30 October 2013

Shiver me tinnies

We’d love to send you something, do you have an address that would suit to send it to?

That's all the e-mail said, but I could see it came from the company which does PR for Heineken Ireland. I like surprises so I gave them my address without asking further questions. A couple of hours later a parcel arrived containing eight half-litre cans of Coors Light. My lucky day. Less than a month out of the brewery, too. It wasn't just a random gift, however: they were promoting a gewgaw which comes free with sufficient purchase of the beer. This affixes to the bottom of the can, keeping it extra-cold while it's being consumed. From, presumably, the can itself. Swish.

While all this is outside the regular programming at The Beer Nut, I don't actually have a review of Coors Light here. Not that I've never tasted it; indeed I stumbled into the official launch of the draught version back in the summer of 2000. It was in Dakota on South William Street. There was an ice sculpture. Anyway, here I am with four litres of a beer I've never reviewed so it would only be proper to do some experimentation.

First, to give it the treatment every beer gets. The first can was kept in my beer fridge at 10°C. As the picture shows, the can is "cold", but not "Rocky Mountain cold". It's a very pale yellow and there's masses of fizz. The head subsides most of the way but a thin white mousse remains, constantly topped up by the busy bubbles. The aroma offers an odd mix of tin and ripe apples. That sweet fruit thing is the opening flavour but it disappears quickly, replaced by... nothing. There's a huge void right where you'd expect the main part of the taste to be. It's not watery -- the texture is actually quite slick and heavy -- but no identifiable malt elements and certainly not even a whimper from the hops. There's maybe just a tiny metallic buzz on the side of the tongue. Boring beats awful every time, but I really didn't think it would be hard to find things to say about this beer. Quite an achievement of the brewer's art.

So if it's this bland at serving temperature, what's the point of having it cold? To find out, I stuck a can in the freezer to earn that extra blue stripe, and I froze a mug as well, for good measure. Served this way, it's cold. It burns. It feels almost flat, which I guess is an unintended consequence of the solubility of CO2 at low temperatures. The slickness is even more apparent, though is perhaps more of an icy slipperiness now. The appley fruit is almost gone but there's still a bit of a tang from the metal. The glass contents disappeared quite quickly and thoughtlessly: the beer equivalent of popcorn. Plain, unbuttered, unsalted popcorn. The cans left after this experiment will likely be put to use in this way, with the Saturday night curry.

So much for the drinker's preference. How does this beer stand up served the way the PR company intended? I reached for the gewgaw -- a "Chill Puck" to give it its proper name in scare quotes -- frozen per the instructions, and dutifully affixed it to the can. It's just as flat consumed this way, and tastes exactly the same. The most annoying thing about drinking straight from a frozen can is how cold it it is to touch -- a handled mug is definitely the way to go if very cold beer is what you're after. Whether the device does actually help keep the second blue stripe lit for longer is not something I can confirm or deny in this limited experiment which didn't involve drinking an unadorned can, but it seems likely that it performs some sort of service, the thing itself remaining completely cold to the touch throughout proceedings.

It's easy to scoff at beers like Coors Light. It's fun too.

28 October 2013

Upstate fake-out

My bottle of Sainsbury's Tap Room IPA was deposited by a houseguest (cheers Thomas!) and bears the mark of "Tap Room Brewing Company" of Rochester, New York which sounds immediately makey-uppey. Two seconds' research reveals that this does indeed come from Rochester's North American Breweries megaplant, birthplace of a zillion other American "craft" brands.

It's a big boy at 6.3% ABV and a clear dark orange colour. No qualms about the aroma: all lovely lemon sherbet and orange pith. The hops calm down a bit on tasting. Big sweet malt notes take over so the sharp citrus becomes altogether fluffier mango and mandarin smoothie, with just the merest tang of bitterness on the end. After the initial hit it gets more muted, however, and I was finding it a bit heavy and dull by the half way point.

In summary, it hits all of the places you expect this sort of American IPA to hit, but for me it lacks the finesse of the more established brands: your Sierra Nevadas and your Goose Islands. If it were as cheap and cheerful as the Sainsbury's own-branding suggests I might go for it again, but more likely I reckon I'd trade up to something with a bit more hop action.

24 October 2013


I did my best to look after my bottle of Bronze Age ale in the year or so between getting it and drinking it. There's a glass door in my beer fridge but I made sure the bottle was right at the back. Unfortunately the tell-tale skunkiness was apparent as soon as I drew the cork. Ugh.

It's badged as a "farmhouse ale", a style I wouldn't have thought of as especially hop-forward. This one in particular is from Belgian brewery Hof Ten Dormaal, brewed under the aegis of Stillwater Brewing of Maryland. The long maturation has stuck the yeasty lees firmly to the bottom of the bottle and not even the high carbonation can dislodge it, resulting in a clear golden glassful, stacked high with foam.

A proper sniff of the poured beer and the skunkiness has subsided somewhat. There's the hot sugary spiciness I associate with Duvel in particular, even though this is rather lighter at 6% ABV. The novelty ingredient is raw spelt but I've no idea what that's supposed to add to the flavour. It's a lovely beer, though: there's a big pepper piquancy at its heart, a gunpowder dryness of the sort you sometimes find in lambics. The sweetness comes in the form of a mild red apple flavour, but no real hop character that I can detect.

