28 February 2011

Monster of rock

It's all been a bit grim on the British beer front on this blog of late: crap from such luminaries as Sheps, I&G and some bunch in Yorkshire who don't understand lager. Perusing the shelves of the offy (yes, I'm back on that topic again), there's not much by way of exciting British beer. Nothing from Thornbridge, or Otley, or The Kernel. Not even anything interesting from the MolsonCoors family, and they're running an office over here. Cuh!

So I have to rely on my personal contacts and dig deep into the back of the stash. Hardknott Granite 2009, a gift from Dave ("brewer, doer, force majeure" for those who don't know him or his business cards), makes a big song and dance about how it should be aged. But sod that: I'm thirsty. Two seasons in my attic should be plenty.

The first thing that struck me about this 10.4% ABV barley wine is the colour. It's an opaque brown rather than the more normal dark ruby. The texture is heavy even by the viscous standards of the style and the air around it is quickly filled with heady vapours of burnt caramel studded with citric hops. On tasting, smoke rises to the front of the palate followed by toffee, oranges and wholemeal digestive biscuits, finishing a little bit metallic and leaving a kiss of treacle on the lips. A lot going on, but it's the big body rather than the myriad flavours that make this a beer to savour slowly. Dave's suggestion that it's one to go with strong cheeses is absolutely spot-on.

I'm in the unusual position of suggesting that maybe this would work better in smaller bottles. I don't think I've ever said that before. A nip of this would be lovely, and a stash full of nips even better. Or big sharey 75cls would be good too. But Hardknott is still a relatively new operation and it seems likely that this kind of add-on will have to wait (fledgling Irish breweries please take note: life doesn't end at 5% ABV). For now, however, I'm content with a half litre, though I'd be perfectly happy to share the next one. If I had a next one.

The sudden return to English beer in Irish offies is a harsh comedown.

24 February 2011

Not worth the trip

I don't really understand the rationale behind which beers get imported into this country, particularly from the US. Surely with hundreds of first rate brews to choose from only the very best would be deemed worthy of being packed up and shipped across the ocean. But there's an awful lot of very average stuff out there.

Take Brooklyn's Pennant '55, for example. It's not kidding with the sports branding: this is a beer to buy cheap and drink when you're concentrating on something else. Toffee is its chief flavour feature. It's fairly light at 5% ABV and tastes stickier than it actually is, which I quite like. For hopping there's a vague air of raisins and it winds up with a strange soap-powdery effervescent tang. There's really not much wrong with it, it's just completely unexciting.

The other side of the pointless imports is the beers that are exotic for their home market but rather mundane here. Admittedly, American breweries' idea of Oktoberfestbier is unique all to themselves, so the fact that we get lots of the real German variety perhaps shouldn't be viewed as overlap. I'd be more forgiving if I actually liked what the statesiders have done to the style.

Brooklyn Oktoberfest is the usual shade of dark amber. Thankfully it's not as sweet as most of these -- Samuel Adams Octoberfest I'm looking at you -- and it's quite easy drinking. There's a big grainy flavour at the front, finishing dry and even a bit smoky. There are no discernible hops and no aftertaste. Again, I'm not incensed by it, but I just don't really see the point.

Come on, beer specialists, let's put some more oomph into the imports and leave the everyday drinkables to the breweries closer to home.

21 February 2011

You call this doppel?

Just the other week I remarked, with regard to Schlenkerla Eiche, at its ease-of-drinking for a doppelbock, a type of beer I associate most with big sticky textures full of burnt caramel. At least, that's my memory of things like Salvator and Maximator, though it's a while since I've tasted any of them.

On a trawl through Redmond's recently, I picked up a bottle of Doppel-Hirsch for the missus, scarcely noticing, of course, that the swingtop bottle would make an ideal addition to my homebrew bottle collection once she had emptied it of beer. I was surprised to find that this is yet another light and easy-going doppelbock.

It came out the appropriate shade of mahogany, though quite flat. Caramel sweetness is of course the main flavour and aroma element, though the taste is balanced with just a bit of liquorice. But that's it, and to be honest there's not much of either.

Have I got doppelbock wrong? Are they all like this? I need to return to the classics soon.

17 February 2011


I have a drink problem and it's caused by cheap supermarket beer.

