31 May 2010

Sweets of sin

At a piddling 9.5% ABV I was half expecting Dieu du Ciel's Péché Mortel to be a bit of a light affair. On pouring from the 341ml screwtop I got gentle whiffs of café crème, though a proper sniff reveals a distinct hoppiness to the aroma as well. On tasting, all illusions of this being the more vapid sort of imperial stout disappear.

The body is huge and treacle-thick, with just a gentle prickle running through it making the flavours dance. Sweetened coffee is definitely still at the front, as might be expected since coffee is an ingredient, though it's not allowed dominate the taste. After it, there's a hoppy bitterness which isn't citric, nor in the least metallic: very unusual in the imperial stouts I've had, unfortunately. Rather, the hoppiness is green and a little brassica-esque: anyone who knows the pleasure of a perfectly-cooked Brussels sprout -- firm and squeaky -- will know what I mean.

You may think you're done when the rich, slightly dry, roasted flavours come in, but they're followed by a wonderful warming sensation down in the lower regions. Not that low, you perv; merely an extra duvet on your stomach lining. Perfect for tucking in your dinner.

This Canadian definitely punches above its weight. I've had stouts in the 12-15% ABV range that weren't nearly as complex or tasty. Or as boozily comforting. A class act all the way.

27 May 2010

Slide one over

New from California's Sierra Nevada is Glissade, a golden bock which follows their Kellerweis in being an attempt at recreating a German style, only in smaller bottles. It's similarly successful too, in that it has all the elements you'd expect from the real thing, but doesn't quite do enough with them.

So, at 6.4% ABV it's the right strength for a German bock and has the same relatively heavy, sticky, nearly syrupy, body. The nose and foretaste have the slightly herby, nettle-like character of noble hops, and the finish is sugary malt. I'm not much of a fan of the style in general, but even I can tell that they haven't put the elements together in quite the right way. I found it inoffensive, as did my bock-loving wife.

Far be it from me to say breweries should stick to what they're good it, and making the styles appropriate to their region, but I will say that if I do want a pale German bock I'll be getting some Einbecker or the like; and when I recommend Sierra Nevada to people, it'll be for Torpedo, not this.

24 May 2010

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

My poor beer fridge was neglected while I was writing all about Copenhagen this last couple of weeks. It's time now to get a few of the beers that have been languishing in there into a pint glass and down the red lane to immortality.

Top of the list is Black Rock Stout from Dungarvan Brewing Company. They didn't have this at the Franciscan Well festival last month, but I subsequently had a sneaky sample from a rogue bottle that wandered to Dublin all on its ownio. I didn't write it up at the time because I was, quite simply, stunned by what I tasted and needed to double check. As a session-strength stout, Black Rock should be unremarkable. Bottled stouts at the 4.3% ABV mark aren't exactly rare in Ireland -- I can think of six others straight off -- so a new one shouldn't be making much of a splash. Black Rock's USP is being the only one which is entirely unfiltered and 100% bottle conditioned, but so what?

So an awful lot, as it turns out. I had been waiting for a bottle to myself to confirm this, but this is dry Irish stout with the volume turned up to 11. Following directions to have it south-eastern style ("from the shelf", ie at room temperature) the nose is fresh coffee and a herbal complexity which the label describes as aniseed, and I concur. The body is light, with a fairly gentle fizz. It wears its hops up front -- fresh, green and definitely bitter rather than any way fruity -- then a quick burst of chocolate and a long long dry roasted finish, with those bitter herby hops running alongside.

I have a nasty, pessimisitic suspicion that what I've been drinking will some day be regarded as the "classic" Black Rock, back when Dungarvan were a six-barrel plant and still bottle-conditioning everything. It would be a crying shame if they changed the specs on this to make the sort that's just acceptable as an Irish stout, like everyone else. Filtering and pasteurising really do suck much of the life out of bottled session stout. Black Rock, I hope, will lead to a few palates being awakened down Waterford way.

More about the brewery, and the unique beer culture of south-eastern Ireland, from Séan here.

20 May 2010

Pay no attention to the man on the wall

Phew! Believe it or not, this is only the 500th post on this blog. It feels like I've written that on Copenhagen alone. But this is the last one, covering some more pub-hopping around the city.

