22 November 2017

Unlucky dip

The final gleanings from the 2017 Killarney Beer Festival judging leftovers begin today's post: two beers, two breweries, both beers new to me.

Arrow is part of the core range at the Elbow Lane brew-restaurant in Cork. It's been around a few years but I've never had the chance to try it. Weissbier is the style, and it's in the dark orange end of that colour spectrum, without the proper haze. I guess the yeast sank to the bottom of the bottle giving me a semi-kristall. First marks off are for head retention: I expected a big dome of foam but what's there fades to nothing unacceptably fast. The aroma is pleasingly banana-ish with a light toffee complexity, as often found in the darker weissbiers. The flavour, however, introduces a nasty thin vinegar note that's definitely not meant to be there and which flaws it fatally. Each mouthful opens on sweet banana but then turns rapidly sour and slightly metallic. Perhaps worst of all is the way the body is rendered thin, combining with the poor carbonation to make for a very wonky weiss indeed. I didn't judge this at Killarney but I hope whoever did gave the brewery appropriate feedback if their bottle was like mine.

To follow, Tutti Frutti by Carrig, a beer I know nothing about, other than it's a fruited IPA at 4.7% ABV. Sometimes it's best to go in as blind as possible. I could have done with a warning about the bottle conditioning in this one: clumsy pouring left me with a murkier dark orange glassful than I expected, though the thick head did calm down respectably quickly. It smelled good: properly pithy and nicely fresh given that it had been sitting in the fridge for an entire summer. The flavour, however, really lost out to the accidental yeast. There's a massive gritty bite at the front, and only the faintest mix of citrus-skin spicing and pith behind. It's one of those tantalising efforts that probably has a decent recipe behind it but is let down by the way it's presented.

Is it rude of me to boggle slightly that these were both entered into a competition in this state? There's a definite lack of polish in both; a feeling that they've been lashed together and sent out into the world as "good enough". Whatever audience the brewers had in mind for them, it's not me.

Moving on, I  bought the following pair of bottles in Molloy's off licence on Francis Street and got a small handful of small change back from my tenner. These weren't cheap, but were they cheerful?

First is In The Pink, an hibiscus IPA in Dungarvan Brewing's limited edition series. It's a fun blood-red colour, pretty much clear when poured properly, and 5.8% ABV. It smells floral and fruity. Hibiscus gets used a lot in beers these days, and I think there's a cherry blossom sweetness that I've come to associate with it. This guy has that in spades. The flavour pits that fluffy pinkness against a hard, dry, waxy bitterness. Perhaps they're supposed to balance each other but this is all-out war. The acrid bitterness is just too full-on for me; too harsh and riding roughshod over everything else. I mentioned in relation to a previous Dungarvan special, Magic Road, that the bitterness was off the scale. That beer got away with it; with this one it's just unpleasant. Balance has left the building.

So I was quite apprehensive when turning to Bark & Bite, a double IPA brewed to commemorate the third birthday of Wicklow Wolf. It pours thickly, turning out a slight murky copper-coloured glassful. The aroma is quite vinous, with a bitter edge, like retsina. I guessed another harsh half hour was on the cards. But actually the hops are on the back foot here: the flavour is very much malt driven, a candycane sweetness that says barley wine to me, more than it says IPA. I had to do some research into what the taste reminded me of as it's something I hadn't tasted since the 1980s. I settled on aniseed balls: those spicy red spheres of candy sugar. It's the same sweetness and the same herbal spice. This is like no (fresh) IPA I've ever had. I can't imagine anyone who enjoys double IPAs of the sort, say, Whiplash has been turning out lately getting on board with this. A barley wine badge would have suited it better.

Both of these beers are asking top dollar for Irish packaged beer and I don't either justifies it. Expensive IPA should be about bright bright fresh hops and neither of these offer that. I have similar gripes about today's final pair of beers, both double IPAs I found on tap at 57 The Headline recently.

Club Hopicana is the first new Stone Barrel beer I've had in a while. That name makes certain promises -- show me the mango -- but when I raised my glass, mangoes came there none. My first impression on tasting it was rubber. Was this a phenolic infection of some sort? I'm still not sure, though it probably isn't. That taste eventually resolved itself into a kind of poppyseed savoury quality, which isn't unheard of in IPAs, but just isn't very enjoyable. It's 7.4% ABV yet remarkably thin, the lack of booze and body adding to the severe dry quality. The whole thing is just too harsh for me.

I followed it with  Lucky No 7, from Two Sides. This is dark opaque orange colour and smells jammy: sweet strawberry is the dominant aroma, and that theme continues in the flavour. The texture is thick this time round -- no ABV was advertised but I'm guessing from the name it's only 7%. Thankfully it's not boozy or phenolic, however. But once again there's just no fresh hop flavour and it ends up being more like a strong red ale than anything else. It did grow on me towards the end. I can see it as a good dinner beer: heavy and filling, but not fighting with the flavours in the food. It would also work as a warming sipper for a cold day. But it does not work as a double IPA.

I'll stop the griping there for the day. I take it as a healthy sign that there's a proper bell-curve of quality in Irish brewing, even if that means somebody has to be at the low end of it.

