30 October 2017

Tarnished spoon

Is it me or is the beer selection at the Wetherspoon Real Ale Festivals getting worse, year-on-year? Nothing struck me as of interest from the 30 beers on the advance list for Autumn 2017 and there was a signal that something is definitely awry when I saw that the beer officially judged as the best of the line-up came from the execrable Caledonian Brewery. I didn't get to try it so perhaps I shouldn't be so prejudiced, but still.

Nevertheless I trooped along to The Forty Foot a couple of Saturdays ago, where my nascent disappointment became all the realer with the availability of just two from the line-up. Groh. I began with a half of Zululand Pale Ale, brewed at Wychwood under the supervision of the eponymous South African brewery. It cheered me right up. The orange-amber colour of a classic English bitter, it starts straight away with a superbly fresh tannic bite. There's a hop bitterness behind this, mostly tasting of earthy and English varieties, with a dusting of orangey fruit and an exotic jasmine spice. The dryness clears all of that right off the palate quick smart, and you're ready for another pull. All very jolly, in a serious, traditional and grown-up sort of way.

Farnham White next, from the sturdy, reliable, Hogsback brewery. This is rather plainer fare, a pale amber gold with a slightly lagerish flavour of cereal and honey; mostly quite sweet with a gentle waxy buzz on the end. The key ingredient, says the pumpclip, is the Farnham White Bine hop, and I think this is another example of English brewers being prouder of their local varieties than they really warrant. It's fine, but it doesn't make me want to seek out more of examples of this hop and I don't taste the pepper notes I've been promised.

I did a little better on moving up to The Three Tun Tavern in Blackrock: three festival options. My first half was Liberation Ale, I guess the flagship from Liberation Brewery on Jersey and my first Channel Islands beer. What is that foretaste? An exotic mix of melon and pomegranate making it almost more like a saison than the pale golden ale it actually is. There's a tropical stickiness going on, surprising for 4% ABV, though the finish is quick, leaving just the faintest trace of honeydew. It's odd but I liked it. A full pint was really needed to explore properly, but obviously that's not how these things work. Next!

Next was Autumn Wheat, one of the internationals. This time it's Michigan's Arcadia at the controls of Banks's in Wolverhampton for a 6% ABV pale amber job. Wheat would suggest smoothness, and this definitely delivers on that front. On top there's a pleasing sprinkle of incense and cinnamon. A glance at the official description tells me coriander and orange peel have been added, so I guess it's a witbier of sorts, though it doesn't taste anything like one. Nor does it taste its strength for that matter. I really enjoyed this: spicy, filling, yet surprisingly clean and refreshing. I'm at a loss to compare to anything else I've tasted, but that's not the beer's problem.

Last orders was Old Nutty Hen, and time was I wouldn't have bothered, but I've had good experiences of Greene King's Old Speckled Hen brand extensions -- still trading on the defunct Morland name -- so figured this was worth €1.35 of my money and time. It's a dark garnet colour and extremely caramelly. It's hard to find any complexity beyond that, however: there's a slight bonfire smokiness and, oh!, was I supposed to be finding nuts? If so it's more like the hazelnut syrup that gets squirted into coffee for people who don't like the taste of coffee. There's no real nut character, and not enough proper English beer flavour either. Half way through my half I was finding it sickly and difficult. Morland goes back on the naughty list.

It's hard to judge a thirty-beer line-up from just five of them, and there were more hits than misses in amongst this lot. So yes, I'll be back for the Spring 2018 festival, though hoping for more daring beers.

And just to cover off a final pair from The Forty Foot that weren't part of the festival, Loddon Forbury Lion was one I found during the summer, a 5.5% ABV IPA. It's a clear gold colour and has a pleasingly beery smell, an old-school mix of the biscuit tin and grassy green veg. There's a heavy density about it, which wasn't much use to my thirst that warm July afternoon, and neither was the golden syrup sweetness up front, almost like something you'd find in a super-strength lager. The bitterness only really bites at the very end, a waxy sharpness, while in the middle there's a strange fruity pear drop flavour that immediately makes me think of headaches. I had to remind myself that its ABV is actually quite reasonable. Anyway, it's not quite the golden guzzler I was after on the day.

