31 August 2011

Look south

My summer hols took me to Argentina for most of August. The main things on the agenda were the Iguazu Falls (spectacular), beef (spectacular) and Malbec (surprisingly unspectacular, at least at the price bracket I was drinking). Of course I managed to squeeze in a beer or two as well: I know you'd have been disappointed if I didn't have a post for you about South American suds. Turns out I have six of them. You lucky people.

The only Argentinian independent I'd heard of before I left home was Antares, and their beer was relatively easy to come by in Buenos Aires. On the way to dinner one evening we dropped in to their tap in the upmarket Palermo district of the city. Antares reminds me a lot of Ireland's own Porterhouse. They started out as a pioneering brewpub in Mar del Plata which they have since outgrown to become the largest craft beer brand in the country, with a string of tied houses as well as distribution to supermarkets and other pubs. The Buenos Aires branch is a high-ceilinged bar in the modern-brewpub style of raw concrete and shiny copper, with the beer coming straight from conditioning tanks behind the bar.

They don't do much by way of cold-fermenting, it seems, so if you want yellow fizz it'll have to be Antares Kölsch. It looks the part: a clear, bright yellow. My preference is for kölsch to be dry but this doesn't quite hit the mark for me. Instead it's actually quite sweet, with a sour kick on the end giving it a sort of lemon candy vibe. Just a little bit of dry grain in the middle redeems it, but there's really not a whole lot going on here. It's passable. Their Porter is rather better: light and fun with smacks of caramel and marzipan, deserving of outings in measures greater than 33cl.

There's a Cream Stout, a big lad at 7% ABV and a major victim of Argentina's preference for all beer at 5°C or under. At first I thought it was completely tasteless, but given a few minutes it comes out of its shell to show some mild but pleasant roast and coffee flavours, as well as that weighty texture implied by the name. It's actually much stoutier than what Antares have dubbed their Imperial Stout, a beer which is pretty much red in colour and with no high-impact flavours, just a light dryness and maybe a hint of toffee. At only 1.5% ABV stronger than the Cream Stout I'm not sure why they bother with this.

On the paler side of things there's Antares IPA. Oops! Forgot to put the hops in. There's a little bit of toffee in this hazy amber affair, but not much else. Better, and more expected, toffee was to be found in the Scotch Ale: a dark red with little by way of head and some lovely caramel and bourbon biscuit malt. Like the Porter, it's simple, sweet and enjoyable.

Antares's best work is with stronger pale beers. They make a very drinkable Barley Wine, a big hitter at 10% ABV which, when given time to warm up, is full of pithy bitterness and boozy heat: perfect for keeping out the early spring chill. I also enjoyed their seasonal Wee Heavy, an amber-gold ale served in large bottles, featuring an intense strawberry aroma and a similar foretaste of ripe and squishy red berries, followed by smooth warming caramel. I suspect it could get a bit cloying if it got too warm, but served at the usual temperature it worked rather well, I thought.

A mixed bag from Antares, then, making it perhaps representative of Argentinian craft beer in general. But more on that on the other side of Friday's Session.

29 August 2011

But I know what I like

I respect BrewDog for their beer-as-art Abstrakt series. Anything that does something different with beer in terms of ingredients, processes and flavours is good in my book. Not that I would ever considering buying any Abstrakt beer, of course: it's hideously expensive and for as long as there's other, cheaper, interesting stuff on the shelves I'll go for that instead.

So I owe this post to the wonky packaging plant at BrewDog HQ, and the time it sent a batch of AB:03 out into the world with no labels on the bottles. Having secured saleable replacements, DrinkStore gave the defective ones away and, after a year or so of ageing in my attic, I'm finally getting round to drinking this one.

"Imperial Ale Aged Over Two Years In Whisky Casks With Raspberries And Strawberries" is the official description, with a strength of 10.5% ABV. The pour gives a hazy chestnut beer, quite thick of body with big floaty bits and topped by an ivory head. Brown sugar and molasses on the nose, and it's definitely malt-driven on tasting, though not cloying or overly sticky. A piquancy from the fruit cuts through it quite beautifully, the way we normally expect hops to, and this sits next to a pleasant pepperiness which I'm guessing is yeast-derived.

It's a sipper, no doubt, and one that could pass easily for much stronger than it is. The whisky barrels have put a boozy edge to it that sets me on my guard. If you've bought one and still have it, treat it as an after-dinner beer in place of a liqueur.

