Gift packs are a relatively new phenomenon in the real ale world – multipacks of beers on a theme for easy purchase in supermarkets. Either several beers showcasing one producer, or a mixed pack giving a selction, they serve as a safe bet for people willing to go above the usual randomly-chosen bottles for that real ale fan. But are they any good? One such gift set is Great British Ales, which consists of two beers from England and one each from Wales and Scotland. Unfortunate for real ale fans in Northern Ireland then – maybe a true British Ales selection could include one from somewhere like the Whitewater Brewery? Anyway, be that as it may, this particular pack features four ales – here’s the BeerCast’s verdict…
Black Dog 3.6%
Elgoods Brewery, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire
“Our award-winning dark mild, full of roast malt flavour” says the back of the bottle – and we love an award-winning ale here on the BeerCast. A mild though? Our (admittedly limited) experience of that particular style of beer hasn’t been a good one until now. But Black Dog is really rather good. It is roasty, with a touch of the dreaded caramel and a dark molasses aftertaste – it’s almost like a shandy version of Theakston’s Old Peculier. It certainly has more taste than any of the milds I’ve had before – probably put together.
Fraoch Heather Ale 5.0%
Heather Ales Ltd, Alloa, Scotland
We’re no strangers to Fraoch, indeed it featured in our BeerCast #23 when we looked at beers with unusual added ingredients. It scored 50% that day – we’re immune to accusations of Scottish favoritism here – even though it is produced by the affable Williams Brothers, Bruce and Scott. Pronounced ‘fro-ik’, it has a “floral peaty aroma, full malt body, a spicy herbal flavour and a dry wine like finish” according to the label. There is a dryness there, but it couples with the floral taste from the heather really very well.
Double Dragon Ale 4.2%
Felinfoel Brewery, Llanelli
‘The National Ale of Wales’ according to the boast on the label, Felinfoel’s Double Dragon pours a rich dark brown and has a seriously malty aroma. This continues in the taste – malt malt malt all the way, with a sweetness at the end. It actually gets sweeter the more you have. This is in no way negative – it’s a very good brown ale, and certainly belongs in the pack due to the style. It gets a bonus for being named after a tremendous 80’s computer game, as well.
Shepherd Neame, Faversham, Kent
Spitfire is also a British ale in the classic style, so no surprises to see it included in the selection. Amusingly it describes itself as ‘The Bottle of Britain’ – ho ho – yet it actually tastes pretty similar to the Double Dragon. Also a dark nutty brown colour, it has a consistent malty flavour. According to the tasting notes, a ‘generous aroma of tangy malt’ can be detected, and this is imparted on the taste as well – tangy is the word for this one. Average is another. It would be better if it was a bit stronger maybe, but it’s certainly drinkable.
Nothing stomach-churningly awful in the Great British Ales gift pack then – but what would we like to see in a similar set? We’re a British beer website after all. Despite my opening tirade, sadly we’ve yet to taste any beers from Northern Ireland so we’ll follow the country format of the original pack. Here are the BeerCast’s suggestions for a Great British Ales boxed set…
St Peter’s India Pale Ale 5.5%
St Peter’s Brewery, Suffolk
The first thing to package up is an IPA – just one of the many styles of beer we’ve given to the world. Admittedly several other countries have down a lot more with it since, but the 5%-ish India Pale Ale is one of the quintessential British beers. We’d be tempted to rock the boat with something like BrewDog’s Hardcore IPA, but as this is a mass-marketed boxed set, something classic like St Peter’s India Pale Ale, from Bungay in Suffolk. Hopped to survive lengthy voyages, it’s robust and really zesty.
Brains SA Gold 4.7%
Brains Brewery, Cardiff
Our Welsh offering is from the most successful brewery from the country – Brains. Their flagship beer is Brains SA, a dark coppery ale similar to Spitfire or Double Dragon (although none of the parties may appreciate the comparison). But they produce a fantastic golden ale which I enjoyed tremendously during a trip to the Welsh capital last year. Us Brits invented the golden ale – and pioneers like the wonderful Hop Back Summer Lightning and Exmoor’s Exmoor Gold are world-renowned. But they make great golden ales outside of the South West of England, too.
Yorkshire Terrier 4.2%
York Brewery, York
York Brewery was established in 1996 at the site of an old motorcycle showroom inside the city’s famous walls. Any foursome of ales from this part of the world has to include a premium best bitter – and Yorkshire Terrier certainly is that. Named after a small dog that used to be taken to work every day by it’s brewer owner, this one mixes well the lively hops and creamy malt. The Great British Ales set seems to be all about tradition, so there’s no chance we could put one out without a northern English bitter.
Dark Island 4.6%
Sinclair Brewery, Orkney
It would also be unforgivable to put out a best of British selection and not include a porter or a stout – and the very greatest exponent of that style is Sinclair Orkney Dark Island. Twice CAMRA Champion beer of Scotland, it’s an iconic standard bearer for traditional Scottish ales (their words, not mine). They never really refer to it as a porter, only a ‘very dark beer with a ruby tint’ – but however you pigeonhole it, Dark Island is wonderful. Chocolate, figs, dried fruit, it’s warming, malty and moreish, with hops on the finish. It’s at the very top of British beers.