If it wasn't so damn fizzy it would be really first-rate, but all that carbonation interferes badly with its drinkability. It's a tasty curiosity to be enjoyed slowly on a swirl-and-sip basis.

21 October 2013

Hey JD

While we in the south wait for Mr Wetherspoon to hook up his beer engines and plug in the microwave in south county Dublin, it was festival time in the UK. So, at Steve's suggestion, I gandered up to Belfast on Saturday to see what was on offer.

Afternoon trade at The Bridge House was brisk and a steadfast effort had been put in to get a good selection of the special edition beers on, though not the full fifty, alas. Ten of these were produced in conjunction with US breweries, of which five were available on the day.

Top of my to-try list was Sgt Pepper, brewed at Everard's by the brewmaster of Cambridge Brewing in Massachusetts. I do like a bit of pepper in a beer, or even loads of pepper, and this 4.2% ABV golden ale delivered admirably. Everything that's great about brewing with peppercorns is here: the jolt of spicy heat to begin, the old fashioned dusty top-of-the-pepperpot white pepper piquancy, and then the earthier and oilier taste of freshly crushed black pepper. While the spicing is not overdone, the beer underneath doesn't have much to say, just a little hint of lagery golden syrup. Overall an interesting and sessionable offering.

Second on my hitlist was Supremely Self-Conscious Black Ale, created by Mitch Steele of Stone at Adnams. I had been led to believe by advance reviews that it wasn't all that, but it is all that, and a fair bit more. The aroma makes it clear from the outset that a lot of US hops have gone in here: big old grapefruit and pine resin welcome the drinker in. On first sip there's a massive, burning bitter hit which subsides mercifully quickly, fading down to grapefruit pith and then settling on friendlier mango and pineapple. There's just a bit of coffee representing the dark side of the profile -- the programme describes the roast character as "subdued" and I think it certainly has been. It's only 5% ABV but tastes and feels much stronger, being weighty like a big stout and depositing a lingering resin on the lips. Possibly not a great choice for second beer, but it had been on since the previous day and was due to run out soon, though in the event there was still one pint left for me to claim a few hours later before the train home -- the best £2.29 I've spend on beer this year.

Avatar Jasmine IPA brewed by Elysian had some good press and I thought it was quite decent. I found it hard to believe it was 6.3% ABV when it presents as a fairly standard, decent bitter. The jasmine imparts a light floral quality but doesn't dominate the more normal subtle English bitter qualities. 21st Amendment's offering, brewed at Wychwood and called American Bitter Red, was also good though understated. A vivid red colour, and very tannic, almost to the point of astringency. I liked it, however, finding it clean and refreshing. What I couldn't find was any parallel to its ancestor, 21st Amendment's own Bitter American pale ale.

The wooden spoon for the collaborations goes to Ninkasi Cream Ale, produced at Caledonian in Edinburgh. I wasn't expecting much, it being a cream ale and all, but I got even less: the water from a can of sweetcorn, bolstering my opinion that cream ale is not a style that needs to be resurrected in craft form, not even ironically.

Of the non-collaborations, the most striking was Bateman's Hazelnut Brownie. This was 6.3% ABV and really did taste like drinking a slice of chocolate cake, complete with bready sponge and dense chocolate cream filling. The thing is, nobody does want to drink a slice of chocolate cake: it's sickly, cloying and overpoweringly flavoured. I had this early on in the session and it ended up being more of a palate hog than the super-hopped Stone beer. Along similar lines but nowhere near as extreme was Titanic Cappuccino, two words rarely seen in proximity. This appears to be Titanic Brewery's standard stout with coffee added. It's simple and light, the coffee is little more than a lacing, accentuating the dry stout qualities. I liked it.

Two bitters to finish on: Cora by JW Lees was so-so: a red-gold colour with some nice biscuit sweetness and a thirst-encouraging dryness but somewhat watery at its core. St Peter's Extra was better: 4.4% ABV and again quite straightforward but with a lightly nutty flavour and just a little bit more of a hop kick than usual.

Suddenly it was 4pm so Steve and I set off to visit a couple of other pubs. Top of my list was The Hudson where the groundfloor bar was surprisingly busy for a Saturday afternoon. Nothing new to try here, but a swift half of Dead Pony Club went down very nicely.

We did no more than stick our heads in to The Crown, but it was also very busy and there was nothing of interest on draught. Steve's real target was Bittles where there was rumoured to be a cask from Ards Brewery but we'd just missed it. Plenty of Ards bottles, though. I went for the house beer -- Bittles -- labelled as a "Citra Autumn Ale". It's 5.1% ABV and bottle conditioned, pouring a cloudy orange. It shows off the herbal, slightly medicinal side of Citra, with lots of grass and eucalyptus. Steve opted for the dark Rockin' Goose, 4.4% ABV and a murky shade of garnet. Stylewise I'd be calling it a brown ale: there's lots of lovely caramel and chocolate and just a dusting of citrus hops: simple, fun and very drinkable. The inevitable pale ale is called Pig Island and is a pale orange, and cloudy again. There's an odd mix of new and old world hop flavours here, with tangy mandarins at the front, turning to more waxy English hop notes in the finish. It would benefit from being a bit cleaner: a well stillaged cask of this would be great, I reckon. From the bottle it's like a decent quality homebrew: enjoyable, but with room for improvement.

