30 May 2011

Hark the Herold lager thing

My recent review of Krombacher Dark was the second time I realised I've never put up a review of Herold Dark, despite having been drinking it in The Czech Inn and Pifko since before Christmas. Upon realising this, I found an idle moment to drop by The Czech Inn and take my time over a pint to figure out how it works. With a few lines of notes taken I went on my way. And then completely forgot about it again. So, before the amnesia kicks in once more: an account of Herold Dark, a black lager from Březnice, just south of Prague.

It certainly shouldn't be a forgettable beer. From a head the colour of old ivory comes a gorgeous lightly roasted aroma and on the first pull there's the sensation of a classic old-fashioned stout: impeccably smooth and tinged with a complex damson sourness. After a beat the sweetness kicks in, flooding the palate with condensed milk and brown sugar. Then at the end it turns dry again, clearing the way for the next sip.

More than anything I'm impressed with the balance of it all. The set of flavours it offers are ones that other beers get wrong far too often. Even in less complex efforts you get stickiness, you get metal, you get lactic tang, you get watery, you get gassy. Herold Dark deftly side-sidesteps all these pitfalls.

It's a lager I could drink all day and never get bored. Well worth darkening the doors of Dublin's Czech pubs for. And if The Czech Inn has pork neck on the specials board, get that into you too.

26 May 2011

The Shep effect

Shepherd Neame time again. I'd actually been holding off on boring you with yet another one of these, planning to build up a few more bottles and publish in one big batch. That would have been merciful. I'd had these two in sensory deprivation since March, but no new ones have arrived since, and then Thom wrote about how one of them was quite drinkable. That piqued my curiosity enough for me to fetch them into the light. So here they are:

Up and Under was produced for the Six Nations. It's a brown bitter, 4% ABV as all these Shep specials are. The aroma was slightly lightstruck, but not too bad. On the taste we're in very familiar territory: there's a sugary sweetness I've come to associate with this series, and a rising wateriness at the end. The milk chocolate malt aspect I've definitely met before, in a more terrifying aspect, in the woeful Tapping the Admiral. Here it's manageable. The slightly whiffy hops float about the aftertaste as well, creating a bit of a bum note, but not a jarring one. On balance, if there was nothing else in the pub, I think I could drink a couple of pints of this and not feel too hard done by, though I won't go so far as to say my €1.49 in Lidl was well spent.

On to the Double Stout, then. Drinking through the very impressive head I can see where Thom was getting the roast and vanilla notes from, I got quite a bit of caramel as well, with a long bitter finish in place of the dryness I was expecting. The roast is more in the rich and meaty category than burnt and grainy. It's nearly a very good beer and great value for money. Except... through it all I'm still getting that niggling wateriness and odd flashes of skunk. I'd be interested to find out if I could identify this as a Shepherd Neame stout in a blind tasting, but I feel I could. So while it may be dolled up as a stout -- trying a bit too hard with the paddywhackery label, may I add -- deep down this is just another one of those Shepherd Neame ales that Lidl sells.

With two months of quiet, could this be the end of the Brewmaster's Choice series at Lidl? A rest would be nice.

23 May 2011

Pep talk

With a label that looks like the nameplate on an upmarket nightclub, Pepe Nero is from Chicago's Goose Island, and purports to be a Belgian-style ale of 6% ABV. My bottle is very young, capped just ten weeks ago, and the makers state that it should be good for about 5 years. Perhaps the youngness is the reason it poured quite flat, with just a thin layer of short-lived foam on the murky dark brown body.

Definite Belgian dark fruit esters on the nose: the plums and figs of a light dubbel. The tasty is oddly vegetal, though. It has the dry metallic notes of asparagus and brussels sprout first which only afterwards lets any mellow fruitiness through. It needs a few minutes to warm up before it stops tasting thin, and at this point I got a little bit of chocolate and treacle with my vegetables.

An odd fish and I don't quite know what to make of it. It could well be that it's still a bit green and in need of a good cellaring. As is, it doesn't give you the satisfying fullness of a strong dark Belgian ale. Approach with caution.

19 May 2011

Dark out

Sometimes going to the pub can almost feel like work. Last Thursday at Against the Grain was one of those. Dungarvan's Black Rock was on cask and in fine form. I could have happily drank it all evening. Except Clanconnel's excellent McGrath's Black was on special offer so I had to put one of those away too. And then there was the new Beer of the Month: Krombacher Dark.

I'm always pleased to see a new dark lager on the market in Ireland. I think it's a healthy sign of diversity in our beer culture. That this is being brought in by one of the big mainstream importers is a positive indicator. So what's it like?

