30 December 2010

Just another winter's ale

I only barely escaped snowy Dublin last week to spend the holiday in frozen Hertfordshire, so my Christmas drinking was mostly along English lines, with just a couple of exceptions. One sister gifted me a bottle of Saint Landelin Spéciale Noël, a seasonal from Gayant, the Douai brewery perhaps better known for Goudale. It's a yulified Belgian-style blonde -- 6.8% ABV and quite sticky with it, piling in the honey on top of gentle pot pourri spices. While warming, it's light enough to stay drinkable and sharing the 75cl bottle is entirely optional, fully subject to one's personal levels of seasonal goodwill.

The other non-English Christmas ale came from another sister (they know me so well): Merry X-Moose by Porthmadog's avant garde Purple Moose brewery. This poured shockingly flat but redeemed itself with lovely big chocolate flavours, finishing on some intriguing lavender high notes. Similar-but-different was Three Tuns Old Scrooge. A bit more condition to this, though not much. It's a dense black beer with lots of treacle spiced up by cinnamon and liquorice: an excellent warmer.

On to less seasonal fare, and Dorothy Goodbody's Imperial Stout: a boxed-up limited run of 6,000 bottles. Advice was that this is best left a few years to mature, but the air travel liquids ban left me with no choice but to pop the cap almost immediately after taking it out from under the Christmas tree. Immature imperial stout can be an unpleasant experience, often spiked with harsh metal-and-cabbage hop tones. None of that here, though. At 7% ABV it's perhaps on the light side of the genre and the flavours are quite gentle: lots of sweet and slightly sticky dark malts, a touch of roasted grain and a balanced grassiness from the hops. It could well be that it gets more interesting with age, but really there's absolutely nothing wrong with this beer right now.

A bottle of McMullen AK XXX fell across my path at one point during my stay. A fairly plain brown bitter, this. Crisp with a touch of toffee, it immediately called to mind Bailey's observations on the substituting of London Pride for altbier. This hits a lot of the same places as alt, finishing with a dry hop bite and being a little over-fizzy for English bitter. Close your eyes and think of Düsseldorf. (For more on the historical brewers' code "AK", including McMullen's use of it, see Zythophile's analysis here.)

Speaking of over-fizzy bitter, I was unable to resist the opportunity to try Whitbread Bitter when I spotted it on keg at a hotel bar near Luton. You have to try the local specialities when you travel, right? It lends further credibility to my grand theory that Irish red ale and English keg bitter are the same ill-starred creation. Whitbread Bitter is monstrously watery, generally sweet, with just a tiny shade more hopping that you might find in the likes of Smithwicks. My other guilty pleasure came on an excursion to the pub near where I was staying. Ignoring my own rule about going for something good rather than ticking off new beers, I couldn't resist a swift pint of Wells & Young's Eagle IPA. Brewed very much to hit the same market segment as Greene King IPA, this is 3.6% ABV and every bit as light, plain, uncomplicated and inoffensive. After one pint it was over to the far superior St Austell Tribute on the next tap.

I got to do very little by way of beer shopping -- just one trip to Sainsbury's, yielding the new IPA from Fuller's: Bengal Lancer. I was really quite careless in how I poured this 5.3% ABV bottle conditioned beer, but it still came out a perfectly limpid shade of dark copper. Despite the gung-ho branding it's quite understated all-in-all: I needed a few nosefuls of the aroma to pick up anything much, eventually identifying jaffa, or possibly mandarin, oranges. The malt drives the taste, leading the hops behind it, creating a not unpleasant effect of marmalade on thick-cut toast. The tail end veers almost tragically towards the metal and puke of Fuller's execrable IPA but just manages to avoid it by finishing quickly. The texture is perhaps the beer's best feature: big and satisfying. It would be nice if there was just a bit more substance to it, but as a straightforward well-constructed English IPA it can't really be faulted and I would buy it again.

And that's where we leave things for 2010. By the time you read this I should be somewhere in central Europe, gathering material for a post or two in 2011. Happy New Year!

27 December 2010

Off garde

I always expect something a bit rough-and-ready from a Bière de Garde, something that tastes convincingly like a sullen gallic farmer just lashed it up in the back of the barn, replete with raw grainy flavours, lots of murky haze and more than a whiff of some wild fermentation. It's hardly surprising that something much tamer arises when a large US craft brewer turns its meticulous attention to the style.

Flying Dog's Garde Dog is properly hazy all right, and the pale orange colour is certainly more attractive than any murky brown. The nose is exciting and enticing: sourness first followed by citrus zest and a sprinkling of herbs and spices.

The intrigue ends there, however. On tasting I got quite a thin and rather under-carbonated beer which exhibits a certain amount of the spice that was promised on the nose, but not enough for my liking. The citrus zest is just about present too, but it ends up dominating the flavour in the absence of anything else.

Now, a big part of this could be a freshness issue: I noticed that my bottle was only a month away from the expiry date, so I could well believe there were all manner of subtle and interesting things going on in it when it left Maryland. What I got, however, was an easy-drinking refreshing mid-strength (5.5% ABV) beer, and perhaps that's all it's meant to be. I can't complain too much really.

23 December 2010

Not home for Christmas

I've not gone back to Northern Ireland for Christmas. Instead, the whole family has decamped to Hertfordshire for the next few days. While in exile, I have only the memory of Ulster's native beers to keep me company.

Like McGrath's Irish Black, the third outing from Waringstown's Clanconnel Brewery. I don't have a picture so you'll have take my word that this session stout poured beautifully from the bottle: pure black with a thick layer of loose tan bubbles. I was quite surprised to find bitterness in the ascendant, something rather unusual in an Irish stout. The middle has lots of dry roast plus a very interesting chocolate-marzipan character at the end. It's a very interesting take on your standard Irish stout and one of the better bottled ones. This took the top prize at CAMRA's Belfast festival last month and I bet it's absolutely amazing on cask, with all that lovely sweet chocolate to the fore.

2010 saw the arrival of a fourth Northern Irish brewery: Inishmacsaint is based in Co. Fermanagh though brewing happens at Loughry College in Tyrone, on the same kit that provided Clanconnel's training wheels. Distribution is still pretty thin, though I did manage to get hold of a bottle of Inishmacsaint Lager through some back channels (thanks Ed!).

