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.

15 October 2015

Brewing outside the box

The determined ticker will find Vilnius frustrating. Reliable information in bars about what beers are available and precisely which brewery supplied the ones on offer is often hard come by. You can ask, of course, but armed with those sorts of high-level social skills you're not likely to be a ticker in the first place.

IPAs were a case in point. Lots of pubs had one on the menu but they tended not to be so forthcoming with whose it was. However, I think that may be in part due to the fact that the first and original Lithuanian IPA arrived not that long ago and probably had the market to itself for a while. And it's this one that I think most places serve to punters asking for eepa. The brewery is Dundulis and the beer is Humulupu (left of picture). At 5.5% ABV it's around "normal" strength for Lithuanian beer and is a bright clear shade of orange. It resembled English IPA more than anything, I think: the orange blossom aroma and then a pithy zesty bitterness which builds pleasingly as it goes, finishing quite serious and resinous. I detected a bit of a meaty, gamey flavour in it too: perhaps a side-effect of the hops. Overall it's quite a serious beer and definitely not one of your frivolous tropical fruit jobs.

Dundulis, conveniently, runs a bar in Vilnius: a charming but poky little stand-up joint called Špunka. There's lots to choose from and everything, for a change, is helpfully listed and labelled. They had another IPA on, called Simkala (right of picture), a Simcoe single-hopper. It arrived worryingly grey coloured and while it smelled of lovely fresh jaffa hops, and had a wonderful juicy foretaste, the sudden wave of clanging earthy yeast completely spoiled the whole thing. Cleaned up, this would be beautiful.

Dundulis Roggenbier is another beer of two parts, though rather better made. It's dark garnet in colour and though cloudy is more wholesome and rustic than flawed. The flavour delivers a grassy acridity first, followed swiftly by sweet milk chocolate, and then see-saws between the two elements. It's a strange experience and I'm not sure I liked it.

I think there were a couple of stouts on the board at Špunka. I just had Gutstoutas, a 5.2% ABV one, brewed with oatmeal. Rather good too: it's very black and very dense with a big rich dark roast flavour, some meatiness, some smokiness, but also lighter forest fruit notes. It's rare to find a stout this complex served from the keg.

Finally for Dundulis, and possibly a nod towards farmhouse brewing, there's Juodaragio, a 5% ABV juniper ale. It's golden coloured with a sweet floral perfume aroma. The flavour is spicy, with a touch of ambergris and a resinous texture to match. Despite this it doesn't get too sticky, displaying a lightness of touch that keeps it drinkable throughout.

A mixed bag from Dundulis, quality-wise, but it's nice to see this sort of variation, especially under one small roof.

Still hankering after IPA? About the best of them, I thought, was Green Monster, from the snigger-worthy Apynys brewery. 6.3% ABV and mixing in Citra, El Dorado, Cascade and Magnum for the full-on west coast experience. The aroma is a dense and dank cocktail of oils and pith while the flavour comes out fighting, although it's an orangey bitterness rather than the expected grapefruit. There's a considerable dose of malt in here too, for balance of a sort, and you get that orange barley sugar effect in the finish.

I also got to try Klausučiu IPA, a dark amber one, smelling of lemons and caramel, heavy of body and with an almost roasted edge to it. The weight is added to by plentiful hop resins which give it a long lasting finish. It's a little bit all over the place, but not a bad beer. I'll throw in Klausučiu's tamsusis here as well. It's called 666 and isn't very accomplished either, smelling of dry malt extract and tasting of earthy yeast and cheap gritty chocolate. I saw it in a few places. It's not as cool as it thinks it is.

Brewpubs aside, I saw just one microbrewed Lithuanian pilsner, namely Cyrulis Pils: yet another rough and rustic homebrewish effort. It has no aroma to speak of but there is a charming lemon cookie flavour nestling in the fuzzy yeast. Once again, a bit of fine tuning to the production and this could be a really good beer.

We need to scale up to find a German lager style done well. Gubernija is listed in Lars Marius Garshol's book as a regional brewery and I found its Doppelbock on draught at Alaus Biblioteka, a library-themed international beer bar, complete with classified bottle shelving behind the bar. It does all the things doppelbock is supposed to do, from the chestnut red appearance to the chewy wholesome body and the rich chocolate and fig flavours. A sizeable heat acts as an extra brake on one's drinking speed.

