30 January 2017

The Yanks in the pub

You've just missed the American beer festival at the Porterhouse. It ran for the last two weeks until yesterday, though there might be a few of the specials knocking around in some of the bars still. I went in specifically in search of Crooked Stave's HopSavant, knowing nothing about the beer or the brewery, only that I'd never heard of either and wanted to give it a go in case it disappeared forever.

The brewery is in Denver and the beer is an IPA using Centennial and Simcoe hops, then fermented out to 6.7% ABV with pure Brettanomyces yeast. It's a murky pale yellow colour and smells first of friendly mango and pineapple, then a more serious sour funk. In keeping with this, the flavour is simultaneously bright and clean but also cheekily dirty at the same time. This interplay reminded me a lot of how the hops work in fresh Orval, but also of the perfect clean sharpness you get in good gueuze. There's a brief peach flavour at the centre, before it finishes on a tangy mix of pine and compost. As an IPA it's more fruity than bitter, but it's really all about that big Bretty off-sour flavour. Despite everything going on, and the not inconsiderable strength, it's very drinkable indeed. I hope we see it again.

While I was there I thought I'd take a punt on Lagunitas's Brown Sugga'. This is a rich strong ale of 9.7% ABV, the colour of polished mahogany, and with that characteristic Lagunitas density. As the name makes clear, it's very sweet and unapologetically sticky. By way of balance it has has a very unsubtle metallic tang, and together the two elements produce the sensation of drinking alcoholic treacle. Yum yum. What saves it from being awful is a forest fruit flavour in the middle; a kind of blackcurrant jam note that adds just enough complexity to the taste to keep it on my good side. So I got through it, but it's another one of those Lagunitas beers that are just too heavy and sweet for me to go back to.

There was a bit of a Stateside-themed party at the first Beer Club evening at The Hill in Ranelagh the week previous. Barman Dave has been running these tutored tasting gigs since he worked at The Dark Horse in Blackrock, bringing them with him to Alfie's and now at his latest post in The Hill. It was my first one of these, the format being tasters of seven beers, with a bit of a spiel from Dave. All very cool relaxed fun.

The line-up included a handful of beers that were brand new to me, the first of which was Founders Azacca. I'm usually a fan of that particular hop variety but found this dark orange expression of it rather plain. It leans very heavily on the malt side of the equation, resulting in a smooth but dense 7%-er. There's a big bitter hit of hop resins, but very little of Azacca's usual tropical fruit notes, just a middle-of-the-road peach taste. A little bit like BrewDog's IPA Is Dead series of old, this piles on the booze and bitterness to a level where the hop's real character is somewhat lost.

My beer of the evening was Runoff by Odell. It's a red IPA which is another one of those styles I very rarely enjoy, but this one hits more of the flavour points I associate with American amber ale: that beautiful marzipan blend of nutty malt and perfumed hops. Though 6.5% ABV it's not too heavy or sweet and shows an assertive herbal bitterness in the back of the throat. A touch of mild tannin helps it finish quickly and cleanly, leaving no residue behind to cloy the palate. This beer shows perfect poise and balance and I enjoyed it a lot more than any of the beers on the darker side of Odell's portfolio.

Last of this lot is Go West!, a take on modern west-coast IPA by the godfather of west-coast brewing, Anchor of San Francisco. First brewed in 2015, it's pretty much on-trend, I think, being a pale yellow colour and having a piquant hop-forward aroma of lemon zest and sultanas. The bones of the flavour are an aniseed herbal bitterness coupled with a savoury caraway note. I'd have liked more citrus or general fruit flavours but it's far from the first IPA I've said that about lately. Give me a call when savoury is over.

Cheers to Dave and The Hill crew for a wonderful evening. Keep an eye on their social media for the next Beer Club evening.

And we wrap this tour up with what I'm assuming is a proxy American: Stone Coffee Milk Stout, which I'd guess came from the Berlin satellite brewery and which was on tap at 57 the Headline. It's a modest 5% ABV and has a gorgeously heady, oily coffee aroma: a real invigorating wake-up call. Sadly this doesn't translate to the flavour, which I found rather dry and limp. There's a certain Irish-coffee creaminess that I enjoyed, but that was more texture than taste: this coffee stout needs more coffee. Maybe a few extra points on the ABV scale would be no harm too.

