28 November 2013

Seems legit

I had the beer poured and was preparing to take the first sip when the question struck me. Spearhead Hawaiian Style Pale Ale is brewed in Toronto: some distance from Hawaii, I believe. But... what makes it "Hawaiian style"? I'm not aware of any particular local brewing practice that marks the pale ales of Hawaii as distinct from those of anywhere else. Maybe they're just going for a tropical fruit vibe from the hop profile, I thought. But lots of beers do that and no brewer describes them as "Hawaiian style". I had to go to the brewery website and look it up. Turns out, this beer is brewed with actual pineapple. You know, like they do in Hawaii. Or like Hawaiians tell Torontonians they do, because they think it's funny. Anyway, fruited pale ales are something of a rarity, so this should be interesting.

It's a medium orange-amber colour and starts with a wonderful heady aroma which mixes candied mangoes with a more astringent vegetal tang. The hops seem to be missing at first and it starts quite bready, with a viscous, sticky texture showing off every degree of that 6% ABV. It seems like there's no middle, just a pause before the acidic bitterness tramples the palate, but this subsides quickly and is followed by a soothing waft of mandarins and nectarines.

It's a pretty decent pale ale, though nowhere near as odd as the brewer's description makes it out to be. I think if I wanted to inject some Hawaiian sunshine into a beer I made on a cold Ontario morning, I'd do it with Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin.

25 November 2013

Keepy uppy

New Irish beers have been coming in so thick and fast lately that I think I'll just have to do occasional round-ups, of those that I actually manage to catch. Chief among the culprits is Galway Bay Brewery, with its talented brewer, chain of tied pubs and resultant love of experimentation.

For Halloween there was a pumpkin and chilli ale from the pilot plant (picture, right) which I don't think got any more elaborate name than Pilot 003 -- the handpump in Against The Grain just had a stock cartoon pumpkin clipped to it. It wasn't as out there as the description suggested, a murky brown with just the standard nutmeg and clove spices and no sign of the chilli. It was preceded by Pilot 002 (picture, left), a 7.8% ABV "imperial brown ale". A weird one this: immensely roasty to begin with and finishing with lighter café crème brown malt notes, but the hops were powerfully bitter in the waxy old-world way. A very oddly constructed flavour profile, I thought. I genuinely couldn't tell you if I liked it or not.

Talk of the town at the moment is Of Foam & Fury, Galway Bay's new 8.5% ABV double IPA. It arrives a bright hazy orange colour and gives off a chilly brewery floor aroma of intense oily hops. The flavour starts with pleasant toffee though avoids being overly sweet, and while the texture is a little sticky it complements rather than counteracts the hops, adding a napalm quality to their power. A rising pepperiness heralds their arrival, then sharp mouthwatering citrus, rolling into heavy, funky dank. It avoids being overpowering by being served very cool and with enough fizz to give the palate a good scrubbing even as it lays down more resins. By no means a subtle beer, it does have just enough burn, just enough warmth and just enough toffee to be an excellent example of strong and hoppy beer.

Trouble Brewing have just launched a session-strength Galaxy Pale Ale which I'm dying to get stuck into, but in the meantime had a special called Rising Tide on cask in the Bull & Castle. It's a murky orange brown colour and rather heavy and filling, making me wonder immediately if it's any relation to Trouble's permanent IPA Sabotage. As well as the texture, the flavour and aroma are similarly orangey, though it tastes more orange-cream biscuit than fresh jaffa, and with a background heat that puts me in mind of winter beers like Young's Special London Ale. There was a very slight sour buzz to it as well which actually helped offset the heaviness although, like the murkiness, I don't know whether that was down to the beer itself or how it was handled. It could stand to be cleaner-tasting, but was a fairly decent cuddly warmer as found.

