30 November 2007

The Alan Partridge Project

Last year I reported on a visit to a dire pub in what used to be rural England but is now just off the road to somewhere else. This week I went one further and found myself in a generic low-rent business hotel in the English midlands: exactly the sort of Travel Tavern that Alan Partridge used to live in. It was, of course, a real ale desert (how did he survive so far from his beloved Director's Bitter?), with the bar taps dominated by InBev products, including Boddington's. It's a very sweet, light keg bitter: unchallenging but still quite tough drinking. I stopped at one pint.

My trip was far from a total waste, however. With some careful planning I found myself with a couple of hours to spare in central Manchester. I had picked out a handful of pubs worth visiting, but never got past the first: the gloriously appointed Marble Arch. This quirky boozer is kitted out in steel-and-ceramic Victorian bling and boasts a curiously slanting floor throughout. Out back, the house brewery produces a range of cask and bottled beers, the latter available to take away. Everyone in the house was drinking Manchester Bitter, a shockingly pale yellow lager lookalike. The resemblance ends there, however. This has a strong fresh hoppy aroma and greets the palate with a lemony bitterness which would appeal to any witbier fan. It's a wonderfully refreshing classic bitter and, I can only presume, the sort of beer that Boddington's would like to be.

The house range also includes Stouter Stout, a very sharp, bitter, but creamy stout. The abundance of hops is there right from the nose and is carried through in the strong rich bitter flavours. For a stout this is just too tart to my taste: IPA dressed as stout and off-puttingly weird, despite the care and attention that obviously went into making it. The house also makes Ginger Marble, another very yellow ale. The clue's in the title here, but in case of doubt there's a sweet, candied ginger aroma first off. This is followed by a gorgeous back-of-the-mouth raw ginger burn on the first swallow, with a legacy of ginger nut biscuits on the lips. I think this is the best ginger-flavoured beer I've ever tasted and would make a superb aperitif. And every flavoursome beer the Marble Brewery produces is 100% organic: proof that most everyone else is just doing organic wrong.

Of the guest ales, Spitting Feathers caught my attention first. This is a "smoked autumn ale", thick and creamy with little foretaste and almost reminiscent of a nasty keg ale. The smoke comes through afterwards in a vague sort of way, after some unpleasant dry mustiness. My limited experience of smoked beer has led me to expect the full-on bacon flavour experience and you don't get that with this. Two guest taps were displaying clips from Scottish craft brewing's enfant terrible Brew Dog. When I asked the barman whether I should go for Hype or Buzz, he told me he'd sold more Hype that evening, so that's what I ordered. Again, this is a very pale affair but it more than makes up for it in texture and flavour. It's warm and hits the palate with a hefty bitterness. A heavy and filling beer, all-in-all, despite having a mere 4.1% ABV.

With a heavy heart I left the pub and headed to the airport. A little previous research allowed me to stave off the return to keg ale for a few more precious minutes. The online menu of terrifyingly cheery family restaurant Giraffe included, among the Corona and Tiger, Brooklyn Lager. This is an impressively amber beer with a hoppy aroma, smelling for all the world like the lighter sort of American IPA. On first sip there's a full body and a strong malty flavour, carrying through to a dry bitter bite at the very end. Brooklyn is a thinking man's lager, and not just because the brewmaster is now a published philosopher.

A delay to my flight meant the time eventually came to bite the bullet and approach the main bar, where Worthington's Bitter was the house ale. Unlike the Boddington's, this is properly amber coloured. It has a striking burnt corn flavour, liked singed tortilla chips. Flavoursome, but not really in the right way.

I feel Manchester definitely warrants further barstool-based research. It'd just be a question of tearing myself away from the Marble Arch.

26 November 2007

'Bout ye, big lad

Behind the taps at the Belfast Beer & Cider Festival were a number of strong beers being poured directly from the cask. I didn't mean to try every single one that was on, but looking at the list now, I think I did. Oops.

The only pale one was Thomas Sykes, a very heavy amber ale from Burton Bridge, with 10% ABV. This has off-putting strong fruit ester flavours making it warming but just a bit too cloying and difficult to stomach in any great quantity. I derived much more enjoyment from the rich hoppiness of Titanic Wreckage: a lightweight at only 7.2%. There's a little more sugar in the flavour than is strictly warranted, but mostly it has a lovely rounded double (or at least one-and-a-half) IPA kick to it.

Robinson's Old Tom was one I had really been looking forward to. It must have been on trying something like this dark red ale of 8.5% ABV that someone invented the term "barleywine". This has many of the flavour and aroma characteristics of a robust wine, but is unmistakably a beer. It offers fantastic per-sip value, starting with the exciting fruity and spicy nose all the way through to the chocolatey aftertaste which lingers for ever.

The last beer is the charmingly titled Liquid Lobotomy, an 8% ABV stout whose claim to fame is that all the alcohol is grain-derived, with no added extract or sugars. The aroma is a little shocking, with pronounced sulphurous notes. On the palate this is reduced to a mere tang, however. The rest of the flavour is rather mild, with more fruity-winey notes. Despite the mildness, the thick and syrupy texture makes this one quite tough going.

