30 June 2014

Desperation

Edinburgh Airport. Servisair lounge: the shitty one for passengers of loser airlines. Only five bottles of Efes Pilsener remain among the plentiful Beck's, Carlsberg and Kronenbourg. Maybe the previous passengers know something I don't.

I last encountered Efes a dozen or so years ago in the beautiful surrounds of Istanbul. It was a lot more forgettable than the city and I had no memory of how it tasted. With a few minutes before the Dublin departure was due to be called, I took the opportunity to refresh my memory and anything else the Turkish lager was capable of reaching.

As befits a hot-country lager, it's a very pale yellow colour, thinly textured with lots of prickly fizz. There's a strange candy-sweet aroma putting me in mind of the hard white sweetie cigarettes I rotted my young teeth on. Tastewise, it's properly pilsenerish to begin with, all green spicy nettles, if rather waterier than any German equivalent. Then the sugar starts to assert itself: sweetcorn, rising to candyfloss, and getting worse as the beer warms even slightly. By the end I was finding it a little difficult to drink, though I did stick it out.

On the way out I wondered if the stock was low because the airport is phasing it out. Let's hope so, for the sake of the travellers. Next time I'm having a Beck's.

27 June 2014

Sassanachs!

I have no idea what's in these glasses
Even though it has an on-site brewery and is a staunch supporter of local beer, the Hanging Bat beer café in Edinburgh can generally be relied on for a selection of English beers, especially from the more interesting and progressive breweries south of the border. And the readily available third-pint measures means ticking one's way through them is disturbingly easy. So...

A burgundy-aged version of The Kernel's Table Beer? Gimme. Bière de Table is a stonking 4.5% ABV and a very pale shade of yellow. There's little sign of wine or wood in the flavour, this highly attenuated beer being light, cold, clean and very refreshing. There's a very mild sourness but it barely impacted on the rich succulent Hanging Bat pulled pork. There was similar refreshment power in Rooster's Fort Smith: a lovely light lemony zip from the 5% ABV golden ale.

On the dark beer front, I found Henley Dark porter a bit sickly. The summer fruit aroma is enticing but the big milk chocolate gets quite cloying, even when only drinking a third of it. Railway Porter by London's Five Points is an unctuous coffee-laden affair with lots of oiliness and a strong liquorice bitterness. If you're in the mood for a coffee flavoured beer, this will keep you happy but it's not going to be for everyone. Best of the lot was the Dunkel Bock by Harbour Brewing, a long way from home in Cornwall. It's the appropriate shade of red-brown and with an unfussy mix of chocolate, coffee and bourbon biscuit, but then there's also a beautiful fresh green-hop nose which puts it ahead of any German version of the style I've ever tasted. Beautifully drinkable and one I'd be happy to have a larger measure of.

Evolver, probably
And IPAs? The 'Bat's got 'em. The nearest thing to ordinary was The Devil <3s Cascade by Summerwine, a big and sticky 7.2%-er, dark orange and almost headless. The unctuous candy malts are well balanced by a similarly oily resinous hop character, producing a peachy aroma followed by a more serious bitter pine flavour. Bit of a knife-and-fork job, but fun in small measures. Siren's Das Soundwave was the lightest of the bunch, a German-hopped IPA of 5.6% ABV, greenish gold in colour with a zingy orange sherbet aroma. There's a lot of heavy hop dank in the flavour and it leaves with a mouth-watering mandarin flourish. Overall, extremely drinkable yet marvellously complex. The outlier was Evolver from the Wild Beer Co. and I almost didn't order it. The description marks it as a brett IPA and I wondered who in their right minds would want something like that? Why soil the lovely fresh taste of hops with the dirty funk of brettanomyces yeast? I'm glad I ran out of options and had one before I left because it was gorgeous: soft peach and juicy mandarin to the fore, only funked up a little by some well-mannered brett. It's a beautiful blend of what the two elements bring to a beer, reminiscent of fresh Orval only with brighter, more exciting hops.

I returned to the Hanging Bat a couple of days later on a Sunday afternoon, hoping to catch a beer or two from the in-house brewery. But there was none of that, the blackboard was looking a little bare, and the place was loud and packed, so I nipped round the corner to the altogether more civilised Blue Blazer. No stuffy old-man beer here, however: I opted for 2014, a black IPA from Arbor Ales. It's 7% ABV and so densely black I could feel it draining colour from the pints on neighbouring tables. You get a big hop burn from the first pull: pine, mostly, but with some flowery perfume, a pinch of gunpowder and a generous helping of boiled cabbage. Light relief is provided by a squirt of grapefruit zest, but mostly this is a very serious beer. The dark malts and heavy texture lend a tarry burnt flavour, with a tiny hint of bitter dark chocolate peeping through the seventeen other kinds of bitterness it offers. Amazing stuff, and very good value, since it takes ages to drink.

