30 April 2010

Dividing the geeks from the norms

It's not just its mountainous heritage that makes Blue Moon a watershed beer: it marks the separation point between people who like to drink beer and people who live to drink beer. In my experience, the norms universally love it while there are few beers that inspire such invective from the geeks. I'd never had it before so bought a bottle to give it an honest assessment. And I found that really difficult. On the plus side it's gently spicy, lightly carbonated and very easy drinking for a 5.4% ABV wheat beer. On the negatives, it's very watery and has an off-putting syrupy-sweet orange concentrate tang to it. I'd be tempted to let it past as a no-nonsense barbecue quaffer but I don't think I can forgive the combination of thinness and busy flavours.

What really honks the geeks off, however, is the presentation. Blue Moon was one of, if not the, first industrial macrobrews to try and leech some credibility from the craft beer movement by passing itself off as part of it. And it's still leeching. "North American Craft Beer" it says on the front (where it used to say "Belgian White" until the breweries of actual Belgium took them to court), but it's not craft at all: it's factory-brewed by Coors and is another part of their muscle-flexing in Ireland. The worst bit for me is the claim, straight from a cynical marketeer's focus group playbook, that it's "just a bunch of friends having fun making great beer". Grim.

Anyway, that's Blue Moon: take it or leave it. How about something else light and summery from Stateside with a bit more cred?

Brooklyn Summer Ale is a bright and clear amber ale, lighter than Blue Moon at 5% ABV but much fuller of body. There's a soft-water mineral quality to it, almost bordering on soapy, and there's a subtle mandarin-sherbet fruitiness at the back. It's tasty, sinkable and satisfying without being bland or any way cerebral. It's great to see an American summer ale that isn't a knock-off of kölsch or wheat beer.

Worth keeping in stock for any glimpses of the sun.

28 April 2010

Black Irish

Today is my blog's fifth birthday and I'm celebrating with stout. Two kinds, in fact: The Porterhouse's new Celebration Stout (far right) hit the shelves last week. This is a scaled down revamp of the 2006 10th anniversary edition, a mere 7% ABV, in 33cl bottles. It still packs a punch, though: very bitter, mellowed only slightly by notes of coffee and very dark chocolate. More than anything it reminds me of Wrasslers XXXX in a way that the new bottled version of Wrasslers doesn't. So far so good, but how does it stack up against version 1?

It doesn't. While the new one is great by Irish standards, Celebration Stout from 2006 is world class. There's not really any bitterness left after three and a half years, instead it's exceptionally smooth and mellow with a boozy cherry liqueur complexity that, if I didn't know better, would have me swearing blind that it's barrel aged. Mrs Beer Nut said it reminds her of the milder sort of imperial stout produced by De Molen and I can see where she's coming from. A celebration indeed.

It's possible that the bitterness in the new bottles is because it's still a bit green, having only just come off the bottling line. My hazy memory from 2006 is that the original had this sort of aggressive hopping back in the day too. I'll be interested to see how it pans out: time to lay in the bottles.

And while I'm on the subject of new local beers, I picked up a four-pack of Guinness Black Lager in Belfast last Friday, where it's currently being test-marketed. On Saturday I was doing a bit of brewing, as is my wont, and needed something easy-going to to quench my thirst. Ice-cold, straight from the bottle is the recommended serving style so that's what I did. Then I waited for some flavour. Vainly. Trying to ignore the wateriness I found a hint of the mild sourness which passes for character in bottled Guinness Extra Stout, but nothing that makes black lagers worthwhile: no fresh roasted coffee or dry crispness. Any kind of decent yellow fizz would render this pointless.

Best of luck with it, Diageo. Here's hoping it's the thin end of a schwarzbier revolution leading to better things.

