30 August 2010

"Trust me, I'm a brewer"

We all, I'm sure, have our own little pre-conceived notions about beer, beer drinking and beer quality. There are brewing practices, ingredients, dispense methods that we will trust implicitly or decry the evils of, even if our views are not shared by everyone else. It's all part of the wonderful complexity and diversity of beer and beer culture. Statements beginning "Everybody knows..." are rare among the cultured zythophiles.

I can trace one of my beer scruples to the bottle of Pliny the Elder that Chris brought me a while back. The label stresses, multiple times in multiple ways, that it's a beer for drinking fresh and should in no circumstances be aged. Since the flavour profile is built around fresh hop flavours, that's understandable: it's something I've noticed in dry-hopped beers I've made myself, that after a couple of months the fresh and fruity hops zing starts to fade and, eventually, disappear leaving just the bitterness behind.

So I was a little conflicted when Hardknott Dave gave me a bottle of Infra Red. Like the Granite and Æther Blæc he also generously proffered, the label suggests that it's most likely to keep improving after the best-before is past. But unlike a barley wine or imperial stout, dry-hopped IPAs -- of which Infra Red is one -- depend on the delicate young hop oils to define themselves and give you the proper hop buzz you're after.

So what to do? This is my one bottle and I'm not likely to see another in the foreseeable future. Take the brewer's word for it or trust my instinct? The latter prevailed: Granite and Æther Blæc have been consigned to the darkest corner of the cellar; but Infra Red I drank.

It's a big ol' bugger, easy to pour slowly, leaving the sediment behind and giving a lovely clear dark amber body topped by a healthy layer of froth which lasts all the way to the end. And I could smell the dry hops at arm's length. On first sip the heavy body fools you into thinking this is going to be a malt-driven beer, but instead of a toffee follow-up there's a smack of those fresh and zingy grapefruit hop flavours. It's very brief, though, and the aftertaste is altogether more firmly bitter in a way I'd associate with English hops more than American. It lasts for ages too, thanks to the tongue-coating texture, and doesn't turn harsh as it fades. Maybe a teensy bit metallic, but I think that's just something to which I'm especially sensitive.

Did I make the right decision? Yes, I think so. This beer is definitely robust enough to survive a long time in storage, and it will undoubtedly change radically during this. But that brief flash of fresh hops will vanish and I wouldn't be at all sure it'll be replaced by anything as tasty.

My recommendation on Infra Red is drink 'em if you got 'em. Anyone who likes their beer big and bitter should be all over this. Trust me on that.

26 August 2010

Kippers and Canucks

It has been interesting times up at the Bull & Castle lately. As the supply of Goods Store IPA wanes, we've had the first pints of its replacement -- O'Hara's IPA -- making its cask debut. I've made my peace with the bottled version of this now, having found the keg just too severely bitter to enjoy. On cask, however, those head-kicking US hops are back in palate-burning force. Drinking this monster is like mainlining marmalade (the sort with the bits in). I reckon it takes a second pint to appreciate it properly, but I've not yet built up the courage to try.

For a couple of days last week, one alternative for the hopped-out tippler was Sierra Nevada's Unrivaled, a one-off smoked ale with added rye. I loved the smell of it: that sherbety balance of fruity hops and sweet malt that you get in the most delicious medium-strength pale and amber ales from the US. Surprisingly it doesn't taste like this at all. The foretaste is quite harsh and rather kippery: the smokiness made extra sharp by the grassy rye. This doesn't last long, though, fading quickly to let the lightly citric hops make a more mellow finish. An odd beer, but one I kept coming back to, for the aroma more than anything.

Last Thursday's meeting of Irish Craft Brewer in the pub featured some canned beers left to us by ex-pat member Garthicus, now stationed in Toronto. First open was the Creemore Springs Kellerbier, a cloudy orange affair. It tastes, as I believe Mark observed, like kit beer gone wrong. Even though it was only slightly past the best-before there was a marked stale and musty vibe to it, with very little sign of the quality lager it purports to be.

We fared better with Denison's Weissbier: properly cloudy, though remarkably pale. It lacked the big soft fluffy body and full-on bananas of good weissbier, but substituted with lightness and drinkability, plus a strangely pleasant acetone/pear sort of flavour. I could drink this happily, though was aware that it probably contains chemicals which, if ingested in sufficient quantity, are likely to make one's head feel like it's full of hyperactive racoons the next day. But half a litre between eight or nine of us did no harm at all.

