29 October 2015

A farewell to Borefts

My last Borefts post looks at the British and German offerings, and one Spaniard.

Alien Claw by Naparbier is no stranger to the taps of Dublin but I'd always missed it so when it showed up, unbilled, on the brewery's bar at Borefts I jumped on it. It's a Belgian-style IPA, a beer type which I like the idea of but is rarely done to my satisfaction: Troubadour Magma and Flying Dog's Raging Bitch being very notable exceptions. This, I think, may exceed at least the latter. It's a clear pale yellow and modestly strong at just 6.8% ABV. It impressed right from the outset, with a fantastically spicy jasmine and orange blossom aroma. The flavour brings the juice, honeydew and peaches, and dusts it with a sprinkling of incense. The warming fruit ester characteristics of the style are sacrificed for extra clean spiciness and I think it works beautifully.

Germany also had a single representative at the festival: Franconia's Gänstaller, who tragically neglected to bring their magnificent Affumicator rauchbock. But they did bring a fun spiced lager called Golden Frankincense Myrrh, setting the oily unguent on a sweet lager base and producing something remarkably drinkable, all smooth and creamy. There was also a hazy Zwickelpils, heavy and perfumed but with pleasant notes of melon rind and lemon zest, its bold freshness making it nicely moreish.

BrewDog made their Borefts début with a selection of rarities. I liked Pilot 009, a sour beer with cherries and (undisclosed) spices. It's dark red in colour and tastes like the cherry sherbet in a Double Dip. It's a weighty 6.1% ABV and is slightly syrupy, but warming too. Thankfully the spritzy tartness keeps it from getting difficult. Dog D is one of their massive imperial stouts -- 16.1% ABV this time -- and smells powerfully burnt and roasty with a heady dose of sticky molasses. It tastes incredibly sweet, offering a candystore of liqueur chocolates, parma violets and soft toffee. The hops just poke through in the end, adding a modicum of bitter balance. It's definitely one of those big beers it's fun to take time over and appreciate the flavours on show. And finally Renaissance, an "imperial braggot", stronger again at 16.9% ABV. It's black and headless, smelling of booze-soaked chocolate bars and Turkish delight while tasting smooth and luxurious with yet more sweets: caramel, honey and dark chocolate plus a bitter herbal end note. I've always found braggots a bit hot and sticky in the past; this one takes enough cues from good beer to make it worth drinking. Good show overall, BrewDog.

Burning Sky almost put a spanner in my plan to drink a beer from every brewery bar when they closed up early on day one just as I was getting to them. It turned out that a logistical error had left them without enough beer but thankfully they were in business again on the Saturday, when I made a point of nabbing a glass of Provision Reserve, an aged and gooseberry-infused version of their headline saison. There's a lovely tartness right at the front here, balanced by sweet juicy fruit with only a hint of dry saison cereal. It's extremely sinkable, tasting about half of its 6.5% ABV, and definitely one of the best saisons in a show full of them.

London's Redchurch brewery was entirely new to me and they had a barrel-aged saison too: Petit Mort, matured in Pinot Noir casks. It's a trifling 4.5% ABV and I think that has let the barrel exercise too much control over the flavour. While the grape-like (white!) wine flavour is pleasant, there's a very harsh woody character that compromises it badly. And there's a harsh finish in their Old Ford export stout too. It starts well, smelling like an American amber ale, all toffee malt and floral lavender. But it quickly gets acrid and cabbagey, and the smooth creamy texture and 7.5% ABV warmth can't quite save it. With a little toning-down and mellowing-out this could be a classic.

And finally, away in a corner, Borefts veterans Magic Rock. I was all over their Ginspired, having loved the G 'n' T radler that Uiltje brought last year. It's badged as a "Gin & Tonic IPA" but I really got no sense of the mixed drink from it. Plenty of bitter citrus rind, though, but otherwise a little sweet and sweaty. It doesn't work as a novelty beer and barely works as a beer at all. I also failed to detect the rhubarb and ginger in Magic Rock's Rhubarb & Ginger Saison, which doesn't matter in the slightest because it's a lovely beer with a lemon tartness and a quick, sharp spicy burn which makes it beautifully refreshing. Looking it up now, I'm surprised to find it was 5.9% ABV. And to go out, a Bearded Lady imperial stout in the Pedro Ximinez edition. And the dark sherry really makes a big contribution, filling the aroma with raisins and dominating the foretaste as well. Only later on does the proper stouty roast come through, accompanied by an invigorating hop bitterness, but really it's all about the grapes and is all the more enjoyable for it.

