I didn't get Kölsch until I went to Cologne. From the bottle and keg it had always just tasted like a dry pilsner to me, and a very plain one at that. What's the fuss about? That changed when I got to drink it closer to the source. The smoothness offered by the version served from wooden barrels in the better Cologne pubs adds a vital dimension to the Kölsch experience you just don't get any other way. So I was intrigued and more than a little suspicious when I got hold of Thornbridge's bottled take on the style. Would bottle-conditioning make that all-important difference?
Tzara pours a clear limpid gold. I was careful to avoid any sediment, but really there was very little to be found. The mittelfrüh hops are very apparent in the aroma: the heady fermented grassiness of warm silage. The flavour is sweeter, though, making the most of the carapils malt to balance the green flavours with a bit of residual sweetness. And most importantly of all, the carbonation is light. Not cask-smooth, but far from being pale yellow burp-water. I think they've done a good job here, and are showing the joy of Kölsch much better than, say, bottled Früh does.
Raven, Thornbridge's black IPA, doesn't mess about. From the opaque black-brown body comes a bolt of pithy aroma preparing the way for intense bitterness on tasting. Dominating the proceedings is flinty Nelson Sauvin in its dry, less fruity, incarnation. I get a lot of the harshness I associate with Sorachi Ace in large quantities but none of the fruity peachy fun that I feel the Centennial ought to be supplying.
The wife really enjoyed it, and got a good roasted dark ale flavour from it. I couldn't detect that under the citric punch: it's another one of those black IPAs I would swear is pale when drinking with my eyes closed. There's no doubt Raven is complex and interesting, but I just feel a bit abused by it. Too much of a workout for my weak and feeble palate.
Next up, Versa, the puntastic weissbier. It comes out a lovely, almost red, shade of gold and only slightly hazy given the style. At 5% ABV it's on the weak side, and offers very little other than wateriness on the nose. What it loses in welly, however, it gains in drinkability. No overpowering banana esters or other heavy flavours. Instead it's mildly zesty with an easy-going sherbet effervesence rather than full-on fizz.
I'm sure it's a perfect summer refresher but I've no objection to it in the depths of winter either.
For the proper chilly evening sipper I've reserved a bottle of Bracia, Thornbridge's super-limited strong dark ale brewed from a whole host of malts, including brown and peated; a plethora of hops including Sorachi Ace and Pioneer; and with a bonus addition of Italian chestnut honey. It's a beer to take very seriously indeed.
It pours slowly and unctuously, lazily forming a dark tan head. The aroma is odd: lots of roast, but the dryness is sweetened by a floral character which I'm guessing comes from the honey.
It tastes weird. Intense perfume pervades the whole thing and makes it hard to get at the beeriness beneath. I can just about detect the peat, and the roast barley is present on the finish. There's possibly a bit of chocolate buried in there too, but overall it's quite difficult to take. Still, I suppose when it's €10 for half a litre you don't want to be charging through it. I'm not at all sure I'd buy another bottle, and the price is only part of the reason.
And that concludes the beer reviews for 2011. All that remains for this the last post of the year is the handing out of...
The Golden Pint Awards 2011
Looking back on the 2010 awards (2009 is here), I think I can safely say I achieved my ambition for 2011: to travel. 12 countries and 4 of them new to me is a personal best. And the beer scene in Ireland has moved on quite a ways in the past year. I'm excited at the thought of similar progress over the next 12 months. Anyway, here's how it's all panned out:
Best Irish Draught Beer: Metalman Windjammer
A brewery that was no more than a logo this time last year stormed out of the blocks with a kickass flagship ale and this stunning summer seasonal. All kiwi hops made it a pineapple and mango flavour grenade. I'm limiting the award to the cask version, however. It all fell a bit flat when filtered and kegged. Caskless Irish pubs: start your engines.