Well, sadly, it's no Zeitgeist, nor even a Herold Dark. It does hit most of the dark lager targets of roasted grain and burnt caramel, no mean feat in a very sessionable 4.3% ABV bundle. There's even a faint creaminess, enhancing the body and rounding it off quite well. But through it all there's one niggling little bug that would make me think twice about buying more: that plasticky buzz found in some German lagers which may or may not be down to their use of hop extract (this certainly does). Add roasted malt to plastic and you get burnt plastic, which is not nice at all.

The beer isn't ruined by any means, but it's not all it should be either. I should also mention that it wasn't a great match for the chicken tajine I ate alongside it: the flavours, good and bad, just weren't robust enough to stand up to even a moderate level of spice.

Overall a slightly flawed but generally decent easy-drinking lager and well worth a punt. Maybe you won't notice the plastic.

16 May 2011

All buzz and no fizz

Not so much as a breath of condition from my bottle of Cotleigh Buzzard as I poured it. There's a vague sort of half-hearted sparkle to the mouthfeel, but no real proper fizz.

I guess that's the risk you take with bottle-conditioned beers like this dark ruby one from Somerset, though flatness is a much lesser sin in my book than over carbonation. That said, the flavour profile certainly doesn't seem to be suffering from the absence of gas to push it forward: there are lots of interesting things happening here. While chocolate dominates the aroma, the first thing that struck me on tasting was the tannin, a lovely refreshing astringency, like a nice cup of tea. There's a green vegetable bitterness on top of this, combined with some light chocolate: leeks dusted in cocoa. On the end there's a slight acridity which the label copy prefers to brand as "smoke", but if so it's the sort of smoke that prompts men in hazmat suits to call to your house and tell you to keep the windows shut for the next few days. To me it's more of a metallic thing -- slightly jarring but not pungent enough to spoil the beer.

Light, complex, tasty: I could drink another one straight away. I'd be hoping for a bit more fizz though.

12 May 2011

Warmth of the Baltic

A smoked porter is high on my to-brew list. I've not been especially happy with the smoked pale ales I've done, and probably the best move should be a full mash using rauchmalz as the base malt, but that's not how I roll right now. So, something where the smoke complements sweet roast and chocolate notes will be the next best thing.

My creation won't be a Baltic porter, however, since lager-making kit is among the facilities I lack. I'll still be very happy if it ends up anything even remotely like Great Divide's Smoked Baltic Porter.

This stuff is smooth to the nth degree. You expect a certain bitter liquorice roughness in a Baltic porter, but here all those edges are knocked off, with milk chocolate and a charred sweetness (think of the crispy edges on a roasted sweet potato) up front together, reducing the liquorice to a mild dry spice on the finish. There's a beautiful creaminess to the texture, and a layer of foam on top that lasts to the bottom of the glass.

At a relatively light 6.2% ABV another 650ml bottle would have been very tempting, if I had one.

09 May 2011

Top to bottom

From a brewery better known for its double-digit barrel-aged imperial stouts I wasn't at all sure what to expect with De Molen's Op & Top, a 4.5% ABV pale ale. To offset my uncertainty, Menno has provided his usual thorough statistical analysis on the label: 22.2 EBC in colour, 30.4 EBUs in bitterness, brewed in October 2010 and bottled a month later. All very interesting, but of course it's impossible to know what any of it really means without pouring and drinking it.

I poured carefully, giving me a clear glass of pale amber beer, but it still had a funky yeasty aroma. The first taste is bitter, with a nasty sort of oxidised staleness to it. It takes a moment for the proper flavour to come out of hiding: orange pith and some milder notes of mandarins and peaches: trying to be light and easy-going but ending up really quite harsh. The base for this is distractingly fizzy too.

You can probably tell I didn't really like it. I'm surprised by the label's recommendation that it'll age well for five years: seven months in the bottle and I got the distinct impression of a beer already past its best, with the high fruit flavours giving way to baseline bitterness. There are some great pale ales in the De Molen range, but this isn't one of them and I think you're much better off keeping to the dark and strong end of the line.

06 May 2011

Put your faith in cheeses

Session logoJay Brooks has set the challenge for this month's Session, based around the theme of beer and cheese. There's a rather convoluted and specific set of instructions on his announcement post here, but if enough people do it right the results will make very interesting reading. However, given my location there's no question of me being able to toe the line, so instead you'll have to settle for a solo run by me on some Irish cheese and Scottish beer, chosen more-or-less randomly and thrown together to see if anything clicks. Let's meet the participants...

Williams Gold is a blonde ale, the colour of shining bullion. I get light bubblegum and golden syrup from the aroma and the carbonation is relatively soft: definitely unlagerlike. A mild sweetness is the dominant flavour characteristic, with hints of lychee, though the finish is a little watery. Simple fare.

