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.