28 January 2010

The Chicago way

Apologies for getting back on my boring old hobby horse about American wheat beers, but Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat Ale happened to be at the front of my fridge and needed drinking. Another one of those boringly thin and vapid witless witbiers? Well, no, actually. But nearly. At the base of 312 there's certainly a watery and dull bright yellow ale, lightly carbonated and easy to quaff, which is where a lot of brewers would stop. But the Goose Island magic wand has been waved over the fermentor, adding a layer of their trademark hop complexity, here coming out as a lemon sherbet sort of flavour. The aroma and foretaste are wonderfully fresh and zesty, but the finish is too sudden and tails off into nothing all too quickly. Yes, it's doubtless supposed to be a summer quaffer -- a high-class lawnmower beer -- and I feel a bit bad about criticising it for not being bolder than intended. But still: a more interesting yeast and/or some spices and this could be so much better.

Those beautiful sherbety hop flavours are put to much better use in Goose Island Harvest Ale. Here, the arresting zing of mangoes and melons are sat sparkling atop a rich deep layer of roasted malt complexity, spicing up the smooth nutty caramel notes and leaving a finish of sweet almonds. Criticism for the sake of it: the whole taste sensation stops a bit abruptly and it would be nicer if there were more of a mouth-coating weight to the beer. At 5.9% ABV it's not exactly a session beer and I don't think it's wrong to expect a little more bang for my units. Yet, one more mouthful and any misgivings are vanquished.

, it would seem, is the Chicago way.

25 January 2010


It was a miserable wet afternoon in Düsseldorf and for some bizarre reason we went for a long walk along the grey banks of the Rhine, towards the big TV tower. We decided we'd had enough when we reached the wobbly Frank Gehry buildings and discovered that one of them had a bar. Meerbar is a blingtastic lounge-restaurant, big on chandeliers, soft furnishings and beautiful people smoking languidly.

About the only minimalist feature was the beer list, and I spied a beer I'd not tasted in a very long time: Maisel's Weisse. I couldn't believe how intensely sweet it is -- no cloves or yeast or spices or warmth, just a big soft candy floss texture. You want to know what it's like to drink a pint of Sugar Puffs? Grab a Maisel's. After one of these, I was ready to brave the rain again, and try to walk off some of the calories.

At the opposite end of the salubriousness scale there's Bier Museum, a dark poky, scuzzy pub in Cologne which feels like it should be a den of denim-clad bemulleted German rockers, rather than the beer specialist it is. However it's possibly the oddest specialty beer bar I've ever been in. For a start, the twenty-odd taps have no badges on them, and the battered beer list doesn't tell you what several of them are. I'm guessing that the "rauchbier" is Schlenkerla, but which one I don't know and I wasn't going to ask the surly grunting landlord. And in a peculiar fit of city pride, a sign on the bar indicates a choice of 17 different kölsches. That's a lot of yellow fizz.

Our first visit was on a Saturday night when the place was buzzing and we got chatting to a young American soldier who was up from Bonn and finding life in Germany hard, with no access to Sierra Nevada. Aren't the army supposed to supply these basic essentials? We went back a few days later at opening time on a Monday afternoon and had the place to ourselves. I was reacquainted with some lovely Hövels, and then progressed to a warming mug of Kulmbacher Doppelbock. I loved this beer: full and sweet and smoky; pipe tobacco meets smooth milk chocolate. There's no cloying heaviness to it, and the light carbonation makes it immensely satisfying to sit and draw upon. I would definitely look for it again if it wasn't for one thing: as far as I can tell there's no such beer as "Kulmbacher Doppelbock". Either it's something else from the same brewery (which also owns the Mönchshof and Eku marques), or it's a substitute doppelbock from somewhere else entirely.

I highly recommend Bier Museum, but they really know how to wind up the tickers.

21 January 2010

Full of sound and fury

One of the many binomial beers from first-rate Dutch micro De Molen, I knew absolutely nothing about Donder & Bliksem before I opened it. The name, however, had me expecting a high dose of drama. What I got was an orange coloured pale ale which smelled of little and tasted of even less. That can't be right, I thought.

