30 January 2013

New tricks from the old guard

It had been many years since I tasted any beer from  3 Fonteinen. Once upon a time it was one of the top lambic houses in Belgium and then in 2009 disaster struck when a faulty thermostat destroyed about a year's worth of stock. And unlike most beers, with lambic you can't simply throw together a replacement batch and have it on sale in a few weeks. The company became a blendery, though plans have been hatched to start distilling and brewing once again.

Recently, the missus brought a bottle of 3 Fonteinen Doesjel back from Brussels. This is a blend of 1, 2 and 3-year old lambic and I'm guessing it dates from the post-catastrophe era. It's 6% ABV and a lovely orange-gold colour. The first surprise is in the aroma: sour, of course, but there's a distinct and intriguing sweetness too. On tasting this unfolds into a juicy, pithy jaffa flavour backed by a mild, short-lived, tang of sour funkiness. An odd combination for an old lambic and one that left me feeling something was missing. I expected bigger sourness and perhaps some old wood. Instead, the fruit flavours put me in mind of Cantillon's Iris, except it's nowhere near as good as Cantillon's Iris. Disappointing, in short.

From one first-string gueuzerie to another. You wouldn't have thought one of the most po-faced and serious of the lambic breweries might produce something as frivilous as this garishly-labelled beer. Yet here it is: Framboise Girardin. Proper grown-up lambic, with raspberries.

From the half champagne bottle it looks gorgeous, a crystalline blood red. The aroma is pure raspberry: sweet without a hint of sourness. Nothing sugary when you taste it, though. The raspberry is still present in a big way, but it's the dry crispness of raspberry seeds. You can just about tell there's a sour beer underneath -- a bit of an acid burn in the nostrils and the faintest catch at the back of the palate -- but otherwise it's all about the raspberries, while avoiding any trace of sugary sickliness. It's the sort of beer that reminds me why people thought of putting fruit in lambic in the first place, and makes me wonder why more of them aren't better at achieving this kind of balance.

28 January 2013

Can't see the sap for the trees

The claim on the back to be brewed with "a glimmer of Canadian maple" is a bit of an enigmatic one. I can't help thinking that the word "syrup" got cut from the copy at the last minute. As is, Holt's of Manchester leave it up to us to decide whether it's twigs, bark or something else in their Maplemoon "mystical maple ale".

It looks lovely: a deep clear amber. The aroma is less impressive, vaguely sticky smelling dark malt and a significant carbonic bite, made even more disappointing by the promise of Cascade on the label. Fortunately it's not overly sweet, sticky, heavy or fizzy on tasting, but it's not much else either. The flavour is a short-lived one-dimensional mix of biscuit and dark fruit -- think garibaldis or similar -- and there's nothing as exotic as maple syrup, or Cascade hops for that matter.

Perfectly drinkable, then, but not as interesting as Holt's would like you to think.

24 January 2013

Canal hopping

One of the things that makes Amsterdam a great place for drinking beer is its compactness. Time it right and you can do a very efficient pub crawl through the western city centre with minimal walking between top quality beers. I had a couple of days of bimbling on my last visit so didn't hit all of what follows in one session. But if I had, it would have looked like this:

Starting off at the top of the town and In De Wildeman, the charmingly down-at-heel hostelry famed for the variety of its beer offerings. Left Hand's Stranger was a new one on me: a decent fist of an American pale ale, being quite heavy and possessing a solid, toffeeish malt backbone. The flavour begins with a firm bitter smack, then introduces some lovely oily orange notes. It's a beer with a big flavour, but deftly balanced. For something a bit more outré, there was Sauer Power, a Germano-American collaboration between Freigeist and Jester King. It's the cloudy gold of a witbier and mixes in some quite acrid smoke with saisonish yeast spice and a mouth-watering, tongue-pinching sourness. Interesting up to a point, but the aftertaste leaves a burnt plastic residue which spoiled the experiment for me.

Another round? All right then. The missus opted for Samaranth 12, a very strong dark one by Urthel. This wears its 11.5% ABV right up front, with heady boozy vapours winding seductively out of it. The flavour has a little of the sweet honey of Irish whiskey and even sweeter amaretti biscuits. It's smooth and amazingly not overly hot, but one glass is plenty. More or less randomly, I chose Troubadour Westkust, a 9.2% ABV black IPA. Wow. The nose is pure Fry's Turkish Delight, starting with milk chocolate then adding floral rosewater. It tasted very porterish to me, with coffee and cocoa dominating the flavour and the hops adding a pot pourri element without any real bitterness. Not really the sort of thing I'd expect under the black IPA flag, but as a beer it's flawless.

