30 November 2017


Where to start, at the national beer festival of an unfamiliar country of which you know little? "Randomly" was my answer when I arrived at the Stockholm Beer & Whisky Festival and began exploring the bars.

Pax was an early pick, because they have a nice logo. They make a US and New Zealand-hopped pale ale called Origo, an opaque orange colour and leaning heavily on the southern hemisphere grassiness. This gives it a powerful bitterness which I found a little overpowering, especially in combination with a strong caraway savoury quality. It's a beer of edges. There is a little hint of soft stonefruit in the middle but it gets drowned by everything else. One mouthful is refreshing, the rest are hard work.

Pax's IPA is called Regina. It's 7.5% ABV yet very light-bodied. The aroma offers funky orange pith and mandarin skin, and the oranges theme continues into the flavour. A flash of resin opens it, before settling out into orange oil. It's tasty and fun, though with a definite traditional English vibe, reminding me of lovely Young's Bitter in particular. One-dimensional perhaps, but that's not important when it comes with quality.

The next pair is from Adelsö, beginning with Wild Child, a saison at a stonking 12% ABV. There's a rich banana aroma and there's not much to say beyond that: the flavour is extremely hot and harsh, like a liqueur or even a spirit, and not a nice one. My sample was tiny but even that was hard work to get through.

To go with that there was Rocket, an IPA at a more manageable 6%. It's still not great, though, whichever hop combination they've used. The aroma is funky and plasticky; the flavour all herbal urinal cakes while the texture is thick and cloying. This is downright unpleasant from end to end. We weren't tempted back to Adelsö at any point.

We did keep passing the Nacka brewery stand and ordering something while there. It was conveniently positioned on a busy corner. From the name I'm guessing it was also the closest brewery to the event, it being held in the Nacka suburb of Stockholm.

I began with Boo, the pils. It's a murky golden colour and offered a worrying aroma of banana and melon. There are esters in the flavour too, though it tastes cleaner than it smells, with a decent sharp bitterness. It was OK to drink but far from being a classic or well-made pils.

Nacka Julöl was much better, and absolutely to style. It's a deep chestnut red colour with a perfect winter aroma of seasonal spices and seasoned wood. The flavour profile is low overall, the spices merely hinted at, but there's an overarching comforting warmth given out which makes it a joy to drink. This beer seems to have been lovingly formulated by someone who really enjoys a good Julöl.

There was another Nacka mis-step with Baggens IPA. This pale orange-pink number is 6.1% ABV and goes all-out for perfume flavours. It ends up tasting like granny's bathroom: soapy and chemical with an eye-watering concentrated floral quality. Yuck. It is aptly named, perhaps.

They got back in my good books with Mild Aromas From Havanna, a simple smoked mild of 4.2% ABV. It's a clear dark amber colour and very clean, almost (suspiciously) lager-like. The smoke is certainly present, in a pleasing hammy way, and the finish is quick with no unpleasant residual flavours. I'd love to see more lightweight dark and smoky beers like this around.

Finally from Nacka, Daniela's Rakija, an imperial stout. 9.6% ABV is low considering some of the imperial stouts I've been drinking lately, but it packs a lot into that, aided by an especially thick and gooey texture. The hop levels are pleasingly high, giving a herbal bitterness to balance the stouty caramel and chocolate. I got a hint of smoke in the background too, providing seasoning. Overall a very grown-up beer, being stolidly decent and not trying to pull silly tricks. Proper.

I mentioned a couple of Nynäshamns beers in Monday's post. I had three others at the festival. Bötet is a barley wine and this version of it was aged in Bourbon casks. It's a deep ruby red colour and takes its style designation very seriously, tasting quite like a port, with that warm vinous quality, and including real grapes and real tannins. A dusting of woody sawdust does spoil it slightly, but overall it's a very decent rich sipping beer.

Tjockhult Tjinook I had on cask, for the novelty. It's a lager with a strange mix of flavours. I got coconut and bubblegum as well as a lime bitterness and a crisp minerality. I've no idea if any of that is meant to be in there but it does make for a fun, if somewhat silly, experience.

