31 December 2008

Lagerboy writes

On his recent visit, Velky Al donated some bottles of Primátor Excluziv to a corner of the Irish beer blogosphere (me, Thom and Adeptus). It looks like a junior drinker's dream: a lager proclaiming itself, in massive Lolcat lettering, to be 16%. In ABV terms, however, it's a mere 7.5%, though that's still not to be sneezed at. It pours a lovely shade of amber and gives off heady boozy aromas. The overriding flavour is sweet -- quite bubblegummish -- malt. It puts my experience of central-to-eastern European beers to the test as I'm not sure where to place this. There's a lot of märzen character in its breadiness but there's a fair whack of Polish mocne to be found in the nearly-but-not-quite Special Brew sugariness. All I knew was that it would have to be consumed quickly, while still cold, for fear of cloying. This I duly did, appreciating its filling warmth for some time afterwards. If you're going to be drinking pale lager in the midst of winter, this is the sort of thing to go for.

With the Primátor polished off, I returned to the fridge where I found a bottle of Gösser, an Austrian lager that's been a mainstay of Irish offies for as long as I can remember. It's really very poor -- thin, vaguely dry, barely beery, in fact. At a time when yellow fizz can be bought for half nothing you have to wonder what this is still doing on the market. For sale to idiots like me, I suppose.

And speaking of cheap yellow fizz, the first beer I ever wrote about on this blog was Euroshopper lager. Back in 2005, and for some years previous, it was my dependable house beer -- the one I'd have in for times when I just wanted a lager without having to think about it. The brewer and recipe have changed since then and I've got out of the habit of drinking this style of beer: my old reliables are far more likely to be O'Hara's Stout, Hobgoblin or Schenider Weisse these days, so I've not been in any rush to try the new version. However, there are occasions, especially this time of year, when drinkers of pale lager are going to show up to the house and require refreshment. My cheap beer of choice for this purpose these days is a Belgian: Hackenberg Export.

This is brewed by Martens in Limburg and, surprisingly, bears the logo of Dundalk-based importer Noreast, the people who bring us our Erdinger, Budvar and Shepherd Neame beers. The pils is a pleasing shade of darkish gold and very full bodied, given its place on the market, with a pleasant sweetness adding to its drinkability.

At €1.50 or so a can it's a little pricier than some of the other sub-premiums, but it's far ahead of them in quality terms. And better than any of the high-cost, as-seen-on-TV, lager brands as well. If I still have stock left over on the far side of New Year I doubt you'll hear me complain.

29 December 2008

Merry Tickmas

I did have quite a merry Christmas, thanks for your wishes, one and all. It began the day before Christmas Eve with a supermarket sweep in my parents' local Sainsbury's. Newry had mostly let me down on the Sainsbury's prize-winners, but I fared much better in Armagh.

I bagged a bottle of Barnstormer, for instance. It's quite a simple dark bitter; one which claims full-bodiedness but I found to be a smidge on the thin side. What separates it from the herd is the oodles of chocolate character, climbing forcefully out of the glass and adding a richness to the flavour which already has plenty of caramel malt, a strong English hops bitterness and more than a hint of warming roastiness. These attributes are balanced rather well and, sitting on that light body, make for a beer which is highly enjoyable to sink. If you're minded to buy it, get more than one bottle.

The other competition winner couldn't be more different. I'm still not used to full-flavoured beers which are clear and bright yellow, so I was surprised at what poured forth from the bottle of Doctor Okell's IPA. It gives up its secrets early, however, with a strong whiff of bitter grapefruity hops hitting the nose right away. Naturally, hops dominate the flavour, perfectly tempered with just enough light caramel to provide the balance and body it needs. I'd nearly say it was the perfect northern English IPA if it were actually from northern England, rather than a funny constitutional oddity just to the left of it. A deserving fellow prize-winner, and a cut above the Barnstormer in my opinion.

So much for other people's judgment. Time to make some of my own.

Quite often I'll buy a beer with a strong advance suspicion it'll be terrible. I'm frequently wrong, however, which adds an extra thrill to the pouring. This time round, Marston's Single Malt was the one I had second, third and fourth thoughts about before eventually walking off with it. I don't think I've ever liked a Marston's beer, and clear glass is never a smart move. Then there's the whisky associations, with the possibility of the sweet, cloying woody flavours that tend to accompany them.

It turns out, however, that the name is derived simply from the fact that only Golden Promise -- allegedly the preferred malt of Scottish distillers -- is used. Well, and some hops too, since my bottle had received considerable attention from the Skunking Fairy. Beyond that mild unpleasantness there is really not much to this at all. Tasting blindly I reckon I would be hard pressed to tell it from green-bottled euro-fizz. Light, bland and dull. Avoid.

Purity Brewing's Ubu amber ale was a much better proposition. I've really taken to US amber ales this past few months and was interested to see an English take on it. Obviously it's nowhere near as citrically hoppy as its transatlantic cousins, instead what you get is a fairly typical English pale ale: a good solid caramel malt base peppered with a dry tangy bitterness. It's unchallenging but still pretty tasty.

There's a similar red-gold colour to Theakston's Grouse Beater, but a very distinctive super-fruity nose, full of violets and raspberries. The sweet flavour is packed with summer fruit, ending in a rather odd dry chalkiness which I wasn't sure how to take. I was reminded a little of Poacher's Choice, but it's lighter and much less of a fruity smack in the gob. At the same time, I think one Grouse Beater is the place to stop.

Staying with the game, I was pleased to get hold of some Pickled Partridge, the seasonal from the Badger range (as mentioned favourably here, and less so here). It's another pale ale on the attractive red-gold end of the spectrum. There's not much by way of aroma, but a strong hoppy foretaste arrives early and lingers long enough to let the toffee malt base catch up and mix with it. Even at a mere 4.5% ABV it definitely works as a winter warmer, though I'd mark it down for over-carbonation and a slightly unpleasant soapy afterburn right at the end. Good, but could be better.