And with that we leave In De Wildeman, though not before downloading On Tapp in De Wildeman, its wonderful smartphone app, for future vicarious drinking. I'd love more pubs to have something like this.

Southwards we go, feeling a little guilty for passing Café Belgique and trying not to get drawn in by the siren song of De Bierkoning. Just on the far side of Dam Square we reach Beer Temple. I'm keeping to style and order a Mikkeller Sort Gul, a black IPA, this time with a mere 7.5% ABV. No doubt about the hops here: it's danker than a rasta's basement, crammed with funky, oily, herbal flavours and smells. I couldn't decide if I could taste any dry roast or chocolate in it: maybe there was a trace of it, or maybe it was an illusion caused by the colour. Regardless, this is very much a hop-forward beer and gorgeous to boot.

Perfect Crime is one of a growing number of odd transatlantic brewing arrangements being a joint venture by the people behind Evil Twin and Stillwater -- themselves odd transatlantic brewing arrangements in their own right. The beers are brewed in Belgium and on tap at Beer Temple was Smoking Gun, an imperial stout. It's a little on the light side for the style and not all that strongly flavoured, with just some dry smokiness contrasting with pleasant sweet floral flavours. Decent, but there's something wrong when the beer's pedigree is more complex than its taste. There was much more happening in Dark Horse's Double Crooked tree, an innocent pale amber ale that's hiding over 13% ABV. The aroma is wonderful: intensely sweet and citric like dry-hopped cough mixture. There's a tangy sharpness in the flavour at first, but it mellows out into a smooth, manadrin-laced sipper. It's just as well the measures tend to be small in Beer Temple or we'd be here all night. Let's get moving.

A couple of blocks further down and one street over, we reach Gollem. It's packed, but there's just room for us to squeeze in on the mezzanine. A quick headcount reveals that "packed" in Gollem's case means 27 people. From the modest but well-chosen tap line-up one particular beer leaps out at me: St. Feuillien's Black Saison, brewed in collaboration with Green Flash of San Diego. It's a crazy concoction with the typical peppery nose of a good saison but then a bizarre herb garden of a flavour profile, full of sweet and floral botanicals: menthol, eucalyptus, caraway seeds and other flavours I've forgotten the names of but are more often found in nordic aquavit than low countries beer. Strange, but quite wonderful in its own way. Appropriate for Gollem, then.

A U-turn across Singel brings us onto Herengracht and we follow the canal north, counting down the house numbers from the 200s until we reach the magic 90: home of Café Arendsnest and the place where all my Amsterdam pub crawls seem to end. Habitually, I scan the tap list for anything unfamiliar from De Molen. Dol & Dwaas? That'll do. It's an odd orange-red colour with a bit of a haze but doesn't have much to say for itself, really: a bit of smoke and a little hoppy funk, but nothing especially distinctive. A much more interesting smoked experience came from SNAB's Roock, a black beer which mixes fig and plum notes with salty seaweed and iodine. Delicious and thoroughly defiant of style rules and categories.

Phew. Anyone fancy a coffee? There's Emelisse Espressostout: it's 10% ABV and nicely sweet and unctuous, but the coffee does little other than add a dryness to it. I need a bigger jolt than that. Rooie Dop's Daily Grind provides just the hit needed. First there's that faintly sweaty smell of strong hot coffee and a major hit of freshly ground coffee flavour on tasting. There's the dry roast finish again, though here I think it's the beer's underlying stout nature peeking through; the same goes for the heavy texture. Mostly, however, Daily Grind is all about the coffee, as a coffee stout should be, in my opinion.

And we're done! Time to leave the beer specialists behind and drift back into normality. A nightcap, you say? Well OK. The pubs where the normal people drink have a few winter seasonals in from the bigger brewers. Brand, for instance, have Sylvester: red and sweet, though not in a warming toffee way, but rather a disappointing fake-fruit bubblegum thing plus a bit of nasty brown apple. I'd pass if I were you. De Koninck are offering Winter Koninck and that's much more like it: a lovely warming Christmas cake nose and lots of dubbelish dark fruits. A chewy, warming finish to the session.

