02 September 2014

More pours

Day two of catching up on Ireland's recent new and special release beers in honour of Irish Craft Beer Week 2014.

Usually ahead of the game for such things, The Norseman in Dublin was an early adopter of Smokey Bacon, a new special edition strong ale from Bo Bristle. This arrived a murky brown-amber colour and exhibits lots of Belgian-esque alcoholic warmth from its 6.8% ABV. The smoke makes its presence felt right from the start: a harsh and heavy acridity. Lots of caramel malt comes in behind it and the two elements battle it out for control of the palate, well into the long finish. While I'm sure it'll have its fans, it just didn't work for me, lacking in the balance and cleanness I enjoy in German rauchmalz-based lagers and also in the fun flavours found in peated dark beers. Reddish ales with a minority percentage of smoked malt just don't float my boat.

Beoir's 2014 AGM happened in Kilkenny a month ago and coincided with the first appearances of a new local beer brand, Costellos. Mr Costello himself invited us along to Billy Byrne's pub after the meeting to try it out. Diageo recently closed the landmark Smithwick's brewery in the city and this is an attempt to bring the local element back into Kilkenny beer, though for the moment it's brewed two counties over at Trouble. Still, a 3.8% ABV red ale can't but attract parallels with Smithwick's, and it does combine several of that beer's better elements, showing lots of lemon-tea-like tannins for superior thirst-quenching power. As it warms there's a sizeable amount of buttery diacetyl added to the mix, which wasn't to everyone's taste but which I thought sat quite comfortably with the cleaner parts of the flavour.

Thanks to Gerald and the team at Costello's for the hospitality, and check out Billy Byrne's if you're in Kilkenny: the Bula Bus kitchen parked out back does excellent street food.

"No new Galway Bay beer yet?" I hear you cry. Of course there is. Before the brewery packed up and shipped itself across town to a new standalone facility it produced a 6.6% ABV IPA called Goodbye Blue Monday, in collaboration with Begyle Brewing of Chicago. It's got oatmeal in it. I don't know why and I couldn't detect any effect it had, but I thought I should mention that it's in there. It is thickly textured, but so are lots of non-oatmeal IPAs so I doubt that's oatmeal alone. The colour is a bright copper and its flavour is immensely complex from just the hops: spicy and greenly bitter; weedy and dank, but also zesty and juicy. Basically it's a walking tour of new world hop flavours. Malt? Keep walking, stranger. If you want something with a bit more impact than Full Sail but smaller than Of Foam & Fury, here it is. But otherwise I don't really see the point of trading up or down from either of those perfectly enjoyable beers.

Last month there was much fooferaw around the launch plans of Sligo's first brewery, The White Hag, at the Fleadh Cheoil. What got lost in the kerfuffle about licensing and strongarm tactics and whether craft beer is a fad was any mention of the beer. White Hag's first release was a special edition created specifically for the event: Fleadh Ale. Fortunately a stray keg managed to roll as far as L. Mulligan Grocer where I got to try it. I'll admit I'm a little prejudiced when it comes to the beer from new rural Irish breweries. "Safe" is a word I may throw out from time to time, and no criticism is implied in it. But Fleadh Ale is not safe. Quite the opposite, I think. It's the clear dark red of an amber ale and starts with an innocent aroma of toffee and oranges. Mandarins flash past on the first sip, then stronger hop resins and incense spicing leading to thumping great dank earthy pine flavours set on a thick toffee stickiness. That hop-blasted chewiness is an effect I associate most with big US double IPAs and I'm not sure I entirely believe the Hag's claim that this is a mere 6.8% ABV. It is a stunning beer and though brewed for a summer music festival it would make a magnificent winter warmer. I hope we'll see it again.