21 November 2017

In the clear

Central Dublin's pair of brewpubs are the subject of today's post, starting over at Urban Brewing in the Docklands. I had been a bit down on the beers here when they opened and promised I'd give them some time to bed in before re-assessing. I figured two months should be plenty so was back in late October for lunch and a run through what was on the house taps.

I began with Urban Brewing Belgian Pale Ale, and hey presto it is indeed clear. It's a very unBelgian 4.8% ABV and there's a lightness to the flavour which reflects that. Banana esters are the main feature, and the principal way in which it expresses its Belgianness, though there's also a softer honeydew melon quality and a whiff of gunpowder spice. A decent amount going on, then, and nothing interfering. An auspicious start.

I followed that with Urban Bitter. This is very much in the traditional English style, even if it's a tad strong at 4.6% ABV and served on keg. It's a copper colour and tastes dry: grain husk, shading to sackcloth. A metallic bitterness is the hops' contribution. While quite authentic tasting, it's a perfunctory example of the style, not taking English bitter in any particular direction or emphasising any of the features. The drinkability is first-rate, however, and it's well suited to session drinking, which I guess is the point.

The dud in the set was Urban Brewing Rye IPA. The description brings certain expectations, none of which were met by the beer. A pale gold colour was the first surprise; the second was the massive chemical ester flavours, intensifying to marker pen solvents by the end. Hops: none. Rye: none. If I hadn't been trying all of the other beers available I'd have assumed there's been a mix-up somewhere. This recipe needs to go back to the drawing board.

Lastly it was Urban Brewing Session IPA. There was a fun fruity aroma from this darkish amber job, though not the citrus explosions that mark a really good example. It's another understated one, showing dry grain and a pleasant pinch of grapefruit skins with some heavier resins, but not much of any of it: a flash is all you get, and neither the foretaste nor finish have much flavour. It's a little watery overall, inoffensive, but again not doing the style as well as most other Irish breweries.

There have definitely been production improvements at Urban Brewing but it still has a ways to go to catch up with rural brewing.

Around the same time, JW Sweetman held its first ever Cask Weekend in the basement bar. Before getting on to what was pouring, I would like to mention how wonderful it was to have have an entire bar dedicated to independent draught beers, being served by genuinely enthusiastic staff. More of this kind of thing please, Jay Dubya.

There were four handpumps on the go, with all pints an extremely reasonable €5. Only one was new to me; indeed the entire brewery was new to me. Kildare Brewing Company operates out of the Lock 13 brewpub in Sallins, and yes I'm shamefully overdue a visit. Their cask offering here was the modestly-named Kildare Brewing English Pale Ale, a bright golden one at 4.2% ABV.

First impressions were of quite a sweet beer: full of unctuous honey. The kicker comes later on when a big grassy, waxy bitterness takes over. It's in no way harsh, however, but punchy and invigorating; balanced yet assertive. What it reminded me most of is Timothy Taylor's iconic Landlord bitter. It's not a multifaceted flavour kaleidoscope by any means, just simple, sinkable and very high quality.

Kildare Brewing Amber Wheat was also present, though served kegged. It's a murky orange-brown colour and 4.8% ABV. The fancy name hides a pretty straightforward and unexciting dunkelweizen. There's banana, a little caramel, and a sharp roasted dryness. This is an easy going, fault free beer, and I'm sure it does well on its home turf. I couldn't muster up much enthusiasm for it, however.

The house had a brand new beer for the occasion, though it too was kegged. With good reason: I'm not sure Hamburg Pilsner would have been improved any by being on cask. No plain pale lager, it's a substantial 5.3% ABV and goes straight for the sharp, green leafy hop kick right from the outset. When the vegetation fades there's a beeswax bitterness remaining. To balance this there's a bubblegum sweetness which adds a different sort of intensity: every sip brings loadsa sweet followed by loadsa bitter, all the way down. It's bang on, though: a big blousey lager, with no apologies and not trying to be anything else. Just how I like them, in fact.

I'll be doing my best to keep up with the output of both outlets in future posts. Support your local brewpub, wherever you are.

20 November 2017

Curate this!

I'm taking a break from the travel blogging for a week, to catch up with some of what I've been drinking from around Ireland this past while. It's a list that can get out of control too easily, given how hyperactive our breweries are these days.

We'll start in the pubs, and the joyous occasion of a new release from Hopfully at their tap takeover in 57 The Headline. Açai Porter is as described: a porter with added açai berries. The presentation wasn't the best: carbonation problems left it flat and headless, the lack of sparkle doing nothing to improve the muddy appearance. It's mostly dark brown with a fun purple tint from the fruit. Cappucino coffee opens the flavour and you get a slice of cherry pie tartness on the side, including the sweet pastry crust. A mild kirsch burn finishes it off. Despite the modest 5.2 % ABV this is a very dessertish or aperitif-appropriate beer, sweet and weighty. The flavour combination works very well but it really needs the carbonation sorted out before it goes any further.