Until next time, Amsterdam.

21 January 2013

Dutch masters

Eight whole years had managed to fly by since I'd last visited Brouwerij 't IJ. I've no idea how I let that happen. I used to love coming to the quirky little tap room under the windmill: very much a neighbourhood pub for a few convivial after-work drinks rather than an attraction for tourists or beer geeks (what are they?) So, a couple of days into 2013, we set off on a brisk walk through eastern Amsterdam to the brewery.

As we walked through the onion-skin city, the 17th century core gave way to 19th century splendour by the zoo and the neighbourhood was altogether more modern by the time the windmill was in sight. I had heard that the pub, too, had undergone a transformation in recent years and sure enough it has almost doubled in size, turning an L-shape with a new 18-tap bar running the whole way along. And yet they've still managed to retain a lot of the old poky character. It still has a watering-hole feel and the locals are still drinking in it, though they're now outnumbered by the backpackers and international students. Opening time has moved a whole hour forward to accommodate the newcomers, and the doors were unlocked at 2pm. Closing remains a strict, civilised, 8pm. So still very much my kind of place.

Even with all the new tap space, the selection is still mostly limited to the old IJ reliables. But among these there are a couple that have never made it to this blog so I started with the intention of putting that right. Plzeň is, as the name suggests, the house pale lager: arriving a misty yellow colour with the yeast discernible by taste as well as by sight. It's a pleasant beer, though: mildly spicy with hints of lemon; refreshing like a good witbier. I'd go as far as to say it's more like a wit than IJwit which is almost completely clear and incredibly sweet: bursting with bubblegum notes. I liked it, but it wouldn't be for everyone.

On to the newer stuff, and seasonal of the moment was WIJssenbock, a smooth dark amber Dutch-style bock of 7% ABV. There's an amazing balancing act going on here with a smooth and fruity raisin flavour contrasting with a light and zesty bitterness making for a strong beer that's very sinkable. At the same strength and a similar colour there was also Speciale Vlo, created in association with top Amsterdam off licence De Bierkoning. This is sharper, with a strong seam of pine resin hops running through it as well as a tannic quality, like some English bitters. I found it a bit too punchy to begin with, the intense hops giving it an air of floor cleaner, but my palate adjusted quickly and by the end I'd have happily ordered another, only it was time to move on.

Even greater than my surprise at not visiting 't IJ in so long was the discovery that in ten years of drinking in Amsterdam I had completely missed a central brewpub. Bier Fabriek isn't exactly a new arrival, so I guess the reason I'd never heard of it before was partly because it's in a bit of a commercial black hole, fronting onto the everlasting building works on Rokin, and partly because it's not really worth talking about.

For one thing, it's dark. They've gone with low light and bare concrete I suppose for an industrial look, but it just ends up feeling oppressive. The staff were cheery enough and the supply of peanuts was a nice touch: throw your shells on the floor to add character. But the beer really wasn't up to much. Three offerings, namely Alfa Puur, a sickeningly sweet, diacetyl-laden pils; Rosso, a strawberryish red with lots of earthy woody funk, indicating to me that Dr Brett has paid a visit, most likely without an invitation; and Nero, a strong black beer -- a lager, I would guess -- that has overdone the dry roast flavours. These don't taste like the work of someone who loves making beer. I find it hard to believe the brewer even enjoys drinking the stuff.

In one of Europe's top beer cities, Beer Fabriek is eminently skippable.

Top of my agenda for this quick excursion to the Netherlands was a trip out of the city to Haarlem, and a visit to the Jopenkerk. Jopen is a fairly big, well established, Dutch brewery but the range and quality of their beer is impressive. Information on where the main brewing happens is hard come by, but the Jopenkerk is their brewing showroom: a roomy brewpub in a converted church set up more to help show the process to the punters than as a serious production facility.

We were there early on a Sunday afternoon. Most of Haarlem doesn't open until 4 on a Sunday and this is one of the rare exceptions. Only a handful of people were in before us and almost on the dot of 4pm it became instantly packed, largely with families. Haarlem is a town set in its ways, it seems.

