31 August 2009

Rathmines, CA

The busy beery weekend kicked off on Friday evening in the Bull & Castle and a pint of O'Hara's Stout from the cask. From there I made my way out to Rathmines where Colin and Jonathan of CWI were running a tasting in Deveney's off licence of some new beers they've brought in.

SommerBrau is Gordon Biersch's summer Kölschalike, not a genre I particularly enjoyed when I tried Sierra Nevada's version, and I've not been in any rush to give Goose Island's a go. Biersch SommerBrau is fruitier than I expected, and with only a hint of grainy crispness at the end. Decent, inoffensive drinking. I'd imagine a six-pack would go great with a barbecue or similar sunny day activity, but that'll only really work in places where there's actual sunshine and the six-pack isn't costing €13. Places that aren't here, basically.

A much better proposition was Blonde Frog, by Blue Frog -- a company whose Red Frog and (now sadly discontinued) Big DIPA I've enjoyed in the past. Blonde Frog takes that full-bodied blonde ale base and injects it with a healthy dose of characterful American hops. 6.75% ABV in a 22oz bottle makes it one to be careful with, but it's well worth a bit of considered drinking.

Welcome return visits to Red Frog and Blue Frog IPA followed, which might be why I enjoyed the Butte Creek Pale Ale so much. Last time I tried it I was quite shocked by the intensity of its bitterness, but here I found it lovely and smooth and sherbety. I can only guess that the hoppy beers which preceded it helped knock the sharp edges off. Butte Creek IPA, however, tasted quite charmlessly bitter -- with a big vegetal harshness. But perhaps I'll become attuned to that eventually too. Odd things, hops.

Quite a few of the usual suspects had shown up by 7.30, so we decamped to the pub. More on that next.

27 August 2009

Turn up the heat

I know of only one Indian take-away in Dublin that has phall on its menu. It's a stupidly hot curry, invented in England to give macho arseholes something else to be obnoxious about, and though I lack a peer group made up of braying idiots, I'm not above a bit of chilli-based machismo. So phall it was.

This prompted a bit of a crisis: curry requires beer, and it was exceedingly unlikely I'd be able to taste much of what I was drinking. With no expendable beers in the house, I needed a curry lager, one where I wouldn't mind not tasting much of it, which is to say: cheap. I came up with a couple of cans of Pražský, a Czech lager by A-B InBev and one which is very popular in Ireland among less discerning drinkers. I recall someone (Evan? Al? Max?) saying this is one of the Staropramen range re-badged -- at 4.2% ABV I'd assume the světlý.

There's really not a whole lot going on with it -- it's watery and with a big hollow where the flavour is supposed to go. The one distinguishing feature is a slight sickliness, presumably caused by the use of corn syrup. And yet, when put next to a curry onslaught, all those problems go away and it just becomes a boring lager like any other.

Here's to the transformative power of the chilli.

24 August 2009

More puker than pukka

I like writing. Even more, I like having written. I like the discipline of writing to order and on schedule. But I could never have been a journalist because I am a painfully slow reader. Digesting press releases on the hoof, ahead of press conferences and deadlines, would just not have been my forte, and I take months getting through even the shortest of books. Which is why it was only yesterday that I published my review of the excellent Hops & Glory by Pete Brown, despite having been sent a copy shortly after it was published.

I had an English IPA sitting in my beer fridge and I reckoned I may as well crack it open to mark the end of my own two month voyage (of the armchair variety) to India with Pete. It's Fuller's India Pale Ale and comes in a bottle with a breathtakingly classy royal purple label. 5.3% ABV and bottle conditioned: this is a beer going all-out for the IPA purist -- the people who'll buy it based on the words "faithfully recreated" on the back label. Close your eyes, imagine a balmy tropical evening on the veranda, and try to ignore the way your beer smells of vomit.

It does smell of vomit, though, and this acidic harshness carries through into the flavour. There's a good body under it, and a hint of caramel sweetness, but those utterly unfruity bitter hops are very hard to get past and make the end beer really quite unpleasant to drink.

Prior to cracking the bottle open I had been drinking Big Daddy IPA by Speakeasy in California, recently on tap in the Bull and Castle as a limited-time guest beer. Here, there are firm and fruity mandarin and grapefruit notes in super-smooth harmony with the caramel malts. Mrs Beer Nut suggests that the Fuller's beer is just suffering by comparison, but I disagree: whatever way it's looked at, I think it's simply a poor quality beer. Crank up the alphas, throw in more crystal, then we'll talk.

