30 July 2009

Het Steir et Château

More Belgian beer today, I'm afraid. In fact, our glass has been runnething over with draught Belgian loveliness in Dublin recently. Last weekend, on the tail of the Porterhouse's 11-day Belge-a-thon, the Bull & Castle got in on the action with not only a bunch of draught Belgian beers, but a food menu to go with them. The mussels in lambic sauce was wonderful -- full of the hot wheaty smell of brew day at Cantillon. Framboise duck was another winner.

The beery highlight for me was draught Kwak -- deliciously sticky with major banana fruitiness, akin to drinking a banoffee pie. It sat in pleasant contrast to the hoppy sharpness of Poperings Hommel Ale.

The new ones on me were both Wittekerke witbiers. The basic one pours a bright, opaque yellow and is predominantly bitter and spicy, with only a hint of green apples holding up the fruit side of the bargain. The dry, almost sour, kick had me wondering if it's some sort of throwback to the days when this type of beer was fermented spontaneously. To take this edge off, they also make a version with raspberry syrup in: Wittekerke Rosé. It takes the edge off, all right, and everything else with it. You end up with an incredibly sweet syrupy pink beer of the sort any sane and self-respecting beer drinker would hate. I drained my half litre in about three minutes, but I wasn't up for another.

Dessert was one not from the weekend specials, but a regular that's been knocking around a while now: Steenbrugge Dubbel Bruin, the abbey beer from Belgian giants Palm with its ever-so-complex neck label arrangement. It's so-so: a touch of fruity bananas but not much else going for it. A real shadow of a strong dark ale when put next to Kwak, and I find it hard to believe this is the same beer I enjoyed on draught last time I was in Amsterdam. Maybe it isn't.

It's nice to have these little diversions from the regular line-ups in Dublin's decent beer pubs, though the rotating cask at the Bull and Castle is also doing its bit to keep my life adequately spiced at the moment. Long may that continue.

27 July 2009

Is that it?

I'm a bit conflicted when it comes to Sin É on Dublin's north quays. Like many of Dublin's trendier hang-outs it has a dark, shabby kind of air, which is probably not so noticeable when in its natural state of being packed to the rafters with sweaty youngsters under the nonchalant gaze of the DJ. I'm guessing here, though, as I've never been in after dark. During the day, it's a lovely little shelter from the bustle of the city and sitting at the bar reading a book or the paper is an experience which I'd always found greatly enhanced by the presence of Galway Hooker among the beer taps.

Alas, the Hooker is no more, so something else has to be selected from the small-but-eclectic range of draughts. The management have recently taken it upon themselves to begin importing kegs from the Van Steenberge brewery in Belgium under their own Big Hand Brewery label. I mentioned the lager, Sparta Pils, back here, and in a suspicious parallel to A-B InBev's core Belgian range, there's also a wit and an abbey blonde.

Pierre Celis was midwife to the rebirth of Hoegaarden. Celis White, we're told, is what he got up to in Texas after the big mean conglomerate muscled him out, recreated now in Belgium by Van Steenberge. The aroma is superb: full of spicy coriander. After that initial herbal kick it settles into a long dryness, refreshing and with just enough sparkle to set the gums tingling. Is it better than evil factory-brewed Hoegaarden? Probably not, actually, but it's an interesting step sideways.

The abbey beer is called Augustijn and weighs in at 6.5% ABV. It has a very similar honeyish nose to the Leffe Blonde it's clearly running after. Like Celis White, however, it quickly becomes dry and that doesn't work so well in this kind of beer. Fortunately, the textbook malty sweetness stays in place all the way through so that even though the hops leave it a little bit harsh on the end it's still a pleasantly civilised sipper.

Neither beer is especially earth-shattering, but variety in Dublin pub taps is always worth cheering on. Given the careful targetting of the styles, I doubt we'll see any great expansion in the range from Big Hand, bit I'd certainly welcome it if we did.

23 July 2009

Had your oats?

Finally, the refugees from my over-heated attic have all been liberated, with Broughton Scottish Oatmeal Stout the last under the wire. I have it in my head that I don't generally like oatmeal stouts, finding them a bit heavy and phenolic. This one's just 4.2% ABV -- how heavy could that be? Not very is the answer, but that's not a good thing here. Not much of a nose and very little on the palate either, other than some mild, dry roastiness and bags of watery fizz. As it warmed I got a little bit of a sweet phenolic vibe, but it could well have been my imagination. Mrs Beer Nut claims there's more going on, but still hasn't a good word to say: "like something you eat for breakfast because it's good for you". Ouch! Stern and beardie Mr Broughton won't be welcome back in my gaff, by the looks of things.

