With great reverence I grasp the bottle opener in one hand, the bottle in the other. This is the most expensive bottle of beer I have ever bought. The bottle top spins away and clatters onto the work surface. I pick up the glass and begin to pour. Into the glass flows a liquid that looks a lot like soy sauce. Pausing, I check I have picked up the correct bottle.
Finishing pouring, I set both glass (now full) and bottle (empty) on the table and regard them. This is my 25th beer of the Year in Beer challenge: a bottle of Thornbridge Bracia.
The first thing to note really is that texture. This is a thick beer. It doesn’t leap lightly from the bottle; if anything it oozes out. But in a good way. That texture is, when being drunk, quite velvety and smooth. A beer to be savoured, not rushed.
It is a dark, almost black, beer topped with a tan head. Somewhere in the aromas I’m sure I picked up liquorice and, in the taste, the immediate sensation was the sweetness, with coffee and chocolate bitterness lingering awhile afterwards.
The bottle lists a lot of reasons why they expect you to cough up the best part of £11 for this beer; for example, it is infused with a “dark and bitter chestnut honey” from Italy. “Why?” you may ask. Well… “Bracia is the
Celtic name for a beverage brewed in Iron Age Europe with reference found on a Roman inscription at Haddon Hall,Derbyshire. Little is known about this except it was high in alcohol, brewed with cereals and, most probably, honey.”
So there you have it.
I had been saving this beer to be number 25 as a mark of celebration for reaching the halfway mark and I will admit to a slight sense of confusion when I finally drank it. There is no doubting that this is a complex beer with a lot going on in it. The different flavours, the luxurious texture of the beer, the aromas. However, it may be that it wears its 10% ABV too proudly on its sleeve for me; it doesn’t hide away from that high alcohol content and I think that surprised me. The (presumably honey-inspired) initial sweetness together with the warming sensation from the alcohol took me a little too close to medicinal territory than I was perhaps comfortable with. It pulls back from this and finishes off bitter (don’t we all?), but it is certainly a beer I struggled to pin down.
It would be great to try a few of these, of different ages, to see how the flavours mellow over time. At £11 a time, however, this is perhaps unlikely.
The first 25 beers – a retrospective view
I also want to take a moment to look back over the first six months of A Year in Beer and, in a startling example of what can happen when I’m left on my own for too long, here is a short interview I conducted with myself.
What were you hoping to achieve from this challenge when you started?
I’m not sure that I really knew when I started. I saw the list of the Independent’s Top 50 Beers on twitter and filed it away for safe keeping. When I came to read it in detail, I soon realised that not only had I not tried the vast majority of these beers, I also hadn’t heard of several of the breweries. The first thought was: let’s remedy that situation. The Independent had listed out the beers for me, all I had to do was drink them.
What has been the biggest surprise?
That I enjoy lager. Lager is probably where everyone starts with beer. I certainly don’t know too many 18 year olds (because that’s how old we are when we start drinking of course) who wander up to the bar for their first pint of beer and order a bitter, or a stout, or an IPA. They order lager. And it’s probably horrible. I certainly thought so and soon drifted away from those insipid pilsners. But it doesn’t have to be like this. The Harviestoun Schiehallion is a great beer: grapefruit flavours and a cutting, refreshing bitterness. And the Freedon Organic Dark lager is delicious. It’s one of the best beers from the 25 I’ve tried here.
And what disappointed you?
I’m sorry to say that it’s the wheat beers. I’m just not a big fan.
So what is the best beer from the first 25?
If I had to pick just one of the first 25, I would have to choose the Windsor and Eton Conqueror IPA. If nothing else, just for the surprise it gave me; it doesn’t taste how I expected it to from its appearance. And it tastes great. But the thing I have enjoyed most is the variety in the list. Even where a brewery has several beers in the Top 50 (such as Thornbridge Brewery) there is an exciting variety between the different beers they have contributed. Here’s hoping that the remaining 25 continue to be as surprising and as enjoyable.