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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Of CAMRA and Casks and Craft

The Green Dragon - Upper Wensleydale
Fellow BOTBer Mike and I and our respective wives took a trip to England this May. It was a bit of a whirlwind trip that started in London, headed South to Poole and Guernsey then back up through Yorkshire and the Dales, visiting Sherwood Forest then all the way up North to Ulverston and finally back to London. We took in a collection of castles, an abundance of abbeys and a plethora of pubs. Along with the history and culture, Mike and I decided this would be a great opportunity to research the state of Craft Beer outside the US.

The Craft Beer Revolution here in the US came about as a reaction to the homogenization of American beers. Through the '50's '60's and '70's American beer became increasingly tasteless and bland as big brewers followed the Anheuser-Busch model of spending on advertising and branding while saving on quality. The American beer market was flooded with watery, bland German-style lagers. And then came Light (or Lite) beers which managed to make the bland even, well, blander (despite Miller Lite's "Tastes Great!" claim). I have in the past compared American mega-brew beer to pre-sliced, pre-packaged American cheese - cheap, inoffensive and boring. While many people like American cheese, wouldn't it be awful if that was the only kind of cheese you could get? That was pretty much the state of affairs before craft beer. If you wanted a beer, your choices were a lager or a light lager.
Random Weirdness:
Found in a kitchen drawer in our
flat in London

The growth of craft beer here in the States,  in large measure, can be traced to England. Many of the early craft beer pioneers have similar stories of traveling to England and finding beer with flavor and variety. So it was interesting to find that there are a couple of competing movements afoot in the UK which are reminiscent to the American Craft Beer Revolution. While Britain has its own craft beer movement, there is also a separate beer-related movement: CAMRA (CAMpaign for Real Ale). If you were to lay out a Venn Diagram of these two movements, the area of overlap would be in their common impetus. Both evolved as a result of a beer landscape more and more dominated by a few large breweries flooding the market with middle-of-the-road brews. However, the similarities end there.

Whereas the craft beer movement there is similar to that in the States - a sort of free floating, experimental what-can-we-do-next approach that often pushes the boundaries of brewing while, simultaneously, honoring its traditions - CAMRA has a narrower focus. CAMRA advocates accept only cask ale - often referred to as "real ale" and cask cider. Nothing bottled, canned or kegged. Only ales poured via the pump system. In fact a beer is not CAMRA  approved if there is both a cask version and a bottled, kegged or canned version (although bottle conditioned may  be becoming more accepted). But the CAMRA movement goes beyond beer. CAMRA is a reactionary movement looking for a return to days of old when the neighborhood pub was a social gathering place. A place for a quiet pint with friends, perhaps a game of darts, but none of that loud music or those big TV sets on the wall. It is a case where one movement is more inclusive vs. one that is more exclusive. CAMRA aficionados would not necessarily approve of many of the pubs serving craft beer, or the beers themselves. Whereas the Craft Beer followers certainly appreciate beer in it's many forms including cask ales.

"Real ale" seemed to be more prevalent than craft beer. Most pubs advertise real ale, and most pubs have at least a couple of cask ales (cask conditioned ales are unfiltered and unpasteurized. They do not leave the cask until the beer is served, and are hand pumped without the use of nitrogen or carbon dioxide to provide pressure). Mike and I generally choose a cask ale, so we had the opportunity to sample a number of them. We had a great many Bitters - Ordinary, Best Bitter, Special Bitter, Extra Special Bitter, Premium Bitter. The names roughly denote strength, though there is nothing set in stone regarding at what point a beer goes from, say, a Special Bitter to an Extra Special Bitter. It's sort of at the discretion of the brewer. Bitters are a sub-class of Pale Ales but it is not always easy to differentiate between the two. Cask ales tend to be less carbonated and, yes, they would be considered warm by US standards, meaning it is not ice cold. The thing is, it doesn't need to be. Malt, yeast, bread are the dominant flavor notes with varying levels of toffee, caramel and hop. We also had a few Stouts and  Porters that were quite tasty.