Gubernija is no stranger to traditional styles either, if I can just squeeze another one of those in. Tamsusis Elis was one of the best of them that I tried, mahogany red with a sumptuous liquorice aroma and lots of tangy metallic liquorice bouncing around in the flavour. There's plenty of burnt caramel as well, making the whole resemble a Baltic porter more than anything. I suspect that even when they're trying to stay local, outside influences creep in, and as far as this drinker is concerned, that's for the better.

But as far as the micros go, I don't think they've quite nailed the global craft beer thing yet, quality-wise. I'm all for a varied beer diet but I can kinds see why commentators on the Lithuanian beer scene, including the bar manager at Alaus Biblioteka, recommended sticking to the traditional styles.

14 October 2015

Old Town brews

There are three brewpubs in Vilnius Old Town. Newest among them is Alinė Leičai, part of what seems to be a growing food and drink empire along narrow, twisty Stiklių Gatvė. I mentioned Bambalynė in Monday's post: it's under the same ownership. The Leičai brewpub is a couple of doors along, and then across the way is Alinė Leičai the restaurant, specialising in traditional food and carrying a large range of Leičai beer. This is where I started my explorations of their range.

Having only the English-language menu to hand, I didn't record the native names for these beers. The one I started with was billed as Leičai Light Ale (pictured) and was 5% ABV. Dark gold in colour it had a sweet, hard-candy aroma and a spicy-sweet flavour, putting me particularly in mind of Duvel. "Light" here refers to the colour only, I'm guessing, because it's pretty dense and chewy. While there's a nice bitter hop bite on the finish it's quite far from being refreshing. Leičai Šviesusis, at the same strength, was much more what I was after. A gentle honey note opens the flavour, giving way to a bitterer grassy pilsner finish. It had a few things in common with Leičai Bohemian Pils which was on at the brewpub, pumped directly to taps on every table on a serve-yourself basis. In typical brewpub lager fashion it's hazy with lots of raw, rustic crunchy grain, but also a proper nettle-like noble hop bitterness. I enjoyed it, but found it just a little too rough around the edges to be a properly happy pils.

Leičai brewpub is a lovely place, compact, though that aids the pipework required for the tabletop draught system. The brewkit is visible down the back and quite a few of the beers are served from handpumps. One such was their IPA, a bright orange colour and mixing up jaffa sweetness with spicy myrrh-like resins. Refreshing enough to sink sessionably; complex enough to sit over and savour: I did both on subsequent visits. The Kveitinis (wheat beer, see Monday's lesson for vocab) didn't work so well, though poured a normal looking pale hazy blonde. Lots of coriander in the aroma but it tastes very sweet, edging toward syrupy, which is never good in a wheat beer. The low carbonation and high temperature did it no favours either.

Two dark beers before we leave Leičai. There was a Porter at the restaurant which I quite enjoyed, it being a simple and chocolately pale brown beer which had a bit of yeasty fuzz to it but managed to style this out as wholesomeness. There was a stout too, Vasaknai, at 5.8% ABV. More yeast rawness here, but largely drowned out by shouty stouty characteristics: an invigorating coffee aroma and a big bitter, roasted flavour. It was impressive for the first couple of mouthfuls but didn't really do much else to hold my attention after that. Fine for one, but then move on. And so we move on.

Prie Katedros is in a vaulted basement off Vilnius's grand main boulevard Gedimino Prospektas. You pass the brewkit on the way down the stairs, its gleaming copper drawing you in from the street. Specials come and go, though there were none on my visit, just the three core beers. Katedros Šviesusis smells very honeyish and has a crusty white bread flavour followed by more of that honey, finishing on a crunchy, grainy note. Despite a considerable heaviness, calling strong Belgian ale to mind once more, it's actually quite easy to drink.

There was also an actual honey beer: Katedros Medaus, this one amber coloured, like its special ingredient. The aroma is definitely honey: herbal, a little spicy, but definitely sweet. Oddly, though, it's quite light of texture, lagery even, with just a gentle pleasant honey complexity on the edge of the flavour. I'd go as far as to say it's less honeyish than the honey-free blonde, though that may have something to do with palate calibration. Either way, I enjoyed this more than I expected. Dark honey beers need not be all hot and sticky.

