30 April 2012

Let's get literal

"What shall we put on the label of our Moose Drool Brown Ale?"
"How about... a drooling moose?"
"Genius!"

The beer is from Big Sky out of Montana and is a very dark brown, clear, and turning to deep deep ruby when held up to the light. There's quite an intense sparkle though not much by way of head. In the aroma I find dark and sweet fruit: sultanas and black cherries, plus hints at something more bitter as well. And there it is in the taste: liquorice perhaps, or the slightly metallic tang of heavy treacle. The beer itself isn't all that heavy: the strong sugar flavours are melded together and rendered less intense by the fizz. A simple pleasure and nice in small doses.

I wasn't sure what to expect from 21st Amendment Bitter American. The name suggests something powerful, though it's badged stylistically as a "Session Ale", whatever that means. A stiff heads tops a dark orange body which is very slightly misted with haze. I got a blast of grapefruit as I popped the ringpull but oddly no typically Californian citrus on tasting. The aroma offers sugary jaffa oranges rather than anything more zesty and the flavour gives me perfume and orange blossom: old world hop flavours rather than anything I'd associate with the US.

Is it literally a bitter American? With all the succulent fruit I'm going to have to say no. It is damn tasty though.

Both cans came courtesy of the non-bitter American Richard Lubell. Did you see his bit on Irish beer in Draft recently? Top.

28 April 2012

Phenolic felicitations

A little bit of off-the-cuff real-time bloggery this Saturday afternoon, the seventh birthday of this here blog. The something special picked from the stash is Nøgne Ø's Holy Smoke, one of those beers designed by a home brewer and picked by the pros for commercial scaling up. Ireland's equivalent  -- Trouble Brewing Spelt Saison -- is currently on cask in The Black Sheep in Dublin. I had a pint yesterday. It's lovely.

But back to Norway. This is a 6% ABV smoked dark lager. It pours thickly, with lazy ivory-coloured bubbles meandering upwards to form a pillowy head and then clinging tightly to the glass as it empties. The body is a dark chocolate brown and the texture is reminiscent of a doppelbock, though it's not quite in the same league strengthwise. The smoke is unmistakable, heading towards that medicinal, TCP, Laphroaig flavour, though it doesn't overpower. Unbelievably there's still a clean-tasting crisp lager underneath.

And perhaps that's its downfall: there's no real follow-through, no aftertaste. The smoke is gone from the palate as quickly as it arrived. I would have thought a full bodied, strong tasting beer would have left more of a lasting impression.

As phenolic smokebombs go, this is one of the more well-mannered ones.

26 April 2012

Canterbury stale

Three from Kiwiland today: Harrington's of Christchurch have been going since 1991. These bottles haven't been in my fridge since then, but I've held on to them for far too long, with the expiry dates for this lot having come and gone towards the end of last year. No matter. Here goes.

The Rogue Hop is first, an organic pilsner. The label claims Bohemian credentials for the recipe but I detect more than a little Kiwi influence. Off the dusty-looking pale gold beer I get hints of sweet tropical fruit, mangoes at first, turning sharper -- more towards satsuma -- on tasting. It's an aroma and flavour I associate strongly with New Zealand hops. The promise is a short-lived one, however, and it all fades away quite quickly leaving a slightly stale and hollow-tasting lager. Drink this when it's fresh, I guess, preferably at lattitudes below 30° south too.

I hoped the Classy Red would be a bit more robust. It's cloudy again, and while I'm not a subscriber to the importance of how a beer looks, red ales are always much more attractive when they're limpid and crystalline. Hazy reds just look unpleasantly swampy. There's an odd mix of flavours here, mostly over-ripe strawberries plus an added bitter yeast tang. It's OK as these things go, but I'm not detecting a whole lot of class in my glass.

The style designation "Porter Ale" will induce a shiver in anyone familiar with British brewing history, but that's what Wobbly Boot claims to be. It's an attractive dark red-brown and the cleanest tasting of the lot. I get a nice hit of smooth caramel, with some heavier burnt toffee behind it, shading up to full-on roast after a few sips. A little one-dimensional but not at all bad.

