28 January 2016

Brewpub roulette

I've mentioned before that micronations are a bit of a fascination for me. A week in Nice over New Year left plenty of time for the short train trip eastwards to Monaco, a barely-there principality clinging to the side of the mountains which sweep down to the Med. Just before they get there, however, there's a yacht-filled harbour and among the quayside clubs and bars is Brasserie de Monaco, the country's only producer of beer. Inside, it's a typically stylish nightclub, all low leather seating and mood lightning. Somewhere to drink cocktails and be seen. But where you might expect to see the DJ box there's a shiny chrome brewkit, and by the malty smells emanating from it when I walked in, it's very much in active use.

Pils and Bière de Noël
Three beers were available and we sat outside to work through them in the last of the winter sun. Pils de Monaco is 5.2% ABV and very obviously unfiltered, presenting a cloudy orange colour. It still tastes nicely clean, however, with a refreshing lemon spritz in the foretaste and a bit of a waxy kick on the end. With no yeast fuzz or husky grainsack it's a clear cut above many a brewpub's lager. There's substance to the style at this place.

In place of the usual Ambrée, the brewery was serving Bière de Noël, a dark spiced 7%-er which presented as a murky brown colour and smelled of coffee roast. It tastes surprisingly dry, with a touch of milk chocolate and just a light dusting of the Christmas spices. While sweet it's not cloying, having that in common with good milk stout, and it certainly hides its strength very adeptly. Decent stuff.

So there had to be a clanger and it's the witbier, Blanche de Monaco. 4.8% ABV and looking the part: the right sort of hazy pale yellow. The description says it uses native Monegasque oranges, which is actually quite impressive, given how much farming generally gets done in Monaco. But... the flavour just isn't there. You get a little hint of jasmine spice at the front, but once that's gone there's nothing behind it but a hollow wateriness and a yucky tang of soap. Maybe the coriander needs upped, maybe the yeast needs changed, but this is not a good example of a witbier and is definitely a rank below its brethern.

So you needn't go rushing to Monte Carlo for the beer, but I can imagine a few rounds of that pils going down very nicely of a warm afternoon.

25 January 2016

A week in Provence

The annual New Year jaunt was to Nice last time round, in search of some Mediterranean sunshine and arty culture but not really for beer. Which of course is not to say some beer didn't cross my path during my week on the Côte d'Azur.

Nice itself has one brewery, La Brasserie Artisanale de Nice, based in an unassuming shop unit not far from the centre of town. There's no tap room but it does open for a few hours each day for off sales, as long as you don't mind interrupting the labelling or packing work going on. I came away with the three core beers plus two seasonals.

I began working through them with Blùna, a witbier. There was lots of sediment in the bottle and lots of fizz as it poured, the fine white mousse on top stayed for the duration of drinking it -- possibly because of the oatmeal listed among the ingredients. First impressions of smelling and tasting were of something not quite right: a strong lactic quality, exactly like spoiled milk. It needs a few minutes for the coriander herb flavour to start taking the edge off this but it never quite dispels the unpleasantness, and neither do the more subtle sparks of black pepper and lemon juice. I don't know whether it's a production flaw or just a bad recipe, but I was not off to a good start.

To follow, a 5% ABV blonde called Zytha, brewed using grains of paradise and, oddly, chickpeas. The aroma is a lovely waft of exotic fruit, all mango and passionfruit, and that's the main element of the flavour too, with just a slight incense spicing from the grains. The body is a little thin for the strength, though a mineral softness helps it avoid outright wateriness. It would be nice to know what the hops are but I'm guessing some sort of tropical power combo involving Mosaic, Nelson or Equinox: it's very much that sort of New-World-inspired juicy pale ale rather than anything like your typical French blonde, and so much the better for that.

No hop ambiguity in the third member of the brewery's core range: Hopstock is described as both an ambrée and a Cascade pale ale. It's certainly amber -- a hazy dark red colour. A spiced toffee aroma promises hops but keeps them on the down-low. The texture is heavy and chewy, accentuated by a flavour that's big on chocolate and caramel. There's a floral rosewater fruitiness but that's as far as the Cascade goes: you get no real bitterness, just a sharp metallic tang on the end which may be more down to the yeast floaters than anything else. It's definitely a bit rough-and-ready, in need of a polish.

