Saturday, August 20, 2011

Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?

"It's only a bottle..." 
Beer: Monty Python's Holy Grail Ale
Brewery: Black Sheep Brewery (Ripon, UK)
Type: English Pale Ale
ABV: 4.7%

A few weeks ago my wife and I happened to find ourselves in Western New York, and of course we made it our business to find an excellent beer store from which to purchase brews the likes of which I have only heard about, but never seen in Ontario.  We brought back what I think counts as a truly excellent haul (a "best of" review is on the way!), with craft brews from New York State, Ohio, Vermont, Colorado, Maine and California.  This particular beer store (Consumer Beverages on Transit Road, Buffalo) was absolutely stuffed with brews I've been meaning to try - not quite as immense a selection as Knightly Spirits in Orlando, but still very impressive.  Indeed, it was a great challenge to decide which brews to bring back, restrained as I was by both my wallet and Canadian customs.  I decided the best way to go about it was to limit myself to a few of the more expensive bottles that I had to try, a diverse selection of mid-range bottles from top-notch breweries, and a few randoms.  Nothing imported, only American crafts - that was the rule.  And, like the Joker fortold in The Dark Knight, this was the one rule I was going to have to break, because I came across this.

Fortunately, a friend's birthday was upcoming and I happen to know that this fellow likes him some Monty Python and some beer, so I justified this as an expense.  Nah, who am I kidding: a beer, with Monty Python on the label? A beer that claims to be "tempered over burning witches"? How could I not purchase this?

I won't go in to great detail about my love of all things Python.  I mean, let's face it: I'm a history nerd who likes documenting everything I drink who peppers his writings with as many pop culture references as possible - of course I love Monty Python.  Suffice to say, I've pretty much got the whole Grail movie memorized, I have a deep distrust for the Judean People's Front, and I take great pleasure in reminding everyone that NO ONE EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!!  The Holy Grail is particularly dear to me, not just because it's one of the funniest movies ever made, but also happens to be directly responsible for my marriage.  A long while back, when my now-wife and I were casual acquaintances, we were chatting on MSN (that should give you an idea how long ago we're talking about) and we started talking about Python.  I slyly mentioned to her that I hadn't seen it in a few years, and somehow, she mustered up the courage to ask me over to watch it.  We've been together ever since. 

As proof of our love of the film, here is the quotation from
our wedding program.
By marketing a brew named for the best film of the greatest comedy troupe of all time, Black Sheep is playing a dangerous game.  Though my love of Monty Python led me to purchase this beer, conversely my love of Monty Python demands that this beer be magnificent. Poured into a nonic ale glass (it's only a model...) Light amber, clear, a decent-sized head that recedes into a fine white ring.

The nose isn't fresh coconut carried in by an African swallow, nor is it freshly bashed dirt from a repressed peasant, but instead its that of your standard, textbook English pale ale: malty, a bit of fruit, English hops, a bit of funk.  And not a hint of elderberries either...

This brew is less like King Arthur and more like "Brave" Sir Robin - rather than being bold, impetuous and a little insane, this brew is clearly a bit too scared to accomplish much. Perhaps this is a bit unfair.  Yes, let's scratch that, and instead say that this beer is more like Arthur's servant Patsy: trustworthy, inoffensive, but wholly forgettable after the first scene or so.  In fact, I'm sure after a few days I'll probably be incapable of remembering what this beer tastes like, so it's certainly best if I write it down now: It tastes like a malty sweet pale ale with a touch of hops to the finish and a slight metallic twang - no more, no less.

Look, the beer has Monty Python on the front, so you know you're going to buy it. It says it's "tempered over burning witches", so you know you're going to buy it. But when Monty Python burst on to the British comedy scene in the 1960s, they were seen (for good or for ill) as zany, wacky and a little insane, but certainly memorable. And there's nothing zany, wacky, insane or memorable about this brew; clearly, it was designed to appeal to the greatest number of people.  Don't get me wrong, there's nothing bad about this beer.  I enjoyed it, actually.  It tastes fine and doesn't disappoint as far as pale ales go.  But there's no escaping the disappointing realization that, as you drink it, you'll find there isn't really anything about this brew that seems remotely "Monty Python" whatsoever.   But it certainly could have been so, and that's the real tragedy.  For example, this brew could have been a robust English brown ale, gritty and earthy like the dirt harvested by the "anarchist-syndicalist commune."  Or it could have been a traditional Scottish ale flavored with fresh elderberries (like this one), or maybe even an American IPA with hints of coconut.  Anything!

Even if the beer ultimately lacked that universally-acceptable English pale ale quality, what does Black Sheep care?  People aren't buying cases of this beer every week to be their default, on-hand brew; they're buying it purely as a novely because it has Graham Chapman and John Cleese on the label.   Once they marvel over the bottle and reminisce about their favorite Python sketches, to be honest folks aren't really going to care what it tastes like.  You've got our money already, so why not make something more unique and exciting than the same old pale ale that we can get at the pub every week?

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