30 December 2010

Just another winter's ale

I only barely escaped snowy Dublin last week to spend the holiday in frozen Hertfordshire, so my Christmas drinking was mostly along English lines, with just a couple of exceptions. One sister gifted me a bottle of Saint Landelin Spéciale Noël, a seasonal from Gayant, the Douai brewery perhaps better known for Goudale. It's a yulified Belgian-style blonde -- 6.8% ABV and quite sticky with it, piling in the honey on top of gentle pot pourri spices. While warming, it's light enough to stay drinkable and sharing the 75cl bottle is entirely optional, fully subject to one's personal levels of seasonal goodwill.

The other non-English Christmas ale came from another sister (they know me so well): Merry X-Moose by Porthmadog's avant garde Purple Moose brewery. This poured shockingly flat but redeemed itself with lovely big chocolate flavours, finishing on some intriguing lavender high notes. Similar-but-different was Three Tuns Old Scrooge. A bit more condition to this, though not much. It's a dense black beer with lots of treacle spiced up by cinnamon and liquorice: an excellent warmer.

On to less seasonal fare, and Dorothy Goodbody's Imperial Stout: a boxed-up limited run of 6,000 bottles. Advice was that this is best left a few years to mature, but the air travel liquids ban left me with no choice but to pop the cap almost immediately after taking it out from under the Christmas tree. Immature imperial stout can be an unpleasant experience, often spiked with harsh metal-and-cabbage hop tones. None of that here, though. At 7% ABV it's perhaps on the light side of the genre and the flavours are quite gentle: lots of sweet and slightly sticky dark malts, a touch of roasted grain and a balanced grassiness from the hops. It could well be that it gets more interesting with age, but really there's absolutely nothing wrong with this beer right now.

A bottle of McMullen AK XXX fell across my path at one point during my stay. A fairly plain brown bitter, this. Crisp with a touch of toffee, it immediately called to mind Bailey's observations on the substituting of London Pride for altbier. This hits a lot of the same places as alt, finishing with a dry hop bite and being a little over-fizzy for English bitter. Close your eyes and think of Düsseldorf. (For more on the historical brewers' code "AK", including McMullen's use of it, see Zythophile's analysis here.)

Speaking of over-fizzy bitter, I was unable to resist the opportunity to try Whitbread Bitter when I spotted it on keg at a hotel bar near Luton. You have to try the local specialities when you travel, right? It lends further credibility to my grand theory that Irish red ale and English keg bitter are the same ill-starred creation. Whitbread Bitter is monstrously watery, generally sweet, with just a tiny shade more hopping that you might find in the likes of Smithwicks. My other guilty pleasure came on an excursion to the pub near where I was staying. Ignoring my own rule about going for something good rather than ticking off new beers, I couldn't resist a swift pint of Wells & Young's Eagle IPA. Brewed very much to hit the same market segment as Greene King IPA, this is 3.6% ABV and every bit as light, plain, uncomplicated and inoffensive. After one pint it was over to the far superior St Austell Tribute on the next tap.

I got to do very little by way of beer shopping -- just one trip to Sainsbury's, yielding the new IPA from Fuller's: Bengal Lancer. I was really quite careless in how I poured this 5.3% ABV bottle conditioned beer, but it still came out a perfectly limpid shade of dark copper. Despite the gung-ho branding it's quite understated all-in-all: I needed a few nosefuls of the aroma to pick up anything much, eventually identifying jaffa, or possibly mandarin, oranges. The malt drives the taste, leading the hops behind it, creating a not unpleasant effect of marmalade on thick-cut toast. The tail end veers almost tragically towards the metal and puke of Fuller's execrable IPA but just manages to avoid it by finishing quickly. The texture is perhaps the beer's best feature: big and satisfying. It would be nice if there was just a bit more substance to it, but as a straightforward well-constructed English IPA it can't really be faulted and I would buy it again.

And that's where we leave things for 2010. By the time you read this I should be somewhere in central Europe, gathering material for a post or two in 2011. Happy New Year!