Black's Brewery of Kinsale brought the first beer from their new brewkit to Dublin recently: Kinsale Black IPA, on tap in Brewery Lane and priced for the ticker connoisseur at €6.50 per pint. It looks like a stout: black body, creamy nitro head. It smells mostly like a stout: dry roast, light bitterness, with just a cheeky hint of spice and citrus to suggest something else is going on here. And it feels like a stout: the nitro giving it a familiar smoothness at a modest 5.5% ABV. There's lots of added hop fun in the flavour, however: lemon sherbet, in particular, and finishing on a very old fashioned bitterness of the sort found in Porterhouse Wrassler's XXXX. I'd definitely class this as a hybrid beer rather than a "proper" black IPA, but however you slice it stylistically it's delicious and very accessible.

To confuse matters, another Kinsale-branded beer arrived in Dublin around the same time. Williams Wheat Beer is from the people behind the former Kinsale Brewing Company, founded in the late 1990s but which shut up shop around six years ago. They're back on the scene and while I've not heard what their intentions are regarding re-establishment, the brand is alive again and their beer is being brewed on the original Kinsale brewkit which has been in operation at White Gypsy for some years. Williams, on tap at 57 The Headline, is a pale hazy yellow and though it kicks off with a blast of banana, this fades quickly to become a crisper, grainier beer with a thirst-quenching celery and clove complexity. Somewhat out of season, perhaps, but since draught White Gypsy beer is a rarity in the capital these days, I'm not complaining.

The next round of anticipated Irish beers include the aforementioned Galaxy Pale Ale, Eight Degrees's forthcoming black beer trilogy, the winter seasonal from JW Sweetman, a couple of new ones from Five Lamps. And all while keeping an eye out for Otterbank, Rascals and more besides. It's hard work.

22 November 2013

Drouthy neebors

It's the last lap of west Edinburgh pubs today, starting with a cheeky half pint of Nicholson's Porter grabbed at The Haymarket during a brief lull in EBCU proceedings. This is brewed by St Austell and is more ruby or brown than black. It drinks very easily, slipping down leaving a trail of dry roast and light chocolate, its gentleness belying a not inconsiderable 5% ABV.

Just up the street from The Haymarket is Thomson's Bar, an old-fashioned pub with a reputation for well-kept ales. I trooped in behind the chairman of CAMRA, so it would want to have. Oakham Green Hop Harvest was on the bar and one does not pass a new Oakham beer. Sadly this 3.6% ABV golden ale is a bit dull. There's some honey complexity but none of the big hop bang expected from a fresh hop beer, and especially from Oakham, an English brewery with no fear of the hop sack. I followed it with Tryst Carronade: another golden one, vaguely sweet but with nothing much else going on. Perhaps I should have just opted for the Fyne Ales Hurricane Jack everyone else was drinking.

Heading down towards the Caledonian Brewery, though apparently unconnected to it, is the Caley Sample Room, a wide oblong barroom with comfy leather couches and a well-chosen array of local and national beers. We made three visits here over the weekend, the first being when I mistook it for the Sample Cellar in the brewery: they shouldn't have places with such similar names so close to each other. Anyway, while Reuben figured out my error I caned a pint of A Bad Day At The Office by Alechemy. I liked it, with its assertive waxy bitterness and a mineral smoothness for ease of drinking, a feature especially appreciated when you realise, two mouthfuls in, that you're supposed to be somewhere else.

Later we followed the crowd to the brightly lit confines of The Digger's (right) where I had a rather tasty Kelburn Jaguar, all juicy summer fruit sweetness, and then it was back to the Caley.

Looking at my notes, I don't think I had a bad beer at the Caley: from the clean fresh peach and apricot of red-gold Mariana Trench by Weird Beard to the intriguing honey and pepper blend in Highland Pale Ale. The full and fruity Fresh by Wild Beer Co was a particular highlight, hitting the Belgian IPA flavour profile in all the right places, and one of my top beers of the whole weekend was the one I went out on: Alechemy's Black Aye PA: dark red with a powerful burst of mandarin and grapefruit, followed by just a whisper of sticky treacle in the finish.