Staying dark and moving over to UnderDog, Black's of Kinsale have a schwarzbier out. I love schwarzbier and have been consistently disappointed by Irish examples: they're often decent beers but they don't get the dry toastiness right. May the Schwarz Be With You, for such is its name, nails it. It's the proper dark cola brown, though comes with a head that looks almost creamy. I got a lightly floral aroma which put me on guard but the flavour goes straight for dry roast and bitter dark chocolate, yet gently and cleanly, taking full advantage of the lager spec. There is a little hint of lavender floating around the edges which means it's possibly somewhat too complex for the style, and I'd prefer a half-point or so knocked off the 5.3% ABV. I can't complain, however: this is what I've been hankering for and I hope to see more of it.

O Brother's new session IPA The Dreamcatcher was also on at UnderDog. It was the keg version though cask has also been in circulation. I've started to measure the sessionability of session IPAs by the price, and at €6.25 for 44cl this wasn't quite there. It's pretty good though: a pale hazy yellow colour with an aroma of pith and dank that should get any IPA fan's juices flowing. There's almost a New England sweetness to the foretaste: a layer of vanilla cream. Although the body is nicely thick, there is a little bit of a watery finish to the flavour, but by the time you get that far you're up to your neck in bright hop flavours: mandarin flesh and grapefruit pith, neatly balancing juice and bitterness. The inevitable comparison with Little Fawn says it falls short by overemphasising the bitterness. You can certainly see where the money has gone as regards hops, however.

Galway Bay's latest offering is an IPA of a similar appearance though a full-fat 7% ABV. Regular Legs is a sequel to the summer's Baby Legs. The two don't compare well. While the original went all out for dank and bitter hops, this one is more quietly spoken, with orange candy and a talcum perfume. It all finishes very quickly and is remarkably thin for such a strong beer. The guilty parties are Azacca and Calypso hops so it should be fruitier. I was underwhelmed. Bring back Baby.

Because everything has to be a Rick & Morty reference these days, Trouble Brewing's new IPA is called Get Schwifty. Cassidy's had even abandoned the official tap badge in favour of a still from the cartoon, and that did actually seem to be drumming up trade. It struck me as having a lot in common with the now-classic Ambush, but in more of a west coast than New England style. It has the same fresh garlic and grapefruit, laid on thick with a massive bitter punch at the front, though it's set on a cleaner, harder texture. After the initial shock comes a gentle peach and mango juiciness, before the bitterness returns with a grass and pine finish. This is an absolute powerhouse of hop flavour, offering the full 3D surround-sound experience, and all at a highly pintable 5.3% ABV. Nice.

Cassidy's' sister pub Blackbird launched three simultaneous new beers from Rascals a couple of weeks ago. I began with Milkshake Stout and this deserves an award for delivering exactly what it promises. It is extremely chocolatey, starting out as a Dairy Milk and moving steadily towards Galaxy bars, with a very slight Flake-ish dryness. I guess that some of the smooth and sweet effect is down to the vanilla, though it doesn't actually taste of it. There's coconut in the recipe as well but I couldn't detect that in the flavour either. Part of me was hankering after some proper stout bitterness, as found, for example, in The Porterhouse Chocolate Truffle Stout, but that would probably spoil the effect. This is unashamedly one-dimensional and offers what is described precisely.

To cleanse and contrast next, Rascals Flanders Red, a sour beer aged a full year in Sangiovese barrels. It's a big fellow at 6.4% ABV, with a big chewy body packed with balsamic resins. There's a genuine wine flavour as well: sweet and juicy balanced with dry tannins, and then a bitter rosemary and fennel herbal finish. The sourness is quite understated behind all this, overburdened by the texture I'm guessing. It certainly lacks the clean fizz of Rodenbach, though that's to be expected given the strength. I enjoyed it but I think it will really come into its own after it has been cellared for a while. Look out for bottles in the next few weeks.

Last of the set was Otherkin OK, a New England IPA with added vanilla and orange peel. There's almost no bitterness here and a major vanilla ice cream flavour. A vague dankness in the finish is about as active as the hops get, with maybe a slight savoury twang, but I had to reach for it. Ice cream is the default position. Fortunately it's not claggy or gummy, the way some of these can be, remaining clean and easy drinking throughout. I'd prefer a bit more of a hop buzz, however.

Hope celebrated the change of the seasons with its Winter Session IPA: the same 4.5% ABV as the summer one but this time using rye and turning a crystalline copper colour. It smells like a good IPA: fresh pine and citrus leapt out of my glass in Against the Grain. The malt really starts to throw its weight on tasting, however. There's a heavy oat biscuit sweetness, tempered by slightly sweaty green hops. That funkiness is something I've encountered before in red IPAs and it's not a good feature. The bitterness is much lower than I'd expect, especially given the rye. A pleasant kick of resins does finish it off, along with a mild woody cinnamon spicing, but overall this wasn't a beer for me.

A previous visit to the pub put me in touch with Gravity's Rainbow from Whiplash, their second collaboration with Galway Bay Brewery. It's a big double IPA, and you can read the eye-watering hop spec here. It's an absolutely classic expression of the style, packed with heavy, oily dankness, balanced by fresh and pithy grapefruit. That's probably useless as a description because there are a million DIPAs it could be applied to, but that's the kind of platonic ideal we're dealing with here. I liked it a lot, and hopped-up 9%-ers aren't normally my bag.

