30 January 2012

The limit of creativity

Brewdog didn't even bother putting one of their colourful diatribes on the label of Hops Kill: it's just an ad for their share ownership thingy. Label copy that tries to sell you something other than the beer behind it is a new one on me. I guess they reckon anyone who's going to buy this limited-edition imperial red ale has already made up their mind before getting close enough to the bottle to read it.

It's a viscous little number, pouring relatively flat at first and only gradually foaming up towards the end. I was expecting 5AM Saint with extra booziness, as it's 7.8% ABV, but that's not how it transpired. 5AM's aggressive Simcoe and Nelson Sauvin hopping is something I can only handle in small doses, producing a gradual cheese-and-cat-pee character that starts me regretting my pint about three quarters of the way through. Thankfully, Hops Kill doesn't have this.

Perhaps the dry-hopping is less intensive, or perhaps the additional alcohol lends it balance, but the hops here are pleasantly and unapologetically bitter at first, and only showing off their flavour towards the end where, yes the neighbourhood Tom has been marking his territory, but it's balanced with enough sweet sherbet and dry roast to clean up the worst excesses.

At the end of the bottle I'd have another. That doesn't happen with 5AM Saint.

26 January 2012

Black Forest, looking pale

The good folk at Ambrosius Trading, down Tipperary way, have recently acquired the distribution rights to the Alpirsbacher Klosterbräu range of beers and at the beginning of the year were kind enough to send me a sample selection of the range. Alpirsbach, for them as are interested, is in Baden-Württemberg: the south-western corner of Germany. A long way from Tipperary, you might say.

Anyhoo, I opened the Pils first. It's a very pale golden colour, pouring with a thick head that subsides quickly but leaves a finger of foam on top of the body. Though the aroma is quite bready, a strike of waxy vegetal bitterness greets the first sip. It's one of your no-messing-about hop-forward German pils, the sort I associate more with the north, from my admittedly limited experience. The texture is beautifully smooth, more like a Munich helles or even a märzen, the fizz kept well in check by its weightiness. It could pass for stronger than 4.9% ABV for sure. You need to wait for it to warm up before any malt comes through at all and it does so with a splash of golden syrup and honey. I guess it could get a bit sickly if left too long, but other than that we have a solid, workmanlike, better-than-average pilsner.

The kellerbier next, and Kloster Naturtrüb is exactly as the name suggests: densely cloudy. The orangey-yellow body topped by a big fluffy head makes it look for all the world like a weissbier. Definitely a lager, though. Like many of the bottled kellerbiers (surely such a thing shouldn't exist?) I've tried it lacks any real character. I get the impression that this is meant for rowdy session drinking in quantity and the taste doesn't really matter. It's clean, there's a nice unrefined rustic graininess, but other than that, very little flavour to speak of. At 5.4% ABV I'd want a bigger taste return on my liver's investment.

The blue-label Weizen follows next, described as "hefe hell" on the label, and is very hell indeed:  a slightly sickly looking translucent yellow. It definitely lacks the full-on fruity esters of its Bavarian counterparts but at the same time there's a nice crispness to it, something I associate, again, more with northern weissbiers like Flensburger's. There's just enough of a light soft fruit vibe to satisfy this drinker's weissbier cravings, and it's certainly very chuggable without getting too filling as it goes. I'm starting to build an impression of Alpirsbacher as a fastidious yet unimaginative brewery. Let's see how they get on with a more full-on style.

A purple label, 7.3% ABV: hooray! I thought, with no good reason, a doppelbock! My face fell as the dark gold beer poured out, and I braced myself for some German trampwarmer. No sickliness or booze on the nose of Kloster Starkbier, however, just a subtle breadiness. The body is full, barely troubled by the fizz, and while there is that slightly sticky sweet booziness you often get in Strong Lager For The Less Discerning Gentleman, it's compensated for by some quite hefty up-front hopping, giving it a kind of candied fruit effect with added herbal complexities, only turning towards park bench/bus station territory towards the finish. I'm a little surprised by how much I liked this. Even as it warms up it remains an enjoyable honeyish sipper.