So, while I was being a glutton for punishment, I figured I may as well get rid of the other one of the genre knocking about the house: Goose Island Oatmeal Stout. The Chicago team insist on it being served in a "balloon goblet" -- a Duvel glass will have to do. Even though it's only slightly stronger at 5.1 ABV, it really delivers on texture with a big, chewy body. The nose is a bit sickly with the promise of sticky treacle, yet the flavour is dry and very slightly spicy with a lasting toasty aftertaste. I think this may be the first oatmeal stout I've had which actually tastes oaty and I reckon I'd have it again.

So, it turns out that oatmeal stout isn't a lost cause after all. Duly noted.

20 July 2009

A drop of Irish

The wife and I took the day off on Friday and headed down the coast to Bray, a town we hadn't visited in several years. This is where The Porterhouse began, before the building of their (now dismantled) Temple Bar brewery, and it still retains a more traditional vibe, with Guinness and Heineken on tap. The annual Belgian beer festival is on across the chain at the moment, and in addition to some lovely draught Belgian ales (Abt 12, Tripel Karmaliet, et al) they've brewed up a new batch of their wonderful Chocolate Truffle Stout normally only seen in the spring. Chocolate, Belgian: geddit? A couple of pints of that in the front yard, overlooking the sea, made for a fine start to the weekend.

Saturday was brew day at home: an uncertain attempt at a dubbel. After the clean-up we headed for the Bull & Castle where the cask of the moment is Carlow Brewing's Curim Gold. I've never really been a fan of this in the bottle: it's a little bit bland and soapy. They'd never casked it before, but did so on request from the Bull & Castle who wanted something light and summery for the handpump, after a succession of stouts. Good thing they did, because it was fantastic. Belgian witbier is the closest approximation, and it has that spicy yeast character on top of refreshing zingy lemon flavours enhanced by some supreme sparkly conditioning -- so good you'd nearly think it was from a keg. Between four of us, we had the barrel drained by closing time.

There was just one deviation to the wheatiness -- a recently-arrived strong red ale from Hilden called Cathedral Quarter. It's the second in their series named after districts of Belfast, and I have to say I wasn't keen on the first one -- Titanic Quarter. However, the pour from this 5.3% ABV beer was promising, offering up summer fruit aromas and more than a hint of a Fuller's-esque toffee effect. The first sip was a major let-down, then. Stale, musty and cardboardy: a shame because there's clearly a good beer under it. As I drank, I found it mellowed a bit and the toffee returned accompanied by milk chocolate and butterscotch. I was getting quite into it by the end, though Níall who was drinking one beside me was less impressed. Can't really recommend this, I'm afraid.

It can be a bit swings-and-roundabouts with Irish beer sometimes, but with a gorgeous chocolate stout and a delectable cask wheatbeer in exchange for a musty red, I reckon I'm still up on the deal.

16 July 2009

A game of two halves

After a wait of several years, I finally got to sit down recently with a bottle each of Anchor Small Beer and the brewery's Old Foghorn barley wine. For those who don't know, these two beers from the San Francisco brewery are made from the same mash, with Old Foghorn fermented from the high-gravity first runnings and Small Beer a product of running water through the grain a second time to wash out a lesser amount of the sugars for a weaker final result. Making multiple beers of descending strengths is a throwback to the days before commercial brewing, and Anchor are the only ones I know of who are doing it today.

I started with the Small Beer, which comes in a large 66cl bottle, with the tiny label accentuating its bigness. I figured that this 3.2% ABV ale wasn't one for considered sipping, so it all went into a large mug to be quaffed. Unfortunately, it proved an impossible task: this beer is far too fizzy for that kind of thing. Genteel mouthfuls are forced upon the drinker by the bubbles, making it entirely unsuitable as a thirst-quencher and a failure as a small beer as a result. But there is a lot going for it otherwise: the body is an attractive dark red-gold colour and the nose is redolent of a hoppiness I can only describe as "beery": that funky aromatic smell that I most associate with English bitters. We don't get much of the hop flavours in the taste -- instead there's a slightly severe acid bitterness which could do with being tempered by some malt sweetness. And there's also the rough carbonation, making it quite a difficult sup, all in all. The finish combines the carbonic dryness with the hops bitters to leave the drinker in need of something altogether more quenching afterwards.

