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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

IPAs and More IPAs: Twisted Thistle and Samuel Smith's

I am working on a project which, if successful, I'll not only tell you more about, but celebrate by dancing around in mad joy. But so far the project is mainly keeping me from better blogging. It's a piece of a piece, and the part I'm working on involves IPAs. I've been trying to find examples to laud, from the US and beyond. In particular, I've been trying to find decent British IPAs--something you'd expect would be easy to do. (You'd be wrong.) I'll review them as I work my way through, so here's the first couple.

Samuel Smith's India Ale
Back when I first started drinking good beer, Tadcaster was a go-to brewery. Imports were hard to get, and nice English imports more so. I loved their oatmeal and imperial stouts, and the nut brown was nice, if sweet. The distinctively-named India Ale never called out to me, but given that it is so widely available and is, after all, an authentic English IPA, I felt I should give it another go. Sometimes a decade does wonders for a beer.

Unfortunately, this beer was a disaster. Even with the important stipulations: modern English IPAs are milder in alcohol and hop than they were in the 1800s and than they are in America. British breweries don't eschew sugar the way we do, but in some beers it's just wrong. I couldn't confirm Sam Smith's uses it here, but it certainly seemed like it. Thin, overly sweet, and harsh in that way sugar alcohol can get. I found it metallic, bordering on sour, and actively unpleasant. There was precious little hopping to be found, and what was there was tepid and undistinguished. There's some chance that part of the problem was age or travel damage, and so I hesitate to write it off completely. Still, what I found in my bottle was undrinkable. I dumped the whole thing.

Belhaven Twisted Thistle
What's the difference between a pale ale and an IPA? Descriptively, an IPA is just stronger and hoppier. Experientially, though, the IPA should give you a pop. Belhaven's isn't a muscular beer (6.1%), and it isn't super hoppy, but it has a wonderful zip to its hopping. I was surprised at the presentation--a light golden with an arctic white head and quite a bit of bead. One could mistake it for a pilsner. The aroma has a touch of diacetyl and caramel, but not so much in the way of hops. Instead, they come out on the tongue. The labels says Belhaven employs Challenger and Cascade hops, but I don't think they're US Cascades. The Challengers are obvious, but the profile is much cleaner and sharper than our pungent, funky hops. Despite the body, it's a creamy beer. Some malt tannins add to the sharpness of the hops, though there's also a touch of caramel. Given the relative paucity of assertive British IPAs, this stands out.



  1. That metallic thing is a very common feature of English IPAs. The best of the lot, IMO, is St Austell's Proper Job. Thornbridge Jaipur is highly regarded though I'm not really seeing it myself. I'm hearing good things about Fuller's Bengal Lancer but not yet had the pleasure.

    "Descriptively, an IPA is just stronger and hoppier"
    Though only if you're taking your description from homebrew competition rules. In commercial brewing this isn't really true, nor ever has been. Greene King IPA anyone? No, best not, actually...

  2. Beer Nut,

    I best respond quickly, before I have a load of comments on the nature of IPA. My shorthand description should not be considered adequate explanation for anyone interested in IPAs. I'd check both Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson (see links under "international bloggers"--where you'll also find the Beer Nut) for a rich historical discussion.

    The truth is that styles are not fixed and IPAs are especially loose, particularly because of the British/US split.

    (It is fascinating to see a group of European breweries now making US-style IPAs, complete with US hops. Ah, evolution!

  3. I recently re-visited Sam Smith's IPA and was also under-enthused (though not enough to dump the bottle). I'm going to have to give Belhaven a try, as I'm interested in the differences between English and American IPAs.

    Keep us posted!

  4. Oh Man... This is like fingernails across a chalkboard. British IPA 101?? Gong backs to basics, Jeff? ;-}

    OK... I'm on the quick defense.

    Sam Smith was a bad or old bottle

    Twisted Thistle is a Scottish attempt at an American IPA. That's why you "Understand" it.

    The British ales have been made for hundreds of years, albeit some maybe tweaked over the years. Some of these British ales (maybe not the measly two you have here) are considered classics in style. Those beers are the pinnacle of the old classic styles. So, before you decide to bash (if that's your goal) these beers. Remember these beers are what inspired everything you currently put in your mouth.

    Ooops, I should say that.... I really don't know WHAT you prefer in your mouth. ;-}

    Curious to see where you're going with this....

