29 December 2011

Thorn on my side

Inevitable, really. Only a year ago I passive-aggressively ask the trade where the Thornbridge stuff is, and now there's more of it coming in than I can keep up with. So, this is a clearance of some stuff that's been sitting in my fridge for too long, plus some more recent acquisitions, all from the über-classy Derbyshire brewery.

I didn't get Kölsch until I went to Cologne. From the bottle and keg it had always just tasted like a dry pilsner to me, and a very plain one at that. What's the fuss about? That changed when I got to drink it closer to the source. The smoothness offered by the version served from wooden barrels in the better Cologne pubs adds a vital dimension to the Kölsch experience you just don't get any other way. So I was intrigued and more than a little suspicious when I got hold of Thornbridge's bottled take on the style. Would bottle-conditioning make that all-important difference?

Tzara pours a clear limpid gold. I was careful to avoid any sediment, but really there was very little to be found. The mittelfrüh hops are very apparent in the aroma: the heady fermented grassiness of warm silage. The flavour is sweeter, though, making the most of the carapils malt to balance the green flavours with a bit of residual sweetness. And most importantly of all, the carbonation is light. Not cask-smooth, but far from being pale yellow burp-water. I think they've done a good job here, and are showing the joy of Kölsch much better than, say, bottled Früh does.

Raven, Thornbridge's black IPA, doesn't mess about. From the opaque black-brown body comes a bolt of pithy aroma preparing the way for intense bitterness on tasting. Dominating the proceedings is flinty Nelson Sauvin in its dry, less fruity, incarnation. I get a lot of the harshness I associate with Sorachi Ace in large quantities but none of the fruity peachy fun that I feel the Centennial ought to be supplying.

The wife really enjoyed it, and got a good roasted dark ale flavour from it. I couldn't detect that under the citric punch: it's another one of those black IPAs I would swear is pale when drinking with my eyes closed. There's no doubt Raven is complex and interesting, but I just feel a bit abused by it. Too much of a workout for my weak and feeble palate.

Next up, Versa, the puntastic weissbier. It comes out a lovely, almost red, shade of gold and only slightly hazy given the style. At 5% ABV it's on the weak side, and offers very little other than wateriness on the nose. What it loses in welly, however, it gains in drinkability. No overpowering banana esters or other heavy flavours. Instead it's mildly zesty with an easy-going sherbet effervesence rather than full-on fizz.

I'm sure it's a perfect summer refresher but I've no objection to it in the depths of winter either.

For the proper chilly evening sipper I've reserved a bottle of Bracia, Thornbridge's super-limited strong dark ale brewed from a whole host of malts, including brown and peated; a plethora of hops including Sorachi Ace and Pioneer; and with a bonus addition of Italian chestnut honey. It's a beer to take very seriously indeed.

It pours slowly and unctuously, lazily forming a dark tan head. The aroma is odd: lots of roast, but the dryness is sweetened by a floral character which I'm guessing comes from the honey.

It tastes weird. Intense perfume pervades the whole thing and makes it hard to get at the beeriness beneath. I can just about detect the peat, and the roast barley is present on the finish. There's possibly a bit of chocolate buried in there too, but overall it's quite difficult to take. Still, I suppose when it's €10 for half a litre you don't want to be charging through it. I'm not at all sure I'd buy another bottle, and the price is only part of the reason.

And that concludes the beer reviews for 2011. All that remains for this the last post of the year is the handing out of...
The Golden Pint Awards 2011

Looking back on the 2010 awards (2009 is here), I think I can safely say I achieved my ambition for 2011: to travel. 12 countries and 4 of them new to me is a personal best. And the beer scene in Ireland has moved on quite a ways in the past year. I'm excited at the thought of similar progress over the next 12 months. Anyway, here's how it's all panned out:

Best Irish Draught Beer: Metalman Windjammer
A brewery that was no more than a logo this time last year stormed out of the blocks with a kickass flagship ale and this stunning summer seasonal. All kiwi hops made it a pineapple and mango flavour grenade. I'm limiting the award to the cask version, however. It all fell a bit flat when filtered and kegged. Caskless Irish pubs: start your engines.

Best Irish Bottled or Canned Beer: Knockmealdown Porter
Lots of Irish beers made an appearance in bottles this year, including old favourites such as Trouble Dark Arts and Galway Hooker. I give the prize to another brand new brewery for 2011, however: Eight Degrees and their hefty-yet-drinkable porter Knockmealdown, though Franciscan Well's Shandon Century was a close second.

Best Overseas Draught Beer: Wild Esra on Cherries
Even at a festival where imperial stouts, barrel-aged rarities, sour one-offs and weird fruit beers abounded this one from De Molen had enough character to stop me and make me pay attention. It's the whole picture. The world of beer geekery in a single glass.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer: Great Divide Smoked Baltic Porter
They say Great Divide ain't gonna be exporting no more. I'm willing to donate one of the last bottles of this in the country to a local brewery for cloning purposes.

Best Overall Beer: Wild Esra on Cherries
No question. It's not a drink-all-year sessioner. It's an unforgiveably room-dividing one-off of the sort that shouldn't get awards from people who aren't insufferable rarity-chasing spoogebeerians. But it's just too damned tasty not to take the prize.

Best Pumpclip or Label: De La Senne Equinox
The wife spent a fair few days in Brussels on business this year, which meant a Belgian beer bonanza for me. Ordering by remote control can be a dangerous game but I've never had a problem in saying "Just anything by De La Senne. You'll know them by the labels." From a brewery with a wonderful eye for design, brooding Equinox is one of my favourites.

