28 June 2012


A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to get hold of some Russian River Supplication: a pinot-noir-barrel-aged cherry ale. This post is about about another in that series: Consecration, a cabernet-sauvignon-barrel-aged blackcurrant ale.

It's a red-brown colour and while fizzy fails to maintain a head. Like its predecessor, the wild yeast and bacteria are firmly in charge of the flavour while both fruit and wood get a bit lost amongst the sourness. The nose is like classy balsamic vinegar with lots of date, fig and tamarind notes.

There's a robust but measured tartness to the flavour and I got more of a cherry hit than I did from Supplication, despite the absence of cherries in the recipe. I suspect that what keeps the sourness under control is the substantial ABV of 10%: it makes the beer mellow and warming in a way that the comparable Rodenbach Grand Cru just isn't.

Consecration is a beer to savour slowly, and it was only at the end I finally got where the barrel and grape favours had gone: oxidised to a kind of fino sherry taste that lingers pleasantly after swallowing.

Unique yet familiar, I'd recommend it for cold-weather drinking. Thanks to Adam for the opportunity to taste it.

25 June 2012

Something strange in your neighbourhood

Beoir stalwart, beer collector and homebrew obsessive extraordinaire Adam is leaving Dublin to return to the US. Before the packers came to estimate the shipping costs of all his wordly goods there was some stash clearance to be done and he was kind enough to invite me over to help out.

Among the Belgians were these two intriguing concoctions, both from Brasserie Fantôme. Fantôme is pretty much part of the scenery whenever I'm in Belgium. They've always just been there, yet I've no memory or notes of trying any of their beers. So here goes.

We opened Blanche de Fantôme first, a 4% ABV wheat-based summer quencher. It's a moderately hazy bright yellow, but the first thing striking about it isn't the colour, it's the smell. This stuff reeks of a sharp, very nearly vomit-like, pungency. And it seems inescapable on tasting too, with only a trace of tropical fruit behind it. Yet it's amazing how quickly the human palate adjusts. After just a few mouthfuls the lemon citrus flavours come out -- refreshing in a Hoegaarden kind of way. It leaves me wondering if this is actually closer to the way Belgian witbier used to taste, when Hoegaarden was a wild, spontaneously fermented rustic beer style.

I surprised myself by concluding that this is a marvellously neckable warm day quaffer. It's probably best if you hold your nose starting out, though.

And from the odd to the downright weird: presenting Magic Ghost, a saison flavoured and coloured with woodruff: a herbal flavouring better known in the beer world for taking the edge off a different sour style: Berliner Weisse. So it's green, OK, we'll move along from that. It's hazy too, as saisons normally are. Unfortunately there's not much else going on. It's slightly sour, a little spicy and there's something of an artificial candy-sweet tang. Perfectly drinkable but not very distinctive in itself.

Two beers that are anything but run-of-the-mill. Fantôme are back on my shopping list.

21 June 2012

Cheap wheats

I don't know what Tesco's game was a few weeks ago: a sudden avalanche of quality beers across the chain in Ireland, both local and imported. I went in to my local branch more out of idle curiosity than anything else, not expecting to find much new or interesting. But in amongst the British and Irish ales there were these two Bavarian weissbiers I'd never seen before. In for a penny in for 5-for-a-tenner, I thought.

Arcobräu Weissbier Hell poured a pale and hazy shade of gold. Though all of 5.3% ABV it's quite light-bodied, almost to the point of being watery. What would you expect for two euro a go? But give it a minute and the flavour kicks into action. There's a rising clove flavour that builds on the palate as it goes down. Combine with the easy-going texture and you have a wonderfully tasty refreshing and sessionable pale weiss. Bailey once described the Grolsch weizen as a cartoon version of the real thing: this one is similarly entertaining in a simplified way.

