Off Topic: Overindulged during the festive period? Back to work with your New Year’s resolutions already in tatters? Try our Dry-ish January guide to real ales under 4%, guaranteed to ease you gently into the...
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Overindulged during the festive period? Back to work with your New Year’s resolutions already in tatters? Try our Dry-ish January guide to real ales under 4%, guaranteed to ease you gently into the new year.
There are many good reasons for signing up to Dry January: your health, your bank balance, your sense of superiority in the face of friends and colleagues that have already fallen from the wagon. But if the idea of going cold turkey fills you with dread, abstain from total abstinence and feel your way through to February with these choice picks.
Local supermarkets, specialist off-licences and brewery tap shops have been scoured and the line-up can now be revealed. Four big hitters from Derbyshire and Leicestershire made the cut, a couple of pub standards, along with a Cotswold’s staple and Oxfordshire's finest.
With over 750 year’s brewing experience between them, ranging from 220 years in the business to a mere 4, our choices run the full gamut from classic English session bitter to citrusy, American-hopped golden beer.
With a handful of brewery tours between us, a number of wine and beer tasting sessions and varying beer-drinker pedigrees, we have approached each ale as enthusiastic hobbyists, not experts. As such, we haven’t assigned marks. We did though - drinking from pale to amber, with a well-timed palate cleanser or two, taking copious notes as we went – manage to reach a consensus on our favourites.
And so below, in reverse order, the results can now be revealed...
Beer #8: IPA, Greene King, 3.6% Indian Pale Ale
From its humble beginnings in Bury St Edmunds more than 200 years ago, the Greene King Brewery has grown to become the biggest pub retailer and brewer in the country. With over 3,100 pubs and restaurants, incorporating the Hungry Horse and Farmhouse Inn chains, amongst others, its Greene King IPA is a staple of British pub culture.
It fairs poorly in our taste test, however. Refreshing maybe, but not particularly crisp, it drinks weaker than its 3.6%. There’s a suggestion of citrusy undertones but not much else to grab the attention and it lacks the complexity in flavour of some beers to follow.
There’s the possibility, of course, for a weaker beer to sell itself as a ‘session ale’ but the payoff here between strength and flavour leaves us unlikely to find out.
Beer #7: Bank’s Amber Bitter, Bank’s 3.8% Amber Bitter
Banks’s Park Brewery in Wolverhampton has been producing beer since 1875. The brewery itself is now owned and run by Marston’s Plc., who also operate another five breweries: Marston’s in Burton-upon-Trent, Ringwood in Hampshire and Wychwood in Oxfordshire amongst others (more on Wychwood later).
At only 90 pence per 500ml bottle, Banks’s Amber Bitter is the cheapest on our list. We aren’t using price as a judging criterion but we still have high hopes. It’s a classic English session bitter and its combination of the ‘twin hop masterpiece’ Fuggle and Goldings should give us a characterful flavour and a fruity, clean finish.
The Amber Bitter certainly has a deeper flavour than the IPA but that says more about the latter than the former. Overall, the Banks’s lacks body and the hops flavouring is slight, though we do concede that if approached as a session ale we may well give it the benefit of the doubt and try another, elevating it above the Greene King offering.
Beer #6: Beacon Hill, Everards of Leicester 3.8%, Amber Ale
In order of drinking, Beer #6 marks the move from pale and golden ales onto our first amber, as we head to Leicester and to our joint oldest brewery (1849).
First off, from a design viewpoint, Everards have done a wonderful job. In the side-competition for which there are no prizes, it is one of our favourite labels of the day. The muted tones and dandyish Leicestershire fox gazing at local landmark Beacon Hill is as evocative as any of the more classical designs on show. But how does it taste?
Hops-wise, it’s Fuggle and Goldings again, with the addition of the slightly more intense Challenger. Its aroma is lightly citrus but it is the ale’s self-professed ‘subtle flavours’ that are our main problem here. Everard's website describes it as ‘perfect for beginners,’ which we are not, or as ‘a session ale,’ which makes much more sense. Imagined in the context of a summer’s afternoon, supped slowly to pint number three or four it could well come into its own. Though if you’re going to wait until summer, we’d recommend you spend that time seeking it out on cask.