Most beers clocked in at 5% ABV or less. Many at under 4%. At one pub, The Swan in Ulverston, we spotted an IPA from nearby Hawkshead Brewery. We each ordered a pint. The bartender said, "Now, you realize this is 7%?"
"Yes," we said.
"Are you local then?" he asked.
"Local?" I said, then realizing what he was asking, said, "Oh, yes. We walked here." Which we had.
"Ah, then. That's good," he said and poured us our beers.

The beer, by the way, was excellent. It was by far one of the hoppiest beers we had tasted while in England. It is referred to as a traditional British IPA taken to a new level using new world hops. The "New World" referred to here was the US and New Zealand. The hops they referred to were Cascade and Columbus from the States as well as Motueka hops from New Zealand.

What did we discover in our informal, totally unscientific bit of research? A couple of broad generalizations came to light. We'll give you our take on this and the lowdown on a few of the interesting pubs we hit and beers we drank on our journey next time.

But now, we need to take a look at some of this month's beers.


This month Sam Adams had a few brews for us to review. Six to be exact, but that left us one short of our normal seven. Luckily, I had picked up a six pack of Bedlam while in Springfield, Illinois that I thought would make a good one for BOTB. On top of that, Mike arrived with a new beer from Ommegang out of Cooperstown, NY. Let's start with the Sams.


The Beer Facts:  STYLE: Session IPA; BREWER: Boston Beer Company / Samuel Adams; ABV: 4.5%; IBUs: 45; MALT: Samuel Adams Two-row Pale Malt Blend; HOPS: Cascade, Centennial, Citra, Simcoe, Citra

What the Brewer Says: "Samuel Adams Rebel Rider is a bold yet mellow IPA with the hop character of a West Coast style IPA complemented by the golden crispness and lighter body of a session beer."

Color: Hazy wheat

Pour: Decent head with nice lingering

Aroma: Citrus, sour, piney

Body: Somewhat light

Taste: Balanced in that it is not overly bitter, with notes of grapefruit and understated lemon character

Overall Impression: I Could Drink This!

Comments: "For a session, it has a lot of taste; Nice lawn-mower beer; Not a lot of hoppiness, just a little bitter - way better than a pilsener; Very subtle; A good "gateway" beer - introduction to IPAs."

The Beer Facts: STYLE: Kolsch; BREWER: Boston Beer Company - Samuel Adams; ABV: 5%; IBUs: 30; MALT: Samuel Adams Two-Row Pale Malt Blend, acidulated malt, flaked barley, Carafoam; HOPS: Strisselsplat, Aramis.

What the Brewer Says: "Escape Route is a limited release beer brewed for the spring season. This golden and hazy Kolsch-style brew is bright, fresh and crisp, perfect for the last days of winter and first days of spring."

Color: Cloudy Wheat

Pour: Decent Head

Aroma: Grassy, floral

Body: Light

Taste: Tending toward sweet with with malt-first but some subtle grapefruit hop coming in

Overall Impression: It would do in a pinch for us. If you like Kolsch - Can't Get Enough.

Comments: "Not my favorite style, but for a Kolsch drinker I would think this would be great; Light finish; True to the Kolsch style but a little more body than most; Much more flavorful than I expected; Some nice hop character there - subtle, but definitely there."


The Beer Facts: STYLE: Belgian-style White Ale; BREWER: Boston Beer Company - Samuel Adams; ABV: 5.3%; IBUs: 10; MALT: Samuel Adams Two-Row Blend, Malted Wheat; HOPS: Hallertau Mittelfrueh Noble.

What the Brewer Says: "Cold Snap is a crisp, refreshing Belgian-style White Ale with a combination of hazy golden wheat and a lively blend of exotic fruits and spring spices."

Color: Cloudy wheat

Pour: Decent Head

Aroma: Sweet with hints of clove, floral

Body: Slightly less than medium

Taste: Sweet with hints of orange and strong coriander presence. Very subtle hop.

Overall Impression: We would Leave It On the Shelf - just not the style for a bunch of hopheads.

