In defence of core beers
They’re the “safe” brews guaranteed to pay the bills. But is that so bad?
Sunday 11 April 2021
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Perhaps it says something about the world right now, but we like to find any excuse to celebrate. Already in 2021 we’ve celebrated National BobbleHead Day, National Static Electricity Day and Squirrel Appreciation day, all presumably a distraction from the fact they all happen during Dry January.
There now isn’t a day in the calendar that hasn’t been commandeered by some obsessive individual or soulless corporation looking to corner a day all to themselves. Like a beer geek in a bottleshop we can pick and choose which appeal, and one I have decided to get behind this year is Flagship February.
Started just three years ago by beer writer Stephen Beaumont, the idea was to champion the beers that got us here. The brews that built businesses, brands and buildings; that attracted the early converts and inspired the second wave. While that sounds like we’re just going to be drinking Sierra Nevada Pale Ale all month (there would be much, much worse months if we did), it’s also about the modern core beers too.
“Core beer” is almost a dirty word in the beer industry these days. Drinkers – and I include myself in this – are guilty of demanding something new everytime we go to the bar, even if it’s just switching out one hop for another and slapping another bizarre name on the front. It’s easy to dismiss this as ticking culture and the social media age, but beer geeks are inquisitive people who crave unique experience and the personal growth that can come with it.
But in doing so we forget the pleasure of staying still for a moment. Why do a pub crawl when we’re comfy here? Why drink something else when this is tasting great? It’s a cliche I heard so many brewers say to me during interviews and had always smiled at the cliche, but now I find myself saying it—the best phrase in beer is “Same again, please.”
In reverse order, these are the modern core beers that have built our British beer scene, and will continue to carry the flag for it.
DEYA Brewing Steady Rolling Man
Steady Rolling Man is one of those beers I’ll always remember the first taste of. The UK’s craft beer scene is still too young to have timeless classics and legends, but before I put down my pen for the last time, I know I'll write something about how the release of this beer was the moment that New England brewing went mainstream.
Before “Steady” came along, brewers were still experimenting with malt bills and hop schedules; they were still putting out sub-par versions that asked drinkers to swirl their cans to ensure the haze, trying to justify how quickly they oxidised by screaming “DRINK FRESH!”. Steady raised the bar – it said these beers can be shelf stable, pintable and utterly goddamn delicious if you dedicate the time to one idea, one recipe and one core beer. Only once founder Theo Freyne had this wonderful New England Pale Ale nailed down did he really start to play around with seasonals and other styles – and years later it is still the best American Pale Ale in the country, core or not.
Burning Sky Petite Saison
There aren’t many breweries that could pull off a beer like Petite Saison, both technically and financially. There isn’t much demand from the wider beer geek bubble for a session-strength sour saison with spelt, and yet this national treasure of the brewery has found enough fans to make it viable. That must be a relief given that the beer requires months in wine barrels to turn lightly tart and funky, as well as a decent dry hopping to add heady depth to the lemon acidity. Its balance makes it the perfect summer sipper or dinner can, as well as a brilliant introduction to sour beer for those who are unsure – which let’s face it, most people are.
Track Brew Co Sonoma
Sonoma is technically a New England beer, but it doesn’t feel like it. For a start, it’s at its absolute best on cask, where despite its heavy hopping, wheaty body and cloudy New England yeast it likes to drop almost pin bright. It still has that rich feel, residual juiciness and citric hit but it also glides across the palate like a classic golden ale and sinks without a trace. Put it in a can or on keg, though, and it gains bite and attitude – drinking much bigger than it has any right to at just 3.8% and putting beers twice its strength to shame. It’s an approachable but punchy recipe that can only come from a city like Manchester, where traditional cask cosies up happily with the most modern breweries and techniques.
Lost and Grounded Kellerpils
It was always going to take something special, unique, and utterly delicious to convince beer geeks that Pale Lager is deserving of their time. For most it was just too close to the beers they were trying to escape, and didn’t grab their attention in the same way as a juicy IPA, decadent Imperial Stout or fruit smooth sour might.
But Alex Tronscoso, through his work at Camden Town Brewery and later Lost and Grounded, has managed to bring great lager brewing to niche attention in the UK. Kellerpils was not an easy sell when it came out – people were confused by its haze and dry bitterness; by the soft lemon and pepper aroma and high carbonation. People looked at the huge investment behind the new brewery and wondered if this was the beer to earn it all back. But as the beer was dialled in and people started to appreciate how drinkable, fresh and moreish it was, it grew in stature and reputation. Kellerpils went from misguided ambition to realisation – the first British lager that could stand toe to toe with the giants of Germany.
