25 May 2015

To travel in hope

The novelty of having a JD Wetherspoon 45 minutes away still hasn't worn off, though it's a benefit I only really feel during their biannual beer festivals. So, at the start of the most recent one, back in late March, I trooped out to Blackrock early on a Sunday afternoon to see what was on.

With lunch, to begin, Fort English-style IPA which was brewed by Shepherd Neame and poured an attractive bright copper colour. Its historically-accurate 5.8% ABV can really be felt from the first pull: rich and warming, like being hugged by freshly-baked cookies. The hops add an old-fashioned green veg bitterness, tangy at first, then leaving a long brassy finish. You can almost taste the flat cap here, but it's not twiggy or flabby. A charming old geezer of a bitter.

Because I'm a good and dutiful husband I offered up the California Breakfast Ale to the missus, against my JDW festival rule of Always Have The Adnams One. 4.8% ABV, golden, California, Adnams: on paper it looked the pick of the bunch. But the reality was a little disappointing. There was a slight haze to the blonde pint and I'm positive it wasn't the hops what did it. The aroma is all grainsack and it tastes of dry gunpowder spices but there's not even a suggestion of any citrus or the like. As a thirst-quencher it did the job, but no more than that. Only afterwards did I read there was coffee in the recipe: neither of us could taste any.

And so to thirds. Elgoods Spring Challenge first. 3.7% ABV and a perfect limpid gold topped by a fine white mousse. Rather toffeeish to taste: burnt caramel butterscotch popcorn, followed by a dishwater tang that adds nothing helpful. I'd been hoping for refreshment but I didn't find it here. Next!

One glass to the left on the paddle, Ye Olde Admiral by Wadworth: a 5% ABV amber ale. Rather pale for the style, it's very bitter too. There's just a hint of sweet caramel wafers and then lots of harshly metallic notes, nodding towards gastric. Squint and there's a trace of bitter herbs -- fennel or marjoram -- but blink and you'll miss it. This beer nearly works, but doesn't.

I almost skipped Barley Brown's ESA after a disastrous black IPA in Aberdeen airport Wetherspoon last year. But this one's from a more trustworthy source: Marston's. And here's the snatch! Big spa-town sulphur is the centrepiece; mineral, shading to swimming pool. There's a little caramel, but not too much, and almost zero hop character. But the body is light for 5.1% ABV and it's actually quite refreshing and cleansing. I left Blackrock with my palate sparkling.

A quick skip down the coast to Dún Laoghaire's Forty Foot revealed Shipwreck IPA from Wychwood, in collaboration with Canadian brewery Lighthouse. Dark gold in colour and 6.5% ABV it does a great job of showcasing English hops, in all their marmalade and bubblegum glory. The texture is pretty dense but it's not hard work to drink, even at cellar temperature. A spike of waxy resin on the finish prevents it from getting cloying. Not something I'd have a second pint of, but a nice one on which to finish the excursion.

Across the table it was Hightail brewed at Hook Norton with Australian brewery Mountain Goat. It's a dark mahogany colour with lots of roast and a lovely dry tannic finish. There are elements of great old-fashioned stout in here, a solid bitterness with an edge of burnt toast. Only as it warmed did a little unwelcome caramel note start to creep in, but at 4.5% ABV it's not one to sit over.

And that was my lot from this festival. Even though it ran for another fortnight, a chance visit to The Forty Foot a week later turned up no cask ale whatsoever. It seems that the chain's teething troubles in Ireland are still being worked through. Hopefully they'll be fixed by the time this year's autumn festival rolls around, by which stage the number of branches in the country will have more than doubled.

22 May 2015

Busy Rascal's

A couple of new ones from the brewery on the edge of Dublin today. Rascal's has been striking a balance between maintaining a presence for its three core beers, all of which have changed for the better in the year or so that they've been available, and turning out specials, under its own marque and under the Brewtonic badge in Dublin's Bodytonic bars.

The latter has included Same Sex, which I caught up with in The Back Page. It's a saison brewed to commemorate today's equal marriage referendum. Doesn't the presidential minimum age referendum deserve a beer too? Anyway, Same Sex is 6% ABV and a clear pale lemon-yellow, arriving without much by way of head. It smells (forgive me) quite fruity, and there's a light crispness at the front of the flavour but the main feature is a nectarine tartness mixed with some sweeter mango and pineapple. The alcohol is quite apparent too, but just as it was getting too much there's a gunpowder spice note which offsets the worst of the boozy esters. On balance, I like my saisons to be lighter and drier than this one, and while I enjoyed the complexity, it left me wishing for something cleaner to follow. The bar is promising a free glass of this to everyone when the result is declared tomorrow.