On Friday we'd hit the festival early and eaten in BrewPub so decided to seek out a few other city centre hostelries afterwards. The Lord Nelson was easy enough to find, a small and dark low-ceilinged watering hole in a basement just off the main shopping street. Elsewhere it would probably be a dive, but this being Denmark the diveyness is highly compromised by cleanliness and good behaviour. Herslev are responsible for the house beer: Lord Nelson IPA, and very good it is too, with lots of powerful bitter citrus tempered by a floral fruitiness. Herslev's Maj Bock was also on. It has a mild and pleasant spice to it but is still too syrupy overall for my liking. Having sampled these wares we moved on.

The Lord Nelson sounds like it should be an English theme-bar rather than a Danish craft specialist, but if it's bitter and horse brasses you want, Charlie's is the place to go. I mean, just look at those beards. It is, I understand, one of the very few establishments outside the UK to have Cask Marque accreditation and the narrow barroom does a very good impression of an English pub. And was jammed when we got there. Bravely we fought our way to the bar and after being served found a windowsill to perch on. I was drinking Hopback's Dragon's Breath a brown bitter with an enjoyable peppery character. I'd have had another, only for the fact that there was barely room to swig a pint, so off we went again.

A long death-march through the nighttime streets of Copenhagen failed to turn up anywhere worth stopping so we meandered circuitously back to The Lord Nelson which proved rather more elusive to locate, second time round. When we got in, recovering our former table, there was Svaneke's Bobarækus, a dampfbier made with Simcoe which turns out deliciously peachy and fresh: eminently sinkable, even late at night. Refsvindinge's Ale No. 16 is different, but similarly drinkable. It's dark, 5.7% ABV but has an understated perfumey flavour. One of those beers that won't interrupt the flow of conversation. Which it didn't. Which is why we didn't notice 3am go past, with no signs of life in the bar thinning out, or even becoming more raucous. Civilised all-night drinking really threw me. It'll never catch on.

After a woozy Saturday I was back on form on Sunday. The festival had closed and I was on the late-afternoon flight back to Dublin. Not much opens, beerwise, in Copenhagen on Sundays, but there's one very notable exception. Plan B is a laid-back café set over two levels in the north end of the city centre. Sunday morning it had a typically deli-heavy Danish brunch menu on, with a jazz and prog-rock soundtrack to unwind to while giving the papers a leisurely glance. The wall-art is, well, questionable (I'm not the first to have thought so), but I parked my clinking rucksack and made myself at home on the big sofa on the mezzanine then fired up the free wi-fi. And ordered a beer from their incongruously impressive draught and bottled selection.

My first choice was Stevns Klintekongen, because nothing starts Sunday mornings like a 7.5% ABV smoked oatmeal stout. Sadly I got no more than a shot as the tap ran out, which is a shame because what little I tasted tasted lovely: bitter and slightly sour on the nose, like Guinness Foreign Extra, finishing properly oatmeal-sweet though with little sign of the smoke, unfortunately.

The fall-back was Gemini by New York's Southern Tier Brewing Company. This 9%-er is a blend of two of their strong IPAs and offers a fascinating mix of sweet and savoury flavours. Most of all I got bittersweet mandarin pith, but topped with an earthy cheddar cheese and finishing -- I swear I'm not just pulling these out of a hat, or anything else -- with strawberries in balsamic vinegar. A leisurely sipper and just perfect for pre-noon contemplation.

There was lots from the travelling Beer Here brewing company, including Lupulus, an unsurprisingly hop-driven pale ale, dark red-amber giving off exotic musky smells. The body is quite thin and it packs a nicely tart bitter bite. It's a good sessioner, but I moved on. Not too far, though, keeping things hoppy with Tia Loca. Its mixture of sticky-sweet fruit flavours reminded me of nothing so much as orange barley sugar sweets, though with an extra oiliness. Not unpleasant, though.

