30 December 2009

In the deep Smith-winter

Travel. It's just as well I love it. Not just the Being Somewhere Different, but the act of Getting Up And Going does it for me. Which is just as well, given the amount of time I've spent on the road recently. I'm in Germany when you're reading this, but I'm writing it holed up in my parents' house in rural Northern Ireland, with the snow falling and nothing much to do except drink beers and try desperately to make my phone take a half-decent picture of them.

Offering me comfort right now is a bottle of Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome which I picked up in a local supermarket. It pours a lovely red-gold shade with quite a bit of fizzy froth from the 55cl bottle. Toffee and golden syrup are hinted at on the nose, but while it's strong and malt-driven, it's no sticky park-bench paper-bag job. There are sophisticated glimpses of licquorice and honey in here as well, and the 6% ABV produces just the right amount of warming sensation, without overdoing it. It's one of the best seasonal-type beers I've had this, er, season.

I'm following it with the same brewery's India Ale, an IPA very much in the rough English vernacular. It's surprisingly forward about the malt, with lots of hard toffee chewiness. The hops aren't in the least bit subtle -- adding a jolt of bitterness, finishing very slightly metallic and only offering a little hint of gunpowder piquancy by way of contribution to flavour complexity. The two elements maintain an uneasy truce, and the finished product is nicely drinkable as a result. It wouldn't be a favourite of mine though, and as it warms it's giving me echoes of the rather unpleasant Fuller's IPA. I can't see myself swapping a nice juicy, zingy American IPA for this rather dour Yorkshireman.

And that's it for 2009. Join me on Friday for more auto-posted delights and the first Session of the new decade.

28 December 2009

Wetter don't mean better

Maybe it was just because I opened it immediately after finishing a particularly sugary dessert, but the first sip of Sierra Nevada Harvest Wet Hop gave me a sharp jolt of astringency which I really didn't care for. The label makes much of the added complexity and spiciness that they claim comes from using straight-off-the-vine fresh hops, but to me this stuff is just bitter to the point of unpleasantly sour. An hour later it had mellowed a bit, but not hugely. Sierra Nevada claim this is what "hop fanatics dream of", so I can only assume that "hop fanatics" are people who enjoy getting alpha acid chemical burns on the roofs of their mouths.

The body is rather thin and there's only a faint trace of caramel malts and mango hop flavours -- I would expect a bit more warmth and fun from a 6.7% ABV ale. The overriding sensation is of having a grapefruit ground slowly into one's face. It's a bully of a beer and I'd much rather play with its more charming (or at least less harsh) antipodean sibling.

24 December 2009

A BrewDog's not just for Christmas

I picked up a cheap Trashy Blonde in the Sprucefield Sainsbury's. I mean, who hasn't? Brought her home, kept her in the attic a few months -- you know the drill -- and then finally plucked up the courage to pull her top off. Shall I stop now? Yeah.

It's a beautifully golden ale with lots of clean refreshing fizz. The nose gives me lager malts and peachy hops. Much like 77 lager, the flavour is powerfully bitter, though tempered nicely with the juicy fruit flavours, and finishing dry. Superb complexity for a 4.1% ABV beer, and at a quid a bottle there's no guilt about chugging it back cold, or smothering it in spicy food. I really should have bought more...

Instead, there's Devine Rebel, the result of when Mikkeller met BrewDog, with a charming illustration of the eponymous Mikkel facing the eponymouser Bracken on the label. Two of the continent's top brewers; 12% ABV; barrel aged in whisky casks: you can expect that what pours forth is a good time.

It seems to arrive a murky brown, but hold it up to the light and there's a certain saintly amber radiance to the colour. The first sip produces a heavy filling sensation, coating the mouth just like all the best barrel-aged beers I've met. The first wave from the flavour platoon fills the palate with milk chocolate and juicy raisins. While these charming raconteurs keep your tastebuds busy, a pincer movement of vanilla wood and sharp hops nip round the back and take control of the situation before you realise what's happened. Next thing, you're up to your eyes in whisky casks and bitterness yet still enchanted by the fruitsome candy loveliness of the first sensations. It's best just to surrender and enjoy the occupation. Kiss a squaddie; paint stocking seams on the back of your legs -- that kind of deal.

