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Tops vs Slops #1: Lager, Bitter and Mild

11 May

Beer nerds exist, and by God, they’re all over the Internet. Their stock and trade is the beer review, a ballot dutifully cast into the sprawling forum that is Youtube so that the reviewer may convey their earnest assessment of the hottest new Double Imperial Green Hopped Cascadian Dark Lager or whatever. If favourable, the review will typically present as breathless proclamations of the brew’s magnificence, solemn assertions that the likes of such a beer have hitherto gone unseen and untasted, or more usually, some bloke just banging on about ‘Huge Hop Aroma’.

I’m going to posit something controversial; I believe that a determined scouring of the bottle shops, beer menus and ale bars of our world, in search of the elusive few batches that will provoke such epiphanic claims is not particularly necessary; even if it’s made out as some sort of wrote testimony to a drinker’s true love of beer.

A great beer can be positively clandestine. The first pint may have been chosen because your usual was not available, by a friend’s recommendation, because everyone else was drinking it or just because it was there. It was palatable and subtle, and with each following occasion upon which you sampled it, the quality of the ingredients, care taken in its production and the excellence in taste developed; crystallising your certainty that it was one of the best brews you might have ever had.

Some beer, however, is just utter shit.

Tops vs Slops will observe both ends of the spectrum, and with each edition it will make a claim over the best and worst beer in three different style categories. I also heard it was nominated for the Blog Post With The Most Painfully Contrived Name of the Year Award (better know as the BPWTMPCNOTYAs).

Standard Lager

Bernard Pivo Pilsner 3.8%

“Make mine a Bernard”

Right out of the gate is a Pilsner by which every other lager should be judged (and ultimately discarded, the Bernard is that good). Hailing from the Czech Republic – home of Pilsner – This is a beer in which every ingredient is pulling its weight. Clean, bready, golden malt with caramel body derived from the decoction method of mashing; Herbal, peppery Saaz hops which bring expert balance against the malt; and soft, sparkling water with a light mineral character that makes Barnard unbelievably drinkable. I’m reminded why I love beer every time I have one.

Carlsberg Export

Carlsberg ages you instantly

A lot of mega-lagers are bad, but I feel like the brewers at Carlsberg deserve special mention for the manufacture of a beer that must surely test the patience of every drinker who buys one. Absent hop character; cloying sweetness that coats the tongue and makes the beer taste warm, even when it’s super-chilled; and water treated to accentuate the lingering soapiness that no one wants in something they intend to drink.

Standard Bitter

Samuel Smith’s Sovereign

Other famous namesakes include a brand of fags, imitation rings from Argos and the Queen

Like a bat out of Tadcaster, Sovereign is a fine KEG BITTER. Still with me? Haven’t thrown your computer against the wall with sheer revulsion? I’m glad. Imbued with a bit of carbonate sparkle, Sam Smith’s packages Sovereign without the use of Nitrogen; present in such infamous pseudo-bitter calamities as Caffrey’s, Boddingtons and John Smith’s (yes, there is a relation), making it sessionable to a tee. Dark gold in colour, malty, smooth and with a satisfying hop character, you could drink 10 and still want more.

Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter

Ladies night at the King’s Arms, York

Opposites Day at Samuel Smith’s brewery continues with a beer that is upsettingly both their only cask product and the worst beer they’ve brewed. If you like your pint of bitter to taste starchy, tart and yeasty then you’ll sink right in with the old boys propping up the bar, the ones who think that drinking beer should be a masochistic experience.


Harvey’s Old Ale


The West Midlands – heartland of dark mild – will be dismayed to learn that my top choice in this category is technically too strong, brewed in the South and isn’t even called a mild. Harvey’s is a venerable Sussex brewery that goes back over 220 years, and generally does the classics exceptionally well. Old Ale (which doesn’t taste anything like a true old ale, y’know, for the lulz) is smooth, sweet and nutty, with just a sprinkling of bittering hops to iron out any cloying notes. Unfortunately, at 4.3% ABV, Harvey’s Old isn’t as sessionable as a true mild (which sits typically at 3%). Chasing up a close second, the Original Mild from Banks’ of Wolverhampton will accept that accolade with gusto.

