26 February 2009

Famous British reserve

Is Fuller's Brewer's Reserve No. 1 supposed to be about 30% cheaper than the Vintage Ale? I was surprised. Though there's probably something seriously wrong when I pay over €6 for 500ml of beer then make off into the night giggling at my crafty steal.

Anyhoo, this is a new one from the iconic Chiswick brewer, and is presumably the first in a series of limited edition ales they're planning to produce. As I mentioned not so long ago, barrels are in. This 7.7% ABV ale has served nearly a year and a half in whisky casks. To be honest, I don't think they did it a whole lot of good.

You get a very clear amber ale with an off-white head. The nose is slightly sour and lambicky, and there's a definite tartness on the first sip. However, it really makes you work to find the vanilla and whisky notes, unlike 1488 which shoves them right in your gob. On the plus side, I enjoyed the slight scotch-like throat burn, but overall I think I'm siding more with this Englishman than this one.

Having expected some sort of huge sticky, woody monster, I feel I got off lightly with what's really quite an understated easy-drinking ale, one which also rewards slow sipping. But I do think the price is just a bit on the high side. At €10, Fuller's Vintage 2007 represents better value, in my opinion.

23 February 2009

Up the Badger's Arse

Deveney's off licence in downtown Dundrum has set up a regular series of themed beer tastings -- a laudable effort at broadening the horizons of south Dublin's beer drinking public. I went along to the first one on Friday, just to give some support, of course, and nothing at all to do with the free beer. My fellow ICBeebie Ken lives nearby, so I dropped in on him beforehand to sample a very tasty pale ale he had cornied in his shed (Ken's brewery goes by the name of Badger's Arse, and you can see him impressing Oz and James with his coffee stout here).

When we eventually got to Deveney's, Ruth had queued up her samples -- from J.W. Dundee, Goose Island, Speakeasy, and Sierra Nevada: the USA being the evening's theme. We offered constructive criticism on the order of tastings and then got to talking beer and the specialist beer market in general. She said that the importer who dropped off Samuel Adams Triple Bock told her not to open it as it would scare the punters. I'd noticed it around before, in its sleek non-descript nip bottle with the outrageous €9.99 price tag, and reckoned it wasn't worth satisfying my curiosity. The Samuel Adams range are a mixed bag -- for every classic there's at least one stinker, in my experience. €9.99 is just too much of a gamble for that brand. But with minimal goading, Ruth agreed to pop one open for us.

Mind blowing, is the operative term. This totally flat, super-thick 17.5% ABV beer is a walking tour of dark ale flavours, with a fully live and interactive cast of characters. We start at chocolate: heavy, bitter, 80%+ cocoa, dark chocolate. From there we pass through rich coffee and maple syrup (an actual ingredient) into fresh liquorice, tawny port, fine cigars, and back to steaming hot chocolate puddings. The whole experience put me in mind of the Lost Abbey Angel's Share I had at the Great British Beer Festival, except instead of coming from a cask in a different country available for a couple of days last year, this came from an off licence a few minutes' bike ride from my house. Magnificent, and worth every cent being asked. Ken agreed, and Ruth had two sales on her hands immediately.

The bonus is that the teeny blue glass bottle has a cork. One sip goes an astonishingly long way with this, and after a small post-prandial glass it can be put back in the cupboard, like any good digestif.

This is just the sort of beer we almost never see in Ireland. Get your hands on it now.

Finally, thanks Ruth and thanks Ken for the beer and a fun evening. If you're at all local to Deveney's, be sure and sign up to their mailing list via deveneydundrum@eircom.net. If the tastings go on like they started it'll be well worth your while.

19 February 2009

Division of labour

The six-pack I bought at the Big Mikkeller Launch back in September has been sitting quietly in my attic ever since. Most of the bottles could do with a bit more ageing, I reckon, but a couple had dates recommending drinking by next autumn, so I figured they were ripe enough already.

At first glance it's hard to tell what separates silver-labelled Kølle from bronze-labelled TræKølle: both barley wines are the same strength, same bitterness level and from the same company (Amager, in association with Mikkeller, with co-operation from retailers Ølbutikken and ØlKonsortiet). Rather than try to pick a drinking order, Mrs Beer Nut and I decided to open them both at the same time and take it from there.

