29 April 2013

My hop nemesis

Though they've been a regular feature on this blog for most of its (exactly) eight years, I had sort of lost track of what BrewDog were doing, beerwise, these days. Outside of the mostly on-trade-related news feed there seemed to be an endless line of hyper-expensive limited editions, none of which really interested me. Now things seemed to have calmed down, with a couple of beers I've been hearing great things about. Time to see for myself.

First up was Dead Pony Club. This is a 3.8% ABV pale ale and so immediately invites comparison with the excellent Jarl by Fyne Ales. Both make extensive use of Citra for a mouthwatering zestiness, but BrewDog couldn't help taking a big scoop from the Simcoe sack, and while this pungent hop just about works in fuller beers like 5am Saint and Punk IPA, it completely takes over here. My experience was of a sharp cheesey foretaste, followed by burning, followed by watery fizz, though I have to give props for the sweet lasting peachiness in the aftertaste.

I'm well aware that I'm in a minority when it comes to my problem with Simcoe. Without its influence I imagine I'd have enjoyed Dead Pony Club more. As it stands, however, it's another reason why I'm rarely minded to run out and try new BrewDogs these days. So it was with trepidation that I popped the next one.

Libertine is nearly double the strength and a very dark but clear red. "Let the sharp bitter finish rip you straight to the tits. Swallow hard - this slut bites" according to the ten-year-old who wrote the label copy, but while the aroma is mostly citrus with a bit of Simcoe funk (it's 100% Simcoe), the flavour puts dark chocolate at the centre, made sticky with a lacing of treacle. And then the Simcoe comes out, held in check by the dark malt which gives us a bit of biscuit to go with the cheese.

Libertine reminds me a lot of 5am Saint, with its mix of heavy malt and funky hop. A pint would probably be too much, but 33cls was enjoyable.

I'd hoped I'd be able to get a bottle of Jack Hammer to go with these but it seems to be in very short supply. I just had a taste of this at the Voyager launch (thanks Alex, and welcome to the blogosphere!) and was very impressed. It's 7.2% ABV and BrewDog claim it's the bitterest beer they've ever brewed. So it must have been the Voyager I was drinking beforehand which left it tasting soft and fruity, packed with mango and passionfruit, reminding me of the exquisitely balanced pale ales put out by Stone. And best of all: no Simcoe, just Centennial and Columbus. Good doggie.

25 April 2013

Candy and kippers

More Flying Dog-related fun at The Black Sheep and Against the Grain lately. The former had the Red Ale from FD's Brewhouse Rarities series. At 6.7% ABV this hazy ochre beer wields a bit more heft than your typical American amber ale and piles on the dark malt sugars too with a serious amount of toffee in the foretaste. It's nicely countered with some lovely fresh nectarine and mandarin hopping and the overall package tastes pleasantly like red liquorice bootlaces, or my memory of them, at any rate.

Over at the sister pub I finally found Flying Dog Single Hop Chinook Imperial IPA the latest in the series, following on from Citra and Nelson Sauvin. 10% ABV like the others, and not actually all that big in the hop department. Toffee, once again, was my first impression, and only after a few sips did a kind of spicy bitterness creep into the mix. I use Chinook a lot in my own brewing as a bittering hop but have little experience of actually tasting it.  While it's certainly an interesting flavour profile, I think the sweet malt element in this particular application could have done with being dialled down a couple of notches to let those hops play a bigger role.

Back at home a couple more American beers brought over by friends. Reuben supplied a Smoke Jumper, a smoked imperial porter -- the first of such I've ever met -- by Left Hand. It suffers hugely from the great drawback of smoked beers: kipperiness. It's an unpleasant stale sort of smoke smell that I tend to get when the malt is mixed in with non-smoked malts and other flavour sources which dilute and interfere with it. After the fish course there's a metallic tang and quite a burnt, acrid bitterness. A beer dedicated to fire fighters which recreates the harsh experience of being one, it seems. I've found Left Hand to be a brewery of more misses than hits and Smoke Jumper did nothing to shift that balance for me.

