31 October 2014

And the rest

Last post from Borefts 2014, taking us to more far-flung parts of Europe. But we start where we left off, in Italy. Del Ducato's Violent Femme is a 4.2% ABV saison and is lemons all the way, from the bright hazy yellow colour, to the acidic citric burn to the gentler lemon sherbet hop flavours. When life gives you saison, make lemonade. Or something. Their other beer I tried couldn't be more different. Luna Rossa is billed as a kriek in the program but you can forget the cherries or any sort of sweetness. This 8%-er is massively sour: mouth-flooding vinegar and vanilla flavours, with higher notes of plum and savoury tamarind. If you're not a fan of HP Sauce this is probably not the beer for you, but I got a thrill from it.

Staying sour for the moment, Stout Rullquin intrigued me when it showed up on the advance list. It started life as La Rulles Brune, barrel aged, then blended at Tilquin with lambic and aged again before bottling. The end result is 7% ABV and a dark murky brown. The lambic certainly seems to be winning the battle for the aroma: all damp bricky nitre. But while the flavour starts with a jarring sourness it's followed by a rush of properly sweet milk chocolate and a stouty roasted dryness. The two elements in this one don't quite mix fully, but you still get the best of both. Love that label too.

Rocket Brewing from Copenhagen were a new one on me, but they seem to be able to do sour very well. Their Hyper Nova is a Flemish-style oud bruin, way overclocked at 10.9% ABV and thick and heavy with it but maintains the lightness of texture you get in highly attenuated beer and adds in some lovely cherry nuances. Zaccharine, meanwhile, is a bourbon-aged barley wine and beautifully put together too, getting the most from the barrel with heady fresh oak aromas and a lot of that lime sourness that I love in actual bourbon. A sandalwood spiciness seasons it and underneath there are more traditional strong dark ale flavours of chocolate and caramel. Good alcoholic value at just 8% ABV too.

Brekeriet were another total stranger to me, hailing from Staffanstorp in southern Sweden. Cassis was the only one of theirs I tried: a 5.2% ABV wild ale with, obviously, blackcurrants added in. It's one of those simple sour beers where the added fruit does all the work -- lots and lots of blackcurrant flavour in here. But there's good thirst-quenching fun to be had, even if it is a little watery.

Fruit seems to have been a theme in the beers from Mont Salève that I drank. Stout Framboise is all raspberry and very little stout, but no harm. It's simple fruity fun, with a nice heft at 6.5% ABV. Their festival radler was a Blueberry Radler: 3.6% ABV and reddish purple in colour. It's thin, as you might expect, and while it wears a big tartness up front, showing off cranberry as well as blueberry skin, that's pretty much your lot: no middle or afters follow it. Even for something supposed to be this simple I was disappointed by its one-dimensionality.

On the subject of hit-and-miss, that tends to be my experience with Närke, but damn they keep tempting me with interesting ingredients. Most intriguing this year was Älj-Äjl, brewed with moosegrass, aka meadowsweet, one of the very old-fashioned gruit ingredients. It's 6.9% ABV and a perfect clear gold, though a bit musty in the aroma -- that's often the case with unhopped beers, though I don't know if this is one of those. It's not particularly full-flavoured, showing a crisp pea-pod greenness and a light grassy herbiness, reminding me a little of drinking bisongrass vodka in Poland. The finish is mildly acrid. I think the subtlety works in its favour. It's a beer to pay attention to and a flavour profile that was enjoyable to explore.

If you squint at the name, it's possible to tell in advance that Närke's Skvatt Galen utilises sweet gale, another classic gruit herb. This one is 5.9% ABV and a cheery chestnut red, smelling of wholesome husky grain. I was surprised to find a cherry and raspberry fruit flavour on tasting, though there's not much else. Fun for a sip, but it got to be heavy going before I was very far down the small glass.

Unlike Närke, nothing from the Evil Twin line-up really jumped out at me, which is a shame because they've had some absolute stunners in previous years. For the sake of completion, and because I was sitting with Mr Pattinson, I went for Ron and the Beast Ryan, one of those irritating racehorse beer names, where you're supposed to be able to pick out its pedigree from the keywords. All I knew from the programme was that it's a 7% ABV saison. And it's a good one too. Pretty straightforward in a way that Evil Twin beers at Borefts usually aren't: spicy, lemony, dry and refreshing. Job done. Later I did accidentally stumble face-first into a sample of Evil Twin's Imperial Donut Break, a super-sweet imperial stout, loaded with chocolate candy, though vaguely balancing it with a dry finish. I expected much more complexity at 11.5% ABV, especially from the brewer of Even More Jesus and its ilk.

