30 May 2013

Don't have a cow

After a wait of six months, and plenty of pan-European brewing activity evidenced on Twitter, the second beer from the Brown Paper Bag Project landed last week. Oxman is a 5.8% ABV brown ale and was launched in parallel with a re-brewed, re-designed Dr Rudi, the second batch of which, I think, was brewed at Proef in Belgium.

Actually, they're not great on the whole provenance thing, the Baggers. Not only does Oxman not say where it comes from (Dancing Duck in Derbyshire, I'm told), it doesn't even say where the Project itself is based, which puts it in breach of Irish labelling laws. And while I'm throwing the book at them, the promised best before date wasn't on the shoulder of my bottle either, not that that one matters to me particularly.

It's definitely bottle-conditioned, as a layer of sediment shows clearly at the base of the bottle. That's something that tends to niggle me with medium-strength beers in 33cl bottles but this one is strong enough and dark enough for it not to be a problem. A mahogany coloured body is topped by a thin ivory head from which a wholesome oatmeal and raisin aroma rises. The texture is a beautiful sheer silk, one that bottle conditioned beers so rarely have, and the lead flavours are milk chocolate finishing on a crisp green bitterness fading to slightly metallic tangy notes. What separates it from your run of the mill brown ale is that extra ABV, spreading warmth and good vibes on the palate and down the hatch. There is a school of thought which says this sort of beer is only suited to winter but you won't find me at assembly there.

It's not a knock-you-out-of-your-chair-with-amazement beer. I've yet to find a brown ale that is. But it is a very well-balanced yet assertive, moreish ale. There's a limited supply on cask at WJ Kavanagh's and I strongly recommend taking the opportunity of getting stuck in to a proper pint or two if you can.

27 May 2013

Black marks

I didn't go near the Struise stall at the Zythos Beer Festival this year. A glance at their huge menu board showed lots of beers I'd already tried and none I wanted to run back to. At Borefts they'd been charging multiples of what most other stands did and I wasn't going to bother finding out if they were running the same policy closer to home. So I brought my sour grapes to other stalls instead.

I did have a couple of Struis bottles waiting in the fridge at home, however, both of the dark and strong variety. First out was Black Damnation: Coffee Club: number 4 in the sequence, following "Mocha Bomb" in the weaponised caffeine drinks series. The blurb makes no mention of actual coffee here, only that this 13% ABV imperial stout is based on Struise's Black Albert and has been matured in rum casks, but one sniff demonstrates clearly how it got its name: there's a massive blast of coffee in the aroma, and quite a bit of rum too. Worryingly there's a fair whack of cardboard as well, suggesting that the amateurish label wasn't the only part of the packaging process that wasn't done as carefully as it might have been.

The rum elements in the aroma translate into a strong booze heat in the flavour, with a slight sourness and some lovely porty vinous qualities. The oxidised staleness is thankfully buried deep beneath this and, once you get used to the heat, it's actually quite a nice sipper. Not one of those that sneaks its alcohol on you: you feel every unit going in.

And because you can't have too many strong dark beers, here's Outblack, a milksop of just 10% ABV, brewed in association with Stillwater and boasting a grain bill including barley, wheat, oats and rye. Once again they're not out to be subtle so I can't honestly say what each grain brought to the finished product, but it is pretty damn full-on. Once the over-enthusiastic head subsides there's a hot-and-sour liquorice aroma and a flavour of dark liqueur chocolates. Some sort of brandy liqueurs, if I was guessing, though perhaps shading towards cough mixture.

Despite the best efforts of the busy carbonation to mask them, the flavours just kept on coming and before I was done I had noted menthol as well, plus -- oh no -- more of the wet cardboard I could smell in the Coffee Club. While the other elements kept shifting, that staleness stayed consistent on the end of each mouthful right to the very bottom. A lot going on in this one, but it's still something of a curate's egg, unfortunately.

