31 October 2008

Bewitched, badgered and bewildered

In Newry last weekend I was surprised to find that the only customer in Sainsbury's with a northern accent was me, just off the train from Dublin. I only had time for a quick raid on the small-but-decent decent beer selection which I'll be working my way through over the next few weeks.

Last year at Halloween I drank Wychwood's Pumpking, which Adeptus had picked up for me on a Sainsbury's raid of his own. Tonight I'm sitting down with a beer several bloggers had said was even better: Badger Pumpkin Ale by Hall & Woodhouse. It pours a surprisingly pale limpid orange, forming a loose head of big bubbles that quickly vanished. That on its own wasn't enough to put me in mind of Irn Bru, but the initial taste certainly did: big fizz and sweet artificial fruit were my first impressions. After letting it settle on the palate for a moment there are autumnal apple and cinnamon spices coming through, and even vaguely medicinal, herbal notes. "Vaguely" is the watchword, however: overall I found this beer quite thin and bland. Where Pumpking had a full-bodied strong ale at its heart, this doesn't really have much beyond the fruit, spice and fizz, and the novelty wears off far too quickly.

But I'm not letting it bother me. I'm off to carve pumpkins instead.

Samhain shona daoibh to all Beer Nut readers.

30 October 2008

Gnome place like home

My bottle of McChouffe had been sitting in the fridge for quite a long time. I don't really get to use my fridge much, or any other household appliances, which have either been mothballed since May or are still in their original wrapping. As the builders gradually clear out of the house, more things become usable, and yesterday evening the fridge door was unobstructed and inside, among all the trapped children and mysterious fungi, was this Ardennes Bruin.

From the large green bottle it pours a dark and quite opaque brown. Lots of gas in here: forming a thick head which dissipates quickly but leaves a strong, sharp fizzy texture on tasting. Beneath it it bears a strong resemblance to many other brown Belgian ales: the Trappist dubbels in particular. I get dark and slightly spicy fruit; sweet and estery rather than bitter, with a slight slow-burning yeasty sharpness behind it. I probably drank it too cold as I found the flavour a little bit underwhelming: I'd expect more from a dark ale of this provenance and strength. Bunging the lees in smoothed it out, but didn't turn it into a palate pounder. Still, I enjoyed it as a characterful winter's night beer. I've set up a stash with more of this sort to see me through the cold months, but they'll have to wait until I have more freedom in my own house before I start cracking them open.

27 October 2008

The legacy of Samuel Adams

Sarah was late for a dinner appointment. Before she fled the Bull & Castle Beerhall she bequeathed to me her half-finished Samuel Adams Double Bock. I mentioned in my last post the bad experiences I've had with a couple from this range, so I was very wary of the newcomer. Sticking my nose into this flat, dark brown affair set off all kinds of alarm bells, what with the intense tooth-rotting sugary aroma. On tasting, however, it's a bit mellower. Still sweeter than builders' tae, but with a pleasant sticky caramel foundation that lets it slip down without becoming too cloying.

I don't think I'll be drinking a lot of it, and at 8.8% ABV I really shouldn't anyway. Fortunately, before I got near the bottom of the glass, Mrs Beer Nut swapped it for the remains of her Clotworthy Dobbin. We make a great team, even if our special skill seems to be mopping up leftovers.

23 October 2008

Serious cojones

O the serendipity. One of the lads on ICB (hi Kevin) spotted that Deveney's in Rathmines were offering a free tasting of American beers last Friday evening. It's not far out of my way and I'm always good for a free thimbleful of Goose Island IPA, so I went along.

But this wasn't an attempt to hock the tried and tested US beers we know and (mostly) love. Instead, we met Miles and Jonathan, two guys from over there who have just set up their own drinks import business, of which beer is a part. Their aim is to undercut the distributors who are using multiple middlemen and routing through importers in the UK, the Netherlands and the like. Instead, they're concentrating solely on Californian products and shipping direct, which knocks nearly a euro off the RRP of each bottle. Up against the conservative tastes of the Irish drinker, a biting recession and a government determined to make life as difficult as possible for the off-trade, it's a bold move.