Well, it's a lager all right. For all its microbrewed and bottle-conditioned credentials, it tastes a lot like mainstream fizz, with maybe just a bit of haze and yeast character from my cack-handed pouring. Such cleanliness of flavour is a technical achievement for the brewer, of course, but not really what I'm normally after in a beer, and not what you might expect a beer fan with his own pro kit to produce. But it is what it is, and if you're going to drink one of these sorts of beers wouldn't you be better drinking it from the local guy? There's a wheat beer in the range as well: I'm looking forward to trying that.

The past year has been a significant one for Irish beer: three new breweries arrived on the scene while several of the established ones have expanded their ranges. Dublin has three great new speciality beer bars, all coming with cask ale as standard, and we saw the launch of Ireland's first beer consumers' organisation. But I should do this properly, and in accordance with Mr Dredge's annual awards template (you'll find last year's round-up here, by the way).

The Golden Pint Awards 2010

Best Irish Draught Beer:

It's hard to believe Trouble Brewing have only been with us for eight months or so. Ór has replaced Galway Hooker as the beer I drink when I don't want to think
about which beer to drink. Full-bodied, lightly carbonated, simple and delicious.

Best Irish Bottled Beer: O'Hara's Irish Pale Ale
Last year's top beer was the cask special Goods Store IPA. That recipe has since been tweaked, twiddled and turned into a regular part of the O'Hara's range. It shows up on draught now and again, though the bottled version is superior in my estimation. Unapologetically heavy and bitter with just enough citric zest to keep it approachable and fun.

Best Overseas Draught Beer: Uerige Alt
Going way back to the top of the year for this one. Brewery hopping in Düsseldorf is a fine way to spend a day or two, an
d Uerige is the pick of the bunch, not only for the fantastic atmosphere of the premises -- a lively centre of activity, even at 11am on a Thursday morning -- but also for their gorgeous hopped-up altbier: probably the most moreish beer I had all year. That said, I also have to put in a word for De Molen's Turf & Veen, a peat monster that very few of my acquaintances are likely to enjoy but which I loved.

Best Overseas Bottled Beer: Midtfyns Chili Tripel
A perfect example of how to do innovation well. All the great things
about tripel coupled with all the great things about chilli beer to create something far greater than the sum of its parts. Let the purists weep into their Westmalle: this is tripel which rewards the adventurous.

Best Overall Beer: Uerige Alt
Three very different beers there, but if I had to pick one it would be the Uerige. Find me a quiet alcove with the paper and an attentive
Köbe and I'm in heaven.

Best Pumpclip or Label: Metalman
Yeah, I'm cheating on this one. Gráinne and Tim's Waterford operation is still under starter's orders and at the moment has little to show except a logo. But what a logo! I've ever
y expectation the beers will be just as stylish when they appear next year.

Best Irish Brewery: Dungarvan Brewing Company
I don't know where Cormac, Jen, Tom and Clare get the energy from but they'
re phenomenal. From a standing start back in the spring they've been to every festival going, held tasting sessions around the country, run food matching evenings, hosted brewery visits, organised a walking tour of the town, been interviewed by countless media outlets, blogged, Twittered, Facebooked and somehow managed to find the time to brew and distribute three cracking beers. The brewery's commitment to all-natural conditioning pays dividends in the product and they've been a driving force for getting cask beer onto the bar in more and more Irish pubs. Keep it up, guys!

Best Overseas Brewery: Harvey's
Consistently excellent beers, readily available wherever I go in England.
This was the year when I realised that it can be a lot more fun just having a few pints of a beer you enjoy rather than working methodically along the pump clips. Harvey's Sussex Best Bitter was the beer that showed me the way.

Pub/Bar of the Year: The Salt House
Instantly my favourite pub in Ireland when I first discovered it in February (not realising that that would be the last time I'd get to have a pint in nearby Sheridan's -- a curse on intransigent landlords), The Salt House has picked up a bit of competition over the year, from the likes of the super-classy yet casually-comfortable L. Mulligan Grocer and its own sister pub Against The Grain, but for that laid-back Galwegian vibe and a kick-ass beer
line-up I'm still giving this one to them.

Beer Festival of the Year: Copenhagen
Why more of my fellow bloggers aren't making beelines for this festival is beyond me. 2010 was scaled down a bit from 2008, but still featured a stunning array of beers from most of Europe's first-string brewers, no small proportion of which are based in Denmark. There's also the wonderful beer launch sideshows at Ølbutikken, and on the weekend evenings when it's too packed to enjoy, you won't be stuck for somewhere to have a decent beer or two in Copenhagen. It's 26-28 May 2011. Go.

Supermarket of the Year: Superquinn
It could easily have been SuperValu on Aston Quay whose range of beers rivals some of the specialist off licences, but like last year I'm awarding
this one based on one single great offer: 6 beers for €12, featuring Adnams Innovation. Thank you very much, Superquinn.

Independent Retailer of the Year: DrinkStore
Ken and Richard have been pulling out the stops this year, and scored quite a coup by getting a supplier for Cantillon and De Molen beers. This in addition to a peerless range of Americans. Room for improvement? Yes: the UK. How about some Thornbridge, Otley or the like?

Best Beer Book or Magazine: 1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die
And not just because I wrote bits of it. OK, mainly because I wrote bits of it. So
if you're reading this, you may as well read that.

Best Beer Blog or Website: Beoir
A little bit of tootling on my own trumpet here, but more of a homage and thanks to the dozens of people who help make the Beoir website a great resource for brewers, drinkers, travellers and anyone with an interest in Irish beer, beer in Ireland, and going outside Ireland for beer. A special big-up to Barry who put in a lot of work on the site during the year, both in terms of the total redesign of Irish Craft Brewer and the various technological doohickeys in the background which make it work.

Best Beer Twitterer: Team Hardknott
I don't follow any soap operas, but I would if they were as interesting as the goings-on between @HardknottDave, @HardknottAnn and the supporting cast.

Best Brewery Online: Dungarvan Brewing Company
Given what I said about them above, of course Dungarvan are going to be here. They seem to have grasped the social element of social networking better than anyone, linking up with restaurants, state agencies, the media, retailers, customers and all the other parts of the gourmet food and drink industry of which they are most definitely a part.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year: Pork and stilton pie with Hobsons Old Henry
What? I was supposed to come up with another one of these? I'm still slurping through the fisherman's pie and Galway Hooker from last year. It's still brilliant. If I'd realised another one was expected I'd have done some research. Erm... oh, I know: pork pies. 2010 has been all about the pork pies and I confess I've eaten quite a lot of them. I make an IPA that goes rather well with them, though I also really enjoyed the pork and stilton one I got at Battlefield Farm Shop in Shrewsbury with Hobsons Old Henry, so that's my nom nom nomination for this year.