Two unseasonal beers followed: the light and gently spicy Beer Here Påske, and then the much more complex Beer Here Jul: a mixture of earthy funk and fresh hops with a little bit of a soapy finish but quite nice overall. Séan, meanwhile, had opted for a bottle of Amager's Barrel Aged Imperial Stout: another technical exercise in perfection from these guys. It's as rich and roasty and sticky as you'd like, with just the right levels of mild carbonation and a pronounced, but not domineering, vanilla oak aftertaste. The perfect beer to send me off with a very positive impression of Danish craft brewing.

The failure of Eyjafjallajökull to do any erupting meant that at 2.30 it was time to get the metro to the airport and head home. It was an excellent couple of days and my appetite is certainly whetted for seeing more of the city's top-notch beer bars, and maybe visiting a brewery or two. But that's for another time. So many places to go, so many beers to drink.

19 May 2010

Ain't you got no pubs to go to?

OK, time to finish up at the Copenhagen Beer Festival and start some proper drinking.

The stragglers are a mixed bunch, including Braunstein's Viking IPA -- a cold and rather dull amber ale showing touches of caramel but no real hop oomph -- and the disconcerting Black Ale from Thisted which I would swear had a meaty liver-and-kidney iron flavour in with the dry roasted grains. I enjoyed Black Bird, a sweet and sticky stout made under the Nimbus brand by Lund Teknik, and also the Smoke Chili (big surprise there, right?) by Det Lille which has the peaty malt in the driving seat, taking occasional piquant directions from the chilli peppers.

From the Eye-Catching Name file, there's Hoppy Sundown from the Randers brewery: another malt-heavy IPA but this one provides a satisfying warmth from 8.7% ABV while also packing a citric punch from lots of US C-hops. Little Korkny is Nørrebro's six-year-old barley wine, having a wonderful porty vinosity and deserving of a much more dignified handle. Then there's Skt. Bendt, a light and pleasant chocolatey porter by Dagmar.

And as things drew to a close on Saturday night, while we were discarding our final tokens, I felt the sudden onset of palate fatigue and the need for something cleansing. So Fuglsang Pilsner was called upon and did the job rather well: though a very pale shade of yellow, it's full-bodied, sweet and bready -- refreshing without being in the least bit dull.

And that was it. Many thanks to all the brewery reps who took the time to talk to me, and a massive massive thank-you to Anne-Mette of the Danske Ølentusiaster who, despite a huge organisational workload, looked after us and made us feel more like guests than punters. It was great also to meet Søren, founding chair of the group, to discuss campaign tactics.

But it goes without saying that the festival was merely a temporary focal point in what is, every day, one of Europe's great beer drinking cities. I managed to squeeze in a bit of pub time between the sessions, ticking off a couple of bars on my must-visit list.

Even though it only opened its doors a few weeks ago, the Mikkeller bar was top of that list. I visited at opening time on Saturday afternoon so managed to catch it on one of the rare occasions during the festival where it wasn't packed to the rafters with beer geeks: when I went there was only a sober smattering of them. The bar itself is situated in a small multi-room basement and beautifully appointed in minimalist Scandinavian style (the less charitable might use the phrase "like boozing in an Ikea", but not me). Very pleasant for a civilised tipple though I doubt it's much fun when jammed.

Having just come from Ølbutikken where it was fresh on the shelves, the first thing that caught my eye on the draught blackboard was Nøgne Ø's Red Horizon. I was quite surprised to learn that the ingredients list has nothing more exotic than malt and hops since it tastes bizarre: big and boozy (17% ABV) with raspberry and cranberry notes plus oodles of zesty pink peppercorns. How do you get malt and hops to do that? You use sake yeast, apparently. They'll all be at it next year, mark my words. Anyway, Red Horizon is a definite win.

The assembled RateBeerians had brought a bottle of imperial stout in with them and were kind enough to share some with me (I can't imagine a bar with a list as impressive as this gets many punters asking to open their own, or maybe that's all part of the super-specialist market). Black Damnation is a 50-50 blend of Struise Black Albert (reviewed here) and De Molen Hel & Verdoemenis (reviewed here) -- two absolute corkers. But how do they play together? I think Albert is wearing the trousers, which is a shame because it's the inferior beer in my opinion. The dominant aroma is dry and slightly sour, with mild wood notes coming out on the flavour plus more than a hint of nuttiness. The Dutch beer adds a silky smoothness to this, and there are no bum notes to it anywhere. Enjoyable, certainly, but I think I prefer my Hel & Verdoemenis straight. Before leaving I got a quick taste of Mikkeller Sour Nine, another WTF beer, being dark, strong and incredibly sour, plus lots of serious vanilla oak and more legs than a bag of centipedes. Much later I figured out what it is: an Imperial Flemish Red. Get me the BJCP on the horn, now!