Best Irish Bottled or Canned Beer: Knockme
Lots of Irish beers made an appearance in bottles this year, including old favourites such as Trouble Dark Arts and Galway Hooker. I give the prize to another brand new brewery for 2011, however: Eight Degrees and their hefty-yet-drinkable porter Knockme
Best Overseas Draught Beer: Wild Esra on Cherries
Even at a festival where imperial stouts, barrel-aged rarities, sour one-offs and weird fruit beers abounded this one from De Molen had enough character to stop me and make me pay attention. It's the whole picture. The world of beer geekery in a single glass.
Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer: Great Divide Smoked Baltic Porter
They say Great Divide ain't gonna be exporting no more. I'm willing to donate one of the last bottles of this in the country to a local brewery for cloning purposes.
Best Overall Beer: Wild Esra on Cherries
No question. It's not a drink-all-year sessioner. It's an unforgiveably room-dividing one-off of the sort that shouldn't get awards from people who aren't insufferable rarity-chasing spoogebeerians. But it's just too damned tasty not to take the prize.
Best Pumpclip or Label: De La Senne Equinox
The wife spent a fair few days in Brussels on business this year, which meant a Belgian beer bonanza for me. Ordering by remote control can be a dangerous game but I've never had a problem in saying "Just anything by De La Senne. You'll know them by the labels." From a brewery with a wonderful eye for design, brooding Equinox is one of my favourites.
Best Irish Brewery: Metalman
You want to know what I think is missing from Irish beer? Bravery. With just a few exceptions, mostly from the established companies, we're still stuck in the Stout-Lager-Red Ale Beermuda Triangle of traditional Irish styles, only now we have a hoppy-but-sessionable pale ale thrown in too. Metalman, while sticking to a solidly reliable pale ale to make a name for themselves, haven't been afraid to play around with other ideas for the limited editions. So we had the antipodean-hopped not-quite-amber ale mentioned above for one, and second up was a peppered witbier made with saison yeast: Alternator. Beer is all about diversity and Metalman get this gong for giving us that from the very start.
More of this sort of thing, please, Gráinne and Tim.
Best Overseas Brewery: 1516
Back to the very top of the year for this one, and one of the highlights of my trip to Vienna. Breaking the lagerland mould with hoppy pale ales and plenty more besides. Bravery and diversity once again.
Pub/Bar of the Year: Bowe's Lounge
I haven't ventured too far from my usual local haunts in 2011: The Bull & Castle, Against the Grain, The Porterhouse, L. Mulligan. Grocer: chances are, that's where you'll find me. But we've seen an interesting development in Dublin pubdom this year. An increasing number of "normal" pubs -- some of them guidebook classics -- have started stocking beers from the independents. The bright green light on the O'Hara's IPA keg font is the most welcoming sight in any Dublin pub. It says "Yes, you can stay here for a drink".
The Palace on Fleet Street has long been ahead of this curve, but this was the year they went cask and got a Dungarvan beer engine installed. The Long Hall now has Hooker; there's Carlow bottled and draught beers in The Church on Mary Street. But one of the most enjoyable evenings I had all year was the Sunday night session in Bowe's Lounge. O'Hara's IPA on tap, Fuller's ESB bottled, and a casual yet wonderful trad session in the corner.
Bowe's is a decent, untouristy, unpretentious boozer that happens to take its beer a bit more seriously than most. We need dozens more like it in this town.
Beer Festival of the Year: Borefts
I think the local highlight was Bloom in Phoenix Park back in June, but the geektastic Borefts festival at De Molen in September was something else entirely.
World-beating beers aside, it was the most enjoyable drinking session I had all year. Thanks to Derek, Ron, Lexie, Mike, Chris, Dom, Evin, Menno and Her Outdoors for making it so.
