31 October 2007

A Samhain whine

As sure as the turn of the seasons itself, one can rely on articles in the Irish papers this time of year about how Halloween is our own festival, being sold back to us by the Americans, with added sundry commercial bells and whistles.

When I was a child the Halloween tradition was to hollow out and carve a face in a turnip. We didn't actually do it, but it was a tradition nonetheless. Our parents would tell us about it, and buy turnips, which would sit uncarved and then get thrown out several weeks later, before the Christmas decorations went up. Of course when the tradition was exported to North America, the turnip became a pumpkin: indigenous to America and way easier to carve. I swear I never saw a real live pumpkin for sale here until about three or four years ago. That J.K. Rowling has a lot to answer for.

Last weekend a friend invited me over to his place to carve pumpkins. There was drink involved so it was OK and no-one lost any thumbs. You can see my surrealist masterpiece at the bottom of this post. The topic around the carving table was how pumpkins really don't taste of much, and that you need to throw in buckets of cinnamon or nutmeg to get any value out of cooking one. And that, presumably, is why the pumpkin beer I'm drinking this Halloween night is made with mace. It's a bottle of Pumpking from the Wychwood brewery in Oxfordshire.

The pourer is greeted with a lovely rich red colour and a soft foamy head. The aroma calls to mind another Halloween tradition, the toffee apple. Flavourwise the mace is there, adding a bold spiciness, but underneath there's the warm caramel maltiness of really good English ale. Of fruit there is none, but that's hardly surprising.

Pumpking is a lovely beer and, despite the OTT branding, really is a seriously enjoyable autumn tipple.

Time one of our local brewers started making a turnip beer, I reckon.

29 October 2007

Spontaneous dégustation

My visit to the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels back in 2004 was something of a revelation. I knew my lambics and my gueuzes from a drinker's point of view, and I knew that they were created through a process called "spontaneous fermentation". However, it wasn't until I was standing in the attic of the brewery looking at the huge shallow copper tray that I realised what that actually meant: the brewers just spread the wort out on the flat surface and wait for the natural wild yeasts to come in and do their stuff. When I explain to brewers that I quite fancy having a go at making beer this way they give me a Look. Some day I will, and learn my lesson while doing it, no doubt.

In the meantime, I'm content to drink the commercial examples available to me, and in Belgium last month I made a point of trying out as many as I could get. This post is a run-down of those, and finishes the series of posts on the trip.

Two of the beers I regard as beginners' lambic and both are made by some of Belgium's largest brewers. Bellevue Gueuze (InBev) is sweet and unchallenging almost to the point of being non-descript. There's a smidge more character to Mort Subite Gueuze (Alken-Maes), with its candy sugar foretaste and just a hint of sourness at the end. I think this was the first gueuze I ever tasted, and it's a good one to start with.

Off next to what's probably my favourite pub in the whole wide world. On every visit to Brussels I make time for a visit to A La Bécasse. A big part of the attraction is having beer served in clay jugs, but the main draw for me is the house speciality: Lambic Doux. This is a light, sweet-and-sour golden lambic which slips down with indecent ease: a large jug for me, and I don't need a glass. I did manage to tear myself away from it briefly to try their other house beer, Lambic Blanc. This is an odd hybrid of a Belgian witbier and the sweeter sort of lambic. The result is a bitter and dry fruity wheat beer with sweeter notes in the background: complex and lip-smackingly good. Both beers are InBev products and clearly demonstrate that brewing behemoths can make quality beer if they want to.

Which brings me down to the smaller operators. Of course I had a Cantillon Gueuze, and brought one home too. It pours a pale orange colour, with a slight haze to it. The taste is fresh and zesty, popping with notes of citrus and gunpowder. It's sour, of course, but not astringent. In fact, it's almost quaffable, but is best savoured. Cantillon is organic too, which I think makes it my favourite organic beer.

Finally, I had heard very good things about the 3 Fonteinen range, so took the opportunity to try their Oude Geuze. In contrast to the young and lively Cantillon, this pours out a mellow red-gold colour with almost no carbonation. It has the sharply alkaline taste of the sourer gueuzes, reminiscent of nitre and brick cellars, but it's smooth and rounded with it. This is a beer that's not in a hurry and needs to be taken seriously.

So that's a few days' adventures in lambic. Making my own though: that's the real adventure.

28 October 2007

Last beer blues

Oktoberfest in the Bull & Castle wrapped up last night. I enjoyed a variety of different beers during the evening and was planning on finishing with something dark and malty -- Aventinus or Kwak were particularly in mind. However, at the last minute, and possessed by a sudden need for novelty, I ended up opting for a Samuel Adams Octoberfest. I was sadly disappointed. This rather thick, flat beer pours a shocking reddish colour. It's certainly sweet, but not at all in the way a märzen should be. Instead, it has the corny-syrupy cloying sweetness of a high-alcohol tramps' brew.

I really wish I'd had that Aventinus now...