The other super-classy joint I was in was Pegasus, not far from the festival hall. A hand-picked beer list is chalked up in this slightly formal restaurant-bar and I opted for the Centennial IPA by Herslev, a lovely rich and fruity American-style beer with just the balance of toffee and oranges I like. We didn't stay to eat, though Knut Albert tells me the food is excellent.

More pubs next. Then you can go home.

18 May 2010

A beer and a chat

We're coming towards the end of the festival beers from Copenhagen now, though we still have a pub crawl to do before normal programming resumes.

One of the things I loved about the festival was how chatty and interested (and anglophone!) most of the staffers were. This meant more than one instance of going to a stall for a particular beer and ending up trying a few while talking to the brewer. I'm very susceptible to the hard sell when it comes to Scandinavian beer...

Ørbæk was a case in point. On the Friday I fancied kicking off with their gentle elderflower wheat beer Fynsk Forår. It has a lovely delicate floral aroma but is a little less subtle to taste: sugary and perfumey. Still, a solid refresher for summer drinking. It's certainly much better than the Ørbæk Weissbier which had a strange malt-vinegar sort of thing going on. It didn't quite ruin the beer so much as confuse it -- nice, but not what you want from a weiss. On then to Nutty which should be done under the Danish Trades Descriptions Act: it's a soft, sweet and slightly floral amber ale with mild toffee notes but did not contain traces of nuts as far as I could taste. And finally, before moving along, their Pingus imperial stout had to be tried. This is another sweet one, with slightly out-of-character caramel notes rather than the roasted barley and chocolate one might expect. A confusing lot, the Ørbæk beers, but made by nice people, so that's OK.

Séan and I also had a long discussion with the proprietress of the Skovlyst stand who was keen to impress on us their Havre Eisbock, a 20% ABV (-ish -- don't tell the taxman!) version of the 7% ABV oatmeal stout. It works rather well, being sticky and warming with loads of dry roasted flavour and even a concentrated green hops kick too. Their Kaffee Stout was pretty distinctive as well, in a good way: the coffee notes perked up further by a tasty sour sharpness.

There wasn't so much talk to be had at Mikkeller, or not from us at any rate. The large stall was mobbed by Danish beer geeks, even when the rest of the hall was close to empty. While eavesdropping on the conversations of others I tried the Brettanomyces (yes, that again) from the Yeast Series, purely on the basis that it'd be the most distinctive. And distinctive it was: raw sewage and lots of it. A little brett character I can handle; a beer that tastes like fifteen people just took a dump in it -- I'll pass, thanks. Early on the first day, all the buzz was around the Texas Ranger chilli stout, and I jumped on the bandwagon too. It pours with a promising dark tan foam and has a dry foretaste with just a slight metallic edge. The chilli delivers a short sharp peppery piquancy but is really quite subtle, playing second fiddle to the roastiness. I know I should be praising the balance, but my taste in chilli beer is fairly unsophisticated, as anyone who's tasted the one I made will tell you.

Svaneke had a promisingly boorish one called Red Hot Chili Ale, a lovely warm shade of amber. It's a bit pedestrian on the chilli front, however, gently easing the spice over the palate. Their surprisingly brown Double Black is another mild one, in both beery senses of the term. It was one of the few beers I tried which I could merrily drink a pint of, which probably puts it in the "boring" category for some of the other festival attendees.

I mentioned the maple-laden beers of Schoune last week, but they weren't the only ones fermenting sap. Stensbogaarde had one on their long list called, imaginatively, Canadian Maple. The maple character has almost completely gone from this, gobbled up by the voracious yeast, I assume. What's left is dry to the point of sourness though remarkably full-bodied for something that seems so highly attenuated. Anyone looking for a sweet beer wouldn't be happy with it. Fynsk Bock might suit them better: a stereotypical strong, sweet lager of the sort I abhor. I'm sorry but it just tastes like tramp's brew to me.

