30 April 2014

What sap

It's not autumn, but I figured Anchor's BigLeaf Maple "autumn red" should still be OK to drink, being 6% ABV. It's not really red, more of a coppery orange. The smell is enticing: a fruity spicy sweetness, all candied banana and toffee apples. I experienced a little trepidation at the prospect of a sticky sugary mess, but that's not the case. The flavour is clean as a whistle, presenting clear maple syrup woody sweetness as the centrepiece, garnished with gunpowder spices and a sprinkling of roast. And it's the maple and spice that gets left behind in the aftertaste, not the cloying syrup.

My finishing impression, even this far from autumn, is of one of those typical American pumpkin beers, only without the unsubtle flavour additions. Something as well put together as this shouldn't need to wait until the far side of the equinox.

28 April 2014


I didn't really know what to be more surprised at when a review bottle of St Erhard arrived via the company's local distributor: the hip, Absolut-esque branding on a lager from uber-traditional Bamberg, or the claim on the back that the clear glass is somehow UV-protected. A bit of asking around on Twitter regarding the latter turned up the suggestion that it was legit and that a glass coating does indeed exist to skunk-proof beer bottles. This one end up sitting in my glass-fronted beer fridge for two months so at the very least I had the opportunity to test this claim.

Inside, it's an amber lager of 5% ABV and helpfully lists its malt types (Vienna, Pilsner, CaraMunich) and hops (Tettnanger) on the bottle. I couldn't help but detect an air of skunkiness when I took the cap off, but if I didn't imagine it, there's not very much. Hooray for chemicals! Lots of fizz at first, dropping to a mere rash of bubbles on the surface. The aroma is all grain husk: a dry and almost roasty crunchy smell. And on tasting there's more of that plus possibly some chocolate and liquorice too. In a blind tasting I imagine I would swear this is a porter, and the thinness of body does nothing to dispel that impression. I get a miniscule whiff of herbal hops in the afterburp, but otherwise this is cereals all the way.

Not a bad beer, perfectly drinkable and that. But not exactly brimming with Bamberg quality. Oh: it's contract brewed 20km outside Bamberg? Well maybe that explains it. As you were.

(The rubbish pun in the title, by the way, is there to point out that today I'm one year short of ten doing this blog thing. I'll try and come up with a better one for next year.)

24 April 2014

New beers from old friends

Troubadour Magma is damn near irresistible, and Westkust is a comforting friend, so I'm always alert for new beers from The Musketeers in the hope that this classic double-act can be turned into a trilogy. The first candidate was one I found at a studenty pub called Le Coq, just up from the Bourse in Brussels: Troubadour Spéciale. And it is grim: a really boring red ale with masses of porridgey grain that is a chore to drink through. Why, Musketeers, why? A few days later, and Waterhuis aan de Bierkant in Ghent. Troubadour Obscura in the fridge, in my glass, in my mouth. What the hell is THIS? It appears to be a stout of some sort, a strong one at 8.2% ABV. It's roaringly sour, all lactic tang and a stubborn awkward brett funk squatting in the middle of the flavour, refusing to let anything else out. There's no mention of this "character" in the official tasting notes so I suspect something just went up the left with my bottle. I think I'll wait until I can have it on draught before chancing this one again. That's 0 for 2 in new Troubadour beers. Stick to the Magma, kids.

The other progressive Belgian brand I always look forward to new beers from is Brasserie de la Senne. They have an adapted version of their classic Taras Boulba pale ale, produced in collaboration with Birrificio di Montegioco and called Taras Runa. Like Taras Boulba this is a hazy shade of yellow, and like Taras Boulba it blends new world citrus hop flavours with light Belgian yeast spicing. Like Taras Boulba it's an approachable, sessionable strength. Actually: this is almost identical to Taras Boulba. It's perfectly decent, but I'm marking it down for being far too close to a beer they already make. What's the point?

De la Senne also have a new black IPA out, called Black in Japan, with yet another gorgeous label. It's 7.2% ABV and was a bit of a job to pour, what with all the foam. I was expecting a much bigger hop punch than it delivered. What we have here is a perfectly decent export-strength stout, with plenty of dry roast in both the aroma and flavour, plus a crunchy veg complexity from the hops. It's not a million miles from good old Wrasslers XXXX, a beer I'm coming increasingly to believe would be badged as a black IPA if it were brewed today for the first time.