Dark Star Over the Moon

The mongrel dog seemed stylistically appropriate.

Dark Star is like the tattooed, scene-kid younger brother of Harvey’s. Brewed only a short hop over into West Sussex, Dark Star is the darling of many a craft beer drinker in Brighton. Ninety-five percent of the time this favouritism is deserved; they were one of the few early cask ale brewers to adopt American hops and craft-brew techniques in their beer, and their range contains a number of incredibly well designed, delicious malt beverages.
This run of good form stops dead when it comes to mild.
Pouring jet black out of the hand-pull, Over The Moon looks as though it might have a subtle and pleasant malt body. Unfortunately you can’t tell, as your mouth will have been blasted out by what seems like a long ton of acrid bittering hops. On the aroma, you’re met with something akin to a blend of granny’s hand soap and Pontefract cake. I think I understand what it would be like to drink the liquid out of an Airwick plug-in air freshener.
(EDIT: Don’t worry, gives Over The Moon a score of 93% overall, and 100% for style. I feel the desire to write an article about RateBeer coming on thick and fast…)

Next Tops vs Slops will be over Anglo-American IPA (as pretentious as it sounds), Geuze and Real Cider. If you want to express your own opinions or suggestions over styles and good/bad examples of them, drop me a line or leave a comment.



Greene King have Nailed It

10 May

Wearing a pork pie hat and drinking brown beer from a jug is now fashionable.

I was browsing through beer videos as usual this evening, until I came across a member of a particularly rare breed; a TV advert for cask ale. You scarcely see a cask ale advert on telly these days, as the quantities of cash required are far beyond the reaches of 98% of the ale-producing breweries in Britain. Greene King, the commissioning brewery for this advert, is one of those in the remaining 2%.

The scene opens to see a mechanical drayman’s lift lowering a cask into the cellar of a patiently observing landlord. After a short bit of cellarmanship, the guv’nor makes his way back up to the saloon bar of his pub; full to the brim with dancing, chatty revellers young and old, grinning as a statistically improbable number of them stand supping pints of Greene King IPA. Achingly hip, stripped-down indie folk music plays throughout.

Those who know me on a personal level will recall that my contempt for manipulative, sentimental advertising is matched only by my contempt for Greene King; a brewery with a track record for buying up and closing small breweries, neutralising previously characterful local inns that have fallen under their control simply for the purposes of enhancing their property portfolio and brand value, but most heinously, mass marketing a 3.6% malt-dominated session bitter as INDIA FLAMING PALE ALE. It beggars belief.

“Who let all these trendy bastards into my pub?”

But today the harsh tonic of blame was tempered with dewy-eyed poignancy. It was a lovely advert.

The characters, setting and sentiment were totally artificial, I know that. Yes, the insidious tactic of making a mere product fully symbolic of friendship, pleasure and love was employed ruthlessly; you’re preaching to the converted.
But even if the themes were the result of nothing more than intensive market research, Greene King used their huge marketing clout to loudly espouse what cask ale is all about: The Pub.

From the care and attention of the cellarman, to the convivial atmosphere that is uniquely the sum of good company, music and cask ale, this was undeniably a pub; an institution that needs to be preserved and cherished, and as the only venue where you and I can continue to enjoy cask beer, GK were dead set on giving it a voice.

Craft Brewing, the USA, and How to Lack a Sense of Proportion

26 Apr

Recently, I’ve been making an excellent job of putting my degree in immediate jeopardy by watching lots and lots of brewing videos, instead of even loosely trying to adhere to any of those silly deadlines.

