31 October 2012

Steamed spuds

It should be taken as a measure of what kind of beer geek you are: when coming home via Berlin Schönefeld and browsing the sizeable but uninspiring range of beers available in the airside shop, do you pass by Fritzens Kartoffelbier, perhaps with a slight sneer or glance of disgust? Or do you exclaim "WOW! GERMAN POTATO LAGER! GIMME!" ? I am, of course, a member of the latter set. Though I was saved the bother of scaring my fellow passengers by friend Richard who had a bottle to share a few months ago. The tasting notes should present no surprises: starchy, especially in the finish. Beyond that it's a slightly sharp golden lager, largely down to its high fizz levels, and somewhat musty with it. Still, at least it doesn't try to hide its potato nature: I hate when beers do that.

From the same session there was also Zwiesel Dampfbier, charmingly packaged in a repurposed Hacker-Pschorr swingtop: we've all been there, man. Dampfbier is a bit of an odd category, originally a farmhouse homebrew made from whatever fermentables and yeast the horny-handed landwirt could hobble together, and produced strictly for domestic consumption. The idea of a commercial one is a little odd. And, in this case, I think the good folk at Zwiesel are trying to pass off wonky brewing as rusticity.

This 5% ABV dark amber beer gives off lots of boozy banana esters in its aroma, and yet more banana in the flavour profile, yet without any of the softness you get in a weissbier to cushion the alcoholic heat. Worst of all, there's a clanging great bite of stale cardboard sitting right in the middle. Too much time spent gathering bottles and not enough worrying about the bottling process itself, I fear.

This round goes to the potato beer.

29 October 2012

Not a keeper

My Belgian beer hoard is getting out of control. The problem is they're mostly not casual drinkers: most are beers I want to spend a bit of time with, preferably with a blogging window open in front of me, and that's something I can only be bothered doing on rare occasions. Mostly I just want a beer. So the Belgians build up and I feel guilty about not drinking them. I will, eventually.

Occasionally, however, a beer comes along which cannot simply be put to the back of the queue, a beer that needs to be left in plain sight lest it disappear into the amorphous stash. A beer that would make me feel really bad if I died before drinking it. Such a beer was Girardin 1882 black label. I left it sitting on the kitchen counter for a month before making an advance appointment to drink it.

It's a 100% oude lambic from one of the handful of reputable lambic breweries in greater Brussels. I had been expecting the age to have maybe smoothed it out a little, but not a bit of it: the aroma from the hazy yellowish-orange liquid was eye-wateringly tart, with a mix of old oak and vinegar to get the salivary gland running. On first taste it's massively sour: the acetic throws the first punch while an intense waxy bitterness hold its coat. But the barney is over as soon as it begins and what follows is altogether calmer. There's a comparative smoothness from the oak and even a certain amount of bittersweet nectarine or plum.

You'd want to be fairly content that sour lambic is your kind of thing before tackling this. It's neither mellow nor rounded and retains all the spikiness it doubtless showed in its younger years. But if you're prepared to do things its way there's a fantastic full-on multilayered taste experience to be had.

25 October 2012

A measure of excellence

I spotted a neat little addition to the offer at Against the Grain the other week. The pub's place as the premier source for exotic draught beers in Dublin remains unequalled in my view. Of course the downside of this is the prices that tend to get attached to such strange and rare creatures. The £10 pint of Odells IPA I nearly-but-didn't buy in London early this year remains a high point, but Dublin can sometimes be not far off the mark when it comes to these things. And there, on the row of taps in AtG were Flying Dog's Raging Bitch (a favourite) and Wildeman (never tasted). Thankfully the pub is always up front about its pricing (other establishments take note!) and a glace at the blackboard was all I needed to find out whether this tick was going to be worth my while. And there I saw something which surprised and delighted me: rather than try and force these into pint (too dear) or half (too small) measures, they're selling it as standard in a 375ml glass for €4.50. One of each, barkeep, please. At nearly €7 for a pint I probably wouldn't have bothered.

I'm sorry I don't have a picture of the glass, we had just dropped in on the way home from dinner and I was without appropriate image capture apparatus, but they're lovely little stemmed thistle things which show off the beer really well. So... Wildeman then. It's described as a "Farmhouse IPA" and named after the legendary Amsterdam pub. There's definitely a big Belgian influence here, with the 7.5% ABV making itself felt in a boozy fruity kind of way. Like in Raging Bitch, this melds quite beautifully with the juicy peachiness from the American hops. The big difference comes with the triple whammy of dryness: the grassy rye gives it a fairly arid base to start off with, then the saison yeast has done its best to clear out any residual sugars. Finally there's a big carbonic bite from the incredibly busy fizz, putting yet more of an edge on it.

