early version of the Tour – the Route de France – but struggled on the mountain races; his own roads on the Calder Valley, as steep as they are, were no match for the Pyrenees. With typical determination, he persevered and represented Great Britain at the Helsinki Olympics the same year.
The year after he took on Cycling professionally and the years that followed saw his efforts improving. He was eventually picked up by Aston’s Hercules Cycle Company to form part of their racing team and, alongside his team-mates, became one of the first Britons to finish the (now) Tour de France in 1955. The team enjoyed mixed success on the continent and, in 1958, Robinson became the first British rider to win a stage of the tour – a feat he then repeated the year after. Not bad for a lad from Huddersfield, I think you’ll agree.
Sue Cooper of Little Valley Brewery (which itself sits atop of a monstrous climb) spoke of seeing ‘riders zooming past the brewery window’ on a regular basis, until one day one of them popped his head in. It was none other than Brian, asking if he could have a look around. When Sue and head brewer Wim Van Der Spek, decided to brew a beer for the Grand Depart, their first thought was to involve Brian.
Chance encounters seem follow Sue and Wim around. Sue and Wim themselves are both keen cyclists, and actually met whilst both cycling in Nepal. That chance encounter led to a relationship, a relocation to Yorkshire, and the birth of Little Valley Brewery. Meeting Brian eventually led to the brewing of Stage Winner; a 3.5% pale/blonde ale that’s softly sweet and boasts a dry, floral finish. As Brian said to me at the launch, it’s the kind of beer you want to refresh yourself before getting back on the saddle, and I couldn’t agree more.
Wim described the simple thought behind the beer in typically romantic fashion. ‘Brian’s a gentle guy.’ he said, ‘So I wanted to brew a gentle, soft beer.’ Yesterday – despite the inclement weather – was the first day of Spring, and the beer is spring in a glass, in my humble opinion.
I couldn’t agree more. Stage Winner - resplendent in its King of the Mountains livery -was launched last night at Brasserie Blanc in Leeds and will be appearing in both bottle and cask across the region during spring. Keep an eye out for it, and if you do see it, raise a pint to Brian. He’ll be watching the race with interest - hopefully with a pint of his own beer in his hand.
…Just a quick plug for another guest post I’ve contributed to the excellent food site Food & – this time answering the call to try and think about meals and food with special meaning to you. It’s light on beer but, if you’re interested, the link is here. Come for the words, stay for the gorgeous illustration by Rose Jocham. There should be more illustrations in these sorts of things, don’t you think?
I’m not involved (or attending, in fact) the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Dublin this year due to a new arrival in the household in late summer, but I’ll take this opportunity to heartily recommend going. The agenda (or rather the first outlines of it) have just been posted up on the EBBC site and although I can imagine some of you may be put off by the involvement of Guinness/Diageo, don’t be. The reality is is that these events costs a hell of a lot to host, and having a wide range of sponsors (plus your joining fee) is vital, unfortunately.
Still, you get out of it what you put in – and I’ve personally found the last two (Leeds and Edinburgh) to be really, really useful. The talks are generally very interesting, and having access to some of the ‘professionals’ – be it in the beer/brewing side of things or the writing/technical side of blogging – which is what it’s about – is something that shouldn’t be passed up. I’ve also put faces to names to bloggers that I’ve admired previously, and met new ones. Anyway, that’s enough from me – if you want to progress your blog, meet people, and step out from behind the screen, this is your event. Oh, and I forgot – there’s plenty of beer to drink, too.
The blue sky lifts my mood instantly and the garden gets a thoughtful springtime inspection. The grass will need cutting soon. Some seed needs to be sown into the areas where Wilson’s claws have ripped it up as we play with the tennis ball. The shed roof’s ripped felt, peeled off by January’s malevolent winds, will need to be tacked back down. Piles of cut branches, browning slowly, will need to be hauled into the rusting burner soon to be turned into ash and smoke. Perhaps it’s my mind, but I can smell other people nearby lighting those little bonfires already.
The sun and sky contradict the contents of my beer store. Strong, dark, stout, sweet and smoky beers dominate; the pale ales that I love mostly consumed in pubs and bars over winter. Powerful, muscular, viscous beers with depths that require dark evenings to appreciate, taking a slow, diving-bell descent to the bottom of the glass, are most of what I have.
