Wales boasts a greater density of independent craft breweries than either England, Scotland or Northern Ireland, and so with beer being such a significant part of the food and drink renaissance here, we thought doing a taste test with one of the brilliant breweries would be the perfect way to launch the Great Welsh Taste Test section of the site!
Hopping up to the tasting stage for this one are the can-tastic Tenby Brewing Co. We rate their bar stashed away down a central Tenby alley within the medieval town walls at the head of our list of places to hang out of an evening on the Pembrokeshire coast (and definitely top in Tenby), and have wonderful memories of the beer from there, where staff are always happy to give heart-felt, down-to-earth run-down’s of their range. We love how they have forged a link with the beach and the sea in their brews, bestowing on their beer a distinctive personality: no other Welsh brewery transforms beer into quality, quaffable seaside cool quite like these guys. They are some of Wales’ leading beer innovators, too: involved in several unusual projects, such as producing beers made with Pembrokeshire foraged seaweed and with Welsh-grown hops (no simple task; hops hate the wind and rain!). And last but not yeast: their can design is vibrant and original, and would stand out on a shelf against the funkiest of competition, making the overall package a real pleasure to sample.
We (along with two other volunteer tasters) tasted five beers we thought would showcase the diversity of Tenby Brewing Co’s repertoire. And yes, we do pick a winner!
1: Son of a Beach
This is Tenby Brewing Co’s signature beer, although we actually only discovered this afterwards! First impressions epitomise exactly why we fell head over heels with Tenby Brewing Co in the first place: canny nameplay and wacky black packaging emblazoned in garish, trippy flowers, foliage and other gaudy insignia. Time for the nose, and it’s clear this beer is intent on making a statement. None of our tasters were left expressionless after a whiff of this. The can write-up proclaims this a tropical IPA but if we are transported to the Caribbean at this point it is on the cusp of a storm with a wind-whipping-up-waves sudden brininess. Fruit comes across too: bottom-of-the-fruitbowl fruit with a lick of the compressed-by-bigger-fruits mustiness. Anyone who has done home brewing will also recognise that king of IPA hops, Simcoe, weightily present with a big grin in the corner. If the smell was nuanced the taste was more so. Surprisingly, despite the beer’s name, this is no simple beach thirst-slaker (if it had been, this might have made us a little bit beach-sick, because light, cold, fizzy beers feel fantastic when you’re in the moment on the sand in the sun, but when you’re tasting them on a dark winter’s evening just as yet another lockdown is commencing, your tastebuds are searching for something more of a journey). It’s more complicated than that. And Son of a Beach gives you that journey. Again, the wave analogy helps to depict it here: a zingy simcoey sharp splash (that’s the wave hitting you) and then the lingering follow-through (that’s the wave washing over your head and taking some time about it). From one taster we have, ‘grassy wellies’ and from another ‘an intense walk through hop fields in the dew when the hops stick to you’ (this taster has never actually walked through hop fields in the dew, it must be noted, but an impression is an impression). A flavour that sticks then, to your palate and also in your mind. But another of our tasters finds Son of a Beach impossible to pin down. ‘Like tasting outer space,’ they say, after some consideration. That’s quite a compliment. Outer space is a pretty diverse place (those other hops enhancing the complexity, perhaps?). And so like astronauts blissfully floating through a universe of beer, we move on to beer two…
Whilst the facade of this one doesn’t quite impress like ‘Son of a Beach’ does (it reminded us of the fluorescent tops a certain kind of kid, mentioning no names, thought was cool to wear in about 1990 or so) we were well aware a beer adventure is not just about good looks and set about sipping, hoping (due to the name perhaps) to be temporarily transported once more from wintry Mid Wales to somewhere exotic where big fruits grow on trees right alongside the beach and the waters are azure and inviting. Nope. Fruitiness is promised in the blurb on this NE pale but we were dealt more of a slash of stinging nettles to the palate, along with perhaps a peck of citrus that is much more sorrel than juicy orange. It’s an altogether shorter taste on this one, short and cold in a metallic way that started one taster thinking of the chrome piping on the massive road trucks they have in the original Mad Max. We give this one the thumbs up for a lounging-in-the-lovely-sand-at-Tenby slurp, when beach paradise, or the Welsh version thereof, feels intoxicatingly close at hand but, much like an inexplicably curt delivery driver, this one leaves us with the sensation that the experience could have been much better if it had not been so needlessly abrupt. That may sound harsh, but Tenby Brewing Co set the bar high, so we’re responding to Paradiso in kind.