High expectations, then, for Arcobräu Weissbier Dunkel. It's not all that dark as these things go: a chestnut shade only a grade or two dimmer than Schneider-Weisse, say. (Also, all those people who get upset about the oxymoronic nature of "Black India Pale Ale": why aren't they up in arms about "dunkelweisse" too?) Anyway, it's just as simply constructed as the pale one but lacks the lovely clove character. The flavour is rather more banana-based but there's not much else: no caramel, no roast, just vague bananas finishing slightly dry, but that could be the fizz as much as the dark malt. Meh.

I've had poorer experiences after dropping €4 in a Dublin beer shop, but when there's O'Hara's IPA and Clotworthy Dobbin in the same offer you're best keeping it local at Tesco.

18 June 2012

The personal touch

Caledonia Smooth's target profile is the 28 to 44 year-old who enjoys a pint, has a mature set of taste buds and will take something different in beers.
Hey, that's me! Stephen Kent, Director of Marketing and On-Trade Sales at C&C's Bulmers Ltd is talking about me! And his firm has produced this beer especially for me. I have to say, I wasn't expecting that, and am slightly overwhelmed. Thanks guys!

I dropped into The Palace and ordered a pint -- because I enjoy those, as Stephen is well aware -- and before setting my mature set of taste buds to work noted the beautiful clear amber-gold colour of the foam-topped beer. It's 4% ABV too: a sessionable niche that's underserved in Ireland.

A sip. Pause. A mouthful. Pause. A big gulp. Pause. I'm reminded of Homer Simpson eating a rice cake: "Hello? Hello taste? Where are you?" This beer tastes of very little. Mr Kent is diddling my tastebuds and they don't like it.

On the plus side, I reflected, there's none of the horrible brown apple or sickly toffee that's so often the bane of nitrogenated red ales. Caledonia Smooth appears to be a localisation of Caledonia Best, a 3.2% ABV smooth bitter C&C produce in Glasgow for the Scottish market in an attempt to take on (and rip off) brand leader Belhaven Best. Read Barm's take on its launch last year for the full picture. So it seems they've diluted it a little less for the Irish market where beer normally begins at 4.2% ABV, renamed it, and spun some classically meaningless marketing puff about it being "triple hopped". Funnily enough, the same nonsense was peddled by Diageo for equally bland Toucan Brew back in 2006, but sure who in beer marketing can remember six years ago? You'd need to be, oh, at least 28 years old. Maybe even as ancient as 44.

But wait! Is that a flavour emerging from the depths at last? Is it the on-coming rush of triple hops? No, it's copper. There's a teeth-coating metallic twang that lingers behind after drinking this which evokes the taste of old green coinage. Well, "something different" was promised.

I'm not going to engage in amateur beer market analysis, except to offer my opinion that the people who might be willing to make this their beer of choice -- the pint drinkers in my age bracket with an interest beyond mainstream big-brand beers -- expect something more interesting in their glass than this.

14 June 2012

Not a lot

"BEHOLD the arcane mysteries of Magic Hat No. 9!" said everyone to me, "What convoluted esoteria lie at the heart of its profoundly enigmatic taste? Also: WooOOOooo!" [waggly fingers]. Like the sullen eight-year-old watching a weekend conjuror, I was prepared to be unimpressed. But I opened the bottle anyway.

It's an innocent, pleasant clear amber colour, 5.1% ABV with lots of busy fizz and described on the label as a "not quite pale ale" [waggly fingers]. It comes from a big factory in upstate New York. The aroma is carbonic at first: the fizz leaps out and pinches my nose, and underneath it smells of sweet, rather artificial, apricots.

My perceptions, I regret to say, were not fundamentally altered upon the first sip. What struck me at the beginning is how thin it is, all that fizz has free rein to trample everything else. The main flavour is a sherbety candy sort of thing: Skittles would be my nearest approximation, the wife opted for Kola Kubes, but either way we're firmly in the pick 'n' mix aisle. There's no real finish or aftertaste to speak of.

Part of me would like to think there's some potential in the recipe, that it could be interesting if given a bigger malt base to work from with less interference from the carbonation. But in all honesty I think this is another of those not-quite-really-beer beers, to be filed next to the Desperados and Crabbie's.