Best Irish Brewery: Metalman
You want to know what I think is missing from Irish beer? Bravery. With just a few exceptions, mostly from the established companies, we're still stuck in the Stout-Lager-Red Ale Beermuda Triangle of traditional Irish styles, only now we have a hoppy-but-sessionable pale ale thrown in too. Metalman, while sticking to a solidly reliable pale ale to make a name for themselves, haven't been afraid to play around with other ideas for the limited editions. So we had the antipodean-hopped not-quite-amber ale mentioned above for one, and second up was a peppered witbier made with saison yeast: Alternator. Beer is all about diversity and Metalman get this gong for giving us that from the very start.

More of this sort of thing, please, Gráinne and Tim.

Best Overseas Brewery: 1516
Back to the very top of the year for this one, and one of the highlights of my trip to Vienna. Breaking the lagerland mould with hoppy pale ales and plenty more besides. Bravery and diversity once again.

Pub/Bar of the Year: Bowe's Lounge
I haven't ventured too far from my usual local haunts in 2011: The Bull & Castle, Against the Grain, The Porterhouse, L. Mulligan. Grocer: chances are, that's where you'll find me. But we've seen an interesting development in Dublin pubdom this year. An increasing number of "normal" pubs -- some of them guidebook classics -- have started stocking beers from the independents. The bright green light on the O'Hara's IPA keg font is the most welcoming sight in any Dublin pub. It says "Yes, you can stay here for a drink".

The Palace on Fleet Street has long been ahead of this curve, but this was the year they went cask and got a Dungarvan beer engine installed. The Long Hall now has Hooker; there's Carlow bottled and draught beers in The Church on Mary Street. But one of the most enjoyable evenings I had all year was the Sunday night session in Bowe's Lounge. O'Hara's IPA on tap, Fuller's ESB bottled, and a casual yet wonderful trad session in the corner.

Bowe's is a decent, untouristy, unpretentious boozer that happens to take its beer a bit more seriously than most. We need dozens more like it in this town.

Beer Festival of the Year: Borefts
I think the local highlight was Bloom in Phoenix Park back in June, but the geektastic Borefts festival at De Molen in September was something else entirely.

World-beating beers aside, it was the most enjoyable drinking session I had all year. Thanks to Derek, Ron, Lexie, Mike, Chris, Dom, Evin, Menno and Her Outdoors for making it so.

Supermarket of the Year: No-one
Looking back, I realised I've bought next to no beer in the supermarket this year. None of the offers have really caught my eye. The only one giving us any decent amount of diversity is Marks & Spencer, and their stuff is just too expensive for what it is. I've been pleased to see off licence chain O'Brien's really raise their game beerwise this year, with Carlow, Dungarvan and Eight Degrees all now in stock. But really, only the independents have been meeting my needs in 2011.

Independent Retailer of the Year: The Beer Club
Partly because it's headquartered on my doorstep, but mainly because manager Stephen has shown an incredible enthusiasm for the whole speciality beer segment. It has been a delight to deliver the tasting sessions in the basement (and if you were at one of them over the past few months -- thanks for being such a great crowd) and even more of a delight to be at the sessions where other people did the talking. I'm looking forward to more of those in the New Year.

And extras like this aside, I love that I can just nip around the corner to buy beers I've never had before. I never thought I'd see the day.

Best Beer Book or Magazine: The Oxford Companion To Beer
Simply for existing, and being a huge sign of beer's growing stature in the culinary world. The errors and ommissions, while they should never have happened, provide a new opportunity to help right the historical wrongs that have been done to beer. As such, The Oxford Companion to Beer is the antigen in the beer writing system, and Alan's wiki shows a healthy immune system.

Best Beer Blog or Website: DrinkStore
Yes, it's a shop that sells beer online, but I'm giving it this award for its role as a  reference source. New beer comes and goes on the Irish market quite quickly, and not everything gets reported by drinkers in the field or the responsible retailers like Bradley's in Cork and Jay at Hollands of Bray. When I'm wondering where my next blog post is going to come from, DrinkStore's beer section is where I look first. Where did I find out that, at last, Ireland had Thornbridge? DrinkStore's website.

Best Beer Twitterer: BoakandBailey
One of the best things about their blog is the way it acts as a sort of clearing house for informed and mature commentary on all things beery. Their long overdue arrival to Twitter has extended that to the microblogging world and we get wonderful links and observations that we would otherwise miss. They get this award despite the unfair tweeting advantage of having four thumbs.

A dishonorable mention, of course, goes to SimonHJohnson. If you're into beer, on Twitter, and not following him, you're doing it wrong.

Best Online Brewery Presence: Eight Degrees
Dungarvan got the gong last year for sheer busyness. This year, for the same reason, it goes to Eight Degrees (not that Dungarvan have slowed down or shut up or anything). Great outgoing support for the local businesses that stock their beers, and by extension great support for the customers who want to find and drink it. Howling Gale on draught is a rare beast: it's great when Scott and Cam give us the coordinates to find it.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year: Cheese, generally
I'm no wiser about the principles of beer and cheese matching than I was in January, despite the government dedicating an entire long weekend to teaching me. However, I've had an enormous amount of fun this year just picking random cheeses and beers and seeing what happens when they're put in close proximity. I'll be doing lots more of this in 2012.

In 2012 I’d Most Like To: Try going pro
I've had fun this year trying my hand at the whole public speaking malarky. Together with Stephen at The Beer Club I've discovered that there are people out there willing to give up their evenings to be talked at by me about beer (previously it was just a question of picking the bar stool next to me) and having a receptive audience and a bit of back-and-forth is very rewarding. So, more of that for 2012, until I decide I hate it and don't want to do it any more.