Kølle has that typical heady, alcoholic barley wine aroma: sweet yet hoppy. It follows this with a massive super-concentrated grapefruit hit, then comes a big metallic, galvanic tang -- nasty, like licking a pencil sharpener -- and then a long slow burn of citric hoppiness. It reminds me a lot of the insanely unbalanced Mikkeller Simcoe IPA being served at the European Beer Festival. A glance at the label suggests that Simcoe is indeed the single hop employed here. A bit more ageing might have let it mellow, but I couldn't be sure that something as good as, say, Bigfoot, would be likely to come out the other end. It's an awful lot thinner, for a start, making it hard to believe the strength is a stonking 10.5% ABV.

TræKølle, it seems, is the same beer matured on bourbon barrels. It's a little darker and strikingly lacks that fresh citric hops aroma -- all taken by those greedy angels, I guess. Unsurprisingly, the flavour is dominated by vanilla oak notes, the bourbon history being more than suggested. I'm inclined to say that the hop character is low, but that could be just by comparison with the other Simcoe bomb. It is bitter, however -- both beers claim 90 IBUs -- though here it's more of an acidic character against Kølle's sharp fruitiness. TræKølle is a mellower, calmer, sipping sort of barley wine, even though it does share the skinny body of its wilder sibling. We both preferred this version.

So there we have an object lesson on the effect of bourbon barrel ageing on outrageously hoppy beers. I reckon we can expect more of this kind of thing as 2009 progresses. Barrels are in.

16 February 2009

Super Californian listed; Osprey ale atrocious

It should be a bad thing that I can walk along the shelves of Redmond's and name the importers and distributors on a beer-by-beer basis. I mean, there ought to be more people in the game than that. Anyway, I had been talking to Jonathan in the pub back here, and had set out to get hold of some of his new listings, as well as an old favourite or two.

Blue Frog's DIPA had really hit the spot when I sampled it a couple of months ago, but it wasn't in stock so I settled on a bottle of Red Frog Ale. Mostly out of curiosity, I have to say. "Red ale" is one of Ireland's core beer styles. As far as I can tell (mostly from Iorwerth, pp.110-111) it's what you get when you adapt English-style bitter for mass-market kegging and made with the minimum of pricey ingredients. You end up with something relatively thin, low in alcohol and brimming with crystal malt sweetness, because, y'know, nobody likes bitter beer. What would one of the world's greatest beer producing regions do with that trainwreck of a style?

Red Frog's body is light, certainly, and there's a crunchy-grainy caramel sweetness to it as well. But there's also hops. Hops of the kick-ass aromatic west coast variety. This is a big-flavoured beer in the way Irish reds aren't -- it reminds me a little of Porterhouse Red, though without the horrid nitro blandification. The taste lingers for ages, filling the palate and nose cavities with all that malt and all those hops. Brilliant stuff.

I hadn't been expecting another Irish-red-a-like quite so soon after, but that's what I thought of Osprey, a pale ale brewed by Wychwood as a Sainsbury's own brand. It pours a deep and hazy red with a smooth foamy head glooping out of the bottle after the beer in a most unattractive way. The aroma is soo-weet: the artificial syrupyness of lurid red ice cream sauce. Texturewise it's quite heavy and sugary, with that strawberry undercurrent in the flavour. In fact, it reminds me a lot of Beamish Red. The texture helps with the simulation. It's odd: now that Beamish Red has been delisted by new owners Heineken and, like their other Irish ale possession Murphy's Red, will be produced at foreign breweries only, I think I'll probably miss it. It was, I guess, the best of a very bad lot as mainstream Irish beer goes and it was always a delight to see the Beamish Red tap in the handful of Dublin pubs which sold it, including the one nearest my front door. But the same basic flavour profile in an English ale leaves me very disappointed.

12 February 2009

From the people who brought you Bud

Despite an elocution lesson from Andrew Pattinson I still can't pronounce Hertog Jan properly. It's AB-InBev's upmarket ale brand in the Netherlands, and I've generally approved of the other beers in the range I've tried. I had completely forgotten about the bottle of their Grand Prestige Mrs Beer Nut brought back from our last trip to the Netherlands. More importantly, so had she.

Having dug it out of the back of the attic stash, and secured the relevant permission, I opened it recently. The first thing that happened was a foam attack which was fortunately held in check by the beer's viscosity. This is a 10% ABV beer served in a 30cl bottle, so thickness is to be expected. Holding the poured glass up to the light reveals a very dark red beer which is completely clear -- the first sign of the mass production techniques that presumably created it.

