30 June 2006

Back on the ale trail

I spent a couple of days in London over the weekend and managed to fit in a fair few pints of the interesting. Or at least what counts as interesting to me.

Starting simple I tried Young's Bitter, which is London's answer to a pint of plain: very well-balanced and ticking all the right boxes for bitter without being too fussy. Another quality Young's beer. Courage Best is in the same league, though lighter and less challenging. Also at the entry level is Greene King's IPA. While this suffers from a bit more of a sparkle than is strictly warranted in this kind of ale, the bitter, hoppy aftertaste is very pleasant.

Broadside is a fairly common premium bitter. It is, in fact, very bitter indeed. I think they were trying to do something daring with the recipe here, and while the result is certainly bold and distinctive it lacks the warmth and subtlety of good bitter. Olde Trip tries to do something similar as well, but fails and fades into quite an average, non-descript beer.

Turning up the hop quotient we have a Welsh bitter on sale in Wetherspoon's called Brain SA. It has a very unusual raw green vegetal taste with hints of smoke. Very tasty. Similarly vegetal is Landlord, though this one crosses the line from bitter into sour and is a bit of an acquired taste, I reckon. Reverend James is so hop-laden that is has almost no foretaste but packs a big bitter hops punch at the end. Yet even it pales in comparison to my find of the trip: Theakston's Black Bull. The Bull is strikingly headless, despite having a faint trace of sparkle. Tastewise it has nothing up front but holds back a massive green hops taste which is quite delicious. And at the end there are hops dregs in the bottom of the glass. If that's a gimmick, it worked. Theakston's, you've done it again.

While I was contemplating my Black Bull in the Museum Tavern in Bloomsbury last Friday evening, one of the regulars mentioned to the barman that it was too warm to be drinking ale. Nonsense, I thought, but over the weekend I noticed that the brewers and their marketing people seem to have been making an effort for the ale fans who want something in their line more suited to warm weather. And so, from Fuller's, we have Discovery. This is hand-pumped but lager-like in appearance. It's certainly much lighter than bitter, but it didn't put anything back where the bitterness and warmth were taken out. The result is rather hollow and bland. Summer Solstice is in the same genre and suffers from the same lack of flavour.

Not only was it summer, of course, but the World Cup was on. Our friends at Greene King have produced a series of guest ales being sold in Wetherspoon's. 4-4-2 is a pale ale with a big taste. Daring, but a bit cloying. Perhaps one pint is supposed to last the full ninety minutes plus stoppages. 1966 is much better: bitter and spicy with a solid dose of hops for flavour. The Wychwood people have also made a World Cup beer, called England's Ale. This is dark, smooth and easy-drinking with a smoky, burnt character. Up to scratch with the other quality Wychwood beers.

So much for England. While in London I made the obligatory visit to the mighty Belgo. I wasn't especially adventurous in my beer selection: plumping for two from the Grimbergen stable on draught. The blond is a very full-flavoured heavy, dry beer. The dubbel is rich, sweet and chocolatey.

If every weekend was filled with this much English and Belgian beer I'd be very happy. And very very fat.

16 June 2006

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

In a grocery shop in Ardres I had a bottle of local beer foisted upon me by the shopkeeper (it takes a lot of effort to foist artisan beer on me, it really does). Entitled La Bière à Frometon, it is sold as an accompaniment to cheese, and bears the name of the brewer (Christophe Noyon) and the cheesemaker who helped with it (Philippe Olivier).

It is in the style of the Flemish golden ales, and Duvel in particular: strong, slightly cloudy and brimming with flavour. There is an added artisan quality to it as well, a well-honed smoothness reminiscent of the Trappist tripel-style ales. Perhaps it's the Trappist connection that brings the cheese into the equation, Chimay being one brand which produces both products. Other than that, I really don't see what makes this a special beer for cheeselovers, and I suspect it may be a slightly cynical effort by a brewer and a cheesemaker to introduce the customers of the other guy to their own product. Still, you can't argue with the quality of the beer.

As an excercise in synergy, then, it leaves something to be desired; as a beer it is first rate.

11 June 2006

Back to the Brewhouse

Last October, Guinness launched the first of their limited edition Brewhouse series (report here). The second one is out now, under the name Toucan Brew.

Once again, the taste is very very similar to ordinary Guinness and I had a hard time trying to figure out how this one is different. If anything, it is blander than ordinary Guinness, lacking even the faint hint of stout bitterness that Guinness have steadfastly sought to remove from their product. My guess is that they intend to market this as a light stout for easy summer drinking, or for the ladies who don't like the taste of beer, or something equally patronising dreamt up by the market research people at St. James' Gate. The official word is that's it's "triple-hopped", to be "bright, smooth and refreshing". To me, it's just bland. Bring back Brew 39.