I mentioned previously that there was a themed range of beers at the Bow Bar for Anzac Day. England was represented by Bitter Kiwi from Bristol Brewing. This is one of the best exhibition beers for Nelson Sauvin I've ever encountered. The aroma is beautifully flinty, like ultra-dry Sauvingnon Blanc, with a little bit of added peach nectar, and this theme continues in the flavour: dry white grape, some lychee and succulent sweet peach. Not bitter at all in fact, and not even a trace of cat piss, which is a win.

A bottle of Hobsons Kiss Me Now had found its way north with a family member. This claims to be a stout but its soft plumminess made me think more of warming winter ale, even at just 4.3% ABV. Keeping it sessionable, I found Cullercoats Lovely Nelly on cask, an oddly tart dark gold ale with strange but pleasant strawberry notes. Brewed as a lifeboat fundraiser, it's ironically very sinkable. This was back at the Cask & Barrel on Broughton Street where they also had Broughton Street Domestic Ale on. Never pass up the house beer is one of my rules. Turns out this is a re-badging of Gladiator Bitter, brewed by Hadrian and Border. First impressions are of an unexciting 3.9% ABV brown bitter: biscuity, shading towards twigginess, but a couple of sips in I got a sudden jolt of summer fruit: redcurrants and raspberries. A session bitter deserving of a second chance, then.

Last cask ale of the trip was at the airport where the Wetherspoon had the tail end of their latest international beer festival available in the form of Saint Archer Pale Ale, ostensibly from Saint Archer in San Diego but actually brewed at Banks's in Wolverhampton. It's good stuff: a healthy layer of dank hops livened by some lighter peachy notes and set on a light easy-going golden malt base. The perfect gulp-and-go airport beer in fact.

Judging from this lot, the Edinburgers are picky about which English beers they let in, and reap the rewards it brings.

25 June 2014

Further abroad

The evening sun streaming in to my New Town lodgings raised barely a tint of redness in my Profanity Stout. The head is... generous, though the beer itself isn't especially fizzy, being quite silken-textured. The aroma is one that could easily be mistaken for that of a New World pale ale, all pineapple and grape with just a tiny hint of burnt coffee or molasses. Lots of fruit on the palate too, with autumnal blackberries to the fore. This is followed by an enticing bitterness derived, I suspect, from the combination of big hops and roasted grains. The finish is very dry, almost acrid, and with a tang of possibly oxidised staleness. It's a complex and uncompromising beer, one which takes a few turns that I don't think I care for, but overall it's hard not to respect it.

This was one of several beers from the Williams Brothers of Alloa that I encountered on my trip to Edinburgh back in April. They had just released a few new ones into the wild and I managed to pick them up in the excellent Beer Hive off licence. Among them was A Wee Bit, a smoky Scotch ale produced in collaboration with Brooklyn Brewery. I saw rave reviews after I tried it but have to confess I was less impressed: dark red, full-bodied for just 4.8% ABV and lots of lovely peat, but not much else. I'm not usually critical of one-dimensional beers that do things I like, but this was just too simplistic. Paradigm Shift was a better: a strong red ale with bags of dank hops balanced against freshly roasted coffee. It's all the things you get from good American amber ale made just a little bit more intense.

At the airport I just had time for a swift half of 7 Giraffes, a pale gold ale they've had out for a while but which I've never had the opportunity to try. It's smooth and sweet with nice golden syrup lager flavours. Light on flavour, perhaps, but clean and perfectly refreshing.

Lagery and gold is a bit of a theme. I mentioned Stewart's Pentland IPA in my last post, and I got a similar effect from Inveralmond's Ghillie Ale, the cask beer they produce for the monstrously touristy Ghillie Dhu venue at the end of Prince's Street. I enjoyed several pints of it there and reckon their cellarman is better trained than the hapless bar staff. And again, Scottish Borders Heavy Nettle, though claiming an unusual ingredient and having a beautiful sweet and slightly piquant meadow aroma, tastes mainly of that golden malt, the floral quality just barely coming through in the flavour. Orkney Best was the most enjoyable example. This 3.6%-er adds a gorgeous refreshing tannic quality and some lovely fresh hop spicing to the golden syrup sweetness.

My travelling companions were wowed by Broughton Coffee Stout at the Cask & Barrel. I liked it as a stout but would have preferred a bit more coffee: what's there is just some slight extra roast and none of the invigorating caffeinated oiliness or red fruit that you get when good coffee is used in sufficient quantities on a quality base stout.

We finish this round in the Stockbridge Tap and Cromarty's Red Rocker, a 5% ABV dark red ale with an intense, almost acrid, hopsack pungency. The flavour offers a twin stream of toffee malt and bright summer fruit. It's warming and quite heavily textured but neither too sweet nor any way difficult to drink. A wonderful mutisensory experience in a single glass.

