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 Go