I brought the specials home with me and first out was Cougourdoun, the brewery's take on a pumpkin beer, utilising courge de Nice ("winter squash" in English, apparently) plus ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. It's the last of these which really leaps out of the murky red-brown beer on tasting, though the aroma is sweeter and fruitier, suggesting pumpkin flesh to me. It's quite refreshing to find nutmeg and cinnamon as mere background players in a beer like this. The cloves are bright and fresh and chewy, imparting all their oiliness which goes some way to offset an irritating thinness in a beer which should feel bigger at 5.5% ABV. Enough fruity sweetness comes through to create a lovely apple pie effect. Sure, it suffers from the usual one-dimensionality of these autumn spiced ales but I found it enjoyable drinking nonetheless.

Last up from Brasserie Artisanale de Nice is Calèna, their Christmas seasonal. This is a chocolate milk stout, once again incorporating cinnamon and ginger, plus added clementine zest. The aroma shows the spices to a certain extent plus a little bit of cacao bitterness. It tastes clean with a touch of chocolate and no more than a dusting of spice. There's a milky texture and a creamy residue is left on the palate after swallowing. While a sharper sweetness is present I could not say whether this is the cinnamon or the fruit: my guess is that any clementine influence has been buried completely. Overall it's another well-balanced and drinkable beer, despite the complexity of the recipe. The brewer has shown great restraint in both the addition of the flavourings and keeping the ABV down at a cool 5.5% when there must have been a temptation to ramp it up.

Not far from the brewery there's a tiny off licence called Brune Rousse Houblon with an excellent selection of French and international beers. A few very interesting rarities from Canada's Dieu du Ciel! caught my eye but I figured that they probably wouldn't have been in the best shape so left them in favour of an all-French selection.

Microbrasserie Lou Soulèu is based around the coast in Antibes. The first one I tried from them was a blonde ale called Pretty Nice. It pours very murky with a desultory head and tastes quite dirty too, rather like a homebrewish unfiltered pils. Saaz and Perle are listed on the label so at least some of the lagerlike quality must be down to them. There's a slight peachiness as well which could be the American contingent, Willamette, at work. I was expecting Franco-Belgian hot esters as well but they're mercifully absent. Overall, a rough and ready sort of beer. A bit of cleaning up would do it the power of good.

Its companion is an "American IPA" called Riviera Connection. A faint puff of gas as the cap came off immediately told me that this was one for the carbonation dodgers, and sure enough almost no head forms on pouring. The body is a clear amber and it doesn't smell of much due in part, I'd say, to the lack of gas pushing out the aroma. The flavour is interesting: a bone-dry hop acidity, almost acrid but not quite. Beside this there's the lightly fruited toffee more usually found in amber ale, a wisp of smoke and crunch of fresh cabbage. This would be superb if it wasn't for the flatness making it seem tired and stale, which it isn't. A craft work in progress, I think.

Moving out to other regions, there's a more pleasing fizz and pale colour about St Glinglin Houblon by Brasserie Artesienne, though a lot of yeasty grit is visible in the bottle awaiting the unwary pourer. It smells of fresh bitter citrus, like fine French lemonade. There's lots of cheery lemon sherbet sweets in the flavour, plus sparks of herb and spice and a nicely oily hop-resin finish. Everything about it is bright and fresh and clean, showing how important local is if you're going to insist on making this sort of hop-forward ale. The bottle had travelled almost the full length of France but you get the idea. 6% ABV lends it a certain robustness but it's not heavy or any way hot. A convincing west coaster from Northern France.

The St Rieul brewery is in Picardy and its Grand Cru is a 9% ABV tripel. It looks innocent enough: the cloudy orange colour of many a good spicy tripel, but the flavour is a blaring mess, at once overly sweet, jarringly bitter and hot hot hot. There's a sickly blast of peach nectar and lurid mixed-fruit breakfast juice hitched to a biting edge of orange and lemon pith, and though you might expect some kind of citrus harmony from this it doesn't balance at all. It finishes on an acrid burnt plastic note which does complement the alcoholic vapours but not in a good way. This is very hard drinking and something of a penance to get through.

Brasserie Saint Germain is further north again, near Lille, and makes beers under the Page 24 brand. Page 24 Stout is badged as being Irish-style though is only 3.9% ABV. It was a bugger to pour, piling up masses of tan-coloured foam and refusing to settle down. When I finally got my face near it I got a fairly intensely dry burnt aroma followed by an extremely burnt flavour. This tastes of charcoal, like it has been thoroughly incinerated. I swear there's even dry charred flakes of ash in the texture. It's a difficult beer to drink, unbalanced and unrelenting, and not what any stout -- Irish, French or otherwise -- should be about.

