28 May 2009

Won't you come to your senses?

I can't think of any beer that attracts the revulsion which seems permanently attached to Desperados. Admittedly, the concept of a beer laced with tequila isn't likely to sound attractive to anyone with a mental age over 14, but just because it sounds hideous doesn't mean it's necessarily going to taste awful, does it? I detected a bit of adjunct snobbery going on here and, eventually, I took the time out to buy a bottle and drink it.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I was pleasantly surprised. Desperados is not utterly disgusting. I'm not sure I'd even go as far as to say it's unpleasant. What it is, is very very sweet. The flavour is dominated by a sugary lemon cordial flavour which is indistinguishable from the sort of artificial fruit character found in luridly-coloured spirit-based alcopops. Mrs Beer Nut claims there was a hint of something medicinal, eucalyptus or suchlike, but it was completely lost on me.

Searching hard, there is a beer hidden under all the syrup: a very thin watery one, for the sake of appearances only. My feeling is that this is a "beer" for people who don't like the taste of beer, or tequila, or alcohol in general. It's a girly alcopop targeted at boys by giving it a macho name and a recipe which only just qualifies it as beer. It certainly disappears far too easily for something with a whopping 5.9% ABV.

So now I have officially joined the ranks of those who scorn Desperados, but not for the reason I thought.

25 May 2009

De La Senne and sensibility

We're still in hop country today, we've just moved a few thousand miles east. It's a big country, OK? The beer is my second from the relatively new Brussels beer company De La Senne, and describes itself as an "Extra Hoppy Ale". Given the iconoclastic nature of their excellent low-strength stout, I was expecting Taras Boulba to be similarly unBelgian. With the sediment settled, it poured the way crappy lagers in TV ads do: beautifully clear and golden and frothy. But the end result was a hazy pale yellow beer, infused with the reawakened yeast.

And that yeast anchors the beer firmly in its home country. Yes, there's a bit of juicy melon in there, and there's a finish full of dry, back-of-the-throat, tobacco-like bitterness, but that sharp tang could only be the result of Belgian ale yeast in all its gritty glory.

Far from a daring, bold new Belgian style, Taras Boulba offers us all the fun of Belgian bottle-conditioned golden ales in a highly sensible 4.5% ABV package. Bigger bottles please.

21 May 2009

Hop much?

The hopheads are taking over. Dublin's quality beer off licences are bursting with isohumulones these days, between the new-style hopped-up Belgians, some bitter delights from across the Irish Sea, and of course those crazy Americans and their IBU fixation.

Amid much rí rá agus ruaile buaile, Sierra Nevada Torpedo hit Dublin recently, and I secured one to bring home and dispose of safely. Everyone who'd already tried it warned me that it wasn't some hop-monster as the name might suggest; that this 7.2% ABV IPA is actually quite balanced. I'm not sure I'd agree with them. What's very true, however, is that it's gorgeous.

The aroma is zesty and clean -- none of your big boozy vapours here -- while the flavour is binary: it rocks between sweet marmalade and very slightly harsh, resinous piney hops, which just pitch over into lemon washing-up liquid right at the end. There's a solid, and actually quite sticky malt base to it. So why, in the name of sanity, is this hyperactive flavour orgy so damned easy to drink? It took herculean restraint to hold myself back from draining the glass before I could string any kind of verbal impression together. It's that tasty.

I'm not a hophead as such, nor am I attuned to the very finer points of hop appreciation, and that's why I will quite blithely announce that Torpedo is every bit as enjoyable as Pliny the Elder.

Next, I raised my hoppy game further by following up with Victory Hop Wallop, stronger at 8.5% ABV and paler -- just at the point where yellow becomes orange. And yet despite the higher strength it lacks the malt profile of Torpedo and is actually quite thin. But bitter? Oh my yes. Bitter as the day is long. Fell out of the bitter tree and hit every branch on the way down. Not harsh, or any way difficult, just very very charmlessly bitter. Of fruit, you get a chaste peck from a sugary mandarin orange at the start of each taste, before Dame Bitter comes round to claim her due. It's not that it's unpleasant, it's just not very enjoyable, in complete contrast to its tamer stablemate HopDevil.

Proceed with caution, is the message to those wielding the hopsack, I guess.

18 May 2009

Fit for a prince

Yeah, just pretend you didn't already read Thom's bit on Fürstenberg last week, eh? That way, this'll all be new to you...

