29 June 2011

Because "Belgian" is no kind of descriptor

We do tend to throw the B-word around rather indiscriminately. It generally means a very full-bodied, estery, slightly yeasty kind of thing: cloudy, funky, and available in any colour from pale Duvel-yellow to dark Rochefort-brown. Hoppy it ain't, despite even the new wave of American inspired hop-driven Belgian ales; and there's certainly nothing you'd call "clean" in the profile.

One brewing company in particular is doing its utmost to break out of the strictures of national beer stereotyping: De La Senne, from Brussels. I've covered a couple of their beers previously (here and here) and the wife kindly brought two more back from a recent trip to Belgium.

Zinne Bir calls itself a "Brussels' People Ale", in what can only be a cheeky attempt to wind up the beer style purists. And the English grammar purists too, I guess. It's 5.8% ABV and pours a cloudy orange shade, quite fizzy but not really throwing out much by way of aroma -- just some lightly spicy jasmine sweetness. The first impression on tasting is bitterness, and lots of it, with both the yeast and hops ganging up together and introducing their respective brands of sharpness simultaneously. It calms down after a moment and finishes pithy rather than sharp. The fizz makes it refreshing and it's all really quite quaffable. An ordinary decent beer for the citizens of Brussels? Yes, I can see how that works. And if it means more Cantillon for me, then I'm happy.

I figured that Equinox would be somewhat more typically Belgian: an 8% ABV dark ale in a 75cl bottle? Has to be vaguely trappist in tone, hasn't it? Nope. I think they've assembled this the way one would for an abbey beer and then used a totally different, unBelgian yeast. Of fruity esters there are none. Instead it's a very dry, bitter, and slightly smoky beer, nearly akin to a strong Irish stout. It's full-bodied almost to the point of greasiness and the liquorice aroma is the nearest thing to fruit that it offers. I found it hard going, all in all. An enjoyable novelty, but I didn't need to devote my evening to three quarters of a litre of it.

It's always good to see brewers breaking free of received notions of what beer in their country is supposed to be, especially in countries like Belgium with well-established brewing traditions. Here's to the tinkerers.

27 June 2011

Session sequencing

It was tough picking an order in which to drink these Fyne Ales: all pretty low ABV session ales; two of the three on the pale side; all claiming generous hopping. Um. Errr. Best to just muck in and see how it goes.

So first up was Piper's Gold. The name's a bit of a turn-off. I'm sure there's a Scottish equivalent of paddywhackery and "Piper's Gold" stinks of it: haggis an' kilts an' aw the rest of thon oul shite. But beers don't get judged on their names on this blog. Much. Behind the label there's a slightly hazy blonde ale of 3.8% ABV. I didn't see anything on the label about bottle conditioning or an admonition to pour carefully, but I think there might be a bit of a yeast component in the flavour: a slight grittiness. Surrounding that it's fairly nondescript. The best bit is a little burst of juicy fruit bubblegum in the aroma. Tastewise you don't get much: that yeast, plus a slight rough oiliness which I can only describe as coconut even though doing so caused my wife to give me the you-don't-know-what-you're-talking-about look (to which, fortunately, I'm immune at this stage). All in, it's quite drinkable and you'd be happy to see it on tap in the pub. It probably doesn't lend itself to considered analysis, though. Nothing for it but to open the next beer, then.

I had been going to put the darker Highlander at the beginning of the sequence, until the label started talking about its citrus aroma in capital letters. A malt-driven hoppy amber ale? That could go any way, so I put it in the middle. It's not that dark, as it turns out: rose-gold to amber rather than anything redder. That citrus aroma? Yes, it's there to an extent, but not in a big way. I'd have thought the busy fizz would have pushed more hops out, but they just mustn't be in there in any great number to begin with. And neither's anything else really: it's another light, simple pale ale with a little too much water and fizz to be properly enjoyable.

Doubt was starting to creep in about whether these lacklustre offerings really were from the same brewery that made Avalanche and Vital Spark. Luckily I had the big gun saved up for last. Beer geek scuttlebutt has it that Jarl is the money-maker of the line-up. Off with the cap then...