A second new Connacht brewery to finish on: Black Donkey from Roscommon. They've daringly opted for a saison as the first release and the official east-coast launch took place in 57 The Headline recently. Sheep Stealer is the latest of a growing sub-genre of quite sweet Irish saisons, packed to the gills with mouth-watering orangey fruit. There's some level of dryness and spicing in here too, in both flavour and aroma, but they're more akin to the kind of thing you'd find in a witbier rather than a continental saison. I get a definite poke of coriander in the aroma especially, though as far as I know, no spices have been used in the recipe. The lack of sharp edges makes Sheep Stealer an insanely drinkable beer, as witnessed by the first keg being drained on the night in about 40 minutes.

Another round of new Irish beers tomorrow? Ah go on then...

01 September 2014

No rest for the ticker

Irish Craft Beer Week is upon us once more as the nation girds its collective loins for the craftquake that is the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival, now in its fourth year at the RDS Industries Hall, from Thursday.

To whet your appetite for that I thought I'd run through a few of the recent releases from Irish breweries. Bear with me: this may take a while.

The Porterhouse's Pale Ale Festival ended in late July but nobody seems to have told Eight Degrees who had yet another beautiful hop monster on tap at the Temple Bar branch -- and several other pubs besides -- shortly afterwards. Simcoe Rye Ale is the latest in their single-hop series, 6% ABV once again. It's a hazy dark amber colour and the aroma offers a heady cocktail of grassy rye and weedy, spicy hops for the overall effect of a summer meadow on steroids, or getting your head stuck in a pile of damp lawn cuttings. First in the queue on tasting is a dry and punchy bitterness, sharp at the front and then with a longer resin finish, plus just a modest burst of juicy mandarins coming into it as it warms slightly. Behind these is a dense crystal malt base, though the caramel sweetness is felt more than tasted, if that makes any sense. It's a sort of heavy smoothness and brings balance and drinkability to what's an unmistakeably intense hop-forward beer.

International booze behemoth C&C invited me to the launch of their first Irish beer, Clonmel 1650, brewed at the plant best known for turning out the world's supply of Magners. They rented the entirety of swish Dublin superpub The Church and packed it to capacity, adding insanely loud music for extra atmosphere. Still, two free pints is two free pints. First impression of the first pint was of a very dry lager, the flavour evolving into an earthy, mushroomy, dusty, musty unpleasantness. I guess that's why they gave us two. The second was better, with more of a fruity estery vibe, though still pretty dry. Already in C&C's portfolio there's Tennents, Staropramen, Heverlee, Stella Artois and Beck's Vier. Regular drinkers of any of those will find little to surprise them here.

Clonmel 1650 will not be available at the RDS this weekend.

Before the 1650 gig I dropped into the nearby Twisted Pepper to try a new house beer in their Brewtonic series. I missed the first one, brewed last year at 5 Lamps, and this new one came from Rascal's (here's the official making-of blog post). It's a golden ale utilising Magnum, Summit and Cascade, and they've called it Relax the Cacks, for summer and that. It arrived very cold, which I was glad of that particular July evening, showing a slight craft haze in the gold. There's a sweet nectarine aroma, powerful enough to almost pass for Belgian. You get a massive whack of tropical fruit on tasting: peaches mostly, some pineapple, a bit of mandarin. The body is full enough and there's sufficient alcohol heat to keep the Belgian thing in mind, with definite elements of the first-rate sort of Belgian blonde ales. I got the impression it might start to get a little sticky if allowed to warm but there was little chance of that on this occasion.

The Brewtonic guys also had a bar at the first Big Grill barbecue festival which happened in Herbert Park a couple of weeks ago. As well as imported beers, it was serving some welcome leftovers of another one-off that Rascal's did for them, for a different event earlier this summer. Brewtonic Belgian Wit, said Rascal Emma, is a close relation of their own Wit Woo but utilises a little extra Munich malt. Wit Woo is fairly big on the citrus orange notes and while there are definite echoes of that here, this one drops the bitterness levels and adds in masses of extra soft and fleshy tropical fruit, mangoes in particular. There's a small burn of sulphur and the coriander spice levels are low, but they're really not missed with all the juice action going on. An ideal outdoor summer beer, this, and the festival wasn't long in being cleaned out of it. Brewtonic's boss says they're planning a brown ale next. It has a tough act to follow.

