31 January 2011

Mild at heart

It's back! The first new beer out of the revived Messrs Maguire brewkit arrived just over a week ago. It's currently sporting branding proclaiming it to be "Bonza Brew", but I imagine that after Australia Day festivities cease it will go back to being plain old Messrs Maguire Brown Ale.

I confess to being a bit skeptical when I first heard about it: an American, brewing a brown ale, for an Irish pub? This is going to be really sweet isn't it? But when I first tried it all doubts were cast aside: what we have here is proper actual mild, and lovely to boot. Under a loose-bubbled ivory head broods a murky dark brown beer with hints of red around the edges showing very obviously that this stuff has never been near a filter in its life. And that stands to it when it comes to tasting: there's a major fresh-ground coffee foretaste, roasted and a little bit gritty. This is followed by a light plum sourness and a little hint of banana as well. Mostly, though, it's about those lovely roasted brown malt flavours. If you like beer which has had the bare minimum of dicking about done to it, this is one to go for. Sinkable and all as it is, a note of caution must be sounded at the ABV: 5.5% will sneak up on you. I'd have loved to see two or so percentage points knocked off that, but you can't have everything.

It'll be interesting to try the cask version. I find it hard to imagine there'll be much difference but will be finding out for certain in a couple of weeks at Ireland's first Cask & Winter Ales Festival hosted by the Franciscan Well in Cork from 11-13 February.

But back to MM. For the launch of the new beer, Mel kindly invited a bunch of us from Beoir down to the basement bar for a tasting. We got a tour as well and, as someone who's been a regular in the pub for a dozen years, it was interesting to finally get a look behind the scenes. It's surprisingly big, for one thing, the fermentation vessels occupying space below the pavement of Burgh Quay, edging on to the foundations of O'Connell Bridge. A tour bonus was Haus lager fresh from the conditioning tanks: cloudy and alive with flavour the way German kellerbier is supposed to be but rarely is, in my experience.

A big thanks to Mel and the MM crew for inviting us in, and here's looking forward to the next round of interesting brews from the MM kit.

27 January 2011

Rum customers

I completely understand those who take a "just say no" approach to spirit-flavoured beers. There are some truly dire examples out there: bad base beer, loaded with sugar and artificial flavourings, and covered in alcopop-style kiddie branding. Not what anyone who actually likes beer wants from a beer. Today I'm looking at a couple of British ales that take more of a mature stance to spirit additions, both employing that important commodity of the Empire: rum.

Marks & Spencer Wiltshire Rum Beer is a dark shade of amber, pouring fizzily with just a subtle aroma. I was relieved not to have my senses assaulted by jarring sweeteners and flavourings; instead it smells gently floral with perfume and a hint of sticky toffee pudding. On tasting the first flavour that jumps out is honey: that herbs-and-lavender on sugar of the dark unctuous variety. Past that there's actual beer -- you get the toast and green veg of a solid, dependable English strong ale. Yes, it is sweet, but nothing sickly, cloying or any way reminiscent of the pseudo-alcopop genre. In fact, there doesn't appear to have been any additional sugar or flavourings according to the ingredients listing, just rum and the base beer Wadworth 6X. My only criticism is it's too gassy, to the point where the abrasive bubbles get in the way of the mellow flavours. Oh, and the price too, of course, but that's to be expected from M&S.

I can't remember what I paid for it, or where, but there's definitely no criticism on the carbonation front for Innis & Gunn Rum Cask. You get a lovely tight layer of foam and a fairly gentle fizz to carry the flavours. Unfortunately the flavours being carried aren't great. From the outset it smells both sticky (the same cloying buttery vanilla yuck that is the brand's hallmark) and vinegary. Now, my bottle was a few weeks past the best-before, but it's not like it's bottle conditioned or anything. I think the sharp sourness may be a feature rather than a bug.

