30 September 2009

El Corte Alemán

You have to love El Corte Inglés. Well, if you're a beer lover and you're in Spain you do, because as a ready source of commonplace quality beers, and the occasional oddity, it's hard to beat.

Where I found it most interesting on my recent trip to Madrid was the German selection. There was a range from Hofmark and Schwaben Bräu, neither of which I'd ever heard of, and all of which were standard German styles. But look: swingtops!

Hofmark's trademark is a supreme sort of tooth-rotting sweetness that overwhelmed all of their beers. Hofmark Original Hell, for instance, is a dark amber gold with a nose redolent of honeycomb ice cream and a taste packed with butterscotch. This is accentuated by a thick and sticky body. Definitely not a beer for everyone, but with my sweet tooth I quite liked it. There's more of a candy nose from Hofmark Original Weisse and none of the banana or clove flavours one might expect. Instead there's a sort of brown sugar light caramel flavour and, after a while, the slightest trace of hop spice at the back. Another tooth-rotter and one to horrify weissbier purists. Hofmark Dunkel Weisse is appropriately dark but with a surprisingly short-lived head. This is far more typical of the style, with big ripe bananas balanced against some very tasty dry and crunchy alt-like malt flavours.

Schwaben Bräu take an authoritative approach to their beers, labelling each according to its style with just the definite article appended to the front. So it's not just any old helle, it's Das Helle. This is pale gold with a touch of honey about the nose, but otherwise quite hop-driven, in that quite bitter but vaguely spicy way that German noble hops have. I liked this, though it's very different from the Hofmark which preceded it. Das Weizen is the first dullard of the bunch -- a promising clove nose is followed by nothing very much, other than a hint of yeasty spice. The body is full, and it's satisfyingly quaffable, but really quite a let-down in the flavour department. Das Schwarze isn't much better. The brown translucent shade of Coca-Cola, it gives off a sour and gassy aroma and is dry but otherwise again quite tasteless, I thought.

A far better proposition came from Kaiserdom in the form of their Alt Bamberg Dunkel. This very very dark red lager has a gives off a pupil-dilating hit of coffee on the nose but calms down a little when it's time to taste. There's a kiss of sweet caramel to tempt you in, followed by a long, luxurious dry roasted flavour that lasts and lasts. I was well impressed with this and reckon it's one of those beers that could make it so much easier to survive in Germany where dark ales are thin on the ground. Barry?

A silly beer to finish, filed in Corte Inglés next to the other silly beers, like Desperados. Cannabia is a hemp beer, and I genuinely like hemp beers. I was very impressed by the couple I picked up in Switzerland at the beginning of the year. However, this one clearly isn't handmade by a Swiss craftsman. One clue is the scratch 'n' sniff label. Really. It appears, funnily enough, to be marketed at teenage stoners rather than drinkers who actively enjoy the flavour of hemp in beer. Appropriately, it smells skunked. The flavour does have that white-pepper-mixed-with-grapefruit-rind that I was looking for but, it's unpleasantly artificial, like they've injected a rubbishy lager with some nasty hemp extract, and then sprayed the label with it too. And I'm only guessing that it's German -- the company appears to be German, but no more accurate brewery address is given than "the EU". Even for hemp beer fans I wouldn't recommend this one -- it definitely deserves its place among the kiddie novelty beers.

Speaking of which, I really should try and get hold of that scary looking chilli lager that's just appeared here recently. I'm told it's awful.

28 September 2009

We used to own Belgium, you know

At first I was surprised by the number of Chimay signs hanging outside pubs in Madrid. I had expected little other than hot-country lager to be on sale. But but perhaps it shouldn't be any more surprising than the widespread availability of Cuban cigars or Argentinian beef in the former imperial capital.