Which leads effortlessly into a shameless plug for the gigs I'm doing at The Carlyle Institute starting in January. Two hours; six beers; small classes; lots of cheery-beery banter and only limited quantities of awful puns.

Open Category: Most Exciting Beer City
By all accounts London has really got it going on at the moment. But I wasn't there in 2011 so can't comment. My award goes to Prague for its ale revolution sitting atop a well-deserved reputation for kick-ass lagers. Well worth a weekend if you're anywhere in the vicinity.

I wouldn't say no to a return to Vienna or Amsterdam, mind. It has been a good year.

But here endeth 2011. I'm off to the beer fridge to begin putting 2012 into some sort of drinking order.

26 December 2011

Markt for death

Just when you thought the whole tatty Christmas market thing was over, I bring you a beer brewed specifically for taking the edge off shivering around the stalls looking at a million identical wooden angels and tiny log cabins while magma-hot glühwein raises blisters in your mouth before instantly turning undrinkably cold.

It's called Christkindlesmarkt Bier and is from Tucher in Nuremberg. A warming 6% ABV, it's a rich dark gold colour and gives off a golden syrup aroma that reminds me immediately of the better sort of Czech 12° světlý ležák. The flavour is certainly sweet, but it's nicely tempered with a decent amount of hops which prevent it from getting too cloying and which add a mildly piney flavour, the evergreen effect accentuated by an overall resinous texture.

Halfway down the glass I start to feel the warming sensation the brewer doubtless intended, along with the accompanying seasonal cheer. It really is designed as a fasttrack remedy for Christmas shopping misery. I probably should have told you about it weeks ago. Have some to hand when you're queueing at customer services with your receipts this week. Unless, of course, Tucher have a festbier for that as well.

22 December 2011

What are you rebelling against?

Having previously tackled industry giants such as The Portman Group and CAMRA, BrewDog's caustic attentions now seem to have been turned to the beliefs of small children. It's a fair target: like the other two, small children have some odd ideas and could do with being taken down a peg or two. Hence There Is No Santa, a seasonally-adjusted stout.

It's a dark red-brown colour with a nice thick stouty head. And it tastes of gingerbread. Cocoa nibs and ginger stems are listed as the bonus add-ons, but I'm not getting much chocolate flavour, or stout flavours generally. Just gingerbread, or possibly ginger biscuits. Nice as it goes, but I was bored before the end of 33cl.

Just as well there's another one in the range, then. Despite the less cheeky name, Christmas Porter sounds very promising. Based on the damned decent Alice Porter with added cacao, chilli and spices. My kind of beer all round.

A point and a half stronger than TINS, at 6.2% ABV, showing an enticing beige head with a subtle chilli bite in the aroma. It wears that chilli up front, and it's more about the peppery flavour than the heat. I think I can forgive that. In the middle there's lots of chocolate and the chilli comes back at the end for a dry fruity finish. Again, it's nothing extreme or wildly off-kilter, but there's plenty to enjoy. As drinkable, sinkable dark beers, both are well-suited to the season of overindulgence.

Happy Christmas, readers!

19 December 2011

No bollekes

I had no idea what to expect from these two: big 75cl corked bottles with a very modernist new-world-wine sort of label, though peer closely at the enigmatic logo (a wineglass on its side? a malt shovel? a man with a crewcut asleep?) and the brewer's initials are revealed: the ordinarily staid and traditionalist De Koninck of Antwerp. What are they up to? Let's find out.

I tackled the blonde first: Gusto 1833 is the title, commemorating the year the brewery was founded. Perhaps the first part of the name is a sign that they're making a play for the whole Special Beer For Food thing, which may be in danger of becoming a niche. I get a loud pop as the cork comes out and lots of short-lived champagney fizz while it pours. A centimetre of head sticks around, over a hazy pale gold body. There's a mild sherbet aroma, and on tasting my first impression is of standard Duvelesque Belgian strong blonde. At 8% the ABV is in the right ballpark too. Then my nosehairs start to burn. This beer is very highly carbonated, to the point where it becomes difficult to taste. I need to leave it to flatten out for a while.

When I do, it's still very Duvelish: sweet, soft and boozy, like a pissed-up peach. Squinting for difference there might be a little bit of extra sweetness, some floral perfume perhaps, but no real distinction I can nail down with certainty. All that matters is that it's enjoyable, I guess, which it is. With food? Sure, why not?

Gusto 1833 Ruby Red appears to be a brand extension, or perhaps they're aiming for the whole red wine / white wine duality. The cork cage was of a sort I've never seen before: there's something a little BDSM about it. I was definitely expecting another fizz bomb. There was a loud pop and oodles of foam, this time disappearing completely after a minute. However, the beer underneath is much smoother than the blonde.

First things first: it's definitely not ruby red. More murky brown. Garnet, if one were feeling charitable. The taste is deliciously off kilter. It has all the balsamic vinegar richness and spice of a full-on Flemish red, except... without the vinegar. It's really quite sweet, shading towards the dubbel end of the spectrum, but the complexities are pure Rodenbach. It went great with the hot chocolate fondant I felt immediately compelled to zap in the microwave and consume alongside it, and which brought out a wonderful strawberry fruitiness.

So there so have it: two bottles you can plonk down in the middle of a table and get some excited ooohs before the diners realise that it's only beer.

15 December 2011

On the road

It sounds interesting, this one: a brown ale -- that steadfastly old-fashioned style -- brewed to a very non-traditional (or at least somewhat unorthodox) 6% ABV and single hopped with Citra, the American powerhouse hop more commonly found in high-octane IPAs. Anchor Breckle's had me intrigued from the start.