One of the stranger finds was sitting on a shelf by itself in the supermarket, some distance from the other beers. I've no idea why Arthur Pendragon SA wasn't allowed join in the reindeer games, but I found it quite a quirkily tasty number. It looks like bottle conditioning went all wrong, with no gas and a murky dark brown body. The texture isn't great either, and definitely on the thin side. However the flavour is magnificent, packed full of lip-smacking sweet woody smokiness. The beer, by Hampshire Brewery, is a bit of a one-trick-pony, but it's a trick I enjoy.

My one new stout of the holiday was in Meantime's half-litre bottle range: their London Stout. The label blurb has an interesting jab about stout being more of a London thing than an Irish thing, almost as if this first-rate Greenwich microbrewery feels some way inferior to the soulless industrial macrostout facility Diageo are running in Dublin 8. This sense continues in the way the beer is unfortunately rather like Guinness, being dry, a bit metallic and generally quite understated in the flavour department. Still, London Stout is decent, unfussy drinking, and certainly a far cry better than Uncle Arthur's bottled offerings.

No Wychwood beers this year, just one from the brewery's organic Duchy Original range: the Special Ale. It's a dark amber strong ale featuring big, almost-sickly sweet malt tempered with a bitter kick. It's a cut above most of the organic English beers I've had and I can't help wondering if it's because the hops are English rather than air-freighted from the usual organic hops suppliers in New Zealand. Or it could be that the flavour comes out of its shell more once the ABV is pumped up beyond 6%. Either way, I liked this.

I finished my stash on Boxing Day with another strong ale, and one of the best, in my opinion. Bateman's Victory is just about perfect as an example of the style. Though amber rather than ruby, it has the classic weighty body, loaded with chewy toffee flavours, that is just immensely satisfying to drink. The stickiness warms all the way down. The hopping has been done firmly and gently, imparting a spicy bitterness that adds to the malty warmth. It was a dry and chilly Christmas up where I was, and this beer in particular provided the perfect antidote.

And those were my ten beers of Christmas. Should've asked Santa for liposuction...

24 December 2008

Over by Christmas

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
...
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;
-- Philip Larkin, MCMXIV

Since the pubs were open all day, it's perfectly possible that Larkin's fresh-faced new recruits to the British Expeditionary Force had adjourned for a celebratory beer before the ink was dry on their enlistment papers. If there was a Whitbread pub near the recruiting office, Tommy and pals could well have been congratulating each other over bottles of porter or SSS stout, beers Ron Pattinson commissioned De Molen to recreate. He very kindly donated a bottle of each to me back in August, and I reckon it's now about time I opened them.

Drink the Porter first, said Ron. The cork popped out loudly and was followed by quite a subtle beer -- a hazy dark brown, firmly fizzy and light bodied with a mild, slightly sour, slightly bitter, aroma tinged with a yeasty sharpness. The flavour carries notes of chocolate and coffee, but nothing powerful and nothing that even hints at 5.8% ABV. I realised before long that my fancy snifter glass (a gift from Adeptus) was entirely inappropriate here. Even though Ireland was probably spared the worst of the wartime predations on brewing, this recipe is unlikely to have been current several decades later when Flann O'Brien wrote that "a pint of plain's your only man", yet that's exactly what this is: a plain, no-nonsense drinking porter that begs to be sunk in a straight-sided pint glass.

With the last dregs poured down his clean-shaven throat, Tommy goes to the bar to get the next round in.

The stout, SSS, is a different story. No pop from the cork here, though it's far from flat -- lightly sparkled, leaving a low-lying island of froth floating on a translucent ruby body. Again the aroma doesn't jump out of the glass, but the promise of 9.99% ABV is definitely present among some dry roasted notes. The overwhelming feature of the flavour is bitterness: both beers are hopped with just East Kent Goldings and here they're used to their full extent: vegetal and slightly metallic, like the very finest brussels sprout. This sits on a sturdy base of heavy, dark, treacly malt with a touch of smoke, revealing this bitter old thing to be a sweetie at heart. The contrasting flavours leave me perfectly convinced that stout's dry and sweet variations both descended from a common ancestor much like SSS. I can see how drinkers used to this, and aware of how the powers-that-be were adversely influencing the nature of beer for the greater good of His Majesty's empire, wouldn't object too much when their pint headed off in one of these directions. They still would have hankered after a pint of old SSS, though. It's a beer to take time over. One to sip in silence with the lads and let the reality of what you've just signed up to sink in.

22 December 2008

Tasty Phúca

It was flavour bingo up the Bull & Castle last Wednesday lunchtime. John, Ken, Mrs Beer Nut and I were sitting round halbes of Phúca, the winter ale just released from Franciscan Well in celebration of ten years a-brewing. There's a lot to this dark brown ale with its tan head: ginger is definitely in the mix, being present in the aroma and adding a bite to the taste. Cloves dominate the flavour -- raw and uncompromising. Cinnamon is in for sure, and there's lemon zest as well, we think. It's quite possible that there's malt and hops on the ingredient list, but Declan from the B&C tells me that a solid dose of gen-ew-ine Canadian maple syrup was thrown in at some point in the process, and that's where the sweet caramel base comes from.

It sounds like an explosion in the mince pie factory. It sounds like a mess, but it's delicious. The different spices work together just the way they do in a rich Christmassy dessert. Of course it's too cold straight from the keg, but given a few minutes breathing it turns into a first rate warmer, with the spices giving it incredible legs.

It's three years since I complained about the lack of winter seasonal beers in Ireland, and noted the single exception. Once again, only one of the country's breweries has stepped up to the plate and given the discerning beer drinking public (all fifty or so of us) what we want. The Franciscan Well, based out of their brewpub in Cork, is really going from strength to strength and I was delighted to hear they're buying a new fermenter to raise their capacity. They already host the Ground Zero of the Irish craft beer scene every Easter, and I sincerely hope they get their beers out into more of our pubs.

Here's to the 'Well and another ten winters, each of them full of spicy winter ales.

