30 March 2009

Refusing Brussels stouts

I have not, hitherto, felt particularly positively disposed towards the stouts of Belgium. Hercule is often lauded as the finest of the genre, and while I appreciated that it was well made and did everything a very strong Belgian stout is supposed to do, the thick sweetness of it meant I just couldn't warm to it as a regular. It's still streets and streets ahead of Leroy Stout, a saccharine bomb I picked up in Ypres and which I really should have left on the shelf. As a result of all this, when I'm feeling stouty in Belgium, I'll generally go for Guinness Special Export, since it has that lovely balance between treacle and roastiness that the others just can't seem to manage. It takes a lot to move me away from it.

It was the terribly cool socialist-realist label that made me pick up and bring home a fourth stout on my January trip to Belgium. Stouterik is brewed by De La Senne of Brussels at the De Ranke brewery (thanks for the correction, Stan), and at only 4.5% I should have known this was going to be different from the bigger ones. It's very pale for a start, pretty much a red-brown shade. There's a dry roast barley nose, and a gorgeous sulphurous gunpowder flavour fading to dryness, with just enough sparkle to keep it moving. We get a fleeting glimpse of something very sweet right at the end: violets or lavender or similar, but it vanishes quickly. All in all it's a wonderful stout experience and I could drink a whole heck of a lot of this. Shame it's in 33cl bottles.

My perception of Belgian stouts has been altered and I'm a lot more willing to give new ones a try. Recommendations always welcome.

26 March 2009

To the barricades!

Oliver Hughes was in campaign mode on Monday night, telling war stories of his time as a start-up brewer in Blessington in the 1980s and how difficult -- impossible, in fact, as it turned out -- it was to break into a beer market dominated by massive foreign-owned, brand-driven macrobreweries.

He noted that things have changed a bit since then, with Ireland now home to a number of small independent breweries, including his own Porterhouse. Yet even from his established position of owning the largest independent brewery in the country, with a tied estate of five pubs in two countries, Oliver sees that there is still a battle against blandness to be fought. And with the recession making itself felt in every sector of the economy it has never been more important to ensure that our beer money ends up in the hands of Irish brewers rather than the shareholders of British and Dutch multinational corporations.

To these ends, today marks the beginning of the Porterhouse's Independent Irish Beer & Whiskey Festival (a slight misnomer on the whiskey side since there is only one Irish-owned distillery in operation, and the Irish brands owned by Diageo and Pernod Ricard are also represented here -- booo!). Almost all of Ireland's craft brewers, from both sides of the border, will have a range of their beers available at Porterhouse outlets in some form or other over the next eleven days. Among them is the new one from Galway Hooker.

Galway Hooker Dark Wheat Beer is in something approaching the German dunkelweiss mould, though with a very Irish plain flattop, rather than a big fluffy Bavarian foam dome. Underneath it's an opaque dark brown and the aromas are definitely banana-esque, but not overwhelmingly so. Weizen fruitiness is not top of the flavour agenda. Instead there's a crisp spiciness -- more the kind of thing you might find in an altbier -- mellowed by a smooth caramel toffee sweetness. I had been sorely disappointed by the absence of this character in the last dunkelweiss I had, Paulaner's Hefe-Weissbier Dunkel, so I really welcomed it here.

There's a lot to like here, and much for the Erdinger/Paulaner drinker to enjoy. If it became a permanent part of their line-up and gets a fair crack at the market (never a guarantee) it should do very well. Another daring-yet-accessible beer from Aidan and Ronan at Hooker.

The Independent Irish Beer & Whiskey Festival continues at all Porterhouse branches until 5th April. Other highlights include Clotworthy Dobbin -- a kegged dark ale with an amazing hoppy nose followed by the usual fruit-and-nut chocolate flavours. There are also new editions of Franciscan Well's Purgatory (very orangey and English this year) and Porterhouse Chocolate Truffle Stout (darker, bitterer, stoutier than last year), plus yet another new cask for Ireland, albeit temporary, in the form of the decent, solid, Hilden Ale.

You'd want a really good excuse for continuing to drink Heineken and Diageo's vapid offerings.

23 March 2009

Hopping up to Dundrum

There was quite a turnout on Friday evening for the second beer tasting evening run by Deveney's off licence in Dundrum. Ruth did a great job keeping the punters' glasses filled, and in the correct sequence too.

The theme was Belgian, and there were a few in the line-up I'd never had. Vedett Extra White, for instance. Though I'm not a fan of Vedett lager, I thought this worked quite well, and had a hoppy bite you generally won't find in a witbier. It's a tasty alternative to Hoegaarden, even if not quite up to the standard of St Bernardus Wit in my estimation.

