28 April 2008

Out and about

An enjoyable side-effect of being a beer blogger is the news, information and plain old gossip I receive from other beer fanatics. At the weekend I spent a few hours trawling selected pubs in Dublin following up on some leads I'd received, as well as doing some research for The Session this Friday.

My first port of call was Thomas Read opposite City Hall. Thomas Read is probably the nearest thing Ireland has to a pub chain. We have lots of businesses which own multiple licensed premises, but (apart from the Porterhouse) the Thomas Read group is the only one that will use the same name for new branches, so there's now a Thomas Read in Smithfield and several at Dublin airport. The brand name came from a seventeenth-century cutlery firm which ran a shop on Parliament Street -- the oldest shop in Dublin -- until the 1990s. The pub owners closed it down when they bought the site, opening the first of their pubs next door and leaving the original shop in its current derelict state.

It was very much a café-bar for the beautiful people when it first opened. I've no idea where it stands in the fashion stakes now as I don't keep track of these things. Anyway, a friend (hi Nick) was telling me that they are currently selling a stout under the Murphy name, but which wasn't branded with the normal Murphy's logo and which came in a fancy stemmed pint glass. Murphy's is, of course, Heineken's property, and big transnational brewers aren't known for their variation and localisation of their brands. So on Saturday I called in to find out what was going on.

Sure enough, there was the pump clip, featuring a naked lady where one would expect to see the sober and authoritative Murphy's badge. The accompanying beermat tells us this is Marie Louisa Murphy (1737-1814), whose steadfast work getting her kit off for Parisian artist Francois Boucher provided venture capital for her family which went on to set up the Cork brewery.

The new stemmed pint glass reminds me a lot of the chalice that InBev are currently touting for Stella Artois, claiming its design helps keep the beer cold. My pint of Murphy's was certainly very cold indeed and it took a while before I was able to taste the sweet roasted flavours that confirmed that this is plain old Murphy's stout.

The whole thing intrigues me: it's so out of character for big soulless breweries to stray from their homogenous branding. Whether Marie Louisa's rosy cheeks are displayed here purely for the jaded poseurs of Thomas Read or whether they're part of a wider rebranding remains to be seen.

My journey around the city also brought me to Messrs Maguire, to follow up on a conversation I'd been having with Knut about their Imperial stout. Was it possible there was a new lower-strength version? The answer is no: in fact, the batch of Imperial had just run out which suggests it was the same big 7%er it has always been. I hope we'll be seeing it again before long. I made do with a pint of MM Best: the cask ale made by MM's brewer for the festivals, guest taps in UK pubs, and other such cask outlets. In its home pub it's bunged into a keg and served on nitro to resemble, as Knut accurately observed, nothing so much as Boddington's or similar crashingly dull English keg bitters.

Not all of this excursion was on foot of third-party observations. I had noticed a couple of days previously that Dublin's eastern European late bar, The Czech Inn, had a sign out advertising a new range of draught beers. They'd taken it in by Saturday, the better to advertise the day's big screen football, but the beers were still there. They're from the Konrad range made in northern Bohemia. Konrad Premium is a pale lager and reminds me more of the Munich style than anything Czech. It's a big 5.6% ABV, and quite sweet with it. Thirst-quenchingly good.

Konrad Dark is sweeter still, almost to the point of being slightly saccharine, but just restrained enough to remain drinkable. At the very end there's just a hint of coffee to add a bit of complexity to an otherwise straight-up no-nonsense sweet dark lager, considerably less demanding than The Czech Inn's test-card-tastic wallpaper.

After that, all that remained was for a quick trip to the Bull & Castle for a couple of Hookers and then home. So concludes the third year of this blog and, while I predicted a fairly limited amount of travel a year ago, it has been a busy time with lots of new beers. I'm not intending to let the momentum slow. Sorry, Mr Liver.

26 April 2008

Just the bottle, thanks.

"if I made a beer of the quality of the blonde," wrote one homebrewer "I would not feel guilty in the least pouring it down the sink". He was talking about Artisan Brasseur Blonde, currently gracing the shelves of Aldi. It's from the makers of the Ch'ti range which, again, didn't fill me with confidence. Expecting something pale and wheaty I was surprised by how dark it was: very much strawberry blonde, i.e. orange. There's quite a good body to it: heavy but not sticky; carbonated but not gassy. There's not a whole lot by way of flavour: it's mostly quite dry, but not the ghastly ashen dryness so common among French wheat beers. There's just a hint of the fruitiness of a Flemish golden ale too. I'm thinking of it as a toned-down Duvel, or possibly an unsticky Leffe Blonde. Either way it's pretty inoffensive and, served cold in the garden, I'm rather enjoying it.

Two years ago I visited north-east France and did some extensive sampling of the beers on offer. I was particularly impressed by many of the amber beers brewed there, so while I wasn't expecting amazing things from Artisan Brasseur Ambrée, I had hoped it would at least be better than the blonde. Sadly no. There's a solid body all right, but basically no aroma. Light caramel notes hang around in the flavour, but really not much else. There's even a hint of wheaty dryness which has absolutely no place in a beer like this. Bizarrely, this has even less going for it than its paler brother.

It's not all bad news, however. Another homebrewer I know will be getting two handy 65cl swingtops.