So I left it a while to warm up to see if anything interesting was going to happen. The flavour which developed was very much that of an English pale ale, with those earthy orange-pith flavoured hops. Bottle conditioning has left a mild aroma which smells primarily of yeast. Light-bodied and very drinkable, it'd be a great quaffer if it wasn't so strong, at 5.9% ABV. A solid pale ale and hard to fault; it's just that the presence of thunder god Thor on the label is pure false advertising.

18 January 2010

In which I run out of adjectives

The bottle of Irresistable Premium Ale from Chichester's Natural Brewing Company came from a random shelf-sweep in Sainsbury's. There was very little of interest and I took this just because I'd no idea what it was. With the rather drab labelling I wasn't expecting much from it

Following a sniff and a sip I was struck by a descriptor which suits it perfectly but is probably damn all use to the rest of you: this beer is beery. I think my concept of beeriness goes back to very youthful experiences of things like Bass and Smithwick's, most probably from cans. Like cigarette smoke, it's a very grown-up taste and smell, and is obviously lodged somewhere deep in my consciousness. I'll try and unpack it using my own grown-up beer vocabulary.

Beeriness is very close to skunkiness -- it's a pungent hops thing, though hops of the earthy, funky, and rather dry variety, rather than the zingy fruitsome sort. But there's also a light caramel malt thing going on too, a sweetness that I'm putting down to crystal malt -- the driving force in much late-20th-century Irish ale. And then there's a mild mineral undercurrent as well, perhaps related to the famous sulphurous Burton vibe, but a lot less pronounced. Put these together and you have something that tastes and smells like beer. It's quite rare, in beer.

Dark gold Irresistable adds honey-ish herbal notes to this -- that sort of dry waxy honey flavour with an overlay of tannins which you get in bitter like Timothy Taylor's (and in a much bigger way in Landlord). It's softly carbonated and has a satisfyingly chunky body, with 4.3% ABV. All together this makes it a marvellously drinkable beer -- understated yet complex; light but filling. A real pleasant surprise.

On an unrelated note, as Barry mentioned on Saturday, we've just taken the first step in setting up a beer drinkers' union for Ireland. You can read more about Beoir and its first baby steps here. And if you have a serious interest in helping ramp up Ireland's craft beer revolution, then give us a tenner and jump on board.

14 January 2010

Snob factor 9

There's nothing we stuck-up euro beer geeks like more than cracking open a couple of lovely Sierra Nevada Torpedos and guffawing over how those clueless Americans keep getting our local styles wrong, the fools. Wheat beers tend to be Exhibit A: very few US craft breweries seem to have got the hang of the spicy Belgian variety or the full and fruitsome Bavarian iteration. And then there's tripel. I did rather enjoy the Alesmith-Mikkeller-Stone joint effort recently, but as a juicily-hopped American beer rather than a warmly piquant Belgian-style one.

Which brings me to Victory's Golden Monkey, a straight-up attempt at a tripel by the Pennsylvania brewer. This is a remarkably light and thin affair. It has that slow-building tripel warmth -- at 9.5% ABV it would want to -- but it just doesn't build high enough, dropping away into wateriness after the first few seconds. The spices are in place, but again not to enough of a degree. In fact, what with the coriander and orange peel vibe, and the lightness of touch, this could nearly pass for a very good Belgian witbier, except without the quaffability. It's a good beer, and enjoyable drinking, but I can't help feeling it needs to raise its game a bit more if it's to stand beside real Belgian tripels. That or, like the Alesmith-Mikkeller-Stone one, be its own unique thing and sod the damn Belgians.

Moving on, I'm finding it harder to be snooty about Victory's Storm King imperial stout (though obviously I'll give it my best shot) because, while I've enjoyed many in this style from American brewers, and from European craft breweries who work in the American vernacular, I've very little reference to what what an "proper" old-fashioned British imperial stout should taste like. The 16-year-old Courage Imperial Stout I had a couple of years back (thanks Ron!) wouldn't exactly be typical, though the well-balanced Czar's Imperial from White Shield brewery, sampled at last year's Great British Beer Festival, would perhaps be closer to the mark. A mark that Storm King misses completely. Now, never let it be said that I have something against big west-coast hops in black beer: I don't, and I'll offer both Yeti and Gonzo as examples of how it can be done well, even in strong dark beers. But Victory have over-egged this one badly, in my opinion. I mean, the beer smells lovely, with succulent peaches overlaying sweet dark malt: not what one might expect from an imperial stout, but good beer is good beer and labels aren't important. Hope dies with the first sip. It's horribly, sharply, bitter, and this is accentuated by very high carbonation. No quarter is given to smoothness or warmth. The roasted flavours come in second, jarringly dry and rather acrid, and the finish is given back to the hops, being harshly metallic. It's certainly an interesting beer: there's lots and lots to keep your darling little tastebuds occupied, but more in a House of Horrors sort of way than a pleasant nature walk.