The other newcomer is an IPA and part of a sequence of nationally-hopped beers. Following last February's Kiwi Pale Ale comes Wunderbar employing Mandarina Bavaria and Hallertau Blanc from Germany. I got my first taste, followed by several pints, at the launch event in 57 The Headline.

6% ABV once again, it's a surprisingly pale gold colour with a light, crisp texture. If you like your hoppy beers to be roaring with tropical fruit you can jog on, but if you're looking for something more unusual this is unmissable. The flavour mixes a kind of burnt orange bitterness with a sticky honeydew melon sweetness. There's a generous dose of tannins for added drinkability and a yeast bite which provides a spicy edge without getting in the way of the hops. This beer pulls in several directions at once but it all serves an overall blend of flavours that I really enjoyed. On this evidence, more new wave German hops would be very welcome in Irish beer.

More from the Rascal's to come next week. But in the meantime, don't forget to vote.

20 May 2015

Old and krieky

I'm not sure how long I've been hoarding this bottle of Alvinne Kerasus, but not as long as the "Vintage 2009" designation on the label might suggest. I've probably only had it since about 2011. Unhelpfully, no best-before is given on the bottle, nor even an ABV: on the unlawful side of artisanal, then.

It presents in my kriek glass a hazy maroon with no head to speak of, just a smattering of lazy bubbles breaking the millpond surface. On the nose it's a classic sour kriek, all saltpetre and balsamic, with barely a trace of fruit. The taste begins with a puckering tang followed quickly by a deeper brett-like funk, though I'm not aware that there's any brett involved in Alvinne's proprietary souring yeast strain Morpheus (more on it here). And then the cherries roll in at the end, warming and rich, like the filling in a hot fruit tart.

It's a beautiful sipper and while perhaps not as classically clean as the big-name Belgian krieks, it has a depth and complexity all its own. Worth waiting for.

18 May 2015

A bit of a grilling

The second Big Grill Festival takes place in Herbert Park, Dublin on 13-16 August. Last year's was one of the highlights of the summer, not least because of the excellent beers on offer, with Irish luminaries Eight Degrees, Rascal's, Trouble and The Porterhouse representing alongside Grand Cru's portfolio of US imports, including Founders and Sierra Nevada.

All these and more are due to make a return this year, and there was a taste of the beer options at the launch event held at The Bernard Shaw pub a couple of weeks ago. To accompany the pit-roasted lamb and smoked chicken wings in a moonshine glaze, there was the latest from Sierra Nevada's Beer Camp series of one-offs: Hoppy Lager.

It looked beautiful in the glass, er, cup: a bright, dense gold colour. The first sip, when cold, zinged with lots of spicy citrus zest: beautifully clean and quenchingly sinkable. I was surprised, then, to learn that the ABV is way up at the 7% mark. With this realisation I slowed my drinking a little and as the beer warmed it started to show more of its true colours. A slightly sickly tramp-lager note creeps into the aroma while the warmth of the alcohol becomes more pronounced once the late Citra and Equinox have departed from the palate. For al fresco drinking on a chilly May evening in Portobello it works rather well. But if the main event in August proves a scorcher I reckon it could be just as suitable. Assuming there's any left by that point.

Thanks to Andy and the Bodytonic folk for the invite.

15 May 2015

Post-industrial brewing

Łódź has two brewpubs, at opposite ends of the city's outskirts. There's room for plenty more, though: the old factory buildings which make up so much of the place are ideal for conversion.

Buddha Pub is to the south, based in Księży Młyn ("The Priest's Mill"), a vast factory complex that now houses a Swarovski crystal dealer in the premises adjoining the pub. The venue is appropriately blinged up, its crystal chandelier as much a feature as the gleaming copper brewkit. In the vaulted roofspace above is the Gronowalski restaurant, which is where I got to actually work through the Księży Młyn beers.

Atłasowe was the first, a märzen. It's as brewpubby as brewpub lager can be: hazy orange and tasting rich, rounded, wholesome and calorific. That warming malt is pretty much its only flavour feature and it's a lot more like a kellerbier than a clean factory-brewed märzen. Only the extra weight gives it away. It's one of those brewpub beers that is fine but unremarkable when cheap at the source but would never make it out in the world.

To the pils next, Bawełniane. This has the same sort of roughness as the märzen but is much better drinking. While hazy and far from clean-tasting, it's also beautifully crisp and thirst-quenching with some lovely tinned fruit hop notes. This is the one I'd make my usual when hanging out at the Buddha.

Wlokiennicze is described as an Extra Special Bitter and the signature house murk is very apparent here too, being an unattractive opaque brown colour. There's what seems to be a certain smokiness to it, suggesting perhaps that rogue phenols are at work. A harsh liquorice bitterness is apparent too. Drinking it is hard, dirty work, especially after that light and carefree pils.