In 2011 I’d Most Like To…: Travel
Not too dissimilar from my aspiration for 2010, though rather less planned out at this stage. After four years I've finally managed to stuff enough cash down the money pit that is Beer Nut Towers to keep it quiet so now have the opportunity of putting some aside for a trip somewhere interesting in 2011. Not necessarily for the beer, but I'm sure there'll be beer there. Putting some sort of shape on that will be my project for January.

Open Category: Most improved brewery: Messrs Maguire
As I wrote in my post on the re-launch, we've seen the first signs of a new and improved Messrs Maguire pub and brewery. There's much more of a can-do feel about the place, and the house beers aren't the neglected stepchildren they once were. Here's hoping this upward trend continues in 2011.

And here's wishing all my readers a very Merry Christmas.

20 December 2010

Double Trouble

I've been drinking it fairly regularly all month, so apologies for only getting round to telling you about Trouble Brewing's Dark Arts porter now. It made its first appearance at the Food & Wine Magazine fair in the RDS a few weeks ago, followed by an official launch in the Bull & Castle on 30 November.

It's an unfiltered dark brown session porter of 4.4% ABV which starts out quite roasty and dry but follows this with a long-lasting chocolate and caramel sweetness. Just on the end there's a nip from the hops adding a bitter, slightly sour complication.

Dark Arts is a beer of marvellous balance: light enough for session drinking, but properly warming as well. It's on tap at the Bull & Castle and L. Mulligan Grocer for the next while.

In addition to this and Ór, a third beer comes to us from the Trouble kit, though its origins are rather more obscure. Last year Dublin pubs Sin É and Dice Bar began selling beers badged with old Dublin Brewing Company brands: D'Arcy's Stout and Revolution Red, names that hadn't been seen since DBC went under in 2004. Word around the campfire was that these were Young's Double Chocolate Stout and Bombardier, imported from the UK. And then, just a few months ago, I spotted a new poster outside Sin É proclaiming that Revolution is now brewed in Ireland. Investigations led to Trouble where, I'm told, the management rent out the kit to Revolution's owners and leave them to it.

The beer is quite good too: very sweet, with lots of toffee and smooth caramel. There's a nice roasted element to the flavour as well and just a tiny bit of hop aroma. A well-rounded Irish red, basically: not going to set the world alight but quite enjoyable to drink. And while it's quite possible that it's not terribly different from the kegged Bombardier, I really like that they see "brewed in Ireland" as a significant enough selling point to actually go to the bother of arranging it. Well done them.

16 December 2010

...on a such a winter's day

It was lovely to see globetrotting Beer Geeks Chris and Merideth back in Dublin last week. Thursday was Merideth's birthday and a bunch of us bravely crossed the ice floes of Smithfield to gather in L. Mulligan. Grocer for some excellent food and a few beers. The guys had brought some bottles of interest over from California for us to try.

First up was Saison Ale from the recently-established Odonata Brewery in Sacramento. Paler than I would have expected from a saison, this put me more in mind of a witbier, albeit a very very good one. Lots of lovely gunpowder spice on the nose and lovely zesty Belgian yeast flavours on a light and breezy body. There's just a touch of earthy funk on the end which brings it back into more familiar saison territory, but on the whole I'm theorising that this is what witbier used to taste like before the industrial breweries got hold of it.

Firestone Walker Union Jack was my favourite of the set. This is a very heavy, sticky IPA of 7.5% ABV. The aroma sings loudly of golden syrup and sherbet and the opera continues on tasting: a massive malt backbone overlaid with oodles of sweet Californian hops. There's very little of what I'd call bitterness in this: no trace of acidity or harshness, but there's bags and bags of citric flavour, incorporating more pineapples, mangoes and tangerines than grapefruit. Hefty, totally unsubtle, but wonderfully balanced.

The Russian River Blind Pig which followed it was an interesting contrast. It's a wonderful beer (a previous donation from Chris and Merideth was reviewed here), though lighter, paler and bitterer than Union Jack. Proof that American IPA is just as broad a genre as the English ones.

We finished the tasting with Denogginizer, a stonking double IPA from Drake's Brewing. I loved the nose on this: fresh American hops and plenty of them, but the flavour was just overpowering -- a harsh burn from the hops, goaded on by the heat of nearly 10% ABV. There's plenty of toffeeish malt in that deep amber body, but nowhere near enough to carry all that bitterness. It's a beer for people who like their hops in indiscriminately vast quantities.

With these out of the way it was on to dinner (mushrooms and Cashel Blue cheese on toast followed by juniper-spiced beef with roasted vegetables), and a sublime birthday cake for afters, made with Trouble Brewing's Dark Arts porter -- a beer I'm well overdue telling you about properly.

Thanks to Chris and Merideth for the beer and for being excellent company despite what must have been some chronic jetlag; and thanks also to the Mulligan's crew for looking after us on an evening when Dublin's winter water shortages would have crippled many a less tenacious establishment. We beer people really are troopers when we need to be.

13 December 2010

The troubled life of Brittany's beers

"Bières d'Excellence" it said on the box of Breton brews that Dave and Laura brought back from holidays for me, accompanied by the proviso that I should expect no such thing from the contents.

The first one I opened was called Dremmwel Blonde: 5% ABV, made from organic ingredients and sporting a jaunty set of Breton bagpipes on the label and cap. Lots of sediment in the bottom of the bottle so I poured carefully, giving me a hazy brass-coloured glassful, topped by a fine foam of purest white. Lots of breath-stopping carbon dioxide from the nose, and an odd herbiness underneath, warranting further investigation. It's not overly fizzy, just a pleasantly busy prickle helping keep the flavours clean. The main one is dry, slightly grassy and vegetal -- asparagus springs to mind. Beyond it there's little by way of malt or hops, but as a light clean aperitif, I was quite happy with this.

The amber followed next: Gwiniz Du. An attractive conker-red body is somewhat spoiled by the large floaty chunks buoyed up by a vigorous carbonation. According to the label it's a wheat beer [correction: buckwheat. French lessons via Mark & Laurent], but there's no sign of the soft texture or fruits or spices that one might expect. Instead it's very sweet, exhibiting lots of dark treacle and a touch of bitter liquorice. As is so often the case with sugar-bombs like this, once it gets warm it becomes sickly and cloying. This isn't my sort of beer but doubtless the style-conscious tramps of Quimper will be all over it next season.