You can't mark Struise down for being uninteresting or not putting the effort in, but too often the quality of the beers just isn't what it should be for a brewery that garners their level of acclaim.

23 May 2013

Nailed it

I first encountered Whitewater's new beer Hoppelhammer in The Purty Kitchen last month. It made its debut at the Belfast Beer Festival last November but sold out quickly -- draught and bottled --  long before I got to try it. The recently-refurbished and thoroughly craftified Purty was the Monkstown stop on a recent DART-based pub crawl and that's where I spotted the beer on the blackboard. A bottle was kindly donated by the management and shared around. It was tasty enough to warrant a proper review at a later stage.

The opportunity arrived, again unexpectedly, some weeks later on a visit to The Brewer's House in Donaghmore, Co. Tyrone. This village pub has been transformed into a foodie haven while still retaining its essential pubbiness. At the centre of the offer is the beer, and it's likely to stay that way as the on-site pilot brewery is expanded later this year into a full-size kit. There was some remarkably well kept Belfast Ale on cask and surprise Hoppelhammer on keg.

This stuff is 6% ABV and very well balanced between the big malt and big hops. Even from the very start the aroma mixes sweet 'n' sticky with a dusting of citrus and sherbet. Colourwise it's a rich dark Lucozade orange. The hops lay the first punch: bittersweet marmalade, followed quickly by a spreading warmth -- it could definitely pass for stronger than it is. I was expecting a layer of toasty malt, like you often get in English IPAs of a similar strength, but none of that is permitted. The hops continue to throw shapes, running through grassy, to tangy and metallic, and finishing on a mouth-watering bitter bite. For all of its power it's a very drinkable beer and I was well able to throw back two pints as an accompaniment to my lamb and in lieu of a dessert.

Whether big-and-hoppy is just a fad for 2013, or whether this really is part of a new wave in Irish brewing remains to be seen. I'm just happy to have the 'hammer while it's here and hope that it's worth Whitewater's time to keep it going. Buy it if you see it.

20 May 2013

Working blue

I do like a bit of blueberry now and then: in a muffin, on a cheesecake, ice cream, pancakes, and even in the odd beer. The very odd beer, sometimes. I found this tall boy in La Chope de Lug in Lyon last year, and though it appears to have a long description for a name, the brewery's website is content to call it Bourganel aux Myrtilles and therefore so shall I. It's one of a range of flavoured beers by Bourganel, a brewery in south-western France, just underneath Lyon itself. If blueberries don't float your boat, honey, nougat, and chestnut are also available. I think I chose the safe option.

From the bottle it pours a very bright red and smells, perhaps unsurprisingly, jammy. What is surprising is that the aromas speak much more of redcurrants and strawberries than blueberries (for a possible explanation, see the first comment below). On tasting you get even more jam, but tart rather than sweet, with the sharp and ever so slightly gritty flavour of raspberry seeds. It takes a while for the sweeter blueberry notes to come through, but they do build gradually, and thankfully there's a whole 75cl to allow that to happen.

If fruit beers aren't your thing then this won't be either, but I found it enjoyable, fun and above all different.

16 May 2013

Dispense with the formalities

Cask Thornbridge Halcyon was a pleasant surprise on the cask beer engine at Against the Grain a few months ago. I had encountered an aged version at a festival a while back so it was interesting to compare notes with a spanking fresh pint.

It's a very different experience, with the powerful pithy hops exploding on the palate. Yet, amazingly, it's not in any way acrid or harsh and I don't reckon that can be chalked up to the balancing effect of the malt, even though it's all of 7.4% ABV. Which leaves me wondering if it's the smoothing effect of the cask dispense at work, or maybe just a brewer who knows what he's doing when it comes to putting a recipe together. Anyway, fresh Halcyon is recommended.