Beer #5: Hooky, Hook Norton Brewery, 3.5% Amber Ale
Founded in 1849, the family-owned Hook Norton Brewery in Oxfordshire is the (joint) oldest on our list. An example of a Victorian Tower Brewery, it still employs traditional techniques that harness the power of gravity, each stage in production occurring on a different level from the top floor of the brewery down.
The village of Hook Norton is situated on the edge of the Cotswolds so we’re anticipating an Ale of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And hailing from the Cotswolds myself, albeit a different edge, I have sampled and enjoyed many a pint of their flagship, award-winning bitter, Old Hooky. I approach this selection with some confidence.
Describing itself as the ‘classic session beer’ and proving that low volume needn’t mean low flavour it comes in at 3.5% abv. In terms of the brief, it’s certainly easing us into the new year but, once again, possibly a little too gently for our tastes. ‘Hoppy to the nose, malty on the palate’ it may be but we’d suggest holding out for the Old Hooky.
Beer #4: Salvation, Charnwood Brewery, 3.8% Golden Beer
Situated on the outskirts of Loughborough in the borough of Charnwood, Charnwood Brewery has only been with us for four years, during which time its golden ale Salvation has been their perennial bestseller.
Described as a ‘light refreshing golden beer' we have high hopes. As big fans of their 5.8% IPA and 4% Vixen Best Bitter, how will those complex flavours translate into a lower strength golden ale?
‘Very well’, is the simple answer. The American Cascade and Amarillo hops give a citrus, floral aroma, a hoppy bitterness and a dry, citrus finish. And if you’re intending more than a couple, we’d certainly recommend this over the high-strength, non-session IPA (though we might still nudge you gently towards the Vixen).
Beer #3: Fire Catcher, Wychwood Brewery, 3.5% Golden Beer
Another beer bargain, our next selection, Wychwood’s Fire Catcher, is the joint second cheapest ale on our list, at just £1.00 per 500ml bottle.
Another brewery now owned and run by Marston’s, Wychwood’s most notable drop is, of course, its ruby beer, HobGoblin. Coming in at 5.2% that particular drop misses the cut for our Dry-ish January selection by quite a margin but some of what makes HobGoblin so great has seeped through into its lower percentage cousin.
One of the more assertive beers on the list, there’s an initial honey warmth but with underlying citrus and generally, a fuller-bodied flavour than we’ve experienced so far. And for the price, very hard to argue with indeed.
Beer #2: Ay Up, Dancing Duck Brewery 3.9% Pale Ale
Founded in Derby by Rachel Matthews back in 2010, Dancing Duck Brewery’s Ay Up (or indeed Ey Up: a much-loved colloquialism around the region its wide usage has led to local variations in spelling and the admirably inclusive decision from the brewery to issue pump clips with both versions, allowing individual pub owners to decide) was one of just three beers with which the brewery launched.
Ay Up brands itself as a ‘generously hopped…eminently drinkable pale session ale’ and that just about sums it up perfectly. It’s citrusy and hoppy with a perfectly balanced bitterness and overall, very refreshing. A great way to ease oneself gently from the wagon then, and once grounded, worth staying around for a few more pints. A worthy silver medallist.
Winner! Beer #1: Hop Till You Drop, Derby Brewing Company 3.9% Blonde Ale
Formed in 2004, Derby Brewing Company is a family-owned microbrewery that began life as a hobby for its (would-be retired) founder and head brewer. Since then it’s snowballed rather quickly and the company now runs three pubs in the Derby area.
Its fruity blonde ale, Hop Till You Drop, is unanimously agreed as the favourite on the day. It’s 3.9%, not overly hoppy in view of the name but nicely balanced, with a fruitiness and a dry finish. Moreish, drinking all of its 3.9%, it deservedly takes the top spot.
The final running order
And with that, we have our final running order. An octet of effortlessly quaffable session beers sure to nurse you through the very worst that January can throw at you, easing you into February, when the beer-gloves really come off.