That just leaves Belgian Borefts regular Alvinne. They brought Melchior, a big 11% ABV orange-coloured barley wine and a rather dull and stale one at that: a musty grainy aroma and a worty flavour devoid of fruit or even heat from the alcohol. I can't imagine it's anyone's idea of a barley wine. Redemption arrives in the form of Mano Negra, a simple little 11% ABV burgundy-aged chilli-infused imperial stout. The main act is a delicious double whammy of sharp bretty funk and then a long, steady chilli burn. At the back, the more traditional features of imperial stout -- your chocolate, your roast -- are still present, but this makes some of the best use of chilli special effects of any beer I've encountered.

And so goes Borefts for another year. I am liking the changing of the line-up year-on-year and I hope it continues. There ought to be more festivals like it too: this grade of beer and this style of drinking it should never be confined to queue-ridden geekfests that sell out months in advance. Save some beer for the more casual nerds.

29 October 2014

Corners of Europe

Borefts without a Thornbridge bar was strange -- I understand they're the first brewery in history to have turned down an invitation to the event -- but there were plenty of new English faces filling in. So much so that I barely troubled the Kernel at all, grabbing just a swift London Sour Cherry because Evin told me it was running out. Such a salesman, that guy. 3% ABV and a happy bright red topped with pink foam. It's not especially sour and not especially cherryish but definitely has elements of both, perfumed lightly with floral rosewater. It's one of those beers I could happily drink by the gallon.

I also only visited Gadd's once, but then they only really brought one beer: their Green Hop Ale and a half-strength radlerised version of the same. The full beer is 4.8% ABV, a bright gold colour and has a powerful perfume aroma. Crispness is the key feature here, a cleanness in both the grain and hop elements. The latter brings lots of the classic English marmalade flavours to the table. Definitely more interesting than I'd expect a session-strength East Kent Goldings beer to be, but whether that's down to the quantity or quality of the hops I couldn't say.

There was no question of only paying one visit to Magic Rock since they brought loads of beers. Top of my hitlist was Cannonball, having enjoyed one of its stronger iterations a couple of years ago. This one is no lightweight at 7.4% ABV, arriving a clear pale orange and quite headless. It's an exceedingly dry beer, the massive hop flavour being centred on a flinty mineral quality. The high alcohol is very apparent but that hop complexity balances it beautifully. A low level of residual sugar means the end product is still very drinkable and surprisingly thirst quenching. Limes and damp cut grass make for a beautiful final flourish to a majestic beer.

Their other IPA on my list was Villainous, a more modest 6.5% ABV and made with all Vienna malt. So, biscuits then. Lots of sweet, crunchy -- roasty, even -- biscuits, deftly balanced by mango fruit and lime citrus. Of the 45 beers I drank samples of at Borefts, this was the one that left me craving a pint.

I didn't drink these back-to-back, but I've just noticed from my notes that there's something of a lime theme with the Magic Rock beers. Their radler (every brewer was asked to bring one) was made with lemon and lime and was a bit strong for the style at 4.5% ABV. Appropriate, then, that they named it Pith Head. The base is a saison, providing an almost neutral base for huge fresh citrus flavours, bringing the same sort of intensity you get with very old-fashioned lemonade. Somewhat oily, in fact. Lip-smackingly tasty and I could feel my scurvy clearing right up.

And if this is too strong for you, there was also a Berliner weisse: Circus of Sour, 3.5% ABV and aged in white wine casks. I wasn't a fan of this. It's unsubtly sharp, with a white vinegar kick followed by a buzz of stale cardboard.

A new English brewery for me was Burning Sky from Sussex. Their Plateau bitter was on cask: just 3.5% ABV and an odd bright shade of pale yellow. It packs a lot of pithy punch into that small package. I guess it's one your palate adjusts to when consumed in greater quantity, but I was quite taken aback by my sampler. Devil's Rest IPA was an altogether more rounded experience: just as stimulating in its bitterness, throwing extra resinousness into the mix, but at 7% ABV the hops were much better balanced by the malt counterweight.

Burning Sky Monolith was billed in the programme as a "sour black ale" at 7.4% ABV but was a bit of a mess, I thought. The roast flavour is the stale sweaty sort, like bad hotel coffee, with added cardboard, set on an unpleasantly watery texture. There is some nice floral complexity and a little bit of mild bretty funk, but not enough of either to rescue the beer.

