28 February 2008

End of the line

During the winter months I've been slowly working through the Unibroue range which has inexplicably shown up in one Dublin supermarket. I began in October with Trois Pistoles, and had a Maudite at the end of December. The evenings are starting to get a bit longer now and, while it's still chilly, the worst seems to be over, so it's time to conclude the series with La Fin du Monde.

Not being a fan of reading labels before drinking, I saw the word "triple" and assumed this to be in the tripel style. I was disabused of this by the pour: a very clear orange and a thick, snowy, long-lasting head. The mouthfeel is sparkly and full in the typically velvety Belgian way.

Closer attention to the label reveals that this is "triple fermented", which is one explanation given for the origin of the tripel name, but not the usual one. Anyway, this is no tripel. It's a much smoother, sweeter golden ale, more along the lines of Duvel or Piraat to my mind.

The dominant flavour is fruit. I was getting the sharpness of pears while Mrs Beer Nut detected bananas. This, of course, is our old friend 3-methyl-1-butyl acetate, generally known as isoamyl acetate to its friends. I had never associated it with pear flavours before, but Wikipedia tells me that pear essence is another name for this ester. Mrs Beer Nut has a degree in organic chemistry, but we don't talk about esters much for some reason.

The chemistry aside, this is a highly enjoyable beer: flavoursome, complex, yet easy going. 75cl doesn't last nearly long enough. The full-yet-effortless drinkability is something rarely found at 9% ABV, even in Belgium.

Of the three Unibroues, dark Trois Pistoles is the one I'll be running back to first. But I'd be happy with any of these whatever the season.

25 February 2008

Charity case

My ICB buddy Duncan -- carpenter, brewer and all-round good guy -- went to South Africa in November on the annual Niall Mellon Building Blitz, when over a thousand volunteers built 203 houses in a township outside Cape Town. Resourceful individual that he is, Duncan found the time to try a few beers and was kind enough to bring me back two bottles of Windhoek, a Namibian lager not commonly found in Dublin outlets.

As one would expect from a hot country, this is a light quaffing lager, but it's no vapid gassy yellow affair. Windhoek is dark gold and has a very tasty malty profile, similar to the north German style, but not overpowering or musty as this sort can sometimes be. Well-balanced, moreish and the sort of thing that, in Europe, would be considered unremarkable but passable, but is stand-out for Africa.

22 February 2008

Feel the strine

We do very badly for Aussie beer over here. I'm told that some of the Little Creatures range have been spotted in Dublin off licences, but other than that it's the usual yellow muck from the House of Foster, Toohey's, and the like. In general, the Cooper's range is the best we can manage, though I'm not keen on their stout and find their famous Sparkling Ale highly overrated. The last of their beers that we see in these parts is the Original Pale Ale.

Well, it's pale all right: a translucent light yellow with loads of gas creating a steady shallow head. There's not much on the first sip, just more gas and a crisp dry bitterness. After a while the malt profile begins to come through but it's hard to get a handle on it around all those bubbles.

In an effort to get a bit more flavour out of the beer I've just bunged the yeasty dregs into the glass. This turns it more of a lemony witbiery shade and adds a bit more body, but really does little for the overall taste.

An ice-cold six-pack by a barbecue supplying endless amounts of greasy meat: yes, I can understand that. Sitting in on a dark northern-hemisphere winter evening, however, I'll have something else, thanks.

19 February 2008

Schleswig schwingtops

A phrase to terrify the beer shopper perusing the off licence shelves in search of a new thrill: "Mild & Frisch". And I would have passed on the Flensburger Gold if it wasn't one of a matching pair, the other of which looked genuinely interesting and it didn't feel right leaving this one behind. But more of that below. Gold comes in a dinky 33cl swingtop and shows off its pale gold hue through clear glass. Unsurprisingly, then, there's a definite lightstruck whiff from it. It has a characteristic German smoothness but little by way of flavour, with just a hint of graininess at the back. Enjoyable in its own little way, but there are much better German lagers out there. Somehow I can't see it stealing market share from the other popular 33cl bottles of pale lager: the Coors Lights and Coronas of this world.

It was the Flensburger Winterbock that attracted me to the pair in the first place. The red label had me expecting something much darker than what I got: the sort of orange an IPA would be happy with. I think the dark, smoky bocks of Norway may have spoiled me for bock in general. This one certainly has the raw, sweet malty notes of a German bock and the thick sugary mouthfeel, though the bock flavours aren't as strong as they could be and an odd gassy dryness, almost like a pilsner, comes in behind it. It all has me craving something heavier and stickier. From the branding -- red with snowflakes --I assume that this is meant to be a fireside warmer, but I'm sitting by the fire now and I'm just not feeling the love.

Just as well winter's nearly finished, eh?

