BACK to beer, and this time something, hopefully, as interesting as it is expensive. For £2.69 pence from the Bethnal Green Food Center, here is a bottle of Suma Penumbra Organic Stout. Why did I choose it when they also had a bottle of Suma blonde ale which also looked good? Simple. Every little brewery has a go at a blonde-this or golden-that. If Suma are taking the risk of stout production, I’m going to applaud them by trying it.
Interesting looking bottle, isn’t it? That funny shape neck should make pouring interesting. Talking of interesting, have a look at the label. Abandoning tradition, they’ve gone for a stylish up, to the minute design on a big wrap around label. With so much black, Penumbra looks different to just about everything else on the shop shelf.
With a nod to traditional roundels, this one has a spooky photo of a half-moon. And, for some reason, the name Penumbra is in a font more at home on anarchist newsletters. If nothing else, Suma are going to corner the market in stout for emo students.
Around the edge of the ‘roundel’, we learnt that Suma is not a normal company at all, but a workers’ cooperative. That makes it the first beer I’ve tried where the brewery is managed and owned by the people that work there. It’s as if they’ve made a list of everything a normal beer is, and then set about trying to do it all differently.
The left-side of the label continues in a similar vein. They start, though, with a description. They describe it as a “Rich black stout containing chocolate malt mixed with oats and wheat, Pemumbra Organic Stout has a full and creamy roasted flavour with aromas of orange, citrus and berry”. Two reactions to that… First, it sounds delicious. Second, it sounds a bit like the excellent Young’s Luxury Double Chocolate Stout.
Then the label goes bonkers. First with a suggestion of drinking it when the moon is out. Then with a health warning you could either describe as the most public spirited yet. Or the most patronising. Suma is a cooperative, so I’ll assume they were aiming for caring public health message. At only 2.4 UK units of alcohol, there’s no reason to panic. More proof of their lefty inclination can be found littering the bottom. Penumbra Organic Stout has full organic certification and a vegan logo. Fortunately, they also have a “CAMRA says this is Real Ale” symbol.
Next comes the list of ingredients, and you have to give them credit for detail. They could have just said ‘malted barley’ and been done with it. Instead, Suma have gone above and beyond, not just listing darn near ingredient, but denoting if it’s organic. The highlights for the beer-nerds out there are Pale Ale, Wheat, Chocolate and Crystal malts, Pacific Gem and First Gold hops and orange peel. Even I, with my miniscule knowledge of how beer is made, know that that is a lot of ingredients.
Over on the right-side of the label are what I call the ‘story’, the small-print and the vital statistics.
The highlights from the ‘story’ is that Suma comes from the Calder Valley, where they’ve bagged an ex-pat “Dutch Master Brewer”. The good news continues by learning that this is bottle conditioned beer. That spells yeast sediment and all the adding interesting-ness that comes from it. Unusually though, they recommend serving it clear, by stopping pouring when you spot yeast sediment in the neck of the bottle. That would explain the funny looking neck. It does mean you won’t have the novelty of swirling the last of the contents to get the yeast out, so drinkers who can’t stand cloudy beer will be happy.
Down to the small-print now, and there’s a postal address in case you want to write them a letter. They also have a telephone number and an email address.com. Deciphering the email address lands us at the Suma homepage at http://www.suma.coop/. After a surprisingly tough search, I eventually tracked down the Penumbra Organic Stout homepage at http://sumawholesale.com/index.php/branded-goods/beers/suma-penumbra-stout-organic-12-x-500ml-rt214.html. It doesn’t look like Suma are set up for consumers just yet.
Lastly, those vital statistics. This is your regular 500ml bottle and the stout within has an ABV of 4.8%. Presumably that makes it a little more middle of the road than, say, the politics of the people behind Suma.
Hopes are high for Suma Penumbra Organic Stout. Will it be as quirky and interesting as the bottle is? There’s only one way to find out…
In the glass, the most expensive stout I’ve ever tried looks the part. Almost totally black, it’s topped by a thin, cream head. But ignore that. It’s the smell you should concentrate on.
What does Suma Penumbra Organic Stout smell of? The label says orange, citrus and berry. Whatever it is, it’s complex, rich and good. The sort of odours you want an expensive and interesting beer to smell of. It sort of reminds me of fruit cake or Christmas pudding, so I’ll go along with citrus and berry.
What does Suma Penumbra Organic Stout taste like? The label describes a “full and creamy roasted flavour”. Just like with the smell, my tongue on my first, and very pleasant sip can’t disagree. Packed with more malty types than I thought existed, I can’t help wondering what happened to them. And all the other ingredients. It takes a couple more sips to figure out that they didn’t disappear. Rather they’re all doing their jobs in the subtlest of ways. That makes it complex and interesting, but a challenge to try and describe.
How can I possibly describe the flavour of a stout that has more unusual ingredients than a meal prepared by Heston Blumenthal? The creamy roasted flavour is just the starting point. Unlike most other stouts and dark ales, that roasted-ness is much gentler. More like a porter. In this brew, that gives the other flavours and tastes room to breathe.
What does it all add up to? A combination of flavours and tastes that goes something like this… creamy roasted-ness with a hint of citrus and fruit. Smoothly and effortlessly followed by tastes of malt and hops. All wrapped up in a dry, understaded, rich, exceptionally well balanced and very satisfying package. You could probably write an essay on how it tastes, but that paragraph will have to do.
Half-way through the bottle, and there are a few things I’m enjoying about Suma Penumbra Organic Stout. I love how quirky and different it is. One of the things the world loves about British ales is how eccentric and full of character they are. Penumbra Organic Stout is no exception. I love how distinctive and interesting it is. I love that it manages that without being difficult to drink. It’s practically girl-friendly. I like how it smells and that it is bottle conditioned. I like how different it looks
What don’t I like about Suma Penumbra Organic Stout? I don’t like how difficult it is to find, and how expensive it is in shops that only bought in a small quantity of bottles. It’s a little gassy. And I am somewhat amazed that with all those ingredients, it doesn’t shout more strong and unexpected flavours at you. A tiny bit more risk-taking in the flavour department would be welcome by those of us who pay through the nose for unusual beers. That said, these are minor quibbles.
How can I sum up Suma Penumbra Organic Stout? It is one of the most distinctive and delicious stouts I’ve ever tried. Which, admittedly, isn’t that many. I’ll happily drink it again, though I’ll probably need a mortgage to afford another bottle. If you find it, and you can afford it, even if you don’t normally drink stout, buy a bottle of Penumbra Organic Stout. In a sentence, an interesting and satisfying drink.
Have you tried Suma Penumbra Organic Stout? Have you tried another other Suma beer or cider? What did you think? Leave your opinions, corrections, recommendations and places to buy, here in the comments.