So, it's not that Storm King isn't a "proper" imperial stout: I wouldn't enjoy it regardless of the designation. And I do rather like Golden Monkey for all its untripelness, I just wouldn't swap it for the "real" thing (reminding me that I have a blind tasting of tripels to do here some time soon). I guess you just have to be happy there are people out there willing to take the risk, throw tradition to the wind and mess about with so-called perceived wisdom. The world of beer is better for them.

Snobby and patronising: I'm on a roll today.

11 January 2010

First Islay drink, then Jul read

My trip to Germany left me feeling decidedly sated as regards beer and food, as trips to Germany are wont to do, so I took a few days off beer to try and regain both my appetite and a view of my feet. However, by the weekend I was ready for another drink and needing something suitably special to break my fast. Step forward Nøgne Ø's God Jul Islay Edition, a December gift from that big jolly man who lives up by the North Pole.

I've complained before about heavy-handed carbonation in Nøgne Ø beers, so I poured carefully. Yet the viscous dark brown beer showed no inclination to develop a head until I lifted the bottle high. The end result was a satisfying thick layer of foam which had melted away to a thin skim by the time it reached drinking temperature. And you have to allow it reach drinking temperature: somewhere around ambient. I discovered from drinking an excellent oak-aged barley wine of Barry's that if barrel-aged beers are served too cold, all you get it is the astringent wood. The actual beer needs a bit of warmth to come out from under that. And so it is here, the first pull was all medicine cabinet and little else, but given a little time indoors the complexities emerge.

Yes, that iodine-disinfectant flavour is still there at the front, with the peat you'd expect and also a salty seaweed tone. They really got their money's worth from that whisky cask. The beer under it adds a subtle undertone of clove and cinnamon spices, plus a mellow warmth from the smooth texture and 8.5% ABV. The light aftertaste is a fading dry woodiness and just the ghost of the peaty scotch.

As the label says, it's not a beer that even pretends to be balanced, but as a relatively light winter sipper it's lovely. If you're interested in the non-whiskified version, see Boak & Bailey's recent post thereon.

08 January 2010

Take me up to Pinkus

Last Saturday I took a morning train out of Cologne northwards to the medieval university town of Münster which, for the last two years has been home to my former neighbour and fellow blogger Barry.

Yeah, Münster has, like, history and stuff, and Barry showed us some churches and a town hall famous for its signed peas or something, but then it was time for the main dish: Pinkus Müller. The last brewery making Münster's distinctive style of blonde altbier -- and indeed the last brewery in the city -- Pinkus Müller is conveniently situated near the centre of town on a large street-corner plot. The room we settled in was a very cosy and poky one, with wooden beams, delft tiles in the fireplace, lots of kitcheny nick-nacks and the watchful eye of our matronly hostess.

I started with the Jubilate, a light-bodied and only slightly sweet winter beer which manages to balance warmth and drinkability rather well. I followed this with the enigmatic Classic made, apparently, from "historical barley" -- what that means is anyone's guess. The beer is a very light and thin cloudy affair with a bit of orange flavour to it, but otherwise not terribly interesting. Last of the new ones was Müller's Lagerbier, which manages to break all the rules of what one might expect from such a label. It's cloudy, for one thing with a candy-apple nose and lots of fruity flavours, finishing with just a touch of honey. Very unusual and rather tasty. Naturally, I couldn't leave without a token Pinkus Original Münstersch Alt -- full of sour bitter spiky complexity yet super-quaffable. My full review is here, and I think half-litres are definitely the way to go with this, rather than messing about with 25cl glasses as we were.