Supermarket of the Year: No-one
Looking back, I realised I've bought next to no beer in the supermarket this year. None of the offers have really caught my eye. The only one giving us any decent amount of diversity is Marks & Spencer, and their stuff is just too expensive for what it is. I've been pleased to see off licence chain O'Brien's really raise their game beerwise this year, with Carlow, Dungarvan and Eight Degrees all now in stock. But really, only the independents have been meeting my needs in 2011.
Independent Retailer of the Year: The Beer Club
Partly because it's headquartered on my doorstep, but mainly because manager Stephen has shown an incredible enthusiasm for the whole speciality beer segment. It has been a delight to deliver the tasting sessions in the basement (and if you were at one of them over the past few months -- thanks for being such a great crowd) and even more of a delight to be at the sessions where other people did the talking. I'm looking forward to more of those in the New Year.
And extras like this aside, I love that I can just nip around the corner to buy beers I've never had before. I never thought I'd see the day.
Best Beer Book or Magazine: The Oxford Companion To Beer
Simply for existing, and being a huge sign of beer's growing stature in the culinary world. The errors and ommissions, while they should never have happened, provide a new opportunity to help right the historical wrongs that have been done to beer. As such, The Oxford Companion to Beer is the antigen in the beer writing system, and Alan's wiki shows a healthy immune system.
Best Beer Blog or Website: DrinkStore
Yes, it's a shop that sells beer online, but I'm giving it this award for its role as a reference source. New beer comes and goes on the Irish market quite quickly, and not everything gets reported by drinkers in the field or the responsible retailers like Bradley's in Cork and Jay at Hollands of Bray. When I'm wondering where my next blog post is going to come from, DrinkStore's beer section is where I look first. Where did I find out that, at last, Ireland had Thornbridge? DrinkStore's website.
Best Beer Twitterer: BoakandBailey
One of the best things about their blog is the way it acts as a sort of clearing house for informed and mature commentary on all things beery. Their long overdue arrival to Twitter has extended that to the microblogging world and we get wonderful links and observations that we would otherwise miss. They get this award despite the unfair tweeting advantage of having four thumbs.
A dishonorable mention, of course, goes to SimonHJohnson. If you're into beer, on Twitter, and not following him, you're doing it wrong.
Best Online Brewery Presence: Eight Degrees
Dungarvan got the gong last year for sheer busyness. This year, for the same reason, it goes to Eight Degrees (not that Dungarvan have slowed down or shut up or anything). Great outgoing support for the local businesses that stock their beers, and by extension great support for the customers who want to find and drink it. Howling Gale on draught is a rare beast: it's great when Scott and Cam give us the coordinates to find it.
Food and Beer Pairing of the Year: Cheese, generally
I'm no wiser about the principles of beer and cheese matching than I was in January, despite the government dedicating an entire long weekend to teaching me. However, I've had an enormous amount of fun this year just picking random cheeses and beers and seeing what happens when they're put in close proximity. I'll be doing lots more of this in 2012.
In 2012 I’d Most Like To: Try going pro
I've had fun this year trying my hand at the whole public speaking malarky. Together with Stephen at The Beer Club I've discovered that there are people out there willing to give up their evenings to be talked at by me about beer (previously it was just a question of picking the bar stool next to me) and having a receptive audience and a bit of back-and-forth is very rewarding. So, more of that for 2012, until I decide I hate it and don't want to do it any more.
Which leads effortlessly into a shameless plug for the gigs I'm doing at The Carlyle Institute starting in January. Two hours; six beers; small classes; lots of cheery-beery banter and only limited quantities of awful puns.
Open Category: Most Exciting Beer City
By all accounts London has really got it going on at the moment. But I wasn't there in 2011 so can't comment. My award goes to Prague for its ale revolution sitting atop a well-deserved reputation for kick-ass lagers. Well worth a weekend if you're anywhere in the vicinity.
I wouldn't say no to a return to Vienna or Amsterdam, mind. It has been a good year.
But here endeth 2011. I'm off to the beer fridge to begin putting 2012 into some sort of drinking order.