Last of this lot is the portentously named Valsviken Vinterporter: a serious dark beer at a serious 9.1% ABV. There's a major fig and plum aroma, hinting at big alcohol, but it's actually quite accessible. The flavour offers juicy raisins with tannic skins while the finish is dry and swift. My sample was a little flat as the bottle had probably been open a while though this didn't spoil it. In fact I think fizz is the enemy for beers like this.

Two from Poppels concludes this post. Poppels Double IPA is an amber-gold colour and remarkably easy drinking for 8% ABV. It's quite dry, for one thing, showing more tannins than is normal, and there's no big heavy alcohol density or heat. It brings the hops though: an invigorating smack of lime and grapefruit. It's really good, classy, balanced stuff.

We step out of the festival for the second one, Poppels Imperial Stout, picked up at Systembolaget and consumed in the hotel room. It's quite similar to the Nacka one above, in that it emphasises the bitterness, hitting liquorice, dark chocolate and dry roasted grain. It's perhaps not particularly distinctive but makes up in quality what it lacks in originality.

One last spin around the festival floor tomorrow.

29 November 2017

International flavour

I was excited to find Hanscraft exhibiting at the Stockholm Beer & Whisky Festival in September. This German beer brand crossed my path in Bamberg a few years ago and I was very impressed with the Backbone Splitter IPA. I hadn't had the chance to try anything else of theirs since, but here they had their own bar and several beers pouring. In theory, anyway: I suspect that Hans was as excited as I was and spent his days going around the stalls instead of manning his own. Eventually the Festival stationed one of its staff members there to do the serving.

To begin, the Single Hop Kellerpils brewed with Hallertau Blanc. It's a clear golden colour and has a bold and interesting flavour of honeydew melon with white pepper. That would be superb if it were allowed to stay there, but there's a building floral character too, starting out on lavender and violet but growing as it goes until it becomes like sticking your head in a medicine cabinet. This is almost excellent but I think the dependence on one hop lets it down.

The other Hanscraft I tried was Black Nizza Motor Øl , a 9% ABV imperial stout. Huge liquorice in this one, then lots of rich and bitter dark chocolate. Maybe it's the Germanic thing but I was strongly reminded of Baltic porter by the way it goes about its business: there's a similar sort of rich fullness while also staying clean and sharp. It gets creamier as it warms though never becomes sweet or heavy. Classy stuff.

Just one Czech beer passed my way: HopBit 13 from Medvěd. It's broadly a pilsner, brewed with a selection of typically Germanic hops from New Zealand. Fresh ones too, judging by the smell of it. There's a very full-on noble hop bitterness with only a slight twang of the plastic off flavour I often get in beers like this. Fortunately, that's gone completely by the time the best feature, the aftertaste, arrives bringing lovely long grassy meadow vapours. The carbonation is pleasingly low as well, so an all round quality offering.

Belgium next, and Wadesda #7, a saison produced by Brasserie de la Senne but with added lambic supplied by Cantillon. This should be special, and it is too. The aroma offers up a luscious ripe stonefruit juiciness while the flavour genuinely mixes the best of saison and lambic: succulent Sauvignon Blanc grapes and spicy nitric gunpowder. If the other beers in this experimental series are as good, it would be well worth exploring.

Curiosity led me to order a Duvel Single Fermented from their distributor's bar. This is a draught variant of the classic golden ale, taken out of the maturation process early and kegged when it's just 6.8% ABV. I guess it's answering a market demand for beer that is actually lighter and doesn't merely taste it, like Duvel does. After my recent Chouffe Soleil experience in Brussels I wasn't expecting much here, other than a watered-down version of Duvel. But it's beautiful! The peach and pineapple fruit is somehow fresher and brighter; the bittering hops sharp and invigorating. There's a much lower ester factor than is found in normal Duvel, and perhaps that's the secret: the other flavours have more room to manoeuvre. This really does offer everything that's great about the taste of Duvel in a lighter and more approachable package.

To Denmark next and there were a few from Warpigs in Copenhagen on one of the big bars. I couldn't resist Bad Pun IPA. It's a pale yellow west-coast-style one, though only 6.1% ABV and a little watery as a result. There's a tropical thing going on at the centre of the flavour but it's rather muted, like it's just the pith and fibrous matter of the fruits, rather than the juicy flesh. I could see what it was trying to be but it needs a flavour boost all round.

