30 September 2008

Czech, mate

I am agog at the news coming out of the Czech republic from the beer blogosphere's correspondents there -- Evan, Velky Al and Pivní Filosof. It seems that the overweeningly lagered Czech market is starting to expand in fascinating new directions, and the results from the micros are impressive. My only first hand experience of this deliciously velvety revolution is the Kocour rauchbier I sampled in Copenhagen, and I liked what I had. A lot.

I can only pray, then, that Dublin's ex-pat hang-out, the Czech Inn, gets in on some of the new ale action. Though granted that's as likely as an Oirish pub in Barcelona or Bangkok stocking O'Hara's Stout.

Still, I'm encouraged to see that the pub appears to be taking steps to court more local business, with the rebadging (sort of) of two of the house beers. I don't remember which jaunty moniker they've given to Pepinova Destika, mentioned back here, but its stablemate Francinova Dvanáctka now goes by "Frankies". I'd been surprised recently by the sweetness of Pilsner Urquell and I found this one to be only very marginally less malty -- another full-bodied tasty pale lager selling for next-to-nothing.

A further indication of the local attraction of the Czech Inn came while I was ordering. An Irish chap came to the bar, perused the taps (an activity almost unknown in this country), and then asked where the dark beers were. "Upstairs", he was told, so that's where I got the next round in. "Dark" is a serious misnomer, as the darkest they were doing was Staropramen Master, an amber lager. It's not earth-shattering stuff, bittersweet with some good liquorice notes, but in a pub with such an array of pale malty lagers something vaguely different is always welcome.

While I was upstairs getting the Masters in for Thom and Mrs Beer Nut, I spotted Zlatý Bažant on the bar. I knew full well it was a mediocre Slovakian lager, but I figured it would be worth a tick. That's about all I can say for it: lighter of body and milder of taste than any of the Czech beers. There's not a thing wrong with it, it's just nondescript and very easy drinking, which I'm guessing is all that most of the clientele, both local and foreign, are after.

So this is about the best I can do for Czech beer in these parts. However, it seems there's never been a better time to visit the homeland.

27 September 2008

Encore: the quare stuff

I couldn't leave the European Beer Festival without some words on the strange beers, the ones made with methods and ingredients that stick-in-the-mud style purists and fans of the Reinheitsgebot turn up their noses at.

Mrs Beer Nut, a De Molen fan to the bone, steered me towards Menno's Cuvée No. 1 on arrival. This is a blend of several strong stouts, aged in a barrel which was never more than arm's length from the brewer all weekend. It's quite an experience: an explosion of busy flavours, from high octane dark malts, through dark fruits and smoke, then into tangy bitterness. On balance I think it's a bit too intense for me, with a little of the solventy flavour I mentioned before. I enjoyed the component stouts individually much more. And before I go any further, an apology to Menno that the only picture I have of him, Diogenes-like with his barrel, has him scratching his nose.

Baggaardsbryggeriet refuse to have any truck with this barrel-aging nonsense, preferring instead to just bung the liquor straight into the beer. So from them we have Drunken Sailor, laced with Islay whisky, but still only 6.5%. I think this may be because they didn't put a whole lot in there, so what you get is a slightly sour pale ale which doesn't do very much. At least it isn't a waste of much good whisky.

While there are all manner of adjuncts that can be thrown into the brewing copper, not many brewers are doing anything extreme with their water. Except, that is, for the lunatics at the Grønland Ice Cap brewery. The company itself is based in Copenhagen but imports ice directly from the tail end of a Greenland glacier, ice which fell as snow about 180,000 years ago, they say. Not only that, but your bottle has a unique reference number which can be looked up on the Interweb so you can find out exactly where on the glacier the ice you're drinking came from.

Why?

Anyway, I had a go of the Ice Cap Amber Lager and it wasn't very good -- sugary sweet and really quite tough to drink. All gimmick and no flavour, I'm afraid.

It has long been my opinion that place of hops in beer is overstated. We can pretty much do without hops, I reckon, and still have wonderful beery experiences. I cite the Helene Heather I had from Nørrebro as the perfect example. The other side of that equation, however, is Carlsberg Jacobsen's Hopless, a desperately dull, worty, grainy affair without even any redeeming malt features. The whole idea of getting rid of hops, Mr Carlsberg, is to replace them with other more interesting things.

Like bog myrtle, for instance. Porse Guld Ekstra was a decent unremarkable lager, but spiced with the aforementioned shrub to give it a tasty bitter kick. And as a bonus, according to the festival programme, the brewery picks all its bog myrtle during four company picnics each year. Awww. For the Finns it's juniper all the way, and Lammin Sahti is a traditional concoction made from barley, rye and juniper, fermented with baker's yeast. The result is sweet and deliciously spicy with fresh banana and lemon flavours.

Honey is another adjunct with a lot of involvement in beer. My experience of such brews is mixed, but I quite liked Ørbæk's Honningøl, with its wonderfully meady nose and full-on fun honey flavour, though perhaps shading into artificial sweetness at the very end. Monkeying about with grains is another option, and Indslev's Spelt Bock is one example. It's an opaque brown colour and starts with quite a scary dry chalkiness which takes a bit of getting used to. When the flavour settles down there's a nuttiness which I rather enjoyed. Not caramelly like a Dutch bock, or heavily sweet like a German one; it's its own thing, and tasty with it.

I've had a couple of liquorice beers from a home brewer of my acquaintance (hi Fergal), and my feedback tends to be "needs more liquorice". I hereby pass on the same message to whoever was exhibiting Liquorice Pils (I can't find the brewery's name): it's sweet, light and really not very interesting or liquoricey. Fergal also makes a damn fine chilli stout, with specially imported California chipotle. It has become my benchmark chilli stout, and I thought Brøckhouse's Chili Chokolade Stout compared quite favourably with it: a good dry roasted heat to warm the back of the throat. Not so much by way of chocolate, however.

Even more warming was Stevn's barleywine, the one they call Experiment D041-A. This has had most of the things you can do to beer done to it. There's both wheat and barley in there; a Belgian ale yeast to start with then a second fermentation with [sticks pin in yeast catalogue] cider yeast; some dry hopping with Amarillo; and rounded off with some aging on whiskey cask chips. And yet it's not a mess: it's delicious. There's a definite Christmas pudding character with raisins and spice and booziness from the 11% ABV. Many more flavours come and go, but it's not any way busy or unpleasant and none of that nasty solvent character. An experiment worth repeating, in my opinion.

Things get even warmer though. Not content with brewing a dark dark beer at 20% ABV, MyBeer were serving Ultraprés heated, topped with whipped cream. And it was really quite delicious, very reminscent of a French coffee to me -- quite sweet and exceptionally smooth. I don't know why you'd want to substitute a beer for a liqueur coffee, but at least now you can.

Which brings me to the very last beer of the festival and, for me, probably the best of the lot. It came from Roskilde's Herslev brewery and rejoiced in the name Aspargesøl. As the handle suggests, it's brewed with asparagus. As far as I can determine, a lot of asparagus. The nose promises fresh green crunchy veg and that's exactly what the taste delivers, including with it a spicy peppery tang. Sitting on a soft, full, wheat bas