I kicked off with one of their flagships: Hoppenbier, a hazy golden affair brewed to a local recipe from 1501, they say. There's a candy fruit aroma, like rhubarb and custard sweets, and the flavour is full of juicy satsuma zest, plus a little bit of incense spice. The Hoppenbier hops haven't been sitting around since 1501 anyway. Commemorating the centenary of the Jopenkerk building in 2011, there's Jacobus, a 5.3% ABV pale ale made with rye. Not too much rye, I think, as there's only a mild hint of the sharp grassiness I dislike in these beers. It's mostly quite smooth, with toffee and caramel, balanced against lightly lemony hops.

Herself, meanwhile, opted for 4-Granen Bok, a dark red beer of 6.5% ABV with a sweet pipesmoke aroma and bucket loads of chocolate in the flavour, turning dry and a little astringent. Overall it's a rounded warming beer, which is just what you want from a winter bock, regardless of the number of different grains in it. This was followed by the powerhouse blackcurrant beer Johannieter, at 9% ABV. Pitch black, it's sticky and Christmassy but the fruit isn't laid on too thick, successfully avoiding Ribenafication.

From these four it should be apparent that Jopen like mucking about with beer and using odd ingredients and recipes. A black IPA seems almost pedestrian in this context, but there it was: Grateful Deaf, brewed in collaboration with Ken Fisher, a gypsy brewer from Oregon and utilising the Zythos hop blend. It's very much on the "hoppy stout" end of the spectrum, with the dark sticky liquorice flavours to the fore, and a creamy texture. The hops mostly provide bitterness, giving the same intense, almost acrid, sensation you get with Porterhouse Wrassler's XXXX. It's a flavour profile that seems to pull in too many directions at once.

Time was beginning to run short and the pub getting uncomfortably full but I wasn't going to miss Jopen's Grätzer and Grodziskie, historical recreations of smoked beer from recipe research by Ron Pattinson and Evan Rail. The Grätzer is made from 100% smoked wheat malt and pours a cloudy yellow, like an innocent weizen. But raising it to the nose induces a blast of hospital corridor phenols. A burnt element comes in on tasting: embers and iodine, with a sour tang around the edge of the tongue. Hard work, but at 4% ABV it's manageable; any stronger and I think it would be a struggle. The Grodziskie is a little more refined with less heavy smoke and more of an exotic whiff of the thurible about it.

The Jopen supping didn't end with Sunday service, however. We picked up an unseasonal bottle of their Lentebier in De Bierkoning, finding it still marvellously fresh and zingy with lots of lemon zest. And later in Beer Temple had a go at Mashing Pumpkins, a collaboration with SNAB. This is another 9%-er, a dark red-amber and, while showing lovely cinnamon spicing in the aroma, lacks the flavour to back it up. There's also a weird sourness from the smoked malt which they added for some reason.

I'll allow Jopen the occasional dud as long as they keep the odd stuff coming.

17 January 2013


As I mentioned last week, I managed to sneak in a quick north London pub crawl on my last visit to England. From that I brought away a bottle of Cigar City's Jai Alai IPA. This Florida brewery has been top of my must-try list for a while so I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to grab one of theirs while I could.

I opened the bottle on Christmas morning. Foolishly I'd crammed it into the over-laden fridge sideways, not suspecting bottle-conditioning, so what I got was a rather murky amber affair. First impressions were of a sweet and fruity beer, with that orange-flavoured hard candy effect. As it warmed, however, the full 7.5% ABV came into play and it turned much more full-bodied with a bigger, more complex flavour. There's a burn from both the bitter but not harsh hops and the alcoholic heat. Not a show-stopper, but a perfectly good beer to start the day with.

A week later I had my first beer of 2013 in an Amsterdam hotel room. I'd picked it up the previous day from the shelves in Bierkoning. It came from Pretty Things in Massachusetts: Once Upon A Time 1838 X. As the name suggests, it's an historical recreation of a nineteenth century mild from a Barclay Perkins recipe supplied, obviously, by Ron Pattinson. You can read his account of drinking it here.

I very carefully kept this one upright, but it still tasted quite dreggy to me, a hazy yellow-orange with lots of fizz streaming upwards through the murk. And yet the texture remains smooth, with no significant amount of foam forming. The flavour is sharply bitter to the point of being saison-like with loads of lemon rind and grapefruit. There are some lighter fruit notes behind this: some peach or similar soft stonefruit as well as a blast of heat from the 7.4% ABV. Overall, between the citrus and the alcohol, this beer tasted very modern, and I suppose that's the point.

