30 August 2010

"Trust me, I'm a brewer"

We all, I'm sure, have our own little pre-conceived notions about beer, beer drinking and beer quality. There are brewing practices, ingredients, dispense methods that we will trust implicitly or decry the evils of, even if our views are not shared by everyone else. It's all part of the wonderful complexity and diversity of beer and beer culture. Statements beginning "Everybody knows..." are rare among the cultured zythophiles.

I can trace one of my beer scruples to the bottle of Pliny the Elder that Chris brought me a while back. The label stresses, multiple times in multiple ways, that it's a beer for drinking fresh and should in no circumstances be aged. Since the flavour profile is built around fresh hop flavours, that's understandable: it's something I've noticed in dry-hopped beers I've made myself, that after a couple of months the fresh and fruity hops zing starts to fade and, eventually, disappear leaving just the bitterness behind.

So I was a little conflicted when Hardknott Dave gave me a bottle of Infra Red. Like the Granite and Æther Blæc he also generously proffered, the label suggests that it's most likely to keep improving after the best-before is past. But unlike a barley wine or imperial stout, dry-hopped IPAs -- of which Infra Red is one -- depend on the delicate young hop oils to define themselves and give you the proper hop buzz you're after.

So what to do? This is my one bottle and I'm not likely to see another in the foreseeable future. Take the brewer's word for it or trust my instinct? The latter prevailed: Granite and Æther Blæc have been consigned to the darkest corner of the cellar; but Infra Red I drank.

It's a big ol' bugger, easy to pour slowly, leaving the sediment behind and giving a lovely clear dark amber body topped by a healthy layer of froth which lasts all the way to the end. And I could smell the dry hops at arm's length. On first sip the heavy body fools you into thinking this is going to be a malt-driven beer, but instead of a toffee follow-up there's a smack of those fresh and zingy grapefruit hop flavours. It's very brief, though, and the aftertaste is altogether more firmly bitter in a way I'd associate with English hops more than American. It lasts for ages too, thanks to the tongue-coating texture, and doesn't turn harsh as it fades. Maybe a teensy bit metallic, but I think that's just something to which I'm especially sensitive.

Did I make the right decision? Yes, I think so. This beer is definitely robust enough to survive a long time in storage, and it will undoubtedly change radically during this. But that brief flash of fresh hops will vanish and I wouldn't be at all sure it'll be replaced by anything as tasty.

My recommendation on Infra Red is drink 'em if you got 'em. Anyone who likes their beer big and bitter should be all over this. Trust me on that.

26 August 2010

Kippers and Canucks

It has been interesting times up at the Bull & Castle lately. As the supply of Goods Store IPA wanes, we've had the first pints of its replacement -- O'Hara's IPA -- making its cask debut. I've made my peace with the bottled version of this now, having found the keg just too severely bitter to enjoy. On cask, however, those head-kicking US hops are back in palate-burning force. Drinking this monster is like mainlining marmalade (the sort with the bits in). I reckon it takes a second pint to appreciate it properly, but I've not yet built up the courage to try.

For a couple of days last week, one alternative for the hopped-out tippler was Sierra Nevada's Unrivaled, a one-off smoked ale with added rye. I loved the smell of it: that sherbety balance of fruity hops and sweet malt that you get in the most delicious medium-strength pale and amber ales from the US. Surprisingly it doesn't taste like this at all. The foretaste is quite harsh and rather kippery: the smokiness made extra sharp by the grassy rye. This doesn't last long, though, fading quickly to let the lightly citric hops make a more mellow finish. An odd beer, but one I kept coming back to, for the aroma more than anything.

Last Thursday's meeting of Irish Craft Brewer in the pub featured some canned beers left to us by ex-pat member Garthicus, now stationed in Toronto. First open was the Creemore Springs Kellerbier, a cloudy orange affair. It tastes, as I believe Mark observed, like kit beer gone wrong. Even though it was only slightly past the best-before there was a marked stale and musty vibe to it, with very little sign of the quality lager it purports to be.

We fared better with Denison's Weissbier: properly cloudy, though remarkably pale. It lacked the big soft fluffy body and full-on bananas of good weissbier, but substituted with lightness and drinkability, plus a strangely pleasant acetone/pear sort of flavour. I could drink this happily, though was aware that it probably contains chemicals which, if ingested in sufficient quantity, are likely to make one's head feel like it's full of hyperactive racoons the next day. But half a litre between eight or nine of us did no harm at all.