The next Whiplash beer arrived canned: Bone Machine: a 6.2% ABV IPA brewed with Ekuanot, Cascade and high-alpha tropic-heavy experimental hop BRU-1. It's a pale orange colour and mostly quite clear. I get slightly claggy orange-flavoured chew sweets from the aroma, and an odd sour sweaty funk. Not a good start. I blame the Cascade. The Cascade definitely plays a major part in the flavour: earthy and bitter. There's an attempt at balance with fruitier notes from the modern hops, and that lime and mandarin combo runs late into the finish, joined by a sterner pine bitterness which gets the mouth watering. Nevertheless I'm not sure this hop combination quite works: after several mouthfuls and doubtless several degrees temperature increase, the old-school dry bitterness starts to clash with the more fruity modern varieties while the big malt base eggs them on. It ends up a little sickly and stomach-curdling. I get modern US-style IPA and appreciate the older sort, but this is neither one nor the other, which is a brave experiment but not one for repeating.

I was thirsty when I opened the can of Lough Gill's Tart Peach Ale, only pausing long enough to let the head settle and take a snap before getting stuck in. And lo, it was good. Much more tart than peach, a dry and flinty sharpness is the main feature all the way through. The fruit is barely perceptible at first, coming through mostly in the finish, softly and sweetly, though I think I'd be hard pressed to guess it's peach. The beer does suffer a little from the thickness I found in the previous Sour Wheat Ale, which is what prompted me to check the ABV. That one was 5.7% ABV and this is a whopping 8%! It really does not taste it and is impressively clean and refreshing for such a powerhouse. I certainly got through the 440ml in jig time and felt the better for it. This is a smooth and tangy delight.

Scepticism back in place, I turned next to The Black Sow, a new coffee milk stout from The White Hag. Sceptical because it's nitrogenated, and the brewery's record of packaged nitrogenation has been less than stellar -- I'm looking at you, Snakes & Scholars. Can open and upended... and look at that! A creamy head, albeit a thin one which gradually faded as I drank. But still. The nitro doesn't disguise the aroma any: there's a massive bang of coffee from it, as well as a sprinkling of chocolate and booze. It's a little surprising to find it's only 5.4% ABV. The texture is understandably smooth, though with enough sparkle that it doesn't seem lifeless. The flavour, meanwhile, delivers exactly what it says on the tin: lots of sweet chocolate and milky coffee. There's even a cheeky kick of Tia Maria right on the end. It's not the most grown-up of stouts, lacking significant hop character, but it is fun to pour and drink.

Ahh, it feels good to get this lot written down. More to come tomorrow.

18 November 2017

Summer's end

A rare Saturday blog post from me, but I just want to tie off the last few beers from my couple of days in Amsterdam in September.

In De Wildeman is closed on Sundays, so that's where we rocked up first on Monday afternoon. I hadn't seen an Uiltje beer in ages so Commisaris Rex was my first choice when I saw it on the menu. The brewery describes it as a "Doppelsticke Alt", which I think is fair enough. It's a very dark brown, 8.5% ABV and smells of chocolate and celery, the latter a result of the single-hopping with Spalt. Despite this, the flavour is all malt, constructed from grain and chocolate, like a kiddies' breakfast cereal. A growing dry wheatiness and absence of proper carbonation meant that it began to resemble a breakfast cereal a little too closely by the time I got to the end of it. It's well put together, however.

Herself was all over the Cloudwater offering: Spring Summer Wit Loral. Though the ABV is quite high at 6.1%, this one has some serious classic witbier chops. The aroma is an enticing mix of lemon candy and fresh damp coriander leaves. The texture is smooth and the flavour massively herbal, a long bathsalts lavender buzz lasting for ages alongside a burst of juicy orange. It takes a lot to impress with a witbier, and I honestly didn't think it was even possible, but this is a triumph.

I couldn't pass the opportunity to drink a half litre of draught Jever pils next, so didn't. De Prael Barleywine for the lady, a 9.6% ABV one, dark orange and smelling hot, heavy and harsh, something I often find with Prael's beers. It tastes of cough drops; Fisherman's Friends, to be precise. There's a too-heavy eucalyptus and pine bitterness that just burned my palate. I was very glad to have the Jever to hand when tasting it.

A new bar for me next. I dragged us all the way up beyond Centraal station to visit the Delirium pub that's secreted on the waterside under the roadway there. Not many other punters on the chilly terrace that afternoon, but the service was still lousy. It was, however, pleasing to see a too-rare Greek beer on the menu, so I had that.

Saturday's Porter is from Septem, just outside of Athens. It's only 5.5% ABV but packs a lot in there, most of it in an uncompromising and old fashioned style. It's very dry with a bitter liquorice component, a slight sourness and even a touch of smoke. Coffee is an ingredient, but the burnt roast is the only part which comes through. I found it tough drinking to begin with but gradually settled in, getting used to its severity. By the end I was charmed and interested in what else the brewery was doing, but that was the only one of theirs on the menu.

