In November, I got a message about this beer. Turns out it was from Tom Newman, the head brewer of The Celt Experience. He asked if I would be interested in writing about their full range of beers, and how they each relate to food. Samples would be sent over for me to taste. Rubaiyat Wine and Spirit Merchants stepped in and offered to bring them in for me. Things always work out when you have friends.
At first, the plan for this piece was to focus on pairing each beer with a specific food or flavour profile. But over the course of tasting and then drinking them over (a simple Chinese) dinner, it became evident that simply talking about what food to pair with each ale was not going to present a complete picture. As a wine drinker, I think it's more meaningful to dig a bit deeper and really examine what constitutes a fine beer (or if there is even such a thing), and the situations which call for a corkscrew, or a bottle opener.
So we tasted through the beers, in order of texture - to make sure my palate would follow a natural progression, we started with the hoppiest, ending with the most heavily roasted ale. Since Tom was kind enough to send me two bottles of each beer, for a total of 10, I was able to set up one as a strict tasting, and the other to drink over food. And let's quickly get something out of the way.
The beers are extraordinary, absolutely captivating.
Fine wine has certain tangible characteristics. Balance in fruit, acid, alcohol, and oak. A fine and elegant texture, and length on the palate. Structure to allow for aging and further development in the bottle. And of course, the intangibles . . . that true and authentic expression of terroir, the inimitable personality and character of where/when/how the wine was made. So how do we define a fine beer? Surely a set of different criteria needs to be applied. Beer, by nature, is a simpler drink. More dependant on brewing styles than any strictly regional tendencies - vintages also don't apply, and in most cases, aging containers are best when neutral. I remember a particularly vile oak aged bottle of Innis & Gunn that managed to taste more of wood than beer.
So how is fine beer to be defined? Balance, for one. Malt, hops, the quality of the roast . . . no single element overriding any other. Texture is also important, as is a dry finish. One thing I also look for in beer is harmony of its elements. What you don't want to see is the beer falling apart in the glass, where the flavour of the roasted malts seem to drift out, sitting on the top like a thick layer of caramel. Quality of its head of foam, how it laces the glass. Hops are also important too, not only in quality, but in balance. There's been a (North American) trend of making as bitter of a beer as possible. Bitterness is good and proper for ales, but so is balance. It has to taste like it belongs, not a shock to the palate. And finally, fine beer is not skunky beer. Unlike wine, rusticity in beer is not an indication of fine character - it's a sign that something wrong happened during the brewing process. I can't drink Belgian beers anymore, because they still insist on convincing you that skunky brews are good. Whether it's an issue of hygiene during brewing, or bad yeast strains, or maybe something a bit more sinister . . . stinky beers are no fun for anyone.
It was an absolute joy to taste these beers. All organic ales, each is given a proprietary name relating to Welsh history. I tried to frame each beer by general type: the Bleddyn 1075, a pale ale; the Golden and Bronze, examples of more traditional English ales; the Native Storm, a brown ale; and the Dark-Age, a stout. All of them low in alcohol too, an important factor in determining balance. All the beers hover around 4.0% alcohol, with the exception of the Bleddyn 1075 at 5.6%. The bottles are nicely packaged in the 50 cL format and each different beer is distinguished by the label colour. The back labels are very informative, giving drinkers a bit of background on the name, as well as how the beer was made. For example, on the Bleddyn 1075:
Bleddyn ap Cynfyn was ruler of Gwynedd and Powys and probably of Cerdigion and Brycheiniog as well, and undoubtedly the most powerful Welsh king. After his death in 1075, his sons were too young to rule, and his dominions passed into the hands of a cousin Trahaern ap Caradog. This delicious pale strong ale has an original gravity of 1075 with a high mash temperature leaving a fine full bodied texture. Generous US and New Zealand variety hopping gives a very bitter tongue, which is complemented by a crisp sweetness and a delicious citrus and grapefruit aroma.
To begin, I want to first share my tasting notes for each beer. All the beers were tasted at a cool temperature, but were not chilled. Final thoughts to follow.
Celt Experience Bleddyn 1075
What I see as the pale ale of the lineup. Bright amber colour, with a great rocky head of foam. Fresh aroma, sort of that freshly cut grain; fragrant. Hops begin on the palate, roars halfway and continues to the finish - just a tremendous wall of bitterness. Harmonious indeed, great transition on the palate, very pure. Compact and austere.
Celt Experience Golden
More leaning toward a traditional style of ale? Round aromatics, quite open on the palate. Hops bring balance and complexity, but don't intrude. Linear, and very well made. Palate shows same impeccable harmony.
Celt Experience Bronze
Darker in colour than the previous two beers. The roasted character is evident. Balanced hops, which rise every so slightly on the finish. Dry on the palate, very fresh. Good amount of richness on the palate.
Celt Experience Native Storm
A more traditional English brown ale, with that round, malty nose. Follows on palate, which starts with some sweetness and a good amount of soft texture. Pleasant and friendly, a warming ale. Hops rise only on the finish, gently.
Celt Experience Dark-Age
The stout. Fresh aromas on the bouquet - roasted yes, but hardly like the mocha char I was expecting. That richness does come up on the palate, good texture, but lean. Hoppy finish, maybe not as much weight as a Guinness, for comparisons sake, but no less satisfying. Friendlier with food, certainly - much less likely to sit on top of the food and obliterate any flavours.
So at the end of it all, have we answered the question of what makes a fine beer, and what situation calls for beer over wine? I think I have a better understanding now, at least with the first one. Fine beer is balanced, it's complex, yet has to retain a drinkability. And Celt Experience has all of those characteristics. All the beers are well made, and most importantly, are genuine. There's a sensibility to them that makes them perfect for the table, unlike certain West Coast IPA's that look to blow your head off.
As for when to choose beer over wine? That's a silly question. It all depends on context - company, mood, season, whatever . . . and as long as there are fine wines and fine beers to choose from, we'll be alright. Much appreciation to Tom and Becky for sharing their beers with me, and a hearty cheers to everyone at Celt Experience.