29 November 2012

The best of what's left

As usual, the tail-end of November means it's up to the Ulster Hall for CAMRA Northern Ireland's annual festival. Even though this is just the third year in the refurbished venue, it's already very familiar: a four-sided bar in the middle of the floor with an impressive stillage arrangement looming up behind it. Generally it takes me a couple of laps before I decide on where to start, the choice made extra difficult by the fact that I'm normally there on the last day and the most anticipated casks tend to have been long drunk dry.

Luckily I had CAMRA volunteer Paul -- himself as much a part of the festival scenery as the scaffolding -- on hand to give me my first steer: Otley Croeso. 4.2% ABV and a very sickly shade of yellow, it didn't look too promising, but all doubts faded on tasting. This is a big, assertive beer with a serious lemony citric punch up front yet backed by some smoother bubblegum to keep it balanced. My other half didn't hit it so lucky first time out, opting for McMullen IPA. Alas this brown offering is a hot marker-pennish mess, with any hopping buried under the weight of alcohols, despite it being just 4.8% ABV.

Trying my best to eschew the many dark beers at this early phase, my next was Yeovil Stargazer, chosen because it won some award or other, according to the pumpclip: it's good to have a bit of direction when all the high profile stuff is gone. It's a mid-amber colour and hits that sherbetty tannic note that I find in the best thirst quenchers, with just some mild fruity raisin notes for complexity. After that the ironically-named Hopback Heracles, their answer to the UK government's invitation to brew beer at 2.8% ABV. It wasn't much cop as a golden ale, being very dry and grainy and lacking any decent hop character. Perhaps a fear of unbalancing the result meant a light hand on the hopsack but it could definitely have done with a few more cones in the kettle.

One beer I had noticed in advance and was delighted to see still available was Stewart's Edinburgh No. 3. Not that I'd ever heard of the beer, or even the brewery, but I'm always up for an historical recreation to bring out my inner Ron. Although at a piddling 4.3% ABV it's definitely a clone from the late-20th century, compared to the rather more robust versions from the 1860s and 1870s. Ron mentions parallels between Younger's No. 3 and Burton ales and that's quite apparent from this: dark ruby with some smoky treacle and ripe figs: all that's good about deep red beers generally. All that's missing for the full Burton is a stack more booze and perhaps more aggressive hopping, but as a winter session ale this is ideal, and not too filling either.

To the properly dark beers, then, and Phoenix's Monkeytown Mild to begin. It's dark ruby rather than full black and does the things decent mild is supposed to do: nice roast, plenty of nuttiness, but nothing too extreme. The same can be said for Purple Moose's Dark Side Of The Moose: this one's a notch or two sweeter though retains sufficient roast dryness for balance and drinkability.

Herself had long since got stuck into the porters. Oakleaf Piston was a good pick, tasting quite a bit heavier than its 4.6% ABV suggests, with some seriously chewy, greasy esters tempered by sharp rhubarb tartness. Uncompromising and not for the weak of palate. As the name suggests, Milestone's Harry Porter was a bit more friendly. It's light and effervescent making for a great thirst quencher while some light red fruit stops it from being boring.

Meanwhile I was going the full Edwin, starting with Edwin's Ruby Porter by Great Western -- ruby by name but utterly black and dry as burnt toast by nature -- and finishing on Banks & Taylor's Edwin Taylor's Extra Stout -- another massively dry one but this time with substantial rich roasted grain flavours and a full stouty texture.

As is becoming traditional for me at this stage, a few ciders finished things off. It was great to see local brand Tempted? easily holding its own against more established competition from England and Wales on the cider bar.

There was just time for a swift one before the train home and we dragged Reuben along with us to The Crown. It's still beautiful; it still has awful service and gets uncomfortably full of amateur drinkers; but new management has meant the beer offer has taken a turn for the interesting. Where once were three routine Whitewater beers on cask there was now a choice of one from Whitewater, one from Hilden, the St Austell-brewed Nicholson's Pale Ale (for it is now part of that chain) and a complete stranger to me: Black Pearl from the Wooden Hand Brewery of Truro in Cornwall. It's another from the Heavy, Rich and Bitter school of stout and after an afternoon and evening of tippling and sipping, drinking an entire pint felt like going to big school. Maybe it's the maritime branding but I swear I got a briney hint from this, almost like the seaweed flavours in some Islay whiskies. Like I say, I'd had a few at this point.

And that's Belfast done for another year. Congratulations to Adrian and his organisation team at CAMRA Northern Ireland, and a special round of applause for the concerted effort at getting more than a few south-of-the-border casks onto the bar. I hope the locals appreciated them as much as we do down here. It certainly looked that way on the day.