It pours more of a ruby shade than brown, topped by a thick and rocky off-white head. While it's as sweet as one would expect a brown ale to be, with just a touch of roastiness at the back, the hops are at the centre of the flavour giving a major fruity dimension to it. Not the fresh and fleshy mangos and peaches that's characteristic of West Coast hops, but a more artificial-tasting Opal Fruit vibe. That sounds bad, but it's not meant to be. This is a fun and frivolous ale, a conversation beer rather than one to sit over and think about.

From San Francisco we head north up Route 101 to Ukiah and the Butte Creek brewery, to try their Porter. It's a deep dark shade of red with quite a busy sparkle, relatively thin of body for 6.1% ABV.

There's a definite stickiness to the aroma: full of treacle and burnt sugar. The slightly charred notes are at the front of the flavour with sweeter caramel and a little bit of mild coffee coming in behind it. I got an unfortunate tang of cardboardy oxidation which somewhat spoiled an otherwise plain but pleasant beer.

A u-turn and back to San Fran, so.

12 December 2011

Howls of derision

I really enjoyed my afternoon of quality drinking at The Salt House in Galway city a few weeks back. They kindly agreed to host the Beoir AGM, and laid on some very decent beer and tasty food. I had to split horribly early for the last train back to Dublin (6.05pm: why, Irish Rail, why?) but on my way out manager Taram charitably thrust a bottle of BrewDog Bitch Please and a pint glass at me.

This barrel-aged barley wine was produced in association with Three Floyds and is all of 11.5% ABV. It smells it, with a serious boozy waft coming off the light beige head that sits thickly over the dark copper liquid. After the alcohol there's a blast of oak and then some peaty phenols: all this before even the first sip. The taste is as loud as one might expect, all blaring peatiness and alcoholic heat. The only vaguely subtle bit is a teeny hint of oxidised wet cardboard at the back, but that fades quickly. A mouth-coating viscosity means that at least you get good value for each mouthful: the flavours stay with you for quite a while. Like 5am Saint, this is perhaps a beer to finish a session on.

Overall I found Bitch Please quite brash and unsophisticated, but it did last almost the whole way back across to the right-hand coast.

Back in the familiar confines of the Bull & Castle I find a new English beer on the beer engine: Wychwood's Dog's Bollocks. I am hounded by poorly-named canine-themed British beer, it would seem. It arrived a rather hazy pale orange but there was not a thing wrong with it: beautifully cool and sparkling busily. The zingy aroma leaped out and the first sip delivered a bitter citric smack around the chops followed by softer orange sherbet notes and a little bit of incense spice in the finish. For something that seems designed as a hoppy pick-me-up it's decently full-bodied, and though nowhere near as long-legged as the barley wine above it does leave a pleasant waxy bitterness in its wake.

I hope to see it again on the Bull & Castle's cask rotation, though obviously I won't be ordering it by name.

08 December 2011

Second watch

There's been a bit of a revamp over at the Bay Brewery, based at the Oslo brewpub in Galway. The makeover sees the name changed to "Galway Bay Brewery" and the dropping of their (pretty decent, IMO) amber lager. The so-so red ale is staying and there are two new additions to the range. I caught up with them in the brewery's Dublin tied house Against The Grain recently.

Stormy Port first, a porter. The lack of nitrogenation was a pleasant surprise, and I think it really helps the flavours shine. Well, flavour, singular: Stormy Port is a grade-A chocolate bomb with bucketloads of sweet candy and not a whole lot else. It's served far too cold and the thin fizzy body doesn't allow the chocolate have any warming or filling properties, unfortunately.

To the best of my knowledge, the house yeast at Galway Bay is Danstar Nottingham, a neutral strain, and this may well be the reason this beer is so one-dimensional. Mr Billings opined that a more interesting estery ale yeast might help give it a little more depth and complexity. In the meantime, I'm happy to drink it, as long as it's left to warm up a little. You can't have too many porters, say I.

The second beer is similarly cold and kegged. It goes by the disquieting name of Strange Brew -- when a brewer chooses to label a beer so it's time to worry. I don't remember seeing a style designation on the tap badge, but I've heard second-hand that they're calling it an IPA. From the amber body there's no aroma to speak of and the flavour is very much malt-driven: slightly sticky, with a small hop bang at the end but loads of carbonic bite. All-in-all it's quite inoffensive, reminding me lots of several passable, forgettable, English bitters I've had, only without the smoothness and flavour subtleties that cask-conditioning provides. Served from Against The Grain's beer engine, this could be really interesting. And, of course, it never hurts to do a bit of dry-hopping as well.

No doubt these first editions of the beers will be subject to change as the brewer tweaks the recipes. There's a lot of promise here and it would be great to see Galway Bay pulling out something really original, though the standard in Ireland is quite high at the moment.

05 December 2011

Ankers aweigh

These two German lads have been sitting in Messrs Maguire all year. I guess with competition from the house beers and macros they never really sold, since they were being flogged at a knock-down rate when I picked them up to take away. Both are from Ankerbräu in Nördlingen. An odd choice of name for a brewery in thoroughly landlocked Bavaria.

The lager first: Daniel-Trunk Kellerbier. It's naturtrüb, as the label makes clear: very cloudy, rendered yet murkier by the dark brown colouring. My kellerbier experience is limited, but I thought they tended to be paler than this. Daniel's keller needs a lightswitch. A hit of malteser on the nose is scant preparation for the massive ovaltine flavour. The sweetness is somewhat offset by a tang which I think is down to the age of the beer: I'm drinking it a good two months after the best-before, and it's a style I'm sure isn't meant for aging. Though what it's like when all that residual sugar is in full-flow doesn't bear thinking about.

