28 April 2009

Fork handles

The snow was thick on the ground as I sauntered down Chausée d'Ixelles in Brussels, one crisp clear day last January. I stopped in at a familiar convenience store to pick up eight cans of Rodenbach. "These will do for outdoor drinking when it gets warmer" I thought.

Today, there's still a bit of a chill in the air but the sun has been shining warmly all day. It has been a long and arduous one for me, so I've come out back to celebrate my blog's fourth birthday with the first of the summer Rodenbachs, a beer I've not tasted in the years I've been writing this.

And it's still brilliant. It has a power to refresh and revitalise like no other beer I know. The lightness of touch is sublime: a fizzy cleanness that maintains the refreshment quotient, just enough sour woody flavours to keep the palate awake and interested, plus a dryness that leaves it begging for more. Cold from the fridge, Rodenbach is the supreme lawnmower beer.

27 April 2009

Adding insult to hot ash

You have to feel sorry for poor old Gaius Plinius Secundus. Being buried alive in several tonnes of burning hot ash following the eruption of Vesuvius was probably bad enough, but the indignity of having one's name mispronounced on a regular basis must be far worse. For the record, the American Heritage Dictionary will tell you how to say it here.

Pliny the Elder is one of two from Russian River in northern California which were a gift from TheBeerGeek crew, and is a particular favourite of Chris's. I can see why. It's a strong IPA, and pours a pale marmalade colour with a light, even haze through it. Bitter? Oh yes, in a big acidic way. And yet it's not difficult or corrosive like some super-hoppy beers can be. Oranges dominate the flavour, in that oily way which reminds me of a Terry's Chocolate Orange minus the chocolate. I didn't get any grapefruit character until the first burp, which produced a taste sensation similar to chewing grapefruit rind. The label exhorts the drinker to consume it cold, and I think it might have been even more enjoyable if I'd been drinking it below 12°C, but it's a damn fine beer however you look at it. I've had bitterer; I've had hoppier; I've had stronger. But what we have here is what passes for balance among west-coast hop-bombs. And it works.

Second up is the marginally more sessionable (6% ABV) Blind Pig IPA. Here the fresh and zesty grapefruit flavours are right at the front. There's not a trace of harshness: instead it's soft and juicy, with hints of honeydew melon. The malt is just about detectable at the base, but it doesn't add much by way of warmth or weight. Instead, we get an easy-going well-balanced IPA which is all the more enjoyable for coming in a half litre bottle.

I've been listening to Chris raving about Russian River for a while now, and having tried two of their beers I can definitely say that the hype is worth believing.

23 April 2009

The darker side of empiricism

It's always a risk, going drinking with someone who has studied beer packaging technology at university. They end up making impulse purchases of stuff in shiny cans and expect you to help them drink it. But at least they have the decency to be ashamed of it, don't they Thom?

So it happened that in a gigantic sports bar in the centre of Cork last Saturday I found myself sharing a bottle of Bud served from the new "aluminium bottle" which Diageo are currently foisting on the Irish market with an all-pervading advertising campaign. The unique selling point is that it's served at -5°C from a special fridge, though if it actually was when the lid comes off I suspect that this 4.3% ethanol solution would freeze solid.

Either way, however, it pours out bloody cold. And rather unpleasantly thick too -- gloopy, the way vodka goes in the freezer. The big up-front taste (yes, there is one) is apples. It's a long time since I last tasted Bud, but I don't remember the apples. It quickly vanishes though and you just get water and gas, until the finishing surprise. We were drinking from glasses, which I don't think is the intended method of dispense, yet there was a major metallic tang left behind after swallowing. I'm guessing that straight from the bottle it would be even worse.

So there you have it: Bud isn't very good. I'm actually rather surprised at the flaws, given what I've been told about the impeccable quality control procedures at the brewery in Kilkenny where they apparently take every imaginable step to remove all flavour from the beer -- I was expecting fizzy water and nothing more. Turns out it really is bad beer. Who knew?

20 April 2009

Wales' fails

Last Monday night in the Bull & Castle, Chris and Merideth held a fire sale of beers they didn't have room to take home to California with them. Out of politeness, it was just stuff they'd picked up in Wales on offer. The Irish-born rejects were presumably poured down a convenient drain some time earlier.