Borefts 2015 was every bit as good as any previous year and the turnover of breweries and beers is its best feature: for every old favourite I missed there was someone new and exciting. It has got a lot busier since the early days; gone are the quiet afternoon sessions, but the infrastructure has expanded to cope with it: if you don't want to squeeze onto a bench outside or under the tent, the new upstairs seating area in the brewery was a welcome addition this year.

Normally the Sunday after the festival involves an afternoon pub crawl around Amsterdam and the melancholy trek to Schiphol, but this year we had other plans.

28 October 2015

Where will we put the guests?

There was a bit of an odd arrangement with regard to the American beers at Borefts this year, where one brewer had a standalone stall as part of the main festival in the De Molen brewery yard while up at the windmill a selection of other US beers were pouring from the restaurant's own taps. It's presumably something to do with the windmill restaurant being leased out to a third party these days. Just one bar meant long queues, and Borefts isn't the sort of festival where you queue for things, so I only tried a tiny fraction of what was on offer, all from breweries I'd never heard of before.

Hair of the Dog in Portland, Oregon I had heard of (it's been around since the early 1990s), and it was the sole American representative at the main festival. The two beers I tried were both iterations of their bourbon-barrel-aged old ale Adam From The Wood, both around the 12% ABV mark. 1978 Adam From The Wood uses vintage Heaven Hill casks and pours headless, a dark brown colour with a rich chocolate aroma and very low carbonation. The barrels may be old but the oak flavour really comes through loudly, accompanied by a distinctly spirituous burn. After a moment it settles down a little and allows the smooth chocolate notes to take over, leaving a very well-integrated beer: not too hot, not too heavy and not too sweet, but balancing all of these into a luxurious sipping beer which offers an experience not dissimilar to sipping a whisky.

Adam From The Wood - White Peach is given the usual ageing treatment but with the odd addition of white peaches in the barrel. I bet they don't stay white for long. There's much less burn to this, with more of a vinous quality, the oaky vanillins of a big Spanish red. Real actual peach juice is just about discernable under the wood and helps soften the flavour further. It's still a big, warming beer but rather more delicate than the other version. I'm wishing I tried more than basically one beer from Hair of the Dog, but that's always the way.

Up at the windmill I managed to get two rounds in before tiring of the queuing. First up for me was Islander IPA by Coronado of San Diego, the only non-Portlander of the set. The classic clear gold of a west coast IPA, this has a little bit of candyfloss to it but is mostly a glorious riot of pithy, weedy, funky hop resins. And for herself, Diesel (left), an imperial stout by Cascade. Very much an after-dinner beer, this. It's very sweet, with a sugary coffee aroma and lots of caramel and crème brûlée. A teeny sip was plenty for me. Next round!

My ongoing quest to find out why some people like cream ale was exercised with The Fifth Ellament, by Burnside. It's mostly gold coloured, with a slight reddish tint and tastes of strawberry bubblegum and not much else. The distinguishing feature is a mouth-coating thickness that made it tough going to drink far sooner than it should have. Not my gateway cream ale, then. And lastly Upright Brewing's Blueberry Stout about which I can find little to say other than it's the perfect mix of blueberries with stout: a simple and tasty chocolate-forward base beer with a lovely fruity tang added in.

It's nearly time to leave Borefts for another year, which of course means a frantic round of panic sampling down at the main festival. Let's go!

27 October 2015

Northern delights

Among the beers I was most looking forward to sampling at Borefts 2015 were those of Swedish gypsy brewer Omnipollo. I've enjoyed several of the collaborations they've done with others and they have a very good reputation among the crafterati. I don't know if it's how they normally do things, but there was a strong confectionary theme among the offerings they brought to Bodegraven: waffles, maple syrup and peanut butter all featured in the descriptions, as well as an Ice Cream Pale Ale, produced in collaboration with English brewery Buxton. This is 5.6% ABV, murky yellow and throws out an odd mix of malt extract and peppery hops in the aroma. It tastes sweet at first, and has a convincing gummy texture that reminds me a lot of plain white ice cream blocks. The hop bite comes in  late and is a little harsh and acrid against the nursery foretaste. It's a fun beer, and rather silly: all special effects with little real substance. I enjoyed my small sample but didn't want any more.