The last can divided the table. The balance of opinion held that Hockley Dark is foul muck, another poorly constructed beer, oxidised and overly sweet. Me, I've had worse, as has Brian. It's thick and caramelly, and quite bitter with it. I've tasted homebrew, and the odd bottle of Whitewater's Belfast Ale, that have been along similar lines. It won't win too many awards (though the can claims at least one), but it's perfectly palatable to me.

Still, after the commercial stuff it was nice to get stuck into the homebrew next. It always is.

23 August 2010

The beer from nowhere

I had it in my head that all food and drink sold in the EU had to have a statement of origin on it somewhere, even if it's nothing more useful than "Produce of the EU". As far as I can tell on looking, however, it only applies "where failure to give such particulars might mislead the consumer to a material degree as to the true origin or provenance of the foodstuff" (Directive 2000/13/EC). So I guess we can assume from the name that Nobelaner is from Germany. Yet of the undoubtedly fine Teutonic city of Nobelan I can find no trace at all. Perhaps it only appears once every century and dumps a truckful of lager before vanishing again.

I picked this up dirt-cheap in Lidl to give it a residency as my curry lager. Absolutely no markings on bottle or sleeve say anything about where it's from, only that it's made for Lidl UK & Ireland.

It could be from anywhere really, as the beer tastes of almost nothing. Concentrate hard when you sniff and there's a ghost of hops, but nothing past it. It tastes like fizzy water, even before the vindaloo gets near it. Back to the Flensburger Weizen for me, I think. That comes from Flensburg. It's in Germany, though only just.

19 August 2010

Ambiguous amphibian

Remember that post I wrote from Paris a couple of weeks ago? The one about how great The Frog & Rosbif is and how their ale is an oasis of beery goodness in an otherwise poorly-served city? Well, a few days later we went over to one of the other branches of the chain, the Frog & Princess. True to my word I went straight for a pint of Inseine and... bleurrrgh! A bad infection had caught this one and given it an unmerciful blast of TCP/sticking plasters. But these things happen with cask beer in small breweries; they can be forgiven. I moved to the other previous favourite, Natural Blonde. Oh dear. Diacetyl. Not just any diacetyl, but a pint of blonde ale that tasted like a pound of lightly caramelised butter had simply been melted into the glass: greasy, cloying and awful. Mrs Beer Nut watched my growing horror over a perfectly acceptable pint of Maison Blanche, so that's what I finished with.

Oblivious suggested that the Frog & Princess may be an extract brewpub. It would make sense, I guess, when there are five outlets in one city for all the difficult work to be carried out at one of them (or elsewhere altogether) and the finished beers assembled on site. It could also be what led to such a terrible dereliction of quality control -- whomever released those beers to the public cannot possibly have cared about how the finished product tasted.

Anyway, that's my arse covered if anyone else goes to a Frog pub on my recommendation and finds the beer awful. On to the rest of Paris.

Aside from the Frogs, the city's only other brewpub is O'Neil, just round the corner from the Frog & Princess as it happens, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It's not an Irish theme bar, despite the name, going instead for more of an American cocktail bar vibe -- dark wood and mood lighting. The brewkit is out in front and is in active use. What I hadn't known until I read the smallprint on the menu is that it's a member of the 3 Brasseurs chain, though not branded as such. All three beers invoked my memory of my last 3 Brasseurs visit, four years ago near Calais: they all taste powerfully of fish. I'm sure this isn't what Reuben meant recently when he noted that the 3 Brasseurs beers all taste the same, but for me it was fish market all the way and little else to show.

L'Ambrée is lightly perfumed and golden-amber; the seasonal Bock is heavily estered with pear drops in the mix; and the Brune is dry, caramelly, rather light for 6.3% ABV and tastes more intensely of fish than the other two, which is a lot. If you don't make it to O'Neil next time you're in Paris, I wouldn't worry unduly.

Much better beer was to be had following Knut Albert's recommendation of Au Trappiste at Châtelet. Not wishing to go madly ticking among the dozens of taps and bottles, I decided I wanted something reliable and nice. Draft Bécasse Gueuze did the job: a lovely big tartly refreshing pint of it. It was Mrs Beer Nut who went looking for the exotic, and picked L'Angelus, a strong French blonde ale from the far north-east. It's lovely when cold: spicy and perfumed like a good tripel, but it does get a bit sticky as it warmed. A pint of it may have seemed like a good idea on a hot Paris afternoon, but you really want to neck it quick for full refreshment value.

And that, in seven blog posts, is what I did on my summer holidays.