Rascal's doesn't have the monopoly on house beers for yoof-oriented Dublin pub chains. The Cassidy's/P. Mac's/Blackbird group have commissioned their own from Trouble Brewing, a 5.5% ABV pale ale called Vietnow. I explored it sitting among the junkshop furniture on Blackbird's terrace. This hazy dark orange beer smells very dank with heavy sandalwood notes as well. Expecting a dense resinous affair I was very pleasantly surprised to get a burst of mandarin on the first pull followed by a dankness that only comes from fresh hops in quantity. There's a thick mouthfeel and lots of that incense-like spicing. While a certain amount of resin lingers late, most of its hop action happens right up front. It was created as a cheaper alternative to Punk IPA, though at €5.40 a pint in Rathmines it's not exactly going for a song. Much as I enjoyed it, I felt my fiver in the Twisted Pepper above was better spent.

Meanwhile, under their own brand, Trouble have released Oh Yeah!, badged as an "American Black Ale". It's an inky black-brown colour with a fairly sedate aroma of spiced oranges and crunchy green veg. It's lightly textured with lots of prickly fizz, something that complements the spicy bitterness which is the centrepiece of the flavour. There's little by way of fruit complexity, in marked contrast to Eight Degrees's recent Vic Secret, instead it's veg and spice all the way. The dark malt contributes a little bit of chocolate and a little bit of roast, but not huge amounts (in the keg version at least; on cask it's understandably smoother and richer). At 5.8% ABV my liver felt somewhat cheated by the lack of complexity, but it's still a very tasty beer, and at just €5.10 in Against the Grain, my wallet was of the opinion that my liver could shut the hell up.

More pint action tomorrow, including a couple of brand new breweries.

28 August 2014

House of Orange

I'm a complete sucker for new-wave German hops, mainly because we pretty much never see them here. But I did genuinely enjoy the handful of beers I've had using them, and Mandarina Bavaria particularly sticks out as a good variety. So obviously I leapt at Nøgne Ø Mandarina IPA when it appeared in DrinkStore, in a way that I don't normally leap at spendy Nøgne Ø beers.

This is 7.5% ABV and is dark orange with an almost reddish cast to it, topped by an off-white head. The aroma is a unique mix of Christmas spices, biscuits, gunpowder, jaffa, chocolate and herbs: one hell of a noseful. The flavour is calmer, smoother, based on the malt backbone coming through as light caramel and milk chocolate. Joyously, the carbonation is gentle and doesn't interfere with any of the flavours -- that wasn't always the case at Nøgne Ø.

But what of the hops? They're actually rather restrained. I think I was expecting more of a New World bitter bang but instead that herbal spiciness dominates, reminiscent of several Kiwi varieties and a reminder that many of them, too, have their origins in German breeds. There's a mildly oily resinousness as well, and then just enough of a citric punch on the end to make it worth the hophead's while. But overall it's smooth, complex, tasty and very very drinkable.

I should have been careful what I wished for with regard to a New World bitter bang as shortly afterwards there was the arrival of Nøgne Ø's Two Captains double IPA to the taps at Farrington's (now The Norseman, obvs -- this post has been in draft for a long time). I wandered along for a looksee. And y'know, I wasn't that impressed.

It's a clear innocent pale orange and starts with a hard jarring bitterness. This softens slightly after a moment, into more innocent sherbet lemons and light toffee; mandarin and a touch of dank resin, but overall just a bit too waxy and harsh for my liking. It reminded me a bit of Of Foam and Fury, and specifically of why that beer really is up there with the best.

