On Sunday 13th March I was invited by the University of Exeter Real Ale Society to host a tutored Thornbridge beer tasting. Below is the speech which I gave at the event.
Hello, good evening and welcome to The University of Exeter Real Ale Society Thornbridge beer tasting. We’ve got a fantastic evening lined up for you all, with six excellent and very different beers from one of the best British breweries in the country for you to try. I’m going to try and keep things as brief as possible to give you time to chat amongst yourselves about the beers, but I’ll be giving a brief introduction to each of the beer styles we’ll be trying, as well as a bit about Thornbridge Brewery.
Firstly, a little about me. Obviously a lot of you probably know who I am, but for those of you who don’t, I’m James Beeson and I’m probably about the closest thing there is to a bone fide beer geek. I was social secretary for the society last year, and I currently work for a beer café in Tunbridge Wells during the university holidays. I’ve also written articles on beer for both the Huffington Post and The Independent in the past, and founded my own beer blog ‘Beeson on Beer’ in December 2015. I love homebrewing, and Andrei, Ed and I are currently the society’s homebrew champions, having won the last competition back in November.
Right, lets talk about Thornbridge. For those of you who aren’t aware, Thornbridge Brewery is an English brewery based in Bakewell, Derbyshire. It was founded in 2005 by two local businessmen, Simon Webster and Jim Harrison. Harrison bought Thornbridge Hall, a country house near Bakewell, in 2002, and on the advice of Kelham Island brewery owner Dave Wickett, decided to start brewing out of a second hand ten barrel brewery in the gardens on-site. In January 2005, Webster and Harrison appointed Stefano Cossi, a young Italian food scientist who had some experience in brewing in Italty, and Martin Dickie, a twenty three year old brewing and distilling graduate from Heriot Watt University as their head brewers. You may recognise the name of Dickie, who left the brewery in late 2006 to set up up Brewdog alongside James Watt. Inspired by Goose Island, an American IPA brewed in Chicago, Dickie and Cossi brewed their first batch of the beer that was to go on to become Jaipur in July 2005. Initially called Mystery Blonde, the 5.9% IPA went on to win numerous local CAMRA awards, despite what some deemed to be an excessive strength at the time.
Thornbridge quickly grew despite the departure of Dickie to found Brewdog, and in September 2009 opened a new state of the art 30 barrel brewery in Bakewell capable of producing 30,000 hectolitres of beer a year. The brewery have won over 350 awards since opening including the Gold Medal for Best Black IPA in the world at the World Beer awards 2012 and 2013 for Wild Raven and Silver Medal at The Great British Beer Festival 2006 for Jaipur. Thornbridge was also named the Best Drinks Producer in the 2014 BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards. The brewery now distributes its beers worldwide in 30 different countries and celebrated 10 years of brewing in July 2015 with the launch of Jaipur X – a 10% version of Jaipur – that we will taste later on this evening.
Anyway, enough waffling, it’s time to talk about the beer.
First on our list of beers for this evening is Thornbridge’s 5.2% South Pacific Pale Ale Kipling. I’m sure most of you are fairly familiar with the concept of a pale ale, but I’ll quickly give a historical overview of how the style came into being, before going on to talk about Kipling a little. The term ‘pale ale’ is a generic name for a group of copper coloured, hop-forward, bitter beers including but not limited to: English Pale Ales, American Pale Ales, India Pale ales, English Bitters and Belgian Pale Ales. Historically, pale ale was the name given to any beer that was top fermented and not dark. Until the 18th Century, most beers produced in England were dark brown and produced with amber and brown malts, and hence those which used paler malts were called such to distinguish them. Today, most pale ale malts are malted and kilned to make them slightly darker than lager malts.
Pale ales began to develop as a distinct style of beer in the 1820s, when George Hodgson began to ship beer to India. Burton IPA was shipped to India in 1823 and soon became popular in England. However, IPA was quite a strong beer style, with most brews coming in at around 7%. Soon, lower strength versions were produced and gradually became referred to as pale ales. The popularity of these beers was somewhat stunted by the advent of the two World Wars, when bitter – the weaker version of a pale ale – dominated until it was eventually usurped by lager in the last quarter of the 20th Century.
Of course, Pale ale production was not limited to the UK, with Belgian and American brewers also developing their own take on the style. With the rise of the craft beer revolution, particularly in the US, pale ales began to regain popularity due to their simpler recipe and the fact they required less capital investment than lager. Today, pale ales are produced across the planet and in many different forms, with the most popular styles being the US and English varieties.