17 August 2010

I spy pie

It usually takes me a day or two in England to get sick of pies. In the meantime, however, it's pies all the way. Mmm, pies. And beer. Battlefield Farm Shop, outside Shrewsbury, is a bit of a pie and cheese and beer mecca. For some reason my sister thought I'd be interested in going there...

I took away a chicken, blue cheese, pear and walnut pie, and a pork and Stilton one, with a bottle of Hobson's Old Henry. It's a lovely strong ale, spicy at first, followed by some weighty toffee and then finishing roasty and dry. First rate pie lubricant.

The other bottled local I gave a spin was Darwin's Origin, picked up in the beautiful surrounds of Tanners Wine Merchants (Darwin is the local celeb in Shrewsbury). This pours fizzily a dark amber colour. There's quite a bit of body to it, but it's still very much a hop-driven beer. The hops are English and give it dominant flavours of sweet mandarin oranges. Not a million miles from Adnams excellent Innovation.

The same brewery, Salopian, also brew Oracle, a hoppier-yet pale ale: sharp at first, then giving way way to flowers and soft fruit, before finishing up sharp and perhaps a little bitterly harsh at the end. We had this at The Boathouse, a lovely riverfront pub by the park. They also had Stonehouse Station Bitter on, a plain but nicely quenching amber ale.

Upstream on the Severn as it flows through Shropshire there's The Armoury, a vast pub-restaurant crammed with bric-a-brac and fashionably mismatched furniture. It's part of the Brunning & Price chain, which has a house Original Bitter brewed by Phoenix. Rather like the Station Bitter, it's brown, simple, unassuming and with a touch of toffee. I liked it for what it was, but was glad of pale, hoppier options too. Like Woods Shropshire Lass: a golden ale packed with Saaz spiciness for that quality lager sensation.

Three Tuns XXX was another lagery beer they had on though not as good: throwing candy sugar in with the grassy, cabbagey hops. Weetwood Cheshire Cat looked like a lager, a poor one, but didn't taste as watery as it appeared, saved by an interesting mineral chalkiness.

And then there was Twisted Spire. I brought a half to the table for my sister. She didn't like it. I sniffed it. It was vinegar. Traces of the sweet blonde ale were detectable on tasting, but mostly it was vinegar. So I brought it back. Two twentysomething barmen in rugby shirts with turned up collars should really have been a clear indication I was wasting my time. The first said it was fine and passed it to the other, he said it was fine too and then they just went on serving other customers leaving me slack-jawed with half a pint of off beer and a thirsty sister. Not great service there, The Armoury.

My pie fetish had worn off by the time we headed south to London (the story picks up in this post from last week). I believe it was, in fact, a sandwich that went with my last beers in Shrewsbury, at The Three Fishes. It's a delightfully ramshackle boozer in the historic heart of the town, and seemed to be something of a pilgrimage point for elderly CAMRA types. Which is a good sign, beerwise. My first pint was Bath Gem, a highly buttery brown bitter with lots of toffee. Smooth and warming and I liked it, even out of season. The second was something of a celebrity: I'd heard lots -- all good -- about Oakham Citra. It didn't disappoint, despite a little bit of cloud in my pint and a resulting yeasty sharpness. But I tuned that out of my palate and sat back to enjoy the massive lemon and grapefruit smack from the Citra hops. Yes, it's one-dimensional, but one of those dimensions I can happily spend an afternoon in.

Unfortunately, London was calling so off we chugged. Next on the blog is what happened when we came out the other side.

16 August 2010

Chester draws

Samuel Smith's pubs, eh? Always worth a laugh. I've never been able to spot one from the outside (is there a way?) but I always end up crossing the threshold, clocking the distinctive illuminated keg fonts, grinning, and girding my metaphorical loins for the hilarity about to ensue. For instance: has anyone ever tried their own-brand spirits and soft drinks, and are they any good? While waiting for my pint at a Samuel Smith's bar, I've started to feel the tug of my inner ticker saying "go on, order a Scotch as well, it'll only cost you about 50p". Next time I'll probably give in. This time I didn't.

