Camden Versus Odell Baltic Porter

IMG_20130630_192327

Porter is a beer style that makes even the most knowledgeable beer experts a little nervous. Many a beer blogger has had to fumble together a paragraph that kind-of-but-not-entirely explains how, if at all, porter is different from stout. I’m not going to do so here. We’ve all got lives to live. I’ve tried before, but others have done it better. That’s what makes Baltic Porter so special. It has discernable characteristics that set it apart. What started out as an export-strength porter for sale in the Baltic states in the 18th century, became so well-loved it was adopted by them. By the mid-19th century, it was being made with cold-fermenting ale yeast or lager yeast, transforming it into something quite different.

Fast forward to May 17th 2013. Odell brewmaster and all-round lovely gent Doug Odell is brewing a collaborative beer with Camden Town Brewery. The audacious aim is a violent, schizophrenic fusion of Odell’s seminal Cutthroat Porter and Camden Town’s award winning Hells Lager. The result: Camden Versus Odell, a Baltic porter at 7% abv. I remember being baffled by the facing off of lager and porter, but after thinking about what a Baltic porter really is, it actually makes perfect sense. Cutthroat is full-bodied but incredibly balanced beer that glides silkily across the palate, and is even-handed in its dispensing of cocoa and coffee. Hells, meanwhile, is the clean, classy everyman of the booming London beer scene. Easy to like and hard to hate, it just shines with quality, depth, bite and refreshment. All things considered, it’s a grand heritage.

IMG_20130627_200702

On June 27th, Camden Versus Odell was launched at Camden Town Brewery where it was brewed. Head brewer Alex Troncoso was present to talk about the beer (most of which came across as a rather adorable enthusiasm for being able to brew with Doug Odell). My anticipation for this beer had grown since that day back in May when the brewery was filled with the smell of what should be a cracking beer. Assembling such a Frankenstein’s monster should be easy, right? Cutthroat’s body and flavour with Hells’ clarity, balance and quaffability. What could go wrong?

Normally such a paragraph break would suggest that ‘well, actually, a whole goddamn lot can go wrong’. Thankfully, this is not the case. Camden Versus Odell is an accomplished, technically impressive and delicious Baltic porter. It wears its 7% abv strength not like a burden, but rather like an ostentatious crown befitting a Czar. The difference that a lager yeast and long (six week) maturation can have on a porter is quite remarkable. It arrives on your tongue in a forthright and unashamedly loud fashion. Quick, cold, carbonated bursts of coffee and cocoa that at first seem sharp and overly bitter melt into something soft and silky, ending with a crisp, roasty bite. The consensus of other drinkers I spoke to was that it was a sublimely balanced beer, and never tiring in its flavour or strength.

As the beer warms in the glass, there’s more to enjoy. Toffee sauce and chocolate chunks (like a tub of half-melted Ben & Jerry’s ice cream) pile up on the tongue, but just as the mouthfeel becomes thick, the crisp, dry finish cuts everything down, leaving you gasping for every sip. A 7% abv beer needs to be special in order to be this drinkable, and Camden Versus Odell is just such a beer. Fans of strong porter and black lager should seek it out while it’s still available, and if this beer is anything to go by, future releases from Camden’s ‘Versus Range’ will be unmissable.

IMG_20130517_152647

Disclaimer: I was invited to the launch of this beer at Camden Town Brewery, where half-pint measures of the beer were free from 7pm until 8pm. Needless to say, I had a few. My growler fill was paid for.

Odell Red Ale and Lugene Chocolate Milk Stout

IMG_20130527_172909

American-style red ales are possibly my favourite style at the moment. The rich, complex malt bill, often heavy in caramel, roasted and spicy notes, matched with the pith, pine and tropical fruit of hops is an irresistible combination. Odell’s Red Ale claims, or at least its label does, to have taken a new approach to American red ales. This is hard to agree with. It is still a fantastic beer, just not something terribly new or exciting.

The one thing this beer does impress with is its colour. I’ve never seen a red ale this red. It glows like a traffic light, but instead of in scarlet, it does so in a rich, warming, burnished autumnal red. It’s almost as pretty as the label on the bottle, which, let’s face it, is very easy on the eye. Odell’s Red Ale, whilst boasting of ferocious dry hopping, is more of a study in malt, and this is evident from the aroma alone. Imagine a plate piled high with golden syrup cookies, with golden syrup poured over them, then set alight and sprinkled with chocolate shavings and vanilla. It’s an amazing aroma that brings a nostalgic half-smile to your face without you realising. You know, that time we set fire to those cookies. What a day. Anyway, what I’m trying to say here is that it has a complex, biscuity and syrupy nose.

If you can bring yourself to stop smelling it for a second, you’ll find these aromas carry through pretty cleanly to the palate. Which is odd. Normally, a red ale is a heady muddle of flavours, but Odell’s has a clarity which is quite astounding. Those much-talked-of dry hops do make an appearance, adding piney, resinous stickiness to what is already red treacle in a glass, but not really providing the ‘kick’ that the goat-adorned label promises to provide. It’s certainly a dry finish, but the mouthfeel of the beer is so thick and oily that it really demands a firecracker hop barrage to even it out.