Also at the table, supplied by Richard, was Southern Tier's Imperial Choklat Stout. Cryptic spelling aside, there's no mistaking the chocolate in here: the aroma is rich hot fudge sauce and there's no escaping the cocoa on tasting either. But it's not just chocolate in the flavour, it's deeper than that: I got some lavender and rosewater, calling to mind Turkish delight bars, and even some cherry liqueur, so pretty much everything I like being done with chocolate is in here. It's sublime; a creation worthy of Wonka.

Four interesting and quite experimental beers there, indicating that while not every mix of tastes will suit all palates, the rewards for playing about with ingredients can be considerable.

22 April 2013

Vive la similarité

French ale Bellerose talks up its hoppiness early, promising citrus and lychee on the label, though it also lists "spices" in the ingredients, and the "innovative cocktail of three hops" is the sort of marketing nonsense that usually precedes bad beer. It looks OK though: clear gold with just a very light suspended sediment. There's a very Belgian sort of aroma, sweet and honeyish, and the flavour is quite typical for a Belgian blonde too: concentrated nectarine and a dusting of nutmeg.

I'd be confident that the vaunted hops really are making a difference here, adding a depth to the fruitiness, but I can't help wondering if that's a Belgian yeast strain introducing the spiciness or if it's an added flavouring. I suppose it doesn't really matter. The end result is a smooth, subtle, mildly warming Belgian-style blonde. It all could have been much worse.

18 April 2013

Talking a good game

Whatever about their products and their prices, it's hard to fault De Dochter van de Korenaar on the self-confidence front. They like to name their beers like they're the best thing out there, and sure why wouldn't you?

For conjuring majestic elegance what better name than Noblesse? This is billed as a blonde but turned out more of an orange-amber shade. It's definitely not in the slightly sticky Belgian blonde category, though at 5.5% ABV it would fit right in here strengthwise. Wheat is listed on the ingredients but it's not a witbier either. Instead it's clean and rather dry: lots of lagery grain notes, tempered by a firm hit of lemon zest and grapefruit pith. And all of this held up remarkably well despite my bottle being indecently almost a year past its best before date.

Can we get even further up ourselves than "Noblesse"? How about Finesse for the full-on lah-di-dah factor? This is a tripel, modestly strong at 8.5% ABV though strangely darker than expected once again. Like all the fanciest-pants De Dochter beers, the bomber-sized bottle comes wrapped in brown paper with a label stapled to it. Hand stapled by craftsmen, I'm sure. Three different grains are in the mix here: wheat, barley and rye and the whole lot is matured on pine resin. Wait, what? "Rijping tesamen met pijnboomhars" it says, and I can't find any sign of that being Flemish idiom for anything else: they appear to have actually bunged some pine in here. It certainly has a big sticky resinous quality: heavy and sugary with every molecule of alcohol coming through in the hot flavour. Fortunately the bitterness holds it all in check, and though not very much like any other Belgian tripel it is quite tasty.

Finally, slap my face with a leather glove and call my horse a knave, it's Bravoure: "for people with guts" challenges the label copy. For people with quick reflexes, thought I, as the beer gushed from the bottle over the table. The residual fizz is considerable, making the whole thing quite prickly and difficult to drink until it settles down. It's an interesting mix of smoked malt and fresh hops, giving off a sort of burnt orange peel aroma while the flavour puts pipesmoke to the fore, set against a mandarin background. An odd contrast but it works rather well, and all in a not-too-heavy 6.5% ABV package.

Despite their airs these are mostly pretty solid beers. Yes, Belgium makes better, and I have my suspicions about the 65cl bottles being possibly a bit of a scam in a country more used to 75s, but outright mistakes are rare in De Dochter beers and not every artisan* Belgian brewery can claim that.

*artisan. adj: of beer, having a simplistically designed and/or wonkily applied label, usu. on poor quality paper stock

15 April 2013

All beers to all people

I mentioned in passing recently that Molson Coors's operations in Ireland seem to be ramping up somewhat, after three of years of light-touch beer distribution. It really hit home in the weeks that followed and as a result I've ended up with three sets of free samples from the company, which I guess represent three aspects of the Irish beer market.

