PlumpJack Wine & Spirits brings you this month’s beer club tasting notes for August. This month, we look at English craft beer from two different angles. In Coniston Bluebird Bitter, we’ve got a fairly traditional British beer, but its high bitterness takes it a shade beyond the balanced approach of so many British bitters, and the brewery, which opened in 1995, is one of the pioneers of the English beer revival. The second beer for this month is Modus Vivendi, The Wild Beer Company’s flagship English old ale soured with wild Brettanomyces yeast and aged for months in used wine and bourbon barrels. It taps into a sourness more famous in Belgium and the US, but with a yeast that is wildly English.
Rich Higgins, Master Cicerone
It’s 2015, and English craft beer brewed has fully come into its own. It’s making waves in pubs, shops, and the media, and the beers are even starting to make their way to the US. In 2014, Britain had about 1,300 breweries, and most of them stick to traditional English ales (which are “craft” in their own right, having never slid entirely into industrial mediocrity the way American beer did prior to starting the craft revolution). Traditional English ales are often about balance, subtlety, and, well, tradition. The English craft brewers of today are brewing with American hops, higher bitterness, wild yeasts, non-traditional ingredients, while cobbling nooks for their oak barrels and second-hand dairy equipment and revitalizing urban cores and country barns alike. Frankly, English craft brewers are hard to differentiate from their Yankee counterparts, which shows how far craft beer culture has come in what many regard as a stodgy, albeit high-quality, beer culture. The more esoteric and extreme beers didn’t happen overnight, though, and pioneering breweries like Coniston Brewing Co. helped lay the foundation for flashier brewers like The Wild Beer Co.
Bluebird Bitter Coniston Brewing Company, Coniston, Cumbria, UK 4.2% ABV
Tucked in the center of the cozy town of Coniston in the Lake District National Park is Coniston Brewing Co., nestled on the shore of Coniston Water (that’s English for “lake,” to you and me). Ronald and Susan Bradley owned the Black Bull, the town’s 400-year-old pub, and in 1994 they opened a small brewery in a building behind the Black Bull in order to provide fresh beer for the pub.
They hired their son, Ian Bradley, as brewmaster, and retained brewing consultant David Smith to write the recipes. Within just a couple years, David’s flagship bitter recipe brewed by Ian won Britain’s highest beer award: it was crowned Champion Beer of Britain at the 1998 Great British Beer Festival. The beer is a triumph of English malts, English hops, and English yeast: incredible biscuity maltiness from heirloom Maris Otter malts mingles with orangey, earthy bitterness from classic Challenger hops, while subtle poached pear aromas from the yeast soften the bitterness and garnish the malts. I was surprised to learn that Bluebird’s name is actually more macabre than bucolic: “Bluebird K7” was the rocket boat piloted by daredevil Donald Campbell, who died in 1967 in a famous boating accident at 300 miles per hour on Coniston Water.
Virtually every British brewery brews a “bitter,” often called an ordinary bitter to distinguish it from the brewery’s slightly stronger bitters, which in turn sport names like best, special, premium, and extra special. While Bluebird Bitter does, in fact, taste bitter, not all bitters are markedly bitter. Bitter, as a style of ale, earned that moniker in the 1930s and 1940s, decades after porter and IPA had had their heyday and wartime rationing and ingredient taxation had reduced much English beer to low alcohol and low bitterness levels. In a time of fewer and fewer beer choices, English pub-goers ordered either “mild” ale or “bitter” ale, two colloquial names that eventually coalesced into distinct beer styles.
While Bluebird doesn’t set out to be a self-styled “craft beer,” it shows its crafty soul in upending a complacent English beer cart, a beer envisioned in a 1990s brewpub as a single-hop beer charged with the boldness of more than 35 bitterness units (more than most pilsners). If Bluebird was a wake-up call to the steadily diminishing character of English ordinary bitters, Coniston used its momentum and offering more craft brewery calling cards, such as a slightly stronger Bluebird XB with American-grown Mount Hood hops, a crisp, decidedly un-English Continental pilsner, as well as a towering, 8.5%-ABV barley wine (which was crowned Champion Beer of Britain in 2012). But it all started with Bluebird Bitter, still a classic expression of characterful English brewing.
