29 August 2013

Tales from the press room

Last month, Dublin played host to the Alltech Gathering, a three-day conference / tradeshow / festival organised by the Kentucky-based multi-faceted Alltech corporation, which has brewing as just one of its interests. The main floor of the Convention Centre had a couple of bars set up, a music stage and tutored tasting area while the conference sessions happened upstairs. One of the many sideshows of the weekend was the Dublin Craft Beer Cup, an international competition to find the best beer from among several dozen entries. The eventual winner was Hilden for their Twisted Hop pale ale. I was fortunate enough to be invited up to the press room during the conference to have a taste of the entrants, along with other brewers, bloggers, retailers and similar human detritus that you tend to find hanging round these things in search of a freebie.

To say that the entrants were sourced from far and wide is an understatement: six continents were represented in the fridge, with only the lamentable state of Antarctican craft brewing letting the side down. Between the chatting and the sipping it was all a bit speed-datey, but here's some of what I managed to get my paws on over the two days.

Among the Europeans there was an unfamiliar one from Jopen in the Netherlands, a witbier called Adriaan. I liked it a lot, it being very clean and fresh tasting, with none of the stale grain or overdone sweet lemon you sometimes find in second-rate witbier. This is zesty and sessionable, as wit should be. As a regular visitor to Arendsnest I was surprised to encounter a Dutch brand I'd never heard of: Rodenburg and their Bronckhorster Royal RHA IPA. This is one of the darker heavier types of IPA, hazy orange, with funky weedy flavours lightened just enough by citrus piquancy. I'll be looking out for more from them. We go south for the third European, to Birra & Blues in Valencia and their Doble Malta. 6.2% ABV and I've no idea what style it's supposed to be but it tastes very pilsy to me, in a good way. Lots of herbal nettle things going on.

Representing North America we have Mill St. Wit from Toronto. Not quite in the same league as the Jopen, but unchallenging and sessionable, which are entirely acceptable things for witbier to be. From the other end of the continent came Bayernbräu Dunkel: authentically German in both its styling and flavour, though brewed in Puebla, east of Mexico City. All the appropriate smoothness and light milk chocolate with just a tang of saccharine sweetness. Indistinguishable from the real Bavarian deal.

If we keep going south, a long way south, we come to Curitaba in Brazil, where the Morada beers are brewed. Double Vienna is a rather hot darkish lager which I could take or leave. I'm sure there's plenty better in Brazil.

South America ticked off we cross the South Atlantic to Africa and Jack Black's in Cape Town. Lumberjack Amber Ale was the contribution to the session and I found it a little watery. It's one of those beers where the brewer claims to have used "mountains of hops" and you wonder if they've ever climbed anything higher than a gentle incline.

To Asia, and the sole representative is, bizarrely, not Japanese, or Singaporean. Instead it's Tintin Toit from the Toit brewpub in Bangalore. Another continent and another witbier, and once again this is spot-on. It's rather drier than normal but that just adds to the refreshment power, lending it an almost saisonesque quality.

And that leaves just Earth's south-eastern quarter and only New Zealand had anything to say for itself here. In fact, just Auckland, and we all know that things from [insert big city] are in no way typical of things from [insert country name].  My first beer of the session was Schipper's Chinook -- a lovely hop-forward combo of oily funk and sweet tangy marmalade. More impressive certainly than Deep Creek's 7.3% ABV "Scotch ale" Dweller on the Threshold which was a dark brown glass of nothing very much. Some mild woodiness from the barrel ageing, a bit of saccharine sweetness, but little else.

That just leaves the Ben Middlemiss brewery. They supplied Nota Bene, a strong dark abbey ale of 8.7% ABV. It's an opaque brown after the gritty lees have followed the beer into a glass and hits all the usual figgy, earthy, caramelly notes you might expect. But there's a subtle hint of hoppy citrus lurking cheekily in the background if you take the time to find it. Middlemiss also had an IPA called Hodgson, unable to believe their luck that nobody else was claiming the name, I guess. A stonking 8.8% ABV and gorgeous with it: full on front-of-palate spiciness. I was very surprised to learn that they achieved this using solely kiwi hops: Motueka and Kohatu, neither of which I'd class myself as a fan of, but Hodgson has that sumptuous quality that reminds the drinker of IPA's heritage as a beer for the wealthy.

