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.

10 June 2006

Somewhat Aud

On my recent trip to France I didn't get a chance to have a drink in the L'Audomaroise microbrewery in St. Omer, but I did come away with what promised to be three of their more interesting beers.

Blanche à la Pomme is, unfortunately, in the typical dry French blanche style, though it isn't quite as bitter as most of the rest of them. Of apples there is the faintest whiff, but very little by way of taste.

Blonde à la Rhubarbe isn't really blonde at all: it's a cloudy pale amber beer, almost like a light ale. It has a pleasant musty character which presumably comes from the rhubarb, but doesn't actually taste rhubarby. Not what I expected and a pleasant surprise.

Ambrée à la Chicorée lacks the warmth of normal French ambrée beers. There's also not much of a chicory taste either. This beer is quite bland.

There's no doubt that L'Audomaroise put a lot of care into their beers and have produced a very high-quality product, but I found the flavours just a bit too subtle for my palate. If it says rhubarb on the label, I expect rhubarb in spades. I appreciate that this is Beer As Fine Art, but I think I prefer the rougher approach.

04 June 2006

Last of the Fruity Belgians

As I've said before, there's a lot to be said for mucking about with standard brewing practices: weird methods and ingredients are what keeps the industry fresh and interesting, and I have huge respect for the small producers in particular who take chances on these things.

It seems one of the world's largest brewers is at it now, too. InBev (formerly Interbrew) have recently launched Hoegaarden Citron. It's a lighter (3%) version of plain Hoegaarden, with an added lemon flavour. The lemon hint in standard Hoegaarden was one of its strong points, and what we have now is some kind of ultra-sweet alcopop for people who don't like the taste of real beer. You have to wonder what focus group prompted this one.

InBev also make Bellevue Kriek, one of my favourites of the genre. At a motorway service station in Belgium I discovered Bellevue Kriek Extra. It comes in little Red-Bull-style cans, and is lighter than the normal product, at 4.3%. The idea is that it contains even more fruit than usual. It certainly tastes sweeter, but the dry gueuze character of Bellevue is one of the main reasons I like it. Once again, I'm not sure what the point of this beer is.

03 June 2006

Allez les Bleus! (et les blondes et les blanches)

So, recently I was complaining about Ch'ti, and about how France can do better beer. I'm back from France now and can confirm that there is a vast and fascinating brewing tradition in the area of north France which backs on to Flanders. And I didn't even touch the Jenlain.

Starting with one of the more prosaic, barbecue lagers, we have something called 33 Export which is drier than your average lager, and slightly, but not unpleasantly, bitter. It works well as an aperitif, I found. Moving up a level, Pelforth is a fairly ubiquitous brand. The blonde has a strong sticky honey flavour which is delicious. The brune is also sticky, but in a caramel sort of way, with a touch of coffee. Surprisingly easy drinking, for all that.

No visit to France would be complete without some Kronenbourg. They make Wilfort, which is a very thick, dark, sweet beer, similar to a Czech or German dunkel. Quite impressive, given that most of what Kronenbourg make is muck.

The Fischer brewery in Alsace had a number of beers on the shelves in Pas-de-Calais. Their ordinary lager is another of the dry ones. It has a sharp, tangy flavour and a heavy fizz, creating a sensation not unlike drinking mineral water.

The main St. Omer brewery makes four artisan style beers, sold in 65cl swingtop bottles. Blonde de Brasseurs is the lager, and is fairly humdrum: the least interesting of the strong lagers I tried. Pelforth set the standard here. Blanche de Brasseurs is similarly unimpressive: dry and ash-bitter, like Ch'ti Blanche. The Brune de Brasseurs is decent, however: very caramelly and sweet. I was glad that the bottle was only 65cl instead of the stanard 75: this was tough, heavy going. Finally, Réserve de Brasseurs, the ambrée, was the best of them. This is a light ale, clearly related to the Brune but much easier-going.

On to the smaller breweries, producing the bigger, corked, bottles. Vivat is a smooth, dry, malty lager, while the blonde made by Abbatiale de Sant Amand is gently flavoured with juniper berries, giving it a subtle but strong geniver taste. The other Sant Amand I tried was their Speciale Noel beer: this is a copper-coloured ale, spiced with almond, coriander and lots more besides. The overall effect is of Christmas pudding as a beer. In season, this would really be a winner. Goudale is another common artisan blonde beer from the area. It has the rich honey taste but without any of the sticky cloying one might expect, plus a gentle fizz, making this a very easy-drinking beer.

There are a number of brewpubs in the area, most of which belong to the Les 3 Brasseurs chain. This afternoon I visited the branch in the Cité Europe shopping centre in Coquelles, called Le Moulin à Bière. It's a fairly normal looking shopping centre food court family restaurant, which just happens to have a working brewery along one wall. They do four beers in unsurprising genres: the blonde is dry and crisp; the brune is heavy and stouty; the ambrée is quite light; and the blanche is the best: soft and lemony. What spoiled all of these, except the last, is that they carried a distinct aftertaste of fish. On the blonde and ambrée it was particularly unpleasant. The blanche had a little bit of a fish kick too, but given the lemon element, it worked with the flavour rather than against it. I'm all in favour of novel ingredients in beer, but I think something may have gone wrong with the recipe here.

And on to the top prize so far. Christophe Noyon appears to be the area's only Big Name Brewer. He makes two main beers. 2 Caps is a cloudy blonde which is fantastically smooth and wheaty: utterly refreshing. Blanche de Wissant is streets ahead of all the area's blanches, being very light and gently frangranced with a bittersweet lemon aroma. Both are very high quality product. M. Noyon has teamed up with the area's Big Name Cheesemaker (Philippe Olivier) to make a special beer-for-cheese. A bottle is in my bag somewhere and I'm really looking forward to making a report.

Also in my bag are some beers from the Audmaroise microbrewery in St. Omer, and a few other odds and sods, which will keep me in blog entries for the next couple of weeks. For the moment, I shall say that the beer tourist could do a lot worse than travelling the roads of Nord and Pas-de-Calais, between the endless fields of barley, picking up some samples of some really top class beer on the way round.

02 June 2006

Bruges-ed, but not bitter

I'm in the beer country of north-east France at the moment, and I have much to write in later posts of the beers here. This post, however, is of a recent side-trip to Bruges.

I visited the legendary Halve Maan microbrewery. It seems that its famous Straffe Hendrik beer is no longer made there, and instead it does a blonde and a brune, both called Brugse Zot. The former is quite coarse and grainy: an interesting aley Belgian take on standard brewpub lager; the latter is rather slight and served oddly cold. They're both OK by general beer standards, but disappointing for a microbrewery in Belgium of all places.

The bar itself looks much like a normal restaurant, with only the beer bottles, the merchandise and the big tanks in the corner giving it away.