29 January 2009

Zappa's Law

You've all seen it, I'm sure, on a beer menu or a list of beer quotations:
You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline — it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.
Liechtenstein, a thin glacial valley sandwiched between the Swiss and Austrian alps, doesn't have an airline. It does have a beer, though, which brings it well up in the World's-Smallest-Proper-Country-As-Defined-By-Zappa's-Law stakes. Take that, Nauru.

Wine is the main booze-related activity of the principality, and His Serene Highness keeps a couple of small vineyards under his gaze, though he doesn't seem to mind tourists like me and Mrs Beer Nut tramping through them. We did buy a couple of bottles of his pinot noir in the adjacent shop before heading on, though. It's only polite.

There's one supermarket in the miniscule capital Vaduz and there I picked up a bottle of a lager bigger than Liechtenstein itself. Ländlegold features the princely schloss on the label and is made from a minimum of 50% Liechtensteiner ingredients, the rest sourced over the way in Switzerland where the brewing happens. It's an extremely dull pilsner, smoother than most of your bloat-inducing fizzbombs, but otherwise totally forgettable. The label says this is a beer as unique as Liechtenstein itself, which is pretty much on the money as it's not unique at all and very similar to both Austria and Switzerland, in crap lager terms anyway. For more fake Li(e)chtensteiner beer, see Adeptus's recent post on one such, though it doesn't seem to be claiming association with the principality at all.

For actual beermaking in this micronation you have to go to Schann, a town which is, like everything in Liechtenstein, just a couple of minutes' bus ride out of Vaduz town centre. The Brauhaus brewery (an umlaut-free zone) itself wasn't open, but a local shop was able to provide us with a few takeaway examples of its wares.

Brauhaus Hell's first, while I'm tolerating pale lagers. It looked to me like a plain, honest-to-goodness fizzy lager. There was the grassy nose and the strong carbonation. I was expecting something clean and mildly hoppy, but no. The only flavour in this beer is a nasty kind of mustiness I didn't care for at all. There's no bitterness or sweetness or anything else to hide it. Not a good start.

However, matters improved with the wheat beer, although I'm not sure if that was deliberate. Weiza is darker and hazier than most weizens I've met and presents a sour vinegary nose which worried the hell out of me. It tasted fine, though: a lovely big whack of clove spice at the heart of it. The vinegar notes reappear at the end but they don't spoil the party. The beer is sour but not in a typically beery way, like lambic or Berliner Weisse , but more in a savoury way. I ended up thinking of salt and vinegar crisps, if that helps at all. No? Well I liked it anyway.

The bock was next up, and the first thing that struck me about my bottle of Malbu-Bock was that they had filled it right to the lip of the bottle. I choose to read this as a charming human error on the part of the brewers. And more beer for me: hooray! Once poured, there's a faintly herbal nose off it rather than the syrupy sweetness I feared, and the whole is a promising shade of light, bright amber. The texture is spot-on with the heavy bock weight, but again the sickly sweetness is nowhere to be found. Instead there's a subtle bitter, medicinal character, maybe a note of metallic saccharine and hints of toffee and caramel as well. I'm sure many a bock fan will find it bland and uninteresting but it kinda worked for me.

The best of the lot, however, was Brauhaus Schwarz -- not really surprising, I suppose. It's properly black with a cream-coloured head. Sweet and stouty is how I'd describe it. Plenty of roastiness, some smokiness and a thin-but-creamy texture that puts me very much in mind of milk stout. The slickness is held in check by a spicy bitterness that adds yet another layer of complexity. It wouldn't be everyone's cup of milky tea but I loved it. It slips down very easily and coats the palate, giving the whole taste sensation wonderful legs.

It takes a special kind of tourist to enjoy Liechtenstein, especially on a freezing cold Saturday when almost everything is closed. I liked it though. There's a definite Shangri-La feeling about the way its pastures and vineyards are enclosed by the snow-capped mountains. But someone in the place has managed to carve out a living for themselves producing beer, and that definitely makes it a proper country in my book, and Frank's.

26 January 2009

Gone commercial

ICB's monthly amateur night at the Bull & Castle recommenced on Thursday last, with a difference. We had the usual interesting variety from the home brewers -- a fascinating dampfbier; a passable bitter; a cracking red ale; a powerful coffee stout and a tasty winter warmer -- but the larger-than-usual crowd also included several representatives from our favourite trade, including a bar manager, an importer and, best of all, a brewer.

