31 December 2008

Lagerboy writes

On his recent visit, Velky Al donated some bottles of Primátor Excluziv to a corner of the Irish beer blogosphere (me, Thom and Adeptus). It looks like a junior drinker's dream: a lager proclaiming itself, in massive Lolcat lettering, to be 16%. In ABV terms, however, it's a mere 7.5%, though that's still not to be sneezed at. It pours a lovely shade of amber and gives off heady boozy aromas. The overriding flavour is sweet -- quite bubblegummish -- malt. It puts my experience of central-to-eastern European beers to the test as I'm not sure where to place this. There's a lot of märzen character in its breadiness but there's a fair whack of Polish mocne to be found in the nearly-but-not-quite Special Brew sugariness. All I knew was that it would have to be consumed quickly, while still cold, for fear of cloying. This I duly did, appreciating its filling warmth for some time afterwards. If you're going to be drinking pale lager in the midst of winter, this is the sort of thing to go for.

With the Primátor polished off, I returned to the fridge where I found a bottle of Gösser, an Austrian lager that's been a mainstay of Irish offies for as long as I can remember. It's really very poor -- thin, vaguely dry, barely beery, in fact. At a time when yellow fizz can be bought for half nothing you have to wonder what this is still doing on the market. For sale to idiots like me, I suppose.

And speaking of cheap yellow fizz, the first beer I ever wrote about on this blog was Euroshopper lager. Back in 2005, and for some years previous, it was my dependable house beer -- the one I'd have in for times when I just wanted a lager without having to think about it. The brewer and recipe have changed since then and I've got out of the habit of drinking this style of beer: my old reliables are far more likely to be O'Hara's Stout, Hobgoblin or Schenider Weisse these days, so I've not been in any rush to try the new version. However, there are occasions, especially this time of year, when drinkers of pale lager are going to show up to the house and require refreshment. My cheap beer of choice for this purpose these days is a Belgian: Hackenberg Export.

This is brewed by Martens in Limburg and, surprisingly, bears the logo of Dundalk-based importer Noreast, the people who bring us our Erdinger, Budvar and Shepherd Neame beers. The pils is a pleasing shade of darkish gold and very full bodied, given its place on the market, with a pleasant sweetness adding to its drinkability.

At €1.50 or so a can it's a little pricier than some of the other sub-premiums, but it's far ahead of them in quality terms. And better than any of the high-cost, as-seen-on-TV, lager brands as well. If I still have stock left over on the far side of New Year I doubt you'll hear me complain.

29 December 2008

Merry Tickmas

I did have quite a merry Christmas, thanks for your wishes, one and all. It began the day before Christmas Eve with a supermarket sweep in my parents' local Sainsbury's. Newry had mostly let me down on the Sainsbury's prize-winners, but I fared much better in Armagh.

I bagged a bottle of Barnstormer, for instance. It's quite a simple dark bitter; one which claims full-bodiedness but I found to be a smidge on the thin side. What separates it from the herd is the oodles of chocolate character, climbing forcefully out of the glass and adding a richness to the flavour which already has plenty of caramel malt, a strong English hops bitterness and more than a hint of warming roastiness. These attributes are balanced rather well and, sitting on that light body, make for a beer which is highly enjoyable to sink. If you're minded to buy it, get more than one bottle.

The other competition winner couldn't be more different. I'm still not used to full-flavoured beers which are clear and bright yellow, so I was surprised at what poured forth from the bottle of Doctor Okell's IPA. It gives up its secrets early, however, with a strong whiff of bitter grapefruity hops hitting the nose right away. Naturally, hops dominate the flavour, perfectly tempered with just enough light caramel to provide the balance and body it needs. I'd nearly say it was the perfect northern English IPA if it were actually from northern England, rather than a funny constitutional oddity just to the left of it. A deserving fellow prize-winner, and a cut above the Barnstormer in my opinion.

So much for other people's judgment. Time to make some of my own.

Quite often I'll buy a beer with a strong advance suspicion it'll be terrible. I'm frequently wrong, however, which adds an extra thrill to the pouring. This time round, Marston's Single Malt was the one I had second, third and fourth thoughts about before eventually walking off with it. I don't think I've ever liked a Marston's beer, and clear glass is never a smart move. Then there's the whisky associations, with the possibility of the sweet, cloying woody flavours that tend to accompany them.

It turns out, however, that the name is derived simply from the fact that only Golden Promise -- allegedly the preferred malt of Scottish distillers -- is used. Well, and some hops too, since my bottle had received considerable attention from the Skunking Fairy. Beyond that mild unpleasantness there is really not much to this at all. Tasting blindly I reckon I would be hard pressed to tell it from green-bottled euro-fizz. Light, bland and dull. Avoid.