This is a beautifully crafted beer, and a perfect example of how the new extremists of European brewing ought not not be dismissed as fad-chasers, but are clearly capable of sublime beers that only the terminally stultified could deem poor.

All these fruits and fun, plus bitterness and wood, means that Brewdog will definitely be appearing on both Santa's nice and naughty lists this evening. Just as well Bracken has four stockings.

Wishing a very merry Christmas to all my readers. Cheers!

21 December 2009

Sahti'll do

Mr Dredge has requested an awardy round-up thingy from the beer blogosphere, and I went looking in my stash for a suitable beer to drink while I performed my deliberations. The one that's been nagging me to drink it for a while now is Nøgne Ø-Dugges Sahti. I recall Knut Albert telling me it's not a true sahti, presumably because of the malt and hops. But such intricacies concern me not. All I'm worried about is how it tastes.

It pours a cloudy, murky orange-yellow giving off some interesting herbal and sticky sugar aromas. The body is very heavy and the first sensation I got was sweetness, leading me to believe that this is somewhat under-attenuated -- perhaps made with bread yeast as I understand is traditional for sahti. So that's the first bit I got wrong: the yeast is a blend of German, Belgian and British strains and is efficient enough to whack the finished product up to 11% ABV. Funny how it's only when I know that that I start to feel the warming sensation.

I didn't even begin to try and identify the flavours: it's sweet like the aroma with a sharp berry undercurrent and a spicy Belgian-yeast finish. The berries are juniper and I'm guessing that at least some of the bitterness -- the grassy sort -- comes from the use of rye, while more is from an exciting-sounding Nordic herb called "sea wormwood". As for the sweetness, part of it must be the big boozy body, but at the very front, and in the aroma, the herbal sweetness is from heather honey. It's great to find another beer like BrewDog Speed Ball/Dogma where honey works harmoniously with the other flavours: just adding that little bit of extra complexity when lots of other things are going on. And Dogma's a heather honey beer too. I think honey quality might have a lot to do with how well it works as a beer adjunct.

I like this. It's a lovely winter sipper and I could write about it all day. But I've got gongs to hand out. So here goes:

Best Irish Draught Beer: Goods Store IPA
The best thing to happen to Irish beer in 2009: a cask IPA with whackloads of dry Cascades. Access is strictly controlled by the Bull & Castle management, but I hope this will continue being brewed in 2010, even though it owes its name to being the last ever batch made at the old Carlow Brewing Company plant in the railway station's former goods store. "Muine Bheag Business Park IPA" doesn't have the same ring, unfortunately, but I'll still drink it. A big hand for its creator Liam Hanlon (right), please.

Best Irish Bottled Beer: Clotworthy Dobbin
Yeah, an obvious choice, beating stiff competition from newcomers such as Porterhouse Hop Head and Plain, and Whitewater's own first-rate Belfast Black. But this chocolatey ruby porter is the one to beat. The recipe includes a late Cascade addition: I think a pattern may be emerging here.

Best Overseas Draught Beer: Affumicator
Beck Bräu's utterly batshit dreidoppelrauchbock gave me pause when I encountered it in Amsterdam back in September. There's just not enough smoked lagers in the 9.4% ABV category around.

Best Overseas Bottled Beer: Wädenswiler Hanf
I very nearly made another obvious choice here, and Three Floyds's Dark Lord is very very good indeed. But this award goes to the little Swiss beer that could: Wädenswiler Hanf. So drinkable; so peppery; and a big inspiration to me to get off my arse and start assembling my own hemp beer recipe.

Best Overall Beer: Goods Store IPA
And out of the lot, I'm going for Goods Store, not just because of what it is, but also what it means: hoppy Irish ale was unknown just a couple of years back; cask was something you got up North, at festivals, or from a token handpump in selected Porterhouses. Goods Store -- which flies out of the cask -- gives me such hope for the future of beer in this country. Excuse me, I have something in my eye...

