29 September 2011

Alternative arrangements

I missed all the rí-rá agus ruaille-buaille of the first All-Ireland Craft Beerfest, held at the RDS last weekend. A shame because it was, by all accounts, a storming success. Big congratulations to the organisers and a hearty pat on the back to the Beoir volunteers who stepped up and helped out. Next year I will manage my calendar more carefully. (Details of what I did instead will feature in the coming weeks as I sift through my scrawly notes.)

Lots of specials and seasonals from the Irish breweries were on tap at the festival and I really hope I'll be able to find them elsewhere at some point. The first opportunity came yesterday, on the warmest afternoon of the year in Dublin, when I dropped in to the Bull & Castle for a quencher. Thankfully, Metalman have taken the unorthodox step of making a witbier their winter seasonal and it was on tap.

Alternator's pale and hazy shade of orange has me immediately thinking of German-style weissbier, but the aroma is definitely wit: lots of coriander leaping out of the glass. On first sip I found the texture a little thin and a bit gassy, but I can't really quibble about this since cold and fizzy was exactly what I was after. Thirst slaked, there was enough left to give the flavours a bit more considered analysis, and there's plenty to be analysed: big fresh and juicy jaffa oranges first, gently spiced around the edges with that coriander, some white pepper and a properly bitter, floral hop kick. Towards the end the weissbier vibe came back as clove notes started to make themselves felt.

Overall, a cut above most interpretations of the witbier style and perfect while the sun shines. Just the one keg in the Bull & Castle so get it while it's hot, er, outside.

26 September 2011

In it for the money

Odell again. This time another of their dark malt-driven beers: 90 Shilling. It's a darkish amber colour and shows little by way of aroma. The signature fruity Odell hops are there in the flavour, but they're muted under lots of milk chocolate and a heavy dose of caramel.

While warming, it's not especially thick or heavy and the fizz keeps it from being properly mellow. Like lots of the beer from this brewery, and the dark ones in particular, it just misses the mark. Some fine tuning and it could be fantastic. As it is there's nothing wrong with it, per se, but it's less than the sum of its parts.

Meanwhile, just 12 weeks from the brewery to my back garden comes Odell's double IPA Myrcenary. Keeping things fruity, I get masses of magic mandarins on pouring what proves to be quite a pale and hazy beer, showing very little gloop for a 9.3% ABV monster.

A proper sniff shows it's no hop-bomb either, giving off innocent sherbet notes. The texture is more full-on, however: heavy and a bit greasy in the mouth. The first taste brings a gorgeous hop burn, but not harsh at all, nor inappropriately alcoholic. Smooth, warming and flavourful are what it's all about. This is not an aggressive beer, but rather charming and fun to spend time with. I'd be interested to compare it with Sierra Nevada's Torpedo. It's more subtly flavoured but I couldn't say if that's a good thing or bad in double IPA.

That subtlety means Myrcenary is scarily drinkable. Remind yourself to sip it. It's an awful beer geek cliché to say the double IPA is the best beer in the brewery's range, but with Odell it really is.

22 September 2011

Come back Leffe, all is forgiven

I guess it was one of those "I'm leaving Sainsbury's and there's still a square inch of space in my trolley!" moments. I recall the items purchased on that excursion included a duvet, a toaster, a thing for poaching eggs in the microwave, and this: Sainsbury's Abbaye blonde. This was last October and the large bottle has languished in the back of my fridge ever since.

My enthusiasm for drinking it probably lasted less than the time it took me to wedge it in next to the tea towels, and as far as I can see it's no longer sold by Sainsbury's. The web tells me it's from the Saint Omer brewery in north east France which raises a question about the "Bière de Belgique" wording on the label. Can this be translated as "Belgian-style beer"? I dunno. Though it being French would explain the awfully clunky "Premium Continental Blonde" style designation. And does anyone still buy things because they're "Continental"?

Anyhoo, it's rubbish. Though a lovely shade of dark amber, its flavour is completely hollow, showing only the faintest hints of golden syrup right at the very back. I had been bracing for something horribly sticky, and its wateriness left me feeling somewhat short-changed. On the plus side it's very easy to put away, even at 5.6% ABV. The carbonation is low so it's actually quite refreshing.

But who wants a Belgian-style blonde that's refreshing?

19 September 2011

Murky cygnus manoeuvre

"White Gold": such a lovely way to describe a beer that looks like slightly cloudy Budweiser. But I'm being facetious. Wild Swan (are there any tame swans?) is a lovely 3.5% ABV summer blonde from Derbyshire's finest, Thornbridge. I think it's an English golden ale at heart. It has the crisp lager-like refreshing qualities of the best ones, and a piquant, pithy hop bite at the finish. Even at this low strength there's also a touch of bubblegum malt coming through as well.

But that pale haziness is pure Belgian witbier. It's missing the spice, admittedly, but there's the right sort of lemony zest at the heart of the flavour, as well as the palate-cleansing fizz.

