30 January 2015

Up Andorra

Drinking in a micronation: is there any sweeter feeling? My New Year trip to Barcelona incorporated a day in Andorra, a grey little country perched high in the Pyrenees, three hours by bus from the Catalan capital. This particular Shangri-La charges no duty or VAT on anything so tends to be thronged by the neighbours filling up on cheap booze and fags. It's weird going to a place which is plainly designed with the wealthy in mind, but where the prices of things are comically low. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Liechtenstein.

There is but one brewery in the country, and one specialist craft beer outlet in the capital city Andorra La Vella.

La Birreria is technically an off licence, but it also has taps and tables and serves snacks, much like Dublin's own Probus Wines. I started on the house beer which is not, in fact Andorran, but brewed in Ibiza. Up in the mountains that feels a lot further away than it actually technically is. The beer was a Christmas porter called Trapella, 6% ABV and brewed with carob beans. It's a murky homebrew-ish brown colour and smells of nothing. The flavour is fun though: proper Christmassy, with spiced brown sugar overlaid with fresh herbal pine. A slight burnt-pudding edge finishes it off. The carob doesn't contribute a whole lot, but even before I read it was there I could detect the faint presence of a fake chocolate flavour, which makes sense. Decent stuff, if a little rough around the edges.

Cereveses Alpha brewery is on the ground floor of an apartment building some way north of the city. I didn't venture out to it, but you can have a wander through the dinky brewhouse, shop and bar on Google Streetview if you fancy.

Sant Corneli is the pale ale, strong at 6.4% ABV, looking hazy and leading to an almost Belgian IPA kind of flavour: lots of sweet honeydew fruit and jasmine spice from the hops but also a pillowy texture and a contribution of tasty warming esters from the yeast.

La Font del Bisbe also claims to be a pale ale, albeit a torrado (toasted) one. Heavily toasted, it turns out: it's a dark russet colour in the glass. More Belgian goings on in the aroma: alcohol heat, caramel and figs, like a strong dubbel. And yet all that disappears on tasting and you get a clean, highly attenuated beer, with lemon sherbet at the front of the flavour and not much behind it. It's a very strange effect. I would drink more of it, though.

The winter ale is a 7.5% ABV job called La Dama de Gel and is infused with cacao and whisky. It's a deep brown colour with a vinous aroma, and muscat in particular: the sweet and quite perfumed white grape. That comes out even stronger in the flavour where it's joined by a little hint of jaffa orange and a chalky minerality. It's another strong one without much by way of residual sugar and I found myself warming to this house style.

And now things get a little weird. Alpha makes a smoked beer called Fums, 6.2% ABV, headless, and a clear brown colour. I'm not at all sure I would spot that it contains smoked malt if it wasn't flagged on the label because it doesn't really taste smoky. The single, resounding, unambiguous flavour here is silage: that funky green stench of farmyards in winter. Perhaps it should be surprising that more beers don't taste like this. Like silage, beer is essentially fermented grass. Anyway, Fums is very odd, but not unpleasant, to me anyway.

The last remaining Alpha beer on the shelf was Full Fusion, a concoction containing ginseng, guarana and taurine. And I would say there's lots of taurine in here: it's the same blinding pale yellow as an energy drink and has exactly the same sickly artificial-candy-lemon smell and taste. It's very unbeery -- no sign of any malt or hops -- but perfectly drinkable. While I was doing that I got to wondering if the brewers had simply pitched yeast onto a bucket of Red Bull. I'd imagine that would end up something like this.

It's great that Andorra has its own beer brand, and an accessible specialist bar. Sadly, because I spent pretty much the whole day in it I can't tell you very much else about the country. But definitely drop by La Birreria if you're passing.

28 January 2015

Visiting dignitaries

The same smallish set of foreign breweries tended to show up on the blackboards of Barcelona's craft beer bars when I visited, though all obviously chosen for their geek-drawing power. The Brits seem to be doing particularly well out of the inbound keg trade. Take BierCaB, for instance. The high-tech, high-concept, high-stool, eye of the Barcelona craft beer storm counted Siren and Weird Beard among its tap offerings when I was there.

From the former: Soundwave, a New-World IPA at a modest 5.6% ABV. Kiwi-style grassy herbs and fleshy peach feature in the aroma, and while the flavour kicks off on grapefruit and lime bitterness it suddenly floods with fresh juicy mango and satsuma, with just a small grassy bite on the end to add seriousness. As an IPA, Soundwave is damn near perfect. Now available in Ireland too. Huzzah!

More peaches followed in Weird Beard's Lord Nelson, a 6.8% ABV saison which the west London brewery has produced in association with Elusive, a new brewing company due to start production in Hampshire soon. For a saison it's rather sickly sweet, the sugary fruit effect weighing heavily on the palate. A rising bitter backing track fails to balance it and creates a disconcerting sort of green apple skin effect. Are we done with saisons yet? I think I may be done with this kind.

And obviously you can't fling a beer mat in a geek bar anywhere in Europe these days without hitting a Buxton tap. BierCaB had Battle Horse, one of those black double IPAs I can never decide if I like or not, all green-smelling and tasting powerfully cabbagey, to the point of acidic sourness. Bizarrely my notes say I found it enjoyably refreshing, even at 11.1% ABV. Wrong-footed again. Meanwhile over at Ale & Hop they were pouring Buxton's Wyoming Sheep Ranch, a clear gold double IPA with a lightly zesty aroma but laying on the complexities when it comes to tasting: big resins, lots of heady dank, a dose of wax plus a dusting of spices. Yet it's all harmonised rather beautifully and the result is smooth, clean and very satisfying. You'd take your time with this one even if it wasn't 8.4% ABV.

Last of the English beers comes courtesy of Homo Sibaris: Moor's So'Hop, a sharp and lemony pale ale of just 4.1% ABV, hazy yellow in colour and with a heap of dry, back-of-the-throat bitterness. The aroma promises oodles of lemon sherbet fun but it's all acid business on tasting. Instead of sweet fruit you get a serving of green celery or asparagus in the flavour. Eat it up, it's good for you.

It's probably a healthy sign that American beers were thin on the ground. Not so much as a Sierra Nevada or Brooklyn tap to be seen. I did spot one beer from Kentucky's Against the Grain, home of the dad-joke beer name. Mac Fannybaw (sigh) is a Scotch ale (sigh) of 8.5% ABV, dark red-gold and smelling of smoke and seawater -- pleasantly so; I could sniff it for ages. Smoky sourness is the main feature of the flavour, light and clean, having a lot in common with good German rauchbier. Names aside, I liked it a lot.

Canadian beer was easier found than American, and Black Lab had two IPAs from Flying Monkeys in Ontario. Smashbomb is a beer you've tasted before: a middling shade of orange with a slight haze, sticky candy and a jaffa bitterness. Enjoyable, but rather generic, I thought. Still better than Hoptical Illusion, a darker rose-gold and rather toffeeish: crystal malt, a vegetal bitterness and not much else. The brewery claims there's Centennial, Amarillo and Cascade in here, but I'm damned if I can see where they went.

The nordics were fairly well represented and I had my first Estonian IPA in the form of Virmalised by Põhjala while in La Resistència. No head to speak of, but it had some nice wintery herbs in the flavour profile