28 August 2008

Curry source

For my evening curry I thought I pick up another couple of bottles of cheap Asahi from the supermarket. There was none left when I got there, however (demonstrating the efficacy of our new restrictive off licence laws), so I plumped for a lager I'd not had in ages and never reviewed here: the legend that is Pilsner Urquell.

The original beer from Plzeň, an SABMiller brand these days, pours as golden and as fizzy as one might expect. Those very Czech hops stand up well against the hot and sour vindaloo sauce -- the sharp bitterness cutting through the spice with each mouthful. After eating it's even better, refreshing and cleansing the palate. Sitting over it a bit longer, a funny thing happens: as it warms, the malt comes out in the flavour profile. Of course, this sort of beer is meant to be served cold, but at temperatures approaching cellar, and beyond, it offers a wonderfully balanced experience, with the sweet porridgey grains enhanced with the Saaz sharpness.

Pilsner Urquell is a beer worth savouring and I'm glad there was no Asahi.

25 August 2008

Get up the yard

Dubbel, of Young CAMRA Collectiv fame, noted recently the preponderance of beer festivals around the UK August Bank Holiday. I certainly did my bit, heading north on Saturday to Hilden, for the second year, to attend the annual bash in the brewery yard there. We didn't get as good weather as last year. In fact, it pissed down for most of the afternoon, but I got in early and managed to stake my claim on a bit of prime dry real estate under one of the gazebos, making sorties into the brewhouse bar nearby as necessary.

The selection, as usual, came from a variety of breweries in England, Northern Ireland and the Republic, and the Irish industry was particularly well-represented this year. On arrival I decided that what we were experiencing was very much porter weather, and fortunately Messrs Maguire Porter was on tap. I started with this one, having previously enjoyed it during the brief period it was available in bottles. It's not a beer to blow socks off, but a well-constructed easy-going affair, with the characteristic black malt charcoal dryness. The texture from the cask edition is a massive improvement on the bottled version, being superbly rich and creamy. All-in-all a good start.

Golden ales featured heavily at the festival, as they did last year. I started with Everard's Tiger and really shouldn't have bothered. This reeks of a mildly-bleached brewery floor and follows it with yet more bleach in the taste and absolutely nothing else. Something must have gone wrong here.

Two beers from Ossett in Yorkshire followed: Silver King is a very pale and rather dry ale with just a teensy hint of summer fruits in it. Quite dull, really. Beijing Gold is shade or two darker with an interesting flavour I couldn't quite put my finger on. Fortunately, I had the CEO, Brewmaster and Chief Taster of the up-and-coming Clanconnel Brewery to hand (hi Mark), and he had no problem identifying it as Chinese five-spice, and aniseed in particular. It was certainly interesting, and very tasty. Keep an eye out for Clanconnel's Weavers' Gold coming your way in the autumn, by the way.

Abbeydale were out in force again, and Larceny was the beer I tried: it's a rather lagery affair with a nice refreshing sharpness but not a whole lot else. Titanic was another return visitor, but the beers really weren't up to the standard of last year: White Star is a creamy pale yellow ale with an unfortunate gastric acid harshness. Lifeboat is a darker amber and was served rather cloudy and loaded with yeasty flavours. Oh dear. I couldn't detect much behind this so I doubt I missed anything special through lack of condition.

Two golden ales really stood out for me on the day. The first was Elsie Mo from Castle Rock, served under a pump clip that would have Alcohol Concern tutting into their soda waters. It's light and easy-going, perfumed with breezy peach blossom flavours. But the standout was one which has seen its share of plaudits in recent years: Crouch Vale's Brewer's Gold -- CAMRA's supreme champion two years running. It's a very pale shade of yellow, gently hopped against a subtle graininess, creating a delicious sherbet-like flavour. Another light and approachable quaffing beer full of understated class and quality.