18 December 2008

Clear out

I'm looking forward to heading north next week and performing an epic raid on Sainsbury's in Armagh. The exchange rate means that beer in the UK is getting cheaper and cheaper by the minute for me.

To clear a bit of space for the haul, I thought I'd open a few from the last stash I picked up in October, aware that some of them wouldn't have been the freshest when I bought them. I recall being sorely disappointed that only one of the British Beer Competition winners was available, namely Scott's 1816 from Copper Dragon in Yorkshire. There was no sign of a date on the bottle so I figured I'd better get it into me quick, just to be safe.

This IPA pours a perfect, deep Lucozade orange. The head is of the big-bubbled real ale variety and disappears shortly after it arrives. I detected a touch of stale must on the aroma which confirmed that it was perhaps past its best. A sip revealed some simple but beautiful sticky toffee flavours followed up by quite a gentle hoppy tang. However, then the mustiness returned -- stale and woolly -- to upset the delicately balanced taste. And then I noticed the neck, where the date was written after all, in black ink, invisible against the dark beer before pouring. Turns out this is supposedly good for another eight months. Oh dear. I think perhaps 1816 is a delicate flower of an IPA which doesn't take to bottling at all, but needs to be served fresh from the cask, whence I'm sure it's superb. Still, with the lightness that comes of 4.4% ABV it didn't occupy my time and after just a few gulps I was back in the stash.

The next one was definitely knocking on a bit, with less than a week before it was due to reach pensionable age. It was bottle conditioned, however, making it more of an unknown quantity. Goldblade is a wheat beer from O'Hanlon's, a Devonshire brewery I still haven't made up my mind about. As one might expect, it's rather hazy. There's big bonus fizz and a thick head that stays put throughout -- not so much lacing as lining.

It's a close relation of Belgian wit, with lemons and coriander at the centre and a mild dry hoppiness. The aroma offers lemon sherbet and the texture is surprisingly smooth, given all that gas up top. What it lacks is legs: the fruit and spice just vanish after the first taste. At 4% ABV, this is a don't-think-just-drink quaffer. Not bad, but not great either.

I will definitely be looking for things heavier and darker when I land next at Sainsbury's.

15 December 2008

Belge-yum

Saison Dupont is one of those beers that gets mentioned now and again in connoisseur circles as a reference point for its style. I happened to pick up a bottle for the princely sum of €1.60 last time I was through Amsterdam and I opened it yesterday. Pouring was a struggle, with uncomfortable quantities of foam disappearing down the sink before I got a glass near. This undid any settling work that had happened over the past few months, and the pale amber beer was rife with suspended yeast bits which never really got round to calming down again.

For all the fuss, it's quite an ordinary beer at the end: a little thin and laced with mildly sour, typically Belgian, ale flavours. One of the best features is a warmth that rivals much stronger beers, despite it only having 6.5% ABV, but there's no real dominant or domineering flavour. I guess there would be something wrong with a traditional rustic "farmhouse" beer that was mind-blowing, however I still enjoyed this, understated and all that it is. I'd pay more than €1.60 a bottle anyway.

From saison to lambic, and one from the Cantillon stable. I do love the way their small bottles feature both a cap and a cork -- ain't nuthin' getting out of there until you're ready for it. Standard Cantillon Gueuze is one of my favourite beers and I spent a while trying to figure out what makes Iris different. It's sharper and earthier but I couldn't figure out how this was achieved. A little research tells me that Iris is made using fresh hops, rather than the dried, aged, tame ones in the Gueuze.

It's still far from anything you'd call "hoppy", though: the end result is still sour and lip-smacking, but instead of a smooth and genteel buzz, the effect is much more intense. Blending is everything with gueuze, rounding out the intense flavours. I'm sure Iris is blended too, but the edges are very much still on here. On balance I think I'd go back to the mellower version next time.

Last up is something darker and stronger. My bottle of Pannepot Grand Reserva is dated 2005 (it's the same beer Alan enjoyed a couple of months back) and claims 22 months of wood aging, 8 of them on calvados barrels. All that sitting about has created red-brown ale with just a faint fizz to it. The aged boozy apples are definitely present in the aroma and into the first sip. Otherwise this is quite a sweet candy-caramel ale with definite fresh wood overtones amongst the echoes of cherry liqueur chocolates. The fruit and sugar sweetness go a long way to hide the 10% ABV: it's neither a warmer nor a cloyer. If it wasn't so intense I might even go so far as describing it as light. However, it's definitely a taste sensation, and not the kind of thing I associate with Belgium at all.

Another observation from the Obvious File, perhaps, but it's great that Belgium's beers continue to educate and surprise me, even after I've had quite a few of them. I'll keep going, I think.

12 December 2008

Love in a cold climate

It has been mighty cold recently, something which is much harder to bear when one lives in a country where it's pretty much impossible to buy imperial stout. Fortunately I had the good sense to stock up on my travels over the summer, so I've been braving my chilly attic and bringing down rich dark bottles of winter comfort.

To the US first, and a small bottle of Old Rasputin -- a 9% ABV imperial stout by North Coast Brewing in California, featuring Boney M's favourite mad monk in mid-benediction on the label. From the bottle it is totally opaque with not even traces of ruby when held up to the light. The head quickly subsides to a thin tan skim. Texturewise it's quite wonderful, slipping down silkily and leaving a warming buzz as it goes. The big surprise for me, however, was in the taste. Since it's a Californian I was expecting citric hops in spades, à la Gonzo or Yeti, but they're not here. Instead it's all about a sweet Irish coffee aroma and a mild roasted bitterness on the palate. Sumptuous, and requiring very little effort to drink.

Amager's Imperial Stout was harder work. The Danish brewery haven't put quite as much effort into their label, and the half-litre bottle ends up looking like some supermarket's own brand of discount imperial stout. The head is thick and a light shade of beige, and the huge amount of sludge in the bottom of the bottle indicates that at least some of the 10-and-a-bit% ABV is a result of bottle conditioning. It is astonishingly bitter, but again not in a citric American hops way. Instead, the flavour is packed full of burning liquorice and the sort of coffee that's strong enough to stand a spoon in. The texture is incredibly full and quite greasy, but in a pleasant mouth-coating sort of way. Despite being the same style as Old Rasputin this is almost the diametric opposite. Yes it's still very tasty but it's a beer that forces you to take your time and lacks the hypnotic friendly warmth of the other.