Bringing us back to the present, Ein Stein by Lymestone Brewery was an interloper at the Autumn festival. I nabbed a cheeky third for the road. Again there's a modest ABV -- 5% here -- but it seems a lot stronger, feeling almost Belgian. It owes its name to the use of Hallertau hops, which certainly puts a twist on the otherwise unambiguously English vibe. I don't know that it's especially German, though. It's a musty sort of flavour: sackcloth and crêpe paper, switching to a more easy going white grape roundness at the end. I had real trouble trying to figure out if I liked it or not, eventually deciding it's OK for a third but I was glad not to have any more to hand.

What have we learned from this lot? Not much. Cask beer at Wetherspoon is still a hit and miss affair, whether there's a festival on or not. At least it's easy on the wallet.

27 October 2017

A mile in my booze

What to do in London the day after the Beavertown Extravaganza? I wasn't going back for the Saturday session but had booked a late flight anyway, confident that I'd figure something out. Months later, sitting down to try and decide what exactly that was, I noticed on a map that my lodgings were just along the street from the FourPure brewery. I had inadvertently booked myself a bed on the Bermondsey Beer Mile, so that was that question answered.

The Mile wasn't yet a thing the last time I was in this part of London way back in 2013: only The Kernel and Partizan had bars open. Several more have joined in since, though The Kernel now only sells beer to take away. I was conveniently located at the bottom of the Beer Mile and it would have made total sense to start at FourPure and work northwards, catching a Tube train from Bermondsey station at the end. Less conveniently, checkout was at 10am and FourPure doesn't serve until 11 so I decided to make things difficult for myself and begin at the first brewery to open: Anspach & Hobday, near the northern end. After a sunny meander through the neighbourhood I arrived at 10.30, just as the shutters were going up.

I had heard that the Bermondsey Beer Mile had become quite self-aware and was more about professionally-run bars than simple taprooms these days, but the reality was that things still felt more charmingly improvised than I was led to believe. Anspach & Hobday is tiny, a handful of tables crammed in next to the tanks, and a miniature bar serving eight keg beers from the underback, plus one cask beer engine. Where else to start but with The Porter?

I'm guessing they're going for old London authenticity with this one, because it's a bold 6.7% ABV. The first sip revealed it to be rich and smoky, like a fine cigar. Behind the smoke there's an impressive balancing act of silky chocolate and dry coffeeish roast, the latter of which lasts longest in the finish. There's just enough creaminess to prevent it turning acrid, as well as a mild floral quality as well. Beautifully put together, all in all: the platonic ideal of London porter.

Loral 'n' Oats cream ale had a tough job following that. It's a pale and hazy yellow colour with a fresh lemon aroma and a different sort of creamy texture to the porter. The flavour is where it falters, however. The lemon is present, but it's faint and somewhat artificial-tasting, like a scented handwipe. There's lots of dry corn husk as well. It's perfectly refreshing and inoffensive, just not terribly interesting.

Brewery two was Brew By Numbers, and this was a little swish: the newly decorated taproom still poky, but fitted out conscientiously. One could definitely imagine spending a bit of time here. Somewhat missing the point of a brewery crawl, I ordered a guest beer: Fool For You, a 6.5% ABV saison brewed by Cloudwater in collaboration with forthcoming Norfolk brewer Duration. It's a murky dun colour and lacks a head. The texture is very heavy, a little unpleasantly so. Honeydew melon dominates the flavour, with some light peppering and then thick viscous banana esters. As this sort of saison goes, it's not the worst of them, but half way through I was already thinking I should have ordered something from the house.

That's what I did next: 05|25, an IPA with Citra and experimental hop HBC 431. It arrived looking like a half pint of pastis: yellow with a tint of green. The aroma was gorgeous, an achingly fresh mix of peaches with garlic, which sounds wrong but was beautiful. And the flavour followed through faithfully on that promise. A dense New England texture and low bitterness helps bring the juiciness out, starting on a limeade note, flashing past the raw garlic and finishing long on delicious plump and sweet peaches. There isn't a trace of harshness anywhere and, despite the appearance, no yeast interference in the flavour. Definitely one of the best modern murky IPAs I've tasted.

I packed up and started to move on except... what's this? Another Brew By Numbers taproom? Two arches down the shutters were up and a rather less swish bar was in operation. Apparently this is the original tap room and the plan is for the new one to replace it. I thought I'd better give it a proper inspection before it disappeared.

