31 October 2011

Dæve's diphthongs

At long last, the third of the Hardknott bottles Dave and Ann gave me while we queued for the Great British Beer Festival last year. I've disposed of the Infra Red and the Granite, which leaves just this bottle of Æther Blæc 2009. I do feel a bit guilty leaving it this long -- the point of brewers giving out freebies is to promote their wares, of course, and this wasn't promoting anything by sitting in my attic for 15 months -- but as I said in relation to the other two: Dave makes a big deal on his labels about how his beers are best left to age so it's really his own fault.

Anyway, Æther Blæc is an 8% ABV stout that's had several months' maturation in a Caol Ila whisky cask. The recommendation (he's big on his recommendations, is Dave) is to serve at room temperature but this came out of my attic on a chilly day so my first sip was quite a cool one. The phenols jumped out a mile, delivering powerful and rather unpleasant disinfectant flavours and little else. Given a while to warm up, however, and it rounds out quite nicely. Yes, there's still a lot of that TCP thing. If you don't like peaty whisky you probably won't like this. But there's also bags of sweet creamy chocolate (Galaxy bars, specifically), some quite dry un-vanilla-ish oak and a proper tang of bitter green hops. The aroma is an enticing peaty one, offering a subtle prelude to the bigger flavours to come.

I can kind of see how this might mellow with even more aging, but it's still perfectly drinkable now. Cheers Dave.

27 October 2011

Curd your enthusiasm

Bord Bia have designated the upcoming long weekend as the Irish Farmhouse Cheese & Craft Beer Weekend. They've helped organise a whole raft of events all around the country over the next few days, celebrating two things we produce in Ireland which are well worth making a fuss about. A full calendar of events is available on the Bord Bia website here.

I've been catching up on the new Irish beers which were launched at the All-Ireland Craft Beerfest in Dublin last month, which I missed. BrewEyed Vanilla Amber Ale, for instance, which went on tap in L. Mulligan. Grocer recently. No surprises here anyway: it's certainly amber, attractively dark and enticing. The aroma is a bit off-putting, however: a sickly waft of strong vanilla essence that leaves you in no doubt that this is not a subtle beer. First taste produces a deafening clash as the sweet vanilla smashes headlong into powerful hop bitterness. It's a mercy it's as bitter as it is, otherwise the vanilla could have taken over completely and turned it into an alcopop. But it's definitely a beer, and designed for grown-ups. The pay off comes at the end: the flavours calm down and there's a long lingering finish of vanilla-infused bitter which works rather well. Overall I think it's probably too weird to enjoy in any great quantities, but hooray for novelty and I'm really looking forward to what BrewEyed come up with next.

Following their Coffee & Oatmeal Stout special, Dungarvan Brewing have gone back to basics for their sixth beer: a straightforward 3.7% ABV bitter called Comeragh Challenger, named after the local mountains and the single hop variety employed, respectively. It was back to Mulligan's once again to give this a spin. On the first sip I did a double-take. On the second, I was still confused. Fortunately, Colin was on hand to answer my question: "Are you sure this isn't Helvick Gold?"

It has the same soft fruit palate and the same invigorating gunpowder finish. The light in Mulligan's isn't great (that's my excuse for these crappy photos) but it certainly looked to be the same shade of yellow. There did seem to be an extra smack of bitterness in the middle, but that could easily have been my imagination. Colin took a sample and assured me that it was the correct beer; that it tastes totally different to Helvick; and that I have the gustatory acuity of a donkey with a headcold. Colin doesn't get these things wrong.

I stand by my initial impression, however. Comeragh Challenger tastes very much like Helvick Gold only a little more bitter. As Helvick is one of my favourite Irish beers, especially from the cask, this is by no means a criticism.

But National Beer & Cheese Weekend isn't just about beer. There is also cheese. So with the long-anticipated arrival of Eight Degrees's new porter I reckoned I needed to introduce it to some cheesey goodness. Or some cheesey randomness at least.