Imperial stout, of whatever stripe, is such a rewarding beer. Why more (i.e. some) isn't made or imported into this stouty country of ours is really beyond me.

10 December 2008

Pubs and such

I had my back to the foreign beers for most of my evening at Pig's Ear last week, unwisely, perhaps. However, I did turn round enough to grab one beer of interest, namely Chimera by Del Ducato of Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy. I thoroughly enjoyed several of the artisan beers I had last time I was in Italy, and was keen to try more. The phrase that struck me on first tasting the hazy orange ale was "malt bomb". It's not one of those sickly sweet jus des vagabonds nightmares: far from it. Instead, the beautiful hazy orange body is packed with big sticky toffee flavours. Very tasty, but I couldn't help thinking that a solid dose of big hops would have done it the power of good.

Last beer of the festival was one I didn't even bother getting out of my chair to get -- thanks to whoever passed me a glass of Mikkeller's It's Alight. There's a very nice, smooth, Cantillon-grade sourness to this saison, with more than a hint of farmyard earthiness. Only 4.5% ABV but very much a beer to take time over.

And that was Pig's Ear for another year. I didn't have far to stagger to my lodgings: the Boak & Bailey Travel Agency had me set up in The Old Ship Inn in a back alley across the street. Despite access to 24-hour cask ale I managed to resist the urge for a post-festival pint, and was glad I did: when I came down for breakfast next day I discovered that Bombardier would have been my only option. They seem pretty green in the whole hotel stakes, and the kitchen doesn't yet open for Full Englishes of a morning. It probably wouldn't have been economical for them anyway as my only company in the dining area as I munched my muesli was a tiny, but seriously rotund, grey mouse. This is what happens in pubs too posh to keep a cat.

Work was long, arduous and finished near 6 in Mayfair. I had the usual option of sprinting off to one of London's famous beer pubs, virtually none of which I've ever visited, to chug a pint or two before zipping back to Paddington and the train to Heathrow. But I decided that I really just couldn't be bothered. Instead I wandered up through Marble Arch and made for John's local-from-local, The Victoria on Strathearn Place.

This cosy traditional pub is a multi-award-winner, including a recent spell as Fuller's Pub of the Year. From the spiel on the menu it's clear that they care a lot about their beers, and while they're not shy about throwing a guest ale or two on, only Fuller's core range was available on my visit. So I settled in by the open fire for a textbook pint of Pride. I find it hard to get excited about this beer. It's good, unfussy, understated, but I have to say I prefer a bit more oomph to my ales these days. I had hoped that my follow-up ESB would be in one of the beautiful wide stemmed glasses everyone else had, but it wasn't to be. I still really really enjoyed my pint: all the weighty caramel and fruit characteristics were wonderfully pronounced.

The Victoria is definitely a pub to note if one is in the vicinity of Paddington. Thanks for the recommendation, John: you claim your ramblings are random, but I can see why you'd direct them to this place. Best beer of the day, however, was in the unlikely surrounds of Heathrow, where I idled my last half hour over a delightfully tart and fruity pint of Adnams Bitter.

I really really do need to spend some quality time drinking in London. These stolen hours between meetings and flights just aren't good enough, ESB and Adnam's Bitter notwithstanding.

08 December 2008

Darkest Hackney

I fundamentally disagree with the basic working of principles of both CAMRA and Ratebeer, and yet I always have a great time at the Ratebeer table at CAMRA festivals. The observation that drinking good beer with other people who really enjoy drinking good beer is far more important than any organised rule-bound consumer group is too obvious to even bother making.

And so it was that I was back at the East London & City Pig's Ear festival in Hackney on Wednesday night, where the Ratebeer table was exactly where I left it a year ago, though the faces had changed a little. Still, the chat was great and the recommendations were invaluable.

Having been drinking pale beers in Leyton and then braved the cold on my way back to Hackney, I was in the mood for something dark and warming. Bottlebrook Smoked Porter jumped out at me just after I'd picked up my glass (nobody else wanted the dinky stemmed half-pint: I rather liked it) and it certainly had all the full-bodied warmth I was after, with a nice balance of dark fruit against the porter dryness. However, I found it hard to detect any smoky elements to the flavour -- a lightweight compared to, say, Station Porter, but it got me off to a good start.

The buzz around the table was all about BrewDog Coffee Stout, and though I thought it still a little early for a 9%er, the thought of missing it was enough to twist my arm. My first impression was of a deceptively easy going strong, sweet stout. But there's a lot going on here as well: citric hops are never far away, but their bitterness is complemented by the coffee notes and never allowed dominate the dark treacleish stout character. Superbly balanced.

I wasn't planning to try Riptide -- the other BrewDog beer on cask that evening -- not having been a huge fan of it from the bottle. But Simone was fairly forthright in her advice, and I'm glad I changed my mind. This is so much more complex from the cask, possessed of a sharp acidic spiciness in its incredibly full body. Further confirmation of my theory that black beers are where you really get your money's worth with cask. The only other Scottish beer I went for was Kracker, a spiced amber ale by Kelburn. Smooth, easy-drinking, but not in the same league as BrewDog at all.

I tended to stick with darker beers from the English selection. Crouch Vale's Blackwater Mild was pretty much a textbook example to my inexperienced palate. You get a sudden sour fruitiness up front, redolent of plums in particular. This keeps going until it's overtaken right on the end by black roasty flavours, finishing dry. One of those simple-yet-complex tasty beers. I wish I could say the same about Old Ale 1066 by Goacher's of Kent -- I want a richness and warmth in my old ales that this just wasn't giving me.