26 April 2010

Under Napoleon's Nose

It was the draw of the Wetherspoon Beer Festival that led me, against wise council (cheers Ed!), to set foot in The Bridge House on my few free hours in Belfast last Friday. It was not yet 4pm so of course the place was buzzing. I felt a bit out of place among the other customers, what with my ability to walk upright and use tools. Had I shown them that I understood the gift of fire I don't know what would have happened. Perhaps I would have been made god of their loud and sticky hell. Anyway, there was nothing from the top flight of the festival listings available, and I settled for 3 Bees Oatmeal Stout. It's a solid, workmanlike performance, very dry for the most part, with a pleasant chocolate complication and a tiny bitter hop bite, shading towards metallic, at the finish, There's a certain charm to it, and it's inoffensive. Quite the contrast to Belfast's JD Wetherspoon and its clientele, in fact. I moved on.

Top of my Belfast hitlist was The John Hewitt, across town. Reputed as one of the city's best beer venues it's run as a non-profit co-operative apparently. The beer selection was not as good as I was led to believe: beer of the week was Cruzcampo, unfortunately. Two cask offerings from Hilden and Belfast Black on keg were the sum total of craft beer. I settled for a pint of Köstritzer and one of Hilden Ale before hitting the streets again, a little disappointed.

Round the corner is well-reputed gastropub The Northern Whig: a cavernous venue which serves nothing at all worth drinking, while nearby is the Duke of York where, with the Hoegaarden tap removed, the selection has got worse since my last visit in 2005. This trip to the beer mecca of Belfast was not working out as well as I'd hoped. A shortcut through the generic-UK-shopping-centre Victoria Square brought us out at Bittles, a quite charming narrow pub where whiskey is the dominant theme. The bottled beer selection is quite decent, between local and Scottish micros, but I plumped for a pint of keg Samuel Smith's Old Brewery Bitter, just for the novelty. It's sweet and Tizery, probably pairing well with a dram or two of the decent. The beer lover, meanwhile, moved on again.

Just across the alley, in fact, to The Kitchen. This pub was demolished and rebuilt as part of the Victoria Square redevelopment. While there's no doubt that a lot of the original charm was carried off in skips years ago, it holds a reputation as a proper beer pub and I reckoned it was well worth investigating. I probably should have known when I met a woman at the door dressed head-to-foot as a Magners pear that my visit wouldn't end well. In fact, it ended some thirty seconds later when I observed that the clips on the two handpumps on the bar were turned around, and everything else on sale was muck. Another blow for my perception of the Belfast beer scene.

I don't remember why I'd earmarked The Garrick as worth stopping in, but I did. A decent selection of Hilden and Whitewater bottles languished at the bottom of the fridge, but I was in the mood for ticking and opted for a couple of Italian lagers. Theresianer Premium Lager is from Trieste and is brewed for a definite Austro-Hungarian feel. It has a soft yet dry character which is unchallenging but decent, as a helles should be. Theresianer Vienna is a lot like the Samuel Adams Boston Lager with which it shares a shelf in the Garrick's fridge: properly Malteser-malty, shading towards Ovaltine, with only a slight tail-end staleness spoiling the fun. For unfussy boozing outside on a warm Friday afternoon, one could do an awful lot worse.

By this stage it was coming close to the train time, yet I was desperate to find some Whitewater beer on cask. My list was exhausted, but there was one sure bet a few blocks away: I headed for The Crown. It's been a while since I last set foot in this Belfast institution: a lavish Victorian "Liquor Saloon", owned and maintained by the National Trust. Trade was brisk, though it wasn't full exactly, and best of all there were three handpumps for Whitewater beer, including my first encounter with Belfast Black on cask. It's not quite as good as Fuller's London Porter, but it's really not far off. It has that sour plums-and-damsons complexity next to the chocolate and liquorice. Perhaps it was just as well there was only time for one: having it in a busy bar full of Guinness drinkers started to induce money-changers-in-the-temple feelings in me. There could have been spillage.

