A beer writer is asked to sample plenty of different beers, often before they are released to the general public with the view to providing an opinion. With this privilege comes great responsibility. It is common for the little voice of your Mum in your head to remind you; “If you can’t say anything nice…” before you take your first sip and, in every case, you truly hope you’ll enjoy whatever has been poured into your glass.
This is the story of one man’s realisation that sometimes one is just not enough. It also highlights just how subjective, personal and hard-to-pigeon hole some beers can be. And while we’re at it – why some beer just goes better with food.
Given a bottle of the Mad Brewer’s latest release, The Hoppy Hefe, by new Craft Beer Ambassador for Lion, Lewis Byrne the journey began. He asked if I’d give it a go and tell him what I thought. We discussed the beer’s specs and style and agreed to catch up over a few pleasant ones to share our thoughts the following night at the official launch of the beer at The Portland Hotel.
The label tells you this beer is going to be a Hefeweizen, presumably German in inspiration, and therefore cloudy and sweet in a banana or bubble gum kind of way with a soft and gentle nature. It then seeks to disclaim that by adding the descriptor ‘hoppy’ which sends signals of bitterness and aroma and a perhaps a big, bold mouthfeel. Even the Mad Brewer on the label wears a ‘split personality’ hat made from the severed halves of an Alpine felt hat and an Uncle Sam top hat to further suggest a hybrid of some intrigue.
So, to the tasting and our first lessons learned…
As suggested by Matt in this article, a 640ml bottle of a 7% ABV beer is probably best shared with a friend and scanning the lounge room at home and finding three school-aged daughters and a 16 year-old French exchange student, it was quickly decided that this one was all mine. Matt was right.
Even as the bottle was capped, a strong and distinctive waft of big punchy US Northwest hop aroma escaped and invaded the nostrils. The brain then began to send signals to the tongue to prepare for a big American IPA. Halfway down and the perceptions were confirmed as what was surely an IPA made its presence known. Then, suddenly – mid gulp – the equally distinctive markers of a wheat beer came to the fore, almost jostling for position with, rather than replacing, the IPA. Before I knew it, each point of that 7% came crashing in to push the middle palate into a tart lemony finish.
“What’s goin’ on here?” I thought. “Is this a Hefeweizen as the name suggests, an IPA as the aroma and caricature suggests or something else again,” I wondered as the beer finished long.
The beer was interesting and complex and enjoyable but confusing. I couldn’t yet say that I really liked it. Think a high 2 or low 3 out of 5. And I want to like beers like this*. At this point I read the label notes to see if I was missing something. I was. Reading glasses. Would it kill the marketing department to make the font a little easier for those who are actively fighting getting spectacles?
The following night I was drinking the same beer from the tap and discussing it with the boys from The Portland, the guys from Lion/Malt Shovel and a handful of punters keen to try something new. And here is where I began to like this beer.
First, it is based on an American wheat wine base rather than an actual Hefe and, once I drank it with a ‘Barley Wine made with wheat’ in mind, it made much more sense to my palate. A wheat wine and a wheat beer are non-identical twins.
Second, we had this big bold beast of a beer with a selection of seafoody, spicy, Cajun-y and other assorted hot food which made me realise the obvious. This is a food beer. D’uh!
Not only did the flavours become more integrated and less ‘clangy’ but other subtle notes began to emerge and the beer became a joy to imbibe.
Finally, there was the element of the ‘occasion’ within which the beer was poured. Discussing the relative merits of the brew with other like-minded souls added that extra, intangible element that falls somewhere between subjectivity and shared experience. An opinion here and a comment there and you begin to appreciate flavour notes that were previously hidden to you.
And the verdict? These seemingly simple adjustments turned a high 2 into a middle four. I’m glad I said “I’ll Hef another”.
Oh, and sharing a beer in convivial surroundings with friends is much better than trying to form an opinion while you’re drinking over a kitchen bench while trying to feed four kids, sign excursion forms and find a lost library book that’s due back tomorrow.
But you already knew that, didn’t you?
*By which I mean I want to like limited release, specialty beers made by ‘mainstream’ brewers. Not beers that confuse me.