27 January 2007

Ulster Reds

Northern Ireland hasn't been dealt the best of hands when it comes to beer. The dominance of Diageo and Bass meant that for years bar patrons had little to choose from between Harp and Tennents; Smithwicks and Bass. Things are slowly changing, however, with Kilkeel's Whitewater brewery leading the charge. Belfast Ale is the flagship, a red bitter which I found a bit rough round the edges. It's definitely complex, with hoppy bitterness and lots of fruit, but the bold flavours tend to compete with each other, making for an intense but confusing experience. Nevertheless, this is a conscientiously fashioned beer which hints of a time ages past when all beer tasted like this.

Moving up the ladder there's Clotworthy Dobbin, named after a legendary Belfast brewer, apparently. It's similar to Belfast Ale, but much more coherent. Bitter in the extreme, though smoother and altogether more rounded.

Still in Ulster, but far north and west of Kilkeel, there's a brewery on the Donegal island of Árainn Mhór. I had a chance to try their red ale Rua, which is a cloudy, bottle-conditioned Irish red, weighing in at a whopping 6% ABV. The result is an exceptionally bitter ale, full of green-tasting hops. After the initial shock, it's quite a pleasant, sippable beer. The other flavours -- fruit, candy, spice -- do come out from under the bitterness eventually, however there's room for a bit more craft and subtlety in this one, just like its counterparts from the east coast.

12 January 2007

What do the experts know?

There aren't all that many major plaudits to be had in the brewing world. Sure, there are any number of medals that beers display on their labels, but what they actually mean is often unclear. The main gongs in the beer arena these days are the Brewing Industry International Award and the Beer World Cup. Categories in both of these were won in 2004 by Ukraine's Weissbier Etalon. And as if that wasn't enough, it was crowned winner in Tesco's Beer Challenge and received a paper collar telling everyone so (in Tesco anyway).

In my estimation it was a deserving winner. Supposedly in the German style, it's much paler than any German weissbier of my acquaintance. The flavour is amazing: silky smooth yet bursting with zest and a prickle of spice. Easy drinking but rewarding to sip. All this, and from the Ukraine too. Someone out there definitely knows weissbier. It's wonderful to see them get recognition for it, but I'll bet the beer is its own reward.

11 January 2007

Pub at home

My love of English bitter is no secret on this blog, but I've always found a dissonance between the beer experience one gets from a Cask Marqued pub and anything available over here in bottles. I'm sure there are very obvious scientific reasons for this. I've found one bottled beer that comes close, however: Marston's Old Empire. It's an IPA with a full, rich complex taste - bitter and nutty and malty and everything an ale is supposed to be, regardless of where it is consumed. One of the best.

09 January 2007

Beer news from Vodka Town

Just spent a week in Kraków, where they do like their beer, even though vodka in many forms dominates the scene. Sadly, Zywiec is the market leader and I've already had my speak on that one. So what else have they got?

The range is impressive and I didn't even try to scratch the surface of what's available. Instead I picked a few seemingly interesting bits and pieces off the shelves. I suspect a lot of Polish beer is plain lager in the Zywiec mould, Ksiazece Tyskie certainly is (I'm not sure how it differs from the other Tyskie, but the label is different). Dog in the Fog I picked just on the name. It's a very fizzy lager with sweet maltose overtones. Another animal-themed lager is Zubr, featuring the European bison on the label and proceeds from which go towards bison conservation. Ethical, but not very interesting as a beer.

Given the dullness in evidence, it's not surprising that adding fruit syrup to beer is the done thing in Poland (they even do hot mulled beer, which is, um, odd). To save one the bother having to actually add the syrup there are a number of ready-flavoured beers on the market. Freeq is one of the better ones, raspberry and cranberry flavoured and resembling a light kriek. It's quite a bit sweeter, however, and lacks the dryness and crafted subtlety of Belgian lambics. Redd's comes in several flavours and I tried the Apple and the Red (raspberry and strawberry). They both just taste like a soft drink, with no beer flavour at all. The same goes for Classic Ginger's Beer, a light ginger beer which is more like an alcopop.

There is good news, however. Debowe Mocne is a bitter but flavoursome strong amber lager. It's all too rare to find a lager where high alcohol means a stronger flavour, but this one manages it. Zywiec also redeems itself with Zywiec Porter, a very sweet, dark stout. The sweetness makes it a bit cloying, but it's very good in small doses.

Kraków has one brewpub, CK Browar, selling fo