30 November 2015

Two nights at The Headline

Dublin's premier destination for beer Irish beer launches™, 57 The Headline, staged special nights for two breweries on consecutive Thursdays recently. Both involved beers I'd never had before so of course I was in attendance.

The first tap takeover was by Rye River, bringing a bunch of the specials it had at the Irish Craft Beer Festival last August, plus a couple of new regulars. I'd missed the Keeping Ale at the festival and it was presented here in oak-aged form. It's 6.5% ABV and dark red in colour. Strawberry is the main flavour I got from it, then some milk chocolate and a sort of rubberiness which I suspect may be the oak at work. It has a woody, cola-nut aroma and the texture is smooth. I don't think it quite works: the base beer is undoubtedly well made, but rather boring after the first few sips, and the oak ageing hasn't done anything to improve it.

The following week, Trouble Brewing were front and centre, occupying ten taps and launching three new beers. I started on #TeamTrouble, an amber ale designed and assisted by the Ladies Craft Beer Society of Ireland. First impressions are of something very pale for an amber ale, and there's no sign of the rich malt sweetness that I'd regard as its hallmark. What you get instead are fruity front bits -- blackberry in particular -- and then a very sharp waxy finish. It rounds out a little as it warms and there's a pleasant buzz of jasmine spice adding interest, but it never quite loses its harshness. Perhaps you need several pints for your palate to adjust, but of course that wasn't an option when there were more beers to try.

Schwarzbier is one of those styles sorely neglected by Irish brewers so it was exciting to discover Trouble have made one, and at a nicely sessionable 4.5% ABV, by the name of Black Flag. Once again, though, I think the nuances of the style have been missed. It does have a good dark roasted crispness, and a subtle bitterness in a green, celery or courgette, sort of way. But there's a lot of sweetness all through it, a streak of caramel and a dusting of raisins. Not unpleasant in and of themselves but it left me hankering for a drier beer. A schwarzbier, in other words. Consensus among the commentariat was that this is more a Munich dunkel than a schwarzbier but I think it lacked the metallic liquorice bitterness they often have, and similarly with regard to Czech tmavý, before you ask. Black Flag is good clean fun but I'd love to see some of the sugar knocked out of it.

From black lager to black IPA, and Dead Ringer, one of the lightest examples of the style I've met, at just 4.3% ABV, but tasting convincingly stronger. I think it's because of the texture: thick and tarry with a majorly harsh, burnt component in the foretaste. The hops have their say in the aroma more than anywhere: gorgeously fresh honeydew melon, totally out of place in such a severe beer, but also providing a welcome softness. A small peach note appears in the aftertaste as well. It's a funny arrangement but it does work, in its own odd sort of way, though it's not quite in the same league as previous dark 'n' hoppy Trouble ales, Oh Yeah! and Fallen Idol.

The Headline being The Headline, there were other beers from other breweries to try on both nights. The autumn special from Jack Cody's rejoices in the name Curly Hole, a red ale brewed with sour cherries and apricots. I didn't know the fruit was there when I bought my pint and completely failed to identify them. Instead, I found a smooth and toffee-laden dark red ale with a strange sort of corky mustiness, which I'm now guessing may have been down to the cherries. It's little more than a slightly intensified version of plain Irish red ale and rather underwhelming.

Finally, Carrig Brewing's Grand Soft Day pale ale has been around since the summer but it wasn't until I was sitting about waiting for Trouble to take over the taps that I actually got to try it. And it's definitely a suitable summer sessioner (4.2% ABV) but works just as well on a dark November evening. It begins with a tasty spritz of satsuma and then settles back into a more serious resinous bitterness. That's all it does but it's enough to create something quaffable with sufficient complexity to hold the drinker's interest.

Cheers to Máire, Geoff,  all the crew of The Headline and the guys from Trouble and Rye River for two excellent evenings.