Massive thanks to Sarah and Will of Alltech for running the press room and looking after the liggers so excellently (there were sandwiches and everything), and there's more to come from the Convention notes in due course.

26 August 2013

Five point plan

These five beers by Stevens Point Brewery in Wisconsin came as a freebie from The Beer Club (thanks Stephen!) who are importing the range. The initial set looks to have crossed the Atlantic a little slowly judging from the tight best-before dates, so hardened hop fans may prefer to wait for a later batch.

Nothing stale about Point Belgian White however. Though a biggish 5.4% ABV it's nicely light of touch, showing zingy spices at the front and finishing on sweet orange and banana. The middle is a little watery but the beer as a whole doesn't suffer because of it. Not too sweet and not too dry, it's pretty much on the money for a summery wit.

Next up Point Amber Lager: a tough style to impress with now that the 1990s are behind us. They've laid on the caramel quite heavily here, shading towards a kind of smokiness. Not much else going on, however. Simple and tasty, and not a thing wrong with it, but not especially interesting. Finishing up quickly, I expected bigger things from the back three.

Point Black Ale is 5.2% ABV and a very dark red. Liquorice and molasses form the centrepiece of the aroma. In the mouth it shows itself as another thin one but that liquorice flavour really punches through. A hint of plum and fig appears just on the end. The rest of the flavour is quite simple, clean you might say, putting this somewhere on the schwarzbier to porter spectrum -- a much gentler proposition than the US and US-style black IPAs currently doing the rounds.

To Point Pale Ale next, a bright and cheery red-gold. I strongly suspected the fresh hops had departed here, from the mere hint of boiled sweet in the aroma, but it turns out I've had this before a couple of years ago -- badged as "Cascade Pale Ale" for the local market -- and there wasn't much by way of hopping in evidence then. I enjoyed it more this time round, finding a pleasant sweet tangerine tang, though that's pretty much your lot flavourwise. It's along similar lines to the witbier, being simple, approachable and well put together but a bit more complexity would be welcome, since we're north of 5% ABV.

Last in the series is Point IPA, quite a dark amber though at 5.6% ABV only a smidge stronger than the foregoing Pale Ale. There's a bitterness in the finish, but no aroma to speak of and very little happening in the flavour either. Some sherbet, and a vague metallic background, but none of the oomph you're looking for in an American IPA.

I reckon the Pale Ale is the star of the show here. It has a balance and drinkability I appreciate and I'd love to try it with a little less age on it. The rest are welcome additions to the American beer scene in Ireland, though they don't offer much that isn't already available.

22 August 2013

Too sloe

You know you're in Belgium when your bottle of beer features a cartoon version of itself on the label. So it is with Sloeber, not the most attractive name for a beer I've ever encountered. A dark gold body under a beehive hairdo of bright white foam which thankfully subsides quite quickly.

Nothing much is going on in the aroma, just a vaguely sweaty yeast thing. The flavour is understated but far from unpleasant. It's a little on the watery side, being a tiddling 7.5% ABV, but overlaying this there's a rather wonderful peach and mandarin flavour: sweet, but with a certain tartness as well. An additional grainy breadiness lurks beneath.

I confess that I've held on to this bottle a little longer than the label indicated I should have so I'm left wondering what it would be like if fresh -- a little livlier, I'd say, with more of that lovely fresh fruit. But even carelessly matured it works quite well, even if it lacks the oomph of stronger Belgian blonde ales.

19 August 2013

Down the hatch in London and Brighton

A couple of recent posts were about my weekend in London at the beginning of July. Before that I spent a few days in Brighton for work. Time was tight and I did no pub-hopping, not even a return visit to The Evening Star. Instead I took up residence in The Craft Beer Company, a branch of the chain which also has several outlets in London. It's a compact little place and seems to get a mostly local crowd, but generally quite clued-in on beer, judging from the conversations I overheard.