Specifically, my problem is that I can't stop buying the Shepherd Neame "Master Brewer's Choice" beers in Lidl. They've almost all been bland or horrible, yet every time a new one appears I'm there, shame-faced and guilt-ridden, with my €1.50 to buy it. If these are what the master brewer chooses, incidentally, someone needs to have a word with him about his suitability for the job.

My latest stumbling block is Amber, 4% ABV like all the others and professing to be a winter warmer. It's a nice middling amber shade behind the clear glass but releases a nose-burning skunky jet when the cap comes off. A big fluffy head is formed by lots of fizz, pushing out more of that lightstruck aroma, plus a stale cheap chocolate whiff I've met in these beers before. Mercifully, the flavour is lacking rather than actively unpleasant: that dusty Milk Tray is evident and a big carbonic dryness from all the gas, but not much else. The body is nicely rounded so I'd almost let it away with calling itself a winter warmer. But not quite. Overall it's a nearly bland, rather off, crappy cheap ale. See you at Lidl for the next one. Sigh.

While I'm doing some clearing out of winter beers in clear glass, I've also found this: Rocking Rudolph from Greene King subsidiary Hardys & Hansons. Does it taste as bad as the label suggests?

The answer is no, but then that's one hell of a twee label. The beer is quite sweet and fruity, full of ripe raspberries. The texture is rather thin, though, and there isn't really much of a hop balance (no skunking, thankfully!). A few sips in and an astringency develops which makes it increasingly difficult to drink. I do like a bit of tannin in my brown beer but this takes it a bit far.

Still, with that bit of clearing out done I can look forward to not having to drink any clear-glass-packaged English Christmas ales for another, oh, eight or nine months. Lovely.

14 February 2011

Ahoy casketeers!

Saturday was all about Real Ale in the Real Capital, with an afternoon at the first (hopefully) annual Winter & Cask Ale Festival at the Franciscan Well. It represents a big step forward for Irish beer festivals in that it's the first in the Republic to work on the CAMRA model whereby the festival organisers buy all the beer up front and are responsible for selling it on rather than the individual brewers renting a pitch and running their own bars. It's an arrangement which I think gives a better deal for the producers and I hope to see more in this style in future.

Most of the micros were represented at the taps, with beer from Carlow, Dungarvan, Franciscan Well, Hilden, Messrs Maguire, The Porterhouse, White Gypsy, Whitewater plus a new one from Dingle's Beoir Chorca Duibhne. Sort-of new, anyway: I suspect that Carraig Dubh is the same recipe they were selling at last year's Easterfest as an unnamed special. It's very dark in colour but light and easy to drink, the roasted flavours buoyed up on fresh green German hops. Simple and tasty fare.

I missed Dungarvan's strictly limited edition Coffee & Oatmeal Stout which all sold out on Friday night, but reports from the few who tried it were very positive. Highlights that I did actually get to sample included a mellowed 15-month-old version of Franciscan Well's 3 Kings smoked ale and a fresh and fruity cask edition of their Purgatory pale ale. As promised I got a chance to try the cask version of Messrs Maguire's new brown ale and I have to say it works better on keg: once again the cask smooths out all its distinct flavours including the hallmark raw graininess.

White Gypsy had a new blend of their Raven vintage stout, this time the wood-aged imperial stout was mixed down to a very approachable 6.5% ABV, using a fresh session-strength stout. It's a masterpiece of balance, with the wood flavours present but not dominant.

My beer of the festival was not one I was expecting to be impressed by at all. Rebel Red is perhaps the most popular beer in the Franciscan Well line-up. Heineken's decision to stop brewing Beamish Red created a new market for Rebel Red and it has cropped up in pubs all over Cork. I've never been much of a fan, but there it was on the handpump on Saturday, and dry-hopped too. Sure why not? It tasted almost nothing like Rebel Red. It tasted amazing: a deep amber colour and packed with mild citrus and gentle tannins creating a sort of lemon tea effect for supreme thirst-quenching power. More than anything, I was reminded of Harvey's Sussex Best Bitter. This is the sort of high-quality session beer that, like the keg version, should be a commonplace local specialty in Cork's pubs rather than a one-off festival novelty.

In the meantime it's great that the Franciscan Well have created this opportunity to showcase these sorts of beers. Let's think of it as a first step in getting them out of the festival yard and onto the bar in pubs.