26 November 2015

A few days in beertown

I left you last time in Moeder Lambic Fontainas, Brussels's ticker heaven. The other beer I had there before moving on to the cask Cantillon lambic, was L'Amer des Moeders, brewed for the house by Jandrain-Jandrenouille. It's a golden ale of an approachable 5% ABV, pale and slightly hazy with a sugary perfumed nose. This resolves on tasting into a weighty Belgian blonde with spicy jasmine up front and quite a dry finish. It's good, as pretty much everything the brewery produces is, though it's also a little severe, especially if it's intended for repeat purchase.

There's a new geek bar in town next to Centraal station: the first Belgian outpost of the BrewDog chain. It occupies a cavernous space, with oddly less seating than I'd have expected. There are also signs that this is a licensed franchise rather than part of the main operation as the staff don't seem to have the precision customer service expertise that's a hallmark of the UK branches. The menu is a mix of the core BrewDog range and a well chosen selection of mostly unusual Belgian guests. To wit:

Monkey Monk is a new Belgium-based brewing operation founded by Finnish ex-pats. The beer I had was a 6.5% ABV IPA called API and it's all rather simple and tasty, with that orangey hard candy taste common to many Belgian and Belgian-style IPAs, plus a dusting of light spices. Straightforward, no gimmicks; clean and well-made.

I followed it with Mont des Cats, a newish trappist brand, brewed under licence at Chimay. It's 7.6% ABV, a pale orange-brown colour, and smells enticingly of rum, rasins and bananas. The flavour is very much that of a strong dark trappist, with more raisins and a great deal of crusty brown bread, though the texture isn't as heavy despite the substantial strength. I kept expecting some tripel-style spicing, but that doesn't feature. Decent stuff and a pleasant change away from your Chimays and Westmalles while staying broadly within the genre.

That's all there was time for before dinner, hosted by Brussels's most renowned cuisine à la bière establishment, Restobières. Eccentric chef-patron Alain kept thrusting bottles of his house beer at us: ForMi Diable, a blonde ale complete with extensive punning ant cartoons on the label. The use of coriander and orange peel at 6.5% ABV make it something like a souped-up witbier, though the savoury herbal effect is more reminiscent of clean Belgian blondes like Duvel and makes it a better food beer. Which is the point, I guess. Anyway, a nice dinnertime conversation beer, though I'm still none the wiser about why the ants.

Also being passed around was a limited quantity of 2009 De Cam Framboise. I'm new to this gueuze brand, but have always enjoyed it so far. This red one is 6% ABV and very funky: lots of brett, traces of vinegar and just a tiny wisp of residual raspberry fruit. The most distinguishing feature was the sharp acidity, making it pure heartburn in a bottle. Fun to try, but a sip is plenty for my unrefined tastes.

For afters, a trip around the corner to Pin Pon, which I mentioned on Monday. As well as the house beer, I also had a go of St Feuillien Grisette Fruit des Bois, much to the bemusement of my companions. And the bar staff, actually. We're used to grisette as very much a craft style -- so craft that I don't think anyone in Ireland has made one yet -- but I suppose in Belgium this light saison still carries the less romantic associations of its industrial past. And especially when a load of purple syrup is dumped into the vat. The end result is 3.5%, bright pink and very sweet. The flavour is that of a forest fruit yoghurt, all fruit gunk and not much beer behind it, just a kind of vague stale mustiness. I'd be interested in trying the naked version of this, but it scratched my sweet fruit beer itch for a while.

A pub crawl on a different evening began with dinner in La Lombard, washed down with Petrus Aged Pale, a beer which, from what I've read lately, did rather well out of its sponsorship at the 2015 European Beer Bloggers' Conference. This is a whopping 7.3% ABV and features an odd aroma of candycanes and vinegar. It falls somewhere on the spectrum between proper Belgian sour beer and the high-volume industrial gueuzes, a properly bitter tartness sits next to quite a heavy sugariness. A simple flavour, with no woody or bacterial complexity, it's accessible and drinkable, despite the strength. And the good news is that importation to Ireland is imminent.

Dessert was Troubadour Imperial Stout. A little disappointing, this. I was expecting bigger and better but instead I got something which called ancient memories of chocolate-flavoured Ready Brek to mind: that fine sawdust wheatiness and sweet milk chocolate. A metallic hop kick in the finish and a light pepperiness adds a modicum of complexity, but that's your lot: just because something is from one of Belgium's best brewers and is 9% ABV doesn't mean it will alter your perception completely.