It was a pleasant surprise to find a couple of lagers from West in Glasgow. Well, semi-pleasant. 4 was on tap in Ryrie's at Haymarket station and is a corker: gently carbonated for an ultra-smooth drinkability, with just its intense sweetness meaning it might not be to everyone's taste. For me it was a perfect reset button after several heavy ales. Its stablemate St Mungo (left) let the side down, however, being sweeter still and with the signature buttery off flavour of wonky lager. Not undrinkable by any means, but nor was it the crisp lager experience I was after.

I found the St Mungo at The Cloisters which we got to late on the Friday when it was already quite busy. Also on the bar was Highland's A9, yet another golden job: nicely spicy though a bit too heavy and sticky for my liking. The same goes for Boggart Sundial, biscuity lager malts laid on too thickly, saved but only just by a crunchy green veg bitterness at the end. An award for the name goes to Elixir's Get It India pale ale, though no marks for taste as this is another butterbomb, drowning its hops in the sickly gloop.

I blinked a couple of times when I noticed Benedictine Groove on the bottle blackboard at The Cloisters. It's also from Elixir and the USP is the inclusion of "tablet and tonic wine". Buckfast beer! It had to be tried. And it's surprisingly decent. I'm guessing it's the wine which contributes the warming plumminess, and there's a lovely chocolate character too, creating an overall effect similar to English old ale or ruby porter: a balanced and complex winter beer, much mellower than one might expect, given what went into it.

All that was left was a couple of cheery halves at the airport Wetherspoon (Broughton Old Jock and Schiehallion, if you must know) and then home. Three days was enough to scratch the surface of Edinburgh, but I'm well aware that there's plenty more in the Scottish capital to be enjoyed beerwise.

20 November 2013

Edinbrew

The Caledonian Brewery squats sulkily below Slateford Road in western Edinburgh. It's a mid-Victorian redbrick, now the property of Heineken UK and probably best known for its Deuchars IPA. Tradition looms large here, and they're fiercely proud of their copper kettles, open square fermenters and whole-leaf hops. The hops aren't even kept refrigerated, with a storeroom on the brewhouse roof deemed to do just as good a job. Quite a bit of this year's three-day EBCU autumn session was held there, affording the opportunity to drink freely at both of its hospitality bars. For a brewery famous for just a couple of beers, there's actually a sizeable range produced there. If you've ever encountered the Newcastle special editions in the US, this is where they came from, and it appears also to be the source of Britain and America's supply of Murphy's "Irish" Stout.

The beer that really caught my eye when I spotted it in the cellar bar fridge was Deuchars Imperial, a 5.5% ABV golden ale with a similar sort of buttery kick as standard Deuchars but with an added hop spice to it that makes it much more drinkable. Certainly much more drinkable than the brewery's other icon Caledonian 80/-. This dark red-brown beer came from the cask tasting like a kind of warm chocolate soup: a particularly heavy heavy and, as the brewery's guest, I'm glad I didn't have to put away more than a third of it.

Seasonal of the moment is Vienna Red, a dark amber lager, again from the cask. This has a much lighter touch than the 80/-, with lovely smooth and sweet caramel notes. It's far from complex but pretty decent for what it is. Just on its way out of the brewery, meanwhile, was San Diego Session IPA, a 4.5% ABV beer brought to life by Mike Richmond of Stone Brewing as another commission from JD Wetherspoon. There's more of that trademark butterscotch in here and lots of husky grain. The hops contribute no more than a light fruity tang and the whole is a lot less exciting than the Californian gargoyle might suggest.

Gold seems to be where Caledonian is hanging its hopes, so even though their Flying Scotsman is supposed to be a London Pride competitor it's definitely on the yellow side of the colour spectrum and very lagery with it, providing lots of biscuit sweetness and a smooth effervescence in lieu of full-on fizz. Another unchallenging and approachable beer, though very open to accusations of being boring. Golden XPA is sweeter again, laying on thick golden syrup for a sticky texture and a flavour that starts out a little cloying when freshly poured and just gets more sickly as it warms. The house keg lager is called Three Hop and there's more of the mineral soda effervescence found in the Flying Scotsman -- definitely not a keg beer that can be accused of over gassiness. Unfortunately there's not much else to it: the three German hop varieties which provide the name do little to enhance the taste.