I do have one interloper to call upon however, in the familiar shape of Schlenkerla Helles. As I drink, smooth, sweet malt gives way to that wisp of unmistakably mellow beechwood smoke. Tender bitterness – only enough to refresh – and a gently crisp finish bring a smile to the lips. My Franconian friend, deeply complex yet cheerily golden in disposition, is perfect for the afternoon and hopefully, a symbolic end to the dreadful winter behind us.
Corner-shops (can you still call them that?) can hold rich pickings for beer hunters. If I’m somewhere new, I often pop into supermarkets or local stores, pick up a paper, and inspect the beer and wine section. Yes, it’s almost always cans of cooking lager and ever-bigger bottles of cider moldering under those fluorescent lights, but occasionally – such is the thrill of beer hunting – a little gem pops up.
When I first moved to the area where I live now, my new purveyor of papers, lottery tickets and snacks had a decent little range of bottled beer; from the big boys, obviously, but there was also a clear-bottled, exotic-sounding Banana Bread Beer. I’d just ‘got into’ beer and was trying to taste every beer I could get my hands on, so I picked one up. Slightly dusty, god-knows how old, that odd little beer seemed to fit perfectly with the slightly 1970’s feel of the corner shop.
Banana Bread Beer. Now, my palate somewhat more refined with a few years of enjoying beer and food under my belt, the name alone still evokes a smile.
Banana bread itself is one of the more versatile treats to enjoy with beer: pairing with a stout or porter brings out the brown sugar notes in the loaf, while bitter and old ale plug the fruit and wheat aspects into the mains and amplify them. Add cream cheese frosting to proceedings, pair with an imperial stout, and you’ve gone from Betty’s-tearoom-on-a-Saturday-lunchtime pedestrianism to something altogether more seductive and sinful.
But Banana Bread beer? The aroma is the first thing you notice. You try to stop yourself thinking ‘Well it does smell like Banana’, but you can’t. It’s there all right; sweet and almost cloying, recalling those foam banana sweets. You prepare yourself for a super-sweet mess of a beer that doesn’t actually happen – instead the body of the beer sings with toasted bread, toffee and raisin notes, and that sweetness dissipates to a decently clean finish. It may not be your cup of tea (or slice of banana bread), but it is a well-balanced, enjoyable beer.
It works so well, and yet this is one of the few examples where the humble banana is used anywhere in brewing.
When you think about the flavour profile of banana, it seems quite natural that it should end up in beer. In her essential book The Flavour Thesaurus, Niki Segnit writes: “…By the time the peel is mottled with brown, the fruit’s flavour is reminiscent of vanilla, honey and rum…Banana has a great affinity for roasted flavours such as coffee, nuts and chocolate, and for heavily spiced flavours such as rum.”’
If those flavours aren’t bedfellows for beers of a number of types, I’m not sure what is. There is also the distinct banana-like flavour that’s produced by many yeasts fermenting at a higher temperatures when they throw out fruity ‘esters’. It’s difficult to imagine a German wheat beer or many Belgian ales without those vital banana-y notes at work.
In Belgium the tradition of kriek and framboise use fruit in a sublime balancing act between tart and sweet beers in beers from breweries such as Cantillon, Boon and Lindemans. Elegantly served in fluted or bulbous glasses, fizzing away like Champagne, these beers appeal to a different kind of beer drinker than the UK’s more stately efforts.
Admittedly, younger breweries – influenced by what’s going on elsewhere in the world – have recently been loading fruit into continental style beers. Magic Rock’s Salty Kiss blended their interpretation of Leipzig’s Gose with gooseberry – and Beavertown Brewery created a sour beer with damsons last year. But British brewers have been mixing fruit and beer for a while in our very own way.
Normally appearing as seasonal special releases, our older fruit beers combine the hedgerow with bold, robust base beers. Damson and blackcurrant stouts (recently brewed by Hawkshead, Waen, Art Brew and Burton Bridge to name a few) remain popular, making use of the seasonal fall of British soft fruit to flavour the already-luscious stout. Saltaire Brewery pride themselves on their flavoured beers, dosing their blonde ale with raspberry and cherry flavour to create something new.