I imagine (though am probably totally wrong) that Duvel Tripel Hop tastes something along these lines: that mix of tartness and fizz coupled with fresh hop zest. It's definitely one to take slowly. Comparisons with Raging Bitch were interesting: while that's all smooth and rounded, Wildeman offers a raw, high-impact pith buzz. I wouldn't have wanted a pint of either, but they were perfect as postprandial sharpeners.

I'm looking forward to more odd specialities like this at Against the Grain.

And while we're in the pub, don't forget that today sees the start of the second Bord Bia Farmhouse Cheese and Craft Beer Weekend, running through to Bank Holiday Monday. The full listing of cheesy-beery  goings-on around the country can be found here.

22 October 2012

At least they remembered the E

As far as I remember, it was St Patrick's Day that occasioned the release of this special edition from the Edinburgh beer brand: Innis & Gunn Irish Whiskey Cask. It's the first stout they've done, 7.4% ABV and aged, as the name makes clear, in an Irish whiskey barrel. It doesn't say which distillery it came from, mind: the label is all "famous" this and "rare" that and "triple distilled" the other. I'd take a punt on it being a Cooley cask, though: they'll give them out to any idiot.

From the 33cl bottle it pours a clear dark ruby rather than proper black and gives off a vague sugary spiced vanilla whiff like that pirate-themed rum the kiddies like to drink. Surprisingly, on the first taste, it's a rather decent strong dry stout. There's a nice hit of boozy treacle, livened up with a liquorice edge and complicated by more than a little smoky sophistication. All very classy for the first half of play, while it was still relatively cool from the fridge.

Unfortunately it couldn't keep its true nature under wraps for long. As it warmed there came a growing and unpleasant slick, sticky, sickly butterscotch flavour, typical of I&G beers and the reason I normally avoid them. Thankfully it doesn't get so strong that it overpowers the nice bits but still sufficient to remind me of what I don't like about these beers.

So while I'd grant this high status among the Innis & Gunn range that's not the same as a recommendation. Not bad for a holiday gimmick, though.

18 October 2012

Under the influence

I'm a bit of a sceptic when it comes to the marketing power of blogs. I find it hard to believe that they really wield any kind of influence over the buying habits of readers, or that they have any noticeable effect on the sales of things which feature in them. However, I can put the pints of The Porterhouse's new black lager which I drank at the weekend solely down to the mention the beer got on Reuben's blog here.

As he says, they've acquired the yeast for this from the brewing research centre at Weihenstephan, and hence the puntastic name PHD. It's a very dark brown colour and rather lacking in the head department. No shortage of flavour, mind: there's a thumping great wodge of caramel and milk chocolate at the front, similar to what you get in Czech dark lagers and not a million miles from Munich dunkel. Soon afterwards it turns much more schwarzbierish, drying right out and finishing on a crisp and roasted note.

Overall it's a very clean-tasting beer and is utterly sessionable as a result, though the big sweetness also rewards considered sipping too. A beer for all seasons: get it while it lasts.

15 October 2012

It's a living thing

Four from Flemish brewery Viven today. The bottles are a little short on information, but the mix of styles is unusual and tells its own tale.

Up first, the one simply called Viven Ale. At 5% ABV I was expecting something in the general Belgian Blonde vernacular but the pour revealed a beer much more of a dark orange, with a nice waft of fresh mandarin hops. I spent a bit too long musing on this and didn't notice the lees going into the glass after the beer. That may have been a bad mistake as all trace of the hop aroma was gone when I lifted the full glass, receiving instead a grim yeasty grittiness instead. The flavour was shockingly dull at first, watery and hollow, and also slightly sweet, like rubbishy cheap lager. I gave it a little time to warm up and hopefully drop some yeast to the bottom of the glass. When I came back to it there was maybe a little extra bitterness, making it taste like a marginally better pilsner, but not enough to make it properly enjoyable. Time to call it quits, drain the glass and move on.

Viven Bruin was next in the running order: 6.1% ABV and more of a red than a brown, with a massive pillowy head. The aroma is quite estery, shading towards marker pen. Strawberries and milk chocolate are the long and the short of it, flavourwise, with the esters coming in strongly and suggesting a fusel-induced hangover even as I sipped. As it warms I started to get some of the nasty brown apple I get from gloopy nitro red ales. Promising to begin with but by turns boring and unpleasant over time.

The 7% ABV Viven Porter offered a much better prospect and I even took it out of the fridge a little early to get it acclimatised. This is a very viscous chappie, dense enough to permit no light through the liquid, showing only faintly brown around the edges. There's an intense blast of roast from the thick layer of off-white foam on the top, generated by a busy carbonation which keeps it from getting too heavy. The flavour is sensational: runny caramel chocolate first, fleetingly spiced with paprika and sandalwood, then a long dry tangy finish. One of the best beers in its class I've ever tasted.

