OK, long overdue review incoming. I sat down with the three beers I got in the mail, as well as my own, and tried them all side-by-side. I had the gf pour them all out of my sight and bring them to me, leaving the bottles out so I'd know which were which later. I can't remember for the life of me who sent what bottle, though, so you'll have to chime in with which was which, if you want to. Overall, I've had enough of mine that I knew it right off, though there was another that was fairly close and made me pause for a second. Other than those two, the other two were most definitely different. On to the contenders:
When the gf brought the beers in, I just said, "Whoa!" Totally different color than what I was expecting. I took a picture with and without a flash so that's them. I got one beer in a bottle with a commercial label, so I asked her if that was it, thinking maybe that was the actual commercial beer thrown in as an extra, but it was not. Not sure what the substitution was in the recipe, but its so much darker that it isn't really a special bitter in appearance. Its porter-dark. The aroma started off with some bready malts, followed quickly by a hit of roast. Not super-strong like coffee, but just some basic roasted malt aroma. The taste was much the same, with maybe some earthy hops just showing up a bit. But it seemed there was definitely some roast in here, and it dominated. The beer overall was ok, it was interesting with that curveball thrown in there. Not what I'd like if I ordered a bitter at a bar, but if somebody told me they were playing on a variation of a bitter, it'd be interesting to try.
This one much closer to the color I was expecting, a light amber or darkish gold. The aroma was lightly malty, like some toast about halfway through toasting, and some estery aroma, maybe vaguely apples. The taste started off like the aroma, but the malty/estery was quickly followed by some bitterness that helped clean it off the palate. It finished pretty dry, with just some lingering malt flavors on the tongue. Definitely a drinker.
Darker than #2, a solid amber. The aroma reminded me more of straight up malted grain, more like sticking your head in a bag of 2-row or something. More bread dough than baking or toasting bread, if you get me. The taste had a bit of a fuller body than #2, and a little more sweetness. IT still finishes dry, but not quite as much so as #2. Slight hoppiness helps finish it off. Another drinker, and enjoyable.
Same color as #2, maybe just a tiny shade darker, or maybe its exactly the same and the light outside dropped just a bit. The aroma was very different though, and I had trouble placing it. It seemed very familiar, but I couldn't describe it. It was almost cereal-y, like maybe a non-sweetened Smacks cereal, or Corn Flakes, only not. And I don't think it was a DMS-type corn aroma, either. Maybe the hop used combined with some oxidation? Anyways, different aroma for sure. The taste followed the smell, with some background malt being pretty much overwhelmed by that cereal-type flavor. Slightly astringent. Maybe a bit more bitter/hoppy than the others.
And the reveal:
That's 1-4, with the bottles behind, and in the case of no bottle, the one off my tap. I knew pretty quickly which was mine. I also liked mine the best. I also really enjoyed #3, though, and I'm drinking that right now. #1 just wasn't a special bitter to me, and the aroma/flavor I couldn't place in #4 is currently driving me nuts, trying to figure out what it is.
This was a fun experiment. I'd love to know what the recipe for #1 was, since it was so radically different than the others. If any of you guys - or any one else - wants to try something like this again, I'd be down. The gf now knows if strange packages filled with unmarked bottles show up at the door, its from internet people swapping homebrews with me.