Comments: "Wheat beer; Thin, sweet, somewhat watery; A bit spicy; Just not crazy over the taste of coriander, and it is very evident here; If you're a fan of Belgians, you probably would like this, just not my mug of beer, so to speak."


The Beer Facts: STYLE: Pale Ale; BREWER: Boston Beer Company - Samuel Adams; ABV: 5.3%; MALT: Pale, Maris Otter, Honey; HOPS: Crystal, Fuggles, East Kent Goldings.

What the Brewer Says: "Crystal Pale Ale is a bright and earthy pale ale named after its signature ingredient - Crystal hops grown in Corvallis, Oregon. Neither a classic American nor classic English Pale Ale, Crystal Pale Ale is inspired by both styles. the distinct bright, citrusy hop character of the American Crystal hops is complemented by the earthiness of English hops and balanced by malt sweetness, a trademark character of English Pale Ales."

Color: Golden

Pour: Better than Decent Head with a nice lasting lacing

Aroma: Grassy, floral, citrus

Body: A bit more than medium

Taste: leans to the bitter end of the scale with nice grapefruit notes balanced by a malty, nutty sweetness to give it a more complex taste than the previous beers.

Overall Impression: Beyond "I Could Drink This" and heading toward "Can't Get Enough!"

Comments: "Nice, big finish; A darn good beer; It's got some taste and body to it; The more I taste it, the more I like it; Solid malt backing with hops on top of it, makes for a nice tasting beer; Would love to see it out there more; Crisp, clean taste; I'm a fan; A very nice beer, one of the better Pale Ales I've had."


The Beer Facts: STYLE: India Pale Ale; BREWER: Boston Brewing Company - Samuel Adams; ABV: 6.5%; IBUs: 45; MALTS: Samuel Adams Two-Row Pale Malt Blend, Caramel 60; HOPS: American Cascade, Simcoe, Chinook, Centennial, Amarillo

What the Brewer Says: "Rebel IPA - the first West Coast style IPA from the same brewers that started the craft beer revolution in 1984."

Color: Cloudy honey golden

Pour: Better than Decent Head

Aroma: Straw, grass

Body: Medium

Taste: Beyond balanced toward bitter with citrus, grapefruit, pine and hints of caramel.

Overall Impression: Well toward Can't Get Enough

Comments: "More complex taste, many flavors attack the tongue (in a good way); Bitter finish; Always glad to see this on tap; A really nice beer; Nice lacing; Kind of a classic IPA taste though a little sweeter than some; 45 IBUs is lower than many, but it still delivers a nice hop punch."


The Beer Facts: STYLE: Double IPA; BREWER: Boston Beer Company - Samuel Adams; ABV: 8.4%; IBUs: 85; MALTS: Samuel Adams Two-Row Pale Malt Blend; HOPS: Bravo, Galaxy, Zeus, Simcoe, Centennial, Cascade, Amarillo.

What the Brewer Says: "Rebel Rouser IPA is a Double IPA, brewed to showcase a wide variety of hop characteristics, rather than just hop bitterness. To drive the hop impact of this beer, our brewers didn't just take our Rebel IPA and double the hops. Our Double IPA is brewed with more than 5 lbs. of hops per barrel and dry-hopped with five american hop varieties from the Pacific Northwest. At 85 IBUs, Rebel Rouser Double IPA was brewed to showcase bold hop character, not palate-scraping

Color: Amber

Pour: Much better than Decent Head, with lingering lace.

Aroma: More acidic than hoppy, alcohol, some pine, floral.

Body: Full

Taste: Grapefruit, pine, alcohol warmth, malty base, citrusy hints of orange

Overall Impression: Can't Get Enough!

Comments: "Very complex; Alcohol jumps out at you; A lot of stuff going on here; Clean beginning with a bitter and strong finish; Nice step up from the Rebel; Contrary opinion - I liked the Rebel better; Overall I really like this whole Rebel family of beers, I wonder where they might go from here - a Belgian-style Rebel? A Red Rebel?"