More from my quick stay in the Netherlands next week.

14 January 2013

From the Bad Name Choice file

Luppoo? Really? Did they think that one through? Still, at least it's only the last two letters that they've highlighted on the label. It's part of the Belgoo range and, oddly for a hop-forward Belgian beer these days, doesn't claim to be an IPA, preferring instead "hoppy blond beer" as the style designation. "Blond" nearly doesn't cover it: it pours out the white-ish green of gutrot cider with buckets of fizz, forming a stiff white head. It was still clear by the time I'd poured myself a glassful, which is a positive sign in one of these, where the powerhouse Belgian yeast can overpower the delicate hops all too easily.

The aroma is subtle but promising, offering juicy nectarine and mango, laced with a hint of nutmeg. No major hop burst on tasting and the sweet fleshy fruit flavours are muted behind the watery fizz. It's nearly more a Bellini than a beer and I wonder how and why it's all of 6.5% ABV: it certainly neither tastes nor feels it. Its best feature is that, even with the lees poured into the glass the yeast flavours don't get in the way of that understated soft fruit character.

I drank it as an aperitif and it's ideal for that, just don't expect an avalanche of hops or typical Belgian beer flavours.

10 January 2013

Yuletide miscellany

It wasn't all fancy pub-hopping in England over Christmas. I was well looked after by my sisters who sourced a selection of bottles for general drinking.

Among them was a box set from Adnams, one of my favourite English breweries. While I'm familiar with most of their output, there were a couple of new ones in here. Most of all I was keen to get my hands on Ghost Ship, their new pale ale. It's so pale as to be golden, but branding it a golden ale would be an insult: it's a style that few breweries do well and tends to be more of an attempt to catch the lager market than to make genuinely good beer. Not so with Ghost Ship: no grainy malts or bubblegum stickiness here, just bright and snappy peach and pineapple flavours sitting atop the signature Adnams crispness. That balance of dry minerals and New World hop candy makes for a fantastic flavour combination.

Also new to me was Gunhill, a sweet red ale with a thick off-white head. First sip reveals bags of milk chocolate plus some brown-maltish roast coffee dryness. A subtle bit of hop spice in the finish offers a little seasoning on what's otherwise a very much malt-driven beer. Though heavy, it's only 4% ABV. A warmer at this strength is a rare and welcome find.

The official warmer from Adnams, however, is Yuletide, which I found on draught in The Moon Under Water in Watford. On Christmas Eve afternoon this crammed JD Wetherspoon put a new spin on the phrase "Orwellian nightmare". Having elbowed enough uncollected plates aside to have somewhere to put my pint, I found Yuletide to be not all that dissimilar to Adnams Bitter: brown and quite crisp with just a little bit more of a dark taste, a sweetness which includes some bourbon biscuit and plum. Reasonable fare, though I'm sure the ambiance didn't help my appreciation. I should have gone to The One Crown down the street. I know this now.

Keeping it seasonal, I got to try Innis & Gunn Winter Ale 2012 which boasts of being a porter with molasses. The stout last year was passable so I engaged the benefit of the doubt for this. But really, they have a cheek calling it a porter. It's a pale ruby red colour and is powerfully sticky-sweet with awful plasticky plasticine flavours roaring out of it. Tough work to drink and really not worth the effort. Wood's of Shropshire manage something in a very similar style, only not disgusting, with their Christmas Cracker. Again, this is a dark red and the flavour is gently dusted with liquorice and treacle, lightened up by some sweeter strawberry flavours. A less jarring jar altogether.

And while we're on a liquorice kick, here's Bad King John from Ridgeway, a 6% ABV stout and former winner of Sainsbury's's annual beer competition. Reuben found it silky and chocolatey, but it tasted much drier to me, with lots of almost harsh bitterness, leading to that liquorice quality. Lots of roast and a big hit from the 6% ABV, it's a bit of a monster and I'm not at all sure I liked it.

Leaving winter aside altogether, the last bottle for now is Up 'n' Down, brewed by Hobsons as a fundraiser for the Walking With Offa pub walks promotion, hence the change from their usual minimalist label style. It's an easy-drinking 4.2%-er, pale and pithy with some assertive orange sherbet and grapefruit sharpness. With the carbonation kept low it makes for a very refreshing experience, which I guess is the whole point of a walkers' beer.