Next stop was a couple of doors up to a fun little pub called Das Blaue Haus where there was Berliner Kindl Weisse on the menu. Having loved the green one, I went red this time. Berliner Kindl Weisse Rot is nowhere near as good: there's no space for the sourness to shine through and it just ends up tasting of raspberry syrup and nothing else. Lesson learned.

Dinner was out in the harbour area. Münster has taken an odd approach to its docklands redevelopment scheme, lining one side of the Dortmund-Ems canal with swish apartments and fancy bars, while presenting them with a view of unreconstructed industrialism on the other side, where a power station belches smoke and barges ply their trade. Strange. Anyway, we ate in Wolters where the food was good and hearty, and the beer was draught Duckstein. Plain old standard Duckstein is a lot more interesting than I'd expected, a dark beer with a delicate complex flavour including floral perfume, burnt caramel and a sweet rum-soaked raisin warmth.

And if that wasn't surprising enough, there's also a Duckstein Weizen: also on the browner end of the spectrum and with that caramel and rasins thing going on too. The banana flavours are relatively muted, and the finish is just a little too sudden. But it's definitely different and worth a go if you see it. To Barry's knowledge it's only sold at Wolter's.

Having found Münster's jolly English theme pub The James closed (sure who wants a drink on a Saturday night?) there was just time for a swift Frankenheim Alt before the train back south to Cologne. Thanks for a fun day out, Bar.

07 January 2010

Kölsche Club

And so up the Rhine to Cologne. (Well, by train. I wish I'd thought of getting the boat. That would have been cool.) Früh and Gaffel are everywhere, of course, and I did my best to avoid them. I didn't see Gaffel served from the cask anywhere (even its main city outlet was keg only), though Früh was on gravity at their giant brewery tap and I found it quite simple unfussy unfizzy fare. Aside from dull Gaffel, other keg kölsch included Dom, which has a light crispness and pleasant hop bite; and Ganser -- dry and fruity like a sauvignon blanc.

Of course, gravity serving is no measure of quality and I wasn't at all impressed by Sion Kölsch. It's slightly musty and a bit sickly sweet. Cheap-tasting, I thought. The Sion beerhall is worth visiting for the cheap and plentiful food, but the beer really wasn't up to much. Peters Kölsch is also quite plain, though on the drier side of things. Pfaffen Kölsch is another sweet one, with an almost toffee characteristic that doesn't fit kölsch at all well. Pfaffen -- founded by a disaffected branch of the family which runs the more established Päffgen brewery -- also serves a bottled Hefeweizen at its Altstadt tap. It's much better than the kölsch, nicely balanced between the dryness characteristic of north German weizen and the fun banana fruitiness. Not too heavy and not in the least bit watery.

Cologne has five brewpubs, though with New Year opening hours and whatnot I missed going to Braustelle, and Heller slipped my mind (this is what the inhumanity of a wi-fi-less hotel does). The above-mentioned Päffgen runs its one just out from the town centre, a few minutes' walk from the old Gestapo headquarters, now a grim memorial to the city's Nazi past. By the time I got here I had already encountered Päffgen Kölsch at the Altstadt outlet Bierhaus en d'r Salzgass, where it took twenty minutes for a waiter to even look at us. Why would I darken another of their doors? 'Cos the beer is gorgeous. It's not especially dry but has a vibrant fresh hoppiness to it which, combined with the light cask fizz, makes it eminently sinkable. What crispness there is serves to make it mouth-watering and moreish. Thankfully the service was much better at the brewery and five of these beauties weren't long in disappearing.

Back in the town centre, the imposing edifice of Malzmühle has a brewery tucked away somewhere out of sight. In the relatively small beerhall I sank a couple of Mühlen Kölsch. It's a very interesting take on the style, being a darker gold than usual and having a sort of herbal vibe going on, plus soft melon and peach flavours. Far more complex than any kölsch has a right to be and I loved it.

That brings us finally to Freischem's, the newly re-opened brewpub recently lauded by Boak & Bailey. Something about it struck me as being the only place I'd visited on the trip that feels like a normal, rest-of-the-world, brewpub. Yes, it's cavernous and the tables are topped with bare pine, in accordance with the unwritten laws of this part of the world, but the brewing kit is on prominent display in a window at the front and *gasp* there's a selection of beers!