Hybrid beers have failed to seduce Emma Inch in the past, but a new wave of drinks created with cidermakers has shone a light on how fermentation can blur the boundaries beautifully
I adore beer. Even before I was old enough to taste it, the smell that clouded out through the windows of the pub next door, and the curls of white foam that collected on my uncle’s moustache, fascinated me. As an adult, whether it’s a pint of cask in a dust-quiet pub, a cold lager on the beach, or a tart, Belgian sour alongside a meal I can’t afford, for me it’s always been beer.
In the drinks world, there’s often pressure on people like me to try ‘bridges’. I don’t mean the iron structures that would make Brunel proud, but those special libations that can tempt a drinker away from their favourite tipple to try something they may never have considered before.
I’ve been offered many bridges in my time, mostly beers that claim to join the dots with wine, spirits or even cocktails. Many of these turn out to be unsatisfying sour or lactose-sweet mixes that are neither one thing nor the other, and – like a child who can’t tolerate her baked beans touching her chips – I usually push them aside after one sip. However, a couple of years ago I accidentally stumbled across a bridge that took me to a place I loved so much I had trouble finding my way back.
Serpent, released in 2016, is the result of a collaboration between Thornbridge Brewery, Brooklyn Brewery and Herefordshire cidermaker Tom Oliver.
The skill, not only of the brewer but also of the blender, elevates this drink beyond categories
It’s a Belgian-inspired golden ale aged on cider lees, the natural wild yeasts that are used to ferment traditional ciders. The first time I tasted the 9.5% abv brew, it felt like nothing I’d ever experienced. Dry, tart, a bit funky and utterly intriguing, it Dabinett apples, and Oliver’s Cider and Mills Brewing’s Foxbic, a lambic-style beer fermented together with Foxwhelp apple juice on cider lees.
Then there’s Four Friends, which was released just a few months ago. The blend is the result of a unique collaboration between three brewers – Burning Sky, Kernel and Mills Brewing – and Oliver’s Cider.
Eighteen months prior to release, a beer was brewed and then split into four parts. Each of these was then fermented in a barrel containing the distinct mixedfermentation culture – in Oliver’s case the cider lees – of one participant. Post-fermentation, small batches of each iteration of the beer were released, in addition to a spectacular blend of all four. The parts added up to a hybrid that combined a funk,
sourness and depth of flavour rarely found in either beer or cider alone. The skill, not only of the brewer but also of the blender, elevates this drink – and others like it – to a place almost beyond categories.
I’m pleased to say that on the far side of this bridge I crossed, I’ve discovered my existing love for mixed fermentation beer is mirrored in my new love for low-intervention cider. And from here, I’m able occasionally to catch a glimpse of another place. It remains to be seen, however, whether this beer lover finds natural wine a bridge too far.
Emma Inch is a UK drinks writer. She was the 2017 British Guild of Beer Writers Beer Writer of the Year and is behind the award-winning Fermentation Beer & Brewing Radio podcast. Find her at fermentationonline.com.
This column was first published in the 2020 autumn issue of Imbibe.