To the south of the city sits the other brewery that offered to show us around and let us try their beers, and Stewart couldn't be more different. This largeish micro is on a major upswing at the moment and the brand new German brewkit is all shiny stainless and flashing lights. We arrived late on a Friday and the day's brewing was over, but a makeshift tasting bar had been set up in the corner.

Stewart's 80/- is far lighter than Caledonian's, and paler too: a clear dark garnet. There's a dusting of strawberries overlying the chewy caramel, and while it is sweet and full-bodied, it's also clean and cool, enhancing the drinkability. The other cask was pouring Stewart's Pumpkin Ale: the final cask of the 2013 vintage as Halloween was some days behind us. A deep orange colour, I found this to be quite lagery, but in a good way: the hops impart a grassy kind of bitterness and there's quite an assertive sparkle. Some light fruitiness, which may or may not be actual pumpkin flavour, hovers in the background and the inevitable spicing is very subtle, refreshingly so.

At the edge of the bar were two minikegs of Edinburgh Gold, a rather lumpy golden ale with disturbing clumps of yeast bobbling about in my glass. It's big on artificial fruit flavours -- Refresher chews and Lucozade -- and the whole is just a bit too sweet for my liking. Back in town later I encountered Stewart's Black IPA in a pub. More red than black, this, and liquorice is the main feature. The hops bring a pleasant sprinkling of bitterness, but not at the levels I'd expect for something calling itself a black IPA.

More Edinburgh pub action coming up as we round off the trip in the next post. I'll leave this one with the observation that Edinburgh's craft brewery is the one with the ultra-modern fully-automated brewkit, while the multinational industrial macro makes its beers on old-fashioned equipment entirely by hand. If you're hanging on to a definition of craft beer based on its method of production, here's a comparison to give you pause.

18 November 2013

Westenders

When Reuben and I went to Edinburgh for the autumn 2013 meeting of the European Beer Consumers Union, the weekend before last, most of the drinking action was concentrated on the west side of the city. Classics like the Bow Bar and upstarts like BrewDog were just beyond reach for this trip, but I'll be back in the spring and will make a point of them then.

Top of my hitlist was The Hanging Bat, very much on the geek end of the spectrum, with its bare brick, beer science posters and nanobrewery tucked into an alcove at the back. No beer was forthcoming from that kit but the selection otherwise is pretty decent and there's a great system which allows the purchase of five thirds in advance for a set price which can then be ordered serially at one's leisure. The first one for me was Dark Matter, a sour stout brewed as a collaboration between Beavertown in East London and the BrewDog bar in Shoreditch. It's billed as a sour stout, a style which usually indicates something heavy, roasty and stouty with just a mild farmyard or lactic tang about it. Not this. Presenting a clear dark red, it has the clean sour profile of a full-on lambic, with all the mouth-watering thirst quenching properties that implies. Its stout nature comes through at the finish with a massive warming coffee roastiness. Two flavour elements that are rarely seen together there, and which work brilliantly. And all this at 3.8% ABV. I felt I was off to a good start in Edinburgh.

I tackled the IPAs next. Arbor's Why Kick A Moo Cow is 5.5% ABV and, a pale hazy orange served in a stemmed glass, has my thoughts immediately turning towards the IPAs of The Kernel brewery. This exhibitis the same sort of roaringly fresh dank hop profile, though the aroma is more candied fruit and after the initial weedy hit it sort of fades out, lacking any real finishing punch. I'd happily session on it if it were just a little less strong, but at that strength I'd expect more depth. I had similar middle-of-the-road thoughts about Highland brewery's Muckle IPA, which ramps up the volume to 6.6% ABV. There's a sort of ticklist of US-style IPA flavours: grapefruit is there, some peach, a bit of pine resin, and while I enjoyed it I think it suffered a bit for being served in a specialist beer bar among much more interesting company. Down your local on a different day it could well be mindblowing.