The joker in the pack is Kleiner Mönch, a dark gold number in a vaguely märzen style at 5.4% ABV. A touch of nettle on the nose, but nothing to be too concerned about, followed by a flavour shot through with more golden syrup plus fresh-baked bread. It's actually not dissimilar to the Starkbier above, but is much more approachable though lacking the bigger herbal hops. I have to wonder why it's in the small bottle instead of the other one.

Last of the set isn't branded as an Alpirsbacher but is from the same brewery as the others. Nagold is a few kilometres north-east of Alpirsbach, so Nagolder Urtyp nearly qualifies as a local beer. 5.2% ABV and producing a powerful nettley whiff as it pours. I get a whack of metallic saccharine up front on tasting, followed by a watery hollowness and, yes, those almost sour noble hop green weeds on the finish. I suspect that all the brewing prowess at Alpirsbacher goes into the brewery's own range, while the Nagolder is left up to the apprentice. Or possibly the cleaning lady.

Overall, I think the Alpirsbacher range has a lot going for it. I see it in the same segment of quality German lagers as Jever and the Rothaus set, a segment which is not exactly what I'd call overcrowded round these parts. Our local brewers could learn something about making lager from this lot.

23 January 2012

Proper Charlie

I don't know what the arbiters of beer style would class Gouden Carolus Ambrio as. It pours murky red-brown, like a dubbel, but at 8% ABV is more of a tripel strength. I get dark boozy sugars and sour tangy yeast on the nose, calling to mind Belgian confections like McChouffe and Delirium Nocturnum.

The flavour is quite muted for all that aroma. Raisins and figs are the loudest but it's not much more than a polite whisper, really. Dry fizz and water are more the hallmarks than malt, hops or yeast. It's a shame because the high alcohol provides a lovely base to propel some fantastic flavours, but they're just not there in this.

I've yet to find a beer from this brewer that tops Hopsinjoor.

19 January 2012

Better butter, but bitter

A few weeks ago I asked one of the people behind Tom Crean's Lager why they decided to put out that style of beer. The answer was that no-one else seemed to be doing it. And it's true: most of the independents don't do lager, and those that do are mainly the ones who own pubs in which to push it. Of course, you don't have to be a Pattinson-grade beer historian to notice the slew of failed independent Irish lager brands strewn across the not-too-distant past: Kinsale and Brew No. 1 being especially high profile examples, as these things go. Despite it occupying some 63% of Ireland's beer market, the absolute dominance of the Big Two and their pervasive marketing makes lager a tough sell.

Hot on the heels of Crean's into this deceptively healthy-looking market segment comes Carrig. The brand is owned by a couple of entrepreneurs and the beer itself is produced at the BrewEyed plant in Co. Offaly. I thought the BrewEyed lager was pretty decent the one time I tried it, so had reasonably high expectations for this when I trotted along to The Palace for a taste.

At first my expectations were met: cold from the tap the first sip revealed a beautifully clean and crisp lager which, though lacking any real hop flavour, packed an enjoyable lip-smacking bitterness. It unravelled quite quickly after that, however. Our old friend Mr Diacetyl came calling, and proceeded to shout loudly over the top of everyone else. The bitterness just manages to reassert itself and take the edge off the worst butteriness, but the diacetyl lingers and grows with each mouthful making a second pint an unappealing proposition.

In the battle of the new microbrewed lagers I would put this a little ahead of Crean's, but both are clear indications of the other main reason Irish micros don't do lager: it's a very difficult style to do well. A quality Irish pilsner, of the kind I thought Carrig was, would be very welcome and might just stand a better chance of making a name for itself in this closely fought corner.

16 January 2012

Don't I know you from somewhere?

It's the same story every time I'm in a Fuller's pub: I have whatever's on draught, but there's always a selection of those beautifully-shaped Fuller's bottles staring at me from the fridge. I've (almost) never resorted to buying one, however, partly because bottled beer is poor value in the pub and partly because I've heard they're not very good. Yes, Jack Frost, I mean you.

Nevertheless, when another of them -- Fuller's Old Winter Ale -- popped up in my local offy I reckoned it was time to finally satisfy my curiosity about it. 5.3% ABV and mahogany-to-amber, so very much in the English old ale bracket so far. That's where the comparison ends, though. The aroma is slightly caramelly, but the taste is dominated by hop bitterness -- acrid at the start, turning tangy at the finish. Not good. Yes there's a bit of toffee malt but not nearly enough for the winter warmer it purports to be, instead offering a hollow and quite watery middle.