Knockmealdown Porter, like its stablemates, is 5% ABV and deftly performs the Eight Degrees signature move of taking a familiar style and beefing it up slightly. It tastes dry at first, followed by a really interesting mature sourness, riding high on the extra alcohol and doing a surprisingly good impression of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. A dash of chocolate comes right at the end, finishing the whole thing on a smooth and sweet note. I like this a lot. So how does it go with cheese?

My last outing with beer and cheese on this blog concluded, er, inconclusively, with the feeling that beer and cheese matching is a mystery and that the random approach works best. Bord Bia have given us some (PDF) guidelines on what pairs with what, but I still prefer the random approach. This way I get to tick cheeses as well.

The three I picked, pretty much arbitrarily, at the cheese counter were ones I've never had before and know nothing about: Ballintubber, a softish cheddar with chives; Killeen Fenugreek, a goat-milk Gouda clone, seasoned as the name suggests; and Cooleeney, the pungent runny one essential to any cheese session line-up.

Ballintubber was my favourite by itself and faired reasonably well with the porter. The sourness of the beer bounces nicely off the sweetness of the cheese and the chives give it an almost hop-like herbal finish. I really liked the Killeen too because of the domineering fenugreek. It's too domineering for the beer, however and while the taste doesn't get lost completely it's not pulling its weight in the match. The Cooleeny I found tough going: though it has a beautiful socky Camembert finish, the main taste is powerfully acrid and rather off-putting. So I was delighted to find that Knockmealdown Porter puts some manners on it, smoothing the harsh bitter edge with its chocolate while leaving the heady mature cheese vapours to linger at the end. I wouldn't recommend attempting to approach Cooleeny without a bottle of strong porter in your hand.

And at the end of that I wanted to immediately run out and try more cheese with it, explore more taste combinations, but I'll have to leave that to this weekend when hopefully I'll get to visit at least one of the Dublin beer and cheese events. The Bull & Castle's tasting platter looks right up my random-pairing alley. You'll find Eight Degrees at the Ballyhoura Spook mountain biking Halloween party on Sunday while Dungarvan Brewing have organised a beer and cheese pub quiz in The Moorings tonight. There are loads more events going on around the country. As I say, check the website.

In the interests of honesty and transparency I should mention that Bord Bia have paid me absolutely nothing to promote this event on my blog, not so much as a snifter of beer or a sliver of cheese. In fact they didn't even ask. I just think it's incredibly cool for a state agency to be spending my taxes on promoting our breweries and cheesemakers this way, and I'd like to see the event be a roaring success.

24 October 2011

Let the bad times roll

It's part superhero, part Victorian-industrial: I do like the Malheur logo. These two Flemish beers have been on sale in Messrs Maguire for the last year or so but I've been slow getting around to them.

Malheur 12 was the first I tried, and I wasn't impressed. It's incredibly heavy and boozy with bucket-loads of brown sugar flavour, but not much else. Concentrate and there's a layer of ripe bananas, reminding me of Kwak, only not as good. Behind that, if you let it sit long enough, there's a kind of oily, herbal, eucalyptus tone. But it's all very subtle and not what you want from a 12% ABV dark Belgian ale.

After that I was in no rush to try the lighter, blonde the Malheur 10, a milksop at a mere 10% ABV. I took a bottle home with me from the Doppelbock launch last month and opened it on a quiet Sunday evening as an end-of-the-weekend nightcap, too tired to approach anything that might require my attention. And I was confounded by how tasty it was. At least once I'd managed to pour it through the insanely busy fizziness.

It's a hazy shade of pale gold and gives off the same exciting spicy yeast aroma as Duvel. Like the 12, it starts off very sweet, but does a lot more with it, offering honey, golden syrup and then more daring notes of eucalyptus and aftershave. Warming, filling and comforting, it conjured the image of a beefed-up Duvel, and I really liked that.

It's very unusual for me to be saying avoid the dark beer and go for the pale one but so it is with Malheur.

20 October 2011

Rot' 'n' Hell

They have a bit of a cult following, the Rothaus beers. Perhaps that explains why they cost over €3 when they arrived in Dublin. The branding is retro and the bottles have had more than one trip through the brewery, but is the beer inside as steadfastly old-fashioned?