10 February 2011

Our American cousin

Chris was a little bemused when, having offered to bring any beer available in California to Dublin for me, I asked for some Guinness Extra Stout. I make no apology: it's just the way I work. There's a version of Guinness brewed in North America that has often featured in conversations I've had, but I've no idea what it tastes like or how it differs from the Guinness beers brewed in Ireland. That needed putting right, and I'm grateful to Chris and Merideth for providing the opportunity to do so (and for the actual Californian craft beer they brought me out of sympathy and which will feature in a later post).

American Guinness Extra Stout (picture, left) is 6% ABV so I reckoned that the best way to get the measure of it was a parallel tasting with the two strong Guinnesses brewed in Ireland: Foreign Extra (7.5% ABV -- second left) and Special Export (8% ABV -- second right). After the first sip I realised that it would be worth adding Irish Guinness Extra Stout (4.2% ABV -- right) into the mix as well. As an aside, when I went stout shopping in St James's Gate (it's cheapest), I was a little disappointed to find that the gift shop has stopped selling the classic returnable pint bottles, substituting the rather squat and ugly half-litre here depicted.

Back to the Canadian Guinness, then. Much like Foreign Extra and Special Export, the most striking thing about it is a caramel and molasses sweetness. It's a different and lighter sort of vibe though, missing the more full-on liquorice bitterness that balances Foreign Extra. Next to Irish Extra Stout it's a sugar bomb and definitely not fitting the dry Irish stout model. Yet nor is it one of the sweet and chocolatey Irish stouts like O'Hara's: the flavour is more treacle than roasted malt. Only a dry and slightly metallic tang on the end marks its relation to any of Ireland's session stouts.

It sounds like it falls between two stools: neither a punchy export-style stout nor a casual drink-and-forget gulper, and perhaps I'm being unfair by judging it against its brethern rather than on its own merits. The fact is that it is nice to drink. Most craft-brewed versions of the same style would wipe the floor with it, but as an accessible beer with a bit of -- but not too much -- character it works well. Much like the bottled Guinness Extra Stout sold in Dublin, I'd say it's a useful fall-back when there's nothing better available.

07 February 2011

Bang on target

I've been doing well on my random Sainsbury's shelf sweeps. Last year the uninspiring selection yielded up this beauty, and I wasn't expecting to get lucky again when I randomly selected Wolf Brewery's Battle of Britain, but it's lovely.

Yes, it's a 3.9% ABV brown bitter: whoop-de-do. It's not doing anything more daring than that. The carbonation is wonderfully light, the hopping is gentle and oh-so-English, combining with the malt for a sort of Terry's Chocolate Orange effect with bonus hints of sandalwood and just a little bit of dry metal at the end. It's a flavour I associate most with Young's Bitter, but Young's isn't nearly as good as this when bottled, and I suspect a lot of that has to do with overzealous carbonation.

This stuff is everything I want in a session bitter, something I find far too rare in bottled English beer.

04 February 2011

That's gas

Session logoThe Session rolls round again and once more I am permitted to digress momentarily from my usual straight-laced beer reviews and propound one of my half-baked general theories on beer at large. Reluctant Scooper has picked the topic: nothing more controversial than Cask, Keg, Can or Bottle. Nothing anyone, particularly in the UK, could possibly get heated about, then. With that in mind, allow me to tell you how it is.

Cask beer is still very much a novelty in Dublin, even though I now need to employ the fingers of both my hands to count the pubs where it's readily available. Between these places and the growing festival circuit, there's plenty of opportunity to compare keg, bottled and cask versions of the same beer. (I'm not going to touch the bottle-conditioned vs. force-carbonated-bottle issue as I think it's usually more of a marketing sideshow than a real taste issue). I think, after much deliberation, I've come up with a grand theory of How Cask Beer Is Different From Keg Beer. Here goes:

Cask blends, keg separates. That is, in a keg beer you get each element of the flavour served to you by the carbon dioxide separately: here's some hops, now here's some malt, now here's some yeast esters. With the calmer gas of cask, all of this gets mixed in together and you get a smoother and altogether more holistic experience: your pint is doing one thing. It may be a very impressive balancing act, but it's still just one thing.

