I’m a sucker for a gimmick, especially when it comes to beer. Much as I love a good ale, let’s be honest – most of the stuff you’ll come across in the pub will be variations on a theme. The same colour (brown), the same basic taste. There are plenty of interesting beers out there, from IPAs to stouts, but far too many brewers will play it safe, perhaps aware that your average CAMRA member is terrified of change and so hedging their bets by supplying the beer drinker with something that tastes pretty much the same as everything else. It’s no surprise that Harvest Pale, absolutely the dullest of Castle Rock’s beers by a country mile, has won CAMRA’s Best Beer award. It’s not going to frighten the horses. I’m much more inclined to go for something with a little more kick to it when I can, and inevitably I’ll be keen to sample exotic brews at beer festivals and my eyes will always light up at the sight of an unusual beer on the supermarket shelves.
And so I find myself with a bottle of Black Pepper Ale. I mean, just look at it – how could I resist? A beer that comes complete with a sachet of pepper and pouring instructions? I’m there!
You can’t fault brewers Bateman’s on the hype level. According to the label, this has “an unmistakable aroma (that) tickles the nose; a subtle tingle of crushed black pepper with bellowing heat” and is “a clean and beautifully balanced beer” that is “a perfect match for popcorn and strawberries’! With it’s imposing black, modern styling and the reference to Bateman’s as ‘craft brewers’ (rather than the producers of old bloke beer that you might suspect them to be), it’s clear what market they are aiming at. It’s been said, of course, that what might bring the craft beer scene crashing down is not the high prices of the hipster bars, but the appropriation of the term by old school breweries who are making the same very average beers that they’ve always done.
Still, I had high hopes for this. I like a beer with a chilli kick, and while black pepper is clearly not at those levels, I was willing to believe that this might have a certain bite to it, and at 5.1% it’s a decent strength. So following the instructions, I sprinkled a bit of the pepper into the bottom of my glass, then poured in the beer, giving it a swirl before adding the remaining pepper onto the head.
The first thing that surprised me was the colour. For some reason, I’d just assumed this would be a brew as black as the pepper and the packaging. Instead, it’s a dark copper colour – not displeasing, but not quite what I’d expected. A quick sniff doesn’t reveal much, and the first taste doesn’t set the world – or my mouth – on fire either. It’s a malty, rather bitter beer that frankly doesn’t taste all that different from the sort of ales I generally try to avoid. I didn’t try it without the pepper to make a comparison, but other than adding some black bits floating on top of the beer, I couldn’t see what was added here apart from novelty. Certainly, there’s no real pepper taste to the beer.
I found this rather hard work after a while – for once, I was wishing that the beer had come in a 330ml bottle instead of a 500ml one, which isn’t really a good sign. In the end, for all the fancy packaging and hype, Black Pepper Ale reminded me of the sort of beer I end up with in pubs that have a terrible level of choice (i.e two ales, one of which is probably London Pride), and that’s not exactly a recommendation. The ‘salt ‘n’ shake’ gimmick is a neat one, and maybe it’s work with a nicer, more distinctive beer, but in this case, I doubt I’ll be going back for more.