Evidentally, I wasn't the only one sticking to the dark brews since, by the end of the night, the milds, porters and stouts were few and far between. One of the last left was Waterloo, a porter by Boggart. It's a tasty one with just a little phenolic unpleasantness in what is otherwise a sweet full-bodied beer offering subtle hints of chocolate.

In between these dark warmers I chanced a couple of paler, but equally warming, continental beers. More about them, and a day spent in London with no new beers at all, in the next post.

05 December 2008

Prohibition in Ireland

Repeal of prohibition in Ireland happened in 1961.

Well, a repeal of prohibition. That year, the number of days on which it is illegal to serve alcohol was reduced from three to the current two: Good Friday and Christmas Day. People regularly complain about the former -- aside from the inappropriate imposition of religious values in a supposedly secular state, it has turned Holy Thursday into one of the biggest drink-buying days of the year, with supermarket shelves swept clear of booze by panicked buyers. Oddly, there isn't the same fuss about Crimbo. Which is weird because where I'm from, just twenty minutes north of the border, Christmas is one of the biggest drinking nights of the year, when the pubs and clubs are thronged with people catching up with long-lost friends and escaping from the horror of being cooped up with their unspeakable families. In the south, going to the pub on Christmas Day is something that one sees on EastEnders, but would be unthinkable to actually do.

The third day of prohibition, repealed in 1961, was St Patrick's Day. I think I'd happily have that one back in exchange for either of the other two, thanks very much, if it wasn't for my overriding belief that the state should keep its nose out of my drinking habits, what with me being a grown-up and all. 21st Amendment, who are hosting this month's Session, have asked "what does the repeal of Prohibition mean to you?" In the case of section 4 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1960, which made it legal to buy a drink on St Patrick's Day, it has meant that I tend to spend the 17th of March at home, drinking decent beer and complaining about how hard it is to get decent beer. But I certainly welcome the principle of letting people buy a drink when they want one and look forward to the repeal of the last two days: when I can't find a pub open on Christmas Day I'd much rather that was the publican's choice instead of the state's.

And there's much more to counter-productive licensing laws than simply banning the sale of alcohol on particular days, or altogether. One of the maddest I've come across was in New Zealand where, between 1917 and 1967, closing time was set at 6pm, with similar laws in place in different parts of Australia around the same era. The upshot of this prohibition was a phenomenon called the Six O'Clock Swill: a massive one-hour binge which probably did more damage to the nation's well-being than the rise of the mafia in the US did during the lifespan of the 18th amendment.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I've picked a Kiwi ale to accompany this post. My reactions to Brew Moon's beers have been mixed so far: I really enjoyed their Dark Side stout, but wasn't so thrilled with their IPA. So I arrived to their Broomfield Brown Ale with no preconceptions at all. From the generous 640ml bottle pours a dark red beer with a long-lasting creamy head and soft carbonation.

The aroma is sugary caramel, followed by an even sweeter taste suggesting marzipan and saccharine, though not overpowering thanks to a thin body and just 4% ABV. Sadly, a very slight metallic tang just on the end lets it down. Without it, this would be a beer I'd happily chug before getting turfed out of the pub at 6pm. And for all its faults, I'm very glad that I am allowed, under the law, to buy it and try it.

03 December 2008

It's Boak and Bailey's fault

Back in September last year I, for some reason, decided to tour the brewpubs of London in a single day. I don't think I missed any, but since then the scene has changed. Among the newcomers is William IV in Leyton: recently returned to brewing (say B & B) but not that you'd know it from outside. It's just your average suburban boozer on the inside: comfy but slightly cavernous. The difference is that three of the beers are brewed on-site by the Sweet William microbrewery out back.

It being December and the cold creeping in, Brodie's Mild was first on my agenda. Unfortunately I got a sharp vinegar bitterness from this: like an acetobacter party where everyone's invited. At the bottom end there's a coffee bitterness but not quite enough to justify the sharpness yet not sufficient, I thought, to warrant taking half a pint back. I moved on.

The brave Brodie's London Lager was next. It poured beautifully from the cask: a pure limpid gold. The taste is mostly clean and clear with just a hint of lemon notes in it. If I had to be fussy I'd point out the leathery, musty edges to the beer, but they're a minor element in what is a good attempt at the whole lager thing.

The final beer of the evening was their IPA. I liked this immediately with its hoppy yet easy first impressions, followed up by the mouth-coating full malts and slightly metallic English hops. This, while not world class, does a good job of capturing the essence of an English IPA.

I have to say I wouldn't recommend the William IV as an out-of-the-way excursion for the beer traveller, but if you're in the area and looking for a decent pub: there it is. And as a brewing pub on one's doorstep: yeah, I'd be happy with that.

01 December 2008

Rot, gut

The stream of free beer that friends have brought me continues today with a gift from Adeptus, and a beer I've been longing to try ever since he told me about it and pointed out its exquisitely daft website.

Hövels Original comes in a lavish foil-labelled green swingtop bottle and pours an exceedingly attractive shade of clear red-amber topped by a typically teutonic tall foamy head. I got a little bit of funky skunk in the aroma, not at all unpleasant and signifying that there's been a generous hand on the hops in this "bitterbier".

Still, it's not one of those north German beers that oozes hop extract and is sharp enough to clean the barnacles off the Bismarck. Instead, the herbal bitterness sits next to light, sweet malts which remind me of nothing so much as an Irish red ale, which is weird, but nice.

Overall, despite a fairly serious 5.5% ABV, this is an easy-going and charming beer of which one could drink several in a session. I can see how it became one of Adeptus's regulars.

27 November 2008

London calling

Another beer brought over to my place on Saturday (cheers Séan) was Meantime London Pale Ale. As it happens, I bought a bottle of it on my last trip to Sainsbury's, so I've had well more than my fair share of this recently, and it's one that warrants repeat visits.

A straight-up honest half-litre bottle contains a slightly hazy orange beer at 4.3% ABV. The head forms tight and lasting, with zesty fruity aromas ascending from beneath. These continue in the slightly grapefruity notes in the flavour -- signature of the American hops. But they're not allowed dominate, sitting next to some of the delicious floral English variety, redolent of juicy oranges with a hint of peach and some black tea tannins giving a dry finish.