The last can divided the table. The balance of opinion held that Hockley Dark is foul muck, another poorly constructed beer, oxidised and overly sweet. Me, I've had worse, as has Brian. It's thick and caramelly, and quite bitter with it. I've tasted homebrew, and the odd bottle of Whitewater's Belfast Ale, that have been along similar lines. It won't win too many awards (though the can claims at least one), but it's perfectly palatable to me.

Still, after the commercial stuff it was nice to get stuck into the homebrew next. It always is.

23 August 2010

The beer from nowhere

I had it in my head that all food and drink sold in the EU had to have a statement of origin on it somewhere, even if it's nothing more useful than "Produce of the EU". As far as I can tell on looking, however, it only applies "where failure to give such particulars might mislead the consumer to a material degree as to the true origin or provenance of the foodstuff" (Directive 2000/13/EC). So I guess we can assume from the name that Nobelaner is from Germany. Yet of the undoubtedly fine Teutonic city of Nobelan I can find no trace at all. Perhaps it only appears once every century and dumps a truckful of lager before vanishing again.

I picked this up dirt-cheap in Lidl to give it a residency as my curry lager. Absolutely no markings on bottle or sleeve say anything about where it's from, only that it's made for Lidl UK & Ireland.

It could be from anywhere really, as the beer tastes of almost nothing. Concentrate hard when you sniff and there's a ghost of hops, but nothing past it. It tastes like fizzy water, even before the vindaloo gets near it. Back to the Flensburger Weizen for me, I think. That comes from Flensburg. It's in Germany, though only just.

19 August 2010

Ambiguous amphibian

Remember that post I wrote from Paris a couple of weeks ago? The one about how great The Frog & Rosbif is and how their ale is an oasis of beery goodness in an otherwise poorly-served city? Well, a few days later we went over to one of the other branches of the chain, the Frog & Princess. True to my word I went straight for a pint of Inseine and... bleurrrgh! A bad infection had caught this one and given it an unmerciful blast of TCP/sticking plasters. But these things happen with cask beer in small breweries; they can be forgiven. I moved to the other previous favourite, Natural Blonde. Oh dear. Diacetyl. Not just any diacetyl, but a pint of blonde ale that tasted like a pound of lightly caramelised butter had simply been melted into the glass: greasy, cloying and awful. Mrs Beer Nut watched my growing horror over a perfectly acceptable pint of Maison Blanche, so that's what I finished with.

Oblivious suggested that the Frog & Princess may be an extract brewpub. It would make sense, I guess, when there are five outlets in one city for all the difficult work to be carried out at one of them (or elsewhere altogether) and the finished beers assembled on site. It could also be what led to such a terrible dereliction of quality control -- whomever released those beers to the public cannot possibly have cared about how the finished product tasted.

Anyway, that's my arse covered if anyone else goes to a Frog pub on my recommendation and finds the beer awful. On to the rest of Paris.

Aside from the Frogs, the city's only other brewpub is O'Neil, just round the corner from the Frog & Princess as it happens, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It's not an Irish theme bar, despite the name, going instead for more of an American cocktail bar vibe -- dark wood and mood lighting. The brewkit is out in front and is in active use. What I hadn't known until I read the smallprint on the menu is that it's a member of the 3 Brasseurs chain, though not branded as such. All three beers invoked my memory of my last 3 Brasseurs visit, four years ago near Calais: they all taste powerfully of fish. I'm sure this isn't what Reuben meant recently when he noted that the 3 Brasseurs beers all taste the same, but for me it was fish market all the way and little else to show.

L'Ambrée is lightly perfumed and golden-amber; the seasonal Bock is heavily estered with pear drops in the mix; and the Brune is dry, caramelly, rather light for 6.3% ABV and tastes more intensely of fish than the other two, which is a lot. If you don't make it to O'Neil next time you're in Paris, I wouldn't worry unduly.

Much better beer was to be had following Knut Albert's recommendation of Au Trappiste at Châtelet. Not wishing to go madly ticking among the dozens of taps and bottles, I decided I wanted something reliable and nice. Draft Bécasse Gueuze did the job: a lovely big tartly refreshing pint of it. It was Mrs Beer Nut who went looking for the exotic, and picked L'Angelus, a strong French blonde ale from the far north-east. It's lovely when cold: spicy and perfumed like a good tripel, but it does get a bit sticky as it warmed. A pint of it may have seemed like a good idea on a hot Paris afternoon, but you really want to neck it quick for full refreshment value.