At the finish up there's just enough of a hop-bite present to prevent anyone mistaking it for alcoholic porridge-water, though it's still hard to shake the sensation of supping some kind of breakfast cereal or nutritious dietary supplement for invalids.

When the sugar buzz wore off I turned to Rieser Dunkles Weizen: another dark one, at the same strength (5.2% ABV) but this time a wheat beer. It's a bit more orthodox: nicely balanced between mild banana tempered by caramel. Smooth and light enough to be drinkable. And although it's several weeks older than the brewer would like, there's no trace of staleness or any off flavours.

For a cold winter's evening it's really quite comforting, but it's a beer I could see working as a summer's day quencher just as easily.

One interestingly odd and the other solidly enjoyable: catch them if you still can at Messrs Maguire.

02 December 2011

Barley's ghost

Mind! I don't mean to say I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the similie; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for.
Session logoThe first page of A Christmas Carol is my favourite thing ever written. I wouldn't be Mr Dickens's biggest fan -- I'd hazard that few of us who struggled through Great Expectations at A-Level count ourselves so -- but those first paragraphs are so beautifully crafted. The story eventually drowns in sentimentality, but for the opening sequence alone it deserves its classic status.

The opportunity to pay tribute to my fav bit of prose comes by way of Phil at Beersay, host of the December 2011 Session, who picked the story as his theme. In keeping with it I have unchained three spirits from my beer fridge to examine for signs of yuletide cheer.

The Beer of Christmas Past
Old Dickens had gone to join Jacob Marley some years before 4th August 1893, the date on which Fuller's of Chiswick brewed a Double Stout which they've more recently brought back from the grave with the assistance of European beer's necromancer-in-chief Ron Pattinson.

At 7.4% ABV, Fuller's Double Stout is normal strength for a pre-1917 stout recipe, and a reminder for Irish drinkers that plain old Guinness used to be up in these high reaches too (you can watch the gravities plummet on the table in this post from Ron's blog a few years ago). From the beige head I get an immediate treacle aroma. I'm guessing the finishing gravity was quite high as there's a huge and quite sticky body. That said, it remains wonderfully drinkable: smooth and not too sweet, exuding warming boozy heat and finishing with just a small carbonic bite.

Interestingly I also get a waft of smoke from it and, coupled with the smoothness, I'm immediately reminded of Franciscan Well's Shandon Century, another understated powerhouse of a stout. It's hard to beat this style of beer when it's time to batten down the hatches for winter.

The Beer of Christmas Present
Kids today, with their double-imperial this and their barrel-aged that, chasing the latest in hop highs and extreme methodologies. One beer I happened across recently combined all of this in one neat bottle: Great Divide Rumble, a barrel-aged IPA. It's an unusual proposition for the Denver brewer, since like so many of its contemporaries it values big fresh hop flavours in its IPAs. Stick them in oak and the only way is down, isn't it?

Well no, not necessarily. Rumble pulls off the feat of combining the best bits of all. It starts with a sherry-like nose, all enticing wood and alcohol with none of the oxidised warning signs this aroma often elicits.  The malt jumps out first on tasting: a big toffee hit, given momentum by 7.1% ABV. A fresh hop-burst follows quickly: mellow soft fruit tempered with a sharp bitterness when the beer is cold, but mellowing even further as it warms. There's no mistaking that the hops here are bang up-to-the-minute fresh ones losing none of their flavour power under the influence of the oak which finishes the beer off.

There's a slight vanilla tang and a little bit of sappiness meeting the pine hop bitterness, but it's mostly present as a subtle complexity, an encore to the hops' big number. I imagine that achieving this delicate level of woodiness in a strong beer is incredibly difficult to do and is perhaps the reason we don't see more barrel-aged IPAs around. But perhaps we'll see more of them in the future.

The Beer of Christmas Yet-To-Come
The future. The future, in Ireland at least, is local. I'm finding it quite difficult these days to schedule in all the new Irish beers available on the Dublin market and I'm already several beers in arrears. I imagine this problem is only going to get worse as more new breweries come on stream in 2012, and those already established turn out more seasonals and specials. It's a wonderful problem to have.

To mark this rising tide of beery variety I have the first seasonal from Mitchelstown's 8 Degrees brewery, a two-man operation that has been turning out beers for a mere eight months now. A Winter's Ale is 7.5% ABV and a dark red-brown colour: not as black as the Phantom in our story, but not far off. I met it at the Taste of Christmas show last weekend where there was an excellent showing by the Irish craft breweries, both as part of The Beer Club bar and at stalls of their own. Last year, apparently, it was wall-to-wall Beck's Vier and nothing else. ¡Viva la Revolución!

For the brewing of A Winter's Ale a blend of ten mulling spices has been provided by local spicery Green Saffron, which includes cinnamon, cloves and star anise in no uncertain quantities. They give the beer an oddly sour nose which I found a little off-putting at first, but they really get to work properly on tasting. First you get a wonderful warming sweetness and then the spices come in on top: a bittersweet oriental confection that puts a keen edge on what might otherwise be a rather one-dimensional strong porter. At the end there's a lingering banana ester flavour peeping out from under the spices. The texture is smooth, the carbonation gentle and on the whole it's very drinkable, despite the busy spicing. Hot on the heels of Metalman's Alternator and Trouble's Pumpkin Ór I'd love to see even more of these seasonals with seasoning.

All that remains for us now is to wake, send a passing boy off to the poulterer, share a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop with young Cratchit, and finish on a phrase so hackneyed I can't bring myself to repeat it. Just go and read the story.