Basically, this has all the benefits of the US and UK pale ale styles with none of the catches: no overcarbonation, no metallic tang, no tiddly bottle and no understated flavours. Beautiful.

So I'm psyched for next week's trip to London and a return visit to the Pig's Ear Festival in Hackney on Wednesday evening. Anyone out there going to be around?

24 November 2008

He came bearing urbock

Thom arrived over to Beer Nut Towers on Saturday evening carrying a swing-top flagon of Eggenberg Urbock 23°. With assistance from some other guests, we managed to put away all two litres of the 9.9% ABV dark Austrian lager.

And it's tasty stuff, though takes a bit of getting used to, what with the intense sugary sweetness. Until it warms up a bit there's not much else to be said about it, but after a while the strong boozy flavours start to kick in, with burnt caramel and more than a hint of sherry, accentuated by the minimal carbonation levels.

This is very much a beer for considered post-prandial sipping. Eggenberg have a number of distilled beer products in their line and this stuff tastes like it's already half way there.

Cheers Thom. You're welcome to revisit when you've refilled the flagon.

20 November 2008

Best in show

I was in early to the Belfast Beer & Cider Festival on Saturday. When newer arrivals appeared and squinted inquisitively at the beer list I gave them one unequivocal recommendation: Dark Star Hophead. Yes, perhaps it's not a beer to start a sampling session with -- partly because of the intense flavour, and partly because it makes other pale bitters seem hopelessly inadequate -- but it's not one to be missed, and I was surprised it hadn't already sold out. Shame on you, beer philistines of Belfast. And thanks.

The aroma starts Hophead as it means to go on: fresh, green hops, like sticking one's nose into a bag of Cascade. On tasting it combines with the malt and there's a little of the sherbet character I enjoy in the likes of Goose Island IPA or, closer to home, Meantime Pale Ale. But it's no American wannabe: there's a considerable English floral character here, and a dry, not-quite-metallic, finish. Certainly it isn't a beer of balance, but that matters not one jot to its supreme drinkability.

Hophead is probably my beer of the festival, but one of the dark beers really left a lasting impression too: Old Slug from the RCH brewery down Somerset way. This porter really goes to show how amazing the simplest black beer can be when served naturally, putting me strongly in mind of my experience drinking Porterhouse Plain directly from the conditioning tanks. The nose is rich, freshly ground coffee in spades, and the flavour too is sweet and coffee-like, sitting on a silky-smooth creamy body. That particular combination of knee-weakening aroma, flavour and texture is something I only seem to get from cask-conditioned stouts and porters, like O'Hara's at Hilden during the summer and Druid's in Cork at Easter. We need something of this sort in regular production south of the border. I can't imagine anyone with half a brain going back to nitro stout after their first mouthful.

It's very easy to have a go at CAMRA. I was particularly scornful of their "CAMRA supports choice" banner in Belfast, given their prime directive limiting choice to beers produced and served in a manner of their own choosing. But I have to admire the Northern Irish branch's determination to pull off an event like this in a market environment which is almost as hostile to decent beer as the one where I live. Of course, being able to ship the beers over from Britain without trouble from the exciseman helps enormously in assembling the line-up. I guess I'll have to keep petitioning the southern breweries if I'm ever to get my pint of cask stout down the local.

19 November 2008

The lighter side

In yesterday's post on CAMRA NI's festival in Belfast, I mentioned the collective decision by my cohort that a particular beer smelled of urine. It did -- Bateman's Valiant exuded a powerful odour of railway station toilets, as Adeptus has also already said. It's still enjoyable, though, having a full body and a sharp bitter flavour, with just a touch of burnt corn on the end. Holding my nose I could drink a pint of this no problem.

Sharply bitter pale ales were something of a recurring theme among the exhibits. Hopback's Crop Circle was one of the poorer examples, with the hops bitterness giving way to astringency and the flat body being a bit too grain-laden. Amber coloured Brecon Red Dragon avoided the worst of these pitfalls but finished up a little behind in the bitterness stakes. I much preferred Easy Rider from Kelham Island, with its very sharp and more-ish piquancy, and yet with only a tiny bit more alcohol, Bradford's own Salamander Brewery managed to create a beer with magnificent warmth in amongst the tangy bitterness in their Golden Salamander.

Inevitably with a festival of UK cask ales there was going to be a fair bit of tasteless dreck. Dullest Beer of the Day goes to Potton's Shannon IPA, a beer which lies somewhere far beyond the tastelessness event horizon, though dishononourable mentions go to the vaguely sulphurous Snowdonia by Purple Moose and the yawn-worthy Frog Island Natterjack, recommended to me by a complete stranger when I was trying to decide what to have next. Thanks a lot, mate.

Laura describes the pun-tastic hilarity surrounding an ale called Auntie Myrtle's from Mayfield. Sadly the beer wasn't anywhere near as entertaining, with its slightly sour and very understated flavours. Skinner's Ginger Tosser also came close to being interesting, with its low-lying sweet honey notes but very little else. My glass of Hidden Brewery Hidden Pleasure had a powerful disinfectant taste and big floaty bits -- thankfully bar manager Adrian was on hand when I was served it, so a replacement was swift and painless. There seems to be some interesting toffee underlying it, but really I couldn't say for sure.

However, shock of the day concerned one of my priority targets: reigning Champion Beer of Britain Alton's Pride by Triple fff. Evidentally once it leaves Britain all its tastiness drops away leaving a worty, cold-porridge concoction which manages to taste of special brew despite being only 3.8% ABV.

That just leaves three beers on the sweeter side of the spectrum, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Atlas Latitude is a cask pils bearing no resemblance to any continental pils I've had, being lemony and wonderfully cleansing on the palate. Farmers Blonde is probably not to everyone's taste, but definitely to mine: this is Bradfield's 4% ABV summer ale and it has a gorgeous bubblegum character to it, making it taste stronger than it is without tipping over into cloying. From bubblegum to toffee, and Spellbound from the wizards at Robinson's brewery. This was a little bit flat, though very easy drinking and deliciously sweet and caramelly.