I've already mentioned Jonathan the importer of Californian beers. His website is now online, though it seems oddly preoccupied with a weird grape juice by-product I know very little about. Along with news of new stock he has on the market here, he brought a couple of samples of Speakeasy's Double Daddy -- the souped-up version of their Big Daddy IPA. To me (not a fan of Big Daddy) it tasted more like a double version of Prohibition. It had that same superb finely-tuned balance between the dark caramel malts and the American bittersweet citrus hops. I spent a fair bit of time with my nose stuck in the sample glass because it smelled divine. It tastes pretty good too, and the 9.5% ABV adds a marvellous warmth to it after swallowing. Absolutely magnificent stuff.

Our hosts had promised us a sneak preview of the new stout from Carlow Brewing, and were true to their word. Leann Folláin (pictured left, resisting Laura's telekinetic powers) shares the label colours and ABV (6%) of the limited edition 10th anniversary Celebration stout they made last year, but is a different animal. Instead of the classic Irish roast barley dryness, this appears to have been oaked up in a big way [edit: actually, no, it's not oaked], creating a heavy, sticky, sweet stout, filled with that lactic, vanilla-ish barrel flavour which I'm never sure how to take. I decided this wasn't a beer for me. Carlow probably agree, hence the packaging is a 355ml bottle intended for the North American market [edit: wrong again -- they just had leftover bottles; this has not yet been exported to the US]. Mind you, if it's being pitched at people lucky enough to have never sat through an Irish class it probably would have been worth mentioning somewhere that Leann Folláin means "wholesome ale". Thanks to na gaelgoirí of ICB for the translation -- I dropped Irish like a proverbial superheated root vegetable after just three years of half-arsed study.

The main event of the evening for me was a tasting of the first beer from Ireland's newest craft brewery. Based in Co. Down, Clanconnel is starting with something safe -- a blonde ale called Weavers Gold, in honour of the trade which accounted for most of the industrial revolution in Ulster. It's only available bottled and is pitched squarely at the middle ground, with 4.5% ABV. But it's no lowest-common-denominator mass-market clone for lagerboys: it starts with a hefty whack of Saaz aroma, and the first sip couples this with a striking bubblegum maltiness, with the Styrian Goldings making themselves felt at the finish. It's a complex blonde ale, but still eminently sinkable -- a great one for introducing wary drinkers to the joys of properly-made beer. Nice one Mark, I hope it sells well, and I look forward to the next one from Clanconnel.

Coincidentally, the Bull & Castle management had a couple of bottles of Morrissey Fox Blonde Ale available on the same evening. It's not sold in these parts, but Richard Fox had been in town for an event before Christmas and had left them lying around. Oh dear. It's really not very good, and next to the Weavers Gold it fared very badly indeed. In an attempt to attract starstruck lager drinkers they've managed to create (or commission, rather) something almost indistinguishable from mass market yellow lager. It's bodiless, flavourless and overly fizzy. Maybe it works better in draught form, but from the bottle it just failed to deliver anything worthwhile.

All this sampling was punctuated by a hefty halbe of Phúca, still on tap at the Bull & Castle and still highly recommended, with a couple of Hookers to finish on a lighter, hoppier, note. It was one of those evenings when it becomes very easy to forget that I live in a city where good beer is really quite thin on the ground: it takes brewers, importers and bar managers of a very high calibre to make that possible. Thanks all.

22 January 2009

XB me

A shortcut through Marks & Spencer the other day took me across the booze ghetto that all Irish supermarkets have now established under threat from the government of being forced to erect physical barriers between the alcohol and all other stock, as allowed for in last year's Intoxicating Liquor Act. On my way, I noticed a staff member unloading a trolley full of Sussex Bitter onto the shelves. It's one of M&S's bottle conditioned range and a beer I'd not seen on sale before. There was no price tag on the shelf, but an opportunity to give two fingers to the government's attempt to stamp out impulse buying of alcohol in supermarkets is not to be passed up. I took a bottle to the checkout.