I swear I was wielding the bottle opener at arm's length, but I got a massive hop waft along with the first hiss: almost skunky, in fact. Leaning in to the bottleneck I get a smell that takes me right back to wrong turns in Amsterdam on a cold Friday night: a different sort of skunk but all botanically related. Appearance-wise it's very very pale, blending in with my walls until the camera flash drew out the contrast. Expecting an incendiary hop-bomb from the aroma (despite only 3.8% ABV) I was very pleasantly surprised on the first pull: lots of really quite sweet fruit in the juicy mandarin and nectarine bracket. It fades quite quickly and the hops (all Citra, I'm told) add a final bitter flourish, before the palate is clear and ready for another gulp. While trying deperately not to sound like an insufferable fanboy, I must say this is probably the best bottled session beer I've ever come across. It's a recipe that deserves to be ripped off mercilessly for the greater good of beer-drinking kind. But while that's happening, a standing ovation for Fyne Ales for Jarl. Believe the hype.

So not the end-to-end quality bevvy experience I was anticipating, and I'm very happy with the order I picked: Jarl is unfollowable by anything other than more Jarl, or someting from a totally different end of the beer spectrum -- imperial stout or one of them mad fellas. I get the impression that Fyne are primarily a brewer for the on-trade, and that the bottles shouldn't be expected to live up to the pub experience. But if Jarl's better on cask than bottle I may actually implode with joy.

23 June 2011

Sunshine and styrians

Being one of those people who believes everything that's written on a bottle cap, I can confidently tell you that Anderson Valley of Mendocino, California operates a solar powered brewery. By coincidence, I am a solar powered drinker to a considerable extent, so I took a couple of their bottles out to the garden one evening recently to give them a go.

Their Poleeko Gold Pale Ale, first. It's quite a hazy gold colour with a mildly sour nose which I'd guess the yeast has something to do with. Gentle carbonation and a light, almost thin, texture should make it a good thirst quencher. But there's one big bit of the flavour profile that sets off my taste alarm bells, and I think Styrian Goldings are the cause. I've come to associate that hop with a sticky, undiluted orange cordial flavour and I rarely like beers that have it (Timothy Taylor Landlord, when in good condition, is a notable exception). It finishes with a very slight zinc-like metallic bite too. On the whole the beer is easy going enough not to be spoiled by these off flavours. As a hot-day quaffer this remains refreshing and sinkable.

To the dark side next, and Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout. Normally I get quite a nasty marker-pen hit from oatmeal stouts but this is the first one I've had that actually tastes of oatmeal. That warming, glutenous porridge flavour and texture is right there from the start. This gets followed by another sort of metallic tang, this time of the saccharine variety, but again it's brief and can be mostly ignored. Underneath it's a sticky sweet beer, in a pleasant toffee-like way that would make it good as a dessert. There's an unexpected floral finish as well. I'm picking out the different elements here, but they blend together well into a simple and enjoyable heavy after-dinner stout.

Not beers to shout about, but worth a punt if you see them.

20 June 2011

All done in the best possible Taste

For the first year of the last six I was planning to give Taste of Dublin a miss. I had other plans for the Saturday (the subject of a post yet to be written), and it's getting more and more expensive as a day out. After the intense rain at the end of last year's gig, from which we were mostly saved by L. Mulligan. Grocer, I figured it was time to give it a rest. A shame, too, since 2011 was the beeriest Taste ever: The Porterhouse was represented, as usual, joined by Carlow Brewing and a joint appearance from Trouble Brewing and the aforementioned Mulligan's. Messrs Maguire also took a stall, as part of the producers' zone, and had promised some of the new fruity weissbier. Oh well. I'd get it another time.

And then the Irish Food Bloggers Association came through with a couple of freebie tickets. Game on!

The weather wasn't as bad as it looked: a bit muddy, a bit overcast, but nothing worse than light drizzle fell from the sky. Nothing to put me off my food, which disappeared fairly quickly and was excellent as always. Locks sure know how to braise a beef cheek and Diep Le Shaker's rendang goes wonderfully with O'Hara's IPA.