3: Yeah Mango
This was the first Tenby Brewing Co beer Undiscovered Wales ever sampled, and because the experience was so lush, up at the wonderful Sandbar & Cwlbox on a sultry summer evening, we have a soft spot for this one as soft as a newborn lamb’s underbelly (real soft). You just know that you’re going to have fun here from the very beginning. The package? Black with the trippy tropical greens and pinks of the ‘Son of a Beach’ design. Then this salivatingly succulent honey-hued number does the two things fruity beers almost always fail to do in our experience: imparting a pronounced and unadulterated flavour of the fruit, and managing to achieve a taste which isn’t just like fruit juice gone wrong. Yeah Mango is mighty mango-heavy and yet it is ultra-creamy too (think back to the last time you got to scoff an entire mango that you yourself had prepared and of how, when it came to cutting around the stone, you inevitably did so in a way that left ample juicy stone flesh for you to suck as a self-prescribed treat just because you could). This would have scored highly for originality anyway, but that it did so and pulled off a convincing if challenging new taste (mango cream and hoppy follow-though) is to be lauded. A desert island-type ‘champagne firework in the mouth’ enthused one taster. A third taster did say, after some time had passed, that there was no ‘second coming’ on the palate – that it was an explosion of mango and then nothing, but the writer of this article is going to override other tasters here as is a writer’s prerogative and vote Yeah Mango in as a brew of unfettered pleasure. A lot of seaside love and craft has been squeezed into this too, dry-hopped as it is to maximise aroma with Citra and famously fruity Mosaic. And us tasters are certainly in the mood for love too after finishing this one, exuberantly ready to embark on an affair with beer four…
If things were exuberant before, they are just about to get very merry as we start work on Hammerhead with its image of a shark wrapped around the packaging on a turquoise background. This is by half a percentage point the strongest of the Tenby Brewing Co beers we tried (6%) but all tasters concurred that it was up there with the most complex. You can take fun-loving, beery Tenby and its beaches out of the equation and you would still enjoy this one equally. Doing this as a midwinter tasting, we may have been swayed in our conclusion that this evoked carol singers for us – in the sense that they provide a burst of rousing life on a dim evening and get better the more that they drink, starting off with a restrained rendition perhaps but ending in full orchestral heartiness. Let’s say carol-singers that have traipsed through a dark forest especially to sing at the door of your log cabin, because there is something faintly woodsy about this one too.
5: Clean Break
Due to a mix-up, despite it having been placed in the intended position on the table (fourth up) we taste this last. Perhaps we have drunk too much. The name harks of delivering something conclusive, although as the monochrome can image conveys, this is break as in ‘wave.’ The word ‘clean’ though is perhaps more pertinent. Clean Break is a pilsner, an ‘honest pilsner’ as can blurb confirms. And whilst Undiscovered Wales can’t argue against a pilsner, given what the style did for the development of beer and how, because it’s the only beer available on long-distance Eastern European trains, we have come to like it well enough, this one leaves us feeling a bit like we do after knocking back any pilsner. How to phrase it? It washes through you and doesn’t leave you with very much, certainly not by Tenby Brewing Co’s lofty standards. Possibly this is our issue with the style as much as with Clean Break itself. You don’t have to think too much with it. It’s there and then it’s gone. One taster gets ‘crushed walnuts’, two glean a certain ‘granularity’ which is most descriptively summarised as ‘slightly salty coffee.’ But if ‘Hammerhead’ is a chorus of carol-singers, this one gives us just the one slightly doleful single chime.
And the winner is…
It’s the night, it’s the night… when five become two very quickly. Poster boy ‘Son of a Beach’ and wacky summer lover ‘Yeah Mango’ walk it into the final and by the slightest of margins, we hereby admit that, when all is laid bare on the bar, Tenby Brewing Co are absolutely right to have ‘Son of a Beach’ as their signature beer! It cannot be beaten – at least not by these four challengers. It has gone down a true tropical storm at the Undiscovered Wales tasting table and, though the night moves on to port and whisky, what ‘Son of a Beach’ did to us will not be forgotten.
Buy the beer
Nothing can quite replace a trip to the Sandbar/Cwlbox in Tenby for your first time (you’ll likely meet the owners/brewers) but, if lockdowns or anything else prevent you from doing this, you can order online a box of Tenby Brewing Co beers (ten minimum required).
READ ON: One of our favourite (and almost certainly the most eccentric) experiential Welsh breweries awaits at Kingstone Brewery in Tintern.