Looking back, that's a solid mix of styles in there. I may have my complaints about some of the trends in beer these days, but the sheer variety available on tap isn't one of them.

27 January 2017


Since we're all sick to the back teeth of hygge at this stage, I went looking for the Norwegian equivalent for the title of this post. Now you know. The subject is a couple of beers that were kindly gifted to me by Tom from Nøgne Ø, who visited Dublin last summer. I knew then that these were beers to be kept for colder days and the chilly afternoons of last weekend seemed the perfect time to tackle them.

SunturnBlend is definitely one for winter, based as it is on the smoked barley wine that Nøgne Ø produces annually at the December equinox. This version is a mixture of different Sunturnbrew vintages, subsequently given 16 months in an oak barrel and coming out at 11% ABV. It looks the part of a strong winter brew: ebony brown in colour, pouring viscously with no real effort at forming a head. There's a smack of woody booze in the aroma, all cream sherry, hot fudge sauce and a meatier Bovril twang. On tasting, however, the first impression is bitter herbal hops, adding eucalyptus and aniseed. After this there's a slightly acrid rubbery smokiness but thankfully it doesn't last long, leaving just a warming density in its wake, a syrupy sweetness that develops a fun salted caramel note as it warms. Not too heavy and nicely balanced, it definitely passes the koselig test.

Nøgne Ø Quadrupel reminds me of that simpler time when all of the brewery's beers were named bluntly for their style. For a quadrupel is what it is, 15.5% ABV, dark brown again and a little muddy with it. The aroma doesn't have Bovril this time but there's a bit of a soy sauce autolytic note in its place. I was expecting savoury but it's lovely and sweet from the first sip: a creamy crème brûlée mix of vanilla and brown sugar. The fruity Belgian esters characteristic of the style are largely missing from this, and while a bit of fig and plum would be nice, I also enjoyed the cleanness here. Blackcurrant jelly is about as fruity as it gets after it's warmed a little. There's a crispness to it which is unusual in such a strong and dark beer but which really helps offset the massive strength and makes it, if not exactly easy drinking, then at least pleasantly manageable.

Both beers are excellent after-dinner candidates, but I think that the iconoclastic quadrupel really has the edge over the barrel job. It may be old-school craft at this stage, with the supposed taint of macrobrewing firmly upon it, but Nøgne Ø is still turning out quality.

25 January 2017

Still winter

I have a bit of catching up to do with regard to the winter beers I have in stock. I don't want to be drinking them as the evenings are getting noticeably longer, when they're plainly intended for the dark and cold. So last week I made a point of opening the pair of winter specials that Wicklow Wolf released before Christmas. It's a nice idea for a two-beer set: a dark one and a pale one, utilising northern and southern hemisphere hops respectively.

I started with Poles Apart North, a porter brewed to the nicely cosy strength of 6.5% ABV. It looks comforting too: densely black and with a soft pillow of off-white foam on top. The label says it's hoppy but I still didn't anticipate the blast of vegetal green bitterness I got from the aroma. Intriguing. Sipping revealed a beer that's lighter than I was expecting, but what it loses in unctuous warmth it gains in drinkability. This may be strong and bitter, but it's perfectly possible to take lovely big satisfying mouthfuls of it. The hops are very present all the way through the flavour: spicy and herbal up front, turning to citrus and sherbet for a moment in the middle, before fading on a slightly acrid, but not unpleasant, acid burn. There's no chocolate sweetness, only a hint of cherry liqueur, or even ruby port. It's not quite enough to balance those hops, but it doesn't really matter, they don't actually need the balance. I'm reminded a lot of good old Wrassler's XXXX: an uncompromisingly bitter and hoppy dark beer that also happens to be easy session-drinking. This is maybe a little more relaxed in its bitterness but is no less fun, serving as a reminder that hop-forward dark beers are something we don't see nearly enough of around here.