An eclectic bunch there, but a clear indication that pale 'n' hoppy is where it's at with mainstream British beer, if I'm any judge.

07 January 2013

The thin black line

The mass exodus was in full swing as I walked into King's Cross station, the day before Christmas Eve. While hordes of hopeful travellers gazed longingly at the departures board, I had rather less ambitious plans: just a wander around some pubs in the north London area. But I was early for kick-off, it being only 11.30 with most places scheduled to open at noon. Just as well there's a decent pub in the station, then.

Trade at The Parcel Yard was brisk, with groups of travellers having final pints near the doors, ready to dash for their trains. As always, an extensive range of Fuller's beers was on offer. A well-turned pint of Bengal Lancer would have been the sensible option, but there was also the winter seasonal Jack Frost, one I had never tried before and had heard rumours of its imminent discontinuation. Putting aside the fact that I've never heard a good word said about it, I ordered a half. And you know, I quite enjoyed it. It's a dark red colour and rather than the sweet confection I was expecting from a blackberry beer, it's only mildly fruity with the blackberries hovering respectfully at the front of the palate. This fades quickly and it turns into a normal, albeit rather plain, brown bitter, only for the dark fruit to return in the aftertaste. Not at all sweet, nor overpoweringly flavoured. I'm glad I took a chance on it.

The first scheduled stop on the tour, and its southernmost point, was The Queen's Head, a little Victorian pub not far from King's Cross that has been getting some very positive mentions lately for its beer. Sadly, mentions are still all I have as it was closed. I happened to meet the manager later on and he said business had been very slow in the weekend before Christmas so it's possible I would have been the day's only punter. I wasn't fazed, however, and set off up the Pentonville Road to The Craft Beer Company's newest outlet, in Islington. Manager Emma was polishing the brasswork and apologised straight off for the poor cask showing: only four beers as they, too, were in the process of winding down for the holiday.

Thornbridge's Jaywick caught my eye straight off. This is an American-style pale ale, pouring a hazy shade of orange and exuding a waft of mandarins in the aroma. At 4.8% ABV it's a little stronger than your average English pale ale but the texture is very light making it extremely easy drinking. Not that it's bland, mind. The flavour is a complex mix of oranges, cloves and sandalwood spicing. I followed it with the house beer, Craft Pale Ale, commissioned from the Kent Brewery. This is a limpid pale yellow colour, and a rather more typical 3.8% ABV. Though it looks the picture of blandness it's actually properly bitter, following the initial smack with some more subtle lemon tones. Sometimes this style of pale ale tends toward washing up liquid, but this avoids that completely. Simple fare, but very decent.

There weren't so many gaps among the tightly-packed keg taps. I took the opportunity to try out a couple of British breweries I've been hearing about. First up, Epic Saison by the Wild Beer Company. Sorry, I just don't get this. The whole thing is dominated by a plasticky harshness that I expected to get used to but I didn't. I wouldn't be a major fan of the saison style, but there are plenty I like. This one is like drinking a glass full of pure dregs. I could just about detect some form of fruit in the background but it's buried under the intense sharpness. Next to it was a smoked IPA from Tiny Rebel, called Hot Box. It's dark red -- almost black, really -- and the smoke is laid on thick, at the expense of the hops. Overall it's a little bit harshly phenolic and not what I'm after in either a smoked beer or an IPA.

By this time a small group of other punters -- regulars and tourists -- had gathered. Talk around the bar was largely of Southern Tier's Crème Brûlée stout. I had a taster for the road. It's crème brûlée all right: lots of vanilla and brown sugar. Still very drinkable, though, despite the nerve-jangling sweetness. Since I was a pub ahead of schedule, Emma suggested trying a new place on the other side of Islington, The Hops & Glory.

A short ride on the bus took me there, finding the pub in stark contrast to the plush cosiness of Craft Beer Co. The Hops and Glory is one of those big, wood-floored, wood-walled, pew-furnished village hall style pubs: a little cold and cavernous. Still, there were a few interesting things on tap and I got to tick off another new brewery: Redemption, and their Hopspur bitter. It's a bit dull, to be honest. Musty, grainy and no hop flavours to speak of. Maybe some sherbet if I'm being nice. Down the hatch it went and I sought something more interesting next. Kernel's 4C IPA looked like what I was after. It's a pale and hazy orange-gold colour, lightly textured and gently carbonated. You have to wonder where it's managing to hide 7.1% ABV. The hop flavours are heavy and resinous to begin with, lightening up later to a long-lasting grapefruit. The aftertaste lingers for ages, which is just as well, as the next part of my journey was a long one.