From the line-up I chose 08|06, an oatmeal stout, and drank it outside in the sunshine. It's another winner: silky and sumptuous, tasting primarily of milk chocolate with an assertive green-leaf bitterness to balance it. It does a great job of being at once richly malt driven while also very hoppy without being too loud or brash about either. And all of it is delivered at a session-friendly 5.5% ABV. Nice.

It wasn't far to Partizan, still in the same space as in 2013 but now with a permanent bar installed and some added outdoor seating. The afternoon was well underway at this stage and it was standing room only across the board. I opted for the Citra Pale Ale from the small selection on the pegboard. It's a suitably murky yellow colour with an ABV of 4.5%. Savoury herbs and heavy dankness make it taste quite serious and worthy, though the tone is lightened by an unexpected hit of summer fruit: rich and sweet strawberry and raspberry. It was still a touch rough for my tastes and would have benefited from a little more polish.

I chanced a second beer because I liked the look of one: Partizan Cherry Stout, something of a beast at 7.2% ABV. It's unctuous and heavy, though strangely doesn't really taste of cherries: I'd have thought a stout like this would be the ideal platform for them, but the fruit gets lost in a very bitter and slightly autolytic mix of not-quite-right stout flavours. Well it was worth a gamble. I wasn't going to push my luck any further here and continued on my way.

Almost back where I started, then, to FourPure: the biggest and busiest of the Bermondsey set. The long bar had a dazzling array of beers on offer, the selection promoted via large video screens. A slightly raucous mid-afternoon crowd were guzzling them with gusto. I found some leaning space on the bar and ordered...

... Roadside Picnic, a FourPure collaboration with Chapter Brewing in Cheshire, and indeed brewed on their kit. "Celery sour" were the words that sucked me in, and what I got was a clear glassful of basically Berliner weisse with a huge dose of dry yet juicy celery. It's simple and fun, enjoyable as a novelty but there's an unmistakably well-made beer as its base. Nothing not to like here, unless you're some sort of twisted celery dodger.

FourPure has built its reputation, with me anyway, on its lagers, so I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to drink one at source. Indy Lager it was: a 4.4% ABV helles. Sadly I must have picked the wrong one because this wasn't good at all: far too dry and with a suspicious smoky flavour. "Zest and spice", says the official blurb, but there was no sign of either on the day, for whatever reason.

Noticing I still had loads of time before I went on my way, I grabbed a quick glass of Deucebox double IPA, on the grounds that it tends to be very expensive back home and I probably wouldn't risk it. It's worth risking: this has a gorgeously juicy citric aroma and then a full-on dankness at the front of the flavour, splitting right down the middle into garlic and jaffa, so something for everyone. The modest 8.3% ABV really helps with the drinkability, letting the hops shine without any boozy interference.

Time was starting to run short, but not so short that I couldn't squeeze in one more brewery. I hadn't heard of Southwark Brewing Company before I started planning this excursion, but they're right there, at the north-western extreme of the mile, and not too far from my exit point at Bermondsey Tube. The small taproom was packed as the day's service was coming to an end: the shutters come down at 6pm on a Saturday, which suited my schedule but I still needed to make this quick.

Porter first, and Potters' Fields, a simple and easy-going one: 4% ABV, lightly chocolatey but with a substantial body. Only a slight hint of dirty earthy putty puts a damper on what's otherwise a no-nonsense quality quaffer.

I switched to keg for last orders, getting Big Bear IPA, in an American style, a hazy dark orange colour and 5.7% ABV. I got a fierce whack of acetone off this, combining with the fruity hops to create and odd, yet not unpleasant, Jolly Ranchers effect. It's missing the proper level of bitterness and I'm not sure I'd want to drink a lot of it, but it gave me something to ponder as I made my way back to Heathrow.

There, I had been following a recommendation from the lovely Pauline to try the fish and chips at The Perfectionist's Café in Terminal 2. This I duly did, and enjoyed it, and to go with it from the very limited beer list: Route 1 session IPA all the way from Dover, Delaware courtesy of Fordham Brewing. 4.5% ABV is stronger than a typical session IPA on this side of the Atlantic, but light for an American one, I think, so it's extra surprising that this feels much weightier than the strength would suggest. There's a decently thick base of caramel and toffee and it carries a massive lemon-and-lime hopped foretaste. Subtle it ain't, and I'm not at all sure how sessionable it really would be, but as an accompaniment to the food it worked very well indeed.

