29 November 2010

Guild by association

Thursday last saw the annual awards dinner of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Over the last couple of years I've read enviously of the event's food-and-drink proceedings on other blogs so this year I decided I'd hie myself over to London for the evening and experience it first hand. With, y'know, the outside possibility of a supplementary beer or two somewhere on the peripheries of the occasion. There's an Old Ale Festival on at The White Horse at the same time? Well fancy that...

Less than four hours after leaving home I was pushing the front door of London's newest craft beer specialist The Euston Tap. Located in a tiny kiosk out in front of Euston station, the bar and fridges are well-stocked with carefully chosen delights from Britain, the continent and the US. A row of American-style tap-handles sits atop the numbered cask taps, with blackboards either side proclaiming the contents. So where to start?

Fortunately, Tandleman was on hand for advice, and first up was a half of Fyne Ales Maverick. Worryingly brown, it's actually surprisingly highly hopped -- bitter and crisp, like an understated version of those Black IPAs the cool kids are all drinking these days. Marble's W90 was another recommendation: a fantastic nose of fresh grapefruit and a flavour that's much more about the bitterness than the fruit. Just on the end there's a teeny bit of metal and mustiness but not sufficient to spoil the overall enjoyment of this ever-so-friendly hop monster.

Picking randomly from the keg selection I got a Matuška Raptor, an IPA hailing from the new Czech ale revolution. I don't know what the hops used here were, but they exude a strongly perfumed aroma. The beer underneath is heavy enough to carry it, though, with a strong tannic element. The whole thing reminds me of a beefed-up version of Adnam's Innovation and is quite tasty.

Time was marching on, so one for the road. Oh, is that Thornbridge Alliance just gone on? One of those please. Before the glass of mahogany ale was anywhere near my nose, I knew I wasn't going anywhere for a while. This 11% ABV beer is monstrously sweet and advertises this fact loudly to everyone in its vicinity. Freeze-distill a Belgian dubbel, mix in some Special Brew and throw the whole lot in a madeira barrel for a few months and you get the idea. It's smooth, it's smoky; there are plums and vanilla-roasted chestnuts aplenty. One of those beers where the descriptors keep on coming. Hard work to drink it, but well worthwhile.

With a quick hello to Yan the proprietor and the recently-arrived Jeff Pickthall, I was off to my lodgings and already thinking fond thoughts of dinner. The theme was south-west Indian and the chef Sriram Aylur from Quilon. On arrival there were canapes and some corporate hospitality of the beery sort. I followed Ron Pattinson to the Brains table and started the evening with some Brains Dark -- a velvety chocolate-laced black beer, simple and drinkable, and not distracting from Ron's tales of brewing at Fuller's. A warming and deliciously marmaladey White Shield saw me through to the table where I was reunited with Tandleman and met his missus, the lovely E; Fletch from Real Ale Reviews; blogger and amateur brewer, the exceedingly unchunky Chunk; Mr & Mrs Rabidbarfly and the couple whom my wife refers to as "The Hardknotts", like they're a '70s sitcom.

I won't bore you with a course-by-course account of what we ate and drank, you can click the picture (right) for a look. The food was all excellent and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Goose Island's 312 wheat beer with the crab cakes. Like a lot of diners, however, I passed on the Blandford Fly. A substitute was grabbed from the tables downstairs: Adnams Tally-Ho, a strong and sticky winter ale of 7.2% ABV. It hits all the right caramel and plum notes and is well worth laying in for the season.

Before dessert there were awards, hosted by last year's top writer Pete Brown, with Mark Dredge taking the tankard for online communication once again -- well done Mark. The more bibliocentric labours of Messrs Avery and Tierney-Jones also garnered silverware for them, with Simon Jenkins of the Yorkshire Evening Post claiming the top gong overall. People began drifting away around midnight and the staff stacked the chairs around me, Zak Avery, Kristy McCready and Tim Hampson in a not-very-subtle GTFO-of-our-function-room sort of way. A final palate-cleansing Budvar stolen from Adrian Tierney-Jones and it was off to bed for me.

The next morning was cold and clear and started with the full English. A bit of Christmas shopping around Covent Garden was punctuated by staring in pub windows for anything interesting on tap. A clip in The White Lion caught my eye: current Champion Beer of Britain Castle Rock Harvest Pale Ale. I nipped in for a swift pre-noon half. It's a brilliant golden hue, served beautifully clear in wonderful condition. Worry from a slightly soapy nose was short-lived, overwhelmed by a delicious sherbet lemon bittersweet flavour. It's light and fantastically refreshing. Best beer in Britain? Yeah, maybe.