So I was wary when I approached Page 24 IPA. This one wasn't keen on forming a head at all and took a bit of coaxing to raise some foam. It looks pretty in the glass, though: the classic bright copper of an American-style IPA. The label's promise of aromatic hops isn't fronting: a sniff delivers juicy mango and a sharper resin, the sort of smell that would be perfectly at home in a whopper double IPA and is an extra bonus at just 4.9% ABV here. It's not as much of a sensation on tasting, though it is very nice. Instead of tropical fruit there's more of a spicy gunpowder flavour, tailing off to orangey sherbet. This effect is heightened by that low carbonation and I really felt that it did need a bit more fizz to bring the hop flavours to life. There are some lovely thirst-quenching tannins too, but the flatness causes an unsettling lemon tea effect. I like lemon tea but I don't necessarily want to be reminded of that by my IPA. Something of a curate's egg, this, but there's definitely potential for greatness.

Cuvée d'Oscar, to finish, is short on branding information, only that it's brewed at Proef in Belgium for someone called Craig Allan, and I can see his signature on the oil-painting label artwork. The tech specs are more forthcoming and we're told it's a 7.5% ABV dark wheat beer, dry-hopped with Nelson Sauvin. Nothing wheaty about the lacklustre head, however, which is just as well as I only had a small glass to hand. It's a murky brown colour and smells fruity and spicy, all sherbet and grapefruit zest. The flavour blends a slightly astringent citric bitterness with softer caramel from the dark malts for a sort of chocolate candybar studded with dried orange peel effect. Unusual, but very interesting. It's rare for a dark wheat beer to hold my attention for any length of time though that may be because nobody's thought of dumping a load of Nelson into one before. I approve.

As well as wandering around Nice, Antibes and Cannes, there was also a side-trip to Monaco, which actually has a brewery you can drink in! My report on that follows next.

21 January 2016

Shropshire drops

Not far from where I spent Christmas in the Shropshire countryside is the Red Lion pub in the village of Longden Common. It's as pleasant a country inn as you could wish for: ceiling beams, an open fire, hearty food and so on. And there's the added bonus of The Shropshire Brewer producing beer in an adjoining building.

Sawn Off and The Golden Arrow
Three of the house beers were pouring on cask when I dropped by on the night before Christmas Eve. My first was The Golden Arrow, a 3.8% ABV pale ale. The fingerprints of burtonisation are all over this, with the slightly farty aroma and spicy, sulphurous, vaguely cabbagey element in the flavour. It's smooth for all that; light without being watery and delicately hopped though very much going for edgy bitterness over fruit notes. A simple and decent house beer, really.

All the dials get turned up for Spire Dancer, though it's only a little bit stronger at 4.2% ABV. This is a darker shade of gold with rich golden syrup malt notes, shading even towards candy sugar, and green waxy bitterness. The texture is heavy too, and more than anything this beer reminds me of German pale bock. I'd have reverted straight back to the Golden Arrow, but there was one beer left to try.

Sawn Off is a traditional brown bitter and gets to work quickly with the caramel and chocolate, both in the aroma and flavour. Though enticing to begin with it gets overly sweet very quickly. Definitely not a beer to stick with either.

I suppose I should consider myself lucky that there was one beer to my taste available on the night. Other Shropshire Brewer beers are available.

Off round the backroads a different way there's The Bridges, a pub owned by the Three Tuns Brewery. I started my brief visit here with a pint of Cleric's Cure IPA, a golden 5%-er. It has a little in common with Spire Dancer in that it's a heavy, waxy sort of ale, but it also had a delicious kick of spicy sandalwood in its flavour profile that helps prevent the palate getting overwhelmed.

I followed it with a swift pint of Three Tuns Stout which is one of those very sweet ones, putting me immediately in mind of the Arthurstown one I reviewed recently: it has the same sort of treacle pudding effect. The texture is beautifully light which makes it very easy to drink despite that slight stickiness.

Before leaving I got a taste of the Three Tuns winter seasonal XXXXXXX (that's seven of them), a 9.5% ABV winter warmer with, according to the pumpclip, added coffee, chocolate and cognac. It's not as crazy as that spec suggests, though the dark gold beer is extremely thick and definitely not one to drink in a hurry. It's smooth and, while I couldn't detect any coffee or chocolate, there is a little bit of a brandy kick in amongst the very beery warmth. It seems odd to say a beer like this is subtle and balanced, but this one is.

