Last night (Friday) I had a bottle of each of three beers that were similar in style and strength. They also had another attribute in common – see if you can tell what it is before the end of this post.
The first was Brakspear Oxford Gold (4.6%). This is an organic bottle-conditioned beer – though thankfully without the annoying “CAMRA says this is real ale” logo on the label. In my day job as an IT consultant, I come across organisations – sometimes commercial companies – who offer to “certify” that companies or products conform to generally accepted best practice. I’m not talking about certification against a published standard, which has a defined purpose and recognised interpretation – I mean giving an opinion based on a subjective interpretation of an imprecisely defined set of guidelines. I’m sure you can tell where I’m going here…but don’t get me wrong – I know that CAMRA has done, and continues to do, a lot to encourage the production of high quality beer, and has been instrumental in ensuring that we beer drinkers have a vast range of delicious beers to choose from. My point is that when you introduce an “accreditation” scheme such as the bottled beer logo, you need to be precise about exactly what this accreditation means – and how it will be interpreted by brewers and drinkers. Does it mean that the beer is “better” (and if so, what does “better” mean)? Do brewers have to apply for the logo or is it “bestowed” by CAMRA? If a bottle doesn’t have the logo does it mean that the beer doesn’t meet the criteria, or just that the brewer hasn’t applied? To the best of my knowledge, the scheme identifies beers that have been produced using an approved manufacturing method – it doesn’t say anything about the taste of a beer. Of course, brewers will use this accreditation to give the impression that their beer is in some way superior to other beers without the accreditation – and we consumers are encouraged to believe that. There is also the possibility that if you try a beer with the logo and you don’t like it, it might put you off trying other beers with the logo. Having only recently joined CAMRA (see my CAMRA shy post) I haven’t really got to grips with all the activities of the organisation, so I’m sure that this is a subject that I’ll return to in the future.
Anyway, back to the Brakspear Oxford Gold. The bottle had been in my beer cupboard for a few weeks, so the sediment had had plenty of time to settle into a solid layer at the bottom of the bottle, and I had no trouble in pouring a beautifully clear glass of beer – although the bottle notes suggest that you can drink it cloudy (I reckon that is just a ploy to make the more cack-handed – or impatient - among us feel better when we end up with the sediment in the glass). Gold is definitely the right word to describe the colour of this beer. It has a nice hoppy, malty aroma, a bitter bite to the taste, and a long bitter finish. I drank this bottle with our Friday evening meal of tuna, lime and coriander fishcakes, chips and mushy peas – and it went perfectly; the bitterness complemented the tang of the lime and coriander, and cut through the “chip fat” (although, of course, they were very healthy oven chips). Having just checked the tasting notes on the Brakspear web site, it says that the beer is a perfect accompaniment for fish dishes – I agree. It is also available on draught, at 4%.
Second up was Sainsbury’s Organic Blonde Ale. Pale, as the name suggests, and a very tasty bitter beer that left me wanting more – but unfortunately I only had the one bottle. Now, I’m used to the bottles that I drink having “best before” dates well into the future, and I know that many beers, particularly the bottle-conditioned ones, develop with age. So, I was intrigued by the date on my bottle – 12th May 2009 – about 6 weeks from now. Is the shelf-life of some beers particularly short? Or had my bottle been sitting around on the shelf for months? It had only been in my beer cupboard for a week or two. I couldn’t find any indication on the bottle of when the beer was brewed or bottled - does anyone know if it is usually on the label? It tasted good anyway. Very good in fact.
Lastly, Wychwood Circlemaster (4.7%). Like the others, a pale bitter – made from “organically grown Plumage Archer barley malt and whole-leaf Target hops”. I loved the taste of this beer – nicely bitter like the other two, but it seemed to have a bit more body and substance to it – smooth with a bitter finish. Very tasty.
All in all, last night was very successful from the point of view of beer choices. So, what was the common attribute? Well, I said they were all of similar style and strength and, yes, they are all organic. But the other thing they have in common is that they are all brewed at the Wychwood Brewery in Witney, Oxfordshire. As I mentioned in one of my early posts (A Jolly good lunch) Brakspear beer has been brewed by Wychwood since 2004, following the closure of the Henley Brewery. The front label on the bottle of Sainsbury’s beer declares that it, too, is brewed by Wychwood. I think that this is a good thing, and to be encouraged – how many other supermarkets are prepared to advertise where their own brand beers are brewed? And seeing that on the bottle would definitely make me more likely to consider buying it.