Which almost brings me to the end of the festival, except for the two beers I've decided to separate out for special praise...

18 November 2008

A riot in Belfast

It's important that I note how much fun Saturday's trip to Belfast actually was. These posts are mostly confined to what I thought of the beers, which might make it seem that the event was more like an exam than a festival. But despite such appearances (like Adeptus and Oblivious, right), the company and the atmosphere were superb. Indeed, the quality of the banter is one of the main reasons my remarks will likely bear a strong resemblance to those already published by Adeptus: we discussed at length how much that beer smelled of wee, for example. But more on it in the next post. I'm starting here with the darker brews.

Everyone's opening gambit was the much-anticipated Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild, last year's Champion Beer of Belfast. It's certainly dark ruby in colour: like a freshly-filled bag of blood, and almost as opaque. A sour nose wrong-footed me for the sweet vinous follow-up on the palate, with an added sharp piquancy, like spiced port. Very much a heavy, sipping, winter beer, and it boggles the mind to think that pints of this sort were once the norm for beer drinkers in these parts, before typical alcohol strengths dropped to their current levels during the twentieth century.

Next on my must-have hitlist was Hooky Dark from Hook Norton, a brewery that seems never to put a foot wrong. Alas, this one just didn't live up to expectations: it's a vaguely bitter mild, but with none of the rich, warming flavours I like in this style. Spire's Dark Side of the Moon did them much better, being a mild which wears its roasted qualities up front with pride.

A fair bit of sourness was on show in the milds, with B & T's Black Dragon being one of the best of this sort, including some creamy coffee notes in with a pronounced sourness and a soft lambic-esque texture. It was the same only less so with Copper Dragon Black Gold: interesting in its own slightly sour understated way, but really a shadow of the flavour profiles of the other milds on offer.

One of the strangest, and best, beers I had was Bruin, a mild by Yorkshire's Old Bear Brewery. No sourness or roasted grains here, just big big chocolate and caramel flavours. "Like drinking a Cadbury's Chomp bar" somebody (Mark? Laura?) said: absolutely spot on.

A couple of fake Irish stouts were among the dark beers, including the quite decent Black Pearl from Milestone of Nottinghamshire, which had some worthy dry roasted flavours to it. No such luck with O'Hanlon's Dry Stout, shipped from Devonshire with seemingly all of the flavour left behind -- a residual dryness is all it has to say for itself.

It's nice to have a bit of non-Irish fruitiness in a stout, and Warlock from Renfrewshire's Houston brewery delivered this quite beautifully, having tasty plum notes in amongst the bitter roasted flavour. Going in the other direction, I enjoyed Spire's super-dry Twist and Stout, with its lip-smacking sour nose and full-on hoppy bitterness.

Then, perhaps inevitably, in came the phenols. I suppose I should have expected it from Moonraker, the 7.5% ABV sweet dark ale by Lees, but I was taken aback by the felt-tip markers present in Eclipse, a porter by Blindman's of Somerset with a mere 4.2% ABV. Eclipse starts well with some nice milk chocolate flavours, but once the phenols arrive it becomes hard to finish.

It's all getting a bit cloying now, isn't it? Time for some palate-cleansing pale beers next, I think.

17 November 2008

Local beer for local people

Saturday saw the end of the 2008 Belfast Beer & Cider Festival, Ireland's only CAMRA-organised event. Accompanied by some fellow beer aficionados up from Dublin, I put in a solid seven hours of tippling during the afternoon and evening. One of the main draws for me was a couple of unfamiliar beers from one of the province's two cask beer breweries: Whitewater of Kilkeel.

Crown & Glory is brewed especially for the Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast, a pearl of Victoriana owned by the National Trust and one of the most beautiful boozers on the planet. The tribute bitter is much less elaborate, being pale and light of texture, with an unfussy quaffable character. The malt and hops are carefully balanced to produce a very easy-going pint with no really dominant flavours.

There's a bit more of a challenge with Nut Brown, a darker shade of amber with a touch of sharp astringency. I still enjoyed it, however -- there's plenty to keep the drinker interested, with a sweet toffee-like base making it quite more-ish.

In my considered opinion, neither of these is as enjoyable as Whitewater's standard ales: Belfast Ale and Clotworthy Dobbin, though I've consistently found the bottled version of both to be an improvement on the cask editions. Though one doesn't say that too loudly in front of the CAMRA officials.

More from Belfast anon. I didn't get to try Wickwar's excellent Station Porter from the cask since it was inconsiderate enough to win beer of the festival on Thursday, and was therefore long gone. Still, a well-deserved prize I'm sure.

13 November 2008

Energiser

It was the middle of December during my soujourn in Aberdeen that I discovered I could never live there. It wasn't the coldness of the winter, nor the damp pall that would waft in from the North Sea on slightly warmer days. No, it was the darkness. Those days when the sun would climb wheezily over the horizon, only to disappear back to bed after only a couple of hours' work, just freaked me out. Aberdeen in mid-winter doesn't do afternoons: you go straight from grey dawn to grey twilight with nothing in between.

Even here, several degrees south of the Granite City, I find the short days and long nights leave me permanently exhausted. Yesterday evening, as a tonic, I picked out a bottle of drug-laden beer formulated by people who work even further north than Aberdeen: Fraserburgh's BrewDog, and their Speed Ball strong ale.

At 7.8% ABV, it's relatively light for a BrewDog beer, but the alcohol isn't the most important ingredient. There's kola nuts in here, and guarana, and California poppy, plus a measure of heather honey as well. Quite a mix. The almost-headless dark amber beer is quite thin of body, as British strong ales often are, but there are certainly some interesting flavours. A bitter, herby pungency is the dominant one, reminiscent of aniseed or similar semi-medicinal botanicals. Underneath it, the vaguely metallic, presumably English, hops make themselves felt by adding a dryness, and then the whole thing is buoyed up on a cushion of alcoholic warmth.

