29 January 2008

Smooth operators

The slow trickle of American beers into Ireland seems to be continuing. Redmond's had a couple of new ones on my last visit and I snapped them up. Samuel Adams Holiday Porter first. It's a magnificent beer from start to finish. Colourwise it's a deep black with ruby edges. The attractive sweet aroma will follow you round the room. A sharp prickly fizz starts the mouthfeel, but quickly subsides leaving a full and silky texture. Following the richness of the texture there's the richness of the flavour: milk chocolate and raisins first, dark chocolate and plums at the end. Very much in the same league as St Peter's magnificent Old Style Porter and a crime to sell in mere 355ml bottles.

Next up is one of those beers whose style I had no idea of until I opened it: Sierra Nevada Anniversary Ale. The big hoppy aroma on uncapping the bottle was the first clue, and the orange amber colour was the second suggestion, that this is an American-style IPA. I rather like Sierra Nevada's own IPA for its rough and uncompromising bitterness. This is a much smoother affair, full bodied and lightly carbonated. The flavour is full of peaches: sumptuously bittersweet with a gorgeous sherbety quality. It is, in short, Goose Island IPA by Sierra Nevada. I had me a Goose Island last Friday night, but I've always room for another, whatever the label.

More American beer like this, please, Mr Importer, sir.

26 January 2008

...a place to sit and soak in sanit'ry conditions

The village inn, the dear old inn,
So ancient, clean and free from sin

wrote Betjeman in his pre-CAMRA rant about the loss of England's pub heritage. Well, my local village inn, Brady's in Terenure village, is usually pretty clean, but I doubt if it's ancient, and this post largely concerns one of its sins in particular. I'm in there every few weeks for the carvery lunch. From the macrobrews on offer I'd generally have a Guinness. Mrs Beer Nut, a lager drinker by default since she doesn't like stout, kegged ale or Erdinger, has been pitching around for a new regular and decided to give the Beck's Vier a go. Strange sort of beer this one: it appeared in the market a couple of years ago and is made by InBev in Germany exclusively for the British and Irish draught market. Presumably because of the varient "normal" beer strengths in both countries, it's an even 4% ABV in the UK, 4.3% over here. Concentration brewing is great, isn't it? Just add water...

Long story short, Beck's Vier is extremely dull. Yes, you can detect a hint of that maltiness which is the Beck's hallmark and which, I have to say, I quite like. But there's really nothing else going on: they've taken away the flavour and replaced it with water and gas. There's no doubt that Ireland's bars are oversupplied with lager taps. However, following events during the week, our Big Three brewers are now a Huge Two, and when the merger goes through Heineken in Cork will be paying people to make and market Heineken, Amstel, Coors Light, Miller, Foster's and Kronenbourg 1664. Something must give, but I'd say InBev Ireland, and Beck's Vier, will weather the storm.

To the other end of the pub spectrum, then, and the Bull & Castle. A shipment of Maredsous 10 arrived recently. Last year I complained about the tastelessness of Number 6 (be seeing you). Its big brother still lacks the bold flavours I'd expect from a tripel. However, it's smooth, honey-like and very very easy to drink so I think I can just about forgive it. It doesn't have the character of stablemate good old Duvel, however.

And that's me done with pubs for a while. Back to proper beer...

23 January 2008

Basque non-separatist

Tapas caught on in a big way in Celtic Tiger Dublin. Of course, it being Celtic Tiger Dublin -- the capital of Rip-Off Ireland -- prices are generally ridiculous (if you want to pay €6 for a dish of patatas bravas, Salamanca on Andrew Street is your only man) thus missing the point of tapas as quick, cheap, high-quality food.

Thankfully, The Porterhouse has come to the rescue. Not content with saving us from macrobrewed beer in the last decade, it's now tackling the Great Tapas Swindle. In 2006 it opened The Port House in a dark South William Street basement. There are pintxos at the bar and a full tapas menu in the main restaurant, with dishes in the €3-€5 range: hardly Spanish prices, but very good for Dublin. The quality of the food is excellent (particularly the churros with hot chocolate), and there's an extensive list of wines, sherries and ports. A second branch, called Pintxo, set up on Eustace Street in Temple Bar last year.

Even before these places opened, The Porterhouse was importing Pagoa beers from the Basque country for sale in its bars. Naturally, these constitute the beer list in the new tapas joints, though I think they have Birra Moretti for the lager-heads too. It was in Pintxo that I sampled the Pagoa Zunbeltz stout I reviewed for November's Session, and I was back to try another a few days ago. This time I went for the red ale, Gorri.