The first pub we visited on arrival was Cafeeke, a small Belgian-themed bar as recommended by Ron. The menu ran to a very respectable 40 beers, between the draught and bottled selections, though you're only allowed try four on any one visit (!). Among them were two house beers, either contract brews or rebadges: I went for the witbier, called Misty Blanche after the bar's small yappy dog. It tasted more French than Belgian to me: very dry with an intense, and quite artificial, lemon flavour. Lacking body too. I assume they get this on the cheap.

The Te Deum beers, by Du Bocq, are quite commonplace in Madrid. The Blonde is slightly hazy with very nice balance of typical Belgian flavours: the rounded fruitiness coupled with a peppery spiciness. Strangely, the Amber (badged as "Rojo" in Cafeeke) also tasted quite blonde, with uncharacteristic lemony notes in the mahogany-red beer. A strange experience.

Oddly, there was barely a bottle of Duvel to be seen in Madrid. Strong blonde of choice is Judas, definitely a second rate alternative. It's palatable, but much drier and bitterer than the other infernally-monikered strong Belgian blondes of my acquaintance, and harder work to drink.

So that's a handful of Belgian beers in Spain for you. Next: Germany calling.

24 September 2009

Siesta cerveza

The rhythm of Madrid takes a bit of getting used to. The city sleeps late and parties all night. Those bars that do open during the day tend to run a lunch shift until 4 and then close until 8. This meant that just around the time when the thirsty tourist is looking for his first beer of the day he's met with closed shutters. Thankfully El Corte Inglés came to the rescue and I filled the dead hours of the early evening with beers from its shelves, cooled in the hotel minibar fridge.

The first ones that attracted me were the dark lagers on offer, though they're a mixed bag to say the least. Alhambra Negra pours a promising deep brown colour but has very little by way of flavour -- just a carbonic sort of dryness -- and basically no body. I had higher hopes for Mexico's iconic Negra Modelo, in its stubby gold-top bottle, but unfortunately it's a bit rubbish too. A surprisingly light shade of ruby, it tastes a little of caramel and banana, but otherwise is close to typical pale lager in the flavourlessness stakes. Ambar Negra was much better: definitely black and with strong molasses notes on the nose. The flavour is appropriately sweet -- lots of treacle and brown sugar. It's a simple beer, but very drinkable. Best of the blacks, though, came from the ubiquitous house of Mahou. Mahou Negra is a lovely shade of dark red and smells oddly woody. The flavour puts dry ahead of sweetness, the caramel notes infused with smoke. There's a full body which makes it very satisfying to drink and almost akin to a stout.

When the bars did open, however, it was Mahou that was normally on tap: an unpleasantly dull and slightly cabbagey pale lager. The pub market seems largely shared between it and Cruzcampo, with very little of the Estrella Damm or San Miguel, so common in Barcelona, to be seen. I did pick up one bottle from the former brewery, though -- AK Damm was on sale in Corte Inglés and I liked the look of the fancy bottle. It's a smooth Munich-esque lager with soft candyfloss sweetness and a light sparkle. A definite cut above bog-standard Spanish fizz, but ultimately not very interesting. I entertained higher hopes for Ambar 1900, a self-described "pale ale". But it's just more fizz, really, with the vague sugariness and distant hops of a cheap lager.

Madrid has two brewpubs, and I tried to follow Boak's advice here to hit Magister first then settle in Naturbier after. But my timing was out, as usual, and only Naturbier was open. It's a large pub by Madrid standards, with the German-made copper brew kit down the back. The beer is unadventurous fare: Naturbier Rubia is a slightly hazy blonde with no nose but quite an interesting mild flavour of grapes and peaches, followed by a dry and grainy finish. I found it quaffable; Mrs Beer Nut deemed it musty and declared it undrinkable. The Tostada is a light red-brown colour, caramelly with a refreshing tannic character. There's definitely some nitro in the gas mix here, giving Irish-red-like attributes, though with much more toffee on the nose and a pronounced hop spice. Decent beers, this pair, if unexciting.