The first beer that drew my attention was Bell Rock 'n' Hop by Fyne Ales, part of something they're calling their "IPA Project". It reminded me a lot of Sanda Blonde, which is very much a compliment. A gently funky fruit flavour is at the centre here, weedy but not quite catty; pithy without being harsh or sharp. The cask serve lends it a certain rounded mellowness but it's every bit as hop-driven as any kegged IPA, with long lingering hop oils coating the palate. It could have done with being served a mite cooler, but very little to complain about otherwise.

Cornwall's Harbour Brewing were doing a bit of a tap takeover while I was there and I did my best to get through the set. Harbour Amber Ale came first in the queue: 4% ABV and the proper shade of bronze, but that's where its good points end. An astringent bitterness starts it off, followed by a mostly watery middle bit and then a token piece of sad wholegrain digestive on the end. The whole just never quite comes together as a recipe and the hoped for hops were nowhere to be found.

Harbour East India Porter made a better fist of things: this is 4.9% ABV and a dark ruby-brown. There's an odd but fun gunpowder nose and the flavour offers jammy damsons and plums coupled with a much drier roasted finish. It's a straightforward, solid porter, but not massively exciting. I guess the name had me expecting more from it.

The top cask, however, was Harbour IPA. A reddish gold and nicely balanced at the 5% ABV mark: you could get stuck in for a session if you wanted to, but there's value to be had from just the one. Fresh juicy tangerines waft off the surface and the flavour begins by lightly scorching the palate with hop acids. A flash of Simcoe darts in but immediately lightens up into peach and mango. Its parting shot is a dryness which necessitates the next sip immediately. Magnificent stuff.

We switch over to keg dispense for the last of the Harbours: their India Brown Ale. It's rather pale, given the name: more of a red-amber than brown. It deftly balances orange sherbet and parma violets on a light milky toffee backdrop. Perhaps just a little too fizzy to be spot on, it did offer an interesting contract to the cask Amber, doing a lot of similar things only much better.

One token American propped up the keg fonts: Casserly Wet Hop from Uncommon Brewers in Santa Cruz, California. California? Wet hopped? I'm in! £3.95 a half? OK, I'm still in. Just. It arrived a dark amber colour and I opened my nostrils for some major citric Pacific hops. I got cereals and vinegar. Oh dear. Any wet hops have long since slid off this one, leaving biscuit and rye bread graininess. Drinkable, so not a total disaster, but definitely trading under false pretences as regards the hopping.

Carnival by Magic Rock was a new one for me. This is their 4.3% ABV summer blonde which features some light peachiness against a much harsher waxy bitter background. I'd prefer something a bit easier drinking in this genre, but the fan of stern pils would probably love it.

Much more interesting was Magic Rock's grapefruit gose, called Salty Kiss. It's 5% ABV and a pale hazy orange colour. It's wonderfully crisp, like a superb lager, and the sourness brings lambic to mind though it doesn't deliver the same sour punch. The salty tang is mild and pleasant and the grapefruit is fresh and zingy. All together it makes for a fantastic summer pick-me-up and palate cleanser.

Work done I left Brighton to meet herself in London, rendez-vousing at the Market Porter in Borough. It was busy with Bulmers drinkers on the Friday evening but we found a quiet corner to catch up and make plans. From the cask selection I had a Hop Dog pale ale from Sunny Republic down Dorset way. A bit of a powerhouse this, at 5.5% ABV and brewed with Kohatu hops. It's dark, heavy and a bit musty with a strange opal fruit flavour which suggests spooky abandoned sweetshop to me. On another occasion it might be a winner but it wasn't what I needed to clear the dust of the Brighton to London railway from my throat. Ah well.