That just leaves Saison L'Été to clean up. This is another one of those cloudy lemonade jobs, magically refreshing and quaffable too at just 4.2% ABV. The addition of elderflower and gooseberry adds a meadowy mellowness to the spicy base. A perfectly executed summer beer.

Just one Spanish brewery in the line-up this year, in the form of Laugur from the Basque country, bringing two very interesting twists on established styles. The IPA was called Hopzale and is 9.2% ABV but doesn't taste anything like it. In place of a malt base there's bags of spritzy citrus, building to the hot sharpness of accidentally tasted perfume which lingers long on the palate. Kiskale is just the antidote to all that acid, a 7.5% ABV chestnut-red brown ale mixing in warming sticky toffee and treacle with herbal, medicinal hops: menthol and wintergreen. Beautifully smooth and soothing.

Finally for this post, the usual Italians were present and correct. Toccalmatto's radler was a 9% ABV beast called Yellow Monster. Still extremely refreshing for all the alcohol, however. It has more of that fresh lemonade zest but is more sweet than bitter. There's a lovely herbal bath salts quality to it too, adding a dry alkaline touch for extra drinkability.

Next to them stood Brewfist and I made use of the opportunity to try a few of theirs that have been around for ages but I've never tasted. Like Spaceman: 7% ABV and, oh, more bath salts, on top of a dry lemony bitterness. If there weren't lots of dry citric beers at the festival already I'd have been impressed, but it ran the risk of being mistaken for another radler. That's not likely to happen with Spaghetti Western, Brewfist's coffee imperial stout. It pales a bit next to what De Molen were pouring, but it's a solid sweet and creamy stout at 8.7% ABV, throwing in a touch of dry roast for balance though not really showing off its coffee credentials.

There was one other Italian brewery, returning to Borefts after a year away, but I'll come to them next.

27 October 2014

He's off again

For the fourth year in a row, late September saw me at the Borefts beer festival, a two-day shindig held at the De Molen brewery in Bodegraven, South Holland, with beer from a hand-picked selection of brewers from all over Europe. It has always been a bit of a chimera, changing its shape to squeeze into different parts of the brewery, the pub and co-opted neighbouring buildings. This year for the first time since the early days it was all concentrated in one space, the brewery and its car park, which made it a lot easier to get around and meant I could make a point of trying at least one beer from all 19 exhibitors.

My bookend beers were both from Cantillon: there was a chance to re-try their apricot lambic Fou'foune, and while it was definitely fruitier than the elderly acid-bomb I drank four years ago it was many degrees sourer than the Tilquin Quetsche that my wife opened her account with. The last beer on the second day was Grand Cru Bruocsella: a hard, biteable sharpness all acid burn and oaky vanilla for an experience simultaneously smooth and pointy. And in between these two?

As always De Molen had plenty on offer, including lots of their first-rate imperial stouts. Twist & Stout was a new one for me, 12% ABV and cognac-barrel-aged. Aged for a while too, I'd say, what with the big savoury autolytic aroma. The texture is massively thick and sinfully smooth, while the flavour piles on masses of crumbly dark chocolate and unctuous liqueurs. Further evidence, if it be needed, that Menno traded his soul at a Bodegraven crossroads for the ability to make imperial stouts like this. Hel & Verdoemenis Wild Turkey Eisbock was back for another year too. Phwo-o-oar!

I am a little more equivocal about Vlees & Bloed: 10.9% ABV and unbarrelled, but aged on cedar with added fleur de sel, heather honey and habanero pepper. Unsurprisingly the end result is very busy. Big coffee dominates, with an undertow of clover honey stickiness and then a dry cedar bite in the finish. The peppers add sweetness rather than heat, and that woodyness builds gradually on the thin texture, eventually blocking a lot of the rest out. 50% oh! and 50% ugh! is my assessment.

Away from the stouts, 21 Grams is a double IPA with the stated quantity of hops per litre. It's an innocent clear pale orange colour and smells rather medicinal. It's very sweet and sticky -- not all that surprising at 9.2% ABV -- but with a genorous portion of fresh zing too. And for hopophobes, Barley Bomb, a 10.7% ABV barley wine with a hot and heavy aroma; warming and rich with flavours of toffee, caramel and freshly baked cookies. It's a more toned down and mannerly version of some of De Molen's other beers in this style.