The tall glass behind it contains Stout & Moedig by 7 Deugden. It's another chocolate cereal job, at least in the aroma. The flavour is a little more complex, adding rosewater. The texture is thick and tarry and overall I didn't really enjoy it. At 7.5% ABV there should have been plenty of leeway for a much more interesting beer.

Last call was to Café Belgique. I can't find any evidence of me having been here since 2004, which is kinda crazy. I guess nearby Gollem is just that good. Anyway, we were welcomed in and took a table by the front window. Two Chefs Funky Falcon for me, an American Pale Ale that's extremely sweet, opening on orange flavoured chewing gum, leading into a long candy finish. A certain apricot element emerges as it warms, still sweet but adding nuance. At no point did it get cloying or sticky, which is a plus, and I finished it quite happy with what I'd been given. I wonder do they get grief because it's not funky?

The other beer is Wildebok from good old Scheldebrouwerij, it of the comedy caveman labels. This is an absolute spot-on version of the Low Countries autumn bock style: a clear dark garnet with a flavour mixing warming toffee with drier dark roast but perfectly clean and free of esters, phenols and other headache-inducing nasties. The 6.5% ABV places it on that perfect cusp between not being aggressively alcoholic while still giving the feeling of a slightly naughty treat. A perfect beer on which to end this autumn break.

17 November 2017

Amsterdam and company

Hello Amsterdam! This was the final stop on the ten-day bimble across Belgium and the Netherlands I did in September. We arrived in on a Sunday afternoon and headed straight to Beer Temple, meeting up with a friend who has recently moved to Den Haag and who joined us for the day's crawl.

I'd picked Beer Temple specifically because they had a Hill Farmstead on, and Hill Farmstead generally makes good beer. This was Florence, a saison. Except it's nothing like a saison, except maybe the cloudy pale yellow colour. It's tart, for one thing, almost like a young lambic but with extra fizz. With the tartness goes a gentle lemon zest, some dry straw and a pinch of farmyard funk, all beautifully balanced and complementary. It was hard to hold onto this one for long enough to write about it; suffice it to say it's highly enjoyable.

Also around the table there was King Gose from Hoppin' Frog. It's an especially nasty version of what should be a light and quenching style. This one is a murky orangey beige colour and smells of Jolly Rancher sweets, all artificial fruit and solvents. The texture is greasy which heightens the briny foretaste. This is followed by a worrying gastric acidity, harsh herbal aniseed, plastic and aspirin: all the wrong kinds of tang, all at once. The herbs make it taste like some Victorian medicine, like it should be good for you. It's a downright penitential beer and a travesty of gose.

Next it's X, an "extra pale ale" from California's Alesmith. It didn't have much going for it, being super sweet without any trace of bitterness. The hops bring an orange flavour which, without proper balance, make it taste like orange flavoured cake icing. At 5.25% ABV it probably thinks it's light and easy going but it's really surprisingly hard work.

Last one here before moving on is one of those dessertish confections from Evil Twin: Imperial Mexican Biscotti Cake Break. It's definitely one of the better ones, managing to blend all the constituent parts into a single coherent piece. For reference, those parts include coffee, cinnamon, almonds, cocoa, vanilla, and habanero chilli. Phew! The aroma is both rich and spicy, its impact heightened by the 10.5% ABV. The texture is thick too. Obviously cinnamon is the loudest element, but its cookie sweetness is tempered by strongly bitter coffee, while the chilli is little more than a seasoning on top of this. It's still a silly novelty beer, but a silly novelty beer that's incredibly well made.

Gollem next, and a quickie Van Vollenhoven Princesse. It's a throwback wheat beer recipe, apparently, using a mix of lager and saison yeasts and flavoured with coriander and orange peel. Once extremely popular, it lost ground to pils in the late 19th century and the original Van Vollenhoven brewery stopped brewing it in 1900. I found it crisp and simple with a pleasant green celery hop flavour. Think weissbier without the banana esters or witbier minus the herbs and fruit. It's very refreshing even if the ABV is a smidge high for that at 5.5%.

Our meanderings brought us past De Brabantse Aap at one point, a pub which was on the shortlist of great Amsterdam beer destinations when I started coming here but which you hardly hear mentioned any more. I certainly hadn't been in in years.

It shares an owner with De Bekeerde Suster, the brewpub, so serves a few of its range. Auld Sister was new to me: 5.3% ABV and allegedly an attempt at an old fashioned IPA. The ABV holds true to that at 5.3%. I couldn't say if the rest of it does, however. It is massively dry, which is certainly part of the spec, largely achieved through the huge tannic flavours. This makes it taste of stewed black tea and I confess I always like that in a beer. There's a spicy saltpetre edge which reminded me of several homebrewed red ales I've tasted: I guess it's a yeast thing, and there's lots of roast as well -- not something I'd expect in an IPA. I doubt the dark red colour would fetch it much of a price on the docks of Calcutta either. A bit of a rough diamond this, though not without its charms.

My companion was back on the American gose, this time Holy Gose from Anderson Valley. This one was much more like it. It has the classical balance of good gose with mild salt and a gentle sourness to make it easy drinking and instantly refreshing. There's also a fun Californian bonus in the hints of added tropicality: a burst of pineapple in the aroma and some sweet mango in the flavour. It's deftly done and all the better for not trying to be too clever.