This was in Poechenellekelder where one of the seasonal draughts was from the St-Feuillien/Green Flash collaboration series. The black saison they did previously was wonderful, so I had high hopes for Belgian Coast, a 7% ABV IPA. It arrived very cold, rather flat and quite a dark shade of amber and is definitely more Belgium than San Diego in the aroma: sugar, spice, fruit esters, but only a bit of hop greenness. The flavour mixes the sticky Belgian candy with the vegetal hops in an odd way, but it's not without its charms. There's a long metallic afterburn in the finish. Not as much fun as the saison, and not all that different to a zillion other Belgian IPAs, but quite nice to drink.

Dupont's archetypal saison needs very little introduction but I was acutely aware of how few of their other beers I had tasted and decided to put that right. Redor is the basic pils, well-assembled if a little nondescript. A sharp, almost sour, aroma and a flavour which combines light peachiness with some dry grain husk. There's also Monk's Stout, another simple one. 5.2% ABV and nicely dry and crisp: not always a guarantee in a country that seems to tolerate overly sugary stouts. Bons Vœux is a strong cloudy blonde, almost 10% ABV, and nicely warming with it. There's not much going on the the flavour, however, just a bit of cereal and a token sharpness from the hops. And finally Bier De Miel which, as the name suggests, is brewed with honey. Quite a lot of it, I'd say: from the beeswax aroma to the smooth sweet middle to the herbal aftertaste, this definitely shows how good honey can be in a beer without taking it over completely.

I confess I hadn't had any of the beers from the Brussels Beer Project before this trip, but I had heard of them. It's an on-trend collectivised collaboarative contract brewing operation that has been going for about a year and so far produced six beers. I got to try two of them: Dark Sister is a dark ale of 6.66% ABV and uses Citra, Simcoe and Smaragd hops. It pours a blood red colour with lots of dark malt coffee flavours to the fore. This is followed by a kind of plummy sourness and a bit of blackcurrant jam. I'd probably be calling it a dark mild if I had to guess a style, but either way it's a very interesting combination of flavours. Delta is the beer it's a sibling to, a 6% ABV pale ale using the same hop combination. The first one I got was a dud: all stale oxidation and sharp lactic sourness. Reuben rescued me by donating a portion of the one he was drinking. It's another one of those orange barley sweet Belgian IPAs, though a burst of grapefruit zest in the finish, combined with the modest strength, lifts it a little beyond most of its contemporaries.

Three new ones from three of the big-hitting geek-facing Belgian breweries next. VI Wheat (picture, right) is the latest in the numerical sequence by Jandrain-Jandrenouille and it's a weird one. There's a herbal urinal cake aroma and a lot of funk in the flavour. I don't really remember what it tasted like when I drank it in Moeder Lambic Fontainas but my notes say "lemons and cowshit" so perhaps that's for the best. Speaking of sequences, De Ranke have followed up their classic XX Bitter with XXX Bitter, though at 6% ABV it's actually slightly weaker than its predecessor. It's nearly a perfect Belgian blonde, beautifully smooth with clear, clean, polished flavours of light citrus fruit and candystore sugars. And so to Struise, one of the more one-uppy of Belgium's breweries. Their offering this trip was nothing more complicated than a 10% ABV bourbon barrel aged dark rye tripel, and they too have appropriated the XXX name. It's a murky brown and the aroma is full of that loud wood effect you get with so many bourbon-aged beers. On tasting there's no sign of any tripelish qualities, and I couldn't taste any rye. Instead it's smooth and warming with some really beautiful port and sherry notes. And bourbon? Yes, a little: enough to impart the flavour without it completely taking over. Nicely done, Struise.

Girardin is very much an old friend when I'm in Brussels. Their Gueuze is top-notch and can often be found for a euro or so cheaper than its main rivals in the pub. I was intrigued when I discovered that Bier Circus was serving straight Girardin Lambic on cask, pleased when I noticed that they were charging €2 for a 200ml glass of it, and ecstatic when it actually arrived. I never knew Brussels had an answer to Cologne's drinking style and the following review is based on the dregs at the bottom of my third glass. It's an unassuming clear brown colour and almost totally flat. It's also not especially sour, but dry and tannic instead with just the suggestion of oak. More than anything, like your Kölsch and your Alt, it's refreshing, in a grab-sink-and-go sort of way, a pint of Brussels plain, if you will. I wish more places than the Moeder Lambics and Bier Circus served cask lambic.

Until next time, Belgium...

21 April 2014

Always something new

I've lost track of the number of times I've been to Brussels over the last 12 years. I'm sure it's into double figures by now. And while fixtures like A La Bécasse (right) and Toone are still favourites and oft returned to, there's always somewhere new. Occasionally new to the city, but mostly just new to me. Reuben and I were over on Beoir business earlier this month and as well as the above mentioned fixtures, and several others, I also got to drop in to Café Monk, a beautiful tiled bar near Place Sainte-Catherine, and pay my first visit to The Hoppy Loft, an oasis of calm and good beer above the pandemonium that is Impasse de la Fidelité on a Friday night.