I was not expecting to be similarly wowed by Poles Apart South, what with it being a white IPA, a style I generally don't have much time for. I decided to just pretend it was a straight IPA and ignore the wheat, and the appearance is happy to let me do that as it's a clear golden-amber colour. The aroma is a little unsettling, being sweet and funky, while the flavour is a strange mix of coconut, grass, lemon zest and a harder pithy bitterness. Unlike the porter, strangely enough, it's not an all-hop affair, with an almost sickly pink-icing malt sweetness. It's a bit of a busy combination, pulling in several directions at once and difficult to settle into. I appreciated the boldness of the flavour, but it left me hankering for a bit of nuance. If you like a winter IPA with punch, however, this is the one for you.

While the second beer didn't suit me as well as the first one, I did enjoy the contrast demonstrated by drinking them sequentially. I also like the point proved here that winter specials don't have to be all toffee and cinnamon: masses of hops are just as acceptable, thank you.

More wintery goodness to come on Friday.

23 January 2017

Start as you mean to go on

Dry January? The chance would be a fine thing. Dublin's pubs have had plenty of new Irish stuff on the go for this supposedly quiet month. Here's what I managed to get hold of.

I paid my first and second visits to Idlewild during the month, a pleasant little bar tucked into George's Market on the Fade Street side. The first time was because they'd just released their first collaboration recipe beer. Strawberry Milkshake IPA was brewed at Rascals in an extremely small pilot batch which sold out entirely on the evening of its release. I'm told it will be back on a more permanent basis in due course. It's 6.3% ABV and takes its name from the use of real strawberries and lactose, alongside oatmeal and Hüll Melon hops. The aroma was worryingly sickly but there's none of this in its flavour as it delivers instead a big hit of tropical fruit: a cocktail of mango, passionfruit and pineapple juices. No strawberry, mind, though the "milkshake" bit is present in the slightly glutinous texture which I think actually enhanced the hop impact. Expecting pure gimmickry, I was pleased to find just a really good fruit beer.

That wasn't the first beer to feature Rascals and Idlewild's signatures; the brewery has been making the bar's house beer since it first opened. A Swingin' Affair is a light pale ale of just 4.1% ABV. Manager Dean told me the intention was for something easy-going and fruity but to my palate this is very dry and savoury, in that way that seems to be so fashionable at the moment. The Hüll Melon is allied with Mosaic hops here and I got crisp onion skin in particular from it, with just a little bit of fruitiness peeping out as it warms. It's refreshing and it is easy-going, but I found that flavour just a little too severe.

What brought me back to Idlewild was the launch of a new pilsner from The White Hag. Róc is intended to replace the brewery's Kölsch-a-like in the permanent line-up, and is a medium-strength 4.5% ABV. Despite this it has quite a substantial body, light in carbonation and a full mouthfeel more typical of helles or even märzen. The bitterness is sharp and green in the north German way, though I found it lacking the fresh punch you find in the likes of Jever. There's a slightly off-putting rubbery note in it as well. It's a decent effort, and the brewery clearly knows that beers of this sort are supposed to have character, which this does. I'm not ready to place it in the pantheon of great Irish lagers yet, however.

While I was in the neighbourhood, I nipped around the corner to Bar Rua where they had YellowBelly's Smoke & Oak on tap, a 5.5% ABV stout with cocoa nibs aged on scotch whisky cask chips. It's pure black in colour with a sappy rubber foretaste and an ashen dryness after. Given a few minutes to warm up, there's a nice and meaty texture, but the flavour just doesn't work for me: it tastes burnt rather than smoked and there's none of the softness I'd have expected from whisky and/or chocolate.

Another German-style lager next, Careen, brewed by Galway Bay as a replacement for their Dortmunder. This one is 4.8% ABV, the purest clear gold, with a pleasantly soft texture. The first sip presents a large perfumed bitterness on the palate, one that takes a bit of getting used to and which hangs around for ages. I like when flavourful lagers party in the mouth quickly and then clear out of the way, cleaning up after themselves. This one is a bit more unruly, and leaves you to deal with that intensely floral aftertaste yourself, grumbling over your resin-coated tongue. Careen is a bold beer, and might even change a few minds about how aggressive this style can be, but for me it's just a bit too busy for enjoyable quaffing.