Last of the trio is Celtika. "Enter into Hell" is the strapline on the MS Paint label. Oo-er. That bad, eh? Since it's advertised as a blonde and is 8.8% ABV, and given the satanic branding, I figured they were going for something along the lines of Duvel. It pours rather darker, however: a murky orange with bits in. The aroma has the yeasty spice of a strong Belgian blonde, but the similarities end there. Like Gwiniz Du it's powerfully sweet, full of candied lemons with a finish of aftershave. There's a definite touch of cardboardy oxidation in there, and an unpleasant gastric sharpness. OK, that sounds worse than it is. It's drinkable, but it's no kind of substitute for proper Belgian-style strong blonde ale.

I don't know enough about the beers of western France to start making generalisations, but if this is what gets classed as excellent then there's some work still to be done in getting the recipes right. Thanks again Dave and Laura for generously off-loading these on me.

09 December 2010

Lidl donkey

One thing I won't miss about not attending the Pig's Ear festival this year is execrable Christmas beer nomenclature: Rudolph's This, Santa's That -- it's stultifyingly dull. Mind you, the beers are often quite good, at least when they have a bit of oomph to them. I've found in the past that low-ABV Christmas ales are very rarely drinkable.

So it was with trepidation that I approached Shepherd Neame's seasonal offering (sigh) Rudolph's Reward. I was quite fond of their, more soberly-titled, Christmas Ale: a bitter and spicy 7% ABV thumper. But the new kid is only 4%, so how much yuletide cheer is there likely to be inside?

(Can we pause for a second and look at that label? Smirking Rudolph appears to be wearing Santa's clothing, implying some kind of gruesome Animal Farm-style takeover of the North Pole workshop or mid-air sleigh mutiny. Whatever Rudolph is hoisting to celebrate his seizure of the means of production, it is a blonde beer and plainly not Rudolph's Reward.)

The beer looks, in fairness, lovely: dark red-amber, with a long lasting fine-bubbled head. Nothing offensive about the nose: hints of caramel and chocolate. It's the latter which leads the flavour. I say "leads", but there's not really a whole lot else. Just on the finish you get a whiff of Shepherd Neame's signature lightstruck hops, but not enough to contribute much (good or bad) to it. It's mercifully less fizzy than a lot of the brewery's bottled offerings, but the texture is very watery. Stronger it would just be sweet and cloying, however. It needs more complexity before I'd recommend it, even at €1.49 a pop in Lidl.

06 December 2010

Fall forward

The new autumn seasonal from Sierra Nevada, Tumbler is a medium-strength brown ale, 5.5% ABV and a dark mahogany in the glass, topped by thick off-white foam. The nose gives fresh, lightly mandarin, hops and a hint of caramel sweetness. It's quite understated in the flavour department, though what's there is nicely balanced between burnt treacley caramel and punchy hop fruits. The hops come out on top at the end, finishing bitter with a hint of saccharine.

I can't help being reminded of lighter, the punchier American and American-style amber ales like Speakeasy Prohibition or Brewdog 5am Saint: they do this sort of thing better. Tumbler is much heavier and creamier in texture, perhaps intended to be a softer, more huggable beer. But those typically Sierra Nevadan hops are just sending me the wrong signals: begging to be taken out for a wild time. A draught version is currently on tap in a couple of Dublin pubs and the hops are even more subdued there, to the point of invisibility.

It's hard to fault it, though. Tasty, smooth and filling it's a nice one to have on hand on a chilly evening, and there's no shortage of those round here right now.

03 December 2010

Subterranean homesick booze

A brewpub? Really? That's the place you made an unexpected beer discovery? Well, sort of.

Messrs Maguire has been coasting for some years now. Launched in a blaze of glory in the late 1990s, the multistorey superpub on O'Connell Bridge boasted a lending library and a cask bitter at the beginning. Sadly, it wasn't long before the management sidelined the more high-concept aspects and it gradually reverted into just another brash city centre booze warehouse. It's perhaps suprising that the brewery and its beers survived at all, discounted in both price and brand by the owners. As brewer, Cuilán Loughnane kept the wheels on and the beer flowing, sticking to a punishing routine of commuting from Tipperary up to Dublin and back each brewday. When he finally got his own White Gypsy brewery up and running closer to home it's not surprising that Messrs Maguire production moved there and the pub kit fell into disuse.

A little over a year ago, word had it that the owners had finally twigged that a microbrewery can be more of an asset than a liability and moves were made to revitalise the pub, the brewery and the beer. A new Dublin-based brewer, Melissa Camire, was installed to blow the cobwebs off the kettle and get everything running once more. While the three above-ground storeys of the pub were given little more than a lick of paint, a whole new bar has been opened in the basement. The Brewery, as they're calling it, caters much more to the needs of the beer enthusiast with a fascinating range of continental imports plus specials from both the brewery and its Tipperary cousin. I went along recently with a few of the Beoir guys for the opening night.

Nothing from the in-house brewery was available yet (a brown ale will be first out of the tanks in the next week or two), but there was Melissa's first Irish-brewed beer: Messrs Maguire Pale Ale brewed at White Gypsy though -- Cuilán insists -- without any input from him. It's no hoppy quaffer, this one: heavy and almost English-tasting in its no-nonsense marmalade bitterness on a smooth caramel base. It may lack the zingy high notes of fresh C-hops but it's a lovely one to take a bit of time to sip.

The handpump was serving the latest edition of White Gypsy Emerald blonde ale, this one made with a twist. It's the first beer brewed from totally home-grown ingredients in over a decade thanks to White Gypsy's new plantation of First Gold hops. It's a full 5% ABV though doesn't feel it at all. Light of texture and low on bitterness it's very easy drinking with a beautiful mineral softness underlying the slightly lagery pale malts and gentle green bitterness.

Under the new arrangements, Messrs Maguire will still be an outlet for White Gypsy beer, and Cuilán will continue to brew the core house beers for the upstairs bars. And hopefully that in turn means that we the Dublin drinkers will still have the opportunity to buy his specials and seasonals as well as Melissa's. The coming of winter means the arrival of a beer that's much less unexpected than the above but no less delightful: Messrs Maguire Jul-Ól. Resolutely brewed without spices or adjunct flavourings, this 6%-er has different emphases from year to year. In 2010 we're leaning more towards malt for a very sticky and warming ruby ale. The hops sit in the background and add a bitter complexity to the whole: toffee and jam with a liquorice bite.

I will be back over the coming weeks and months to further explore the new-look Messrs Maguire -- Melissa's beers, the bottle fridge and of course the new food menu. Hopefully it'll all seem like less of a surprise with each visit.