Before catching my train home, I finished with a couple more local beers. Hilden Halt was a new one for me -- their strong dark red ale. I suspect this wasn't in great condition, being cloudier than I expected, but I still enjoyed it. The malt is running the show and imparts a delicious chocolately flavour of the sort I most associate with Clotworthy Dobbin. Halt has more of a fruit character to it as well, however. Rich, filling, and just the thing as we head into autumn. My beer of the festival was another one produced on-site: a new "wheat ale" called Barney's Brew. Frances from the brewery told me that it follows, to some extent, the recipe for the legendary Belfast Bap, and is named in honor of its inventor Barney Hughes. With the sparkler screwed off (see right) it's a nearly-headless golden-amber beer with an amazing spiciness that just catches the back of the throat and then warms all the way down. I'm reminded of the late lamented Maeve's from Dublin Brewing Company, and reckon this would work similarly well as an accompaniment to curry. How do you make wheat do this, and why aren't more people doing it?

I had time for one last beer before hitting the road, and made it a pint of O'Hara's Stout -- a favourite everyday beer of mine and one I'd never tried on cask where, it turns out, it's rounder, roastier, chocolatier and generally so much of an improvement on the pasteurised bottled version (speaking not of the nitrokeg abomination).

A final note of thanks to Frances for arranging a couple of beers on the house for ICB members attending. Overall, I found 160km to be a very small distance to travel to experience this kind of quality.

22 August 2008

Like malta, from Malta

At a homebrew tasting in the pub last night one of the guys (hi Kevin) brought out a beer he'd picked up in Malta, a milk stout rejoicing in the name of Lacto. It's my second milk stout in the last week, and ever.

There's even less to it than there is to the Left Hand. Again with the smooth milky texture, but basically no stouty roastiness: just a very sweet condensed-milk or Caramac flavour. What it reminded me most of was the malta soft drink I had in Cuba back in May -- just as easy drinking and, at 3.8% ABV, only a smidge more alcohol. It could pass for a lot weaker too.

I've never been to Malta, but it's somewhere I would like to visit (one of Mrs Beer Nut's distant relatives was shot down over it during the siege). I'm guessing that, faced with the the usual dull hot country lagers, Lacto is probably welcome relief when drinking Maltese beers. At a table in one of the best-stocked pubs in the country, however, it loses its special status quite quickly. Nevertheless, thanks Kevin, even if you only brought it to make your all-grain stout look good...

19 August 2008

Dutch gold

I left you on a Saturday evening in Amsterdam and I was heading out for 't Arendsnest. Now, Amsterdam has more than its fair share of lovely pubs with great beer lists, but this upstairs bar on Herengracht is my new favourite. Rather than a primarily-Belgian beer list, everything here is Dutch. There's pretty much the full range, from bottles of Grolsch and Bavaria all the way up to whatever's currently good from De Prael or De Molen.

It was with the latter I started: Menno's Rasputin imperial stout. The super-smooth creamy texture is the first thing that struck me here. It makes it very easy to drink, despite the big sticky malty flavours and an intense bitterness totally unlike the acidic hopping of American versions of the style. Herself opted for one that Wildeman had been out of on Thursday: the delightfully-named Skuumkoppe by Texelse. I found this orange wheatbeer quite vapid and dull. It starts with a big sugary flavour but follows it with absolutely nothing. It's always a tragedy when the name provides more entertainment than the beer.

Of necessity, dinner was next, then straight back to the pub. My next was another Dutch stout: Van Vollenhoven Extra. You can read more about the history of this one, and how lucky I was to get hold of it, here. Under the fluffy white head is an easy-going beer with the emphasis on sweet maltiness and perhaps a touch of saccharine. Even though it's a full 7% it tastes much lighter. Simple yet satisfying.

We couldn't leave without trying the house beer, Herengracht 90 Blond. Expecting something plain and made on the cheap -- often the way with contract-brewed house beers -- what poured forth was a spicy, floral, blossomy cloudy orange beer, much more reminiscent of a saison than your bog-standard blonde ale.

It was heart-breaking to have to call it a night, but 't Arendsnest has given me a new reason to visit Amsterdam and I will be back at the next opportunity. The main reason I have for visiting Amsterdam is the beer shopping, and before bed I fitted in another couple from the Cracked Kettle. The proprietor said he was having trouble shifting Mikkeller Jackie Brown, which surprised me. My bottle had just passed its expiry date, but it was still a pretty good beer. Highly complex, it starts with a sweet café crème nose but follows with a surprisingly bitter yeasty flavour before the roasted coffee kicks in leading to a very slight sweetness on the outside edge. Phew. All this happens on a soft velvety mouthfeel which makes it less work to drink than to write about. Shame on you, Cracked Kettle customers.