Across the square from Naturbier is Magister, and of course we visited when it finally opened. Boak had a nasty experience with the staff here, as did Gazza Prescott, so I was on full alert when we went in. They make much of their free tapas, but rather than the more fun approach of other bars where they just throw you a plate of whatever's handy, in Magister you order from a blackboard listing ten available freebies. Tapas for the picky eater: it just doesn't sit well with me.

Once again there's a Rubia -- clearer than Naturbier's offering though with a worrying vinegar aroma. None of that in the flavour, thankfully. It's smooth and full-bodied, a bit like a Märzen with a touch of juicy fruit sweetness. The Tostada is also quite hefty, with warming butterscotch notes and a dry finish. The third beer on the menu was Autor, a red-gold beer where the vinegar smell comes back and this time follows through to the taste. It's sharply bitter in a classy way, like a fine balsamic, but it's a failure as a beer.

There are of course plenty of quality drinking options in Madrid away from the beer. No trip is complete without a visit to La Venencia -- a living fossil of a bar with no taps, no brands, nothing except six types of sherry stored in casks, bottled in-house, cooled in a tub of water behind the counter and served at daftly low prices. There's also the cider, from Asturia, available in specialist cider bars dotted around town, with the best being Casa Mingo -- halfway between Principe Pio station and Goya's grave -- where it accompanies their magnificent cider-basted chicken. Cheers to Derek for the recommendation on that one.

And thankfully the Spanish don't limit their beer-drinking to native brews. Many of the bars show a connection to other, more beery, countries like Germany and Belgium. The latter has even inspired a locally-made abbey beer: Heineken's Legado de Yuste, named for the Spanish monastery where Emperor Charles V spent his retirement (this, if my history serves me, was after many years of squabbling with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Yuste is an attractive dark red hue and is packed with huge slabs of toffee flavours. It's rather one-dimensional though, offering nothing past that initial caramel sweetness. A bit sickly perhaps, but nice for the one, and rather better than a lot of what's served in the pubs of Madrid.

More on the genuine stuff in the next post.

21 September 2009

Anti-Arthur's Day

You know how neighbours love to gossip, and how annoying that can be. So it's not in the least bit surprising that when Edward Cecil Guinness shacked up with his attractive cousin Adelaide that he felt the need to buy a large semi-rural estate, away from prying eyes. Edward's dad, Benjamin Lee, was also an enthusiast for, ahem, keeping it in the family, so it was probably wisdom passed down from father to son over the sherry. It was Edward Cecil who first floated the family firm on the London Stock Exchange, and retired at 40 as Ireland's richest man, having set the foundations for the growth of Guinness into the unstoppable monster which would eventually destroy all traces of quality and variety in Ireland's beer market.

So it is with supreme irony that Edward's incestuous lovenest now plays host to an annual gathering of the handful new breweries which exist despite his corporate heirs' market dominance. Farmleigh House, at the western edge of Dublin's Phoenix Park, became state property in 1999, and last year the cultural events calendar featured SeptemberFest for the first time -- a free festival of drinks from native producers, which of course included the 10 or so craft breweries currently operating on the island. I missed it through being at the all-Europe festival in Copenhagen, but apparently it took 8,000 visitors over the two days and was deemed enough of a success to be given another outing in 2009.

This time round, IrishCraftBrewer was asked to fill a bit of space in the tent, so I was there for the duration, talking home brewing with anyone who'd listen. Which was lots of people, as it cheeringly turned out. We didn't get 8,000 people this year though. Estimates from the gate at close of business on Sunday put it at somewhere around 35,000, largely due to the glorious weather. When the beer queues were on the far side of an hour it's a definite advantage to have been in the tent well ahead of opening to get some sampling done before the masses descend.

And sample I did. Probably the biggest news of the festival was the long-awaited launch of Porterhouse beers in bottles. Porterhouse Hop Head, conditioned in its funky 33cl bottle (BrewDog who?), was flying out and is absolutely delicious. I recall a little bit of bitter harshness in the draught version, but that's smoothed away here leaving a beer which pounds the palate without inflicting any real damage. A new higher strength edition of Porterhouse Plain has followed it since. I look forward to more in the range. And, of course, to bottles sized for grown-ups.

