31 December 2012

Strong recollection

My end-of-year ambition was to clear out all the scribbled unused tasting notes I have and turn them into proper blog posts. I nearly did it too. Among the stragglers were two from Hardknott brewery, from separate occasions earlier in the year. Rhetoric came courtesy of brewer Dave via Reuben back in August. It was supposed to be opened, consumed and commented on across the Internet in a coordinated way at an appointed time, but that sort of thing is way too difficult so we settled for sharing a bottle in our own time later on.

It's 10.2% ABV and Dave has branded it as a Belgian-style quadrupel, and my first surprise was the colour: a clear red rather than the murky brown I was expecting. But who gives a toss about colour? I do give a toss about oxidation, however, and I can taste it in spades here. The first hit is a not-at-all unpleasant sherry kick and it's only after this that a bit of stale wet cardboard creeps in. In the middle there's a lovely balsamic strawberry effect, plus a lacing of liquorice from the star anise. It's a busy, chaotic sort of beer and tasted rather homebrewey to me: like one of my batches where I try too many different experiments at once. With a little refining it could be superb.

A few weeks previously I had picked up a bottle of Hardknott's Vitesse Noir in York. This is an 11% ABV imperial stout with added coffee, chocolate and vanilla, with a label which promises an "over-the-top explosion of stimulating flavours". It's certainly a dense beast and won't be rushed into the glass, showing little signs of carbonation and lazily forming a dark brown head. Nothing especially stimulating jumps out of the aroma: just the sweet roasted smell you get from any decent strong stout. But this is just a trick, to wrongfoot the unwary drinker. The flavour is intense. It's hard to pick out any individual elements at first: it's just a blast of fruit and roast and alcohol, but by the third sip it had come into focus. Milk chocolate and the vanilla to begin: literally sweetness and light. The sweetness changes tack in the middle, turning fruity, with elements of black cherry and sultana. The liqueurish booze makes its presence felt at this stage too, introducing the sort of headiness you get in suspicious stoneware bottles from olive-skinned peasants. Then a grand crescendo of dry roast to finish, overlaid with darker, more serious, chocolate notes. A magnificent beer and one to remember.

So while I'm looking back at beers consumed earlier in the year I reckon I may as well take the whole year into consideration. As usual I'm employing the template created by Mark and Andy. Can you believe it's year 4 already? Cor.

Let me just slip into my sparkly cocktail dress and sashay up the red carpet for...
The Golden Pint Awards 2012

Best Irish Draught Beer: Dungarvan Rye-PA
Almost literally a blink-and-you-missed-it appearance at the Irish Craft Beer Festival this year. And while this pale ale combined two things I don't normally approve of in beer, namely rye and very limited availability, it was stunning: spectacularly combining bold assertive hops with smooth cask drinkability. The hope of a more regular supply is just one reason I hand over this award.

Best Irish Bottled or Canned Beer: 8 Degrees Ochtoberfest
I'm cheating a wee bit here as I drank a lot more of this on draught than from the bottle (especially that memorable night in Farrington's when Barry was over), but it was gorgeous in both varieties and a definite contender for Ireland's best ever lager. Two in a row in this category for the trans-Tasman partnership in Mitchelstown.

Best Overseas Draught Beer: Raging Bitch
I made a decent fist of travel this year, making it to nine countries, including much beery delight in England, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. But the gong here goes to a beer served much closer to home. Against the Grain seems to have a permanent selection of Flying Dog beers on tap, and this old favourite of mine is the one that made my year. Raging Bitch is one of the very few to get the right balance between pungent American hops and funky Belgian yeast.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer: Kernel Export India Porter
Looking at other people's Golden Pints, I can see that the Wizards of Bermondsey have been sweeping the board. Reason enough for me to pass them over. But I have memories of that balmy summer's evening in the York Tap, when I thought my palate was completely exhausted, and my Export India Porter nightcap served as a reminder for once and for all that there's always room to enjoy another beer, if said beer is good enough. And robust yet delicate Kernel Export India Porter certainly is that.

Best Overall Beer: 8 Degrees Ochtoberfest
Looking at my four nominations, that's a pretty broad range of styles, and all them are beers which suit particular moods and settings while being less appropriate for others. I'm tempted to give it to Dungarvan, but I don't think I can justify it on the paltry amount I drank. So this will be going to the plentiful all-weather lager.

Best Pumpclip or Label: Dr. Rudi
They don't put a foot wrong, the L. Mulligan Grocer team, when it comes to the look and feel of their product. Usually you'll find it in the ambiance of their pubs or the playfulness of their menus, but their attention was turned to beer this year, and Dr. Rudi -- first in a series from "The Brown Paper Bag Project" -- was the result. Classical, sober, understated, but with more than a hint of fun about it.