After that it was back to The Bridge House for a final few, and the train home. A big thanks to Steve for putting the whole thing together. It was great meeting Barry who runs The Bridge House, Owen from Hilden, Paul and the gang from NI CAMRA and especially Alex, soon to be Belfast's newest, and possibly first, microbrewer.

And with a bit of luck I won't have to travel as far to try the beers at next year's festival.

17 October 2013


Trouble Brewing's new one, Fuzzy Logic, was commissioned by the Bull & Castle for their "Irishtoberfest" (sigh) which runs all this month. It's a 4.7% ABV weizen and arrives an opaque and murky pale orange-yellow with little by way of head. Its aroma is probably its most striking element: sulphurous, with more than a suggestion of cabbagey flatulence about it.

Past that there's a very dry weizen: all crunchy grain and completely lacking in banana fruitiness. There's a hint of clove oil and the official tasting notes suggest vanilla which I think I can detect too. Hops are an afterthought, showing up waxy and bitter at the very end. The carbonation is light for the style, and coupled with the dryness it makes it crisp and refreshing.

It's not the world's greatest wheat beer, but if you prefer the cleaner, more austere Flensburger style weizens to the banana bombs then this does the job admirably.

14 October 2013

The ethics of cloning

I confess my first thought on encountering a Dortmunder Export brewed in Cleveland was "why?" It's never been the most inspiring of styles, halfway down from a pale bock but lacking the casual drinkability of helles, and I'm not really surprised it's under threat in its natural habitat. An American brewery knocking one out smacks of little more than a technical exercise, and yet Great Lakes Brewing seem to be on to something with their Dortmunder Gold.

It looks fantastic, for a start: an almost red gold topped by a healthy layer of off-white foam. There's a gentle hint of silage and golden syrup in the aroma which continues on a similar vein when tasted. The hops provide cut grass and beeswax; the malt is wholegrain biscuit and madeira cake with just a little extra warmth from the 5.8% ABV, but the highlight is the texture: full, süffig, filling and satisfying. Beautifully balanced and very moreish.

I expected something a little more brash from Flying Dog's Under Dog "Atlantic Lager". It looks very innocent, dull even: a watery pale yellow. The taste is very strange. It's very akin to an American pale ale, with major sticky toffee and a little bit of a grassy hop tang. A gentle mineral bite leaves it crisp enough to just about pass as a lager if you squint a bit, but I have to wonder what the brewer was aiming for: not quenching enough to be a lawnmower lager, not complex enough to have the beatings of a pale ale in the flavour stakes.

A tendency to colour outside the lines is what has made American craft a major influencer on world microbrewing, but these two present a clear example of how following the instructions can yield better results. Sometimes.

11 October 2013

The comedown

The day after the Borefts beer festival was another cold and sunny one. We got a late morning train to Amsterdam and started with an early lunch. The restaurant's beer of the month was Goudkoppe, a blonde ale by Texels (do they have a dark one called Badkoppe? They should). 6% ABV and a very nicely put together version of this common style. Lots of fresh mandarin comes out first, followed up with the earthy Belgian yeast tang. Spritzy and refreshing, and just the thing to whet my appetite for more beer tasting.

In past years Beer Temple has been the first port of call on post-Borefts Sunday, but as I reported earlier in the year, the wonderful Gollem is now back in business and most wonderful of all opens its doors at noon on Sundays. Not too many drinkers it must be said: lost tourists, some other Borefts stragglers (hi Chris!) and one lonely determined alcoholic. The first beer on the modest taplist that caught my interest was Foxy Lady, seemingly a follow-up to the lacklustre Tasty Lady brewed at Breugems which I encountered last year. This one is rather better, with a complex mix of fruit and spices incorporating incense, concentrated tangerine plus sharp grapefruit zest on the end. The malt element provides just enough biscuit sweetness for balance.

After that, there was nothing new to me on tap and I wasn't in the mood for taking a gamble on an unfamiliar bottle so I settled for a draught glass of Troubadour's Magma and was very glad I did. I had a bottle of this a while back and reckoned it was a bit past its best. It was a whole different experience this time, the hops beautifully fresh and flavourful, giving the perfect bitter and citric counterbalance to the heavy malts.

From there to our traditional final destination of Arendnest, the pub which offers an exclusively Dutch selection of beers. Lo and behold, there was a third in the lady series: Smoky Lady. I couldn't resist. This is a clear blonde, sweet and massively smoky, blending heady perfume with Laphroaig whisky, the phenols turning a little towards TCP in the aftertaste. I rather liked it but wouldn't expect anyone else to.

The hops from the Magma were still at the front of my mind, however, so I decided to check out what they had by way of pale ales while the missus got stuck into the barley wines. Oedipus Brewing is a new one to me and their pale ale is called Mama (of course). It's a full 6% ABV though doesn't do much with that. It's a simple beer, verging perhaps on dull. There are some pleasant peach and orange sherbet flavours but no burst of zing and no bitter staying power. You'd have a decent pale 'n' hoppy session beer if it wasn't so strong.