20 August 2009

American dream

Hooray! The lovely Peter Arend (owner of 't Arendnest in Amsterdam -- one of my favourite pubs in the whole wide world) has invited me to the grand opening of his new American-themed beer bar: Beer Temple. I may as well start paying him off in publicity now...

I love Amsterdam -- the best city for beer I've ever been too. It'll just be a flying two-night visit so I'm already planning what else we'll be up to. Obviously there's some serious shopping to be done in De Bierkoning near the new pub, and it's been far too long since we've been to 't IJ brewery, so that's on the cards if we can fit it in. And then there's the litany of first-rate ticker bars in the city, including In De Wildeman and the mighty Arendsnest itself. Adeptus will be nipping up from Münster for the gig as well, so a fun few days are on the cards next month. (Big thanks to Rick from Bier & Co for tweeting the original heads-up -- though I'll need a quiet word with him about his Magner's fixation: it's most unbecoming for an importer of quality beer.)

Naturally, an American craft beer was necessary to celebrate, and I opted for Goose Island Nut Brown Ale. When the cap is twisted off a whiff of those typically fruitsome Goose Island hops drifts languidly from the neck, and the pour produces a gleaming red-brown body, the colour of a freshly peeled conker. Only a light skim of froth sits on top of this, and the hops go back into hiding: the aroma is all sweet caramel. But with the first sip, they're back: it's not a bitter beer at all, but zingy and sherbety and very American. The hops' fruit notes are followed by sticky toffee, finishing quite dry with just a hint of smoke. It would have been so easy to make this too sickly sweet, or overloaded with acidic C-hops, but they've done for Brown Ale here what American breweries are known for doing to India Pale Ale: just given it a pleasant fruity hop twist.

Despite having been through the hands of several importers and in my fridge a few weeks, I see that my bottle only left Chicago about eight weeks ago. If Beer Temple (and Rick who'll be supplying) can keep that kind of freshness it'll be a great place to drink.

17 August 2009

Lots more Mr Nice Guy

I'm sort of freaked out by the Co-Op (now with added "erative"). The not-for-profit UK supermarket chain looks desperate for approval, and every tiny aspect of the retail experience seems to have been micromanaged to within an inch of its life with the customer in mind. There's openness, fairness and common sense everywhere you look. Like I say: freaky.

In Manchester last month I bought a bottle each of the three own-brand beers, all-brewed by the Freeminer brewery in Gloucestershire, and all with the most comprehensive label information I've ever seen.

I started with Bumble Bee, which I'm told is made from 24% honey. I can only assume that water doesn't count as part of this calculation, or this would be a very thick beer indeed. I'd imagine it would also make it taste of honey, which Bumble Bee mostly doesn't. There's a very slight sweetness present on the nose, along with a carbonic mineral water sort of smell. On tasting it narrowly avoids being another tasteless English golden ale by having a bitter sort of disinfectant taste. Rolling it about in the mouth, that turns into a proper sharp hops bite, and there may even be the sugary hint of actual honey, but it's one of those beers, intended to be easy inoffensive drinking, that makes you work to find the flavour.

Far more interesting is the densely-packed back label which offers us: origin, ingredients, allergens, pouring advice, nutritional data, alcohol advice, ABV, ABV in braille, recycling instructions, composition of bottle, cap and label, and a telephone helpline in case something's missing. In fact, something is missing: there's no comment on the beer's vegetarian compatibility. However, a note adds cryptically that it's cleared by isinglass. I guess it's up to you to find out what that is and where it fits into your own personal philosophy of ingestion. Which seems a bit underhanded to me.

Next up, their Organic Ale, which poured a very attractive shade of Lucozade amber. It's quite sweet and sugary, but in a good way -- full of chewy toffee and caramel, with just a light carbonation for extra smoothness. The only real criticism I can muster is a slight medicinal off-note as it warms.

Turning to the TMI back label, we're told it's made with "organically grown European Tradition hops": I'm guessing that's New Zealand, then. Am I the only one who thinks food miles are far more important than agricultural methods, and would swap any amount of organic for chemical-laden local produce? Organic just isn't enough to separate this sandalista from his ecobucks. Isinglass isn't mentioned on the label -- all clearing is by filtration -- and yet there's no veggie credentials either, though an early draft of the label, beneath the outwardly visible one, does state that it's vegan-friendly.

Lastly we come to the bottle-conditioned Gold Miner: a dark shade of gold, edging towards red. The smell is remarkably skunky for beer from brown glass, and the taste is very bitter. I get nettles; herself got rocket -- you know the kind of peppery greenness we mean. This is entirely derived from the First Gold it contains, apparently. Beside the vegetal bitterness there's a sugariness as well and the two elements just don't sit well together: sharp and sweet are incompatible bedfellows.

