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 se