It's certainly present on the flavour. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it helps clean the beer up, putting a bit of an edge on the overpowering oak taste. There's a bit of cardboard at the back, and that I can perhaps put down to the bottle's age. What I don't get at all, though, is rum. Looking at the box I see that the contracters have given it thirty days in fresh American oak and then another thirty in a rum cask. No surprise, then, that the fresh oak won, trampling over any molasses or caramel or spices or any other traces that there was once rum here. If Innis & Gunn is your kind of thing then you may enjoy this barely-changed brand extension, but it's definitely not for me.

I've surprised myself by picking the beer directly flavoured with rum over the barrel-aged one. What it perhaps shows is that the quality of the base beer counts far more than the post-fermentation processes, quality that Wadworth 6X possesses but Innis & Gunn doesn't.

24 January 2011

Give and take at Aldi

Since it first appeared, plaudits have been rolling in for Aldi's Specially Selected Traditional Irish Ale, brewed by Carlow Brewing. It adds an extra interesting layer to boring old red ale with its rich and roasted flavours. Heavy, warming and very satisfying to drink, though only in 33cl at a time. It was a welcome addition to Ireland's supermarket beer. Only now it looks like it's gone again. There are reports of occasional four-packs in Aldis around the country, but in general it seems it's on its way out.

At the same time, Aldi have two new Irish brews on the shelves. It doesn't say where they're from, other than "Ireland" and the branding is "O'Shea's". I'm going to guess that we have something new from Carlow on our hands.

Hopes that O'Shea's Traditional Irish Ale was simply a rebottling of of the old Specially Selected red were short lived. This very dark brown-red beer has sweet caramel as its driving force and next-to-nothing by way of roast. Not a whole lot of hopping either, though I reckon the tiny, tinny, niggling metallic tang at the finish is hop-derived. All that residual sugar gives a lovely meaty body; creamy, in fact, and not at all watery as 4.3% ABV supermarket own-brand beer can often be. I do miss the crispness of its predecessor, but the ability to have a full-sized glass of it almost makes up the difference. Not a bad drop, this. At €1.99 a go I reckon I'll be keeping it in stock.

Carlow also brew a stout for Marks & Spencer. It's 4.5% ABV and one of the best session-strength stouts on the Irish market. The fatal flaw is the €3.29 price tag: good, but not that good. And now along comes O'Shea's Traditional Irish Stout: €1.99 in Aldi and 4.5% ABV. Could this be..? Once again the answer is no. O'Shea's is pretty distinctive in that it's remarkably similar to the red. Darker, though not really by a lot, and faintly drier but not anything like as dry as is usual for a bottled Irish session stout. You get a big hit of caramel up at the front, reminding me a lot of Carlow's strong extra stout Leann Folláin, but without the richness that comes from the added alcohol. To an extent I'm also reminded of much weaker milk stouts. And even sweet central European dark beers like Šariš. Anything but standard bottled Irish session stout. It's not a bad beer, by any means, and it went well with a plate of chilli. It's just a few degrees askew from stout as we know it.

20 January 2011

Bears in Sunglasses are the new Goats in Hats

I'm well overdue giving some of the Saranac beers a spin. These are produced by the venerable upstate New York brewery FX Matt and have been available in Ireland's decent off licences, and a few bars, since last year.

Where does one start when trying a new range of beers? Why, with the juggling bear wearing mirror shades, of course. I'm a sucker for accessorised wildlife on beer labels, as I've mentioned before. The beer is called Pomegranate Wheat -- a straightforward fruit-infused wheat beer with just an unusual choice of fruit. I had great hopes that the pomegranate would allow it to transcend the general crapness with which American wheat beer is cursed, but no. If anything the thin, vaguely dry, insipid wheat ale has swallowed up all the exciting and exotic pomegranate flavours and just left something that tastes like a bargain-basement cordial. There's a ghost of a fruit juice flavour, and it may even be recognisable as pomegranate without the drinker being told in advance, but mostly it's watery blandness and an off-putting tang from the yeast sediment. I guess this is what tempts breweries into using non-fermentable flavour syrups after fermentation, not that I recommend doing that.

