15 July 2016

Fail ale trail

They brew 'em strong at Nébuleuse in western Switzerland. I had three of their bottles in stock and deciding a drinking order was complicated by all of them claiming some palate-pounding heft. In the end I let hops call the shots so began with their saison.

Namur Express is no lightweight, however. 7% ABV and pouring the dark gold of apple juice. In defiance of the brewery's name, I managed to keep the lees out of the glass so perhaps that's why there wasn't much of a saison character to the aroma, just the hot esters you might find in a super strength tramps' lager. There's not much happening in the flavour either, to be honest. It could be that first impression of the colour, but I get apples again in the taste: grainy red ones. There's a bit of syrupy candy, and a thick texture to go with that, but none of what makes saison a distinctive style. While not flawed in any specific way, if you'd told me this was an industrial Belgian blonde I'd have nodded along and spent the time I was drinking it thinking about what's up next. Not an auspicious start.

What was up next was Shaddock, a "strong bitter". Strong, here, means 6% ABV. While the marketing speaks mostly of its malt pedigree, the hops are Chinook and there's added bonus grapefruit so citrus was expected. It wasn't found in the aroma: it doesn't smell of anything much, in fact. It looks like a brown bitter, though, the dark amber of strong black tea. And again, that appearance is affecting how it tastes, because the first flavour I get is the heavy tannins of over-stewed tea. It's not pleasant. Rather than adding zest, the hops and grapefruit produce an unpleasant soapy effect, so the last thing you need is the dry, stale, sweaty finish that follows it and the growing bilious acidity which creeps in as it warms. This is a disaster of a recipe, like Bombardier's even-more-evil twin.

So high hopes, then, when facing into Embuscade. While the others were reluctant to form a head on pouring there's no such shyness here. An awkward amount of foam had to be dealt with as I poured slowly, trying to keep the yeast dregs out of the glass. "Ambush" is an American-style IPA of 6.5% ABV and a wholesome, clear, west-coast gold. It definitely smells of citrus, which is in its favour, though it's a candy lemon-sherbet effect which suggests the hops are not going to have everything their own way. Sure enough, on tasting, the hops are damn near undetectable. There's a raw sweetness that tastes to me like dry malt extract, followed by an almost smoky savoury quality which could be yeast autolysis but either way is very out of place, accompanied by an unwelcome metallic aspirin tang. An acrid squirt of Jif lemon in the finish is all the hops get to say, and I don't blame them for being angry. I'm angry too.

It may be that Nébuleuse (est. 2014) is on a journey towards making good beer and these are just juvenilia -- baby steps on the way to proper brewing. But I'm slightly amazed that they're letting them out of the brewery. Clearly, the aim is to make beer as good as brewers do it in Belgium, Britain and the US, but on this showing they have a long way to go to get there.