Nothing to travel 12,000 miles and write home about, then. But I have cleared three bottles of elderly beer out of my fridge, which counts as a win.

23 April 2012

Hit and Smis

I scoured the label of my bottle of Smiske Extra for ages trying to find the ABV. Just as I was about to give up and open it anyway before it got warm I found it, hidden in the dot of the Comic Sans i. From the poorly printed, poorly applied, fourth-form artwork, I wasn't expecting much. It's a "nature-ale" which has me thinking it may have some organic credentials or something, but if so they've neglected to write that anywhere. It pours a lightly hazy blonde and gives off a gritty Belgian blonde aroma. That slight harshness from the yeast dominates the flavour too, and there's a meaty, sweaty locker-room funk underlying it as well.

I'm looking hard for redeeming features but there's basically no malt character and what hop there is is just a sharp bitterness, more like something that poured from a plastic tub than infused via the cheery leafy cone some teenager has crayoned onto the label. The bucketloads of fizz do it no favours and... is that vinegar? It gets worse the more I think about it. I'd be better off just moving on to the next beer...

... which is from the same brewery (Smisje, in East Flanders, in case you were wondering) and is a clearly marked 9% ABV Smisje Dubbel, though the least said about the creatures on the label the better. Another fizzy one, the foam literally roared as it subsided, leaving me with a heady-smelling swampy glass of brown. The booze vapour is overpowering: a mix of port, dark rum and kirsch thrown together in a way that screams hangover fuel but actually tastes quite nice. I've never met a dubbel like this. Each sip boasts serious alcohol, but then sings daintily of autumnal orchard produce and old oak in dusty cellars. I find it disarmingly tasty and would love to know how they did it. It would make an ideal dessert beer and if I had more I'd be giving serious thought to introducing it to some quality ice cream.

The problem then is: given my diverse reactions, are Smisje beers to be recommended? Ah sure go on then. I'm intrigued to find out what they do next.

20 April 2012

London's brewing

No visit to London would have been complete without at least a cursory look at its growing brewing renaissance. I had expected to see more from the likes of Brodie's, London Fields, Redemption, Sambrooks and so on, but I don't think I encountered any. Maybe I was just in the wrong sorts of pubs. Camden Town I saw plenty of, and most of the beer specialists had Kernel bottles.

It was to the latter that we headed on the morning of Day 3. Kernel, in a railway arch near Bermondsey Tube station, is normally only open to the public on Saturday mornings but Evin very kindly allowed us to drop in on them during the week. Forklift training was in progress when we arrived, and the guys took it in turns to show us the shiny new kit and taste a couple of beers with us. It's an impressive set-up, and even though only two beers had made it into the new fermenters so far the potential is enormous. Hopefully we'll be seeing more taps, and bottles further afield, in due course.

Having imposed long enough we headed for the day's second brewery, to the north east in Stratford. The gargantuan Westfield Stratford City shopping centre was heaving with Easter Tuesday shoppers, though only a handful had made it as far as the distant end of the ground floor, opposite the international railway station, where Tap East nestles in its alcove.

Though the brewkit was puffing away merrily, only one house beer was available: John Edwin Bitter. It's a clear orange-amber colour with a sharp and waxy bitterness at the front plus some of the grainy flavour I've come to associate with brewpub lager on the tail. It's decent as it goes, but not a great example of small-scale brewing. Not to someone who's just come from The Kernel, anyway.

The keg selection included Brewster's Chocolate Cyn and I just had a wary taste of this. I didn't order a full pint, however. Just not enough going on in it. Instead I opted for Thornbridge's Chiron, a Lucozade-coloured pale ale of 5% ABV, simple yet very drinkable, with some lovely chewy fruit candy flavours. Last tick of the session was Brooklyn Brewery's Dry Irish Stout, a title which manages one out of three. It's very sweet, giving off rich toffee aromas and with a flavour packed full of molasses plus a matching unctuous texture. There's atin' and drinkin' in it, it's lovely, but it's pretty far from tasting like an Irish stout.

