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 base you end up with an extremely drinkable beer with an utterly fascinating flavour. Well done to Herslev for raising the weirdness bar. Now, who wants to make me a smoked asparagus beer?

And that's your lot from Copenhagen, a festival I cannot stress the brilliantness of -- excelling in atmosphere, facilities and quality of product. Thanks to all the Internet beer folk I met who provided valuable directions and information: Chris, Joris, Kim, Knut, Niels and Ron. Being able to socialise internationally is one of the best non-beer things about these sorts of events.

Finally big big thank you to the Irish delegation, whose lax approach to personal beer security allowed me to taste far more than I actually bought. Cheers Declan, Declan, George, Sarah, Séan, Thom and of course Mrs Beer Nut.

Last week Thom said "If you love beer you must attend this event. No excuses. " I couldn't put it better myself.

26 September 2008

Darkness falls

And so to the far end of the colour chart at the European Beer Festival: those lovely black beers. Of course, I've already written about a fair few of the good ones in with my posts about Mikkeller and the US breweries, but there's always room for more.

I'm quite a fan of Heineken's Krušovice brand, so was delighted to see Krušovice Dark, which I haven't had in many years, available in bottles on one of the stands. I liked it: very dry and quite sharp in that mouth-watering schwarzbier sort of way. Holbæk Bryghus claimed that their Munkholmer was a stout/schwarzbier hybrid, but it definitely tasted much more like the latter, though with a nice touch of fruit amongst the dryness that would have me calling it a plain porter more than anything else. Nothing wrong with that. Lund Teknik also had a Dry Stout on display, promising lots of roasted barley on the nose but having quite an understated roast flavour, with a hint of caramel to lift the dryness. Well balanced and very drinkable.

Sadly, Wintercoat Oatmeal Stout was a much less pleasant experience, with some nasty phenolic marker-pen notes in it, but not much else: the complete opposite of Engbo by DaCAPO, a marvellously full-bodied and roasty simple, no-nonsense, high-quality session stout.

There was lots of woodiness apparent among the dark beers. Like Black Oak, a porter from Braunstein. Here the wood is fresh and fragrant, with the rich roasted flavours only arriving afterwards. Similarly with the very sweet Roskilde Imperial Stout by Det Lille-- freshly hewn timber dripping with sap is what I got here. A more mature woody character comes with Struise's Black Albert, a dry, sour, and oaky imperial stout. Det Lille's Roskilde Oak Aged Porter, was perhaps the most complex of them all, possessed of that strange sweet-dry character which aged malty beers take on, plus smoke, nuts and a touch of phenolic booziness.

I spent the early part of the Saturday afternoon camped out on the soft furniture of Carlsberg subsidiary Kongens Bryghus. When the dirty looks of the staff became too much I opted to try the brewery's "Caribbean Porter" Vestindisk. I'm glad I did too: it's a wonderfully smooth and smoky beer. Not especially challenging; easy-going but tasty. Another simple but suppable black one came from Stensbogaarde: their English Dark Stout is very heavy and sweet -- sticky but not too sticky. One of several beers I'd have liked a pint of.

Some good sweet milk chocolate notes in Stormakst porter by Närke of Sweden, sitting on a huge thick treacly body. Svaneke's Choko Stout is, obviously, chocolatier still, with much more besides. Cocoa, fudge and sweet tobacco say my notes. I must have liked it. The award for chocolate beer with no actual chocolate in, however, goes to BrewPub's cask porter Cole. This is light-bodied yet very creamy and loaded with chocolate and molasses. BrewPub has come a long way from what they were serving back in 2005.

And that's the dark beers put away. But I'm not quite done with Copenhagen just yet...

25 September 2008

Gold and brown

Yes, we're coming to the end of my pieces from the European Beer Festival, and I think it's time for some colour-themed posts. We'll start up at the lighter end of the scale with the golden and brown ales.

There was a fair bit of buzz surrounding the guys who had come from Kosovo to exhibit their lager, Peja. Knut dismissed it as "one for the tickers" so I was immediately off in search of it. It's actually not half bad: a decent low-strength pils, unremarkable except for its place of origin. From rather closer to the festival grounds was Langfartsøl by Carlsberg subsidiary Kongens Bryghus. This is a cooling, refreshing blonde ale, and likely to be an excellent summer refresher. Bitches BrewThe name means "Longboat beer", in case you're wondering. Finally for the golden ales, DaCAPO's tripel, Trio, failed to impress, having too much by way of sharp yeasty flavours and not enough warmth from its 9% ABV. Some nice fruity appley notes to it, though. Wintercoat's Bitches Brew (named after a Miles Davis record, apparently) was rather better: easy drinking yet intensely fruity and bitter, like a super-smooth tripel.

Back to lager, and Herslev Oktober Bock was the sort of autumnal bock I can get behind: sweet in a caramelly way with hints of dark fruit and smoke. Similarly seasonal was Mørk Festival (no. 71 in Fuglebjerggaard's Kølster series, if that means anything to you). It's a cloudy brown ale with a tasty sharp gunpowder spice to it. A much rounder sweeter autumn experience came from Ølfabrikken Harvest Ale, a beer brimming in warming toffee and caramel notes, quite a contrast to the surprisingly bitter Randers Brown Ale.