26 November 2012

Rule 42 and all that

It's incredibly heartening to see a more eclectic range of styles coming from Ireland's breweries. On the one hand we don't really have any native beer styles of our own (isn't it high time someone made a commercial Irish gruit ale?) but up until relatively recently it was nearly all stouts, pale lagers and red ales, seldom venturing much above or below 4.5% ABV. 2012, however, has seen Ireland's first Oktoberfestbier, a rye-based pale ale and something which may or may not be a black IPA, depending on how you feel about such matters.

Latest in this celebration of beery diversity is Dr. Rudi, a Belgian-style ale, single-hopped with the eponymous New Zealand variety, and launched in Dublin just last Saturday. It's 7.4% ABV and a middling amber shade, where orange turns to russet, so on the pale side for a dubbel which is the style it most resembles. Its Belgian credentials are to the fore in the aroma, with a heady warming alcohol vapour drifting off, heavily laden with fruit esters. These crystalise on tasting into dark fig and raisin notes, though the texture is quite light, not at all suggesting the beer's full strength. Not long after that first sip the hops kick in and remind the drinker why Dr. Rudi hops were originally sold under the label "Super Alpha": a huge, tongue-stripping bitterness initially melding with the fruit but eventually dominating the palate with grassy resinous flavours. The sweet malts just manage to hold it in check. It's an unsteady sort of balance and quite interesting to observe.

The people behind the beer are the crew of L. Mulligan Grocer and W.J. Kavanagh's, utilising the brewing facilities at Eight Degrees in Mitchelstown. It's the first of a gypsy-brewing series they've titled The Brown Paper Bag Project, presumably targeting vagrants as the primary demographic. It's a particularly tough market segment and already well catered for, so with thanks for the freebie bottle I wish them every success and look forward to the next in the series.

Meanwhile, I've managed to get my mitts on another from White Gypsy's series of thoroughly unIrish large-format strong beers. This is the White Gypsy American Pale Ale, a beer which rapidly achieved legendary status in 2011 under its original name of Mustang. This was my first time tasting it after well over a year of believing the hype. It's a mite stronger than Dr. Rudi, but while the former's label is effusive on the philosophy and production details, this White Gypsy is downright taciturn, giving you fair warning that the beer is bitter, tastes a bit like grapefruit and goes well with grilled chicken and that's all you need to know.

Colourwise it's the wholesome brown of strong black tea. Perhaps this is why I detected tannic elements in it, but I hope I'm not imagining it because it's lovely. The hops aren't laid on too heavy and the beer is neither over-perfumed nor harshly bitter. Instead it has much more of a floral, English vibe. I get elderflower and lilacs rather than grapefruit and mandarin: more a soft-spoken lady than a brash tatoo'd metalhead. And like the best English pale ales, it's extremely easy to put away, the balanced flavours conspiring with light carbonation resulting in 75cl of 7.5% ABV disappearing with indecent haste. Get the chicken out of your George Foreman before you pop the cap.

You probably won't find anything like Dr. Rudi in Belgium, and I've never encountered an actual American beer like White Gypsy American Pale Ale. Perhaps this whole nationalisation of styles is overstated in the first place.

23 November 2012

To the sea

Day two of the EBCU meeting brought us south out of Copenhagen to the port suburb of Køge. Amongst the anonymous warehouses on the quiet wharfs sits the Braunstein brewery. It was set up with the sole intention of acquiring the legal right to distill spirits, which they now have and do, but the brewery remains in place.

While our meeting was on upstairs, the brewery was having one of its open days, with troops of visitors being brought around the kit and given tasters at the bar. Pride of place there was given to Braunstein Heritage 2011, a red-brown winter warmer that pours quite flat. The 10%+ ABV strength is very apparent in its aroma, with lots of sticky dark treacle smells, and it's unsurprisingly warming when tasted: a rush of smooth molten caramel down the gullet, spiced with a little hop-tang. I found it somewhat one-dimensional, but enjoyable to sip. Their misnomered White Christmas is along similar lines. The hops aren't as pronounced here, coming through a little cabbagey, but otherwise it's a decent sweet dark winter ale.

Braunstein's brewer and distiller is a fellow phenol fanatic and the whisky collection available in the on-site shop runs heavily towards the peated scotch variety. The only Irish bottle I saw in the place was, inevitably, Connemara. Unfortunately I didn't get to try any of the homemade whiskies, but there was a definite atmosphere of peaty smoke in the brewhouse. So much so that on trying Braunstein Porter I was left wondering if it was made with a smoked malt. Turns out it isn't, but it does have lots of lovely roast coffee notes and a generous herbal vibe from the hops.