The BrewPub brewpub guys were a friendly bunch, with several new beers available. I tried to stay affable while drinking the all-Styrian-Goldings Doonesbury, and not mention how it tastes of orange cordial mixed with sticking plasters. But it's OK, I don't think they could read my scrawlings upside down. Nor did I enjoy their Amarillo Pale Ale -- it had a stale oxidised taste which I thought might have been from a bad keg, but I had it again at the pub itself (the food is superb, btw) and the same thing happened. A shame to bury what were presumably once lovely orangey hop flavours. Redemption comes in the form of Fitzgerald, an American-style barley wine with 10.4% ABV but no hot or boozy characteristics. Instead it's sharp and spicy in a slightly citric way. Very enjoyable.

You'll often hear a certain sort of beer enthusiast insist that drinking beer at a festival is no match for the more civilised confines of the pub. For this drinker, getting some face-to-face time with the brewers of what I'm drinking enhances the enjoyment much more than a comfy seat and a fireplace.

17 May 2010

In the land of long names

Now, I'm not the most detailed writer of notes when it comes to beer festivals. Unless something really strikes me about a new beer, I'll just take down some indicators to remind me of what sort of beer this is and whether or not I'm likely to want to drink it again. Even allowing for this brevity, there's something wrong when the beer names are longer than the things you can write about them. Lengthy nomenclature seems to be in fashion at the moment, partly because of the whole blending, barrel-ageing and general tweaking that the more geek-focused craft breweries so love to do to their beers: you've got to give the full pedigree. But even before the brewery telescopes the badge into something impossible to put on a pumpclip without using a nanofont, there were some pretty damn long beer names at the Copenhagen Festival.

Håndbryg were prime offenders. This appears to be little more than a home brewers' collective, in the enviable position of being able to sell the many and varied beers from the members' plastic buckets. So for instance there was the pin-in-the-dictionary fun of Alice Wild Spring Forest, a surprisingly drinkable 11% ABV sour beer with lovely floral overtones. Another brewer produced a spicy and earthy saison enlivened with super fruity American hops and named We Say Hop! You Say How High? I say just give me the damn beer. Thankfully not all the team are so verbose: the chap who came up with the beautifully balanced smoked imperial stout, one with just the right amount of woody phenols, saw no reason to call it anything more challenging than Bastard. It certainly got this punter's attention.

No such economical tendency at the Hornbeer stand: not content with any old bastard, they had an Oak-Aged Cranberry Bastard, a strong mahogany-red ale where the fruit gets kinda lost in the alcohol (8.2%) and wood. Their Funky Monk is another palate-pounder: sugary-sour, 9.4% ABV, with an overpowering farmyard aroma. Wisely I left it until kicking-out time on the last day. A little saner, and more literally named, was their smoked beer Røgøl. This is strong and powerfully dry, with a little touch of smoked fish in the mix.

It looks like Black Rooster attempted to resist the long-name tendency, indeed the any-name tendency, when they called their own strong stout "No Name". But the barrel temption was too powerful and what I ended up drinking was the oxymoronic No Name Oak n' Islay Edition. It's smoky without having much by way of vanilla wood character, which works well, and is overall rather dry and easy drinking. It looks like the same thing happened when the soberly-titled Mr Wheat became Mr Smokey Dark Wheat, which has a lovely balance between the banana esters typical of a weizen and again the gentle smokiness: much more subtle than the Schlenkerla alternative.

And the smoke continues (yeah, OK, I was actively seeking it out) at new Danish brewery Croocked [sic] Moon. Their 6.1% ABV Stone To The Bone porter has a major peated Scotch vibe going on and yet remains very light and drinkable with it. They also had a pale ale brewed with New Zealand hops called All Blacks which had that typically kiwi cheesey funk to it and which I'm not yet sure if I like or not. I did enjoy the beer overall, though.

And then there was Bøgedal who have decided it's not the length of your name that counts and just give everything numbers. I tried their imperial stout and found it oddly enjoyable: warming and full of sweet-and-sour lactic sugary notes. Imperial milk stout, anyone? Its name a simple, dignified, No. 161.