Last beer of the evening was the final American of the trip, and one which seems to be on special offer all over Amsterdam: Left Hand Milk Stout. I have a certain fondness for this beer. There's really not much to it, but what's there is enjoyable: a slick milky texture, a tiny touch of bitter coffee and we're done. Better not to have a thought-provoking beer at bedtime, right?

After a bit of proper tourism (something we do occasionally, believe it or not) Sunday's drinking started in De Beiaard again. In random pinstick mode, I went for Deugniet, a strong, pale blond ale with a slightly sharp dry greenness to it -- like celery, observed Mrs Beer Nut. I quite liked it, being somewhere between a spicy blonde ale and a low-key tripel. Meanwhile, m'lady was on Dikke Mathile, choosing once more on the silly name factor. This has orange blossom on the nose and a marvellous tannic quality, similar to some of my favourite English bitters, though stronger and sweeter.

We were on our way to Ron's place where we had an invitation to share some of the goodies in his cellar. That's not the kind of invitation one turns down. So, bearing a handful of bottles of decent Irish stout (but no vodka), we arrived in to meet Ron, Dolores and the real stars of Ron's blog, Andrew and Lexie. Among the delights produced from the bowels of Patto Mansions was a tiny nip bottle of Courage Russian Imperial Stout, bottled in 1992. Fascinating it was too -- under a vinous, almost vinegary, nose, there's triple-espresso thick roasted coffee notes. A very civilised after-dinner sipping beer.

Andrew accompanied us to the local boozer, where La Chouffe and jenever were the order of the evening. I did take a bit of ticking time to try Brigand -- yet another strong blonde and one I quite enjoyed, being easy-going, smooth and fruity.

And so, clutching a couple of bottles of Ron's Whitbread recreations, we took our leave. Slightly pissed, it has to be said. And that was nearly it for the trip, though Ron's influence didn't end after we escaped his clutches. Intrigued by his review of Café Krom, we made a point of checking it out before leaving for Schiphol. There in the art deco splendour my last new beer was a Grolsch Oud Bruin. Unfortunately I still haven't found one of these to beat Heineken's. Grolsch's is rather bland. None of the unpleasant big saccharine notes of some oud bruins, but not a whole lot else, sadly.

Final stop before the airport train was De Bierkoning for a last couple of beery bits and pieces, and that was our lot. Thanks again for your very generous hospitality, Ron.

Roll on Copenhagen...

16 August 2008

More Dutch courage

First beer of the evening, back in Amsterdam yesterday, was a bottle of Parlus Magnificum from the Urthel range. This is dubbel-like in flavour and taste with a plummy aroma and sharp yeasty fruitiness on the palate. Not the most flavoursome brown Belgian I've ever met. I was, however, much more impressed by the Steenbrugge Dubbel which I had down at De Beiaard at the bottom of Spuistraat. Here there's a sharp and spicy fruitcake character hitting all the right notes for a tasty dubbel. Again, a bit more of everything would improve things, however I suspect I may be on an eternal quest to find a dubbel to beat Westmalle and have unreasonably high expectations of it happening.

De Beiaard owns the Bekeerde Suster brewpub elsewhere in the city which I visited last year. The microbrews are therefore available elsewhere in the chain, and one I hadn't seen before was De Manke Monnik -- so that'll be one manky monk for the wife, please. It claims to be a tripel, but the estery citric notes it displays has me thinking much more of a German weiss, albeit one of the sharper, more highly hopped variety. The spice of a tripel is there, but at 7.2% ABV it's a bit of a lightweight. Tasty, though.

Two nightcaps brought yesterday to a close: first up was an Einbacker Urbock Dunkel: a limpid amber beer, sweet with a touch of caramel and a mildly bitter smoky flavour. Definitely better than the Hell from the same brewery. Ramping up the sweetness and strength I finished with a dark, sticky Weihenstephan Korbinian -- a sticky treacle-laden 7.4% ABV sipping dunkel. A great end-of-day beer.

Today's beering began at yet another branch of De Beiaard, down in De Pijp. We'd been walking in the sunshine for an hour or so, so refreshment was a priority. I went for the beer of the month: a 3.1% ABV fruit number called Apple Bocq. It was tastier than I expected: tart and juicy and just what I was after. Mrs Beer Nut ordered a Liefmans Frambozen: not too fruity, heavy and dry, and decidedly quenching. Thus fortified we headed back into the streets again.