Yet Wells’ Banana Bread Beer enjoys a larger scale of production that the experiments of the armies of UK’s microbreweries, and also feels distinctly ‘retro’: the beer equivalent of prawn cocktail and vol-au-vents. Except where those dishes have reappeared in cookbooks only with an ironic raised eyebrow, Banana Bread Beer still stands as a proud member of Well’s portfolio.
The beer is more modern than my first impressions led me to believe though, first appearing in 2002. So, what drove the Bedford-based brewers of Bombardier (then Charles Wells, now Wells & Young) – to start throwing banana into their beer? Karl Ottomar, Head Brewer at Wells & Young’s, explains.
“The idea of Banana Bread Beer initially came about as a suggestion from the wife of one of the Charles Wells team – who was a keen banana bread baker. Research also suggested that bananas were one of the bestselling line items in supermarkets – which provided a basis to test if this could in fact be a popular flavour for beer.”
“…The brewing team began developing a brew which was then tested with drinkers. The feedback was extremely positive and as such, Banana Bread Beer was born. The beer combines all the traditional qualities and style of a Charles Wells beer with the subtle flavour of banana and is now sold all over the world.”
And is it really brewed with Banana?
“It is true! Free trade bananas are added to the mash of the brew and natural banana essence is added at the conditioning stage.” So there you have it: a mix of both the real thing and essence is how that smooth, sweet Banana flavour is achieved.
In its first year of existence, it won the best beer award at the Campaign for Real Ale’s London Drinker Beer Festival. Soon, it was being touted as the gateway beer to lure more women to the joys of cask ale. In fact, when CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival held its first women-only beer tasting poll in 2003, Banana Bread Beer romped away with the top prize, gaining 26 per cent of the votes.
Search for it on YouTube or Google, and you’ll see how thirsty they are for it in the United States, in particular. Sam Calagione, head honcho of Dogfish Head, recently attested to his admiration for the beer when interviewed at the launch of Dogfish Head and Well’s collaboration beer, ‘DNA’. The high regard in which it is held by American drinkers is noted by Jim Robertson in this interview by Sophie Atherton for episode three of The BeerTalkers podcast. Over there, it is sometimes even blended with Young’s Chocolate Stout to make a luscious banoffee pie-inspired concoction.
“Seventy per cent of the sales are in international markets.” confirms Karl. “The USA accounts for 50 per cent of the beer’s sales internationally – and this is growing following the launch of Banana Bread Beer on draught keg there a year ago. It also continues to grow in popularity significantly in Canada with an 83 per cent increase in sales last year. Brazil, Australia and Ireland are also big markets for the beer.”
I’ve never drunk it on cask, and it looks as if, for now, I’ve missed the chance. “Banana Bread Beer has previously been available in cask as a seasonal beer but is currently only available in bottle in the UK” Oh well.
Still, its availability in bottle brings it into the home, and not least the kitchen. Last year, Dea Latis held a ‘Seven Beers for Seven Breakfasts’ session in London’s hip Somers Town Coffee House. Annabel Smith, one of the UK’s first female beer sommeliers and Training Manager for Cask Marque, led the tutored tasting, which included Wells’ Banana Bread Beer. Inventively, she created a smoothie with it, blending the beer with strawberry. So, Annabel – where did that idea come from?
“The banana and strawberry smoothie was a suggestion by the venue – we had all this rich savoury food and they said ‘how about a healthy option?’” Annabel explains. “As soon as the word banana was mentioned I wanted to compliment it rather than try something really diverse. Initially I considered a beer like Leffe Blond – which has a slight banana aroma – but then I thought, no, let’s go all out for it and match flavour for flavour. I wanted to use a British beer and this was the obvious choice. It has a lovely malty, nutty body but then that gorgeous, almost banoffee flavour hits your tongue and whilst the smoothie was the healthy option, matching it with the banana bread beer made it feel really indulgent and luxurious.”
To Annabel, the beer is a welcome and useful tool in the sommelier’s arsenal, and she feels that is belongs among a group of brews that can illustrate beer’s diversity to people who perhaps don’t drink it often, or have preconceived idea about how it tastes.
