01 October 2014

Not set in granite

It was a bit of a nostalgia trip to go back to Aberdeen as a guest of BrewDog in August. At the turn of the millennium I was a student in the city and while it's still the charmingly grey tangle of streets it always was, the beer scene is definitely somewhat different.

BrewDog's own bar, for starters, I remember as being a terrifying out-of-the-way dive that not even the slummiest student pub crawl would dare venture into. Now, of course, it's open and bright and cheery, all trendy bare brick with varnished pine highlights. From the guest beers I just had time to gulp a quick taste of Cool as a Cucumber, the Fyne Ales and Wild Beer collaborative saison. A gulp is all that's needed too, I reckon. It's not the most complex of beers, being all cucumber and not much else: intensely green, in fact, like chewing cucumber skins. It's only 2.9% ABV and there's some mint in it as well, so the refreshment power is considerable, as long as you don't mind being slapped about the chops by a giant cucumber at the same time.

Just across the way from BrewDog Aberdeen is the Aberdeen footprint of Six Degrees North, another local brewery. They've settled on a Belgian theme for their beers, though the bar is far from being a brown café, kitted out starkly in grey concrete and steel. I started with Six Degrees North Bière de Table which arrived an unattractive opaque custardy yellow colour. And, unsurprisingly, the yeast utterly dominates the flavour. Not in a warming fruity Belgian fashion, either: more of an unpleasantly gritty dreggy thing. Yes there are big grapefruit hop notes shouting loudly from inside the flavour, but they're struggling to be heard. It could be I got the tail end of the keg, or it could be that this needs a bit more time in the bright tank. I wasn't impressed either way.

The house pale ale, Hopocrisy, was rather better, if not a whole lot clearer. Though a mere 4.6% ABV there's lots going on in here: sourness at first, followed closely by a big hit of juicy pineapple fruit. When those two settle down a little, there's more of a rustic grain vibe to it, a certain charming roughness around the edges. The big fizz makes it difficult to quaff, and the daft insistence on two-third measures means that doing so wouldn't be any fun anyway, but there are good intentions and brewing skills here. I'd like to have stayed to try the rest of the range.

Dinner at Musa was followed by a trip to Casc: a very swish beer and cigar bar in a basement around the corner. I was heading for 19 hours awake at this stage, with about eleven of those spent drinking beer, so the wobbles were definitely setting in. But not so wobbly that I couldn't identify a beer from my to-drink list on the blackboard, slur out an order for it and scribble together some tasting notes. It's Buxton Jaw Gate IPA, sole sassanach beer of the trip. 5.6% ABV and a dark orange-amber, pouring perfectly clear from the keg. While it looks like it belongs on the heavy and resinous end of the scale I found it quite enlivening, all tart and zesty citrus pith. Much as it revived me I reckoned discretion was the better part of valour and when the Beer O'Clock Show's Steve made a bid for the exit, I wisely followed. Thanks for getting me back to the hotel, Steve: your tactic of navigating there worked so much better than my plan of just staggering about hoping the Hilton would simply hove into view.

But we didn't come to Aberdeen to sleep, so it was back to the bar with Steve, Ian, Wayne and me before 7.30 the next morning. The airport bar, that is. The cask selection was fairly uninspiring, though there was Barley Brown's Black IPA. "That'll do me!" I thought, completely failing to spot that this collaboration was brewed at the Caledonian Brewery. Ugh. Entirely as expected it's a mess of sickly brown sugar: thick, cloying, and definitely not what I'm looking for in a breakfast IPA. Yes, there's a bit of a bitter sharpness, but the beer still doesn't amount to more than Caley 80 with a handful of extra hops. I had to cleanse my palate with a Sweet Action immediately after. If for some reason you want to hear what we talked about around the table that morning, Ian caught it all on his reel-to-reel tape machine and has posted it here. Caveat audiens.

And that's where it all ended. Cheers once again to the BrewDog team for inviting us all to play in their backyard for a day.

29 September 2014

Woof!

It's the sense of energy that is my lasting impression from visiting the BrewDog brewery: a relentless dynamism and a restless drive towards change and improvement in all things. I'm used to breweries as being cold and quiet spaces but BrewDog is hot and -- with two simultaneous bottling lines running -- very loud. The brewhouse is enormous but densely packed with brewkit, the fermentation vessels spilling beyond the walls and roof into the back yard. The plant runs 24 hours a day, five days a week and even though it's mostly dedicated to the production of a single beer, Punk IPA, there is change everywhere. More tanks are on the way; a corner of the warehouse has been set aside for a still; the endless parade on one Punk bottling line was showing the new pale blue livery, the other the tail end of the classic version. Co-founder Martin Dickie brought our group around and everywhere was action, activity, energy. Employees over 40 are thin on the ground.