Can I have cake now?

11 June 2012

On-side Trap

I confess I have a soft spot for the whole topical seasonal beer thing they have in Britain. For every major sporting event there'll be a slew of thematic one-offs in the pub. And yes they're often indistinguishable from the brewery's bog-standard 1.038 brown bitter, and yes the pumpclips are too often aesthetic atrocities, but it's the idea I like: the limited-time-only special-event beer. When done well it brings a certain shared-experience camaraderie to pub-going.

It's not something that usually happens here so I was delighted to see Eight Degrees taking a leaf out of our neighbours' book and putting the tortuously-titled Trapattoni Potation on tap at The Brew Dock, The Black Sheep and Against The Grain for the Euros. And yes, just like across the water it's not a million miles from one of their regular beers: it's a pale and sharply-hopped keg ale very very much like Howling Gale, but it's the thought that counts, and if it shifts a few extra pints for them during the matches then its job is done. I'd like to see other breweries follow suit.

Staying in Cork, we've just seen the launch of the first beer from Elbow Lane, Cork's newest brewing company. (I'm shying away from the term "brewery" because they've been very cagey about saying where these are actually produced -- only that it's contract brewed somewhere in Cork.) Angel Stout is the name of the beer, and the management kindly sent a preview bottle my way a few weeks ago.

It's a massively full-bodied beast, tasting far above its 5.1% ABV tag and heading into O'Hara's Leann Folláin territory. There's bags of caramel and a little bit of a molasses tang. Behind this are the heavy, almost slick and greasy, esters I've come to associate from my homebrew dabbling with S-04 yeast. The tang just turns a little bit sweet and smoky, like pipesmoke, at the end. Elbow Lane are pitching for the beer-with-food angle in a big way but this one, I reckon, is a beer for after dinner.

More releases from Elbow Lane are anticipated, and I'm also very keen to get my hands on the two new beers from Clanconnel, in what looks to be some very smart new livery. Meanwhile the beers from Donegal's Kinnegar Brewing are starting to make an appearance outside their home territory as well. It's all go over here right now.

07 June 2012

Morphing into something better

A deep breath and a return to the Morpheus yeast beers from Alvinne, following an unpleasant experience first time out.

To begin, Freaky Dark: a very unBelgian 3.8% ABV but still definitely a Morpheus beer, what with the slow crawl of foam towards the bottleneck on opening. No major barnyard funk from this opaque black liquid but still a very sharp yeasty bite with not much going on behind it. There's a bit of dry roast which does nothing to soften it, plus a hard carbonic bite from the big-bubbled fizz. What should probably be an easy drinker is difficult, pointy beer which all but sticks in the throat.

What was I thinking following this with something bigger and stronger? Step forward Morpheus Dark: 10.2% ABV and arriving in a 75cl bottle. Pleasingly, there was only a slight hiss when the cap came off, and no rush of foam. It poured a dark brown colour with the setting sun behind the glass eliciting just a glint of ruby. The aroma is an odd mix of sweet candy and sour funk, and the flavour is even more mixed up: I get warming milk chocolate, soothing lavender, sharp grapefruit and sour plums. It's very strange and a bit of an acquired taste, but by the time I was half way through the glass I was really enjoying it, albeit slowly.

A powerful, sweet beer like Morpheus Dark seems to be the right fit for the yeast and its funkifying effects. The low-strength dry one and the US hop-bomb might have been exciting what-ifs in the brewery one morning, but probably should never have gone further than that.

04 June 2012

Drinking postcolonial

I spent the last week in Malta. It being a warm Mediterranean country, my beer expectations were pretty low. There wasn't even a ropey brewpub making vinegary lager to drag the wife to. It was a week off from beer geeking as well as everything else. Well, almost.