Staying Dutch, I made sure to call on Emelisse to try their Aceto Balsamico which I missed last year. This is an 8% ABV Flemish-style oud bruin, and perfectly aged to have a distinct smoothness in with the sharp sour notes. There's even a warmer chocolate element and the balsamic vinegar barrel in which it was aged leaves just a trace of herbal resin complexity. I enjoyed it, but a small glass was plenty.

New to the festival, and the overall Dutch brewing scene too, I believe, was Het Uiltje ("The Little Owl"), based in Haarlem and using Jopen's brewkit. The owl theme is laid on pretty thick, with beers like Schreeuwuil ("Screech Owl"), a double IPA which smells like a bag of hop pellets and combines sticky hop resins with sticky malt sugar; and Bosuil ("Tawny Owl") a 6% ABV black IPA, oily again with lots of lovely grass and chocolate flavours plus just enough of a jaw-pinching bitter bite.

It gets a bit weirder after that. Meneer de Uil is named after a puppet on kids' TV and is an imperial stout aged in Bowmore whisky barrels for lots of salty iodine with your rich dark chocolate. Flaming Ass Owl is hopefully not named after anything on kids' TV and is an imperial smoked porter with added Trinidad scorpion peppers. It's heavy with a bit of the puttyish flavour I sometimes detect in very strong dark beers. There's a lovely sweet chilli aroma, and while the flavour is low on chilli heat there's a dry chilli-skin flavour and lots of sweet pipesmoke. It wasn't the only chilli beer they brought: Pepperspray Porter is made with Carolina reaper chillis and is much hotter, alternating the intense throat burn with more gentle lavender flavours, like receiving flowers from an abusive partner. The aftertaste is minimal but it does leave a nice chilli thrill in the stomach.

To finish, Mind Your Step is a lovely dessert beer: a 14.5% ABV imperial stout, tasting almost spirituous with lots of brown sugar, toffee and butter. But probably their best beer, and a strong candidate for my beer of the weekend, was Het Uiltje G & T Dryhopped Radler. It tastes pretty much as the name suggests: 2.6% ABV and immensely complex, dominated by a distinct quinine dryness but with a generous squeeze of citrus and even some Pimmsy orange and cucumber. I don't know if the lemonade quality would get too much after drinking lots of it, but I'd love to find out.

More beers from more breweries from further abroad, next.

24 October 2014

One lonely ex-pat

OK, one last beer from the Germany trip and then we're done. I'm giving it its own post as it was the only foreign beer I drank the whole time.

Hop Back is from Tröeg's in Pennsylvania so is sort-of German-ish. It's a 6% ABV amber ale and was on draught in Tap House in Munich along with a couple of others from the brewery. I thought it was an excellent example of the style, with rich and heavy marzipan sweetness plus dark chocolate flavours and then sandalwood spices and fruit chews from the hops. The aroma is a full-on pine explosion, suggesting a bitterness that is never actually delivered, but isn't really missed either.

Yes, the Germans are making beers in this sort of style at this sort of quality, but it's nice to have an American example on hand for direct comparisons.

22 October 2014

Finishing up

We're not still in Germany are we? Who'd have thought there'd be so much beer? This post is for some of the odds and sods from my notebook that didn't fit in anywhere else.

Novelty beer of the trip was one I spotted in Bamberg's Café Abseits and one I've been wanting to taste for a long time. Steinbier Original is brewed the prehistoric way, using hot rocks to boil the wort. I've read that this imparts a unique caramel flavour to the finished product. It arrived in a stein, of course, so I'm not exactly sure what colour it is, but it looked a kind of pale honey brown at the bottom of the mug. It tastes disappointingly plain and inoffensive: big on green noble hop herbal flavours and maybe some extra caramel, but not terribly impressive overall.

A pork-and-dumpling-free night in Bamberg brought us to a generic studenty pizzeria where Reckendorfer Pils was the house beer. It did the job: a clear bright gold with a lovely warming bread-like quality to it. Beats the hell out of the beer offering in most by-the-numbers Italian-style eateries.

My first beer of the trip was chugged from the bottle with a döner at Munich railway station, waiting for the Nuremberg train. It was Tegernseer Helles and it was similarly functional: smooth and sweet with just enough crispness to balance it, but otherwise not very memorable. The brewery have recently opened a bar in the centre of Munich so, following a couple of recommendations, I wandered in for a gander. Tegernseer Tal - Bräuhaus is a very bright and airy pub, and was trading briskly on the Tuesday afternoon we visited. For me a Tegernseer Hopf, their weissbeer. It smells strangely sour and the texture is a bit watery but there are some great flavours: traditional ones like bubblegum and clove, but also notes of pineapple and tinned peaches. Herself opted for Tegernseer Dunkel, a chestnut brown lager with lots of chocolate, burnt toast and grain husks. Wholesome, but quite hard work.