There’s too much I like about Odell Red Ale to say that I’m disappointed by it, but I’m not as happy with it as I thought I would be.

IMG_20130527_182131

As all the other beers I’ve had of Odell’s have been hop-dominant, it seems weird to have two malt-driven beasts in a row. Nevertheless, I was excited to try their Lugene Chocolate Milk Stout, if, again, only because its label is so goddamn exquisite. Heaven knows how they managed to make a hairy old cow’s mush eating chocolate look so damn appealing.

Lugene pours like flat cola; it’s one of those strong stouts that seems lively with a brown head of foam, but disappears in seconds, leaving you with a glass of thin crude oil. The aroma is dominated by the beer’s strength, a rambunctious 8.5%. Beyond the alcoholic, medicinal note, there isn’t much in the way of chocolate on the nose. There’s some, sure, but not as much as I would expect a ‘chocolate milk stout’ to have. There’s a bit of instant coffee and cocoa powder, but it all feels a little lacklustre.

Not great omens for the taste, you might think, and you’d be right. What starts out warming, prickly sweet and cocoa-bitter, turns flat and limp quite quickly. You go back for more, but it never quite delivers. What Lugene is, bizarrely, is a session 8.5% chocolate stout. The alcohol, so present in the nose, is just a slightly medicinal aftertaste. The barely noticeable chocolate has perked up somewhat, but is ironically hampered by the overall sweetness of the beer. Whether this is due to the amount of unfermented lactose (this is still a milk stout after all) left in the finished product, or just a clumsy imbalance of flavours, is beyond my own detection.

What I do know is that I have somehow found the two least impressive Odell beers I have ever tasted. I didn’t intend to write a blog post deriding one of my favourite American breweries, but here we are. I have had four or five absolutely stunning beers from Odell, and have just tasted two that have really left me underwhelmed. Do you agree? Have I just had a bad batch or have you had similar experiences with Odell beers? Let me know in the comments.

Coming Soon: Camden Versus Odell

IMG_20130517_152647

Now here’s a thing for the style purists: a quite literal mash-up of Camden Hells Lager and Odell Cutthroat Porter into a 7% black monster. Black Lager Porter? Blagorter? Anyway, this hybrid madness was being brewed at Camden Town Brewery on Friday. I went down for the afternoon, and whatever it is they’re brewing, it smelled pretty amazing. Doug Odell himself was in the building, and might be the nicest brewer anyone has ever met. Some American craft brewers come across as suspiciously PR-slick or boisterously brash. Doug has the persona of a kindly uncle, happy to crack open a beer and talk shop with people he’s barely known five minutes.

Anyway, for those of you still trying to get your head around the Blagorter concept (and I include myself in that group), you can get a first taste of the finished beer at the end of June. After all, it is partly a lager, so it needs a good six weeks in tank to mature properly. Given how excellent both Odell and Camden’s beer are, I suspect that this will be something very special, and will sell out very quickly.

Speaking of special things in the pipeline, soon we will be able to enjoy Camden Town Brewery beer in cans. That’s right, more quality canned beer for the UK, which is great news. Mark Dredge was kind enough to do some tours of the brewery on Friday, showing off new bits and pieces, including a compact canning line. Camden Hells in cans will hopefully be a reality by June, with USA Hells also in the running for being canned. I think the Camden branding will look fantastic on a can, and I’m thirsty just thinking about the prospect of a summer involving cans of USA Hells…

IMG_20130517_182323

Back in the brewery bar, there was even more excellent beer available than usual. Odell IPA, Lugene milk chocolate stout, Myrcenary Double IPA, 5 Barrel Pale Ale and more besides were in the fridges, whilst a keg of Odell’s Friek sour was put on tap against Camden’s own King Crimson. Friek is a sensational wild ale that is both raspberry tart and strawberry sweet. King Crimson meanwhile had a sublime, wine-like texture, and a rich, smooth body of red fruit and sourness that made it far easier to drink than it had any right to be.

After ordering another mind-bendingly delicious Boss Hogg from the Dogfather stand outside (I don’t have a problem, okay?), I thought it would be rude not to try a couple of other Odell beers. The Five Barrel Pale Ale washed the hot dog down nicely, working almost like liquid Turkish Delight to sooth the heat and enhance the sweetness of relish and spice. After that, the exquisite Myrcenary IPA, named for its recipe designed to include the highest amounts of bitterness compound Myrcene, cleansed my palate with its indulgent, oily-slick combination of pine and pith. It also has a fantastic label – one of my all-time favourites – depicting some kind of Olde Timey hop robber making his getaway on a motorcycle with sidecar.

I also got some bottles to take home: a bottle of the Lugene milk chocolate stout and the tasty-looking Red Ale. And, naturally, I filled my Gentleman’s Beer Conveyance with USA Hells. I’ll put up reviews of those bottled beers later in the week.

IMG_20130517_214932