I have never been much of a drinker. Alcohol and I went together like a balloon and needle for a long time, with anything over two drinks sending me into a numb lipped slurring of words and a heavy eye-lid gaze. As I have grown older, I have learned my limitations and acquired a taste for particular libations. Being from Northern California, my drink of choice is a good wine, red preferably. However, there are those occasions that call for something a little less pretentious and a little more portable than wine. Searching out a spot on the beach to plop down for the afternoon, the ice chest, being lugged around behind a group of friends, is usually filled with the popular refreshment called beer. Presumably the most consumed alcoholic beverage around the world, this concoction of malted grain and fermented hops can be as easy going as a day on the beach or fancy enough to find a place at the symphony.
There are all kinds of categories to place beer in – domestic or imports, ales or lagers, porters or blondes – but I keep it simple with categories of tastes good or tastes bad. What is good is a matter of preference of course, but I have found my palette is suited to the brown ales that are not too heavy and not too bitter. Two of the better I have tried are Heineken’s Special Dark from Amsterdam and New Castle Brown from England, both very popular here in the states. Heineken has been widely accepted here in America and around the World as a great blonde beer, but the Special Dark is a new addition to their line up and has a little way to come yet to match nose, color and taste quality of my favorite brew, New Castle Brown.
I purchased a 12 ounce bottle of each beer and hoped this would be enough to satisfy the requirements of the test. After chilling the bottles in the fridge for about four hours, I was ready to start tasting. Grabbing two identical shot glasses, I poured one ounce of each beer. Most people think of wine as being the drink that has a nose, or scents which gives off its unique characteristics, the same is true of beer. I let the brews sit for about one minute before raising each glass to my nose and inhaling deeply.
First was the Heineken, which I expected great things from. Surprisingly the aroma was very light, actually barely detectable and did a good job of being inoffensive. There was a slight hint of sweetness, but it was so slight it could have been me wanting to smell something rather than actually sensing anything.
Next I picked up the New Castle. Immediately, a full whiff gave no doubt that I was smelling beer. Similarly inoffensive like the Heineken, however this brew had a little more to offer the nose. I kept lifting the glass and taking deep whiffs, trying to discern the aroma and put my finger on the scent. All I could really think of was a mix of flowers and grass on an uncut field, maybe some woods on the edge with thick bark and lush greenery. Smells are hard to actually pin down, but a person knows the difference between a present and pleasant smell like the English brew, and a pleasantly absent one like the brew from Amsterdam.
set a small table next to the window and set the glasses beside each other. Light from the outside provided a perfect backdrop for the beers to show off their true colors. Right away the difference in color is noticed, the Heineken being darker with a slightly reddish tint, still of a brown base. Flat cherry coke came to mind, with light carbonation and a syrupy look. There was a hint of sediment at the bottom of the glass that added a thicker texture. In the other glass was the New Castle, light amber in color that could be compared to a flat cream soda. A little less carbonation than the Heineken and no sediment made for a very clear and crisp texture. Both of these beers having a medium brown base made it easy to pick out the distinct color differences and gave hints to the care taken in the brewing processes. Most beer companies filter out all sediment left by the grain and hops used in the brew process, but some beers do leave a little remnant of material used to add more character to the final product. Rather than being good or bad, these are some differences in distinct quality brews.
Finally, I got down to the tasting. It is said that the grain used in brewing beer, be it wheat or barley, gives the beer its sweetness, and the hops produce the bitter taste. The first sip of the Amsterdam brew revealed a whole world of flavor that its aroma gave no hint of. Very smooth and bold, the bitterness of the hops dominated over the sweetness of the barley. There was an earthiness to it that combined with the thicker texture from the sediment, feeling a little heavy on the tongue. I finished the glass and poured another.
This one I took down in one gulp and felt the glands in my neck pucker from the bitterness, kind of like A-1 Steak Sauce. The Heineken is a little heavy, but still intriguing as it plays around in the mouth with flavor and texture that takes a glass of water to wash away. The New Castle on the other hand, offers a whole different experience.
First, I noticed this beer is incredibly, as it fizzes over the tongue and seems to wash your mouth clean (don’t think it doesn’t give you beer breath though). Smooth and velvety were my first thoughts as the crisp flavor popped through my mouth with a great balance of sweet and bitter. Those hints of the outdoors come through as the floral aroma translates to a refreshing flavor that the body does not fight and the texture washes away with no sediment left behind.
Both of these beers are produced in Europe and both have been around since the 19th century. There is a lot that goes into making a quality brew that will appeal to the masses of beer drinkers, and both these companies do an outstanding job. The quality of ingredients and the balance in which they are used plays a big role in the final product. What really matters is the individual’s taste who will be buying the six-pack to share with friends, or the single to enjoy over a meal. While some people prefer bitter beers, and others prefer the sweeter ones, it’s nice to know there is a beer out there that can appeal to both palettes. New Castle has been around for a long time and so has Heineken, but where the later is new to the brown beer, the former has only ever made a quality brew of the darker persuasion. So for the beer drinker who wants to try something different but not looking for a dark, bitter microbrew, try New Castle, because as they boast under some of their pop-tops it’s, “Never heavy, even if you use the metric scale”.