And then there's the beers. In my advancing years I'm finding it harder and harder to pass by old favourites on the beer menus in favour of new ticks, but I try to strike a balance, for you, dear reader.Yes, there was Rodenbach, yes there was Zinne Bir, yes there was Guinness Foreign Extra. But there was also...

Buffalo Bitter, one of many Belgian IPAs I drank while in-country. I discovered this while basking in the sunshine outside Le Lombard. It's 8% ABV, highly fizzy and sharply bitter. Other than that, standard Belgian IPA rules apply: a warm candy-sugar sweetness rests uneasily beside the hops. Still, it was better than Buffalo Stout which is a percentage point stronger and a worrying pale reddish colour. Like lots of continental stouts it has that unpleasant burnt caramel, though not as strongly as some, and there's also a strange sour quality. It's quite plain fare and might even pass for refreshing if it weren't so damn fizzy.

Keeping things strong, dark and outside Le Lombard, there's LeFort by the Bockor brewery near Kortrijk. 8.5% ABV and a garnet colour that's only a little paler than the stout. I have a feeling the the strength alluded to in the name refers not only to the ABV: this stuff is hot. You get caramel fudge and marker pens, and more than an air of tramp-juice syrupyness. It's hard going. The same brewery also makes Vanderghiste oude bruin, a much more palatable dark beer: 5.5% ABV and just lightly sour but mostly balanced and refreshing.

One of the best dark beers of the trip came from NovaBirra, a brewery south of Brussels, near Waterloo, which has been going since 2008. Big Mama is another 9% ABV stout using entirely Alsatian hops which give it a fantastic floral, lavender-and-bubblegum flavour, set against the smooth chocolate from the malt. There was more lavender in Moeder Fucker 3, a heavily hopped saison produced for, and found in, Moeder Lambic Fontainas. Resin on the nose and thick, heavy granny's-bathroom perfume and lavender soap. This sweary beer won't have a problem if someone tells it to wash its mouth out.

Hops are very much in vogue in Belgium at the moment, and among the hop-forward beers I encountered was the aggressively-named Hop Verdomme by Kerkom, on tap in Bier Circus. Again there's that orange boiled sweet effect in place of clean hop freshness, with an exotic incense spicing as well. It's a little sticky despite being a mere 7% ABV, but I detected a hint of sourness about it, a waft of salt and vinegar crisps. Odd, and not the intense hop experience the name promised. While I was drinking this, Reuben chanced his arm on Kameleon Ginseng, a dry hazy blonde beer which tastes powerfully of ginseng: all the herbal, earthy, rooty punch of it. It's a ginseng beer for people who want their ginseng beer to taste unmistakeably of ginseng. It's not for the rest of us.

Back to the hops, and Gandavum was one of the better ones. This is the house beer of Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, encountered when we stopped off in Ghent on the way back to the airport. They advertise it as a dry-hopped blonde but it shows many of the Belgian IPA qualities, better than in some bona fide Belgian IPAs, in fact. Yes there's that candy sweetness, a a Belgian yeast spicing, but there's a lovely simple juicy peachiness as well.

It seems the big boys are well aware of the hop trend, and chasing their own hop-driven La Chouffe brand extensions, Duvel also now make Vedett IPA, the stripy label adapted to the colours of the Indian flag. Having ordered it out of morbid curiosity, I was very surprised to discover it's actually quite tasty. Warm for a beer that's just 6% ABV, and there's the usual Belgian yeast thing going on, but it's a cleaner flavour profile than most, making it possible to pick out a definite citric tartness and soft thirst quenching nectarine flavour as well. This is wonderfully complex in a way I'd never expect a Vedett beer to be. Meanwhile the dunce cap goes to Palm for Palm Hop Select made, it says on the Internet, using hops grown at the actual brewery. Well, maybe they should leave things to a professional grower in future, because this is a dull sweaty mess.

From the odd-but-inevitable file comes this one by Hof Ten Dormaal: Oak Aged Jenever Barrel. So enamoured by their cleverness on jumping aboard the barrel-ageing bandwagon with a native low countries gin cask that they seem to have forgotten about the beer which goes inside. Once you separate out the mild herbal tang imparted by the jenever and the vanilla from the wood you're left with really a rather plain Belgian ambrée.