Cromarty's AKA IPA is a good example of what Muckle is up against. The ABV rises another notch, to 6.8%, and this is darker, more amber than the foregoing. Its aroma hangs heavy and lingers sweetly, like the atmosphere around a group of stoners at the bus stop. The texture is full and chewy without being sweet and sticky, and rather than resin the hop bitterness is a cleaner orange skin kind of sensation. I stole a sip from Reuben's glass of Redchurch DIPA while I was on a hoppy vibe. This looks the picture of innocence in the glass: a pale hazy Hoegaarden yellow. The aroma is light and zesty. Its full power isn't revealed until the first sip: this beer, 9.3% ABV, is monstrously heavy and requires an effort of will to pull it out of the glass and past one's teeth. Very different from the usual double IPA toffee bombs, it balances its sweet and bitter elements wonderfully and there's something almost Belgian in the deft casual way it does big flavour and high strength without the result being any way hot or difficult.

While I'm wetting my beak in Reuben's beer, he also opted for Buxton Saison, a not especially dry or saisony example of the style, but hopped up in an Opal Fruits fashion. There's maybe a slight air of urinal cake about this, but it's fresh and zingy urinal cake for sure. There was also Beavertown Brown Sour which arrived looking a very unattractive murky orange-brown with no head. It smells sweet and roasty like a brown ale with a mild sourness being the centrepiece of the flavour, followed by a vague lactic sweetness. Neither of us were sure exactly what this is supposed to be.

A stout finished my visit to The Hanging Bat: Highland Oat Stout, the only cask offering in my selection. It does all the things good cask stout should: a silky smooth texture, some light roast flavours plus a plummy complexity I only ever seem to encounter in cask-conditioned dark beers. There's a trace of the putty flavour I've come to associate with oats in stout but it doesn't spoil things. A pleasant third but I think this might just prove too heavy for drinking by the pint.

The next pub was just down the street and came highly recommended: The Red Squirrel. It seems like a nice place, modern without being too-cool-for-school. A sizeable selection of taps behind the bar with the majority being keg. And unfortunately most of them were defunct. I enquired of the barman what the Hopfull Old American pale ale (right) was like and he immediately began pouring me a pint. I guess we were staying. What's it's like is not very good: attractively gold but dull and musty tasting. A real comedown from the earlier pale ales. By this stage we had picked up Hardknott's Dave and Ann and I was making the call on the last pub before the evening's engagement: The Blue Blazer.

This is a very old fashioned corner boozer. Old fashioned in the sense of keep your coat on and respect that you're in someone else's local. The cask selection was excellent and mine was Ball Park by Tempest, a 3.8% ABV pale ale. This came out a beautifully clear rose gold colour and the dominant flavour is sweet rich tea biscuit. Mair hops would be nice, but as a session bitter it's just bitter enough and fruity enough to be very enjoyable. Reuben's was Tryst Sherpa, a porter (geddit?) using seven different hops for some reason. It's a lovely and light and quenching with just enough dry roast to make it moreish.

We'll come back to more Edinburgh pub-hopping later, but with these few tasters under our belt let's hit a brewery or two next.

14 November 2013

Tasty geezers

My last Belgian beer was the most feminine one in the fridge. In the interests of gender balance I'm following it with the blokeiest: Deux Barbus, a 5.8% ABV porter with a label which bears more than a passing resemblance to those of Brasserie De La Senne. Well, with artwork that good it was inevitable that someone would borrow the style.

First impression is that it's very pale: distinctly ruby rather than brown or black. The head sits stably on the body, a half-centimetre of fine ivory mousse. The aroma hints at the sweetness to come, giving dry cocoa powder and rosewater and the texture is heavy and creamy. While it tastes sweet -- very sweet -- it's not unpleasant. The smoothness adds to the drinkability: just one more chocolate truffle. OK, maybe another. There's no roast, or dryness, or hops to speak of: just a touch of hazelnut complementing the milk chocolate.

