20 November 2018

All the way up

There's always a good showing from the nordics at Borefts, confirming that region as an instigator and driving force of interesting beer in Europe. As one would expect, the 2018 iteration of the festival featured some old hands and a few newcomers.

Närke, for instance, haven't missed a Borefts yet, as far as I've seen. A lot of their offer gets repeated but there's often something new. This year that was Husings Skogs-Porter, literally a "forest porter". It's foresty all right: the label mentions spruce, birch, alder, juniper and honey. Despite this it's still a porter all the way through, built on a solid base of milk chocolate, the 7.9% ABV giving it a good foundation. All the fancy ingredients amount to little more than a sticky raisin and blackberry combination. This is offset by a berry tartness but it still tastes like a cake. I'd have liked some more exotic and unusual flavours, yet there's nothing wrong with a porter that tastes a bit like Black Forest gateau. Add more cherries next time.

Iceland made its Borefts début with beers from Borg brewery. Snorri No. 10 caught my eye in particular, described as a herb ale and 5.3% ABV. Arctic thyme is apparently the key ingredient. It's a hazy gold colour with an aroma which calls to mind homemade lemonade and herbed summer cocktails. The flavour is appropriately fresh and zingy: a sweet sugary base but with overtones of citrus zest, white pepper and assorted garden herbs. This is fun and refreshing while also being intellectually interesting in the way the flavours combine and contrast.

From the selection of Borg stouts I picked Garún as the one I hadn't had before. There's no mistaking the 11.5% ABV here: it's very heavily textured, the flavour being a bitter and sticky mix of toffee, liquorice and very strong ristretto coffee. While this is an absolute pounder, it has subtleties too. The flavours are strong, but they're comforting, making it an ideal winter sipper.

The Norwegian beers came courtesy of Klostergården, German and all that it sounds. Their Mint Saison intrigued me: it's not a combination I'd seen before. This turned out to be rather plain fare. Not even a hint of mint comes through to the taste, just vague herbs and an unpleasant rubber note.

Its companion goes by the cheery name of Herbie, a beer brewed for the festival with the nine ingredients specified by De Molen plus one extra of the brewery's choosing. Don't ask me to list them. What they came up with was an unhopped job, fermented with kveik yeast. It's a wan orange colour with a powerful farmyard aroma and then a flavour that is at once candy-sweet and heavily phenolic, strongly implying that peated malt has been employed. There's no smoothness or nuance or blended elements here and the whole thing is just a bit nasty. A failed experiment, I reckon.

Moving from Norway to Sweden, I stopped in my tracks when passing the Beerbliotek stand and seeing their orange-peel-infused black IPA Shakes Fist Angrily: the perfect beer for a certain sort of online beer commentator. It's a stonking 9.5% ABV and looks like a lovely creamy stout in the glass: purest obsidian with a tan-tinted head. Fresh and crunchy red cabbage comes out in the aroma while the flavour is sweet with lots of milk chocolate, laced with candied orange peel. A mild hop acridity finishes it off. There's a classy linear progression through the flavours with each mouthful, none of them building to dominate and with no alcohol harshness. This is smooth, balanced, easy-drinking, and probably very dangerous in larger measures. Hence the name, I guess.

I assume there's some sort of protocol to the 2004 accession treaty that says beer from Estonia's Põhjala Brewery must be present at a certain proportion of international beer festivals in Europe, because they really do get about. The only one of their Borefts range I tried was Leevike, described in the programme as a "spiced winter sour" with honey, cinnamon, hibiscus, and clove. It's a murky ochre colour, and the honey and cinnamon form the aroma: so far, so wintery. Warming cinnamon is most of the flavour but it's not laid on too thick. The texture is light and sparkly despite 6.5% ABV. The baseline sweetness is probably the honey again, and while it's not as complex as the ingredients list implies, it is pleasant and jolly.

My Estonian beer horizons were expanded by the presence of Sori, from whom I tried two beers. Vinum Secale is, as the name explicitly states, a rye wine: 10.1% ABV and a dark chestnut red. It tastes... oily: herbal like retsina with the same juicy red grape and then overtones of eucalyptus and coconut oil. Smooth and a little boozy, it's very sippable and ponderable. This is an unusual beer and one not to be rushed.

I returned to Sori much later for an even stronger beer: Conca d'Oro, This is a wine-barrel-aged imperial stout of 11% ABV. The base beer here is very plain and it lacks the basic profile of a stout. The barrel goes some way to make up for that, throwing out unadulterated grape juice, sweet raisin and plum and a fortified port booziness. Bitter herbs add to the complexity, giving it a pipe tobacco aroma and a finish like Fernet Stock. It's all rather delightful overall and a great finisher for the evening and this post. Sori is a brewer to look out for, it seems.