Adjoining the brewery is DogTap, a recent addition to the complex which includes a bar, giftshop and even a 1000L pilot brewkit, though the whirlwind of change had yet to blow through here and commission it. For a pub situated in a remote Scottish industrial estate, DogTap was doing quite a bit of trade. Normal people too, not like the group of 17 writers the company had invited to its Aberdeenshire locations for the day. And it was a normal people's beer that was my first choice to drink.

Fake Lager is a mainstay in BrewDog's chain of pubs, designed I suspect for the reluctant member of the party who was dragged in by more enthusiastic friends. I held out a little hope that some of the BrewDog magic had been sprinkled over it, but it's really quite average: golden, a little grainy, showing more than a touch of diacetyl butteriness and without any of the high notes that can make good pilsner really stand out. The name is only half joking, I reckon. And of course no sooner than I'd finished my pint, the beer was retired permanently. I haven't tried its replacement -- This. Is. Lager. -- but it talks a good game.

The other new tick on the DogTap bar which I needed to scratch was Magic Stone Dog, a three-brewery collaboration where San Diego meets Huddersfield in Ellon. It's a bright and happy gold and has an approachable 5% ABV. I did zero research into what sort of a beer it is before lifting the glass and was a little surprised to find the estery aromas of a Belgian blonde ale. They say there's some saison pedigree in here but it was all luscious sweet fruits for me: apricots and honeydew melons in particular, making me think of a junior edition of Flying Dog's magnificent Raging Bitch. Lots of fun and very pintable.

We were summoned from the bar back to the meeting and media room in the administrative wing of BrewDog HQ. Here, James and Martin took us through a selection of their beers, beginning with Punk, of course. The newest addition to the brewery's "Headliners" family is Brixton Porter. It's quite a dry offering, even a little ashen, and would have little difficulty passing for an Irish-style stout. The grain bill includes chocolate, brown and amber malts but I was unable to detect much by way of coffee or chocolate flavours in here. A more severe liquorice sharpness is the only real complexity. It's good that there's a dark malt-forward beer in the core line-up, but why couldn't it have been Zeitgeist? That's the downside of running business in a constant state of renewal: old farts like me want stuff you don't make any more.

Presented, oddly, before Brixton was Black Eyed King Imp, an 11.8% ABV imperial stout which started out as a test batch of Cocoa Psycho before getting two years in two different whisky barrels. It's thick and smooth and luscious, as all the best of this sort are. The aroma strongly suggests that some autolysis has been going on: it's a savoury umami air, with a pinch or two of salt. While not tasting of oak per se, there's a slightly tannic red wine edge to it, but the main act is a huge hit of Irish coffee: extra creamy with lots of brown sugar and a billow of boozy fumes up the back of the nose. It tastes a lot stronger than it is, so very much a sipper. When the tasting broke up I mineswept what was left on the tables and session-sipped my way through as much as I could. The autolytic Bovril quality does build as it goes but it's still a magnificent example of how complex recipes and expensive processes can leave wonderful results.

We reassembled down in Aberdeen itself at BrewDog's city bar, standing room only at 6.30 on a Friday evening. I grabbed a very quick Blitz, one of a series of Berlinerweisses with added fruit, this time redcurrant. It's a lot cleaner than any Berlinerweisse has a right to be with a clear, sharp, puckering acidity singing out and not a trace of wateryness, despite a piffling 2.6% ABV. The currants are more than an afterthought, adding a very distinct summer fruit flavour to the whole. Beautifully refreshing and I could drink a lot.

But a lot wasn't an option. We were off to the third BrewDog establishment of the day, their restaurant Musa. Here we were treated to a fantastic beer-paired tasting menu of pig's cheek, salmon, grouse and whatnot, again with Martin and James doing the intros and musical-chairing around the tables so everyone got spoken with.

New beers in the line-up included Russian Doll IPA, part of a four-pack of sequential brews using the same ingredients but in different quantities to create four different styles of ascending strength. At 6% ABV the IPA is second from the bottom of the pecking order but still gets full value out of its Simcoe, Citra, Cascade and Centennial, particularly the first two. A big grapefruit bitterness opens its account, followed quickly by a rich and funky dankness. I guess it's supposed to be appreciated next to its dollmates but it works perfectly well by itself.

A baltic porter to finish, the new BrewDog / Victory collaboration U-Boat. This black lager is a massive 8.4% ABV but, like its namesake, is very good at concealing the danger. Baltic porters can be a bit severe with their liquorice bitterness and chewy malts but this is a much lighter and sweeter affair with milk chocolate at its centre, plus bitterer cocoa powder at the edges. It's no Black Eyed King Imp but it is a very nicely nuanced dark beer.

