Relations haven’t always been good between Americans and Brits — this year marks the 200th anniversary of British troops burning the White House. Next year will mark the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill — an apparent British victory that actually demonstrated the resilience and vigor of the Colonial army. I’m all in favor of letting bygones be bygones, though, and finding common ground through beer.
Cottage Hill Package Store (at the corner of Cottage Hill and Hillcrest) has been my go-to spot to buy British beers ever since I moved to Mobile and it’s undergoing an expansion that promises an even bigger and better selection. If you haven’t visited lately, I strongly suggest you stop by. They’ve taken over the space next door and knocked down the wall to create a store that’s not only stocking more beer but is also more comfortable for the claustrophobic (or clumsy) among us.
What’s there to drink? Plenty of malt-forward British ales, porters and stouts ideal for cooler weather or just a change of pace from our much-beloved American craft beers. Call me fickle, but every now and then I get tired of hop-forward grapefruity American Pale Ales and want a brew from the dark (malty) side. This doesn’t mean the beers aren’t edgy; it’s just that the edge comes from roasted grain, not from tangy hops.
First up among my four British winners is Bombardier, brewed by the Wells and Young’s Brewing Company (Bedford, England). It’s the UK’s largest private brewing company, not secretly owned by some large international conglomerate. Bombardier pours the color of un-iced tea or gleaming cherry furniture — no hint of cloud — with a firm, foamy light-tan head. The taste is rich, with a medium body and balance achieved through two malt and two hop varieties blended in seemingly equal measure. It’s malty but not gluey and there is no fruit, although there is a sharpish edge on the finish. Its medium carbonation is nicely positioned between the tongue-scrubber and the flat.
Overall, Bombardier is a clean, fresh brew — but you shouldn’t confuse those words with “light.” The first sip made me think “Bring me a pie.” Not apple — steak and kidney, or Shepherd’s. This ale washes down foods that resist downward washing, including burgers and Reubens and fries. It’s also remarkably good with smoked salmon, cream cheese and red onion on a bagel. In short, it cuts the fat. (5.2 percent ABV; $5-ish for a 500-ml bottle.)
Next is a beer that I love almost as much for its advertising as for its taste: Hobgoblin Dark English Ale, from Wychwood Brewery (Witney, Oxfordshire, England). I hate to admit being drawn in by advertising, but when the label’s axe-wielding goblin asks “What’s the matter, lager boy … afraid you’ll taste something?” — well, that’s the kind of attitude I like. And then there’s Witney, a delightful town set in one of England’s most scenic counties. I suppose it all combines to make you want to like the beer, but Hobgoblin doesn’t really need any help.
Similar to Bombardier, Hobgoblin pours a gleaming copper color with zero cloudiness and a creamy, tan head. It has inviting, if faint, malty aromas and a malty sip — but not a heavy one — with hints of wood and smoke. Hobgoblin is a substantial beer, but with medium body it’s not a slog. Its darkness doesn’t venture into the “coffee roasted” end of the spectrum, and there’s a definite hop zing on the finish — bitter without adding citrus. As for pairing, this beer isn’t afraid to stand alone — and I actually prefer it that way. Add a bowl of nuts or chips, or maybe a burger, and you’re set. Just don’t put blue cheese on that burger, and keep it out of your buffalo-wing sauce. It’s weird, but Hobgoblin wages a war on blue cheese that — lager boy or not — you really don’t want to taste. (5.2 percent ABV; $5 for a 500-ml bottle.)
During my most recent trip to Cottage Hill Package I discovered they’d become a virtual storehouse of Samuel Smith’s beers (and ciders!) — hailing from “The Old Brewery” in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, England. If anyplace rivals Oxfordshire for scenic beauty, and an embarrassment of brewery riches, it’s North Yorkshire. Samuel Smith’s has been brewing in Tadcaster since 1758, and longevity doesn’t come from making shabby beer.
First I tried “The Famous Taddy Porter,” which pours a polished-ebony darkness topped by a milk-chocolate, long-lasting head. It smells of roasted malt; no citrus lives here. Despite the midnight color, the mouth feel is medium-bodied — not nearly as heavy or viscous as it looks. There’s a grainy (not gritty) quality to the taste, with a slight smoky-cola edge. Interestingly, Taddy Porter has a coffee note on the back palate that sneaks up the back of your nose. Like Hobgoblin, I think this beer stands best alone; just add potato chips. (5.0 percent ABV; $3.50 for a 550-ml bottle.)
After Taddy Porter I opened “The Celebrated Oatmeal Stout” from Samuel Smith, just to see how dark I could go. It actually pours very similar to Taddy, although when you hold it up to the light you’ll see it’s pretty nearly opaque, with a just perceptibly darker and creamier head. Oatmeal Stout’s aromas are livelier and richer, with a whiff of dark-molasses or dried-fig sweetness. There really is oatmeal in the mash, although it’s not apparent in the glass—unless it’s contributing to Stout’s creamy texture.
Oatmeal Stout is less fizzy than Taddy Porter (and the least fizzy of the four beers I’ve mentioned), and has more coffee notes. Its finish leans toward bittersweet chocolate. And if you’ve been waiting for a full-bodied, filling beer—this is it. If you close your eyes as you drink, you can imagine yourself in an old coaching inn with a beamed ceiling, a log fire and men wearing flat caps. It’s beer from another era, and we’re lucky it’s here in Mobile. (5.0 percent ABV; $6 for a 550-ml bottle.)