This stuff is a very long way from the smoothness I adore in English old ales of my previous acquaintance, and I'd take mainstream fare like Hobgoblin and Old Peculier well ahead of it. And in a Fuller's pub: back to the ESB, no question.

Reuben has similar thoughts here.

14 January 2012

Own brands

We come to the end of Swiss Week on this blog, you'll be glad to hear. And, in many ways, it's bottom-of-the-barrel time. I avoided the pissy local lagers sold in pubs so instead had to get my pissy local lager fix in the supermarket. Of the big Swiss supermarket chains, Coop had the best selection. But bored of all the Chimay, Schlenkerla and St Peter's I turned to some of the own brands to see how they fared.

In a land of expensive beer, finding Tell lager on offer at little over €4 for 15x33cl bottles wasn't to be passed up, on a how-bad-can-it-be? basis. And the name is cute in an appropriately Swiss way. So how bad can it be?

Well, since I didn't opt for the canned version, it's skunked, but only slightly. A decent amount of head, 4.8% ABV and no other off flavours. The worst I can say is it's a bit boring but I didn't pay for anything else and it did clearly say it was bière normale on the label. Refreshing, cleansing and just what's required after a day trudging around being fleeced by the rest of Switzerland.

And then there was Bio Spezial: a non-filtered 5.2% ABV lager. Skunked as well, it wafted pungently as soon as the cap came off, pouring an unattractive hazy pale yellow. Beneath the lightstruck aroma it's dull and watery with some nasty oxidised cardboard and lots of those noble hop nettle notes I dislike intensely. One to avoid and, at €1 a bottle, very poor value.

Another week and I'd probably have grabbed another 15-pack of Tell to see me through, but it was time to go home.

There is, it seems, plenty of good beer in Switzerland. But, as in a lot of countries, it makes you work for it.

13 January 2012

Bier auf Deutsch

We move east for this post, to the German-speaking end of Switzerland.

Monsteiner has been brewing organic beer near Davos since 2000. I picked up two of them in a Geneva supermarket with no idea what to expect. First up was Mungga, a 3.5% ABV blonde. Lots of grassy lagery hops in the aroma here. It's quite hazy, with big wholesome floaty bits to show you it hasn't been refined or otherwise adulterated in any way. And the sensation of an organic health tonic continues on drinking: lots of rich sweet malt up front, with a touch of brioche or breakfast cereal about it. Before it becomes too heavy, the hops jump in and rescue it.

It's a simple, old-fashioned, rough, ready and rustic. It would be done better justice by coming in a bigger bottle.

SteinBock, at 6.5% ABV, restores normality to the average strength of the range and features a goat wearing a rather unflattering sleeveless number on the label. It's rather clearer than the Mungga, though a darker amber colour. The off-white head dissipates very soon after pouring and the carbonation is present but unobtrusive.

And despite its Swissness it's a German bock to the core: a powerful grainy sweetness with notes of caramel and cheap chocolate. None of this is a good thing and I struggled to get to the end of the glass. In fairness I can't write it off as a flawed product, it's just not the sort of beer I like to drink and I really should have known this before opening it.

While browsing the shelves I was rather taken with the sparse nationalistic styling of Eidgenoss, an unfiltered amber lager from Falken, a large brewing concern in Schaffhausen. The flavour, however, is as straight-laced as the label. The Lucozade colouring leads on to a Lucozade flavour: sweet and with artificial fruit overtones. There's a bit of biscuit from the malt but that's your lot. Ask not what your nationalist beer can do for you, I guess.

12 January 2012

Lausanne my favourite game

I loved the little city of Lausanne, on the north shore of Lake Geneva. A haven of old-money genteelness it's like a clean version of Paris in miniature, built vertically into a mountain. Below the cathedral which towers above the town, but still a long way up from lake level, is Brasserie Du Château, a casual little brewpub which was quiet when we dropped in one afternoon for pizza and beers.

