30 November 2009

White geese

The beers of Goose Island are usually fairly recognisable, with their distinct logo and the name of the brewery in big letters. I'm not sure whether the white label Belgian-style ales are simply reflective of creativity, or if they're trying to pass these off as something other than your friendly neighbourhood goose.

The tripel (er, or not: see comments) in the set is called Matilda and pours a pale amber colour with very little by way of head, after the initial surprise of pouring this sort of beer from a screwtop bottle. That it's made with a Belgian yeast strain is immediately abundantly clear from the spicy aroma coming straight off the top. Expecting complexity, I was surprised at what happened next. The taste isn't much like a tripel at all. It's a touch thin and the dominant flavour is tannic. More than anything else it reminds me of sweet, slightly lemony, tea. It's quite a simple beer when it comes down to it, and I liked it for that.

The matching dubbel in the range is called Pere Jacques. It's appropriately dark, though like Matilda there's worryingly little sediment in it. They haven't bothered with the soft carbonation and thick foam of a Belgian dubbel, opting instead for decapitation and prickly fizz. Caramel and sherry dominate the aroma, and flavourwise we're talking nutmeg, molasses, plums -- all the usual stuff you would expect in a real Belgian dark ale, just without the weighty treacle body. Which, frankly, is a shame.

I paid over the odds for this pair (so did Reuben, for at least one). They're good, but they're not better than the Abt 12s, Tripel Karmeliets and Westmalles of this world, despite carrying a much heftier price tag.

26 November 2009

The old boys

Back here I mentioned that I'd set aside a box of beers for a year or so, just to see what happened to them with a bit of aging. In fact, the box has spent two years in my oubliette, though hasn't survived completely intact. The strong Belgian ale that Barry and Kieron brewed didn't survive last winter (and was delicious); likewise the 2007 Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, so I've started that process again by cellaring the 2008 and 2009 editions.

But the Old Engine Oil which prompted the experiment remains, and last week I nipped in to DrinkStore to grab a fresh bottle for comparison. The young one had the same rather subtle dark fruit flavours as I recall from two years ago: quality drinking, but with nothing really jumping out of it. And the older one was along very similar lines, but there was a noticeable difference. The fruity sourness had rounded out and become somewhat more pungent -- reminiscent of that almost solvent-like flavour you get with super-strength barrel-aged imperial strength stouts, only with half the impact and allowing all the gentle chocolate and coffee shine through as well. This extra complexity means that aging is definitely the way to treat this beer. It won't turn into the world's greatest strong dark ale, but it definitely adds to the enjoyment.

The last Rip Van Winklebrouw is a Thomas Hardy's Ale, purchased from Redmond's in 2007, though dating from the 2003 vintage. The nip bottle does its best to justify a €5 price tag with a unique number, gold foil and some neck bling. It'll have to do better than that, I thought, taking the cap off. The aroma asserted itself immediately -- that rich sweet pudding scent which I got from the fabulous Samuel Adams Triple Bock. With a slightly murky dark ruby colour, the texture is thick and heavy, but there's definitely a light sparkle there, and no syrup or unpleasant stickiness. The flavour has the sweet, yet bitter, yet dry character of crumbly high-cocoa dark chocolate. It's also nicely spirituous, which all adds up to a wonderful cherry liqueur chocolate effect. End-to-end quality and not a single bum note anywhere.

Apart from the question I ask all beers -- "I wonder what that stuff's like" -- the only other question I had for Thomas Hardy's was "Should I buy some more?", especially now that O'Hanlon's have stopped brewing it so there's only a limited supply floating about in Dublin. That'll be a yes.

23 November 2009

Down under, sub par

I seem to have an awful lot of dark beers knocking round the house at the moment. 'Tis the season, I suppose. But you always want what you can't have so I'm finding myself struggling to get through them, craving something paler and hoppier. Just as well my last homemade beer of the year is a big-assed US-style IPA then. But until that's ready for drinking, I'm clearing attic space.

Most recently, it was Coopers Dark Ale for the chop. What we have is an intensely fizzy dark brown ale, with an endless convection of yeasty floaters lava-lamping around in the translucent body. The texture is very watery, with little by way of maltiness other than a faint echo of caramel, detectable if it's allowed warm well up. The hopping isn't up to much, but a few seconds after taking a sip I got a slow-rising horrible pencil-sharpener metallic tang, which mercifully doesn't last long.

