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.

24 July 2008

Sierra, bravo!

Sierra Nevada Stout is made "in the 'old world' tradition", whatever that means, but like any American take on a British style I was expecting overcarbonation and a consequent dryness from this beer. Boy was I mistaken.

Yes, it did fizz out quite aggressively, forming a thick but short-lived head, and the slight aroma is bitter rather than roasty, but once past the lips this stout does wonders. There's a fabulously full mouthfeel, with just a prickle of gas stopping me from describing it as "silky". It has more than a hint of creaminess, however. Flavourwise, it's to hell with old world and let's get some hops in there: big west-coast buggers hitting the back of the palate with a tangy vegetal bitterness. Just detectable behind them is a rather sweet roasted malty flavour, presumably deriving from the big 5.8% ABV.

This stout is a true American and not really like anything I know from Europe. It's also streets ahead of the brewery's own rather lacklustre Porter. If you like your stouts hoppy, and can't get hold of the marvellous O'Hara's Celebration, here's an excellent second choice.

21 July 2008


I had passed over the bottle of Ayinger Weizen-Bock while making my selections. There were more tempting alternatives -- new stuff and a few old favourites I hadn't seen in a while. My arms were already full of bottles when a complete stranger leapt into my field of vision.
"Have you tried this?" he exclaimed, grabbing about four bottles of the Weizen-Bock with one hand.
"No," I said, "I've had the Celebrator, though. It's really good."
"Yeah, it is good" he said, not really listening, "but this is just amazing. The flavours, everything."
He filled his other hand with three more bottles and bounded off, eyes gleaming.

I had never been approached by a random beer fan recommending a beer before, let alone one whose attitude implied that crack cocaine was being used as an adjunct. I wasn't sure if I should chance it or not. Then I noticed the label features a goat wearing a hat: how could I resist?

My recent positive experience with Weihenstephaner Vitus left me looking forward to drinking Ayinger's version, even though they follow the Celebrator pattern by packing it in little 33cl bottles. The pour is unimpressive, with loads of fizz and no sign of that classic big weissbier head. The colour is the same cloudy pineapple yellow as the Hopfen-Weisse by Schneider and Brooklyn.

Having built up high expectations following my experience in the off licence, I confess I was disappointed by the taste. It's only a little more intense than your typical good-quality hefe-weissbier: bananas and cloves, of course, being the dominant notes. I will give it credit for its smoothness: a wonderful silken texture which makes it deceptively easy drinking with the 7.1% ABV barely noticeable.

A good beer, but not one of the great ones. Still, each to their own, eh?

17 July 2008

In the pink

"It's mostly for the ladies" said Geoff the bar manager as he poured a sample of the electric pink Gulpener Rosé. He's convinced there's a definite market for girly beers in the Bull & Castle Beerhall and is hoping to redirect some of his wine-drinkers towards this red fruit wheat beer.

It's actually not a bad little drink. I couldn't really distinguish the assorted berries and cherries which are allegedly in there, but I was very pleased that there's none of the syrupy sweetness you often find with cheaply-made fruit brews. The wheat beer base asserts itself and there's no way it could be mistaken for an alcopop posing as a proper drink. Even the tiny 3.5% ABV doesn't detract from its beeriness.

A solid performance and, despite appearances, a beer that's actually worth drinking.

No, I won't be having another, thanks. (Nor will this guy.)

14 July 2008

Bloomsbury set

My belief that London is always more than a day's work is something of a bone of contention between me and my employers. Even with the miracle of the Heathrow Express, I do not believe it's possible to get from the southside of Dublin to central London in time for a 9.30am event and have any attention span left by wrap-up at 4.30 and the always-delayed evening flight home. My protestations will continue but I think my most recent trip to the big smoke, just over a week ago, may well be the last to involve an overnighter for a one-day event.