Onwards, then, to the IPA. Can't go wrong with a US IPA, right? That's what I thought, right up until the first splash of beer hit the glass. No aroma. Hello? Hops? Anybody there?

The base beer is perfect for a flavour-packed IPA: 5.8% ABV, almost syrupy-thick with lots of sweet toffee flavour. Pack that with citric American hops and you've got a flagship beer on your hands. But there's none of that here. A hint of Cascade comes through in the flavour, sitting uncomfortably on a malt base that's much too big for it, but of aroma: nothing.

So jarring is the omission that I'm convinced I have a dud. No sane brewer would send out a beer like this. There were still three months to go before the expiry date on the bottle but I reckon they should look at making it much shorter, impractical as that may be for something that has to cross the Atlantic. If you live closer to Utica than I do, then don't let my review put you off Saranac IPA. I'd put money on it being lovely when closer to the source and fresh.

Two beers that could be an awful lot better, though I think one of them is through no fault of the brewer. And the other, well: bears in shades don't need excuses.

17 January 2011

The living dead

We had an hour or so to kill on a Sunday evening in Dundrum recently. I'd heard that one of the new bars in the shopping centre had Carlow beers on tap so went in on spec, in the hope of a pint of O'Hara's Red.

Ruairi Maguire's is a run-of-the-mill superpub: multiple mezzanines, lots of open floor space for cattle-shed drinking plus a few nice little quiet corners decked out in dark wood and fake leather: not the sort of place I'd make a beeline for, but needs must when there's craft beer on the go.

Alas it appears that O'Hara's Red has left the building, leaving Curim Gold as the only craft tap in the place for the moment. We were actually on the way out when herself spotted the specials blackboard by the door advertising bottled beer of the month White Lady for €3.80. Well how bad can it be?

I was actually really seriously expecting it to be cider. But it is a beer: an organic bottle-conditioned lager from North Yorkshire (both the region and the brewery of the same name therein) titled after an undead milkmaid who haunts the premises.

Sadly, it's a bit of a ghost lager. Massive attenuation has sucked all the character out leaving a wan, thin and rather cidery beer behind (so I wasn't too far wrong in the first place), very pale and with a mountainous weissbier-like cap of foam on top. There's none of the big bittering or flavour hops you might expect to compensate for the lack of body. I can't see too many committed lager drinkers turning to this, regardless of whether their normal tipple is Bavaria or Budvar.

Nevertheless, props to the pub for at least having something different and cheap available. I'll be checking that blackboard next time I'm through.

14 January 2011

The last waltz

As I said on Monday, Vienna 2003 was an early, pre-blog beer hunting session of mine. I came away awed by 7 Stern, another of the city's many brewpubs. Its use of unusual ingredients inspired a love of odd beer recipes that I still have today. Last week I dropped in again, to test if the memory was as good as the reality in 2011, and to get some notes down on those beers.

First up it was Hanf, the hemp beer. A pale yellowish amber it's very light of texture and relatively low on fizz, designed to be refreshing. This it does wonderfully, with a lemon zing followed closely by sharp pepper. A real eye-opener, this: not so far-out that it stops being properly beery or anything, just a really interesting way to make flavoursome and thirst-quenching beer. Mrs Beer Nut went for the Winterbock, from the rotating seasonal bock list. It's a big-hitting warm-hearted affair, creamy and a little smoky as well.

My second beer was the Chilli, another I'd had before but couldn't really remember much about. It's a clear gold colour and looks like a totally innocent plain lager. Tastes like one too, except with about four or five drops of Tabasco in it. The flavour is all chilli, all burn and very little beer. This has been brewed purely for the endorphin rush and, despite the total lack of subtlety, I really enjoyed it. Last beer before moving on was their Bamberger Rauchbier. It's pretty clear they're going for Schlenkerla Märzen with this, and it's almost right on the money. It's just a bit fuller bodied than Schlenkerla and the strong smoke flavour has an almost greasy, cheesy ring to it. OK, that sounds horrible, but it is very tasty.