Well obviously I've no idea how German beer tasted back in the good old days -- you'll have to ask Ron about that -- but Rothaus Pils definitely shows that some time has been taken over it. Never mind the Hopfenextrakt on the ingredients list, the hop flavours in this beautifully rich gold lager are fresh, green and slightly spicy. They're balanced by a big sweet malt base, laid on thicker than you might expect for a mere 5.1% ABV. Best of all, the carbonation is low, allowing the smooth heavy beer to glide over the palate and slip down the throat spreading hop goodness along the way.

A tough act for Rothaus Märzen Export to follow. I'm not sure if it's any darker than the pils. It's only marginally stronger than it at 5.6% ABV. I was expecting big breadiness, but it's much more subtle than that. It's heavy, smooth and really satisfying to drink, but it's hard to pin down anything distinctive about the flavour. A little bit of dry grain, some mild alcoholic heat, but not a whole lot else stands out. From my limited understanding of these styles I'd guess it's far closer to being an Export than a Märzen.

On to the Rothaus Hefe Weizen, an opaque bright orange shade and is as breezy as it looks. None of your heavy banana notes in this 5.4% ABV package, just some zesty orange and a light gunpowder spice at the back of the throat. Another smooth easy-drinker, this.

The Pils is the standout beer for me, but it's understated end-to-end quality with all this lot. If you're looking for a house lager in particular, these are worth buying in by the case.

17 October 2011

My kind of pub crawl

Festival over, we went to the pub. The wife Derek and I headed to Amsterdam on the Sunday after the Borefts festival. High on the agenda was a recommendation from Ron's mate Mike for Oude Jenever, so early on the sunny afternoon we darkened the doors of In De Olofspoort and received a wonderful impromptu tutorial in 3-, 5- and 10-year-old jenever from the friendly barman. You're right, Mike: it does taste like really good Scotch.

While in the area we also paid a brief courtesy call to De Prael. The brewery's eclectic tasting room was little more than a hole in the ground last time I was through Amsterdam, and the comfy chairs they have now are far more conducive to beer tasting than the alley in which they used to serve them. Derek got the round in, serving me Gepijpte Nelis, a smoked version of the dark autumn bock. With its fruity spices, it's perhaps closer to a Belgian dubbel than a Dutch bock, and the gentle smoke character lends a little complexity to an otherwise quite simple strong and sticky beer.

From there we headed down to Beer Temple. I was at the grand opening of this American-themed bar in 2009, or at least I stood outside. This was the first time I've ever been able to sit inside and peruse the prodigious selections. I figured it would be easier and more economical to limit myself to the draught offerings, but then I spotted a can in one of the fridges: Maui Coconut Porter, a beer I've been hunting for several years, having heard amazing things about it. So I duly bought it, popped the ringpull, poured it and got ready to be amazed. I wasn't amazed. It's a very fizzy dark brown beer giving off quite subtle coconut scents. It tastes extremely dry, a little sulphurous, and rather gritty, like a stout that's had a bit too much roast barley added. The sweet coconut flavour makes a very late appearance and lingers oilily on the lips. I definitely think I'd built it up too much. I mean, it's nice, in its own way, but at the same time a huge disappointment. The main thing is that it's done and I won't have to go to Maui to experience the loneliness of the long-distance ticker.

Beer Temple has commissioned its own house beer from Dutch brewery Jopen, and of course it had to be an IPA. Tempel Bier is a little bit on the light-to-watery side: a session beer in a pub without pints. But the refreshing zesty orange flavour can't be argued with. The fresh hoppy benefits of not having to cross an ocean are used to full effect.

There were a couple of strange versions of familiar beers on tap, including Flying Dog Double Dog on cask. The softer carbonation produces a different sensation to the bottled version, coating the mouth with extra-sticky toffee malt and turning the citric hop notes into something funkier and more spicy. John John Dead Guy is a barrel aged version of Rogue's Dead Guy Ale. Rogue's in-house distillery makes barrel acquisition particularly easy for them, and this one had seen some of their own whiskey before the beer went in. I'm not a fan of Dead Guy normally and this was little better. Massive wood flavours don't help the cloying stickiness, though the little bit of bretty sourness helps take some of the edge off, as do the sharp vegetal hops. I'm still glad I was just stealing a sip of someone else's rather than having a glass to myself.