The Beer Facts: STYLE: Belgian-style IPA; BREWER: Ale Asylum, Madison, Wisconsin; ABV: 7.4%;

What the Brewer Says: "This beast is a beauty. It is heavily hopped and fiercely aggressive, with an unmistakable aroma and flavor profile in a sea of India Pale Ales. What started as an experiment in our original brewery has gone on to become one of the highest rated Belgian-style India Pale Ales in
the world."

Color: Unfiltered amber

Pour: Decent Head

Aroma: Grapefruit / piney

Body: Between Medium and Full

Taste: Balanced with a wonderful malty, yeasty background combined with a citrusy spiciness.

Overall Impression: Pretty near "Can't Get Enough!"

Comments: "Easy finish; Balanced; Big taste - filled the mouth; I like it a lot - delicious; The Belgian characteristics meld well with the IPA characteristics; They seem to bring out the best in each other; Not a real Belgian fan, but I like this."


The Beer Facts: STYLE: American IPA; BREWERY: Ommegang - produced by sister brewery Boulevard in Kansas City, MO; ABV: 6.5%; IBUs: 60; HOPS: Bravo, Simcoe, Centennial, Topaz, Citra  and Mosaic.

What the Brewer Says: "Tri-State hop-heads are about to discover an entirely new state of being!..our first ever American-style India Pale Ale will be available across New York, New Jersey and Connecticut...The flavor is hoppy, juicy and citrusy goodness - without harsh bitterness."

Color: Wheat

Pour: Better than Decent Head

Aroma: West Coast big aroma of grapefruit and pine

Body: Near Full

Taste: Toward the bitter end with tastes of grapefruit, citrus, pine, and hints of lemon

Overall Impression: Very near "Can't Get Enough!"

Comments: "Drinkable - I can definitely have more than one; Really, really nice tasting beer; Farming it out right now because Boulevard is better set up for hop-forward beers and six packs - Ommegang has only 4-packs and bombers; Ommegang is such a highly respected Belgian-style brewery, glad to see them get into IPAs; Really good beer, very complex mix of flavors."


So what's the skinny on this octet of ales? Keeping in mind that hoppy is our happy place it's not surprising that the IPAs took top honors, though there was no clear consensus among the top three, leaving us with a three-way at the top spot. Anyway, the results were as follows:

#1 - Rebel Rouser Double IPA - The most complex of the Rebel family, also the highest IBUs - although at least one of us preferred the regular Rebel in part because they felt the alcohol presence was too much.

#1 - Ommegang's Nirvana IPA - For us it was great to see one of New York State's most respected Belgian-style breweries dip their feet into the American IPA pool. This is the third Ommegang brew I've had recently that scored well with hop-heads like us (the other two were Hop House Dry Hopped Pale Ale and Hopstate NY American Pale Ale, a terrific beer I just had last night.)

#1 - Ale Asylum's Bedlam Belgian IPA - I am finding that Belgian style IPAs seem to bring out the best of both styles, and this one was a delicious melding of the two. 

#2 - Samuel Adams Rebel IPA - We found this to be another solid IPA from Samuel Adams to go along with Latitude 48, Whitewater IPA, Third Voyage, Tasmen Red and Dark Depths Baltic IPA to name a few.

#3 - Samuel Adams Crystal Pale Ale - A tasty, hoppy Pale Ale that scored well with us.

#4 - Samuel Adams Rebel Rider Session IPA - Sam's entry into the session IPA realm. Easy drinking. A nice beer particularly if you intend to have a few. They put a lot of flavor into a 4.5% ABV beer.

#5 - Samuel Adams Escape Route - Kolsch would admittedly not be our beer of choice, but this would be our Kolsch of choice. It was tastier than we had expected, given the style.

#6 - Samuel Adams Cold Snap - This was by far our least favorite beer. If you're a fan of hops, you won't care for this. If you're a fan of White Ales spiced with coriander, this is your beer.

Next Month,
The latest Boat Beers - Canned Brews for the Summer

The BOTB Guys