Recent guest beers at Galway Bay's The Black Sheep have included White Gypsy's The Banker, described as a "rye wheat beer" which I figured would be an interesting combination. It's the ochre colour of many a rye beer but that's where I felt the grain's contribution ended. On tasting it reveals itself to be an absolutely straight-up Bavarian style weissbier. And a good one at that: softly full-bodied despite an ABV of just 5%, and with a gorgeous juicy-fruit bubblegum flavour, one that's lively without being over-sweet. There is a certain peppery spice as well, and that could be the rye, but it could just as easily be a flavour produced by the yeast also. I'm not sure what the point of this experiment was, but I did enjoy the beer, reminding me as it did that weissbier is a much overlooked style and can be very tasty when done well.

Meanwhile another rye beer was pouring on the cask engines: O Brother's Holden, badged as a Belgian-style rye pale ale at 6.3% ABV. It's a murky orange colour but has a fresh and clean mandarin zest aroma. There's a big and sharp rye bitterness at the front, followed by juicy jaffa hops in behind. There's enough time for a full toffee warmth to enter the picture as well, before the bitterness returns, bringing it to a hard, almost acrid finish. It's quite a ride. A few sips in I noticed there's a certain tannic quality too. Coupled with the orangey hops this lends it an English bitter feel which I rather enjoyed. In fact, it tastes far more like a bitter or barley wine than anything Belgian. I liked it a lot, mainly for its complexity. The trademark O Brother bitterness is there, but it's balanced and enhanced by lots of other things.

I had never been to Murphy's in Rathmines before, but made a point of stopping by when it became the first Dublin pub to have O'Hara's Hop Adventure Styrian Wolf on tap, the latest in Carlow Brewing's series of 5% ABV single-hop IPAs. A previous version included Sorachi Ace, and I found this to have a lot in common with it. Coconut is the main feature of the flavour, though rather than Sorachi's lemons, there's a softer fruit accompaniment, something like lychee. I see one description of the hop which mentions an elderflower characteristic, and I can understand why. Amongst all the fruit and flowers there is a serious bitterness here too, but it's restrained enough to let the other flavours out to play. Much like Sorachi Ace, I expect this beer will divide opinion but I'm definitely a fan of its up-front boldness.

Finishing up with a couple of trips to 57 The Headline, Trouble Brewing's latest is a "fresh & juicy" pale ale called Ambush. It seems to be pitching a little at the New England segment of the market, with its cloudy yellow stylings. At least some of that must be hop haze because there's a full-on smack of pineapples and weed in the aroma, while the flavour has not a trace of yeast bite. There's a slight savoury greasiness, but no allium or caraway, I'm happy to report. Instead, the first flavour is a spicy peppery resin thing, pure dank, after which comes softer mandarin, pineapple and lemon candy. Fresh, yes, and a little bit juicy, but it's mostly about that weedy, spicy bitterness. Beautiful stuff, and at 5.01% ABV, very sessionable.

Finally, another fast-moving Rascals special. Vacuum Boogie IPA is an award-winning homebrew recipe, scaled up and sent out into the world, starting at The Headline. The Capital Brewers homebrew club had descended en masse to clear the first couple of kegs and I was fortunate to secure one of the final pints. It's another murky one, and once again dankness is the signature move. There's less of a tropical character than in Ambush, instead having a more bitter and spicy grapefruit skin thing going on. A teeny bit of onion starts to develop as it warms, but nothing significant, and not enough to upset the basic delicious spicy premise. There are about 18 kegs of this floating around, I believe. Grab it while it's fresh.

Not a bad start to 2017, all-in-all.

20 January 2017

Grin and bear it

This is the last of my posts on beer in and from Romania, and it's about the mainstream macro brands. I have some experience with these, having tasted a couple of the dark lagers in this post. I was in no rush to try any of them again so stuck to the pale stuff.

Like in most of Europe, Romanian beer shelves are a battleground between a couple of multinationals, waging war with the local brands they have acquired or developed. Here it's Heineken and SABMiller (soon to be AB-InBev, I guess) slugging it out.