It's simple, but I like it a lot. The brewery goes by the rather unmanly name of Papillon and I'll be looking out for more from them.

11 November 2013

Let this be a lesson to you

Back in the old days, Irish beer consisted of lager, stout and red ale. In the early days of Irish microbrewing you might have got a wheat beer instead of a lager in there, for those who had travelled to exotic places where beer was cloudy, and besides: lager is difficult. We were so hopeful when pale ale came along and suddenly there was a heretical alternative to the Holy Trinity. Praise be! Alas it seems to have been a bit of a false dawn and all that's happening with many new Irish breweries is the replacing of the lager/wheat beer with pale ale. The Holy Trinity becomes the Hoppy Trinity and we all line up as before (I should add this isn't true for all Irish breweries by any means, but it's a worrying trend for the newest ones who have things much easier in terms their market's willingness to try unusual things).

The thing is, these aren't necessarily bad styles by any means. I thought it would be fun to present an alternative rendering of them, from a real actual brewery somewhere else. And as it turned out, a recent set of releases from Sierra Nevada provided just the perspective I was after.

The stout first, and this is Narwhal: 10.2% ABV so not exactly one for a session of pints. But although it's unctuously thick it's no palate pounder. The aroma is a mild tarriness overlaid with a pinch of alcoholic heat, and that booze is the first thing to leap out of the flavour, and burn down the throat in fact, so forget about chugging it. After this there's a velvety dark chocolate smoothness and a certain woody spiritousness -- whiskey or brandy -- though there's nothing to indicate it's barrel aged. The hops finish the performance with a vegetal, shading to metallic, tang on the end. Not by any means the most deeply complex imperial stout I've ever met, but a damn fine one.

To the red next: Flipside, a modest 6.2% ABV and badged as a "red IPA". It pours out a clear shade of cherrywood and smells a little cheesy, like elderly hops. The texture is light and breezy with an assertive prickly fizz and the flavour is hop dominated but they're far from cheesy here: bitter lime and grapefruit for starters, settling to an earthy orange pith and a bit of weedy dank. I'd like some lighter fruit notes, but I'm not complaining. Above all the hops here taste fresh, in a way that beers that come to us over a fraction of the distance rarely seem to. What's with that? It's not a pale ale in disguise, incidentally: the dark malts add a richness and some very light toast. So proper red ale. The day something like this comes out of the tap as a new Irish red I will be very happy.

We finish with the pale ale, called simply Beer Camp IPA, produced as part of the brewery's annual experimental set of beers. It's a bright gold colour with just a very slight haze. The strength is a smidge higher than Flipside at 6.9% ABV. Another slightly elderly hop smell from this: a bit stale or oxidised. There's an interesting interaction in the flavour: although the hops are Cascade and Centennial they impart a very old world waxiness at the start then disappear to be replaced by the malt sweetness, and biscuits and hard candy. The two interact to make a kind of heavy perfume effect that I'm not a fan of. We get better pale ales than this from our local breweries.

So the IPA was a washout, and they're all a good bit stronger than normal for Irish beers, something I don't suggest changing, but the depth and richness of the stout and the banging fresh hops in the red are things that any brewer would do well to analyse with a view to ripping them off. In the interests of the customer. Me.

07 November 2013

Life after death

With Diageo winding up operations at the Smithwick's St. Francis's Abbey Brewery and moving all brewing to Dublin, Kilkenny's native beer looks to be getting a new lease of life. I suspect that the company is extremely wary of experimenting with the Guinness brand -- one of the world's strongest, but one which works best as an immutable monolith in its home country. Smithwick's, on the other hand, is nowhere near as precious. It has long been a minority interest, playing third or fourth fiddle in the portfolio, and when the other brands were given expensive makeovers over the last decade, Smithwick's was last in the queue and I was half expecting it to be quietly retired. I mean, who drinks ale these days? But the run-up to the brewery's tricentenary in 2010 saw it finally get a revamp, all hinged on one concept: craft.