Nøgne Ø's strength has always been its dark beers, I reckon, and these two, while perfectly palatable according to their own style, show little reason to change that opinion. And on that subject, a late coda of the dark beer variety:

I recently assisted Brian with a couple of his video podcasts and he brought along some beers to drink as we talked. The one that has the Norwegian segment in it went with a Nøgne Ø beer I'd never tasted before, an Imperial Rye Porter, brewed in collaboration with Terrapin Beer of Athens, Georgia. A huge 9% ABV, it's as heavy and sticky as you might expect, smelling powerfully of liquorice and tasting of unctuous coffee dregs. But there's also a gorgeous hop effect, delivering fresh raw cabbage in the aroma and a spicy, grassy vegetal flavour. And, like the Mandarina IPA, the carbonation is absolutely spot-on, leaving it rich, smooth and with almost a sherbet effervescence. Only the strength and the hugely complex flavour keep it from being an easy quaffer. Cheers Brian!

25 August 2014

The A game

Back in June, Molson Coors Ireland held another one of their beer events for the trade and meeja at House on Leeson Street. This time, the focus was on Blue Moon and they had brought over Blue Moon's "founder" Keith Villa to introduce himself and a few of his beers. As usual, the House kitchen had done a great job of putting together food combinations to go with the beer. We started on Blue Moon's Summer Honey Wheat which I'd had at the last event and was highly unimpressed by. It was paired with a chicken dish here and that worked surprisingly well in drawing the flavour out of the beer.  Mr Villa described it as a "food friendly" beer. I'd go so far as to say food dependent.

The main act consisted of three beers from the Blue Moon Graffiti Collection: their super-premium, ultra-craft, small-batch beers made to daring recipes and not normally available on this side of the Atlantic. First of the set was Ginger Smack, a powerful 9% ABV honey and ginger wheat ale. It looks heavy and honeyish though is definitely lacking in the flavour department. The ginger is present, but there's no invigorating spiciness, rather it comes through like the ginger in ginger biscuits. All the heat is from the high alcohol quotient. It's a simple, sippable beer, but doesn't compare at all well to beers where the ginger kick is more up-front. The official notes say that there should be clover honey in both the flavour and aroma, but whoever wrote those has either a very acute palate or an overactive imagination.

Ginger Smack was followed by Pine in the Neck, a 7.5% ABV, 70 IBU double IPA made with Citra, Simcoe, Cascade and Taurus hops. And then for some reason they've added juniper berries as well. It's a dark garnet colour and smells wonderfully of fresh American hops and enticing rich toffee. The texture is full, providing an ideal platform for the hops, which start with an acidic smack and then get smoother, oilier and danker later on. The toffee sweetness provides a modest degree of balance while still letting the hops sing, and doesn't cloy or get sticky as often happens in this type of beer. I could swear I get a herbal, gin-like flavour at the very end, from the juniper berries, but this time it's entirely possible that my imagination is the one doing unnecessary overtime. Overall an absolutely cracking beer, up there with some of the best stuff produced by the like of Odell and Sierra Nevada. I'm not sure my journalist table-mates enjoyed it as much as I did, so all the more for me then.

Dessert came with Chimp, an imperial wheat ale of 9% ABV with added cherries. It's the same sort of colour as the IPA, with maybe just a little more of a reddish cast to it. This has a hot and heavy barley wine quality, reminding me a great deal of the Three Floyds/Mikkeller "wheat wine" Hvedegoop. There's lots of crisp husky cereal in the flavour underneath all the alcohol and the cherry comes through as quite a sickly sweet syrupyness that it really could have done without. The whole is a bit of a mess and quite tough to drink, I thought.

It's clear from the IPA that the Blue Moon R&D team in Golden, Colorado do have plenty of brewing ability to go with their vast resources. The other two do seem more like committee efforts, designed to look daring rather than taste good. All are worth trying -- and big thanks to Molson Coors Ireland and their PR agency for providing the opportunity -- but I think the world's independent and innovative breweries have little cause to worry about the Graffiti Collection. If anything, it will bring a broader audience to oddly-constructed beers. It's all good.

22 August 2014

Down with the kids

The strand of British brewing I'm looking at in the last of my posts from Bristol is the one that mostly ignores what has gone before, taking its cues from the brewing practices of other places.