27 December 2010

Off garde

I always expect something a bit rough-and-ready from a Bière de Garde, something that tastes convincingly like a sullen gallic farmer just lashed it up in the back of the barn, replete with raw grainy flavours, lots of murky haze and more than a whiff of some wild fermentation. It's hardly surprising that something much tamer arises when a large US craft brewer turns its meticulous attention to the style.

Flying Dog's Garde Dog is properly hazy all right, and the pale orange colour is certainly more attractive than any murky brown. The nose is exciting and enticing: sourness first followed by citrus zest and a sprinkling of herbs and spices.

The intrigue ends there, however. On tasting I got quite a thin and rather under-carbonated beer which exhibits a certain amount of the spice that was promised on the nose, but not enough for my liking. The citrus zest is just about present too, but it ends up dominating the flavour in the absence of anything else.

Now, a big part of this could be a freshness issue: I noticed that my bottle was only a month away from the expiry date, so I could well believe there were all manner of subtle and interesting things going on in it when it left Maryland. What I got, however, was an easy-drinking refreshing mid-strength (5.5% ABV) beer, and perhaps that's all it's meant to be. I can't complain too much really.

23 December 2010

Not home for Christmas

I've not gone back to Northern Ireland for Christmas. Instead, the whole family has decamped to Hertfordshire for the next few days. While in exile, I have only the memory of Ulster's native beers to keep me company.

Like McGrath's Irish Black, the third outing from Waringstown's Clanconnel Brewery. I don't have a picture so you'll have take my word that this session stout poured beautifully from the bottle: pure black with a thick layer of loose tan bubbles. I was quite surprised to find bitterness in the ascendant, something rather unusual in an Irish stout. The middle has lots of dry roast plus a very interesting chocolate-marzipan character at the end. It's a very interesting take on your standard Irish stout and one of the better bottled ones. This took the top prize at CAMRA's Belfast festival last month and I bet it's absolutely amazing on cask, with all that lovely sweet chocolate to the fore.

2010 saw the arrival of a fourth Northern Irish brewery: Inishmacsaint is based in Co. Fermanagh though brewing happens at Loughry College in Tyrone, on the same kit that provided Clanconnel's training wheels. Distribution is still pretty thin, though I did manage to get hold of a bottle of Inishmacsaint Lager through some back channels (thanks Ed!).

Well, it's a lager all right. For all its microbrewed and bottle-conditioned credentials, it tastes a lot like mainstream fizz, with maybe just a bit of haze and yeast character from my cack-handed pouring. Such cleanliness of flavour is a technical achievement for the brewer, of course, but not really what I'm normally after in a beer, and not what you might expect a beer fan with his own pro kit to produce. But it is what it is, and if you're going to drink one of these sorts of beers wouldn't you be better drinking it from the local guy? There's a wheat beer in the range as well: I'm looking forward to trying that.

The past year has been a significant one for Irish beer: three new breweries arrived on the scene while several of the established ones have expanded their ranges. Dublin has three great new speciality beer bars, all coming with cask ale as standard, and we saw the launch of Ireland's first beer consumers' organisation. But I should do this properly, and in accordance with Mr Dredge's annual awards template (you'll find last year's round-up here, by the way).

The Golden Pint Awards 2010

Best Irish Draught Beer:

It's hard to believe Trouble Brewing have only been with us for eight months or so. Ór has replaced Galway Hooker as the beer I drink when I don't want to think
about which beer to drink. Full-bodied, lightly carbonated, simple and delicious.

Best Irish Bottled Beer: O'Hara's Irish Pale Ale
Last year's top beer was the cask special Goods Store IPA. That recipe has since been tweaked, twiddled and turned into a regular part of the O'Hara's range. It shows up on draught now and again, though the bottled version is superior in my estimation. Unapologetically heavy and bitter with just enough citric zest to keep it approachable and fun.