This brings us to Kipling. Kipling for me is something of a hybrid pale ale. Brewed using Marris Otter, Wheat & Munich malts, and single hopped with New Zealand Nelson Sauvin hops, it’s official style would probably be that of a New Zealand Pale Ale. However, for me, with its initially incredibly sweet flavour and long bitter grapefruit-like finish, it feels like it has a lot more in common with some of the American Pale Ales being produced by UK and US breweries at the moment. It pours a golden blonde colour, and has an incredibly fruity aroma – think passionfruit and mangoes. At 5.2% it’s fairly typical for a pale ale in terms of strength. For me, the beauty of Kipling, and I do believe it is one of the best pale ales produced in the country at present, is in it’s consistency, sessionability and flavour-to-alcohol ratio. It’s a perfect beer for a summer afternoon, and as good a place as any for us to start this evening. Enjoy!
Next up this evening is Sequoia, a 4.2% American Amber ale. The term Amber Ale initially began life in American in the 1980s, used by microbrewers as a simple beer description, but soon came into wider usage as a distinct style of beer. American Amber Ales tend to be somewhere in between American Pale Ales and American Brown Ales, but can also include American made red ales. A proper American Amber Ale uses American hop varieties to impart citrusy and piney aromas, whilst at least 10% of the malt bill is made up by medium to dark coloured caramel or crystal malts that give the beer a distinctly caramel/toffee flavour. The finished beer should carry a medium to full mouthfeel, with an assertive malty flavour and hop bitterness.
Sequoia is a little bit weaker than most American Amber Ales, which tend to range from around 4.5-6.5%. Amarillo and Columbus hops hail from the United States, but it also contains Australian Galaxy hops. It is dark amber in colour and has a light tan coloured head. I find it has quite a grassy aroma, with a little bit of citrus and pine in there as well. It’s definitely more malty than the Kipling, with a nutty/toffee flavour. For me it doesn’t quite have enough hoppiness to put it up there with the very best Amber and Red Ales, but it’s certainly more than drinkable nonetheless.
Our third beer of the evening is an interesting one indeed. Rhubarbe de Saison is a 5% farmhouse saison and the winner of Thornbridge’s 2015 Homebrew Challenge. Firstly, a little about Saison as a style of beer. Saison ales can be traced back to the farmhouse breweries located in the French-speaking area of Belgium. These brews were thought to be the drink of the “saisonniers” – migrant workers who travelled to the area to help with the harvest. During the cooler months of spring, the farm brewers would produce refreshing saison-style beers for the workers to drink during the summer. This also had the added bonus of producing spent grain, which could be eaten by the livestock during winter. It is hard to know what typical saisons tasted like several centuries ago, but given that they were produced by farmers and not sold commercially, it is likely that they were probably fairly inconsistent and produced with whatever crops, hops and spices were available at the time of brewing. Modern Belgian Saisons are difficult to categorize, but most are light in colour. Some are full bodied and sweet, whilst others are exceptionally dry and fruity. They tend to range from around 5-8% in alcohol volume and are nearly always re-fermented in the bottle, with many displaying copious amounts of sediment. Although traditionally a Belgian style of beer, in recent years many US and UK breweries have tried to copy, expand and redefine saison as a style with the use of different hops, fruits and spices.
Returning to Rhubarbe de Saison at this point seems appropriate. Brewed by Will Alston, an astrophysicist at Cambridge University’s Institute Of Astronomy, Rhubarbe de Saison is a golden farmhouse style saison brewed with… yup, you guessed it, Rhubarb. I contacted Will personally to ask him about the beer. Initially, he told me, the beer was brewed with 50 per cent Pilsner malt and a mixture of Munich, Wheat and Oat malts, but the Pilsner was later substituted with pale malt as the brewery wanted to use their own supplies. It also contains the subtle use of orange peel, juniper and ginger, as well as 800 grammes of Rhubarb per 20 litre batch. The taste is dry and slightly tart, with aromas of rhubarb and a slight hint of orange. It is very crisp and light in terms of body, with an almost funky barnyard quality. It’s not really about the hops when it comes to saison as a style, with only small quantities of Northern Brewer, Saaz & Kent Golding hops being used in this particular take. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes I suspect, but I’m personally a very big fan.
Our fourth beer of the evening is something a little different. Tart is a 6% sour beer brewed by Thornbridge in collaboration with Wild Beer Co in Somerset. Although sourness is sometimes considered desirable in wine, acidity in beer is usually thought of as a flavour fault resulting from bacterial infections or wild yeast entering the beer during brewing or fermentation. However, there are a whole range of traditional Germanic and Belgian styles of beer that are naturally acidic including Berliner Weisses and Flanders Red Ales. These beers tended to be sour due to bacteria and wild yeast that were present during ageing in oak barrels. In Belgium, the famous lambic brewers were quite happy to allow ambient microflora everywhere throughout the brewery to encourage sourness in the flavour of their beers, but most modern sours are brewed in a more contained environment. This is due to the fact that the bacteria can easily get into and ‘spoil’ standard yeast brewed beers, and the risk of cross contamination is usually minimized by using different brewing equipment when using wild yeasts.