The company at the forefront of that movement is BrewDog, whose rapidly spreading pub estate eschews cask ale and cosy fittings, going for a much starker style-conscious vibe. From the couple of visits I made to BrewDog Bristol I could tell that the style is backed up with plenty of substance: the staff being more service-oriented, more knowledgeable about beer and more generally pleasant to be around than those in the vast majority of traditional pubs. Special edition beer of the moment was Vote Sepp, a thin pink 3.4% ABV thirst-quencher tinted with hibiscus flowers. There's a nice red berry flavour which gradually builds, backed by light digestive biscuit malt. It's fun for as long as it takes to drain a half-pint but I wouldn't go much further than that.

Seeking a bit more substance I switched to Clown King, BrewDog's 12% ABV American style barley wine. It's alcohol all the way here, starting with the port-like aroma and continuing with the blast of boozy heat that scorches the back of the palate on swallowing. There's lots of heavy umami in the flavour, the only light relief coming from the cherry-chocolate liqueur notes. An acrid bitterness in the background suggests that the hops have been laid on almost as heavily as the malt. It's a little bit of a mess but, like Vote Sepp at the other end of the strength spectrum, enjoyable for one. Thankfully there are plenty of good, less extreme, options on tap at BrewDog Bristol.

Moving from BrewDog to Zero Degrees was like stepping back in time. Even though the chain only dates from 2000 and the Bristol branch is four years younger again, it feels like a period piece from a time before bare wood and distressed lettering, when iconoclastic British beer meant cavernous halls, bare concrete and steel gantries. The vast brewpub is built into the side of a hill overlooking Bristol city centre, the main floor area stretching away beneath your feet when you come in via the main entrance above it.

Before pale ales were the styles that upstart British breweries made their name on, it was all lagers and wheat beers. I'd enjoyed Zero Degrees Black Lager on a visit to their London branch some years ago and was pleased to see it is still in production, but it was Zero Degrees Mango Wheatbeer that really caught my eye this time. Sadly it's a bit of a half-hearted effort, all sticky-sweet fruit syrup, lacking a decent head and proper cleansing fizz. The aroma has some nice grainy notes, but any good beer flavour has been buried under the mango goop. There was a nod to contemporary beer fashion in the form of an American Rye ale: 5.2% ABV, dark red and this time completely headless. There's a little rye grassiness but also a surprising amount of chocolate in the flavour. It seems all about the malt until the finish when a bitter and acidic bite kicks in. It's the sort of beer that reminds me why I never used to like rye as an ingredient. A serious dose of hops is needed here.

And that's where we left Zero Degrees. It wasn't short of customers so maybe it can keep doing what it's doing, but I departed with the distinct impression of a speciality beer house that no longer offers what the speciality beer drinkers -- a bigger market than ever -- want to drink. Perhaps I should have had a black lager.

For a better take on the grungy faux-industrial pub style, I recommend The Grain Barge, about twenty minutes' walk along the river from the central harbour. It is, as the name suggests, a barge, and the drinking deck commands wonderful views across the water. It's one of a number of pubs owned and operated by Bristol Beer Factory. Two of their pale ales were on cask. Sunrise is a very light gold colour, 4.4% ABV and popping with bags of grapefruit zest and lime marmalade. The pith takes a little getting used to, but it's very drinkable once you're in. Beside it was Nova, a little darker though weaker at just 3.8% ABV. The aroma is all heavy tropical fruits: chew sweets and breakfast juice. There's a definite fullness to the body which adds weight to the bubblegum fruit flavours but which also leaves the bitterness very restrained. It's not a beer that holds the attention very well, however.

Bristol Beer Factory is well known for its stouts, with the Milk Stout being the one I've heard most about. The dryness in the aroma was a pleasant surprise here and there's lots of fruit in with the milk and the chocolate, strawberries in particular. The texture is super-smooth and while it's sweet this doesn't interfere at all with the drinkability. Belgian Conspiracy is BBF's saison, a dark hazy orange colour and a massive 7.5% ABV. The hallmark saison pepperiness is there (a hallmark missing in manys a modern saison; just saying) and there's a Duvel-like gritty earthiness while a pithy hop bitterness finishes it off. It took a little while to get used to everything that was going on but I found I enjoyed it more and more the further down the glass I went, and I'm not putting all of that down to the effect of the alcohol.