We'd only just arrived in Chester, having hopped on the ferry from Dublin to Holyhead and taken the train across north Wales (just €36 all in; can't say fairer), and met up with my sister who lives not far away in Shropshire. After a cursory wander through the town and a gawk at the fascinating local architecture (no really, they decided to put street level above the ground floor) we called in to The Falcon for refreshments. I was on the cask Old Brewery, the missus had a keg Dark Mild and the sister wanted a coffee. In a Smith's pub! How we laughed. Well no, we didn't. I marvelled that a twenty-first century pub chain can seemingly thrive without providing some of the basic stuff that twenty-first century people like to drink. Yes, yes, I know: it's a pub not a bleedin' Starbucks but isn't it interesting that they're making their money by being the no-frills, booze-only pure cheap pub, while JD Wetherspoon are raking it in by providing everything at low prices and packing the punters in? It's like they're opposite sides of the same pub coin. The Falcon certainly had a Wetherspoon-level of loud and scary drunks that afternoon. We moved on.

(So much for my opinion of Samuel Smith. For Samuel Smith's opinion of me, see this photo, courtesy of Bailey.)

After a quick spin around part of the walls it was time for pies and more beer. We'd had a recommendation of The Brewery Tap, flagship pub of the Spitting Feathers Brewery. It's a gorgeous pub with Tudor banqueting hall pretensions, though on a far smaller, cosier basis: olde worlde without being twee. From the range of house and guest beers I went for a Thirst Quencher, what with being thirsty and all. Alas, it was a case of false advertising. While there's a pleasant bubblegum front to this, it's all a bit grainy and musty behind. Far too difficult drinking for something of that name. Mrs Beer Nut faired much better with Anglo-Dutch Jasper's Ale, a sweet and full-bodied blonde.

The next round included Conwy Rampart -- the first boring brown bitter of the trip: a nasty phenol tang and loads of slimy, buttery diacetyl: not good. There was also the lightly creamy Black Swan mild from Buckinghamshire's Vale brewery. I ordered a pint of Spitting Feathers Old Wavertonian and was warned by the barmaid that it's a stout: "Is that OK?". I have to wonder how many people go "Arrgh! Stout! Are you trying to kill me?" and run away. I didn't. Just as well too: it's a beautiful light session stout with big dry roast flavours. One of those why-aren't-they-all-like-this stouts.

Off eastwards, then, to Shrewsbury. Marston's rules supreme in this part of the world and runs the local around the corner from where we stayed. We wandered in on the first evening, fingers crossed for something better than Pedigree or Banks's. I'd have settled for Hobgoblin but did much better: Shipyard Independence Pale Ale originated at Shipyard in Portland, Maine. Their brewer made a batch at Marston's for their summer season this year. And by 'eck it's good. Piquant citric hops wake up the palate, then sing it a sweet song of peaches and honey. At 4.2% ABV it's a beer to relax into over a few pints. Which is pretty much what happened.

More from Shrewsbury tomorrow.

15 August 2010

Eight guys named Mikkel

Mikkeller's Single Hop series has been around for a couple of years now. I first encountered them at the 2008 European Beer Festival, but only tried the Simcoe one, which I didn't really enjoy. There are nine ten (thanks Bob!) in the series, all IPAs, all 6.9% ABV. Each has been completely hopped with a single variety. It's the sort of project that appeals to half-cut home brewers at big beer festivals. Perhaps we should count our lucky stars that only eight were available at the 2010 Great British Beer Festival: pink-labelled Warrior and blue Chinook are missing from the photo.

Inasmuch as my notes make any sense, Cascade was about the best: smooth and clean and nicely balanced between fruity fun and serious bitterness. Nelson Sauvin does a great job of showing that hop at its lightly grapeish best; likewise East Kent Goldings with all the lovely chocolate orange flavours and none of the metal you sometimes get. A return visit to Simcoe was much better than first time round (it didn't burn) though Centennial was surprisingly disappointing, being much blander than I'd have expected. Amarillo also didn't hit the mark hard enough: mandarins, yes, but not enough of them. I found Nugget to be a little harsh around the edges, with some yeasty flavours that detracted from the citric hops. But the wooden spoon goes to Tomahawk: sickly and cloying like undiluted orange cordial.

And now we know.

14 August 2010

Of significant import: part 2

Festival Tip No. 1: sit near Zak Avery. We didn't even have to lob anything over at his table to get him to pass round the bottle of Toccalmatto Zona Cesarini IPA he had been clutching. It's a zesty, zingy affair where the hops provide not only citric flavours, but bursts of violet too. Quite the best Parmesan IPA I've had, cheers Zak. It bookended a tasting of mostly quite odd continental beers, with the other side supported by Jandrain-Jandrenouille's IV Saison -- a properly spicy, though rather clean-tasting and pale, saison. Where's the funk?