Finally to Salopian Brewery and I didn't get any of their beers on draught but picked up a couple of bottles of their prestige range at the Beer Me Up Scotty stall in Shrewsbury Market Hall. Very little information is supplied on the bottles, but they look nice. The first was Midnight Express, presumably a stout of some sort. There's an annoying ice-cream-float head that meant it took ages to get into a pint glass, but that did give me time to appreciate the aroma: a gorgeous spicy green hoppiness suggesting black IPA rather than stout, perhaps. In keeping with the somewhat gloopy texture, the stiff head is a handsome dark tan colour. Unsurprisingly, hops are at heart of the beer's flavour: bitter cabbage and then a livelier lemon sherbet and grapefruit zest. A little bit of sweet café crème brings the darkness to the taste, but only briefly. Tongue-tingling citrus is how it finishes. While thick, it's also smooth so very drinkable, and packs a lot of complexity into 5.2% ABV. Stout, porter or black IPA, this is a masterfully designed beer.

The next one, Boomerang, also started out unpromisingly. Only 33cl to pour here and it looked a bit tired and flat: a murky yellow with a white skim of head. The yeast doesn't get much of a look-in past the hops, however: there's a strong, almost sickly, bang of tropical breakfast juice. If anything, the sharp yeast edge gives it a bit of balance, introducing a grown-up rind element to the kiddie juicebox. At 6.9% ABV I was expecting some heat but it's surprisingly light and zippy. It would be nice to try a cleaner draught version of this but it's certainly interesting and tasty as-is.

That's all from this trip to England. I spent 12 hours at home before heading off on the next excursion, which I'll cover next week.

18 January 2016

Turkey trimmings

The Christmas break was spent with family in Shropshire, just outside Shrewsbury. Castle Pulverbatch may be a one-horse town but fortunately said equine is The White Horse, a charming little country pub with a proud emphasis on local produce. Still, tickers be tickin' and on my first visit I eschewed the Hobsons in favour of St Austell Jolly Holly.

It looks warming: a welcoming dark chestnut red, and perfectly clear, of course. Into just 4.3% ABV it packs a lot of comforting winter flavours -- bready pudding; figs and plums. More than anything it reminds me of the Scandinavian Julebryg style, though obviously at a much lower strength. It's certainly a very clear indication that all those spices that are commonly used in Christmas ales are entirely unnecessary.

There's plenty of local beer around Shropshire and I'll dedicate the next post to them. This one is for the odds and sods from around Britain that passed my way, in pubs or in front of the telly, during the break.

On day two I went to Shrewsbury to collect last-minute shopping and last-minute relatives. I also left a bit of time to drop into The Salopian Bar. Salopian Brewery turns out consistently excellent beers and I had been looking forward to trying a few under their own roof (edit: except it isn't, see comments). The pub, by the banks of the Severn, is an odd one, with a tiled floor and sparse fittings making it seem more like a continental café than an English market town pub. And oddest of all, only one of the eight handpumps had a Salopian Beer on (Oracle, which is lovely, but I wanted something new). Time for a random pick, then.

I opted for Brewski, a 4% ABV American-style pale ale brewed for local distributor Real Ale Direct at (according to RateBeer) Grey Trees brewery in south Wales. And it's a rather good cask interpretation of the style: light and quaffable with lots of lemon spritz on a token malt biscuit background. It gets perhaps a little bit soapy as it warms, but that's nitpicking really. A convincing oily citrus rind note at the end finishes it off nicely. I got through it fast enough to realise I had time for another beer before I needed to leave.

That beer was Rooster's Yankee which I was surprised to find, on checking the old Scoop-O-Meter over there, that I'd never had before. This is a dark gold pale ale with more than a touch of lager about it: the same sort of lightly sweet and husky malt. The hop contribution is a harsh acidity of the sort found in cantankerously old-fashioned brown bitters: nothing fresh or fruity going on at all. I expected better, but them's the breaks, I guess.

Before leaving town I ducked into the lovely low-ceilinged Three Fishes and suppressed the ticking urge long enough to enjoy my first pint of Landlord in about five years. Then popped into posh offy Tanner's for a nosey at their beer selection. It's not up to much, but one bottle on the bottom shelf did catch my eye: the legendary and elusive Black Country ale Bathams Best Bitter. Of course I know that you have to go to a Bathams pub in the West Midlands to have the Bathams as the Bathams is intended to be had, but there was still no way I was passing up this opportunity to put a foot on the bottom rung of the Bathams ladder.