I didn't set out to tick all the beer in the country. It just kind of... fell my way. That there's only one national brewery helps with that: Simonds-Farsons-Cisk founded in 1928 when Malta was still a garrison island crawling with thirsty British troops and sailors. Cisk is their flagship lager, deriving its name from the Maltese for "Czech". It's typically pale and fizzy, 4.2% ABV, but packs a bit more lemony bitterness than others of the genre. As a result it works wonders when cold, clearing the dust from any parched throat with aplomb. It does get a little sweet and sickly when it warms and, unfortunately, it's too fizzy to down quickly so my top Cisk tip is to eschew pints for smaller measures.

Let's talk brand extensions: we have the cruelly misnomered Cisk Excel, a low-carb lighter version which tastes of almost nothing. And for the real men, and the homeless ones, there's Cisk XS: a hot and gloopy 9% ABV version, packed with the golden syrup flavour of classic Churchillian special brew, plus an interesting sort of pineapple flavour that emerges as it warms. And in between there's Cisk Export: at 5% ABV it lacks the refreshment power of standard Cisk but makes up for it with its fuller body and deeper bready malt flavour. A Cisk for the evening session.

And if all this is too classy for you, there's also a budget lager: Skol, brewed under licence from Carlsberg-Tetley in England. 4% ABV and as watery and hollow as you might expect. About €1.50 will get you a half-litre can in lots of pubs. Worth it? No.

Mystery beer of the trip was 1565, named for the year of the Great Siege and branded in a suitably patriotic manner. I suspect they're overcompensating for the fact that this probably isn't brewed in Malta at all, produced at location-unknown for a would-be rival of the national brewery. Full marks for trying, but I can't see it working too well for them; not with a thin and quite musty product like this.

Like several other former British colonies, Malta maintains traces of a more northern European brewing heritage, one which has gradually evolved to suit the warmer climate. Lacto milk stout is still around, though only in the off-trade. I reviewed it some years ago here. Brand leader among the ales is Hopleaf, usually sold bottled or canned, though I understand a draught version also exists. It's 3.8% ABV and usually arrives cold and fizzy. Refreshing, in its own way. In the background it's just posible to detect the English hops, waxily bitter with a trace of fruity orange pith. For me it just wasn't full-flavoured enough to suit me as a bitter, nor refreshing enough to have the beatings of Cisk. Nice for a change, but I found it hard to like.

And then there's Blue Label. First time I spotted this it was on tap and arrived nitrogenated, a pale red shade. It was sharp, a bit sickly, and just not pleasant drinking. How much of that was down to the dispense I don't know. So on the last day of the trip I picked up a can of it and the Hopleaf to give them a proper side-by-side back at home. Blue Label is certainly darker than Hopleaf and half a percentage point weaker at 3.3% ABV. And it tastes darker too: brown sugar and treacle. The hops are restrained to a very slight tang at the finish. Not something I'd go running to, and I think Hopleaf has the edge on it, but a hell of a lot better than the keg version.

So that's Malta in beer. It's good to be home.

01 June 2012

What's black and white and smells like a skunk?

Session logoThe Session rolls round once again and this time it's The Beer Babe hosting. She's gone all BJCP on us and has picked Pale Ale as the topic, offering a choice of 8C (English) or 10A (American). Specifically, two examples are required. It just so happened that I had a suitable pair in the fridge not getting any younger.

I haven't bothered the Badger in a while now, and vice versa. I've not seen so many of them about of late but it was sort of inevitable that the rising flood of bottled English ales would eventually wash a couple into my hands. And here they are: exposing themselves indecently at me through their clear glass bottles. I blame the parents.

Hopping Hare is the darker-coloured of the golden two, and the lighter in alcohol at 4.4% ABV. Lightstrike is present but isn't too off-putting, giving out a gentle waft more like a green-bottle pilsner than a fully skunked hop-forward English pale ale. For that I am some way thankful. The flavour is quite lagerlike too, and not in a good way. It's plain, a little grainy, and shows just a tiny hint of citrus from some token Cascade that's been thrown in with the First Gold and Goldings. It would almost