Among the most heavily advertised national brands is Ursus, and its flagship is Ursus Premium, a 5% ABV golden lager from the ex-SABMiller stable. And it's fine, veering to good. My can came from an open chiller in a supermarket so was only barely cool, and there were no nasty surprises lurking. It's softly rounded like a decent Munich helles, with a faint nettley noble hop dryness and even a hint of lemon bittering. At €0.55 for the half-litre I have no complaints.

From the same supermarket run came Bucegi, a Heineken effort boasting all-Romanian ingredients. Faith in my tasting ability was restored because this is disgusting with all the cheap-and-nasty lager traits: battery acid, stale grains and water. Woeful.

Heineken's most pervasive local brand is Silva, and standard Silva lager is 5.1% ABV. Despite the strength it's wan coloured and wan tasting, watery as hell and flavoured with only the merest hint of cereal grains. I can just about imagine it being refreshing and thirst-quenching, but that's as far as it goes.

Flipping back to the SABMiller group in hope, next is Timişoreana, an exceedingly pale one, though holding the line at 5% ABV. There's a whack of the cheap acidic bitterness in this but it fades quickly, allowing a pleasantly crunchy dry grain character through plus bonus hints of candied lemon peel. Like the Ursus, the body is full and enjoyably fluffy. I'm able to see past its faults and just drink it, though can't see myself voluntarily choosing it again.

Last of the cans is Ciucaş, from SABMiller again. I like the can design. Just 4.6% ABV and white-gold in colour. It smells like a proper pils: crisp grain with grassy hops behind, and it balances those well in the flavour. There's definitely a solid snap of noble hops here, though fading quickly to let a sugary candyfloss sweetness dominate the middle. And the end. This is one to drink quickly, before the hops fade entirely from view, and thankfully the rounded body and low carbonation allow that.

Ciuc is another very ubiquitous brand. It's owned by Heineken and I got one free as part of a meal deal in a restaurant. It looked sad in the glass and tasted sadder: dull, watery with some unpleasant banana candy and tinfoil notes as it warms. Classic Europiss.

We finish in Caru' Cu Bere, a grand Victorian beer hall and restaurant in Old Town Bucharest. SABMiller has the beer contract here so there's Ursus, Pilsner Urquell, plus Ursus Nefiltrată, an unfiltered lager. I didn't think this was as good as Ursus Premium, though it does have a lovely floral complexity in it. It lacks any sort of hop character, unfortunately, allowing a raw graininess to dominate the quite sweet flavour.

There's also a Caru' Cu Bere house beer, which I assume comes from the same brewery. It's sweet again, and a little astringent. Cheap-tasting, and not helped by the warm mug mine was served in while we waited for our table.

And that's all I have to say about Romanian beer: the good, the bad and the ugly of it. Like most places, there's plenty of decent beer to be had, but you need to do your research to find it.

18 January 2017

Middling to fair

Continuing my exploration of Romanian beers, today we move on to the bigger independents and contract brews.

Zăganu is the nearest thing to a mainstream craft brand, popping up in supermarkets and a couple of non-specialist bars. Zăganu Blondă is simple golden lager of 5.3% ABV. The malt base gives it a pleasant pilsner-style golden syrup flavour, there's a lightly spicy hop element plus a touch of Belgian esters in the mix, but that's as complex as it gets. It's pretty unexciting. Next to it there is Zăganu  IPA. This one is copper-coloured, though only slightly darker than the blonde and has a seriously funky hop aroma. On tasting it's spicy and green: part cabbage, part pine floor cleaner. The latter effect is enhanced by the thick unctuous texture. Behind the busy hops there's a huge malt sweetness, with a big hit of caramel and even a saccharine metallic quality. To me it seems like the brewery has tried to balance the big hops with big malt but they've ended up with something that's simultaneously over-bitter and over-sweet instead. This IPA does deliver the requisite hop hit, but does so in an awkward and uncertain package.

Both of these were found in Boulevard Pub, a nice little place in Bucharest Old Town which conveniently opens early in the afternoon, which the other beer specialists don't.

Zăganu Brună I picked up at the supermarket. Roughly a dunkelbock, it's a whopping 7.1% ABV but is another inoffensive one, which is p