Tapstone, Opium Wars. A beer on the silky side of hoppiness.

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.

Pump clip

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.

Zen Garden

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.

Opium Wars

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.

 

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Beer & Bacon I hear you say?

So last Saturday and Sunday, this happened. The inaugural Beer and Bacon Festival in Topsham. I had my instructions which were to not get drunk. Well, I’m sure I could cope with that. All I want is a tiny little taste………of as much beer as I can lay my hands on! The food was good too, but much of it resembled something like a Peppa Pig jigsaw. Don’t get me wrong, I love bacon. Who doesn’t? But the real reason for the visit was the beer after all.

Now on stepping up to the bar I see a few names I recognise and some I don’t. The Exeter Brewery and The Exe Valley brewery were present along with Branscombe Vale Brewery who brought with them Branscombe Mild. Now this beer is something of a rarity in these parts as apparently us southerners don’t drink a pint o mild any longer and most of it ends up a little further north!
Hanlons were also here, unfortunately their Copper Glow had all been drunk but the Port Stout was still on. Now if you like a good malty, toasty, chocolatey stout, this is one for you. It’s not heavy at all and the tickle of port and fruitiness of the hops just finish it off nicely.

Now, tucked in the corner of the main marquee I made a truly fantastic discovery; The Occasional Brewing Company. These guys have only been around for a matter of weeks, but they really know how to brew something special.  When I saw a chalk board with the words Hop, Porter, IPA and Fragaria, I knew walking away would be a mistake.

Small batches, rammed full of passion, knowledge and the odd fake moustache, have lead to some truly outstanding and unique beers. It’s so refreshing to see a new, local brewery, so excited by their work.

The flavour the OBC have managed to cram inside their beers just blew me away. The pales’ are all so fruity and bitter, and their dry crispness really makes for a clean drink. The porter, which I will add was supplied with a full background talk on its history, is sublime. Massive fruit notes but malty and toasty at the same time. Really quaffable and oh so addictive!

I was intrigued by the Fragaria, as not only had I never seen a beer by that name, but if I’m honest I’m not sure I’d even heard the word before? Fragaria, a genus of flowering plants in the rose family known as strawberries for their edible fruits. Now that’s all well and good for the biological geeks, but what about the beer? I’ll be honest I’ve never been a fan of fruit beers, but this is different, very different. Forget Frulli and all the fruity wheat beers, this has a refined taste of strawberries with a subtle hint of vanilla coupled to a fine stout base. All of this makes for a beer that’s in a league of its own. It’s just sweet enough without being overpowering and the smoothness of the vanilla and stout really make this beer a joy to drink.

Right, that leaves just one more Occassional Beer. The horrendously massive Imperial IPA. I truly believe they lost count of the number of hop varieties they crammed into this beer. It also wouldn’t surprise me if they forgot they had this brewing, and ended up with the truly breathalyser insulting 9.6% ABV when they realised it was still there! Now for me, this is what it’s all about. Unashamedly, almost offensively, massively hopped pale ale. Surprisingly darker than I expected, but still with a glorious deep golden hue. This beer is immense, like the Yorkie of beers; no balls, need not apply. This is a brew to savour, if you can manage to not sup it all up at once. Your heart will race as it sets your buds on fire. All those hops really set it off and you actually end up with a very drinkable beer. The aftertaste almost burns as it sets your mouth alive. And all of that happens long after the aroma rids you of all known nasal ailments.
I’m so impressed with the Occasional Brewing Company, you now have a customer for life.