It strikes me that, for a beer blog, I don’t actually write much specifically about beer itself on here. Partly that’s a conscious decision – there are roughly a gazillion blogs providing reviews and analysis of favourite beers and I’m not sure we need another one.
But hey, it’s a beer blog. The reason we’re here is that we enjoy drinking beer. And every so often, beers come up that are too remarkable not to comment on.
I’ve always loved ‘champagne beers’. Up to now there have been too few of them to attempt anything so anal as defining the ‘style’, and I’d resist that even now, because I think the inspiration of champagne, the selective application of some champagne ingredients and/or processes, signals a creative approach that combines classiness and elegance with a wonderfully liberating playfulness, and I would resist at all costs attempts to stifle that with anything so boring as a style guide.
But there are certainly enough of them around now – all different – to suggest, if not a style, than a loose coalition, a movement, a trend.
The first one on most people’s radar was Deus, still magnificent, a Belgian Tripel matured with champagne yeast in champagne caves, using the traditional methods of remuage and degorgement, where during secondary fermentation, the bottles are turned and angled so the yeast collects in the neck, where it can be frozen and extracted.
Simpler – in both process and flavour – is Kasteel Cru. This is simply a lager fermented with champagne yeast, and while as such it’s easy to dismiss, it has some merit – it’s light, spritzy and has a grapey hint, a great aperitif that prompts re-evaluation among people who ‘don’t like beer’.
There are other Belgians who have followed Deus’ lead, most notably (for me) Malheur Brut, which is possibly even better than Deus.
But I’ve recently been given three new champagne(style) beers in quick succession, and they each make me very happy indeed. In no particular order…
Infinium, by Samuel Adams and Weihenstephan
|Roll up! Roll up!
Samuel Adams is a brewery that understands the value of special, premium packaging, but can sometimes err into gaudy rather than premium. This one stays on the right side of the line, but only just – with the result that it looks magnificent – like it was created by some insane genius who lives within a travelling funfair invented by Terry Gilliam. Whether your initial reaction to the following image is a laugh or gasp probably reveals something deep about your psyche:
|Brewers by appointment to Dr Parnassus
But what about the beer?
The press release is full of superlatives. German Weihenstephan is ‘the world’s oldest brewery’, and this collaboration has ‘shattered industry preconceptions of the limits of the German purity laws’, by remaining faithfully within those laws to produce a beer that’s 10.5% ABV that will be in ‘selected outlets for discerning consumers prepared to pay vintage champagne-style prices.’
I was lucky enough to be sent a bottle. It made me want to wait for a special occasion to open it, but I couldn’t – I gave in, celebrating the fact that I was at home for once on a Sunday (the Beer Widow would argue that this is an event rare enough to celebrate with vintage Krug.)
It pours an amazing, alluring bronze colour, beautiful and rich.
It has complex nose of caramel, that biscuity vintage champagne aroma, with a hint of sherry sweetness. It’s one of those rare, special beers where you enjoy nosing it so much, you almost forget to drink it.
You should though.
On the palate there’s banana, lemon, caramel, perfectly judged winter spices and a brief, intense sweetness before a nice champagne-like dryness and a hint of earthiness at the back.
It’s classy, elegant and sophisticated, yet fuller and bolder than other champagne beers I’ve had. It’s available in a mere two outlets in the UK: Vino Wines in Edinburgh, and Inspire, a cafe bar in Coventry. Utterly random, but there you go. More info is available from Branded Drinks.
Bowland Artisan Gold
If the location for an artisanal champagne beer surprises you, the quality of that beer will surprise you further still. Bowland is a microbrewery some miles north of Burnley, Lancashire, which has been doing a good job of crafting quality ales since 2003 (its Admiral Best Bitter was named Champion Best Bitter of Britain in the recent SIBA awards, and I reviewed it on the Vlog from those awards).
Bowland brewer Richard Baker decided the only way he could absolutely guarantee perfect beer time after time would be to produce a top quality bottled beer. He wanted to use bottle conditioning, but didn’t want to leave a sediment – and that made him think of champagne-style secondary fermentation. Baker studied champagne methods in depth and reproduced them as closely as he was able, and this is the result:
|You want premium? You got premium
It’s a remarkable beer. It has all the refinement and complexity of any other champagne beer – though perhaps not the dense layers of flavour – at a low (for champagne beer) ABV of 5.7%. I’m afraid I didn’t make too many tasting notes on this one, just lots of adjectives like ‘classy’ and ‘elegant’. The mix of noble and new world hops gives it a lot of fruit, but it’s held in check by a smooth dryness. I felt I was wasting it, enjoying it in front of the TV with a bowl of pasta, and I was very sad indeed when I finished the bottle, because it’s very quaffable despite (or probably because of) its structure and complexity.
Chapel Down Curious Brew Brut
This isn’t quite the same deal as the previous two. But I include it here to show the breadth of champagne(style) beers.
By the standards of Infinium and Artisan Gold it’s more of an everyday drink. But by the standards of draught lager – which is how we should be judging it – it’s just as special as the previous two.
Chapel Down is one of the leading English wineries, based in Kent. Their wines are seriously good, and if your experience of English wine stretches as far as fruit wines that are half a step away from home brew, you need to shift your frame of reference south, to the Loire valley and the champagne region – Kent has a similar climate and terroir, and Chapel Down wines easily stand alongside their French cousins.
The thing is, the MD of Chapel Wines is a former beer man, having worked for Whitbread and Heineken (full disclaimer: he’s an ex-client and current friend of mine) and he’s been dabbling for a few years with getting winemakers to approach beer with a wine sensibility. Bottled Curious Brew Brut, Admiral Porter and Cobb IPA are all well worth seeking out, each with a winey twist. Now, Brut has been revamped and launched around Kent on draught.
It’s a premium strength lager, lagered for a decent length of time, and brewed with sparkling wine yeast. As such it’s along similar lines to Kasteel Cru, but the end result is quite different. It’s a fuller, more assertive beer, more fruity and rounded, that grapey sweetness getting a much bigger stage to show off on, but still reined in at the end by a crisp dryness. Refreshing and satisfying, the true test of it is that it feels vulgar drinking it from a pint, as I first did. Get it in the correct half pint glass, and it’s a lovely halfway house between beer and sparkling wine in every way, and proved to be the perfect aperitif before dinner at the winery’s excellent restaurant last weekend.
It’s currently brewed by Hepworth’s, who do a lot of contract brewing, but Chapel Down is considering commissioning its own brewery alongside the winery just outside Tenterden. If the current sales growth continues, that should be happening pretty soon.
So, that’s some seriously fancy drinking right there. And I’ve just remembered why I don’t write as many beer reviews as I should. It’s 12.19, and I’m now gasping for a beer…