The range is quite impressive for such a small place: six regular beers and one seasonal. I went for their IPA first: it came from the cask but was exceedingly cold and a rather disturbing murky brown colour: the brewer could do with brushing up on the finer points of fining. And unfortunately there's a yeasty sourness in the flavour, but only slightly. Other than that it's very good: an assertive bitterness up front followed by peachy fruit flavours. Quite sessionable, all in all.

L-R: Rousse, Blonde, IPA
Most of the rest were nitrokegged. I reckon this took away a lot of the character in Rousse, a red-brown beer which offers a nice caramel and hops combo but is perhaps too smooth for its own good. I had expected Brune to be similar but it's more like a stout: dry with lots of roast plus a solid dose of chocolate. The fizzy Blonde was a relief after the nitro and packed lots of perfume and spice.

Skipping the Blanche and moving into the more esoteric end of the range, there's a permanent Ginger beer. It presents as headless and dark gold coloured and has very little beeriness about it. You could pass this off as Canada Dry quite easily. Its powers of refreshment can't be argued with, however. There was more ginger in the seasonal beer: Ginger and Green Tea, in fact. It wasn't particularly spicy though. Brown, light of body, tannic and refreshing say my notes.

Service was friendly, the food was excellent. Along with Brasserie Bavaria mentioned in the previous post, Brasserie Du Château is a must for the beer traveller in Lausanne.

11 January 2012

Jurassic Marque

Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes (BFM) from Jura is one of the breweries recommended by Swiss commenters on this blog (hi Laurent!) so I was very pleased to find some in Palais des Bières in Geneva. It's an odd little bar-cum-shop in the basement of a shopping centre selling mostly Belgian beers, with a handful of British and others. And all at outrageous prices: this pair cost me a bit over €6 each. They'd want to be tasty.

The first one I opened was La Meule: 6% ABV and proclaiming itself a bière de garde, one of those catch-all styles that can mean anything as long as its brown-ish and hazy. Which this is. The secret miracle ingredient is sage, for extra farmhouse rusticity, I suppose. The herb leaps out of the aroma combining with fruity citric smells as well. On tasting it's quite dry and rather funky: I detect the presence of brettanomyces in spades. After the initial shock there are some beautiful Jaffa orange notes and a touch of aftershave spice. It reminds me of something and I wave away the late sage flavour which isn't part of the recollection. Orval. It tastes a lot like Orval, only with sage in it. A horror to Orval purists I'm sure, but an undeniably interesting beer and one which I quite enjoyed.

The second one was La Cuivrée. This is a brighter red-amber shade next to its stablemate, topped with a fluffy ivory-coloured head. I get a zingy aroma of fresh hops but they're not so apparent on tasting. Instead its a highly attenuated beer: thin and with a touch of sourness masked somewhat by the fresh hops. You know what comes next: sour; fresh hops... it's an Iris clone. Well, maybe a bit. It's not quite as zingy as fresh Iris, nor as puckeringly sour, but if I was in an Iris-free zone and craving it, La Cuivrée would certainly help take the edge off.

And while we're up the Jura, another brewery from Laurent's comments: Trois Dames. I came across a few of their beers totally by chance in Bavaria Brasserie, a beer hall in Lausanne where I was expecting little other than draught Paulaner but found a fantastic selection of European beers, though not much local. We only stayed for the one so I made it Pacifique, a 5% ABV US-style pale ale.

It took a while to pour as the foam had to be let subside in the too-small branded glass. A hazy orange beer is what eventually emerged under the head. There's a bubblegum mish-mash of fruity aromas, separating on tasting into soft fruit like lychees and nectarines. The sweetness becomes more apparent as it warms, bringing out sticky honey flavours that don't sit well with the busy fizz. This is one to drink cool. From a bigger glass.

It would have been nice to see some of these on draught, but I guess that's the absence of a pub culture for you. Places like Brasserie Bavaria are a welcome substitute. And there's always the €6 take-home bottle...

10 January 2012

Predestined for greatness

I'm all in favour of naming beers in honour of local historical celebrities, but must admit that John Calvin is an odd choice, even for Geneva-based beer company Les Frères Papinot. It shows what I know, however, as there's a detailed description of Big John's brief career as a brewer on the back of Calvinus Blanche, first in the helpfully-numbered sequence of eponymous beers. (Bov, the authority on Swiss beer, tells me these are all contract brewed in Appenzell by Locher.)

