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Coniston Old Man Ale

15 September, 2009 1 comment

They say that you can never go home again. Try, and it’s never as you remember it. People move, places change, the smells and colours that you remember from younger years are somehow less vivid. The world has moved on, and we can never go back.

Somehow, that’s been the case with this beer – some years ago I went to Coniston Water to visit the site where Donald Campbell, my childhood hero, died whilst trying for a water-borne world speed record in his boat Bluebird. Whilst there, I did drop in to a local pub to sample their wares, and along with a pint of Bluebird Bitter, sampled their Old Man Ale. Imagine my delight when I spotted this beer in my local World Market, and of course, I took a couple of bottles home to try.

Sitting down with the Old Man

Coniston Old Man Ale

Coniston Old Man Ale

I poured Christine and I a pint glass each, and we sat in the garden to try it out. It’s said to be a brown ale, and as such, I was moderately disappointed in the colour, which was a reddish-amber rather than the more chestnut I’d expect. The head was thin and quickly vanished into spectral fog, matching the faint cloudiness of this bottle-conditioned beer.

The nose was quite fruity, a mix of citrus and almost malic undertones, with a faint mustiness, an almost earthy quality that carried into the flavour. There’s no distinct hoppiness in there, though a little leafiness does come out in the flavour later, as the beer warms a little.

What I did get was a little zing in the mouth from the carbonation, and combined with the light nature of the beer, it was quite refreshing, but I couldn’t quite get over that fustiness. The flavour and body were both a little thin, not what I was expecting, and not at all like the draught beer I remembered. For the most part what’s left after the earthiness is a faintly sweet malt, with an almost composty aftertaste. The hops are only faintly present, with a faint bitterness that provides the sweet balance, but there was little to highly recommend; although there is some fruit in there, a mix of apples and grapefruit, it’s subtle.

I can’t get over the thought that the beer might have suffered during its long journey over, that maybe having the yeast sediment subjected to the jiggly stresses of transport might have disturbed the balance. Then again, it’s possible that I had a bottle that had been on the shelf too long in the light of the store, and that it was slightly skunked. It gets a B- rating on my beeradvocate review, but if I asked myself the question “would I buy it again?” the answer would be “Sadly, no”.

Frankly, I found myself slightly disappointed – I can only assume that this is a beer that doesn’t take well to travel. Given that the label says that it’s best served “at 58°F at the Black Bull In in Coniston”, I’ll go with that. So if you get the chance, go to the pub and sample it as God intended, and sample one there, or if you’re feeling energetic, walk the mile or so to the peak of the Old Man fell and marvel at the Cumbrian countryside. Just remember to stop and raise a toast to my childhood hero.

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Black Sheep Riggwelter

31 August, 2009 3 comments
Riggwelter, next to sister beer, Black Sheep Ale

Riggwelter, next to sister beer, Black Sheep Ale

I have to apologise to you all for today’s post. I was planning on writing about a couple of speciality American brews, but I was heavily distracted on the way back from a trip to Oregon back in July. We were travelling down I-5 and decided to stop for a snack and a coffee at Granzella’s deli, in Williams (California). While we were there we did a little shop for some groceries to take home for a light supper, so we had a look around at their breads, cheeses and so on. It was during my meanderings that I discovered their beer selection (which is quite fine and varied!) and was stopped by one bottle in particular.

Here’s a beer that I’ve loved for years, and I make no apologies about singing its praises. It’s a perfectly delicious brown ale brewed at the Black Sheep Brewery in Yorkshire’s Wensleydale (yes, the place where the other great English cheese comes from).  I’ve visited the brewery (the original Theakston’s brewery) and sampled all their ales, which are very good, but this is so far, their flagship ale for me.

The word Riggwelter itself originates in the Yorkshire Dales, and comes from two Old Norse words: rygg, meaning “back” and velte, basically meaning “overturned” or “tipped over”. A sheep which has fallen over and unable to get up is said to be “rigged” or “riggwelted”. I have seen farmers helping their stricken sheep to their feet following a tumble, and considering the reputation of this beer, it is likely that any farmers imbibing too much of it may on occasion need some help to get up themselves.

The Review.

The appreciation of Riggwelter

The appreciation of Riggwelter

Now, to describe it. Well, it’s brown of course. The brown of dark chestnuts, topped by a dark-cream head. Lift the glass to your nose and get that roasty-toasty nuttiness, a hint of coffee and some brown sugar. There’s little floral about this one, it’s a little more rugged, and that ruggedness continues as you sip your way down. There’s the dark malt, there’s the slightly warm-bread flavour, and at the back of it all is a nicely balanced sweetness, and then the hop. Not to forget the caramel, coffee and (did I dream this?) cinnamon.

The body is smooth and creamy, the slight carbonation makes your cheeks laugh, as my Grandpa would say. In short, it’s a delightful drink, and at 5.7% alcohol, not too strong. The flavour is full enough to satisfy, and yet it’s light enough to enjoy daily, assuming you’re lucky enough to get it. It was enough for me to go back to the Davis Co-op and ask Tom Nolte to get it in on a regular basis, which to his great credit, he did.

Of course, this tasting was from a bottle imported from England, and whilst it’s very good, my best memory is of Riggwelter on draught at the pub. There it’s better yet, smoother and easier to drink. One of these days I’m going to work out (or have someone tell me) why beer on tap is usually so much better than bottled. Presumably, there’s some science involved, possibly a little art and certainly a lot of magic.

Meantime, go out and find this A-rated strong English ale and forget forever about Newcastle Brown. You’ll thank me, I have no doubt.

Parts of this originally published by me at Everything2

Wolaver’s Organic Brown Ale

23 March, 2009 Leave a comment
Wolaver's Brown Ale

Wolaver's Brown Ale

So here’s one of those beers that surprised me greatly. Mostly it did so because it was described as an “English-style brown ale”, and for me, it didn’t turn out like that. Poured from the bottle into a 16-ounce glass, it starts with a promising head and a good colour, but it was the wrong colour for me! The reddish-amber took me back a little – it honestly looked like a dark bitter, and that did have an effect on my expectations.

I took it out of the fridge, where it had been chilling for about half an hour, and poured it slowly into the glass. The lacy head was quick to form, and the beer was clear and bright. I took my time drinking down the first two-thirds,  as I tend to do, and it revealed itself as an easy-drinking brew. The first impression is the nose of hops and fruit, and the light texture. There’s a hoppy flavour, just a little bit of sweetness and with a hint of walnuts, caramel. Somewhere in there, I also got hints of blackcurrants and ripe plums. This especially true as the beer warms a little, the warmer flavours come through the hoppiness of the first taste.

The head soon passes and the whole is a very pleasant drink, and yet I couldn’t get away from my initial impression that this was going to taste like an English Bitter. Having grown up with the examples of Newcastle Brown and Riggwelter, I’d have expected deeper hues to match the depth of the flavour. Still, it more than passes muster, with a “B” grade.

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