The last piece of business this afternoon was a raid on the Cracked Kettle. I'm currently enjoying one of the spoils from that: a superbly bitter oude gueuze called Oud Beersel. Sharp, refreshing and just what I need as I cool off. As the bottom of my glass approaches I can hear the call of 't Arendsnest. See you later.

15 August 2008

Dam'd if you do

We arrived in Amsterdam early yesterday evening and, having checked in at our lodgings, made a straight for In De Wildeman, a legendary beer pub and just a couple of streets away. We settled in the redundant non-smoking room (all Dutch pubs are entirely smoke free since last month) among the very mid-twentieth-century green painted wood.

A quick scan of the menu, the specials board, and the taps and my first order was a Yeti, the 9.2% ABV imperial stout from Colorado's Great Divide brewery. In typically Dutch style, 25cl was poured quickly into a glass leaving a huge expanse of dark brown head. The aroma sings of big American hops conspiring with dark smoky malts, all begging to be tasted. The flavour doesn't disappoint, with the hops sitting right at the front and then followed by a big long sweet dark crème caramel finish. The mouthfeel is incredibly thick with only the fainest hint of sparkle. The whole sensation is one of rapid see-sawing between big American hops and dark stouty malt, and one I enjoyed hugely.

Meanwhile, Mrs Beer Nut also started with an American: Left Hand's Juju Ginger Ale. It's an uninspiring and rather watery affair without much going on, either flavour- or aroma-wise.

So, what do I follow my powerhouse American imperial stout with? There was really only one thing for it...

Berliner Kindl Weisse Grün, is the version of Berlin's trademark wheat beer flavoured with a dash of woodruff syrup. I loved this beer from the start. It instantly hit the part of my brain that enjoys Faro and similar light sweet-sour Belgian fizz. It's sweet, light and (for me) inhalable. The sour/dry smack on top of the syrup makes it extremely moreish: I could lash through gallons of this 3%-er without even thinking about it. I'm only on my second beer and I think I've made the discovery of the trip.

Mrs Beer Nut decided to go Dutch and went for a Natte from local brewery 't IJ. Except I don't think that's what arrived. I was expecting a brown dubbel, but instead got a distinctly orange and cloudy beer with a gunpowder spice nose and a whole green-grocer's full of raw crunchy vegetal bitterness, moderated only slightly with a black pepper sharpness. I'm fairly sure they brought her the tripel Zatte instead. Either way, it was bloody good.

And with that we were off into the night to forage for some food after which we brought the day to a close. This morning we left bright and early for Alkmaar to see its legendary cheese market (jealous?) and the wonderfully quirky beer museum. Down the stairs and there's a pub at canal-level.

I continued the Dutch theme with another 't IJ beer: Columbus. This is a powerfully earthy opaque orange beer with more than a touch of Brettanomyces about it. The aroma is super-sour and the flavour includes the faintest wisp of orange pith under big heavy damp horse blankets. Meanwhile, Mrs Beer Nut wanted something light and refreshing, it being a warm sunny day (a what?!) and all. Randomly I suggested Wittekerke Rosé, and perhaps I shouldn't have. I rather liked it: it's 10% raspberry juice and tastes it, with just a bit of wheaty fluffiness underneath. Herself wasn't so keen, but them's the breaks when you let men choose your beer for you.

Second round, I stayed with 't IJ again and had a Struis -- another orangey-brown gunpowder-laden spicy ale. There's a touch of mango and passionfruit before the lees go in, and this is accentuated and added to with the gunk in: more gunpowder and a nice snappy hoppiness. A complex sipper that's end-to-end enjoyable.

Mrs Beer Nut indulged her bock habit, slumming it with Brand Imperator, a pale amber one from one of the Netherlands' nastier big industrial breweries. As expected it's quite an easy-going beer, light on the caramel and replacing it with a breezy fruitiness, making it a sunny afternoon sort of bock, which was just as well.

We spent the rest of the afternoon dawdling through Alkmaar, and got the train back to Amsterdam. 24 hours into the trip and already well ahead in the beer stakes.

13 August 2008