And that's the end of my London jolly. It may not be the last word in trendy beering any more, but the Bermondsey Beer Mile is still well worth an afternoon of your time.

25 October 2017

One busy beaver

Part two of my look at the Beavertown Extravaganza which happened in London last month. I mentioned on Monday that the festival was spread over three-and-a-bit halls. The "bit" was a darkened corridor space which was dedicated to the Rainbow Project. This is a series of seven collaborative beers produced at UK breweries with input from foreign ones, a bit like that thing JD Wetherspoon does a couple of times a year, but far more expensive.

They had only just been released so obviously there was a queue. I took the time to try two of them. First up, in the "Red" slot, Amanecer Mexicano by Magic Rock and Casita Cervecería of Vermont. This is a gose with added chilli, lime and lots of other traditional mole ingredients. It's a clear bright red colour and tastes soft and sweet, with a kind of cherry sherbet flavour. The tartness helps prevent it tasting too much like candy, and this builds as it goes along. Despite the multiplicity of additions it remains clean, refreshing and easy drinking, even if the ABV seems a little high at 5.8%. I wasn't wowed but did find it quite enjoyable.

There was a bit of a buzz around the "Green" beer as well: Mojito by Hawkshead and Modern Times. Described as a "tart IPA", it's a sickly yellow colour and tastes almost exclusively of mint. Mojitos have their place, but this had far too much mojito and not nearly enough beer. There was barely any sourness and absolutely no discernible hop flavour. It's a very disappointing novelty, and probably what I deserve for listening to the hype. Both breweries usually turn out great beers too.

Doing something vaguely similar but much better was Wylam with Bliss 322k, a white IPA. There's a lovely juicy lemony aroma from this greenish-yellow job, and the flavour pushes forward coriander first and then a light and refreshing bitterness. This is tasty and fun, and also surprisingly easy going despite being 6.8% ABV. The best feature is something entirely missing: an absence of the soapiness that so often plagues the style.

The other English brewery playing with fruit and sourness was Thornbridge, pouring Abacaxi when I dropped by their bar. It's a sour beer at 6% ABV with pineapple and, like the Mojito, is dominated by the non-beery addition. There's a very mild tartness but really it just tastes of pineapple juice and almost nothing else. That's a little more forgivable when the brewery isn't calling it an IPA, perhaps, but I still couldn't see the point of it.

The last English beers before moving on to what the rest of the world had to offer were from Bristol's Lost & Grounded, a new brewery that has been generating a lot of positive feedback but which had not hitherto crossed my path. Another round of punishment from the hype machine? Kind of, yes. Ciel Rouge is a red rye ale with American hops, produced in collaboration with Burning Sky. Unfortunately, the billed Amarillo and Chinook are nowhere to be found in the finished article and instead it's heavy, savoury and resinous with a musty, dusty, stale quality. I couldn't figure out what this was trying to be, only that I didn't enjoy it.

Running with Sceptres, the 5.2% ABV "special" lager, was similarly odd. It's a lovely clear dark gold colour, but the thickly perfumed hops were just too cloying for me, giving it a musky character. It's certainly distinctive, and I'm sure it's exactly as the brewer intended. It left me hankering after something more delicate, however.

Just as well Mahr's of Bamberg were in the house, looking quite out of place among all the cucumber and candyfloss concoctions. I just had a sinfully small helping of Mahr's Pils and really enjoyed it. This is flawlessly smooth with a creamy texture; a cake-like malt base topped with roaringly fresh greengrocer hops giving it bags of character but not in any way overdone. The bitterness is just enough to make you want to drink more. Yes, it's exactly the sort of pils you would make if the Keesmann brewery was the first thing you saw when you stepped out of work each day.

I was pleased to find Swedish brewer Brewski was present and gave their Dunedin Stringduster a go, largely because of the name. Sadly this is one of their misses. It's a sea buckthorn grisette, though rather strong for the style at 5.3% ABV. A sickly pale yellow colour, it tastes of savoury, gritty yeast for the most part, with an unpleasant green banana acidity, turning plasticky at the end. Just because a beer has a silly name doesn't mean it's going to be any fun to drink, alas.