Omnipollo also released a number of variants of their Magic #420 wheat beer and the one I got, early on on day one, was badged Magic #4.21, advertised as a vanilla and raspberry smoothie pale ale. It was certainly pink, with lots of fine foam on top. The aroma is an odd mix of green weed and tart raspberry, though the hops dominate the flavour, buzzing resinously long after the fruit fades out. Though 6% ABV, it slips down very easily thanks to its super smooth texture. The combination of fruit and hops is odd but really quite charming, I thought.

I had never heard of Helsingborg brewery Brewski but they're one to watch if the beers I tried at the festival are anything to go by. Mangofeber is a double IPA with mangoes and the underlying beer recipe seems to have been very well designed to complement the added fruit. There's a strongly bitter and grassy quality to it which remains assertive but is just slightly softened by the sweet juice. Best of all it's not too hot, hiding its 8% ABV very well. But it was still upstaged by Keyline, a 4% ABV Berliner weisse which is barely sour but serves as a great base for the added flavourings. Lime is one, and I reckon the tartness there covers up the acidity of the beer; a certain sweetness is added in by elderflower; but the headline contribution comes from basil: incredibly fresh, moist, chewy and oily herb. It's not subtle by any means, but is beautifully done.

Down the coast in Malmö there's the Malmö Brewing Company, who had a fairly Belgian tinge to their offerings. Petite Framboise was a mixed fermentation 5%-er, heavy on the fruit with a kind of sweet raspberry leaf herbiness. All rather one-dimensional though inoffensive. Their special edition festival saison, Viola Lee, was also pretty straightforward, clear yellow, with lots of bathbomb-like lavender. I had it towards the end and found it nicely cleansing.

To finish Sweden, a token look at the Närke bar where they had lots pouring but not much new, I think. As part of my project to drink something from every bar I opted for Svarte Kungen, billed as a porter but resembling an export stout to me, mixing thick liquorice and parma violets in the flavour, finishing hot and tarry. It has a classical, old fashioned, elegance, but got a little dull and difficult after the first few sips. The diametric opposite, then, of Oppigårds's Cloudberry Saison: just 4.3% ABV with an enticing juicy, tangy aroma and then a lovely crisp saison bite in the foretaste. Sweet honeydew flesh is layered on top and then a mildly tart finish. Perfectly quenching if you don't want to analyse it, but with lots going on if you do.

I was drawn several times to the Labietis bar where the Latvians had some really interesting herbal concoctions on the go. Take Pļava for instance: a 6.3% ABV golden ale brewed with yarrow and meadowsweet. There's a heavy Duvel-like texture and a yeast spiciness to match. After this a saison-like grainy quality and apothecary flavours like lavender and bergamot. Certainly complex, though the sweetness and herbal goings-on make it a little tough to take in. There was also Purvs, a "heather and rosemary braggot saison", which offered a very strange blend of perfumed honey sweetness and dry tartness. The rosemary is understated, contributing little more than an oily green buzz, and while it's certainly unusual it does end up pulling in too many directions at once. Labietis really got it right with Pelašku Velns, an imperial yarrow stout with more of that herbal meadowy effect found in the others but this time with an extra punch from Citra hops and a heavy but smooth texture rendering it very drinkable indeed.

There was no Danish presence among the exhibitors so we'll finish on the Norwegians. Lervig is one brewery that seems to have been busy getting its name and beers out there in the last couple of years. They made a black saison called Årstid for the event, and very good it was too. Stronger than I usually like at 7% ABV but with a dryness that gets enhanced by the dark grains for a kind of porter effect with a dusting of burnt toast. Next to this there's a big and juicy hop fruit flavour with grapefruit to the fore. The two elements sit together perfectly, holding each other in check. Lucky Jack pale ale was a much simpler offering, only 4.7% ABV, pale gold and perfectly clear. The aroma promises big and fresh peach and grapefruit which the flavour can't quite deliver, the end result being lager-thin and a little gassy. Maybe not ideal for this festival but I bet it works brilliantly by the pint.