Purity Brewing's Ubu amber ale was a much better proposition. I've really taken to US amber ales this past few months and was interested to see an English take on it. Obviously it's nowhere near as citrically hoppy as its transatlantic cousins, instead what you get is a fairly typical English pale ale: a good solid caramel malt base peppered with a dry tangy bitterness. It's unchallenging but still pretty tasty.

There's a similar red-gold colour to Theakston's Grouse Beater, but a very distinctive super-fruity nose, full of violets and raspberries. The sweet flavour is packed with summer fruit, ending in a rather odd dry chalkiness which I wasn't sure how to take. I was reminded a little of Poacher's Choice, but it's lighter and much less of a fruity smack in the gob. At the same time, I think one Grouse Beater is the place to stop.

Staying with the game, I was pleased to get hold of some Pickled Partridge, the seasonal from the Badger range (as mentioned favourably here, and less so here). It's another pale ale on the attractive red-gold end of the spectrum. There's not much by way of aroma, but a strong hoppy foretaste arrives early and lingers long enough to let the toffee malt base catch up and mix with it. Even at a mere 4.5% ABV it definitely works as a winter warmer, though I'd mark it down for over-carbonation and a slightly unpleasant soapy afterburn right at the end. Good, but could be better.

One of the stranger finds was sitting on a shelf by itself in the supermarket, some distance from the other beers. I've no idea why Arthur Pendragon SA wasn't allowed join in the reindeer games, but I found it quite a quirkily tasty number. It looks like bottle conditioning went all wrong, with no gas and a murky dark brown body. The texture isn't great either, and definitely on the thin side. However the flavour is magnificent, packed full of lip-smacking sweet woody smokiness. The beer, by Hampshire Brewery, is a bit of a one-trick-pony, but it's a trick I enjoy.

My one new stout of the holiday was in Meantime's half-litre bottle range: their London Stout. The label blurb has an interesting jab about stout being more of a London thing than an Irish thing, almost as if this first-rate Greenwich microbrewery feels some way inferior to the soulless industrial macrostout facility Diageo are running in Dublin 8. This sense continues in the way the beer is unfortunately rather like Guinness, being dry, a bit metallic and generally quite understated in the flavour department. Still, London Stout is decent, unfussy drinking, and certainly a far cry better than Uncle Arthur's bottled offerings.

No Wychwood beers this year, just one from the brewery's organic Duchy Original range: the Special Ale. It's a dark amber strong ale featuring big, almost-sickly sweet malt tempered with a bitter kick. It's a cut above most of the organic English beers I've had and I can't help wondering if it's because the hops are English rather than air-freighted from the usual organic hops suppliers in New Zealand. Or it could be that the flavour comes out of its shell more once the ABV is pumped up beyond 6%. Either way, I liked this.

I finished my stash on Boxing Day with another strong ale, and one of the best, in my opinion. Bateman's Victory is just about perfect as an example of the style. Though amber rather than ruby, it has the classic weighty body, loaded with chewy toffee flavours, that is just immensely satisfying to drink. The stickiness warms all the way down. The hopping has been done firmly and gently, imparting a spicy bitterness that adds to the malty warmth. It was a dry and chilly Christmas up where I was, and this beer in particular provided the perfect antidote.

And those were my ten beers of Christmas. Should've asked Santa for liposuction...

24 December 2008

Over by Christmas

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
...
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;
-- Philip Larkin, MCMXIV

Since the pubs were open all day, it's perfectly possible that Larkin's fresh-faced new recruits to the British Expeditionary Force had adjourned for a celebratory beer before the ink was dry on their enlistment papers. If there was a Whitbread pub near the recruiting office, Tommy and pals could well have been congratulating each other over bottles of porter or SSS stout, beers Ron Pattinson commissioned De Molen to recreate. He very kindly donated a bottle of each to me back in August, and I reckon it's now about time I opened them.

Drink the Porter first, said Ron. The cork popped out loudly and was followed by quite a subtle beer -- a hazy dark brown, firmly fizzy and light bodied with a mild, slightly sour, slightly bitter, aroma tinged with a yeasty sharpness. The flavour carries notes of chocolate and coffee, but nothing powerful and nothing that even hints at 5.8% ABV. I realised before long that my fancy snifter glass (a gift from Adeptus) was entirely inappropriate here. Even though Ireland was probably spared the worst of the wartime predations on brewing, this recipe is unlikely to have been current several decades later when Flann O'Brien wrote that "a pint of plain's your only man", yet that's exactly what this is: a plain, no-nonsense drinking porter that begs to be sunk in a straight-sided pint glass.