And before you ask, no: much as I enjoyed it I'm not now an Abstrakt subscriber at current prices, but I can understand why someone with the money to spare would be. A freebie is always welcome, though. Give the labelling machine a nudge if you're passing.

25 August 2011

Dinner for two, with drinks

The 75cl bottle is, I think, one of our greatest allies in the campaign to get beer taken seriously (or at least frivolously) as an accompaniment to food. Wine goes with food because it's strong, robustly flavoured and a 75cl bottle allows two people to share flavours in common even if what's on their plates is different. The infinite flexibility of beer means that this niche is completely open to it as well. And though the Italians are playing a fast game of catch-up here, with the Dutch and Americans also making their presence felt, the accomplished masters at big bottles of strong complex beers are the Belgians.

Kasteel Cuvée du Chateau, the subject of this post, isn't even a particularly special example. A dark ale of 11% ABV it suffers a bit from the sherry-like heat I've met in Kasteel beer before. Beyond that you get some nice figgy fruit and a hint of wintery nutmeg spice. Nothing to blow your socks off by itself, but it did pretty well with some minty lamb burgers, though the grease probably could have done with a bit more fizz to cut through it. The beer really came into its own when I turned to the cheese, however. The big sweet boozy flavour matched fantastically well with the earthy funk in my bleu d'Auvergne, improving both beer and cheese in equal, substantial, measure.

The lesson here is that even medicore beer can be put to work in a foodie context, as long as the basic parameters are right. And if you want a really good strong dark Belgian ale, well there are plenty of them out there too.

22 August 2011

Pair o' hawks

I think I may finally be running out of new American beers to try. I mean no slight to the good brewers of Mendocino, but you're close to the bottom of the barrel right now.

Black Hawk Stout first, a quite simple and tasty affair. Lots of sweet portery chocolate and raisins, finishing on a dry note that bends slightly towards metallic at the end. Texturewise it could benefit from being smoother: there's lots of prickly fizz and I found it interfered with the rich dark notes underneath. Still an enjoyable beer, and at 5.2% ABV it's entirely possible to drink a few in one sitting, if that's the kind of thing you like to do.

Me, I moved straight along to Eye of the Hawk, an 8% ABV strong ale. It's actually quite refreshing for all its alcohol. Neither the hops nor malt jump out in any big way, there's just a light white grape fruitiness and some slightly sticky cookie sweetness. As it warms it does take a turn towards cloying, with the booze making its presence felt more and more, and doing a disturbingly good impression of trampish lager. A bit more generosity in the hops department could probably have stopped that from happening. In fact, I'd nearly recommend drinking this on a sharing basis, to ensure the measures are small enough to keep the temperature down. Don't take too long over it, however, and you have a winner.

Two solid decent beers here. I think there are a couple more from the same brewery knocking around the Dublin offies. I'll give them a go if I see them.

18 August 2011

No mean lager

Following on from last month's review of BrewDog Avery Brown Dredge, another British lager, this one from Meantime in east London where BrewDog's regular lagers are currently produced. London Lager comes in a dinky 33cl and is designed, I assume, for the style-conscious bottle-by-the-neck brigade who'd otherwise be on the Corona or similar.

It's certainly rather lacking on the aroma front: I get little beyond fizzy water on the nose. But the flavour is quite pleasantly full-on, even cold from the fridge. Lots of toasty whole-grain pilsner malt, given a gently herbal complexity from the hops, plus a smack of golden syrup as it warms. I fall to my knees in thanks to the lager gods that it's not nettley or otherwise unpleasantly Germanic. I'm not sure it's especially British either, nor yet is it generic world lager. While comfortingly familiar, I can't really place where I've tasted something like this before. Maybe I just don't drink enough lager.

Anyway, Meantime's dry yet thirst-quenching London Lager gets a thumbs up from me.

15 August 2011

Dutch Kerrygold

One for the home brewers, this: Olm Pilsener, from Weesp, not far from Amsterdam. It's appearing on draught in an increasing number of Dublin pubs and is priced very much for the budget-conscious at well under €4 a pint. And, if the pint I had is in any way typical, it's the perfect reference point for what diacetyl tastes like in beer. Despite the pale pale yellow colour and the busy fizz gushing from the head-keeper at the bottom of the glass, it is very much like drinking a pint of Werther's Originals. A liquid butterbomb of the highest magnitude.

In my very tolerant way I did get through the full pint: it's light enough not to get too cloying though I did start to find it quite sickly towards the end. And no, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone except those who approach it in the spirit of zymurological inquiry. Everyone else should probably order something different. Something, y'know, nice.