30 November 2011

Ummm... okay then

"We have no Herold Dark, only the Semi-Dark" said the lady behind the bar in Pifko. I was extremely flattered that she said it first in Czech (I don't think I look particularly slavic at all, more's the pity) and then I paused. The Budvar tap started doing a pick-me dance, but I was there for Herold so Herold Granat is what I got. An experience at once interesting and slightly disturbing too.

It presents itself as a foamy nitrogenated dark amber-red beer, looking for all the world like one of those god-awful creamy Oirish reds or smoothflow bitter. The aroma was along those lines too: sickly and unappetisingly cloying. I didn't look, but I'm sure the Budvar tap was making a told-you-so face at this point.

Punching through the head and taking a sip I found myself in a much happier place. The sweetness is far more piquant burnt caramel than gloopy syrup, and it finishes with a gorgeous grassy burst of Czech hops. It's still pretty heavy, but the flavours allow it to be refreshing even as it fills.

Obviously the dark stablemate is to be preferred, but this is a pretty good substitute now and again, no matter what the Budvar tap says.

28 November 2011

Worth a thousand

De La Senne makes me want to be a better photographer. I mean, look at that label (you might have to squint and use your imagination a bit). It's wonderful. It should be on a billboard instead of a 33cl bottle on top of my beer fridge. I usually have my cynicism turned up to 11 when it comes to beer branding and image, but De La Senne rarely fails to turn my marketing-bullshit-proof wall to mush.

Sigh. Anyway, you probably want to know something about Brussels Calling, the beer behind the label. It's a typical sessionable De La Senne job, at 5% ABV, orangey in both colour and flavour. Unfortunately the yeast character interferes with the fresh fruit that I reckon is what the beer is supposed to be based around. While the aroma still has an enticing citric zip, the taste is mostly just giving me gritty yeast. I should have poured more carefully.

It's not you, De La Senne, it's me.

24 November 2011

Fade to black

I'll spare you my dim and blurry pub photography for this one, shall I? A couple of weeks ago the Porterhouse launched their second Czech Beer Festival which featured a new one they'd produced in association with the brewer from Purkmistr in Plzeň. Bohemia is a black lager made using authentic yeast from Pilsner Urquell. How authentic the rest is, though, is up for debate.

Comparison with the real Czech dark lagers on sale in Dublin is inevitable and I think Bohemia stands up well, if somewhat off to the side. Yes it's black; yes it's sweet; but it's nowhere close to the treacle explosion of the Czechs. Instead it's more subtle; the sweetness is there to offer counterbalance to a lovely burnt grain flavour that sits at the heart of this beer. While still quite heavy, the dryness keeps it very much on the drinkable side and while I'd personally prefer a little more coffee or chocolate, the molasses and roast barley combo gives my palate plenty to keep it occupied.

Officially, the festival only ran for five days. I hope supplies of this will last rather longer.

21 November 2011

Jury duty

I confess to having done a little jumpy-up-and-down dance when Adrian, festival organiser for CAMRA Northern Ireland, asked me to judge the Champion Beer of Belfast at their festival this year. I'm usually at the festival on the Saturday and have often missed the most interesting beers. An excuse to go up on the Thursday was very welcome. To see a CAMRA awards process from the inside was a bonus.

I arrived in a dark and rainy Belfast with just enough time for a swift half in The Bridge House, just a few metres from the festival venue. This is a vast JD Wetherspoon I've never enjoyed visiting before, but CAMRA NI have seen fit to elect it their pub of the year for the last two years so I thought maybe a reappraisal was in order. For a Thursday lunchtime it was surprisingly quiet, mostly office lunchers and a fair few tables of spillover from the festival. All very mature and civilised. My half of Old Empire was pretty good too: peachy with a pleasant sulphurous bite. 93p well spent.

I reported for duty at 2 and met my fellow judges: 8 of us in all. Branch chairman Philip ushered us to the tasting room in one of the Ulster Hall's beautifully renovated salons and led us through the final six beers which had been whittled down by the festival volunteers from all those available. The process was ably assisted by Steve, running with the jugs of beer from bar to judges. The panel were tasked with grading each finalist with marks for appearance, aroma, taste and finish, weighted in favour of the final two criteria.

All tasting was, of course, done blind, with only the broad style designation revealed in advance. And they were a mixed bunch: bitters Peter's Well (Houston) and Pale Beacons (Brecon) were rather insipid, being done no favours at all by being decanted from cask to jug to glass, knocking most of the condition out of them. I had had Blue Monkey's BG Sips high on my hitlist having heard great things about it, but scored it last when it showed up. This golden bitter was almost entirely flavourless and I reckon I'd only go near it on the hottest of days, and only then if it was at lager temperatures with lager levels of carbonation.

The two dark beers claimed joint second prize. Mordue's Newcastle Coffee Porter was definitely in the ha'penny place for me: a thin and rather boring porter with little sign of any coffee at all. There was a bit more substance to Otley Oxymoron: a bitter spicy middle which made up for the waft of cardboard oxidation on the nose. It turns out they've designated this as a black IPA and while I'm not an outright supporter of the thesis that black IPA is simply hoppy porter, this beer presents blind tasted evidence that this may in fact be the case.

The winner left the rest of the crowd for dust: though inauspiciously pale and hazy, Dark Star's American Pale Ale was a symphony in citrus. At 4.7% ABV it's weighty enough not to be too bitter, adding some beautiful sherbet substance to the fruit, and the end result is insanely drinkable and moreish. I can't imagine there was any surprise when Adrian and Philip (on stage, right) announced the result.

