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...

26 October 2007

A storm brewing

There's no doubt that the beer market in Ireland is currently undergoing an upheaval. Choice on the shelves has never been greater and several new Irish breweries are said to be on their way. However, I'm sitting here (offline: I'll post this later) in the pub with the truest indication yet that the revolution is at hand: it's a pint of draught Irish stout without a nitro head. Ten minutes ago I would have told you such a thing was unthinkable, and that consumer taste in Ireland -- sculpted by Diageo to its own ends -- would never stand for it. But here we are. Only marginally less odd is the fact that it's being brewed and served in Messrs Maguire, a Dublin pub known for its laissez faire attitude to the often excellent house beers.

The beer itself is Messrs Maguire Imperial Stout, and it's a cracker. Light for an imperial at only 7% ABV, but style-shmyle. It hits the nose with powerful roasted aromas and follows them with a bitter and almost mediciney foretaste, followed quickly by a chocolate middle, the classic Irish stout dryness at the end and ohhh that rich mouthfeel of a purely carbonated draught stout.

Clearly a well-deserved poke in the eye for our domineering Uncle Arthur. They should have called it anti-Imperial Stout.This is the third delicious new beer in a row I've found following intelligence received on the IrishCraftBrewer.com forums. So I'd just like to say thank you to any ICBers who may be reading for making my drinking life so much better. And a special cheers to the site's management (they give me free homemade beer sometimes, so I'm basically owned, but I'd probably say it anyway...).

Here's to the future: may the only nitrogen be outside the glass.

No penance

Last night was the first of Oktoberfest at the Bull & Castle Beerhall (continuing today and tomorrow -- tell your friends). Among the special additions to the stock are two from the Franciscan Well pub-brewery in Cork: Rebel Red and their regular seasonal, Purgatory.

I love trying a beer with no idea what style it is. For no reason at all I was expecting Purgatory to be fruity and spicy, like a maibock perhaps. However, it's a super-hoppy, slightly cloudy, light orange American-style pale ale ("Anglo-American" it says on the web site, but the texture is all wrong for England). After the first bitter smack of hops, the flavour settles down to a lasting crisp dryness.

Like many of the Franciscan Well beers, Purgatory is a bit rough round the edges. For me, this shows it's made by humans not machines and I have no complaint.

Much as I love the notion of brewpubs keeping their seasonals exclusive to themselves, I'm a lazy, lazy man, and having a direct line from the 'Well to Dublin is something I could get used to.

24 October 2007

Pistoles at dusk

With the evenings drawing in, it seems to be that time of year when beer bloggers' thoughts turn to dark and warming brews (well, in the northern hemisphere anyway). Never one to let a bandwagon roll by me, this evening I've popped the cork on a bottle of Trois Pistoles from Quebec's Unibroue. One is left in no doubt as to its bottle-conditioned, er, condition, from the thick layer of sediment in the bottle. It pours a dark rich red-brown with a giant cream-coloured head. It's definitely not over-carbonated, however, as the mouthfeel is quite smooth and rounded. Tastewise, it's very similar to the fruitier trappist beers, and Chimay Bleu in particular. The only bitterness, however, is on the nose. Otherwise it's plums all the way. And of course, the 9% alcohol provides just the right warming effect. Job done.

Expect more here from Unibroue on later, darker evenings.

21 October 2007

The best fest in the west

The Black Box is a slightly shabbyThe Black Box Galway theatre/function room in a retail park on the edge of Galway city. Yesterday it played host to the first Great Irish Beer Festival, an event viewed with no small amount of scepticism by the Irish online beer community, mainly because so few of the country's brewers signed up for it. The Porterhouse and Galway Hooker had their own stands, but most of the rest were run by importers and distributors. With the emphasis on bottled product, then, it was clear this wouldn't be in the style of a UK real ale festival. It was still highly enjoyable, however.

While waiting for the doors to open, I noted with trepidation the Macnas van in the car park.The Macnas van It must have been there in some other capacity, however, and there were mercifully no giant papier maché pints dancing in formation through the venue. You just never know in Galway. Inside, attendees were issued with a starter pack of beer chips and a surprisingly decent plastic beer receptacle. This could be rinsed between drinks at the various water coolers around the room, which was just as well since a burst pipe cut off the building's mains water supply for a couple of hours in the middle of the event. Some time after it came back, the slops bins all disappeared from the floor, making glass rinsing very difficult indeed.