I knew Old Foghorn wouldn't be it, fully aware that the 9.4% ABV monster would be as big and bitter as the day is long. But I was wrong. Yes it's a big beer, no doubt, but big in unusual places. The hops are out in force, of course, but they're remarkably fruity, imparting a kind of fresh orange juice flavour that's actually quite refreshing. The malt, meanwhile, puts an almost chocolatey base on this: biscuity sweet and not the syrupy soupy thing you sometimes get with strong beers like this. All in all it's quite easy-going. There's maybe a slightly off-putting cloying sweetness in the aroma, but none of that transfers to the palate: there it's a gentle soothing sipper with light carbonation and only a slight aftertaste, to keep the drinker coming back for more.

I honestly can't say I see any relationship between these beers. They're both very much hop-driven, and are hopped according to rather different recipes. Why they didn't think to put more late hops for flavour and aroma into the Small Beer I will never know. Still, Old Foghorn saves the day and I'll be having this one again.

13 July 2009

Pannewha'?

There's a long-winded explanation on my bottle of Pannepeut 2007 about how it's Pannepot with the name changed "as a wink to the Danish market". I'm sure there's some joke behind this that was absolutely hilarious to both the Belgian and Danish senses of humour in the drunken aftermath of some beer festival, but I'm not going to dwell on it. Instead, I'm taking it as read that this is Pannepot, the legendary strong ale brewed by the Belgian breweryless brewing company most favoured by the Yanks: De Struise.

Brewed to a round 10% ABV it pours out a deep shade of chestnut brown with lots of sediment on the bottom of the glass and cappuccino-esque brown flecks on top of the creamy head. The nose shouts Belgian yeast into your face, though whispers of a fruity sourness underneath. None of that sourness in the flavour, though. This is big big sugary molasses on a thick syrupy base. There's a smidge of spicy woodiness for complexity, but mostly it's like drinking a malt loaf.

It's pleasant, in its own way, as a sipper. But I won't be rushing for it again and I certainly wouldn't have more than one in a sitting.

10 July 2009

Some corner of a foreign field

"World Beer Freehouse" is an epithet to conjure with. I spotted Pivo, a three-storey pub in Tudor pyjamas, from the far end of the street. It was jammed last Saturday night, but we made a return visit on Sunday afternoon before leaving York.

The downstairs barroom is long and narrow with a walk-in bottle fridge at the far end. Casks on stillage behind the bar are marked with what's coming next, and on the counter there are several handpumps plus a range of keg fonts for beers from the Barbarous Lands. Upstairs, a spacious lounge gives drinkers a bit more elbow room so long as they don't mind navigating the narrow stairs down when they need a refill or the narrow stairs up for, er, the reverse.

Mrs Beer Nut passed up the opportunity to travel abroad, going no further than Somerset with Butcombe Blonde. It's a tasty little bittersweet number with a slightly vegetal hops bitterness, though lacking in legs. Unchallenging, but solid, I thought. I had spied the draught Sierra Nevada Blonde through the window the previous day and was itching to try it. It's full of those good old California hops found in the best Sierra Nevada beers, but places them on a tasty bubblegum sort of base. Very refreshing and moreish. I don't know why they bother with Summerfest when they have this up their sleeves.

Moreish or not, it was time to go. We'd allowed ourselves plenty of time to get back to Manchester airport, and I had given solid assurances, based on concrete experience, that there was Brooklyn Lager available airside and that all would be well.

All was not well.

Giraffe was clean out of Brooklyn. Disaster! Of course, any good ticker is capable of turning such crises into pointless opportunities, so while my wife opted for some Rioja, I requested a Cruzcampo. I'd never had it before. Won't be having it again, neither. My notebook says "clear corny mank" and I don't really have anything to add to that. The food in Giraffe was decent, though. And I discovered the joy of Chipotle Tabasco: truly there is not a food or drink on earth that cannot be improved by smoking it.

And next thing, we were home. Thank you for having us, England. See you at Earl's Court on the 4th.

