It's a wet and miserable winters' afternoon in England. The local boozer is shut and the car is in for repair, dodgy brakes.
So, what is there to do? Why, get drunk of course.
But rather than just getting inebriated for the sake of it, I'm going to do it in the name of journalism.
A quick trip to the town wine merchants, who I'm going to mention by name simply because the service is excellent and the range is so rangy, S.H.Jones & Co, and pick up a collection of bottles for an afternoons' drinking. Seeing as the weather is dark, I'm going to pick dark beers, so here goes for a guide to some of the bottled stouts on the market in England.
Be warned though that I'm writing this as I'm drinking the beers, so it might get circumlocutional near the end.
First off the mark we have Black Wych from the Wychwood brewery of Witney in Oxfordshire. It's kind of a local brew, although they don't have that many pubs near here, they tend to aim at the student market rather than the drinkers market.
It comes in a 500ml bottle and weighs in at a quaffable 4.5% abv and has a thick, rich black colour that holds up a reddish tinge against the light. A good creamy head when poured shows an adequate amount of conditioning.
The aroma hints at toffee and coffee in equal amounts, almost to the point of cancelling each other out, but the toffee wins through at the end giving it a lingering sweet smell.
The initial taste is bitter, which is rather unexpected given the aroma, but mellows out slowly to give a balance of coffee and roasted malt. You can tell the roasted malt because it's the smoky taste.
As this beer sits in the glass the initial fizzyness fades slightly to make the beer more palatable and easier to drink. Although it does tend to keep its sparkle all the way down. One thing that does happen throughout the beer is that it seems to loose what little body it had. But this is definitely a quaffing stout. The sort that can be drunk easily without making you so. Although I wouldn't recommend drinking it that fast actually, like all stouts it's got more flavour than most beers.
So, as this one comes to an end, an overall opinion. Not bad at all. A bit thin on the body side, but that makes it good for drinking. A very nice one to start with.
Second of the afternoon is from the O'Hanlon's brewery in Devon. I could have sworn that they were based in London, but it says Devon on the bottle so Devon I'll go along with. The beer is Port Stout and weighs in at 4.8% abv, again in a 500ml bottle. It's called Port stout because it's got Ferreira Port added to it, roughly a bottle per firkin when I was last in the brewing trade. If the idea of Port in a beer doesn't sound right to you, don't worry it doesn't usually overpower, but rather enriches the flavour.
Delicate pouring is needed for this one as it quickly forms a frothy coffee coloured head that soon settles down to something more manageable. The beer itself is a very dark brown rather than black and has a rich ruby colour when held up to the light.
A lovely rich toffee aroma that makes you think that you've just sniffed a box of Werthers Originals. It's also a kinda addictive smell.
The first impression from the taste though is of a rather mossy flavour, which very quickly gives way to a smooth and extremely drinkable caramel taste. This beer isn't as fizzy as the Black Wych, and this makes it easier to drink, although this also means that you're more likely to belch if you drink it fast. Oops. The label on the bottle advertises itself as being 'Superbly Smooth', and it is.
It drinks as easy as a nice cup of Latte, and at times the flavour is similar. The actual lingering taste is hard to pin down as it seems to change slightly with every mouthful. One sip and you can swear that you're drinking a coffee, another sip and it's like licking the side of a can of Golden Syrup, a third sip and you can taste the Port. Combined this makes drinking this a sort of Taste Bud Roulette, although not an unpleasant game. In fact, rather more pleasant than a single bottle has any right to be. Go out, spend all your money on this one. Actually, don't yet as I still have another three to get through.
As you drink through this one the head quickly disappears, leaving only a few bubbles forming a surface of cream.
If I could add anything to this beer, it would be a pub with a roaring wood fire and another bottle.
Overall, it's smooth, complex and extremely tasty. Rich and wholesome, nothing this nice can be good for you, but hey.
The third draft of this evening is Deep Shaft Stout* from the Freeminer Brewery in Wiltshire. Another 500ml bottle but up to a steady 6.2%abv. Now this is a much thicker beer. You can tell when you pour it by the way it tries to stay in the bottle. A thin and tight head forms coloured like a strong white coffee. Not as much aroma as the other two, and less complex, scents of coffee and roast malt.