The Maryland-based Stillwater brewing company were holding a tasting session in the back of the pub while we were there and as each tasting tray was brought to the corralled punters, the relevant beer went on general availability to the rest of us. RateBeer tells me that the two we tried were imported from no further away than Belgium. Jaded was brewed with the assistance of De Struise and is a dark red-brown ale doing a great job of balancing Belgian fruity esters with fresh and pithy hop zing. ’t Hofbrouwerijke near Antwerp was the birthplace of Love & Regret, another zesty one, though this time loaded with aromatic spices like coriander and white pepper. Apparently it was actually done with heather, lavender and chamomile, but you get the idea.

There was more white pepper -- a flavour I really enjoy in beer -- in Dieu du Ciel's Route des Épices. This time there is real pepper present: green and black corns are added to the recipe. There's a lovely rich chocolate biscuit aroma, but after that it's all pepper all the way. Before moving on I spent a bit of time with Marshall Wharf Old Ale. The Maine brewery has done a fantastic job with this: cola red and with a pungent vinous, almost vinegar, nose. It's one of those big textured strong ales filling one's face with sweet treacle and moreish umami, finished off with a distinctly sharp hop bite. Amazing stuff. I could have had another, but one does not leave Amsterdam before dropping in to Beer Temple's sisterhouse Arendsnest.

So we made it our last stop. Things have changed a little at Arendsnest in recent years. Gradually, the blackboards are starting to take over the walls. Since the pub serves exclusively Dutch-brewed beers that's probably a clear sign of how robustly healthy the beer scene is in the Netherlands these days.

A couple from Jopen to start: their Extra Stout is a tour de force with some fantastic smoky roasty aromas and a smooth texture given a cheeky burnt kick at the end. Barrevoet is their barley wine: dark red almost to the point of blackness. In combination with some majorly aromatic and grapefruitish hops it's almost a black IPA. But what's in a style? All you need to know is that it's one to look out for.

Perhaps inevitably, De Molen now has a blackboard to itself in Arendsnest. From that came Rijn & Veen, a cloudy pale ale with a lovely big orangey aroma. The taste is a little bit of a let-down, however: sharp and with some unfortunate disinfectant notes. Hemel & Aarde was a much better proposition: a sublimely smooth imperial stout with a touch of smoke on the nose. The flavour is heavy on the roast side but balanced by lavender perfume. Easy-drinking, balanced, but softly powerful too.

The airport train beckoned, so just one more for the road. My big finish was Bommen & Granaten: a dark red ale of a full 15.2% ABV, and possibly tasting like more. It's incredibly viscous, almost chewy. A knife and fork job. The flavours are sweet of course, but amazingly not cloying. "Turkish delight" was one comment as the glass got passed around. I was still tasting it all the way to Schiphol and was still thinking about it when I got to my own bed in Dublin hours later. Sometimes, good beers follow you home.

16 October 2011

Festival ethics

Cheeky Belgians! Struise were the only one of the twelve breweries at Borefts to be asking for more than one token for some beers. Though the range was prodigious -- far more than advertised in the programme -- our party was generally a bit circumspect about the whole thing and only took a few punts on Struise offerings. One was Tsjeeses Reserva, an oak-aged tripel. Not a whole lot of oak in evidence in this 10% ABV dark orange number, and the tripel elements are quite toned down too: sweaty apricots, a touch of honey. Worst of all, a big thick layer of foam. For two tokens you could at least have taken it to the top.

Black Damnation VII was also on the roster. Not a super-strong imperial stout like the others in the series, but a mild: some light chocolate notes and a bit of a nasty oxidised off-flavour: the sort of thing that's hard to hide in a 2% ABV beer. Yes, this one was just one token. KB Max was rather better: a light (though 8% ABV) and tasty blonde ale, and again just the one token, I think.