Stockholm Brewing Company was entirely new to me and I'm sure did well from their location around the end of the Other Half queue. I tried their Elderflower Sour, a simple, clean and smooth little chap, reminding me a lot of our own Brewtonic's In Cahoots. It's similarly balanced, with just enough sourness to wake the palate up, and sufficient sweet elderflower to keep it entertained without getting overwhelmed by syrup. At 4.4% ABV it made for a great mid-festival palate cleanser.

Last of the nordics is Põhjala from Tallinn. Imperial Ginie is the one I went for, produced in collaboration with To Øl. It's ostensibly a gose, though stupidly strong at 10.8% ABV and aged in gin barrels. It doesn't quite work. The end result is very sweet and tastes somewhere between an apothecary's dresser and an olde worlde sweetshop, all herbs and humbugs. There's a slightly soupy brine quality as well, removing any refreshment power it might have been intended to have. Definitely one for gose purists to steer clear of.

I'm not sure if Dublin's Italian beer festival is coming back this year so I made sure to get my fill of LoverBeer new releases while I saw them. Pruss Perdú sounded most intriguing: a pear lambic. It's 5.4% ABV and a dark hazy orange colour. I found it to be tough drinking, with a very stale and papery oxidised quality, lightened only by a mild cidery taste. The drinkability wasn't helped by the heavy texture and almost complete lack of carbonation. I'm not at all sure it was worth the effort it took to get through it.

For more enjoyable pear experiences it's probably best to leave the pear out altogether. So it was with Cardosa, one of LoverBeer's saisons. This had a fabulous multicoloured aroma of apricot and lychee with a heavy backing track of farmyard funk. The flavour is just as fruity but fantastically clean: crisp like a cool slice of just-ripe pear. Saison brewers take note that this immense complexity was all achieved at just 5% ABV. There's no need for anyone to make saisons stronger than that.

The simple four-letter name Lale hides an immense beer behind it. The basic style is a Flemish oud bruin, but with the ABV ramped up somewhat to 9.2% and given 20 months ageing on cherries. There is the acetic burn that you'd expect from the style but it's smoothed out through maturation so it doesn't attack the palate the way some of these do. The fruit is very apparent and almost fresh-tasting, adding a juicy summer sweetness that balances everything wonderfully. The warmth from the alcohol leaves you in no doubt that it's a powerful beer, and one to be careful with. Ideal drinking for a festival of small pours like this.

That leaves just the token Canadian. Dieu du Ciel were tucked away at the end of one of the halls, and perhaps this is why they didn't seem to garner the attention I was expecting them to. I tasted an intriguing-sounding dark saison called Isseki Nicho: 9.5% ABV and aged in Pinot Noir barrels. It's a very serious beer, tarry and resinous, loaded with bitter balsamic notes, lightened only slightly by dry grape tannins. It tastes like all of its strength and more, and while pleasant, it's not as complex as perhaps it should be, certainly when compared to Lale above. The gut-sticking warmth is probably its best feature.

Despite all of the beers in this post and yesterday's, I was still perfectly sober at kicking-out time. I stopped off at a pub on my meander back, The Yellow House, to have a beer in a grown-up measure for a change. It's a smart and modern place, and as is usual for such if they're not beer specialists, the selection was pretty poor. I took a punt on kegged Maltsmiths IPA, Heineken UK's fake craft brand. It's pretty grim: sickly sweet and huskily dry, with an overcooked marmalade foretaste and a stale grain finish. I wonder if they're brewing this at Caledonian because it had a lot in common with the execrable Coast to Coast I drank in Liverpool airport during the summer.

I hit the sack early, aware of the long day's brewery crawling I had planned to start the following morning...

23 October 2017

Hypetrain USA

I left off on Thursday talking about the special exclusive American beers that the Brewers Association brought to the Irish Craft Beer Festival last month. The following day I was away to London for Beavertown's Extravaganza and, unsurprisingly, American beer featured heavily in my day there too.

