Monday, September 24, 2018

What Impact Temperature?

While drinking the Samuel Smiths Nut Brown Ale used for last week's "Old Friends" post, I tweeted the following:



Having tweeted out this minor rantette, I decided that in the interests of science I would conduct a little experiment. Earlier that day I had purchased one of Sierra Nevada's Fall Packs, containing three bottles a piece of Tumbler Autumn Brown Ale, Torpedo Extra IPA, Vienna Lager, and Ruthless Rye IPA. I put a couple of bottles of Tumbler into the wine cooler, which sits at 54°F (12°C), and the third bottle in the fridge, at about 40°F (4.5°C), and there they remained for a week.

Yesterday I pulled the beers from their cool places in order to do a comparative tasting, though again in the interests of science I wanted to make sure that the same process was followed for both glasses of beer. As such I used the same US pint glass for both beers, washed between pints and allowed to settle back to room temperature. This decision was a sop to the kind of people that would claiming using different glasses would have impacted the aromas and flavours - I have done a mass experiment on this before and concluded that different glassware is largely irrelevant, other that parting a fool from his cash.

I also decided that I would leave an hour between drinks, and have a goodly amount of water to cleanse the old palate in order to avoid recency bias of the taste buds. First up then was the bottle that had been sat in the fridge.


The beer poured a rich chestnut brown, deeply luxuriant, and capped with a healthy half inch or so of dark ivory foam, too pale to be light brown, too dark to be plain ivory. The head just sat there, and sat there, and sat there, leaving a delicate lacing down the glass. The aromas coming through the head were lightly toasted bread, a bit of medium roast coffee, but mostly it was the smell of a pub carpet. I realise that sounds unappetising, but it is a smell that reminds me of going to the bar in the Sergeants' Mess when I was a kid, before dad would give us a stack of 10p pieces and tell us to bugger off to the pool room while the adults drank. The overwhelming taste was a nutty, medium dark chocolatey thing that was smooth with a roastiness that never bordered on the acrid, brought back in to focus with a clean hop bite. With the fridge beer thoroughly enjoyed, I cleaned out the glass and set it to one side for an hour.


After a hour of playing with my twin sons, and generally romping in domestic bliss, I came back to the experiment and poured the cellar temperature bottle of Tumbler into the now dry and room temperature glass. Again the beer was a rich chestnut brown, though as I poured there was a significantly bigger head, about an inch and a half, but it settled down to about the same half inch as previously, again lingering for the duration of the drinking, leaving a marginally more impressive lacing. The aroma was that of freshly baked bread, sprinkled with unsweetened cocoa powder, and a subtle floral hop thing going on. Missing entirely was the smell of a freshly opened boozer. This time the beer tasted of rich chocolate, with a light coffee roastiness, and the hop bite came with an earthy spiciness that didn't seem to be there in the fridge version.

This experiment was not about trying to prove that cellar temperature beer tastes better than refrigerated beer, but about the sensory differences induced by temperature. The colder beer had a smoother mouthfeel, as the hop bite evident in the cellar temperature version was missing almost completely. The cellar temperature had more pronounced malt flavours, not different, just deeper, and the body was fuller, perhaps rounder than the refrigerated one. One thing I wasn't really expecting was that the cellar temperature beer seems to have a more evident carbonation that the fridge one, which may explain the elevated hop character in that version. I wonder what impact being bottle conditioned had on the experiment, and perhaps I will perform the same experiment again with force carbonated beers.


One thing that was certainly clear from this experiment is that Tumbler Autumn Brown Ale is an excellent beer, and was perhaps just the right beer for this experiment on a dreich afternoon. In my excitement each year for the new Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest, I have overlooked what was once my favourite autumn beer, what a foolish thing to do. Perhaps brown ales are once again due their moment in the limelight, preferably without silly shit and fripperies to keep the trendseekers happy, just good old fashioned brown ale, as brown ale should be.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

More Than Less

I will just come out and say it, I like a drink.

That fact is probably the main reason I seek out session beers whenever possible. Unless I am in the company of good friends, I am the guy that will sit at a table and be very much on the periphery of the conversation. It's just as well I am something of an amateur anthropologist, I love watching people and how they interact, though it does mean I tend to drink quicker than a lot of people I know, and that's where session beers come in. I simply wouldn't want to drink 5 or 6 imperial pints of standard strength craft beer (between 6.5% and 7% in this part of Virginia) and then drive myself home, regional public transport being something akin to unicorn shit and the Brexit dividend.

