30 November 2011

Ummm... okay then

"We have no Herold Dark, only the Semi-Dark" said the lady behind the bar in Pifko. I was extremely flattered that she said it first in Czech (I don't think I look particularly slavic at all, more's the pity) and then I paused. The Budvar tap started doing a pick-me dance, but I was there for Herold so Herold Granat is what I got. An experience at once interesting and slightly disturbing too.

It presents itself as a foamy nitrogenated dark amber-red beer, looking for all the world like one of those god-awful creamy Oirish reds or smoothflow bitter. The aroma was along those lines too: sickly and unappetisingly cloying. I didn't look, but I'm sure the Budvar tap was making a told-you-so face at this point.

Punching through the head and taking a sip I found myself in a much happier place. The sweetness is far more piquant burnt caramel than gloopy syrup, and it finishes with a gorgeous grassy burst of Czech hops. It's still pretty heavy, but the flavours allow it to be refreshing even as it fills.

Obviously the dark stablemate is to be preferred, but this is a pretty good substitute now and again, no matter what the Budvar tap says.

28 November 2011

Worth a thousand

De La Senne makes me want to be a better photographer. I mean, look at that label (you might have to squint and use your imagination a bit). It's wonderful. It should be on a billboard instead of a 33cl bottle on top of my beer fridge. I usually have my cynicism turned up to 11 when it comes to beer branding and image, but De La Senne rarely fails to turn my marketing-bullshit-proof wall to mush.

Sigh. Anyway, you probably want to know something about Brussels Calling, the beer behind the label. It's a typical sessionable De La Senne job, at 5% ABV, orangey in both colour and flavour. Unfortunately the yeast character interferes with the fresh fruit that I reckon is what the beer is supposed to be based around. While the aroma still has an enticing citric zip, the taste is mostly just giving me gritty yeast. I should have poured more carefully.

It's not you, De La Senne, it's me.

24 November 2011

Fade to black

I'll spare you my dim and blurry pub photography for this one, shall I? A couple of weeks ago the Porterhouse launched their second Czech Beer Festival which featured a new one they'd produced in association with the brewer from Purkmistr in Plzeň. Bohemia is a black lager made using authentic yeast from Pilsner Urquell. How authentic the rest is, though, is up for debate.

Comparison with the real Czech dark lagers on sale in Dublin is inevitable and I think Bohemia stands up well, if somewhat off to the side. Yes it's black; yes it's sweet; but it's nowhere close to the treacle explosion of the Czechs. Instead it's more subtle; the sweetness is there to offer counterbalance to a lovely burnt grain flavour that sits at the heart of this beer. While still quite heavy, the dryness keeps it very much on the drinkable side and while I'd personally prefer a little more coffee or chocolate, the molasses and roast barley combo gives my palate plenty to keep it occupied.

Officially, the festival only ran for five days. I hope supplies of this will last rather longer.

21 November 2011

Jury duty

I confess to having done a little jumpy-up-and-down dance when Adrian, festival organiser for CAMRA Northern Ireland, asked me to judge the Champion Beer of Belfast at their festival this year. I'm usually at the festival on the Saturday and have often missed the most interesting beers. An excuse to go up on the Thursday was very welcome. To see a CAMRA awards process from the inside was a bonus.

I arrived in a dark and rainy Belfast with just enough time for a swift half in The Bridge House, just a few metres from the festival venue. This is a vast JD Wetherspoon I've never enjoyed visiting before, but CAMRA NI have seen fit to elect it their pub of the year for the last two years so I thought maybe a reappraisal was in order. For a Thursday lunchtime it was surprisingly quiet, mostly office lunchers and a fair few tables of spillover from the festival. All very mature and civilised. My half of Old Empire was pretty good too: peachy with a pleasant sulphurous bite. 93p well spent.

I reported for duty at 2 and met my fellow judges: 8 of us in all. Branch chairman Philip ushered us to the tasting room in one of the Ulster Hall's beautifully renovated salons and led us through the final six beers which had been whittled down by the festival volunteers from all those available. The process was ably assisted by Steve, running with the jugs of beer from bar to judges. The panel were tasked with grading each finalist with marks for appearance, aroma, taste and finish, weighted in favour of the final two criteria.