14 May 2010

Hamlet, cats, windmills and weed

Aside from BrewDog, the other non-Danish brewery I was overjoyed to see exhibiting at the Copenhagen Beer Festival was De Molen. As well as Menno and his helpers there was a good contingent of Dutch beer fans flying the flag (well, wearing the t-shirt) for De Molen around the city. It was unusual to see Menno at a festival unaccompanied by one of his huge barrels -- almost his signature at this stage -- but there was plenty of major barrel-aged goodness coming from the taps. Take Hel & Verdoemenis Wild Turkey Barrel Edition, for instance. The base beer is an absolute stonker of an imperial stout and why anyone thought it needed more complexity is beyond me. But they did and it worked. The heady super-fresh coffee notes take a back seat and you get sweet malty bourbon flavours at the front instead. Not too boozy (for a 13%-er) and remarkably, dangerously, gluggable.

Top of my personal hitlist was Turf & Veen, another imperial stout, this one carrying a health warning about how much peated malt it contains. Like heat warnings on curry menus, that's like flames to a moth for me. Turf & Veen is peaty but not in the medicinal, harsh, Laphroaigish way. It tastes like the smell of autumn evenings in Donegal -- fresh and aromatic turf smoke. Then, for balance, it has massive amounts of bittersweet chocolate. Perhaps not for everyone, but I certainly want more of this.

Menno seems to have an endless supply of binomial names for his many many beers, but it looks like he may finally have crossed off most of the words in his dictionary. Why else would the new coffee imperial stout be called Mout & Mocca 2? While the first one had almost Caribbean levels of sweetness, this is super dry with a burnt coffee bean crunchiness.

The only De Molen I didn't care for was Vuur & Vlam, a 6.2% ABV pale ale. Even though I had it early on the first day -- long before palate fatigue might become a factor -- I found it quite insipid. Where did the hops go? In the same general category, but with the ABV ratcheted up to 10% there was Luid & Duidelijk: smooth, spicy, warming and just what you want in a barley wine.

Last of the dedicated foreign-brewery stalls -- that I noticed, anyway -- was the minimalist showing from Italian brewery Revelation Cat (a wonderful name which I can't hear without thinking of Resurrection Joe by The Cult). Their gorgeous chrome six-pump Angram engines were pouring a series of lambics they'd made, each using a single hop variety. Fresh hops thrown in dry, mind, not the aged sort the Belgians tend to prefer. I went for the Nelson Sauvin Lambic and found that it lacked the saltpetre-and-bricks complexity you normally get with lambic and instead the sourness is topped with a massive fruity hit, white grapes in particular, from the hops. An interesting combination, for drinkers with more of a sense of adventure than the lambic purists and dyed-in-the-wool hopheads. For even more of an adventure they also had Cat in the Barrel. I'm not even going to look up what went into this, but it's mad: a crazily floral aroma like a summer meadow on steroids plus added orange blossom, and then an eye-watering sweet acetone flavour like drinking pear drops coated in nail varnish remover. I have no idea if I liked this or not, but after a 100ml glass I needed a bit of a sit down.

The remaining imports I tried were, shall we say, a bit of a mixed bag. One of the Irish attendees (hi Betty!) has a soft spot for Pink Killer from the aptly-named Silly brewery in Belgium, and I was afforded a sip. There's a sort-of interesting piquancy to this, presumably from the grapefruit, but mostly it's extremely sugary to the point of alcopopism.

To Austria and Schloss Eggenburg, best known for its Samichlaus winter lager. They also do a hemp beer which they've named Spirit of Hemp, presumably in an attempt to lure in the stoners. They'll be disappointed, as was I: this is another very sweet sugary beer with no discernible hemp character.

The importer One Pint has a large portfolio of UK beers on its books, and on sale in Copenhagen. I had been specifically looking for Harvey's Elizabethan Ale but it had sold out by the time I got round to it so the same brewery's Prince of Denmark had to do. It's an appropriately dank and melancholy winter beer -- heavy, sticky and warmingly spirituous. One for the hipflask when doing nightshift on the walls of Helsingør.

Which brings us back neatly to the local beers in time for the next post.