As a result, I made the most of it. My travelling companion was up for a few pints of the decent but probably wouldn't have appreciated any seriously-long crosstown beer pilgrimages, so I kept it simple.

First stop after checking in to our Bloomsbury hotel was The Lamb. I had been meaning to have a nosy at this jewel of Victoriana for quite a while (I didn't take any photos, so thanks to Flickr user Ewan_M for the image right). The décor is surprisingly understated: calming green leather and brasswork instead of the eye-watering stained-glass-and-mosaics I was half expecting. Nothing I fancied was on tap so I opted for a bottle of Kew Gold, the green and white label making it the most distinctive occupant of the fridge. It's a golden ale and I enjoyed it: lovely refreshing citrus notes, zingy like good light Czech lager, and in the same vein as Theakston's excellent Golden Sheep.

It was getting on for 10pm at this point and pub kitchens had mostly closed, as far as I could see. Wandering down to Holborn I reckoned the Wetherspoon's there -- Penderel's Oak -- offered the best opportunity for quick and easy eats. Stonch would have loved it: cavernous, clueless staff and, yes, a group of gamers guffawing loudly over spacecraft weaponry at the next table.

From the guest ales on offer I started with a pint of Black Bear, Beartown Brewery's mild. It opened with some lovely milk chocolate notes -- just what I'm after in a mild. This was overtaken shortly afterwards by a sugary sour note which left me wondering if this was deliberate or if the beer was slightly off. By the end of the pint, however, it had gone and the chocolate came back. I'd give this another go, should the opportunity arise, but the jury's out for the moment.

(Side-note: behind the Black Bear pump above you can see two flicked switches at bar level belonging to this tap and the next one. I've noticed these in a few cask ale outlets, generally the dodgier ones. Some places have them on only some of the taps. What are they?)

Last pint of the evening was a pale ginger ale from Everards called Sly Fox. The thin and watery body was more than compensated for by the strong fiery ginger flavour. A bit more of a malty-hoppy-beery taste would be nice, but it's still a refreshing quaffer if consumed sufficiently cold.

The following day was work. Lunchtime afforded the opportunity for a rapid cheeky pint down at the Museum Tavern (left). Sadly, no Theakston's brews were on offer, so I picked the well-reputed Doom Bar from Sharp's. It's a fairly innocuous substance, amber-brown and full-bodied with a lovely big creamy head. The flavour I found somewhat lacking -- not much malt and just a tiny vegetal tang on the end to indicate the presence of hops, but still enjoyable on a textural basis.

My colleague and I parted company at clocking-out time. He went off for a peek at the Elgin marbles while I did some cultural tourism of my own. To get the best bang for the limited time available, and to check out one of the most controversial boozers among Stonch readers, I headed for The Bree Louise near Euston. Even before the after-work crowd filled it, it was loud and awkwardly laid out. Tables scattered in the middle of the floor make it resemble nothing so much as a mini paint-by-numbers chain pub or shabby business motel bar. Full credit for the beer selection, however.

I started with one from the gravity casks (my attempt to photograph same [left] engendered the pictured response from a friendly barman. I don't think you need focus to determine his customer-centred, service-driven reaction. Lovely). Eden Ale is another from Sharp's, and I was wholly unimpressed: a thin, musty, flat amber ale not worth the time spent writing about it, never mind drinking it. I stayed in the West Country for the next one -- Proper Job, from St Austell. This is a well-balanced pale ale with a nice sharp fruity bitterness to it, including a fleeting hint of grapefruit. It manages to have a full and satisfying body while remaining light and drinkable. One of the better summer beers around.

Cottage's summer seasonal You Cannot Be Serious came next, the tennis being on. It's an interesting pale, dry ale with a sharp fruity nose, reminding me of nothing so much as a Belgian framboise. The tartness continues in the flavour, and there's a creamy full body as well. Could it be that those aren't raspberries and they're going for strawberries and cream here? If so, I'm tickled. I enjoyed it anyway. Also from Cottage is Paws, a dark-coloured but light-textured amber ale. I got dark fruits and dark chocolate from it, putting me in mind of cherry liqueur chocolates. It's good and malty as well, in the style of Bishop's Finger, only with less weight and a more complex flavour.