One for drinking quickly and never touching again, I think.

19 November 2009

A third of a century later

I wasn't at all impressed by BrewDog's misnomered Hop Rocker lager so haven't been inclined to run out and try their other lighter offerings. But enough positive comments about 77 Lager have filtered through to me to make me go out and buy a bottle of this one.

Universally described as very much a hops-forward lager, I was expecting something along the lines of Brooklyn's, but it's a much more intense experience. There's little to no restraining malt -- just super-resinous earthy hops. I kept having to remind myself that it's a pilsner rather than a full-on English IPA. The thin texture and light fizz adds to the cask effect.

I'm not at all sure I like it. It's just too unbalanced, and has that metallic flavour I often find from English hops in large quantities, though the earthiness meant it went rather well with some mature and gritty Bellingham Blue cheese. Nevertheless, I think I'll be sticking with good old Brooklyn as my hoppy lager of choice.

16 November 2009

Frankly Brunehaut

More organic Belgian beer in squat bottles today. The Brunehaut range are from the Wallonese town of the same name and won't win any prizes for originality of styles, being a witbier, a blonde and an amber ale.

Brunehaut Wit is intensely dry, with an almost powdery mineral character. When coupled with a strong lemon flavour the overall sensation is like drinking Lemsip, straight from the sachet. The Blonde is a bit better with pleasant peachy notes and a full body, though one which is in danger of tipping over into syrupiness.

Best of the lot, though, is Brunehaut Amber. It tastes hotter than a mere 6.5% ABV and complicates the booziness with some really interesting pear-like ketone flavours. Yet despite this, there's a lightness of touch which renders the whole very drinkable.

I don't think I've had many self-styled Belgian amber ales, but I'll be looking for more for comparison.

13 November 2009

Bitter pils

Above in Dundrum, Deveney's have a four-for-a-tenner deal on Flensburger at the moment. The 50cl brown swingtop is highly prized by the home brewer, so I picked up a few packs of Flensburger Pilsener, reckoning it'd do as the house curry lager for a while. But as always: before the vindaloo, the review.

It's bitter stuff, and not in a nice way. Seriously astringent with a sort of damp and musty flavour when cold. As it warms I get herbal waxy honey notes which render it a bit more drinkable, though not quite enough to make it enjoyable.

Still, never fear, the chillis are here, and their heat will make the nasty pils go away. Oh! Except they don't. What traces of clean lager malt were here get swept away by the curry leaving just the off flavours. Not even a Konkan vindaloo can kill this bad boy.

Sitting hard on the Baltic coast not far from the North Sea, I'll bet Flensburg is a pretty harsh place to live. If I'm right, their dour pils certainly captures the essence of the town.

With steadfast effort and lots of hot curry, I managed to get through all of my stash of pils, and next time I was in Deveney's I figured I may as well try the Weizen. This was much better. There's none of your fancy-free soft and buxom alpine wheatbeer flavours here, however. While the banana fruitiness is definitely present, its high spirits are tempered by a scowling dry, almost sulphurous, character that makes for a balanced and incredibly drinkable beer. The notion of a crisp weissbier sounds all wrong but it really works, in an uncomplicated spartan sort of way. I think this might be a much better match for my curry this weekend.

11 November 2009

The good, the bad and the Blondie

Rounding up last weekend's trip to Liverpool with some of the better beers encountered, plus a couple of stinkers.

Obviously, a trip to the Baltic Fleet brewpub had to be done -- an odd little ramshackle pub, squeezed between a busy main road and a vast building site near the docks. It looks like it hasn't seen a lick of paint in some time, and there was no sign of the Wapping Brewery, which lurks somewhere in the building. Wapping Stout was the order of the day, and a damn fine pint it was too -- strong, heavy, and brimming with big earthy hops. Just what you want on a chilly November afternoon with the wind whipping in off the Irish Sea (and through the doors into the pub as the greengrocer made his deliveries).

Initially I'd passed over the offer of Blondie at the bar, fearing another dull golden ale, but my interest was piqued when I read it's a wheat beer. I've had some very positive experiences of cask wheat beer (Barney's Brew; Curim), and this turned out to be another. It's quite sharp and citric, tempered by a calming dryness. It was being served a tad warm, but when cool on a summer's day I'd say it's a winner.