A big thanks to James, Martin and the rest of the crew of the BrewDog mothership for letting us get in their way for a day. And a special thanks to Sarah who put in all the hard work organising and herding a ragtag bunch of misfit beer writers. Thanks also to said ragtag bunch of beer writers for adding to the fun and allowing me to tick off a few more entries in my I-Spy Book of Beer Bloggers.

25 September 2014

On and off the hook

I had to go and look up why Red Hook describes its Audible Ale as "crushable". Seems they mean something like "sessionable": a beer to chug down and move on to another. At 4.7% ABV I can see the sense in that. It pours out a clear Dortmunder gold, and has a similar spiced golden syrup aroma. Malt dominates the flavour, again in quite a lagery way, with lots of crusty white bread and sweeter buttery cookies. But there's also a galvanic orange and grapefruit tangy bitterness to liven it up and stimulate the salivary glands, plus a gentler chew-sweet fruitiness. I casually drained my glass while writing those few sentences so it's safe to say the marketing department's claim of crushability definitely holds up.

I would have quite liked another but all that was left in the fridge was Red Hook ESB, a larger proposition altogether at 5.8% ABV. It's another bright gold lager lookalike and fairly light of body for the strength. Can't say I'm a fan of the flavour, however. A mild waxy bitterness meets a big chewy cereal base without any fun features or high points, just a dull, clanging lump of a beer, all grain husks and metal with a vaguely unpleasant gastric aroma. It took me a while to get through it and I found it gets even sweeter as it warms which doesn't help matters at all, though I generously shared some with the wife who, unprompted, offered "orange squash fermented with mushrooms" as a tasting note. Anyone who thinks English strong ale resembles this needs educated.

Bit of a ying and yang situation going on here, then.

22 September 2014

Job done

I was expecting something hot and heavy from St. Austell's Big Job, imagining it as a kind of tramps' edition of their Proper Job IPA. But it's really quite classy, despite the name. A slight haze is thrown by the bottle-conditioning, around which it's a bright golden orange colour. There's maybe a faint whiff of that Special Brew-ish sickliness in the aroma but mostly it's all about the hops: pithy jaffa and lighter ripe mandarin.

There's a veritable explosion of hoppy fruit on tasting, the combination of Centennial, Citra and Cascade working its magic and pushing out a complex cocktail of lime, honeydew, peach skins and even a dusting of coconut. While I was still boggling at all that, it struck me that there's no trace of heat from the 7.2% ABV -- if anything the texture is a little thin but that does add enormously to its power to refresh.

Even as a long-time flag-waver for the joys of Proper Job (except when on keg) I was surprised by how enjoyable this was.

Top marks, St. Austell.

18 September 2014

Knockabout fun

There's a story being told on the labels of these beers from Scheldebrouwerij but I'm damned if I know what it is. The leaf-clad cavemen look to be up to some sort of crazy scheme, in proper Belgian comicbook style. The brewery is situated in Hoogstraten in the far north of Belgium, hard by the Dutch border.

I started with the lightest of the set: Dulle Griet at a not insubstantial 6.5% ABV. A thick layer of sediment had settled in the bottom of the bottle and was shaken up with the release of pressure, giving me a glassful of reddish-brown lava lamp. The busy bubbles push out a heady aroma of cough mixture, hot chocolate and diesel, suggesting something much, much stronger. It proved to be easier drinking than I expected: light bodied and pleasantly sparkling rather than full-on fizzy. The flavour is every bit as mixed up as the aroma suggested, with black forest gateau and cinnamon tempered by a bitterer liquorice being the main act, while the ghosts of various sticky bottles at the back of the drinks cabinet float on and off stage. A wheaty cereal crispness adds a more restrained note, meanwhile. There's a certain alcohol heat, but it's not overdone. Surprisingly enjoyable, then.

Zeezuiper ("Sea Drunk"?) is a tripel and again there are worrying dark gobbets of dead yeast pouring into the glass along with the golden beer. 8% ABV and with an uncharacteristic dose of coriander it smells of honey and spice and tastes of bath salts. There's not a trace of all that alcohol, and the flavour is very cartoony: bright Jolly Rancher sweetness and floral perfume, shading towards old-lady lavender. The bath salts effect is completed by the gentle effervescence. It slips down very easy and while not delivering the honey-spice-heat effect of grown-up tripel, it's a very enjoyable beer.

Last of the set is 'n Toeback, 9.5% ABV and stylistically described, in both French and Flemish, as a "Quattro". Style trollin'. Colourwise it's not far off the foregoing, though a little more orange than gold, with the by-now customary yeast bits, of course. It's heavily textured, like trying to drink an orange barley travel sweet. There's lots of belly-filling warmth, the flavour all bitter pith, white sugar and... you know that tray of seeds of some Indian restaurants give you with the bill? That.