And that, in seven blog posts, is what I did on my summer holidays.

17 August 2010

I spy pie

It usually takes me a day or two in England to get sick of pies. In the meantime, however, it's pies all the way. Mmm, pies. And beer. Battlefield Farm Shop, outside Shrewsbury, is a bit of a pie and cheese and beer mecca. For some reason my sister thought I'd be interested in going there...

I took away a chicken, blue cheese, pear and walnut pie, and a pork and Stilton one, with a bottle of Hobsons Old Henry. It's a lovely strong ale, spicy at first, followed by some weighty toffee and then finishing roasty and dry. First rate pie lubricant.

The other bottled local I gave a spin was Darwin's Origin, picked up in the beautiful surrounds of Tanners Wine Merchants (Darwin is the local celeb in Shrewsbury). This pours fizzily a dark amber colour. There's quite a bit of body to it, but it's still very much a hop-driven beer. The hops are English and give it dominant flavours of sweet mandarin oranges. Not a million miles from Adnams excellent Innovation.

The same brewery, Salopian, also brew Oracle, a hoppier-yet pale ale: sharp at first, then giving way way to flowers and soft fruit, before finishing up sharp and perhaps a little bitterly harsh at the end. We had this at The Boathouse, a lovely riverfront pub by the park. They also had Stonehouse Station Bitter on, a plain but nicely quenching amber ale.

Upstream on the Severn as it flows through Shropshire there's The Armoury, a vast pub-restaurant crammed with bric-a-brac and fashionably mismatched furniture. It's part of the Brunning & Price chain, which has a house Original Bitter brewed by Phoenix. Rather like the Station Bitter, it's brown, simple, unassuming and with a touch of toffee. I liked it for what it was, but was glad of pale, hoppier options too. Like Woods Shropshire Lass: a golden ale packed with Saaz spiciness for that quality lager sensation.

Three Tuns XXX was another lagery beer they had on though not as good: throwing candy sugar in with the grassy, cabbagey hops. Weetwood Cheshire Cat looked like a lager, a poor one, but didn't taste as watery as it appeared, saved by an interesting mineral chalkiness.

And then there was Twisted Spire. I brought a half to the table for my sister. She didn't like it. I sniffed it. It was vinegar. Traces of the sweet blonde ale were detectable on tasting, but mostly it was vinegar. So I brought it back. Two twentysomething barmen in rugby shirts with turned up collars should really have been a clear indication I was wasting my time. The first said it was fine and passed it to the other, he said it was fine too and then they just went on serving other customers leaving me slack-jawed with half a pint of off beer and a thirsty sister. Not great service there, The Armoury.

My pie fetish had worn off by the time we headed south to London (the story picks up in this post from last week). I believe it was, in fact, a sandwich that went with my last beers in Shrewsbury, at The Three Fishes. It's a delightfully ramshackle boozer in the historic heart of the town, and seemed to be something of a pilgrimage point for elderly CAMRA types. Which is a good sign, beerwise. My first pint was Bath Gem, a highly buttery brown bitter with lots of toffee. Smooth and warming and I liked it, even out of season. The second was something of a celebrity: I'd heard lots -- all good -- about Oakham Citra. It didn't disappoint, despite a little bit of cloud in my pint and a resulting yeasty sharpness. But I tuned that out of my palate and sat back to enjoy the massive lemon and grapefruit smack from the Citra hops. Yes, it's one-dimensional, but one of those dimensions I can happily spend an afternoon in.

Unfortunately, London was calling so off we chugged. Next on the blog is what happened when we came out the other side.

16 August 2010

Chester draws

Samuel Smith's pubs, eh? Always worth a laugh. I've never been able to spot one from the outside (is there a way?) but I always end up crossing the threshold, clocking the distinctive illuminated keg fonts, grinning, and girding my metaphorical loins for the hilarity about to ensue. For instance: has anyone ever tried their own-brand spirits and soft drinks, and are they any good? While waiting for my pint at a Samuel Smith's bar, I've started to feel the tug of my inner ticker saying "go on, order a Scotch as well, it'll only cost you about 50p". Next time I'll probably give in. This time I didn't.