On first tasting I was disappointed: it's a very dry affair with quite a pronounced dusty musty flavour. Musing on this, I munched on some chorizo al vino, and took another sip. The difference was incredible. When put next to the rich meat-and-wine flavours, the beer becomes much smoother and rounder. The sweet malt flavours that one expects from a red ale come right to the front, while the dryness remains at the end, maintaining the balance and making the whole experience very pleasant indeed.

I can see why the management moved this one from their pubs to their tapas bars. I'm very sceptical about the whole beer-and-food pairings thing that our American cousins enthuse over, but this beer simply doesn't work without the accompaniment of bold Hispanic flavours. I'm prepared to allow that, just this once.

18 January 2008

Cry havoc

What is it about craft beer branding and canines? We have those well known American breeds Flying Dog and Dogfish Head, and now there's the Scots terror: Brew Dog. The Aberdeenshire microbrewery opened just last year and is already producing an impressive range of beers, bottled and on cask (my notes on cask Hype are in this post). Reviews have been generally positive, so I requested a mixed case as a Christmas present from a UK-based family member (cheers, sis).

Because the brewery is new, I'm not terribly upset about what happened next. In small business terms it's probably classified as an oversight or teething troubles: the dozen 33cl bottles were shipped without any protective wrapping on them. As a result, one of my Rip Tides arrived in several pieces, with the cardboard box receiving the full benefit of the imperial stout within. I trust the brewery will be rectifying this dispatch issue soon, if they haven't already.

I started with the "laid back amber beer" The Physics, immediately struck by the cuteness of a best before date written in biro. It's a dark amber colour, reminding me of American lagers like Old Scratch and Boston Lager. Not much aroma, just tiny sugary sweetness and even tinier hops if you inhale deeply enough. The first sip delivers a big, and quite unexpected, hoppy punch: brimming with a very heavy vegetal bitterness of the sort found in the more full-on English bitters. Think Landlord. The bitterness lingers and is joined by a rich caramel sweetness and the overall sensation is like sucking on a candy-coated hop cone. Er, probably. The Physics is tasty, complex, and not at all laid back. With all those hops in this one I moved on to the IPA with trepidation.

The first shock of Punk IPA was from the colour: a very bright, pale yellow and suspiciously clear for a handcrafted beer. Yes, I know that my suspicions are unfounded and that craft brewers can make clear beers too, but I like a bit of cloud in my ales. There's probably a chemical additive you can get... Anyway, second shock was that Punk isn't an aggressive hop monster. The aroma, again, is slight and has a citrus quality which is carried through in a big way in the flavour. It's very zesty, with lemony overtones, and also quite smooth and more-ish. Punk isn't about being smooth, but it is about being shocking, I guess, so the name can stay.

Rip Tide was a bit more normal, in a special sort of way. It pours a very opaque black with just about no head. There's a bit of a prickle in the mouthfeel, but mostly it's rich and thick. The taste is quite subtle, and nothing leaps out immediately. Rolling it around the palate it's quite dry, but there's just a hint of chocolatey sweetness in the mix there too. It leaves a bitter taste at the end as a prelude to the next sip. I think my preferences lean towards the caramel-and-coffee school of imperial stouts, which left me intrigued as to what happens when you send Rip Tide off to live in a whisky cask for a while.

It gains two ABV percentage points and turns into Paradox, is the short answer. The one I have here is from an Islay cask: batch 8 -- Bowmore. The smoky peat is apparent even from the narrow neck of a slightly cold bottle, and even more so when poured into a wide-bottomed glass, where a tawny head makes a brief appearance but is gone in an instant. The fullness of the Rip Tide mouthfeel is there, as is the lasting bitter aftertaste, but before that there's the earthy scotch buzz dominating everything. The 10% ABV is well hidden among the smooth and balanced whisky flavours. Its Laphroaigishness reminds me a lot of Messrs Maguire's fantastic, but now heart-breakingly gone, Imperial which I raved over back in the autumn. Paradox is a superb beer: uncompromising, innovative and chock full of the Brew Dog spirit. Well done, lads.

I look forward to trying some of the other beers Brew Dog have out. And I look forward even more to being able to buy them in Ireland where I can be fairly sure I'll get them home in one piece.

12 January 2008

Malto bene

My New Year jaunt this year brought me to Venice. Despite all the positive stuff in the beer blogosphere about Italian beer (from the likes of Maeib, Stonch and Knut Albert, for instance) I remained sceptical. My only previous visit to Italy, a short trip to Rome four years ago, was a beer disaster and I was fully expecting a similar famine this time round. While this trip was far from a wash-out, Venice really made me work for my craft beer. But more on that later: I'll get the less-than-artisan stuff out of the way first.

