The importance of drinkability, subtlety and balance in British beer

Going for a quiet beer on a Saturday afternoon is becoming a regular treat - either meeting up with a friend for a few choice beers, taking the missus out for a spot of lunch, or stealing a few hours to myself with a paper and a pint - it's one of my favourite things to do.

This Saturday it was the latter as the other half had to work, and apart from a gaggle of bell jingling Morris Dancers descending on the place it was a thoroughly relaxing hour or so.

The two beers I was drinking got me thinking about some recent discussions in the blogosphere surrounding British beer, and what they mean to me. One being the infamous cask vs keg argument, and the other being the difference between more extreme beers vs subtle beers, as discussed recently by
Mark Dredge.

The two beers in question were Marble Utility IPA on cask and Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA on keg. I started with Marble, which was in fantastic condition and just the kind of beer I was looking for in a first pint - bags of flavour, drinkable, tasty, and refreshing. But before I dive into my take on the aforementioned debate, here's what I thought of the two beers:


Marble Utility IPA 5.7% from cask

The smell is quite light but there's a tropical fruitiness there, as well as a slight pear aroma. Once the pint had settled from the handpull it was pin sharp with a light amber colour and absolutely no haze, there was also a noticeable light carbonation from the cask conditioning.

The flavour is best described as modern British IPA, nicely bitter but with a slight mango edge. Very refreshing, beautifully balanced and drinkable but comes dry in the finish making it very moreish. Could easily drink this all day. The hops aren't overpowering or too drying but have bags of flavour, ultimately it's a full flavoured yet balanced beer.

If I was going to split hairs I could say it's a touch too light in the body, but that lightness adds to the refreshingness of the beer, and makes it feel like a Session beer even at 5.7%.

Sierra Nevada torpedo Extra IPA 7.2% from keg
The smell is slightly piny and medicinal but not as huge as I expected, perhaps needs to warm a little for a bigger aroma to come out.

The taste is a massive hit of juicy, piney, resinous hops with a very clear rich malty background. It feels thick but finishes clean with big hop dryness. A lot more going on than the Marble but on the flipside couldn't really be described as refreshing in the same thirst quenching way. As is usually the case with keg there's a prickly, fine carbonation that I think is wholly necessary for a beer like this.

A marmalade jamminess comes through but it's not overly sweet, with a nice long finish that leaves bitter hops on your tongue for as long as you care to wait before another sip.

There's also an orange liqueur note and its got that juicy oily piny quality that only big American style IPA's achieve.


So how does this relate to the ongoing debates I mentioned? Well first of all it highlighted the fact that there is a grey area in which using cask or keg could be better for the beer.
When I tried keg Thornbridge Kipling (5.2%) recently I remarked it would probably be better on cask, but that Jaipur (5.9%) was better on keg than I'd ever had it before.

Well this Marble IPA was right on the cusp (in terms of ABV and style) of where I think keg becomes the better option for the beer. But when I tasted it I realised this beer was spot on, it couldn't have been improved by being on keg, and it highlighted the fact that no matter what looks best on paper, a beer by beer approach is the right way forward.

It also reminded me that when cask is done right, it's hard to beat. It still had bags of flavour and a big hop profile but it also had a subtlety and drinkability that begged to be sessioned. But I was only staying for a couple and couldn't resist the Torpedo on tap. Yet again I'd been seduced by the big, bold, slightly brash American beer, but was I forgetting a more important 'B', was it better?

Well, I did really enjoy it, and I don't know whether it was the high ABV doing tricks on me but the further I got down my glass the more I liked this beer. But at the back of my mind I knew there was just something missing - all the flavours were up front, big, bold, obvious. I was missing that subtlety, that balance of flavour, those notes that are hard to pin down, and difficult to put into words.

The Marble politely presented its flavours one after the other with a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts, whereas the Sierra Nevada shouted through a star spangled megaphone what I should be enjoying.

Maybe that's the difference in these beers, it's a case of subtlety vs impact, a beer based transatlantic personality clash you could say. Diversity is essential, but for me what's equally important is that we don't forget why British Beer is World renowned, and what made it so good in the first place. At least that's what I thought, on balance.

6 comments:

  1. P.S. As you can tell, my recent IPA binge shows no sign of wavering!

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  2. Marble IPA isn't exactly a subtle one! I hope I find that on cask somewhere - was it the one they brewed along with Whim (an excellent brewery)? I think what's great about Marble is that they show how great cask can be with US hops - Dobber being a fine example.

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  3. It's not subtle like an English pale ale but it has a fantastic depth of flavour, my point was that it's really balanced, and the torpedo was just a bit in your face in comparison.

    Plus on cask it is much more subtle than I imagine it would be in the bottle, mellowed and smoother.

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  4. Oh and yes it was the Whim collaboration!

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  5. I know what you mean, but if you're discussing "drinkability, subtlety and balance" I would have thought you'd be talking about something like, say, Hook Norton Bitter rather than a 5.7% IPA which, while it may be an excellent beer, is not really any of the three.

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  6. I disagree. If you tasted this beer you'd know what I meant! Yes it has a slightly high abv but it has all three of those qualities.

    On the other hand perhaps you're right, maybe because of the abv another beer may have been a a more obvious example. But it was in comparing these two beers, A us hop bomb and a British well balanced IPA, that I got thinking about the themes of balance, drinkability and subtlety. That was the point I was trying to make.

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