The last two beers I don't have the official names for. Księży Młyn's Ginger Beer prompts an apology to all those over-sweetened un-beery sickly concoctions: this one makes them seem like finely balanced IPAs in comparison. It's purest black and just tastes of Christmas cookies and nothing else, roaring out ginger and cinnamon without even so much as a hint of actual malt. It's fun for a sip but I imagine the joke would get very boring very quickly. Księży Młyn's Honey Beer is another dark and dense one, heavily and messily perfumed and far too sticky and cloying to be drinkable. I'm all for playing with styles and recipes, but this place would be better off tweaking the regular beers instead of trying to be daring.

Bierhalle is the name of the brewpub to the north of the city centre, part of a chain of six around the country. It's huge but almost lost in the vastness of the Manufaktura shopping and entertainment complex, a grand project which has beautifully restored an enormous redbrick former factory. It's the first place I've ever seen transparent brewing vessels but unfortunately they weren't in use on the day.

German styles predominate once again and this time I kicked off with pils. Bierhalle Pils is another hazy pale yellow job, and is just as crisp as Księży Młyn's but with a more authentically German herbal hop character, popping with freshness as one would expect from a brewed-on-site lager. After an epic trudge around the shops at Manufaktura this strikes me as a very appropriate pick-me-up.

I opted for Bierhalle Pszeniczne next, their weizen. Rather soupy-looking, I thought. It tastes sweet and very banana-like, though not quite in Cornelius's league. There's a savoury characteristic from the yeast and that gradually grows as it warms, which is balance of a sort. Still not a great beer, however. Or maybe just not the sort of weissbier I like.

Just time to chug a last one back before we leave Poland altogether, and it's Bierhalle Weizen Doppelbock. Well, that's what they called it. It may have a different official name. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it is very good: a medium amber-brown and showing lots of hard toffee, caramelised to the point of burnt, and plenty bitter with it too. The texture is very smooth making it easy drinking for the beer blogger in a hurry. A stein might be too much but 40cl is just right.

I hope this week's posts have given a broad view of what's going on in Polish beer at the moment, even if it did concentrate entirely on just one city's offerings. Poland strikes me as somewhere a lot like Ireland, beerwise: lots of brewers on a learning curve in terms of recipes and quality, but one or two like Bednary and Doctor Brew really breaking ahead of the pack and ready for a place on the world stage. It's an exciting time, I'd say.

A massive thanks to Jan, Sara and all the team at Bractwo Piwne who masterminded the trip and proudly showed off what their local brewers are making.

14 May 2015

Meeting Cornelius

We were introduced to Cornelius yesterday, via its rather tasty Baltic Porter. It's a subsidiary brand of the Sulimar brewery, a big one, mostly turning out standard lager but which has recently given itself a bit of a shake-up to take note of the way the Polish beer market is evolving. Cornelius is the on-message yoof label, hoping to surf the wave of cool to the next big thing in beer. Or something equally cringeworthy spitballed by middle-aged men in a conference room.

We had the whole arrangement explained to us by one of the company execs at an EBCU event in Łódź Polytechnic. The brewery also provided beers for the lunch afterwards, giving us a chance to taste the strategy in action. To begin, though, one of Sulimar's non-fancy lagers, Trybunal Export, named after the royal law court that was once based in the brewery's home town of Piotrków Trybunalski. It's 5% ABV and hits all the visual cues: clearest gold, topped by a fine white froth. It smells bitter and tastes just as sharp and waxy as the aroma suggests, with more than a hint of sulphurous skunkiness, even though I assume this bottle arrived straight from the brewery. It's a beer that really needs to be served cold to be enjoyed, I reckon. But even then I'm not sure it would be any good. Moving on...

Cornelius Dunkel is a pretty spot-on copy of the classic Munich style: 5.9% ABV, a clear dark red and packet-loads of  bourbon cream biscuits in the flavour, with added muscovado sugar and an aroma that's all damson and plum. It's perhaps not quite as clean as the real thing, with some lightly marker-ish phenols floating about, but it does a satisfactory impression for the casual observer. Or the person who's drinking it for free.

Sticking with the Bavarian stylings, next up is Pszeniczny, a 5% ABV weizen. The bang of banana off this is insane: pure, distilled essence of banana. The platonic ideal of curved yellow fruit, right up your nose holes and making noise. Remarkably it's the clove elements that present in the flavour but that's not the main feature. This is, by a long way, the sweetest straight-up wheat beer I have ever tasted. The body is riddled with heavy residual sugar and every mouthful is like shovelling another spoonful of granulated into your gob. It tastes like diabetes in a glass and I didn't get too far with mine. Having achieved this feat, the geniuses at Sulimar reckoned what they needed to do next is add more sugar.