I didn't get much of a nose from it at first, but after a few minutes' warming it gives off a heady acetone vapour, like pear drops. It's not in the taste, though. Here it's all damsons and raspberries, the sort of fruitiness that gives no indication of the prodigious strength. And while the texture is thick, it's not soupy or syrupy -- it's perfectly drinkable and even has a definite sparkle to it. The flavour finishes with just a small hoppy bite on the end.

What we have here is an fine example of how big brewers are quite capable of making perfectly decent beers if the market demands it. It's no world beater, and you won't find me picking it off a shelf over, say, Westmalle Dubbel, but it's a respectable winter dessert sort of beer of the kind giant transnational corporations tend not to make.

09 February 2009

Announcing Session no. 25: Love Lager

Session logoIt's the world's most popular style of beer and can be found in abundance in almost every corner of the globe. For millions of people the word "beer" denotes a cold, fizzy, yellow drink -- one which is rarely spoken of among those for whom beer is a hobby or, indeed, a way of life.

So for this Session, let's get back to basics. I'm sure I'm not the only one whose early drinking career featured pale lager in abundance, so consider this a return to our roots as beer drinkers. Don't even think about cheating the system: leave your doppelbocks and schwarzbiers out of this one: I want pilsners, light lagers, helleses and those ones that just say "beer" because, well, what else would it be?

I want to know what's so great about them, and what's awful. Are we talking just lawnmowers, barbecues and sun holidays here, or is there a time for some thoughtful considered sipping of a cold fizzy lager?

Actually, scratch that last question: there is. It's on Friday 6th March, at your blog, and leave me a comment here (or e-mail me) when your post is up. Twittarians, remember to include #thesession on your tasting tweets, and we can all watch the results come in here.

To kick things off in completely the opposite direction, I started last weekend with a fancy-pants imported flavoured lager: J.W Dundee's Honey Brown from New York. The title is an apt descriptor -- it really is the clear dark golden amber of actual honey. I was surprised by the grassy nose, much more like your average sort of German pilsner. On the palate there's a little bit of residual sweetness, but that could just as easily have come from some diacetyl as the honey. Otherwise it's a light, fizzy, refreshing nondescript sort of beer. Actually, just the sort of thing I'm expecting for this Session.

Look, I didn't say it was going to be fun or interesting. Just get out there and have what the next guy's having.

06 February 2009

A pairing

I'm afraid I'm breaking David's rules for this Session. He's called it A Tripel For Two and asks that participants write about a "Belgian-style tripel". What I had was a tripel all right, and actually from Belgium, but definitely not Belgian-style.

I suspect the vast export market provided by North America is what provoked Brasserie d'Achouffe to produce their catchily-titled Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel, which I picked up in Redmond's recently. It comes in a big bottle so myself and herself shared it over dinner.

'Tis a strange beast and no mistake. Characteristically Chouffe-like, with the peppery spice I've come to associate with their yeast, since it's about the only common factor I've found in their various beers. There's a strong, uncompromising bitterness in with the spice, which I guess is where the tripel label comes in, though the body is much lighter than I would have expected given the 9.5% ABV, and the colour is considerably paler, with a dusting of sediment lurking sullenly at the bottom of the glass.

It's in the hopping, however, that it applies for a Green Card. Amarillo and Tomahawk join the Saaz, and quite late in the brewing process, if I'm not mistaken. The aroma is very citrus, though gives off the hard and oily acidity of oranges rather than light and zesty grapefruit. On the palate the American hoppiness is almost lost amongst the spices, but the lack of body allows some of that grapefruit bitterness to shine through, in a good way.

It's neither one thing or another, this. I think I'd take it over most any other La Chouffe beer, but there's no way I'd swap it for a similarly-sized bottle of Goose Island IPA or Double Daddy (Do such things exist? Why the hell not?) -- the tripel malt profile is just not as enjoyable as the one you get in hoppy American IPAs. We both liked it though. It's a beer that puts a very positive spin on the whole notion that beer styles are not important, and if it tastes good, drink it.

Food? Yeah we had food. Some class of goat's cheese and butternut squash lasagne, I think. It was grand.

