I am a very lucky man indeed. Not just because I get to spend an evening with my oldest friend eating Indian takeaway and watching cartoons, though that would be cause enough for celebration. This evening is special because Conor has thrown down the gauntlet. He’s brought five craft beers, boldly asserting I’ll give each and every one of them a positive review.
That’s a bold claim, and not just because I’m obnoxiously picky. Conor and I have very different taste in beers: he favours the hop-explosion IPAs and American-style craft beers that I’ve only just started to appreciate, while he finds my preferred malty ales and rich stouts too sweet. There’s also a risk I subconsciously mark his suggestions extra harshly, each sip tainted by the bitter reality that his homebrew tastes far better than mine. Nevertheless, I vow to try each beer with an open mind.
Box Steam Brewery, Steam Box 5.2%
The name rings a bell, and a quick check on Ask Jeeves confirms it – serendipitously Conor has sourced a beer from my Dad’s home village.
Box Hill was home to another brewery just over a hundred years ago. Since then the original site has been converted into a block of luxury flats, but in 2004 its spiritual successor took up the Box name and got back into business. Steam Box is one of their two flagship beers, this one intended to be a nod to the American craft beer scene.
Steam Box is a warm, walnut brown, and initially gives off aromas of candied peel. There’s a hint of malt on the nose too.
Then I take a sip, and the world turns orange. Lots and lots of orange. The dextrose from the caramel malts gives Steam Box a pleasant thickness as it coats the tongue like liquid marmalade. That’s followed by a pleasant warmth from the alcohol. I want to spread it on my toast.
We’re off to a good start – Steam Box is perhaps a hint too strong, giving it a slight oversweetness and alcoholic twang, but in spite of that it’s easily a 4/5.
Five Points Brewery, XPA 4.0%
We’ve gone from my Dad’s local to my own – Five Points is a London favourite.
Coming off this pale yellow, slightly cloudy beer I pick up aromas of grapefruit rind and a hint of red fruits – Conor assures me this is pomegranate, but I’m not entirely convinced. This is going to be one of those extreme hop-bombs, isn’t it.
It’s bitter at first, but not overwhelmingly so. Pleasantly dry, but with hints of sweetness in the aftertaste from the wheat and oats. There’s a lot going on here – it’s almost like it’s trying to be an American-style hop explosion, but with wheat and oats mixed in to mellow it out and make it appeal to the local crowd. I’m not entirely convinced this “all things to all people” approach is working – XPA is fine, perhaps a little overwrought, but nothing more.
I’m told a 3/5 still counts as a positive review – it’s not a negative review, at least – so the challenge continues.
Elephant & Castle Brewery, Elephant IPA 6.0%
The strapline on this can reads “rounded and hoppy” and, if you want the three word version of this review, you can rest happy knowing that covers it.
Elephant is just the right kind of amber – I’m half expecting to find Richard Attenborough looming over it, extracting the ancient dinosaur DNA from within.
The aroma is pleasant and warming, slightly spicy with hints of ginger and orange. More of the same on the tongue, hops up front with plenty of orange blossom and honeysuckle floral notes to back that up. And at 6.0%, it doesn’t taste overly strong.
I’m impressed and pleasantly surprised by this one. A solid 4/5. Conor’s doing pretty damn well at this point.
It’s just a shame he had to spoil it all with the next one.
ELB, Cowcatcher APA 4.8%
Cowcatcher certainly looks appetising, with a copper body and generous head. The aroma is where things start going wrong: it smells dank, like the grass cuttings you forgot to clear out of the lawnmower last week. I cautiously take a sip, and am rewarded for my courage with a mouthful of over-carbonated, overly bitter beer without the flavour to balance it out.
I’m assured this choice was a mistake, and actually Conor meant to purchase a different ELB pale ale. Regretfully, however, by the rules of this challenge it’s a fail. 1/5
ELB, Quadrant Oatmeal Stout 5.8%
Fortunately, it looks like we’re finishing on a high. Oatmeal stout is firmly back within my comfort zone, and I have a feeling this will be a good one.
I’m not sure whether I just knocked the can around too much, but one way or another the head on this is impressively persistent. Once I’ve battled my way through that, it’s a delight – blackcurrant and chocolate, as if some ambitious eight year-old has had the genius idea of mixing hot chocolate with Ribena.
It’s smooth and thick, fruity and punch, and I enjoyed every last drop. Another solid 4/5 to round off the evening.
Was I too harsh in my ratings? I don’t think so, but perhaps others will disagree. Either way, this was a lovely night and a very thoughtful challenge. I’ll be returning the favour when I next return to Essex.
And after that, perhaps a different challenge? All suggestions will be gratefully received. For now, however, I’m off to find some more Quadrant.