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.


  1. Amateur night. What a great idea!

    I'm not a fan of Leroy stout either, so thanks for taking the Quilmes for the team!

  2. I seem to be doing that rather a lot recently.

  3. Anonymous1:21 pm

    Agree with your comments on Tusker, Quilmes Cristal and Whitewater Lager, but I found the Belfast Blonde to be in the same category. Headless Dog from the same brewery is marginally better and I've yet to try the Molly's Stout, but heard good reports about it.

  4. I thought Belfast Blonde was a better example of its genre than Headless Dog is of its.

    Have you been to Molly's Yard, Ed? Do you know if they're brewing on site yet? I really must get up to Belfast some time soon. I was devastated when Irish Rail dropped their €18 day return deal.

  5. I agree regarding King Cobra, you would never guess that it came from the Rodenbach brewery unless they told you on the label!

  6. Very true, Kieran. I knew it was refermented in Belgium but didn't know where until I did the background reading for this post.

    Grand Cru it ain't.

  7. Anonymous11:09 pm

    I'd have thought this sort of thing would be more widespread in your neck of the woods given that the big boys seem to rule.

    Given the amount of really knowledgeable Irish homebrewers that frequent Jim's Forum, this blog and the folk at Irish Craft Brewer there is definately a market for quality ales in Ireland.

    As an aside, in my opinion, the Irish brewers seem to be more willing to experiment with other styles of beer rather than the 3-2-1 bitters us English chaps seem to prefer. I know that's a pretty sweeping statement and I know there'll be exceptions however it's a definite trend.

    Keep up the good works chaps.

    (I nearly wrote "keep on mashing" there but thought better of it!)

  8. The big boys conquered the market by conquering people's heads. There's really very little demand for decent beer in Ireland because so few recognise that what they're drinking is very very not decent.

    There's an extent to which punters will pick up a bottle of London Pride, say, and like it as a novelty. But few would regard as real drink, since you won't get it in the pub.

    If you're really interested in the Irish attitude to beer, have a look at this this thread where an Irish Internet community discusses the best foreign beer. Ignore anyone with an ICB sig, obviously.

    I feel one of my Soylent Green moments coming on.

    A big problem is excise duty: at the moment almost all importing, including from the UK, has to be done by committee -- agreement between the distributor and the retailers, and everyone is risk-averse in such a speciality market. We need a greater variety of home-grown product to ween drinkers away from the powerfully-marketed twin paps of Heineken and Diageo.

    I understand your point about the insularity of English brewers. I think the English tend to be pretty inward-looking, beerwise. I was surprised, for example, at how much English brewpubs mostly look just like ordinary pubs. You don't see that so much in other countries.

  9. Anonymous8:41 pm

    Oblivious was one of the Irish grain brewers I was referring to.

    I managed about a page on that thread before I stopped reading, my overwhelming reaction was one of pity and sympathy. Those poor folk, I was aghast that John Smiths was one guys frame of reference for English ales, although granted he did mention London Pride (I've never had a good pint of yet). I'm genuinely lost for words ....

  10. You want to know what it would be like in a parallel Britain where drinkers in the '70s didn't fight the growing dominance of keg beer? It's where I live.

  11. Anonymous9:58 pm

    Not sure if Molly's are actually brewing on site yet. Have to report that I was disappointed with the Molly's Chocolate Stout. Lovely smell akin to Bourneville when first opening the bottle but the taste didn't really follow through. Slightly off putting background taste of something like baking soda.

  12. Anonymous10:00 pm

    I reckon I owe CAMRA big time, I'll have to get myself a membership at the next beer festival.

  13. Ed, Hilden just don't seem to have got the hang of bottling at all. I thought Molly's, on cask, was inoffensive but not actually bad per se.

  14. Don't rule out Argentina. It's on my list as one of the most exciting developing beer countries thanks to Gazza at Scoopergen. I am going sometime!

  15. Yes, Argentina's high on my list for a beer hunting expedition too.

    I wouldn't go judging any country based on what InBev produces there.

    "Britain? Eugh, it's all Boddington's and Tennent's isn't it?"