The third core beer is Katedros Tamsusis and -- guess what -- it smells of honey. There's lots of sweet toffee but it's another lightly textured one, with a herbal, manuka sort of perfume. Ultimately, however, it's not as interesting as the other two. I felt a little wrong-footed by the Prie Katedros beers: they seem, and smell, like they should be under-attenuated sugar bombs but it's also apparent that the brewers on the stairway do actually know what they're doing.

Finally, just around the corner, to Būsi Trečias. It's a rather sparse, barnlike pub. The brewkit is in the basement out of sight, so marks off for poor theatrics. And marks off for the Tamsusis being unavailable. I started with Šviesus the, I assume, šviesusis. It's the de rigeur hazy pale gold and 5% ABV and has a lovely, quenching, lemon sherbet flavour. It doesn't do much else, but doesn't really need to either -- it's a conversation beer. A little bit of vanilla syrup creeps in as it warms, but that's easily avoided by drinking it fast.

The other beer they had was Juodas: 6.5% ABV and an opaque red-brown colour. The chewy texture and mix of toffee and liquorice in the taste reminded me of Czech tmavý, with the same sort of flawless clarity and balance to the flavours. There's a touch of smokiness in it as well, but zero off flavours. If it wasn't for the soupy appearance I'd suspect this of being a re-badged ringer from a bigger brewery.

Vilnius has other brewpubs but they're further out and I didn't bother with them on my short trip. In the final post from the city I'll be moving away a little from the typically local beer styles and trying a few more exotic options.

13 October 2015

Down on the farm (ish)

In his Bumper Book of Lithuanian Beer, Lars Marius Garshol sets out a hierarchy of breweries, with the industrials at the bottom, then the regionals followed by the modern microbreweries. Above this tier are the traditional-style microbreweries -- the ones that have adopted and adapted the styles and techniques of Lithuanian farmhouse brewing on a larger commercial basis -- and then at the top are the working farmhouse breweries themselves. He mentions that beer from this first-order group is very difficult to find in Vilnius, and even when you get it, it won't be as good as at the brewery. Of course, that line gets trotted out about drinking at the source the world over, but the crucial difference with Lithuanian farmhouse beer is that it isn't boiled during brewing, so the finished product has a shelf life of about 20 days. If you were waiting for these beers to arrive in your local off licence to find out what they're about, that isn't going to happen. The unique yeasts involved mean you can probably forget about clones showing up at your local homebrew club too.

Fortunately, there are a handful of places where proper farmhouse beer is available in Vilnius, and Lars Marius tells us where. Hence, early in the holiday, we took a walk to the Užupis district, to visit Šnekutis. There are a few branches of this small pub chain around the city. It specialises in the most traditional Lithuanian food and beer, and the house draught comes from the Jovaru farmhouse brewery. The Užupis Šnekutis pub itself is great fun: a poky wood and brick shack by the side of the street, filled with all manner of rustic and rusty bric-à-brac. Jovaru Alus is 6% ABV and a murky orange in colour. It's... odd. For one thing it's very sweet: bready, cakey, and with a hint of herbal honey which I'm guessing is down to the family heirloom yeast. A honeyed version does exist but they were all out. No boil means no hop bittering, so what balance there is comes from the savoury bite of the yeast. Despite the strength, the texture is light and the carbonation low which makes it really quite drinkable. It manages a lovely mouthwatering juiciness that has nothing to do with hops. My first experience of Lithuanian farmhouse beer was a positive one.

The next was in a very different sort of pub. Alaus Namai is a large canteen-like bar in the basement of a Soviet-era building and is frequented by a mainly younger crowd. There's a wide selection of draught beers, including several on cask. Ramunas Čižas was on Lars Marius's recommendations of things to drink here, so that's what I went for, it being another from the top-tier real-farmhouse breweries. It was served in a clay mug with a healthy layer of foam but from what I could tell it's a murky brown colour. There's lots of rather homebrewish yeast in the favour and a big Orval-like funk. This jostles uncomfortably with a savoury Bovril beefiness. Orval and Bovril is not a winning combination. I mean, it's drinkable, but I found it hard to escape the overall dregginess. It's certainly nowhere near as nuanced as Jovaru.

On the walk back to the middle of town we dropped into the Vilnius branch of Alynus, part of a national chain of specialist beer pubs. It's not very pubby, the bright lights and shop window making it feel more like a bakery or café. I opted for the house beer, Alyno Šviesusis. I've no idea who makes it or what it's meant to be, but I'm assuming that it's in some sort of traditional style because it's lousy with diacetyl. The smell is pure concentrated butterscotch, the mouthfeel slick, and once you get past the sweetness in the flavour there's just a tiny amount of crisp lager malt left behind and maybe a teeny hint of green hops. However you slice it or make excuses for it, this is just a crappy lager.

