30 March 2011


We are between the seasons at the moment: a bit cold, a bit sunny, you could be tricked into having a beer outdoors only to have to scurry in blue-handed after two sips. So I'm thumbing my nose to seasonal drinking for this post and having a winter beer and a summer beer in one sitting. I think there's a definite touch of SAD in the way the Odell brewery has named them.

There's not a whole lot of winter comfort in the moniker Isolation, for instance. And, frankly, there's not a whole lot in the beer either. It looks the part: a rich chestnut amber, and 6.1% ABV is plenty for any amount of cockle-warming, but bizarrely it's all hop. There's a little bit of caramel in there I'll grant you, and some lovely gunpowder spice, but the dominant flavour is soft and succulent fruit. Overall you get a pleasant, easy-drinking and tasty ale that's hard to criticise for anything other than a lack of the oomph suggested by its winter stylings. Definitely a cheerier beer than the label implies.

If Isolation is the moody one, there's a slightly psychotic touch of the giggles about Levity. I'm sure the character depicted on the label is supposed to be leaping upward, but the illustration suggests a gentle swaying motion to me. Anyway... the visuals are a bit poor here: a murky and uneven haze with little more than a skim of froth passing as head. It's billed as an "amber ale" yet lacks the reddish tones normally found in these. On tasting, a blast of rough bitterness kicks things off, skewed by a touch of stale oxidation. After a second the malt arrives on the scene to calm things down and the end result is a smooth and full-bodied beer with a long aftertaste. Once again, and I'm beginning to think of this as an Odell signature now, the hop flavours are peaches and nectarines, sweet and juicy with barely a hint of tartness.

All that written and I've just looked back on my review of Odell St Lupulin from last year. A lot of the observations I had there I'm finding again here: nicely sweet and fruity but ultimately a bit boring for beers of this strength. I'll persist with the range and hopefully there's something to match the excellent IPA in there.

28 March 2011

New tack

It's Porterhouse Independent Irish Beer and Whiskey Festival time once again. And, also once again, they've re-jigged the way they're doing it. Instead of splitting the line-up across several bars, they've asked each one of Ireland's micros to supply just one beer and all of the 14 submissions are available across the estate including (apparently) London and New York. I called in to the Temple Bar branch on Wednesday last for the results of their annual, blind-tasted, competition of the festival exhibits. Just one overall gong this year, plus two runners up. And all worthy recipients too: first prize to Mel Camire for the fabulous Messrs Maguire Brown Ale, second to Franciscan Well's excellent Purgatory, and bronze medal for the newest arrival Metalman -- one hell of an achievement given the seasoned competitors they were up against. Metalman Pale Ale is now officially superior to O'Hara's Stout, Galway Hooker and Wrasslers XXXX. Tremble in your wellies, established brewers.

The Porterhouse's ever-generous hospitality gave us Beoir members the chance to do some comparisons of our own from among the festival listings. There was just the one new beer to me: White Island Wheaten Ale from yet another newcomer to Irish brewing: Fermanagh's Inishmacsaint. I already tried their lager (here) and was impressed, though perhaps more by the technical prowess than the taste of the beer. I reckoned the wheat beer would be more interesting. And it is, no doubt, just perhaps not in the way I'd anticipated.

As it happened I was surrounded by brewers when I brought the bottle back from the bar and offered it round. Every one of them recoiled in horror at the smell and screwed up their faces at the taste. I'm pretty sure this is wheat beer as no-one but the Good Lord intended it. It pours clear and starts with some fairly serious vinegar on the nose. The texture is highly attenuated, thinned out and barely discernible as a wheat beer at all while the taste is both sharp and sour with a major lactic sour-milk tang on the finish. I'm no Quincy, but I would guess that something in the lactobacillus line got in here and had its wicked way with the fermentables.

And yet, perhaps because I'm not a proper brewer, I thought it still had something going for it. Other non-brewers in the company thought so too. The thinness and sharpness is at least clean, with an interesting bite. Could it be that what we have here is a new lambic appellation? No, probably not. I would guess that if Gordon gets the right sort of feedback he'll have this cleaned up and tasting properly Bavarian in no time.

More's the pity, perhaps. It wasn't that long ago that brown or hoppy ales wouldn't have stood a chance in an Irish beer competition. Why not give the sour side a fair crack of the whip?

The Porterhouse Independent Irish Beer and Whiskey Festival runs until Sunday 3rd April.

24 March 2011

Classy little black number

And so we come to the final beer from the mixed (in more ways than one) stash Dave and Laura brought me back from France last summer. BAS Noire is from Brasserie Artisanale de Sabaudia in Chambéry and features a lovely bit of art nouveau styling on the label.