Best Bottle Label or Pump Clip: Zeitgeist
This was the hardest one to pick. I learned to brew this year, and also learned that the best bit of the whole process is designing the labels. Nothing that I'd seen during the year really struck me, as especially brilliant, though the sparse monochrome De Molen branding immediately jumped to mind. But I think I'll give this one to Heather Brennan -- designer of BrewDog's Zeitgeist label. Even I look cool holding one of these.

Best Irish Brewery: White Gypsy
Goods Store isn't the only cask IPA knocking about Ireland, you know. White Gypsy's, though not as full-on, is damn good. However, it's a bit harder to find, what with the brewery's dogged determination to carve out a niche in rural Ireland where the stranglehold of Diageo, Heineken and C&C is strongest. The courage to draw a line in the Tipperary sand, to make and distribute top-notch beer from behind it, is where this nomination comes from.
(Photo courtesy of Laura. Who's currently in Jamaica, so the least we can do is nick her stuff.)

Best Overseas Brewery: De Molen
For consistent wows. Beer after beer of brilliance, to the point where a white label with plain black text turns me into Pavlov's beer drinker. Though I'd like to add an honourable mention for Cantillon of Brussels, whose public brewday in March was one of the best days out I had all year.

Pub/Bar of the Year: The Bull & Castle
A no-brainer. A consistently good selection; the introduction of regular cask beer; the continued tolerance of homebrewers treating the place as a club house. I'm proud to call it my local, even though I have to pass at least half a dozen pubs to get there.

Beer Festival of the Year: Hilden
For proper festival atmosphere it has to be Hilden -- the last weekend in August. This year was better than ever, with an extra bar, more shelter, and a bigger crowd of my beery friends. The Franciscan Well at Easter is the AGM of Irish brewing, but Hilden is the after-party.

Supermarket of the Year
: Tesco
I've probably bought more beer in Superquinn than any other supermarket this year. Their commitment to diversity and changing the palate of the Irish beer drinker deserves enormous applause. But Tesco's occasional discounting of Brooklyn Lager has made it the bigger influence on my day-to-day drinking in 2009. Mmm... Brooklyn Lager.

Independent Retailer of the Year: Deveney's Dundrum
A blog; a monthly beer tasting; a forthcoming festival; a consistently wide range of beers. Deveney's has become a regular supplier for me this year, and Ruth's commitment to beervangelism is highly commendable.

Online Retailer of the Year: DrinkStore
Another easy one. Ken and Richard were pushing an open door when they set-up a website through which buyers nationwide can assemble a case of whatever quality beers they want and have it delivered at a reasonable rate. The days when decent beer was limited to Ireland's big cities only are over.

Best Beer Book: Hops & Glory
A daft category, Mark. One beer book has been head and shoulders above the rest. You'll laugh; you'll cry; you'll get very very thirsty. Actually, you've probably already read Hops & Glory. Why am I even bothering? Honourable mention to Ben McFarland's World's Best Beers -- a lavish coffee table job, but well assembled with virtually no filler beers (you know the ones I mean -- the national icons that are really worthless macrocrap) and a great section on beer and food.

Best Beer Blog: Zythophile
I've ticked so many beer bloggers (yeah, I ticked you when you weren't looking; feel dirty now?) that it's hard to separate the blog from the person, so I'm limiting this to beer bloggers I've not actually met, and despite a too-long hiatus, Martyn Cornell is still top of the pile for style and content.

Best Beer Twitterer: @beerinator
The wittiest of the beer Twitterers. Pointing out "Goose Island cask stout is better than you. No offense" is what got me into Twitter in the first place.

Best Online Interactive Brewery:
I'm not awarding this one. Sure, there are loads of breweries doing some great interactive stuff at the moment. But of the ones that make a difference in my normal drinking life: nada. Most have poorly maintained websites; some have Facebook and Twitter accounts where nothing happens for months. Irish breweries are terrible at the Internet, and until that changes I can't think why anyone should be commended here. Must try harder.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year: Bull & Castle Fisherman's Pie with Galway Hooker
Reuben put me on to this one, and I've never looked back. The hot, cheesey, fishy, spuddy, rib-sticking goodness of the pie meeting the chilled, sparkly, bitter bite of the pale ale is classic.