That was all we had time for. The less gimmicky beers will have to wait for my next visit. I still love 7 Stern, however.

I had much lesser expectations of 1516. We stumbled across it in 2003, on an evening when it was loud and crowded. We just about squeezed in by the door, the beer list was a grubby laminated sheet and I don't recall what we had, just that it was a bit boring. On our return visit we found the place much quieter and were able to give the beers -- six of them -- more considered appraisal.

Elb Weisse isn't actually brewed by the 1516 brewers at all. It's made on their kit by the Erste Linzer brewing company and is a light and pale weisse with lots of lovely fruit and spices: oranges for refreshment and cloves for a warming headiness. Next to it is a glass of Alt Bayrisch Dunkel, its standard measure being 40cl for some reason (strength, I'm guessing, but the menu doesn't give ABVs). If I were assigning styles I'd call it a doppelbock: it's very heavy with lots of burnt caramel. However, there's much more of a hop complexity than any German doppelbock I've tasted.

In fact, they're not at all afraid of the hop at 1516. Or, unusally for this part of the world, the three-letter A-word. Their Amarillo Single Variety Hop Pale Ale is not at all the kind of thing I'd expect to see on a beer menu in a German-speaking country, especially given the mostly-workmanlike performances at Salm and Wieden. But there it is, and it's lovely: that signature orangey Amarillo aroma. The taste is a little bit tinny: "grandad's spoons" said the wife. I got a similar sort of galvanic effect from BrewDog's 5am Saint, and this is along similar lines, though even more hop-forward. To back up the notion that someone with access to the 1516 brewkit is a defiantly unparochial beer fanatic, there was also a clone of Victory Brewing's Hop Devil. This is a big and quite sticky pale ale, this time loaded with Cascade for the zesty citric Americanised flavours. I don't really care how accurate an interpretation it is -- just that I loved drinking it.

To darker stuff, and the questionable decision to name their Irish-style stout Eejit. It's so-so, as a stout. The hopping levels are high, perhaps even as high as Porterhouse Wrasslers XXXX, but it's a lighter beer so you're left with a sticky liquorice affair that doesn't really deliver in the dry roast department.

Our printed menu was in need of some updating, so there was no pumpkin ale to be had. Instead, a board above the bar advertised the enigmatic new seasonal Bo-Rye. I'm not a fan of the grassy flavour of rye in a beer, and thankfully this had next to none. Instead, this red-brown beer has oodles of fresh hops on the nose, balanced beautifully in the taste by soft dark malts for a fruit and nut chocolate bar effect. Sumptuous, and a high note on which to leave 1516, ready to promote it to my list of top-flight brewpubs.

And that's it all over bar the bits and pieces of miscellaneous beer I came across in Vienna. Some Ottakringer Dunkel passed my way briefly at one point: a dry and crunchy plain schwarzbier. And my last beer of the trip, with dinner before heading to the airport, was Golser Märzen: clear and very pale it is far more full-bodied than it looks, with massive amounts of märzen bread flavours tempered by a lightly Germanic bitter kick on the end.

Vienna is such a great beer destination, as well as great architecture, easy transport and probably the best collection of art collections of any city I've ever been to. And I don't think I'm even half way through the brewpubs yet. I won't be leaving it another eight years to go back. Mind you, this summer will make it nine since I was last in Prague...

12 January 2011

Bring a torch

Bratislava is a city for explorers. Not that there's a whole lot to see in it -- the Pharmacy Museum is about as exciting as it gets -- but the Bratislavans like you to put a bit of effort in to get to the pub. Not for them placing a door on the street through which the bar may be entered. Oh no, they'd much rather you followed a sign down an entryway, then up some stairs, along a corridor (the twistier the better), ideally down some more stairs, and eventually through an unmarked door you'll find yourself in a multi-room tavern wondering where the best seats are. Sometimes several different pubs will be located in different parts of the same rambling building. It's endearing, but it takes a bit of getting used to.