The evening wound on and there was oude jenver tasting and rijsttafel: proper Amsterdam stuff. We finished at another of Peter van der Arend's pubs, near Leidseplein. Last time we were here, in 2015, it was called Jopen Proeflokaal. The tie-up with Jopen must have come to an end as it's now called 'Cause Beer Loves Food and BrewDog is the headline brewer.

We went with two from Flying Dutchman, a Finnish gypsy brewer that gets beer made in Belgium and the Netherlands. These were from a sequence they've literally called the "series of beers with weird and long names".

First is Tight Lipped Dry Humored Why So Serious Nordic Berry Sour Fruit Beer. It's 4.5% ABV and a bright purple colour, topped by lurid pink foam. Turns out it's a glass of pure jam; damson in particular, I'd say. It's altogether too sweet and claggy, with a harsh tacked-on sourness that does nothing for balance. Beer should be able to hold the drinker's attention for longer than it takes to say its name.

Beside it is Tree Hugging Wood Chopping Mother-Nature Loving IPA. This is rather better, albeit not very distinctive. It's one of those US-style IPAs that runs big on oily resinous unctuousness, with a heavy sticky body and lots of toffee malt, but also has enough bitter citrus pith incense spicing to balance it. It could pass for more than its 6% ABV and does a pretty decent job as a nightcap.

Day one in the 'Dam is down. Home tomorrow, but not before another few pubs...

16 November 2017

Everyone else

Rounding off my series on the 2017 Borefts Beer Festival with the brewers I haven't got to yet, featuring the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Spain.

As always, the house had a vast array of beers on offer: core favourites, one-offs and hacked specials. Imperial stout was a big part of the line-up, of course, and I began with Nibs & Beans. That there's coffee in this was in the programme, but I'm guessing from the name that there's cocoa too, and it's been barrel aged. For all that, it's unremarkable: the coffee flavour is light and it's more about the tarry bitterness, entirely in keeping with an imperial stout of 10.3% ABV. The barrel, whatever sort it was, makes no contribution and the whole is just simple and decent, which it's probably not meant to be.

Its companion there is Satan & Gabriel, this one with star anise and pistachio liqueur, which is a new one on me. And this time everything is as billed. The aroma gently suggests star anise, leading up to a flavour which tastes hugely of the fruit, to the exclusion of almost everything else. There's also the sharp bitterness of pistachio skins. Despite being 11% ABV there's precious little stout character in it, just a very slightly acrid dry finish. It's one of those where the beer seems almost incidental. 100% as advertised, though I'm not sure it really works.

Another barrel-aged one in the next pair: Push & Pull, described as a tiramisu stout, and again barrel aged. The aroma is promising: sweeter and boozier than might be expected at just 10.5% ABV, though perfectly to style with its mix of vanilla and coffee. Strangely the first flavour to emerge on tasting is sour cherry, quickly followed by the anticipated blend of cream, coffee and vanilla. It's quite heavy going, and once the novelty has worn off, three sips in, the drinker's attention may begin to waver. It's fun, though, in small festival-sized doses.

The paler fellow next to it is High & Mighty, a saison De Molen brewed using psychoactive plant Salvia divinorum. A fair bit of it, I'd say, because while I didn't float away with the pixies, I did get a strong herbal flavour from it: marjoram and dill, in particular, building to a courgette sort of green vegetal bitterness. Despite the amber colour of the base saison, and the substantial 6.1% ABV, it's not really part of the picture. A decent and interesting beer, overall, if the herbal gruit-ish thing is to your taste.

After two successive years at the festival, Omnipollo was absent this time around. To placate their legion of slavering adherents, up at the windmill De Molen was pouring a collaboration they'd done together: Hypnopompa. It's 11% ABV and officially designated a "marshmallow imperial stout", God help us. There's certainly a dose of Omnipollo's trademark gut-wrenching sweetness in this: that Crunchie bar flavour that ruins their Yellow Belly stout. It's held in check here, however, and ends up rich and luxurious rather than sickly sweet. Beyond the chocolate and honeycomb there's a classy waft of rosewater running through it, tempering the excesses of the malt. Definitely a sipper, however. I doubt I'd enjoy a whole bottle.

Den Haag's Kwartje brewery had a go at matching De Molen at their own game with a selection of strong and barrel-aged palate thumpers. Upgrade is the name they've given to their hacked imperial stout series, and I tried the one with chilli and cinnamon. It's perfunctory: cinnamon completely dominates the flavour, as cinnamon tends to, so there's an inescapably Christmassy vibe to it which gets old very quickly. On the end there's the a powdery rasp of dried chilli which goes some way to counteract the cookie sweetness, but far from balances it. An issue here may be that it's only 9.2% ABV: a bigger body would have made it a better, more rounded, beer I reckon. As-is it's strictly for cinnamon beer fans, assuming some exist, somewhere.