We stayed in the east for the third and final brewery of the day, taking the Docklands Light Railway down to Greenwich to visit Meantime's new facility The Old Brewery. This place really acts as the cafeteria of the Naval College Museum, with all the atmosphere and charm of modern museum catering facilities everywhere. It's brightly lit, brightly decorated and has a continuous flow of patrons in and out between the adjoining museum. I sat opposite the gleaming three-tier brewkit, and even that began to annoy. Why would you put the mashtun and kettle at the bottom and then have to force wort up into the fermenters above? I understand from James's article here that the fermenters feed serving tanks in the basement, but it still makes no sense to me.

The room next door housed a slightly more atmospheric bar, though one totally lacking in customers. From here I procured a Bohemian Amber and a Yakima Red. As usual, Meantime get full marks for their gorgeous glassware.

The Amber was made on-site and was a very hazy red-brown lager. It tastes... wholesome: lots of sweet and porridgey grain, plus some almost Belgian dark candy sugar and more than a hint of butterscotch. All seeming a bit thrown-together for something produced on such a slick and shiny brewkit.

The Yakima Red was a much better proposition: clear as a bell, crisp, light and thirst-quenching. The hops add some gentle orange overtones, the bitterness building gradually to a slightly catty peak.

The early version of our schedule had us eating here, but we weren't inspired by the menu. With some time still left to play with, we had the opportunity for a bonus round.

The Parcel Yard is a brand-new Fuller's bar in King's Cross station, just above platform 9¾ (no, really). Not so much a yard, it's more a winding series of dimly-lit rooms laid out with sparse antiqueish furniture and railway bric-a-brac. Somewhere on the twittersphere I'd been promised the full range of Fuller's beer so marched excitedly to the bar to order a Black Cab Stout and a Past Masters XX, the former being new; the latter around for a while but not sold at home. And neither were sold here, either, unfortunately. No Mighty Atom either. I could have had my pick of the Vintages, or some Past Masters Double Stout, but that's not what I wanted. I glumly opted for a protest pint of Gales HSB. It's a fairly dry brown bitter, with some raisins and a kind of salty toffee flavour. Or maybe that was just the tang of disappointment.

What wasn't a disappointment was the food -- classic English pub fare done incredibly well. It's very unusual for us to order a two-course meal in the pub, but from this menu it had to be done. One scotch duck egg with pork crackling, warm beef salad, steak and ale pie and rump steak cheese burger later we were pleasantly replete and ready to roll back to Gatwick.

I broke my new-pubs-only rule with a pint of Rooster's Cogburn (geddit?) in the airside Wetherspoon: a bitingly refreshing blonde bitter. And then the plane home.

I had really hoped to delve into the heart of London's beer scene, new and old. Yet I feel I've barely skimmed the surface. There's so much more to explore.

18 April 2012

The Dog and the Rock

Easter Monday was a dismal one in London, though the weather did little to damp the crowds of tourists queuing round the block outside museums and attractions. We passed the hordes awaiting admission to The London Dungeon on our way west to the first beer stop of the day: Cask in Pimlico. The pub is situated on a corner of the iconic Lillington Gardens development, a low-rise red-brick 1960s housing scheme. Through the door it's a fairly small one-room bar attracting a mostly young crowd, plus a handful of older locals. The bottled beer selection is prodigious, though the draught offering is impressive too, split between cask and keg.

While waiting for a plate of nachos we began exploring the beers on offer from renowned new Huddersfield brewery Magic Rock. I opted for High Wire, a 5.5% ABV American-style pale ale, orange in colour and pretty straightforward in style. I detect Simcoe among the US hop flavours here, a weighty, funky dankness that borders on cheesiness to me. I was reminded of BrewDog's Punk IPA, another Simcoe-forward pale ale. The next handpump over was serving Rapture red ale and here the BrewDog parallel is unmistakable: this beer owes a lot to 5am Saint, in my opinion. Simcoe again, in spades. The cask serve lends it a bit more balance and subtlety than its Scottish counterpart, however.