04 February 2009

Requiem for crap beer

At the launch of the latest editions of his Bridgestone Guides to eating, drinking and sleeping in Ireland, John McKenna had some choice words for the much-lauded Irish pub:
Our pub culture is dying, whilst our restaurant culture is thriving. The Irish have decided to choose restaurants over pubs, simply because restaurants offer us service as part of the experience and service is a concept that is alien to so many public houses. The era of the pub is over.
And he's right. The cosy cartel which the publicans have enjoyed for several decades now, and the influence of their many friends in high places, have meant that they have never had to raise their game in the customers' interests. They've never experienced real competition nor had to take any risks which could have an adverse affect on their income. Risks like serving food or decent beer. I should add that Mr McKenna is no gastrosnob or vinofundamentalist -- pubs and beer get a very fair treatment in the Bridgestone media, and the McKennas are among the few mainstream Irish commentators to have recognised Galway Hooker as the national treasure it is.

My daily three-mile commute from the inner suburbs to central Dublin takes me past three pubs sitting derelict, having closed in the last year. I can guarantee you that not a one of them served anything worth eating or drinking, preferring to rely on the general assumption that a liquor licence and membership of the LVA amounted to a licence to print money. They were wrong. It took a while, but people evidently decided they would rather drink elsewhere. Add the value of the land to a property developer and the value of the licence to a convenience store chain, and the remaining regulars can sod off.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not yearning for a city full of swish gastropubs. The nearest thing we have is the Bull & Castle, and its sea of "reserved" signs on empty tables is the least appetising feature of an otherwise wonderful pub -- one backed by a successful high-quality restaurant chain so therefore a bit less averse to taking a risk on good beer, and where good food goes without saying.

No, I just think pubs would be facing a happier future than Mr McKenna predicts if they took a look at their customers for once. Shortly before Christmas I was sitting in The Long Hall, a fine Dublin pub firmly on the tourist circuit. Over my bottle of Guinness I saw a troop of Americans wander in, make themselves comfortable and, when the barman approached to take their order, they asked to see the desserts menu. On being told that no food was served in the place, at all, ever, the coats went back on and out they went. I wondered how often that happens -- foodless pubs are pretty rare in the US and UK. It's the sort of basic business sense that Irish pubs have never had to bother with.

The practicalities of food aside, it could be that pubs should simply be charging less for their beer and not, for instance, adding their own cut to any increases in tax or wholesale price, as they always do. And if they're chasing premium prices and a more affluent crowd then please give us something better than Tiger, Krombacher and the other dull yellow lagers which are treated as the height of sophistication because their TV ads are artier.

Give us quality. Give us variety. Give us value for money. It's not rocket science. The off licences and supermarkets can see how that works, and your response of having your friends in government threaten and cripple them is not going to work. Drinkers will not flock back to you the way they used to because you are not giving value for our money. We'll drink at home or we'll drink in restaurants.

Opting for the former the other night, I had a bottle of Brakspear Oxford Gold, poured to a hazy orange shade, with some bleu d'auvergne and onion cheddar on fresh brown bread. I'm well impressed with the beer, which has a beautiful earthy fruit nose carried through into a foretaste full of spiced oranges. It's organic, so I'm wondering if its Target and Goldings hops came from a country where alpha acids are more highly prized than England. Either way, despite carbonation that's a smidge on the high side, it's a fine example of what can be done with the basic building blocks of English beer. Along with the hoppiness there's an exciting gunpowder flavour to it I really enjoy and most associate with home brewed ales. Nice to see a commercial brewery coming up to that standard.

The acidity cuts beautifully through the creamy blue cheese, but fades in time to let the mouldy funk stand alone at the end, deliciously. The sweetness in the cheddar's onions is heightened by the contrasting bitterness of the beer, and vice versa. This was a good idea.

Last week I met with the PR chap behind the new Beer Naturally campaign, being run by Ireland's two macrobrewers plus AB-InBev. It's aiming to raise the profile of beer among the foody and winey types, and as such is a laudable exercise. I was surprised when he told me that enthusiasm was high in the pub trade for the campaign, since it looks to me like the kind of thing pubs would normally run a mile from: making good food and offering appropriate beer to go with it. If I could think of a single pub where there was a possibility of a nice hoppy ale and a simple plate of bread and cheese, I'd have been there instead of my kitchen.