It wouldn't scan. The cashier went off to investigate and came back in deep discussion with a troubled colleague. The gist of their conversation was that this wasn't on the system, that it was only for sale in the UK, and that it should never have been shipped to Dublin, never mind put on display. So, after waiting patiently for five minutes for my beer I was informed they couldn't sell it to me. And I know that if I asked someone higher up why the beer I wanted isn't available to Irish customers I would be told that there's no demand for it. Reasoning as circular as a tub of M&S mini scotch eggs.

The fact that, according to Thom, Hepworth's M&S Sussex Bitter is actually worth drinking barely factors at all. Back home I sought consolation in a bitter from my stash of personally-imported English ales.

Theakston XB does not share my bitterness. In fact, the dark amber ale is surprisingly sweet -- filled with strawberries and redcurrants. The aroma is heavy caramel, but the beer itself is quite light, almost verging on thin, I'd say, with an unfortunate amount of fizz for a bitter. Still, there's the caramel and the earthy English hop character that reminds me a lot of Old Peculier, but in a lighter, 4.5% ABV, mid-week kind of way.

And at under £2 in Sainsbury's it was a hell of a lot cheaper than the Sussex Bitter would have been. The thought of all that M&S beer sitting in a yard waiting to be collected instead of being enjoyed is galling, however.

19 January 2009

Kraut and about

I held off mentioning a couple of German beers I had in Zürich, aware that I had some German stuff at home to write about in the near future and I may as well lump them in together. As it turned out, the common ground is merely geographical as each of the following beers are very different from each other, which is refreshingly odd for a nation which seems to delight in brewing an awful lot of very samey beers.

We'll start in the south with a bottle of Hofbräu Schwarz Weisse, consumed in Zeughauskeller. I liked this "black white" beer, which is actually a gorgeous shade of chestnut brown. The banana and clove flavours are laid on thick and accentuated by a heavy, chewy, caramel sweetness. It's streets ahead of most any dark weissbier I know.

I mentioned the interesting Swiss beer I had in Bar Andorra here. We were there for a while, idly picking through the menu. I had a bottle of Jever Pils, a beer I've not tasted in donkeys' years. It's not as pungently bitter as I remember it, being remarkably smooth up front and saving the bitterness for just a pleasant gentle kick at the end. I'd be up for more but it seems to have disappeared from the Irish market. Still in Bar Andorra, I'll stray briefly from the Fatherland to mention Staropramen Dark, in its decidedly funky glass. I loved the smoky caramel character of this lager from one of the Czech giants. It's flavoursome but with a light enough touch to slip down easily. Just a shame I was paying nearly €5 for 330mls of it.

Back home again, then, and a couple of beers brought to me by Adeptus from his corner of north-west Germany. First up is Boltens Ur-Alt -- that's like "Old2", isn't it? It pours a cloudy brown from the swingtop with a stiff head reminding me a lot of a dunkel weiss. There's no aroma to speak of and I started getting a little worried about the fact that its drink-by date had passed a month or so previously. But it tasted fine and is unquestionably an alt: very dry, to the point of being almost sulphurous. This is followed by a powerful dose of that alt sourness, big enough to remind me of a Flemish red. And then, strangest of all, there's a final subtle aftertaste of roasted coffee, putting me in mind of nothing so much as an English mild. None of these complex flavours are particularly bold, and it makes you work to pick them out, but that's part of the fun of drinking it.

The other alt he gave me was from his local brewery in Münster: Pinkus Müller. All-organic Pinkus Original, says the label, is a (or "the"?) Münstersch Alt. Stand by for regional variation. The first surprise was the colour: it is remarkably pale, the hazy yellow of a witbier. The aroma has all the grassiness of a pils. The taste is mostly sour -- the mouth-watering lambic variety, though a little less intense. At the end I get the rounded fruity bitterness of a blonde ale. For all that going on, it's extremely easy to drink and moreish. Personally I'd love to have this as my local speciality. And the lesson is that if it looks like a wit, smells like a pils and tastes somewhere between a lambic and a blonde ale, then it's probably an alt. Simple.

15 January 2009

In my room, bashing the badger. Again

I don't remember a winter with so much sickness around. Everyone seems to have caught something nasty at some point or other. Naturally, my turn arrived at the weekend and only last night did I feel up to my first beer since returning from Brussels. So I went to the stash to look for something that wouldn't be too harsh on my recovering system. Blandford Fly is made with ginger. Hell, that's practically medicinal.