The penultimate leg of my journey had me striking westward to the well-heeled neighbourhood of Parson's Green and the legendary White Horse Inn. A mecca for beer lovers at any time, last weekend the enormous rangy boozer was hosting an Old Ale festival with 40-odd old ales, strong ales, barley wines and imperial stouts on handpump around the various bars, plus stillage in the back room. I had about two hours to get stuck in, in the company once more of the Hardknotts, Glyn from The Rake and Jeff Pickthall. When you find yourself curtly dismissing taps dispensing Yeti, Gonzo and cask Fuller's London Porter, the phrase is "spoiled for choice".

Harvey's were well represented and are one of my consistently favourite English breweries. With such a range of rarities on tap it was possibly gauche of me to opt for their common-or-garden Sussex Old Ale, but I'm glad I did. This murky dark red beer is deliciously sinkable, offering up delicate spices and exotic sandalwood as it goes. The description of Bonfire Boy as "smoky" gave it instant appeal, and it came with the Rabidbarfly seal of approval, so I went straight for it. Smoke, yes, but also lots of sticky sweetness and a biting bitterness at the end: a lot like drinking a toffee apple. Harvey's Imperial Stout wasn't my first of the day, but it was a big surprise: it's shockingly sweet and fruity like rancid strawberries or raspberry balsamic vinegar. Dave identified a lambic woodiness to it, but I still don't know if this is how it's supposed to taste. I did get used to it, and quite enjoyed it after a bit. It was just... odd.

I only had a sip from Dave's Meantime Russian Imperial Stout and wasn't impressed. It was aged in rum casks, quite possibly before the rum was taken out as the flavour is all rum and no beer. But at least it had character, which is more than can be said for the dry, astringent, but otherwise dull Sharp's Massive or the watery and vaguely tannic Otley Not So Old Ale.

Champion beer of the day for me was probably Thornbridge's Murmansk Baltic porter. At first sip it's dry with bags of dark roasted grains but underneath there's a lovely treacley alcoholic warmth, with the green hops bringing up the rear and providing a beautifully rounded finish. Delish.

Before saying my goodbyes and heading for Heathrow, there was the opportunity to taste Pit Stop's The Hop which was being passed around by some friendly beer geeks who had brought it in. This 8% ABV IPA from Oxfordshire lays claim to the dubious title of world's bitterest beer, lab-certified at 323 IBUs. It's a cloudy pale orange, rather flat, and as immensely pithy and oily as you might expect. As a shot, it's quite an interesting experience, but it's not something anyone sane will want to sit over a glass of.

And so to the airport. Usual drill: up to the Skylark where there was plenty of interest on tap but only time for one. I chose Mr G's, brewed at Everard's by Ian Ramsey of Auckland brewery Galbraith's. It's a simple and tasty brown ale with substantial malt heft for something of only 3.7% ABV and a rich chocolate heart. Then on the far side of security I stuck my nose in to The Tin Goose, delighted to see they've improved the draught beer selection quite a bit, though not enough to make me choose anything other than my usual: a deliciously crisp pint of Adnam's Bitter, followed by a sprint for the gate.

And that's me done with England for, oh, about four weeks until I'm back for Christmas in Hertfordshire. It was great catching up with so many of the UK beer folk, and especially great to meet some new ones. It looks to me like the Guild is fulfilling its social remit perfectly -- special thanks to the organisers and sponsors for putting it all together.

25 November 2010

Vibrant hybrid weizen

More off-kilter wheat beer today. Herr Unertl of the eponymous brewery in eastern Bavaria visited Ireland a few weeks ago and scattered bottles of Unertl Ursud wherever he went. This one was left in The Bull & Castle and given to me by Geoff the manager.

It's a strong dunkelweiss at 5.8% ABV and really quite interesting. It shows lots of the fruity yeast character you'd expect from a weiss, plus an added layer of caramel from the dark malts. So far so normal, but there's more. The carbonation is higher than a typicial weiss, adding a carbonic bite to the flavour. There's also a dry roasted crispness much more typical of a schwarzbier, plus a light body to match -- surprising for a weissbier of this strength.

I wouldn't say the two flavour profiles harmonise exactly, but they don't conflict either. Think of it as two beers for the price of one.

23 November 2010

Second runnings

It wasn't all mild, porter and stout in Belfast on Saturday. With 22 different drinks tasted, a bit of variety was needed, and this included one of the rare deviations from beer to be found on this blog. I had never tasted proper perry. Since Hereford Country Perry, at a modest 4.5% ABV, was on I thought I'd take the opportunity. It wasn't worth it. This totally flat pale green drink was incredibly sweet without offering any real pear flavour. Mostly it tasted like some Blue Nun with extra table sugar. Not offensive, but somewhere on the road between boring and unpleasant.