The InBev stallAs I mentioned, just two Irish brewers were running stalls, though there was also Moling's and O'Hara's on tap. Lithuanica, distributors of the Švyturys range, were handing out mini-basketballs and guides to Vilnius: European Capital of Culture 2009. InBev had the best swag, though: Leffe glasses and Beck's hats. In fact, the InBev stand had an extensive range of glassware on display. Play to your strengths is the lesson here, I guess...

The entertainment wasOffline taps mercifully acoustic, and the only Heineken and Guinness taps on show were for display purposes only, as part of a keg hire company's exhibit.

To the beer, then. I mentioned on Friday that the promise of Budvar Dark was one of the major draws. It took some concerted searching to find it, the relevant barman having at first denied stocking it. Thankfully one of my ICB colleaguesMusicians persisted, and there was a brief roaring trade in the Czech black lager. Like most of the bottled beers, it was being served inappropriately cold and I was at first surprised by how sour Budvar Dark is. After a few minutes of warming this mellowed and an almost stout-like roasted grain flavour came through. The other eastern European I tried was Švyturys Baltas, a wheat beer. It's served with lemon and is quite sparkly: hallmarks of a Belgian wit, but the flavour is fruity, not spicy, with distinct banana notes, edging it closer to the German weiss style. An odd and interesting beer.

Aussie beers seem to be growing in popularity in Ireland, though as yet we have few decent ones. I tried a Boag's Strongarm at the festival: a powerfully sweet and malty golden lager with a dry bitter hops bite at the end. Surprisingly, given the taste and the name, this weighs in at only 5% ABV.

Most of the rest of what I drank was English. I have little to say about Wychwood's Goliath: it's rather sugary and not to my taste. BeeWyched gives off a pungent hops aroma, though this doesn't come through in the strong perfumy taste. Interesting, but you couldn't drink a whole lot of it. Finally, Bah Humbug is Wychwood's Christmas ale and is much lighter than a Christmas ale has any right to be. The flavour is sweet, but there's not a whole lot else going on. I wish now I'd spent more time sampling the beers on offer from Black Sheep, which are rare in Dublin but apparently quite common in Galway's bottle shops. The only one I had was Riggwelter, a marvellous black ale, with a strong caramel aroma and a complex taste full of sticky malt and bitter chocolate.

Everything else I tasted I'd had before, though it was the first time I tried the reformulatedRonan of Galway Hooker Árainn Mhór Rua, now down to 5.2% from 6, due to a tendency to knock punters on their arses rather too quickly, which in turn was adversely affecting sales. It was great chatting to Aidan and Ronan of Galway Hooker as well. Thanks for your hospitality, guys.

All-in-all, a few organisational wrinkles to be ironed out, but generally a positive start to what will hopefully become a regular event. And here's hoping the next Great Irish Beer Festival will properly be a festival of great Irish beer.

19 October 2007

Only in it for the dumplings

For lunch today I paid a return visit to the Czech Inn, scene of my recent upsetting Staropramen experience. I used to go to this pub quite a bit last century, back when it was Isolde's Tower: it was the sort of place one never planned to go to, but ended up there, on the edge of Temple Bar, when everywhere else was heaving. Good times.

Now it's a headquarters for Dublin's Czech workers, and is the only place serving a range of the food and drink from home, saving the handful of upmarket establishments with Budvar and Staro on tap. I had a plateful of roast pork with sauerkraut and knedlíky for just €8: even if possessed of the inclination and a big stick, I don't think I could beat that.

It was washed down with a pint of Gambrinus 10°, a smooth and malty pilsner I've met favourably in Prague once or twice. Unfortunately, this was tainted slightly with a touch of that acidic quality I experienced with my last Czech Inn pint. I conclude that the early afternoon is the wrong time to visit this pub. I'm sure once a few dozen pints have been run through the lines of an evening the quality goes up. However, with the sound system already blaring across the empty room, I dread to think what it's like with several hundred thirsty Czechs letting off steam.

Anyway, I will have go back sooner or later because I still haven't had my dark beer fix. Fortunately I'll be able to sink a pint of Budvar Dark tomorrow at the first ever Great Irish Beer Festival (Brits & Yanks: only click the link if you promise not to laugh) in Galway. The thought of that will be sustaining me on my 140-mile trip to the other side of Ireland in the morning.

