Brewer of, perhaps, the most interesting beer at the recent CAMRA Festival of Winter Ales in Exeter, is the Tapstone Brewing Co, and that beer is Opium Wars. Billed as ‘An unfined dark brown beer. Strong hop aroma and citrus flavours and a lingering finish’ it is in actual fact an oily, black IPA. Unfortunately by the time I’d managed to get myself to the festival, this beer had run out. However, on further investigation I discovered that the Tapstone Brewing Co is based in Chard, and I have just started a new job working out of, you’ve guessed it, Chard. So, off I went to find the brewery and get me some of that beer.
Chard is not a big place, and neither is the industrial estate on which the brewery is based, but could I find it? Eventually after driving round and round for the whole of my lunch break, I saw a clue. A white van parked outside a nondescript unit with beer casks peeking out of it’s open door. This has to be it, and there it was. The unit door was open so in I walked, to find James Davies, the brewer. After a quick introduction, I was led into the business part of the brewery. Not big either, but all the kit was there and the room smelled absolutely incredible. I’m sure James’s nose has become accustomed to the smell, but it was a glorious dose of fruity tropical hops, and I was in heaven.
At the rear of the brewery are the two main vessels, and contained in one was the next batch Opium Wars. Still conditioning, I was told it wouldn’t be ready for a couple of weeks. We discussed pumps and flow rates, and agreed that I should return after said conditioning time had elapsed.
A few weeks later I returned to the brewery. When I arrived James was casking up a new, low abv beer, called Zen Garden. At 3.6% this is the lowest strength beer that the brewery has produced. The aim was to create a massively hopped, light beer with a decent body. And after a quick taste, I can confirm that it’s pretty much met that mark.
We picked up from our previous conversation and began to talk oxygen and the way that it affects beer. James’s desire to rule out any oxidation that could occur is evident when you see just how full my bottle was. But even filled to this level James isn’t satisfied. As in his mind, the bottle should be filled to the brim, to fully preserve all the hoppy goodness contained within and prevent any oxidation from occurring.
Now, back to the main reason for my visits, Opium Wars. This beer never usually reaches bottles, in fact, none of Tapstone’s beer usually ever makes it into bottles. So I have been very fortunate to be able to obtain this bottle and I am also very grateful.
Let’s start with the label. With its simple graphics and just enough information to tell you what’s inside, it’s like what you’d expect to find on a white label promo record. And during my record collecting days, these ‘white labels’ were the hens teeth and most collectable of all records. I’ve still got boxes of vinyl, all doing exactly what I’m not going to do with this beer, ageing.
The beer, pours a very dark brown with its grassy, roasted chocolate notes making their way around the room and deep into your nostrils. As it’s luscious, slick, velvety body lands on your tongue, your senses are kicked into life by the light citrus, cherries and bitter chocolate contained within. And the presence of the dark chocolate leaves behind a sublime bitter finish that just lingers, and lingers, and lingers.
This is a truly stunning example of a black IPA, it’s not just an unfined dark brown beer with a strong hop aroma, citrus flavours and a lingering finish. No, this is much, much more than that. The depth of the flavour and complexity are outstanding. It’s balanced too. The aroma hits you first and that flavour just drags you in. Not to mention the feel of the thing. It’s absolutely magnificent.