I was also quite impressed with Chapeau Kriek -- a wonderfully aromatic and easy-drinking cherry beer which put me in mind of Bellvue Kriek, an old favourite now gone from the Irish market. I can see myself getting a few of these in for al fresco drinking as the longer evenings arrive.

Find of the evening, however, was another of those oh-so-fashionable hoppy Belgian blondes: Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor. Unlike most of the others I've tried, this has a really crisp, green, fresh hop character sitting on a very typical blonde Belgian ale which is not a million miles from the likes of La Chouffe. Remarkably, the hops aren't crushed under the sharp bitterness of the Belgian yeast. Ruth had some LeFebvre Hopus -- another of this style -- lying around, a beer which I tried recently but hadn't yet got around to posting about. I was interested to try them side by side to see if the Hopsinjoor really is hoppier than the opposition.

Hopus gives off an innocent and sweet tropical fruit aroma: mangos, melons and the like. There's quite a bit of head, which settles stiffly after a few minutes. The fruity aroma is complemented by that sharp yeasty character once the lees are poured in. The bitterness in the flavour -- and there's a lot of it -- is probably half-and-half from the yeast and the hops. It's peppery and tangy, unlike the raw vegetal Hopsinjoor, and the 8.3% ABV gives it a very pleasant overall warmth.

The bottom line is, I guess, if you want your hopped-up blonde to taste of actual real hops, the Hopsinjoor is the one to go for. However, if you'd like them to contribute to a more complex overall fruitiness, then Hopus is your only man. As a person of simple tastes, I think I'd go for the former, but that's not to say Hopus isn't a great beer.

Thanks to Ruth for her hospitality again, and it was great meeting Lisa of What We Eat as well. I'm heartened by the interest in quality beer being shown by the upstanding citizens of Dundrum. Long may it continue.

And if you're in the area, don't forget to drop in to Deveney's to pick up a bottle or two of something interesting.

18 March 2009

Of lions and lambs

March, eh? You never seem to know what the weather is going to do next. One minute it's fresh sunny afternoons, the next it's hailstones and face-stripping gales. It makes a nonsense of any kind of seasonal drinking, which is why I had no problem buying both the summer and winter ales from Anchor at the same time, and drinking them back to back on what turned out to be quite a pleasant chilly-but-sunny mid-March afternoon.

I started with the Anchor Summer Beer, accompanied with a lunch of assorted ham, salami, cheese and smoked salmon on French bread. Overall, this isn't a very interesting beer at all. There's a good body, as might be expected from a wheat beer, but the flavour is rather dry and grainy. The salt in the meat absolutely destroyed it, though the creamy brie worked quite well. It's a beer for warmer, sunnier, less cognitive drinking.

To finish, I opened the bottle of Our Special Ale 2008, a beer I'd been looking forward to getting hold of for some time. The spices are interesting, for about five minutes. I do like spiced beers, but the spruce and fig flavours in here were just a bit two-dimensional. Worst of all, there's was something badly wrong with the base beer underneath: I detected a stale, cardboardy flavour which I'm sure shouldn't be there. On the plus side, the hopping is generous for this sort of beer, but the flaws -- whether deliberate or accidental -- spoiled my enjoyment of it somewhat. Still, the great thing about changing the recipe every year is that I'll still be queuing up to buy the 2009 edition if that ever appears here.

17 March 2009

Interlude

High Cross Monasterboice, photo by Tom Haymes on FlickrIt was a turf war: plain and simple. The independents had all been swallowed by the Big Three who were now each using the political influence they'd garnered along the way to try and crush the other two. The prize was total national dominance of the market, and a hefty slice of the action abroad where the product had been zealously pitched to a receptive customer base, building up a lucrative following among locals and ex-pats alike. The three sides had reached a stalemate, a state of perfect competition where no-one was able to out-manoeuvre the others in any practical way. All that was left was marketing. Three huge propaganda machines geared up and began staking their claims on monopoly.

We're in Ireland, by the way, and it's coming up on the year 700. Kildare is probably in the strongest position of the Big Three monasteries who control the church between them. It has a loyal following of smaller monasteries, a strategic position near the centre of the island and a clear pedigree going back to Brigid the first abbess. Their advertising copy was first out of the scriptorium: a Life of St Brigid which clearly stated that Kildare was Ireland's primary Church, the rightful mother-house of all the nation's religious institutions, with all the associated power, influence and revenue.