I began to feel the clock was against me at this point and I left myself plenty of time for the journey to Paddington. Enough for a swift half in the Mad Bishop and Bear on arrival, as it turned out, and as well as the usual Fuller's range plus Tribute, they had a second St Austell beer on: Tinners. This was wonderfully mild and refreshing after the unpleasantness of rush hour Tube. There's a slight sharp, sulphurous dryness to it, making it interesting and light without being thin: the perfect railway station beer-in-a-hurry.

Having met my colleague again, the temptation for a last pint in the landside Terminal 1 bar was too great. The place was also markedly less jammed than I'm used to. Burton Bridge XL was the guest, but I wasn't terribly impressed with it. A bland amber bitter with a pleasant texture and a decent head, but not much to say for itself flavourwise. With that drained and forgotten, we were off through security and heading for the sheet-metal tunnels of gates 80-90 where flights for Ireland depart: an area unaffectionately known as The Paddyshack. They've done some remodelling on the airside part of Terminal 1, making the walk to the gate even longer. However, it does now pass through the main departure lounge, which means I have an outside chance of a final cask pint on the far side of security when I travel through Heathrow following the Great British Beer Festival next month. If I'm about to lose my fight on overnighters in London it'll be well worth my while.

10 July 2008

Another blog blag

The Porterhouse's annual Belgian Beer festival doesn't kick off officially until this day week, but the grand launch by the Belgian ambassador happened in the Temple Bar branch last night and yours truly was invited along to sample the wares, hassle the management, and generally rip the arse out of their generous hospitality. Again.

Some fairly high concept Belgiany nibbles were rolled out, including mini pots of very authentic stoemp with not-so-authentic cocktail sausages and a Kriek Boon sauce. Gratinated mussels were the highlight for me, though the Früli jelly would have been much more manageable had spoons been supplied. Anyway, we were well fed.

I was quite surprised to see one of the special draughts they've brought in for this is Chimay Blanc. I had been labouring under the impression that Westmalle Dubbel was the only tap Trappist around, but there you go. I don't remember the last time I had this tripel from Scourmont, so it was first on my roster yesterday. I've noted before that Chimay beers tend towards the bitter, and this one is decidedly tart all the way through. It lacks the fruity-spiciness that I like in my tripel, but it's still a big and tasty beer.

Früli is a regular at the Porterhouse and is being brought to the fore for the duration of the festival. I'm a big fan of this the strawberriest of strawberry witbiers. Newton apple wit has made a welcome return and sinks just as easily and deliciously as last year. I didn't go near the Leffe Blonde, a beer I understand InBev Ireland are trying to get into more and more mainstream bars. I'm not especially fond of it, but hey, if it serves as a gateway ale for less adventurous punters, good luck to them. And, strange as it sounds, InBev are still very much the little guy in this country.

The last temporary tap was pouring Delerium Tremens. I've never had this on draught before and found it slightly unsettling. The bottled version has a delicious interplay of flavours going on, but yesterday it was being poured exceedingly cold and it was hard to determine any of that. The carbonation was off too, making it flatter than I would have expected and little bit cloying and difficult. I was back on the Newton after just one.

It would have been nice to have the Westmalle Dubbel in again, just to put a bit of colour into a parade of blonde ales and fruit beers. I also didn't get a chance to examine which, if any, bottled Belgians had been brought in. I'm guessing Hercule Stout is too much to hope for, but if there's anything particularly special in the fridges I'll be sure and let you know. The festival runs until Sunday 27th.

(Thanks to Fiona, Jim and Dave at the Porterhouse for the invitation and conversation. More of this kind of thing, please.)