Whitewater had brought their new stout on its first outing to the Republic. The brewery that began by making exotic English-style bitters seems to be going for more solid fare of late, with Belfast Lager appearing in bottles a couple of years back, and now the 4.2% ABV Belfast Black is available bottled and nitrokegged (though don't ask me where). From the keg it's an absolutely rock-solid chocolate malt dominated Irish plain stout, very much on the sweeter side of the spectrum. Some of the crew even mistook it for a dark lager. While I can hanker after greater diversity in Irish beer all I want, it's great to see yet another decent Irish stout following Mizen out into the world. I've yet to try Belfast Black from the bottle but there's every possibility it could give O'Hara's a run for its money.

And from the black North to the black of beyond. Beoir Chorcha Duibhne have been brewing in Dingle for two years now, supplying cask ale to two local pubs. At last year's SeptemberFest they were serving a pale ale called Beal Bán. This year, it was a dark copper affair rejoicing in the name of Cúl Dorcha (helpfully translated by ICB's Gráinne as "Black Arse"). Again the style-police fell on it and one commentator had it likened to an alt. I'd be calling it a porter myself -- full-bodied, slightly bitter and lightly roasty. However there is a slight grainy, dry element that lets me see where the alt comparison comes from. It's a simple and enjoyable beer, the sort that won't end up the talk of the festival, but if you were served it in its home pubs you'd be very happy. Especially considering what else is likely to be on tap.

Last of the three newbies was the latest from White Gypsy, a Blonde session ale of 4% ABV. It packs a fair bit into that modest body, being sweet and chewy with a firm kick of sharp German hops on the end. Though again, outside of Ireland's tiny festival circuit, I don't know where you're likely to see it.

That's the beer out of the way, but I can't leave without a quick shout-out to David Llewellyn, north Dublin's apple magnate, who was able to sell his magnificent dry cider due to the temporary licensing arrangements (courtesy of The Porterhouse) at SeptemberFest. He reckons it's just too expensive to distribute via a middleman, and his own licensing set-up means he can normally only sell it by the case at his numerous farmers' market stalls by prior arrangement. It's wonderfully refreshing stuff and, as far as I know, is Ireland's only proper cider available commercially. David had a very brisk couple of days' business at the festival, between the cider, his vinegars, apple juice and the latest innovation: super-creamy apple ice cream. If you see Llewellyn's Orchard Produce at any of Ireland's outdoor food markets it's well worth making enquiries on how to get hold of his wonderful artisan cider.

It was heartening to see the interest in Irish craft beer displayed by the visitors of SeptemberFest. I doubt there was a single punter hankering after Heineken, and the family atmosphere was just the sort of image about-face that beer in Ireland needs, even if it's only for two days. With more events like this we could go a long way towards turning the tide of Irish beer tastes, away from the global brands which currently stink up the bar.

I hope Edward's ghost had a good view from his tower.

17 September 2009

Hell, damnation and easy listening

I left out the beer from two breweries from my piece on last week's trip to the Netherlands so I could group them all together here. One of them I visited couple of years back, but the other we showed up to on Wednesday afternoon for a tour.

Formerly based in Amsterdam's suburbs, on the delightfully named Helicopterstraat, De Prael moved to a prime location in the Red Light district in the last year, as part of the city's attempt to clean the area up using something more than a powerhose. The building still isn't finished, with a tasting room no further than foundation level. What's standing is a shopfront, backing on to the small brewery at the rear. The authorities forbid serving beer in a shop, but boozing in the street is just fine, so pre-tour tastings are conducted in the narrow alley beside the building. Offered a beer each by our host, Barry, Mrs Beer Nut, a rather stoned Californian tourist and I picked a selection and shared the bottles round.

