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.

23 April 2008

More tea, vicar?

It's St George's Day. A day to celebrate all the great things about England. Like Marks & Spencer, Yorkshire and bitter. Can you guess where I'm going with this?

Last year I complained bitterly when M&S brought their older line of beers to Ireland just as they were launching shiny new bottled conditioned ones on the UK market. I said I didn't hold out much hope for us ever getting them over here. When Yorkshire Bitter (a rebadge of Cropton's Yorkshire Moors) appeared on the shelves in Dublin last week I prepared to use it to wash down my words. But then I noticed the date on the label: Display Until End April 2008. My guess is that this is leftover stock from the UK, thrown to the paddies as an alternative to binning it in a couple of weeks' time. They're asking €3.29 for this elderly ale which, given the current exchange rate, is exorbitant. But obviously there was no question of me not buying a test bottle.

I've come out into the grounds of Beer Nut Towers to enjoy this as the first al fresco beer of the season. It's a lovely orange-brown colour out of the bottle, with quite a bit of sediment in there. Bottle conditioned, dontcherknow. A big foamy head sits on top, thicker than you'd get on a (non-sparklered) cask bitter, but of a similar off-white colour and bumpy texture. Not much on the aroma, or the foretaste, but a lovely smooth mouthfeel, again a lot like you'd get from a cask. The malt and light English hops kick in beautifully next, for three seconds of beery bliss, but it ends with a massive jarring off-note: a powerful hit of galvanic metallic sourness that hangs around for much too long. I'm used to a metallic tang in this style of beer: I've come to accept it as part of what many English bitters do, but this is in a whole different league and I very much doubt if the brewer intended it to be there. So promising, then throws it away at the end. Shame.

It wouldn't put me off trying the other beers in M&S's bottle-conditioned range, but I still doubt that they will be making a regular habit of stocking them in Ireland. And at this sort of price I doubt even more that I'll be buying anything other than one sample bottle of any rapidly-expiring excess stock they deign to export for our benefit.

That said, I should be thankful that I can get any beer in the supermarket at all. In one of the fastest pieces of knee-jerk policy I've ever seen -- and this country is world-class at turning hysteria into public policy -- a draft bill published today and due to be enacted by the summer will force all off licences to close at 10pm each evening and make supermarkets and other mixed traders keep alcohol physically separated from their other stock. Nanny says "Don't touch: bad". Northern Ireland has had this law in place for all of my lifetime at least, and to be honest I don't think they present a good example to follow.

Ireland's main government party are well-known to have the vested interests of the nation's publicans at the heart of many of their policies: it was the reason an attempt to liberalise the licensing regime by the junior government party was shot down a couple of years ago. So here we have an attack on the off trade -- a move to make sure more people crowd into already-packed pubs to drink crap overpriced beer while standing up -- pretending to be responsible social policy. And more drink legislation is to follow in the autumn.

Drinking at home to the patron saint of England: this is my two fingers to the Irish government and their nitrostout-dispensing paymasters. Cheers.

20 April 2008

Norse code

Of course, Knut did not arrive in Dublin with (as we say) one arm as long as the other. It's not in his nature, as evidenced at the bottom of this post from last year.

The bulk of the goodies he brought me this time were from a spectacular new brewpub in Flåm in western Norway. Ægir is named after the brewer to the gods of Norse mythology and was constructed in the style of Norway's iconic stave churches (the one from Oslo's folk museum is pictured right). Inside it's designed to resemble a Viking banqueting hall. The proprietor is an American, but the beers are as conscientiously produced as any I've tried from Norway's other craft breweries. In keeping with the theme, the labels feature a cheery Norseman and Celtic scrollwork doubtless plundered from the nearest Irish monastery.