I left The Hops & Glory in daylight but it was pitch dark by the time I arrived at The Bull in Highgate. Inside it was a hive of activity with a constant flow of diners and drinkers. I perched at the bar where three beers from the on-site London Brewing Company were available, as well as other options. Seeking a thirst-quencher I opted for the Dark Mild first. It immediately reminded me of what mild is supposed to be: jet black with a big ground coffee aroma it's immensely sinkable and wonderfully refreshing. The flavour offers perfect balance between that coffee roast and chocolate sweetness. At only 3.6% ABV I felt I was doing it a huge disservice by only having a half. I followed it with Beer Street, the 4% ABV bitter. A clear gold, this is very nearly brilliant, starting out with fresh and bitter jaffa oranges but finishing on a nasty soapy note. Every sip brings a zesty celebration followed by a clanking dischord. I don't want my beer to be an emotional rollercoaster. Last of the set was Wheat. 5% ABV and a vaguely hazy gold, I found it sharp and a little vinegary, leaving behind the normal wit-weiss spectrum and veering towards Rodenbach territory. It still manages to keep the sourness under control, however, and has a pleasant soft wheatiness in lieu of any of the fruit or spice normally found in this style.

Journey's end was in Hampstead and a return to The Horseshoe, now no longer a brewpub itself but part of the successful Camden Town Brewery empire. Gentleman's Wit provided an interesting counterpoint to the previous London Brewing effort, but it was the guest beers that took my fancy at The Horseshoe. Windsor & Eton's Guardsman was on cask, a slight twist on normal brown bitter, having some interesting elements of gunpowder and sherbet in the mix, and a trace of TCP as well, I think. Next to it, Dark Star's Winter Meltdown finished the evening on an especially festive note. This red ale is packed with unsubtle cinnamon flavours which only its unctuous warming weight lets it carry off. Not for everyone, but just the perfect beer to unwind over, with my day's work done and no place left to go.

04 January 2013

The zymurgist as epicure

Session logoUsually, when The Session rolls round, I try and twist the theme to whatever I'm currently interested in or am already thinking of blogging about. Hey, it's totally within the rules. But this month's suggested topics for conversation are so interesting by themselves that I'm inclined to take the questions literally and answer them methodically. You'll find them here, on John's announcement post at Home Brew Manual, where the topic is titled "Brewers and Drinkers".

  • Do you need to brew to appreciate beer? 
No, obviously. But I think you're missing out on a level of appreciation if you don't. I've certainly learned a lot from devising recipes and tasting the results, and there are things I've perceived in beers which I don't think I'd ever have noticed if I didn't brew.

  • Do you enjoy beer more not knowing how it’s made? 
Definitely not. Get a bunch of homebrewers around an odd commercial beer and the topic of conversation inevitably turns to "I wonder how they did that". How it's made is always interesting to find out, and enjoyable to hypothesise. People wouldn't go on brewery tours if things were otherwise. It's not necessary to pick every beer apart forensically, and it's certainly not something that makes a beer more enjoyable per se, but it can be a fun extra alongside the main feature.

  •  If you brew, can you still drink a beer just for fun? 
Of course! I'd have quit years ago if this weren't the case. Mind you, I'm not a proper brewer. I'm a dabbler, a messer, and I've no interest in hardcore brewing science in theory or practice. Perhaps the deeper you get into brewing the harder it is to relax into a beer without trying to dissect every element of its flavour, aroma and texture. But I don't really believe those people exist. I've never been drinking with them. I don't think I'd want to.

  • Can you brew without being an analytical drinker? 
You can, but you're not going to make very good beer. The whole point of brewing for me is to brew the beer I like to drink, and especially the types that are hard to get. Dry-hopped pale and amber ales in grown-up bottle sizes were pretty much unheard of where I live when I began brewing four years ago, and are still relatively thin on the ground. If I wasn't able to figure out what it was I liked about the genre, trying to recreate the effect would have been a non-starter. But making beers of the sort you like for yourself is just one side of the equation -- I'm often troubled by the way some people seem to be starting commercial breweries without being committed beer obsessives beforehand. It shouldn't be allowed.