A potshot at the label? How about: it's bottle-conditioned, as I said, and the light dusting of sediment is testimony to this. And yet, there among the ingredients, is "carbon dioxide". What gives? Did the yeast need a little bit of a push to help it along? If I were a Real Ale fundamentalist I'd be preparing the thumbscrews and ducking stool for a judicial enquiry.

Three so-so beers. The free tip from this amateur marketing consultant: never make your label copy more interesting than your beer.

13 August 2009

Blind, or STFU

It started innocently enough nearly two years ago when I returned from Belgium full of the joys of Rochefort. I promised myself that at some point I'd sit down with the dubbel I believe to be my favourite -- Westmalle -- and the top two Rocheforts, and figure out which I liked best. Since then, largely due to Dave's infectious sense of sciencey fun, I've become massively enamoured of blind tasting as the only way one can really find out one's own opinion of a beer. So the taste-off, when it happened, would be done blind.

Then a little bit of project
drift crept in: so much is written about Westvleteren 12 being supposedly the world's best beer, and I can't help thinking that its rarity value and resultant high price might have more to do with this than how it actually tastes. It would make sense that any blind tasting of strong dark Belgian ales should have one of these thrown in to see if its supposed brilliance shines through. And then I read that St Bernardus Abt 12 is made from basically the same recipe as Westvleteren 12, so obviously that should be included too. It's perhaps merciful that my own homemade dubbel was less than a week in the bottle or there would have been another.

As it was, last Saturday evening, Mrs Beer Nut and I lined up five bottles and five tasting glasses. With such complex beers I'm sure it's very difficult (and no fun) to do this properly scientifically, with all beers being the sam
e age and kept in the same conditions for the same length of time. But these were of roughly similar vintages and had mostly been kept together over the 8-10 months they've been in the house. All were chilled in the same fridge to 10°C before serving.

While I was fetching the bottles, I reached over to tweet:

Preparing a blind tasting of Belgian ales: Rochefort 8, Rochefort 10, Bernardus Abt 12, Westvleteren 12 and Westmalle Dubbel. Which is best?
which garnered quite a bit of a response:
robsterowski@thebeernut Westvleteren is the best beer in the galaxy, everyone knows that. I've never had it but I know it is. ;)
StanHieronymus@thebeernut Curious to read differences perceived between R8 and R10. W12 could be the best on the table . . . or the worst.
Garthicus@thebeernut had my first Westy 12 a few weeks back & loved it.
maeib@thebeernut Rochefort 10 for me, although Berny 12 is very very close. The results of the tasting will make interesting reading
larsga@thebeernut Cool idea! I hope you'll blog the results? (Dumb question, I suppose. :)
thebeergeek@thebeernut r8

taleofale@thebeernut all good beers so the best is less relevent than the fun tasting.
And of course, Reuben is quite right: the fun bit is the most important.

The aim was to pick a favourite, but while I was at it, I decided I may as well have a go at trying to guess which was which. And I did get Westmalle Dubbel right, though I also had it ranked as my third favourite after what I had guessed were Rocheforts 10 and 8. Wrong!

The beer I picked as my favourite, the one with the most beautiful fluffy head, the one I wrote copious notes about, extolling its figgy nutty fruit flavours, on a big boozy base perfectly balanced by the spices, turned out to be Westvleteren 12. I will add, however, that it's still not worth upwards of €7 a bottle when you can go to the shop next door and buy any of the others for under a euro. Buy it to try it, but hunting after it and paying over the odds is just stupid.

In second place was a beer that tasted quite different -- with more of a gentle plummy roundness and nowhere near as much booze power, though quite dry and gassy with lots of stirred up sediment. Anyone familiar with Ron's anti-fizz stick should have no problem recognising the Abt 12. Definitely not a close relative of the Westvleteren.

As I said, I identified the third-place Westmalle correctly. I have it marked as sweet and quite strong-tasting which doesn't sound at all like Westmalle to me, and especially since, at 7% ABV it's quite a bit weaker than the others.

Finally, I couldn't pick between the last two so awarded them both joint fourth place. Both had quite a nasty cough-mixture heat to them that I found overpowering. I should really have known from the colour (third from the left) which one was Rochefort 8: it's supposed to be lighter than the others. Darker Rochefort 10 was no worse on the cough mixture front but lacked any extra complexities either.
(L to R: Westmalle Dubbel, Abt 12, Rochefort 8, Westvleteren 12, Rochefort 10.)

Or at least that's what I thought. Mrs Beer Nut found a caramel flavour in it which made Rochefort 10 her favourite. She actually put Abt 12 ahead of Westvleteren 12 in second and third place, finding the latter rather worty. The Westmalle she deemed rather light, and finally the Rochefort 8 got the wooden spoon from her for being too sweet.