We'll finish this post back in Ghent, where we ended up at the Trollekelder, a rather fun knockabout multilevel boozer north of the city centre. Among the beers vying to be Ghent's official one is Gentse Strop ("Ghent Noose"), even though it's brewed some distance away in Oudenaarde. The gallows-shaped display stand is ubiquitous around town. It's a pretty straightforward blonde: as clean and clear as you like, with a lovely crisp celery bite. Trollekelder also had a gueuze that was new to me: De Cam Oude Lambiek: spendy at a tenner a bottle, but I was on my way home and still had money in my pocket. I don't know that it's much better than all the other old lambics out there. It has maybe a bit more of a pronounced barrel flavour and is smooth rather than sharply sour. Best of all it's packed with that brick-cellar and gunpowder nitre spice that I love in the style.

So that's what was new and (mostly) exciting. In the next post we'll see how I fared going back to a handful of breweries and brands that I knew of old.

17 April 2014

Where all roads lead

Following on from Monday's post on the Italian beers I found last month in Rome, this one is about the foreign selection. I did try to drink local as much as possible, but some things were just too interesting to pass up.

My reasoning behind choosing Lervig's Johnny Low in Il Maltese is that I had a whole evening of talking ahead of me and wanted something I could sip safely while waiting for the event to start. A Norwegian IPA at 2.5% ABV seemed like just the ticket. It's lovely too: pale yellow with loads of lemon sherbet. Yes, the body is watery but not in a bad way -- it adds to the quenching power and drinkability. In fact, it was tough going to keep sipping it, this beer virtually pours itself down your throat.

I'd been through most of Il Maltese's draught selection by the time I got to Hoepfner Porter, exported from Baden-Württemberg. It's a wan pale red colour and very sweet, to the point of sickliness. It lays on cherries and milk chocolate without the weight of body to support the strength of the flavours. Just a mildly dry finish and a sudden sharp burst of cherry sourness rescues it, but I wouldn't be rushing back for another.

Before leaving I got a small taste of Amager's Wookie 9% ABV double IPA, before it all ran out. I can see why it's popular: pale blonde and with a super clean pithy hop flavour, unsullied by booze heat or crystal malt sweetness.

I mentioned on Monday that I found Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà in the middle of celebrating German beer. It would have been rude not to join in. Besides, turning down a Schlenkerla beer I'd never tasted before is simply unthinkable. And so a large glass of Schlenkerla Fastenbier was acquired. Funny, I thought this style was usually super-strong, but this one is a mere 5.5% ABV, arriving a rich chestnut red colour. It has a lot in common with other beers from the Bamberg brewery: bags of beechwood smoke, of course, and a little bit of the tarryness you find in the Urbock, though not as pronounced. The real genius of this beer -- I opined to myself as the glass emptied itself more rapidly than one would expect for something so powerfully flavoured -- is the finish: there's virtually none. All the action happens while it's in your mouth, and when it's gone, it's gone. Which means you have to take another mouthful. And then order another glass when the first one empties. "Moreish" barely begins to cover it.

But I'm made of stronger stuff, me, and worked my way heroically across the taps. Freigest Salzspeicher caught my eye, a 6% ABV sour raspberry porter. This squirted flatly from the tap, forming a loose-bubbled head over a black body. A wary sniff revealed something that smells like the bottom of a punnet of elderly raspberries. The flavour is fresher, but still all raspberry and hardly any porter, only a tiny touch of dark roasted grain. The sourness kind of gets buried too: while the high attenuation is tasteable, the tartness of the raspberry dovetails very neatly with the inherent tartness of the beer and it's hard to tell which contributes what. It's an interesting experiment, but after the genius that is Schlenkerla it tasted like amateur hour.

There was an English stout on the handpumps: Siren's Sweet Dreams. This has a heady cocoa aroma tempered by the acidic tang of curing tobacco. The flavour is simpler, dominated by that chocolate and nicely smooth to drink. It's unusual for a beer that's not a pale ale to be worth it just for the aroma alone, but this is one of those.

I couldn't resist a swift tot of Gänstaller-Bräu Affumicator before moving on, an all-time favourite. Magic.

Later that evening, wandering alone in the depths of southern Trastevere I popped into Birrifugio for one. There's a small but eclectic selection in this vaguely English-style neighbourhood pub, with a beer each from Adnams, Carlow Brewing, Weihenstephaner, Dark Star and Amager on tap. What caught my eye, however, was Bayerischer Bahnhof Original Gose, as far as I know the only example of this style-of-the-moment brewed in the city most associated with it: Leipzig. It arrived looking and smelling like a simple witbier: hazy straw-coloured with mild herbal aromas. Its true nature is much more apparent on tasting as the salt and coriander are right up front giving it a lip-smacking crispness and offering cold ocean-grade refreshment. I'd loved to have stayed for another, and loved even more to be in a city where this is the sort of beer you get when you ask for a beer. I could drink a lot of its simple complexity.