Best Overseas Draught Beer: Uerige Alt
Going way back to the top of the year for this one. Brewery hopping in Düsseldorf is a fine way to spend a day or two, an
d Uerige is the pick of the bunch, not only for the fantastic atmosphere of the premises -- a lively centre of activity, even at 11am on a Thursday morning -- but also for their gorgeous hopped-up altbier: probably the most moreish beer I had all year. That said, I also have to put in a word for De Molen's Turf & Veen, a peat monster that very few of my acquaintances are likely to enjoy but which I loved.

Best Overseas Bottled Beer: Midtfyns Chili Tripel
A perfect example of how to do innovation well. All the great things
about tripel coupled with all the great things about chilli beer to create something far greater than the sum of its parts. Let the purists weep into their Westmalle: this is tripel which rewards the adventurous.

Best Overall Beer: Uerige Alt
Three very different beers there, but if I had to pick one it would be the Uerige. Find me a quiet alcove with the paper and an attentive
Köbe and I'm in heaven.

Best Pumpclip or Label: Metalman
Yeah, I'm cheating on this one. Gráinne and Tim's Waterford operation is still under starter's orders and at the moment has little to show except a logo. But what a logo! I've ever
y expectation the beers will be just as stylish when they appear next year.

Best Irish Brewery: Dungarvan Brewing Company
I don't know where Cormac, Jen, Tom and Clare get the energy from but they'
re phenomenal. From a standing start back in the spring they've been to every festival going, held tasting sessions around the country, run food matching evenings, hosted brewery visits, organised a walking tour of the town, been interviewed by countless media outlets, blogged, Twittered, Facebooked and somehow managed to find the time to brew and distribute three cracking beers. The brewery's commitment to all-natural conditioning pays dividends in the product and they've been a driving force for getting cask beer onto the bar in more and more Irish pubs. Keep it up, guys!

Best Overseas Brewery: Harvey's
Consistently excellent beers, readily available wherever I go in England.
This was the year when I realised that it can be a lot more fun just having a few pints of a beer you enjoy rather than working methodically along the pump clips. Harvey's Sussex Best Bitter was the beer that showed me the way.

Pub/Bar of the Year: The Salt House
Instantly my favourite pub in Ireland when I first discovered it in February (not realising that that would be the last time I'd get to have a pint in nearby Sheridan's -- a curse on intransigent landlords), The Salt House has picked up a bit of competition over the year, from the likes of the super-classy yet casually-comfortable L. Mulligan Grocer and its own sister pub Against The Grain, but for that laid-back Galwegian vibe and a kick-ass beer
line-up I'm still giving this one to them.

Beer Festival of the Year: Copenhagen
Why more of my fellow bloggers aren't making beelines for this festival is beyond me. 2010 was scaled down a bit from 2008, but still featured a stunning array of beers from most of Europe's first-string brewers, no small proportion of which are based in Denmark. There's also the wonderful beer launch sideshows at Ølbutikken, and on the weekend evenings when it's too packed to enjoy, you won't be stuck for somewhere to have a decent beer or two in Copenhagen. It's 26-28 May 2011. Go.

Supermarket of the Year: Superquinn
It could easily have been SuperValu on Aston Quay whose range of beers rivals some of the specialist off licences, but like last year I'm awarding
this one based on one single great offer: 6 beers for €12, featuring Adnams Innovation. Thank you very much, Superquinn.

Independent Retailer of the Year: DrinkStore
Ken and Richard have been pulling out the stops this year, and scored quite a coup by getting a supplier for Cantillon and De Molen beers. This in addition to a peerless range of Americans. Room for improvement? Yes: the UK. How about some Thornbridge, Otley or the like?

Best Beer Book or Magazine: 1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die
And not just because I wrote bits of it. OK, mainly because I wrote bits of it. So
if you're reading this, you may as well read that.