With the last dregs poured down his clean-shaven throat, Tommy goes to the bar to get the next round in.

The stout, SSS, is a different story. No pop from the cork here, though it's far from flat -- lightly sparkled, leaving a low-lying island of froth floating on a translucent ruby body. Again the aroma doesn't jump out of the glass, but the promise of 9.99% ABV is definitely present among some dry roasted notes. The overwhelming feature of the flavour is bitterness: both beers are hopped with just East Kent Goldings and here they're used to their full extent: vegetal and slightly metallic, like the very finest brussels sprout. This sits on a sturdy base of heavy, dark, treacly malt with a touch of smoke, revealing this bitter old thing to be a sweetie at heart. The contrasting flavours leave me perfectly convinced that stout's dry and sweet variations both descended from a common ancestor much like SSS. I can see how drinkers used to this, and aware of how the powers-that-be were adversely influencing the nature of beer for the greater good of His Majesty's empire, wouldn't object too much when their pint headed off in one of these directions. They still would have hankered after a pint of old SSS, though. It's a beer to take time over. One to sip in silence with the lads and let the reality of what you've just signed up to sink in.

22 December 2008

Tasty Phúca

It was flavour bingo up the Bull & Castle last Wednesday lunchtime. John, Ken, Mrs Beer Nut and I were sitting round halbes of Phúca, the winter ale just released from Franciscan Well in celebration of ten years a-brewing. There's a lot to this dark brown ale with its tan head: ginger is definitely in the mix, being present in the aroma and adding a bite to the taste. Cloves dominate the flavour -- raw and uncompromising. Cinnamon is in for sure, and there's lemon zest as well, we think. It's quite possible that there's malt and hops on the ingredient list, but Declan from the B&C tells me that a solid dose of gen-ew-ine Canadian maple syrup was thrown in at some point in the process, and that's where the sweet caramel base comes from.

It sounds like an explosion in the mince pie factory. It sounds like a mess, but it's delicious. The different spices work together just the way they do in a rich Christmassy dessert. Of course it's too cold straight from the keg, but given a few minutes breathing it turns into a first rate warmer, with the spices giving it incredible legs.

It's three years since I complained about the lack of winter seasonal beers in Ireland, and noted the single exception. Once again, only one of the country's breweries has stepped up to the plate and given the discerning beer drinking public (all fifty or so of us) what we want. The Franciscan Well, based out of their brewpub in Cork, is really going from strength to strength and I was delighted to hear they're buying a new fermenter to raise their capacity. They already host the Ground Zero of the Irish craft beer scene every Easter, and I sincerely hope they get their beers out into more of our pubs.

Here's to the 'Well and another ten winters, each of them full of spicy winter ales.

18 December 2008

Clear out

I'm looking forward to heading north next week and performing an epic raid on Sainsbury's in Armagh. The exchange rate means that beer in the UK is getting cheaper and cheaper by the minute for me.

To clear a bit of space for the haul, I thought I'd open a few from the last stash I picked up in October, aware that some of them wouldn't have been the freshest when I bought them. I recall being sorely disappointed that only one of the British Beer Competition winners was available, namely Scott's 1816 from Copper Dragon in Yorkshire. There was no sign of a date on the bottle so I figured I'd better get it into me quick, just to be safe.

This IPA pours a perfect, deep Lucozade orange. The head is of the big-bubbled real ale variety and disappears shortly after it arrives. I detected a touch of stale must on the aroma which confirmed that it was perhaps past its best. A sip revealed some simple but beautiful sticky toffee flavours followed up by quite a gentle hoppy tang. However, then the mustiness returned -- stale and woolly -- to upset the delicately balanced taste. And then I noticed the neck, where the date was written after all, in black ink, invisible against the dark beer before pouring. Turns out this is supposedly good for another eight months. Oh dear. I think perhaps 1816 is a delicate flower of an IPA which doesn't take to bottling at all, but needs to be served fresh from the cask, whence I'm sure it's superb. Still, with the lightness that comes of 4.4% ABV it didn't occupy my time and after just a few gulps I was back in the stash.

The next one was definitely knocking on a bit, with less than a week before it was due to reach pensionable age. It was bottle conditioned, however, making it more of an unknown quantity. Goldblade is a wheat beer from O'Hanlon's, a Devonshire brewery I still haven't made up my mind about. As one might expect, it's rather hazy. There's big bonus fizz and a thick head that stays put throughout -- not so much lacing as lining.

It's a close relation of Belgian wit, with lemons and coriander at the centre and a mild dry hoppiness. The aroma offers lemon sherbet and the texture is surprisingly smooth, given all that gas up top. What it lacks is legs: the fruit and spice just vanish after the first taste. At 4% ABV, this is a don't-think-just-drink quaffer. Not bad, but not great either.