We started with some Cothi Gold, modelled here by Chris himself. I am often taken aback by the way Boak & Bailey use the term "homebrew" as way describing beer they don't like. Being friends with some very talented home brewers I've never quite understood what they meant. Until now. Cothi Gold, a 3.9% ABV pale ale, tastes like it was lashed together from a kit, with a kilo of white sugar and left to sit in a hotpress (or airing cupboard, or linen closet, depending on which country you're making the awful stuff in). There's a touch of lemony bitterness, but mostly it's thin, sharp, yeasty, over carbonated and with that definite tang of beer-gone-wrong.

From the same brewer (Ffos Y Ffin, near Carmarthen) comes Cwrw Caredig. It's darker, but tastes almost identical to Cothi Gold, only without that lemony character I quite liked. Where it's not bland, it's unpleasant. This brewery has some serious quality control issues to sort out, in this drinker's opinion, and this one's too, I seem to recall.

It's nice to see that the Welsh take the same imaginative approach to naming and signage as the Irish: why think of a name for something when you can just use an ordinary noun translated into the indigenous language? So, to a Welsh-speaker, Evan Evans's Cwrw is a product just called "Beer". Inspiring. It has quite an enticing honeyish nose, and a nice sweetness on the foretaste. But this was followed by quite a nasty musty flavour, with a touch of metallic dryness. It nearly works, but isn't close enough to be enjoyable.

Last up was the beer with the swishest livery, Cribyn by the Breconshire Brewery. I don't think I've seen any recent British beer with the original gravity marked on the label, but here it is. 1.045, since you ask. This was better than the others, but still not my sort of thing at all. It's strongly bitter, but instead of fresh hops there's a kind of earthy funk about it, with overtones of solvent. It's really quite heavy going in a way that beer at this sort of strength shouldn't be.

And that's my Welsh microbrew round-up, courtesy of TheBeerGeek.com. A couple of palate-rinsing Galway Hookers followed. I'm well aware that Wales makes better beer than this, but I can't always help what's put in front of me, can I?

When I can help it, you'll generally find me at the establishments mentioned on my guest post over at Cheap Eats today.

16 April 2009

The main event

And so I was off to Cork on a bright and sunny Easter Saturday morning for the headline event of the Irish beer calendar. This year, the Franciscan Well's posters were proclaiming it the "Easter Craft Brewing Festival", which I think definitely has a better ring to it than the old "Easter Beer Festival" or "EasterFest", especially since this year the importers were left out of the line-up and everything on sale in the refurbished covered yard was genuine Irish beer.

A couple of old favourites were making their last public appearances at the gig, including a 20-month-old cask of White Gypsy Cask No. 1 aka Messrs Maguire Imperial. The Laphroaig smokiness was as present as ever with barely a hint of sourness about it, and the cask dispense added a sweet milk chocolate dimension to the stout which I'd never got from the keg version. I also said my goodbyes to Phúca, the Franciscan Well's marvellous celebration winter ale, still tasting as fresh and spicy as it did four months ago. And it was hello and goodbye to Kinsale Lager, the last ever outing of one of Ireland's pioneer craft beer brands. The lager itself, a very pleasant smooth and full-bodied thirst-quencher, was contract brewed at Beamish & Crawford, but with production at the brewery winding down following Heineken's takeover, that arrangement has come to an end. The Franciscan Well festival is a fitting farewell.

But one door closes and all that -- the kit from the Kinsale brewery itself, which made everything but the lager, is now operational in its new home in Templemore. Here, Cuilán Loughnane's long-anticipated White Gypsy brewery has finally started producing beer in its own right (Cuilán remains the brewer at Messrs Maguire, where previous White Gypsy-branded specials had been produced). His first regulars are a Dunkel Lager (recipe still being finalised -- what was on tap was rebadged MM Bock) and an Indian (sic) Pale Ale. The IPA is very much in the English style, a little bit sharp but mostly light and lemony. It's a welcome new addition to the Irish beer scene, though I'm a little disappointed with the whopping 5.2% ABV -- it tastes like it's about 4% and it would be nice to be able to down as if it were.