17 February 2008

Abbey tat

New to the Irish market, and possibly new to the world, is Leffe Veille Cuvée, sporting shocking purple neckwear. My apologies for the photo which looks like it was taken in a cave, but my camera's in the shop at the moment and I'm reduced to borrowing Mrs Beer Nut's. You can just about make out that it pours a deep dark garnet hue, and it gives off strong fruity, estery aromas. The initial flavour is of sweet ripe fruit, and it's followed suddenly by a harsh maltiness derived, I assume, from the 8.2% alcohol. Both these flavours are shortlived and there is virtually no aftertaste. Coupled with the usual soft Belgian texture, this makes it an easy-going and undemanding beer rather than the considered sipper I was expecting.

I only recently noticed that there's a Tripel in the Leffe range as well -- orange foil on the neck of this one. It has the proper cloudy orange hue of a tripel and contains all the right flavour elements of fruit, spice and alcohol. Unsurprisingly for Leffe, however, they are all toned way down and sweetened more than necessary. This is a tamed tripel for those who like the idea of strong Belgian beers but don't want to tackle a big one.

Another workmanlike performance from the Holy Brotherhood of St InBev the Clonglomerated.

14 February 2008

Lost in Lagerland

So there I was, as usual, standing in the supermarket wearing an expression of sheer awe at the variety of Eastern European lagers on sale. I suspect that the range from each country is in direct proportion to the number of people from that country living in Ireland, with Poland to the fore, followed some way behind by Lithuania then Latvia.

Sure, it's nice to feel at home when you're abroad, but do we really need quite such a range of 5-ish% ABV pale lagers which are so very similar to each other? It has me wondering if someone in the US or Britain is looking at a shelf full of Guinness, Murphy's and Beamish cans, and wondering why the Irish need so many thin dry nitrogenated stouts.

To give the prejudice above a bit more empirical weight, I bought a bottle each of the two most similar lagers and I'll be trying them back to back. Both are by Švyturys of Lithuania, and I've already reviewed the first, Švyturys Ekstra, back here, giving it fairly short shrift. The other is Švyturys Ekstra Draught: same strength, same price. Can it justify its place on the shelves as an independent entity by taste alone?

A bit more detail on plain old Ekstra first. It's a very sweet and sugary affair, but otherwise rather dull. The sweetness creates an illusion of high alcohol, despite being at the high end of normal at 5.2% ABV. According to the distributor's publicity, the difference with Ekstra Draught is that it's not pasteurised, which presumably means cold filtering of some sort. It's certainly not cloudy and comes out of the bottle paler than its sibling. The sweetness and the gassiness are also toned down, making it more palatable by making it taste of less. Are the two Švyturyses different? Yes. Can they justify their parallel existence? No. How about a dark beer in the range instead?

While I'm on the subject of cheap bottled lagers, I recently got a heads-up that Aldi were selling discount Spaten Helles and went along to pick up a few to bring me through this year's Six Nations. While there I noticed yet another eastern European import, their own-brand Staroslav lager from Bohemia, and I took one home to try. It has the rich gold colour of some of the better-known Czech lagers, but is severely lacking in flavour. The maltiness is there but toned way way down, leaving gassy carbonation as the dominant feature. Still, I don't resent the €1.48 I spent finding that out.

According to the last census, there were nearly twice as many British people living in Ireland as Poles. But do we see a proportional range of their beers in the supermarkets..?

12 February 2008

For the sake of argonaut

If aliens landed tomorrow and announced that they were going to eradicate one of Earth's beer styles you wouldn't hear me piping up in defence of British golden ales. They're an inoffensive bunch (the ales, not the aliens) but mostly very very dull. They were created, I assume, to draw the lager fanatics into proper beer, but when the Belgians tried this they created Duvel; the Brits gave us Discovery.

One beer gives me pause in my condemnation, however: Black Sheep's Golden Sheep. This is a rich dark gold colour and is properly malty with a lovely bitter bite at the end, accentuated by the powerful carbonation. It reminds me of nothing so much as the better class of Czech lager. This is how to ape lager with an ale.

Of course, when it comes to slightly darker ales, the English are world class. Take Emmerdale -- also from Black Sheep -- for example. This amber beer has the understated bitterness of English hop varieties but more than makes up for its lack of bite with a rich and satisfying warmth. No other nation's brewers can create this kind of flavour at such low levels of alcohol.

I tried the Emmerdale next to Betty Stogs, from the Skinner's brewery in Cornwall. This is a dark red-amber ale with a fresh hoppy aroma, redolent of an American pale ale. Sadly, it doesn't follow through to the flavour. The beer is labelled a quaffer and is light on gas and light on taste, disappearing quickly without doing much on the way.

