Cloned Beer Reviews: Black Sheep Ale
Just over four years ago, not long after we relocated to Manchester, I started brewing my own beer.
It had been something I’d wanted to do for some time, but we’d never had the space in our old house in London. Now with more room, I decided to take it up.
My father-in-law did home brew, and I borrowed his fermenting buckets and bottles to do my first batch. That came from a kit. Indeed it would take me two years before I moved on to a form of home-brewing known as ‘extract brewing’. To grossly simplify the situation, when you brew beer you have a base made out of pale malt. Your beer then comes from customising your base with different hops, malts and more. You can make that base yourself, or you can buy a product called malt extract that gives your base for you. It’s a bit like making soup. At the heart of most soup is stock. And you can either make your own stock, or you can buy a stock cube. In essence, with extract brewing, you’re buying a beer based stock cube.
Anyway, once I stopped using homebrew kits, I needed some recipes to follow. A cookbook for beer if you will. I got two. One called Clone Brews, and the other called Brew Your Own British Real Ale. Both give you a big batch of recipes that are based on real beers.
Clone Brews is more international, offering beers from around the world. Brew Your Own British Real Ale covers, quite obviously, British ales.
Between them, there’s lots of recipes to try and I have tried many. But what I have never known is how similar the beers I’ve brewed were to the proper thing. That’s because a lot of the beers in both books can be quite hard to find. Some of them aren’t brewed at all any more.
Recently though, I brewed a beer I could lay my hands on. Black Sheep Ale. It’s a Yorkshire bitter and quite easy to get hold of in supermarkets. For the first time I could compare my version to the original.
The recipe came from Brew Your Own British Real Ale. I presume it’s reasonably accurate, although I did notice that the bottle of Black Sheep lists a hop type not used in the recipe I followed. Secondly I hadn’t used Torrified Wheat as I didn’t have any. In its place I’d used Wheat Dried Malt Extract. They’re not quite the same but I hoped they would be similar enough in the end result. There was also another difference. My version was bottle conditioned (there’s yeast in the bottle) where as the shop bought version had all yeast removed. That could potentially create some differences.
My beer was brewed back in October, and I’d had the shop-bought bottle of Black Sheep since Christmas. I’d been meaning to do the comparison for a while, but as I was slowly running out of my “clone”, finally got round to doing it.
So how did it compare?
First I poured similar amounts of both into identical glasses, and compared the colour. Comparing them in a bright light, my own version (on the left) was a notch or two darker, but both were very similar. But if you weren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t have noticed. So that was good.
I left them both to sit for a short while, before comparing how the head of the beer looked. This is one of the reasons for the wheat in the recipe. It helps keep a creamy head. After a few minutes, my beer had a slightly better head than the official brew. Ten minutes later, the shop-bought version had almost no head left, whereas mine was still there.
Aroma next. The original Black Sheep had a burst of hops on the nose. Mine was softer. Indeed, was there much aroma at all? I wasn’t sure.
But what about the taste? The key test is the taste. That overrides everything else.
First I supped the proper Black Sheep. There was a good malty flavour. Well balanced. There was a dry after taste, and a burst of hoppy bitterness. In fact, quite a lot of fruity, hoppy bitterness.
I knew immediately – having drunk many of my own already – that there was a key difference here. But I reached for the glass containing my own version. Yep. It definitely wasn’t as dry. Indeed, there was very little dryness. There was a burst of bitterness. It came on the tongue earlier and wasn’t quite as hoppy, but it was there.
There were similarities. I was pleasantly surprised that I could recognise the same balance of hops in each, but just in different ways. For comparison, Catherine tried both and declared them similar too.
Clearly they’re not the same beer. They’re not miles apart, but there’s key differences and I told you they were both the same, you would know they weren’t. The dryness doesn’t come through at all.
I don’t know for sure, but I wondered if the yeast I had used played a part. After tasting I did a little reading and found that for many Yorkshire bitters, the yeast used can play a key part. There are many different kinds of yeasts. A yeast can do a lot to change the flavour of your beer. The one I’d used doesn’t. It’s extremely reliable and works well. But it is quite neutral in flavour. Maybe a Yorkshire yeast would have got me closer.
In a way it is disappointing that they’re not closer aligned but I was pretty happy with the way my clone came out. If I had never had it before and you got me to do a blind tasting, I’d probably pick it over proper Black Sheep as I found the shop bought bottle just a hint too dry.
In itself my clone is a good, flavoursome beer. I’d happily brew it again. Although if I do, I may try a different yeast. See what happens.
It won’t be the last beer I’ll be comparing. Currently conditioning in bottles is a clone of Anchor Steam Beer, and fermenting away is a Fullers ESB. Both are easily available in the UK and I’ll be checking them out in the coming months.