Beer Fairy Thursday: Keith’s Tartan Ale, Innis and Gunn Rum Cask 1

Hands down, the most interesting development of the last couple of weeks is that beer now gets delivered to my doorstep. Not a huge amount of beer. It’s not like I won a contest or anything. Usually single bottles in bubble wrap. The beer fairy brings other things as well: Tasting Notes. Invitations to press galas in Saskatchewan. Carefully crafted messages from brewmasters.

Today, as I stood idly staring out the window and popping bubble wrap, I realized that they probably intend for me to talk about the things that they’re sending me. The beer fairy has an ulterior motive. My general operating procedure here is to amass information and let it develop into content organically, so simply talking about beer that people send over is an odd concept for me. Baffling that this should be the case for a beer blog.

What I’ve decided to do is talk not only about the beer, but the entire process. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the public relations elements involved in the equation are unimportant: Simply put, the breweries that are large enough to be able to afford a competent PR firm are not really interested in your input. They’ve made the decision to go ahead with whatever they’ve sent you and they’re promoting it to you to the best of their ability. It’s the nature of the beast.

So what do you do with that? You could just pass along the information in their press kit, but that would be pretty dull. You could ignore the press material and attempt to evaluate the beer in a vacuum, but there are a huge number of people who already do that.

Fortunately, making things up as I go along seems to be working out pretty well, so I’ve decided just to be honest without being intentionally mean spirited or nit-picky.

Without further ado:

Keith’s Tartan Ale

Well, the picture ain't cropping. Mental Note: Clean lightswitches.

(Beer delivered surrounded in bubble wrap in a brown packaging envelope of the variety that makes “recycled material” explode all over the front hall when you get impatient and try to rip it open. While this cannot actually be held against the brewery, it was mildly enervating.)

You have to admire the packaging that went into this. Sort of a burlap wrapper and tartan swath, which is likely meant to evoke opening a packing crate. It gives it a touch of class and shows that some thought was put into the reception of the product. Definite style points here.

This came with a form letter from Graham Kendall, Brewmaster Emeritus, which is selectively worded to leave the impression that it’s a recreation of a specific beer. “It’s brewed according to the original scotch ale process,” which I assume pretty much means that it’s brewed the same way as all the other ales. It has a “lower hop aroma, due to the fact that hops were scarce in Scotland at that time,” which probably means the early part of the 19th century. Wikipedia disagrees, citing IPAs being brewed in Edinburgh in 1821. Regardless, the letter is cheerful and well written and sets expectations nicely: Scotch Ale was “noted for its hints of smokiness, mild bitterness and fuller body.”

The beer itself poured with almost no carbonation into the pint glass. At 6.1% alcohol it’s relatively robust for a larger brewer like Keith’s. I find myself wondering about the grain bill because it doesn’t really seem malty enough when cold. There is some caramel sweetness and you do actually get more than a hint of peat smokiness when it warms up. Despite the fact that they claim a lower hop aroma, I suspect that this still contains more hops than the IPA. Probably an English variety, going by the vaguely minerally taste on the finish. It does, in a fairly basic way, what it says it’s supposed to.

Conclusion: I guess it’s Keith’s attempt to appeal to the craft market, but I don’t think it’s quite interesting enough to accomplish that. The smokiness only comes out when it has had some time to warm up and at that point it overwhelms everything else. It needs balance and malt depth in order to work and it doesn’t quite make it. Points for effort, though, since it’s better than the IPA.

Innis and Gunn Rum Cask

(Disclaimer: I don’t like Innis and Gunn products and I never have. I even explained this to the nice people at the PR firm before they sent over samples. “I don’t know that whatever personal views on it that I express will be laudatory,” I said. I warned them, and they sent them anyway. Audentis fortuna iuvat, or something.)

I don’t understand why you would package a beer in a clear bottle, especially a premium oak aged beer. It skunks pretty quickly and really hurts the flavour. I found the Innis and Gunn Rum Cask to be incredibly buttery. It’s almost certainly laden with diacetyl and I suspect that the notes from the oak are making it seem even more buttery than the diacetyl would have done by itself. It’s a perfect butter storm. It was like drinking a buttered plum soaked in booze. I barely made it through a quarter of the bottle before pouring the rest out.

Maybe it was a bad bottle, but I suspect from what people have told me in conversation, that this is what people like about Innis and Gunn. For a lot of people it seems to be a gateway beer, possibly because it’s so different in flavour. If you didn’t know any better, you might assume it was supposed to taste buttery. Makes for a completely different mouthfeel, anyway.

What the exercise did explain for me was how Innis and Gunn manages to remain so popular. The answer is that their PR firm is professional and extremely competent. While I still can’t say that enjoy the beer, I am impressed by the packaging. The four pages of information are very comprehensive and answer just about anything you might want to know. Their media rep even followed up by email. I don’t know that people across the country are actually clamouring for the beer, but I now understand why it continues to remain in prominent view of the public.

Conclusion: I can’t really recommend it based on my personal preference, but I feel like people will probably buy it anyway, somewhat defeating the point of the review.

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