The beer itself is a mere 4% ABV, but I'm quite impressed with what it does with this. Light, and a little bit overly fizzed, it gives off some lovely café crème aromas from the substantial head. The flavour is sweet, full of milk chocolate, but again the lightness means it skips daintily past any notion of being cloying or sickly. Where sometimes these dark fizzy beers tail off into metal and carbon dioxide, this finishes mellow with marzipan and a wisp of smoke. Part schwarzbier, part milk stout, it takes positive elements from both.

It's actually quite a refreshing beer and I can see it going down well as both a digestif in lieu of coffee, or as a warm-day restorative in an open-air café. Finding it as a local beer in the wilds of the French Alps would be a very pleasant surprise.

21 March 2011

The neighbours will talk

Sometimes it feels like being on the edge of a really interesting conversation without being able to join in. I'm an avid follower of the UK's beercentric Twitterbuzz and so have a fairly good idea of what the cool kids think is worth drinking at any given time. It's useful to know what to look out for when I visit Britain, and occasionally we get beers over here from the breweries that are being mentioned in dispatches. A tip of the hat goes to DrinkStore here for doing an excellent job in sourcing the good stuff, and I'm chuffed that some of the much-lauded Thornbridge beer has finally made an appearance.

One beer I've heard mentioned a lot in recent weeks has been Jarl from Argyll's Fyne Ales. But there's none of that to be had at this distance from the conversation so instead I'm giving their Avalanche a spin.

Don't be fooled by the rather wan colouring, nor the meagre 4.5% ABV: the aromas make it clear that your tastebuds are in for a workout long before the liquid hits the glass. "Bitter" doesn't do it justice. It's all kinds of bitter. Mostly it's intensely citric, like biting grapefruit skin, and there's also a rather gastric acid burn going on as well, and a more pleasant lemony tang. And yet, oddly, it's not unbalanced. It's all been set on a soft wheat base that doesn't interfere with the full-on hop experience, but smooths out the flavours making the whole thing easier to handle.

Proof, if proof be needed, that you don't need to reach into the upper echelons of alcoholic strength to get big hop impact.

17 March 2011

About the New Town

Novoměstský Pivovar is on a bustling street not far from Wenceslas Square in Prague. The entrance is down a long passageway leading to the back of the building where it opens out into a large beerhall that was bustling with diners even at 11am on a weekday morning. In staunchly traditional fashion they brew two beers here, one pale and one dark. Novoměstský Pivovar Světlý is another unfiltered, cloudy orange lager with a nice pithy kick and a gentler banana fruit flavour too. The Tmavý is also a little bitterer than a typical dark lager, offering liquorice as the follow-up to a caramel aroma. Neither are especially exciting beers, but solid examples of traditional Czech brewing.

Something similar is going on at Pivovarský Dům with their Štěpán range. Štěpán Světlý is a light and breezy affair, a bit grainy but balanced by some mild citric notes and a sort of canned fruit sweetness. Very drinkable, like a house beer should be. On the dark side, Štěpán Tmavý is mostly about the sweet caramel but adds in some lovely dry and smoky elements as well. Not content with such traditional fare, Pivovarský Dům also offer flavoured versions of their beers: just the house beers with an extra dash of syrup, I assume. We had the coffee-flavoured Kávove which had a lovely coffee aroma to it and, while the sweet mocha and chocolate flavours were tasty, it just didn't resemble proper beer enough to be enjoyable. I did quite like the Kopřivové, however: the nettle essence giving it a lurid green colour with some nice herb and pepper flavours. Still not very beery, though.

The people behind Pivovarský Dům also run a specialist beer bar near Florenc called Pivovarský Klub. Just six draught taps, but a vast range of bottled Czech beers, and more from Belgium, Germany, Scotland and elsewhere (though, oddly, hardly any US beer and nothing at all from England). This was our last port of call before heading to the airport.

I went straight for the weird beer option and Velke Brezno Pepřovy. The spice isn't laid on too thick with this one and the subtle piquancy leaves lots of room for the grassy hops and grainy lager malt. Everything else we tried was dark. Chodovar Černé is from a brewery probably better known for its baths than its beer and is a super-sweet dark lager absolutely loaded with brown sugar flavours, as is Primátor Premium Dark: ruby-brown and going all-out to be as tooth-rottingly sweet as possible. I also took the opportunity to try Primátor Stout and really enjoyed it, despite its almost total lack of carbonation. At the centre of the flavour there's sweet toffee and milk chocolate, then this is tempered by some dry roasted coffee and and a little bit of acrid bitterness right on the finish. Complex and very satisfying. A great beer to go out on.

And go out we did. It was a fairly epic couple of days and I learned a lot about the city's current beer scene, and that of the nation in general, as well as indulging in a little nostalgia from my previous visits. My one regret is that I didn't get to try any of the more mainstream beers. But now that the exploratory groundwork is done I can spend more time with the tankove Budvar on my next visit.

