31 March 2008

Last refuge of the scoundrel

I like to know where my beer comes from. It makes no difference to how it tastes, but it adds to the educational experience of drinking beers from around the world: this is how it's done in that place. I'm slightly bemused, then, by the label on my bottle of William Wallace Ale from the Traditional Scottish Ales company, dedicated to the eponymous Scottish nobleman, and offering us a place of origin no more precise than "Scotland" and then a postcode. I can only speculate as to why they'd prefer people didn't know it's made just outside Falkirk (I assume, unless it's contract brewed elsewhere), but there you have it. Nothing like pride in where you come from...

William Wallace is in the 80/- style, though bears little resemblance to the kegged heavies I drank while living in Scotland some years ago. It has the characteristic lovely dark red colour, but is quite lightly carbonated making for a full-bodied yet easily drinkable texture. The taste is dominated by big sweet caramel flavours with just a hint of a tang from the hops. Fairly simple, quaffable and satisfying.

And from a genuine Scot, to a fake one. Martin's of Belgium have been churning out their "Scotch ales" under the Gordon label for years, and I'm not adverse to those I've tried over in the low countries, even if it has been quite a while since my last one. Until it arrived in Ireland recently, I had never seen Gordon Finest Gold before: a 10% ABV monster in an innocent green bottle with the only twist-off cap I've ever seen on a European beer.

It pours a red gold colour and is another beer lacking much by way of carbonation: a spotty, uneven thin white skim sits on the surface for the duration. Definite waft of malt on the nose. That pale sugary malt comes through in the flavour in a big way: this is powerfully sweet to the point of sickliness and really quite difficult to drink. With most of the Gordon range you get a similar strength but it comes with dark and smoky caramel flavours to create an enjoyable sipping experience. This beer is just plain hard work for not much reward.

And, though up-front about its tartan fakery, it won't even tell us where it comes from either: "Brewed in Benelux" is far as it goes. Can't seem to find that place on a map.

27 March 2008

Lights by name

It's bilingual puns again today, I'm afraid. Sorry.

Solas is a bar on Wexford Street in central Dublin. It's a very up-market modern sort of place, big into its cocktails and achingly hip soundtrack. In short, it's the sort of fashion-victim lounge I generally avoid like the proverbial. Oddly, however, it has a very slightly better-than-average beer selection, though leaning towards the wit-and-weiss school of daring, with just a couple of Chimays representing decent ale. Bizarrely there's a Bass tap, something normally only found in slightly ropy suburban drinking dens and those frequented by even ropier Taoisigh. But I digress.

The first tap in the row dispenses a house beer called Solas Lite. "Solas" is Irish for "light" in the illumination sense, so somebody probably thought this was hilarious. Anyway, I have no idea who makes it or what it's doing there. The staff were as bemused by the whole thing as I was. What they could tell me is that it's a yellow lager, it's very low strength (3.6% ABV) and it's dirt cheap: €3.60 a pint. Cheap unbranded beer is not something one readily associates with this sort of bar. In fact none of those three words really fit in with the stoli-and-prada brigade. Nevertheless, the proprietors are proud enough of this to have had custom glassware made -- the engraving just visible against a black background (right).

Unsurprisingly, the intrigue around Solas Lite is far more interesting than the beer. It's bog-standard pale and gassy as hell. The flavour, such as it is, is dry and there's a touch of diacetyl which suggests to me that it may actually have been made by a human rather than a machine.

Being upmarket, Solas doesn't have a Bud tap, but this is pretty close. The colour and strength are wrong for it to be a simple rebadge, however. And yet an owner who has specially commissioned a beer and accessories is seemingly not enough of a beer enthusiast to have ordered something interesting. And yet it's been around too long for it simply to be a disguised batch of something else that didn't turn out as expected. None of it adds up, and I doubt I'll ever get to the bottom of it unless someone out there knows.

Anyway, here presenting Solas Lite: probably the dullest enigma in the beeriverse.

