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.