But it was Messrs Maguire that I was really there to see. Mel had a plethora of her beers on offer, with the Summer Berry Weiss served from a beer engine behind the counter. I was warned it was lacking a bit in condition, but the extra weight the low fizz gave it added to the experience, I thought. Reuben had previously spoken of its intense tartness, and perhaps that's another thing that would have been accentuated by extra bubbles. While there's a certain dryness in the middle from the fermented-out fruit (too many types for me to remember, but lots of the foresty sort) it's still got the sweet esters of a Bavarian weissbier and even some residual blackcurrant flavour as well. Overall the whole thing is very balanced, hitting that sweet spot of being both interesting and drinkable. I'll be very keen to try it on keg, if such a thing exists.

And then it was round to Trouble for some Ór until the security lads began pulling the chairs from under us. Next year? Let me count the breweries first.

16 June 2011

Lemon soap

Happy Bloomsday!

In tribute to Mr Henry Flower c/o Westland Row Post Office, a bottle of Hogs Back Gardener's Tipple. Interestingly, for this sideline observer of the UK beer scene, the proud proclamation on the back label is "Brewery conditioned, for all the taste without the sediment". As a selling point that's a new one on me, but is there any truth to it?

Well yes. A gorgeous limpid red amber beer with a very gentle carbonation and lots of hard caramel on the nose. The body is firm enough to transform that into full-on toffee on tasting, with a spicy piquancy which I'd guess is hop-related, though it's very much a malt-driven beer. Rich and unctuous, yet wonderfully refreshing at just 4% ABV. British session beer, in a bottle, at its best.

Onwards and upwards to the 6% ABV stonker in the Hogs Back range: OTT. It's a dark ruby shade, jet black unless held up to the light. It's another complex one, with an almost vinous nose, offering a touch of port next to treacle and toffee.

The first thing I get from tasting it is smoke: a sweet and aromatic buzz reminding me a lot of Theakston's Old Peculier. Under that there's chocolate, spices, and a touch of butter. It's a filling after-dinner beer though drinkable enough to follow the first with another.

Whether the sediment that the brewery so zealously seeks to avoid would have any adverse impact on the flavour of either of these assertive ales is debatable. I reckon there'd be little lost through bottle-conditioning, though at the same time there's nothing missing from them as-is either. Clearly these are beers which should just be consumed and enjoyed without any scholastic musings on gas provenance.

13 June 2011

The font of all brewing wisdom

I love the Comic Sans Criminal website. It's a quick, informative and non-preachy response to the greatest typographical problem of our age. I haven't yet directed any Comic Sans criminals towards it, but perhaps the Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California should be on the list. One of the most well-respected breweries in the United States shouldn't be turning out labels that look like they were produced on a version of Microsoft Word from 1996.

This came to my attention when I opened a bottle of Supplication, very kindly delivered by Chris and Merideth when they visited Dublin in December. The long description of the labour-intensive production method loses some of its wow-factor by being presented in a typeface more suited to the noticeboard in a primary school. Only a little, though: Supplication, we're told, starts life as a brown ale which is then soured with lambic yeast and bacteria strains and left to mature in pinot noir barrels with some cherries for company.

It strikes me as a rather more contrived process than traditional Belgian lambic brewing, but the result speaks for itself: this is every bit as tasty as the best of sour Belgian beer. Rather than the saltpetre nitrousness I'm more used to, the tartness is based more on an old damp wood flavour, deriving presumably from the oak barrels, though it's not something I've ever noticed in a wood-aged beer before.

Of course being American it's bigger and brasher than your typical softly-spoken Belgian and the 7% ABV is definitely discernable in the flavour, emphasised by the heavy body and gentle sparkle. The cherries, however, are nowhere to be found.

It does have me wondering if all the careful effort is really worth while: this tastes like a beer where the yeast and bacteria are very much in charge and I wonder how much their paths can be steered through details like barrel type and fruit additions. I suspect that they'll produce the same sort of beer regardless. But it's a lovely beer nonetheless, once you've put the bottle and its inappropriate typeface to one side.