23 March 2008

Munster mash bash

The Irish beer calendar is a short one and mostly concentrated in the latter half of year, with Hilden in August, the GIBF in October and CAMRA NI's Belfast festival in November. The main event, however, is the first of the year and happens on Easter Saturday and Sunday at the Franciscan Well brewpub in Cork. This is where the nation's craft brewers gather to sell their wares side-by-side and meet the drinking public. This year there were stalls from Hilden, Hooker, Carlow, White Gypsy, the University College Cork Pilot Brewery and the 'Well itself. Whitewater had just sent some bottles along, and The Porterhouse phoned in a keg of their Oyster Stout but left it to the hosts to serve it. Unfortunately there was a supply problem with the new Dingle brewing company (Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne) so I didn't get to try their beers.

For the second year, the Irish Craft Brewer contingent among the festival-goers used the opportunity to award prizes to the best beers available, and this year the top gong went to a cask version of the Franciscan Well's Purgatory pale ale. I had it in its kegged incarnation last year, and quite liked it. On cask, however, I was blown away. It was superbly balanced with big mandarin fruit flavours sitting comfortably next to a sherbety hoppy bite, all attached to a full smooth body. A deserving winner and hopefully we'll get to see more of this.

A runner-up award went to Messrs Maguire Imperial, which I have already raved about at length. The MM brewer is about to launch his own range of bottled beers under his new White Gypsy brand. He says that, the market for Irish craft beer being what it is, most of this will go straight to export. It's a shame, but I'm depending on the usual suspects in the retail drinks trade to get hold of at least a few cases of these for the locals. This stand was also selling MM Best, a beer which does the festival circuit in the UK and beyond, but is rarely seen in Ireland. The pub where it's made used to have a regular cask ale (called Pale, if I recall correctly) but it, and its beer engine, disappeared some years ago. Best is a light-bodied golden session ale with a slightly astringent bitterness. All of the cask beers were being served through sparklers and I used this one to decide my opinion in The Great Sparkler Debate. Having tasted it with and without the plastic tap attachment (picture, right), I confess to not being able to ascertain much difference.

Third place went to last year's champion Galway Hooker. As the only winning beer produced on a year-round basis, Hooker clings to its premier position in the pantheon of Irish craft beers. Still daring and still fresh even after a couple of years on the market. As I mentioned on Friday, their Irish Coffee Porter was made for this event and it was available in both keg and cask varieties. I didn't try the kegged one to see how it worked with the right gas mix, but the cask one was definitely a different beer to the one I was drinking in the Bull & Castle. The foamy head carried all the coffee essence that I thought was missing from the keg version last week. Fuller, smoother, and altogether more flavoursome. It could be that there's some truth to this notion of cask beer being somehow better than keg...

Another cask beer walked off with the prestigious Beer of the Festival award, decided by popular acclaim rather than any formal voting procedure. This was Carlow's Druid's Brew, made especially for the Easter festival each year and modelled here by the lovely Cormac. It's a powerfully bitter stout with a real back-of-tongue dry tanginess in addition to bags of full-on stout roastiness. Its texture is fascinating, being very similar to the sort of creamy smoothness you get with nitrogenation. This, I guess, is the effect the Guinness scientists were going for when they developed nitro beer back in the '50s.

UCC's Pilot Brewery had two beers on (though not when this picture was taken). Frithjofs is a lager which looks for all the world like a Belgian witbier: cloudy and pale yellow-green. It has you thinking of lemons before even taking a sip. In reality it's not really lemony, but it does have a tangy fruitiness to it, to my mind more like a light German weiss than anything else. It's also quite dry and crisp and probably works well as a summer refresher. The other tap (eventually) dispensed UCCinator, a dark bock, though a bit light-bodied to count as a doppelbock, despite the name. It has quite an overpowering sweet-and-sour character, reminding me more than anything of boiled sweets. At 7.4% ABV it's probably just as well I couldn't drink much of it.

As well as their own beers and the festival visitors, the 'Well also had a small range of Belgian beers on tap in the upstairs bar. I tried the Barbar Winter Bok, a deeply dark brown lager brimming with sweet sweet fruity flavours and concentrated essence of banana. Another one not to be taken lightly, but good in its own sweet way.

The Festival continues today but I'm back in Dublin, my cup having truly runnéd over with Irish craft goodness. The buzz among the brewers mentioned the possibility of a Dublin beer festival along similar lines. Going to a beer festival then home to sleep in my own bed would certainly be a pleasant novelty.

