A Year in Beer – February

February is the shortest month. This, however, is the longest Year in Beer update yet. Confused? All will be explained below…

Week 20 – Woodforde’s Headcracker

That’s a name, isn’t it? Headcracker. It grabs your attention and says “hi, this might hurt a little; are you game?”

I had been saving this one for a few weeks, keen to have the right moment to pop the cap from the bottle and pour out my first barley wine. That moment came in early February as we prepared to leave our old flat in Okehampton and move across Devon to Ashburton. What better way to say goodbye to our old home than with a pint of Headcracker?

Barley wines are strong ales with a high alcohol content (Headcracker weighs in at 7%). They were first brewed for the aristocracy in the 1700s as a beer to rival the fine wines being imported from Europe. At first they had a variety of names, but the term “barley wine” is the one that stuck and they have remained in pride of place for many since that time.

HeadcrackerHeadcracker is great, by the way. It’s extremely tasty and full of flavour. Strong and warming and a perfect winter drink (as long as you didn’t have other plans that day). It has an aroma that hovers on the edge of something medicinal (in some ways this could be the perfect winter cold remedy) and a sweet taste, with just a hint of bitterness at the end perhaps.

There was a flavour in the beer that I couldn’t quite pin down but, helpfully, the nice people at Woodforde’s had allowed for people with a palate as unsophisticated as mine and had written “plums” on the label. That was it! Plums. And it works.

My first barley wine. It won’t be my last.

Week 21 – Thornbridge Saint Petersburg

This was turning out to be a month of firsts. After my first barley wine came my first imperial Russian stout. I have had stout before, of course, but not an imperial Russian one. “What’s the difference?” you may ask. I know I did.

The history of imperial stout goes back to Catherine the Great, who tried stout on a visit to England and requested that some be sent to her in Russia. Sadly for her, the beer did not survive the long trip to Catherine’s court. Not wanting to leave Catherine without her beer, a particularly strong, bitter stout was brewed to survive the long journey. When this arrived in good condition, it became a runaway success and a new beer had been born: the imperial Russian stout.

Saint PetersburgThe first thing that hits you when drinking this is the bitter, espresso flavour and the smoky aroma. It’s not a heavy drink, but it has a big, bold flavour. Once past the initial espresso shock, it has just a hint of sweetness to counter the bitterness. Throughout, it is a drink full of flavours and was a welcome first pint in our new home.

Week 22 – Hook Norton Double Stout

Continuing with the stout theme, next up was the Hook Norton Double Stout.

Double StoutAs you pour this from the bottle, a fluffy tan coloured head rises to the top of the glass. It has similar roasted aromas and flavours to the Saint Petersburg stout, but it does not have the same bitter, espresso hit that comes with that beer. It is worth pointing out that, despite the dark, black appearance, this is far from being a heavy drink. Rather, it is smooth and easy to drink and, with a dry finish, it doesn’t linger in the mouth.

I have probably done these stouts a disservice by drinking them in winter, as it could be seen as perpetuating the myth that these are heavy drinks, best served by a roaring fire to warm the throat and line the belly. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The stout style is described in The Brewmaster’s Table as “dry, brisk and light… marvelously refreshing, and it tastes great cold or at room temperature.” I could just as easily have drunk these in summer and had just as much enjoyment from them.

Week 23 – Sambrook’s Wandle Ale

This, technically, was the last beer of February. A pleasant ale with a malty aroma and a good, bitter taste, but with a balancing sweetness to counteract the bitterness. I enjoyed this pint, although it did not blow me away in the same way as some of the other beers have.

I wonder if this is down to familiarity, not with this beer, but with bitters. Some of the other beers I have tried during this challenge have not only been new to me themselves, but have also been the first of their style that I have tried. You have just read about a couple of these further up this post. Could it be that the humble bitter is suffering by having been my beer of choice for many years?

Sambrook's Wandle Ale

Week 24 – Woodforde’s Wherry

I had another bitter to try and the first week of March saw me popping the cap from a bottle of Wherry. This was the 24th beer from the list and that is the reason that it has crept into February’s round up. Next time around, I will be doing a 25th beer special and I have lined up an exciting-looking beer from the list to celebrate.

But first, back to the pint of Wherry.

Woodforde's Wherry

This has a fresh, hoppy aroma and a pleasing bitterness. I found that this was a beer that I was able to drink very happily, with the hops coming through nicely. The bottle claims that it is a “zesty” beer and I would happily concur with that assessment. As with the Wandle Ale above, this was an enjoyable pint. But, on balance, I think that the Wherry has a little more going on within it.

Next time…

I will be looking back at the first six months of A Year in Beer and sampling my 25th beer from the list. I’m quite excited by the thought of this one!