Ruby is Kwartje's Rioja-barrel-aged barley wine, with no qualms about ABV here at 14%. This one looks quite stouty but is actually red. It smells red too: fresh and summery raspberries. The flavour opens on a lushly grown-up combination of red wine and dark chocolate, adding in ripe summer fruit, and if it had stayed like that it would be great. Something goes awry with the wine barrel late on, introducing a kind of sour staleness, like a bottle of red left open too long. It puts a sharp edge on what should be a smooth and mature beer and turns it from a triumph to a narrow miss, for me.

L: Lapsang Souchong Alt;
R: Blackadder (see below)
Just one from Borefts regular Kees!: a Lapsang Souchong Alt, though it is in breach of the rule that using a classic well-defined style designation should preclude one from mucking around with the recipe. The smoke gets to work early here, with a hammy undercurrent to the grain aroma. This continues on drinking, with the dryness of a straightforward dark lager meeting a different kind of dryness from the smoke. The two don't gel together well and I kept imagining how it would have been a solid alt-style beer if they hadn't decided to add in the tea.

A new brewer whose beers caught my eye, despite his bar being relegated to a distant corner of the brewery, was Tommie Sjef, specialising in what tend to be be grouped under the broad category of farmhouse-style beers; the sort that are highly attenuated and come in 75cl bottles with minimalist labels.

He had almost sold out by the time I got there on the Friday evening, with just the flagship beer Druif left. It's described as a wild ale with red wine grapes and achieves the classic invigorating mineral kick found in good gueuze. Overlaying that is the chewy sweet grape and this time the two contrasting elements dovetail together beautifully, and all done at just 5% ABV. I thought this was at least as good as the classic red grape lambic from Cantillon, Saint Lamvinus, if not better. When Tommie was back in business the following afternoon I was straight over.

None of the others were quite as good, however. Bloesem was next, one with elderflower, the name immediately calling to mind Lindemans BlossomGeuze, a beer I didn't particularly care for. This one is dark orange in colour and exudes a pure, concentrated elderflower perfume. I quite like elderflower, so didn't mind. It's quite a light beer, both on the floral side and the tartness: well balanced, easy-drinking and refreshing, so basically all the things the Lindemans one wasn't. No spectacular fireworks here, but a very decent beer.

Blauw followed, and I love a bit of blueberry I do. It's a dark mucky red colour and eschews the bright clean flavours of the previous two to go for something much more funky, with a savoury Brettanomyces taste right at the front. The blueberry is pleasingly obvious behind this: properly juicy and sweet, though more on the syrupy concentrate side than real tart berries. Fortunately they're balanced by an assertive palate-tingling sourness. Another deftly balanced complex one this: subtle yet engaging.

My run through these was completed with Tommie Sjef's Framboos-Cassis, a beautiful clear bright red colour. It turns out that mixing raspberries and blackcurrants yields a beer that smells of redcurrants: a summery sort of tartness. On tasting it has the same three-part flavour profile as the Blauw: sourness, funk and fruit, but this time the sourness level is ramped up far too high, turning to vinegar. The fruit flavour still manages to come through past the acrid acid but on the whole it's just not as well integrated as the others.

Minor blips aside, I will definitely be looking for more from Tommie Sjef when in the Netherlands next.

I was all set now for Alvinne to wow me with their Wild West: Grape Edition, a sour ale with Primitivo grapes (10kg/hL, fact fans), barrel-aged for four months and coming out at 6% ABV. It arrived a luminous orange colour with a harmonious aroma of luscious fruit and funky Brett. It's a lot less subtle than the Sjef stuff: puckeringly sour and then slightly syrupy white grape juice. You get everything it promises, though perhaps in bigger portions than you might like. A bit more maturation would do wonders for it, I reckon.

La Pirata were flying the flag for, well, whomever they want to fly the flag for. It said "Spain" in the programme but your constitutional status may vary. I only had their Blackadder porter, a 9%-er which I found quite loud and busy. It's roasty and bitter and floral all at once, throwing out cakes and jam-filled pastries and bitter cooking chocolate, like it couldn't quite concentrate on one thing at a time. Complex, sure, but impossible to relax into, and I think this sort of beer should allow that.

Finally to Bavaria, and the wonderful Gänstaller Bräu. Yes, an Affumicator came first: it always does and always will. To register a tick with them I chose Rauch Royal, described as a smoked imperial India pale lager. My first, I believe. It smells innocently meadowy, the gentle grass and herbs of some German hop or other. The flavour offers a bizarre mix of bright flowers and heavy smoky phenols. There's a sizeable bitterness too, goaded on by a whopping 8.2% ABV. All very weird and completely mismatched, but it kind of works, at the same time: each element performs well separately and it doesn't matter that they aren't integrated. This beer wouldn't be for everyone but I enjoyed the silliness.

And so the curtain falls on Borefts 2017, still consistently the best big-but-small festival I've been to. As usual we skipped the official after-festival in Rotterdam, heading straight for the capital and its pubs.

15 November 2017

English spoken here

My third entry from Borefts 2017 concerns the breweries from the English speaking countries: England, Scotland, Ireland and the USA. Not that the beers had anything particular in common but I need to put some sort of order on this, however arbitrary.