To complete the set of cask Magic Rock ales, a half of Curious. At 3.9% ABV it's a little more traditionally English. It's a slightly hazy shade of yellow, delivering a serious bitter bite up front followed by a more frivolous hint of bubblegum. Over on the keg fonts the Magic Rock Dark Arts had just run out, though I got a little taste of the dregs of this 6% ABV stout: smooth and sweet, if a little formulaic, laying on the coffee and milk chocolate rather thickly. I opted instead for another keg beer, chosen solely for its name: Shoreditch Hipster by Evil Twin, brewed as Cask's house beer and served in an appropriately stylish stemmed glass. Though only 5.5% ABV it makes for tough drinking, being heavily oily with a kind of chocolate-orange bittersweet character, building to a medicinal eucalyptus flavour. A half was enough and the nacho plate had been cleaned. Time to move on.

From Pimlico, the Tube took us beneath central London and we emerged in bohemian Camden. The destination was BrewDog's London tap, the first of several I'm sure, given how quickly they seem to be expanding. It was bustling with an unsurprisingly young and urban crowd. Eschewing the high stools of the ground floor we took our drinks to the basement to flop on a comfy sofa. Tempting as a full pint of Zeitgeist was, I opted for one of the imports: Little Sumpin' Sumpin', a Californian IPA by Lagunitas. This is one of those fabulously drinkable American IPAs with bags of zingy orange sherbet and boiled sweets. Any overpowering sugariness is kept in check by assertive bittering. Full-on yet balanced. Beautiful.

My other half's half was IPA Is Dead: Galaxy, from the new set of four single-hop beers. As with last year's batch, I think they've over-egged the hopping on this somewhat. There's a an intense pungency from the garnet-coloured ale which leads on to a palate-burning acridity. Just at the end there's a hint of tasty mandarin, but the bitterness has already spoiled the show by that point. I'll give a full report of this and its brethern when I get my hands on the new fourpack.

Time was ticking down to our 7pm curry appointment on Brick Lane and there was one more pub on the list before that, so off we went.

The Ten Bells opposite Spitalfields Market gained notoriety as a regular haunt of two victims of the 1888 Whitechapel murders. It was even known briefly as The Jack The Ripper in the 1970s and '80s. I decided to drop in because I was going to be passing that way, and because I'm a huge fan of Alan Moore's  From Hell, which features the pub, including during its 1990s incarnation as a strip club. We stood in the small crowded pub, where the bar occupies the centre of the floor, and tried to figure out where you'd put a pole.

Of course, Spitalfields has its own beery history, being once the home of the megalithic Truman, Hanbury & Buxton whose stamp is still firmly on the area in the architecture, the street names and the pub liveries. Though the company was merged out of existence in the 1970s and production ceased altogether in 1989, the brand has been revived by new owners, doubtless taking advantage of, as Boak and Bailey put it, "the free advertising all over London". It was a pleasant surprise to find two of the new beers on tap in The Ten Bells, though I suppose it's entirely natural they would be there in this former Truman's house. They're currently being brewed at Everard's, pending the building of a new Truman's brewery in east London.

Runner takes its name from a porter Truman's were once known for, London of course being a porter town. The beer itself is a 4% ABV dark brown bitter with warming toffee notes. The other tap was serving Number Eight, 3.5% ABV and lighter in colour as well as alcohol. It's pleasantly tannic and sinkable: not interesting enough to spend any time over, however, so we didn't.

After dinner, it was time for a nightcap or two in the sister pub of Cask, Clerkenwell's Craft Beer Company, a fairly traditional old-fashioned corner bar that has been given the beer geek treatment and now numbers both its keg and cask taps in double figures. Plus three fridges of bottles, of course.

More Magic Rock and yet more Simcoe, this time in their black IPA Magic 8 Ball. It looks very stouty when poured: pure black and topped with a layer of cream-coloured foam. There's even a good dose of chocolate and a dry roasted bite in the finish. But the middle belongs to our funky friend Simcoe.

Human Cannonball double IPA finished the day's Magic Rocking with lots of 9.2% ABV alchol heat. I'd be tempted to start pointing out the similarities with BrewDog Hardcore, but this is a much better beer, giving lots of pithy zest and Opal Fruit candy flavours rather than just tandem hop burn and booze burn.

For the last round my wife was drawn to the De Molen offering Heen & Weer, a fairly dark 9.5% ABV tripel. It has all the sugary fruit one might expect, and no shortage of alcohol heat here either. But there's also some beautifully peachy hop notes as well. Only a slight disinfectant tang spoils the party a little.