Complex enough to sit over; light enough to quaff: Wild Swan is a great all-rounder.

15 September 2011

It's only a number

The six hundred and sixty-sixth entry on my blog. Well there was only one thing for this: the bottle of Black Damnation II that Stephen from The Beer Club gave me. As is usual for this sort of super-rare imperial spoogebeer, you'll have to give me a whole paragraph while I explain what it is.

So, we have a blend of three imperial stouts, starting with 50% Struise Black Albert which has been aged on Colombian coffee beans. Add in 25% of De Molen Hel & Verdoemnis matured in Jack Daniel's barrels, and fill out the rest with Struise's Cuvée Delphine. They've subtitled it Mocha Bomb. Oo-er.

I'm guessing it never occured to them that they had all the makings of beery Irish coffee, but that's sort of how it's turned out. Yes there are hops, lots of them: deliciously bitter with plenty of fresh green veg flavour. But under that you have some pleasantly mild coffee, sweetened with brown-sugar-like malt and boozed up by the whiskey. A smooth creaminess really adds to the effect as well. Rounded, warming and exquisitely balanced, it's not a mocha bomb, it's a purring fireside pussycat.

Imperial Irish coffee. Satan in an aran sweater. Lovely.

12 September 2011

Diageo with a human face

It's a rite of passage for the Irish beer drinker to be able to reminisce on a failed Guinness brand extension. You're not fit for a bar stool if you can't bore innocent people senseless about your memories of Breó, or the St James's Gate series, or the Brewhouse series, or (the holy grail of failed Guinnesses) Guinness Light.

I've tasted most of these (yawn, yeah, whatever, grandad) and in several cases they weren't bad beers: they just weren't ready for that time and place. Diageo are currently pushing out a new brand extension -- this time to the venerable Smithwick's marque -- and, in the opinion of this amateur market analyst, it's in a much better position.

Smithwick's Pale Ale is a very pale -- blonde, really -- beer being launched on keg and in half-litre bottles around the country this month. It's 4.5% ABV and has been late hopped, including dry-hopping, with Amarillo. And it shows. While light of texture to the point of wateriness and a little on the gassy side, at least from the keg, there's no mistaking the flavour of proper hops: a sweet and juicy peachiness is given an empty stage to sing its heart out.

Cleary, a lot of thought has gone into this product, and it owes its existence to more than Diageo's general revitalising of the Smithwick's brand and the flatlining of mainstream beer sales in the developed world (though I don't doubt both those things had a lot to do with it). Why, of all things, a hop-forward pale ale?

Five years ago such things didn't exist here. Microbreweries made red ales, and lagers, and stouts and wheat beers. Then Galway Hooker came along and changed the parameters, eschewing the mainstays of Irish beer and going for high doses of Saaz and Cascades. Established craft breweries followed them and the hoppy pale ale is now in the repertoire of most of the nation's micros. It's an accessible style of beer and just different enough from the other taps on the bar to make it worth investigating. But most importantly it just tastes nice. You don't need a slick brand identity to shift this stuff, nor countless centuries of brewing heritage, nor suggestions of sophistication or the exotic. It's the sort of beer grown-ups like to drink and it stands on flavour alone.

There are apparently several more to come in this Smithwick's series, but I reckon they've started in a safe and sensible place, and my perspective on the beer offerings in the Typical Irish Pub is certainly brightened by its existence.

However, I also think there's a darker lesson for Ireland's independents. Medium-strength hoppy keg ales are done. Diageo make one now, and unless you can play the local card or have some other unique selling point I imagine it's going to be a much harder thing to flog. Time to make something else.

10 September 2011

Monte: got a raw deal

I feel shortchanged by my beer experience in Uruguay. We arrived in the picturesque seaside town of Colonia, just an hour's boat ride across the Rio Plata from Buenos Aires. We just had the one night before moving on and started the evening watching the sun set from the terrace of La Torre, a café-bar on the waterfront. They had three from the Mastra range, and Mastra Negra was my introduction to Uruguayan beer. It's a gorgeous 6.2% ABV Baltic-porter-a-like, bottle conditioned to a smooth texture with lots of chocolate and  rosewater, turkish delight floral overtones plus a dry finish. I made a note to try the other Mastra beers -- a red one and a golden one -- when we got to the capital, and moved on to dinner.

That was the last I saw of Mastra. In the four subsequent days in Montevideo I never found any of it. Or much else of merit, to be honest. Patricia Porter looked promising: 5.8% ABV and a rich shade of dark brown. Plenty of brown sugar sweetness, edging on to molasses, but not really much else. Easy drinking and inoffensive. Plain old Patricia is a decent enough lager, lightly carbonated, leaning towards sweet, but with more hops than you might expect for a leading macro in a South American country.

Zillertal also gives the hops a decent outing, but they're a little musty for my tastes, and the anaemic wateriness of the lager doesn't help. A Germanic name will only carry you so far.