And then it was back aboard the Enterprise and home to Dublin at warp factor 0.0000001. In a way I'm a little let down by what I found. Belfast isn't quite the quality drinking city I was expecting it to be. There are no pubs with extensive world-beers selections like I've seen in CAMRA-award-winners in Great Britain, and local cask ale seems relatively hard come by. The Crown is deserving of a visit all by itself, but beyond that: caveat crawlor.

22 April 2010

It's beginning to taste a lot like Christmas

Drinking a Christmas beer at the end of a warm sunny day is weird. I'm not at all a believer that any particular style of beer belongs at any particular time of the year but the rich plumminess of Hook Norton's Twelve Days really surprised me: this stuff tastes like winter.

It's only 5.5% ABV but could pass for a lot more. There's a warmth and a spice to it which, alongside the full smooth texture, is almost reminiscent of Belgian dubbel. The nose is chocolate and figs, with quite a bitter oranges-and-lemons foretaste, settling on the finish into sweet plums and buttery toffee. Just a minor imperfection appears at the very end, when a metallic note creeps in -- but it's not there on every mouthful and it's quite possible you won't spot it at all.

If you can get over the whole winter-beer-in-spring thing, I'd recommend this for immediate drinking, if you see it. Otherwise, it's only eight months until the festive season is upon us once more: write your cards and order your turkey while you wait.

19 April 2010

Coming out of the walls

The beer gods have been trying to force Goose Island's Bourbon County stout down me for a couple of months now. First it appeared in local off licences, then I got given a bottle from a returnee from the US (cheers again, Derek), and then James the proprietor of The Salt House forced some upon me when I was last in Galway. Obviously, a 13% ABV bourbon-barrel-aged stout from an excellent Chicago microbrewery wouldn't be my thing at all, but it's been hard to resist. It's only recently that I finally decided to sit down and get it out of my system. Or into my system. Whatever.

I followed James's recommendation and accompanied it with a cigar: a spicy Ecuadorian number imported by my globetrotting sister and really rather pleasant. But this isn't a cigar blog.

Above all, Bourbon County is sweet -- thick, molasses-like, with chocolate in spades and masses of blow-your-head spirit or liqueur notes. It wears its whisky ancestry very prominently: you don't get much by way of wood flavours, just lots and lots of Kentucky firewater. Of the smoothest sort imaginable, of course, adding a lovely touch of balance.

I wouldn't say the cigar is necessary to enjoy it, nor does it add much to the flavour, but it certainly doesn't interfere with it either: you could have this with a pickled skunk curry and still pick out the beer's flavour complexities. It demands your attention and it's more than welcome to mine a second time over.

15 April 2010

Czech Coors says hop

I happened across some Žatec lager in Redmond's the other week. It is, it seems, the genuine article: brewed in the brewery of the same name in the town of the same name with the hop of the same name (though known more commonly in English as Saaz). But unlike the usual imported pils, the label copy is all in English: if the good citizens of Žatec get to see any of it, it won't have this label on. The small print says it's imported by Coors UK, seemingly intended exclusively for the British market. Could be it's then independently imported to Ireland, or else it's part of the new and growing Coors operation here.
(pssst, Coors Ireland: any chance you could squeeze a case or two of White Shield onto the truck next to the Carling and Caffrey's? Just asking.)

The large print on the label, after spraffing on typically about pure this and finest that, claims the beer is brewed "with no additives or artificial carbonation". What?! Are they actually claiming that this clear golden pils is bottle conditioned? Or was somebody just pasting from the Big Book of Bland Beer Label Text that all the macros use. I dunno. It's odd either way.

I suppose I should say something about the beer, then. It's nice. Mostly dry and slightly bitter on the finish -- certainly not loaded with grassy Saaz as the name might imply. It's light and sessionable, though I'm glad it came out of my beer fridge at 10°C as any colder and the flavour would have vanished completely.

In short it's a decent drinking pils, one step above cooking lager, but not a huge one. You'd be better off with something cheap where the can has text in twelve languages.