The day's work done, it was down to the main hall to see what else was on offer. I made a beeline for the newest Irish beer, of course: Ballyblack stout from the spanking new Ards brewery. It reminds me a lot of the excellent Dungarvan Black Rock: that same roasted dryness tempered by ripe dark fruit and a similar spicy gunpowder tang in the finish. Brewer Charles Ballantine was on hand for a bit of after-sales service and a good natter about the complexities of setting up a brewery in NI. I'm definitely looking forward to more from Ards.

My experience with BG Sips notwithstanding, I hit up the other offering from Blue Monkey next: 99 Red Baboons. This was much darker than I expected: almost black with mere hints of ruby around the edges. It's a very tangy beer, sweet-sour with a sort of baking soda softness. Interesting, but I couldn't say if I liked it or not. Along the same lines but much better was Leeds Midnight Bell. This ruby mild had me thinking of Rodenbach, with an almost puckering sourness, but it made it eminently refreshing and one I could have had a few more of.

Wolf Brewery's Norfolk Lavender Honey is another for the too-odd-to-like bracket: sweet and spicy with a powerful honey aroma and flavour, but very little by way of lavender. It could have done with some floral lightness to balance the sticky honey, I think. Summer Wine Barista Espresso Stout also goes all out with a speciality ingredient, but while Mordue may be wasting good coffee, Summer Wine are laying it on too heavily. The end result is too dry, too roasty and too thin, with the poor condition doing nothing to dispel the impression of a glass of cold coffee. I had higher hopes for Gorlovka, a 6% ABV stout from Acorn and it's a solidly drinkable beer but one which should be doing more at that strength. I could happily neck this, but that's not what it's designed for.

Steve gave me a couple of recommendations of beers I probably would have passed by otherwise, and very good they were too. Bowman Elderado is a summery little number, pale gold and just 3.5% ABV. The not-so-secret weapon is elderflower and it adds an amazing piquancy to it, like a Chinese spice mix. A dry, almost chalky, feel keeps it drinkable and wonderfully thirst quenching. At the opposite end of the scale, there's Elland 1872 Porter: 6.5% ABV and massively chocolatey; sweet but beautifully smooth and to complete the circle, showing that gunpowder finish I enjoyed in the Ballyblack.

This year saw the first time a separate cider bar operated at the festival and I had a couple of halves for the road there. Northern Irish cider is undergoing a well-overdue boom and it's great to see apples from my native Armagh being put to better use than baking.

Final thanks to Adrian, Philip, Steve and all the crew at CAMRA NI. This gem of a festival really is a credit to you all.

17 November 2011

Big swinging langer

Our beer culture in Ireland is, to a very large extent, pub based. Even when we're not in the pub we tend to prefer approachable beers in the 4-5% ABV range. Below that is perceived as low-rent pisswater; above it is crazy loopy-juice. It results in a fairly limited range and it's impressive that our native brewers manage to do as well as they do inside it. But breaks in the pattern -- in both directions -- are always welcome. The microbrew revolution hasn't yet produced any iconoclastic new breweries making excitingly strong beers, so we have to depend on the more established reliables. The Porterhouse's Brainblásta and Celebration are plenty to be going on with; O'Hara's Leann Folláin is a tasty bonus. And now we welcome the latest of the 1990s craft breweries to start bottling strong beer: Franciscan Well and their Shandon Century extra stout.

Rebel county rules dictate that not just any bottle will do, so they've gone for hand-numbered one-litre swingtops. The beer inside is 7.5% ABV, so it seems we're a long way from the cosy confines of the pub session here. Although that said,  it's also available on draught in the Franciscan Well brewpub in Cork city.

And on tasting I can see that it really would be quite pub-compatible. I've never been the biggest fan of Shandon, but this is definitely a cut above. Smooth, with lovely smoky overtones helped out of the main, lightly chocolatey, flavour by a gentle carbonation which adds further to the smoothness. Of all that alcohol there's very little sign: dangerously so, in fact. I can't see any stout drinker having difficulty sinking a pint of this which, as an exercise in trust, is wonderful indication of the maturing Irish beer market.

In short, I'm delighted to see the Franciscan Well do this, and the format has wonderful potential, even if the first outing is on the solidly-drinkable side of things rather than the awe-inspiring. But we're getting the previously-extinct Bell Ringer winter ale next. I'll be in the queue.

14 November 2011

Tildonk do us part

These guys have been sitting in my beer fridge since the spring and as a result, being bottle-conditioned, they provided a bit of a multicoloured experience. Hof ten Dormaal Blond, from the delightfully-named Flemish village of Tildonk, introduced itself with an assertive pop as the cork came out, and began pouring a hazy straw colour. I let the massive fluffy head subside and poured again: this time more of an amber beer came out. A second repeat of the process deposited gritty tan-coloured dregs on the surface.  And the end result: more orange, shading to brown, than blonde.

The head subsided quickly, leaving room in the glass for dry and woody old-world spices: clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, plus a whiff of that workhorse from Alan's thesaurus: burlap. There's also a bit of a heady burn, showing off its 8% ABV in no uncertain terms. The taste is sweeter than it smells: clove rounds out to banana and a white pepper piquancy enters the mix, though it's hard to get a proper handle on what's going on because of the biting overactive fizz. It lacks the delicate fruit subtleties of (inevitable comparison warning!) Duvel, but it's decent.

The Tildonk Donker (beer that sounds like it's falling down stairs: love it!) is similarly fizzy and an opaque brown colour. In all honesty it's not hugely different from the Blond: the same banana sweetness and a similar clove spice. There's perhaps an extra whiff of farmyard from it and sure, the banana is perhaps a little darker, somewhat riper, and maybe even slightly caramelised. Beyond that, however, there's not much to add. While fine by themselves, these two are just too samey for this kind of horizontal tasting. If picking between them I think I'd go for the peppery Blond over the sweet and sticky dark one.