The ginger aromas make themselves felt as soon as the cap comes off, while the pour produces a limpid golden marmalade ale with little by way of head. The surface aroma is fresh and spicy, redolent of real ginger and just the way I like it. On tasting, yes, the superdry ginger goes right where it should: up to the roof of the mouth where it burns in a most pleasurable way. And at that point, the beer falls apart.

The prickly gassiness doesn't sit at all well with the already sharp foretaste -- it becomes a little uncomfortable to drink. Maybe it's the combination, but I'd swear that this is quite a bit gassier than your average English bottled ale. Then, as I've started to expect from Badger, comes the big cloying artificial fruit flavour -- candied oranges and fake apricots. Apparently they've added maple syrup to it for some reason. Maybe to balance the dry with some sweetness? It didn't work. It just ends up too thick, too sweet and hard work to drink. Still, that means it has to be good for me, right?

Involuntary detox over.

12 January 2009

I'm not Jack Bauer

"Please do not practise your French here. We are Flemish and we hate the French".
So said the faintly-bearded nipper behind the ticket desk at Brussels airport station to Mrs Beer Nut's request for two returns to Bruxelles-Central. Welcome to Belgium. Having finally soothed his hurt sense of semi-national pride, we acquired the tickets. For Brussel-Centraal, of course. It was 9pm last Thursday and herself was over for a meeting the next day. With nothing better to do with the 24 hours, I tagged along.

For the second time, we checked into the Grand Sablon, a decent and conveniently-located hotel, though sadly no longer offering free wi-fi. It does lack quality pubs in the immediate vicinity, so we plumped for the Café Leffe at the bottom of the street. By 10 we were perusing the menu in the clean, brightly-lit, but rather soulless pub-restaurant. The menu is quite short but mercifully not limited to AB-InBev beers. I opted for a Kasteel Bruin, having never had it before, and feeling the need for a warmer after coming in from the icy streets of sub-zero Brussels. Thick and syrupy are the operative terms here. It's 11% ABV, very flat, boozy as hell and offers the same sort of warmth as Benylin. Not recommended. Then, in typical Beer Nut style, I ordered the other beer in the same range: Kasteel Triple. Just as well I did, too: it's really quite good. The aroma is orangey but the flavour has all this and more: honey and caramel as well as a slightly astringent sourness, all based on a heavy bready body. Redemption, then, for Kasteel.

As midnight approached, the Café Leffe waiters began taking in the menu boards and putting the chairs on the tables. We took the hint and departed.

Next morning, I hit the snowy streets at 9.30. First port-of-call was the legendary Brussels throwback brewer, Cantillon. I was in no rush so spent three quarters of an hour ambling southwards to the brewery near Gare du Midi. I'd been here once before, four or so years ago, and while there was nothing happening that day, it was all go inside last Friday. The bottling line was running full pelt and three-metre-high palettes of empty champagne bottles were becoming similarly-tall stacks of fresh Cantillon beer. I wandered around on the self-guided tour and came back for the tasting. It had been a long time since I drank Cantillon Kriek and I think I've lost my taste for it. The sweet cherry juice interrupts my enjoyment of the sour gueuze beneath. Tasting finished, I was heading for the door when one of the lads from the bottling line asked if I wanted to try what they were bottling. Yeah, I kinda did. Turns out it was three-week-old Iris, and it was stunning: the fresh tannic Goldings with which it is dry-hopped stood out a mile. They aim to let this bottle condition for three or four months before sending it out, but demand is such that these days it leaves the brewery much younger. Comparing it to the maturer variety, that's no bad thing, in my opinion.

11 o'clock had come and gone when I left with my purchases. My plan was for a crafty one up at Bier Circus while I waited for places to start serving lunch. A quick spin on the metro and some wandering had me there by 11.40. No consideration for morning drinkers here, unfortunately, as it doesn't open its doors until lunch is ready at noon. Down the street I found somewhere much more understanding of my needs. Seven other blokes had beaten me to the tiny bar called Treurenberg that morning. I had the critical eye cast over me before they returned to their papers and pils. I wanted something light and quick and saw "Pale Ale" on the menu. Expecting John Martin's I reckoned that would do admirably. A sip told me that that's not what I got -- it was much more tannic with big heavy slabs of toffee. Tasty with it, but a surprise nonetheless. Turning the glass revealed it to be a substance called Whitbread Pale Ale. It seems to me to be another of the Belgian-brewed English-style ales, but I can't find a record of anyone in Belgium brewing it. So it could be American, or it could be British (nope, Belgian, says Laurent). Still good, though.