Best Irish Brewery: White Gypsy
A return to the podium for the 2009 winner in this category. White Gypsy has kept the headlong rush of limited edition cask and keg specialties coming. But there's been a settledness too, with their excellent Belgian Blonde and Pils a regular feature at Bear (which would win my restaurant nomination for 2012 if there was one), and the long-awaited delivery of the bottled series of strong beers. From session red ale, to lager, to imperial stout and doppelbock: all things to all drinkers is just what you want from your local brewery.

Best Overseas Brewery: Evil Twin
I was sipping on thimblefuls at the Borefts festival so no single Evil Twin beer gets an award from me, but there were some absolute corkers in there, not least of which were the Hey Zeus! imperial stout and Molotov Spicy Cocktail IPA with chilli. With merely a pang of guilt that they're not really a brewery, I give this one to Jeppe.

Pub/Bar of the Year: Rody Boland's
A firm handshake, sincere well done and Silver Pint to WJ Kavanagh's which opened in Dublin this year and where I've spent many happy afternoons and evenings being well fed and beered, but once again I'm giving the award to a non-specialist pub. Being a mile from my front door means Rody Boland's doesn't quite qualify as a local for me, but it's not exactly a drinking destination either. Shopping in Rathmines, or going to the cinema, it's just there and you can drop in for a pint of something decent for a very reasonable price. Exactly what we need from pubs, in short.

Beer Festival of the Year: Irish Craft Beer Festival
Easy one this. Stand aside Borefts, move over Berlin: Dublin's three-day extravaganza in September was the year's top ticket, for the beer offer as well as the amazing atmosphere of joy and beery bonhomie. I may have spent quite a lot of it sticking wristbands on punters but there was still plenty to enjoy. Well done to the Seamus and Bruce who organised and the army of Beoir volunteers, ably coordinated by Andrew, who pitched in. If you've yet to experience Ireland's craft beer revolution, the RDS in September is one of the best places to do it.

Supermarket/Shop/Online retailer of the year: No-one
Once again I've bought next to no beer in supermarkets this year. Tesco seem to have made a bit of an effort, with Dunnes and Superquinn coming up behind them with a better beer offer than before, but none of this has really affected me. My regular haunts for beer buying -- DrinkStore, The Beer Club and Redmond's -- are still there and still as great as ever, but I'm not going to pick one out. And I don't buy beer online, though it's good to see Bradley's in Cork getting into that game as well. So no trophies, just an all-round keep-doing-what-you're-doing.

Best Beer Book or Magazine: Shakespeare's Local
Another area where I'm not in much of a position to make a call. This year's top reference work seems to have been Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb's World Atlas of Beer but I've not seen it; while Stan Hieronymus's For the Love of Hops arrived too late for me to get a proper look at it. Which leaves, by default, Pete Brown to take the Golden Pint Award for Only Beer Book I Read All Year. Shakespeare's Local is a fascinating social history of the London Borough of Southwark, told with particular reference to The George, last of London's galleried coaching inns, all told in Pete's usual fun and matey style.

Best Beer Blog or Website: The Drunken Destrier 
Writing a blog of just tasting notes is a lonely furrow, I have found, and there aren't many others that I read. Too many are just lists of flavour descriptors or, worse, numerical ratings. So it's refreshing to find a blog that keeps a similar line to mine and does it in a lucid and entertaining way. For that reason, Kill of The Drunken Destrier is my blog of the year. Bonus points for some impressive beer photography as well.

Best Beer Twitterer: @BrouwerVanKlomp
A rare, sometimes terrifying, but always fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of Belgium's -- and the world's -- greatest brewers. Worth a follow if you feel you're worthy, though you obviously aren't.

Best Online Brewery Presence: Dungarvan Brewing
Oh how all those wonderful websites launched two or three years ago by the new wave of Irish breweries have fallen into abeyance. No-one seems quite able to keep their seasonals and availability quite up to date. I suppose it all goes on Facebook, though I don't. So this will be a Top Marks For Effort job, and it goes to Dungarvan for lots of quality tweeting and a shiny new website. Brown paper seems to be quite the design trend this year.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year: Lunch at Jacobsen
Food and beer is a big part of what Carlsberg subsidiary Jacobsen does, so when they hosted the European Beer Consumers Union delegates in September it's not surprising that they pulled out the big guns. I won't go into detail, but if you are in Copenhagen do tear yourself away from Fermentoren and Mikkeller for an hour and have lunch in Jacobsen. And try the cheese.

Open category: Best Cider: Double L
It doesn't get mentioned much on this blog, but cider has become a much bigger part of my drinking life in the past year. The Irish cider revolution rumbles on apace and the quality of produce coming from the north -- Armagh Cider and Tempted? in particular -- is fantastic. Down here there's quality cider from the likes of Stonewell and Longuville House, but my cider highlight of the year was cask Double L at WJ Kavanagh's. Apple perfection in a glass.

In 2013 I’d most like to... get reacquainted with Belgium
It has been far too long. The Cantillon open day in early 2009 was the last time I set foot in Brussels. I have to get back and do some serious catching up: Moeder Lambic Fontainas is calling.