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

Celebrate!

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.