More from elsewhere tomorrow.

19 November 2018

Learn your Latin

The Borefts Beer Festival celebrated its tenth outing in the grounds of the De Molen brewery in September. It was my seventh visit overall, and my second since it moved from casual entry to all-ticket. Maybe the inclement weather is to blame, but it felt more claustrophobic than usual, harder to find space to drink and with frequent queues for beers at certain stalls, even early in the day. I'll see how I feel come next summer, but maybe it's time to leave this event to those more prepared to put the work in for it.

The headline draw this year was three representatives of the brewing scene in São Paulo. The first Brazilian I tried was a double black IPA called Cafuza, from Dogma brewery, a beast of a thing at 9.2% ABV and purest, deepest black. There's a bit of a bathwater aroma: that mix of flowers, herbs and minerals that seems to be unique to the black IPA genre. The flavour leans heavily on roast, giving an intense burnt toast effect. While there's a touch of pine in there, the hops are disappointingly lacking, as for that matter is the alcohol power. That leaves it a decent but unexciting sipping stout, which is not what was promised by the description or the aroma.

Dogma scored better with their Mosaic Brux Brett IPA, shiny gold and tasting as clean as it looks. It begins with fresh and juicy mango and grapefruit, followed by a lavender and bergamot complexity. At 6% ABV it has plenty of body and is beautifully smooth without also being sticky, while a fine fizz scrubs the palate. I liked the balance here: the hops and posh yeast both contribute greatly, but not at each other's expense.

Though Cervejaria Urbana had their own stall they don't have their own brewery, and their black IPA was brewed by, and in collaboration with, Dogma. Chocolate Hopping is the name, 7% ABV and smelling weirdly of wood and bitter herbs. That's present in the flavour too, accompanied by cocoa nibs and bourbon vanilla. The bitterness is too intense, though, and the whole thing is a bit of a mess. Beware the black IPAs of São Paulo, it seems.

The third Brazilian was Trilha. It's a brewpub though does get some beer brewed elsewhere, which has me wondering if these were all in fact Dogma creations. Mémoa is a barrel-aged strawberry wild ale, which is an unusual combination. It pours a dark orange colour and has a lovely tartness from the get-go. The strawberry flavour is mild and comes through without any sweetness but is still unmistakably real strawb. A very slight rubbery note creeps in at the end and is the only off-note in an otherwise daring and well-executed concoction.

Last of the Brazilians was Trilha Gorilla, as much fun to say as it is to drink. It's an 11.2% ABV imperial stout brewed with coffee and (here comes the assonance) vanilla. Black in colour with a tan head, the aroma is a heady espresso, turning to soft and creamy latte on tasting. I'm guessing there's a significant quantity of lactose involved as there's a fabulous velvety texture. So it's not madly complex, and maybe the ABV is a smidge high for how it tastes, but I really enjoyed what it had to offer.

Latin Europe was represented at the festival solely by breweries in what I'm broadly going to call Spain. At least there's no argument about DouGall's, from Cantabria. Their gimmick beer was called Fishman: an imperial stout of 10% ABV, brewed with anchovy and served with an anchovy pintxo topper. It's decidedly ungimmicky and doesn't taste at all of fish, for which I should probably be thankful. There's some light smoke, a little sweet summer fruit, an edge of burnt caramel and some light Turkish coffee spicing, but all is quite muted with nothing really jumping out. This is another that's perhaps a little plain for its strength though is completely without flaws.

One region to the right brings us to the Basque Country, and Basquery was an entirely new brewery to me. I tried two of theirs. Black & Molen was yet another imperial stout, again at the 10% ABV mark. Obviously it was a collaboration with the hosts, and the not-so-secret ingredient is stollen, from which I expected some spice but none came. Instead it's a rich and bitter job, redolent of liquorice and aquavit with a wholesome brown bread crust. Bitterness almost always improves an imperial stout and this was a real notch above the many sugary ones available, some of which I'll get to in later posts.

The other Basquery beer to pass my way was Eskombro, that rarity a brown ale, though given some novelty treatment by the addition of rye bread to the grist. I found it heavy and starchy, the density dulling the flavours. One expects a rich and smooth chocolate caramel effect from this style -- especially one at 5.8% ABV -- but this one just didn't deliver. Shame.