Surprisingly, it's not bottle conditioned and poured a clear gold with a head which fizzed up suddenly then vanished just as fast. It smells of golden syrup and celery, like good lager, while the taste is an odd mix of greasy gunpowder sulphur and bitter brassica with a touch of Landlord-ish honey creeping in as it warms. The texture is thin, but there's a pleasantly soft alkaline minerality too. I'm not at all sure it worked for me: I found the mix of soft, spongy effervescence and hard metallic edge off-puttingly strange. Looking at it objectively, it's quenching and quaffable if you're cabbage-proof but on this showing I would not place it up with Landlord and Harvey's as the way English bitter oughta be done.

A kindly relative went on a spree in her local Adnams shop and picked me up a few goodies from one of my favourite English family brewers. First out is Mosaic Pale Ale, a 4.1% ABV hazy pale orange number from the Jack Brand craft-ish range. You know it's craft because it comes in a 33cl bottle. Peach tea is the long and the short of what's going on in this: juicy hop fruit and nicely dry tannins. And like tea, it's rather lacking in body, which makes the hop bite a little more nippy than is completely enjoyable. The flavour elements are all great here but I don't think they quite dovetail together properly.

Wild Hop was the next one out. This one is a perfectly clear dark gold, though advertised, oddly, as being amber. There's a gentler mix of lemon and tea in this, nicely quenching with the slightly higher gravity at 4.8% ABV giving it extra heft, the malt helping bring out lovely palate-coating hop resins. A classic Adnams hop-and-tannin job.

I wasn't expecting either element to feature much in 1659, described as a "smoked ruby ale" but more brown than red. And sure enough smoke looms large in this one in a kippery-but-clean way, calling to mind that thing that Bamberg does so well. A bicarbonate of soda softness helps smooth the experience. It's another watery one but that does help it finish quickly the way good Franconian smoked lagers do, so I'm not complaining.

The last beer before starting the journey home was Sourdough by Somerset's Wild Beer Co. It's a bit of a gimmick: a 3.6% ABV wheat beer made using a vintage sourdough yeast culture from a neighbouring bakery. It's an ugly, pissy, murky yellow colour with no head to speak of. The aroma is powerfully sour, nearly to the level of sour milk rather than deliberately soured beer. I was trepidatious about tasting it. But it's really rather good: cheek-puckering, palate-scrubbing, up-front acidity with just a hint of lime citrus in the background. The modern Berliner weisse can be a bit weak-tea, but this is seriously invigorating stuff, packing a similar punch to Galway Bay's Heathen. Three cheers for gimmickry!

To Birmingham airport, finally, where the JD Wetherspoon landed a pint of Moorhouse's Winter Looms, another medium-strength dark red seasonal ale. It's nearly a boring brown bitter: it has the same dull cereal taste at the centre, but it's nicely dry as well, and light-bodied enough to be pleasingly quenching. While it's certainly not hop forward, nor meant to be, there's a definite background tang of English hops which adds a metallic edge and holds the caramel malt sweetness in check.

The other bar in BHX departures has a selection of casks from local outfit Purity Brewing and I had a go of their Pure Gold, a pale and lagery-looking 3.8%-er. I got a slightly sour hit from my pint which I'm not sure is supposed to be there. Behind it a gentle soft-fruit bitterness -- guava and lychee. The sense of softness carries through to the texture which is beautifully smooth and effervescent. Despite that initial bum note, which I'm pinning on the venue, this is a really good quality quaffing beer with enough to keep your attention if you want it kept, but also very downable when you need to run for your gate.

We're not quite done with England yet, however. Beer from three of the Shropshire breweries will follow on Thursday.

14 January 2016

Offside trapp

It's a fizzy one, is Nivard. This is the third release from Austria's trappist brewery Engelszell. Lots of foam came gushing forth from the bottle and the mouthfeel is almost sharply carbonic, giving the palate a thorough scrub. No style is given on the label, not even an indication as to colour, though it turns out it's a kind of pale amber. We do know that it's 5.5% ABV and, unlike the more typical Belgian trappist beers, is all malt.

And the flavour? There's a definite Belgian vibe: a weighty fruit ester character that's also present in the aroma. A more Germanic breadiness at the centre speaks, perhaps, to its place of origin, and the surprise is some quite English orange blossom floral subtlety. There's a little bit of Belgian spice in the finish but nowhere near as much as you'd find in a decent tripel. The bitterness imparted by the yeast really starts to take hold once it has warmed up a little and lost some of that gas.

Overall it's a good effort: there are lots of interesting flavours here, combining some of the best bits of English bitter, German lager and Belgian ale. I've no idea if that was the intention but it works for me. It's certainly better than the hot mess so many other brewers turn out when they start playing with Belgian yeasts. There's a lot to be said for keeping the sugar out of the kettle and the alcohol levels low. Maybe do something about the carbonation though, eh?