Our last day involved a mini pub crawl around Munich, taking in the Augustiner Grossgaststätten, Ayinger Wirtshaus and out to the English Gardens for a Hofbräu under the Chinese Tower. The lunchtime crowd was a mix of locals and the first of the large groups of tourists arriving in for Oktoberfest, due to begin a couple of days later. The band played and there were occasional screams from those hit by conkers from the enormous chestnut trees. All rather jolly. As well as Hofbräu Helles from the holzfass, the bar was selling Hofbräu Urbock. It's rose gold and offers up an enticing maple syrup aroma. This woody quality continues in the flavour, with extra sweet burnt notes. A delicious outdoor sipper and a nice bookend to the trip.

20 October 2014


That was a lot of lager and weissbier last week, eh? What about this wave of foreign styles that's destroying traditional German brewing and replacing it with the same sort of beer you get everywhere else these days? I could have told you before I left the house that no such thing is actually happening, but that's not to say that there aren't plenty of German breweries offering something different. You just need to put a bit of work in to find it.

One such outlet is Café Abseits in Bamberg. I mentioned it last week as the main place to find beer from the Weyermann maltery's pilot brewery. There's an impressive menu of other speciality beers as well. I'd spotted Weithaler Hoptimum Pale Ale on the menu of Hütt'n in Nuremberg but it was out of stock then. Happily here it was in Bamberg and it's a cracker. There's a classic lagery golden syrup malt base balancing a serious teeth-squeaking, jaw-pinching bitterness. The aroma is all pithy spritzy jaffa and the flavour blends in herbs and sandalwood spices. At €3 for a 33cl bottle in the pub I could see this being a regular beer for me if I didn't live 1,000 miles away.

Hamberg's Kreativbrauerei, meanwhile, have a 7.5% ABV IPA, single hopped with new high-alpha German variety Polaris. The brewery claims SHIPA Polaris has mint or menthol aromas but I didn't get that, just lots of weedy dank and perhaps a light apricot fruitiness. It's dark, rich and sweet, reminding me of BrewDog's 5am Saint in particular, and it got to be tough drinking after the first few mouthfuls. Not a candidate for my go-to German ale, then.

From Berlin comes Schoppe Bräu XPA, another strong dark one, this time using all American hops. Even though it was a few days past date, the aroma was still excellent, all orange sherbet. It was somewhat  lacking in flavour, however, just a mild kind of jaffa cake orange and chocolate thing and hardly any bitterness.

Top pick at Café Abseits was Backbone Splitter by Bavarian rockstar brewer Hans Müller, released on his Hanscraft label and described as a "West Coast IPA". Bet you didn't know Bavaria even had a west coast. 6.6% ABV, 60 IBUs and utilising Simcoe, Amarillo, Centennial and Horizon -- all helpfully set out on the label. There's a stylistically spot-on aroma of grapefruit and sharper pine resin while the flavour is perfectly balanced between refreshing mandarin juice and a tougher, chewier oiliness, sprinkled generously with jasmine perfume. Beautifully put together, all-in-all.

The last leg of the journey brought us to Munich where, as well as a few old favourites, top of my hitlist was the new Camba Bavaria pub Tap House. In keeping with modern craft beer bar chic this place is kitted out in Nordic industrial style, all rough-hewn wood, riveted metal and concrete. A long bar with 40 numbered taps leads up a large bottle fridge at the top of the room. The draft selection was mostly German, with a few token Belgian and American offerings. And, of course, lots of beer from Camba Bavaria itself. To put even more distance between themselves and local custom, most beers arrive in either an American shaker pint or a teku-esque stemmed glass.

The only guest German beer I drank was Ratsherrn Pale Ale, a 5.6% ABV job with a vaguely weedy aroma and not much hop action in the flavour either: some orange barley candy fruit flavour but  it's otherwise dominated by sweet malt. Camba IPA is pictured next to it, a dark red-gold colour and smelling of sherbet and sweat. It's another malt-forward one, but this time the sweetness is better balanced by spicy resinous incense and candied citrus fruit. It's a little bit Christmassy, with touches of lemon drizzle cake, but good fun to drink.

I probably should have realised that Camba Amber Ale was going to be even sweeter. It even smells sticky and toffee dominates the flavour, with just a tiny bit of hop complexity, adding notes of red apple and strawberry for something closer to an Irish red than an amber al