And then we move on to the silly name department. First up: Shark Pants. If that doesn't immediately interest you, its billing as a 288 IBU imperial IPA is probably supposed to. Lots of hop haze in here and not much by way of fizz. Actually, not much by way of bitterness either, just some pleasant citrus balanced by light tannins. Yet another beer that shows IBUs aren't a measure of anything meaningful.

Finally, stupidest name award goes to Struise's Supreme Hoppy Intensive Taste. That's right folks: it's SHIT. Haha! No seriously, that'll be two tokens please. Not in the programme so I've no idea what it's supposed to be or what it's made from, but it's quite sour and bretty, with some disinfectant phenols and the dark sugars of cheap cola. Of hops there's just a brushing and some interesting spiciness, but overall nothing to get excited about.

For the extra tokens these should have been the best beers in the world. But they weren't. We rinse our glasses and move on.

Dutch brewery Sint Christoffel had an unobtrusive stand in the back room of the windmill. Some interesting recipes, including a Wet-Hopped Wijs. Dry-hopped with wet hops, in fact. Suitably pale orange for a witbier, the hops do get a bit lost under the wheaty, worty malt, just arriving at the very end to add a mild grassiness. Perhaps I would have had better luck with the dry-dry-hopped version, but I didn't get round to it.

Winterse Christoffel Bok was a fantastic example of the Dutch bock style: dark red-brown and giving off heady alcohol vapours with a flavour profile full of bourbon biscuits and raisins. Thick and beautifully warming. There was also a touch of the bock about XXV, Christoffel's barley wine: loads of caramel and toffee plus a tiny hint of saccharine. But also bucketloads of spicy herbal hops. Cracking stuff.

If you've been keeping count you'll have noticed that's eleven breweries, so just one left. In the corner beside Närke was Loverbeer, a Piedmontese operation specialising in big, sour ales. D'Uvabeer was the first I went for, a grape lambic. It's actually not all that sour, and the sweet and juicy Freisa grape shines through beautifully, enhanced by a whiff of summery perfume.While D'Uvabeer is all red grape, Madamin, though grape-free, reminds me more of the white: bright amber, mildly tart but quite dry and fruity too. Perfect summer beers, both.

BeerBera is brewed with classic Piedmontese Barbera grapes and tastes to me quite like a kriek, having a pronounced sour cherry flavour but also some lovely earthy brett notes. Meanwhile BeerBrugna claims "high acidity" but, while tart, is wonderfully smooth and very drinkable. Plums are the added ingredient here. And of course you have to bring an imperial stout to the party, and LoverBeer brought Papessa, a beer which blends lovely toasted dark grain flavours with sweet dark fruits: dates in particular. Just a sour edge reminds you of the house signature style.

And that's the end of the festival. If you fancy the idea of sipping teeny glasses of powerhouse beers from some of Europe's élite craft breweries in convivial surroundings, then Borefts is where it's at.

15 October 2011

See Emelisse play

I referred to Emelisse as the other big Dutch presence at the Borefts festival, but that has as much to do with the beer names as anything else. It reads like someone's taken beer geek key words, thrown them on a table and brewed what they say. You've got to have a Black IPA these days and theirs is pretty much on the money: a mild apricot waft, some juicy soft fruit and lots of dry roast. It's perhaps a little too intensely dry for some tastes but I enjoyed it. Likewise their Imperial Doppelbock (11.5% ABV in case you're not familiar with what the style designation means) was very drinkable with lots of smooth and viscous caramel, though it did have a slightly off-putting sickly sweet aroma.

It seems they like their peat at Emelisse: as well as the boozy-but-smooth Peated Imperial Stout -- speaking more of turf in the heady aroma than in the slightly ashen taste -- there were two beers who'd spent time in Laphroaig barrels. The White Label Laphroaig Imperial Stout showed little sign of the wood or whisky, being a sticky 11% ABV stout to its core. The Laphroaig phenols just lace it slightly, adding character without dominating. When the imperial stout is blended with their 10% ABV "Triple IPA" before ageing and then given three months together in a Laphroaig barrel, the result is Emelisse Black & Tan Laphroaig. The hops just get lost here, however, and the end result is a slightly diluted imperial stout w