All tasting was, of course, done blind, with only the broad style designation revealed in advance. And they were a mixed bunch: bitters Peter's Well (Houston) and Pale Beacons (Brecon) were rather insipid, being done no favours at all by being decanted from cask to jug to glass, knocking most of the condition out of them. I had had Blue Monkey's BG Sips high on my hitlist having heard great things about it, but scored it last when it showed up. This golden bitter was almost entirely flavourless and I reckon I'd only go near it on the hottest of days, and only then if it was at lager temperatures with lager levels of carbonation.

The two dark beers claimed joint second prize. Mordue's Newcastle Coffee Porter was definitely in the ha'penny place for me: a thin and rather boring porter with little sign of any coffee at all. There was a bit more substance to Otley Oxymoron: a bitter spicy middle which made up for the waft of cardboard oxidation on the nose. It turns out they've designated this as a black IPA and while I'm not an outright supporter of the thesis that black IPA is simply hoppy porter, this beer presents blind tasted evidence that this may in fact be the case.

The winner left the rest of the crowd for dust: though inauspiciously pale and hazy, Dark Star's American Pale Ale was a symphony in citrus. At 4.7% ABV it's weighty enough not to be too bitter, adding some beautiful sherbet substance to the fruit, and the end result is insanely drinkable and moreish. I can't imagine there was any surprise when Adrian and Philip (on stage, right) announced the result.

The day's work done, it was down to the main hall to see what else was on offer. I made a beeline for the newest Irish beer, of course: Ballyblack stout from the spanking new Ards brewery. It reminds me a lot of the excellent Dungarvan Black Rock: that same roasted dryness tempered by ripe dark fruit and a similar spicy gunpowder tang in the finish. Brewer Charles Ballantine was on hand for a bit of after-sales service and a good natter about the complexities of setting up a brewery in NI. I'm definitely looking forward to more from Ards.

My experience with BG Sips notwithstanding, I hit up the other offering from Blue Monkey next: 99 Red Baboons. This was much darker than I expected: almost black with mere hints of ruby around the edges. It's a very tangy beer, sweet-sour with a sort of baking soda softness. Interesting, but I couldn't say if I liked it or not. Along the same lines but much better was Leeds Midnight Bell. This ruby mild had me thinking of Rodenbach, with an almost puckering sourness, but it made it eminently refreshing and one I could have had a few more of.

Wolf Brewery's Norfolk Lavender Honey is another for the too-odd-to-like bracket: sweet and spicy with a powerful honey aroma and flavour, but very little by way of lavender. It could have done with some floral lightness to balance the sticky honey, I think. Summer Wine Barista Espresso Stout also goes all out with a speciality ingredient, but while Mordue may be wasting good coffee, Summer Wine are laying it on too heavily. The end result is too dry, too roasty and too thin, with the poor condition doing nothing to dispel the impression of a glass of cold coffee. I had higher hopes for Gorlovka, a 6% ABV stout from Acorn and it's a solidly drinkable beer but one which should be doing more at that strength. I could happily neck this, but that's not what it's designed for.

Steve gave me a couple of recommendations of beers I probably would have passed by otherwise, and very good they were too. Bowman Elderado is a summery little number, pale gold and just 3.5% ABV. The not-so-secret weapon is elderflower and it adds an amazing piquancy to it, like a Chinese spice mix. A dry, almost chalky, feel keeps it drinkable and wonderfully thirst quenching. At the opposite end of the scale, there's Elland 1872 Porter: 6.5% ABV and massively chocolatey; sweet but beautifully smooth and to complete the circle, showing that gunpowder finish I enjoyed in the Ballyblack.

This year saw the first time a separate cider bar operated at the festival and I had a couple of halves for the road there. Northern Irish cider is undergoing a well-overdue boom and it's great to see apples from my native Armagh being put to better use than baking.

Final thanks to Adrian, Philip, Steve and all the crew at CAMRA NI. This gem of a festival really is a credit to you all.

17 November 2011

Big swinging langer

Our beer culture in Ireland is, to a very large extent, pub based. Even when we're not in the pub we tend to prefer approachable beers in the 4-5% ABV range. Below that is perceived as low-rent pisswater; above it is crazy loopy-juice. It results in a fairly limited range and it's impressive that our native brewers manage to do as well as they do inside it. But breaks in the pattern -- in both directions -- are always welcome. The microbrew revolution hasn't yet produced any iconoclastic new breweries making excitingly strong beers, so we have to depend on the more established reliables. The Porterhouse's Brainblásta and Celebration are plenty to be going on with; O'Hara's Leann Folláin is a tasty bonus. And now we welcome the latest of the 1990s craft breweries to start bottling strong beer: Franciscan Well and their Shandon Century extra stout.