  5. "Fascinating", Jeff? It's a bloody lifesaver is what it is.

    dr wort, what happened to British ales in 1914-18, defining our notions of pale ale and IPA, was more than just "tweaking". Besides which, the inspiration argument is rubbish: bad beer is bad beer and deserves not to be respected.

  6. Doc, when you're wrong, your condescension does not stand you in good stead. In fact, it never does. Go read this and then come back. The received wisdom from the BJCP course isn't always, ah, wise.

    As for Twisted Thistle, I would hardly call it an American IPA. No idea what the IBUs are, but they are most modest compared to US. The hopping seems either to come largely from the Challengers (perhaps you didn't realize they were British?) or the Cascade are British-grown (you may also not have known of that practice.)

    As a general rule, I would avoid suggesting that any style of beer was ever the "pinnacle" of brewing. Styles change. IPAs have been brewed at just about every strength, from below 4% and up--all in jolly olde England. Which we would describe as "traditional" is not clear.

  7. Maybe my palate is overly Americanized, but I find a lot of the British classics less interesting than modern American craft versions. It might be sacrilege, but maybe we're just doing it better.

  8. I think it's important to note that, with the exception of the more Americanised UK breweries, if you're drinking the beer bottled you're automatically getting a second-class product. British beer is mostly intended to be served from the cask.

  9. Yea, yea, yea.

    I agree bad beer is bad beer. ;-}

    Why were many of the first micro brewed American Beers trying to emulate British styles? I'm sure it's not because they sucked. ;-}


    While you're out drinking your way through our limited access to British ales see if you can define which are current classic British styles. Classic Pale, IPA, ESB, Bitter, Porter and the like. Michael Jackson was well able to categorize the classics of every British style.

    While quality and gravities change over the years and defining best in style may evolve. Tell us all which British beers are now considered classic to style.

    I know the British isles have been having a lot of consolidation and other beer troubles lately, but I can't believe all the classic British are gone.

    What about Young's, Marston's, Fullers, Bateman's and the like? Do they all suck too? Seems like you have lots of research ahead of you.

    Oh, here's a list of UK breweries:

    I think to be fair to the UK you should sample through at least 1/2 of these before you come to any conclusions. Before you want to mock anybodies knowledge you should be well rounded in YOUR opinion.

    Oh, BTW, try and find some fresh ones....

  10. I've always struggled with this as well, never being impressed by the Brittish classics... but as people in the know say, you have to try them fresh. I think that will be in the cards soon, so I'll report back.

  11. Beer Nut, on your comment about bottled beers--I agree. Even where beers are successfully transferred to bottles, I don't assume they arrive in Oregon tasting the way they did when they left Britain. But we have to assess the beers we receive as they are received--at least until I can find a patron to send me there to try them in situ.

    Doc, there are ample examples of fantastic British beers available, just not so many IPAs. I always try to find fresh bottles, and I believe I got that Smith's at Belmont. I never buy from anyone I don't think has handled the beer properly, though, which leaves a pretty small group. (I didn't get it at Freddy's, I can assure you.)

    Derek, I hope that means Mohammad's visiting the mountain. I envy you. Say hi to the queen for me.

  12. Oh I know you have to drink and judge the beers as-seen (I do too) -- I'm just saying don't be surprised when they don't live up to their reputation. Bottled English beer should be considered more a promotional novelty than the real thing.

  13. Another guy named Bill6:31 AM, April 28, 2010

    Jeff, I used to love Samuel Smith's as well, but that was when I lived on the East Coast and they were considerably fresher. I need to use Sam Smith's in a lot of the classes I do (because they're the only example I can find), and invariably, they're awful, because they're stale and oxidized. But about 10% of the time, you get a fresh one and it's as good as I remember. But at $4-5 a pop, those are bad odds.

    In general, even if, as Beer Nut says, bottled British beers are more of a novelty, British beers in Portland are in notoriously bad shape. We drink so much local beer that I don't think we have enough turnover of imports. Invariably, almost every import I drink in NY is fresher and better than ones I have here.

    BTW, the last Sammie Smith's IPA I had was in the 10% and actually quite good. But that was 6+ months ago and yours was probably an unrefrigerated example from the same batch. Bad luck....

  14. Another guy named Bill6:39 AM, April 28, 2010

    Oh, and Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson should be required reading for everyone who's ever taken a BJCP class or exam. Research based on brewing records and facts and not homebrew hearsay....How novel