The wild yeast strain that is typically used in sour beers is called Brettanomyces. When used in beer, Brettanomyces produces earthy, barnyard and funky flavours into the beer. Brettanomyces can be used with or without bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Pediococcus to add acidity or sourness to a beer. Lactobacillus works by producing lactic acid and carbon dioxide, yielding a mild and soft tangy flavour. Pediococcus, however, ferments glucose into lactic acid but does not produce carbon dioxide. Many skilled Belgian brewers, and increasingly UK-based sour beer specialists (think Wild Beer Co and Chorlton) blend these bacterial strains to create a desired level of acidity in a beer. The resurgence of sour beer in popularity, and the increasingly complex ways in which brewers are using different yeasts and bacteria, has led to a distinction being made between ‘Wild beer’ – any Brettanomyces fermented beer, and ‘Sour beer’ – when acidifying bacteria are added. If both are present, the beer is usually deemed to fit into both categories.
Thornbridge’s offering, Tart, is a kettle-soured ale. This is slightly different to a traditional Belgian sour in that it means that Lactobacillus is cultivated and then added to the beer after the mashing process but before the boil. Tart was created by adding a starter of Lactobacillus brevis to the wort and then leaving the beer for 14 hours until the PH reached around 3.6. The wort was then boiled to kill off any remaining bacteria and then dry-hopped with Amarillo hops. The beer then undergoes a regular fermentation with a standard yeast strain, making Tart is a sour beer, but not a wild one under the new style guidelines. It pours a golden yellow colour, and is refreshingly crisp and tangy. I get a little bit of graprefruit and orange, particularly in the aroma, with a long dry aftertaste. It is sour, but not overwhelmingly so in the way that some Belgian lambics such as Cantillon are. I think it’s awesome and I hope you do too!
Our penultimate beer of the evening is the aforementioned Jaipur X, a 10% Imperial IPA brewed to celebrate ten years of Thornbridge as a brewery. I’ve already spoken briefly about India Pale Ales and the history behind their development, but just to clarify, an India Pale Ale is a style of beer characterised by high alcohol content and large quantities of hops, which grew exponentially in popularity after being exported to India during the late 18th and early 19th Century. IPA became the drink of choice of the British Empire due to the fact that it could survive the rigorous and long sea journey and was refreshing and light in the 30 degree heat of India. IPA was eventually replaced in India and other colonies by gin, tonics and whisky, and demand for the style fell as beer duty began to rise. The style was revived in America throughout the 80s when Yakima hops such as Chinook and Cascade were discovered. These hops gave American IPAs a striking array of citrusy and resinous flavours, and the recipe has been copied by many UK breweries at the forefront of the craft beer revolution in the last 20 years or so.
The apetite for seriously hoppy and strong beers led to the invention of ‘double’ or ‘imperial’ IPAs. These beers were pioneered by US brewers who sought to push the boundaries in terms of alcoholic strength and hop intensity. Most Imperial IPAs are extremely bitter and range from around 8-10% ABV. Almost all of them are excessively dry hopped, and some even have hops throughout the brewing process, starting in the mash.
Jaipur X is no exception in this regard, weighing in at 10% and extremely well hopped with Warrior, Chinook and Centennial all featuring in the boil. Aroma-wise, it smells similar to the regular Jaipur, with lots of fruity and piney aromas. Taste is of peach and of tropical fruits, with an extremely long and bitter finish. It’s dangerously drinkable for it’s ABV so take your time with this one!
The final beer of the evening is Thornbridge’s Eldon, an 8% bourbon oak Imperial Stout. Originally brewed by the major porter brewers of London as an ‘extra stout’ porter for export to the Baltic countries and Russia in the 18th Century, Imperial Stouts are rich and black in colour, with a sharp bitterness balanced out by residual sugar, dark fruit and chocolate, coffee like roast. Imperial Stouts are typically a winter beer, best enjoyed with cheeses and desserts. Many US brewers age Imperial Stouts in bourbon barrels to introduce vanilla and coconut flavours, and good examples can last up to a decade and improve with time if aged correctly.
Eldon is a great example of an Imperial Stout aged in Bourbon soaked oak. I don’t have an exact malt and hop bill, but one would assume that it is made up of a mixture of pale, roasted and chocolate malts and hopped with a traditional English hop such as Fuggles or Challenger. It pours a jet black colour, with medium to high carbonation and a light beige head. The aroma is of ripe fruit, coffee and Brazil nuts. It’s very boozy, with hints of vanilla and a strong roasted malt character. I definitely taste a slight burnt/woody flavour, with more of the Bourbon coming through as it cools down in the glass. I was, however, surprised at how thin the body was for a beer of its strength. One to savour and not neck for sure.
That concludes tonight’s talk. Thank you all for your attentiveness and I hope you enjoyed the beers and that I have managed to teach you a few things. If you’d like more information about any of the styles, I used Garrett Oliver’s ‘Oxford Companion to Beer’ as the basis of my research for the talk, which costs around £30 and gives a comprehensive rundown of just about everything there is to know about beer. Enjoy the rest of your evening and feel free to ask me if you have any questions.