That just leaves Austmann of Trondheim, another stranger to me. My one beer from them was La Shaman, a Latin American themed imperial stout incorporating  chipotle, habanero and cacao in a moderately strong 7.8% ABV package. The peppers and chocolate really dominate, I guess because the base beer is a little weak. The aroma is especially rich and piquant though the flavour less so, with a kind of powdery cocoa coming through, followed by a spark of chilli and then a burnt finish. Drinkable, but I expected more excitement.

Perhaps the American beers would be able to offer that. We'll get to them tomorrow.

26 October 2015

Starting low

The Borefts Beer Festival rolled round once again in late September. As always, De Molen had invited a wide range of breweries from around Europe and across the pond to exhibit, all bringing a selection of special and outré beers for sampling over the two days. This year saw the biggest churn of any of the previous four I've attended, with almost none of the former regulars present but lots of newcomers. However: enough overview, let's get stuck in at the bars. This post is about the low countries' representatives, beginning with our hosts themselves.

De Molen had limited themselves to one bar this year, but a bar with a vast selection and attracting a lot of attention all weekend. As in previous years they had set a theme for all the other breweries and this year it was saison plus an unusual ingredient. And I think they claimed the prize for the most unusual with their Grasshopper Saison. This orange-coloured headless and hazy beer has a pleasant pithy jaffa nose and features some lovely fresh and spicy herbal flavours, though much more like a pale ale than a saison. There's no sign of the grasshoppers in the flavour either, unless they taste hoppy, which would make sense. Further research required.

Better use was made of saison as a clean base for a distinctive ingredient in De Molen's Wasabi Saison. This blended the peppery qualities of the style with the warm and woody horseradish flavour of wasabi. There's not much else going on so you might be expecting more complexity at 6% ABV, but I found it enjoyable for what it was.

Next to it there is Zang & Noten, an imperial stout, barrel aged, with added coconut. It's black, headless and smells simultaneously roasty and sweet. I probably shouldn't have been surprised to discover it tastes a lot like a dark chocolate Bounty, but it does: heavy on the cocoa and finishing dry. The texture is remarkably light given the whopping 12% ABV though there's a fun kind of oily chewiness provided by the coconut. Coconut is a tough flavour to get right in a beer. It seems big imperial stout is the way to do it.

De Molen's other offerings were poorer. They had a plethora of Fruit IPAs, of which I tried the Cassis. It's a murky red-brown with a funky aroma very out of keeping with IPA. There's a mild tartness but a lot of savoury meatiness. Definitely not what I was expecting from the description and not at all enjoyable.

Spannig & Sensatie is yet another imperial stout, this time 10.8% ABV and aged in a whiskey cask -- the programme didn't say which one, but De Molen does have a lot of casks. The first thing to strike me about this was an oxidised twang. Behind it a hot and sweet Scottish malt whisky vibe all but drowning out the stouty chocolate and caramel. Perhaps this barrel needs another batch or two through it before it starts producing balanced beer. And finally Skulls & Tentacles (left), a barley wine they created with Spanish brewery Zombier, rocking out at 11.5% ABV yet bizarrely thin. The taste offers burnt caramel and biscuit but no juicy hop fun and not even any boozy warmth. It's all rather insipid and disappointing.

De Molen still had plenty of their amazing regular beers, but the experiments were a little lacking this year, for the most part.

Moving on, and three more breweries with three more imperial stouts. Kees! is a relatively new one and had a 12% ABV Peated Imperial Stout. There was a nice lasting head on this but it was rather rough tasting, with harsh dry smoke finishing on an unpleasant putty tang. Alvinne also had a flawed one, called Black King: 11% ABV and this time tasting badly autolytic. I can usually handle a bit of savoury, Bovrilly, umami in a big stout, but this was too much like drinking soy sauce. There was a big cloying sweetness too, and a stale oxidised finishing note. Bit of a diaster from one end to the other, really.