Joker IPA is almost the same colour, leaning a little more towards amber but not much. It's a sessionable sort of IPA at just 5% ABV and a little parsimonious with the hops. A strange aroma: sugary artificial fruit, like Tizer or Irn Bru. This is subdued in the flavour, coming across more like orange boiled sweets plus some earthy notes as well. I liked it; it's interesting.

Williams Red is last of the three. No aroma at all here, and a gentle flavour of caramel with a light lavender complexity underneath. Again, a solid, well-made but quite quietly-spoken beer. I felt a bit guilty about what I was about to put them through...

My first cheese choice was Wexford Cheddar. Cheddar is a lot like pilsner: a category that tends to get used as a catch-all for all manner of bland and unpleasant crap, but when you meet a good one, properly made and sufficiently matured, you know about it. Wexford is definitely a proper cheddar: slightly sharp at first, then rich and creamy.

Next, some Mature Ardrahan, a semi-soft cheese with more than a hint of gym sock in its pungent aroma. The taste is quite busy, with lots of nuttiness and butter, though that aroma never goes away until you're finished. It's an end-to-end cheese experience.

And then there's Bellingham Blue, a cheese with the texture of wet sand, tasting supremely earthy backed up by lots of mouldy funk. Definitely from a place next to the bass amps in the cheese orchestra. It's one to nibble.

With the line-up beginning to look a bit one-sided I set to, and here's what went with what.

The Gold was no match at all for the cheddar, disappearing under the cheddar cheesiness with barely a murmur. The Red threw out some interesting sweet flavours to contrast with the sourness, but again the cheddar flavours just shouted the beer down. The Red's fizz did a great job of clearing my palate afterwards, however. The big winner was the IPA, doing that sweet-and-sour thing with gusto: a delicious blend of soda-pop sugariness (the sort you might find in a quince jelly) and bitter-yet-creamy cheese notes. Magic.

Oddly the Gold wasn't drowned by the Ardrahan. I found the two flavour profiles kept to their respective corners and I got the best of both simultaneously. I guess that's a win. The same can't be said for the IPA: becoming the first of the beers to triumph over the cheese flavour altogether, and that's not a good thing with something as complex as Ardrahan. The reverse happens with the Red: the cream and butter flavours just wreck the beer. It seems that this cheese is a tough one to get the measure of: I think it merits further beer-related investigations. Something with serious hops would be interesting.

And lastly the Bellingham Blue. We have another non-engagement with the Red: the two elements are totally immiscible. It actually balances quite well with the Gold, however, which takes some of the funky edge off and makes this extreme cheese more readily palatable. The IPA has a very interesting effect, neutralising the gritty earth flavours and leaving behind lots and lots of blue mould. If you want your blue cheese tasting very blue indeed, this is how to take it.

So, not a whole lot by way of amazing discoveries there. I think perhaps the choice of beer had a lot to do with that so, as a bonus round, I decided to throw in something strong and dark to find out what happens, so I grabbed a bottle of Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout from the stash.

With the cheddar this was the first full-on clash of the day: the bitterness of the beer does not sit at all well with the sharpness of the cheese. It's a similar story with the blue: a double dose of acridity and the chocolate subtlety of the beer just disappears. A last-minute goal came from the Ardrahan, as the stout brings out all the creaminess in the cheese and combines it with its roasted and strong alcoholic flavours, producing a gorgeous kind of Irish coffee effect.

And after all that, what are the patterns, lessons, principles and rules to be learned of beer and cheese matching? I have no idea. Everything was a surprise to me: the stuff that worked and the stuff that didn't. The worlds of beer and cheese are both so infinitely varied and nuanced that I'd say it's very hard to put down definitive markers, to the point where I say: don't bother trying. An array of cheeses on one side, and basket of beers on the other, and just let them at each other any which way.

04 May 2011

Wibbly wobbly wonder

Another reward beer today: this one following an afternoon moving furniture. I was hot, achey, and sorely tempted to just drain this bottle of Welde No 1, something made extra easy by the long grippable neck and tab-pull cap. But I restrained myself, for your benefit, as always. When the cap did come off I was greeted by a lovely grassy aroma, the classic German pils smell, and the temptation to just drain it rose again. It looked the part in the glass, a vibrant gold topped by a soft mousse, the result of light carbonation. The flavour is where it falls down, however. The grass notes at the front are too slight and too brief and the whole thing just turns to wateriness on the palate in the first second or so.

To be fair, I was only after a beer to quench my thirst, and with its gentle fizz and light flavour that's exactly what this one did. There's even a faint reverberation of those German hops in its pleasant dry finish. I'd have drank another if I had one, and I'm sure the brewer would count that as a success.

02 May 2011