Smithwick's ale was now a craft beer, crafted by craftsmen for centuries. In 2011 the first new brand extension came out: Smithwick's Pale Ale. Not at all a bad effort, and a beer I've occasionally been very glad of in pubs with nothing better. And very much pitched at the new demographic of "craft beer drinkers", about the only growing segment of the industry in western Europe. There's even a new Smithwick's poster campaign arguing that centuries of experience is required to make properly crafted craft beer. For the independent breweries of Ireland it must seem like we're at stage three on the Ghandi scale of conflict.

That Smithwick's is now being pitched as a niche product is certainly borne out in the press release for the latest new addition: Smithwick's Winter Spirit. It's only 260 words, but Diageo makes sure to tell us the new beer "is set to impress craft beer drinkers" and "will be enjoyed by craft beer lovers", while that TV ad with the squirrel "grabs the attention of craft beer drinkers". It would seem that if you're not a "craft beer drinker" you can go to hell as far as the Smithwick's people are concerned.

So I took my craft beer palate out of the deep freeze and carefully fixed it in place, knowing full well the dangers of experiencing craft beer without being fully prepared in advance. Some of those flavours would take the head clean off a novice, so they would. Winter Spirit is a very dark garnet, very nearly brown. It smells like regular Smithwick's: that mix of sugary malt and gently metallic hops which for me always invokes the adjective "beery" -- it's how I remember beer smelling when I was very young. The malt is the main driver of the flavour -- "brown sugar" says the label, and I get that, but only a little; "biscuit" and "roasted nut" are also promised, but it's nowhere near as complex as that. The finish is provided by those understated hops: vegetal and lightly peppery. This is very plain fare indeed, reminiscent of a million bottled brown English bitters. At 4.5% ABV it's slightly stronger than regular Smithwick's but delivers pretty much nothing extra for that, and I don't see why anyone would trade up to this.

The blurb says this is the first in a series of new Smithwick's seasonals: a worthy project and one I hope they keep running with. Anything that serves to make Ireland's beer scene a more interesting place to drink is all right in my book. But, all sarcasm aside, they are not going to win over the craft beer market with beer like Winter Spirit. It just doesn't deliver the taste. The market research bods would do better to spend less time looking at who the craft beer drinkers are and more on what they like to drink, why they like to drink it, and how the brewer achieved that. Until they get the hang of that, Smithwick's will just be another macro brand in the Diageo portfolio, next to Bud and Macardle's. The makers of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout can and should be giving us better.

04 November 2013

Naughty little boys

I had great ambitions to reach "zero notebook" this autumn -- to turn all of the tasting note scribblings which accumulated earlier in the year into blog posts. Alas, I'm not there yet, but here are four more off the list, all kindly provided by Richard one warm evening last July.

Most are from Tiny Rebel in South Wales, a recent addition to the growing number of youf-oriented British breweries. Their Urban IPA is a very modest 5.5% ABV and pours a rich shade of dark orange-amber. The aroma is beautifully pithy, showing off lots of fresh jaffa and this comes through as more of an oily resinousness on tasting, with the added bonus of some light sandalwood spicing. It signs off with a punchy bitter astringency and leaves an afterglow that belies the mid-range ABV. A very solid flagship, this.

The label of Hadouken brought a particular smile to my face, the arrow combination depicted being a significant one for many men my age, I'm sure. In a lot of ways this is an intensified version of the Urban IPA: a similar colour and doing the same pithy orange things, but with 7.4% ABV to play with it's all much more concentrated. The beer is full bodied to the point of greasiness and the sweet malt contributes to a hop-studded toffee effect of the sort commonly found in American beers of this style. The hops have been ramped up to the point of being lip-numbing. Powerful but balanced say my notes from four months ago. I believe them.

