A Walk Through The Herb Garden, Bottle in Hand
Since being captivated by Wild & Fyne’s Cool as a Cucumber beer a little while back, I’ve been rolling the concept of herbs, spices and such in beer around in my head like a lone jar of Garlic Salt in an empty pantry. Surely it’s a great way to get beer into the kitchen – if that’s your thing – but many fall flat on their face. Wild Beer Co have almost made this their niche in the short time that they’ve existed, taking the brave step of eschewing the easy route and brewing a genuinely interesting bottled range.
But brewing with herbs and spices isn’t new – just seemingly relegated to the ‘seasonal special’ section of a breweries’ roster and mostly ending up in the ‘discount’ bin. Beers that seem to recall herbs – through the wonder of yeast, hops and malt – seem to convey those flavours better than beers that would actually contain them, like a cuckoo’s egg in a nest.
There’s probably even a strata of drinkers who avoid these sorts of beers full stop, huffing and puffing with indignation as the latest brewery announces their Juniper-spiced Pale Stout. Is there a need for them? Of course there is; it’s another facet of the wonder of beer and if it piques the interest of someone who wouldn’t normally try beer, then it’s a home run.
In an effort to see what’s out there, I’ve spent the last few weeks gently keeping an eye out for more mainstream beers with added spice or herbs, discounting the more popular flavours, such as Ginger, Honey, Coffee and (surprisingly), Chillies.
It really was a mixed bag (or perhaps spice rack).
Sharp’s Cornish Pilsner (5.2%abv) was first out of the cellar; swanning around all regal, classy and deft of touch – a dry, flinty pils with a muscular abv that’s just won a major award. Poured into a tall glass it fair induced a thirst; I’ve enjoyed it before, but this version was spiked with Thyme grown at the excellent Eden Project. As expected, the beer was spot on, those grassy Saaz hops providing a stone-fruit and cut-grass flavour alongside a similar nose – but I just couldn’t taste any thyme. I had some fresh Thyme in the garden and considered a swirl…but I didn’t want to spoil the great Pilsner, to be honest. Still, buy the beer; it’s great.
Hackney’s Pressure Drop Brewing comes screaming to the fore next, with Wu Gang Chops The Tree, a 3.8% Hefewiezen ‘with foraged herbs.’ The label doesn’t say what herbs, and I didn’t check them out so as not to degrade the guessing game – but again, I was faced with a decent beer but no discernable herb flavour or aroma. Well, not exactly. Plenty of lemon rind and a vague mintiness (the kind that Sorachi Ace hops can impart) lurked in a solid – and deceptively delicate – Hefeweizen.
Onto a beer that’s popped up in the Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt, which is currently in its last stages of competition. Batemans Black Pepper Ale (5.1% abv) comes with a ridiculous little pepper sachet to ‘sprinkle on’ the head, which needless to say didn’t happen. However , I was surprised at the taste of the beer; it did taste of pepper. The ruby-hued beer is perfect for this time of year; Autumn in a glass. There’s a firm, nutty coffee-inflected body, and yes, a real smack of Black Pepper in both the aroma (which is redolent of Gingerbread) and taste. I must admit, I didn’t like it at first; but actually warmed to it as I drank. True, I couldn’t drink a lot of it, but in terms of this experiment, it passed. It tasted and smelled of black pepper; I enjoyed this with a Steak Pie and needless to say, it played along nicely.
But something niggled; although the brewers have successfully transferred the taste and aroma of Pepper into the beer, I can’t help but think they’ve chosen the wrong style; it’s too strong a seasoning to put into a session-strength, autumnal ale. The pepper would have worked well in a Dubbel-style beer, or even a Stout or Porter. I guess I could always try Goose Island’s Pepe Nero, but that fell short of the mark for me, too.
Marble & Emelisse’s Earl Grey IPA (6.8% abv) has its fans, too – and it’s easy to see why. It’s a big, big beer, with a rich, honeycomb toffee nose which carries through to the body of the beer, but just when you’re processing that thick, tongue-coating sweetness, a huge wave of bitterness crashes in and cleans everything up. Again, in terms of Earl Grey notes there’s not much that I can’t get in a regular IPA, apart from an oily at first, then drying, fuzzy-tongued finish that *could* be from the tannins – or *could* be from the hops. Still, it’s a satisfying spiky IPA. If you’re a committed hophead and haven’t tried this yet, then seek it out.
Carrying on the tea theme is Camden’s Gentleman’s Wit (4.3%), a Witbier the colour of lemon curd and tasting not dissimilar, either. I remember speaking to Mark Dredge at the northern launch of Camden Ink about this beer in particular; Camden were looking for ‘something different’ to inject a bit of fun into their wheat beer and had landed on the Lemon/Bergamot combination as one that suited. It does suit; the lemon coming to the fore and – if possible – making a light, crisp Wit seem even lighter.
It’s a lovely little beer – perhaps a little too clean at the end of the sip – and although I think ‘ I do taste Bergamot’, there’s a lot of Bergamot notes (citrus, green leaves) in the beer anyway. Can I pick it out? No, but it’s an easy win for Camden in terms of pairing flavours and, yes, I think the average drinker would happily concede that.
So yes, overall, a hit-and-miss event in the case of actually transferring the essence of the herb to the beer. I’m sure that, much like hops, it’s down to the age of the beer, the bottling, the condition as to how much of the herb you get in your glass at the end of the day. Which begs the question; if you can’t guarantee that, why do it? Brewers – is brewing with such fine and delicate herbs a major headache? Does the alcohol obliterate the flavour, thus opening up Low-ABV beers as the way forward?
I don’t feel done with this question yet…