The PR firm charged with promoting it all sent me a six-pack of their new lager Molson Canadian. From the full-spectrum advertising it's getting this appears to be pitched squarely at the mainstream drinker, a segment in Ireland which seems already to be at saturation point with beers such as Bud, Coors Light (licensed to Heineken), Miller, Carlsberg, Stella, Beck's Vier and Heineken itself, the brand leader. It's a little strange that they figured there was room for another, but there you go. The accompanying marketing material says Ireland is the first territory outside Canada to get Canadian, while the packaging says it's brewed in the UK. It seems unlikely that they're making it across the water just for us, so presumably there are plans to put it on the British market too at some point.

Unusually for this sort of beer it's a mere 4% ABV: 4.3% is the normal strength for these, demanded by the Irish market to such an extent that AB-InBev brew a special version of Beck's Vier at this ABV just for us. I welcome more lower strength beers, but it still seems kinda risky to me. Pouring revealed a pale gold lager topped by a healthy fluffy froth. It must also have knocked quite a bit of the gas out as it was beautifully smooth on the first sip, and nicely sweet too, akin to the better class of Munich helles, with a hint of dry grain husk. It all unravelled pretty quickly after that, however. The sweetness unfolds into a nasty sweetcorn flavour and is joined by a horrible metallic saccharine tang where the hop bitterness ought to be. By the third mouthful, that metal was all I could taste and only the low carbonation stopped it from being completely undrinkable. Quality pilsner it most definitely isn't.

For the casual drinker of "craft" beers, yet another seasonal from Blue Moon, this one called Valencia Grove Amber. The name suggests someone thought that what Blue Moon needed was more orange, but it's actually got less of a sticky fruit thing than usual. Instead the amber malt flavour is to the fore: an intensely sugary biscuit character that builds as it goes down with no hop bitterness or yeast spices to balance it. The finish is a dusty, musty burlap with possibly a vein of coconut through it. 5.9% ABV would suggest a heavy beer but it's not really, and the residual dark sugars reminded me of the sort of effect you get with England's less pleasant heavy brown bitters. Whoever this is aimed at, it ain't me.

It's hard to know whether to take the final two beers seriously or not. They come from a genuine small brewery -- Sharp's of Cornwall -- are of robust and flavoursome styles and are presented in very sober wrappings with thin san serif text and a graphic of the brewer's signature. But then they also arrived with a matching branded bar of chocolate each.

I opened the Honey Spice Tripel first. It's one of those beers that magically transports me straight back to Belgium on the first sip: that beautiful yeast-derived spicy warmth is present from the outset. There's a lovely honey perfume in the aroma and it drinks smoothly, without too much spicing or heat, despite a whopping 10% ABV. The flavour tails off quite quickly, however, leaving a kind of lagerish watery fizz on the end. Not very complex, but tripel doesn't necessarily need to be. Perhaps a bite of the lemon meringue white chocolate would open it out. Nope! The chocolate is delicious but massively overpowers everything else. The intense sugar and lemon zest completely coats the palate and it's impossible to taste anything through it. I began to worry if I'd ever experience another flavour again, and ended up using the remains of the tripel to try and wash it off. When that didn't work I reached for the water biscuits. Lovely chocolate, but not a match for beer or anything else.

To the Quadrupel Ale next, a reddish brown beer, so a little pale for the style, I think. It's also 10% ABV. The aroma is quite, quite beautiful: fresh C-hops in abundance giving an amazing mango and sherbet effect, like the best American amber ales. This is not a beer for aging. It tastes powerfully fruity, full of prunes in particular, but with elements of dates, figs and similar dark chewy loveliness. After a few sips I began to find the sweetness a little bit jarring but the peachy hop echo in the aftertaste makes it worthwhile. The chocolate is a 70% cocoa dark one and is a stroke of pairing genius: the bitterness counteracts the sweet malt perfectly, without interfering with the hops and actually helps clear the palate, something chocolate is not normally known for. With the prunes subdued, the more vinous qualities of the beer come out and I begin to see why the marketing bumf suggests this as an alternative to port as a digestif.