01 December 2010

Czech again

I did say I'd be back for a go of the bottled beer at The Porterhouse's recent Czech beer festival. Not everything that was promised arrived in the end, but among those that did was Žatec Xantho, a 5.7% ABV black lager. Very black, in fact: opaque with a hint of red around the edges and a healthy layer of off-white foam on top. The aroma is odd: carbon dioxide and liquorice reflecting both the intense gassiness of the beer and its sticky weight. The two elements provide a balance of sorts.

The flavour is dominated by a kind of sour caramel taste -- lots of dark roasted sweetness and plenty of vegetal bittering hops. More than anything it reminded me of Baltika 6, the St Petersburg brewery's porter, but it's an easier drink than that one.

If you like a bit of meat to your dark lager this is a good one to go for.

29 November 2010

Guild by association

Thursday last saw the annual awards dinner of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Over the last couple of years I've read enviously of the event's food-and-drink proceedings on other blogs so this year I decided I'd hie myself over to London for the evening and experience it first hand. With, y'know, the outside possibility of a supplementary beer or two somewhere on the peripheries of the occasion. There's an Old Ale Festival on at The White Horse at the same time? Well fancy that...

Less than four hours after leaving home I was pushing the front door of London's newest craft beer specialist The Euston Tap. Located in a tiny kiosk out in front of Euston station, the bar and fridges are well-stocked with carefully chosen delights from Britain, the continent and the US. A row of American-style tap-handles sits atop the numbered cask taps, with blackboards either side proclaiming the contents. So where to start?

Fortunately, Tandleman was on hand for advice, and first up was a half of Fyne Ales Maverick. Worryingly brown, it's actually surprisingly highly hopped -- bitter and crisp, like an understated version of those Black IPAs the cool kids are all drinking these days. Marble's W90 was another recommendation: a fantastic nose of fresh grapefruit and a flavour that's much more about the bitterness than the fruit. Just on the end there's a teeny bit of metal and mustiness but not sufficient to spoil the overall enjoyment of this ever-so-friendly hop monster.

Picking randomly from the keg selection I got a Matuška Raptor, an IPA hailing from the new Czech ale revolution. I don't know what the hops used here were, but they exude a strongly perfumed aroma. The beer underneath is heavy enough to carry it, though, with a strong tannic element. The whole thing reminds me of a beefed-up version of Adnam's Innovation and is quite tasty.

Time was marching on, so one for the road. Oh, is that Thornbridge Alliance just gone on? One of those please. Before the glass of mahogany ale was anywhere near my nose, I knew I wasn't going anywhere for a while. This 11% ABV beer is monstrously sweet and advertises this fact loudly to everyone in its vicinity. Freeze-distill a Belgian dubbel, mix in some Special Brew and throw the whole lot in a madeira barrel for a few months and you get the idea. It's smooth, it's smoky; there are plums and vanilla-roasted chestnuts aplenty. One of those beers where the descriptors keep on coming. Hard work to drink it, but well worthwhile.

With a quick hello to Yan the proprietor and the recently-arrived Jeff Pickthall, I was off to my lodgings and already thinking fond thoughts of dinner. The theme was south-west Indian and the chef Sriram Aylur from Quilon. On arrival there were canapes and some corporate hospitality of the beery sort. I followed Ron Pattinson to the Brains table and started the evening with some Brains Dark -- a velvety chocolate-laced black beer, simple and drinkable, and not distracting from Ron's tales of brewing at Fuller's. A warming and deliciously marmaladey White Shield saw me through to the table where I was reunited with Tandleman and met his missus, the lovely E; Fletch from Real Ale Reviews; blogger and amateur brewer, the exceedingly unchunky Chunk; Mr & Mrs Rabidbarfly and the couple whom my wife refers to as "The Hardknotts", like they're a '70s sitcom.

I won't bore you with a course-by-course account of what we ate and drank, you can click the picture (right) for a look. The food was all excellent and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Goose Island's 312 wheat beer with the crab cakes. Like a lot of diners, however, I passed on the Blandford Fly. A substitute was grabbed from the tables downstairs: Adnams Tally-Ho, a strong and sticky winter ale of 7.2% ABV. It hits all the right caramel and plum notes and is well worth laying in for the season.

Before dessert there were awards, hosted by last year's top writer Pete Brown, with Mark Dredge taking the tankard for online communication once again -- well done Mark. The more bibliocentric labours of Messrs Avery and Tierney-Jones also garnered silverware for them, with Simon Jenkins of the Yorkshire Evening Post claiming the top gong overall. People began drifting away around midnight and the staff stacked the chairs around me, Zak Avery, Kristy McCready and Tim Hampson in a not-very-subtle GTFO-of-our-function-room sort of way. A final palate-cleansing Budvar stolen from Adrian Tierney-Jones and it was off to bed for me.

The next morning was cold and clear and started with the full English. A bit of Christmas shopping around Covent Garden was punctuated by staring in pub windows for anything interesting on tap. A clip in The White Lion caught my eye: current Champion Beer of Britain Castle Rock Harvest Pale Ale. I nipped in for a swift pre-noon half. It's a brilliant golden hue, served beautifully clear in wonderful condition. Worry from a slightly soapy nose was short-lived, overwhelmed by a delicious sherbet lemon bittersweet flavour. It's light and fantastically refreshing. Best beer in Britain? Yeah, maybe.

The penultimate leg of my journey had me striking westward to the well-heeled neighbourhood of Parson's Green and the legendary White Horse Inn. A mecca for beer lovers at any time, last weekend the enormous rangy boozer was hosting an Old Ale festival with 40-odd old ales, strong ales, barley wines and imperial stouts on handpump around the various bars, plus stillage in the back room. I had about two hours to get stuck in, in the company once more of the Hardknotts, Glyn from The Rake and Jeff Pickthall. When you find yourself curtly dismissing taps dispensing Yeti, Gonzo and cask Fuller's London Porter, the phrase is "spoiled for choice".

Harvey's were well represented and are one of my consistently favourite English breweries. With such a range of rarities on tap it was possibly gauche of me to opt for their common-or-garden Sussex Old Ale, but I'm glad I did. This murky dark red beer is deliciously sinkable, offering up delicate spices and exotic sandalwood as it goes. The description of Bonfire Boy as "smoky" gave it instant appeal, and it came with the Rabidbarfly seal of approval, so I went straight for it. Smoke, yes, but also lots of sticky sweetness and a biting bitterness at the end: a lot like drinking a toffee apple. Harvey's Imperial Stout wasn't my first of the day, but it was a big surprise: it's shockingly sweet and fruity like rancid strawberries or raspberry balsamic vinegar. Dave identified a lambic woodiness to it, but I still don't know if this is how it's supposed to taste. I did get used to it, and quite enjoyed it after a bit. It was just... odd.

