Thursday, 20 March 2014

Some Inconvenient Truths on Packaging

Back in January I wrote a post about long-established West Country brewer, Cotleigh, in which I mentioned I had been given five different bottles of Cotleigh beer, as a Christmas present, by a work colleague. Well the other day I finished off the last one and, as promised, here are my thoughts on each particular beer. The beers are reviewed in the order I drank them, and there's no logic or plan behind this; it was just whatever took my fancy at the time.

Cotleigh Tawny Owl 3.8% - A refreshing and well-balanced copper coloured bitter, with a slight, but not unpleasant, tartness. Packs in plenty of taste for its low gravity, with a good hop bite which blends in well with the juicy sweetness from the malt.

Cotleigh Buzzard, Dark Ale 4.8% - A very good dark ale, dark brown in colour, rather than jet black. The beer has a chocolate and slightly nutty flavour, combined with a smooth bitter finish. Unfortunately the beer is bottle-conditioned and despite chilling for an hour or so before opening, it was way too lively, and I ended up with a glass full of foam. This was in spite of slow and careful pouring on my part. This experience serves to remind me of the problems with BCA’s. The process adds nothing to the beer, and if anything takes something away. Because I had to pour the beer in several stages, I inevitably ended up with a cloudy glass, and was not best amused.
Cotleigh Golden Seahawk 4.2% Like its name suggests, a gold coloured ale with a fruity taste, against a background of malt and honey. Presented in a clear glass bottle, to show off its golden colour, the packaging has unfortunately allowed a stale-cardboard taste to develop in the background. Is this the dreaded light-struck “skunked” effect, caused by the beer being packaged in clear glass? When will brewers stop doing this?

Cotleigh Peregrine Porter 5.0% - Bottle-conditioned, and don’t I know it! I could only pour half a pint, and even then the foam kept rising, over-flowing the rim of the glass and running all down the side. Taste-wise, very bitter with a lactic taste lurking in the background. Possibly an infection? The long creamy and mellow finish, promised on the label just isn’t there. A shame really as I was really looking forward to this beer.

Cotleigh Barn Owl 4.5% - A dark copper-coloured ale, with a background of toffee and nuts from the Crystal and Chocolate malts used in the grist. The beer has a pleasant bitter finish from the Fuggles, Goldings and Northdown hops. Barn Owl is one of Cotleigh’s original beers. I am not normally a fan of dark-coloured bitters, but this brew is particularly good and rather more-ish. 

So the verdict is Tawny and Barn Owl come out tops, and guess what? They're NOT bottle-conditioned! The review speaks volumes for the deleterious effect bottle-conditioning had on the Old Buzzard and the Peregrine Porter; both of which were far too lively to be poured in one (or even two!) goes. Furthermore the Porter appeared to have picked up an infection; certainly the lactic taste I noticed didn't fit in with the "creamy and mellow finish", promised on the label. As for the Golden Seahawk, packaging this beer in a clear glass bottle did it no favours whatsoever, with a define stale-cardboard flavour completely spoiling the brewer's efforts.

Surely it's time to admit that we just don't do Bottle-Conditioned beers properly in this country, and for CAMRA to get off  its high horse about them. As for packaging beers in clear glass, well brewers really should know better. I suspect most of them do, but those who really care about how their carefully crafted product ends up tasting in the consumer's glass, need to take a much stronger stance against the morons in the marketing department, with their carefully staged photo-shoots, who seem to believe in the triumph of style over substance, rather than in the true merits of their product.


Cooking Lager said...

You're basic problem isn't CAMRA support of BCA's, it's that the branding "CAMRA says this is real ale" is no quality standard. It is handed out on technical criteria and available to any old bog water that qualifies by having muck in the bottom of the bottle.

As a quality standard, handed only to consistent, reliable BCA's it would have some meaning but currently it actually devalues the idea when punters pay good money for undrinkable pish.

Paul Bailey said...

You are right, of course Cookie, but who is going to be the judge of what is and what isn't a quality BCA?

The trouble with CAMRA pushing this type of bottled beer is too many breweries, who haven't a clue what they are doing, have latched onto the idea, especially as they think CAMRA is going to give them free marketing. The result, more often than not, is undrinkable pish - as you so aptly describe these over-conditioned, cloudy and often undrinkable beers.

I'm extremely wary about buying BCA's, as I've had more bad experiences with them than good. I'm certain I'm not alone, but unfortunately CAMRA seems to have its head in the sand over this issue, as it does over other technical points (cask-breathers, key-kegs etc).

I much prefer my taste-buds to do the judging, rather than relying on out-dated, and largely discredited dogma, but CAMRA (by definition), is totally hung up on technical issues, and hasn't realised the world has moved on since the mid 1970's!

John Clarke said...

I don't think it is at all correct to say we don't do bottle conditioning well in this country. We can and very frequently do. Every other week I review three beers for a local paper - two are from the UK and most have been BCAs - and the vast majority have performed very well indeed.

Agree that CAMRA have got themselves in a bit of a pickle with this one. You can see why it supports BCAs but the organistion's "CAMRA says..." logo should have bene restricted to the very best (a sort of gold standard if you will) and not just applied liberally as now seems to be the case.

By the way - you say you chilled the beers for an hour before pouring - just wondering where they were stored before that.

Paul Bailey said...

John, the bottles were stored in an old-fashioned larder - cool and dark, so no issues there.

I understand why CAMRA supported BCA's 30-40 years ago, as most brewery conditioned ales were pretty piss-poor back then, and were in the main restricted to brown, light and pale ales, with perhaps the odd sweet stout or barley wine thrown in for good measure. Also, it was the "any port in a storm" analogy. If the pub didn't serve cask ale, then a bottled Guinness or, if you were lucky, Worthington White Shield at least provided something with taste and character for the drinker to enjoy.

Things have moved on in leaps and bounds since those early days, and whilst not that prevalent in pubs, Premium Bottled Ales are, on the whole, of a very high standard, and provide a decent drink which beer lovers can enjoy in the comfort of their own homes.

I think most people agree that CAMRA has boxed itself into a corner over BCA's and, as I commented above, far too many small brewers, who really don't know what they are doing, have jumped on the "Real Ale in a bottle" bandwagon and are churning out some pretty appalling beers. I have known some amateur outfits to bottle straight from the cask, with no control over yeast counts and with dubious standards of cleanliness and hygiene! This is invariably reflected in the taste and appearance of the end product.

John Clarke said...

I don't really disagree with that at all. What I do disagree with is your comment: "Surely it's time to admit that we just don't do Bottle-Conditioned beers properly in this country" because we frequently do. As I said I regularly try British BCAs froma variety of breweries and rarely encounter any problems (I keep mine in a cool damp cellar by the way).

Whether I'm just lucky in my choices (or people like you and Mudgie are cursed) I don't know - what I will say though is that Jim over at Beers Manchester seems to be on the same lucky streak as me.

Paul Bailey said...

You must be lucky with your experiences of BCA's, John; either that or people like Mudgie and myself are unlucky, but the relatively high incidence of reported failures does give cause for concern.

Of greater concern is how BCA's are stored, served and perceived by the Great British Public. Us three know what we are doing, but does your average Joe? A glass full of foam, and cloudy beer to boot is almost certainly enough to put inexperienced drinkers off BCA's for life. Worse, it may put them off real ale as well!

John Clarke said...

I entirely agree - there must be a lot of disappointed people outt here and that is indeed a cause for concern.