It’s a dull, dark night in early January, and ICIP has been lucky enough to be invited to a special dinner at The Bull in Highgate, north London, hosted by American brewery Rogue Ales. Established in Oregon in 1988, Rogue has been one of the frontrunners of the American beer revolution, and their chunky, distinctive bottles are a common sight in fridges in beer-loving bars across London.
This dinner was to mark a visit from their Brewmaster, John Maier, a man with a beard so famous it has its own Twitter account and blog. John has been visiting the UK primarily to brew with our friends at Adnams, and the resulting Brutal IPA is going to be featured in JD Wetherspoon pubs across the country.
Rogue had taken the opportunity to host this multi-course beer and food paired spectacular while John was passing through the capital, and as we duck out of the miserable weather into the cosy confines of The Bull the bar is already buzzing with brewers, beer writers and distributors eager to see what the night has in store.
Before we commence noshing, we start with an old favourite – Dead Guy Ale, a 6.5% maibock. With a beautiful red tint in the glass, the beer has a powerful malty nose but a hoppy finish courtesy of European Saaz and Perle that really lifts it. We’re off to a great start.
Next up are canapés – sesame prawns with a sweet and sour veggie garnish – accompanied by a glass of Beard Beer (5.5%), a brew with a backstory so crazy, we thought it was a joke until we had it confirmed by John himself. The legend goes that the yeast for this Belgian beer was cultivated in John’s beard. Apparently they snipped a bit off, took it to the lab, and brewed with the resulting strain. John has been growing his beard since 1978, and his yeast has certainly produced a fine vintage (sorry). It packs the classic Belgian aromas you’d expect, bready and rich, and has tart red fruit flavours. It’s a good foil for the sweet and sour Asian flavours as well as providing enough carbonation to cut through the palate-coating sauce.
We take our seats for our starter, which is a fondue made with the very beer we will be enjoying next – Chipotle Ale (5.5%). This amber ale is brewed with jalapeño peppers, which, John tells us, Rogue grow themselves on their farm back in Oregon. Rogue now grow a huge amount of their own produce, and John proudly reels off a list for us – hops, barley, rye, hazelnuts, marionberries – even pumpkins, which he says they slow roast for a week in a pizza oven to caramelise them before they’re used in their Pumpkin Patch Ale. Twenty kilos of smoked chillies are added to each brew of Chipotle Ale, tied up in a bag and added to the kettle during the boil. The result is a beer with a subtly smoky nose, a big punch of maltiness and a well-judged warmth to finish. It blends fabulously with our fondue, adding a depth and richness to the cheese.
Rogue’s passion for locally-sourced ingredients is made even more apparent with their next offering – OREgasmic Ale (6.5%). This IPA is brewed exclusively using ingredients from Rogue’s home state, Oregon. John tells us that this full-bodied beer uses many hop varieties, all grown by the brewery, and that its strong malt backbone allows them to hop it hard. This, he says, stops it from becoming “so bone dry it crunches your palate”. The beer is paired with confit duck served with a waffle and maple glaze, and it works nicely. There are the familiar punchy pine and citrus notes from the US hops, but it is balanced by a slight caramel sweetness. It managed to walk the tightrope and both cuts through the fatty meat and complements the sweet waffle and glaze.
We’re a little alarmed when our hosts present us with bubblegum pink bottles of Voodoo Doughnut Pretzel, Raspberry & Chocolate Ale (5.4%). To call the packaging eye-catching would be an understatement, and as a rule we are not fans of crazily-flavoured beers. The nose doesn’t encourage us – it literally smells of jam doughnuts, and while jam doughnuts are very nice, this is not a doughnut. This is meant to be a beer. John tells us that the base for this beer is the Mocha Porter, and that it is de-hopped before the other eyebrow-raising ingredients are added. This is one of several collaborations with Oregon-based Voodoo Doughnuts, and appropriately it is being served with cinnamon doughnuts and chocolate sauce. Despite our trepidation, the beer holds its own. In the same way that it didn’t smell like beer, it certainly doesn’t taste of doughnuts or pretzels. “They wanted to add stuff like pretzels to the lauter tun,” John remembers, “and I said sure, but you’ll never be able to taste them!”. While he’s right on the baked goods front, the less sweet elements – the bitter cocoa and sharp raspberry – really do come through, and the subtly parching mouthfeel helps cut through the sweet stodginess of our dessert. We’re pleasantly surprised, and have learned yet again not to judge a beer by its bottle.
Next up are our petit fours, which once again incorporate the beer they are paired with – Allegro Coffee Porter. This 7.2% Baltic Porter was added to the most delicious peanut butter and chocolate truffles we have ever eaten, and the bitterness of the toasted malt perfectly cuts through the mouth-coatingly rich treats. John tells us that strong cold-infused coffee is used – and you certainly get this both on the nose and on the palate – but there is a sweetness there too, a hint of caramel, or maybe vanilla.
Just when we thought the night couldn’t get much better, we’re presented with our digestif – a generous glass of XS I²PA – a seriously intense Imperial IPA clocking in at 9.5%. John tells us that this beer was dry hopped with a range of Rogue’s own US hops, which explains both the resin and pine notes and the tang of citrus on the nose. The parching hoppy bitterness you’d expect from the style is well-balanced with an almost caramel flavour from the malt. It is delicious and far too drinkable for the ABV.
Like many other breweries, there is a distinctive signature flavour detectable in all of their beers. While this is often down to the yeast a brewer favours, in this case, I think that the “Rogue” quality is all down to their use of malt, much of it home-grown. Personally, I’m really not a hophead (that’s Liz’s department), and I think what I like about Rogue’s beers so much is that all of the styles, even the hoppiest IPAs, have a strong malt backbone that balances out any excessive punch of citrus or acerbic aftertaste that ensures you can’t drink anything else all evening. I even find myself polishing off my large helping of XS I²PA despite the fact that I usually steer well clear of Imperial IPAs all together.
Rogue are particularly known for their promotion of beer and food matching, their bottles and website providing the kind of detailed info on IBUs and attenuation you don’t often see, and they make pairing suggestions for all their beers. This is a topic that sparks plenty of discussion on our somewhat international table: we are sitting with both a Dutch and an Italian beer importer. We go on to chat at length about beer’s perceived lack of sophistication when compared to wine, why this has come about, and how this misconception can be challenged. We talk about beer’s current image, both in the UK and abroad, and how men – and women – have played a part in its history, and can change its future. It is always a pleasure to have the opportunity to socialise within the beer community, and it was particularly interesting to speak with colleagues from overseas to get a different perspective on the beer world.
We had an incredible evening – great food, top notch beer, fabulous company, and, best of all, the chance to shake hands with a true giant of the American craft beer movement.