I have to put a footnote in about the other side of the festival: the cider. Normally I wouldn't go to the back door for cider, but ever since I read about it in Iorwerth Griffiths's guide to Irish beer and cider (p. 143), I have been intrigued by the nascent government-sponsored craft cider movement in Armagh. I was born and raised in the Orchard County, and the idea that my homeplace could be turned into a cider attraction like parts of Normandy and Brittany feels quite strange, yet has a certain obviousness about it. So I made sure I tried a half of Mac's Dry cider -- sharp, slightly cloudy and up there with the best France has to offer, in my totally unbiased opinion.

25 November 2007

CAMRA, action!

Yesterday I paid my first visit to a CAMRA-organised event, the 2007 Belfast Beer & Cider Festival at the King's Hall. I was in early and spent the whole afternoon merrily ticking away. I'll be needing two posts to cover everything, so here goes:

Dragon's Fire was one of the first up, a light ale from J.W. Lees. This has a powerful raw maltiness of the sort you get from chewing grains of crystal malt. There's very little bitterness or alcoholic weight to it which, coupled with the sweetness, put me in mind of an unhopped, unfermented wort. Tasty, but curious. Another pleasant odd one was Tom Wood's Old Timber which does exactly what it says on the pump clip, giving off a strong woody aroma and having a sharp woody foretaste, followed by tea-like notes and a touch of burnt corn right on the end.

Staying on the light side of the colour chart, there's the gloriously-named Tabitha the Knackered. It wasn't just the name that intrigued me: the festival programme described this as a "Belgian style warming Tripel", yet having only 4% ABV.The answer to the enigma was a rather disappointing straw-coloured lagery quaffing beer. A better session option is the legendary Woodforde's Wherry, perhaps best known in its homebrew kit form. This is a pale amber bitter with light hops on the nose and almost no carbonation. Coupled with a slightly thin mouthfeel and only 3.8% ABV, this gently citric ale goes down very easily and pleasantly.

There were a couple of beers on from Fyne Ales in Scotland. I tried out Vital Spark, a dark amber bitter, marvellously smooth with a chocolate-and-hops character and some strong tannic notes at the end. Thrappledouser is another deep orange Scot, mildly and refreshingly hoppy. The award for best use of hops, however, goes to Pressed Rat & Warthog by the Triple fff brewery of Hampshire. This deep dark ruby ale has a powerful hoppy aroma and delivers an electric hops burst to the back teeth at first sip. If one takes the time to savour it, there's a tart and sweet peachy flavour at the front of the tongue backed up by some tea-like tannins. This one's a full mouth workout.

On to the dark side, then. Adnams Old Ale, while not a stout, has smooth roasted stouty flavours with just an added pinch of vanilla. More complex is Black Adder, which has a sweet and malty nose and a big mouthfeel. The foretaste carries a sense of the forest floor: earthy, mushroomy. After that there are pleasant bitter coffee notes and a wisp of smoke. Dark Island from the Orkney brewery is another smoky dark one, but quite easy drinking with it: I'd expect nothing less from the home of Skullsplitter.

Finishing off the dark section are two superbly well-crafted beers: Black Dog from Elgood's is a mild, and is the appropriate shade of very dark brown. There's a distinct hoppiness and a slightly fruity crab apple bitterness, but they're balanced beautifully with the warm roasted notes of the classic mild. A slightly thin mouthfeel make this very moreish and a beer I'd love to spend more quality time with. On the heavier side is O'Hanlon's Port Stout: a powerful, filling, satisfying beer. The ruby port with which it is laced is present on the nose, but not so much in the taste. Instead there's an intense coffee bitterness coupled with dry and malty stout flavours. A beauty.

That's a run through the lower strength beers on offer. However, a range of top-shelf casks were available to the discerning and/or foolhardy strictly by the half pint only. These powerhouses will be the subject of my next post.

23 November 2007

Auld silkie

Temperatures have dropped below zero for the first time this winter, so my preference for dark and warming beers continues and this evening is combined with my investigation of the many Scottish craft brews in Dublin's bottleshops. Broughton Old Jock is about as Scottish as they come, even if it's from just across the border from the Sassanachs. It's a rich and deep dark red ale, lightly carbonated pouring to a stiff head. The mouthfeel is incredibly smooth and rounded, making it effortless drinking despite a powerful 6.7% alcohol.

There are hops on the label and hops embossed on the glass, but little by way of hops in the flavour. Instead you get a malty ale with mild and tasty milk chocolate notes. As it warms, there's a faint peppery spice to it as well. The fullness of its flavours and the lightness of its touch suggest to me a kind of half-barleywine: strong and malty, but you could easily put a pint away by the fireside and feel much the better for it.

18 November 2007

Max power

It's another dark and dreary evening, calling for another dark and comforting beer. I'm going with Maximator, one of the famous -ator doppelbocks from Munich. I tried both Salvator and Triumphator, from Paulaner and Löwenbräu respectively, when I was in Munich a couple of years back. Maximator is by Augustiner, a brewery I particularly associate with exceptionally smooth lagers and it's this smoothness that is a hallmark of their doppelbock too.