The previous evening, as I mentioned, we were in the award-winning Ship & Mitre. The layout is a little irritating in that the handpumps are spread out in groups around the central bar making it difficult to find out what's available when the pub is packed. Two milds were on: Wentworth Maple Mild sounds promising but is actually rather boring, being pale brown with just a hint of unpleasant phenols to break the monotony. Devon Mild was much better: sweeter and with more chocolate than I had expected, but with all the roasted coffee any mild fanatic could ask for.

Séan, meanwhile, veered away from cask ale orthodoxy when the possibility of some Little Creatures Pale Ale opened up. I've heard lots about this Aussie but had never seen it in real life. It's good stuff -- a rock-solid American-style pale ale with a very nice balance between green C-hop bitterness and toffee malts.

Pint of the trip was a beer I've had before, but never on cask. The Fly In The Loaf was pouring Fuller's London Porter from the cask and it is simply stunning. No. Wait. It's complicatedly stunning. There are all manner of things going on here: hot cross buns, licquorice, dates -- the works -- and all on a silky full body that caresses the throat. Gorgeous gorgeous beer. Next to it at the bar there was a Fuller's beer I didn't know: Red Fox. Very poor, this -- super-sweet and cloying, like crappy keg bitter.

One pint left, and it's where we came in, with local regional Cains. This time we were at their flagship boozer, Doctor Duncan's, as recommended by Melissa. It was just gone 4 on Saturday. The pub was busy with a variety of punters, from post-shopping families to watchers of football. We needed some food and I went to the bar to order. "We stop serving food at 3.30". As Séan put it, that's just like saying "No thank you, we don't want to make any more money". So despite the lovely shiny array of Cains pumpclips and some interesting looking guests, we just stayed for the one. It goes without saying that it was the Cains specialty Raisin Beer. This seems to have started life as an ordinary brown bitter without much happening in it, but the raisins definitely make themselves felt. They taste exactly like raisins -- not raisin extract or concentrate -- real, fresh (for a dried fruit, obviously) raisins. The flavour lasts for ages, and when combined with the malt produces a sensation similar to drinking a glass of Bran Flakes. I loved it, though it would have been nicer with a pie. Everything is.

(A more succinct run-down of the Scouse pub scene is also available, courtesy of Mr R. Scooper.)

10 November 2009

Drinking Europe

The European Beer Consumers' Union has, among its objectives, the support and promotion of the traditional beer styles of its member nations (an easy one for Ireland, that, since we don't have any of our own). So when we were very kindly invited to a tasting and rating event in Liverpool's Lady of Man on Friday night I was expecting some fairly orthodox beers from the Dutch, Danish, Swiss, Swedish etc attendees. Turns out I was wrong.

Well, mostly. The locals had given us bitter because, as I mentioned in my last post, you can't have too much of a good thing. First out of the polypin was King John which promised lots with its strong roasty aromatics, but proved a bit of a let-down by not following through on taste and being too thin of body. Skeleton was next, a simple yellow bitter with not much going on in it. George Wright's Pipe Dream almost follows it into the dullness trap, but had just enough hop aroma and bite to make it worthwhile.

The newest brewery in town, Liverpool Organic, sent along two bottled ales: William Roscoe is a strangely milky/lactic pale brown ale which I rather enjoyed, not least for its full and smooth body. My only IPA of the trip was called Shipwreck, and though Séan didn't approve, its orangey hop character made for a moreish beer which really struck a chord with me.

Beer always looks more interesting in someone else's table, and I gazed enviously at the bottles from Cantillon and De Molen being circulated elsewhere in the room. With my bitter-rating duties complete, I went on a raid to see what dregs could be gleaned. Laurent was very keen to show off his Swiss-made Irish red Rivale -- a vaguely caramelly, totally unhoppy ale which is characterless enough to blend in with the real thing, though not a bad palate-cleanser between the more involved brews.

It should probably go without saying that the Nordics really pulled out the stops for this, bunch of show-offs that they are. From Finland's Malmgård brewery we had a marvellously chocolatey strong dark and funky ale called Ceci N'est Pas Une Belge, a name which had this Magritte fan chuckling. Denmark's Hornbeer was represented by Caribbean Rumstout, a not-so-subtle concoction of serious chocolate and coffee notes in a hefty 11% ABV body, yet balanced enough to not let the phenols drown out everything else. Yummy stuff, but possibly one to finish the evening on.

Not that we did...

