Sunday, 2 November 2014

Festival Beer: A review of some JDW Ales

So, it appears as though JD Wetherspoon's is hosting a beer festival, of sorts, and has been for the whole of October. I noticed this on a meal out with family late into their festival. At the time I assumed I would be driving and so I singularly failed to try a single ale. Tonight, though, I intended to rectify this and went to our local Wetherspoon's to sample what they had. I noted that they had a 1/3 pint offer, that is sample three ales for the price of one, and so I sampled two such triads of ale. Of course I did.

This is by no means the entire range of what was on offer (one need only check out the posts from another blogger to verify this) and so I know I fall short. Still, in service of you, my limited readers, I am but prostrate and eager to share. Would you like to know more of my fact-finding mission?

The bar staff on duty were wonderfully accommodating of this rather inexperienced beer geek and helped me make the choices. As a consequence I avoided Citra (see here) and a cider, whoops, and stuck to ales that made their appearance on the bar taps in the following order.

First up was Fiery Cauldron from Craighill Brewery. At 4.4% ABV it seemed like a good place to start. It was an amber brew with clear carbonation but, because it was pulled, much creamier than I am used to my beer being of an evening. This would probably go for every ale that I tasted and so I shan't mention it again. I was also struck by how different the aroma was by dint of being pulled rather than from a bottle and so, again, I shan't mention it again. Suffice to say that this was significantly outside my normal comfort zone. For that, however,  this was a good ale. Aroma was hoppy and wet, rather than the dry hops that I am used to. First taste was malty with a spice borne of the yeast on top. It lacked any kind of hops hit overall and faded to a pleasant bitter finish but this was nothing to write home about. I can see why it was on tap and easily figure that it goes well with a meal, it's the sort of ale that will bow out to food flavours and provide a neat and cheerful background to just about anything. Innocuous and well-brewed, but not something that will stick in my inventory.

Next on the journey was Antler from Exmoor Brewery. At 4% ABV it was going to be one of the sort of standard ales, the type that is a workhorse and keeps going against a meal to provide the sort of worthy backdrop to food that a decent food ale should. Again, nothing to really set the senses on fire or else upset the apple cart. Mind you, with a ruby, one can't be too assumptive. And so it proved, this was a dull malt aroma that laid heavy on the tongue on smelling. First taste was creamy throughout, heavily reliant on the malt, with mini hints of something extra with the hops. That wave of malt carried the spice of something yeasty and was overall softer and more mellow than the first of the evening. This was a decent brew with plenty going for it and I can heartily recommend a tester of this with something like steak pie or chips. However, on its own it is somewhat lacklustre and lacks something of the adventure I have come to enjoy with some of the more esoteric ales. This is not necessarily a bad thing and may well be just what you are looking for of an evening, in which case, you will not be disappointed and will find in this a companion for the lonely night.

 Next up was Harviestoun with their Old Engine Oil. It  billed itself as a black ale, but was more toward the Porter side of things, and so I just had to try it. At 4.5% ABV this was no slouch and neither a big hitter. But it was very much welcome after the first two ales. The aroma held a chocolate and toffee depth to it, though the earthier tones overall made me think of a day out on moorland more than a bar of chocolate from a shop. First taste was deep and peaty with a hint of stout about it. Heavy malt, mature hit of soil and earthy tones - the sort of ale that makes you think of mining or steel milling. It's a dark and brooding brew with plenty of deopness to it. I, of course, liked this and would have fallen in love with it had it not been for some of the other ales that I tested. It's a good toffee hinted porter ale with plenty of malt going on, but without the exotic adventure of something from, say, Thornbridge. Nevertheless, this is a good contender and well worth a try if you see it about. I know that I shall be keeping a weather eye for this in the future.

Next up on the evening was Heather and Honey by Wadworth. This came as a recommendation by the barman and I couldn't really turn it down due to the fact that I was making such a blatantly ale-bore choice of brews on the night. At 5% ABV it is one of the heavier hitters this evening, but nothing like as heavy as some that I have tasted recently. This was a proper pale ale with less carbonation than any of the three that had preceded it.  Aroma was dominated by the sweetness of the honey, almost saccharine, and the taste was quickly subsumed by the level of honey in this ale. There was indeed an element of heather in both aroma and taste, putting me in mind of Fraoch (here), but was short-lived against the honeyed juggernaught that assaulted the tastebuds soon afterwards. There were some hops in here but short-lived and forgettable so that the honey dominates. This is not all a bad thing and I would happily try this again, the aftertaste tries to hit a bitter note but it is the honey that wins out in the end and that is worth noting. As a honey ale, this has few challengers but, as a general ale, I suspect it is marginally too sweet to really play a full role. I'll admit that I was largely looking to the next ale whilst tasting this one.

I had been looking forward to Lee's 100 since I spied it at the bar. Being a  First World War historian means that I get geekishly excited at this sort of tie in and the centenary, despite my antipathy, has elicited some form of geek historian response. Thus I took this as a taster without really thinking, it gained the most anticipation of any of the ales on offer and one should bear that in mind when reading of my thoughts, It's 4.2% ABV meant that it was one of the middle-ground of the evening and much more in-keeping with the sort of ale that I have on a regular basis. The aroma had a depth of spice and there was a possible malt in there too. Taste was dominated at the beginning by hops of indeterminate origin. This was followed by a malt suffused with with spicy yeast before fading to an end with bitter hop notes and plenty of them. No doubt about the fact that this was a working class bitter along the lines of what one assumes the working class enjoyed at the time of going to war. A richness to the hops but a bitter note that held the feeling of the working class rising to a fever pitch that would return in the demob days of the 1920s. A proper working class ale an' nowt wrong wi' that.

Finally, it was the turn of the US brewed Elysian from Dick Cantwell. At 6.5% ABV it was easily the biggest hitter of the evening and clearly brewed to take advantage of the US obsession with Hallowe'en and pumpkins. As a consequence the aroma was definitely that way inclined so that it was hard to tell what else there was in the brew - they had packed the ale so full of pumpkin seasoning and flavouring that any hops became completely irrelevant and the malt simply provided a delivery mechanism for that flavour. On the first taste that pumpkin flavour really dominated to the detriment of anything else that was involved in the production of the ale. And yet, this was still the most sweetened of all the ales on offer in the evening. That odd pumpkin taste pretty much overpowers anything else (including the lingering aftertaste of the previous ale) and fills the senses in a way that I found almost offensive. The sweetness as a whole spoke of huge amounts of added sguar after brewing and the flavour robbed the brew of anything that might hint of being interesting and, well, like ale should be. In the end I have to confess that I did not finish the 1/3 pint tester of this ale that I ordered, unlike the rest, as it was so out of step with everything else I tried.

So it was that I pronounced the winner of the evening to be 100 by Lee's because it was the most ale-like of the evening. The working class nature of the brew just appealed to that part of me that likes to pretend that I am not middle class and much less upper-middle-class. The part of me that remains strangely and very non-PC-ly proud of stuff like the First World War. In short, I liked the fact that it was a largely uncomplicated bitter with no pretension, apart from the name, and tasted like ale ought to taste in my humble opinion.


  1. Sir, I doff my cap to you. Excellent reviews. I am a bit miffed I missed out on JW Lee's "John Willies 100) at our local Wethers. Maybe the have a barrel hiding in a cellar corner for my next visit!

  2. It's very possible that they will lurk somewhere. Your own beer adventures with this are very interesting. Looks like I got a bad batch of the Elysian pumpkin ale.