12 April 2010

Spot the craft

It's been a while since I last did a blind beer tasting at home. It was only when I noticed I had three ginger beers in the stash that I reckoned one was on the cards. One of them was the seemingly ubiquitous Crabbie's, a beer I'd heard a lot about and none of it good ("it's basically an alcopop", was the gist). I also had the Ginger from the mighty Williams Brothers (yes, them again), and a total wildcard: the organic, fairtrade Little Valley Ginger Pale Ale from Yorkshire, one so loved-up it may as well be wearing sandals and have a wind turbine in the cap.

So how did they fare, and would it be possible to tell the craft beers from the supposedly unpleasant one?

The answer to the second question is overwhelmingly yes. Though all of them poured roughly the same fizzy pale gold, only one of them had zero aroma and a hideous sugariness, plus a metallic saccharine tang and a horrible oxidised staleness. I have never poured a beer down the sink in my life, but Crabbie's brought me close.

Another one I found very bitter, with a green, fresh veg, aroma. It was the most beery of the three, with the ginger almost an afterthought on the end -- with just a small sweet-spice kick of candied ginger as it tails off. Otherwise I found it a bit boring: thin and fizzy. This turned out to be Little Valley: another example of organic and fairtrade badging covering up for a basic lack of beer quality.

That left the Williams, which had a fantastic Canada Dry ginger ale smell and a lovely full body, despite being only 3.8% ABV. There are no hops in here, just added sugar, lemon juice and rind, and ginger. Lots of ginger. It burns in a most wonderful way, and the flavour lasts and lasts. It's far and away the best ginger beer I've had and would be a great summer refresher. Do not serve cold. Do not serve over ice. Do not mix in a cocktail or add fruit of any kind. Proper ginger, proper beer, proper craft.

08 April 2010

Being and nothing less

Hooray for multilingual pun beer! Raison D'Être is one of several from Dogfish Head knocking around in Ireland at the moment, though the only one of which I've not hitherto had the pleasure.

It's a bit of a stonker: 8% ABV, hepped up on beet sugar and green raisins (they're like raisins, apparently, only they're green). The label describes the colour as "mahogany", which is unfortunate as I can't think of a better word of my own. It's a dark ruby-brown shade, OK? A little bit of foam as it pours, but that subsides before long, leaving you with a gently sparkled heavy beer that tastes of... well, I'm not sure to be honest.

Complex. Let's go with complex for the moment. The nose starts straightforward enough: big and roasty like a strong sugary stout. The first sensation I got on tasting was root beer. Maybe not exactly that precise flavour, but that bitter medicinal quality, harking back to when what we now consider soft drinks were sold in pharmacies. Then I tried to pin down the different elements. Before giving up I got saccharine, cheap chocolate, acrid smoke, burnt caramel, and those nasty liqueurs that every eastern European country seems to have as a local speciality, but which are only ever given to tourists for the entertainment of waiting staff.

It's a busy beer, and I'm not sure I care for it. The fruity fun suggested by the raisins has got buried in the dark malts, the added sugars, and the terrifying single-mindedness with which the yeast pursued and devoured both of them.

Definitely a beer with a well-formed sense of presence. But I'd prefer if it took it some place else.

05 April 2010

New and improved

I've only been going to the Easter Beer Festival at The Franciscan Well in Cork for the last three years. But even in that small space of time it has improved noticeably. While in 2008 there was still a fair bit of space allocated to importers and wholesalers, it's now wall-to-wall breweries, with the only absentees being Whitewater (oddly) and the two which neither keg nor cask: Clanconnel and Galway's Bay Brewery.