The first time I ever heard the word "reinheitsgebot" I would have been about eight or nine. It was in a TV ad for Fürstenberg lager, a beer which Guinness (as they were then) had recently acquired the licence to brew and were promoting heavily. By the time I was old enough to drink, it was still clinging on at the budget end of the Diageo range, next to Harp and Satzenbrau, while Bud and Carlsberg claimed the premium spots (yes, I know). Then, at some point in the late 1990s, it vanished leaving only thousands of give-away steins as evidence it had ever been here. Warsteiner now occupies then took over (see comments) the same odd place in Diageo's five-lager Irish portfolio.

In the meantime, Fürstenberg was acquired by Heineken, and has now re-appeared on the Irish market in bottled form. Perhaps the new distributors are hoping for the nostalgia factor, and that punters will dust off those long-empty steins. Tesco are stocking it at the knock-down price of €2.19, and I decided to give it a go.

There's actually quite a decent aroma from it, a proper hoppiness which is very attractive. The body was the next thing I noticed: there's enough here to lend it that almost-creamy texture that marks out quality German pilsner. But that's where the plaudits end. The actual flavour itself is rather uninteresting. Still, I was drinking this with a vindaloo, where the full body was of much greater benefit, taking on the chilli heat and dampening it. Fürstenberg, then, is a decent but ultimately boring quaffing lager. If that's your bag I'm sure there are better uses for €2.19.

While I was at it, I also picked up a bottle of Hofbräu Original, from another blue-blooded German brewery. The pour is a lovely limpid gold and the gentle carbonation gives it the smoothness characteristic of a Munich helles. Again, we have quite a big body, but here the sugary origins of it are very apparent. It's way too sweet and slides into cloying towards the end of the glass.

I'm a little surprised to find myself preferring the sharper, drier Black Forest lager to the full and malty Munich variety, but there you have it. Not that either of them was any great shakes, but I'm using the tall German bottles for the IPA I just made (à la Russian River), so it's still a win for me.

14 May 2009

Serving the other Dark Lord

I think I've yet to encounter a Bateman's beer I didn't like. The darker ones like Victory and XXXB have this fantastic chewiness combined with a heady warming aroma that tickles my malt sensors right where they like it. To such esteemed company, I now add their ruby ale Dark Lord.

Well, they claim it's ruby. I had to hold it up to a lightbulb to see any trace of red. It's denser and darker than many a stout I've met, with a beautifully thick creamy head and only a gentle sparkle adding to this impression.

The nose is quite sour, suggesting the tang of yeast to me, even though it's not bottle conditioned. This is followed by a mostly sweet taste sensation: luxurious chocolate and smooth caramel, but there's a zingy bitter fruit thing going on, a spiced plumminess that reminds of nothing so much as Westmalle Dubbel or similar top-notch dark Belgian ale.

Getting all that into a sinkable 5% ABV package is no mean feat.

11 May 2009

Second fiddle

I'm confused. I picked up the Duvel Green mainly because I like Duvel, because I'd never seen it before, and because I'd read some positive comments about the draught version on the UK blogs. It was only really when I came to open it that I noticed it was in a teensy 25cl bottle (despite being a whole percentage point lighter than Duvel) and that it's filtered, pouring a very clear pale yellow. It doesn't come close to filling my Duvel glass, mostly because that characteristic thick Duvel head is totally absent. The taste is, unsurprisingly, quite a bit like Duvel, and that's a good thing. There's the same warm bitter fruitiness, but it seems sharper to me, more citric, and missing the full roundness that comes with yeast-infused Duvel. So I'm confused: can anyone tell me what the point of this bottled beer is?

While I'm on the subject of alternative versions, I was also confused by Captain Cooker White when I picked it out of my attic. Holding the bottle up to the light, the beer appeared completely clear -- not at all appropriate to a Belgian witbier. A few hours in the fridge took care of that with some classic chill haze, and the bottle conditioning left enough lees to keep the beer a cloudy yellow all during drinking, though also made uncapping a slow and careful procedure. I loved the original Captain Cooker -- made with tea tree leaves -- so what's the white one like? Not as good. The spicy flavours I expect in a Belgian wit are missing (no spices are listed in the ingredients, nor wheat, for that matter), so the medicinal manuka flavour rides roughshod over everything. There are traces of the sweet herby flavours I've enjoyed in other manuka beers, but not enough, and the rest of the flavour is by turns sour, gassy and hollow.

A disappointing evening on the Belgian beers then. Still, with the dreck cleared out of my attic, the rest must be gold.