Of the plethora of vids that I watched, it was an interview with San Francisco’s venerated Anchor Brewery (re)founder Fritz Maytag that left me irked within seconds of watching. I quote:

The best beer is made in America? There’s no question about it. There’s more creativity, more integrity and more variety in America than the rest of the world combined.

No doubt, it’s a bold opening statement, and forgive me for unboxing a tired stereotype, but it’s a statement unmistakably hyperbolic, and thus American in character.
When you consider that there are European yeast strains older than most American breweries, you might begin to understand why I actually find Maytag’s insinuation a bit disrespectful. It reeks of a total lack of perspective.

I can probably guess what you’re thinking, “This is all sounding a bit vitriolic, Sam. Are you sure you aren’t just the tiniest bit jealous?”. Let me put it this way, the US has probably the most evangelistic craft and homebrewing scene in the entire world. They have a pioneering beer certification panel, the Cicerone ‘beer sommelier’ qualification, exceptional strains of fresh, citrussy, punchy hops grown in the North-West, and some American beers are utterly incredible. So yes… I am a little jealous…
But I’m comfortable with my envious leanings, and with the enthusiasm of the US craft brewing scene, right up to the point where the claim is made that the US beer and brewing is the best in the world. Simply because, when it comes to beer, the US lacks two very important things. Heritage and Provenance.
Ooh, big words. Get me. But without them, US craft beer will be forever relegated as a niche interest, an inflated hobby.


The German Beer Purity Order predates colonisation of the American continent. Not that it means anything.

Let’s talk about provenance. What’s the most widely brewed style of beer in the world? Pilsner. Where does it come from? Pilsen. The reason that this golden lager retained its namesake with the Czech town in which it was brewed is because every part of the beer was an expression of the region. Noble-variety Saaz hops, aromatic malt kilned to produce unprecedented lightness in appearance and richness of character, and the softest brewing water available to the world. Even if you aren’t privy to the technicalities of Pilsner as a style,  there is one far more resounding sign of the importance of beer to people of the Czech Republic; at a mean of 160 litres per capita per year, they are the world’s number one beer drinkers.
Germany has Kölsch (Cologne), Dortmunder (Dortmund) and Berliner Weisse (Berlin), Belgium has Lambic (Wambeek), even the UK has (or at least had) Burton Ale. In Europe, beer preference is a matter of regional identity, of local pride. Bitter in the North, Mild in the Midlands, Lager in the South (okay, that’s a rather shaky example).
In The States, you either have a special interest or you drink Bud, and with craft beer accounting for only 5.7% by volume of all US beer sold in 2011, chances are high that the special interest group isn’t as potent as some outspoken voices would like to decry.

The fact is, the American craft brewing revolution was borne out of the endeavours of homebrewers at a time when there was a total dearth of choice available in the States, and a huge wealth of styles in the rest of the world. Fellow bitter drinker and personal man-crush David Mitchell made a number of very pertinent remarks about the nature of enterprise when it’s driven by men with hobbies, specifically the ‘food revolution’ happening in Britain. Replace ‘British’ with ‘American’ and ‘Food’ with ‘Beer’ and you’ll get some idea of where I’m at:

So no, we haven’t embraced continental good sense about food, we’ve merely added cuisine  to the list of fads that British men get disproportionately obsessed by. It’s no more a seachange than if we all vaguely knew about train numbers.

In the case of the US, what this leaves us with is a nation of brewing geeks who have no innate relationship to the craft beyond owning a homebrew manual.

But really, I’m being rather harsh. American craft brewing is gaining market share, and its fruits are plentiful. Maytag’s proclamation about creativity and variety does hold water to some extent, with the US brewers always trying to push the boundaries with the processes and ingredients at their disposal, there are new hybrids emerging all the time.
Regional US breweries are also becoming more visible, and with luck, they will lay their roots in US culture and inform both the way the Yanks enjoy their beer, and the way the rest of the world perceives American brewing. Until then, it would serve certain agents well to hold back on the grandstanding, and gain a bit of a sense of proportion.

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