I only had a sip from Dave's Meantime Russian Imperial Stout and wasn't impressed. It was aged in rum casks, quite possibly before the rum was taken out as the flavour is all rum and no beer. But at least it had character, which is more than can be said for the dry, astringent, but otherwise dull Sharp's Massive or the watery and vaguely tannic Otley Not So Old Ale.

Champion beer of the day for me was probably Thornbridge's Murmansk Baltic porter. At first sip it's dry with bags of dark roasted grains but underneath there's a lovely treacley alcoholic warmth, with the green hops bringing up the rear and providing a beautifully rounded finish. Delish.

Before saying my goodbyes and heading for Heathrow, there was the opportunity to taste Pit Stop's The Hop which was being passed around by some friendly beer geeks who had brought it in. This 8% ABV IPA from Oxfordshire lays claim to the dubious title of world's bitterest beer, lab-certified at 323 IBUs. It's a cloudy pale orange, rather flat, and as immensely pithy and oily as you might expect. As a shot, it's quite an interesting experience, but it's not something anyone sane will want to sit over a glass of.

And so to the airport. Usual drill: up to the Skylark where there was plenty of interest on tap but only time for one. I chose Mr G's, brewed at Everard's by Ian Ramsey of Auckland brewery Galbraith's. It's a simple and tasty brown ale with substantial malt heft for something of only 3.7% ABV and a rich chocolate heart. Then on the far side of security I stuck my nose in to The Tin Goose, delighted to see they've improved the draught beer selection quite a bit, though not enough to make me choose anything other than my usual: a deliciously crisp pint of Adnam's Bitter, followed by a sprint for the gate.

And that's me done with England for, oh, about four weeks until I'm back for Christmas in Hertfordshire. It was great catching up with so many of the UK beer folk, and especially great to meet some new ones. It looks to me like the Guild is fulfilling its social remit perfectly -- special thanks to the organisers and sponsors for putting it all together.

25 November 2010

Vibrant hybrid weizen

More off-kilter wheat beer today. Herr Unertl of the eponymous brewery in eastern Bavaria visited Ireland a few weeks ago and scattered bottles of Unertl Ursud wherever he went. This one was left in The Bull & Castle and given to me by Geoff the manager.

It's a strong dunkelweiss at 5.8% ABV and really quite interesting. It shows lots of the fruity yeast character you'd expect from a weiss, plus an added layer of caramel from the dark malts. So far so normal, but there's more. The carbonation is higher than a typicial weiss, adding a carbonic bite to the flavour. There's also a dry roasted crispness much more typical of a schwarzbier, plus a light body to match -- surprising for a weissbier of this strength.

I wouldn't say the two flavour profiles harmonise exactly, but they don't conflict either. Think of it as two beers for the price of one.

23 November 2010

Second runnings

It wasn't all mild, porter and stout in Belfast on Saturday. With 22 different drinks tasted, a bit of variety was needed, and this included one of the rare deviations from beer to be found on this blog. I had never tasted proper perry. Since Hereford Country Perry, at a modest 4.5% ABV, was on I thought I'd take the opportunity. It wasn't worth it. This totally flat pale green drink was incredibly sweet without offering any real pear flavour. Mostly it tasted like some Blue Nun with extra table sugar. Not offensive, but somewhere on the road between boring and unpleasant.

I was on much more familar territory with the dark amber beers. Bushy's Old Bushy Tail was a good 'un: full of caramel and chocolate, though not as caramelly as Old Mill Winter Warmer which added herbal honey notes and a touch of phenols into the mix. I wouldn't say this 4.7%-er is especially warming, but it is tasty and that's the main thing. I'm not sure what to make of Bowland's Hunter's Moon: russet-red but extremely thin with a fair whack of sulphorous minerals in it. Perhaps it works best as a crisp and refreshing session ale but it didn't hit many of my buttons. And neither did Mole Brewery's Rucking Mole. Again, it had some nice dry notes, and even a hint of smoke, but not enough of either to keep me entertained. You can have your dark-amber ales either heavy-and-busy or light-and-boring, it seems.

Time to lighten the mood, then. As always, Irish beers I've not had before are high on my list of priorities, so Whitewater's All That Jazz was an early sup. It's a pale shade of gold and very sweet with lots of that bubblegum flavour you get with certain UK blonde ales. Despite, or perhaps because, it reminded me of blue raspberry flavoured Slush Puppies I rather enjoyed it. Kelham Island's Pride of Sheffield was another interesting blonde, harmonising the pale malt sweetness with some lovely grassy Budvar-esque hops.

Mrs Beer Nut didn't appreciate it when I said her (unasked-for) Humpty Dumpty Lemon & Ginger smelled of ginger and piss, but there's no denying that it did. Quite enjoyable to drink, though: light and refreshing as ginger beer should be. Wood's Bonfire Brew is a much more serious affair: 5.4% ABV and a dark shade of old gold. There are major bitter overtones on top of that malty weight, finishing on some zingy fresh hop notes. A very satisfying strong pale beer for cold evenings.

Strikes Back by (who else?) Empire has been on at the Belfast festival in the past but this was my first go of it. It's an uninspiring shade of yellow with a worryingly farty aroma. The flavours are subtle with sharp mineral notes in the ascendant. Drinkable, yes; but only just.

Which brings me to my favourite of the pale ones: Strathaven's Clydesdale IPA. Leaving aside the unfortunate equine associations with a certain American lager brand, and moving swiftly past the worryingly soapy nose, this is a marvellously refreshing hops-forward beer, served in wonderful condition with the bubbles forcing out lots of candy and bitter lemon flavours. One of those beers that clearly shows how IPA at 3.8% ABV is not only a legitimate style, but one well worth pursuing by the brewer.

And that's where we left things at the Ulster Hall. With an hour or so before the train home, there was a welcome opportunity for a palate cleansing pint of Whitewater Copperhead in the glorious surrounds of The Crown, and a swiftly shared bottle of Belfast Black in Bittle's near the station.

A grand day out, all-in-all. Great having you back on the calendar, Belfast. And a hearty well done to the stalwart volunteers of CAMRA NI.