Before leaving the Barge I had to try one of the guest beers, Weird Beard's Hit the Lights, just because I'd heard good things about it. It's an IPA of 5.8% ABV, arriving from the keg a bright hazy orange. It's very sweet for an IPA, with lots of pineapple and apricot (Nugget, Target and Aurora are the hops), and not too fizzy. I could quibble about the lack of bitterness, but it still has plenty of refreshment power without it.

No fashion-chasing beer hunt would be complete without a burger in a brioche bun and some mac 'n' cheese, and Spyglass at the end of King Street sorted us out for that. To wash it down there was Tiny Rebel Fubar. Like Hit the Lights, it's another tropical fruit delivery system, this time all peach and mango. Again nothing too assertive, just good drinking.

We'll finish the trip in Bath, and an excursion to the city's only brewpub, The Bath Brew House. It's a large premises, looking like it was once a rambling down-at-heel superpub but has now been given a lick of varnish, some mismatched furniture and the James Street Brewery. The beers are in fairly traditional styles but done rather well and I think the dimple glasses they serve them in are ironic young-person dimples, not anachronistic old-man dimples: an important distinction.

Gladiator is the name of the best bitter, a dark amber colour with lots of light and tannic lemon tea notes. Fantastically sinkable, packing lots of complexity into the 3.9% ABV. There's a "hoppy pale ale" too, called Emperor. This was served in an unpleasantly warm mug and was a little lifeless as well. Oranges are the main thing it has going for it: freshly squeezed jaffa in both the aroma and the flavour. There's a certain astringency which makes the first few mouthfuls nicely refreshing but which grows as it goes, resulting in a pint that's just too puckering by the end. Stick to the bitter, is my advice.

There was a house wheat beer too but I didn't get to try it. My one for the road was by Wiper & True, a 5.1% ABV kegged pale ale with the irresistible name Kiwi Lilt. I was a little disappointed to find it's not very Lilt-ish at all, being far bitterer for one thing. There's a peachy aroma and while the implied tropical fruits are present, there's lots of bitter pomegranate in with the mango, no pineapple to speak of, and an unsettling blast of coconut. "Kiwi Bounty", anyone?

And that's where this West Country adventure ends. Regardless of what genre you feel like drinking in, Bristol and Bath have you well covered. Just bring your own beermats.

20 August 2014

Traditional matters

From my previous post you might get the impression that British beer these days is all new world hops, weird ingredients and unfamiliar styles, but that's far from the case. On my few days in Bristol last month I found the home fires to be very much still burning.

The nearest pub to my hotel was The Shakespeare Tavern, a homely little traditional boozer with big screen sports sports and lager for the regulars down the back, and a cosy front parlour for tourists like me. "Shakespeare Bitter" said one of the pumpclips and I'm reasonably certain this is Greene King's House Ale, known by a number of localised names across the brewery's large estate. It's an absolutely standard twiggy brown bitter, all plums and Ready Brek. Solid if unstimulating stuff; enjoyable for the first pint but I was very happy to switch to Tribute after.

Not far away, in the redeveloped docklands, there's a Lloyd's No. 1 -- a chain which resulted from someone looking at the JD Wetherspoon model and deciding it's insufficiently drinking-barn-like. I was only in during the daytime, when the offer was indistinguishable from any JDW, and that included the beer. Ruddles Best Bitter for £1.85 a pint? Would be crazy not to. 3.7% ABV and an attractive red-gold colour. I feared more of that heavy porridgey effect I found in the Greene King one but this is actually quite thin and tannic: just how I like my old-man bitter to be. There's just enough of a jolt of vegetal bitterness to keep the drinkers' attention, though an unpleasant husky grain creeps in as it warms. At that price and that strength there should be no excuse for letting it warm, however.