The pilot offerings are seven Californian microbrews: four from Gordon Biersch of San Jose, and three by San Francisco's Speakeasy. After sampling them all we moved on to the ciders and meads, but you'll need to go to someone else's blog to find out about them, though I will note that the meads are, as far as I know, the first and only real meads to be available commerically in this country.

Gordon Biersch specialises in styles from Germany and environs. We started with their supposedly Czech-like Pilsner. It's a lovely golden hue with a good malty nose, smelling much stronger than the 5.3% ABV the website says it is (no strength is given on the label of most of these -- naughty). The first sip delivers a slight apple and butterscotch flavour, almost reminiscent of a dry cider. It settles down after that into a decent and workmanlike pale lager, though not really possessed of enough flavour to pass as Czech, in my opinion.

Raising the strength quotient we come to the 7% ABV Blonde Bock. I expected that if this is true to style then I wouldn't like it. It is and I didn't. Sugary nose, sugary taste, syrupy texture. Blech. Not for me, but if you like horrible German bocks then this is right up your straße.

I was similarly wary of the Märzen, having been previously bitten by the sickly monstrosities of Samuel Adams Octoberfest and Winter Lager. This dark gold fellow was rather better, though. Still sweet, but with a tasty and warming fresh bread character and a solid chewy body. Not mind-blowing, but decent, and pretty much the only märzen on the market.

Best of the lot, however, is the Hefeweizen. I haven't complained about the Yanks putting European-style beer into kiddie-sized bottles in ages, but this one deserves it. It doesn't really taste like any actual German weiss I know -- it's much sweeter, with the emphasis on the bubblegum-and-bananas end of the flavour scale, and rather thinner than I'd have liked, but it's still a tasty drop and enjoyably chuggable. But I just don't get that proper quaffing sensation without at least a half litre in front of me.

The other three beers are much more what one would expect from the western US. The marketing literature didn't say what variety of citrus American hops were being used, but they're being used all right. Staggeringly, Speakeasy's Big Daddy IPA, the last one I tried, isn't the massive IBU-fest I was expecting. It's a beautiful pale amber hue and gives off surprisingly subtle fragrant hoppy aromas. The foretaste is quite strong and sweet, from the Munich malt providing 6.5% ABV, but despite the dry hopping I get very little by way of bitter flavours at the end. Having felt the bitterness building in the other two beers, I was secretly relieved that this one let me off lightly. Though I can't help but wonder what the souped-up double version of it is like.

Slightly down the alcohol scale, at 6.1% ABV, Prohibition amber ale is well up the flavour scale in comparison to Big Daddy. The nose provides a lovely, oily, resinous overture, but surprisingly, once again, it's malt at the forefront. The slightly dark, toffee-and-marzipan notes are topped up with a quite gorgeous sharp orange-grapefruit bite, and the resulting exquisitely balanced flavour just runs and runs. I have a feeling this is going to be one of my regular beers for the next while.

Finishing on a lighter note, there's Untouchable: named, I assume, for the fact that it has a superb aroma of citrus hops but loses its way somewhat once it's past the lips. The distinct west-coast hops bitterness is there all right, as is the toffee malt base, but they are shadows of the same thing in Prohibition. In the unlikely event that Prohibition doesn't do it for you, then here's a lighter, friendlier blander alternative that's still well-made and tasty.

So that's it from this strange and exciting new shipment. I've nothing further to add except to wish the boys luck in their ballsy attempt to make money out of Ireland's beer drinkers by selling them quality product. I won't say it can't be done -- of course it can -- but it's not going to be easy. I've heard already that the management of one of Dublin's well-reputed beer off licences has tried the beers, liked them, but won't stock them. Up against that, what do you do?

20 October 2008

Release the hounds / lawyers

I remember reading, a couple of years ago, that a Mexican company had started churning out suspiciously authentic-looking Duff beer. It looks like the Newscorp trademark enforcement team have not yet caught up with them, since what I assume is the same beer is now being contract brewed in Belgium and exported to Ireland: the country which reveres The Simpsons more than any other on the planet. No really. I read it somewhere.

So apart from the novelty value, what do you get for €2.50? Sadly, not much. Duff is another one of your ordinary hot-country lagers: pale, fizzy, very slightly dry and with a disturbing tiny hint of disinfectant right on the end. Pretty much what I was expecting, in fact. Keep it cold, drink it fast, and enjoy the novelty value.

