Banana Bread Beer: Charles Wells’ Enduring Oddity
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.