But that's where this trip's beers end. A big thank you to Silvia and the team at Associazione Degustatori Birra for making it all possible. I did little more than scratch my major itches regarding Rome's craft beer pubs but I'm aware there's still plenty more to explore on future visits and that the local beer scene is expanding at a phenomenal pace. Forza la rivoluzione!

14 April 2014

An Italian job

The lovely people of Associazione Degustatori Birra (Lazio branch) were kind enough to invite me out to Rome for a few days in mid-March, in exchange for some words on Irish craft beer at their St. Patrick's Day event. My last visit to the Eternal City was just a couple of years too early for the rise of Italian craft beer and it had been on my return-visit list for a while so I leapt at the chance.

An early start had me in downtown Rome by late morning on the 17th and I took advantage of the fine weather to do some exploring of historical sites I missed last time round. Returning to my hotel in the afternoon I called in to Domus Birra, the city's best-known bottle shop. A boggling array of Italian craft beers were on offer so I picked a reasonably priced one more or less at random, and because of the name.

So, Turan's Dry Hard 2 was my first beer of the trip, a 6% ABV IPA. It poured an unpleasantly murky brown amber colour and the dry hopping certainly makes its presence felt in the aroma: a powerful blast of white plum and lychee. The texture is smooth and the flavour begins with a rather harsh bitterness. It tastes as clean as it looks, some lightly spicy orange and grapefruit flavours buzzing about in the background, but nothing distinctive. The aroma keeps on giving, all the way through, but I'd like a bit more zip.

Zip aplenty I found a few hours later down at Il Maltese a fun little craft beer shack on Piazza Epiro which was hosting my talk. Brewfist's Bionic amber ale was on tap. Like the foregoing, and like most Brewfist beers, there's a waxy bitter punch at the start. However what follows is a tour de force of citrus hop flavours: spritzy, juicy and very moreish, shading towards heavier weedy funk at times as well.

From the bottled selection I got to try Cogs coffee porter by Laboratorio, much lauded by my hosts. Unfortunately it was a dud, infected with nasty acetone nail varnish flavours. Underneath this it was just about possible to detect a pleasant mild milky coffee flavour and hints of lavender and chocolate, but nothing earth-shaking. I was more impressed by Urbe from Eternal City, a local contract operation. This cloudy orange number is an approachable 5% ABV and has lots of lovely soft cuddly peach flavours. A beautifully refreshing sessioner.

We were joined briefly by the brewers behind a brand new start-up. I may be among the first anglophones to encounter the brand though was far too polite to point out the inadvertent hilarity of their chosen name: Superbum. Still, quality will carry them a long way and that they have. Blondie is a 5.2% ABV wit-like blonde. The wit spicing is missing but the orange peel is very present, enhanced by the generous addition of orangey Styrian Goldings. What it lacks in veracity to the witbier style it makes up for in refreshment power.

The other one to emerge from Superbum is called Invasion, a pale ale of 5.5% ABV. Not so pale, however, more a dark amber. The aroma is all fresh oily hops and there's no mistaking the heavy use of Sorachi Ace in the flavour: coconut and lemon pith in abundance. It's perhaps a little too intense to consider drinking a second, but nice for one.

Top of my hitlist for day two was the city's best-known beer specialist Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà in Trastevere. The poky two-room pub was in the middle of a German-themed festival and I'll cover the good stuff from that in the next post so the only Italian beer I had there was Lambrate's Robb de Matt. This is a near-perfect recreation of a pale 'n' hoppy English bitter, if a little strong at 5.5% ABV. The aroma is a gentle citrus which translates into a lemon sherbet and peach flavour, with some light herbal notes and just enough bitter punchiness. The cask serve gives it a beautiful soft effervescence.

I trekked deeper into Trastevere next, to eat at Brasserie 4:20, home of the Revelation Cat brewing company. It didn't quite live up to the hype for me. The décor is very high-concept designery, with banks and banks of taps, some suspended overhead at the bar, and cask handpulls aplenty. But the menu is not much more than burgers and crisps. Filling in a slip with your choice of sauce and topping does not a classy dining experience make. From the spendy beer menu I selected Bombay Cat, a double black IPA. Lordy. This is powerful stuff: 9% ABV and jet black. One sip delivers a green blast of fresh crunchy spinach and cabbage, lots of acid and odd herbal bath salts overtones. Behind the hops there's masses of heavy thick chocolate too: all the features of double IPA and imperial stout writ large. I almost felt abused by it, but t