Guest photobomb by Tim Webb
After a quick stop in A La Bécasse and a pair of big jugs, the evening wound up in Toone and my nightcap was 3 Fonteinen Oude Kriek. This chap is only 5% ABV but very dense with it, a dramatic dark blood-red colour. I reckon the thickness helps offset the sourness because this is quite gentle in that respect, taking away the harsh acidity and leaving a pleasant spiciness. No fruit sweetness has survived the process and the flavour is more like tart blackcurrant than cherries to my mind. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a kriek this much.

The last event of the trip was a reception the EBCU held for politicians and the drinks industry, in celebration of the group's 25th birthday. Member organisations had shipped in beer from their homes so there was a veritable buffet of varied European beers -- special thanks at this point to Carlow Brewing for providing Beoir's contribution to the party. I was only around for the set-up of the event so had time to sample just two of the beers on offer. One was Visioen, an 8% ABV stout from Dutch brewer 7de Hemel. It's a perfectly classical example of a strong stout: roasty and creamy at first and finishing with an assertive dry bite. The other, also a stout, was East London's Quadrant. This includes oatmeal and gets the benefit of its smoothing effect. But there's plenty of roast too and a certain sourness as well. Very drinkable and it would have been nice to compare both of these to Leann Folláin, which I'm told was very popular on the night.

But I had to make my excuses and depart, shoplifting as much as I could carry from behind the bar. Posts about my ill-gotten gains will follow in due course.

23 November 2015

Brussels brewing

In Brussels for the Autumn 2015 EBCU meeting, I didn't mean to visit every operating brewery in the city. It just kinda turned out that way. I trod a path similar to the one Steve did here during the summer, though with more of the breweries actually in action. It's interesting to observe just how fast the brewing scene in Brussels is currently moving.

First stop as soon as I reached the city was Brussels Beer Project which had opened specially for delegates just ahead of its grand launch a week later. The taproom, on the edge of the city centre just beyond Sante-Catherine, is open Thursday to Saturday and the intention is to pour the brewery's own beers alongside selected guests. In a room behind it is the shiny steel brewkit and a handful of wooden casks with experiments ageing within. The plan, the founders told us, is to make around 20 different beers a year, collaborating as much as possible and becoming an integral part of beer in Brussels. Bottles of the first few new ones were on display but weren't quite ready for drinking so we made do with the last of the beers BBP has been producing elsewhere over the last couple of years.

Delta IPA and Dark Sister black IPA I've covered before; suffice it to say that the latter was on particularly good form and I hope the recipe makes the transition to in-house unscathed. My first was Babylone, a dark amber coloured IPA of 7% ABV with a fun gimmick in that 30% of the grist is made up of unsold bread they collect from bakeries. (40% is possible, said Dimitiri the bar manager, but inadvisable.) The hops are a transatlantic mix of Chinook, Crystal and East Kent Goldings and the end result a gorgeously thick and spicy beer, oozing bitter resins as it sparks with black pepper. I'm not sure how much I could get through in one sitting, but I wouldn't mind putting that to the test.

But there was another beer to try, namely Grosse Bertha, a hybrid of the German weissbier and Belgian tripel beer styles. It could pass for either on appearance and the opening impression is soft and wheaty like a weizen, incorporating the de rigeur bananas plus the sort of green celery effect that German hops sometimes bring to these. However, it's also 7% ABV and carries all the heat and spice you'd expect from a tripel as well. It fascinated me for a while, standing with a glass on the brewery floor, flipping my perception between the two styles like a lenticular picture. The problem arose when it came time to finish the glass and move on to something else: the flavour is so big and busy that it actually becomes difficult drinking quite quickly, especially if it gets warm. Sharing 33cl measures of beer is, of course, a dreadful abomination, but you might get away with it here.