I guess Abt 12 is our compromise beer, though I'm pleased to have a definitive answer that Westmalle Dubbel is still my general everyday drinking dubbel.

Lars Marius tweeted an interesting point on the poorly performing Rocheforts:
Were the Rocheforts new or old? They tend to have sharp higher alcohols when younger than 6-8 months. Much better when older.
Though I wouldn't describe what I found in the Rocheforts as "sharp", there's probably something to be said for leaving the remaining ones in the house to mature a while. To be continued...

And with the bottles recapped to keep the flies out, it was curry time. I went for Munsterbräu, a stubby-bottled lager that's been on super-special offer (10 for €5) in Superquinn for a while now. It's made in St Omer, France's beer capital, and somewhere with some cracking brews under its belt. And a lot of budget dreck.

Being in green glass, Munsterbräu is of course skunked, and the whiff hits the nostrils as soon as the cap comes off. The pour produces a fizzy lager on the pale side of pale. And yet... it's not awful. It's not in the least bit thin or watery, for instance, and there's no nasty sugariness, even when it warms. There's a slight thinness at the end, but it doesn't detract from it. Rather, it makes it less demanding and quite wonderfully refreshing when washing away vindaloo sauce: the main demand I place on my cooking lagers.

With the curry polished off it was back to the remains of the Belgians. One of the better ways to spend Saturday night in, I reckon.

10 August 2009

Roll in the barrel

The Bull & Castle's commitment to Ireland's craft beer has reached new heights in recent months with the addition of a beer engine to the downstairs bar. Yeah, the counter-mounted barrel is a bit of an eyesore, squatting on the bar in its black jacket like an undercover warthog, and the handpump is rather hidden out of the way, but the succession of cask beers we've had from it have been worth all of this and more.

The set-up was put in place through the good offices of the Carlow Brewing Company, and although there's no tie arrangement all of the beers have been supplied by the Carlow team. On the stout front we've had plenty of their fabulously chocolately Druid's Brew -- normally a festival special only -- plus their normal O'Hara's Stout which is so much more multi-dimensional on cask than in any other form, even when the immersion cooling system broke down.

So content was I with the stouts that I never batted an eyelid the first time a cask of O'Hara's Red was delivered in an unsaleable condition. I changed my tune when the second one arrived and I got a taste: nastily vinegary, sure, but underneath there are some quite wonderful raspberry and redcurrant flavours. When they eventually get this one right I'll be first in line. The last of the three core bottled Carlow beers is Curim Gold, their light lager-like wheat beer. It's dullsville normally, but when it appeared on cask it blew me away: jam-packed full of lemony citrus notes it was all kinds of quenching and the single cask drained away over the course of one balmy weekend last month.

And then the direction changed. Carlow, to the best of my knowledge, don't have a pilot plant. In fact, they're in the process of moving out of the Carlow goods store by the railway station into a bigger site. They don't do small runs (I'm sure someone can tell me their minimum batch size; I keep forgetting) and yet the latest residents of the Bull & Castle beer engine appear to be just that. First up was the charmingly-monikered Malty Bitches, a full-bodied red-brown bitter which looks like it ought to be malt-driven but has been dry-hopped to give it a fabulously citric juicy-fruit bitterness, as well as bits of hops in the bottom of the glass. It's interesting to compare it with Ireland's other copper-coloured bitter cask bitter, Porterhouse TSB. It lacks the intense harshness I generally find with TSB, making it easier for one pint, but the second pint of TSB always goes down a treat as the tannins come out and I'm not sure this sort of complexity exists in Malty Bitches. I can't be sure though, as all I got was a half pint from the fag end of the cask. You snooze you lose. For more ruminations on MB v TSB, see Reuben's Tale of Ale.

Next day, it was replaced with an IPA called Goods Store, a name derived from it being the last beer to be produced at the old brewery. Woah! What a beer! A bright and hazy orange colour it resembles nothing so much as a Bavarian hefeweizen. If there isn't a very generous dose of Cascade at the tail end of the hopping schedule then I don't know hops, but we're talking massive zesty mandarin orange flavours. There's a touch of the chalky dryness I tend to associate with, and quite enjoy in, Hilden Ale, but the body is really quite thin with the malt just providing enough of a stage for the hops to sing on. And sing they do. Goods Store IPA is without doubt one of the best Irish beers I've ever tasted, and I'm actually a little worried about what might happen to the rest of the batch.

Obviously, we need more pubs set up for cask. But what are the chances of that?