It's interesting, it's potent, and yet it's deceptively easy to drink. There's none of the big sticky malt of English strong ales I know. In fact, it's hard to believe that something so complicated, made from such way-out ingredients, could come together in such a balanced way. But that's BrewDog for you.

The picture above is the first of hopefully many taken in the room in which is now, officially, my study. I've had it painted a bright, stimulating yellow, to keep the darkness away.

10 November 2008

My NoCal life

Thom has beaten me to the punch on this one, with his account of how we spent Friday night in Lilac Wines on Dublin's northside. I introduced him to Jonathan, the American I met a couple of weeks ago who is bringing the Gordon Biersch and Speakeasy beers into Ireland, and taking a very hands-on approach to promoting his business. Along with a couple of other members of the already-converted, Thom and I stood about drinking free beer and trying not to distract Jonathan too much as he attempted to convince innocent Heineken-buyers that they could be doing so much better.

I'd never before spent three hours in a Dublin off licence on a Friday night, despite what my wife might tell you. It was fascinating to watch how the post-work crowd between six and seven were amenable to trying something new, and even buying a six-pack of it in some cases, but as 10pm last orders approached, the customers were much more focussed on grabbing cans of rubbish and legging it out again, paying scant heed to the chirpy yank offering them a sip of nectar (I'm still very much in love with Speakeasy Prohibition, incidentally).

Aside from the seven beers I've already reviewed, Jonathan had sample bottles of a couple of other Californians he's thinking Ireland might be interested in. Well I certainly was. Two were from the Blue Frog brewery in Fairfield, both served from 75cl bottles. Blue Frog IPA is rather thinner than one would expect from a 7% ABV American IPA. It puts all its resources into the hopping, going for a tangy, almost astringent, character. Bizarrely, the double version -- The Big DIPA -- cranks up the malt levels, and although it claims a big 83 IBUs against the single's 60, the end result provides a much fuller, rounder and better balanced experience. Big DIPA is the one I'll really be looking out for if and when it hits the open market.

Continuing in Opposite Land, the bitterness of Blue Frog's single IPA was topped yet further by Butte Creek Pale Ale (that first word is pronounced "beaut", by the way, which means it's not as much of a companion to Knob Creek bourbon as I'd hoped, in my own puerile little way). This stuff tastes green: an intense earthy vegetal hoppiness which reminded me of nothing so much as Timothy Taylor Landlord. A little bit of firm malty body peeps in behind, but mostly this is a beer that assaults the side of the tongue and pierces the sides of the jaw. I doubt I could drink a lot of it.

Jonathan wasn't happy with the few bottles of E.J. Phair Pale Ale he'd brought over, and with good cause: the one we shared was intensely vinegary and undrinkable. I trust he'll be getting a refund on that. Or preferably another batch of samples. For the last beer of the evening we returned to Speakeasy for a go of their White Lightning wheat beer, remarking on the unfortunate decision to go for a name already used by a legendary tramps' cider. Frisco's White Lightning is better but I couldn't recommend spending actual money on it: the wheat is really, well, wheaty, with none of the fruit or spice one expects from European wheat beers. It's a fairly typical US-style wheat beer, in fact, and as such best avoided.

After paying my respects to the house (and its frankly excellent beer selection, half of which is displayed left) I hopped on mo rothar for the 40 minute cycle south to Beer Nut Towers. Cheers to Ronnie and the rest of the Lilac Wines crew for letting us get in the way of your Friday business, and of course to Jonathan for the... well, for the free beer.

Who'd have thought handing out free beer in Dublin off licences would prove so popular?

07 November 2008

What's yours?

"What do you normally drink?" is a question I get asked a lot by friends, after I've gone off on one about how the pub we're in doesn't have anything worth drinking, and how the pint of Guinness I'm suffering through is horribly cold and tasteless. As a relentless pursuer of new beers, it's an uncomfortable question. I don't really have anything I'd describe as my regular. With two exceptions.

I gave a full account of Galway Hooker when I first tried it last year, and it remains the beer I drink most often when I'm in the pub (this was much to the annoyance of the nice phone poll lady who bizarrely didn't have it on her beer list when she asked me the question above). I'm still in love with its blend of sweet Irish crystal malt with a four-hop formula led by late Saaz and Cascade.

But, for the moment at least, Hooker is confined to the bar tap only. I do most of my drinking at home, and my fallback, regular favourite here is one I've been drinking for years but never actually given a proper account of: O'Hara's Stout. This month's Session gives me the chance to put that right.

Matt asks us to put on our BJCP hats. I don't have one, and I really don't see the point of applying style guidelines to commercially brewed beer unless one is actively engaged in selling it. However, the Programme does have a category called "Dry Stout", citing the Irish ones as examples, and the overwhelming characteristic of O'Hara's is certainly its dryness. You get a brief chocolatey overture on the nose, but it's followed swiftly by a stunningly, tongue-witheringly dry, almost sulphurous, flavour. After a second the bitter, roasted coffee notes rise to take the edge off, and then the chocolate makes a reappearance for a smooth, sweet finish. Bottled O'Hara's Stout, at cellar temperature, is jam-packed full of flavour.

There is a draught version, served on nitro in a handful of pubs, but it lacks the real dry character. The fact that I proved myself unable to tell it from chocolate-malt-laden Murphy's shows, I hope, just how injurous nitrogenation is to the bold flavours of decent stout. Bottled O'Hara's is available in lots of Irish off licences and supermarkets, and is exported to the US and several other countries. I'm not sure how much ends up in the UK but its makers, Carlow Brewing, produce an Irish Stout for Marks & Spencer to a very similar recipe.

Like virtually all Irish craft beer, O'Hara's is a simple, no-nonsense product in a traditional style. It won't get any plaudits from me or anyone else about exotic flavours or strange and exciting ingredients. So why is it my favourite? The answer is simply because it's always there and it's always good.