09 November 2009

A lorra lorra bitter

I went over to Liverpool on Friday with Séan, to represent Irish beer drinkers (what do you mean you didn't elect us?) at the meeting of the European Beer Consumers' Union -- a great bunch of people, and very sympathetic to what we're trying to do over at Irish Craft Brewer. I hope it won't be the last time we're in touch.

It was a highly enjoyable trip -- meeting up with my sister whom I don't get to see nearly enough of, as well as regular commenter Laurent and fellow blogger Melissa Cole, lovely people one and all. We visited some absolutely cracking pubs and I ate more pies than is probably healthy, but this sort of exotic food just has to eaten when in foreign parts, right? But there was one bit I didn't really enjoy, now that I think about it. I am sick to my eye-teeth of bitter. If I never see another pint of mildly hoppy, softly carbonated, yellow-to-brown ale, it will be too soon.

Things started out well enough on Friday afternoon, coming in from the rain to the cosy Victorian splendour of the Phil and a pint of Cains Bitter: a heavy and warming brown beer, with an interesting dry chewiness and a touch of honey. When we moved down to the Fly In The Loaf (my favourite pub of the trip) I was still able to enjoy the bitter yet balanced Shropshire Gold, though my attention started to waver over a sharp but still drinkable Hopback Odyssey. Choosing dull and musty Newman's Druid's Choice, however, was regrettable. Bitter fatigue was setting in.

I pepped up a little with Beartown Ursa Minor, enjoying its cool lemony freshness. But Wapping Gold, on tap next to it in the Lady of Man, was much less inspiring -- nothing wrong with it, just crying out for a bit more hop oomph. As we moved on to the Ship and Mitre, there was the crashingly dull brown Allendale Wolf, though some level of redemption in Wentworth's Amber Gambler which had some interesting bubblegum malt and a solid hoppy kick. The evening finished belowstairs at the Everyman bistro with Coniston Gold, not a beer that was going to keep me awake contemplating its complexities.

We spent Saturday afternoon meandering. Things were quiet down by the docks, but the commercial centre of Liverpool was thronged. As any UK beerophiles will know, JD Wetherspoon has its annual festival running at the moment and I managed to drag our small band into the dark heart of one of Liverpool's mammoth branches. Yes, I know I shouldn't have -- it was horrible -- but there was one of the specials on: Toshi's Amber Ale. That's got to be good, sure isn't Toshi Ishii of Yo-Ho one of the greats among world brewers, and his amber ale is just going to be loaded with zingy hops, right? Right?

Nope, just another boring brown bitter. A bit sweet but a huge let down. The manager only managed to squeeze one half out of the cask, so we also had Everard's Old Original, which had a pleasant piquancy tempered by a touch of caramel, plus one other bitter so boring I can't find any reference to it on the Internet, so I'm not going to bother naming it. Maybe I was hallucinating by this point.

The ring of bitterness came full circle with our final pints back at the Phil. Utterly sick of bitter but with basically no other choice I went for Brewster's Hop-A-Doodle-Do, sighing at the name, and hoping against hope there'd be something more to it. But no: this was a lightly hopped brown beer with a teensy bit of fruity hops in the middle and absolutely no legs at all. Down it went, and we were on our way back to the airport.

I think I can see why some British beer drinkers are so down on tickers: basically, there is no point in ticking English bitters. They're all too alike. The way to enjoy them is to pick one and settle with it for the session. Flipping between lots of them is just unsettling. That's my lesson learned (though whether it'll change my behaviour is another matter entirely).

Sounds like Liverpool was a bit of a washout beerwise, eh? Far from it. I had lots and lots of really interesting beers, most of them on the darker side of the house. But that's for another post.

06 November 2009

Joyful mystery

Session logo"Framing" is what Andrew calls the phenomenon of beer label description -- the text that tells you what to expect when you pop the cap and pour out the foamy goodness. It reminds me of Ron's definition of a beer style as "a consensus between brewer and drinker, a shorthand to describe the essential features of a beer". While you don't want a beer that's brewed to rigidly conform to standards set by someone other than the brewer, you do at least want some information on what to expect -- dark or pale; hoppy or malty; sessionable or likely to knock you on your arse after one. Framing beer is a matter of practical necessity.

And yet, I love throwing away the frame. I love to pick a beer totally at random and drink it with no previous knowledge of what it's going to look or taste like. It's far more fun than tracking down the much-sought-after brew that everyone else is talking about (though I do enjoy that too). All I know about Belzebuth is that it's French and that it's 13% ABV -- understandably this is advertised in massive bright orange characters on the neck: the only frame the brewery really wants you to be aware of. So what's inside? Nectar or tramp juice?