Verdant Brew Co Lightbulb
Verdant has a slightly awkward relationship with its core range. The original collection of Lightbulb, Headband, Bloom and Pulp is mostly dismissed by the brewery’s main audience of New England lovers, who are hungry for thick bodies, low bitterness and massive aroma. It would probably be a sensible business decision to scrap all four beers and give the tank space to the ones that whip up a frenzy, but there are two very good reasons they haven’t. The first is that they are all stonking beers (in fact the bitter, pithy and juicy Pulp is my favourite beer they make), and the second is that there would be an outcry.
While these beers don’t make the headlines, down in Cornwall they are still much loved. Lightbulb in particular anchors the brewery in its seaside location, providing the pintability many of their other beers lack and a price point that makes it a great permanent line for local pubs. It’s a wonderful Extra Pale Ale, with fresh pine and peel aromas and a cracker-dry malt base. While you’re shopping for their big numbers, it’s always worth putting a sixer in the basket.
Siren Craft Brew Broken Dream
No one was more surprised when Broken Dream won Champion Beer of Britain than Siren themselves. On the day, founder Darron Anley told me he’d forgotten it was even in the running, and that they had barely any stock at the brewery to capitalise on the wild amount of press that was about to come their way. I must confess I was a little surprised too, but since it won back in 2018 I’ve had significantly more pints of it than I’d had before.
Putting an adjunct stout in the core line up is a bold move – especially when that adjunct is coffee, another famously variable artisan product itself. But Broken Dream is delicious in all formats and situations, combining soft, fruity dark chocolate notes with sweet vanilla and a heady hit of roasted coffee that would make Anthony Stewart Head smile. If it hadn’t been for that award I have a suspicion it might have been dropped to a seasonal by now, but the UK beer scene is richer for being able to enjoy it all year round.
Five Points Railway Porter
Five Points Brewery is like the quiet kid at the back of the class. The good folk at the brewery do all the things expected of them – running an East London taproom, canning their beers and putting references to juicy in the title – but they rarely make a scene. Only those who take the time to know them realise how truly special they are.
Five Points straddle the world of modern and traditional British brewing effortlessly, reminding us all that yes, American beer is delicious, but also asking what about this English Barley Wine, or this Best Bitter? They are bucking the trend of real ale decline by selling their casks quicker than they can produce them, and that’s particularly heartening when it comes to their Porter. This style isn’t well loved by the craft beer community, but it has historic links to London that deserve to be protected and the best way to do that is to brew a beer that is as intoxicating as Five Point’s Railway Porter. On cask it is velvety and smooth, thick with notes of dark chocolate, fruity molasses and lightly roasted coffee – characteristics the geeks assume needs a big ABV to achieve. From the back of the room, Five Points quietly raises its hand and says “try this”.
BrewDog Punk IPA
I think we’ve become immune to Punk IPA now. We see it as a supermarket brand, a last resort. But when it first came out it was revelatory. Speak to any brewer or brewery owner who was starting out at the time and they will tell you of the influence it had on them. It wasn’t only massive pine, citrus and caramel notes it contained, it was the processes used to achieve them – the dosing and the timing of the hops, the simple malt and yeasts that let them shine. Then there was the marketing: purposefully brash and bold, picking fights with regulators and drinkers and demanding your attention whether you wanted to give it or not.
As a beer it punched above its weight in every sense and helped ignite the grassroots revolution that followed. As tired as that approach has become, without it the UK beer scene would have been poorer then and still poorer without it now. When fresh it’s still an excellent example of West Coast brewing. Even if it’s a little too tame for some tastes now, it’s important to remember that it was once a beer ahead of its time, and unlike any other beer that had been brewed in the UK before. Well, except for one.
People often point to Punk IPA as the start of the UK craft beer revolution, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Before he cofounded BrewDog with James Watt, head brewer Martin Dickie was one of the first brewers at Thornbridge Brewery in Bakewell, Derbyshire. It was there that he experimented with American hops in cask ale, and in brewing a special beer for a garden party at Thornbridge Hall created the first true American IPA in the UK – Jaipur.
Combining chewy Maris Otter malt and piney, bright citrusy hops it blew palates away wherever it was served, as well as taking the legs from under plenty of hardened drinkers who didn’t realise it was 6%. It’s pretty much unchanged since the first brew, though the non-cask version uses a clean American yeast rather than a British ale one, and it’s still a beautifully balanced beer best consumed by the pint at an ungodly speed before you head straight back to the bar and say “Same again, please.”
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