The initial flavour is very strong, roast malt again but even more so. Almost overpowering in fact. A very burnt taste which reminds me of Marmite, which isn't my mate. Although the initial taste is strong, the aftertaste is more pleasant. This beer tries to convince you that it should be sipped slowly. You're not going to throw this one back, unless you happen to like the taste of burnt black goo. Maybe that was a bit harsh, the taste isn't actually unpleasant, just, er, not my mug of ale. The strange thing is, even though the beer has such a strong flavour, you can't actually tell it's a strong beer just by drinking it. Unlike some beers where you take a sip and exclaim 'Beejaysus! How strong?!?!?!?!' this is rather deceptive.
But no, this isn't one I'd buy again. There's nothing wrong with it at all, in fact for the style of stout it is, it's very good. More than that actually. Seeing as how this isn't the sort I'd buy, it's actually really rather drinkable. It seems that as you drink more of the beer, you get more used to the initial taste. And the lingering flavour defiantly makes it worth while. So don't be put off if your first mouthful makes you scream and cry blue murder, like so many things in life, after the first couple of times, you may even start to enjoy it.
So, overall, drink the first few mouthfuls without it touching the sides and it might well become a favourite.
Our next draft of the evening and moving up strengths once again and we have Samuel Smith's brewery of Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, Imperial Stout, at a hefty 7% and a miserly 330ml bottle. Not much of a head on this very dark brew.
The aroma is rather sharp and slightly lagerish, but sweeter. The initial taste though is very delicate, merely hinting at the roasted malt in there. The taste, though, gets more dominant as it lingers on your tongue. Leaving a very pleasant, sweet caramel taste.
The strength of this brew does hit you quite early on though, after a few mouthfuls you start to notice the 7% involved. Although it does drink easily, too easily for something this strong. Which could well be why it's sold in smaller bottles... once you can't get the lid off, it's time to stop.
One thing that is noticeable with this drink is that the aroma lasts. Usually during a beer it's likely that you stop noticing the scent as you drink down the glass. This beer however keeps assaulting your nasal passages. And it seems to have a tendency to leave a lining on your tongue. Not unpleasant, mind, as it keeps the flavour there even when you're not actively drinking it. Which is nice, as long as you like the beer. But then if you didn't like the beer, you're not likely to be drinking it.
Further down the glass and the beer takes on a slightly sharper taste to the sweetness, balancing out the flavour rather nicely. The beer ends back on a sweet note, leaving a warming flavour.
Finally we're moving on to the strongest of my selection, Guinness Special Export. At a whopping 8%abv, this really isn't for the faint of heart. Now, bottled Guinness is nothing like the draught version that you get in so many pubs these days. It's brewed more for flavour and texture than for quick and cold dispense. Saying that, let's move onto the beer and it's miserly 330ml bottle. Must be something about strong beers.
Now, this beer has a meaty aroma, almost like roast beef or rich gravy. There is little sign of the strength in the aroma as there is in many strong beers. A tight, but thin head dissipates quickly, unlike it's draught counterpart. This beer is brewed rather than designed.
Meatiness appears again in the taste. It's said that Guinness is something you eat rather than drink, and this tastes like food as well. It doesn't have the same thickness as draught, more of a cloying texture.
It's hefty with a full flavour, but not an overpowering one. Way too easy to drink and very nice. Really the only thing it has in common with the draft pint is the brewery. And not even that really. The bottled Special Export is still brewed in Dublin, whereas most Guinness sold in English pubs is brewed in London.
Smooth, slightly sweet with a hefty body. This isn't a quaffing brew, this is serious stuff. Nice to finish on as the lingering taste is very pleasant and not in the slightest bit over powering.
So to sum up the evening...
Stouts are a very looked over part of the British* brewing trade. A lot of breweries produce them, but the current trend is for light, golden ales. But for a night in relaxing while the weather outside gets worse and worse, you can't go far wrong with a bottle or two of stout to keep you warm.
Flavour and strength vary throughout the range that is available, so take a chance and experiment. Although, I wouldn't advise drinking too many one after the other.