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