“There are so many people in the world – especially women – who say they don’t like beer, partly because they have been conditioned to think of all beer as ‘bitter’ and ‘brown’ (two of the most depressing words in the English language!). One of the beauties of being a sommelier is getting a non beer drinker to try something they would never perceive as beer – or beer as they know it. Kriek is a great example: people say to me “that’s never a beer!” when they first try it, so it can be a useful stepping stone to introduce people to the variety of flavours and styles.”
“Banana Bread Beer is one of those beers that acts as an eye opener for non-beer-lovers. Their senses go into meltdown as they try and reconcile the concept of beer as they think they know it, with the beer as their taste buds experience it.”
As you have probably gathered, I have quite a soft spot for Banana Bread Beer myself. Affection would be a good way to describe it – it’s not a beer I could ‘drink a lot of’ (that dreaded, peculiarly British phrase that doesn’t really mean much unless you’re talking about session beer), but I recognise – and cherish- its uniqueness and latent oddness. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.
A fruit beer in an age where fruit beers in the UK still struggle with finding a niche or identity, Well’s Banana Bread Beer has certainly endured. I would bet it’s a guilty pleasure for a lot of people.
Years ago, when I was meekly attending beer festivals with a notebook in hand, dragging my wife along with me (I didn’t really know anyone in ‘Beer’ then), most of the beers I chose were chosen purely because of the pumpclip, or the scant tasting notes offered by the festival guides. I had no real awareness of what I wanted, what was ‘good’, or even what the liquid inside those barrels, jacketed and reclining on stillage, would offer.
I resorted to something I might still do to some extent today; if there’s a link to something that appealed to me, I’d pick it. Something football-based, perhaps. Horror films. A brewery that I knew was near me. Something with a dog on the label (rich pickings in the world of real ale, I’ll tell you). Or, like this week’s beer, one named after a goldfish. Well, kind of.
Years ago, when we first started ‘courting’ (I do like that term. It’s warm, fuzzy. Nice.), Louise and I bought some goldfish. Nothing too high-maintenance, we thought. One – mine – was a bold, boisterous white guy called Morrissey. Louise’s was a more graceful, demure golden variant called, oddly, Captain Oates. Despite her naming it after a character’s horse in The OC – a show she liked at the time – it wasn’t until later that we found out that Lawrence Oates, a Londoner who famously met his end on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica , served in the West Yorkshire Battalion; so there was an unintentional link there.
It was the pumpclip – named after my goldfish, it would seem – that made me choose Captain Oates Mild (4.5%abv), brewed by Susan and Keith Simpson at The Brown Cow Brewery near Selby. It was delicious; one of those beers that really, really stays with you. It’s a multiple award-winner, and I have to say I’ve passed it up on previous beer festival trips since then. It was ‘ticked’, done, tasted. It was good. It was recommended.
So a recent shopping basket of beers from Yorkshire Ales brought a bottle of it into my palm again. All those memories of that festival, the link with the pet, Louise excitedly spotting the name and imploring me to try the beer, came flooding back. The beer didn’t disappoint; topped with a creamy, tan head, the near-black ruby beer carries a nose of bitter chocolate, mild coffee and digestive biscuit notes. The body is smooth, comforting and throws a little nut character into the mix; almonds, to be specific. Sweet, then smooth, then subtly drying in the finish. A moreish, creamy dark mild with an award list as long as your arm, it was immensely satisfying to return to a beer after all those years and find it better than your memory serves. Often it’s not the case, when it comes to beer.
I paired it with Mrs Simpson’s Vanilla Porter. Subtitled ‘Thriller in Vanilla‘ , this 5.1% abv Porter is as satisfying as the previous beer, if not more so. Black again but with an almost purplish hue when held to the light, the aroma bursts with cream, some oakiness, rummy truffle-led notes and more of that signature chocolate digestive-biscuit personality that the Captain Oates had. It’s a heady mix, and one that prepares you for a muddled taste but it never happens – the taste is light and graceful – a fruity, rich porter with black fruit notes and just a swirl of cream at the end to live up to its flamboyant billing.
Brown Cow are one of those breweries that don’t make a fuss and brew a small range of beers incredibly well; practices honed after years of getting the recipe ‘just right’. It’s also great to link up with a beer from the past again and find it in rude health. I hope they continue, and I hope our paths will cross again – sooner, this time.