Ah. That'll be the Newscorp guys now. Excellent.

16 October 2008

Heino's floaty beano

George's Dock is a platform moored in a basin just off the Liffey in the heart of Dublin's financial district. It's used for events, concerts and the like, and this week is hosting the first Paulaner Dublin Oktoberfest, affording the nearby bankers an opportunity to drown their sorrows, or celebrate the government decision to prop up their industry, however you want to look at it, with lashings of Paulaner beer.

Heineken International seem to be at this lark quite a bit -- Boak spotted them in Spain, for instance -- and the whole thing is as shameless as marketing ploys get: another weapon that the Irish branch of the Dutch megabrewer is using to strongarm every Erdinger and Hoegaarden tap in the country off the bar. Still, you can't fault their authenticity, with a big tent full of long tables and a house band cranking out the cheesiest rock and country classics imaginable.

Unlike the real thing, however, there was an actual choice of beer, though all were from the Paulaner stable. I'd never had Paulaner Hefe-Weissbier Dunkel before, so that's what I opted for. I'll admit to being quite fond of plain old Paulaner Weissbier when there's nothing better -- it has a nice spicy hop profile in amongst the banana fruitiness. I was hoping for some caramel on top of this with the Dunkel, but I didn't get it. There are marginally more sweet estery notes in here, but they come very much at the expense of the bitterness, the whole experience leaving a slightly empty sensation at the finish up.

Should I find myself back there this weekend I might just stick to the oktoberfestbier. Or go no further than Ely CHQ at the water's edge: they have O'Hara's Stout on draught.

13 October 2008

Blake's 2

Bombardier is one of those beers that just doesn't do it for me. Kegged, casked or bottled, it's a deceptively delicious-looking dark ruby ale with virtually no redeeming features in the flavour department. Not that it tastes unpleasant, I just find it dull as proverbial. It doesn't help that the brewery's nationalistic brand campaign is rather daft: country of origin as a selling point? Is that all you've got? But then all flag-waving, anthems and the whole things-being-objectively-better-owing-to-the-imaginary-boundaries-within-which-they-were-created seems incredibly stupid to me. I think it's because of where I grew up.

Anyway, my reservations about the brand and the basic beer weren't enough to put me off buying a bottle each of two new ones that Charles Wells has put out under the Bombardier marque. It was the porter that attracted me in particular, but I reckoned the golden ale would be worth a punt too, even though I wasn't expecting to like it. The marketing department, brand consultants and focus groups seem to have decided that phrases from William Blake's Jerusalem, England's unofficial national anthem, were the best way to name these oh-so-patriotic brews.

So first up is Burning Gold, and as you can see from its clear glass bottle, it's a lovely rich shade of amber. The aroma is delightfully pungent, the brewers having plainly decided that it would benefit from extensive light-conditioning before drinking. The body is big and rich: none of the wateriness that occasionally plagues the UK's paler summer ales. But there's bugger all by way of actual flavour. Rolling it around on the palate I get a vague bittersweet orange flavour, briefly, but the label promises "zest" and there's nothing here I'd dignify with that term.

As I said, I wasn't expecting much from the gold one, but I had higher hopes for Satanic Mills, a beer which glooped out of the bottle quite beautifully, forming a thick, slow-rising, beige head. Once again they have fashioned a superb texture; but that marvellous creamy mouthfeel is an empty stage. There's a faint hint of roasted plumminess in there, but it makes you work to find it. The viscosity means it's one for drinking slowly, but without any big flavours to entertain the drinker between sips, this beer amounts to a complete waste of time.

I'm adamant that my informed prejudice against Bomabardier the beer and its Al Murray sensibilities have not coloured my dim view of these new ones. I'm fairly sure what we have here are dumbed down versions of styles which somebody in the non-brewing end of the business figured there was a demand for, and which the company ought to be exploiting. This is beer designed by and for a committee, and you'd want to be insanely loyal to the brand to derive any enjoyment from drinking them.

09 October 2008

Control Alt Delish

There are few things that make me happier than the arrival of a new Irish beer on the market. While it would be fantastic if more of these were permanent, I'm happy to settle for seasonals and special editions when they come my way. So I was delighted to see that the Porterhouse have eschewed the Kölsch which they normally bring out this time of year (though there's not a thing wrong with it) in favour of a new Porterhouse Alt. I was even more delighted when they invited me along to the press launch last week.