In the next post I'll be turning my attention to beers from south of the border.

23 June 2014

Beer in Lothian

I spent a long weekend in Edinburgh back in April, revisiting a few old haunts and ticking off some new ones. The area's beer scene is brimming with quality these days so I made a concerted effort to keep it local as much as possible. Here's what I found.

On the edge of the city there's Stewart Brewing, a brewery which is becoming nearly omnipresent about town. In the convivial surrounds of the Stockbridge Tap I found one of their more traditional beers: Pentland IPA, 3.9% ABV and pouring a perfect clear gold. It's simple and lagery, with a nice dash of golden syrup malt. The hops don't have much to say for themselves, but then it's not that kind of beer. It's a downable, sociable conversation IPA.

Stewart's more craft-ish offerings tend to come in bottles, though Ka Pai is one I noticed on cask as well. This is a  5.2% ABV "South Pacific IPA". While the hops are certainly louder than in the Pentland, it's still a little understated. Yes there are some pleasant peach and mandarin notes, and a whiff of Nelsony cattishness in the aroma. The bottle-conditioned bottle did have an added yeast bite that wasn't present in the very well-kept cask pint in The Blue Blazer. Overall a pleasant beer though far from the ideal showcase for southern hemisphere hops.

Which leads us neatly on to First World Problems, a Belgian-style IPA of 6.2% ABV. There's proper hop action in this dark orange number, a powerful bitterness cutting right through the slightly sticky malt and warm fruity yeast. The latter runs interference against the hops, throwing out a distracting funk and an earthy sharpness which prevents the hop flavours from really shining. I'm sure I'm not the first to point out how much of a first world problem this is.

We finish up on Radical Road. 6.4% ABV and this time definitely not messing around with the hops: five kettle additions and double dry-hopping, though still a modest 50 IBUs. The result is a big blast of fresh orange from the aroma and a zesty citric refreshing quality on drinking. Again, not an eye-popping bitterness bomb, but nuanced and very grown-up.

Another local(ish) microbrewery is Alechemy in Livingston. I found their Five Sisters on the handpumps at the Cask & Barrel on Broughton Street, a pleasant neighbourhood pub near where I was staying. It's billed, excitingly, as a "red IPA", and it is indeed a coppery red colour, but the flavour is much more about crunchy oatmeal biscuits than big hops. Just a bitter acridity on the finish signals the hop involvement. It doesn't really gel together as an IPA, a pale ale, a red ale, or anything much else, unfortunately.

Alechemy's Ritual is another odd one. This is a dark gold pale ale at a sessionable 4.1% ABV. There's a stimulating bitterness though not much by way of hop flavour. Instead you get a big marzipan sweetness, presumably down to some alchemical combination of malt and hops. I found it rather enjoyable, in its weird bitter cakey sort of way.

It was Anzac Day on the Friday of my visit and the Bow Bar had a few thematic offerings in, including Alechemy (St)Ella Burst, a 5.3% ABV kegged golden ale which offers bubblegum up front followed by a dry and slightly tart red berry fruit effect. The promised burst of Australian hops doesn't quite materialise and the flavour is a little less intense than the strength and name might suggest, but it's decent simple fun.

The main event, however, was the Anzac Pale Ale from Elixir, a two-man operation which shares Alechemy's brewkit. The hook is that it's brewed using ingredients from the iconic Anzac biscuit: oats, golden syrup and coconut. It arrived accompanied by a couple of the biscuits and is a dark brown-amber colour with the aroma of New World amber ale: caramel malt thoroughly infused with spicy grassy hops. At its core is a massive oaty biscuit flavour, dry and almost crunchy, and this is followed quickly by a rising bitterness as well as a phenolic smoky quality. Then there's a sudden burst of fragrant orange blossom and juicy nectarine. This is a big and complex beer, making full use of its 5.9% ABV, but for everything that's going on in it, it's still perfectly balanced and very drinkable.

I'll be casting the net a little wider in my next post from Edinburgh.

19 June 2014

The Balkan route

I don't think I've ever reviewed any beers from Romania before. I have Richard to thank for this lot, acquired via a colleague of his.

Taking them in order of strength, we start with Timișoreana Brună, from Ursus, the Romanian incarnation of SABMiller. This is 5% ABV and an attractive chestnut red. Sweetness is the modus operandi here: a major dark molasses treacle tang. It does benefit from the modest strength, however, as it doesn't get sticky or difficult as it goes. Instead it's a perfectly decent and clean, if rather plain, red lager.