I bought a handful of bottles at the supermarket to try, tempted mostly by the way the traditional breweries got their own, stand-alone wood-effect fridge. From this I picked a one litre bottle of Butautų Dvaro Šviesusi, a pale 5%-er by one of the second-tier traditional-style breweries. It's not bad either: there's the characteristic yeast-and-honey thing that I found in Jovaru but it's less complex, more like a simple Belgian blonde ale, though with perhaps a hint of extra pepper. Refreshing and easy-going, as I guess good farmhouse beer should be.

I also picked up two bottles from the Tarušku brewery. Amber-gold Kanapinis Šviesusis didn't do a great job of mixing up those traditional flavours, packing honey, Horlicks and butterscotch into a dense 5.1% ABV package that was a bit of a mistake to attempt after a large meal. And as I plodded through it it didn't get any better as it warmed. Its twin is, of course, Kanapinis Tamsusis, a little stronger at 5.3% ABV though unfortunately just as buttery. The diacetyl is a little less jarring when mixed in with some milk chocolate like this, but it still wasn't enjoyable to drink. It was also the palest tamsusis I encountered, not that that helped its drinkability.

And another tamsusis to finish on: Davra's Varniukų Tamsusis, which happens to be one of our guide's favourites. I got a definite waft of diacetyl butterscotch from this but thankfully it tastes drier and is pleasantly light of texture. A certain amount of toffee does creep in as it warms but it's balanced with a gentle roasted grain bite and a hint of blackberry fruitiness. I think I'd prefer something a little bit cleaner, but that's not how rustic operations like Davra and the others above operate. Take it or leave it.

I got no more than a very superficial skimming of the tip of Lithuanian farmhouse brewing but I think I came away with an impression of what it is. It's certainly unique, as I was told before I went. But is it any good? My gut feeling is that a week of honey and butterscotch would be my limit and I'd be craving something drier and/or bitterer soon after. I offer my best wishes for the future to traditional Lithuanian beer, but I can't say I left hankering for one more mugful.

12 October 2015

Welcome to Vilnius

I spent a few days in Lithuania last month, mainly because I'd never been but I was partially also drawn to what I'd heard of the beer scene. Lithuania has a long history of farmhouse brewing, one which has survived into the present day, even making recent inroads into mainstream commercial brewing. But I'll come to that later. My guide throughout was the short but thorough Lithuanian Beer: The Rough Guide by Lars Marius Garshol, and I strongly recommend downloading a copy if you're thinking of heading to Lithuania. It covers the whole country but I didn't really move out of the capital Vilnius on my stay.

So we'll start with the city's own brand of beer: Vilniaus Alus. It's fairly ubiquitous in shops and pubs, on draught and in 33cl bottles. One of the supermarkets re-badges the brand slightly as "Amber City", thought the label is otherwise the same. It's a big range but I only tried a handful of them. The brewery owns a poky little bar near the castle called 13 Statinių. There's space for about twenty punters but it seems to do more business filling bottles for takeaway, and the draught range is split down the middle between Vilniaus Alus and guest microbrews.

Fairly standard eastern European lager style rules apply in Lithuania: you have your pale šviesusis, dark tamsusis, and kvietinis -- the wheat beer. In this place I had a Vilniaus Kvietinis. It arrived a murky pale yellow (picture, right) and had an enticing coriander aroma. The flavour is tangy, possibly even a bit sour, with sweet orange cordial and some oily incense spices. Enjoyable to begin with, but after a few mouthfuls it slips into a kind of witbier uncanny valley: similar enough to call witbier to mind, but too watery and a bit soapy to be considered a good example of one.

Vilniaus Šviesusis Nefiltruotas is, as the name makes clear, a pale unfiltered lager. Once again there's bags of concentrated orange in the flavour here, but instead of spices or yeast character there's a wholesome breadiness. It could almost pass for a good unfiltered pils if it wasn't so sweet. More fruit scone than bread, perhaps. On the whole a simple and refreshing beer though probably not as quaffable as its makers would like it to be.