09 July 2009

Cittie of Stagge and Henne

We hit York early on Saturday evening, wandering through the chocolate-box streets of one of the prettiest British cities I've ever visited. Dinner was in Nineteen on Grape Street (formerly Grope Street, the medieval red light district) where the food and service were both superb. The night was drawing in as we left, and that's when we noticed that York has probably the highest concentration of stag and hen parties of anywhere we've been. I mean, I live in Dublin -- I've been through Temple Bar on a Saturday night on more than one occasion (though never inhaled) -- but nowhere have I seen quite so many, and so elaborately coordinated, prenuptial piss-ups as were being conducted on the streets of York last weekend. It was, quite literally, as though everyone inside the city walls was absolutely hammered.

Searching, foolishly, in the old town for a quiet postprandial beer we ended up by the banks of the Ouse at the King's Head, one of those delightful novelty Samuel Smith's pubs where cask ale is unknown and if you don't want own-brand drinks you can naff off. We got the last available table so were spared the worst of the crush from the victims of drive-by fake-tannings and the men-behaving-stupidly. I recommended the Old Brewery Bitter for herself, having enjoyed the bottle I picked up in Switzerland earlier this year. Meanwhile I scoured the fridges for something interesting and came away with a bottle of Organic Cherry Ale. It's 5.1% ABV but tastes much heavier, with big boozy cherry flavours, somewhere between kirsch liqueur and cough syrup. The body was as big as this suggests, but there was just enough sparkle to keep it light enough to drink. My impression is that this beer is best served very cold, and the hefty flavour will stand up well in such conditions.

We left through the throng towards the south gate of the old city, almost passing by a civilised-looking pub, mistaking it for a restaurant, since every other licensed establishment seemed jammed with raucous bingers. But a peep in the door revealed it to be a pub and only when I sat down did I discover it was one I had marked on my map as a must-visit: Brigantes is York's current top CAMRA boozer, and I could see why. Rather like The Wellington it's modern, clean and open. In addition to the half-dozen or so cask ales from breweries both in Yorkshire and further afield, there was a small but solid collection of Belgian, German and American beers on offer, and staff who plainly knew their way around them and were enthusiastic about serving them.

To keep things local, my first pint was York Brewery's Yorkshire Terrier, but I found this bitter straw-coloured ale just a bit too heavy, waxy and tough going, so I swapped it for what the missus was having: the unalloyed joy of Timothy Taylor Best Bitter. This limpid amber beer starts off with a beautiful honey-sweet flavour and finishes on a bitter bite of the sort I've never met before. I would go so far as to say that Taylor's Best operates beyond the malt-hop axis in a delicious flavour world all of its own.

As we sailed towards last orders I got another round in and this time I picked Wentworth's Black Zac for me, a gorgeous dry roasty mild with lots of lovely charcoal flavours. Mrs Beer Nut had a Samba, from the Leeds Brewery, a company I've been well impressed with in the past. It's a very pale summer ale packed full of lemons and bubblegum, which we both rather liked. That took us through the bells (English pubs, eh? Bless) to the end of the drinking day, well for us at least: I'm sure the party which is York was only getting warmed up.

There weren't so many of the stag-and-hen crowd out and about bright and early last Sunday morning. The streets were rather quiet as we made our way back to the city centre. After some general meanderings of a touristic nature we found ourselves at the Three-Legged Mare opposite the Minster. It's another CAMRA award winner and another with helpful and friendly staff -- I sense a theme here. The York Brewery owns it, so obviously their beers are to the fore. And again obviously, I started with a pint of their well-renowned Centurion's Ghost. Colour me philistine (as usual) but I wasn't keen. This dark dark ruby ale had a slight haze to it, I think, but there wasn't a whole lot of flavour. Concentrating hard, there are bitter dark fruits -- plums and damsons -- buried deep in here, but I just couldn't get excited about it. Mrs Beer Nut was on another black tan-headed pint: Banks & Taylor's SOD. This was a definite cut above, displaying tasty plum pudding and blackberry notes. In the sunny beer garden, under the pub gallows, it made for slow, considered drinking. I might have garnered a pint of it myself, but we wanted to make the first tour of the day down at the York Brewery itself.

In an odd reversal of the old order, York Brewery is owned by a chain of pubs. It was set up in the mid-1990s as the first brewery in the city since the '50s but last year passed into the hands of Mitchell's Hotels & Inns. It's still a charming micro, though, with a ramshackle tasting lounge in the attic, which operates as a private members' club for anyone willing to stump up the princely annual subscription of £12. A half of Yorkshire Terrier was handed out on arrival, and I found this much lighter and more palateable than the previous evening's pint. After the short tour (the place really isn't that big) it was back to the bar to work through the collection.