And they were probably right too. Fruit-flavoured radler-type beer mixes are the fastest growing segment of the Polish beer market and the one that is answering the perennial problem of how to get women to drink beer. Perhaps it explains why brewers closer to home, until recently, persisted with lurid coloured, tissue-box branded, sugary concoctions in the belief that it would woo the female drinker. It Poland it seems to have, and more besides.

Before us, then, were two Cornelius offerings, both based on that sugarbomb weizen, though oddly neither tasted as sweet as it did. Bananowy is made with added banana, like that was what the base beer needed. 3% ABV, a light haze and not much aroma. The scale on my sweetness analogy meter doesn't go this high so I'm going to grope blindly at "children's medicine": it has a similar sort of unpleasant plasticky artificial thing too. I managed to scrawl the words "fizzy Yop" in my notebook before I stopped drinking it and moved on to...

Grejpfrutowy, made with grejpfrut, er, grapefruit. I actually really enjoyed this one. Right from the start, up from the hazy pink liquid, there's that acidic spiciness you get from the outside of real grapefruits, and it's real grapefruit all the way in the flavour, with maybe a sprinkling of sugar over the top. It's fantastically refreshing and I'd be very happy to drink it, in the right circumstances. To give an idea of the circumstances the brewery has in mind, they're launching this in a can with a built-in straw. Everyone will be using these by next summer, mark  my words.

One last beer from Cornelius before we go in search of more pubs, and yet another pitch change in the branding. Triple Blond, is young, colourful, vibrant, and fairly horribly sexist. But it was pouring at the festival I attended and I wanted to complete the set. And it's not bad: too sweet (again) for your classic tripel but with peach and melon notes that, with the estery Belgian booze, bring it close to the spec for a decent Belgian IPA.

We shall leave Cornelius there. Between the lager and the straws and the radlers and the tripel they certainly seem to have a lot of plates spinning. I'm sure they can well afford to let one or two smash, and I'd be happy to make recommendations.

13 May 2015

Baltic cruise

There was a full house in the upstairs lecture room at the Polish Regional Brewery festival in Łódź for a tutored horizontal tasting of the beer Poland considers its own: Baltic Porter. Eight examples were set out, sequenced to place the award-winners, and multi-award-winners at the end.

So, starting in the wooden-spoon zone on the right of the picture: Grand Imperial Porter. It's grand, like. Really. Light-bodied but with lots of warm, Horlicks-like, malt on the nose and a sweet main flavour: mostly chocolate plus a very understated bitterness. Moving left to Witnicki Porter Lubuskie and espresso is the dominant theme here: a thick and oily roasted quality, mainly in the aroma but coming out in the taste, next to higher-alcohol marker pens and a softer brown sugar caramel thing. It's intense stuff and I was surprised to discover it's one of the weakest beers in show at only 8.5% ABV. Lwówek Baltic Porter was quite the palate cleanser after that, or maybe its attributes were simply drowned out by the foregoing. It's a simple, plain little number, some light liquorice bitterness but nothing more troubling than that. And bringing us to the half way mark, Cornelius Baltic Porter, a 9%-er and rather hot with it, though smooth enough to keep its drinkability intact. There's low-key liquorice again and no sharp edges. It's a slow sipper, but an enjoyable one. More from Cornelius in the next post, when we flip the tasting from horizontal to vertical.

I'm certain Grand Imperial Porter: Chili was put in to wake us up at this point. As you'd expect, this is based on the first beer and still tastes very much like it. But they haven't been shy with the chilli and the beer is big enough to bear the heat. The end result is a lovely late burn and a catch in the back of the throat. There's no real flavour contribution from the chilli but the extra heat alone makes it a more interesting beer than the original. This was followed by one from the big boys: Perła Porter Bałtycki. Though Perła is part of Danish giant Royal Unibrew, its Baltic Porter certainly seems well-regarded by the locals, and I liked it too. While the style has a certain tendency to dourness, this one is fun, with giggly notes of strawberry milkshake in with the chocolate and coffee. There's nothing off-style about the 9.2% ABV, however, even if it is very well hidden.

The two medal winning beers left for the end were, first, Kormoran's Porter Warmiński, a deftly balanced beer which takes the weight off its dense body with light and dry coffee and cocoa complexities. And to see us out: Komes Porter Bałtycki by the Fortuna brewery in Miłosław. This one won its plaudits through complexities, adding more than a strawberry milkshake into the Baltic Porter flavour repertoire. The aroma is an apothecary shop of bittersweet herbs, while the flavour packs in classic smooth chocolate and assertively bitter liquorice. It's like every element of the flavour has been taken out, examined, polished and put back in place. No shortcuts here.

I'll confess I went into the tasting as not the biggest fan of Baltic Porter, but I enjoyed the session and came out of it a lot more likely to choose one when the opportunity arises. I guess that was the point of the event.