Pour Coniston Bluebird Bitter in a large glass and make sure sure you let it warm up a bit from refrigerator temperature. Like many English ales, it’s way too tight at fridge temperature, and only shows its soft maltiness and the fruitiness of its hops and yeast when it’s warmer than 45 degrees; 55 is perfect. It’s a gorgeous burnished orange color with a persistent white head of foam. It smells like pears, dried orange, biscuits, and a hint of waffle with butter and maple syrup. A sip of it greets your palate with pronounced, black-tea-like bitterness, a bright Pippin apple freshness, along with dashes of bread dough, woody thyme, and ginseng. Complex, savory yeast flavor and a whisper of salty, sulfate minerality accompany the finish. It’s light in body but bready at the same time, amazingly smooth and plush for only 4.2% ABV (on cask in Britain, it’s even lower alcohol at 3.6% ABV). Pair this, as brewer Ian does, with fish and chips, or else enjoy its versatility with cheeses, veggie lasagna bianca, saag paneer, or falafel and baba ghanoush. In addition to fried food and cooked veggies, it finds great harmony with minerally foods like asparagus, artichokes, and even seaweedy ramen and hijiki salad.
Modus Vivendi The Wild Beer Company, Shepton Mallet, Somerset, UK 7.0% ABV
Beer is generally made from four ingredients: water, malted grain, hops, and yeast. Brewers Andrew Cooper and Brett Ellis founded The Wild Beer Company to brew each of their beers with a “5th ingredient,” be it fruit, oak, or time. When they became drinking buddies, Cooper was training to be a certified Beer Sommelier (a European Cicerone equivalent) and Ellis was an out-of-work California chef who had moved to the UK to marry his English girlfriend. They homebrewed and mused over pints, finally having their eureka! moments while drinking Jolly Pumpkin La Roja and George Gale’s Prize Old Ale. La Roja, from a Michigan craft brewery, was oak-aged, winey, toasty, delicious and beguiling; Gale’s Old Ale is sherryish, toffeeish, and tastes like dates dipped in wine. These are beer flavors and attitudes Cooper and Ellis decided were too rare in England, so they opened their own craft brewery to do something about it.
To harness the ever-elusive 5th ingredient, Cooper and Ellis tap into a variety of influences, including Ellis’s culinary training, Cooper’s knowledge of beer history, and the terroir of Somerset’s dairy and apple country, south of Bristol and Bath, where the brewery is located. Their proof-of-concept beer is aptly called Modus Operandi, though in the States it’s sold as Modus Vivendi (I can’t find the reasoning online, but my guess is that Ska Brewing Co., Colorado-based brewer of Modus Hoperandi IPA, encouraged the renaming). Modus Operandi/Vivendi is based on a traditional English old ale, a chewy, malty, toffeeish ale often brewed as a winter warmer. Old ales age well, and they tend to develop some winey, sherryish acidity with age, sometimes with a tinge of Brettanomyces yeast. Brettanomyces is Latin for “British fungus,” and while Belgium is more famous for its Brett-influenced sour ales, when Brett was first identified under a microscope, it had been harvested from aged English old ales and stock ales, which often have subtle scents of cellar, wool, and dust (and sometimes pineapple or Juicy Fruit flavors) and a touch of lactic acidity. The barnyardy and horsy flavors Brett is known for are from Brettanomyces species cultivated in Belgium; the British strains on the other hand tend to be less feral in flavor. In 2012, Cooper and Ellis toured the orchards near their farm brewery, picking apples and fermenting them into cider using only the wild, indigenous yeasts and beneficial bacteria on the apple skins. Then they pitched the resulting mixed yeast-bacteria culture into their first batch of old ale and let it age for 3 months in barrels, allowing it to transform into the mature, sour, oaky, terroir-driven Modus Operandi/Vivendi. They first used bourbon barrels for the aging, but found the finished beer lacked some of the desired fruitiness and complexity, and now they age in a mixture of bourbon barrels and red Burgundy wine barrels from Le Grappin. In a 2014 interview with The Grill And Barrel blog, Ellis summed up Modus Operandi quite nicely: “It is the beer that Andrew and I built the brewery to brew and we are only now getting to know that beer.”
Modus Vivendi pours an attractive garnet brown-mahogany beneath an off-white head of fine bubbles. Immediately, the bouquet promises a complex beer, showing scents of strawberry, hazelnut, chocolate, sherry, licorice root, and rooibos tea. On the palate, it invites you more deeply down the rabbit hole, showing sourness like goat cheese and Balsamic vinegar, the brambly earthiness of an aged red Rioja, and echoes of once-raisiny, once-toffeeish malts that have fermented to a tart, winey dryness. Barrel-aging has dropped out the classic balance and malty treacle of this English stock old ale, and it has emerged from the chrysalis poised, lean, and muscular, trading tradition for attitude in a brave new world of English beer. Pair this beer with rich, earthy dishes, like roast chicken with mushroom sauce, apples and sheep’s milk cheese, New England clam chowder, or Issan-style catfish — sweet, sour, salty, and pungent with garlic and fish sauce.