21 March 2008

Sneaky taste

Today is one of Ireland's national prohibition days, when no alcohol may be sold and all the pubs shut. Christmas is the other one. In general, the Thursday before Good Friday is one of the busiest drink-buying days of the year, with booze flying off the supermarket shelves like it was about to be banned permanently.

So I was expecting The Bull & Castle to be jam-packed yesterday evening, but it wasn't too crowded. What brought me there was the unveiling of the second beer from the Galway Hooker lads: a seasonal (I assume) brewed especially for the Franciscan Well Easter Beer Festival which kicks off tomorrow in Cork.

They've called it Irish Coffee Porter and it's a very odd creature. For who-knows-what reason, they've decided to serve it nitrogenated, but due to a gas snafu at the pub and the removal of the holey disc thing the beer is supposed to run through, it came out sort-of nitrogenated with a big foamy head that quickly shrank down to a thin skim. The mouthfeel was good, though. Properly prickly and none of that nitro smoothness. It was way too cold though, and I needed to sit with my hands around my pint to bring it to a temperature where any flavour could be detected.

I don't believe in quibbling over nomenclature or beer style semantics, but this isn't a porter. It's a remarkably pale shade of red, only just darker than your typical Irish red ale. The aroma is great, though promising chocolate more than coffee. The flavours are complex but understated, with nothing really bold or attention-grabbing. Again there's chocolate malt to begin with and a sweetness that reminds me of The Porterhouse's Chocolate Truffle Stout which was particularly sweet this year. The slight coffee notes arrive later and there's a hazelnutty finish.

At 5.5% ABV it's not a quaffer, but it does slip down very easily and pleasantly. However, after a couple of pints of understated chocolate and coffee notes my tastebuds welcomed the full-on flavour assault of a regular Galway Hooker.

I'm not a believer in the trite adage about doing one thing and doing it well, and I certainly welcome more Irish craft beer to the market, even if it's only a special edition. However, this recipe needs some beefing-up if it's to become a classic like its stablemate.

20 March 2008

Crazy frog

I'm mad, me. Absolutely hatstand, no question. How mad? Well, the other day I paid €3 for a bottle of beer. A pale lager. From France. In a 33cl bottle, a green one.

What could possibly justify such a high price for something with the same provenance as Kronenbourg? Well, the beer in question is Kasteel Cru and its unique selling point / gimmick / device for separating money from fools is that it's made using champagne yeast.

On opening there was an immediate lightstruck whiff, no doubt resulting from the green glass. It pours extremely pale and thin looking, with lots of bubbles. This made me think immediately of fellow Alsatian Fischer, a beer I enjoy a lot. On the first sip there is indeed a similar sharp gassy dryness, but there's more as well. It really does carry the fruity, toasty flavours of champagne and the chardonnay grape (when fermented) in particular.

It's an interesting experiment, and a genuinely pleasant beer. It's still overpriced though: nice, but not that nice.

17 March 2008

Banished from these shores

It's that day of the year when central Dublin becomes a no-go area and I'm holed up at home with a couple of beers to keep me company.

This year I have something a bit special: O'Hara's Celebration Stout brewed by the Carlow Brewing Company to commemorate ten years of O'Hara's beers, something similar to what The Porterhouse did with their own superb Celebration stout nearly two years ago.

From its distinctive 75cl swingtop, it pours thick and highly carbonated, rather like bottled Guinness. And it has a similar dryness, but at 6% is much heavier, inching towards Foreign Extra territory. On the nose there's a hoppiness which is very unusual for an Irish stout, as well as the roasted barley character one would expect. Moving past the fizzy texture, there are the chocolate notes I love in normal O'Hara's, though these are understated against the hoppy dryness. At the very end there's a metallic tang of the sort I most associate with certain English ales and I'm wondering if it's a feature of the English Northdown and Fuggles hops with which the stout is laden.

O'Hara's Celebration is a considered sipper, as against a quaffable pint of plain. Since Diageo are the only people making something remotely like this for the Irish market, it's great to see one of our own taking them on.