I expected bigger things from a beer called High Hops by Maximus, based in Utrecht and another unfamiliar one. High Hops is the same strength as Mama and darker in colour: more orange than yellow, and this is accompanied by a slightly sickly toffee-candy aroma. Uh-oh. But it's not a crystal malt sugar bomb: the toffee is present in the flavour, but restrained. Unfortunately the hops are too, offering little more than a vague orangeade sweetness. Disappointing and not as advertised.

So it's back to De Molen to finish off. Cease & Desist is yet another imperial stout. 11.5% ABV this time but smelling and tasting much much stronger. It's extremely hot, and intensely flavoured, full of the distilled essence of coffee and treacle. I felt it lacked the usual finesse of a De Molen imperial stout. From the bottle menu I had to give Angst & Beven a go: my first imperial gose, at 12.2% ABV. Well, "gose-ish" says the label. There's no salt listed in the ingredients. It pours a dark honey amber and has a barley wine's sweetness at its core, flavoured with blood orange and mango notes from the hops. This is balanced by a wonderful barrel-aged woody sourness which keeps the whole thing dry and refreshing for the most part, though it does lean a little towards cough mixture at the end. A very interesting experiment and a beer well worth trying.

And that concludes Borefts weekend for 2013. It's back to my sadly neglected beer fridge from Monday.

10 October 2013

Passing for normal

I don't know whether it's the nature of the festival or my odd taste for odd beers, but I came back from Borefts 2013 able to squeeze most of the "normal" beers -- the pale ales, barley wines and the like -- into a single post.

On the IPA front, Naparbier's 5 Titius was my standout: 7.3% ABV, dark and heavy with sandalwood spices plus big zesty orange and grapefruit. What I loved most about it is that the weight doesn't come with a sticky sugariness and there's not an ounce of toffee in the flavour. Rooie Dop didn't quite manage to avoid the sugar in their 24/7 session IPA (4.9% ABV): there's a sweet middle, but also a solid bitter kick and plenty of fresh mandarin and lemon, even turning a little dank towards the end. The thin texture lets it down somewhat but it's still very enjoyable. Their full-strength IPA is 7.1% ABV and called Chica Americana. There's not all that much going on in it, just some herbs and lavender, making it smell like posh soap. Fyne Ales made a better fist of things at the same strength with Superior IPA. Still understated but quite complex, showing oily hop resins, with some jaffa and a bit of medicinal herbs. A light sherbet zing helps lift it and adds to the drinkability. Their more modest pale ale offering was Fladda Rock at 5.5% ABV: biscuits and citrus, and a little waxy, say my notes. I think I liked it but wasn't moved to write more.

Double IPAs: Toccalmatto's Surfing Hop is 8.5% ABV and a dark brown-amber shade. Lots of toffee in here, though cut nicely by tangerine and orange pith. Not too sweet, then: mellow and pleasantly sippable. Staying in Italy, Brewfist's 2Late approaches a double-figure ABV and triple-figure IBUs. It's very heavy: oily and even a little vinous with lots of alcohol heat wafting off it. The hop flavours are amazingly fresh, however, with beautiful peach and mandarin notes leaping out and making it much more approachable than its vital statistics might suggest.

Brewfist gave us a black IPA too -- Green Petrol. It's very green indeed: thick molasses stickiness meets raw cabbage bitterness. I quite liked it for all that. And we have white IPA as well, in the form of Rooie Dop's What A Wonderful White. This is 7.2% ABV and the full orange colour of a weissbier, which is what it really is. The flavour opens with a powerful punch of nectarine and orange, leaving a slightly acrid hop burn in its wake. There's more than a hint of weissbier spicing in the mix too, further fuelling my scepticism about "white IPA" as useful designation.

I only paid one quick visit to French brewery Mont Salève, for their Barley Wine aged in a pinot barrel. It's a lovely mellow blend of orangey hop oils and woody spices, plus a hint of acetic tartness. The same went for To Øl: just one beer and it a barley wine, this one called I've Seen Bigger Than Yours. It's a dark orange colour with an ivory head, making it look very dense; hardly surprising at 14% ABV. The aroma is a vague whiff of ripe summer fruits, and on tasting its raspberries that come to the fore, or more specifically the thick sweetness of raspberry ice cream sauce. Heavy going, but deftly offset by a bright and spritzy citrus sharpness which prevents the whole thing turning to cough mixture.

That leaves us with the brown beers, and Rooie Dop's Brown Mothafuckah first: 4.3% ABV and as brown as the name suggests but fantastically hop driven, with lots of resin and bitter green vegetal notes. A hint of coffee in the finish adds a pleasant dark complexity. Thornbridge, meanwhile, grandly describes its Calver as an "imperial rye ESB". There's no sign of the 7.4% ABV in here, nor of the rye very much. Instead it's a tannic and peachy sweet amber ale, though one that does get a bit cloying after a while.

And that leaves just one beer, one I missed last year and hugely regretted it, which wasn't on the advance list so was a very pleasant surprise when it turned up. And there's no missing Bäver, or at least its distinctive porcelain pouring apparatus. This is Närke's standard bitter enhanced with beaver musk. It pours a clear chestnut red and tastes rather grainy with some sweet smoke and mild hop resins. There's not much else going on, and I wasn't able to identify anything in the flavour that could be distinctly tagged as beaver bum, but such is life. It's the experience that counts.