And then someone has to take it to the extreme. The grandly-titled Bratislava Flagship Restaurant, once you're off the street and through the red curtain, has its entry passage decorated as though it were a street, lined with tables and a miniature pub-within-the-pub. It culminates in a grand staircase leading up to a vast auditorium with a stage at one end, tables both on the lower floor and the galleries, and a bar in the orchestra pit. There's also what looks to be a brewkit, stage left. The menu speaks cryptically of "house beers" but says no more on styles, provenance or availability. Instead, the big draw for me here was Zlatý Bažant 10°, served in the traditional tankova fashion. Zlatý Bažant is brewed by Heineken Slovakia and is ubiquitous in Bratislava, usually in the 12° keg version. Tankova is naturally conditioned, served without extraneous gas and, crucially, is unpasteurised. The Flagship and its sister pub around the corner were the only places I saw Zlatý Bažant advertised as served this way. The resulting beer isn't spectacular but it does add an extra dimension of hop flavour to an otherwise rather dull lager.

The Zlatý Bažant stable also includes a dark version: Zlatý Bažant Tmavé. This, as you might expect, is smooth and sweet. In fact it borders on the saccharine but pulls it back with some lovely dry roast notes and burnt caramel. Very drinkable overall. And for a limited time only (said the ads) there was Zlatý Bažant Bock. Leaning towards the Dutch style of bokbier, this is 6.3% ABV, dark ruby and very sticky. Under the cream-coloured head there's a beer brimming with coffee and molasses, and while it's rich in sugar it's not sickly, lifted by a lively carbonation and complicated by green crunchy vegetable hop notes: celery and spring onions.

I hadn't been expecting much at all from the Zlatý Bažant franchise but I was pleased by what I found.

The other ubiquitous Heineken brand I saw around the place was Kelt (not to be confused with A-B InBev's former Prague-brewed stout of the same name). Kelt 10° was the standard pale lager, rather bland but perfectly drinkable. It's certainly nowhere near as impressive as the keg font: a massive broadsword sunk into the bar counter. Yes I know it's not meant to impress anyone with a mental age over ten but I thought it was kitschily wonderful.

I bought a variety of bottles in the vast Tesco just outside the old town. I was really in looking for tokaj (a dispute with the Hungarians makes Slovakian tokaj hard to come by outside its homeland) but couldn't resist grabbing a few random interesting beer bottles from the shelves. Urpiner Tmavý, in its 33cl bottle, was one that jumped out at me. Just under 5% ABV (11° Plato, to use the local convention) and a deep ruby red, this is quite a light and dry dark beer with quite high carbonation adding to the dryness and nothing more sugary than a touch of liquorice. Palatín was much more typical: dark brown and lightly fizzy with lots of caramel and coffee, perhaps even a hint of marzipan as well. Of all the roasted-yet-sweet dark beers I had on this trip, this one balanced the elements best.
Mrs Beer Nut's pick of the bunch, however, was Topvar Tmavé. I liked it too. It starts fairly typically with the caramel and molasses flavours and then the stouty roasted grains follow in after. It's filling and warming and just what you need when it's -5°C on a January day in Bratislava.

Because no divorce -- however velvet -- is ever final, there's plenty of Czech beer to be had in Slovakia. Pilsner Urquell is probably the second most common beer brand after Zlatý Bažant and is even available in tankova form some places (I recommend The Beer Palace; great food too). Topvar, though Slovakian, is an SABMiller stablemate, as is Gambrinus which often appears as a budget option in Pilsner Urquell-branded pubs. In Bratislava, by the way, the budget option means paying 99c for your pint rather than the full whack of about €1.30. Gambrinus 10° is harmless stuff: light and refreshing with just a hint of golden syrup, though tasting overall like diluted water when it follows a couple of Urquells. Bernard 10° is another pale light lager along similar lines with a lovely bitterness to it.

As far as dark Czech beer goes, Tatranský Zámok Dark was the only one I picked up, in the supermarket again. My gl