22 November 2010

Back where she belongs

Praise be! After two years of being dwarfed in the enormous shed that is the King's Hall and one year with no devotion whatsoever, Ninkasi returned to the Ulster Hall last week, sternly overseeing CAMRA NI's beer festival. There was much on the list of interest: Clanconnel's new McGrath's Irish Black which walked off with the festival's top prize; a barrel-aged Clotworthy Dobbin; reigning Champion Beer of Britain Castle Rock Harvest Pale; and Blue Monkey's BG Sips. But by the time the missus and I rolled up at noon on Saturday all of these were gone. I'm sure I'll catch up with them another time.

What remained was a clear field of several dozen new beers, with the fallback option of a few old favourites. Time to get started.

Dark beers dominated my selections, and I began with another new Irish one: Scullion's Plain Stout from Hilden. It's dark brown in colour with the most fantastic sweet chocolate aroma, following with a surprisingly clean and dry roasted flavour, finishing on some sour damson notes. A lovely balancing act. Mrs Beer Nut, meanwhile, opted for Highland's Dark Munro. She wasn't keen but I enjoyed it: shading towards ruby, it smells of chocolate-coated strawberries, the forward-facing hops adding a surprising fruity flavour to the dark malts as well as a long finish.

Keeping it celtic, Isle of Skye's Black Cuillan was wonderful: full and sweet and salty; and while I'm often suspicious of fake-Irish beers, Jarrow's McConnell's Irish Stout was right on the money, lip-smackingly crisp with overtones of chilli and chocolate.

On the other side of Newcastle from Jarrow is the Wylam Brewery at Heddon on the Wall. Haugh Porter was their offering in Belfast, and this is one that Mrs Beer Nut preferred more than I did, to the point where my scribbled note about it being quite sour was taken off me and a paen about coffee and peat flavours was written in alongside. Your mileage may vary.

And of course there are going to be a few disasters among the beers. Booby prize of the day goes to Frog Island's Croak and Stagger. I could have forgiven it the clunking name if it didn't tasted like a mix of Dairy Milk and vinegar, but it did. Less bad was Hung, Drawn 'n' Portered by North Cotswold: there was nothing technically wrong with it, but the heady boozy dark malt nose promised more than it delivered, the beer itself having little complexity beyond a tarry heaviness. Beijing Black did something similar: dark fruits and woody phenols in the aroma, then nasty metallic flavours afterwards. Not enjoyable.

I was glad to see Bateman's well represented, and to have the opportunity of enjoying their Dark Mild. It's a slightly sharp and fruity version of the style, with a tang of plums and blackberries ascendant over the dark chocolate, but maintaining equilibrium beautifully. The same brewery's Salem Porter was my highlight of the day: massively sticky and sweet with bags of creamy toffee and burnt coffee. It could have done with a bit more condition to liven it up, but as a gut-coating winter warmer it was perfect.

Finally for the black fellas, I was also much enamoured of Three Castles Knights Porter. A toned-down affair compared to Bateman's Salem; simple and dry with an intriguing waft of sulphur in amongst the roastiness. It's incredibly smooth though, adding a kiss of citric hops on the finish. I could have stuck with it all evening, but there was more beer of different colours to try. I'll get to them tomorrow.

18 November 2010

From high in the Belgian mountains

I'm so far behind on my American beer ticking it's just not funny. Not that there's anything funny about ticking, you understand: like serial killers we do it because we have to. It's a while since I've seen anything from Denver's Great Divide, but they're back on Irish shelves now with their Belgian style pale ale Belgica.

It's a style I have a lot of time for. You get the weight of a strong and sweet Belgian ale, a softness and gentle spice from the yeast and then some serious fun with the citric high-alpha hops. There are loads of examples from both Belgium and the US and they all emphasise different parts of the formula, so finding a new one is always interesting.

Alas, Belgica doesn't deliver where it counts. It's incredibly sweet, with a sticky, sickly aroma and a bitter sugary flavour. The C-hops have made it taste like orange barley sugar sweets. Cheap artificial ones. There's no proper malt backbone behind all this sweetness and fruit: a catastrophic oversight in a 7.2% ABV beer.

I should point out in its defence that the missus and I were tasting this alongside Flying Dog's Raging Bitch. I hoped it would be a fair comparison but it's really not. Raging Bitch remains the Belgianised American pale ale to beat.

15 November 2010

Bohemians on the southside

The already-busy Porterhouse festival calendar has a new date on it: last Thursday saw the opening of a ten-day celebration of Czech beer to mark 21 years since the Velvet Revolution.

When my shiny new camera and I went along for a shufti, the bottles hadn't arrived yet and it turned out we're not getting one of the highlights (Budvar yeast beer) at all in Ireland (booo!). Some interesting alternatives on draught, though: Bernard Dark, Budvar Dark and some strong pale fellas from Žatecký Pivovar.

Baronka looks quite innocent: a rich shade of gold, maybe a little bit darker than you might expect a typical pale lager to be. The aroma is the first sign that we're beyond plain pils territory, heady bananas and zingy peaches were my first impressions. It's mouth-coatingly full-bodied -- sitting cosily in the stomach and radiating a gentle alcoholic warmth, though it is only 5.3% ABV. The flavour starts by mixing these warm and fruity elements but the hops don't lag behind and there's an early smack of tangy, grassy Saaz. The finish is all hop too. A beautiful, balanced, complex winter lager this.

Two taps over they'd stuck up an innocent looking Žatec badge and biro'd in the word "Strong" beneath. In Czech terms Žatec Strong is an 18º lager -- 7.3% ABV to you and me. I only had a sample but could see it's a beautiful dark honey colour, and virtually headless. While it tastes all of its strength and more, it's not overpowering. There's no trampy cloying sweetness about it: I'd say this is all malt and lots of it. Maybe not exactly brimming with character but very smooth and a lovely sipping lager.

The plan is to get back in for a go of the bottles before the festival ends on Sunday.

11 November 2010

Aladdin Sainsbury's

I took a trip north on the bank holiday Monday a few weeks back. The euro was riding high against sterling so I had very few qualms about going to the beer section in Sainsbury's and putting some strain on a trolley axle. They have quite a few own-brand ales and I think I came away with one of most of them.

First up, Basics Bitter, a whole 2.1% of alcoholic goodness goes into this red-amber affair. It's very fizzy but, on first impressions, is convincingly beer-like. Give it a few seconds, however, and the facade starts to crumble. That caramel sweetness is probably not malt-derived but is more likely down to the addition of actual caramel (there's no ingredients listing, so no way to find out). Most of the rest is wateriness, but dig deep and you may just find a whisper of an echo of a trace of hops bitterness.

Honestly I don't know what the point of this beer is. Something for non-drinkers to torture guests with? It's too thin even to cook with.