Dutch rauchbier has generally been a bit of a closed book to me, so I gave the Emelisse Rauchbier a whirl and rather enjoyed it: heavy, fizzy, but with that big bacony kick you get with the best from Bamburg. There was much buzz about Drie Horne's Bananatana, deriving mostly from the name, I suspect. It's made from both bananas and sultanas though doesn't taste much like either: melons were actually the fruit it most put me in mind of.

I haven't been seeing much love on the blogosphere for the work of Rome's Revelation Cat brewery. I stand by my opinion that lambic plus high-alpha hops equals interesting deliciousness (rather than, as Barm observes, the sensation of waking up in the night and vomiting). I really enjoyed their De Molen-brewed Milk Mild, a cleansingly fizzy beer with lots of big coffee flavours.

But my champion beer out of this lot, and one of the very few I'd made a mental note to get hold of, was De Molen's own Fris & Frutig lambic. It's seriously funky, with that ripe and rural farmyard smell coming from the alluring dark red cloudy body. On tasting the funk yields a little to allow the rich and sweet purple fruit flavours to come through -- a tart and tangy contrast which stops the wild yeast from dominating completely. Balanced? No, not really. Enjoyable? Yes, definitely.

The evening rolled on; the hordes of trade session beer geeks gave way to the first of the public ticket-bearers. It was the first year I didn't have to run back to Heathrow for the evening plane home and I was in no rush anywhere. So I was quite up for it when someone (Séan? Richie? Sarah?) had an idea...

13 August 2010

Of significant import: part 1

Every year the Bières Sans Frontières bar at the Great British Beer Festival seems to become more and more integrated into the main part of the festival. Last year saw the end of its own separate website, and this year there was no separately published programme: the beers being listed in the main CAMRA booklet for the whole event. A sign that CAMRA is taking more seriously the role that foreign beer plays in bringing drinkers to the festival; or just a way of making sure the corporate brand is appropriately applied to one of the Campaign's outlying vassals? I don't know. It doesn't matter. What matters is that, once again at the GBBF, there was a fantastic array of cask, keg and bottled beers from all over. The US is generally the centrepiece of this (for the serious beer geeks at least) and this post is about what came over from Stateside.

Memories of 2008 and the amazing Lost Abbey Angel's Share I had from BSF that day meant I had no qualms about going straight for another of their thumping barley wines as soon as the doors opened. This year it was the 2009 edition of Older Viscosity: 12.5% ABV and matured in bourbon barrels; dark dark amber and pancake flat; silky smooth and brimming with rich sherry aromas, tasting of cherries, chocolate and vanilla in equal proportions. Just my kind of beer, though not everyone around the table was into it. I blame the ridiculous received notion that beers over 12% ABV should only be consumed after 1pm. Pah!

To match it with something similarly strong dark and heavy for the wife, I picked Stone's Smoked Porter With Vanilla Bean. She liked it, but it wasn't to my taste at all: the vanilla tastes jarringly artificial and sticky, leaving next to no room for the lovely dark malt and smoke. I was much more impressed by Stone's Arrogant Bastard (can you believe I'd never tasted this?): it starts out with a caramel and treacle weight, but then lifts off suddenly on a cloud of fresh and juicy hops. Magic.

Last of the dark Americans was Rogue Mocha Porter, a surprisingly fizzy affair, but using it too good effect: pushing out lots of lovely sweet chocolate and dry roasty stout flavours.

IPAs were of course in abundance, though none really stood out for me. The St George IPA from Virginia, hopped entirely with Fuggles, was one of the best, believe it or not, with a lovely sherbet tang to the orange bitterness. Big Eye IPA ramps up the sherbet even more, and while I really liked it, there's just a little bit of a bum soapy note right where it leaves off. I expected better things from Opa Opa IPA (I'm not sure why), but it proved slightly harsh and not very interesting overall. Then, purely on name recognition, I had a Northern Lights pale ale from Starr Hill, a brewery I know through its blogging ambassador Mr Velky Al. I like the caramel sweetness with which this begins, but the hops were just too brash and brassy at the end, I'm afraid. Sorry Al.

Trophy beer for this post, however, was one Impy Malting pointed out to me, and upon which she has written lavishly here. American Flatbread is the brewery and Solstice Gruit the beer: an intense cocktail of sultry incense, tart berries and heady perfume. Madly tasty and one of the best unhopped beers I've had. That's the way to gruit.

Foreign beer from closer to home next...