Independence Ale caught my eye when I spotted it on the bar -- it's one of those semi-guest beers Wetherspoon regularly brings American brewers to Britain to make: this time it's Devil's Backbone at Banks's. 4.7% ABV, a medium gold colour and lovely wafts of sherbet and bubblegum followed by lovely flavours of honeydew and watermelon, turning even sweeter in the finish, towards canned peaches. I liked it, though it may be a bit sweet for most fans of US pale ale. I'd direct them a couple of taps over to Phoenix's West Coast, one of those classic tangy marmalade-ish English IPAs. Or a can of Sixpoint. It's all good.

So we've done Greene King, we've done Wetherspoon, that leaves one more bastion of plain English drinking, the grand-daddy of them all: Samuel Smith. We go back to King Street to find The King William Ale House, almost lost next to the other showy pubs on the stretch. It's surprisingly roomy inside and was rarely in want of customers as I was passing. But I was determined to finally have a go at their legendary Pure Brewed Lager and achieved that on a Sunday afternoon just as I was on my way to the airport. "Pure" is a valid marketing term: it's a limpid crystal gold, albeit with masses of fizz. The flavour is super crisp, all crunchy husky grains with just a handful of fun fruity extras: a bit of peach, perhaps. We're not in Munich here, nor Vienna nor Berlin, but Tadcaster will do just fine.

The range of house beers in the King William is prodigious, the illuminated cubic keg fonts stretching far along the bar. Sovereign Bitter was one I'd never seen before, though I'm sure it's hardly new. "New" isn't really a word in Mr. Smith's vocabulary. It's a rose gold colour and smells toffeeish. Malt-forward  in the flavour, but barely even that. Not a patch on the more usual Old Brewery Bitter, and even that isn't exactly a world beater. Still, the authentic 1970s vibe you only get in a Samuel Smith house is part of the English beer experience not to be missed.

I took one side trip out of Bristol during my stay, to the picturesquee town of Bath. It's not exactly crawling with fine drinking opportunities, especially for those of us who aren't fans of the ubiquitous Bath Ales. But I did have a very pleasant lunch in the upstairs room of The Raven of Bath, a poky little pub entirely in keeping with the town's cutesy vibe. Their two house beers are brewed by Blindman's Brewery. Raven Gold is a straightforward 4%-er, smelling Lucozade-like of fake fruit with a springy sherbet and mandarin zip to the front followed by a sterner bitter finish. Quality sessionable stuff. On the dark side, Raven Ale is a Hobgoblinish chocolate-driven ale, a dark garnet colour rather than raven-black and 4.7% ABV. Unexciting, perhaps, but a great match for my game pie.

We'll stay in the West Country for the next post, but don't expect anything twiggy.

18 August 2014

King for a day

King Street is a cobbled stretch of central Bristol, linking two of the waterfronts in this inland maritime city. It is exceedingly well-pubbed, enough to warrant a mention in the opening chapter of Boak & Bailey's recent Brew Britannia as an example of the radical changes currently happening in British beer. But there's even more than that: King Street is a veritable microcosm of British pub life, from shooters to schooners and everything in between.

I spent a few days in Bristol in July and managed to darken the doors of several of the varied establishments of King Street.

The central draw for me was The Beer Emporium, essentially the cellar of an off licence with a vaulted bar and a solid range of British beers on cask and keg. Proceedings here kicked off with Soul Train from the Box Steam brewery in neighbouring Wiltshire. It's an innocent pale gold colour but exhibits intense bitter orange peel and pith. Biscuit malt flavours form a background, but no more than that. A straightforward clean and enjoyable introduction.

Hawkshead's NZPA is along similar lines only with more of everything, including alcohol at 6% ABV. A candy sweet aroma kicks it off but the flavour is all about palate-scorching high-alpha hops. Once acclimatised, one can detect notes of grass, mangoes and grapefruit. The first of these takes ultimate control of the flavour profile in the finish, as a sort of nettle juice greenness. Fun stuff, but strictly in small doses for me.