In terms of sheer political clout, however, Iona had primacy. Its worldly power was based on its founder St Columba: a clever aristocrat who, 150 years previously, could have ended up as one of Ireland's most important kings had he not entered religious life and established his monastery on the island. But its off-shore position was a weakness, and not even the well-placed daughter houses in Derry and Durrow could collectively wield the political influence it needed to overcome its rivals. The Iona marketing department's Life of St Columba had conscientiously downplayed the distance factor and put the case that this monastery and its founder had always attracted the loyalty of Ireland's secular powers, and should do so today as well.

And then there was Armagh. While long-established and built on a loyal power base beside Ulster's capital city, the monks of Armagh's Ministry of Truth had nothing. Nothing. They leafed aghast through the gratis copies of the founders' biographies sent gloatingly from Kildare and Iona. Though long dead, Brigid and Columba were still carving out a bigger piece of the pie for their monasteries, and Armagh needed to react. Fast. Except... no-one knew who the founder of Armagh was. There was no great legend told around the refectory fire of "St X of Armagh" being shown the site of the monastery by the angels; no story of how St X had converted the local pagan king to the Faith and been granted the lands, nay, the island, in perpetuity. The Irish kings would soon start believing the claims of Kildare and Iona that they had always been top dogs, and Armagh would be out of the race. Unless...

There was a shout from the bookstacks and one of the younger monks came rushing into the scriptorium with a slim volume. They were the writings of some long-forgotten missionary from Britain: mostly maudlin navel-gazing, sections plagiarised from St Paul, and more than a bit of borderline-racist commentary on the barbarous Irish he believed himself appointed to save. It was undated, it mentioned no recognisable placenames, and nothing about the founding of monasteries. To the propagandists, however, all that mattered was that it was old, and that its author, "Patricius", considered himself to be the first bringer of Christianity to Ireland. The scribes looked at each other across the table. It was a crazy idea, but it might just work...

In the flash of a quill, the Life of St Patrick was circulating alongside the rival biographies from the other monastic oligarchs. Of course, everyone already knew the history: the first Christian missionary to Ireland was Palladius, sent by Pope Celestine in 431. That was an established, unassailable fact. The new book out of Armagh didn't deny it, of course. But it said, for the first time, that Palladius wasn't up to the job and never actually reached Ireland, yes, and that Patrick, arriving just a year later in 432, was really the man single-handedly responsible for spreading the faith through Ireland. Bits of Patrick's own writings were interspersed to give a whiff of authenticity to the thing, but the main message had been cobbled together in Armagh just the previous week: Patrick was first; Patrick was best; and Patrick established his monastery in Armagh.

The politicians bought it. Hook, line and sinker. Soon tributes were pouring into Armagh and its daughter houses, and Kildare and Iona gave up the fight. Ireland had a single, central church for the first time -- headquartered in Armagh and based around the legends of its "patron saint" who was now, by extension, the patron saint of the whole island: St Patrick -- a man who had lived and died in utter obscurity during the last gasps of the Roman Empire, only to be figuratively disinterred over two centuries later to front a propaganda campaign for some power-hungry monks.

Cheers. Mine's an O'Hara's.

15 March 2009

When they met, it was Moeder

Last Sunday in Brussels was quiet. The city was buzzing -- with market stalls in Place d'Espagne and Grand Place, and the cafés all busy -- but Mrs Beer Nut and I were drifting about in a slightly fuzzy-headed world of our own. We had an early lunch in one of the upper corners of Grand Place, and I righted my head with carbonnade flamande and a Kwak -- the latter from a proper glass, I hasten to add. That fortified me for a trip to Bier Tempel to do some shopping, and then we drifted over to Le Cirio -- a gorgeous grand café beside the Bourse which, like A La Mort Subite, was one of those Brussels drinking landmarks we'd not visited since our first trip in 2002.

We settled in near the door for a bout of people-watching (and, it being a Belgian café, dog-watching too). Looking for something plain but wholesome on the menu I realised I was hankering after Guinness Special Export. It really is the perfect Sunday afternoon sipping beer. Séan had gone home on the morning flight, but Dave and Laura caught up with us briefly, then headed off on their merry way. Our own merry way involved some exploration, to an unfamiliar district of the city and one of the few legendary Brussels watering holes I'd never visited. After my second bottle of Guinness, we were off.

The pre-métro underground tram thingy brought us southwards, and a short walk from Horta through a rather well-heeled neighbourhood took us to Chez Moeder Lambic: Brussels' beer geek central. It was just gone 4 so the bar had opened recently and was inhabited by just a couple of regulars, plus a dog belonging to one of them who walked round, inspecting that the drinks being served were up to scratch.