11 August 2011

There's fresh and there's fresh

October 2010 was the bottling date on my Great Divide Fresh Hop Pale Ale so I wasn't expecting a whole lot of fresh hop oomph from it. Possibly no bad thing: I've always found the competing product from Sierra Nevada to be just a smidge too busily acidic. Hoping for something mellower and more mature, I poured.

A slightly hazy beer came forth, on the darker side of amber with a thick layer of froth. Not much by way of hop aroma but some lovely big caramel and candyfloss malt, more than you might expect from a mere 6.1% ABV. The big malt gives it lots of body, though the higher-falutin' hop tones are quiet, there's some lovely juicy middle range flavours of mango and peach, and under that a firm but enjoyable spiky spiced bitterness. The weight keeps the fizz in check and the total sum is a relaxing sippable pale ale, hop-driven but showing well-judged balance too.

08 August 2011

Wild West Argyll

Hurricane Jack and Maverick: they sound like beers better suited to a tumbleweed-strewn frontier town, drunk by hard-bitten ranchers. As-is they're from western Scotland, and the Fyne Ales brewery.

Starting with the blonde Hurricane Jack, much like its stablemate Jarl, I got a bang of hops the second the cap came off. Pouring revealed a deceptively watery looking beer, very slightly hazy and appearing for all the world like any number of crappy lagers. It doesn't smell like any of them, however, being aleishly sweet and bubblegummy, giving overtones of orangeade and a little gunpowder spice as well. It's heavier than Jarl, having a very full body for a mere 4.4% ABV with only a gentle hum of carbonation. And despite the fun and fruity aroma, the taste is very bitter to begin with, almost sour, in fact. The flavour comes behind it and is all orange pith and wax, the sharpness just held in check by that big soft texture. I found it a bit of a workout to drink. Even by the end of the glass my palate hadn't quite adjusted to all that bitterness. It's just a little too jaw-piercing for me, overall.

I waited a few minutes before opening Maverick, dark red-brown and malt-driven with a firm off-white head. Again (I think, unless it's residual from the earlier beer) the bitterness is at the front of this, though much milder. There's little by way of hop flavour and instead just a flash of bourbon biscuit and caramel before the dry bitterness reasserts itself. I can't say it does much for me: I'd like more fruit, more biscuit, and as I write that I realise what I want it to be is Clotworthy Dobbin. Dammit, Whitewater, you've ruined me for dark red sweet beers with any kind of mild hop complexity. Maverick is still pretty drinkable, however, so I didn't have to stew over it for very long.

That, I think, is the end of the Fyne Ales range currently available to me right now. Nobody will be surprised to hear that Jarl's the star.

05 August 2011

Something oude, something new

Session logo"Time shows no respect for that which is done without it" reads the inscription hanging in the Cantillon brewery in Brussels. Making lambic is not something one simply waltzes into: it's an art which requires time and skill more akin to the making of whiskey than normal beer brewing. So one tends not to see new brands of Belgian lambic popping up very often: the established houses in and around Brussels have the market pretty much to themselves.

So, for this month's Session, it was very exciting to find myself opening a bottle from a completely new lambic maker. Tilquin doesn't actually brew the beer from scratch but buys it in from the established breweries and ages, blends and bottles it. The process started over two years ago but the first Tilquin beer wasn't released to consumers until just a few months back.

Gueuze Tilquin A L'Ancienne is the uniquely Wallonese name of the first release, though the more familar Flemish term "Oude Gueuze" is also on the label. The base beers came from Boon, Lindeman, Girardin and Cantillon -- each with their own in-house ecosystems of wild yeasts and bacteria which contribute to the taste of their beer.

Tilquin introduces itself with a sharp aroma, a very typical lambic one which always puts me in mind of brick-lined cellars and nitre stalagmites. The cloudy orange beer is a much smoother drink than the nose suggests, however. Sour yes, but not strikingly so. The ageing process has mellowed it wonderfully and in with the tangy lambic zing there's a sappy fresh oak woodiness as well. Lambics are usually barely hopped at all, but I also detected a touch of pithy orange in this.

The intense fizz, the fruity tang and the full-on sourness make for a beer as invigorating as a faceful of iced water. Yet wood and time have added a smoother, more contemplative dimension to it as well. It's very much a beer to savour slowly.

I look forward to more blends from Maison Tilquin in due course. But no rush.