29 July 2007

Here be dragons

Many mythical beasts are hybrids of known species, and the Gulden Draak is no exception. I suspect it has a Flemish red ale somewhere in its ancestry, providing the deep ruby hue and lip-smacking sour flavour notes. Gulden Draak is no easy-going, Rodenbach-style, light ale though: it's a 10.5% monster, and could pass for stronger. All that alcohol gives it a warmth which suggests that the Belgian Scotch ale style may be its other close relation. By and large, however, there's very little out there like this: a sour Scotch ale; a Belgian barleywine; a "dark tripel". You could while away many a fireside hour discussing this one.

They probably have little call for firesides at the home of Dragon Stout. This rich, thick 7.5% stout is a legend in Jamaican beer, and rightly so. It is possessed of a marvellously complex aromatic floral taste: rich, sweet and moreish. A beautiful beer to sip, which you have to since it only comes in half-pint bottles. When I got to the end I felt the need to run an immediate comparison with similarly-strong Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, which highlighted that the two are very very different drinks. Guinness Foreign Extra is much fizzier and far drier in comparison. Despite GFE being Ireland's best mass-produced beer, I'll take the Jamaican over it anytime.

27 July 2007

Ultra vires redux

Last year I took the bold step of reporting on a cider which was being made by a local brewpub. I said at the time that "you won't normally catch me drinking the stuff", which you won't. Today I broke that rule a second time, and once again for a very good reason. I was in the Bull & Castle discussing the state of Irish brewing with one of the management and some ICBers. The subject turned to an Irish craft cider on guest at the pub, going by the name of Johnny Jump Up. None of us were big cider fans, but I decided that a test bottle was in order, in the interests of keeping track of what Irish brewers were up to.

It has been many a year since I've tasted Bulmers (by which I mean Magners, to those of you not in Ireland), but my memory is good enough to know that Lucozade-orange Johnny Jump Up does a remarkably good impression of it. Suspiciously, the first ingredient listed on the label is "cider". It doesn't have the seriously off-putting vulcanised rubber taste (despite sulphur dioxide also being in the ingredients), but it is seriously sweet in a way that apples aren't. It's also remarkably flat, making it eminently drinkable if you can get past the sweetness, which I couldn't. The big hit is that they're charging €6.20 a bottle for this.

If you want overpriced flat Bulmer's, this is the lad for you. I wonder who does their market research?

23 July 2007

Pale ale fails

I was lucky enough to be present at last week's tasting session, organised by the philanthropists who are IrishCraftBrewer.com in conjunction with the humanitarians of The Bull & Castle. The evening was themed around IPAs and wheat beers, and commercial examples of both were provided to accompany the homebrews, namely Erdinger, Watou, Goose Island IPA, and Galway Hooker. One generous attendee, who works for the award-winning McHugh's off licence in Dublin, brought along a further IPA and one I hadn't tried before: Hophead IPA from New Zealand's Brew Moon brewery.

Over two years ago I came across Brew Moon's Dark Side stout and was quite impressed by it, despite it being past the drink-by date. The Hophead was similarly expired (do they walk it to Europe?) but suffered much more from it, having a powerful musty aroma. IPAs are designed to be robust-tasting, so the staleness wouldn't necessarily be a disaster, except the well-meaning fools at Brew Moon have made this one organic, which seems to inevitably ramp down the flavour quotient, letting the bad taste come through. It could well be that, when fresh, this is a subtle and delicate ale: crisp, floral and refreshing. But is that what you're after in an IPA?

15 July 2007

Like making love in a canoe

There comes a time in every beer aficionado's life when one finds oneself at the home of a non-beer-drinker who has laid in, specially for the occasion, some absolutely dreadful lager one is forced to drink out of politeness. I had thought that the advent of the big-chain German supermarkets, with their half-way decent cheap lagers, meant that the risks involved had lessened in recent years. Today I found I was wrong. Mein host had purchased a supply of Kristorg stubbies from Lidl. This is a very weak French lager which tastes like it achieved its 3% ABV by taking a dull full-strength beer and watering it down. It tastes utterly hollow and barely beery at all. If ever there was a lesson in false economy, this is it.