Later that same stifling weekend we decided to get out of the city for the afternoon and paid a visit to Hampton Court Palace. Post historic pints were had in the neighbouring village of East Molsey, at the Prince of Wales pub. Whoever picks the casks here knows when to go pale 'n' 'oppy, or maybe that's just what gets brewed these days. Either way, I was well impressed. Itchen Valley Citra first: perhaps unnecessarily strong at 4.4% ABV, pale gold and with a haze that I think can safely be attributed to the hops. The texture is light and there's a respectful presence of biscuit malt, but really it's all about the bucketloads of oily lupulin, perky and zingy and only just nipping the back of the throat with acidic cheekiness at the end. Beautiful.

Twickenham's Naked Ladies attempts to do something similar, being the same strength and only a little darker. It's a much gentler drinking experience, however, offering fresh peaches and some delicate bubblegum. Nicely balanced and subtle, though a little forgettable next to the Itchen beer, if I'm honest.

The quaffing award goes to Park Life by Windsor & Eton. 3.2% ABV and insanely drinkable. The hops contribute an orange blossom character which sits on top of a lightly tannic body lending it the quenching refreshment power of cold iced tea. This is what I needed back at the Market Porter.

I couldn't leave without trying the house beer: Hampton Hero. It's a garnet coloured 3.9% ABV bitter brewed by Greene King. There's an interesting mix of artificial fruity perfume and lurid coloured chewy candy on a tannic and quite grainy base. "Rooibos tea" opined the wife, having more experinece of such things. It's certainly not bland but I don't think it compared favourably with the other, paler, offers on the day.

15 August 2013

Chew on this

There are few things that make one appreciate Bavarian beer the way it's meant to be appreciated more than Ron's travelogues, but one of them is arriving home thirsty and opening up something Bavarian from the fridge. I was actually a little disappointed to discover that what I'd thought was a quaffable dunkel was actually a doppelbock: Kloster Scheyern Doppelbock, to be precise.

Still, despite being 7.4% ABV it did the job. It's as full and sticky as one would expect from the style but still manages to maintain a fantastic smooth drinkability. The aroma puts up a bit of a barrier to begin with, being powerfully hot and syrupy. Underneath that, however, it's so much more approachable. Lots of high-cocoa dark chocolate, some tangy treacle, sharper liquorice and succulent figs and plums. The texture is full, as one would expect, but not overly heavy or cloying. One mouthful follows the next until the glass is empty.

I'm not saying I'd be on for immediately starting into another, but it's rare to encounter a strong dark thirst quencher, and it's something that Bavaria in particular seems to excel at.

12 August 2013

An American weird beer in London

Cheers to Derek for the heads-up that The White Horse in Parson's Green were staging their annual American beer festival on the weekend I was in London last month. It was a scorching hot day and the pub was packed downstairs, with more spillover from the busy Parson's Green Fair than dedicated festival-goers, I'd say. But upstairs was quieter and, most importantly, had the air con on full blast, so was much more civilised.

The first beer to catch my eye on the listing was Flying Dog's Green Tea Imperial Stout. I mean, why is this the first time I've seen one of these? It all seems so obvious. It didn't disappoint when it arrived, either. A typical sticky waft of caramel dominated the aroma and it hit all the sweet roasty notes you would expect from an imperial stout, but right at the heart of it there's a fantastic grassy complexity from the green tea. Rather than the bitter taste you often get from a cup of green tea, it has the aromatic herbal flavour from dry green teabags. I'd say it's pretty tough to get anything subtle boiled into a powerhouse style like imperial stout at 10% ABV, but this works wonderfully well to counteract the heavy stickiness.

IPAs abounded, of course. I took the opportunity to try Lagunitas IPA, a California brewery rarely spoken of in anything other than reverential tones. It (left of picture) arrived a dark orange colour topped by an ivory head. Though I'm assured that the White Horse takes immense pains to source fresh beer for its festival, this seemed to be severely lacking in the hop department, being largely about the toffee. A hint of smoke adds to its character but it did leave me feeling somewhat disappointed.

Next to it is Ska Brewing's Modus Hoperandi: 6.8% ABV and clearer than the Lagunitas, but just as orange. The aroma is properly hoppy: heavy and resinous, with an odd tang of chlorine in it too, for some reason. There's the expected pungency from the hops and obvious toffee as well, but it felt a little brew-by-numbers to me: nothing that separates it from a thousand other very similar American IPAs.