My last Braunstein sample, chugged on the way out the door, was their Økologisk Pilsner: neither pilsners nor organic beers tend to excite me, with only a handful of exceptions. This was one of those: an utter tour de force, possessed of an assertive weightiness, almost a creamy texture, while still remaining sparkly and fresh. The hops are bursting with life, delivering huge doses of fresh mown grass. The result is a ridiculously drinkable beer that I immediately wanted loads more of.

But we were off to the pub. Down a hobbithole just off main street Køge is Hugo's Vinkælder. The name is deceptive: I'm not sure if they even sell wine. The poky low-ceilinged basement bar does, however, boast a huge selection of beers from Denmark and beyond. Most of it is bottled but there are a dozen or so draught taps too. Hugo's Achilles heel is its cavalier approaching to labelling. Several taps are marked "Hemmelig Hane", which sounded like a perfectly respectable name for a brew until one of the locals pointed out that this means "Secret Tap" in Danish. I like many things in my beer, but mystery isn't one of them.

The first one I had, from Hugo's green mystery tap, was Hornbeer Jul Øl. The barman introduced it as a stout and it's definitely properly dark: deep brown without any of the reddish shades more typical of Danish Christmas beers. Treacle is the first hit, but there's a gradual build-up of fresh and fruity mandarin as it goes down, making this strong winter warmer actually quite refreshing, without reducing any of its warming qualities.

Kloster Jul Øl was much more typical: definitely red amber and predominantly sweet but not in an overpowering way. There's some gentle spicing but what really caught my attention was the hopping: pulling some odd savoury tricks and giving out herb garden flavours like fennel and oregano. As with most of this style you get a relatively understated, very drinkable, dark sweet beer, but this one has more to say for itself than most.

And that brings us to the end of the trip. A big thanks to all the members of Danske Ølentusiaster who put together a great programme in this, one of Europe's most consistently interesting beer cities. The next EBCU meeting is in Brussels next Spring. I wonder if there'll be any good beer at that...

21 November 2012

Of craft and macro

Oh no. You won't catch me wading into that whole debate on this blog. It's much better suited to the hit-and-run format of Twitter, I find. Or go have a look at Jeff giving the nail a sturdy whack on the head. I merely offer here some observations from my recent visit to Copenhagen.

I was there to attend a two-day meeting of the European Beer Consumers Union and the first session was held in the opulent surrounds of Carlsberg's event centre, just up from the famous Elephant Gate. A tour guide gave us a walk around the complex, taking in the silent kettles in the cathedral-like New Carlsberg (right) and the much more sober brick buildings of Old Carlsberg, founded by JC Jacobsen, the father -- and later bitter rival -- of New Carlsberg's eponymous Carl.

The vast site is on the verge of redevelopment, following an end to industrial scale brewing here some years ago. But they're still keeping their hand in, and in one of the Old Carlsberg buildings you'll find the shiny modern Jacobsen brewery, turning out a piddling two million litres of beer each year. It's an interesting relationship that Jacobsen has with the mother ship. Though independent to a degree, the head brewer is still directly answerable to head office and there's a lot of input from the suits over there. Recipes move effortlessly between the various Carlsberg macro and faux-craft brands.

We had lunch in the airy café-bar situated directly above Jacobsen's brewing and bottling plant, a smørrebrød of mixed Danish delicacies matched against some of the Jacobsen beers. The brewery's current pride and joy is Single Malt 2012, a dark beer which starts out with bourbon-biscuit malt flavours but swings suddenly left into a big field of apricot and peach notes, the result of generous amounts of Citra hops. We're told there's some smoked malt in here too but it was wasted on my palate. It matched fantastically well with the mature cheddar provided to accompany it.

Dinner later was just outside the Carlsberg complex and involved yet more Jacobsen beer (at our own expense, this time). Maybe something is lost in translation but I was left confused by the sober Jacobsen branding being attached to a beer called Golden Naked Christmas. It's not golden at all, but a deep chestnut red. It's 7.5% ABV and produced using both ale and wine yeast: an experiment of the craft-beery sort. There has been some light spicing resulting in a pleasant pepperiness, but also lots of orange peel for an almost juicy effect. There were also tasters of Jacobsen Velvet, their beer for people who don't drink beer: not such a craft beer phenomenon. This is a light golden beer along the lines of Kasteel Cru by Molson Coors, made using champagne yeast for a dry appley effect, perhaps shading a little towards cider tartness. Some grainy crispness is lurking in here as well. I quite liked it as a change from the heavier beers, but I wouldn't make a habit of drinking it.