I was on much more familar territory with the dark amber beers. Bushy's Old Bushy Tail was a good 'un: full of caramel and chocolate, though not as caramelly as Old Mill Winter Warmer which added herbal honey notes and a touch of phenols into the mix. I wouldn't say this 4.7%-er is especially warming, but it is tasty and that's the main thing. I'm not sure what to make of Bowland's Hunter's Moon: russet-red but extremely thin with a fair whack of sulphorous minerals in it. Perhaps it works best as a crisp and refreshing session ale but it didn't hit many of my buttons. And neither did Mole Brewery's Rucking Mole. Again, it had some nice dry notes, and even a hint of smoke, but not enough of either to keep me entertained. You can have your dark-amber ales either heavy-and-busy or light-and-boring, it seems.

Time to lighten the mood, then. As always, Irish beers I've not had before are high on my list of priorities, so Whitewater's All That Jazz was an early sup. It's a pale shade of gold and very sweet with lots of that bubblegum flavour you get with certain UK blonde ales. Despite, or perhaps because, it reminded me of blue raspberry flavoured Slush Puppies I rather enjoyed it. Kelham Island's Pride of Sheffield was another interesting blonde, harmonising the pale malt sweetness with some lovely grassy Budvar-esque hops.

Mrs Beer Nut didn't appreciate it when I said her (unasked-for) Humpty Dumpty Lemon & Ginger smelled of ginger and piss, but there's no denying that it did. Quite enjoyable to drink, though: light and refreshing as ginger beer should be. Wood's Bonfire Brew is a much more serious affair: 5.4% ABV and a dark shade of old gold. There are major bitter overtones on top of that malty weight, finishing on some zingy fresh hop notes. A very satisfying strong pale beer for cold evenings.

Strikes Back by (who else?) Empire has been on at the Belfast festival in the past but this was my first go of it. It's an uninspiring shade of yellow with a worryingly farty aroma. The flavours are subtle with sharp mineral notes in the ascendant. Drinkable, yes; but only just.

Which brings me to my favourite of the pale ones: Strathaven's Clydesdale IPA. Leaving aside the unfortunate equine associations with a certain American lager brand, and moving swiftly past the worryingly soapy nose, this is a marvellously refreshing hops-forward beer, served in wonderful condition with the bubbles forcing out lots of candy and bitter lemon flavours. One of those beers that clearly shows how IPA at 3.8% ABV is not only a legitimate style, but one well worth pursuing by the brewer.

And that's where we left things at the Ulster Hall. With an hour or so before the train home, there was a welcome opportunity for a palate cleansing pint of Whitewater Copperhead in the glorious surrounds of The Crown, and a swiftly shared bottle of Belfast Black in Bittle's near the station.

A grand day out, all-in-all. Great having you back on the calendar, Belfast. And a hearty well done to the stalwart volunteers of CAMRA NI.

22 November 2010

Back where she belongs

Praise be! After two years of being dwarfed in the enormous shed that is the King's Hall and one year with no devotion whatsoever, Ninkasi returned to the Ulster Hall last week, sternly overseeing CAMRA NI's beer festival. There was much on the list of interest: Clanconnel's new McGrath's Irish Black which walked off with the festival's top prize; a barrel-aged Clotworthy Dobbin; reigning Champion Beer of Britain Castle Rock Harvest Pale; and Blue Monkey's BG Sips. But by the time the missus and I rolled up at noon on Saturday all of these were gone. I'm sure I'll catch up with them another time.

What remained was a clear field of several dozen new beers, with the fallback option of a few old favourites. Time to get started.

Dark beers dominated my selections, and I began with another new Irish one: Scullion's Plain Stout from Hilden. It's dark brown in colour with the most fantastic sweet chocolate aroma, following with a surprisingly clean and dry roasted flavour, finishing on some sour damson notes. A lovely balancing act. Mrs Beer Nut, meanwhile, opted for Highland's Dark Munro. She wasn't keen but I enjoyed it: shading towards ruby, it smells of chocolate-coated strawberries, the forward-facing hops adding a surprising fruity flavour to the dark malts as well as a long finish.

Keeping it celtic, Isle of Skye's Black Cuillan was wonderful: full and sweet and salty; and while I'm often suspicious of fake-Irish beers, Jarrow's McConnell's Irish Stout was right on the money, lip-smackingly crisp with overtones of chilli and chocolate.