Best of this set was Kinderyoga by new-but-respected Dutch brewer Oedipus. 11% ABV yet understated and approachable, providing the sort of gentle dry roast typically found in lower-strength stouts. A sequence of subtle complexities nip in behind this: a little chocolate syrup, a slightly smoky bitterness and some vegetal hops. Despite the name it's a rather serious beer but there's no questioning the quality.

From down low to up high: I'll cover the Nordic breweries next.

22 October 2015

Hey pesto!

This guy is a post-script to the Vilnius trip I wrote about last week. It winked at me from a high shelf in Alaus Biblioteka, the 75cl bottle resplendent in the swirling art nouveau stylings of Lindeman's prestige range picked out in an enticing bright green. Nestling in the tendrils is the Mikkeller artwork, for this is also part of the Danish gypsy's long "Spontan-" series of lambics with traditional and not-so-traditional fruits added. But this one doesn't use fruit: Spontanbasil is, I think, the first herb flavoured lambic I've ever encountered.

It ain't cheap: €25 is a good night's drinking for two people in Vilnius, but it was literally the last beer I had before heading to the airport, which any economist will tell you is when the notion of value is at its most elastic. Popping the cork I got a hazy blonde beer out, with a big herby aroma. It's not really sour, more of a tang, which melds masterfully with garden-fresh pizza herbs. While it's not exactly complex it is perfectly balanced, extremely drinkable at 6% ABV and, above all, tremendous fun.

I've been an advocate for odd ingredients in beer for as long as I can remember. These days it seems everyone's at it; that in order to be a craft beer there must be a non-standard ingredient in there. Roughly half of the line-up at Borefts this year had fruits or veg or seaweed or something bunged in. And with more of it about, the success rate seems to me to be decreasing. But Spontanbasil restores my faith: it's a triumph. And at that price it would want to be.

19 October 2015

Saison all over

Everyone's doing saisons these days, and I'm not sure why that is. It's a fairly broad style and you can do a lot with it, like making it strong and fruity or using it as a base for adding strange flavours. Personally, I tend to prefer the simple, crisp sub-5% ones. I guess there's a saison out there for everyone. I wasn't deliberately collecting English examples but I seem to have ended up with three in the fridge simultaneously. So, one evening, I had a taste-off.

It was the craftish neck tag that attracted me to Bad Seed Brewery Saison: "with honey, ginger and grains of paradise" it promised. Intriguing. Seeing lots of gunk in the bottom of the bottle I poured very carefully, getting a mostly-clear pale yellow glassful. The aroma is pleasant, if not exactly exotic: dry straw and a certain white grape juiciness. It's disappointingly plain to taste, having the familiar musty funk of many a saison, with maybe a hint of perfume and pepper deep down, but nothing that delivers the complex spicing promised on the tag. Funnily enough, when it was part of Boak and Bailey's epic saison-off earlier this year, they rejected it because it tasted of too many things. I had no such luck. It's not fancy and interesting, nor does it have the crisp simple elegance of a well-made straight saison: at 6% ABV it's too strong for one thing.

I hoped for better things from Wylam Saisonnier. It promised lemon balm (?) and rosemary. What it delivered to begin with was foam, lots and lots of it, making a mockery of the label's warning to pour carefully. In the glass it's a hazy bright orange and certainly smells of citrus, a sweet and creamy lemon curd sort of thing. The rosemary kicks in on tasting: a savoury, oily herbal vibe that matches the fruit beautifully. I was so charmed by it I didn't notice that any saison character is completely missing: the base beer could be any neutral blonde ale. But I'm not complaining. The ABV is 5.4% ABV  so it's sippable without being hard work. A good example of using saison as a jumping off point to make beer do interesting things.

And just to throw a spanner into the works, how about a black saison? The one St. Feuillien did in collaboration with Green Flash was beautiful so I live in eternal hope of repeating the experience. This is Firebrand Black Saison, from Firebrand Brewing in Cornwall. It's 5% ABV and a kind of dark mahogany red, topped by a thick off-white head. It tastes and smells like a very average porter: some light chocolate and crisp roast, but not much else. At the very back of the flavour there's a tiny spark of saison spices, but nothing that really stands out. This stuff is perfectly drinkable but entirely forgettable. And there's the downside of using a saison as base: even something as simple as a bit of roasted barley can drown out any unique characteristics it may have had.

Pile on the rosemary, I say.