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.


  1. Nice round-up! I was making a list in my head and had decided that Affumicator was the best (certainly the most interesting) German beer I've had this year. I'm no good at making best of lists, but De Molen would also be there for my "overseas" entry I reckon.

  2. Showbizguru12:07 pm

    And an honourable mention to your good self.
    If I hadn't started reading your blog I probably wouldn't have been prompted to return to
    Amsterdam for the first time in years and I certainly wouldn't have had such an excellent evening in Arendsnest and Gollem, two of the nicest beer bars I've ever been in.
    And I probably wouldn't have made the Bull and Castle my regular stop when visiting Dublin ... a rare oasis in the beer desert of Ireland.

  3. Happy to be of service, SBG. Helping ensure that more custom goes to places that deserve it is one thing I love about this blogging lark.

  4. Anonymous3:31 pm

    If sea wormwood contains thujone, the same as "normal" wormwood, that'll give it quite a kick …

    Many thanks re your praise for the blog, one ploughs one's lonely furrow …

  5. If I remember the facts from my days as The Absinthe Nut, you'll die of alcohol poisoning long before you get any thujone buzz off wormwood-infused booze.

  6. I do not know which beers Knut Albert gave you, but there are some really great seasonal beers available in Norway right now. Among the craft breweries Nøgne Ø, Ægir and Haandbryggeriet have made some excellent beers for Christmas.

  7. Anonymous6:32 pm

    Is Goods Store IPA still available in the B&C?

  8. It's never been a permanent fixture, but yes, it is fairly regularly available these days.