Over at the keg end of the bar  that evening they had Thornbridge's Chiron on. Since it's a fancypants import keg beer I was surprised to get given a pint: usually it's a 375ml glass for this sort, but I wasn't complaining. I first encountered this last time I was in London and enjoyed it; this time it just didn't work as well, lacking in body and flavour and with its tiny bit of dank tasting like 5am Saint's weedy little brother. Not enough flavour power for a sipper and too strong to be properly sessionable, it was neither one thing nor another. Perhaps the lesson here is not to follow the double IPA with a mere American-style pale ale.

I suppose I should have one of Thornbridge's tall handsome bottles next to complete the set. Fortunately I found their Vienna lager Kill Your Darlings in Redmond's recently. It's been out a while but this was the first time I'd seen it in real life and it's a truly superb beer. A spot-on shade of teak and wonderfully silky, having a texture that's full without being heavy and the gentle carbonation of German lager served from a wooden barrel.

The flavour reminds me of the first time I tasted Samuel Adams Boston Lager and the redefinition of what malt tastes like: rich and biscuity with some mild caramel and even a little smoke. There's a certain bitterness to it too: some liquorice and sour plum, and the Amarillo hops bring just a slight overtone of soft juicy peach. It's a tragedy that such an insanely quaffable beer costs close to €5 a pop in the off licence. Just as well the draught Thornbridge beers are no strangers to our better pubs then.

13 May 2013

Delays expected

Widmer Brothers of Portland, Oregon are one of the veterans of American craft brewing. These days the brand is tied up with a couple of others in a company called Craft Brew Alliance which has beer megalith A-B InBev as its largest shareholder. A few of the range are available in Ireland now and I picked some up in DrinkStore a while back.

I was going to pass on the Widmer Hefeweizen but Ken almost insisted. It is, after all, one of the first beers produced under the brand back in the mid-'80s, before US craft beer became a hop-centred activity. Though the title is German the label depicts a very Belgian slice of lemon. Well there was no lemon in mine. A pleasing relatively dark orange beer poured out, appropriately cloudy, especially after I'd swirled and lobbed the lees in on top of the foam. It's not a weissbier aroma, however, showing the orangey spice of Belgian wit. Not unpleasant, though, by any means. The carbonation is surprisingly light and there's a very simple orange cordial and sherbet foretaste but very little behind it, just a slightly metallic wateriness. More of a sparkle would help lift it, I think, and it's very easy drinking, but I find it a little too sickly sweet for my liking. That it bears no resemblance whatsoever to any German hefeweizen is the least of its issues.

Moving on to something a bit more Pacific-North-Westy, Ken said Falconer's IPA was his personal favourite of the bunch. The deep orange colour heralds the inevitable crystal malt, and sure enough there's a huge toffee element to the flavour. It's, not exactly balanced, but more countered, by quite an intense cabbagey bitterness that incorporates the strong tannins of over-stewed tea. And, unfortunately, that's all that's happening. My bottle is almost six months out of the brewery so it's likely there are some fresh hop elements missing from the equation: the aroma certainly hints at a peach and mango character that is sadly absent from the flavour. Still, if bitterness and toffee is your thing: come and get it.

The first thing I noticed about the Pitch Black IPA is that it was over a month older than the Falconer's. It still smelled fresher, though: enticingly spicy peppery hops. The flavour is a bit of a let-down, however. It's mostly quite dry and a little metallic with just a bit of burnt treacle, adding up to a so-so stout, but not an IPA. The hop vapours make a return in the aftertaste but it's too late then to dispel the stoutiness. Again, perhaps it's a better all-round experience when fresh, but definitely not one of the best American black IPAs I've met.

Last of the collection is the Nelson Imperial IPA: a mere 8.6% ABV, only slightly up from the Falconer's 7%. It poured a lurid orange and smelled weirdly sour, with a kind of oily orange aroma, like the supermarket fruit section at the end of a warm summer's day. Again, this is over half a year out of the brewery but there's still a wonderful burst of freshness on tasting, a blast of jaffa orange and jasmine. All the hop spice I found missing from the Pitch Black flavour is delivered here. Recent experiences with American double or imperial IPAs have taught me that they're all either about the big heavy crystal malt toffee, or (if you're lucky) extreme citric bitterness. This is neither of those: delivering instead the zesty fresh soft fruit flavours which, for me, are the whole point of hops.