12 August 2010

Destination: London (sort of)

As those of you following my Twitter feed recently may have noticed, I've spent most of the last two weeks travelling. Nowhere especially exotic: a few days in Shropshire and finishing up in Paris this week, arriving home on Tuesday. The middle bit, however: the reason for the trip happening when and how it did, was the 2010 Great British Beer festival. Last week saw my third visit to the trade session, and it was great to catch up with -- or at least smile and wave distantly to -- the great and the good of beer blogging on these isles.

We rolled into Euston on the Monday evening and, since we were leaving on the Eurostar from just down the street on Wednesday afternoon, we based ourselves just opposite the neo-gothic splendour of St Pancras International station. Which put me right in line for the first tick of the London leg. With the bags left in the hotel, we were straight across to St Pancras and enjoying the evening sun on the terrace of the Betjeman Arms: the station's bar. I'm a huge fan of John Betjeman (poet, broadcaster, historian, spy) and when I heard some years ago that not only had they named the bar after him, but commissioned Sharp's to brew a house beer in his honour and that they were serving it in dimple mugs, I was champing at the bit.

Betjeman Ale is a rock-solid amber session bitter, offering sweet and smooth toffee flavours, balanced nicely by orange blossom hops. Tasteful, tasty and very good cause for its inspiration to feel "a filthy swine / For loathing beer and liking wine". For the evening that was in it, Mrs Beer Nut opted for a Titanic Sundeck. I wasn't a fan of this -- the flavours didn't quite gel for me, pitting harsh bitterness against chewy grain, overlaid with some lightly soapy phenols. I never seem to know what I'm going to get with Titanic.

To Earls Court the following afternoon and the usual mind-boggling array of beers from all over the world wherever quality beer is brewed (except, for some reason this year, Ireland). Star of the show for the locals was Thornbridge's fantastic Craven Silk: palest yellow with all the sweetness emanating from gently perfumed floral notes, derived from a generous infusion of elderflower. An immensely thirst-quenching beer and the second hit in a row from Thornbridge.

The big fuss of the day was the public launch of Fuller's Brewer's Reserve No. 2 on cask. I wasn't a huge fan of the first outing but was still at the top of the queue when the new one -- aged in cognac barrels -- began pouring (though Mrs Beer Nut actually took the first serving). I liked it. It's surprisingly light and drinkable at 8.2% ABV. Woody phenols, of course, but also a very tasty cherry liqueur sweetness from the brandy. Doubtless something will be lost in the bottled version: I suspect that any amount of fizz will have a deleterious effect on the flavours, but I'd still say it'll be worth picking up a bottle when it eventually appears.

I noticed around the bars of London that another Fuller's beer -- Gale's Seafarers -- is quite common. I'd never noticed this before and decided I may as well give it a punt while in possession of a third-pint glass. It's a rather plain 3.6% ABV bitter with (perhaps my imagination at work here) a bit of a salty edge to it. I think I'd need a pint to give it a proper assessment. Worth doing, since it's all in a good cause.

Other less-than-stunning English beers on the roster were Magus, a pale and slightly peppery number from Durham Brewery; and Ginger Bear by Beartown (swiped from Impy Malting): powerful, raw and harsh ginger, making the cardinal ginger beer sin of not leaving any room for the actual beer element. Ms. Malting was also unimpressed by St Austell's Black Prince mild, though I rather enjoyed it. She likened it to toffee popcorn, and I definitely got that from it, tempered by a mineral dryness. What's not to like?

As I mentioned above, there was the odd non-British beer available at GBBF, and I had a taste of some of them which I'll cover in the next posts. Before leaving England thematically, however, Wedneday morning saw Mrs Beer Nut and I chasing an early lunch in Borough Market. Before going for our train, we stopped in at the new-look BrewWharf, now home to the Saints & Sinners Brewery. I chanced a pint of Hopfather, their strong US-style IPA. It was a wake-up call for the senses to be sure: I loved the huge, fresh jaffa oranges at first, but the novelty wore off a little as my palate adjusted and by the second half of my pint it was coming through a bit harsh and even a little cheesey. A beer to have in small doses to start your day's drinking, I guess, as long as you don't really mind missing out on the taste of everything that follows.

09 August 2010

Tripel-blind tasting

Like any good connoisseur of anything, I do like to occasionally calibrate my preferences now and again with a bit of blind tasting, mostly just to satisfy myself that something other than naked snobbery informs my tastes. Over the past few months I've built up a small collection of tripels and recently I took the time to have them set up incognito for tasting.

