Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Wee Beastie Collection: Harviestoun Thistly Cross Mash Up

Wee Beastie Collection:
Harviestoun Thistly Cross Mash Up

It's time for another look at what's new from the Harviestoun Wee Beastie Collection and this is one that might raise a few eyebrows. As before, I will be linking up with Mark and Steve from the Beer O'Clock Show who will be releasing another special Wee Beastie Podcast to coincide with this post, with neither of us having any idea of what each of us thought of the beers.

The reason this particular release might cause some to think twice before trying a glass of, what I'm sure you'll agree, are three very intriguing beers is twofold. Firstly, as some of you may be aware, Thistly Cross are an award-winning Scottish cider producer, and collaborations between brewers and cider makers are few and far between. Secondly these are strong beers. At around the 11% abv mark these are not beers to be drunk by the gallon, in fact, as with all of the small batch Wee Beastie Collection I have reviewed to date, these are made to be savoured and their flavours explored.

Just before you dismiss the idea as some sort of bizarre beer/cider blend you should be aware that isn't actually any cider in the beer itself. In order to produce a different kind of beer with its own unique character, Harviestoun have brewed an amped-up version of their popular Bitter And Twisted golden ale, one with the volume very definitely turned up to eleven. This was then aged in Thistly Cross cider barrels, which they had previously used to age their own cider primed with Champagne yeast, for six months. Unintentionally and inadvertently a strain of brettanomyces, a yeast that produces large amounts of acetic acid and causes souring, was present in the barrels. This is the wild yeast that is responsible for the sour and tart, although very different, flavour profiles of the Belgian Lambic, Geuze, Oud Bruin and Flanders Red styles, so rather than discard the beer, Harviestoun in their wisdom have decided to present it to us fortunate drinkers.

Not content with that however, a further two batches are available, one matured with Scottish raspberries and the other conditioned with plums. When it comes to tasting these I will be looking out for the presence of the base beer, any taste of barrel-aged cider, as well as any intriguing flavours that the various yeast strains have contributed. I'm rather looking forward to this.

To get a fair representation of the beer itself, I'm going to be starting with what my bottle says is 'The Original', coming in at a whopping 11% abv. I can't remember if I've ever had a golden ale up around this kind of strength before so I'm already keen to get this baby open. It pours a rather uninteresting hazy orange with no head to speak of, which is unsurprising considering its high alcohol content, but the aroma is making me strangely excited as I bring it to my lips. You can tell straight away that this beer has been barrel aged, that characteristic woody-vanilla twang sits right at the top of the nose, but there is also an intriguing apricot and tangerine citrus aroma lurking just underneath, deep, sweet and juicy, that really makes me want to drink it. It's a little harsh over the tongue, and you can certainly feel the alcohol as it lays down a palate coating oily varnish followed immediately by a slightly warm drying quality that I'm attributing to the brettanomyces despite the fact that it wasn't overly prominent on the nose. There's some white pepper heat in the taste and this carried throughout giving the beer a rather unusual, but not unpleasant, savoury edge. After this has faded a little a rich orange syrup flavour emerges, but before I can decide whether or not I like this contrast, which strangely rather reminds me of strawberries with black pepper in the finish, it dries out almost entirely. What is left is reminiscent of the flavour of an orange fruit jelly sweet, a touch sugary and oily but a little juicy too. This is exactly the kind of beer I wanted from the Wee Beastie Collection as it completely different from the previous two I reviewed, but still remarkably complex, and full of taste rather than homogeneous and uninteresting. It won't suit everyone's palate, and I'm still not really sure if it works or not, but it's a beer I want to experience again just to make sure.

After getting this particular release off to a cracking start, I'm moving on to the raspberry matured version which, so my bottle tells me, is a marginally lower 10.5% abv. This also has an orange hue but with a distinctly redder tinge to it, and produces a white fizzy head as well, although this quickly dissipates. The initial aroma is sweetly scented with raspberries, but oddly it doesn't appear to be natural even though I know it is. There's a veneer of alcohol present too, and this is resting gently on top of the muted fruity aroma that I found in the previous beer. This is punchier and tarter than before with a bitter edge but still with that warming dryness that the alcohol is contributing. This is certainly a sour beer but not mouth puckeringly so, rather it has an oily sticky sweetness to it and just a dash of white pepper before the raspberries come through heroically late to remind you what this beer is all about. The finish falls away quickly but leaves behind a twist of black pepper and the ghost of fresh raspberry in it's wake. This is most definitely not a Belgian 'framboise/frambosen' sour beer, the alcohol is far too apparent as is the woodiness from the barrels it was aged in, this is something quite different, something that I've never experienced before and I rather like it.

The third and last of the three is rather interestingly matured with plums and also checks in at the 10.5% abv mark. Pouring a pleasing deep plum red with a good level of carbonation that settles down to a thin off-white head, this has the distinct aroma of just over-ripe plum juice, tart and juicy with a little nudge of alcohol to remind you that this is a beer not to be trifled with. Big and brash, this paints the tongue with a highly concentrated layer of plum, thick and heavy, before planting a glob of fermented birch sap slap bang in the middle of your palate which has a bitter acidity that is unnervingly jarring. There is a fusel alcohol heat in the mix too, which makes me wonder if one or more of the different yeasts present on the plums, in the barrel, the cider or indeed the beer itself has reacted adversely with the fermentation temperature, or maybe it's the combination of all these different yeast strains themselves, but thankfully this blows of rather quickly. What it leaves behind is more blackcurrant that plum, full, tart and rounded, and it's this juicy sweetness, which I can only compare to barely diluted Ribena, that lasts long into the finish. This is a strange beer indeed, the label and aroma interested me greatly but I'm afraid the actual body was a bit too messy and heavy for me to really appreciate it. I think understand what Harviestoun were trying to achieve with this here, but I just don't think they've got it quite right on this occasion.

For three beers with the same base, these have turned out very differently indeed. If I had to pick just one it would have to be the raspberry matured offering however, if you'd like a second opinion then why not head over to the Beer O'Clock Show website and listen to their podcast, or download it from iTunes and tune in at your leisure. If you'd like the chance to experience these beers for yourselves, talk to the people that make them, or just chat about beer with the guys from the Beer O'Clock Show and myself, then why not buy a ticket to the Wee Beastie Collection event at The Elgin in London on the 19th of March. We hope to see you there.

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