The bar is raised for the last in the set: Viven Imperial IPA. This certainly pushes the right aroma buttons with a pungent citrus buoyed up by the promise of warming toffee. That's pretty much what the taste delivers, 8% ABV adding a considerable sweetness to go with the fresh peachy bitterness, putting it up there with many a top-notch American version of the same thing. But there's a Belgian dimension too, an extra tang that can only come from the big-flavoured yeasts the Belgians prefer. It's very rare to find an American-style Belgian IPA that ranks with the Belgian-style American IPAs, but here's one.

So that's Viven: a fantastic Belgian brewery as long as you don't expect anything too Belgian-tasting from them.

12 October 2012

Comic book villains

We come to the end of our Borefts round-up and I've saved the best for second-last. I don't think I'd ever encountered beer from Denmark's Evil Twin before but they had prime position at the windmill and a short list of beers in quantities small enough to generate a lot of traffic from the hardcore geeks. But there was much more to them than cheap marketing gimmickry.

I started with the Danbic lambic brewed with gooseberry, adding a new fruit to my collection of things people flavour lambics with. It's also been given some time in a red wine barrel but there's not much trace of that in the taste, just a hint of vanilla on the finish. It's quite a heavy and earthy beer, light cloudy brown in colour and with an intense and almost burning tartness. Can't say I tasted much gooseberry. There was a similar lack of fruit in the blueberried Justin Blabaer (thanks to Chris_O for the taster) and it also came up short in the sourness department.

Things were much better when it came to Evil Twin's stouts. The unfortunately-named Soft Dookie mixed a gorgeous heady roastiness with a dry cocoa powder flavour. Then there was the controversial Christmas Eve In A New York City Hotel Room, ostensibly an imperial stout aged in whiskey barrels acquired from De Molen. But there was nothing second-hand about the whiskey flavour: it tasted massively spirituous, and sweet too, like an Irish coffee with the whiskey and coffee proportions reversed. I really enjoyed it, though, despite its total lack of subtlety. However, my beer of the festival was the other imperial stout Hey Zeus!. 12% ABV and incredibly viscous it completely lacks any dry roast or bitterness, going for sweet in a big way with dark chocolate and alcohol giving almost a cherry liqueur effect. And just as that settles down, along comes a huge bang of fresh green chilli pepper, complementing the chocolate, scorching the throat, warming the belly and endorphinating the brain. Full spectrum dominance.

What better to follow a couple of imperial stouts than a couple of double IPAs? Molotov Fruit Cocktail was the charming name: 13% ABV, deep orange in colour and quite headless. It's another viscous one and the haze hung in gelatinous suspension in my glass from the end of the keg. It's neither as boozy nor as bitter as the vital statistics might suggest, showing instead some big boiled orange barley sweets in the taste. Not terribly complex but I liked it nonetheless. Having thrown it back I went straight for the brother, Molotov Spicy Cocktail: the same beer only with jalapenos added to the keg. It's amazing the difference made by this late addition. Gone is the orange sugariness and in its place a tinny pepper aroma and a fantastic throat-catching chilli burn with that peculiar sourness you get from jalapenos. For all the heated craziness I think it's actually more balanced than the highly sweet plain version.

And that just leaves one brewery unaccounted for, the only non-European at the festival: Jester King from Texas. They were serving a mixed bunch of keg and large-format bottles in the front room of the De Molen windmill. My first scoop was Buddha's Brew, a cloudy yellowish green ale brewed, apparently, with kombucha. It's dry and wheaty, kind of like a Berliner Weisse with an interesting appley complexity. Not sock-knocking-off stuff, but very tasty. Much was promised from Gotlandsdricka, a vaguely saisonish pale beer which the festival programme bills as "birch-smoked malt, juniper, sweet gale and rye". But I found none of these within, at least not individually: I suspect they may just get blended together and the end result is a vaguley spicy witbier-a-like. Everyone else I spoke to found it smoky but I just couldn't detect it myself.

Keeping it saisonal, there was also Das Überkind. Here we're promised "funk and tartness" and we get it, in a big big way. A little wood and a little vinegar give this pale 6.5% ABV blonde a majorly delicious puckering tang. Meanwhile Wytchmaker was one of the few rye beers I've enjoyed: a 7.3% ABV IPA with a powerful forest floor aroma of earth and pine. It's sharply grassy and funky at first but then the hops take over turning it sweet, orangey and making it altogether more approachable.

And then the dark beers doing their own things: Weasel Rodeo a very drinkable oatmeal stout with big espresso and café creme flavours. The picture of innocence at 10.1% ABV. Barrel-aged Funk Metal offers something totally different: here the coffee melds with sour lambicky brett notes making for an invigorating late-night sipper that's totally resistant to palate fatigue.

Not that we stayed too late on the final Saturday. As the taps began to run dry all over we called it quits at nine-ish. It really is a very civilised affair at Borefts. And still highly recommended.

