Beer Review – Airlift, UBREW

I discovered this little gem as I wandered around the London Brewers’ Market last weekend. With all the different brewers and drinkers there, it was difficult to work out what I should try first. Fortunately, the UBREWers were there to chat about what they do and point me in the right direction. At least I thought that, before I realised they were trying to poison me.

But first, let’s see what UBREW is all about. It’s an open brewery: that means that as well as brewing and marketing beers of their own, they allow outside wannabes rent space in their brewery to make their own beers. A few of their members have gone on to set up breweries of their own – including a couple up in north London and one in Manchester. It’s a nice system, allowing the experts to get better value out of their kit when they’re not using it and letting the newbies pick up some new skills.

The beer I tried, however, was one the UBREWers made themselves. Airlift, with its bumblebee label, is a 5.1% milk stout with a special ingredient…tonka beans. Yeah, I had no idea either.

Airlift beer with cans
Please ignore the beer I spilled on the table before taking this picture…

Google’s search results for “what is a tonka bean” throw up articles with headlines such as “An ingredient so good it has to be illegal”, and “The delicious flavour with a toxic secret”. Ah. We’re off to a good start then.

Reviews of tonka beans’ flavour are mixed. According to the BBC, they taste like:

Notes of freshly cut grass mingle with vanilla, liquorice, caramel and clove, topped off with a suggestion of warmth and a hint of magnolia – that is, according to the internet. I unscrew the lid and take a whiff. They smell faintly like furniture polish.

Not the most enticing description, but presumably they add something to the beer. Anyway, it turns out they DO contain a toxic compound, but it’s only dangerous in very large doses and not a single person has ever died from exposure to them (allegedly). So a small can of stout with a hint of bean paste mixed in is probably safe.

The real question is, does the addition of those beans make a difference to the taste? And the answer is, “Holy shit, yes it does. Give me more please.”

Those alleged flavours in the BBC description are very real (the licquorice and vanilla, not the furniture polish). That’s mingled with a sweet richness from the lactose left over from the fermented milk, and rounded off with a hint of dark smoke. The overall effect is like drinking a cup of cherry hot chocolate. Amazing.

So yes, Airlift contains an ingredient that may be toxic to the liver. But let’s be fair, so does all other beer – and nobody expects there to be a ban on alcohol any time soon. And frankly? Given how Airlift tastes, I’d say it’s worth the risk. 5/5


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