The problem with keg is that flaws stand out a mile. They jump out of the glass and have a whole platform to themselves from which they can wreak havoc with your drinking enjoyment. That little bit of oxidation? Those funky off-notes the yeast threw? The watery absence of any proper flavour? There they are, large as life.

Cask will shut them up. But, of course, carbon dioxide doesn't know the difference between a flaw and a subtlety, and cask serve can very easily bury delicate flavour elements, especially in stronger beers. If you want to make the hops shine in a cask beer you need to dry hop it or risk their being shouted down by the malt.

By way of evidence I present three Irish beers I've had the pleasure of in cask and force-carbonated form. Clotworthy Dobbin is the one I usually cite in evidence because the difference is so startling. Bottled and kegged Clotworthy is a work of incredible balance: chocolate raisins from the malt are given a spicy green twist by the American finishing hops. A mouthful goes maltmaltmaltmaltHOPS! On cask, the hops just vanish and you're left with a big heavy, but rather dull and monotonous, MALT.MALT.MALT.

Galway Hooker is less understated with its hops: Saaz and Cascade bounce around in a zingy grassy fizz-driven flavour bomb. Take away the fizz, however, and it's like a balloon from last year's birthday: sad and shrivelled with just flat, sharp vegetable flavours on water. We've not seen cask Hooker for a while now, though the rumour mill has it that a dry-hopped version may be on the way and that should do it the world of good.

Finally the first edition of O'Hara's Leann Folláin. The bottled version had a jarring oaky sort of tang apparently caused by the yeast. It wasn't meant to be there (and, happily, it's absent from the version now on sale) and it really spoiled the party in what should have been a great extra stout. I couldn't believe, when Leann Folláin showed up on cask in the Bull & Castle, that there was no sign of the off flavour: all was happy, stouty, normal chocolate malt and roast barley, and absolutely delicious to boot. The difference between the two was truly amazing. Cask blend effect to the rescue!

So there you have it. Some beers suit cask better than keg, and some the reverse. It just depends on the beer. Brewers generally will have one or other in mind when they assemble the recipe so it's not surprising that a beer brewed for keg is sometimes lacking on cask, and vice versa. In the UK, the cask and keg or bottle versions of supposedly the same beer are often brewed to different recipes, sometimes even in different breweries.

Enough controversy for one post? Nah. I'm just getting warmed up. Can we do black IPA next? Much electronic ink has been spilled in debating the ins and outs of this recent addition to the beer classification firmament. Is it a whole separate thing? Is it just hoppy porter? And are any of the other names more suitable than the oxymoronic "Black India Pale Ale"? I happen to have one in front of me, kindly gifted by Oblivious, but I'm not going to delve into any of the taxonomic issues. It's not like I'm organising a competition.

More relevant to the topic at hand is the dispense method: this is the first craft-beer-in-a-can that has crossed my path. The brewery, 21st Amendment of San Francisco, has pioneered the practice, and breweries all over are following suit. And it's yet another thing that some beer commentators get highly vexed over. Just as there are some who believe -- despite the logical absurdity of the position -- that cask beer in prime condition simply cannot be bettered, there are those who believe that good beer cannot come in cans. Daft absolutist statements are perhaps best treated with a nod, a smile and another pull on your pint. It's better not to engage. So, without any prejudices on style or dispense, how is 21st Amendment Back in Black?

Rather than pure black, it's more of a dark but translucent ruby red in the glass. The aroma is striking: brewery-fresh grapefruit. Not at all boozy despite a considerable 6.8% ABV, no acid harshness: just citric hops in perfect balance. The head is tight and lasting and the texture light. On tasting it's definitely an IPA. Maybe not an especially hoppy one -- the taste doesn't deliver the full-on experience promised by the nose -- but it's gently fruity and very drinkable. As to the dark malts, they add a token dusting of dry roast and chocolate, but nothing that would make anyone call this beer a porter. Drink it with your eyes closed and you'd be hard pressed to tell it's black. An all-round decent US IPA that just happens to be darker than most.

But would you know it didn't come from a bottle? No. It tastes much fresher than a lot of American hoppy beer we get, but then it was imported by Oblivious directly. From the drinker's perspective I see absolutely no downside to quality beer being packaged in cans.

As with any method of dispense: if it tastes good, do it.