The bottom line? For Portland establishment, and an inevitable future subsidiary of A-B InBev, Widmer still seem to know what they're doing. My only real beef is whether we need this stuff to be schlepping 6,000 miles to us. It's all well within the bounds of European brewing these days, and our drinking it aged is doing neither party any favours. Drink local, as they say in Oregon, but probably not in St. Louis.

09 May 2013

All of Belgium, all at once

Another national beer festival, another aircraft-hangar-like space crammed with beer stalls and punters. The 2013 Zythos Beer Festival at the Brabanthal on the outskirts of Leuven wasn't quite on the same monolithic scale as the Great British Beer Festival when at Earls Court, but was certainly bigger than the Irish equivalent at the RDS last September. Just over 100 stalls had beers for sale, usually four or five each. The parsimonious trappists shared one austere bottle-only stall between six of them while A-B InBev sulked in a corner wondering why nobody wanted to buy its Leffe Royale. The show-offs were Struise and Alvinne, boasting a massive menu board on their neighbouring booths, side-by-side at the entrance.

Top of my hitlist was a beer I've been meaning to get hold of for years but never managed to: Duvel Tripel Hop. The 2013 edition has been given the Sorachi Ace treatment and the aroma from it is spectacular: a massive burst of fresh nectarine and passionfruit. The flavour is rather spikier, the soft fruit turning to sharp lemon pith which is a little overpowering. Still, worth it for the smell. I see that Kill enjoyed it too. Also on the long finger was Slaapmutske Dry-Hopped Lager. This wasn't as impressive as I'd heard, being a passable full-bodied hazy pale lager with a slight sharpness but mostly smooth and drinkable.

Of the IPAs on show I was especially impressed by Hopjutters Triple Hop. Its aroma goes past fruit into an intense eye-watering perfume though the flavour is much more restrained with big succulent peaches in abundance. 7.2% ABV yet dangerously easy to drink. I hope we'll be seeing more from this outfit soon. De Dochter van de Korenaar did something entirely different with their IPA Extase. So Intense You Won't Be Able To Taste Anything Else For Half An Hour!! squealed their poster. That's nice dear. Extase is a dark hazy orange colour and quite heavy and hot. The hop flavours lean towards the medicinal: eucalyptus and menthol notes in particular. I'm not really sure if I liked it or not but I've never tasted anything like it from a Belgian brewery, so it has that going for it. The wooden spoon of the IPA section goes to Green Cap, brewed by Belgian brewery Gulden Spoor for Dutch brand Butcher's Tears. There's a decidedly unBelgian blast of toffeeish crystal malt at the centre of this; behind it little more than a citric tang and a sharp finish, but it's very much malt driven, and one-dimensionally so.

One brand whose hop prowess I've been impressed by in the past is Troubadour and I almost succumbed to another hit of their sublime Westkust black IPA. But, stuck for time as always, I opted instead for Mundus Vetus, a 9% ABV rye tripel, produced in association with Anchor of San Francisco. It's dark for a tripel: much more amber than gold, and pulls off a stunning balancing act between the yeast based spiciness of tripel and the almost peppery piquancy you get from rye. There's a lot of vegetal leafyness going on but balanced against some purely Belgian candy sweetness. And speaking of sweet, Ecaussinnes's Ultramour is one to mark For My Palate Only. It's insanely sweet, almost to saccharine levels. No right-minded beer drinker could possibly enjoy a concoction like this. There's a great big raspberry on the label but the dominant flavour I got was cherry: a concentrated syrupy cherryness which brought me back to my first ever kriek experience, with Bellevue, a beer I still have a soft gooey spot for. It's fine: you just leave me and Ultramour alone for a while and go and drink something else. I'll join you in a minute.