(As an aside, I notice that the Python reference I picked for my title was used a month ago on another blog, in a post about Korean beer. The author's views closely echo my own experiences with beer in Seoul, though I'd take a slightly more positive view of Hite Stout. Shame about Platinum going down the tubes: their Irish Cream Stout, served in a half-litre Kwak-style glass, was a highlight for me.)

14 July 2007

Original gravity

It rained again today, starting conveniently as I was passing The Porterhouse who are gearing up for their Belgian Beer Festival, beginning Thursday. I watched the downpour from the third floor window, in what used to be the brewery when they made their beer on site, over a pint of Newton apple witbier which is one of the specials they've bought in for the Festival. Newton is made by Belgian brewery LeFebvre and reminds me a bit of strawberry beer Früli, in that it's fruit first, beer second. The apples are juicy green ones and absolutely dominate the taste. If you wait to the very end there's a vague wheaty character alongside, but mostly we're talking apples here. At a mere 3.5% this beer goes down incredibly easy and leaves you wanting another straight after. A wonderful summer session beer, just a shame we aren't having a wonderful summer.

While I was on site I took the opportunity to reappraise one of the house beers. The first time I tried The Porterhouse's TSB, I was sorely disappointed. This is their attempt at an English-style cask bitter, and comes out of an authentic handpump of the sort not seen anywhere else in the country. I couldn't remember quite why I'd taken against TSB, but I've had a lot of English bitter in the meantime, so I decided a do-over was in order. While my experience was not negative second time round, I maintain that this is not a serious competitor to most real English ale. My favourite English beers are either the very light, flat quaffing ones with a tea-like quality, Theakston's being the benchmark, or are the heavy hop-laden warm ones of which there are many fine examples, usually with multiple Xs in the name. TSB is aiming to be the former type but just can't cut it. It just doesn't have the subtlety, being full-flavoured with malt and hops, creating a dry bitterness which I find much more characteristic of an Irish stout. Hardly surprising, I suppose, given The Porterhouse's specialisation in the area. TSB passes muster as bitter, but as the only cask bitter available for hundreds of miles, I'd rather have something straight from the textbook.

13 July 2007

Baltika bingo

Eyes down, ladies and gentlemen. First out it's... Baltika 4. Number 4 is the St. Petersburg brewer's dark lager and is a heavy, sticky ale with very little carbonation. The colour is a startlingly bright shade of red and there's that weird mushroomy flavour I found with Árainn Mhór Rua. It's not at all unpleasant, and the sheer weight of flavour means it can be enjoyed very cold. You wouldn't want more than one, however.

And next out... Baltika 6. This is their Baltic porter, and quite a sour one. It's a full 7% though tastes much lighter and has a lot of the earthiness of Baltika 4. Instead of the caramel, however, there's a dry, burnt toast effect. Not, generally speaking, what I'm after in a porter. But that's the luck of the draw.

Baltika bingo: marginally more fun than Russian roulette.

12 July 2007

Please be our guest

The concept of a "guest beer" doesn't really exist in Ireland. What need have we of tied houses when we have, basically, a tied market? However, the handful of pubs who do interesting beer will occasionally bring in temporary stock and promote it as a "guest". The Bull & Castle Beerhall is doing so right now with Watou Wit, on draught for a limited period. This is a simple beer made incredibly well. It's pale blond and lacks the spice and fruit bells-and-whistles of many competitors. The result is an undemanding easy-going session beer: not too dry, not too fizzy but quality to the core. Especially recommended if you're a slave to the Hoegaarden or Erdinger taps.

10 July 2007

I'm not a masochist, but...

... there seem to be an awful lot more organic beers around these days. Which is my excuse for continuing to try them despite having, I think, only ever encountered one I was impressed by: New Zealand's Green Man Organic Bitter. Today, the one that jumped into my glass and forced itself down my neck is Brakspear Organic Beer. And, surprise surprise, it was rather dull. For an ale, even a light light one, it's an inappropriate shade of orange. There's very little aroma followed by very little taste. Sure there's hops, and malt, and all the taste characteristics of good ale, but the flavour knob is turned down far too low. Compared to the Ferret the other day, this doesn't really rate for me.