With the basic beers dispatched I had hopes for the last in the series: that it would give me something more unusual. It certainly makes promises in this direction: Wit Goud is brewed with chicory and is a pleasant, vaguely hazy, shade of gold. The nose shows those fruity esters again, but there's another woody complexity under it that invites closer inspection. The chicory is out in force in the flavour, adding an almost medicinal herbal tint to it. There's a touch of smokiness too, and a sour finish. Not for everyone, this. It's complex and very grown-up tasting: playing the same game as Orval perhaps, though not in the same league. I'd have it again.

I think the unsophisticated rustic branding on these three is more than just marketing flim-flam. They're rough-round-the-edges rude mechanicals of Belgian ales. Don't expect anything fancy.

10 November 2011

Rogue blooper

It's a few years since Rogue -- the Oregon brewery big on blue-collar branding but not so keen on blue-collar attitudes -- was last seen in Ireland. However, a few of theirs have just started appearing on our shelves, a welcome bit of freshness in the otherwise declining range of American beer available in Ireland.

I chose Rogue American Amber Ale as my starting point, being a fan of American ambers, with Speakeasy Prohibition as my benchmark. This doesn't have the beatings of that, however. It's watery at first, but given a bit of time some waxy bitterness comes through but no real hop flavour, which is disappointing. The finish is pleasantly sweet, with lots of biscuit and maybe even a little marzipan, but the harsh sharpness never quite goes away. It leaves me wondering if this was once a hop explosion but time has taken away its charm. I dunno, but I was expecting better from the centre of American hop country.

I suck it up and move on to Rogue's Juniper Pale Ale. I like a bit of juniper but this hazy anaemic-looking chap has a slight air of infection in the aroma, a kind of acrid sourness. It's not really there in the flavour, but neither is much else: a touch of orange pith, a background tartness which I'm guessing is the juniper in action but that's about it. It's not unpleasant it's just kind of... muted.

In contravention to Irish consumer law, neither bottle sports a date or an ABV (5.6% for the amber; 5.3% for the juniper) and I'm left with the sensation that these are a job lot of elderly bottles. Fresh or not, I won't be running out in search of the other new Rogues straight away.

07 November 2011

Bar flying

In between bottling three batches of beer and brewing another, as well as giving my regular lecture at The Beer Club, I managed to fit in a fair bit of pub time over the long weekend. In a life consumed by beer it's important not to lose sight of the important things, dontcherknow. As I mentioned at the time, it was national Farmhouse Cheese and Craft Beer weekend so of course I nipped in to the Bull & Castle to give their tasting platter a go. Wherever Geoff had been buying his Cooleeney it was far superior to the one from my tasting, with none of the waxy harshness. The match with Buckley's hop-forward golden ale was excellent, and the Hegarty's cheddar fitted wonderfully with all four beers, though in different ways.

Before heading off I snaffled a bottle of Rothaus Tannenzäpfle, on special offer at the moment. This is another pils from the cult Black Forest brewery, robust at 5.1% ABV and heavily laden with the nettley German hop flavour I usually struggle with. Here, however, there's just enough of a malt profile to hold it in check, keeping both the beer and this drinker appropriately sweet. Enjoyable in small doses, but 33cl was enough for me. (Edit: I'm reliably informed by Barry in the comments that this is the same beer as the Pils, reviewed here.)

Down the hill in Temple Bar I dropped in to Farrington's, a hitherto quite plain and unremarkable Dublin boozer (formerly The Norseman, to any ex-pat Dubs who don't know where I'm talking about -- they used to have really nice runic lettering on the sign). Farrington's has, for want of a better term, gone craft. The usual macro keg fonts still line the two sides of the bar, but they're interspliced with those from Galway Hooker, Carlow Brewing, Metalman and the like. There's also an extensive bottled range -- local and import -- at least according to the blackboards.

What dragged me in was the promise of some Sink the Bismarck! and on Sunday evening a bottle from Farrington's cellars was procured, opened and offered round. I have two contradictory opinions on this 41% ABV freeze-distilled IPA: a) it's quite nice, and b) it tastes like an eastern European aperitif. The concentrated hop bitterness comes through as a sort of herbal, fennel flavour, which sits assertively atop the unctuous cough mixture body. Despite the super-dense texture there's a very faint fizz to it, and that helps soothe any intense alcohol burning, warming the insides rather than scorching them. I thought it worked great as a pre-dinner sipper. Nice beer; shame about the name.

Our hosts also had a bottle of Tactical Nuclear Penguin on the go. It still tastes like cheap sherry mixed with lighter fuel. Nice name; shame about the beer.

Onwards across the Liffey and upstream, to dinner and the antipodean delight of a pie floater at L. Mulligan. Grocer. The main draw here was a one-off cask of Trouble Brewing Pumpkin Ór. As far as I know this is Ireland's first and only pumpkin beer, and a one-off cask at that, pending a larger batch next year. It could have stood to be a degree or two cooler on serving, especially since the pub was heaving in the run-up to the Sunday night quiz, but it was still nicely smooth and perfectly drinkable. There's no fruit as such -- there rarely is with pumpkin beer in my experience -- but the blend of spices works beautifully, adding gentle warming cinnamon notes and a background hint of almond. I reckon solid, simple Ór makes quite a good base for throwing in interesting ingredients and I definitely look forward to seeing this spiced pumpkin version more widespread next year.

Irish homebrewers who fancy mucking about with their own interesting beer ingredients may be interested in entering Trouble's Trouble Maker competition. This time round they've asked specifically for unusual recipes. Reinheitsgebotniks need not apply.

A weekend well-spent there, I think. Hurrah for pubs!