I'm not exactly an old hand at this top-fermented German style which is particularly associated with Düsseldorf -- I've had the Frankenheim version and found it well-made but quite serious in its dark bitterness. The Irish take on it won't leave you rolling in the aisles either, but it's still a damn fine beer. Sourness is its first characteristic, but this is followed quickly by a long dryness, redolent of crunchy grain husks. The whole thing is lip-smacking and satisfying, and incredibly drinkable. I wish the brewery well with it and hope to see it again. And if you have a Porterhouse near you, I'd strongly advise giving it a go before the festival ends on Sunday week.

As usual, Porterhouse Oktoberfest comes with a range of subsidiary German beers, and they've done particularly well this year in my estimation (though a return of Andechs Dunkel wouldn't have gone amiss), including three on draught from Weihenstephan. I used to enjoy pints of Weihenstephaner Hefe in Dublin's Long Stone pub back in the early days of my beer obsession. It has only recently come back to the Irish market in bottles, so it's wonderful to see it on tap as well. I find it a difficult weissbier to describe since it balances all of its fruity-hoppy-grainy characteristics so wonderfully. Yes there's bananas and cloves and candy floss, but none really dominates the palate. The texture is a marvellously smooth and fluffy one, causing the beer to slip down with the greatest of ease. I'm really not doing it justice with this review, but take my word that it's streets ahead of the more common Bavarian weissbiers we see on draught in Ireland.

Vitus is the second of the family now available in the Porterhouse -- a beer I really enjoyed back here, and a perfect warming brew for the season that's in it. The last newbie is Weihenstephaner Festbier, a clear golden number I'd never heard of before. It's very much in the Oktoberfestbier style, being heavy and sticky with only faint bubbles working their way through the viscous body. Bizarrely, I got a major hit of sweetcorn from the aroma, but the flavour is definitely properly grainy. The malty Märzen alcohol is present in a big way, but it doesn't cloy or get overpowering as the beer is sunk -- another technical exercise in balance by the brewmen of Weihenstephan which has produced a superlatively drinkable beer.

Oktoberfest at all (I assume) Porterhouse branches kicks off today and runs to the 19th. There's much more to be had among the specials, including Aventinus and that fantastic Schneider/Brooklyn hoppy weissbier collaboration. But go for the Irish Altbier first. You'll be glad you did.

08 October 2008

Jet set whistle-wet

I reckon I'm pretty adept at the whole London-in-a-day thing, despite my protestations last time round. My old friend the Heathrow Express is a vital part of this: it's pretty much impossible to make it into central London in time for anything even resembling "morning" without using the businessfolk's 15 minute rail service to Paddington. Of course, there's a side effect whereby a sufficiently late flight home leaves time for a pint or two in town before the effortless slide back west to the airport. On Monday evening the pub of choice was the Carpenters Arms, a freehouse just a couple of streets away from Paddington, and my drinking companions were London's beer blogging legends Boak and Bailey.

I started out with a pint of Leeds Best, having read great things about it and been hugely entertained by the brewery's co-opting of the Carlsberg-owned Tetley's look and feel. The beer itself is a limpid shade of orange with a tight head and gives off a strong marmalade aroma. On first tasting there's an unsurprising sweet mandarin flavour but it's quickly knocked into touch by the rising force of English hops bitterness. It rushes towards harshness but stops just short, finishing dry and setting the stage for the next mouthful. A gorgeous beer and a tough act to follow.

Peter's Well, from the Houston brewery near Glasgow was next up, suspiciously golden but definitely not one of your lager-a-like summer ales. The dominant notes here are lemons, with the zestiness sitting on a flat and full, slightly greasy, body. The whole thing puts me in mind of Jif Lemon, creating fond thoughts of pancakes. Of course there had to be a dud in the bunch, and it was the O'Hanlon's Yellow Hammer Bailey set up for me next -- after I asked for it, I should add. Like so many of the beers haunting English casks there's really not much to it. It's another pale yellow job with a good body but very much a let-down in the flavour stakes.