Molson Coors may not be supplying the best beers on the Irish market, but they certainly can't be faulted on the variety.

11 April 2013

The shape of things to come

German IPAs and imperial stouts are one side of the changes being wrought in teutonic brewing these days, but arguably of more interest is how the native styles are being altered, played with, by brewers who want to give the drinkers something a little bit different. The BrauKunst Live! festival in Munch last month afforded the opportunity to try some of these innovations first hand.

Sometimes it's no more than the name. Camba Bavaria's Fire Beer sounds intriguing but really it's nothing more interesting than a solid, caramel and chocolate-driven doppelbock. A Bourbon Doppelbock is much more like it, and it works remarkably well. The barrel imparts no whisky heat but instead there's all the wood and sherry and dark fruit added to the rich doppelbock flavour profile. The end result is warming, vinous and with a long lingering aftertaste.

Monarchy of Musselland from Cologne had given the wood-aged treatment to their dark gose, making Son of a Batch: Apple, matured on apple wood. It's 5.2% ABV and a barley wine-ish dark red colour. The texture is thin, suggesting the high attenuation typical of gose, and the carbonation is gentle. There's a beautiful summer fruit tartness to it and almost no sappy wood, which is a bonus.

While we're on old-fashioned German beer styles, Weissenohe brought Gruit, although the staffer insisted that they had to add some hops to it or it wouldn't have had a shelf-life. Our subsequent discussion on the antiseptic properties of various herbs was hampered by a failure of botanical vocabulary in each other's languages. Weissenohe has never been one of my favourite breweries, largely because of the overwhelming green noble hop character of their beers, and there's no escaping that, even with this gruit. There's a vague herbal sweetness going on, but nowhere near enough to counter the nettles in what's an otherwise rather dull beer. Still, I walked away heartened to know that gruit lives on in Germany, even if they're not sure about leaving the hops out as yet.

Bavarian weissbier giant Schneider is no stranger to innovation, having produced some ground-breaking hop-forward beers in recent years. Downing pints of Hopfenweisse late into the night at the Weisses Bräuhaus was one of the highlights of this trip and I've never been happier that the experiment became a regular beer. At BrauKunst they launched the second in their Tap X series, replacing the Nelson Sauvin wheat beer from a couple of years ago. Sommer Weisse is the new one, a cloudy blonde with grass and liquorice in the aroma, turning towards more herbal eucalyptus on tasting. It's smooth, light and very quaffable, though lacks the big wow factor which I suspect punters shelling out for a big bottle will be seeking. Definitely built for al fresco drinking in Munich this summer, however.

Schneider wasn't the only behemoth launching a new beer. State-owned Hofbräu -- a by-word for staid Bavarian traditionalism -- had a new Festbier to show off. Sure, there are other German breweries making something called festbier: there's nothing radical about the name. But someone has raided the hop store for this one: sharp lemon rind opens proceedings and the malt gives it a sort of lemon meringue pie effect. Quite delicious and very surprising.

There's less mucking about going on on the pils front but I can't finish up without a quick shout-out for Schönram's Grünhopfenpils. The only innovation here is that the Hersbruckers have been thrown in straight off the bine adding a wonderful pepperiness and really making it stand out from most German pilsners.

And that brings us down to the wire, and the last brewery of the trip. I'd made a second, solo trip out to the festival on the Sunday afternoon, flitting from stall to stall trying to cover as much as possible without missing my plane (which I very nearly did). I'd walked past the Riegele stand a few times and this time actually stopped to read the blackboards. Riegele were at the Berlin Beer Festival last summer and I had a very tasty doppelbock from them. But while very few breweries brought anything innovative to Berlin for fear of scaring the Prussians, there was a definite playfulness apparent in their offerings at BrauKunst. I started with their weizenbock, Augustus: 8% ABV but could pass for half that, being very smooth and drinkable with lots of ripe banana. And then they also had a Simcoe Kellerbier, as one does. I've some nasty things to say about Simcoe in a future post, but this was just stunning: an uncompromising blast of heavy funky hops, unencumbered by any interference from malt or yeast and covering the tongue in a long-lasting oily hop slick. Perhaps lager is where Simcoe really belongs.