Borefts wound up at 10pm on the Saturday, though I believe the party continued up in the windmill. Not for me, though. I had the traditional post-Borefts day's drinking in Amsterdam ahead.

09 October 2013

Turning sour

The beers at Borefts, like many of the attendees, offered a generous insight into what's currently in fashion. It seems to be all about the sour these days, a modern twist on styles developed before ingredients were first-rate and hygiene was everything it is now. If you don't have some sort of hacked gose in the line-up you may as well be brewing... er... no: there isn't really a style that's too unhip to be ever resurrected ironically, is there? Anyway, Italian brewery Toccalmatto had a gose, made with only the poshest of salt, unspecified red berries, and called Salty Angel. It's a cloudy pinkish colour, looking and smelling for all the world like a Bellini. Lots of clean mineral dryness overlaid with fresh fruit and just a gentle seaside spray of salt in the finish. A bit lacking in flavour, perhaps, but nicely refreshing and quite quaffable at just 4.3% ABV. Not that it's the sort of thing one would expect to arrive in pints.

While we're on nearly-extinct German beerstyles, Thornbridge brought a Berliner Weisse, a straight-up unenhanced one at 3.5% ABV and a sickly pale hazy yellow in colour. The grainy aroma is spot on but any sourness is pretty much absent, leaving it clean, crisp and lightly lemony. Simple and pleasant. For proper Thornbridge sourness there was Sour Brown, which does exactly what it says on the label: light vinegar, some balsam spicing, and a touch of coffee. It has a lot in common with Belgian oud bruin though I think HP Sauce may also be a distant cousin.

Just edging into sour territory is The Kernel's Bière de Table: a 4.6% ABV pale yellow saison with very dry, almost crunchy, grains and a refreshing hint of citrus. A mild vinegar undertone qualifies it for this post while also enhancing its cleansing refreshment power.

A few were more funky than sour, showing clear signs of brettanomyces action. Smonk by Struise was probably the loudest example of this: masses of earthy, woody, organic flavours but lightened nicely by some cherry and smoke, all wrapped up in a 7% ABV red-brown package. Upping the strength and enhancing the hops, there was Laugar's Laino Basatia at 9% ABV where the barnyard brett sits next to resiny hops and there's lots of lovely incense spicing and fresh herbs. Mikkeller's It's Alive appears to be based on a fairly straightforward honey-coloured brett ale but the edition I tried was aged with mangoes in a chardonnay barrel which added a lovely fresh grape juiciness to the horseblanket funk.

A couple of beers seemed to be going after the Flemish red flavour profile: one my favourites. Alvinne's Foederbier is a cheery bright orange, though cloudy with no head to speak of. It's mildly tart with some red berries and just a kiss of old oak. Very drinkable and refreshing. De Molen upped the ante, as is their wont, with Zure Kersen Bom (above left), a 6.2% ABV blood red beer featuring sharp, jangling wood and vinegar, weighted with balsamic resin. It sounds severe but there's also a vast quantity of very sweet ripe cherries added for balance and adding a wonderful complexity.

That brings us to the end of the sour set. We'll have something more orthodox tomorrow.

08 October 2013

Going dark

It goes without saying that dark beers were a big part of the Borefts Beer Festival 2013, De Molen being particularly known for its imperial stouts. Just when you thought they had run out of things to do with Hel & Verdoemenis, along comes an Eisbock version, freeze-distilled from my favourite barrel-aged iteration, Wild Turkey. The result is terrifyingly drinkable for 25% ABV: a mild alcoholic warmth but lots of silky milk chocolate added to café crème. Supremely smooth and hard to tear myself away from.

Perhaps a little more orthodox was Moord & Brand, 9.8% ABV and presented in a number of barrel-aged versions. The first I tried was the bourbon barrel one, which was quite a serious affair: no fun chocolate here, just a heavy dry bitter grown-up stout overlaid with the woody sap and sour mash from the cask. Its balsamico edition was more interesting, juxtaposing the incongruous elements of coffee roast with the savoury tang of balsamic oil. There's a bit of dark chocolate buried deep here and just about detectable under the resin. Another one for the more-interesting-than-nice file.

Sticking with De Molen, there was Zwaaien & Zwieren, a 12.6% ABV stout given the brettanomyces treatment for a big dollop of funk in with the coffee. There's a sweet vinous quality too, and all the flavours sit completely separate from each other, queuing patiently to be tasted in turn.

One of my favourites from the brewery was a special edition, released in the festival's dying hours. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a cherry-infused imperial stout of 11% ABV (based on Hel & Verdoemenis, I believe) though almost spirituous in alcoholic heat. The cherry notes rip through it, pulling liqueur chocolates behind them. Another dangerously sinkable powerhouse masterfully put together.

Neither of the last two were on the official listings, but the two that caught my attention in advance were both versions of Hot & Spicy, a De Molen imperial stout which has been around a while but which I've never had the opportunity to try and sounds exactly like my sort of thing. Version 3 came out at 10.2% ABV and is very much an imperial stout first, lots of dry roast and even some sourness tempered against sweeter caramel and chocolate. The chilli takes a little bit of time to come through but when it does it bursts powerfully onto the palate and wafts hotly into the back of the nose. Stimulating.

