27 February 2017

Piled high and sold cheap

Three large format bottles of French beer for under a tenner? Yes please! I spotted this lot stacked up by the tills in Lidl and figured they'd be worth a go. Two are badged as coming from "Abbaye de Vauclair" which I'm sure isn't a real thing, and research tells me they're actually brewed at that bastion of cheap French beer Gayant, better known for La Goudale.

Abbaye de Vauclair Bière Blanche is where I started. Appearances are on the money for a standard witbier: 4.5% ABV and a cloudy shade of yellow with just a slight greenish hint to it. The aroma is surprisingly full-on, all fresh citrus peel, green herbs plus a slight lactic sourness. The texture is light and refreshing; effervescent without being fizzy. All the fruit promised by the aroma, and more, is delivered in the flavour. There's a very distinct juiciness giving the drinker lime, lemon and even some more exotic mango or pineapple. This is balanced by a peppery incense spice and given a quick finish. Though far from subtle, this is a superb beer, avoiding the harsh dryness that often plagues cheap witbier without swinging out the other side into cloying sweetness. Though consumed on a dismal February afternoon it sparked happy thoughts of summer.

I followed the blue one with the yellow one: Abbaye de Vauclair Blonde, which bears the unsettling legend "blonde beer with caramel flavouring". It's 6.5% ABV and a deep honey amber colour. A dry husky, musty grain character is all the aroma has to say while the flavour is equally uncomplicated. There's a slight sugary stickiness, though nothing that suggests added caramel to me. I was expecting a whack of butterscotch or something, but it's too clean for that sort of nonsense. A rising waxy bitterness in the finish adds one extra dimension, but beyond that and the basic malt and sugar it's a very plain and uninspiring affair, Belgian-style blonde ale on a by-the-numbers basis. There are certainly none of the distinguishing high notes found in the Blanche.

We move away from the Abbaye desmense for the third beer, the starkly-labelled Duc De Coeur French Strong Pale Ale, a brand that Lidl usually only uses for its ciders. Strong indeed at 7% ABV and the clear amber of rocket-fuel tramps' brew. It smells a bit like sickly super-strong lager as well: there's certainly nothing suggesting pale ale in the aroma. The flavour passes that test but only just. There's a fruit character to it, artificial like chew sweets, and a perfumed resinous bitterness, but it's all very low key. The main feature is a sweet malt stickiness and an unpleasant grain-sack mustiness. You need to be informed in advance and be flexible in your thinking to really appreciate this as a pale ale. Belgian-style blonde or wonky bock are much more what it says to me. Either way, I'm not impressed.

So the Blanche, the cheapest of the set, is the winner of this lot. Stock up!

24 February 2017

Here comes the rain again

We don't see much Cloudwater beer in Dublin. The once-off tap takeover at The Beer Market last summer was pretty much the height of it, until last week when a selection of bottles and cans from the high-profile Manchester brewery appeared in off licences. I doubt they'll be around long.

Item one is Mittelfrüh Lager, an anaemic yellow shade with barely any effort made at forming a head. It's badged as an Autumn/Winter beer and I get a certain autumnal sense from the aroma: damp leaves, root vegetables and firework saltpetre. The flavour is quite sweet, showing honeydew melon and the more artificial fruit quality of white lemonade. A grain-sack mustiness creeps in as it warms, though it retains a pleasantly crisp finish. This isn't what I was expecting from a German-hopped lager. It doesn't taste like any German beer I know. The absence of grassy green flavours aside, at only 4.8% ABV it has the heft of a much stronger, denser beer. While it's certainly not bland, I found it just a little too off-kilter to be properly enjoyable.

We continue light and pale with Session IPA Wai-iti: 4.5% ABV although this time there's a significant haze and quite a lot of gunk in the bottom of the bottle. The aroma is great: lemony Refresher sweets and damp grass promising oodles of hop fun. The flavour doesn't quite deliver, however. There's a harsh savoury twang, a raw hop leaf acidity which I assume is meant to be there but which unbalances the beer badly. It puts an edge on what's otherwise a smooth, easy-going sweetie which reminds me intensely of lemon meringue pie: the squidgey lemon filling and moist biscuity base. There's even a touch of creamy butter in proceedings. But that hard bite keeps coming back and shouting over the top of the nuances. Like the lager, I was never really comfortable with it.

The bottles round off with Fazenda Ouro Verde Porter, the first black Cloudwater beer I've encountered. Fazenda Ouro Verde is not a hop variety I'd heard of, but perusing the label reveals it's actually a type of coffee. Pure dark-roasted coffee is the aroma from this very dark beastie, and coffee is the backbone of the flavour. But there's more to it than that. The texture is gorgeous, like silk, with the gentlest of effervesence instead of fizz, and then there's a creamy dark chocolate truffle quality, making it smooth tasting as well as smooth feeling. Yet despite the big flavour and sizeable 6% ABV it's beautifully clean, slipping off the palate just as effortlessly as it slipped on. If either of the previous two had had the integrated flavours, the sheer poise, of this one I'd have liked them a lot more.

Another first for me is Cloudwater in cans. I started with IPL El Dorado Mosaic, two fine hops, brewed into a handsome clear bright golden lager. El Dorado's Fruit Salad sweets and Mosaic's juicy pineapple are both apparent in the aroma. On tasting the Mosaic elbows its way to the front and lays down a stereotypical blanket of savoury caraway seeds, with the sweet and slightly sticky El Dorado tropical fruit in behind. It's a bit of a good-cop-bad-cop combination but it works quite well, with neither side coming to dominate. There's a pleasing hard bitterness rasping the side of the tongue as it finishes off, leaving lots of lip-smacking piney hop residue behind. The texture is actually quite similar to the porter: big and smooth, tasting every unit of its 6.3% ABV. It's an excellent showcase for these two hops, as well as being a beautiful beer in general. It had been in the can for less than three weeks at time of drinking, and it showed.

IPA Vic Secret Wai-iti was just as fresh, though not as attractive-looking as the IPL, being a murky pale orange when poured. There's a promise of big bitterness in the aroma: that almost liquorice quality I associate with Vic Secret hops. It's definitely herbal on tasting, though not particularly bitter. In fact the foretaste is quite muted and it takes a little time to unfold on the palate, which it does quietly. The liquorice is there; there's a harsher, but not unpleasant, pine resin kick; but it's balanced by a much softer mandarin sweetness which does a great job keeping the sharper flavours at bay. My biggest criticism is the mouthfeel: despite the big column of foam in that photograph, there's a flatness to it which I think is detrimental to the hop flavours as a whole. A bit more condition would lift everything and make it an altogether more engaging beer. It's certainly not the hop celebration that I found in the IPL, but perhaps that's more to do with those specific types of hops than what the brewery decided to do with them.

My opinion of Cloudwater's beer as a mixed bag survives another round of scrutiny. There are a couple of truly great ones here, a couple that are definitely wonky, and an IPA stuck in the middle. If nothing else, at least this brewery gives us something to talk about.