16 March 2011

Cardinal points

Prague has brewpubs all over, and a fantastically simple yet comprehensive barrier-free transport system. Visiting the outliers could hardly be easier.

On the western bank of the Vltava, above even the castle and cathedral and tucked away behind a nondescript streetfront, sits the Norbertine Strahov monastery. It's still very much in the god-bothering business (the order's founder is buried on-site), but presumably on a much smaller scale than hitherto as parts of the complex have been repurposed for other things: there's accommodation, a restaurant and, in one quarter of the courtyard, a brewpub. The indoor barroom is small, with just five tables, encouraging punters to make use of the large and sunny terrace outside.

Three beers are produced all year round, plus one of six seasonals. For March it was Masopustní (picture, right), the Lenten beer. Once you get past the overzealous fizz, there's a wonderful beer here: lots of body and a highly complex blend of bitter flavours incorporating orange pith, herbs and crunchy green veg. If you're going to stick to one beer for seven weeks, this is a definite candidate.

Somewhat less traditionally monastic, there's Sv. Norbert IPA (picture, left), a fantastically fresh-tasting US-style example packed with zingy peaches and mandarins. Only the big bitter punch on the end hints of a more serious side. For al fresco drinking on the terrace I can't think of a better beer to have.

Oddly, there's no pale lager. The nearest is the märzen-a-like Sv. Norbert Amber. Only the extra strength (5.3% ABV) and a bit of Germanic nettle hop flavour distinguishes this from any other average grainy brewpub lager. Sv. Norbert Tmavé is a step up, being a decent and simple dark lager with some lovely sweet coffee notes. I'd hammer through it quite happily, but having reached the end of the menu it was time to pack up the notebook and move to the next one.

Tram 25 goes from near Strahov over to Bulovka in the northern end of town, home to Pivovar u Bulovky and the Richter Brewery within. There's a distinct Germanic feel to the beer range in this tidy, friendly, neighbourhood pub. Richter Weissbier, for instance, hasn't just been hobbled together because the brewer reckoned they needed one. This has clearly been designed and crafted by someone who likes weissbier and wouldn't be content with a less-than-excellent one. As such, it's a lot like Schneider-Weisse: dark red-brown with a perfect balance of bubblegum and clove, plus some extra hoppy green complexities. There's also a Weizenbock: a powerful vinous flat black beer which leaves the drinker in no doubt of its alcoholic clout. Dark fruit -- grapes, black cherry and blackcurrant in particular -- plus caramel and a not unwelcome smack of heady marker pen phenols. You wouldn't drink a lot of it, but a little goes a long way.

And for the less adventurous locals there's Richter Ležak: the opaque orange colour of many an unfiltered pale lager and more of those green vegetables from the weiss. It tastes of squeaky leeks to me. Not a bad thing in a beer, to be honest. The inevitable Richter Tmava has a slightly fusty aroma and an interesting mix of chocolate and lavender in the flavour: Turkish delight as beer.

I liked U Bulovky a lot. It surprised me with some interesting and quite iconoclastic takes on beer styles I thought I knew. Time to move on, though.

Representing the southern end of the tour is Pivovar U Bansethu, a short walk from Zlý Časy and worth dropping in to when you're in the area. It was brewday on our visit, and the small narrow premises was thick with malt smells, like you could get a full day's nutrition on just a lungful. Just two beers were on and we ordered one of each, noting without looking the moment the brewer threw the first hops into the boil as the atmosphere changed from cookies and sweet porridge to grapefruit and cut grass. Basta Světlé is a remarkably bitter unfiltered lager, weighty and with that rough waxy flavour I've encountered in a few Czech microbrews. Nothing darker than Basta Polotmavé was on, a red-amber lager tasting lightly and pleasantly of milky toffee, finishing with a nice herbal complexity. Workmanlike is how I'd describe U Bansethu's beers, though it could well be that I caught them on one of their less interesting days, drinkwise, if not smellwise anyway.

And that brings us back to the heart of the city. There are several brewpubs I could pick for the eastern point, but two will have to suffice for this post. A return trip to Prague would not have been complete without sticking our heads in at U Fleků, quite possibly the second brewpub (after Dublin's Porterhouse) that I ever visited. It deserves its reputation as a production-line tourist facility: even dodging in between the coach parties we were still marched to a table, sat down and given two mugs of Flekovský Ležák without even the time to draw breath. Don't get me wrong: I'm all in favour of pubs that only make and sell one unique beer, and who will just serve it to you if you don't already have a full one in front of you, but the railroad nature of U Fleků really is quite without charm. It's just as well the beer is good: a black lager that's much drier than the usual, with lots of roast, falling somewhere in the schwarzbier-to-stout end of the taste spectrum. One 400ml mug was enough to deem the place done and off we went.