And with a mouth full of resinous Simcoe, my weekend ended. BrauKunst Live! is highly recommended as a festival for taking the temperature of progressive German brewing. Having the wonderfully beery city of Munich as a backdrop is just a bonus. Thanks to Barry for making the arrangements.

10 April 2013

Broadening the horizons

I finished yesterday's post on a bit of a whine about BraufactuM and the whole overpriced corporate "gourmet" beer angle they seem to be pushing. I can't complain too much, though, as there were some very interesting imports on their stand next to their own stuff. For one thing they've acquired import rights to California's Firestone Walker. I took the opportunity to try Pale 31, the standard pale ale. I loved the flawless clear gold colour and the sharp citric aroma which immediately puts the palate on full alert. It's no hop bomb, however, being gently flavoured with hints of peaches and honeydew melon. One of those effortlessly delicious and drinkable beers. Double Jack is the brewery's double IPA and it's a mellow, warming one, again not overdoing things on the bitterness front, but not really on any other front either. A much better strong beer experience came from 14th Anniversary, an extremely boozy 12.5% ABV ale but one where all that heat doesn't matter, especially in a 100ml serve. Up front it wears a big smooth chocolate liqueur flavour: sinful and sumptuous.

A long-time stand-out on my list of must-drink beers is Baladin's Elixir and I was delighted to see it too was in BraufactuM's fridges. I requested a taster and, as no bottle was open already, my server popped a new one and the beer within exploded, foamily and messily, over the concrete floor of the Munich transport museum. Better there than at home or in a hotel room, I guess. Eventually, a sample was poured into a glass for me, at a 50% discount due to the inconvenience. And to be honest it wasn't the beer I'd been waiting for: hot smelling and rather characterless, like a first-attempt homebrewed dubbel. A surprising drop of the ball by the Piedmontese brewery there.

And speaking of hyped-up Italians, there was some Birrificio Italiano Tipopils knocking around and I secured a sip courtesy of Mark. It's quite nice, with a pleasant nettley bite, but to be honest I can't see what all the fuss is about. Maybe I need more than a mouthful to judge it properly.

While we're visiting the neighbours, a quick courtesy call on Austria whose brewers had banded together into a single large bar. Gusswerk were offering that German teenage classic the hemp beer, and theirs is called Synergy. While there's definitely some hempy pepperiness buried in it, it's mostly just a rather disappointing plain pils. At the other end of the bar Gusswerk were offering Horny Betty, a version of their Black Betty with added horny goat weed. I don't recall a style being named but it's dark brown and 9.2% ABV, tasting somewhere along the Belgian-style quadrupel to imperial stout spectrum: lots of dark fruit esters and lots of smooth chocolate too. Far from being a mere puerile novelty, the horny goat weed actually adds a pleasant herbal, medicinal character to the overall flavour.

On tasting Engelszell Gregorius back in February I mentioned I was looking forward to their next beer. Turns out I didn't have to wait too long because here it was: Benno, a tripel. Unfortunately it's not a great example of the style. Appropriately gold, it's missing the lovely fruit and honey and spice one would expect and is instead rather unpleasantly sharp. A shame.

Czech representation at BrauKunst Live! came in two flavours: the big bombastic glitz of Pilsner Urquell and on the other side of the hall, Honza Kočka, single-handedly flying the flag for his Nomád brand of ales. A question about how receptive the German market is to Czech IPA was shrugged off: Honza was mostly there to make contacts, drink beer and have fun. Sounds fair. Easy Rider was the Nomád beer everyone was talking about: a modest 4.8% ABV pale ale hopped with Chinook, Willamette and Cascade and bursting with fresh zingy citrus flavours on top of a fuller, weedier, hop funk. Above all it's sessionable, easy-going and sociable, hitting similar places as the Firestone Walker Pale 31. Its bigger brother is Karel, a 7.6% ABV IPA done entirely with Czech hop varieties. The end result is one of those warming, malt-driven IPAs very much echoing the English style for me. Very enjoyable but not for the hoph