17 October 2007

Marks, but few sparks

You'd think by now I'd have got over the fact that multinational supermarkets totally stiff their Irish customers on beer selection, but no: here I go again. Tesco are the worst offenders, but even Lidl offers a much superior beer range 80 miles up the road in the UK.

So I was delighted to see Marks & Spencer had seen some sense and graced the shelves of their Irish stores with three bottled offerings. First up is an Italian lager called Birra D'Oro. It's a rather gassy and bland affair. Slightly dry, but otherwise unworthy of note. I presume they're going for something resembling Nastro Azzurro, not one of the world's great beers, but they've even failed at that. More vapid than vaporetto.

Next is a Belgian witbier, innovatively titled Bière Blanche. It pours a very pale yellow and is not so much cloudy as slightly misty. Bizarrely there's no aroma. The orange zest listed in the ingredients does come through in the flavour in a sort of sherberty way. However, this is a cipher of a witbier. €3 I won't see again.

I figured I would do better with M&S Irish Stout, knowing that it is contract brewed by the Carlow Brewing Company, makers of the excellent O'Hara's. The first thing to confirm my prejudice was the superb head retention. This was followed by a rich, full bitter chocolate and roasted barley flavour. Excellent stuff, but not quite up to the standard of bottled O'Hara's and 20c dearer too. (O'Hara's on draught, incidentally, is nitrogenated: better than Guinness, obviously, but a touch flavourless.)

Of course, the feeling that M&S were looking after us didn't last long, with the announcement of their new range of bottle conditioned beers which have yet to arrive here. Whether they ever will remains to be seen. I'm pessimistic.

And that brings me to my second pet peeve. Birra D'Oro, says the label, is "Brewed in Italy", not "Italia"; Bière Blanche "Brewed in Belgium", not "België/Belgique". Yet for some bizarre reason, the stout is "Brewed in Eire", not Ireland. What's that about, apart from poor spelling?

12 October 2007

The stouts of wrath

Guinness Foreign Extra Stout is a relative new-comer to the Irish market. It took the demands of a growing African community to make Diageo distribute it directly in its country of origin. Before that the stronger Guinness was shipped from St. James's Gate straight to foreign parts and then re-exported back to Ireland in small quantities. A slightly tweaked version, with sorghum, is made in Nigeria for the local market there and occasionally shows up on the shelves in the UK.

It was recently brought to my attention that the new Foreign Extra Stout was not exactly the same product as the re-exported version I was used to. Sure enough, the domestic product is 7.5% ABV, while the export-then-import is 8%. And of course the name is different: Foreign Extra for us, Special Export for everyone else.

Intrigued by this, I decided a parallel tasting was in order, so I'm sitting here with one of each. The Foreign Extra is presented in a distinctive high-shouldered bottle engraved with the trademark harp; Special Export comes in the classically Belgian slope-neck.

Straight out of the bottle, Special Export has a thicker head, though both wind up with just a thin film of foam before long. The biggest difference between the two beers is in their respective mouthfeels, with Foreign Extra offering a prickly fizz, while Special Export is fuller, smoother and altogether more Belgian, frankly.

The tastes are certainly similar, with Foreign Extra drier and hoppier, while Special Export is packed with sweet malty flavours. This one comes down to a matter of personal preference, I suppose, but the export version edges it for me.

So there you have it: I'm not entirely happy with a product Guinness has put on the Irish market. Big surprise, wha'?

10 October 2007

My ur-bock hell

Now, to me, the syllable "bock" implies a dark beer. Doppelbock, eisbock, bokkbier -- all dark. Even maibock has a bit of colour to it. So I was surprised when I encountered Einbecker Ur-Bock in an off licence recently, presented in a green bottle, and quite plainly not bock-coloured.

It wasn't until I got it home that I noticed the "hell" in tiny outline letters on the neck. So presumably there's a non-hell version, properly dark, with the same label. It pours a limpid gold, giving off heady malt aromas. Tastewise, it's definitely true to its north German roots. The malt is there in spades, reminding me of a toned-down Jever, or an extreme Beck's. Behind the malt, there's a sugary sweetness, possibly connected to the 6.5% alcohol, and finishing up with a dry hoppiness catching in the back of the throat and necessitating another sip.

This Einbecker is a lovely little beer, brimming with flavour and well worth a look, if you can get past that initial bock shock.

07 October 2007

O my brothers

One of the tasks I set myself when visiting Belgium last month was to become better acquainted with the country's Trappist beers. I remember on my early trips to Belgium going systematically through the Trappists and deciding that Westmalle was, on balance, the brand for me. I've had my share of Chimay in the meantime, but mostly the Cistercian brothers at Westmalle do for me very nicely.