And I just had an orange and pineapple smoothie. No, the beer on the right of the picture is Clementine from the Clown Shoes brewery of Massachusetts. It's a wheat-based beer and as opaque as any lassi I saw on Brick Lane earlier. To the traditional coriander and orange peel they've added clementine essence which brings a marvellous tangy backdrop to the light and almost sour beer. As with the previous day's Siberia, 6% ABV is well concealed.

We called it a day at that point and disappeared out into the rainy Clerkenwell evening.

16 April 2012

The traveller's dilemma

The world's great cities pose a problem to the traveller who visits them. What makes them the world's great cities is their inexhaustable nature: there's always something new to try, or something old that you've just never got round to experiencing yet. And it's very easy to find favourite haunts, be they museums, markets, restaurants or pubs, whole favourite neighbourhoods even. For the traveller, indulging in such familiar comforts comes at a huge opportunity cost: the experiences that you've not yet had, the markets not yet browsed, the pubs not yet troubled for a pint and a pickled egg.

London is of course one of the world's great cities, and tantalisingly close, as I can easily get from my front door to any front door in London in under five hours. But I never have enough time when I'm there. For my three-day visit over the Easter break I took a decision to snag myself firmly on one horn of the traveller's dilemma and devote my trip to new experiences only. Sorry The Harp, sorry The Euston Tap, sorry The White Horse Parson's Green, The Rake and The Jerusalem Tavern: you guys sit tight, I'll be back in a bit.

Meanwhile, I based myself in Southwark, under the shadow of the ever-present Shard. Off the Gatwick train and a beeline down Borough High Street for introductory pints at The Royal Oak. This neighbourhood pub is the London footprint of Harvey's of Lewes, and both brewery and boozer are famed for their down-home, no-nonsense, high-quality offer. On Sunday that took the form of a pint of Harvey's Best Bitter and a game pie. I've never had a bad pint of Harvey's Best and I was happy to leave all thoughts of ticking and exploring to one side for a moment. It's a sublime orangey spicy beer and no different in a Harvey's house to anywhere else I've had it, which is a very good thing indeed. Thus fortified, it was off to do more exploring.

We didn't go too far, to begin with. Just up the High Street again and in to The George. This place is about to get a lot more famous as the subject of Pete Brown's forthcoming book Shakepeare's Local. And it's delightfully picturesquee, tucked away in a yard down an alley and made up of long thin passageways with bars and seating squeezed in where there's space. Greene King are running the show these days, though oddly had none of their new IPA brand-extensions on tap. So first tick of the trip was the house beer George Inn Ale, a brown bitter of reasonable quality: nicely tannic with a bit of raisinish fruitiness in the finish, getting increasingly toffee-like as it warms. Next to it was London Glory, similar but with less colour, less flavour and only a touch more roast. Still completely surplus to requirements, however. The guest ale was Straw Dog, a wheat beer from Wolf Brewery and absolutely dire: a clear yellow, it's sharp and sour at first, building to an overly sweet bad-lager syrupiness. Unfinishable.

We headed eastwards next, dropping in for a quick one in The Dean Swift, near Tower Bridge. I was pleased to find Siberia on, a rhubarb saison from Ilkley Brewery, produced with the assistance of Melissa Cole. I loved this: lots of fresh and juicy red berry flavours on a light and quite dry base. The near-6% ABV is well hidden. The missus opted for Camden Ink, a keg stout though one mercifully served without nitro. It's an intensely heavy beer with lots of gorgeous roast grain on the nose. Tasting starts with a gentle caress of chocolate followed by a major jolt of espresso. I wouldn't say it's exactly sessionable, despite a very reasonable 4.4% ABV, but it is a beautiful example of how to do stout well.

I stuck with Camden Town Brewery when we moved round the corner to Draft House. Just four cask beers and a bank of keg fonts serving beers from home and abroad (including a couple from Dublin's Porterhouse). Camden Pale Ale was among them and is another winner. Coming from the Irish beer scene it was quite familiar: 5% ABV, almost blonde in colour and loaded with zingy citrus. It went great with the smoked cheese and bacon burger.

That brought day one to a close. V