Sticking with the Carlsberg off-shoots, I gave Årgangsøl 2012 a go when I saw it in a pub the following evening. This is produced each year and the main focus is on the arty label. Behind it there's a 10.6% ABV pale lager which is a little sticky but not at all as hot or unpleasant as I was expecting. This was after that evening's dinner across the street in BrewPub, an establishment whose beers I've almost always enjoyed over the years. We had been joined by the officers of Danske Ølentusiaster so there was a big crowd of us by now. For convenience the beer arrived in jugs, three per table: a pale ale, weissbier and the inevitable Christmas beer.

Fearing the BrewPub Pale Ale would vanish first (damn hopheads!) that's what I went for immediately. Bleuh! Phenols! There are some fresh hops buried somewhere in the murky orange depths, but a blast of sticking plaster almost covers them completely. BrewPub Weiss was a little better: a good bubblegum nose though not much to the flavour except that damn disinfectant thing again. And the BrewPub Xmas Red had the same moves: rather plain with a modest measure of toffee but once again a sign that things are not as they should be in the hygiene department.

It's a real shame: BrewPub does make some cracking beer and I'd recommend it to any visitor to Copenhagen. Hopefully they'll get their act cleaned up promptly. For now, I'll just hold them up as an example of how "craft beer" definitely does not mean "beer I like".

I couldn't have asked for a better palate cleanser than the Thisted Limfjords Porter I had immediately after. The bottle label declares this to be a "Double Brown Stout", and 7.9% ABV indicates they do mean double. Nicely weighty, there's plenty of caramel for the fan of strong sweet stouts but it's balanced beautifully with a whack of uncompromising bitterness, then some light herbal overtones to finish. This is one of those resolutely old-fashioned beers that manages to make unexotic flavour combinations do some wonderfully complex tricks.

Thisted also brews the house beer for Jernbanecafeen, a raucous early house right next to central station (thanks for the recommendation, Anne-Mette: it was an experience). We dropped in early on the Sunday afternoon on the way to the airport and the place was as crammed, loud and smoky as it apparently always is. 7 Expressen is the beer, a dark gold pils with a solid bitterness at its heart, just breaking out some lighter grassiness on top. Not at all far from the likes of good old Jever.

Lastly for this round-up, a superb beer we chanced upon completely by accident in genteel Nyhavn where we stopped for Sunday brunch. Cap Horn is brewed by Ørbæk for the restaurant of the same name and is a 5% ABV dark amber beer. It moves in quite subtle ways, with a little bit of toffee at the base, layered with a sherbet complexity and just a dusting of citrus on top. The aroma combines almost stouty dry roast with a dash of grapefruit. Much like the Limfjords, it hits that sweet spot of complexity and drinkability.

Craft beer isn't all foghorn hops and puckering sourness, any more than macro is bland and samey.

19 November 2012

Beergasm!

It's very easy, upon arriving in Copenhagen, to just go nuts and drink oneself into an inadvertent stupor on some of the finest beers available to humanity. Fortunately, the ever-sensible Danish government (and drinks industry) have taken steps to ensure the damage by impressionable southerners is kept to a minimum via the means of high taxes and outrageous pricing. You won't get much for under €7 a pint here, so you'd best make it good.

That said, curiosity had got the better of me when Séan and I rolled into town a couple of weeks back, and while we waited for access to our hotel I eschewed the inevitable delights of the Mikkeller bar and brought us for a sensible lunch in a brewpub I'd never been to before: Vesterbro, opposite the Tivoli. Vesterbro IPA was procured, arriving in a generously filled goblet if somewhat headless. It's quite thin and rather lagerish: "IPA made by an Austrian," said Séan, in reference to the shiny copper Salm brewkit gleaming by the doorway. There's a vaguely floral aroma and a bitterness like tasted perfume on the foretaste. It finishes sweet, like foam banana candy. Not an auspicious start and not one of the finest beers available to humanity.

Still with a few minutes to spare before hotel time we nipped across the street to Apollo. I was expecting even less of a wow factor here, based on past experience of this touristy brewpub built into the main entrance of Tivoli, but it surprised me. The waiter all but forced an Apollo Jule Bryg down us. This was the Thursday before the first Friday of November: a day etched on the Danish beer calendar as the launch of all the independent breweries' Christmas beers (the following night belongs to Tuborg's). Apollo's is a wholesome and balanced affair, an appropriate dark mahogany with caramel at the beginning, a little bit of bitterness later on and infused with warming banana esters, wrapped up in a reasonable 5.8% ABV.