Silva raises the stakes a little, bringing us up to 6% ABV.  This offering from Heineken Romania is red again, though a little paler than the foregoing, and there's an extra complexity with that extra alcohol. Starting out with a kind of burnt caramel flavour, it then mellows to a sweet fruity strawberry effect which I rather enjoyed. Only the building alcohol heat takes away from the drinkability.

And at 7% ABV there's Ursus Black, which I'm presuming like the others is a lager, so broadly a Baltic Porter, I suppose. Balkan Porter, anyone? It certainly has the heavy liquorice effect that's normally found in Baltic Porter, though not really a whole lot else. There's a back-of-the-palate dryness which adds an Irish stout note to proceedings but does little to improve the flavour. The same can be said of the pervading mustiness. This is very nearly an excellent beer and is probably the one I'd end up drinking most of if I were in-country with only these options, or crappy pale lager. I'm sure it gets better after the second one.

And because it doesn't deserve a post all of its own I'm throwing this in here from the same tasting, kindly (?) supplied by Reuben. It's called Euphoria and is one of those central European hemp beers plainly intended to appeal to stoner kids. I am genuinely a fan of hemp in beer: when it's done well it adds a lovely peppery piquancy to the taste. But such examples never come behind lurid labels like this one. Instead, this sort tend to be very sweet and taste horribly of melted plastic, and here we have no exception. It's a particularly sweet example, being all brown sugar and bad lager. There's maybe, maybe, a hint of green herbal sharpness on the end, but nowhere near enough to justify any time spent drinking this. Leave it to the teenagers to bring back from the school trip to Prague in order to impress their friends.

16 June 2014

Learn from the Danes

Say what you like about the gypsy brewing phenomenon, when beermakers are freed from the distractions of brewery administration they can produce some amazing results.

Exhibit A is Mikkeller's American Dream, as found on tap in Farrington's (now The Norseman, again). This 4.6% ABV lager is an exercise in perfect balance. The initial sharp jolt of aggressive citrus is suddenly smoothed by a candyfloss sweetness which takes enough, but not too much, of the edge off. The end result is that rarity: a highly complex, hop forward, delight that invites an immediate second pint.

To the dark side next, and To Øl's Black Ball porter: a different Danish gypsy but produced at the same Belgian brewery. Fans of smooth sinkable porter will be disappointed, though possibly only for the first couple of seconds. 8% ABV lends this a substantial weight, pouring gloopily into the glass. There's a little treacle in the flavour but the headline act is hops: Simcoe, Centennial and Cascade are the varieties but they deliver little by way of citrus and instead give off a fresh vegetal effect, like walking into a greengrocer's cold room. Thanks to Brian, who shared a bottle at The Brew Dock.

Back to Mikkeller, finally (without moving from De Proef), and Green Gold. It's been sighted on a number of bars around town but I eventually caught up with it at The Black Sheep. Ever the literalist I was shocked to find it's not gold, or green, but quite a dark amber. 7% ABV but it could pass for stronger on the basis of the thick texture and slightly hot alcohols. The aroma is a bit lacking but it makes up for that in flavour: spices, then dank, then a long-lasting pine bitterness. A sipper not a quaffer it really holds your attention all the way through.

Of course, you could say that there's no real skill to just whacking a load of hops into a beer, but the more I drink -- of beer brewed on the brewer's own kit or elsewhere -- the more I realise that there's a definite knack to it which some can pull off and others can't. If in doubt, check with a Danish gypsy.

12 June 2014

Ireland calls

Time for another Irish beer round-up, prompted in part by the arrival last week of a new beer and a new brewing company. Andrew Murphy and Feargal Chambers (one teacher, one pharmacist) have just established Four Provinces Brewing and the first beer was launched in L. Mulligan Grocer.

The Hurler, brewed at Trouble Brewing, is intriguingly styled a "copper ale" rather than a red. I can see why too: it's a fair bit paler than most Irish reds though stained in a way most pale ales aren't. It was pouring beautifully clear as well, despite not having been through Trouble's filter. I wasn't so keen on the aroma: there's a little bit of stale grain and old hop. On tasting there's a mouthwatering punchy grapefruit bitterness up front from the extensive use of Chinook and Cascade. The guys said they were looking for an Alt-like melanoidin effect, and I can sort-of taste that in there, but the hopping leaves little room for anything else. Joyously, The Hurler comes in a tidy 4.2% ABV package and is light enough to be properly sessionable. I'd happily drink several.

To keep matters dark 'n' hoppy, the next newest Irish beer is from Blackstairs, a Wexford-based brand. There are plans for a brewery in 2015 but for now the beer is in the capable hands of Brú Brewery. The first out is a Ruby Red IPA, though I'd go so far as to say the red is a darker, browner hue than that. The smell is very strange: heavily roasted and almost meaty. The burnt flavours of dark malts are to the fore on tasting but the sharp ashen dryness is