Onwards and upwards to the "Taste the Difference" range. Shepherd Neame's porter wasn't an option, but I did take a punt on the Kentish Ale. In the comments of a previous Shep rant, arn pointed out that this is probably a rebadge of Early Bird, a beer I didn't have a great time with a while back. I couldn't say for sure if this is exactly the same, but it certainly has the fizz-to-skunk ratio right. Lots of pungent green crunchy vegetables, a massive carbonic dryness and plenty of burps. All that said, it tastes like nectar next to the Basics Bitter: the joy of actual real hops and (somewhere) proper malt. Not that I'll be buying it again or anything stupid like that.

For real hop action I turned hopefully to the Taste the Difference India Pale Ale. Brewed by Marston's, of whom I'm not a big fan, but at 5.9% ABV it should at least have been interesting. But it wasn't, really. The hops are only just detectable and have to share the stage with Marston's distinctive sulphurous Burton flavour. And even these meagre talents get buried under the boozy malt weight. It's a lot of work to drink and the rewards for doing so aren't up to much.

People round these parts tend to regard Sainsbury's as a cut above in the beer stakes. And yes, in the trolley with this lot there was also a significant quantity of Clotworthy Dobbin and Old Peculier: stalwart favs of mine. But then when I read what Tesco UK are up to with their own-brand beers I think that beer shopping up north is perhaps best done at more than one venue. Or, y'know, a proper off licence.

08 November 2010

Brett and Buddha

We've already had one new pale ale from Franciscan Well this year -- the rather wonky Golden Otter, a beer with more than a hint of wild yeast in it, plus oodles of possibly my least-favourite hop, the sickly Styrian Goldings. Well, they're at it again and the new one is called Smiling Buddha. I went to The Bull & Castle to give it a go.

It arrived a slightly hazy dark orange colour, giving off a mild aroma of spicy hops. The first taste gave me a big hit of yeasty flavour -- maybe not the farmyard of Brett, but definitely in the Marmite zone. The malt layer is slightly musty, reminding me of certain full-on German pilsners, and from behind this peeks some fresh English hops, tasting of jaffa oranges and cedarwood.

It's streets ahead of Golden Otter in my book, but I can't help being distracted that yeastiness. Yet the beer isn't actually all that hazy, so I don't know if something like more time in the bright tanks or a stronger hand on the filter would turn it into the clean-tasting bitter I'd like it to be. It's all very confusing. But the Buddha just keeps on smiling.

05 November 2010

Wheat beat manifesto

Session logoIt's wheat beers on The Session this month, a genre I find it hard to get excited about. Sure, I like the odd Schneider-Weisse or Aventinus, and I'm perfectly content holding a Hoegaarden, but generally speaking I don't go out of my way for wheat beer. It's more of a fallback thing.

In an effort to rekindle my interest, I decided to open something a bit special for this post: Hvedegoop, the "wheat wine" brewed as a collaboration between Three Floyds and Mikkeller. Something about the -goop suffix had me expecting dark beer, maybe along the lines of Haandbryggeriet's Dark Force wheat stout. Instead it's quite a pale cherrywood colour, with a short-lived skim of ivory foam on the surface.

The brewers' renowned love of C-hops is immediately apparent from the aroma on pouring: sticky nectarine fruitiness made extra potent by sweet caramel-candy notes from the malt backbone. That this is a strong sipper (10.4% ABV) is never in doubt.

One expects a certain soft mouthfeel from wheat beers but there's none of that here. Instead the gentle fizz and powerful-yet-subtle booze heat gives it a definite wine vibe, much more like an American barley wine. And that continues into the taste: big big hops, but balanced by lots of sticky malt -- I really can't find anything to indicate we're dealing with wheat malt here rather than plain old barley, and I doubt that any of the yeast strains most commonly used for wheat beers have been employed.

More than anything, it reminds me a lot of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, which brings me on to Mrs Beer Nut's observation. She liked it a lot, but reckons it needs another year or two of maturation to mellow and soften, just like Bigfoot does. Me, I liked the in-your-face double IPA kick and didn't find it remotely harsh or difficult, however I can't help but agree it would be really interesting to find out what happens to it after a couple of years.

As a strong-and-hoppy late-night sipper-to-share I rate Hvedegoop very highly. Whether there was any point in making it with wheat rather than all barley, however, I really couldn't say. But if anyone's using this Session to argue that wheat beers are intrinsically dull or samey, here's the killer argument against.

03 November 2010

From the weedpatch

It's a couple of years since Hall & Woodhouse's collaboration with River Cottage was the talk of the beerweb. Actually, you don't hear much from the Badger brand at all these days. I'd sort of forgotten about them until I spotted two of the River Cottage / Badger beers on the shelf of an off licence recently. I hadn't even realised there was a new one.

The original is Stinger, made with nettles for a "tongue tingling" sensation. Well maybe it takes a bit more to get my jaded old tongue tingling these days, but this wasn't doing it. The first thing I noticed was that despite the greener-than-thou organic badging and copious information on the hop:malt:fruit ratios on the label, there was no actual listing of ingredients. And when breweries throw odd things into their beers they usually follow it with a hefty bag or two of sugar, just to be sure. I think that's what's happened here: you get a heavy, thick, syrupy golden ale without much by way of aroma. There's a spice to it as well, buried quite deep, but I challenge anyone to drink it and tell me it tastes of nettles. Mind you, this is apparently what proper nettle beer tastes like, and this is a measure of its quality so maybe the bags of sugar were a good idea.

I expected more of the same from the dandelion one, called Dandelion ("Stinger" having exhausted the branding guys' imaginations). This time the sugar does add a bit of character -- it may even be brown sugar -- but beyond it there's absolutely nothing: another sweet syrupy ale with maybe a tiny herbal complexity at the back, but nothing that would make you think of dandelions.

I shouldn't really have consumed them back to back. I started to get a bit angry. I mean: how hard is it to do this sort of thing properly? Williams Brothers, for instance, turn out some fantastic beers with heather and spruce and seaweed. I've made one gruit ale once, flavoured mostly with yarrow and sage, and it was pretty damn drinkable. Marketable, even. So why is it that so many brewers, English ones in particular, think that when you break from the malt/hops norm you have to turn the whole thing into an alcopop? These ones may have organic credentials and a chef off the telly but they're really nothing more than Crabbie's in disguise, and a short skip through the meadow from blue WKD.

Stuff like this gives unusal ingredients in beer a dreadful reputation (though, granted, Dave in the links above isn't helping either). What's wrong with a bit more diversity?