Apollo's other offerings were a little less traditional. The American Brown Ale was more of a porter, I thought: lots of brown malt for some major milky coffee flavours and aromas but finishing with a crisp, dry roast barley bite. Not sweet enough to be a brown ale, I reckon, and certainly too few hops for the American angle, but spot-on as a porter. Funnily enough I met something just like it on coming home: Galway Bay brewery's Brown Ale currently pouring from the Strange Brew tap in the Cottage Group pubs strikes lots of very similar notes. I'm a fan.

The last one from Apollo was their Mango Weissbier. And sure why not? It presents quite dark: brownish-orange, like Schneider-Weisse. The aroma offers a sweet fruit sorbet effect and the flavour wrongfoots you immediately by kicking off with a big bitter hop tang. The mango follows quickly afterwards: full and sticky, more like mango flavoured bubblegum than fresh fruit. I got a twang of copper just at the finish. It could get a bit difficult after a while, but just a small glass was interesting and very different from the usual.

We caught up with our European colleagues later in Café Globen, more a travellers' club house than a proper bar, but with a damn decent selection of Danish beer. First up for me was Lupulus from Beer Here. A straight-up no-messing IPA, though light at just 4.7% ABV and a bright, clear orange colour. Spicy sherbet on the nose, super zingy citrus flavours and a kind of interesting Belgian funk just at the end to keep things interesting. The same brewing company had a Jul IPA too, another bright orange one but definitely fuller and more warming with a good dose of toffee amongst the pithy citrus. It's a winter beer first, given just a bit of a pale 'n' 'oppy twist. Before moving on, a swift No. 16 from Refsvindinge: red and sweet with lots of toffee. It hits a lot of the notes that good Irish red ale does, though at 5.7% ABV packs more of a wallop.

This is where it starts to get a little heated. We followed the crowd to Fermentoren, a pub owned by the people behind Croocked Moon brewery and which opened a little over a year ago. It's a sparse place, in that slightly canteenish Nordic way, though sufficiently comfortable and atmospheric. And the beer selection is top notch. I had two from Flying Couch, a company which shares its brewing load between Herslev and  Nørrebro. Pillow Fight is a 4.6% ABV American amber lager, though quite a full-bodied and ale-ish one with some delicious fruity hop perfume amongst the caramel sweetness. Green Velvet is a 7% ABV IPA, heavily bitter with touches of boozy golden syrup and a dry tannic finish. Quite a a workout. But I really struck gold with Mikkeller's Christmas porter To Via From. It's stoutishly dry with just enough central heating from the 8% ABV. But on top of this there's just a subtle dusting of Christmas spices which accentuate the other elements and make the whole into this wonderful buttery bready pudding of a beer, creamy and bitter and spicy simultaneously and completely harmoniously. It's a supreme achievement and really restored my faith in Mikkeller as one of Europe's top beer brands.

So you know what comes next: up the street to the Mikkeller bar. It's gone midnight now and I need an eye-opener. The blackboard shows Girardin 1882 white label: that'll do. I had the black one recently and it's a powerhouse. This seemed altogether more smooth and rounded, though still every inch a sour lambic. Then just something hoppy to go out on: 8 Wired's Superconductor, an IPA that travelled all the way from New Zealand to the old one. At 8.88% ABV and 88 IBUs one suspects that this may be more of a gimmick than a beer, but it's a pretty straight clone of good US IPA: that slightly unctuous bit of toffee followed by a hop one-two of bitter pith and sweet mandarin. I've seen this many times before but it's no hardship at all to meet it again.

And that's where evening one ended. On to Carlsberg next. Would the beer be as good there?

15 November 2012

Flipping the birds

I made a special return visit to the Yamamori Izakaya when I heard they'd got the Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale in. It's brewed using a mold-dyed rice known as "red rice koji" and the Kiuchi Brewery claims on the label that this turns it pink, but it didn't look that way to me: more of a hazy orange, I thought. There's an interesting sort of strawberry flavour to it, the sort you find in the better class of Irish red ales. The texture is smooth and wheaty and it's all very jolly up to a point. It finishes abruptly, however, with no proper aftertaste: an unforgiveable sin in a beer of 7% ABV.

I had heard disparaging comments about it from various sources but having tasted it now I can't agree with them. It's just not really as interesting as the vital statistics ought to make it.