Getting browner still, we have Juletrolden 2008, a preview of this year's Christmas brew from Troldhede. It's quite light and very drinkable, despite some major chocolate notes in the flavour. Yet even they pale when put next to Svaneke's Sweet Mary, a dobbelbock loaded with cherry-liqueur-like boozy sweetness.

Time to dim the lights next. Have you noticed just how many Danish microbreweries there are, by the way? By my count it's loads and loads and loads.

24 September 2008

Pale ale parade

I mentioned yesterday how Danish craft brewing seems to have followed, to begin with, an American model. The number of Danish pale ales and IPAs at the European Beer Festival reflects this to a considerable extent. And yet it's not like they were all grapefruit-laden hops bombs. Take Gl. Skagen, for instance -- despite claiming American ancestry, this is full of floral peachy flavours on top of a tannic body and puts me in mind of the finer kind of English bitter. The peach blossom continued in Lund Teknik's APA which was so packed with soft fruit flavours as to be almost juicy. And again in the very floral notes of Randers Pale Ale, which is only let down by a slightly off-putting dry carbonic character. Only when we come to Amager Festival IPA do those peach flavours build to the point of tipping over into grapefruit. This is despite Amager's claim that there are no American hops in here and that the main grain is basmati rice. Are they having a laugh? Still superb beer though.

The bitterness levels start to go up here, starting with India Gold by Wintercoat. All their beers were served from casks, which left a wonderful smoothness to the IPA, still with English blossomy notes, but with a sharp orange zing to it as well. Their Double Hop offered the same only more so: the warming alcohol and zesty hops making me think of spiced Fanta. In a good way. Hantverks IPA (the only Swede in this lot) adds bitter raspberry notes to its citrus kick making for one of the more refreshing IPAs on offer.

Stensbogaarde IPA was among the more complex IPAs I tried, starting with toffee malt and running the full gamut of fruit flavours. Every sip produced a different bitter sensation. Conversely, Hornbeer Imperial IPA concentrates on strong orange flavours and holds back on the bitter spice to make a no-nonsense drinkable strong beer. I wasn't so thrilled with the simplicity of Midtyfyns Double IPA, which started off with promising grapefruit aromas but the flavour was dominated by an unfortunate earthy character that buried any complexity there may have been.

And the best of the pale ales? Believe it or not, it's one from Carlsberg (well not really, see comments). Slejpner is 10.5% ABV and begins with an innocent orangey aroma. On tasting, however, it builds this into a huge bitter fruit flavour that simply will not stop. Leaving aside your super-strong barrel-aged ales, I don't think I've ever encountered a beer with this much legs. No wonder they named it after a horse with double the usual number.

23 September 2008

Nordic Americans

The influence of American craft brewing on the Danish micros was very apparent at the European Beer Festival. It's not surprising, then, that the American industry was quite well represented among the various stalls.

I had missed Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA at the Great British Beer Festival this year so made damn sure to try it this time round. My interest was largely morbid curiosity and I didn't expect to enjoy it at all. But it's delicious: full of those orange sherbet flavours I associate most with Goose Island's marvellous IPA. Not at all the monster I was expecting. Mind you, I was drinking it straight after a glass of 120 Minute IPA, and that's a beer that will tone down the flavour in most things. Nevertheless, I found the 120 surprisingly drinkable. It has some big solventy alcoholic notes all right, but there's enough of a balance in there to make it work: bitter without being harsh; malty without being tramp juice. I'm no hophead, but this was an eye-opener.

Two more strong and hoppy ales, this time from Avery in Colorado: Maharaja is their Imperial IPA and is another orangey one with a particularly mouth-watering aroma. The 9.7% ABV gives it warmth without making it sticky. Also available was a Collaboration they did with Russian River in a Belgian style. This is an immensely complex concoction full of peaches and nuts and spices and cloves, yet remains light and drinkable at 8.2% ABV.

Avery had come recommended to us from the Bull & Castle's Declan who attended the Great American Beer Festival last year. Mephistopheles Imperial stout was his first recommendation. It's incredibly thick and loaded with sweet molasses and bitter black coffee flavours. It was the last beer I had on the Friday and awoke on Saturday to find the dregs had congealed into a tar-like lump in the bottom of my sample glass. The other big black American was Great Divide's oak-aged version of Yeti, a stout I thoroughly enjoyed in Amsterdam last month. It's pretty much what I expected: the usual big chicory maltiness, with a fresh acidic hop character, but smoothed out with that woody vanilla flavour that comes from barrel aging. A more refined Yeti than the plain one. My last big American stout was an east-coaster: Brooklyn's Black Chocolate Stout. It's hops in the aroma once again, with sugary molasses and more than a hint of delicious smokiness. I'd had a fair few beers that were beyond the 15% ABV mark at this point and this mere 10.1%-er was well able to hold its own in the flavour stakes.

And just to show that American beer isn't just about high alcohol, I was extremely impressed by Flying Dog's Doggie Style pale ale. Only 4.7% ABV, this is possessed of an intense citric bitter fruity character, yet is still light enough to be very easy drinking.

Yes, the Danes definitely have the right idea when it comes to picking a country to emulate with in their brewing culture. That the industry in both countries is feeding off both the experience and marketplace of the other can only be good from a drinker's perspective.