It's rare to find a Belgian beer that's as much fun to drink as the illustrations on the label, but I think Scheldebrouwerij may be one of those.

15 September 2014

El ratolí que va rugir

#dammisdead squeals the label on the back of my dinky bottle of Revolution IPA, a product of Molta Birra in Girona, on the doorstep of the Catalan brewing giant. It's a 6.5% ABV pale amber beer, one I poured very carefully having noticed the thick gobs of yeast at the bottom of the bottle, all the while worrying about the slightly sour aroma it was giving off. Nothing severe, just... worrying. The yeast hasn't been too busy as it's rather flat. 70 IBUs are claimed, but they must be theoretical, to the point of aspirational. It's quite watery and there's very little sign of the Apollo and Simcoe hops billed on the label. Mildly spicy resins and a light acidic bitterness are your lot, hopwise. Not that it's a sticky malt bomb either, with just a minimal amount of caramel. The wateriness means the finish is quick, and the 200ml serving means I didn't spent much time contemplating its faults. On to the next.

MoltaBirrAS black IPA slips the ABV up a notch to 7.5% and the IBUs to 80. It's also in a more orthodox 330ml bottle, with more enthusiastic carbonation, fizzing up with ivory foam before falling back to a thin blanket of retained head. The aroma is all about the dark grain: burnt toast and coffee with maybe a suggestion of vegetal greenness behind it. The hop combination is a strange one: Vanguard, Amarillo, Citra and Fuggles, and it's the middle two I'd be looking for the action from, but I think the lower alpha varieties are doing the heavy lifting. Tangy rather than bitter, with some cheery soft peach flavours, but none of the big citrus one might expect from the specs. And those hops are very much masked by the malt again: the first sip reveals this to be a smooth and creamy stout, a milky coffee smoothness being its most prominent feature. It's a perfectly decent beer though I wonder if it's what the brewer intended. I imagine it has disappointed a hophead or two in its time.

Both of these bottles were relatively fresh, I should add, consumed less than two months after I bought them at the Alltech festival in February. While I was at the stand I tried Molta Birra's other exhibit L'Arrosa, another beer that promises big (Ahtanum, Simcoe, Citra) and there's also rice, discernible from the turbid milky appearance. I don't know what the rice contributes other than opacity, but the hops are present, giving it a nice light zesty quality. It's an unfussy, fun beer but, like the others, not one to keep the Damm execs from sleeping soundly under their FC Barca duvets.

11 September 2014

Journey's end

From far off Michigan, from Oregon and the eastern plains of Colorado, American draught beer comes to Dublin. It's a bit silly when you think about it: there was beer here already. But it would be churlish not to afford proper hospitality to these bona fide travellers. By drinking them.

First up is Rogue Yellow Snow, encountered among the keg fonts in The Black Sheep. I've no intention of looking up precisely how its name was chosen, suffice it to say that it's not very yellow and doesn't taste of piss. More of an orange-amber as far as the first goes, and, well it's definitely very malt-forward for a 6.5% ABV west-coast IPA. It wouldn't be at all surprising that some hop quality was lost on the epic journey from Oregon's far western edge. What's left is a kind of Ready Brek oaty/wheaty thing, with just a few traces of sharp and acrid hopping in the background. Quite dull, overall, and I find it hard to believe it left the brewery like this.

No hop worries when it comes to Founders Rübæus, as consumed at L. Mulligan Grocer. This is the Michigan brewery's raspberry beer, and raspberries it has, in a very big way. It's quite a striking pink, for one thing, and while not a complete candy bomb it is very sweet indeed. The raspberry flavour dominates everything, but at least it does taste like real ripe fruit, not some artificial ice cream sauce. The texture is a lovely soft effervescence. Reuben was in the pub with me and called it exactly: it's a raspberry version of Früli. I don't regard that as an insult, but your mileage may vary.

And finally, back in August, Doug Odell was over on a visit to this side of the Atlantic. From watching various pubs in the UK and Ireland on Twitter it appeared he was being dragged around like an animal in a cage, put on show For a Limited Time Only at each venue. It must have been exhausting. Accompanying him there was a range of draught Odell beers, including one brewed in collaboration with neighbouring New Belgium. In subsequent researches, the only named beer I can find that fits the bill is FOCOllaboration , a 6.75% ABV pale ale. What was on tap at Against the Grain was billed as 9% ABV, so I'm confused. My notes do say that it hides the alcohol very well, so it seems likely to be a simple labelling error. Either way this is a lovely example of the signature Odell style, wafting out peach aromas with more soft stone fruit and mandarin in the flavour, plus a beautiful fresh dankness. The bitterness is present but mild and there are a handful of Belgian-style fruit esters. Superb stuff, overall, and what we've come to expect from Odell, even at this distance.