I'm not a fan of Rick Stein. I think he has very preordained ideas about how food ought to be which lead him to make repetitive and often quite patronising television programmes. When I happened across another Cornish beer (in England: those are not my doilies) to which he lends his late dog's name, I was apprehensive. Reading on the label that Chalky's Bite is an attempt to recreate a Belgian tripel put me immediately on the defensive against Steinish little-Englanderism. So I'm pleased to report that the beer is rubbish. It has none of the spice and power of a real tripel, it's just bland and English and golden.

Hey, aliens: start the sweep at Cornwall.

09 February 2008

Amateur night

Bringing your own beer to the pub is great. Drinking beer that other people have brought to the pub is even better.

Last Thursday the Bull & Castle hosted a tasting night for the members of IrishCraftBrewer.com. Seven homebrewers brought their wares along and the standard was, frankly, amazing. Highlights included a hopped-up amber ale, a cherry stout, and a porter which -- were it available on the open market -- would leave Messrs Fuller, Smith and Turner quaking in their boots. It was a good night.

We non-brewers were permitted to bring along any interesting or unusual beers we had come across, and the management generously offered round some of the oddities they had accumulated but had no intention of selling. I don't think the commercial beers were deliberately chosen to make the homebrew look good, but that's certainly how it turned out for me.

Starting with something light, I tried a Tusker, fully aware that it doesn't have the greatest reputation, even among African lagers. It's pretty close to being your average tasteless fizzy yellow beer, but there's an almost weiss-like fruit flavour in there as well. Not enough to make it really worth drinking, however.

I've long been curious about King Cobra, the extra-strength double-fermented version of my favourite pseudo-Indian English lager. I wasn't impressed, however. There's all the corny taste of regular Cobra, but the lightness of body which makes the standard beer palateable is replaced with a heavy, sticky body which just tips over into special brew territory. Not recommended with curry. Or anything else.

Passing real Africa and fake India, we come home to Ulster. Until Thursday I wasn't aware that Whitewater made a lager, but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised: lack of imagination can affect craft brewers the same as any of us -- though not the other Northern Irish microbrewery Hilden, who make a superb golden ale for the lager crowd, called Belfast Blonde. Whitewater's Belfast Lager was hugely disappointing. The flavour is dominated by a powerful malty mustiness and I couldn't get past it. I suspect they're going for a full-bodied central European feel, but it's not working for this drinker. How the people who brew the amazing Clotworthy Dobbin make something this poor is beyond me.

One of the event's attendees was just back from South America and, judging from what he brought us, I have to wonder how much he enjoys the company of his fellow ICBers. They were three from InBev's Quilmes range. The Cristal is yellow and basically tasteless, with just a teensy hint of dryness. Quilmes Bock is the same in brown: a bit sweet, but not sweet enough. Not enough of anything, in fact. And then we come to Quilmes Stout. Everyone who tasted it made faces and proclaimed its disgusting sweetness. As the only fan of sweet beer I know, I wouldn't run to damn it outright, but it's still pretty awful. The saccharine quality of the flavour reminds me of nothing so much as a dodgy oud bruin, like Brand. There's also a bit of Belgium's Leroy stout in there as well. If these are your two favourite beers, you'll enjoy Argentina. Once they let you out of the asylum, of course.

The lesson, then, is that when the world gives you bad beer, make it better yourself.

06 February 2008

Red and dead

As I mentioned, I had a particular aim in mind when I went looking for my first pint in England at the weekend, and it was to try the enigma that is Guinness Red. Diageo brew this in St James's Gate but export all of it to Britain where it is currently being trialled, primarily through the O'Neill's chain of franchise Oirish pubs. I was intrigued by the way it was being marketed, as a tweaked version of Guinness stout, utilising "lightly roasted" barley, rather than what it looks like: your standard nitrogenated Irish red, like Diageo's own Kilkenny or Coors's English-made Caffrey's brand.

The verdict? Well, it has a thicker, creamier head than any pint of Guinness I've met. It tastes of almost literally nothing. Guinness is pretty far from being the world's most flavoursome stout, but this dispenses with even the faintest trace of the dry roasted barley which sits shivering at the back of modern draught Guinness. What would happen at this point in an Irish red is the arrival of sweet, biscuit-like crystal malt flavours, with maybe a dusting of summer fruits, but no, there's none of that either. Just more empty space, and maybe just a hint of dryness at the end. A dry Irish red? Whoever thought of that one needs locking up.

Funnily enough, like Guinness Mid-Strength, Red does have all the texture characteristics of ordinary Guinness. If you've had your senses of taste and smell removed then you might even enjoy this one. Though since you probably work in product development for Diageo, you've doubtless already tried it.

Back to the original question, then, and it's not as clear-cut as I thought. The mouthfeel and the nearly-not-there dryness do suggest that this could be classed as a super-light stout, though a dreadful one. Alternatively, a dry take on the traditional Irish red is another valid perspective. I won't be lying awake thinking about it. The knowledge that this tasteless travesty is being shipp