Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Black Sheep Brewery - Black Sheep Ale

As I was planning all along, I'm posting the review of a true English Ale here. It comes to us from Black Sheep Brewery way up in Masham, North Yorkshire. My friend and I each took one with lunch while we were in York, and we both thoroughly enjoyed it.

Black Sheep Brewery began life in 1992, and ironically enough, Black Sheep Ale was their first ever beer. It is widely popular domestically, as well as internationally. In addition to the Black Sheep Ale, they brew a wide assortment of beers ranging from porters to bitters, pale ales to golden ales, as well as a selection of seasonal releases. All of these are available in both bottle and in cask.

Delving deeper into the Black Sheep Ale, we'll take note that it is in fact an English Bitter. If you haven't ever heard of this type of beer before don't let the name fool you. One might easily assume these beers are, well, bitter, but this is rarely the case. A Bitter Ale and a Pale Ale are exactly the same thing, it just so happens that the English prefer to call their Pale Ales, Bitters. While hops will certainly be noticeable, both in the aroma and the flavor, they are almost certainly not the dominant flavoring agent. In fact, most of the bitter ales I have tasted have never been extremely bitter, and while visiting the UK I even struggled to find an ale that would satisfy my need for hops, as very hoppy beers tend to be my favorite. Many english ales tend to be low in alcohol, some (referred to as Boy's Bitters) extend below the 3% mark, however the majority will fall in between the 3 to 5% margin. On the other end of the spectrum there are the Strong Bitters (Bitters which stretch beyond the 7% mark) on the market. I'm actually sitting on a Strong English Bitter which weighs in at 8%; I am hoping to review later, and I'm hoping it is incredibly hoppy. Most English Pubs will offer beers ranging between 3 to 5% with the occasional beer above 6%. This particular offering weighs in at 4.4%, so it lands right in the middle of the range.

I purchased this beer at Nelsons Specialty Beer and Wine Store just a 2 minute walk from South Wimbledon Underground Station, in South London. On my first visit, I spoke with the owner about the emergence of small craft breweries in the UK and he said they were beginning to gain popularity. I never asked him about the market for such beer, I should have, but I still reserve the right to say that in my experience, it seems it has been difficult for Europe to break from the classic styles they are famous for. I'm not saying the beer is not good, it's excellent, some of these breweries have been brewing the same style of beer since the 12th Century and I suppose keeping that in mind is important. It is always difficult breaking from tradition. It definitely requires a new-age brewer to come along and challenge the traditional styles. But are they widely accepted in the world of beer in Europe? There are already plenty of examples of breweries breaking from the norm and brewing off the wall beers; I had a Sour Cherry Stout earlier this week, and I've a bottle of Rook & Vuur (Smoke and Fire), a smoked stout brewed with chillies. I will definitely do my best to show these places to you. But are these new-age beers widely popular? That is the question, and I'm not yet sure, but I'll definitely find out. Anyway, moving along here, let's get to the beer, and then see if you can go track down a bottle of Black Sheep Ale for yourself...

Name: Black Sheep Ale
Category/Style: English Bitter
ABV: 4.4%
IBU: Unknown
OG: Unknown
Malt Types: Maris Otter malted barley, Crystal
Hop Types: Challenger, Progress, Goldings
Yeast Type: Unknown
Special Additives: None
Bottled: Unknown
Bottle Size: 500 mL
Location of Purchase: 31 Castlegate, York, England

The Pour: Clear amber and light red copper hues on the pour. Creamy off-white head. Nice retention. Nice lacing.

The Nose: Stale wheat bread, earthy and yeasty. Grassy hops, slight nutty almond-like notes, sweet caramel, straw and toasted malt.

The Taste: Initially bright and bitter, crisp and caramely sweet, quite refreshing, a little dark roasted malt, wet earth and moss. Mouthfeel is light and the carbonation is tingly. Bittersweet chocolate and cocoa. Quite dry on the finish. Bitterness on the finish lingers but is not overpowering; definitely a noticeable amount of noble hops in there. Each sip makes me want more.

The Verdict: The beer was a nice complement to the cajun chicken salad I ordered. The beer was dark but not heavy, very drinkable and very refreshing. I enjoyed the complexity of it as it was sweet, bitter, chocolatey, earthy, and malty; all very good things to have in one beer. Given the opportunity I would definitely have another, and I'm sure you can find it somewhere back home in US :]

Thanks for reading!


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