Though not open a wet week, White Gypsy already has a new brewing company under its wing, in the form of Barrelhead, registered in Dublin but brewing in Templemore. Bull Island Pale Ale was the offering here, and I think it needs work. A very pale yellow ale served on nitro with the accompanying dullness of taste. There's a little bit of sweet caramel to it, much like there is with other smoothflow nitro ales. I can't say I approve, but if it gets a foot in the door for another Irish brewer then I reckon I'll let it past. I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for new stuff from Barrelhead in Dublin.

As usual, the team from UCC's pilot brewery (pictured teaching Cuilán a thing or two, left), who I'm told work closely with their counterparts in Weihenstephan, had something vaguely Germanic up their sleeves. This year it was Swiss Pale Bock and I rather liked it. The sugariness in it was rather grainy and it stayed light and crisp rather than heavy or syrupy, despite a sizeable 6% ABV.

The only other new scoop for me was Ireland's Call, a dark ale commissioned by J.D. Wetherspoon's from Hilden. Though very sessionable at 4.3% ABV, it's rich and full of character thanks to a generous dose of chocolate malt. I made my pitch to the brewer for more of their superb wheatbeer, Barney's Brew, but I don't know how far I'll get with that, especially since we don't get to see much of Hilden on this side of the border.

And that was the Easter Festival for another year. It was great talking to my fellow beer aficionados and the brewers, and congratulations to the winners of this year's ICB awards. I'm always so optimistic about the future of Irish beer when I get back from Easter in Cork.

13 April 2009

Fasting and abstinence

With a handful of exceptions, sales of alcohol are illegal in the Republic of Ireland on Good Friday. It's a social policy which has led to Holy Thursday becoming one of the biggest drink-buying days of the year, and there was certainly an atmosphere of panic in my local supermarket last Thursday evening, with almost everyone in the queue in front of me laden with cases of Heineken and Miller. I was just picking up a couple of bottles of O'Hara's Red for an engagement the following morning.

A friend had invited a few people round for a late breakfast at his place. I said I'd bring the beer and was carrying a bagload of Schlenkerla Märzen from DrinkStore, figuring it would go great with the full Irish that was planned. The O'Hara's were for anyone who wasn't up for the smoky goodness -- it's a beer I know works beautifully with the porky delights of a cooked breakfast. As it happened, they didn't get opened as the Schlenkerla was consumed with gusto. Comments from the newbies included "seawater" and "disinfectant", though in a good way, of course.

With the plates scraped clean, we were off home, where a beautiful afternoon was shaping up. We sat out of the bank of stones which will, some day soon, be a patio. Mrs Beer Nut opened a bottle of Weihenstephaner Tradition dunkel that was in the fridge. It's quite tasty, though very thick, sweet and treacly, making it perhaps not the ideal garden beer. I don't do sunshine so I was in the shade with a Westmalle Dubbel, a case of which I received recently through the kind offices of RealBeers.ie. Cool and sharp, this is a much better sunny day sipper.

As afternoon turned to evening, it was time to eat again. Business was booming down at the local chipper, with fish being the obvious fried dead thing of choice. To go with mine I picked the Amberley Pale Ale from New Zealand's Brew Moon. It's a cracker of a beer, this: a very pale yellow and only 4% ABV but absolutely loaded with fresh citric hop flavours. There's quite a bit of sweetness to it as well, so the end result carries juicy notes of melon and peaches on a full and satisfying body. As an accompaniment to battered cod it's absolutely perfect, but even as an everyday sessioner it would still be great. The 64cl bottle is the ideal serving measure too. It's quite a while since I bought it in Redmond's, but I'll be looking out for it again.

And that's where I left my Good Friday drinking. By 9pm I really was fasting and abstaining, ahead of the following day's trip to Cork for the main event of Ireland's beer calendar: the Franciscan Well Easter Beer Festival.

09 April 2009

Nothing sparkles like a baby Sam

For all its determined old-fashioned non-conformity, Yorkshire's Samuel Smith brewery seems quite happy to package its beers in dinky 355ml bottles, for export to strange farflung places where that's considered an acceptable serving measure. Much as I dislike getting my medium-strength beers in these sorts of sizes, the brewery's reputation combined with never having seen any of its beers in a shop before meant I had no qualms about picking up four of the dinky little blighters when I found them on sale in the excellent beer shop under Zürich railway station (thanks Ron!) last January.