09 June 2011

What the dormouse said

I was a bit tired when I came to BrewDog Alice Porter. It had been a long week and I probably didn't really need another beer. But if it's just going to be the one, why not a 6.2% ABV Baltic Porter from the naughty Scottish boys at the back of the class? As ever, the label copy makes big and flouncy promises -- I took its talk of a "radically reinvisaged" [sic] porter at face value and reckoned there wouldn't be a whole lot of work stringing a few words together about it. And then I opened it.

It's a Baltic Porter all right, but it could be any Baltic Porter: you get that stern liquorice and treacle bitter sweetness and pleasant boozy warmth. All very lovely as it goes, but where's the radical reimagining? Concentrating hard, I managed to pick up a few of Alice's distinguishing features. There's a light and flowery sweet flavour at the very end: a touch of lavender or rose water, but I had to work to find it.

Despite the bluster, I think this can be filed at the good, solid, balanced, drinkable end of the BrewDog portfolio. Don't expect a full-palate workout.

06 June 2011

Days of beer and roses

The Irish summer made a fleeting appearance late last week, coinciding with the opening of Bloom in the Park, a garden festival organised by Bord Bia, the state food promotion agency. Bord Bia are long-standing friends of the independent beer movement in Ireland, having organised the SeptemberFest extravaganza in 2008 and 2009. Last year it was incorporated into Bloom with the creation of the Bloom Inn tent. This year saw the Bloom Inn return, in a larger double-dome form as part of an artisan food village which included pigs-on-spit, Murphy's amazing ice cream, pies, cheese and all the other wonderful foodie delights of which this country has every right to be proud. I spent Friday afternoon dodging the rays and beering and pigging my way round.

Nine of the country's craft breweries were represented at the Bloom Inn, with a mix of their core beers and some specials and seasonals. Unsurprisingly on such a scorcher, the highlight for me was an ice-cold lager. When I visited the revamped Messrs Maguire brewery back in January I remarked on the excellent unfiltered Haus lager, served from the conditioning tank. It stayed there for a while as Mel wrestled with filtering hardware. I'm delighted to say that she eventually gave up and the Haus now in commercial circulation is unfiltered, and really quite wonderful. Amber and only slightly hazy, it's crisp, full-bodied and ever-so-slightly sweet with a light hand on the carbonation. Irish lager is rarely so good.

Galway Hooker was another star of the day: Ronan had the inline chiller turned up to 11 and the pale ale was pouring beautifully. For once I wasn't complaining about the ubiquitousness of hoppy keg ales in Irish brewing as it was just the day for them, with 8 Degrees Howling Gale, Trouble Ór, O'Hara's IPA, Porterhouse Hop Head and Metalman Pale Ale all just the ticket. At the cask-only Dungarvan Brewing stand there wasn't much action between the two stouts, but Helvick Gold was wonderfully cool, refreshing and full-flavoured. While I was overjoyed to find Metalman Windjammer on cask again, it was let down by a too-high serving temperature, but fortunately it was also on keg: the right dispense method for the weather, especially since the keg edition retains a lot of the cask's delicious tropical fruit flavours.

Just one brand new tick for me, from the always-inventive White Gypsy. Bruin is billed as a "Belgian Brown Ale", which had me thinking of tart Flemish red style flavours, but it's quite different. I guess the best way to describe it is a light dubbel: it's a rich chestnut brown, smooth and incredibly fruity, packed with the banana flavours closely associated with Belgian yeast working at high temperatures. There's lots of filling malt sweetness too, hinting at raisins and chocolate. The cask dispense added to the smoothness but it was still a bit of effort to drink it. Even though there was a cooler in action it was just a bit warm for the day that was in it. A beer to save for a rainy day, perhaps.

Today is the final one of Bloom 2011, with the curtains coming down on the beer tents at 6pm this evening. If you're anywhere in the vicinity of the Phoenix Park, go.

Hearty congratulations are due to Bord Bia for putting on a superb show, very well organised and great fun to attend. And a big thanks both from Beoir and me personally for providing this platform for Irish craft beer to show off to a crowd which otherwise might never notice its existence. Here's hoping for many more years of the Bloom Inn.