The main point of the testing centred on Leffe Tripel: I tend to blithely deride the Leffe range as being ersatz factory-made versions of proper Belgian beer, but does that stand up to scrutiny? Obviously a genuine Trappist had to go in the mix for contrast, and I chose Westmalle Tripel, which I believe to be my favourite. From the abbey beers I took Bosteels Tripel Karmaliet -- an old reliable -- and Maredsous Tripel by big boys Duvel-Mortgaat, one I'd liked on the only previous occasion I'd tasted it. Finally I needed a wild card, a tripel I'd never had before and knew nothing about. This quest was answered by Tripel Horse, extra wild card points for being not Belgian, but from the River Horse brewery in New Jersey.

Expectations were that Westmalle would come out on top, Leffe would be a thin shadow of the others, and the American would be way off the mark. As usual, pleasingly, this isn't what happened.

The first thing to say is that, although the beers were discernably different, they were all recognisably tripels: all had the powerful boozy heat (ABVs ranged from 8 to 10), the heavy sugary body and the spicy Belgian complexity. It was the minor differences in these elements that set them apart.

My least favourite was far and away the palest in colour with much more fizz than the others. The nose was incredibly sweet with an artificial syrup thing going on. It tasted heavily of cheap ginger ale and was drinkable but not very enjoyable over all. Amazingly, this turned out to be Tripel Karmaliet. Mrs Beer Nut liked it for its subtle floral notes and ranked it second; the best I can say is that I later got used to it. None went to waste.

Second-last was the haziest, with the biggest head of foam. It was the sweetest of the lot, reeking of dark sugar and with a big banana flavour among the spices, something I consider a flaw in the Belgian-style ales I've made myself. There's a certain balance to it, but mostly it tastes like tripel-by-numbers, made without the attentions of a caring brewer. No surprise here that it turned out to be Leffe Tripel.

Right in the middle there was another fairly heavy-going one, the darkest in colour with very little head or sparkle. Not so much spice or fruit here, just lots of heat and a hint of marker pens. Tripel isn't supposed to be an easy drinking style, so most of this can be forgiven, leaving a serious and heady sipper. This was the wife's favourite: Maredsous Tripel.

Which leaves the Trappist and the American vying for the top spot. Knock me down with a feather if Westmalle Tripel didn't come second. The aroma of this was gorgeous: subtle perfume, masking any hot sugary booze smells. The spices are to the fore on tasting: there's a hoppy bite at the front which is a little harsh, but then fades to allow lavender and cloves through. Beautiful, but not as nice as...

... Tripel Horse. Another powerhouse like the Maredsous at 10% ABV, but doesn't really show signs of all that alcohol. Instead it has zest: a zingy aroma followed by lemons and mandarins on the palate for an invigorating refreshing effect, enhanced by a vigorous sparkle. The finish is sweet and sugary, but not in an unpleasant cloying way -- sweet and lip-smacking instead. Would I have credited it as an American take on a Belgian style? Never in a million beers.

And then there was the unpleasant business of disposing of the guts of five bottles of tripel. It's hard work this blind tasting lark, but rewarding nonetheless.

06 August 2010

A la recherche du bières perdu

Session logoThe timing of this month's Session -- titled "A Special Beer, A Special Place" -- fortuitously has me writing it from the site of one of my earliest international beer-chasing locations. It was in the early days of the year 2000 that I happened across The Frog & Rosbif English-themed microbrewery in Paris. I recall being thoroughly delighted by the whole experience and was straight back again when we visited Paris next, two years later.

My opinions on beer have moved a long way since 2002, but the Frog & Rosbif has always remained there on a pedestal in my memory, despite my having no recollection whatsoever of how the beer tastes. But this week I'm in Paris, and it was time to find out if The Frog & Rosbif is still deserving of its special status.

It still looks the same: big-windowed and open-floored in the English style, with the brewery in the basement. The beer line-up remains as puntastic as ever, though gone (mostly) is the cartoon art in favour of more stylish fonts for the five keg beers, plus a very fancy swan-neck dispenser for the cask.

Maison Blanche wasn't here the last time. It's an orange witbier, served rather incongruously with a lemon slice wedged on the edge of the nonic. There's a lovely orange-pith nose, but that doesn't hang around in the flavour which is a little bit citric, but otherwise rather hollow and watery. Mrs Beer Nut liked it, but it just didn't do it for me. At the opposite end of the colour scale is Dark de Triomphe, definitely one I've had before. It's a decent attempt at a nitro stout -- thick ("oncteuse" proclaims the tasting notes) and roasty with overtones of damsons. Only a little bit of a vinegary bite on the finish compromises it.