Moving south to Catalonia, another new brewery for me: Poch's, just outside Girona. Another imperial stout, you say? Go on then. Carquinyoli is 10.2% ABV and the elevenses addition this time is biscotti. Once again, however, that's buried under the weight of the base beer which is delightfully bitter, throwing out plug tobacco and green spinach. The texture works well with this, all chewy and gut-coating, and it also exudes a warmth which makes it still enjoyable long after swallowing. Textbook stuff.

My last beer on day one of the festival was Liquid Fear, a double IPA by fellow-Catalonians Pirata. This was a mere 8.7% ABV and quite New Englandy: a pith bitterness overlaid with thick and creamy vanilla with hints of garlic and spring onion around the edges. An unsurprising yeast bite arrives in the finish. Still, this isn't a terrible example of the style by any means and had a lot going for it: the disparate elements don't clash with each other, all carried along in the smoothness. You've tasted it before, though: beers of this nature are ubiquitous at the moment.

That's it for today. We'll stick another pin in the map for tomorrow's post.

16 November 2018

A black day

It was International Stout Day a couple of weeks ago. Diageo marked the occasion with a festival of stouts at the Open Gate Brewery, with specials of their own and a handful of guest brewers from home and abroad.

The headline beer was a cappuccino stout called Stoutosphere. Though a full 5% ABV it was quite light and plain. There's a gentle chocolate flavour but not much coffee. The smooth nitrogenation and a light sour tang in the finish meant it bore a strong resemblance to plain old Guinness Draught.

I had a similar thought about 7 Million, another one at the same strength but without the nitro. Apparently the hops are the big differentiator here, with lots of different varieties used, but I didn't get any of that in the flavour. It was thinly textured and the emphasis is on the toasty roasted grain, with that tang again, this time a little more prominent. Not that different from ordinary carbonated Guinness, then.

L-R: 7 Million, Stoutosphere, 2018 Contains Nuts, Chilli
Surely the Chilli Stout would have something more distinctive to say for itself? Boy did it. The first sip offers a pleasing pinch of white pepper and this slowly builds into a dry but fiery mix of spices, catching the throat and warming the belly as good chilli stout ought to. The tongue numbness was a new one, but why not? I loved the complexity in this: not just heat for heat's sake but a multifaceted mix of chilli peppers, pepper corns and herbs, all coming across very clearly yet without interfering with the chocolate and roast of the base beer. I would love if chilli stout of this intensity were commercially viable, but fear I may be the only person who would buy it more than once.

I landed this flight with a guest: DOT Brew's 2018 Contains Nuts, an 8.2% ABV job with toasted pecans. There's a very spirituous aroma, like a chocolate or coffee liqueur. Though it's completely flat and a little thin, the flavour is very full-on: a sweet mix of chocolate and nuts, and the oily quality of pecans in particular. The warmth makes it an excellent wintertime sipper.

I didn't even notice the item called Nitro Stout on the menu board. Of course they'd have a nitro stout at Guinness: it's kinda their thing. This actually turned out to be a non-alcoholic version, or near enough at 0.5% ABV. I assume it's fermented with the same lazy yeast they use for Pure Brew lager. It's quite thin and a little oversweetened but is otherwise OK to drink. There's a pleasant smokiness to the flavour that gives it proper character. I've no idea if they're planning a wider release for this but I'd say there's a market for it.

There was supposed to have been a sweet imperial stout on the roster but a gravity target was missed and we got Sweet Export Stout instead, served three ways. The plain one at 7.5% ABV was rather bitter and astringent with a strong hit of black tea and Balkan flake tobacco, leading to overtones of east European herbal liqueur. It's intense, verging on harsh, but very good. The name is problematic as it's not even remotely sweet, with its palate-drying roast. I liked how serious and grown-up it tasted, a total reversal of the pastry stout trend.

The bourbon barrel version boosted the ABV to a more imperious 10.5%. The bitterness is still present but gets balanced with dessert-like chocolate and vanilla. The hard edges have been smoothed out and I'm not at all sure it's an improvement. There's still enough of the original character left for it to be enjoyable, and it's not drowned by bourbon flavour the way these often are. A modest thumbs up from me, though I can't help feeling the barrel has sapped much of the base beer's character.

And then there's a scotch barrel edition, at 9.2% ABV. This was harshly peaty and the phenols have completely erased the flavours of the stout leaving nothing but acrid burnt smoke behind. I'm generally in favour of peat flavours in stout but there was something just not right about this one.

It was a fun experiment and a definite indicator that barrels aren't always stout's best friend.

Some more guest beers, then, and Emelisse had sent a couple of flavoured stouts over from the Netherlands. Apple Pie Stout is 6.5% ABV and tastes