Obviously glass selection is a problem with mystery beer. I opted for my Duvel one with the vague expectation of this being a Belgian-style blonde, based mostly on the satanic moniker, though this is a great multi-purpose glass and will show off most beers to their fullest.

I was wrong on the blondeness anyway: it pours amber with lots of head which dissipated quite quickly, giving off a lightly boozy nose, with hints of pale sherry or white vermouth.

The first taste was a shock: incredibly syrupy, in a realm beyond Special Brew or similar stupidly strong soupy beer. Yet it's not one for the sink. There's enough of a proper hops bitterness to save it and make it a worthwhile sipper. The heavy and bittered malt flavour reminded me a lot of some beer schnapps I picked up in Munich, and that's how I think this beer is best treated. Take an hour over 25cl in what's basically a brandy glass.

I never enjoyed the similarly-strong Belgian ale Bush and haven't tasted it in years. This has got me thinking that liqueur-style sipping may be the correct approach. To be continued...

04 November 2009

Mists and mellow booziness

The nights draw in and I start feeling the need for some richer stronger beers. It's perhaps a little early yet to start hitting the imperial stouts, so what else is in the stash?

La Trappe Isid'or looked promising, named in honour of one of Konigshoeven's founding brothers. It pours a hazy shade of amber, giving up echoes of summertime past in its red berry aroma. The flavour starts with the yeast spice typical of this sort of strong Belgian-style ale, but unfortunately stops there too, with no sign of the big malty flavours or any traces of hopping. A bit boring and one-dimensional, this, and I'd be quite miffed if it were produced as a tribute to me.

I had a taste of the same brewery's Bockbier on my last visit to 't Arendsnest and thought the bottled version might be worth a go when I saw it on sale in Deveney's. La Trappe disappoints again, however. It's drier than any Dutch bock ought to be -- almost bitter, in fact -- with just a hint of residual sugar left on the lips. There's none of the floral complexity I found in the kegged version. Indeed the soft carbonation gives it a fuller body and reminds me more of a dubbel than anything else. It's sort-of warming, but not in the way I'd expected. It was time to break out the big guns.

Despite a whopping 8.3% ABV, De Molen Winterbock could actually pass for a lighter beer, so easy to drink is it. A nose full of chocolate and toffee lures you in, thinking that this is the typical sugarbomb one would expect of the style. The flavour starts off, appropriately, with big sticky caramel but widens out to include a liquorice bitterness afterwards and then finishes, amazingly, with a Rodenbach-like woody sourness which clears the palate. I got all the weight and warmth I wanted, but wrapped in a highly complex parcel which was remarkably drinkable, and almost refreshing.

Maybe it's just because they were my first introduction to the style, but in general I have a sneaking appreciation for the bocks from the Netherlands's mega-macro brewers. Where La Trappe is concerned, it looks like I'll need to trade up to their Quadruple to get the mellow warmth I'm after. At least until De Molen products start making an appearance on these shores.

02 November 2009

All the threes

Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration -- that's where the action is at the geek-focused breweries around the world at the moment: get some extra wow factor into your beer by inviting someone else who brews highly-sought-after beer to work on one with you. Credibility for all!

Sometimes, though, two breweries just isn't enough. Which is why California legends Stone got together with their neighbours to the south Alesmith, then roped in the globetrotting king of the Danish beer geeks Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, to brew a beer. What style? Why a tripel, of course.

The result is Alesmith Mikkeller Stone Belgian Style Tripel Ale, seemingly just another in the growing list of hopped-up Belgian-style strong blonde ales. I was expecting something along the lines of Houblon Chouffe or Hop-It, but I was wrong.

The first clue was the lack of clumpy or hazy Belgian yeast residue. It's a very clear amber colour, with just a few bits hanging suspended, as in jelly. It follows from this that the body is a big'un, supporting a thunking 8.7% ABV: thick and greasy is how I'd describe it, very unBelgian. The dominant taste is mandarin fruitiness from some very generous American hopping, and absolutely delicious it is too. There's not a whole lot else -- a gentle sparkle, a pleasant warmth -- but mostly it's clean, hoppy and distinctly Californian. It's the simpler sort of three-brewer, transatlantic, hybrid style ale. I didn't miss the Belgian yeast complexity one little bit.