I'll start with the blonde ale Bøyla. This pours rose gold with a lovely thick head. It's quite full-bodied if a bit fizzy, and tartness is the dominant feature of the flavour. It's definitely not bland in the way so many golden ales are, wearing its bitter fruitiness up front and then rebalancing at the end with some soothing smoothing malt notes. Definitely a cut above the standards of the style, but that's what I've come to expect from Norwegian craft beer. The alcoholic strength of all the Ægir beers is individually printed on the label with the best before date. My bottle of Bøyla features neither, so I'm just guessing that it's probably a relatively light beer, ideal for those clear sunny summer afternoons Norway does so well.

"Amber ale" is the stylistic subtitle on Rallar, and I'd say a lot of unwary drinkers will be surprised by what pours forth. Expecting something vaguely orange-coloured and quite malty, I instead got a dark brown fizzy affair with a mildly sour coffee-like aroma. There's lots of fizz again, making drinking this slow work. The malt is present in the heavy caramel foretaste but it's swiftly followed by a lactic sourness and a slightly metallic astringency. Sounds a bit unpleasant but the two do work together to create an enjoyable but very serious beer.

The brownness and coffee character of Rallar had me thinking of porter before I even opened Sumbel, Ægir's porter. Once more we have that lactic sourness present from the moment of uncapping and the pour is again very opaque: a muddy brown topped with a creamy off-white head which subsides before long, leaving a tan skim. Porter's trademark brown malt is here in spades, in the colour and in the definite but not overpowering dry coffee notes. The acidic sourness kicks in as well, but it's not allowed dominate the dark malt. The end result is something, to my mind, as porter as porter can be: brimming with flavour and eminently suppable.

And so we leave the lofty halls of Valhalla and finish up with a beer made by the hands of mere mortals. Apparently there was quite a fuss last year over Haandbryggeriet Romjul: each branch of one supermarket chain was initially assigned only a single case of this Christmas beer, which put the country's ølhunder on full alert. Knut has the full story here, though he tells me that the beer later became more readily available. Hence I was lucky enough to be given one.

It's another opaque brown affair, though much more smoothly textured than the Ægirs. Downright creamy, in fact. Dark sour fruit is the main character here: damsons and plums, mainly, with just a tang of tobacco on the end. Despite a mere 4.5% ABV, this reminds me a lot of the heavier, darker Trappists. A session-strength Westvleteren 12? Yes please.

I was saddened to read of the passing of Atna, Norway's third-biggest craft brewery. I do hope Ægir succeeds in carving a niche for itself either nationally, by export, or just by attracting visitors to its amazing home on the Sognerfjord. Why not all three?

17 April 2008

An Irish welcome, Germano-American style

To celebrate the arrival of Knut Albert to these shores, the Brooklyn and Schneider breweries got together to produce a special beer for the occasion. Yesterday evening the resultant Schneider-Brooklyner Hopfen Weisse was launched in the Bull & Castle by its manager Geoff (with halo, right), surrounded by half a dozen thirsty ICB onlookers.

We liked it. It's very Schneider and very Brooklyn. That is to say there's the rich full body and fruity flavour of Schneider Weisse, while the dry-hopping has left a tasty American-style front-of-palate bitterness that ends the whole experience on a high note.

Two oddities about this beer. One is the incredible amount of sediment in it: the dregs (modelled here by Irish homebrewing legend Oblivious) resemble nothing so much as a pineapple smoothie. The other is the strength: it's a whopping 8.2% ABV though really doesn't taste one bit like it. Fortunately, to minimise the risk of unwittingly chugging a few and then falling over, the price tag has been set at a phenomenal €8 per bottle. Or maybe it's a way to make the Norwegian feel at home.

Good to see you again, Knut. I hope your later experience at the paddywhackery horror show didn't traumatise too much.

15 April 2008

Parting shots

I spent my last evening in Cyprus milling around on my own in Larnaca. In amongst the blaring seafront bars competing with each other for the cheapest Keo, and sandwiched between the golden arches and an ersatz-Scandinavian ice-cream chain, is a bar/restaurant called The Brewery, decked out with breweriana and decommissioned brewing kit with four house beers on tap.

