Right! Back on track. Something a little different, certainly, but I feel that the lateness of the hour combined with the lateness of the year calls for something of that nature to be imbibed. I've had a Batemans on draught at a lovely inn in Belper with colleagues before and Victory Ale was a nice enough brew chosen for me by my daughter, so when I saw this little number sitting on offer locally I had to try. Tonight I shall be attempting to describe to to you the sensation of drinking Black Pepper Ale or BPA as it advertised.
It is, as you would expect, an ale that is sold on the gimmick of adding a small amount of black pepper to it, from a small pouch secreted in a specially made cardboard jacket effort about the neck. The reason I say all of this is because, in order to pour it and use the pepper, I had to rip the jacket-y thing off and so the below image is not representative of the appearance in a shop.
Because you all buy beer on my recommendations and seek out what I drink out of sheer jealousy, I know, it's a hard life being a trend-setter and an all-round beer-savant. Which is why, being lazy, I'm very glad that I am neither.
Would you like to come further below the depths into the madness?
Intrigued as I was, I could not but help get a sniff immediately after I opened the bottle and, sure enough, there was a distinctive peppery aroma mingling with the usual hops and malt. So peppery, in fact, that I was quite unable to focus on anything else but that smell. I ought to explain that, as I was growing up, white pepper played a significant part in the family condiment set. It was added to tomatoes (grilled), eggs (liberally, when they were fried, boiled or even mashed up with salad cream and added to sandwiches), fish (battered and especially when not) and pretty well anything. It was something of a shock to discover that other families didn't always have access to the stuff. So, I would proclaim myself pretty able to discern that smell and taste. It's in this ale. It's on the nose and wafts around as one pours - not as dry as to make you sneeze, but definitely there and hanging - and what a pour. An impressive head forms after one has finished pouring and then fades until one adds the pepper from the sachet. Then the pepper, this time coarse ground black pepper (a condiment I only really discovered at University when cooking for myself), sort of floats on top of the whole concoction.
By this time the combination of the white pepper smell and the black pepper granules have made it impossible for me to actually tell you what the hops and malt are like. Despite the amber appearance of the ale and the chestnut rich colouring I smelled nothing of the usual hops and malt that I would get from something of a similar shade such as Mr. Trotter's (here), Amber Ale (link) or Up and Under (here). The first taste is definitely peppery, but actually opens with a surprisingly decent malt. I had assumed that the pepper would be there to mask a bad brew, much like the awful saccharine sweetness of Forest Fruits (shudder), but that is not the case. Inevitably, the pepper takes over in the middle and then remains, fiery and background noise of a high volume, as the aftertaste swings to the bittering hops and the remains of the malt. It is a most singular taste. By the time I'd sipped and shared it with Anna most of the head had gone. However, since that time, the head has reappeared and remained really rather stable due to what I can only assume is the coarse ground black pepper.
Subsequent sips reveal more of the malt and hops, and despite my feeling that it's not a bad batch it's also nothing to write home about. Even though it has a hard 5.1% ABV, there's a feeling of wishy-washy-ness about it that refuses to go away. It's nowhere near as awful as Shambles Bitter (shudder again) but there are gaps in the overall structure that have me wondering. Certainly the pepper does a good job of hiding them, and making this an interesting ale to boot, but it can't carry the whole thing all on its own. Yes, as it continues it becomes clear that a decent enough malt and some light hopping are seen as mere background for the pepper. I suspect that, for people who have not attempted mass-assassination of their taste-buds with curries that made them cry (made by their own fair hands) or lived for nigh ten years in the heart of curry-country near Bradford, the gimmick will be enough to hide these deficiencies. Even for me, with my high tolerance for spicy gubbins, I respect what they have done with the tastes and the smells of this rather peculiar ale.
Try this one, then, if you see it. It's a gimmick, rather than a keeper, but it's a good gimmick and worth a punt. Enjoy best, methinks, with an uncomplicated meal using small amounts of salt and little, if any, further condiment. Ham and eggs come to mind - the salt is in the ham, add no more, and let the ale do the flavouring further. Don't rush it but don't tarry too long lest the pepper cease to work it's magic and sink so far that the flavour is lost and the ale stops being fun. And that's the key thing to keep in mind, this is a fun ale and not at all serious.