Mainly to have something written here on the various Belgian Trappist beers, I revisited as many as I could get my hands on. In general, they retail for about a third of the price they do at home, so as labours of love go, this was one of the less taxing ones.

I'll start with the only Scourmont beer I drank, a Chimay Bleu in Brussels' puppet theatre theme bar, Toone. Despite a powerful 9% ABV, this is quite a light and fruity brown-red ale, with just a bitter kick at the end. It's unquestionably a good beer, but fairly unchallenging. My Trappist benchmark, you might say.

Falling below the standard it sets is Achel Bruin. I was surprised at how understated the flavours in this beer were. Having served it chilled, I let it sit and warm up for ages, waiting for the taste to come through, but as it approached room temperature there were only the vaguest hints of fruit. A Trappist beer can taste bland. Achel Blond is rather better, with a nicely balanced mouthfeel: prickly yet fluffy. 8% ABV gives it a satisfying weight, but it remains smooth and uncloying. The flavours are aromatic and floral: sweet, but not too sweet. A class act.

I experienced a similar contrast with the two Westvleteren beers I brought home. Westvleteren Blond is a light orange colour with a full fruity nose. The foretaste is fruity and bitter, with an ashen dryness at the end. This beer comes in like a tripel, and goes out like a French wheat beer. At only 5.8% ABV, proof that you can get Trappist complexity without high levels of alcohol.

My first whiff of Westvleteren 8 gave me vinegar, and lots of it, like sticking one's nose into a bag of salt and vinegar crisps. This was borne out in the intense vinegary foretaste, and only a faint hint of malt and dates at the back, along with the opaque brown colour, indicated that this was a Trappist ale at all. It's possible that I may have bought a dud. I'll arrange a rematch at the earliest opportunity.

My Chimay benchmark was rendered useless by Orval. This powerful, heavy beer is often described as tasting "horsey", which is perfectly understandable. The malty flavours have an added sour funk which, though not unpleasant, takes a bit of getting used to.

Coming back to Westmalle Dubbel, I took the time to work out why I like it so much. The conclusion I reached is: balance. Yes, the plummy flavour is rich and sumptuous, offering a luxuriousness that is entirely inappropriate to the lifestyle of its brewers, but it is also perfectly balanced between fruit sweetness and hops bitterness. The way the flavours bounce off each other in a choreographed complexity is what keeps me coming back. I decided I wasn't about to go changing my opinions of the best Trappist beer...

... until I came to the last of the Belgian brewing abbeys. Rochefort 10 features elements of all the above. It is a very dark hue and offers up little by way of aroma. The flavour, however, is a workout. Up front there are plums and strawberries, followed by a bittersweet spiciness and a bready character, reminiscent of fruitcake. In my opinion, however, it is upstaged by its little brother Rochefort 8. This one isn't quite so intense, but is certainly complex. There are notes of caramel and smoke in here, and a dose of rich chicory. It adds up to a beer that starts at the benchmark but goes that extra mile.

I don't think I'm ready for Westmalle to hand over the trophy just yet, but I was enormously impressed with the Rocheforts. Consider this a play-off, with two contenders left for the final...

05 October 2007

Time for a ruby?

Beer and food? That's a no-brainer for me and means curry every time. Historically speaking, the beer should be Carlsberg, the first lager to be associated with Indian food back in the 1920s. In general, however, I tend to drink Cobra. Yes I know it's made with maize and is about as Indian as I am, but I don't care.

In the halcyon days of the Dublin Brewing Company, my curry would always be accompanied by Maeve's Crystal Weiss, a spectacular spicy weissbier which sat beautifully with Indian food. It's gone now, though another Irish craft wheat beer is almost as good, namely Curim from the Carlow Brewing Company.

For this post, however, I'm going with a new "slow-brewed" lager called Time. This appears to be another one of the plastic paddies I ranted about over on Hop Talk last month. "Born in Ireland" says the label, and "Brewed in the European Union". The web address given is dead and the company address is an office over a boutique in central Dublin, also the address of several marketing and communications companies. It all adds up to contract brewed abroad and passed off as Irish.

Time, incidentally, was a brand formerly used by Smithwick's before it was taken over by Guinness. If Diageo still owned the trademark, no doubt they would have had it made at one of their Irish lager factories in Kilkenny or Dunda