That saw me through to noon when I made for the Bier Circus. Years ago I had visited it in its old delightfully dingy premises. Now, with big windows on two sides, it's anything but. The bright sunlight and tiled floor give it an unfortunate clinical feel. The beer list is still first rate, and includes a couple of cask lambics. I picked out the beer which has been top of my Belgian hitlist for a while: Hercule Stout. It's very opaque and rife with suspended floaty bits. The beige head lasts all the way, and the reason for the round dimpled mug is very apparent on lifting it: this is one of these beers that does all the work in the nose before sipping -- powerful sweet and roasty aromas waft from the surface. At 9% it's not surprising that there's more than a touch of treacle about the flavour, as well as more of the stouty roasted grains. This is complicated by a yeasty bitterness right on the end. The whole is a velvety smooth beer and I rather enjoyed it, even if the flavour doesn't quite live up to the aroma's promise.

I had ordered stoemp as my fuel for the afternoon and was very surprised that instead of a big bowl of mash, vegetables and sausages swimming in gravy, my stoemp came in a neat terrine, with sausage and bacon on the side, accompanied by a stemmed glass of onion gravy. Weird. I had been sitting opposite a blackboard offering Brigand IPA so that's what I finished here with. It's the perfect shade of red gold, but the alarm bells began ringing when I could detect no aroma from this at all. The taste is sharp and tripel-like in its yeastiness, but with very little hop character. A fail.

I sat over it anyway, and then decided a head-clearing walk was in order, so at 1.15 I set off again, past the beautifully snow-bound Parc de Bruxelles, and on to a shop where I could continue my mission without taking any more beer on board. Alas it didn't work out that way. Beer Mania is several things. Mostly it's a beer shop boasting some 400 Belgian brews. It also sells some basic home brewing supplies. And right at the back there's a café in which you can try any of the stock, for a mark-up, of course. I wasn't going to. I really wasn't. Except then I found they had their own house beer, contract brewed. And then I noticed how desperately cool the handcrafted glass is. Sold! Mea Culpa is a blonde ale of 7.5% ABV. It's a little darker than one might expect, with a spicy aroma and a pleasant rough, grainy character. Light, tasty, and great fun to drink.

Back to the shopping trail, then, and I picked up some handily-portable cans of Rodenbach in a convenience store as I headed back down to the old city. The next destination, reached at 3.30, came recommended by Boak & Bailey, suggested to them by Andreea. Poechenellekelder is situated over the Mannekin Pis's left shoulder and is an oddly-shaped small pub, with far more levels than there ought to be, in this drinkers' opinion. Puppets dominate the bric-à-brac, and the smallish menu is complemented by lots of specials blackboards. I went for one such: N'ice, the winter ale by La Chouffe. I think I'd be hard pressed to tell this blind from plain old La Chouffe: it has a lot of the pepperiness, with only a sharper, drier character singling out the flavour. I was disappointed by the beer, but cheered up by a phone call from the missus saying that her meeting had ended early and she was on her way to Grand Place. I finished up and headed out. We met at the Brewers' Guild building -- a lacklustre chain brewpub if memory serves me -- at 4.

She was paying for dinner so that came with a bottle of Bordeaux. However, there was time at the end to nip across from Rue des Bouchers to Au Bon Vieux Temps for a couple of swift ones before making for the airport. Well, she had a couple of swift ones; I had to sacrifice some time to collect the baggage up at Sablon. On my return I sunk a fairly quick Westmalle Dubbel, noting that the pub still insists it's the only Belgian trappist available on draught -- Chimay Blanc comes this way too.

Seven o'clock passed as we were on the train, and we were through security by 8. Time for a farewell beer. The airport bar concession is controlled by AB-InBev, but they're not as charitable towards outside beers here as in Café Leffe. And even though the departure area bar sports Leffe parasols, not even that is available. Canned Hoegaarden or canned Stella are your lot. We went with the former, obviously.

Slightly behind schedule we boarded our flight on the stroke of 9pm.