  • Do brewers get to the point where they’re more impressed by technical achievements than sensory delight? 
I don't think we can pin this exclusively on the brewers, but I think it does happen. "Ohh, it's a lot harder to get good flavour into a 3.5% ABV cask mild than a oak-aged brett-infused stout at double the strength". Yes, that is true, I'll grant you that. But you know, it doesn't make your pint of mild necessarily a better beer than this export stout just because it requires more skill to produce. Sorry, it doesn't. Which leads me on to:

  • Does more knowledge increase your awe in front of a truly excellent beer?
Quite the reverse. Once you know which cuff had the ace of hearts tucked into it, it's much harder to be impressed by the act. Yes, you may always appreciate a magician at the height of his skills, but as soon as you can spot a faro shuffle and a false cut, you're experiencing something different from the rest of the audience, and awe is less likely to feature. Beer is mostly just water after all: no brewer will forget this.

I get a lot out of my half-assed brewing efforts. I think I appreciate beer better and I think I'm better at writing about it too. And, as an added bonus, I also get beer, cheaply, twenty litres at a time.

Before I began brewing, I generally had a designated house beer: something that I would stock up on in quantity and could just open and drink whenever I felt like a beer but was unfussy about the sort. Home brewing changed that, and when I'm after a beer that doesn't necessarily need thinking about it'll come from my own stash. Previously, my house beer was usually a cheap and cheerful pale lager, but my taste for hoppy ales -- one of the main drivers behind my taking up home brewing -- changed that, and a light and fruity pale ale is my usual go-to style. If I hadn't become a home brewer I wonder what would have happened to the whole house beer thing. Would I have stuck it out with the lagers (still nothing wrong with a decent, cheap, lager), or would I have traded up to something hoppier by now?

Recently I came across a possible answer in the form of O'Shea's Traditional Irish Pale Ale, brewed by the Carlow Brewing Company exclusively for Aldi. 4.3% ABV and a mere €1.79 a bottle makes it a very likely contender for fire-and-forget refreshment. I do think the word "traditional" in the title is stretching an already-overused beer term well past its breaking point, however.

Anyway, it pours out a clear pale gold and the aroma gives more of a lager malt golden syrup effect only lightly infused with citric bitterness. I confess I was expecting something akin to the hop hit of its big brother O'Hara's IPA but there's none of that: just a breeze of grass 'n' grapefruit across the tongue, backed by a gentle graininess. The end result isn't at all punchy, but is fresh, easy-drinking and well worth the money.

Best of all, with just a short soak in warm water the labels peel off completely cleanly.

02 January 2013

Repeat prescription

My three bottles of Embrasse by De Dochter van de Korenaar brooded under their wrappings in my fridge for several months before I got around to opening them. The first surprise on doing so is that the brewery has opted for American-style 65cl bombers rather than the more typically Belgian 75cl. I guess, like with so many Belgian breweries these days, there's a wary eye being kept on the US market.

I didn't pay any attention to styles or stats, just proceeded with opening the first, plain, version of the beer. Some energetic foaming kicked things off, but once in the glass this presented as a dark dark ruby ale exuding a definite aroma of peat smoke and alcohol. More alcohol than the mere 9% ABV would suggest. It's lighter on the palate, however, with no excess heat. In fact it's not particularly strongly flavoured at all, just some mild smoky phenols with quickly-fading plasticine overtones. I was a bit bored by it to be honest and was glad to have some other versions to find how the brewery might make it more interesting.

So next was Embrasse Oak Whisky edition. Declared as being the same strength, this is darker and browner than the plain one though the smoke is absent from its aroma, replaced by a malt whisky sweetness. The heat is still there, however, so the overall olefactory experience is of the hot, damp and sugary air in a distillery. And this theme continues on tasting: the beer is much sweeter than its predecessor with almost a toffee popcorn quality. But that's where the complexity ends. I prefer the Oak Whisky version but it's still not as big flavoured as I was expecting. Let's take it up another notch.

Third in the series is Peat Oak Aged Embrasse, and if this one doesn't do it for me nothing will. The aroma here is amazing: all oak