It's a couple of years since Hall & Woodhouse's collaboration with River Cottage was the talk of the beerweb. Actually, you don't hear much from the Badger brand at all these days. I'd sort of forgotten about them until I spotted two of the River Cottage / Badger beers on the shelf of an off licence recently. I hadn't even realised there was a new one.
The original is Stinger, made with nettles for a "tongue tingling" sensation. Well maybe it takes a bit more to get my jaded old tongue tingling these days, but this wasn't doing it. The first thing I noticed was that despite the greener-than-thou organic badging and copious information on the hop:malt:fruit ratios on the label, there was no actual listing of ingredients. And when breweries throw odd things into their beers they usually follow it with a hefty bag or two of sugar, just to be sure. I think that's what's happened here: you get a heavy, thick, syrupy golden ale without much by way of aroma. There's a spice to it as well, buried quite deep, but I challenge anyone to drink it and tell me it tastes of nettles. Mind you, this is apparently what proper nettle beer tastes like, and this is a measure of its quality so maybe the bags of sugar were a good idea.
I expected more of the same from the dandelion one, called Dandelion ("Stinger" having exhausted the branding guys' imaginations). This time the sugar does add a bit of character -- it may even be brown sugar -- but beyond it there's absolutely nothing: another sweet syrupy ale with maybe a tiny herbal complexity at the back, but nothing that would make you think of dandelions.
I shouldn't really have consumed them back to back. I started to get a bit angry. I mean: how hard is it to do this sort of thing properly? Williams Brothers, for instance, turn out some fantastic beers with heather and spruce and seaweed. I've made one gruit ale once, flavoured mostly with yarrow and sage, and it was pretty damn drinkable. Marketable, even. So why is it that so many brewers, English ones in particular, think that when you break from the malt/hops norm you have to turn the whole thing into an alcopop? These ones may have organic credentials and a chef off the telly but they're really nothing more than Crabbie's in disguise, and a short skip through the meadow from blue WKD.
Stuff like this gives unusal ingredients in beer a dreadful reputation (though, granted, Dave in the links above isn't helping either). What's wrong with a bit more diversity?