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Classic Beer of the Month February 2018: Brains SA

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Brains SA, 4.2%

While I was cutting my drinking teeth in a South Wales valley during the 1970s, beery tales would occasionally filter up the A470 from the bright lights of Cardiff.

Brains SAPeople who ventured the twenty or so miles to the capital city often returned home over-refreshed, buzzing with enthusiasm for an ale of seemingly immense proportions.

They talked of a brewery with a strange anatomical name and a beer they considered so potent that they called it ‘Skull Attack’.

When I finally made it to Cardiff and dared to sample this acclaimed beverage, I could only assume that these people had spent far too much time drinking the flimsy keg beers foisted on us in the valley by Welsh Brewers (Bass) and Whitbread.

I certainly liked this beer that apparently came from a company called Brains but I didn’t consider SA, a 4.2% ABV cask ale, to be lethal enough to warrant such a violent nickname.

Forty years on, I don’t get to Cardiff so often but, when I do, a pint of Brains SA is usually on the agenda. The city is brimful of great beer today and the Brains hegemony is not what it was, but it’s still good to revisit an old favourite.

Welsh Icon

SA was created by Brains in 1958. Initially, it was comfortably outsold by the brewery’s mild, Brains Dark, but it soon asserted its dominance in the range to become not just the brewer’s flagship product but a Welsh icon to boot.

The letters SA may well have stood originally for ‘Special Ale’, or perhaps it was ‘Samuel Arthur’, after the founder of the business, but no one is certain anymore. I am, however, pretty sure the description ‘Skull Attack’ wasn’t on the lips of the brewers who developed the beer.

In the glass, SA offers a rich amber colour, derived from the use of pale and crystal malts. It’s bittersweet to taste, with soft floral notes, a hint of caramel and a gentle fruitiness suggestive of pears, all rounded off with a drying finish laced with smooth Challenger, Golding and Fuggle hops that ensure a moreish bitterness with just a suggestion of liquorice.

It’s not a beer for those seeking electrifying hop flavours with brash notes of citrus and pine. This is a classic British best bitter, made for easy drinking.

In the last decade or so, Brains SA has achieved international status, courtesy of the company’s sponsorship of the Wales rugby team during its most successful era since the 1970s. It’s become a big enough brand to generate an extension, in the form of SA Gold, which arrived in 2006, although I still prefer the original.

For me, it’ll always be a homely pint that brings back lots of memories and, for an undemanding drink or two with old friends, it ticks a lot of boxes.

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