After putting that away deftly, there was just one more new beer to be had. Kentish Reserve by the Whitstable Brewery was as malty as its amber hue suggested, yet still retained a lovely bitter hops flavour for balance. At 5.2% the whole experience reminded me of another, more commonplace (digitally inspired) strong ale from Kent: one I've only ever had from clear glass bottles so I probably shouldn't proclaim the Whitstable Brewery version as infinitely superior, but I will anyway. So high were my praises that Boak reckoned she'd go for a pint of the same next, thus prompting a practical demonstration of the vagaries of cask ale. The pint she brought back to the table, though looking identical to mine, smelt almost exactly like a kriek. When it passed my way for assessment (like I know anything about out-of-condition cask beer) I found it wasn't quite ready to go on chips, but probably would be by the end of the pint. So I got to witness Boak performing that great British ritual of Taking A Bad Pint Back. It was substituted without fuss. I was secretly disappointed.

Time was marching on but I couldn't leave without a pint of Harvey's Best Bitter, a beer I thoroughly enjoyed earlier this year. It barely touched the sides of the glass, but then it's one of those complex-yet-unfussy beers that still works well when inhaled at speed. And with that I said my goodbyes and sped off into the night, back on the Heathrow Express and into Terminal 1 where the departures board was telling me that, against any semblance of normality, the evening flight to Dublin was expected to leave as scheduled and that I really ought to be heading to the gate if I didn't mind too much awfully. "I don't really have time for a beer in the landside Wetherspoons" I thought. But I went and checked what was on anyway. To my horror I saw a pump clip for Hooky Gold, and was steeling myself for the swiftest half in aviation history when I noticed with relief a "Coming Soon" tag above it. Phew. So I turned tail, nipped through security, had a quick butchers for anything interesting in the airside bar -- Pride and Adnams Bitter: nice, but not worth missing my flight for -- and plonked down in my aisle seat just before the Aer Lingus lady shut the aircraft door.

Yes, I've got this post-work pints in London thing down to a fine art.

A big thanks to Bailey and Boak for the recommendation of a lovely pub within walking distance of both my day's work and Paddington, and it was great chatting to you, though far too brief. Shame I couldn't bring any of your homebrew back with me, but those airline regulations are in place for my safety, y'know?

06 October 2008

Cloven hefe

It looks like I've finally managed to guilt my Dad into getting some decent beer in. After complaining about his endless supply of crap lager, my latest raid on his garage produced gold in the form of Sainsbury's Bavarian Style Wheat Beer. This rich orange brew is made for the supermarket chain by the Meantime microbrewery in London.

I've no idea which particular Bavarian beer they're seeking to emulate, but this is better than any I've had, save for dark brown Schneider. The main reason is the spice: I love big clove flavours in a weiss and this has them in spades, and they come as quite a surprise after the strong banana aroma. The full body makes for a very satisfying beer, with no trace of the hollow wateriness that often ruins cheap weissbier. It would have been more satisfying if they packaged it in properly-German 500ml bottles instead of 330ml, but they come in four-packs and I'm perfectly happy to bung two into a weissbier glass at once.

The wealth of beer goodness that normally overwhelms me on my rare visits to Sainsbury's means that I'd never have picked this out on my own. Thanks Dad.

03 October 2008

Been there, drank that

The beer from one particular country always goes straight to my memory cells and conjures up rich malty beer in dark poky wood-panelled pubs. So for this month's Session I'm going with one from this genre which I've never tried before.

The country, of course, is Belgium, and the beer is Rochefort 6. I was a little apprehensive that this baby Trappist might not offer the full strong Belgian ale experience, but the 7.5% ABV claim on the label gave me confidence. It pours a translucent ruby-brown shade with the very typical soft fluffy Belgian head. The aroma is spice, incense and violets, though with none of the heady alcohol vapours I was expecting.

Even though the body is light and the flavour full of sweet fruit and candy rather than earthy malt, this still took me straight back to Belgium on the first sip. It's something about the soft carbonation, the long long plum aftertaste and the slow-burning alcoholic warmth that speaks uniquely of the country. Of course, the two higher-numbered Rocheforts offer the same only bigger, though not necessarily better. I could get used to this light every-day Trappist, especially at Belgian prices.