Perhaps most central of all the brewpubs is the behemoth that is U Medvídků. This has been an inn since the year dot and is made up of a rambling sequence of large drinking and dining rooms across two floors. Downstairs it's all Budvar and the stainless steel tankova system is proudly on display, guaranteeing that the beer is all naturally carbonated. From the entranceway a series of signposts lead the more curious drinker into the deep reaches of the building, indicating the way to the brewery, past one glass-fronted fermenting room showing open-topped tanks and up the back stairs. Up here is the low-ceilinged house brewery itself with a few tables ranged around. No Budvar here, only whatever the brewer happens to have ready to go. They were both pale lagers on our visit: Oldgott is a gently hopped plain amber lager; and 1466, a more complex and bitter beer showing herbs, honey and even some cinnamon and clove.

It's a charming place and I wish we'd had more time to explore it properly, take some time over its beers, try the Budvar and maybe a plate or two of the food. But that will have to wait. We're on the last leg around the city centre with just a few more must-drink bars to tick off the list.

15 March 2011

Guided by Velky

I first went to Prague in the hot summer of 1997. It was my first ever self-organised trip, with the all the excitement of sorting out transport and accommodation all on my own. There were no direct flights so my friend and I got the bus from Belfast to London, overnighted there, somehow totally managed to avoid seeing any news on the morning of 31st August on the way to and through Stanstead airport, and only five days into the trip happened into an Irish bar with Sky News which was showing a carpet of flowers outside Kensington Palace for some unfathomable reason. Before we left Ireland, I had bought a guidebook. The 1997 Rough Guide to Prague also served me on my return to welcome in 1999 amid the amateur pyrotechnics of Old Town Square, and for the eight hour layover on the way to Istanbul in 2002, just weeks after the city had been ravaged by the rising waters of the Vltava. I remember noticing that 2002's Prague was bouncing back from the disaster in a way that 1997's wouldn't have.

I toyed with the idea of replacing the book for this trip, but in the end I didn't need to. Fellow beer blogger and ex-resident of Prague Velky Al has produced a pub guide to the city, and since that thoroughly covered the theme of the trip I didn't really think any other documentation was necessary. Al makes it clear in his introduction that it's a pub guide, not a beer guide, though almost every specialist beer bar is listed. I didn't get to much over a quarter of the 40 pubs he describes, but here's what I found in some of them.

Picking up in Zlý Časy, my only venture into pale lager was Otakar 11° Světlé, a simple and tasty chap, bitter with just a little bit of a yeast tang to make it interesting.

On our first night we took the tram up to Svijanský Rytíř to have some food and be svijazzled by the Svijanský beers. Just the two were on offer, brewed at Svijanský itself, north east of Prague heading for the border with Poland. Máz is a light 11° lager, vaguely sweet with a little hint of bananas but mostly cold and eminently sessionable at 4.8% ABV. Hazier Kníze (pictured) beefs things up a bit at 13° (5.6% ABV) and here those fruit flavours veer towards marker pen, saved at the end by a lovely dry graininess. It reminds me of a lighter, more fun, version of märzen. A couple of these and a stonking plate of brewer's goulash and we were off again.

At a nearby supermarket I picked up three bottles from the Master range, brewed by SABMiller in response to the growing number of smaller brands in the country. I found it to be a three-beer-range of two halves. In the middle is Master Polotmavy, amber and really very tasteless. Master Zlaty is the pale one and has a fantastic honey-and-wax bittersweet taste on a full and filling body. I also really enjoyed the Master Tmavy, heavy and fizzy with a cola sweetness, tempered by liquorice and a touch of classic Czech caramel.

The main event as far as your standard Czech lager was concerned centred on a slightly scruffy and brightly-lit neighbourhood boozer called U Slovánské Lipy. Al designates it as "an absolutely must visit pub" on the strength of the Kout na Šumavě range (Kout na Šumavě is over at the western point of the Czech Republic, just beyond Plzeň). We had a choice of five beers, one of which was available in both filtered and unfiltered form. The difference between the two versions of Kout na Šumavě 10° is surprising, especially the appearance: one limpid gold, the other opaque amber. While the filtered one is a smooth and big bodied helles-like lager the other is rawer with lots of crunchy grain in it. Both very enjoyable, but I think they're too different to designate one as any way better than the other. It's great to have such an opportunity for comparison, though.

On trading up to
Kout na Šumavě 12° you get an extra hit of citric zest in a cloudy pale gold beer, finishing with just a pop of full-on bitterness at the end to keep you on your toes. On the sweeter side there's Kout na Šumavě Porter, another 18°-er, enormously heavy and balancing its big caramel with an almost acrid bitterness. Not quite up to Pardubicky standards, in my opinion, but really close.

My favourite of the lot, though, was Kout na Šumavě 14° Tmavé. A clear cut above your standard dark Czech lager, incorporating all the usual sweet smoothness with extra chocolate and even