It's not a microbrewery, however, and gives no indications (in English, at least) of the beers' origins. I have my suspicions, though, on which more later. What they're definitely not doing is competing on price with the neighbours: 33cl of each beer costs at least €5 a throw. Should you be so inclined, you can get them in measures up to three litres in a table tap, and there are also two self-service bars which can be reserved in a designated area. The non-draught selection is largely canned rubbish like John Smith's, Caffrey's and Guinness, plus bottled lagers like Warsteiner, Sol and Bud. From what I saw, none of the beers is as popular as the iced coffee drinks and fruit cocktails which formed the vast majority of drinks sold.

The house beer that interested me most was their Dark Lager. This reminded me a lot of a Czech granát: good dry, roasted grain notes though with just a touch of sourness on the end. The addition of some nitrogen into the gas mix gives it a fluffy head more like a wheat beer.

I was expecting a wheat beer to be the base of the Cherry beer, but it really really tasted and felt like a lambic to me. It's sweet and very slightly syrupy but, tempered by the underlying hint of sourness, that isn't a problem. The result is balanced and pleasant; tasty and refreshing -- very reminiscent of some of Belgium's lighter krieks, like Mort Subite and Timmerman's. Though while the taste may be Belgian, the price is positively Norwegian, at €6 for a 25cl glass.

The commercial parallels continued with the Lager: a very pale clear yellow with none of the graininess I enjoy in standard microbrewed lager. Instead it has a very Germanic hops-malt balance and really could be any of a number of pale lagers from big German breweries who know how to make it properly. Could it be a rebadge? Could they all be rebadges, in fact?

With this in mind I finished the set with the Wheat beer. Greenish-yellow, lemon-perfume notes and some isoamyl under it all. If you'd told me it was Hoegaarden I'd have believed it without question. The only thing that stops me announcing that these are all simply macrobrews in disguise is the advertised strengths: 5.3% for the Dark Lager; 4.5% for the Cherry, 4.8% for the Lager and 5.3% for the Wheat. This, if truthful, doesn't tie in with any easily-grouped bunch of mass produced beers from, say, InBev. The mystery remains, and my preference for knowing where my beer comes from means that's not a good thing, especially at these prices.

The Brewery is loud, crowded, insanely dear and with poor service. It's still probably the best bar in Larnaca, however.

Feels good to be home.

11 April 2008

The bitter lessons of experience

Knowing that good beer would be hard to find here in Cyprus, I brought emergency hop rations with me, in the form of some Goose Island IPAs, and one-a-day of those is keeping the shakes away. While buying them in Redmond's last weekend I spotted yet another new batch of Americans. I took one on holiday with me: the East India Pale Ale from Brooklyn Brewery. It's a shockingly malty little chap, pouring a gorgeous shade of red-gold. I guess it's the English hops which mean there's no green whack on the nose or up-front bitter flavour punch that normally comes from the American Indians. Instead it's smooth and aromatically sweet with just a pinch of dry peppery bitterness on the end. For all that, it's quite easy going and not at all the monster that the 6.8% ABV tag might suggest. Well-crafted, enjoyable, but I'm looking forward to today's Goose Island after it.

Speaking more generally, matters have taken a slight turn for the better in the last few days, beerwise. French supermarket chain Carrefour have supplied me with some Hoegaarden and Budvar: quite acceptable for poolside and barbecue purposes. I also found a new (to me) type of Carlsberg: the lemon-flavoured Carlsberg Edge. I assumed this was another Mediterranean special from Mr Photiades, but it bears the label of Carlsberg UK so it's presumably imported from Britain especially for the shaven-headed gentlemen displaying their protuberant abdomena beneath ill-fitting replica sporting apparel. Or more likely for their ladyfolk who all appear to have been generously upholstered in pink leather, since Carlsberg Edge is very sugary sweet and far more like an alcopop than a beer. It reminds me a lot of the Hoegaarden Citron I encountered in England a couple of years ago, except instead of a toned-down 3% ABV, this is a fuller 4.6%. The taste and texture will allow you to rip through a cold six-pack of these very easily, but if you manage to keep it down, I'd say it makes itself felt the next day. Ack.

Is it nearly time to go home?