For a while a couple of years ago it seemed as though everyone and his mate was jumping on the session beer bandwagon, though this being the US they wanted to say 5.5% abv beer was sessionable. Given that my definition of a session begins at the fourth imperial pint, these beers felt like some cruel joke. For those unaware of Lew Bryson's vital work at The Session Beer Project, let's remind ourselves of his suggested guidelines for an American session beer:
  • 4.5% alcohol by volume or less
  • flavorful enough to be interesting
  • balanced enough for multiple pints
  • conducive to conversation
  • reasonably priced
Forgive me for being cynical, but there are times when I wonder if anyone is paying much attention to anything but the first point in the definition, maybe the second, though again being grumpy I would say that most session IPAs are too flavourful.

The other three points though appear to be willfully ignored. A sweet and sour fruit infused faux gose is not balanced enough to have multiple pints, remember a session begins at the fourth imperial pint - 4 imperial pints of a watermelon gose? Not fucking likely, most samples of the gack are difficult enough to get through, let alone a US customary pint.

Even though I tend to be the quiet guy on the edges, it is session beer that eventually gets me in to a place where I am happier to jump into conversation. God that makes me sound like some right uptight git, I am just not much of a talker when there are more people in a group that I don't know than I do. After a few pints though, I'll loosen up and dip my toe into the waters of the conversation, and we'll see where it goes, the beer though conducts me into the conversation.

Much like the pricing restrictions of Reinheitsgebot, the idea of reasonably priced beer is conveniently forgotten by all and sundry. For example, during American Mild Month I routinely saw dark milds between 3% and 4% being sold for between $5 and $7 for an imperial pint, the same price as some 7%-9% abv beers on the same beer list. Now, pardon my french, but that is taking the fucking piss. Charging the same price for a 3.5% mild as an 8% double IPA simply smacks of gouging the customer and reaping a much bigger profit margin on the beer.

There is more to creating a session beer than simply being technical with the ABV. To truly have session beer there needs to be an environment where the best bitters, dark milds, and pale lagers are as an attractive proposition as some extreme hop bomb or malt based fruity alcopop. Session beer thrives when the beer culture is one of drinking pints with your mates rather than cruising breweries doing flights. I fear we are starting to lose that culture.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Old Friends: Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale

One of my favourite days of the year is fast approaching, the September equinox. The equinox marks the proper end of summer and the onset of cooler temperatures, nights slowing drawing in, and taking the dog for a walk in the gloom. Autumn and winter have always been my favourite seasons, I am not much of one for heat, and even less so when that heat is overload with lashings of humidity. I am one of the few people I know that would be perfectly happy in Narnia, pre-Aslan overthrowing Queen Jadis that is.

The last few days here in central Virginia have been rather dreich, which is actually far more welcome than the possibility we were looking at this time last week, when Hurricane Florence was forecast to batter the Commonwealth. So, in the midst of all this rain, and with the boys settled for the night, I cracked open my latest old friend beer, Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale.


Samuel Smith's is surely one of the least fashionable breweries on the planet, and a nut brown ale quite possibly the apogee of old man uncool, yet they make magnificent beer for which they are rightly lauded. In common with all the other beers I have chosen for an "old friends" post it was the realisation that it had been so long since I last had Nut Brown Ale that prompted me to pick up a half litre bottle while doing the weekly shop recently.

When I say recently, I mean a couple of weeks ago. For some reason the last couple of weekends have been pretty light on the booze front, I've enjoyed a few pints with lunch but when the evening comes and the boys are put to bed, I haven't fancied anything at all, and so the bottle sat. Thankfully said sitting was in our wine fridge, that's an official term given it has a ratio of 7:1 beer to wine in it, at a steady 54°F - perfect cellar temperature.


As I poured it into one of my Sam Smith's pint glasses, an annual treat to myself is a mix pack that comes with a glass and a few beer mats, a couple of things came to mind. Firstly, clear beer is a beautiful sight, and this was absolutely crystal clear. Secondly, that it was much lighter in reality than in the crevices of memory, where I expected a deep milk chocolate brown there was a shining polished mahogany, with flashes of auburn chestnut. God, this is a thing of beauty. The half inch of ivory foam that remained after I had scraped a knife across the rim lingered, and lingered, just sitting there like an obedient dog.

It's all good and well for a beer to look the part, ultimately it comes down to smell and taste, and Nut Brown is laden with subtle cocoa aromas, earthy hops, and a trace of coffee in there for good measure. Most of the aromas carry on over into the taste department, to be joined by something not unlike a slightly singed piece of toast with a spoon of rich dark honey on top, which tasted far better than it sounds. The malt definitely dominates here, but there is enough bitterness to ensure the beer doesn't cloy.


Nut Brown really was a wonderful beer for a dreich evening, smooth, comforting, autumnal, it was great to get re-aquainted and remind myself what fine company this is. As I sat looking out of the window at the rain pattering on the deck, I realised that brown ales have been scarce in the Velkyal household of late, that needs to change.