Sunday, 8 February 2015

Beer In Essex: The First Essex Bottle Share

Beer In Essex
The First Essex Bottle Share

It was cold and my bus was late. Stamping impatiently on the ground I peered up the high street, straining to spot the illuminated number on the bus coming towards me out of the darkness. Thankfully it was the bus I wanted and I got on, paid the driver and found a vacant double seat, placing my bag with its precious and delicately wrapped contents carefully beside me.

The cargo in question was a bottle. Nothing remarkable in that you may think, but this was the first time that this bottle had travelled more than a couple of yards for nearly six years. I was undecided as to whether or not to set my bag on the floor instead, running through the possible scenarios as to the likely outcome if the bus were to brake suddenly I settled on a loose half-cradling grip and let me gaze drift out of the window as I thought about what the evening ahead would bring. I imagined other soles travelling to the venue for the nights meeting full of anticipation, each with their own bottle, braving the wintry weather heading towards an event that none of us had experienced before, for tonight, on a freezing Tuesday in February we were all making our way to the Ale House in Chelmsford for the first Essex Bottle Share.

The traffic was light, unusually so, and I arrived at the bus station in good time and gingerly weaved my way between the throbbing diesel-choked behemoths before making my way into the the pub. Walking past the bar I noted that a large table had been set aside for us and in fact two of my companions for evening, Steve and Martin, were already sat there with pints in front of them and chatting in a faintly conspiratorial way. Shaking each by the hand and setting down my bag on the bench opposite them I went and bought myself a drink before making myself comfortable. It was going to be a long night.

Gradually more people arrived, Tom, Clayton, Ed, Shaun and Rob, and with each arrival another bottle, and sometimes two, was added to the growing collection on the table. The conversation started to flow as did the pre-meeting drinks, with introductions being made, faces being put to to names on twitter and bottles were examined provoking speculation at what they would reveal.

Drinks were hastily finished as we collectively decided to get started on the job in hand. Two trays of eight glasses, half containing water, had seemingly magically appeared on the table matching our number, and from the depths of his bag Clayton produced a sheet for tasting notes for us to write down our thoughts on the beers. None of us knew in advance the number who be seated around the table that night, but with eight chairs, eight glasses and eight spaces on the sheet of tasting notes it seemed almost pre-ordained.

We settled on a rough order of opening with the Jehanne, Thornbridge's 7.4% Biere de Garde that Shaun had brought opening the proceedings. This had a good level of carbonation but was felt to be too sweet by many of us and comparisons were made to Belgian brown ales as well as Belgian dubbels. 

Rinsing our glasses, the next beer was the first of a trio of Stone beers, the Stochasticity Project Master Of Disguise at 9.7% brought by Clayton, proclaiming itself to be an Imperial Golden Stout brewed with cocoa and coffee beans. It was a beer that I had drunk just a few days before, one that Ed stated was a physical impossibility and this was proven to be the case as it tasted more like a coffee IPA than anything else, a slightly oily finish the only real clue as to what the brewers were trying to achieve.

We needed something to excite our palates and Rob came to the rescue with a bottle of Toccalmatto's 6.6% Zona Cesarini, an IPA bursting with apricots, papaya and pineapple with a dry finish, and our glasses were quickly drained ready for the next beer.

Steve had brought along a couple of bottle of the Buxton/Arizona Wilderness collaboration Dragon Tips. This was much anticipated by those assembled, an 8.9% maple, bacon and chipotle stout, and describing itself as dry bacon'd rather than dry hopped. Despite some smokiness in both aroma and taste, and chipotle flavour, but not heat, this was a beer that couldn't really decide what it wanted to be. We couldn't really pick out much of any of each element save a little soy sauce. which made us wonder what they were doing there in the first place. So, slightly disappointed, we moved on to something we all knew to be a very sure bet.Cantillon's Rose De Gambrinus (5.0%) is a simply sublime beer. a raspberry lambic of subtlety and grace. Martin had brought this beer, and it was one that he had been wanting to open for some time. It wasn't greeted with joy and smiles by everybody however, proving too sour and tart for some palates, so while we sipped on this and with three bottles left we took a break and reflected on the beers that we had already tasted.The first of the 'home straight' trio was was Stone's 5.9% Chocolate and Orange Smoked Porter from Tom. Underwhelming and, according to my notes, bitterly disappointing this exhibited none of the qualities you would expect from its name it was possibly the worst beer that I have ever had from Stone, not bad just bland.

Ed had brought along a bottle without a label which caused much discussion when it was first produced but was confirmed as the Imperial version of Tap East's Coffee In The Morning after a brief consultation with the brewer. James Wilson is no longer at Tap East but he had brought it to Ed's pub, The Swan in Stratford St Mary, when he had visited towards the end of last summer and this 8.6% rarity had sat in the cellar waiting for its time to shine. It had a lovely mellow coffee flavour, a good alcohol kick and a nice fruity finish, it was simply delightful.

The last beer of the bottle share was the one I had bought, one I had kept for a special moment and its time had now come. This was Stone's Imperial Russian Stout Limited 2009 Release, at 10.5% the strongest of the evening. It flowed into the glass with the consistency of thick engine oil and the aroma of dark chocolate, raisins and Pedro Ximenez sherry. The taste was like the smoothest chocolate imaginable with hints of raisin and vanilla and an astoundingly long finish. I was relieved that it had aged so well, in fact it had aged outrageously well, and I was pleased to be able to share it in such company.

As the last of the stout was drained from the glasses the bottle share was officially over but we were in no mood to finish the evening. Thankfully the Ale House has an excellent beer range on both cask and keg as well as a good selection of bottles so we carried on drinking, talking and generally putting the world to rights until I glanced at my watch and realised somewhat reluctantly that it was time to go home.

I caught my train and walked back from the station in high spirits. Whether this was the effect of the alcohol or the cold February air I wasn't quite sure, however what I was absolutely sure of was that I would be back next month to do it all over again. The first Essex Bottle Share had been a fantastic evening, a happy band of drinkers united in a love of beer, enjoying each others company, indulging in a shared passion. March can't come soon enough.


If you live in Essex and would like to be part of the next Essex Bottle Share then you would be more than welcome. Our next session is on Tuesday 3rd March for a 7.00pm start at the Ale House in Chelmsford and every first Tuesday of the month thereafter. We have our own website which contains some general information and you can find us on twitter at @SXbottleshare 

The Essex bottle share is owned by its participants and we have no need for hierarchy or snobbishness, just a love of good beer and a willingness to join in and have a good time in the process. If you think that this is something that you'd like to be part of then please don't hesitate to let us know, we would be more than happy to see you next time.

I'd like to thank Steve and Clayton for organising the venue, everyone at the Ale House for being so kind and putting up with us, and thank you again to Clayton for sorting out the tasting note sheets and designing the logo. Great job guys, see you at the next one!

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