We'd only just arrived in Chester, having hopped on the ferry from Dublin to Holyhead and taken the train across north Wales (just €36 all in; can't say fairer), and met up with my sister who lives not far away in Shropshire. After a cursory wander through the town and a gawk at the fascinating local architecture (no really, they decided to put street level above the ground floor) we called in to The Falcon for refreshments. I was on the cask Old Brewery, the missus had a keg Dark Mild and the sister wanted a coffee. In a Smith's pub! How we laughed. Well no, we didn't. I marvelled that a twenty-first century pub chain can seemingly thrive without providing some of the basic stuff that twenty-first century people like to drink. Yes, yes, I know: it's a pub not a bleedin' Starbucks but isn't it interesting that they're making their money by being the no-frills, booze-only pure cheap pub, while JD Wetherspoon are raking it in by providing everything at low prices and packing the punters in? It's like they're opposite sides of the same pub coin. The Falcon certainly had a Wetherspoon-level of loud and scary drunks that afternoon. We moved on.

(So much for my opinion of Samuel Smith. For Samuel Smith's opinion of me, see this photo, courtesy of Bailey.)

After a quick spin around part of the walls it was time for pies and more beer. We'd had a recommendation of The Brewery Tap, flagship pub of the Spitting Feathers Brewery. It's a gorgeous pub with Tudor banqueting hall pretensions, though on a far smaller, cosier basis: olde worlde without being twee. From the range of house and guest beers I went for a Thirst Quencher, what with being thirsty and all. Alas, it was a case of false advertising. While there's a pleasant bubblegum front to this, it's all a bit grainy and musty behind. Far too difficult drinking for something of that name. Mrs Beer Nut faired much better with Anglo-Dutch Jasper's Ale, a sweet and full-bodied blonde.

The next round included Conwy Rampart -- the first boring brown bitter of the trip: a nasty phenol tang and loads of slimy, buttery diacetyl: not good. There was also the lightly creamy Black Swan mild from Buckinghamshire's Vale brewery. I ordered a pint of Spitting Feathers Old Wavertonian and was warned by the barmaid that it's a stout: "Is that OK?". I have to wonder how many people go "Arrgh! Stout! Are you trying to kill me?" and run away. I didn't. Just as well too: it's a beautiful light session stout with big dry roast flavours. One of those why-aren't-they-all-like-this stouts.

Off eastwards, then, to Shrewsbury. Marston's rules supreme in this part of the world and runs the local around the corner from where we stayed. We wandered in on the first evening, fingers crossed for something better than Pedigree or Banks's. I'd have settled for Hobgoblin but did much better: Shipyard Independence Pale Ale originated at Shipyard in Portland, Maine. Their brewer made a batch at Marston's for their summer season this year. And by 'eck it's good. Piquant citric hops wake up the palate, then sing it a sweet song of peaches and honey. At 4.2% ABV it's a beer to relax into over a few pints. Which is pretty much what happened.

More from Shrewsbury tomorrow.

15 August 2010

Eight guys named Mikkel

Mikkeller's Single Hop series has been around for a couple of years now. I first encountered them at the 2008 European Beer Festival, but only tried the Simcoe one, which I didn't really enjoy. There are nine ten (thanks Bob!) in the series, all IPAs, all 6.9% ABV. Each has been completely hopped with a single variety. It's the sort of project that appeals to half-cut home brewers at big beer festivals. Perhaps we should count our lucky stars that only eight were available at the 2010 Great British Beer Festival: pink-labelled Warrior and blue Chinook are missing from the photo.

Inasmuch as my notes make any sense, Cascade was about the best: smooth and clean and nicely balanced between fruity fun and serious bitterness. Nelson Sauvin does a great job of showing that hop at its lightly grapeish best; likewise East Kent Goldings with all the lovely chocolate orange flavours and none of the metal you sometimes get. A return visit to Simcoe was much better than first time round (it didn't burn) though Centennial was surprisingly disappointing, being much blander than I'd have expected. Amarillo also didn't hit the mark hard enough: mandarins, yes, but not enough of them. I found Nugget to be a little harsh around the edges, with some yeasty flavours that detracted from the citric hops. But the wooden spoon goes to Tomahawk: sickly and cloying like undiluted orange cordial.

And now we know.