Probably the biggest national brand in Uruguay, at least if promotional pub furniture can be taken as any sort of measure, is Pilsen. Ironically, this is much more like a helles than a pils: smooth and sweet. Its dark gold colouring makes it look better than the others but it's really not up to much. And to further bewilder the incautious drinker there's Pilsen Stout: authentically black with red edging it's almost totally flat. Flavourwise there's not a whole lot going on: a vague sweetness, bordering on metallic saccharine plus some dry, burnt notes. It went fine with my cheese and charcuterie plate, though the roquefort drowned it somewhat.

And with that, three weeks were up and it was time to go home. Some beautiful beers in South America, and some stinkers. Just like Europe, then.

09 September 2011

The big guns

To this northern European it's a very alien drinking culture they have in Argentina. It would almost be fair to say that they don't really have one. Beer tends to be treated almost the way we treat wine: shared comunally with meals. The human need for mild psychoactive stimulation appears to be taken care of by the ever-present mate -- a ubiquitous cross between tea-drinking and pipe-smoking. In several places, a request just for beer was met with well-OK-then suspicious looks, though doubtless I could have got my mate thermos filled with hot water as a basic courtesy. On one occasion I ordered a beer while perusing the menu in a restaurant and since my wife didn't, the 33cl bottle arrived to the table with two glasses. These bizarre backward foreigners with their weird notions of beer being something to be served in large bottles and enjoyed with food. What do they know, eh?

One upshot of such practice is that big bottles are the norm for most beers, certainly the stuff the mainstream breweries produce. For some unfathomable reason 970ml is the standard measure (and cm3 is the standard unit). There's a definite thrill of the exotic when glancing through the window of a classy restaurant to see a family at table with giant mutant bottle of Stella Artois in a silver ice bucket on the side.

None of that for me though. On a cool sunny day in downtown Puerte Iguazu, however, I did partake in a big bottle of Iguana. I love the branding on this, though the beer is a very simple and thin quenching hot-country lager, designed for taking edges off thirsts and nothing else. The other biggie I met, again in Iguazu where choice was severely limited, was Palermo Ice. Quite smooth and sweet, this, in almost a Munich Helles style.

Only two servings of Quilmes Cristal passed my lips on the trip, one being in a pub which I'd been told had a great beer selection, and indeed featured well over a dozen taps, but for some reason (recent change of ownership?) was serving only Stella and Quilmes and I was too tired and thirsty to back out. It was horrible. The other was in the Iguazu Falls park itself, after a long morning of trailing about in hot sunshine we sat down for an empanada and an ice-cold Quilmes straight from the can. It was nectar. I didn't enjoy the stout or bock from the same brewery when last we met, but my curiosity was piqued by Quilmes Red Lager. It's a red-brown beer with some nice roasted flavours at first, but it gets too sickly too quickly and I resorted to draining the remains straight from the bottle, confident I wasn't missing much by way of sensory experience.

Imperial Lager I met on the terrace of an upmarket bar in the rejuvenated dockland district of Puente Madero. It looks the part, or maybe that's just because it was a nice day. A bit stronger than the usual at 5.5% ABV, it's another sweet one, expressing hints of banana ester that get louder as it sits around. But that's about it: definitely not as especial as the label would have you believe.

I'm not sure where on the macro-independent-craft spectrum the beer from Otro Mundo sits, but I'm sticking the one I had in here: Otro Mundo Golden Ale: a bold move to sell it in a half-litre bottle, I'm sure. It's very pale and quite hazy with some fun fruit tartness: a bit of apple and some light lemons. First impression is of a light and zesty ale for witbier lovers, though wait a while and there's some toffee to be found in here as well. Passable, I thought.

The brass-neck award for audacious marketing bullshit goes to Schneider, one of the major lager brands and one which makes big claims about its German heritage and standards. Featuring the signature of old Herr Schneider himself, it's brewed "according to German tradition". I caught up with it on the ferry crossing to Uruguay, where the label's fine print confessed to "cereales" of the non-malt variety, as well as stabilisers and anti-oxidants. In short it's a hideous adjunct lager: dry, dull and unpleasant. I don't think I've ever seen a beer put this much distance between what it is and what it claims to be.

And then, just like that, we were in Uruguay.

08 September 2011

Colonial stylings

Continuing with the craft beers I found out and about in Buenos Aires, the city boasts two English theme pubs at opposite ends of the centre. The Gibraltar and Bangalore are both dark and cosy bars, with comfy leather seats and open fires perfect for taking the chill out of a dark blustery August evening. If they opened during the day they'd both have got a lot more of my business, not least for Kingston the cask ale they both sell.

Here we have the clearest indication of the confusion between Scotch ale and IPA in Argentina: Kingston is billed as the former in The Gibraltar but is an IPA in Bangalore, perhaps to fit better with the pub's overall theme. Anyway it's definitely on the sweet side with little to say for itself as regards hops. There are lots of other things going on instead, though: milk chocolate and caramel firs