I decided to finish on something a little more local, opting for a Lovibonds Dirty 69 black IPA. Red-brown rather than black and perfumed with some beautifully enticing floral aromas. It's a trap, though: on first sip the bitterness kicks in, delivering an almost burning harsh smack. The bad cop is followed quickly by the good one: some softer and sweeter rosewater and lavender candy, but it doesn't last long and the finish is uncompromisingly bitter. I'm sure it has its fans, but just too bitter for my tastes.

While I'm on the subject of UK-brewed US-style beers, at the JD Wetherspoon in Gatwick I lucked out by finding Firestone Walker American Independence on cask. This was put together by Matt Brynildson of California's Firestone Walker at the Adnams brewery in Suffolk. It's 5% ABV, so nicely quaffable -- a late call for the flight allowed time for two in quick succession. It's another rich dark orange affair, heavily textured with tangy pithiness to the fore in its flavour and lots of resinous dank. Marijuana marmalade: what's not to like? A satisfying jaffa sweetness finishes it off. I've had some absolute stinkers at the Gatwick Wetherspoon in the past but this really would have taken the edge off a long delay.

Further support here, perhaps, for Alex's thesis that making great beer locally trumps fancy imports almost every time. The UK just needs to get its green tea imperial stout on the go.

08 August 2013

Expectations

I don't remember exactly where it was*, but I have a recollection of being warned off Mongozo Coconut as being, objectively, The Worst Beer In The World. The other ones in the range -- from off-kilter (and often not in a good way) Belgian brewery Huyghe -- aren't up to much so I never troubled myself seeking out the coconut one.

And then a few weeks ago an invitation came in from Fade Street Social to try out their new beer offer. On Monday nights you can go up to their rooftop winter garden and get a variety bucket of five beers for 20 quid. It's a varied and mostly quite decent range, covering a broad range of styles and strengths, from Ireland, the UK, Belgium, Germany and the US. You can pick your own or let the staff make recommendations. All very jolly, not to mention educational. So, on the evening in question a group of us from Beoir dutifully trooped along not quite knowing what to expect, and out came the beer. The full range, in fact. A fair bit of horse trading went on at the table, with bottles migrating towards the drinkers who preferred them and some being outright sent back to be exchanged at the bar. But amongst all this, there was Mongozo Coconut. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try it.


The colour was the first shock: the milky translucent white of coconut milk. It's questionable whether it really counts as a beer at all based on the appearance... and on the taste: massively sugary, as one would expect, and roaringly unsubtle with the coconut. If you ever wondered what a tin of condensed coconut milk would taste like, your answer is in this bottle. Here's the thing though: Mongozo Coconut is not actively unpleasant, at least if you have a high tolerance for sweetness in beers, as I do. I'm actually kinda glad I found that out: thanks Fade Street Social!

I thought I was done with Belgian coconut beers, and the last place I expected to find it again was in Hopus Primeur 2013. The branding reeks of a knock-off of Duvel Tripel Hop, though while the latter specifies what it has been hopped with each year, the Hopus just boasts of dry-hopping and says no more than that. Going in for the smell I got... coconut! A massive hit of it in the aroma, though thankfully absent from the taste. Otherwise it's very Hopus: sharply bitter, astringent, with a nasty washing-up liquid tang. Nothing that suggests the fresh hop aromas one expects from a bottle with the words "dry hop" plastered all over it.

I probably should make a recommendation on which of these two very different beers is better than the other, but I think I'd feel dirty either way.

To finish on a cleaner note, the star of the show at Fade Street Social was Lindemans Cuvée René. I had the kriek version last year and was surprised by how good it was. The straight gueuze is of a similar quality: not quite as full on, nor as subtly complex as the more artisan lambics, but streets ahead of most of the ones turned out by the bigger breweries. Properly sour and mega refreshing because of it. Thanks once again to our hosts for endearingly allow us to swap the lesser lagers (and the occasional Belgian fruit beer) for more of this.

[*most probably here. Thanks Bailey!]