Best Beer Blog or Website: Beoir
A little bit of tootling on my own trumpet here, but more of a homage and thanks to the dozens of people who help make the Beoir website a great resource for brewers, drinkers, travellers and anyone with an interest in Irish beer, beer in Ireland, and going outside Ireland for beer. A special big-up to Barry who put in a lot of work on the site during the year, both in terms of the total redesign of Irish Craft Brewer and the various technological doohickeys in the background which make it work.

Best Beer Twitterer: Team Hardknott
I don't follow any soap operas, but I would if they were as interesting as the goings-on between @HardknottDave, @HardknottAnn and the supporting cast.

Best Brewery Online: Dungarvan Brewing Company
Given what I said about them above, of course Dungarvan are going to be here. They seem to have grasped the social element of social networking better than anyone, linking up with restaurants, state agencies, the media, retailers, customers and all the other parts of the gourmet food and drink industry of which they are most definitely a part.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year: Pork and stilton pie with Hobsons Old Henry
What? I was supposed to come up with another one of these? I'm still slurping through the fisherman's pie and Galway Hooker from last year. It's still brilliant. If I'd realised another one was expected I'd have done some research. Erm... oh, I know: pork pies. 2010 has been all about the pork pies and I confess I've eaten quite a lot of them. I make an IPA that goes rather well with them, though I also really enjoyed the pork and stilton one I got at Battlefield Farm Shop in Shrewsbury with Hobsons Old Henry, so that's my nom nom nomination for this year.

In 2011 I’d Most Like To…: Travel
Not too dissimilar from my aspiration for 2010, though rather less planned out at this stage. After four years I've finally managed to stuff enough cash down the money pit that is Beer Nut Towers to keep it quiet so now have the opportunity of putting some aside for a trip somewhere interesting in 2011. Not necessarily for the beer, but I'm sure there'll be beer there. Putting some sort of shape on that will be my project for January.

Open Category: Most improved brewery: Messrs Maguire
As I wrote in my post on the re-launch, we've seen the first signs of a new and improved Messrs Maguire pub and brewery. There's much more of a can-do feel about the place, and the house beers aren't the neglected stepchildren they once were. Here's hoping this upward trend continues in 2011.

And here's wishing all my readers a very Merry Christmas.

20 December 2010

Double Trouble

I've been drinking it fairly regularly all month, so apologies for only getting round to telling you about Trouble Brewing's Dark Arts porter now. It made its first appearance at the Food & Wine Magazine fair in the RDS a few weeks ago, followed by an official launch in the Bull & Castle on 30 November.

It's an unfiltered dark brown session porter of 4.4% ABV which starts out quite roasty and dry but follows this with a long-lasting chocolate and caramel sweetness. Just on the end there's a nip from the hops adding a bitter, slightly sour complication.

Dark Arts is a beer of marvellous balance: light enough for session drinking, but properly warming as well. It's on tap at the Bull & Castle and L. Mulligan Grocer for the next while.

In addition to this and Ór, a third beer comes to us from the Trouble kit, though its origins are rather more obscure. Last year Dublin pubs Sin É and Dice Bar began selling beers badged with old Dublin Brewing Company brands: D'Arcy's Stout and Revolution Red, names that hadn't been seen since DBC went under in 2004. Word around the campfire was that these were Young's Double Chocolate Stout and Bombardier, imported from the UK. And then, just a few months ago, I spotted a new poster outside Sin É proclaiming that Revolution is now brewed in Ireland. Investigations led to Trouble where, I'm told, the management rent out the kit to Revolution's owners and leave them to it.

The beer is quite good too: very sweet, with lots of toffee and smooth caramel. There's a nice roasted element to the flavour as well and just a tiny bit of hop aroma. A well-rounded Irish red, basically: not going to set the world alight but quite enjoyable to drink. And while it's quite possible that it's not terribly different from the kegged Bombardier, I really like that they see "brewed in Ireland" as a significant enough selling point to actually go to the bother of arranging it. Well done them.