Naturally the trip incorporated a visit to the city's oldest working brewery, Cantillon. It's undergoing a bit of a supply-side crisis at the moment, and though the range of beers being produced has never been greater, a lot of it seems to be confined to the brewery bar: off sales are severely limited, in both variety and permissible order size. The issue is one of space, we were told, and a new warehouse currently being prepared will go some way towards relieving it. Meanwhile, just one new Cantillon for me: Haute Densité. You can read the convoluted history of this one here, and it certainly lived up to its name, being 9% ABV and incredibly heavy despite the high attenuation. There's the characteristic earthy lambic funk alongside a very uncharacteristic sweet honey flavour, as well as an intense beeswax bitterness. Yet all throughout, there's a mature smoothness that ensures its drinkability. A lovely twist on good gueuze, and I look forward to Cantillon getting more experiments like this out on the market.

From the oldest brewery to the newest (or at least the newest then; these guys have opened subsequently with no regard for my publishing schedule), En Stoemlings is a two-man operation in a tiny premises by Chapelle station, not far from both Gare du Midi and Place Fontainas. The name translates roughly as "the sneaks", recalling the time before their commercial operation was quite as above-board as it is now. They make one beer, 125 litres at a time, and sell 80% of it at the front door of the brewery. The beer is called Curieuse Neus and is a 7% ABV tripel, available in 75cl bottles and on draught in a handful of outlets, including Bar Recyclart around the corner under the railway tracks. The beer is... OK. Workmanlike. The ABV is on the low side for a tripel but it's still surprisingly heavy. The classic tripel spices are present and correct though a touch of hot marker pen phenols on the finish compromises it a little. Decent for a first effort and I'm sure it's merely the gateway to greater things.

That just leaves Brasserie de la Senne, a relative brewing veteran at this stage. My first encounter with their beer this time was at Pin Pon, a charming little stand-up bar in a renovated fire station on Place du Jeu de Balle. Senne makes a house lager for them, which is also called Pin Pon. It's 5.2% ABV, a perfect clear blonde and with a slightly waxy pils bitterness but not much else to say for itself. Not made for the geeks, but that's OK: they're allowed brew beer for normal people to drink.

Not being a normal person, a couple of days later I went up to the brewery. It was Finnish delegate André's idea, and Reuben and I accompanied him to keep him out of trouble. The journey is a long one on the 82 tram through the heart of the Molenbeek district almost to the north-west edge of the city. You duck in behind a car wash, along the back wall of a cemetery and the warehouse is there at the end, past the industrial laundry. It's a large and busy space inside but they've boxed off one corner of calm with chipboard sheets and installed a bar and tables. And a merchandise shop, of course.

I started with Brusseleir, badged as a "sweet IPA" which, it turns out, means something brown and portery with lots of chocolate in the foretaste followed by a mellow hop bitterness in the background, plus a wisp of coconut, because why not? It wears its Belgian credentials in the aroma: an earthy and estery warmth, as might be expected at 8% ABV. Overall a very classy blend of English and Belgian flavours, and sure to piss off the people who still think the letters IPA actually mean something, which is good.

We'll finish with a final Senne beer in the hallowed hall of Moeder Lambic Fontainas. Schieve Tabernak is a hazy orange ale, mixing in pleasant peach and apricot with a less welcome savoury yeast bite. Good potential, but it could really do with cleaning up.

It does, however, lead us neatly away from the breweries and into the pubs: always a highlight of Brussels. A full account of what I drank in them follows next.

19 November 2015

Hard graft

It's quite a few months since Rye River announced they were making two new beers especially for Dunnes. "Easy," I thought, "I'll just swing by Dunnes and pick some up." And I did the first bit, several times, but on each occasion the cupboard was bare. Only just a few weeks ago, in Henry Street, did I finally succeed. Dunnes has got quite good in recent years at providing well-chosen Irish beers at highly competitive prices. How would they fare with a brand of their own? It's perhaps not surprising, given global beer trends and their application to Ireland, that both of these are hop-forward ales.