Rebel county rules dictate that not just any bottle will do, so they've gone for hand-numbered one-litre swingtops. The beer inside is 7.5% ABV, so it seems we're a long way from the cosy confines of the pub session here. Although that said,  it's also available on draught in the Franciscan Well brewpub in Cork city.

And on tasting I can see that it really would be quite pub-compatible. I've never been the biggest fan of Shandon, but this is definitely a cut above. Smooth, with lovely smoky overtones helped out of the main, lightly chocolatey, flavour by a gentle carbonation which adds further to the smoothness. Of all that alcohol there's very little sign: dangerously so, in fact. I can't see any stout drinker having difficulty sinking a pint of this which, as an exercise in trust, is wonderful indication of the maturing Irish beer market.

In short, I'm delighted to see the Franciscan Well do this, and the format has wonderful potential, even if the first outing is on the solidly-drinkable side of things rather than the awe-inspiring. But we're getting the previously-extinct Bell Ringer winter ale next. I'll be in the queue.

14 November 2011

Tildonk do us part

These guys have been sitting in my beer fridge since the spring and as a result, being bottle-conditioned, they provided a bit of a multicoloured experience. Hof ten Dormaal Blond, from the delightfully-named Flemish village of Tildonk, introduced itself with an assertive pop as the cork came out, and began pouring a hazy straw colour. I let the massive fluffy head subside and poured again: this time more of an amber beer came out. A second repeat of the process deposited gritty tan-coloured dregs on the surface.  And the end result: more orange, shading to brown, than blonde.

The head subsided quickly, leaving room in the glass for dry and woody old-world spices: clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, plus a whiff of that workhorse from Alan's thesaurus: burlap. There's also a bit of a heady burn, showing off its 8% ABV in no uncertain terms. The taste is sweeter than it smells: clove rounds out to banana and a white pepper piquancy enters the mix, though it's hard to get a proper handle on what's going on because of the biting overactive fizz. It lacks the delicate fruit subtleties of (inevitable comparison warning!) Duvel, but it's decent.

The Tildonk Donker (beer that sounds like it's falling down stairs: love it!) is similarly fizzy and an opaque brown colour. In all honesty it's not hugely different from the Blond: the same banana sweetness and a similar clove spice. There's perhaps an extra whiff of farmyard from it and sure, the banana is perhaps a little darker, somewhat riper, and maybe even slightly caramelised. Beyond that, however, there's not much to add. While fine by themselves, these two are just too samey for this kind of horizontal tasting. If picking between them I think I'd go for the peppery Blond over the sweet and sticky dark one.

With the basic beers dispatched I had hopes for the last in the series: that it would give me something more unusual. It certainly makes promises in this direction: Wit Goud is brewed with chicory and is a pleasant, vaguely hazy, shade of gold. The nose shows those fruity esters again, but there's another woody complexity under it that invites closer inspection. The chicory is out in force in the flavour, adding an almost medicinal herbal tint to it. There's a touch of smokiness too, and a sour finish. Not for everyone, this. It's complex and very grown-up tasting: playing the same game as Orval perhaps, though not in the same league. I'd have it again.

I think the unsophisticated rustic branding on these three is more than just marketing flim-flam. They're rough-round-the-edges rude mechanicals of Belgian ales. Don't expect anything fancy.

10 November 2011

Rogue blooper

It's a few years since Rogue -- the Oregon brewery big on blue-collar branding but not so keen on blue-collar attitudes -- was last seen in Ireland. However, a few of theirs have just started appearing on our shelves, a welcome bit of freshness in the otherwise declining range of American beer available in Ireland.

I chose Rogue American Amber Ale as my starting point, being a fan of American ambers, with Speakeasy Prohibition as my benchmark. This doesn't have the beatings of that, however. It's watery at first, but given a bit of time some waxy bitterness comes through but no real hop flavour, which is disappointing. The finish is pleasantly sweet, with lots of biscuit and maybe even a little marzipan, but the harsh sharpness never quite goes away. It leaves me wondering if this was once a hop explosion but time has taken away its charm. I dunno, but I was expecting better from the centre of American hop country.

