30 July 2008

Little bit of politics

I’m sure the pints will be on the house wherever Dermot Ahern chooses to drink tonight.
-- Twenty Major.

Today, as you're all no doubt aware, marks the coming into effect of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008. This knee-jerk piece of legislation was rushed through the Oireachtas at break-neck speed in June and early July. One of its main provisions, starting this evening, is to close all off licences at 10pm, as well as preventing mixed-use traders from selling booze before 10am. Yes, if you need some drink outside of these hours, then the on-trade is your only option.

For you see, scientifically speaking, the compound C2H5OH manifests in one of two forms: as either good alcohol or bad alcohol. Good alcohol is that sold in pubs run by the nation's publicans, whose close ties to our politicians, both local and national (inasmuch as such a distinction exists here) place them far above reproach. Good alcohol binds communities together and is the lifeblood of our all-important tourist industry. It is, for the most part, native Irish alcohol, though the clarets offered by your favourite sommelier are also rich in good alcohol.

Bad alcohol, conversely, is what the off-trade deals in. The more accessible the alcohol, the worse it is. So while a specialist off licence may be viewed with some suspicion (except when loading cases of barolo into the back of one's X5), the main font from which our social ills spring is the bad alcohol sold in supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations. This is where the rampaging mobs refuel their reservoirs of anti-social behaviour; here is the starting point for those who don't know when to stop. Bad alcohol is tearing the country apart and it's about time our esteemed representatives in Leinster House did something about it so we can enjoy our pints in peace without being hassled on the way home from the pub by yobs who, having filled up on cheap cans from the suburban petrol stations, have inexplicably travelled to the city centre to cause trouble. A breath test will show their bloodstreams to be saturated in bad alcohol -- one never finds such human filth in pubs. Our upstanding landlords wouldn't have it.

As well as restricting the temporal availability of bad alcohol, the Act allows for further restrictions on acquiring it: with an additional stroke of the Minister for Justice's Mont Blanc it will be illegal to accumulate or spend supermarket loyalty points on alcohol, for instance, and promotions which discount or give away alcohol when drink is purchased -- buy-one-get-one-half-price type offers -- are off the cards as well. Indeed, any off licence promotional activity which Dermo regards as "likely to encourage the consumption of intoxicating liquor to an excessive extent" is right out. (One of the Republic's two whiskey distilleries is in the Minister's constituency. I wonder how they're taking all this?)

So, to mark the occasion of the opening of this brave new front in the War on Bad Alcohol, I'm opening a beer I bought extremely cheaply in a supermarket, my eye drawn by the striking (though poorly spelled) promotional display. It's Asahi lager, brewed in the UK from unspecified ingredients, but I suspect it's no stranger to rice.

It's 5% ABV and almost completely tasteless, but quite smooth with it, slipping down very easily when ice cold. I could have another one no problem. And, at this price, another after that.

And then all that remains is to call a taxi, make my way to Temple Bar, throw up on the cobbles and start a fight outside a kebab shop. That's how it works, isn't it? Minister?

28 July 2008

Not-so-great Danes

The Jacobsen range from Danish megabrewer Carlsberg is, I'm told, distributed exclusively to the restaurant trade in Ireland. The classy 75cl bottles are intended for diners to sip with their meals as an alternative to wine, a strategy I wholeheartedly support, though I don't know how likely it is to catch on. The fact that four from the range, past their best-befores, were being sold at knock-down prices in a Dublin off licence suggests that it may not be going entirely to plan.

I started my investigations with Bramley Wit. The advertised apples are present in a wonderful aroma: sweet, juicy and promising. Unfortunately they don't come through to the palate much, nor does anything else. The flavour is slightly dry but there's no sign of the coriander or orange peel listed in the ingredients. The apples make a brief reappearance just at the end, but in a thoroughly underwhelming sort of way. The light carbonation and understated flavour make this a refreshing beer, but that nose has me expecting so much more every time I raise my glass.

Second up is the Saaz Blonde, from which I had been expecting something bitter, fizzy and Czech-like until I read that it contains a massive 7.1% ABV. It pours a dark, amberish kind of blonde with a dry fruity nose. All that alcohol is very much present in the flavour: big heavyweight malt notes on a thick and almost syrupy body. And yet this isn't a park-bench beer -- the dryness reins in the maltiness just enough to keep it pleasant, though the gassiness has a tendency to catch in the back of the throat. As the beer warms the fruit flavours become more pronounced and it gets generally more aley. Like the Bramley, this is decent but unexciting.

I sat over the Dark Lager a while, waiting for it to develop a flavour. The pour had been promising: cloudy amber with a big-bubbled pale yellow head, resembling nothing so much as a pint of best bitter. Sweet malt on the nose and a lovely caramel flavour, reminding me of why I first came to enjoy dunkel lagers. There was a hollowness to the flavour, though: a deficit I put down to temperature. So I went away and did some other things while I waited for the chilled beer to warm up. Unfortunately, the taste didn't get any better. The body rounded out nicely, giving it a very full and filling texture, with carbonation levels more akin to the cask ale I first mistook it for rather than a lager. But the flavour is still just caramel-then-nothing. Another promising formula not followed through fully.

Last in the set was the Brown Ale, which poured out a beautiful shade of dark red, though with a surprising amount of bubbles clinging to the inside of the glass. The dominant flavour I picked up is the bittersweet tang of liquorice, introduced by rich caramel notes and followed at the end by a sort of phosphoric tartness. It sounds exciting, but the experience is sadly short-lived, giving this beer the same sort of hollowness as the others in the range. The body is superb, however: thick and filling; much heavier than one would suspect 6% ABV to provide. I can see it going down well as a digestif.

Overall, I'm underwhelmed with this lot. I can see what they set out to do, but the execution is poor. As accompaniments to good food, none of these would stand up to competition with more mainstream quality large-bottle beers like Duvel, the Rocheforts or the Rogues: these and their ilk are what restaurants ought to be pushing as wine alternatives. Special restaurant-only beers aren't going to do anything for the mainstream reputation of quality beers and, evidently, they're just not as good.