07 May 2009

Devoid of grace

I really shouldn't have poured it into a glass with a head-keeper, what with it being one of the fizzier bottle-conditioned English ales I've met. It was also a lot paler than I was expecting this spiced winter warmer from RCH to be. Pale Christmas beers are never any good in my experience, and Ale Mary -- a donation from Thom's CAMRA beer club delivery -- is unfortunately no exception.

The nose is very promising: packed with zingy ginger and oily cloves. But on tasting it all falls away, leaving a thin body with a kind of yeasty tang plus overtones of disinfectant. The sweet mince-pie spices reassert themselves on the lips at the end, but they fight against a horrible dry-throat sensation that just spoils the whole thing for me.

Ale Mary is remarkably similar to Franciscan Well's excellent Phúca, and is made from more-or-less the same stuff, but it just doesn't hit the same spot. I think it may be the lack of maple syrup, for that rounded and heavy base sweetness. And this is despite being a whole percentage point stronger than Phúca too. It's a shame: I'm a huge fan of spiced beers, and all this one will do is give them a bad reputation among the sceptics.

04 May 2009

Western promise

My curry tastes are unsophisticated. Crude, even. A dirty great vindaloo, packed full of potato cubes and laced with generous quantites of lemon juice is just heaven to me. For days when even that is a bit too fancy, there's my local Chinese takeaway and their delightfully gloopy Malaysian curry. Served on chips in the oh-so-authentic west Dublin vernacular.

To accompany this fine repast, I have a bottle of Chang that has been languishing in the fridge for ever. I picked it up in Redmond's just because it's one of those beers you hear people (usually the recently-returned from Thailand) raving about. Is there anything to it, or is it that holiday-lager phenomenon where time and place are the most important ingredients?

It must be the latter, because this stuff is terrible. It is overwhelmingly cidery, a nasty off flavour sitting on a watery fizzy body. I'm guessing it needs to be served at temperatures considerably below what my fridge is capable of, and preferably under the sort of tropical conditions which erode any beer-related fussiness. As an accompaniment to curry it really did not go well. More body is definitely required to withstand the spice onslaught.

Still, I'm sure if I was in Thailand I'd be just loving it.

01 May 2009

Mixed feelings

Session logoA chat with Séan and Laura at the bar of the Porterhouse made me realise how odd the whole thing is: we have no problem accepting that everyday drinks like tea and coffee can be mixed with other things to make them more palateable. Cocktails and kirs are classy. But somewhere along the path to industrial homogenisation we decided that beer had to be just beer: consumed as it is poured. The very notion of putting something else in there tends to garner weird looks. And yet, our draught stout was once a blend of stale and fresh beer, the abolition of which led Guinness to invent their pointless two-part pour in the 1950s. Is there anything to be gained from thinking of beer as something other than ready-to-drink?

This month's Session is hosted by Beer At Joe's, and is on the subject of Beer Cocktails.

I chanced upon my subject by accident. It was at the Easter Festival in Cork a couple of weeks ago, to which the TheBeerGeek brought along a bottle of Firestone Walker XII for disposal. It's a wood-bomb; a powerful brown ale which simulates the sensation of licking the inside of a bourbon barrel. There was more than a hint of cough syrup about it and I found the whole thing a bit sickly and hard to drink. As it happened, I was holding a half of Porterhouse Chocolate Truffle Stout when Chris poured me the Firestone Walker. It made perfect sense to dump the woody dregs in with the smooth bittersweet Irish stout. And it worked quite beautifully, I think: the overpowering bourbon barrel character was smoothed by the mellow chocolate notes, while any nitrostout blandness got a firm kick from the rich boozy vanilla flavours. Result: a harmonious mingling of two very different beers into a deliciously balanced cocktail.

And I was going to leave it there, until a week later when I returned to Cork for the ICB Brew It Yourself gig. The aftershow pub crawl took us to the dinky bar above the Abbot's Ale House where I spotted an oddity on the blackboards: Picon Beer €5. Whatever could that be? When it was explained that it was a cocktail of Bavaria lager and a French orange liqueur, I can't remember if it was Dave dared me to order it, or the other way around, but I didn't need much encouragement.

It works really well: you get the clean refreshing fizz of a pint of lager, but there's also a sweet rich orangey flavour too. The liqueur is only 18% ABV so a dash isn't going to make your pint dangerously alcoholic -- just more interesting. When I got home I went in search of more information on the stuff and was rather surprised to find it is actually intended as a beer additive.

So, positive experiences all round on the beer mixing front. It's not something I plan on making a habit of, but there are times when it just seems like the right thing to do.