De Prael beers are quite distinctive from their modernist labels and odd titles. It turns out that most of them are named after local crooners from the '50s and '60s, and their LPs adorn the shop walls. Suddenly that bottle of Willy (their dark winter ale) isn't nearly as amusing.

But I didn't get to taste any Willy as the chap showing us round failed to offer us some. Selfish git. We made do by starting with Heintje, the witbier. This has a little more yeasty spice than your typical macrobrewed Belgian wheatbeer, a sort of rough hand-crafted quality that's enjoyable within the limitations of the style, but not exactly inspiring. There's also a pale winter ale called Willeke which I found rather boring. It left me even more curious about Willy. My wife the bock fiend went straight for Nelis, one of the typically dark ruby autumn bocks that start to appear this time of year in the Netherlands. Again, it's no barnstormer -- some pleasant sweet caramel as you might expect, a mild warming booziness, but not a whole lot else.

So far, so ordinary. But one De Prael beer did stand above the others, one presumably not named after a loaf-haired warbler: Zwarte Riek. This was on tap in 't Arendsnest and poured a dark ruby colour with a blend of light roasted porter notes coupled with very autumnal smoke and caramel flavours which make it much more of a success as a beer for this season than Nelis.

Workmanlike is the word I'd use to describe De Prael's beers: turning out, for the most part, good but unexciting interpretations of the common national beer styles. Not like the next guy.

Judging by the massive selection of his work on the shelves of De Bierkoning, it's a wonder Menno has time to do anything other than brew (though he did make an appearance at BeerTemple on its opening night). As one might expect, the Wizard of Bodegraven features prominently at 't Arendnest, not least because of the striking stark-but-informative labels on most of the De Molen beers. He's also taken to coating the necks of his capped bottles in wax, à la Three Floyds Dark Lord, and I'm not sure I approve of that pretension.

One scurrilous gossip I met told me that he doesn't make the same imperial stout twice, which helps explain why there are so many of them. The first I had on this trip was Mout & Mocca, flavoured, as the name suggests, with coffee. Even cold from the tap this is highly aromatic with a slight sour touch on the nose. The flavour blends bitterness both from the hops and the coffee with a sugary sweetness which, combined with the coldness, had me thinking of your typically Caribbean sort of strong stout. The sort of 10% ABV black beer you want on a warm afternoon like last Tuesday.

To the waxy bottles, then, and a Hel & Verdoemenis. The aroma gives off powerful sweet roasted promises, like sniffing raw chocolate malt, and the mouthfeel is as thick as one might expect from such a big 12%-er. Flavourwise, where do I start? The boozy vapours are the first thing to hit the palate, and there's a lasting undercurrent of big hop bitterness. The middle flavours are all about coffee roastiness, floating on the alcoholic heat haze -- Mrs Beer Nut's descriptor was "Tia Maria made from finest arabica", and I think that about sums it up. Each sip brings flavours that last forever, so even at €7 a bottle down the pub, this is good value for money.

The tap list in Wildeman advertised a 12% beer called "De Molen Black Jack" but I can't find anything about it on the web. Is it the Struis one? (edit: no, it's just very new. Thanks for the update, Barry) Anyway, this was good stuff: lots of sweet coffee and chocolate -- liqueurish again -- and a bit of phenol, though not enough to spoil it. Very tasty. That leaves just one other De Molen beer, and I moved away from the black stuff for this. Heil & Zegen is a double IPA of a beautiful dark ruby shade. There's no head and the body is thick and almost syrupy -- more of an American-style barleywine I'd have said. But it's very well balanced: no harshness, just a strong herbal hoppiness and a smooth weighty body without any trace of sickliness. It's yet another De Molen beer to take some time over.

And the other beers from this trip? They're still capped and stashed away at home for leaner times this winter. I'll be rationing them out to myself when I feel like a treat. Or run out of things to write about. Whatever.

14 September 2009