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.