Out of step …

There’s an entry in The Guinness Book of Guinness, the volume of reminiscences produced in 1985 to mark the 50th anniversary of the building of the Park Royal brewery in London, which talks about the daily tastings of bottled Guinness undertaken by senior staff in the Park Royal sample room. Guinness being the sort of company that it was, bureaucratic, very strongly process-driven, all the tasters’ individual results were logged and compared, so the stats department could tell who were the most reliable. Edward Guinness, whose branch of the clan were actually from the non-brewing side, but who joined the company anyway in 1945, was “i/c sample room” in the late 1940s, and records:

… my worst taster by a wide margin was JF Brown, who upset every graph, and I had to be tactful in finally suggesting to him that he might forgo the privilege …

As John Brown was then head of raw materials, and went on to be Head Brewer at the Guinness brewery in Dublin, it is understandable Edward Guinness felt he had to be careful about telling the poor fellow he couldn’t taste his way out of a hop-sack …

I’ve got reasonable faith in my own tastebuds: I’ve raved over new beers, such as Little Creatures that others have later raved over too, and I’ve dissed beers, like Jupiler that most others seem to compare to weak stale dishwater too. But there are a couple of brews that turn up on “beers to try before you croak” lists that I fail to get at all, and I don’t know why everybody else is out of step except me.

One is Robinson’s Old Tom, a survivor from the 19th century, when a number of brewers in the North of England, particularly Yorkshire, brewed strong dark ales under the Old Tom name. It may have taken its name from Old Tom gin, a sweeter style of spirit than London dry gin., or it may just be part of the generic naming of strong aged beers as “Old Whatever”.

Robinson’s, anyway, a dark-oak 8.5 per cent ABV brew, is now about the last Old Tom still brewed, and its reviews are excellent. The World’s Top Writer On Beer™ says of it:

… a huge roundness of flavours, suggestions of cherry brandy, and a distinct dryness in the finish

while Britain’s Leading Beer Writer™ says

… a ripe vine fruits aroma with a delicious hint of chocolate … port wine … long and complex finish … a solid underpinning of bitter hops

and I say: “Not much of a nose, tastes more of molasses than anything else, very, very short aftertaste, too sweet and sticky, not a lot of hop character, and a whiff of something unpleasantly estery in there – I’ve tasted worse attempts at dark barley wines, but it’s a very ‘so what?’ beer.”

I find the same gulf between my views and others over Greene King Strong Suffolk. I really want to like this beer: it’s unique, as far as I know, in Britain for still being made from a blend of aged strong ale, Old 5X, a 12 per cent ABV brew kept in lidded wooden vats topped with Suffolk marl for two years, and a younger beer, BPA, blended together to make a 6 per cent ABV cocktail. I’ve seen the new vat they built at Bury St Edmunds to expand production of the 5X, and tasted 5X from the cask. Again better-selling beer writers than me love it: BLBW™ says:

“… a spicy, oaky, sherry wine intensity … big and complex …

while TWTWOB™ says:

deserves to be much better known … iron-tasting, sappy, peppery and winey

but I think it’s unpleasantly thin for its strength, with a not-very-interesting flavour of hopped toffees, very little length of taste, little condition little or no nose, slightly appley but fundamentally another “so what?” brew. So who’s out of step – me or them?

4 thoughts on “Out of step …

  1. I’m fascinated by the subject of beers you’re supposed to like but don’t, and the sister topic of beers you’re not supposed to like, but do. I was bowled over by Old Tom — it made me say “Wow!”, which doesn’t happen that often. Whereas (prepares self to be stoned to death) I’ve found Thomas Hardy more-or-less undrinkable both times I’ve tried it.

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  2. I haven’t drunk Old Tom recently enough to be able to comment on that, but I agree about Strong Suffolk. Nothing exceptional. Not even particularly nice. It has a great story, but the beer doesn’t live up to it. Shouldn’t the 5X have at least a touch of brettanomyces to be authentic?

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  3. How old were the Thomas Hardys you tried, Bailey? The Eldridge Pope version needed to be several years old before it was drinkable, and was pretty unpleasant for a year or two after bottling – the strongly “meaty” flavour you get from unfermented heavy sugars … (though I once saw a young woman in a Dorset pub ordering and drinking several bottles of that year’s vintage, downing it like Mackeson …) On the other side of the coin, the EP version had/has incredible legs: bottles from the 1980s, and even the 1970s, are still perfectly drinkable. One trick that helps, though, I find, with the older EP brewings is to open the bottle, pour out the beer, and then leave it to breathe – it needs to flex its wings a bit …

    The “reincarnated” TH from O’Hanlon’s is drinkable a lot earlier than the EP original ever was – even new brewings are pretty palatable – and it seems to me to be a pretty good stab at the Dorchester version. Whether it will mature as well, of course, we won’t know for a while yet, but I am trying hard to remember to put aside a bottle for “cellaring” (lofting, actually) every time I buy some from Utobeer

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  4. It was pretty fresh, I think. I’d knew it wouldn’t be at its best, but wasn’t expecting it actually to be unpleasant. I should say that it had been refrigerated to within an inch of its life, which probably didn’t help.

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