Switching to keg for one, I liked the look of Siren's Liquid Mistress, a red IPA of a modest 5.8% ABV. It's a very dark red colour with a dense off-white head and features one of my favourite beer flavour analogues: Turkish Delight. I assume it's achieved by some combination of floral hops and roasted malts and I normally find it in porters but it's here in a big way: all the rosewater and all the chocolate. There's a lot of fizz, which spoils the effect to some extent, but it's still a gorgeous beer. Whatever you say, Mistress.

Back to the beer engines to finish, and some Bleddyn 1075 by Celt Experience. This is a 5.6% ABV IPA, red-gold in colour with rich and exotic flavours of spicy sandalwood, bitter myrrh and peppery rocket. The body is full and the beer complex and satisfying.

So no quibbles about quality on emerging blinking into the daylight again. When I first came to The Beer Emporium it was lunchtime and the bar hadn't opened yet. I asked for a recommendation from the beery smorgasbord that is King Street and the off licence staff suggested Small Bar across the street.

We're definitely in craft territory here. Small Bar looks like a front room that's had a war through it, all dangling bulbs and partially exposed brick. Design is minimalist to the point of absence, with knitting-needle-thin handles on the beer engines and keg taps hidden completely out of sight below the bar. Magic Rock Ringmaster was on the blackboard so I figured I'd start with that. A lunchable 3.9% ABV, assisted by the pub's no-pint policy, it arrived looking a little sad -- all wan and headless. There's a vague dankness in the aroma and the texture is thin, like it's not really trying. It picks up a little on tasting, with some grown-up herby flavours: sage, eucalyptus, thyme, but overall it's not especially interesting and was disposed of quickly.

Having been in the West Country for hours and not had any Wild Beer Co. products yet, I followed it with a glass of Rubus Maximus, their collaboration with London's Beavertown. As billed, this is blood red, topped by pink foam. It smells decidedly girly, of sweet raspberries, and while this is present in the flavour it's buried under a massive steaming pile of dirty brettanomyces, honking like a spooked farmyard in front of any subtleties. Imagine a fresh punnet of raspberries dropped in manure. Imagine durian as a beer. Imagine... but think carefully before ordering.

Let's leave King Street for a few minutes and take a wander down the Avon. Steve had suggested a pub called the Bag of Nails and I'm delighted he did. Quirky doesn't cover this little place: festooned in plants, scattered with vintage toys, infested by tumbling kittens and operating a strict vinyl-only music policy. It has a definite community vibe, though still felt incredibly welcoming. To drink, a pint of Towles' Independents APA,  in vintage glassware, natch. It's not terribly impressive, with simple melon and pear flavours before a butterscotch finish. At a big 5% ABV it doesn't represent great value for the alcohol. Arbor's Hoptical Delusion did a much better job. This is 3.8% ABV and quite resinous, with oily vegetal hop flavours, just shading towards dank. Stimulating stuff.

Before leaving I couldn't pass up the chance to try Dorset Brewing Company's Castaway Coconut Rum Ale, despite an intense fear that it could resemble something by Innis & Gunn. It's a clear dark red-brown and tastes pleasantly of muscovado sugar: sticky, and slightly burnt. Not much rum or coconut to speak of, but on the whole it could have been a lot worse.

Back to King Street, then, and The Famous Royal Navy Volunteer, aka The Volly. A big and quite foodish pub, decorated in classic minimalist gastro style, all painted wood and leather sofas. Picking randomly from the beautifully modernist beer board I sat down with a pint of Wiper & True Mosaic Pale Ale. A sumptuous deep orange and served beautifully cold from the cask, the hop flavour blends sharp pith and savoury dank notes so fresh I could almost taste the bursting colours: synaesthesia in a glass. Behind this some quenching tannic astringency and sandalwood spices, all set on a body that's full and warming: a magnificent paradox in such a refreshing beer. An absolute virtuoso performance.

Dragging myself off King Street and back to the hotel for a quick palate-cleansing nightcap. Freedom Four lager was pouring so I gave that a go, and it was perfect for the occasion. Very crisp, dry and cereal-driven it makes for an excellent reset button.

So that's the beginning of my Bristol beer adventure. More to follow, on King Street and beyond...