Brewsday: Oak beer SHOWDOWN
Oak is not a flavor I enjoy. I feel I should make this clear from the outset, in case you’re worried at all about my commitment to this grand beer-drinking experiment called life.
The first time I had anything oak-flavored, it was back when I was first branching out into wines that have actual names. It was during the second stage in that natural progression of wine-drinking — you know, the one that starts with:
- “Uh… I’ll have the… erhm… white?” and moves on to,
- “Chardonnay! I’ve heard of that. And so affordable!” before advancing to,
- “Hmm… the Reisling will be too sweet for this dish, but I don’t know if the Sauvignon Blanc will have enough body to handle the flavors…” until you finally arrive at,
- “Oh hey, the magnums of white are on sale. I’ll take two.”
Let me tell you, when you’re first exploring all the various and complicated white wines out there in the world, affordable Chardonnay is not a great start. Many winemakers favor oak-barrel aging as a means of infusing their wines with a unique taste, but far too often that flavor is downright acrid. In un-fired oak, the vintage can take on an unmistakable edge that will send the novice hustling back to the safe, predictable awfulness of generic table wine.
Blegh. I do not enjoy it, no sir, not one bit.
So! You can imagine my delight when, shopping for this week’s Brewsday selection, I could find absolutely nothing new to try except for two beers…
…whose main selling point is that they’re aged in oak. Woooo mama. You see what I’m willing to do for you people? Why couldn’t there be more beers made from hemp or something?
But enough anxiety and simmering resentment at the liquor store. Onwards to beer glory!
Innis & Gunn is a Scottish brew that dates all the way back to 2003, and (according to their advertising copy) was an accidental discovery. Since then, it has been refined into a 4 stage, 77 day-long process that they claim is unique in the world, producing a light amber ale with some unique characteristics:
- A hefty alcohol content, weighing in at 6.6%
- A reasonably smooth finish that doesn’t sit heavy at all, despite its oomph.
- A striking flavor that carries strong notes of both coffee and caramel
- An equally striking price tag, at just under $3.50 a bottle.
The woodiness in Innis & Gunn’s case comes from American white oak barrels, re-purposed from aging bourbon. It’s supposed to confer a vanilla depth and a citrus zing along with its own oakiness (oakitude? Oaktacularism?); however, if those notes are there, then they’re awfully sutble. The beer has a nice finish, but it wants to be more complex than I think it actually is.
I’m not saying that there isn’t value to aging beer for three months in liquor barrels — frankly, after writing that down I am thinking that it’s about time someone did — Innis & Gunn is a very good, tasty beer that’s enjoyable even when it’s warm. But we’re not into fine vintage territory here, and for three and a half bucks a glass, that’s bloody well where we’d better be.
Rating: 3 1/2 barrels
Over on the other side, we have Marston’s Pedigree, a premium ale that claims to be the official beer of England. I didn’t know countries could have official beverages, to be honest with you, so I was pretty curious about what this bottle could possibly contain.
I mean, Molson Canadian claims to be the official beer of Canada, which is frankly one of the most depressing things I’ve ever considered. I know that in the US, Canadian is being marketed as a unique, fresh import with the flavor of the ice cold Rockies or whatever, but around here it’s swill. People still buy it, and it’s the commonly-accepted means of compensation for helping someone to move or paint a bathroom, but that’s not because it’s delicious. It’s an acknowledgment, not a commendation.
So what insights would the official beer of England bring me? Well, an education about what you’re allowed to get away with putting on your labels, for one thing. Did you know that holding the licensed endorsement for the English national cricket team is fundamentally the same as representing the population of the nation itself? This explains how Roots has somehow become the official clothing line of my country, despite how nobody I know actually wears their stuff.
But enough about deceptive branding! Let’s talk about deceptive packaging, instead. A few quick points:
- Marston’s is a light golden ale, with a thin head and light carbonation
- It weighs in at a moderate 4.5% alcohol content
- It’s a relatively simple mix of (awesomely named) Fuggles and Golding hops, to create a balance between sweet and spicy flavors.
- It is not successful in this.
- It retails for just over 3 dollars for a half-litre bottle.
Oh! And most importantly, Marston’s Pedigree is “brewed in oak barrels to preserve its unique flavor.” The Marston’s website describes what a lost art this apparently is, which is true enough at least that a few Google searches couldn’t turn up anyone else who brews beer in oak vessels. Age it? Yes. Brew it? Not so much.
What this actually does to benefit the beer is hard to figure, because it isn’t particularly great. I’ve sipped a lot of imported British ale as part of this weekly undertaking, so I figure I’ve got a good handle on what they taste like — and this doesn’t exactly rank among the best. It has a slightly fruity nose, but almost no flavor on first drinking it… and then comes the finish.
Look, there are beers you can guzzle, because they’re light in body and you just know you can tilt back and go for it. Sometimes you need to, because you’ve just got that kind of thirst and the right beer to help you; on the other hand, sometimes you have to, because you know that the minute open air hits your tongue, you’re going to have to deal with aftertaste. Marston’s Pedigree falls squarely in the latter category.
What’s funny is that I can’t even blame my prejudice for this one, because it isn’t oak that makes this harsh. It’s just a bland beer with an overly strong, heavily hoppy finish. If there is any oak in there, it’s overwhelmed by how alternatingly boring and nasty the rest of the flavors are.
Rating: 1 1/2 barrels
It’s important to always keep an open mind, be willing to challenge your assumptions, and experiment with things that you might otherwise reject. Not only is it character-building, but you also get exposed to some genuine pleasures that you might otherwise have let pass you by — and, most satisfying of all, you can have your prejudices proven entirely correct. Oh sweet, sweet validation.
For example: I still hate oak, but that’s because neither of today’s beers had much to do with it. Yeah, it’s part of their respective marketing schemes, but ironically the brews themselves got in the way — Innis & Gunn’s flavor was too bright to let the oak come through, and Marston’s Pedigree’s was too shitty. So I got to enjoy a nice beer, deride an awful one, and walk away with my predispositions entirely intact. If that’s not a good Brewsday, I don’t know what is.
Still, here’s hoping the liquor store is re-stocked by next week.