It has taken me a while to get round to drinking them, but mindful of the relatively short date on them, I made a start last weekend with the Old Brewery Pale Ale. I loved the rich amber of the body on this one, and the full head coloured like old ivory. From the colour and rich consistency I was expecting big toffee flavours from this, and the aroma -- subtle and enticing -- coyly suggested I was in for a treat. I got my toffee on the first taste all right, but there was quite a bit more besides. The flavour is balanced with warmer and less sweet malt plus a touch of green, slightly vegetal, English hops. The whole thing is very much what I would expect from a Yorkshire bitter, pleasingly so, and best of all there are no metallic bum notes present at all. At a high strength of 5% ABV, I'd perhaps have expected more flavour, but I'm happy with this and I'd definitely buy it in a bigger bottle, should the opportunity ever present itself.

Next up was the Taddy Porter, again at 5% and again possessed of a wonderfully heavy, creamy body. There are hints of ruby in what's otherwise quite a dense black beer. There's a lightly roasted character to the aroma offering a touch of caramel as well, but it definitely doesn't jump out of the glass. However, there's nothing understated about the flavour. I get big bittersweet molasses notes, shading almost towards saccharine. A dry roasted barley edge cuts through the sugar beautifully and prevents it from becoming difficult. Balance, once again, wins out.

Oatmeal is listed after the hops on the Oatmeal Stout, so I'm guessing it only barely qualifies as one. There is, in fairness, a fair bit of bitterness to it, but I'm still not getting that slightly unpleasant phenolic thing I've come to associate with oatmeal-laden beers. Instead, it's rather understated: bitter at first, and then with a brown-sugar-like sweetness and hints of coffee. Is that a sort of porridgey thing at the end or is it my imagination? Hard to tell. The body isn't quite as heavy as the previous two, and there's a smidge more carbonation as well as an almost nitroesque creamy head. This is the first Samuel Smith beer that I wouldn't be inclined to reach for again. There's nothing wrong with it per se, it's just a bit boring.

And a similar verdict goes for the Imperial Stout as well. Yet again we have that big heavy body, to the point where I thought it was going to pour flat, but the thick beige head formed after a couple of seconds. At 7% ABV it's rather light for an imperial stout, and there's not a whole heap of a lot going on, flavourwise. After a slightly unpleasant marker-like foretaste, liquorice is the dominant character -- a light sort of earthy bitterness -- but there's very little else. One dimensional is how I'd describe it.

I'm quite surprised by what I found with this lot. I'm very glad I went for the full set available, because the Pale Ale would doubtless have been the one I'd left behind. It really pays to be a completeist ticker sometimes. Cures you of prejudices straight off.

06 April 2009

Welcome! What's in the bag?

Obviously, being a member of the international beer drinking community is its own reward. You meet lots of great people from around the world and you tend to socialise over the best available beer wherever you happen to be. Our opinions on what makes a good beer may vary -- quite a lot in some cases -- but we all care about quality and we tend to recognise it when we see it.

However, I'd be lying if I denied that another enormous benefit is the bucketloads of interesting, exotic, rare -- and often mind-blowingly delicious -- beer I get given free by the people I meet along the way. It just so happened that last week was particularly good on that score. On Thursday night, the Bull & Castle played host to visitors from Chicago in the form of Dave and Deena (members of Irish Craft Brewer and RealBeer.com may know Dave as "Mill Rat"). They'd brought along a goodie bag of beer from their neck of the woods for a few of us to sample and, punctuated by a few of the best of what Ireland's brewers have to offer, we worked our way through them.

We started at Three Floyds of Munster, Indiana. The town is named after a Dutch guy, but that hasn't stopped them from producing a tribute to Ireland's Munster in the form of Brian Boru, supposedly an "old Irish red ale" but a zillion miles from anything made in these parts. It's red, all right, with sweet clean-tasting malt and a rather quaffable disposition (hiding 5.9% ABV) but the dominant feature, unlike most any Irish beer, is hops. Big big fresh citrus hops saturate the air above the beer's surface and the flavour is heavily infused with them. The whole package is really quite delicious, reminding me a bit of the excellent Red Frog from California which a couple of Irish off licences are carrying these days. So these Three Floyds see