Open Category: Best Beer Town: Amsterdam
I've hit lots of great beer cities this year. York was a fantastic discovery and highly recommended. But it's always going to be Amsterdam for me, for Wildeman and Arendsnest (right) alone. Throw in Bierkoning (whence my sahti) and Cracked Kettle; Gollem and Belgique; 't IJ and BeerTemple; and Amsterdam is my beer heaven. Plus, you meet a better class of drunk in the pubs there.

Next Year I’d Most Like To...: Go to Copenhagen
At the moment my one ambition for 2010 is the Danske Ølentusiaster festival in Copenhagen on 6-8 May. The last one, back in 2008, was unutterably brilliant (and by "unutterably" I mean I went on about it at considerable length last September). I'm well up for that again, and hope that by writing it down here I'll be more likely to do something about organising myself to go.

Which brings us neatly back to Scandinavia. It's possible that my foreign bottled beer judgement might have been different if I'd opened the gorgeous looking Norwegian winter ales Knut gave me a few weeks ago, but I haven't yet. Perhaps they'll feature next year.

17 December 2009

More than pants

On my last trip up North I made a point of checking out the beer selection in Marks and Spencer, having heard interesting things about their new range. I hadn't expected it to be quite so extensive, however, and found myself having to choose carefully for transport purposes. As was I came away with just four, but I thought I'd picked the ones that would best suit my tastes. (And hooray to M&S for having beers that are even suggestive of my tastes).

Dark 'n' strong is one of the ways I like 'em, so the Christmas Ale from Cropton was a definite. It's an appropriate shade of dark red-brown, pouring quite flat and nearly headless. The nose gives off a suspicious plastic whiff, as of a Christmas-themed air-freshener. My first taste impression was good -- sweet and chocolatey, overlaid with lots of cinnamon and clove. The light, thin body was a warning sign, though, especially in a supposed 6.5% ABV warmer. Beneath the seasonal flavours there's a certain citric edge, one which reminded me of mulled wine when the fresh oranges and lemons have just gone in. Mrs Beer Nut described it as "cheap champagne-cider with orange juice", thereby demonstrating she's a veteran of many more crappy Christmas drinks receptions than I. Still, I was enjoying the beer and decided to let it warm up a bit to see if it rounded out any. And it sort of does, just not in a good way. That plasticky spice sensation enters the flavour and it starts being tough going to drink while still being rather thin: a mortal sin. So, despite my sweet tooth and fondness for spiced beer, this one just doesn't cut it.

Something along similar lines happened with the Cheshire Chocolate Porter. The alarm bells started here with the ingredients listing: "Wheat syrup"? Is that just to beef up the gravity to reach 6% ABV? The beer itself pours a remarkably pale amber colour. Once again it's very thin and I found the chocolate flavour to be horribly artificial. And yet again, as it warmed it got worse, even sicklier. Though this time Mrs Beer Nut lapped it up and asked for more. Dunno what that's about.

Back to the wintery brews, and I confess to being rather sceptical at first about Southwold Winter Beer, a seasonal ale brewed to just 4% ABV. It pours a clear shade of copper and balances some seriously heavy caramel sweetness with a solid, funky English Fuggles bitterness. I thought for a second I detected a hint of skunkiness, but after a moment I realised it was more of a mineral sulphur vibe, the sort I love in crisp Adnams Bitter. Could this be..? Yes, it's brewed by Adnams. Well that makes sense. I still don't know how far I'd venture to label it a "winter" beer, but as a beer and nothing else, it's lovely. A summer session on this would suit me fine.

And lastly the one that caught my eye before all the others: M&S Scottish Ale. It's brewed with thistles! Thistles! It didn't disappoint either -- another dark ruby body, though with loads of fizz through it. It remains entirely drinkable, however. The flavour starts with a flash of spicy ginger and follows it quickly with a herbal complication which, I'm guessing, is from the dried pointy lads they've thrown it at some point. The finish is dry, maybe leaning slightly towards metallic, but I loved it and could quaff it merrily. More thistle beer please.