Making their debuts as commercial breweries last Saturday were Dungarvan Brewing Company and Trouble. Dungarvan's emphasis is going to be on bottled product, though they also have a limited cask capacity and were serving two of their three beers from the handpump. Copper Coast is a fairly standard Irish red, ticking the biscuit and caramel boxes appropriately, though with an added dose of bittering hops and a slightly unfortunate touch of phenol at the end. I'm sure that'll be ironed out in later versions. Next to it was Helvick Gold -- about as far from plain, lager-substitute blonde ale as it's possible to get. At 4.9% ABV, Helvick is full-bodied and quite powerfully bitter with a waxy fresh honey flavour. Not a quaffer; more a thinking man's blonde. Black Rock stout did not make an appearance, and by early Saturday evening all the Dungarvan beer had sold out. They must be doing something right.

Next door to Dungarvan, the Trouble Brewing crew were resplendent in their lurid orange uniforms: observe the pride with which Stephen wears his (right). The first beer to emerge from the three-man operation is another blonde ale, called Ór.This is simpler fare than Helvick: lightly fruity with just a little hoppy complexity and a nice clean refreshing fizz from the keg. It'll be a good one for outside summer drinking, I'd say.

This year also marked the first appearance of Beoir Chorca Duibne at the Easter Festival. As well as Cúl Dorcha, which I sampled back here, they had a hand-written pumpclip marked "EasterFest Special". Oh dear, I thought, a batch of something went wrong and this is their attempt at off-loading it. I ordered a glass anyway and felt immediately guilty for being so cynical. It was a rock-solid chocolatey dark ale with an interesting sourness on the end -- something Séan tells me is from the incongruous German hops. Some very tasty rule-breaking there.

Barrelhead was back for a second year. The cuckoo brewery has moved out of White Gypsy's nest and its newest Pale Ale was brewed at Franciscan Well, I'm told. It was a lovely sherbety number, ripe with orangey zing and equally good on cask and keg. Unfortunately I've no idea where this will be available, but it's well worth looking out for.

As always, the UCC Pilot Brewery brought their Germanic stylings to the festival. I've not been massively impressed by these in the past, but things definitely improved this time round, with a golden fruity lager called Hansel and a delicious companion weissbier named Gretel. With White Gypsy Amber and Galway Hooker Pilsner also available, festival-goers were very well served for quality Irish lager.

At the White Gypsy stand, Cuilan was introducing people to Melissa who will be taking over from him as the brewer for Messrs Maguire in Dublin. Hers is the unenviable task of turning the under-used, under-promoted brewkit into a feature that will work for the owners and draw the crowds into the pub. I'll be keeping an eye on how things develop at MM, and not just because they're currently serving a very fine pint of White Gypsy Amber, badged as MM Munich.

Six White Gypsy beers were available at the festival, including Raven, the first commercial release of the Vintage Imperial Stout I went to see being casked last year. Raven is a blend of the unoaked version and the one from the French barrel. It's quite well balanced, being light on general aroma, heftily woody in the flavour but completely missing any off-putting phenolic notes, and without any trace of the astringency which dominated the beer prior to aging. Things got really interesting when Cuilan pulled out a bottle of each of the four versions: original, French oak, American oak and ex-Bushmills cask. After a brief struggle with a mangled corkscrew and a pair of pliers, the beers were poured and the differences between them were amazing, with subtle vinous notes from the French oak, massive Bourbon vanilla from the American one and heady whiskey aromas from the Bushmills. When the American and Bushmills versions were blended the result was stunning: rich, complex and aromatic. Plans for the final destination of the beer(s) are still sketchy: Cuilan's not in any rush to make a decision and seems to be enjoying the learning process of finding out what different woods do and how they can be blended -- a skill which would once have been common among Ireland's stout-makers but which now has to be re-learned from first principles.

And that was the festival for another year: hopefully a sign of a building critical mass of Irish craft beer. Thanks as always to The Franciscan Well for affording the hard-pressed Irish breweries an opportunity to sell their wares, and the equally hard-pressed drinkers an opportunity to enjoy them.