I suck it up and move on to Rogue's Juniper Pale Ale. I like a bit of juniper but this hazy anaemic-looking chap has a slight air of infection in the aroma, a kind of acrid sourness. It's not really there in the flavour, but neither is much else: a touch of orange pith, a background tartness which I'm guessing is the juniper in action but that's about it. It's not unpleasant it's just kind of... muted.

In contravention to Irish consumer law, neither bottle sports a date or an ABV (5.6% for the amber; 5.3% for the juniper) and I'm left with the sensation that these are a job lot of elderly bottles. Fresh or not, I won't be running out in search of the other new Rogues straight away.

07 November 2011

Bar flying

In between bottling three batches of beer and brewing another, as well as giving my regular lecture at The Beer Club, I managed to fit in a fair bit of pub time over the long weekend. In a life consumed by beer it's important not to lose sight of the important things, dontcherknow. As I mentioned at the time, it was national Farmhouse Cheese and Craft Beer weekend so of course I nipped in to the Bull & Castle to give their tasting platter a go. Wherever Geoff had been buying his Cooleeney it was far superior to the one from my tasting, with none of the waxy harshness. The match with Buckley's hop-forward golden ale was excellent, and the Hegarty's cheddar fitted wonderfully with all four beers, though in different ways.

Before heading off I snaffled a bottle of Rothaus Tannenzäpfle, on special offer at the moment. This is another pils from the cult Black Forest brewery, robust at 5.1% ABV and heavily laden with the nettley German hop flavour I usually struggle with. Here, however, there's just enough of a malt profile to hold it in check, keeping both the beer and this drinker appropriately sweet. Enjoyable in small doses, but 33cl was enough for me. (Edit: I'm reliably informed by Barry in the comments that this is the same beer as the Pils, reviewed here.)

Down the hill in Temple Bar I dropped in to Farrington's, a hitherto quite plain and unremarkable Dublin boozer (formerly The Norseman, to any ex-pat Dubs who don't know where I'm talking about -- they used to have really nice runic lettering on the sign). Farrington's has, for want of a better term, gone craft. The usual macro keg fonts still line the two sides of the bar, but they're interspliced with those from Galway Hooker, Carlow Brewing, Metalman and the like. There's also an extensive bottled range -- local and import -- at least according to the blackboards.

What dragged me in was the promise of some Sink the Bismarck! and on Sunday evening a bottle from Farrington's cellars was procured, opened and offered round. I have two contradictory opinions on this 41% ABV freeze-distilled IPA: a) it's quite nice, and b) it tastes like an eastern European aperitif. The concentrated hop bitterness comes through as a sort of herbal, fennel flavour, which sits assertively atop the unctuous cough mixture body. Despite the super-dense texture there's a very faint fizz to it, and that helps soothe any intense alcohol burning, warming the insides rather than scorching them. I thought it worked great as a pre-dinner sipper. Nice beer; shame about the name.

Our hosts also had a bottle of Tactical Nuclear Penguin on the go. It still tastes like cheap sherry mixed with lighter fuel. Nice name; shame about the beer.

Onwards across the Liffey and upstream, to dinner and the antipodean delight of a pie floater at L. Mulligan. Grocer. The main draw here was a one-off cask of Trouble Brewing Pumpkin Ór. As far as I know this is Ireland's first and only pumpkin beer, and a one-off cask at that, pending a larger batch next year. It could have stood to be a degree or two cooler on serving, especially since the pub was heaving in the run-up to the Sunday night quiz, but it was still nicely smooth and perfectly drinkable. There's no fruit as such -- there rarely is with pumpkin beer in my experience -- but the blend of spices works beautifully, adding gentle warming cinnamon notes and a background hint of almond. I reckon solid, simple Ór makes quite a good base for throwing in interesting ingredients and I definitely look forward to seeing this spiced pumpkin version more widespread next year.

Irish homebrewers who fancy mucking about with their own interesting beer ingredients may be interested in entering Trouble's Trouble Maker competition. This time round they've asked specifically for unusual recipes. Reinheitsgebotniks need not apply.

A weekend well-spent there, I think. Hurrah for pubs!