And then there was Vilniaus Tamsusis Žolelių Skonio. A dark beer, yes -- you're learning fast -- but one flavoured with herbs, in an allegedly traditional rustic style. I found it in Bambalynė, a rather fabulous cellar pub in the old town which stocks bottles only and offers a vast selection to choose from. You even get to pick your own glass. It's really the perfect place for the confused foreign beer geek to work through the national offerings in comfort without having to point at taps or ask questions (not that this was ever a problem -- Lithuanians are very polite and helpful, and mostly have great English). Anyway, the beer. It's wine-coloured and poured headless. The aroma offers strong sage and a sweeter eucalyptus note which, now that I have a list of the herbs used to hand, may have been a combination of the clove and aniseed. Medicinal either way. It's quite flat and has a very cola-like sweet and slightly woody flavour. Deeper down there's prune juice and a little burnt caramel. I liked it, there's a lot going on, it's just not very beery.

That's it from Vilniaus Alus, but before moving on, a word on a couple of the national industrial beers. I had both of these in restaurants where there was nothing better. Švyturys even has a dedicated beer themed restaurant in the old town, which we stumbled into without knowing what it was until we saw the menu, honest. I had a Švyturys Memelbräu, an amber-gold lager which smells of markers and has a very hot Belgian ester quality so I was very surprised to learn it's only 5.3% ABV. There are pears and aniseed in here as well, and a slight spicing at the back. Once you get used to the heat and strong flavours it's actually quite drinkable, but not something I'd choose again.

Another restaurant, another large brewery: Kalnapilis Grand Select was on tap in this weird but fun Russian-run US-style barbecue place we found on the last night. No fancy Belgian tricks here, just a nicely heavy, clean, Dortmunder-esque dark gold lager. It's one I could have had another of, if I wasn't stuffed full of meat.

So that's the basic vocabulary covered. Tomorrow we'll get properly stuck into Lithuania's unique take on beer.

08 October 2015

Press pass pilsners

Camden Exchange has been open since the beginning of the summer. It's the latest addition to the strip of bars running down Camden Street in central Dublin, already known for its late-night pack-'em-in superpubs. It's big but not huge (have a walk round) and a bit of money has been spent on the faux-industrial interior. The best feature is probably the generous beer garden out back. The food is good and the beer choice extensive, with a mix of craft and macro, Irish and imported, spread across 20 or so taps. But, on my first visit, a €6.50 pint of Metalman Pale Ale left a bitterness that had nothing to do with Summit or Cascade and meant I wasn't in a rush to go back.

In August, Camden Exchange held its gala opening and the management kindly invited me along. The beer was free and the food was free so it was all rather jolly. I started with a beautifully refreshing pint of Camden Hells and left on a fabulously juicy Punk IPA, but in between, in the hope of getting a blog post out of the freebie, I scoured the taps for something I'd never reviewed before. There was just one: Birra Moretti. I'll have a pint of that, so. Stick it on the boss's tab.

Heineken's headline Italian offering is definitely doing its job up against arch-rival Peroni: it has the same watery core and the same unpleasant metallic tang, though is perhaps not quite as gassily vapid. It's still pretty terrible and certainly a totally different species to the Hells which preceded it.

If you're going to Camden Exchange on your own dime -- and do give the food menu a go -- it's probably best to pick your beer a bit more carefully than I did here. Cheers to the team for inviting me.

More recently, I was invited out to a launch evening at Box Burger in Bray. This venue, from the owners of Platform Pizza next door and the Harbour Bar across the way, is situated in part of what was once Bray railway station and has been lovingly stripped out to reveal lots of the original brickwork. The burgers are damn decent and there's a distinct Wicklow tilt to the drinks offer, with beer from Wicklow Wolf and O Brother plus cider by Cragie's. But there are imports too, so my tick of the evening was Camden Town Pils. As I mentioned on Monday, straight-up good-quality lager is something of a stock-in-trade at Camden Town so I was expecting a sharp and refreshing pint here, but that's not what I got. For one thing it was hazy, looking an unhealthy wan yellow, though thankfully the taste was not upset by any yeast interference. But its flavour isn't exactly the profile I associate with pils, being full of soft lemon sherbet rather than grass or herbs. It's smooth and very tasty, just not especially pils-like in my estimation.

Thanks to all the Box Burger crew for the evening's hospitality. It's well worth checking out if you're down Bray way, and that's not just the free truffle-oil-and-parmesan burger talking.