I suspected that the other, super-limited, version of Hot & Spicy would taste much the same. There was just one keg of this and it was poured only for the final hour of each session so was my valedictory beer on the Saturday. The difference is that it's brewed with naga jolokia, one of the world's most powerful chilli peppers, but what difference would that make once diluted in strong full-flavoured beer? It smelled innocent enough: the mild sourness of dark fruit, some cherries. This turns to a candy sweetness on tasting, briefly. Very briefly. There follows a red hot combo move that simultaneously scorches the back of the throat and side of the tongue before a rising pepperiness occupies the entire palate and fires off waves of endorphins. A little of this goes a long way. At least as far back to Leiden in my case.

De Molen weren't the only brewery to bring chilli beer to the show. Fyne Ales had one too: Smoked Chilli Dark Ale, a collaboration with BrewDog. Neither the chilli nor the smoke get much of a look-in however. This is thoroughly hopped, dominated by acid, acrid hops; all grass and metal. They should have called it a black IPA and left it at that. Fyne's own Sublime Stout was much better. It's 6.8% ABV and a little pale -- perhaps more red than black. There's no shortage of hop here, but they're the less severe lemon sherbet kind and they perform a tag-team act with the dark roasted elements to create a beer that delivers zingy refreshment and mellow richness in one glass. It is aptly named.

Staying in Britain but moving down the map, Thornbridge had brought a sumptuously decadent spiced-rum-infused porter called Kacho. Sweet and creamy with a very distinct rum element, for a Jamaican coffee effect. There was also a fast moving Imperial Raspberry Stout which was strong, dark but all raspberry: the roasty dryness working in a bizarrely complementary way with the raspberry tartness.

I couldn't pass by a dark offering from The Kernel and they had a Speyside-barrel-aged Imperial Brown Stout of 10.3% ABV. It's definitely more black than brown, however, with a blend of black coffee and scotch in the aroma. I could tell that there was a lovely full and sweet stout under the barrel effects but I couldn't get past the single-malt sickliness that the Scotch imparted. I'd definitely prefer this in an unadorned form.

Poor old Emelisse had a hill to climb when they brought along something called Crème Brûlée Stout. Southern Tier's beer of the same name is one of my standouts of the last year and comparisons were inevitable. Emelisse's effort is decent, but it doesn't taste as much like crème brûlée. There's an odd vegetal spinach bitterness from the hops in with the sickly cream-and-brown-sugar and it all just fails to hang together properly. I had more fun with their eisbock: another 25% ABV beer, called XXV in case the nose-hair-singeing aroma didn't give away the strength. It's incredibly hot and scorches down the throat, coating the oesphagous in a mixture of napalm and chocolate syrup. There's a small hint of hop bitters in there too, a touch of Fernet Stock or Unicum. In a lot of ways it's reminiscent of BrewDog's Tactical Nuclear Penguin but with better flavours to balance the alcohol.

It's back to the spice rack for the final black beer, from Denmark's Amager in collaboration with Florida's Cigar City and with the unnecessarily elaborate name of Xiquic and the Hero Twins. 9% ABV, infused with peppercorns, aged on cedar, and you can taste all of that. It starts with a big hit of green and black peppercorns, coats the palate unctuously, and is infused from front to back with a heady humidor spiciness from the cedar that I would expect to jar with the other elements but works beautifully alongside them. A definite demonstration that bizarrely elaborate recipes can have successful pay-offs, just like elegantly simple ones.

Another day, another genre tomorrow.

07 October 2013

Hopping off

For the third year running my summer finished on the high note that is the Borefts Beer Festival, hosted by the De Molen brewery in Bodegraven. It changes shape every year and for 2013 left the confines of the trademark windmill altogether, in favour of the main brewery premises and yard, and the car park of a former garden centre across the road. It was a big site and the brewery bars were well spaced out, as well as a massively expanded catering area serving meaty and cheesy delights.

As always, the festival had a theme, issued to the invited brewers in advance. This year it was old-style brewing with seemingly an emphasis on unhopped beers and braggots. Braggot -- hopped mead, sometimes using malt too -- is a new experience for me and I'm not entirely sure it fits within the remit of this blog, but it would have been rude not to try a couple. Alvinne's was called Honey-B and is a pale orange colour with quite a sour aroma. Honey is at the centre of the flavour, of course, spiced up with some mild herbal notes. Its overwhelming feature, however, was its dryness, almost resembling the more intense breed of sauvignon blanc. Interesting, but I wasn't much of a fan.

In proper swaggering style, Mikkeller's offering was called Bragging Braggot, this one is the hazy shade of a hopped-up IPA. It smells quite citric, hinting at high-alpha hops, and there's a urinal-cake sickliness to the flavour which bears this theory out. They've tried to balance the hops with honey and the result is super sweet and soupily textured. "Interesting" say my notes again, but just too weird to be enjoyable.

The last hope for braggot redemption was Skogsmölska by Närke. This is described as a "gruit braggot", so herbs instead of hops then, I guess. It's a clear dark amber with huge honey aromas and a rich, warming dark honey flavour. There's just a light carbonation which works to keep it from getting too cloying. I liked this one, but on the balance of these offerings there's little danger of my becoming a braggot blogger any time soon.