08 July 2007

Shame on me

The Biddy Early Brewery was Ireland's first brewpub, opening in Co. Clare in 1995. Their three main beers became fairly commonplace in stockists of quality beer in Dublin, however I'm nearly sure that I've never tried them. So, over the past couple of weeks I've been scouring the city in search of them, basing my search mainly on the list of suppliers given on their web site. My searches have turned up just one. Of Red Biddy and Black Biddy there is no sign, with one proprietor telling me that they've stopped bottling the product altogether, though others have said different.

Whatever the truth of it, I have only Blonde Biddy, their lager, to report on here. Despite its deep golden colour, this is very plain fare indeed. It lacks any discernible taste characteristics, opting instead for the crispness common to most dull mass-produced Irish lagers, especially H**p. If you try really hard, it's just possible to pick up a hint of dry malt in the flavour, but you need to be looking carefully for it. At 4.2%, it'd be perfectly possible to chug through a few of these at a session, but I'd be gasping for something with more taste after the first one. I suspect Blonde Biddy is made for the delicate palate of the average Irish lager drinker and doesn't see broadening of horizons as part of its mission statement.

My quest for the remaining Biddies continues, but in the meantime, to get a proper flavour buzz I had to look across the water once more, to Sussex Dorset (thanks Bailey) and Fursty Ferret. This ale has an aroma powerful enough to be appreciated two rooms away. The taste is similarly bold, dominated by caramel candy, laced with a little hops spice. The result is round and warm and extremely tasty. I'm a total stranger to the Badger range of ales, of which this is one. I think I'll have to rectify that soon.

06 July 2007

The Outdoors? Great.

The theme for this month's Session is Atmosphere, and the ambiance in which one prefers to drink beer. For me, the key to really enjoying my pint is to be outdoors. Whether basking in the sunlight streaming through the chestnut branches in a Bavarian beer garden, or perched above a hyperactive neon metropolis on the rooftop bar of an Asian skyscraper, or just at a barbecue at a mate's house, beer is always best al fresco. Part of my fascination stems from the climate I live in, where winters are long and dark and the threat of rain is omnipresent year round. Drinking outside always feels like a treat.

Today the showers are coming thick and fast down from the Dublin mountains, but I've managed to grab a brief sunny spell to sit out back and blather about an appropriate beer. My find is Summer Lightning, a golden ale from England's Hopback brewery, intended for summer but always in production. It has a wonderful beery nose and pours quite clear, despite the sizeable sediment deposit left in the bottle. Although 5% ABV, it's quite a light ale, gently fizzy with little foretaste but a long and pleasing hops bitterness. One could hoist a few of these of a sunny evening with little difficulty. And like so many English craft beers, it's one I bet works much better on draught.

This afternoon, ensconced away from the rain in the medieval splendour of the Bull & Castle, I sampled another summer delight: Sierra Nevada Summerfest. The label gave me pause, proclaiming in block letters to be "Bottom Fermented", which I'm sure gives great encouragement to the brewing cognoscenti, but for an ordinary punter like me carried scatological connotations I'd rather not go into. Summerfest is ostensibly a lager, it seems based on something as smooth as the best of Munich. But on top they've roughed it up with that trademark Sierra Nevada hops explosion. A fantastic beer, but once again, Mr Nevada please can we have it in bottles sized for grown-ups?

And with that, the purple clouds are massing and heeere comes the rain.

04 July 2007

Pure independence

I'm fairly sure that my interest in craft beer began when The Porterhouse opened in Dublin back in 1996. One of the first international craft beers I ever encountered was the one often credited with starting the whole craft beer movement: San Francisco's Anchor Steam Beer. And yet in all this time I never got around to tasting it. Until now.

It reminds me a lot of the French bière de garde style: a medium-weight amber ale, strongly carbonated with a light dusting of sediment. There's a lot going on in the flavour department, with sweet caramel on the lips, a rich malty middle, subtle hops at the back of the palate and then back to a filling treacle sweetness at the end. Something is wrong though: the date on the bottle suggests that it's fresh enough, but there's a dry sour musty character to the beer that I'm not sure is supposed to be there. Either it doesn't travel well or it's not made to my taste in ale.

Anchor also make the paler, stronger Liberty Ale. Again, this is thick-headed and slightly cloudy, though golden rather than amber. Tastewise it's somewhere between a German weiss and a Belgian tripel: having