The festival itself was held in the gargantuan industrial space of The Printworks in Rotherhithe, spread over three-and-bit halls with a host of breweries from the USA, UK and elsewhere, each pouring two beers at a time in dinky 100ml serves. The unusual feature was that the beer was all-inclusive, so no messing around with tokens or cash. The system worked quite well, I thought. The heavily hyped breweries had large queues, but there was no obligation to drink those, and the lines did move fast in any case. Kick-off was at 3pm and it was only around 7 that I started seeing some mild staggering, smashed glasses and collapsing benches. The crowd began to thin out shortly afterwards as the bars started running out of beer, and the party had reached its natural conclusion by the 10pm closing. I had some 30 new beers and ciders under my belt at this stage and felt I'd achieved my money's worth.

I wasn't looking closely, but I suspect the consistently longest queue of the day was at Trillium. I figured it was worth a go, and got in line early, first arming myself with sustenance for the journey. That was in the form of Dragon Mask, a 12% ABV imperial stout from San Diego's Modern Times. And jolly nice it was too: a suptuous mix of chocolate and coconut, warming all the way down like a mug of mocha on a cold day.

At the top of the queue they were pouring Trillium's Port Point Pale Ale. It ticks a lot of the New England boxes in a fairly perfunctory way: the milky yellow colour, a background vanilla sweetness and then lots of garlic bouncing around up front. All very familiar and not particularly special. The ABV is up at 6.6% ABV though the texture is unforgivably watery for that. It was fine but I wasn't getting back in line for another.

Other Half also attracted queues, though a fair bit shorter than Trillium's. Mylar Bags was much more to my taste despite being a double IPA. It really helped that it didn't taste anything like its 8.8% ABV, but also that the garlicky hops blend with a cleaner and lighter minty herbal kick. The base is candy-sweet but the hopping is well able to balance it and gives it a superbly long finish. Yes it's another one of those murky yellow American savoury IPAs, and a little one-dimensional with it, but it does what it sets out to do quite beautifully.

And amazingly there was an even better double IPA than that: Ca$h Only from San Francisco's Cellarmaker. The ABV goes up to 9.1% and there's a luxurious smoothness to the whole thing, loads of dank oils but no heat, no acid: none of the things that generally turn me off the style. Despite the name it's pure understated class. I've no idea how they achieved it.

It was funny to see the US breweries who would have had serious geeks queuing around the block five or ten years ago twidding their thumbs while waiting for customers. Maybe I just caught Three Floyds in a quiet moment. Their Battle of Charro II imperial IPA with Brettanomyces and cherries was a bit of a disaster. 10.8% ABV and heavily sweet with a cloying perfume quality, it began tasting of throat lozenges and eventually turned to cough medicine. Everything on this would need to be dialled way back to make it drinkable, but maybe the lesson is not to mess about with IPA as if it's a stout.

Lost Abbey was playing the Brett game rather better. Genesis of Shame (what?) was the one I opted for. It's just 6.5% ABV and is a golden ale at its base, blended with a barrel aged version plus peaches and more Brett. The fruit sits at the centre of it all, the sweet juice contrasting with an unctuous umami smack. There's a bitter edge of peach skin and then a complementary waft of farmyard funk in the finish. It's one of those orderly beers, where the tastes line up and deliver themselves onto the palate politely and respectfully. A masterpiece of balance and complexity.

Next door, Lost Abbey's former parent brewery Pizza Port had The Jetty IPA on offer. This one is as west coast as they come: pale yellow, 7.3% and massively bitter. There's really not much else happening other than bitterness but it's bitter in so many ways: citric, vegetal and waxy all at once. It wasn't to my taste though I'm sure it was exactly as the brewer intended.

Oregon's Boneyard had something similar but different going on with Enzymatic, dropping the ABV down slightly to 7.1%. The flavour is calmer, allowing subtleties to come out, with a light and zesty lemon and lime being the main feature. It's surprisingly quenching despite the substantial strength and there's even a detrimental thinness to the body. It's pleasant, though: a lovely expression of classic west coast IPA without going too extreme. Good old dependable Boneyard.

On then to the wild side of the house. Crooked Stave's Petite Sour Raspberry is a beer I had before in Dublin, courtesy of the lovely Padraig. And then I shamefully lost my note on it, but here was a chance at redemption! At no extra cost! It's a handsome, dark, purpleish-pink colour, and very big on the zingy sherbet fruit. The sourness is almost an afterthought, and there's a subtle lacing of barnyard funk through it as well. Gentle, balanced and quite tasty, even if it's missing the wow factor.