Much more my sort of things were the unhopped beers, though they were a bit of a mixed bunch too. My starter was Fyne Ales Wee Jaggy: 3.8% ABV and a beautiful clear golden colour. Amazingly for a gruit it's 100% properly bitter, only not in a hoppy way. Whatever they've used to flavour this they've used a lot, and I approve. A gorgeous white pepper spiciness finishes it off.

I expected big things from the established masters of medieval beer styles, Jopen. They had a special edition Frans Hals Kuit, brewed to celebrate the artist and further highlight Dutch brewing heritage. It's 6% ABV and made with about 50% oats in the grist, pouring a cheery bright lemon yellow. There's a gentle, old-fashioned spiciness which reminds me a lot of Belgian witbier. All very drinkable but not as different, I suppose, as I'd like it to be. Jopen's other unhopped beer was Gouds Gruit, a black one and a little stronger at 7% ABV. It's quite heavy and sticky with some mild chocolate and black cherry flavours, plus lots of gloopy caramel. Both of these lacked the fun and interesting herbs I enjoy in gruit ales and neither had the beatings of Jopen's regular unhopped Koyt for me.

The same cannot be said for Toccalmatto's Sir Dagonet, which has an aroma like inhaling a spice rack: masses of peppery, meadowy, sweet and fresh green smells. It's a bit of a let-down on tasting: watery at its core and the herbs intensify into a slightly unpleasant incense clang, but that aroma excuses all. Give it to me as a nosebag.

Possibly the dullest of the series was Naparbier Gruit. It proved very watery with a kind of herb and rusk flavour: sausages minus the pork. Easy drinking at 5% ABV, but not really worth it. At the opposite end of the alcohol scale was Brewfist Gruit: 10% ABV, and appropriately dark and heavy. More sweet summer meadow in the aroma and a flavour dominated by malt sweetness accompanied by cloves and violets. The resinous texture makes this a fireside sort of gruit ale.

My overall prize for unhopped beer of Borefts 2013, however, goes to The Kernel for their Festival Special. Not only did they not bother hopping it, they skipped the boil phase altogether, and added raspberries. The result is a bright blushing pink beer at 4.3% ABV, quenchingly dry and with all the fruity tartness of a proper unsweetened framboise. Not a trace of herbs mind, but I'll forgive that.

And if an additional palate cleanser is needed after that oddness, our hosts had produced Ginger Shot for the occasion, 4.2% ABV and promising masses of ginger. That's not what it delivered, however. While there's a hint of ginger biscuits in the aroma the main element I got from the flavour was the hops: the heavy dank funk of Simcoe or similar. The ginger sits in the background: raw, unprocessed and unconcentrated and doing little to counteract the hopping which was not part of the deal.

The odd blip aside, I loved the theme and the way the breweries played with it. We move to more usual fare tomorrow. Maybe...

04 October 2013


It's very much a topic-of-the-moment for The Session this month. Derek is hosting at It's Not Just the Alcohol Talking, and he asks "Is Craft Beer A Bubble?" I can't really speak for anywhere beyond my own doorstep, and I'm guessing wildly even there, but for me the answer is no. The recent growth in Irish microbrewing -- and the bubbling potential which occasionally spills over into an actual real new brewery -- is a re-normalisation of sorts, a return to the days of local breweries and local beer which aren't really that far outside living memory.

And, as before, it's likely that the new smaller brands will exist alongside the big national and multinational ones: at the upper ends of the craft sector we're already seeing a certain porousness in the boundaries between craft and macro. Conversely, not everything is rosy for the start-ups: there are brands and breweries that I'm sure won't be around when times get harder and the modest fashion for craft beer begins to wane, which it will. But just as with wine thirty years ago and coffee ten years ago, it's hard to imagine Irish beer going back to where it was in the late 20th century. I believe there has been a small but significant change in the taste of enough drinkers to keep the craft niche alive, supplied and with still plenty of growth space.

Don't ask me to predict what the Irish beer scene will look like a few years down the line, however. At the moment all roads lead to Dublin and most breweries send their beers this way sooner or later. White Gypsy were the first to pull all their draught taps back to the local area -- a hugely encouraging move, if a little inconvenient for me. And as demand for craft beer spreads slowly from the urban centres, I doubt they'll be the last to do it. What the styles will look like is another mystery: against all the odds, red ale shows no signs of dying out, though American-style pale ale is now a standard feature of Irish brewing, and since Diageo jumped on that bandwagon I'd be very surprised if a taste for hops proved to be a mere trend. The rate at which the small breweries are turning out short-run special editions is ever increasing and it remains to be seen whether this will ever settle into a regular calendar of seasonals. I don't seen any reason why it should.

New in that vein from Waterford's Metalman is Smokescreen, presented with no further information than it's a "smoked beer" and 4.5% ABV, so I rocked up to the Bull & Castle bar armed only with the prejudice that smoked beers from Irish breweries are often not very good. The first thing that surprised me about Smokescreen is that it's black, or at least dark brown, and murky reddish around the edges. That was a relief: dark smoked beers suffer much less from kipperiness than amber ones. The second big surprise was the hopping: fresh tangerines lead the flavour, finishing slightly metallic. I'm suddenly reminded of Moonbeam, Metalman's not-a-black-IPA-honest. The smoke element is there, but is little more than a seasoning, contributing a roasty dryness which enhances the beer's stout-like quality, as well as adding a certain pipey sweetness to the finish. Overall I found it quite understated and sessionable, and a beer I'd like to see more of.