It's always nice to see a bit of gimmickry going on with lambic. Timmermans had a limited edition Oude Gueuze on offer. It's straight-up sour, which is unusual for Timmermans. It even leans a little bit towards the vinegary side of the house but fortunately doesn't quite go all the way there. Tilquin had their Gueuze on the handpump and it was really fascinating. Sour: yes, completely, but not in any way tart or sharp. Instead it's a weird sort of smooth sourness, with that heady brick-cellar spice. It was also almost totally flat which helped make it ridiculously sinkable. I'd love to settle in for a session on this some time.

The Gimmick of the Festival award goes to Girardin, and again it was an Oude Gueuze they were serving. Only somewhere they'd managed to get hold of your actual Randall The Enamel Animal, still bearing the Dogfish Head logo on its exterior. The tube had been stuffed with Nelson Sauvin and it had a wonderful effect on the dark gold lambic, adding a whiff of white grape flavour to proceedings along with a tiny extra acidic bite. The possibilities created by this sort of thing are immense. Let's get more Randalls into the hands of lambic producers.

And that brings the festivities to a close. I liked ZBF: not so vast as to be heartless but still with bags of choice from Belgian breweries of all sizes making every kind of beer. What a national beer festival is supposed to be, in short.

06 May 2013

Leuven large

A return to Belgium was top of my to-do list for this year. It's been so long they've probably changed all the beers in my absence. Certainly there was no shortage of new things to try. Most of the weekend was spent in Leuven, the university town near Brussels playing host to both the Zythos Beer Festival and the EBCU spring meeting. More on the the former later.

I arrived into town on a sweltering hot afternoon and started with a leisurely stroll from the station to the town centre. I'd been here once before, 11 years ago, and the Domus brewpub was among the first I ever drank in. It hadn't changed: still a slightly rambly multi-level bar, all bare brick and bric-à-brac, with the brewery in an adjacent building. A friendly waiter showed me to a table I could plonk myself at and I picked the unfiltered pils from the menu, a beer somebody chose to call Con Domus and nobody chose to stop them.

At first I thought it was a mistake: the beer that arrived was perfectly clear, the clear gold of many an industrial lager. The flavour was a lot more interesting, however: sweet at first, then suddenly bitter, reminding me of dipping a finger into hopped malt extract. A simple, decent beer, and bang on the money after a long journey on a warm day.

At this point I spotted the three-beer tasting tray on the menu and opted for that, confirming for myself that it was the house pils I'd just had, not a macro alternative. The other regular beer they make is Nostra Domus, a hazy dark orange ale with lots of very typical Belgian yeast esters. The carbonation is low and there's a little toffee but not much else. Another simple beer but pleasantly full-flavoured. Too many mass-market Belgian amber ales have an unpleasant watery core, but I have no such criticism to make of this.

The seizoen on the day was a Blond, though I thought it was a witbier the first I saw it, as it was the exact same hazy yellow colour. An immediate kick of nutmeg spice begins things, followed by a little bit of banana and a growing warmth from the alcoholic vapours. Eventually it just got a little too heavy to enjoy properly and had me hankering for the cleanliness of the pils again.

The designated meeting point for EBCU delegates was M-Café, attached to the city museum. The selection here was certainly a cut above the normal museum café, with five non-macro beers on tap and dozens of bottled options. Special of the day was a comparison tray of St Bernardus Abt. 12 and Westvleteren 12 for €8. You wouldn't get that in Collins Barracks. I ordered a Taras Boulba while I made up my mind what to have next and, occasionally, socialise with people.

A popular option among the group was Hanssens Oude Gueuze, a brand I was completely unfamiliar with, so that's what I had next. It's a fun little lambic, cloudy orange and with the full bricks-and-gunpowder aroma but totally smooth on the palate; all its sharp edges have been rounded off with time. I got a shock when I saw Ommegang on the blackboard, but this isn't from Duvel-Moortgat's New York operation, it's by Brouwerij Haacht, one of their Keizer Karel series. There's not m