On the other side of Newcastle from Jarrow is the Wylam Brewery at Heddon on the Wall. Haugh Porter was their offering in Belfast, and this is one that Mrs Beer Nut preferred more than I did, to the point where my scribbled note about it being quite sour was taken off me and a paen about coffee and peat flavours was written in alongside. Your mileage may vary.

And of course there are going to be a few disasters among the beers. Booby prize of the day goes to Frog Island's Croak and Stagger. I could have forgiven it the clunking name if it didn't tasted like a mix of Dairy Milk and vinegar, but it did. Less bad was Hung, Drawn 'n' Portered by North Cotswold: there was nothing technically wrong with it, but the heady boozy dark malt nose promised more than it delivered, the beer itself having little complexity beyond a tarry heaviness. Beijing Black did something similar: dark fruits and woody phenols in the aroma, then nasty metallic flavours afterwards. Not enjoyable.

I was glad to see Bateman's well represented, and to have the opportunity of enjoying their Dark Mild. It's a slightly sharp and fruity version of the style, with a tang of plums and blackberries ascendant over the dark chocolate, but maintaining equilibrium beautifully. The same brewery's Salem Porter was my highlight of the day: massively sticky and sweet with bags of creamy toffee and burnt coffee. It could have done with a bit more condition to liven it up, but as a gut-coating winter warmer it was perfect.

Finally for the black fellas, I was also much enamoured of Three Castles Knights Porter. A toned-down affair compared to Bateman's Salem; simple and dry with an intriguing waft of sulphur in amongst the roastiness. It's incredibly smooth though, adding a kiss of citric hops on the finish. I could have stuck with it all evening, but there was more beer of different colours to try. I'll get to them tomorrow.

18 November 2010

From high in the Belgian mountains

I'm so far behind on my American beer ticking it's just not funny. Not that there's anything funny about ticking, you understand: like serial killers we do it because we have to. It's a while since I've seen anything from Denver's Great Divide, but they're back on Irish shelves now with their Belgian style pale ale Belgica.

It's a style I have a lot of time for. You get the weight of a strong and sweet Belgian ale, a softness and gentle spice from the yeast and then some serious fun with the citric high-alpha hops. There are loads of examples from both Belgium and the US and they all emphasise different parts of the formula, so finding a new one is always interesting.

Alas, Belgica doesn't deliver where it counts. It's incredibly sweet, with a sticky, sickly aroma and a bitter sugary flavour. The C-hops have made it taste like orange barley sugar sweets. Cheap artificial ones. There's no proper malt backbone behind all this sweetness and fruit: a catastrophic oversight in a 7.2% ABV beer.

I should point out in its defence that the missus and I were tasting this alongside Flying Dog's Raging Bitch. I hoped it would be a fair comparison but it's really not. Raging Bitch remains the Belgianised American pale ale to beat.

15 November 2010

Bohemians on the southside

The already-busy Porterhouse festival calendar has a new date on it: last Thursday saw the opening of a ten-day celebration of Czech beer to mark 21 years since the Velvet Revolution.

When my shiny new camera and I went along for a shufti, the bottles hadn't arrived yet and it turned out we're not getting one of the highlights (Budvar yeast beer) at all in Ireland (booo!). Some interesting alternatives on draught, though: Bernard Dark, Budvar Dark and some strong pale fellas from Žatecký Pivovar.

Baronka looks quite innocent: a rich shade of gold, maybe a little bit darker than you might expect a typical pale lager to be. The aroma is the first sign that we're beyond plain pils territory, heady bananas and zingy peaches were my first impressions. It's mouth-coatingly full-bodied -- sitting cosily in the stomach and radiating a gentle alcoholic warmth, though it is only 5.3% ABV. The flavour starts by mixing these warm and fruity elements but the hops don't lag behind and there's an early smack of tangy, grassy Saaz. The finish is all hop too. A beautiful, balanced, complex winter lager this.

Two taps over they'd stuck up an innocent looking Žatec badge and biro'd in the word "Strong" beneath. In Czech terms Žatec Strong is an 18º lager -- 7.3% ABV to you and me. I only had a sample but could see it's a beautiful dark honey colour, and virtually headless. While it tastes all of its strength and more, it's not overpowering. There's no trampy cloying sweetness about it: I'd say this is all malt and lots of it. Maybe not exactly brimming with character but very smooth and a lovely sipping lager.

The plan is to get back in for a go of the bottles before the festival ends on Sunday.

11 November 2010

Aladdin Sainsbury's

I took a trip north on the bank holiday Monday a few weeks back. The euro was riding high against sterling so I had very few qualms about going to the beer section in Sainsbury's and putting some strain on a trolley axle. They have quite a few own-brand ales and I think I came away with one of most of them.