02 April 2010

Why beer doesn't matter

Session logoBeer's ambassador to the world, Mr Pete Brown, staged a competition on his blog a few months back. Entrants were asked to write on a subject dear to Pete's heart: "Why Beer Matters" (the winner, incidentally, was Dredge the Unstoppable Text Machine -- well done Mark, enjoy the trip). "Why Beer Matters?", I thought at the time. Then, "Does Beer Matter?"

The answer, for me, is no: beer doesn't matter. Beer is a luxury commodity, an enjoyable way to dispose of my disposable income. It's fun, it's frivolous, it's entertaining, it's a social nucleation point. But it doesn't matter. If it wasn't beer it'd be something else. Indeed for most people it is something else.

Not that there's anything wrong with other folk regarding beer as important. At least, to a certain extent. This month's Session is hosted by Beer Search Party and the theme is "Cult Beers", prompted by the imminent release of this year's batch of some rare American brews. Events like Dark Lord Day at 3 Floyds in Indiana are major occasions for the US beer scene. Fans have been known to queue for hours to get hold of a single rationed case of the imperial stout. Other breweries have followed suit -- creating big headline releases of one-off vintage beers and attempting to whip up publicity in the small sub-culture that surrounds craft beer. Grand-daddy of them all, perhaps, is Westvleteren in Flanders, where the beer is only sold to you if you've registered in advance and you get no choice in what beer you're given when you show up as arranged.

I hate it. It's bad for drinkers and it's bad for beer. The breweries, I'm sure, love it. Another weapon in the marketing arsenal designed to shift units for the highest margins possible: guaranteed no wastage and a product which, once the event is established, will be promoted entirely by the punters themselves. For free. It's not big and it's not clever.

Meanwhile the paying customer gets to stand in a carpark, in a queue, in the rain, in an effort to give the brewery some money in exchange for some bottles of mostly-water. If they succeed they get a beer which they can drink if they like, but wouldn't that be a waste of all the effort? Why not sell it at an enormous mark-up to other, more desperate, trophy-seekers (even though you promised the monks you wouldn't)? Or why not just bask in it? Leave it alone in the stash; tell your friends that you have it, you got it, it's yours. If you're feeling particularly gloaty, you could invite a select group of them over and portion it out in thimbles. You're the man now: that's 20ml of liquid respect right there.

Then beer itself starts to develop a reputation as something exclusive, expensive, élite. Priced for the discerning connoisseur. Cultish. Not classy -- no, it's still only beer after all -- but with all the worst characteristics that wine, wine snobs and wine bores have accrued over the years. With the breweries already on the make, the middlemen can get in on the action: secure the rare beer cheaply then jack up the price knowing that some collector with more money than sense will pay it. Who loses? People who like to drink beer, that's who.

It's hard to know who to blame most: the breweries who pull the strings, or the marionettes who perpetuate the whole sad spectacle. The bottom line, I think, is that you'd be able to buy these ultra-rare special editions in any corner shop for a reasonable price if punters weren't willing to queue up and sell a kidney for them. Ignore the monster, is my advice, and it'll go away.

Today's rant has been fuelled by a beer that isn't a cult, but does have a bit of a following: HaandBryggeriet Norwegian Wood. Because I knew the name and reputation, I picked up a bottle when I saw one on sale in Bier Koning: that's the sort of cult-beer-seeking I like. Serendipity beats standing in line every damn time.The beer is a lovely shade of rosewood with a nose that's big on mocha: sweet yet dry and roasty. The smoked malt is used to great effect: strong and unambiguous, yet beautifully balanced against the dark chocolate flavours. There's a definite dryness to it, with a touch of brimstone -- Burton snatch meets safety match -- but like the smoke, there's not too much. And if you leave it on the palate for a second or two you get the heady gin vapours from the juniper berries. My only criticism is one I've had with a lot of Norwegian craft beers: over-gassiness. Though I don't know whether this would work as well as a beefier, less fizzy, ale.

Sounds good, doesn't it? Oh: you say you can't get hold of this particular beer? Well don't worry, there'll be something else just as good along in a minute.