It was Cloudwater's first outing to the festival and I expected them to be mobbed, in accordance with their current status at the top of the hype heap in British brewing. And yes there were queues but not really as big as I anticipated, given the size of the event and the profile of the clientele. On a mission to have a beer from every brewer exhibiting, I took my one from Cloudwater early on day two.

NW DIPA Galaxy was the beer in question, 9% ABV, murky of course, and smelling strongly of orange marmalade shred. The flavour is a mix of orange pith and spring onion -- quite harsh and acidic, though offset somewhat by the creamy texture. A faint burr of cardboard creeps in at the end. It's certainly big flavoured, and it hides the alcohol well, but there's a lack of finesse here, a certain roughness crying out to be polished. I wasn't getting back in line for another.

One stand to the right, and attracting almost as much attention, was our own Galway Bay Brewery. Their flower power festival special didn't involve hibiscus for once: Saison Phi was brewed with chamomile, fennel and rose petals. There's not much of the novelty about it, however. Instead you get a rock-solid classic saison, opening with juicy honeydew melon and then turning drier for a poppyseed savoury note, in addition to Belgian yeast spices. All done at just 5% ABV too. Pure quality, no messing.

Also playing the Greek letter game were Brew By Numbers who have a pilot series designated by π. π|10 was pouring here, a pear and ginger saison. I'm unconvinced about pear as a beer flavouring addition: it rarely seems to impart much. This one manages it, however, with a genuine juicy ripe pear sweetness balanced with a kick of fresh ginger. Beneath this is another rock-solid saison, bigger than Galway Bay's at 6% ABV and with a serious farmyard funk. Perhaps not much of a thirst-quencher but interesting, tasty, and not overwrought.

I also had a go of the Bermondsey brewery's coffee porter, 10|10. It's a dense black colour with a deep tan head, reflecting the ballsy 10% ABV. I was expecting something big and rounded but found it rather dry and quite acrid. There's lot of coffee in both the flavour and aroma, however it's all bitter burnt grounds instead of the lovely rich oils you get in better examples. A pass from me.

Weird Beard's strong stout was more enjoyable. They were alternating versions of Sadako imperial stout and it was the rum barrel one when I got to it. It certainly smells of dark rum though the flavour is more of a tiramisu, tempered but not dominated by dry roast. 9.5% ABV gives it a gut-sticking texture exuding belly-warming spirit vapours. Simplistic, perhaps, but it gets the job done.

Their festival special was also a stout, though only 4.2% ABV. Hippy Hating Hippie uses rose hips and cinnamon in the recipe and I had no idea what that would do. The end result is red-brown in colour and, amazingly, does not just taste of cinnamon. There's more of a black pepper quality, with just a faint floral sweetness behind. It is a little thin, but at a forgivable level as it's nicely easy drinking. Refreshing after a round of booze bombs.

Speaking of which, two heavyweight brand extensions from Beavertown next, starting with Lord Smog Almighty on the right, based on their Smog Rocket porter, barrel aged and raised to 12.7% ABV. Putting a heavily smoked beer into an Ardbeg barrel wasn't a great idea. It's insanely phenolic, TCP-laden, like Laphroaig on steroids. Too much hospital disinfectant and not enough beer here.

And if that's too light, there was also Heavy Lord, a blend of their Heavy Water imperial stout and the legendary Three Floyds Dark Lord. 14.5% ABV, so probably one to finish your session on. The flavour is pure dark chocolate: slabs of the stuff, dry and bitter. A gentler black cherry fruit helps lighten the mood and overall it's quite a charming package and far from extreme. I don't know that it's better than the sum of its parts though I liked it a lot.

Flying the flag for Scotland was Tempest whom I almost missed but I grabbed a quick glass of Bourbon Mexicake as I was finishing up. This 11.6% ABV imperial stout does exactly what the name suggests: a dry chilli burn, some sweeter cinnamon and all the sweet cake richness of a moist chocolate muffin. The bourbon element was understated but I was happy it didn't get in the way of everything else.

Borefts fixture Hair of the Dog brings this post to a close, starting with one of the core range: Blue Dot. The brewery calls it a double IPA though it's only 7% ABV. An unusual feature is the inclusion of rye in the recipe though I can't say I noticed its contribution. It has a similar sort of dense maltiness as the other strong beers from the brewery, and while the west coast hops add a spritzy jaffa foretaste, there's an earthy English quality to it as well. For a double IPA brewed in Oregon, it's remarkably balanced and mature tasting, low in bitterness and quite easy to drink.

I couldn't resist getting some Cherry Adam to go with it, a cherry-infused version of Hair of the Dog's old ale. It's blood red in colour and quite headless, smelling as syrupy as it looks. And obviously it's very heavy going; definitely a sipper at 13.5% ABV. It tasted most of all like chocolate sauce, with overtones of cherry liqueur and an edge of soy sauce autolysis. The umami-driven Samuel Adams Triple Bock sprung to mind, a beer I'm very fond of. This is similarly smooth and warming. I couldn't tell you which parts are deliberate and which, if any, were technical flaws; only that it made for damn fine drinking.

One more post from Borefts to go, this one featuring, erm, everyone else.