16 December 2010

...on a such a winter's day

It was lovely to see globetrotting Beer Geeks Chris and Merideth back in Dublin last week. Thursday was Merideth's birthday and a bunch of us bravely crossed the ice floes of Smithfield to gather in L. Mulligan. Grocer for some excellent food and a few beers. The guys had brought some bottles of interest over from California for us to try.

First up was Saison Ale from the recently-established Odonata Brewery in Sacramento. Paler than I would have expected from a saison, this put me more in mind of a witbier, albeit a very very good one. Lots of lovely gunpowder spice on the nose and lovely zesty Belgian yeast flavours on a light and breezy body. There's just a touch of earthy funk on the end which brings it back into more familiar saison territory, but on the whole I'm theorising that this is what witbier used to taste like before the industrial breweries got hold of it.

Firestone Walker Union Jack was my favourite of the set. This is a very heavy, sticky IPA of 7.5% ABV. The aroma sings loudly of golden syrup and sherbet and the opera continues on tasting: a massive malt backbone overlaid with oodles of sweet Californian hops. There's very little of what I'd call bitterness in this: no trace of acidity or harshness, but there's bags and bags of citric flavour, incorporating more pineapples, mangoes and tangerines than grapefruit. Hefty, totally unsubtle, but wonderfully balanced.

The Russian River Blind Pig which followed it was an interesting contrast. It's a wonderful beer (a previous donation from Chris and Merideth was reviewed here), though lighter, paler and bitterer than Union Jack. Proof that American IPA is just as broad a genre as the English ones.

We finished the tasting with Denogginizer, a stonking double IPA from Drake's Brewing. I loved the nose on this: fresh American hops and plenty of them, but the flavour was just overpowering -- a harsh burn from the hops, goaded on by the heat of nearly 10% ABV. There's plenty of toffeeish malt in that deep amber body, but nowhere near enough to carry all that bitterness. It's a beer for people who like their hops in indiscriminately vast quantities.

With these out of the way it was on to dinner (mushrooms and Cashel Blue cheese on toast followed by juniper-spiced beef with roasted vegetables), and a sublime birthday cake for afters, made with Trouble Brewing's Dark Arts porter -- a beer I'm well overdue telling you about properly.

Thanks to Chris and Merideth for the beer and for being excellent company despite what must have been some chronic jetlag; and thanks also to the Mulligan's crew for looking after us on an evening when Dublin's winter water shortages would have crippled many a less tenacious establishment. We beer people really are troopers when we need to be.

13 December 2010

The troubled life of Brittany's beers

"Bières d'Excellence" it said on the box of Breton brews that Dave and Laura brought back from holidays for me, accompanied by the proviso that I should expect no such thing from the contents.

The first one I opened was called Dremmwel Blonde: 5% ABV, made from organic ingredients and sporting a jaunty set of Breton bagpipes on the label and cap. Lots of sediment in the bottom of the bottle so I poured carefully, giving me a hazy brass-coloured glassful, topped by a fine foam of purest white. Lots of breath-stopping carbon dioxide from the nose, and an odd herbiness underneath, warranting further investigation. It's not overly fizzy, just a pleasantly busy prickle helping keep the flavours clean. The main one is dry, slightly grassy and vegetal -- asparagus springs to mind. Beyond it there's little by way of malt or hops, but as a light clean aperitif, I was quite happy with this.

The amber followed next: Gwiniz Du. An attractive conker-red body is somewhat spoiled by the large floaty chunks buoyed up by a vigorous carbonation. According to the label it's a wheat beer [correction: buckwheat. French lessons via Mark & Laurent], but there's no sign of the soft texture or fruits or spices that one might expect. Instead it's very sweet, exhibiting lots of dark treacle and a touch of bitter liquorice. As is so often the case with sugar-bombs like this, once it gets warm it becomes sickly and cloying. This isn't my sort of beer but doubtless the style-conscious tramps of Quimper will be all over it next season.

Last of the trio is Celtika. "Enter into Hell" is the strapline on the MS Paint label. Oo-er