And that brings me on to a more general point this St Patrick's Day: Carlow Brewing were one of the pioneers of the Irish craft beer movement, and one of its success stories. They are the only real Irish brewer to have made much of an impact on the international scene, exporting bottles to the UK, US and further afield. Indeed, here's the rub: O'Hara's Celebration appears to have been made specifically for this market, with 3,000 bottles from the limited edition destined for the States. I don't know how limited the edition is, of course, but it looks like the company know which side of the Atlantic their bread is buttered on. Several of the independent off licences in Dublin that I spoke to had not been allocated any.

Naturally, I don't blame Carlow. I'm just miffed that it's so hard to convince Irish people to drink decent beer, to the point where our good brewers constantly look for outlets abroad: Black Pearl going in its entirety to Russia and Scandinavia is another scandal. And when they're not shipping it out, they're making the good stuff in limited quantities, like the two aforementioned Celebration stouts, or the Imperial from Messrs Maguire (currently enjoying a glorious return to the pumps, but for how long?)

And so, on our national day, I urge any Irish reading to support our locally-owned breweries. We can't expect the situation to get better if we don't do our bit.

14 March 2008

My hat comes off

Found myself in London again this week and, for once, not in the distant and hostile reaches of the far west end. Instead I was able to make use of Stonch's London Beer Map, which led me to The Harp on Chandos Place. Past the stained glass exterior it's a bright and clean little boozer, arrayed with rows of high benches back beyond a bar festooned with pump clips of guest ales gone by. The fact that I recognised more than a couple gave me a warm glow from knowing that my education in the beers of Britain is well under way.

There were three guests on, in addition to regulars including Landlord and Black Sheep. I knew I was in the right sort of establishment when the seat in front of me was taken by a specimen from the species Camracus Tickerius, displaying his distinctive anorak colouring, biro clenched in his teeth as he dug in his backpack for The Good Beer Guide, perusing it over a carefully sipped half. I started with a Daleside Old Legover, since I knew and liked the brand of old. The big up-front whack of chocolatey flavours -- rather like Clotworthy Dobbin -- pleased me, but it was followed by an unhopped sort of wortiness that didn't sit so well. Enjoyable to begin with but sadly lacking afterwards, and a beer divided against itself is, er, unfortunate.

On my return to the bar the barmaid asked how I enjoyed my Legover. "I've had better" was my response. It's that kind of pub. I followed with a White Adder from Mauldon's. This is a pale gold ale with a strong fruit profile, almost grapey. Dry like a sauvignon blanc. Where I felt it fell down was the temperature: served cool, this would be a great refresher, as was at 12°C or so, it was heavy going and quite tough to finish.

Utter redemption came before I left, in the shape of Harvey's Best Bitter, a regular. This is a corker of a beer, smacking you up front with tart fruity mandarin notes and a sultry sandalwood spiciness thrown in as well. Best of all it was poured at an invigorating cool temperature. The first sip had me wondering why, with beers like this around, British brewers even bother with summer golden ales. Half way down, the spice made me realise the redundancy of winter warmers as well. A real desert island beer from the East Sussex brewer.

My second glass tip of the trip goes to beer explorer extrodinaire Knut Albert, for pointing out a pub which has been under my nose (while being above my head) for years. Usually on excursions to London I scurry back for a pint of cask dullness at The Skylark in Heathrow Terminal 1 via the Heathrow Express from Paddington. This time I lingered in the station and paid a visit to the Fuller's establishment upstairs, The Mad Bishop and Bear. I kicked off with some Festival: Fuller's mild. This is a very very dark beer with just a skim of cream-coloured head. There's not much to it unfortunately. A little bit of roast; a little bit of bitterness; but altogether mild, too mild. Similarly dull was Fuller's Chiswick Bitter: not bitter at all and really quite a grainy affair, though otherwise rather plain. The best of the bunch was Tribute from the St Austell brewery in Cornwall. This is a pale gold number, surprisingly highly carbonated for a cask ale -- bubbles clung to the side of the glass, though my attempt to photograph them (right) failed due to cameraphone crapness. Tribute doesn't have much of an aroma but it tastes aromatic, if that makes any sense: sort of perfumey. It's very tasty, very refreshing, and one of the good English golden ales.

And that was it for this visit. I'm sure I'll be back in London later in the year for more explorations, and maybe a trip to some of its top-flight beer pubs. In the meantime, just thanks again to Knut Albert (real name Knut Albert) and Stonch (real name Colin Stonch) -- true friends of the beer tourist.