The long-necked swingtop emits barely a hiss as I open it, and what little head forms doesn't hang around long. The orange and spices are subtly present, and there's a slightly Germanic banana vibe coming from the yeast. It's not a particularly memorable version of the style but avoids being unpleasantly dry or sickly sweet, and not every artisan witbier can say that. There's enough sparkle for it to be refreshing, so it's an overall thumbs up from me.

A bigger pop and more foam from Calvinus Blonde Bio, and a remarkably clear beer for one that's unfiltered and packaged in a 33cl bottle. The lees stick firmly to the bottom after the last drop is poured. Like the Blanche, it's an approachable 5.2% ABV, though rather fuller of body and more designed for sipping than quick refreshment.

The flavour is complex and interesting, dominated by a dusty maltsack dryness overlaid with sweet honeyish perfume. I couldn't drink a lot of it, but it's still a very good, unsticky, take on Belgian-style blonde ale.

I never found number 3 in the sequence, but 4 is Calvinus Noire, featuring the good doctor tastefully blacked-up on the label. It's stronger than the others at 6% ABV, and beautifully viscous, pouring unfizzily an opaque oily black. There's a little bit of liquorice in the aroma and the taste is mostly about caramel and treacle, tempered by a coffee-like dryness and even a hint of hop bitterness in the finish. Wonderfully balanced, and a great after-dinner sipper.

Calvin may be an unlikely frontman for a beer brand, but it seems that his minions know their way around a mash tun. Who's up for some John Knox 80/-?

09 January 2012

Geneva conventional

I spent the Christmas and New Year holiday in Switzerland, visiting a friend who lives in Geneva. There was plenty of opportunity to sample the good, the bad and the mediocre of the local beers so you can expect a full week of guff on the subject.

As always, my first priority was the brewpubs and I'd been warned in advanced not to expect anything out of the ordinary. Local practice appears to dictate that every brewpub must produce a blonde, a blanche and an ambrée, and that variations outside this are rare.

And it was certainly the case at venue 1: Brasserie des Grottes, situated in, and named after, what passes for a bohemian quarter in straight-laced Geneva. From the barroom at the front it rambles back into a vast sequence of chambers including other bars, kitchens, service areas but as far as I could see: no brewery. There's even a big empty front window, the kind of place that pubs like this often use to display their shiny equipment. So, I have my suspicions about whether or not they're actually brewing on site.

The other thing that had me suspicious was, having heard their beers were undrinkable rubbish, finding them actually quite palateable. Grottes Blonde is approachable and dry like a lager rather than sticky and sweet the way continental blonde ales often are. Its strength in being clean and lagerlike is also its weakness: it gets boring very quickly.

Grottes Ambrée wasn't too exciting either. Sweet, with shedloads of caramel but that's it. The dark malts aren't overdone, but they don't offer any real depth or complexity either.

Pick of the bunch was Grottes Blanche. It's jam-packed with loads of spicy coriander, which is just the way I like it. No off flavours again, and the bonus of something to hold my interest.

It's this bland absence of flaws or character in any of these beers which, in combination with the invisible brewkit, have my alarm bells ringing. I find it hard to believe that a small scale brewer with this level of technical expertise would make such one-dimensional recipes. But then, the brewer is probably Swiss. I'm not a racist but...

Across the river and nestling quietly among the high-end designer shops and blingtacular watchmakers is Brasserie du Molard. It was an English theme pub in a recent life and still has lots of the knick-knacks that come with that playset. They're definitely turning out their own here, and the character shows through.

There's a slight haze to Molard Blonde. I thought it was going to prove difficult to finish, from its big perfumey aroma and massively thick mouth-coating texture. But the hops come to the rescue, dialling in oodles of bittersweet orange and lemon notes. Such thirst-quenching power is unusual in such a heavy beer and I really appreciated it.

Molard Blanche is another spicy one. It's quite similar to Grottes's, in fact, though heavy, like the blonde. I wonder have they a problem with their mashing regime, to be turning out such big-bodied beers? If so, I hope they don't go fixing it.

And lastly, Molard Ambrée. Proof that they're human, this was quite badly oxidised: the musty backdrop not doing anything to complement what seemed to be a very sweet amber beer.