Are You Tasting the Pith? - 21st November 04
As part of the ongoing staff education at the shop, we sometimes get together after hours and open a few bottles, have a sniff and a slurp, and discuss what we think. We do this for three reasons; (1) because we can, (2) because it's good to consider the tastes in the beer as it slides over one's palate and down into the gaping maw, rather than just necking it, and (3) eventually, everyone at the shop will have tried every beer, or at the very least, all the beers will have been tried and have a current tasting note attached.
The most recent tasting focused on British beers, and given that we were having a bit of a cold snap, I was a little more generous than I might usually have been in popping the tops off of the smaller, stronger and more expensive offerings.
At the more modest end of the strength spectrum, Innis & Gunn Oak Aged Beer (6.6% abv) brought puzzled looks from all present. The burst of lemon and vanilla on the palate, slightly thin mouthfeel, and the odd medicinal quality made everyone question its credentials as the winner of last year's International Beer Competition. Distinctive and different, reminiscent of Islay malt whisky, was the overall consensus.
Traquair House Jacobite Ale (8% abv), spiced with coriander, had a wonderful nose. Predictably spicy, it was reminiscent of a good Belgian beer, but with an added oaky depth, and hints of pine and bonfire. The woodiness carried through on the palate, and has a long, complex, slightly winey finish. None of these woody flavours and aromas will come as a surprise to anyone who has visited Traquair House's tiny brewery, where the beer is fermented in large oak vats. In the same vein, although perhaps a bit more commercial and sweeter, with less integrated flavours and a big wallop of alcohol, was Orkney Skullsplitter; not quite as classy as the Traquair, but just the thing for a quick warming hit if you've been out for a long walk on a cold day.
Stepping up a couple of notches came the first disappointment of the evening, although not from a quality point of view. Gales Prize Old Ale (9% abv) is a firm favourite of mine, having one of the most extraordinary finishes of a beer that I've ever tasted; figs and christmas pudding, developing into a rich cream sherry, drying out into a whisky and cognac cocktail. As soon as this beer was poured, it was obviously a wrong 'un, being way to pale. The nose had a disappointing acetic hint to it, and lo!, a corked beer. Sad, but true.
Consoling ourselves with a bottle of the tittersome Golden Nips (Samuel Smiths Strong Golden Barley Wine, 10.2% abv, to the uninitiated) brought the cheery glow back to our cheeks. A lovely pale beer, faintly rummy and apricoty on the nose, and a big blast of alcohol in the finish. Slightly raucous, but good fun all the same.
There was nowhere else to go then except to Thomas Hardy Ale (11.7% abv). I have to admit that I was curious to see how this vintage had settled down since I last tried it (the article is here), not least because I have a case laid down to mature. And by crikey, has it come on. A lot of the slightly green, acrid flavours it had 6 months ago have subsided, leaving a soft smokiness in its place, and a big, powerful finish that, while it clearly has a way to go before becoming mature, is well on the way. My mind boggled at how good this beer might get.
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