If memory serves me, it's lighter in colour than the others, being a coppery red rather than the usual caramel brown. On the palate there's a fair bit of sugar -- but not too much -- and a faint wisp of smoke, but not really a whole lot else. Coupled with a full but not heavy mouthfeel, this slips down easily in the right sort of filling and satisfying way. Gemütlichkeit from a bottle.

17 November 2007

Goldy lochs

Before I opened the bottle, Lomond Gold did strange things to my complex of prejudices. It's a Scottish craft beer, which is normally good; but it's also a golden ale, a style I'm getting seriously bored with; and it's organic, which in my experience means it will be lacking full-on aley flavours.

Two against one beats, as it turns out. Lomond Gold is quite a dull and difficult affair. It has a very heavy mouthfeel: thick, sugary and cloying. This is allied with a sharp gassiness to make it hard going to drink. The rewards for this effort aren't great. There is very little by way of flavour here. Hunting around, there's a hint of honey that goes with the sugary thickness, and there's a very slight citrus zest in the aftertaste, but really I may just be imagining it.

There are more Scottish beers than ever before in my local off licences these days. I'm really looking forward to trying them all out. But I'll be disappointed if many of them turn out like this one.

16 November 2007

Arbitrating the arbitrary

Random shelf sweeps in off licences are a fairly routine part of my drinking life. A recent one turned up a bottle of Honey Brown Lager from the Sleeman brewery in Ontario. The amber colour (or "honey brown", if you prefer) is impressive, and there's a gently sweet honey aroma and foretaste. Coupled with the light carbonation and full mouthfeel, a sip of this is a pleasant experience. However, it's also a short-lived one. After a second the honey flavours give way to... nothing, and the drinker is left with just another quite tasteless North American lager. A shame, because a little tweaking could make this one of the very few genuinely tasty honey beers. I can't complain too much, however: with random selection, it's not the quality of the beer that counts so much as the knowledge it brings. *Tick*

Very occasionally, I get to do the opposite of random selection when a beer I've been looking for shows up on a shelf in front of me. Top of my want list, until yesterday, was Old Engine Oil from Harviestoun. My experiences with Bitter & Twisted and Schiehallion tell me that this crowd know a thing or two about making beer. While their other two are readily available in Dublin's better off licences, the lack of the final beer in their range seemed like an anomaly. Some distributor has now rectified that, thankfully.

The pour leaves one in no doubt why the brewer who invented it, an ex-engineer, bestowed this particular name on the beer: it's very thick and very black. Carbonation is light and results in only the thinnest of heads. There's an aroma of ripe, dark fruits which reminds me a lot of the Trappist ales. Unsurprisingly the mouthfeel is thick and chewy, as one gets with much stronger dark beers. Conversely, the taste is rather more subtle than one would expect for a dark beer of 6% ABV. That's not to say it isn't complex, however. The ripe fruit is there again, included in quite a sharp sourness. I served it chilled, as recommended, but found that the sourness gradually subsided as it warmed and was replaced by richer bitter chocolate notes. When combined with the lack of gas, this makes for some very smooth drinking indeed.

My bottle was dated March 2009, so I'm wondering if the sourness was a product of the beer being too young, as it may have been with the Westvleteren 8 I had recently. At the moment I have a box of beers I'm planning to set aside for a year or so to see if they improve. I reckon I'll throw one of these in there as well.

10 November 2007

Putting the "meh" into Meles Meles

A recent haul of ales from across the border included a "sett" of Badger ales from Hall & Woodhouse in Dorset. This variety four-pack includes Tanglefoot, which I covered for the purposes of the brew zoo -- it's nice as far as it goes, but not a classic by any means. Tonight it's the turn of three more badgers.

I'm starting with First Gold, a double medallist in the ale category at the Brewing Industry International Awards in 2005. It's a beautiful red colour with a lasting creamy head. On the first sip there's a delicious caramelised sugar piquancy, but this unfortunately doesn't last long. The hops, which are intended to be the defining characteristic of the beer, show up next but in too few numbers. The bitterness is enough to kill the malt notes, but insufficient to make the beer genuinely interesting. Impressive for just 4% ABV, but that's about all I can say.

The opposite is true of Golden Champion: it's a full 5%, but tastes much lighter. That's not to say it isn't complex, however. It greets the nose with a gentle lavender perfume and follows it with a perfumey flavour, tempered with honey, which is striking and distinctive but not at all cloying. I'm not the greatest fan of England's golden ales, but this is how they ought to be done.

And so expectations were high on approach to Badger number 3: Golden Glory. I didn't read the label first (I never do) but I didn't need to have it in writing that this is made with peaches (peach blossom, actually), because there are peaches on the nose and peaches aplenty in the foretaste. Alas, like the First Gold, the immediate sweetness is rudely sat upon by a sharp and rather harsh bitterness that contributes little else to the flavour.

I'd come back to the Golden Champion on a summer's day, but the rest: meh.