More, and more different: that's my hope for Irish brewing, and I'm going to keep buying the limited editions from out-of-town breweries for as long as the market allows.

02 October 2013

Spotty Dalmatians

I hope y'all like consonants, 'cos I'm just back from the Balkans and there's nothing them fellas like more than squeezing a whole load of hard pointy letters into tiny spaces. Except possibly for shitty lagers. They like them too. Let's get started, shall we?

My introduction to Croatian beer was in the breathtaking surrounds of Dubrovnik's old port on a balmy September's evening. As in most of Europe, each establishment is contracted to sell one of the national brands of beer and variations from this model are rare. This particular place offered Favorit, brewed in Istria by a subsidiary of Dutch brewery Bavaria. It's a 5% ABV pale lager and smells of copper. The flavour is the sweet tanginess of cheaply made lager with some metal and some lactic sourness. A smorgasbord of awful not at all helped by the rather warm serving temperature. I didn't give it a second go in the hope of a cooler experience: Favorit-branded awnings and umbrellas meant a bar that didn't get my custom for the rest of the week.

The biggest national brand is Ožujsko, owned by MolsonCoors, brewed in Zagreb, and associated everywhere with the national football team. Though the same strength as Favorit, it's paler in colour, arrived cooler, and is mercifully more boring to taste. It's still a bit heavy, though I'll take that as an acceptable alternative to watery, and shares a certain tanginess, except this time I think I can detect the light presence of hops being involved here, rather than just a brewing flaw. While it wasn't a beer I'd ever go running to, I was at least content that there was drinkable beer in Croatia.

Beer three was the hot country lager I had been holding out for: Karlovačko. This is Heineken's local offering and is once again leaning to the sweet side of the house, but does it subtly -- nearly akin to the way a Munich helles works. Simple and refreshing, it did exactly what I needed from a holiday beer.

That just leaves Carlsberg in this corner of Europe's macrobrewing tug-of-war, and their representative is Pan. Not a very Croatian-sounding name, but since one rarely needs to order a beer by brand name there's no real consumer advantage to its easily graspable handle. Plain Pan is 4.8% ABV and there's that metal again, this time accompanied by a kind of aspirinish mineral soda quality. There's some saccharine and apple in the mix too. It's effectively an advertisement for trading up to the posher Pan Zlatini, an ironically-named 5%-er which isn't gold at all but an almost amber colour. I wish I'd spotted the cans before I bought my bottle of it because it was badly skunked, but at least this indicated the presence of hops. Hops are indeed quite a big part of the flavour: sage and grass come through in particular, balanced less by the taste of the malt as the weight it brings: this is heavy drinking.

I'm not sure if it's a trade up or down from Zlatini, but the beer I probably drank most of in Croatia was Pan Hajdučko. There are some lovely dark grain flavours in this medium-gold beer; almost roasty. The middle is hollow and watery, but we can skip past that to the gentle grassy finish. Definitely not as strongly flavoured as Pan Zlatini, but a more pleasant overall drinking experience, I thought.

Most of the breweries have a dark lager in their line-up you'll be glad to hear, though getting hold of them in the on-trade was very nearly impossible. Even in off licences they were relegated to the lower shelves and backs of fridges. Karlovačko Crno is a healthy 6% ABV and all about the liquorice: mildly sour with some light chocolate and coffee at the centre, then finishing with yet more liquorice. MolsonCoors takes it up a notch with their Tomislav at 7.3% ABV. It's a less complex offering for all that, though: a bit of liquorice but mostly big heavy molasses making it difficult drinking and showing the aspects of Baltic-ish porter that I don't especially like.

That's it for Croatian beer, but the neighbours get a bit of a look-in too, former Yugoslavia being not quite as broken up as events of the early 1990s might have suggested. Slovenian Laško Zlatorog is quite commonplace around Dubrovnik: a mix of skunkiness and melted plastic. Laško Dark is far better, being 5.9% ABV and mixing in sweet chocolate and metallic molasses with some smooth and creamy milk stout lactic qualities. There's even a touch of coffee too. Still a bit heavy going, but the best dessert beer I found.

An excursion into Bosnia-Herzegovina brought Sarajevsko to the table, a very pale 4.9% ABV lager with major apple off-flavours dominating the taste. Beneath this there are some pleasantly bitter herbal notes -- fennel and sage -- but nothing that really makes it worth drinking. Down in Montenegro, meanwhile, they drink Nikšićko, and maybe it was the beautiful surrounds of Kotor or the €2 price tag, but I really enjoyed this. It's a medium gold and the hop oils in the foam are immediately apparent in its aroma. Beneath that it's a little sweet, saccharine perhaps, but not at all outwith the bounds of decent pilsner. There's a growing floral quality to the taste and a satisfying bitter finish.

My bottom line for Dubrovnik, if you're going, is The Gaffe Irish Pub in the Old Town. It does O'Hara's Stout and Red on draught, for less than a fiver a pop in the early evening: a life-saver in a city otherwise saturated by medium-to-poor lagers.