11 October 2012

The big Bux

Buxton Brewery from Derbyshire were a newcomer to Borefts and I confess I was quite sceptical when I first saw their presence listed. Groundbreaking revolutionaries like Kernel and Thornbridge are one thing, but what is this run-of-t'mill northern micro doing there? How many Dutch beer geeks can you wow with a 1.038 brown bitter? How wrong I was: I don't know if it was their A-game that Buxton brought, but it had the beatings of many others there.

The highlight for me was Tsar Bomba, a 10% ABV imperial stout. Its origins lie in a bottle of 1978 Courage Imperial Russian Stout, sent to the lab for analysis which showed that the only thing still living in it was Courage's hungry and deathless strain of Brettanomyces. Buxton cultured it up and fermented Tsar Bomba with it. My first thought on tasting it was "Oh, Orval has made a stout." The Brett funk is right up at the front but it's not overpowering: there's enough chocolate smoothness to hold it in check, providing a residual dark sweetness that not even this beast of a yeast could chomp through. And just on the end that assertive tang of hops. A strange and challenging beer, but in a quite delicious way.

Beer name of the festival goes to Smokey and the Band-Aid, a dark ale that is apparently quite deliberate in its phenols: the name suggests to me an attempt to deal with customer expectations when something has gone wrong but I'm reliably informed that's it's an adaptation of a homebrew recipe of the head brewer. It's actually quite subtle in its smokiness, though the phenols are clear as a bell: Laphroaig or TCP coming in loud and clear while the underlying sweet 7.5% ABV stout is just about detectable beneath. It's quite a full-on experience, but still balanced and nothing to be afraid of.

Buxton also produce a terribly impressive black IPA in the form of 7.5% ABV Imperial Black.This tastes like it has been hopped every which way, being powerfully greenly bitter and also succulently fruity. Only a tiny, missable hint of roast at the end suggests dark grains, otherwise this just tastes like a really really good IPA. For those who think that the style is simply a kind of hoppy porter, this is the one to change your minds.

Two paler ones to finish off with Buxton: Wild Boar is a hazy gold blonde ale of 5.7% ABV featuring fantastically sharp and zingy hop aromas. It's more rounded on tasting, melding flowery hops with toffee malt to form delicious perfumed caramel. I'd place it broadly in the category of English IPAs which includes White Shield and Bengal Lancer, but it tastes more modern than either. For something a little stronger there's Axe Edge: leaning more heavily on the hop side of the scales, this has a heady spicy funk to it, mixing up the soft fruit and astringent medicinal character of different hop strains but providing enough of a malt base to carry them off without unbalancing the flavour altogether.

Overall a quality performance from Buxton and I'll be looking out for more of theirs.

The last British beer I had was operating covertly at the Emelisse stand. The Dutch brewery was a collaborator on Earl Grey IPA but it was brewed at the Marble Brewery in Manchester. It's a fizzy pale gold beer, just under 7% ABV but quite plain tasting. The added flavourings give it a pleasant summery honey and mandarin nose but on tasting it's more scented soap than posh tea, but barely even that.

While we're at the Emelisse bar we may as well see what else they've got. A Red IPA? How jolly! This is a nicely balanced chap, quite heavily textured but neither cloyingly sweet nor particularly hopped up. Taking a bit of a liberty with the IPA designation there, but they're hardly the first brewery to do so.

And just a quick sideways hop over to Belgium to round off this post, and a visit to the mental experimentalists of Alvinne. Some of this brewery's output can be hard to handle but I struck gold with the three I tried at Borefts, all wine-barrel-aged. Undressed is a dark ruby ale in the Flemish red vernacular and has that wonderful mouthwatering tartness that makes the style an ideal thirst-quencher. The barrel adds an even more quenching tannic quality so, despite the acetic tang on the finish, I could happily neck this in indecent quantities. But we move on to Wild West, a headless orange-amber beer with powerful lactic sourness reminding me of the most assertive lambics. Deep underneath this there's a trace of Lucozade sweetness trying to make itself heard. It has just enough of a sparkle to make it refreshing, though I couldn't say what effect the red wine barrels have had on it.

Lastly, Cuvée d'Erpigny was billed as a barley wine, but was a similar ruby-brown to the Undressed and possessed the same sort of sour Flemish red aroma. It's not sour on tasting, though, due in part I'm sure to the Montbazillac barrel it was aged in. This has imparted a distinct botrytised sweetness which, combined with the smooth and heavy texture and 13% ABV, immediately conjures Tokaji or eiswein. This combines effortlessly with the caramel malt and an unequivocal hop bite to make a beer that should be a complete mess but all works together in a fascinating way.

And just when I thought things couldn't get any more strangely delicious, we come to the last two breweries at the festival...