It's a small bright corner bar, laid out in slightly rustic style with brick and wood, and a minimal scattering of breweriana -- notably only from quality Belgian breweries. Boxes of comics line the windowsills, and the menu itself is styled very much in the Belgian comic tradition. It's not one of those 400+ whoppers like Bier Circus or Delerium. Instead, everything seems to have been chosen by hand with only the smallest nod to the token beers required for economic purposes. I don't think they even had a pilsner available. Each item was assigned a comic-book icon indicating its status as from either "microbrasseries", "indépendants/familiales", "trappistes" or "grands industriels", and the beers were divided into style categories. My particular favourite was a category which contained just one item, one which I'm guessing the management aren't terribly happy about having to have, or else they stock it just to wind up the manufacturer:That's "Based on 1% lambic, filled up with totally chemical syrup". Mi-aow.

Also of note was the beer engine on the bar, serving Cantillon Gueuze. The draught menu listed Cantillon Faro, so I figured I would attempt to redeem my experience of the style following Friday's nasty experience. As far as I know, Cantillon don't actually make a faro, and this is mixed in-house. Blending in the sugar removes a lot of the sharp tart edge you get from the Gueuze but doesn't make the beer taste sugary as such. It's a different experience to drinking the beer neat, and works quite well I thought, for those of us who like sweet beer at least.

The two guys running the place really seemed to know what they were talking about. A group of Americans who came in after us engaged them in a conversation about brewing which resulted in a case of raw malts being produced for them to taste, followed by a tour of the cellar. Our perusal of the blackboard listing the current draught beers produced two recommendations. De Ranke's XX Bitter is a deliciously sharp golden ale absolutely crammed with grapefruity C-hops and raw vegetal flavours. Deliciously intense. From Jandrin there was V Cense, which Joe was enjoying simultaneously at the Zythos festival. This amber ale reminded me a lot of quality English bitter -- slightly tannic with a beautiful mandarin nose. Very tasty and extremely drinkable.

Time was beginning to press us at this stage, so our ones for the road were Witkap Pater Double -- a foamy brown abbey ale with a very interesting herby botanical character and a touch of cardamom, I think; and Guldenberg, another blonde ale "with the taste of every hop" according to the merchandising. It starts with a perfumey aroma and tastes quite spicy at first, giving way to a dry bitterness. Like so many of the Belgian hoppy beers around at the moment, it has used the hops to create a strong bitterness while avoiding any of the more fun fruity characteristics they can impart. The end result is quite an understated beer, but I didn't have time to sit around being disappointed. Having enjoyed adding Moeder Lambic to our personal map of Brussels, we headed back to the city centre.

We caught up with Dave and Laura at a Moroccan restaurant just off Boulevard Anspach. They were staying another day, so it was just us who shovelled our molten tagines into us like we hadn't eaten in days. The menu included a Moroccan lager called Casablanca. Classy stuff this -- every bit as good as you'd expect a lager from Morocco to be.

And then we were off again, to the airport where there was just time for a quick Leffe before the flight home.

And that was Brussels. We went to see Cantillon making beer, but got so much more out of the couple of days we spent there. Brussels really is one of those cities where the beer hunter will always find something new and interesting, if he or she can resist the draw of so many old favourites.

14 March 2009

Stepping out

Dave, Laura, Séan and I left Cantillon in the late afternoon and caught up with Mrs Beer Nut on Rue Tabora, just outside one of my very favourite Brussels boozers. I wrote about A La Bécasse after my last visit in 2007. It's well hidden up an alley with only the giant flashing red neon sign indicating that it exists. It was quite crowded when we got in, but we squeezed round a table and ordered Lambic Doux for four, which arrived in one of their trademark clay jugs.

I absolutely love this beer, and I think most of my drinking buddies did too. They noted a certain cidery quality to it which I'd never noticed but is definitely present. The drinkability is just astounding. With the jug drained we moved on.

We didn't move very far, mind: just up Rue du Marché aux Herbes to A L'Image de Notre Dame. I'm a big fan of this Brueghelesque two-room affair concealed up yet another alley. It has quite an extensive beer list for a central pub, and my first pinstick got me a Belgoo Magus. It's quite a light and spicy blonde ale. A touch of yeasty spiciness starts it off, moderated by some zesty oranges and lemons. The sort of classic easy-going beer that Leffe Blonde would give its eye-teeth to be.