Doppio malto was a legend I saw on many a label, single malt is presumably just for whiskies. Still, the plainer beers I sampled were certainly playing on the malt side of the field. Moretti's Baffo d'Oro was pretty ubiquitous: a beer which is full of dry musty malt to the point of bitterness. Best served cold, to avoid the harshness. Or have something else. Moretti La Rossa, sampled at Bàcaro Jazz with its fascinating line in ceiling decoration (pictured), is rather better: a dense, sweet and smoky red ale with strong alcoholic malt notes. A rival Rossa is made by Castello, the brewery which took over the Moretti plant when Moretti was bought by Heineken. It's not quite as interesting as the Moretti red, however: lighter, much sweeter, a gorgeous bright red colour, but no great shakes in the flavour department.

Two foreign macros to finish this section, absorbed on the hoof at two of Venice's many stand-up watering holes. I don't know if Heineken make Amstel 1870 locally, or if it's imported from the Netherlands. I don't really care as I doubt I'll be drinking any more of this quite harsh malty golden lager. Bulldog is definitely imported, however. It's made in Yorkshire by Scottish & Newcastle, as proudly stated on the pump clip. I found it a fascinating mix of sweet maltiness, almost to the point of tramp-brew syrupyness (it's 6% ABV), and the hoppiness of an English bitter. Marketed to the hopheads among the gentlemen of the road, one presumes. Interestingly tasty.

I said Venice made me work for my craft beer, but it was more luck of the draw. I happened across a shop called Alla Botte, near Bàcaro Jazz as it happened, which specialised mainly in vast casks of wine but which had one shelf in the window where a modest range of artisan beers shared space with the oil, vinegars and other non-vinous adjuncts. From here I picked six 75cl bottles to try. At around €10 a bottle they weren't cheap, but prices were lower than the only other shop where I saw any decent beers. The only place I found them on a menu was in Vini da Gigio: quite reasonable at €15 a bottle, and a better selection than either shop.
I started with DucAle by Del Borgo: a heavy, bready, malty, red-brown ale. For all its gravity it's not especially strongly flavoured, having a tasty but understated perfumed fruitiness. Instead, this beer is all about texture: rich and smooth and velvety. Pure luxury. A bit more rough and rustic is Petrognola Nera, made from farro, that most Italian of wheats. It pours red-black and fizzy with a quickly-subsiding head. There's a full and roasty aroma, though the taste is unassuming: quite dry and light. To get the full symphony of aroma, flavour and texture, there's Brùton Momus. Again this is a very dark red ale, dense and barely carbonated. The nose gives hints of milk chocolate, though the flavour isn't sweet: it's sharp and lactic, tempered by a certain degree of malt as well. Quite a lot to this one and it left me wondering what the other Brùtons are like.

The remaining three beers come from the Piedmontese Baladin brewery. Super is a dark weissbier, reminding me strongly of Schneider Weisse, full of bananas and yeast. They make a pale yellow saison called Wayan which has a fluffy texture but a sharp fizz as well. The flavour is mild, but very complex and busy, offering orange peel, coriander, almonds, juniper, bananas and more besides. I'd say that getting so much going on without making the beer overwhelming, difficult or cloying was the challenge here. Mission accomplished.

I saved the oddest of the bunch for last. From the pyramid on the label I take it that Nora birra egizia is going for an ancient Egyptian style. The bright orange colouring and light prickly carbonation immediately suggest a tripel. There's certainly a spicy characteristic to the taste as well, but this is no tripel. In with the fruit there's an aftershave-and-incense muskiness, which looks very wrong now that I've written it down but is in fact sublimely delicious and extremely drinkable. This is exactly the sort of bold, daring and downright weird beer that I love discovering.

I wouldn't go close to recommending Venice as a beer-hunting destination, but my appetite, and respect, for Italian craft brewing is certainly whetted.

10 January 2008

Not-so-new year beer

Is that the time? 10th of January already and not a peep out of me all year. No, I'm not doing one of those principled January detoxes, I've just been away for a while and have been putting my life back together since I returned. A report on where I was and the beer I found will follow after I've tried the two bottles I brought back with me. It's all about completeness and coherency, see?

So, just to mark the start of a new year of beer, and to demonstrate that I'm still alive and drinking, a review of a random untried beer from my stash: St. Peter's Organic Best Bitter.

It pours a lovely cloudy amber colour with only the lightest skim of a head. The aroma is citrus and candy in equal proportions. The caramel candy hits the palate first, followed close behind by a quite sharp and acidic bitterness. Neither flavour lingers on very long, however, and soon it's time for another sip.

This is a well-balanced session bitter, and with its toned-down flavours is much more to my hop-wuss liking than Landlord or any of the other bitterer bitters. It also ticks the boxes I found wanting with the brewery's Organic Ale. A criticism? Well, just at the end there's a faint hint of that metallic tang that I find in a number of English ales. I reckon I can live with it though.

All in all a decent and unfussy pint... er, half-litre.