Taking a whole different approach to labelling we have NP10. It's badged as a "Belgian [style] Golden Strong Ale" but tastes much more like a tripel. It has the honey and spice complexity, rather than just being booze, yeast and fizz. Deliciously smooth and not too hot, despite that double-figure ABV.

From south Wales to west London and a limited edition beer that has probably long since passed beyond availability: Old Burton Extra from the Fuller's Past Masters series. This is 7.3% ABV and brewed to a recipe from 1931. It pours a dark red colour and gives off a powerful, but enticing, aroma of cough mixture. The malt leads the flavour profile, beginning with buttery toffee followed by some plum jam fruitiness. It wouldn't be a Burton without some generous hopping and that comes into play at the end: firmly bitter in an impeccably mannered way, without any sharpness or acridity. Very much a beer to take time over, if you're thinking of pulling one out of your stash for these darker evenings.

01 November 2013

Me and Sara

It's not a particularly comfortable topic on The Session this month. Nichole is our host and the topic is Women and Beer: Scary Beer Feminists or a Healthy Growing Demographic? Phew. Where do you start with a question like that? I'm not sure I've ever met a scary beer feminist, or if I'd even recognise one. That the demographic of women drinking beer is not especially healthy is pretty much beyond doubt, however: 50% of the adult population, yet every set of statistics on the subject I've ever seen has shown women to be a minuscule proportion of the beer drinking public.

Yes, it appears to be changing -- there are certainly more female voices in the online beer world than there used to be, on both the production and consumption side -- but they are still way under-represented. It may be partially one of those Lean In things, that women are just less interested in making noise about beer than the boys are, but I don't doubt that there's also a real gender-specific apathy towards beer behind it. When I went looking for hard figures in the 2013 Cask Report by way of illustration I didn't find what I was looking for, but instead there's an odd sort of half qualitative metric, saying most licensees believe more women are drinking cask ale. It also includes the statistic that a mere 34% of women in Britain have ever tried cask ale. Perhaps we can chalk some of that up to the image problem of some British cask beer, something not shared by every other beer culture, but that's still an incredibly small number.

The number of women out there enjoying what the beer world has to offer may indeed be growing, but that growth is both from a very very low starting point and appears to be happening extremely slowly. In the years that I've been paying attention to beery happenings there have been several initiatives by the trade to pitch their product more towards women, most of which have been poorly conceived and doomed to failure from the start. I'm more hopeful of general trends like good restaurants beginning to carry good beer; of a greater spectrum of quality beer being available; of more and better beer education being available from producers and retailers; and of smarter, more attractive branding. These are the best weapons we have in getting the female wine drinkers to occasionally give a craft beer a go. But I'm sceptical if they have sufficient collective firepower to ever win us a fair share of territory in the war of the female palate.

To fit my theme I went poking in the beer fridge for something interesting, full-flavoured and smartly presented and came out with a bottle of Sara, a 6% ABV buckwheat beer by Brasserie de Silenrieux in Belgium's mid-west, not far from Charleroi. Yes, I admit, the label is a bit patronisingly girly, but the beer behind it has real substance.

For one thing it's dark: a proper deep shade of red-brown. There's lots of foam at the beginning but this subsides quickly and the aroma from the surface promises hints of spiced treacle. I had been expecting something quite fruity and sticky but instead it has these strange and very tasty dry cherry sherbet notes, with elements of prosecco, hyper-sweet children's cough medicine and old lady perfume in there too. Very weird, and not a beer that can be consumed quickly as there's just too much going on. The flavour is noisy.

I've no idea what buckwheat is supposed to impart flavourwise but the cocktail of oddness in here resembles nothing I've had before. For all that, I quite like it as a sipping beer, a role it adapts well to as it warms up and flattens out a little.

Nitch says she doesn't want an argument in this Session, which is absolutely fine by me as I have no real answers to the questions, only a resigned melancholy that the female perspective is so lacking in the beer world; a thankfulness for those women who are making themselves heard, in what they say, write, and brew; and an off-kilter beer to drink, and write about, and perhaps help persuade those of either sex to go and explore more of what beer is and does.