Grafters Pale Ale poured lazily into the glass with barely any fizz. I thought it might have been a dud but the head still formed perfectly, loose bubbled like an unsparklered pint of cask, and it has a similar gentle effervesence rather than full-on carbonation so I really don't care if it's not meant to be like this, it's perfect for a cheap 4.5% ABV sessioner. The colour is a clear dark copper and the caramel malt which caused it is very much present in the flavour as a light sort of toffee. But the hops aren't shy either, providing a waft of sweet satsuma in the aroma and while it doesn't taste fruity, or particularly bitter, there is a pleasant zesty lemon tart effect. Only a very slight soapy twang on the finish prevents this from being an astounding beer for the money, but you still won't get better under the €2 mark, even allowing for temporary deep-discount deals.

So what does trading up to €2.50 get you? Grafters IPA is here to tell us. A few extra ABV points is the immediate answer: at 6.5% ABV it's definitely leaning on the American style. It's nicely pale too, clear and golden. The aroma isn't especially strong but I do get a promise of heat and hop oils when I sniff. The texture is thick and the first taste I get is a very grown-up bitterness, quite waxy and metallic, and definitely more English than American to my mind. There's a bit of citrus pith after it and a lovely mouthwatering juicy finish which balances the weight nicely, making it both easy and satisfying to drink. Sure, there are better IPAs out there, but really not at this price point.

Well played Dunnes and Rye River, and let other brewers and commissioners take note: there's room for something tasty and even a little daring at the value end of the market.

16 November 2015


I'm looking at some German beers today, ones that are a little, but not too much, outside of the normal run of things for brewers there.

Störtebeker Atlantik-Ale offers no explanation as regards a style, only that it's 5.1% ABV and brewed with a mix of German and American hops. It pours out a pale hazy yellow with a big fluffy head, looking for all the world like a witbier. The smell isn't far off either, with lots of fresh lemons and a hint of herbs too. The flavour is an odd mix of spicy and juicy. A sharp bitterness, which I think is hop-derived, opens it up. But there's a certain yeast contribution too: a bathsalt spice that adds its own kind of sharpness. Soft fruit then floods in behind this, mango and passionfruit, with sharper lime elements. A crisp and dry cereal quality finishes it off, leaving just an echo of the initial hops and yeast behind. It's quite an intense experience and takes a bit of getting used to, but I liked it. My bottle was older than I should have allowed it to get so it's possible that a fresh one would have even brighter hop notes.

I followed it with Brewers & Union Unfiltered Dark Lager, Brewers & Union being a self-consciously "craft" Munich-based gypsy brewing operation. But to be honest, only the English-language label and the "I Drink Craft" logo on the bottlecap marks this as any way out of the ordinary. It's 5% ABV and tastes to me like an absolutely straight-up well made Munich dunkel, mixing sweet milk chocolate with bitterer liquorice, finishing with a herbal noble hop flourish. It's smooth and very drinkable. One off-kilter feature is that it's bottle-conditioned, leaving quite a lot of yeasty goop in the bottom of the bottle. And I think this unusual (for bottled German lager) part of the the production process really stands to it. Its flavours certainly seem bigger and brighter as a result.

To The Beer Market for the last one. Legendary Bavarian weissbier brewer Schneider has been trying to earn some craft cred in recent years with its Tap X series of offbeat beers, and they haven't been a universally liked bunch. The presentation has tended to be an expensive large-format bottle so I was surprised to see the latest Tap X, Mathilda Soleil, on draught at The Beer Market. It's a 7% ABV weizenbock and looks more like a modern pale ale than a traditional Bavarian anything. The nose gives sweet orange candy backed by classic weissbier banana esters. So far so fruity. On tasting it makes it very clear that this is a strong beer: the instant heat, spice and density lays down a marker. But it's also madly easy drinking: there's a flowers and tannins effect reminiscent of the best English quaffing bitters and then the juicy mandarins and hondeydew of US or New Zealand pale ale. Only the high carbonation brings you back to Kelheim and a reminder of what kind of beer this is. But styles be damned, it's perfection in any vernacular.

I'm sure I've said this before, but new-wave German brewing does seem to do a particularly good job of incorporating what the industry already does well with new influences. Long may that continue.

13 November 2015