I will definitely be looking for things heavier and darker when I land next at Sainsbury's.

15 December 2008

Belge-yum

Saison Dupont is one of those beers that gets mentioned now and again in connoisseur circles as a reference point for its style. I happened to pick up a bottle for the princely sum of €1.60 last time I was through Amsterdam and I opened it yesterday. Pouring was a struggle, with uncomfortable quantities of foam disappearing down the sink before I got a glass near. This undid any settling work that had happened over the past few months, and the pale amber beer was rife with suspended yeast bits which never really got round to calming down again.

For all the fuss, it's quite an ordinary beer at the end: a little thin and laced with mildly sour, typically Belgian, ale flavours. One of the best features is a warmth that rivals much stronger beers, despite it only having 6.5% ABV, but there's no real dominant or domineering flavour. I guess there would be something wrong with a traditional rustic "farmhouse" beer that was mind-blowing, however I still enjoyed this, understated and all that it is. I'd pay more than €1.60 a bottle anyway.

From saison to lambic, and one from the Cantillon stable. I do love the way their small bottles feature both a cap and a cork -- ain't nuthin' getting out of there until you're ready for it. Standard Cantillon Gueuze is one of my favourite beers and I spent a while trying to figure out what makes Iris different. It's sharper and earthier but I couldn't figure out how this was achieved. A little research tells me that Iris is made using fresh hops, rather than the dried, aged, tame ones in the Gueuze.

It's still far from anything you'd call "hoppy", though: the end result is still sour and lip-smacking, but instead of a smooth and genteel buzz, the effect is much more intense. Blending is everything with gueuze, rounding out the intense flavours. I'm sure Iris is blended too, but the edges are very much still on here. On balance I think I'd go back to the mellower version next time.

Last up is something darker and stronger. My bottle of Pannepot Grand Reserva is dated 2005 (it's the same beer Alan enjoyed a couple of months back) and claims 22 months of wood aging, 8 of them on calvados barrels. All that sitting about has created red-brown ale with just a faint fizz to it. The aged boozy apples are definitely present in the aroma and into the first sip. Otherwise this is quite a sweet candy-caramel ale with definite fresh wood overtones amongst the echoes of cherry liqueur chocolates. The fruit and sugar sweetness go a long way to hide the 10% ABV: it's neither a warmer nor a cloyer. If it wasn't so intense I might even go so far as describing it as light. However, it's definitely a taste sensation, and not the kind of thing I associate with Belgium at all.

Another observation from the Obvious File, perhaps, but it's great that Belgium's beers continue to educate and surprise me, even after I've had quite a few of them. I'll keep going, I think.

12 December 2008

Love in a cold climate

It has been mighty cold recently, something which is much harder to bear when one lives in a country where it's pretty much impossible to buy imperial stout. Fortunately I had the good sense to stock up on my travels over the summer, so I've been braving my chilly attic and bringing down rich dark bottles of winter comfort.

To the US first, and a small bottle of Old Rasputin -- a 9% ABV imperial stout by North Coast Brewing in California, featuring Boney M's favourite mad monk in mid-benediction on the label. From the bottle it is totally opaque with not even traces of ruby when held up to the light. The head quickly subsides to a thin tan skim. Texturewise it's quite wonderful, slipping down silkily and leaving a warming buzz as it goes. The big surprise for me, however, was in the taste. Since it's a Californian I was expecting citric hops in spades, à la Gonzo or Yeti, but they're not here. Instead it's all about a sweet Irish coffee aroma and a mild roasted bitterness on the palate. Sumptuous, and requiring very little effort to drink.

Amager's Imperial Stout was harder work. The Danish brewery haven't put quite as much effort into their label, and the half-litre bottle ends up looking like some supermarket's own brand of discount imperial stout. The head is thick and a light shade of beige, and the huge amount of sludge in the bottom of the bottle indicates that at least some of the 10-and-a-bit% ABV is a result of bottle conditioning. It is astonishingly bitter, but again not in a citric American hops way. Instead, the flavour is packed full of burning liquorice and the sort of coffee that's strong enough to stand a spoon in. The texture is incredibly full and quite greasy, but in a pleasant mouth-coating sort of way. Despite being the same style as Old Rasputin this is almost the diametric opposite. Yes it's still very tasty but it's a beer that forces you to take your time and lacks the hypnotic friendly warmth of the other.

Imperial stout, of whatever stripe, is such a rewarding beer. Why more (i.e. some) isn't made or imported into this stouty country of ours is really beyond me.