Though more of any of this lot would be good, to be honest. I went along to a Dublin branch of M&S and was pleased to see that a number of beers in the range had made it across the Irish Sea: about five lagers and four or so ciders. And the Cheshire Porter. And that's it. It's such a stupid, facile, misreading of the market. Yes, Irish people drink lager and cider (and black beer to a certain extent) more than anything else. But they drink it branded. Giving them a fake Heineken and a fake Bulmer's isn't going to work. And I doubt the people who pay M&S prices for their booze will be tempted. Conversely, British ale is a novelty. It could very easily be one of those things you go to Marks for because you can't get it elsewhere -- think Scotch eggs; think pork pies. It seems incredibly short-sighted, to this amateur market analyst, but there you go. One bit of cross-border shopping our recent excise duty cut won't prevent.

14 December 2009

Caning it

The festive season has been a busy one for me recently. There's been something on pretty much every evening since I got back from London. Between pub crawls, the work do, catching up with people I've not seen in ages, I'm just about partied out. Tragically, I didn't even have time to dig out some pics for Alan's photo competition this year (it'll be double the quality for 2010, Alan -- wait and see). Just two more events -- tonight and tomorrow -- and that's it, I'll be hanging up the humbugs and barricading myself into the house with just my beer stash to keep me company.

However, I'm immensely proud that at none of these engagements have I had to stoop to drinking bad beer. Beer I didn't especially like, perhaps, but nothing from the Big Two or otherwise undesirable has crossed my lips in quite a while. When one doesn't get to choose the venue for these things, that's quite an achievement in my book. Though socialising with beery people does tend to help with the steering clear.

Wednesday's pre-Budget search for low-cost quality in the Dublin on-trade finished up in the Bull & Castle, where they'd just taken a shipment of Sierra Nevada Celebration. This is a relatively powerful winter beer -- 6.8% ABV but warm and heavy enough to pass for even stronger. The intense hopping has made it extremely bitter, and to my taste it's all a bit too much: whatever's being Celebrated here, it's not a cause I support. And before I get called a hop-grinch, I'll note that the stronger and hoppier Torpedo IPA from Sierra Nevada is much more enjoyable than this is. So there.

As I photographed my beer like the weirdo I am, one of our merry band of pub-crawlers (hi Richard!) asked me if I'd be rating it based on that one single tasting. Of course I said that I would, in full recognition that it wouldn't necessarily give me a definitive opinion on the beer, and adding that more fragile brews, like cask ales for instance, are much harder to get a full impression of with just one glass. But nowhere does this blog claim to offer a full and fair evaluation of every beer mentioned. Really I'm just making this stuff up to fill space.

However, it just so happened that the following evening saw the last Deveney's Beer Club tasting session of the year. The theme, funnily enough, was winter beers and Ruth had Celebration in the line-up. So I got to try it again on a fresh palate, and I can categorically state that it's not for me. I hope you're happy with that, Richard.

Also on the roster on Thursday was the 2009 edition of Anchor's Our Special Ale. This was much better than the 2008 one I had back in the spring -- loaded with zingy seasonal spices set on a cosily warm dark malt base. Goose Island's Mild Winter is rather less of a full-on sort of a sensation. Yes, it's dark and has some lovely smooth and subtle caramel tones in it, but it keeps itself to itself, with no major exciting flavours jumping out. Mild indeed, and quite the converse of the Goose Island Christmas Ale. This is a big 7%-er in a 65cl bottle, and like the Anchor version it's made to a different recipe each year. Again, like San Franciscan, the spices run amok on the palate creating a whole sequence of piquant sensations. But right next to them there's a hefty wodge of those oh-so-typical sherbety Goose Island hops, the ones which should be familar to anyone who's had their IPA (which should be everyone). An adorable beer, and possibly my favourite of the many seasonals knocking around at the moment.

Soon, I will find the time to give them a proper tasting. And adjust this post if I need to...