I had much better luck with Inseine, from the cask: a pale orange bitter with a bit of cloud. A purist would immediately protest at the preposterously low temperature it was served at, but sod 'em: yesterday afternoon was a hot and sticky one in the City of Lights and this hit the spot beautifully. There was certainly no masking of the marmaladey hops (Goldings?), given only token support from the malt. It looked like the pub sold more of this than anything else, and I'm not really surprised. Ginger Twist looked very similar next to it, but is a different beast altogether. It was a sudden jolt back to fizzy keg, and while there's a pleasant ginger biscuit character to it, there's not a whole lot else. Easy drinking and refreshing is what they're going for, I suppose, but I can't help but apply another "watery" warning sticker.

Round three finishes the house beers. I had a Frog Natural Blonde -- the pub's answer to lager, though far cloudier than any Kronenbourg drinker would accept. It's crisp and fruity, and one of the few beers that can get away with lightness without seeming thin. I get mandarins and bubblegum, with a little bit of chalkiness on the end. I like it. Mrs Beer Nut put dibs on Paris Lytic, a nitro red ale weighing in at 5.2% ABV. Malt vinegar all the way, I'm afraid. She's welcome to it.

So, with a definite mixed bag of beers, is The Frog & Rosbif still a special place for me? I'm going to say yes. The atmosphere is properly pubby in a way that you generally just don't get in Paris. It comes at a high price -- €6.50 a pint normal hours, €5 early evening -- but for the novelty of an English pub it's worth it (unless you live in England, of course, in which case disregard all of the above). I'll be back for the Inseine and Natural Blonde on any subsequent trips to Paris, now that I have a record of how they taste.

04 August 2010

No more heroes any more

Mark of Clanconnel Brewery has a very acute sense of Place and Time. His branding is carefully chosen to reflect the real life and history of where he brews. So, on his first outing, there was a tribute to Co. Down's former lifeblood, the linen industry, in the fine blonde ale Weaver's Gold (I've just noticed recently that between Weaver's Gold, Helvick Gold and Ór we are living through the golden [hahaha] age of Irish blonde ales -- long may it continue). The long-awaited second beer is named in honour of Co. Armagh's greatest sporting legend: the Lurgan greyhound Master McGrath (1866-1871). It seems my home county's humans are a little behind the canines when it comes to sporting prowess. That certainly explains my abilities at least...

Anyway, McGrath's Irish Red is the name, and once again we're looking at a half-litre bottle, brewed for sessionability at 4.3% ABV. The colour is a little paler than one would expect for an Irish red: it's more the dark amber of brown English bitter. The flavour is a tick-list of what the style does at its best: heavy toffee in the ascendant with a lighter, sweeter caramel middle, topped by ripe strawberries and fading out with a mild dry roastiness. Ireland's other microbrewed reds twiddle these dials to varying degrees, but this has most of them turned up quite high, especially the fruit elements. And yet it's still very light and sessionable with nothing cloying or difficult about it. A break with tradition and a bit more of a hop profile would have been nice, but otherwise this is a tasty and quite complex quaffer.

You can argue the toss as to whether Ireland really needs another beer in this style. But there's no doubt that McGrath's Red can hold its own against the top flight of O'Hara's Red and Copper Coast.

Thanks for the sample, Mark. When's beer number 3?

02 August 2010

On the Neva Neva

I'm in England at the moment, pootling around Shropshire, doing most of my drinking in and around the main town of Shrewsbury, though what I've found in my beery excursions will have to wait for a future post. Mostly I've been on the local brews, but while passing Appleby's -- one of several posh offies in Shrewsbury -- I spotted something in the window from a little further afield that I had to go in immediately and buy.

Saint Petersburg is an imperial stout by Thornbridge, a Peak District brewery I've had several wonky experiences with but whose devoted following of beer cognoscenti means it must have something going for it. And sure how far wrong can you go with an imperial stout?

I won't answer that, but Saint Petersburg doesn't go very far wrong at all. There's a reddish-brown tint to the otherwise black beer and a lovely thick creamy head, at least at first. From the nose and the taste there's no doubt of the very generous hopping: green and bitter like crunchy veg, with an alpha acid vapour burn as it goes down. Under this there's lots of silky dark chocolate whose bitterness complements the vegetal hops beautifully. A beer of immense balance, this one, worth the excursion.

Today I'm venturing southwards to London, since the Great British Beer Festival kicks off tomorrow. If you're there, you'll see my eye-burning Trouble Brewing t-shirt before you see me.