I'm throwing the last beer in with the Danes even though it's brewed by Carlsberg's Swedish outpost. Eriksberg is a ubiquitous macrolager and came my way at dinner on the Saturday. BrewDog had arranged for a meal in the festival restaurant which, despite being surrounded by many of the world's best beers that weekend, had the worst drink selection in the neighbourhood. It's typical of the in-house catering at large event venues, I guess. So anyway: a half litre of Eriksberg with my reindeer carpaccio. It's an amber colour and smooth and sweet. And that's about all there is to say about it. It's OK; maybe a little syrupy, but bland and inoffensive.

And that brings us neatly, at long last, to the Swedish beers, starting tomorrow.

28 November 2017


As part of the prize-package for the BrewDog Beer Geek Awards, I was booked into two masterclasses at the Stockholm Beer & Whisky Festival. The first one was already under way when we arrived on Thursday afternoon, which meant interrupting Logan Plant when he had begun explaining the Beavertown story to the class. Sorry Logan!

The beers on offer for tasting included Dead & Berried, a collaboration with Other Half, in a Kölsch style with added oats and raspberries. At 6.2% ABV and with a thick yogurty texture this manages to get a lot of raspberry flavour in without any of the customary tartness. The aroma is surprisingly hop forward, all green and spicy, though they're oddly absent from the flavour. It's quite enjoyable overall, if not exactly spectacular.

The same goes for the next one, Dame Melba Phantom, part of the Phantom Berliner weisse series, this one infused with peach and raspberry. The peach is present in the aroma, however the raspberries dominate the flavour, and this time they bring the tartness. The Berliner weisse sourness exists in it separately from the raspberry acidity, and the combination works quite well. That's about as complex as it gets, though it's probably for the good that it's not overly busy or trying too hard.

Friday's masterclass was from the Brewer's Association, hosted by their European ambassador Sylvia Kopp, and on the subject of matching American beer with European cheese. Phwoar!

The line-up began with a brewery which was new to me: Mill House from New York. The beer, with a dubiously punny name, was Köld One. It's a wan yellow colour and quite grainy, so very much in keeping with its purported German style, at least to begin with. There is a stronger than usual bitterness, however, and a sharp fizz in contrast to the softness of Cologne's better Kölsches. I even got a hint of pear drop acetone late on. First impressions were good but I think the brewers may have been a little overambitious with this recipe. It's not as clean as it needs to be.

To the federal capital next, and DC Brau Oktoberfest. I'm always on guard when it comes to American Oktoberfestbier as they have a tendency to be too dark, harsh and sticky. And this is exactly that: an orange-amber colour with a headache-inducing marker-pen aroma. The flavour is fairly clean, even though the toasty-roasty quality is overdone. It's still too sweet however, more like a sticky sickly bock than a Märzen. I couldn't imagine drinking more than a sample, which is really missing the point.

The next one was a surprise. I didn't know that Victory made a sour version of their Golden Monkey tripel, but here was Sour Monkey, with Brettanomyces and everything. It brings the noise right from the get-go with a pungent aroma of funk and vinegar. I might have expected the bugs and Brett to have chomped through the sugary tripel sweetness, but that's still there and enhanced with a riot of saltpetre spicing: warm peach and apricot infused with cap-gun smoke. There's more than a hint of genuine lambic about the whole package; it's certainly flamingly sour enough. The overall loudness is distinctly American, however. This beer is crazy but quite quite beautiful.

The last one of the session which was new to me was False Summit, a Bourbon-aged quadrupel from Elevation Beer Company in Colorado. Smells of coconut and tastes of Baileys, say my notes, bluntly. Looking for complexity beyond the chocolate and booze there is some residual dark fruit: plum and fig, but rendered so alcohol-soaked that they taste more like slivovitz or fig schnapps. Overall it's an odd one, and not very beery when it comes down to it. I'm not sure it delivers a proper complexity, which is unforgivable given its complex ageing and 11.1% ABV.

The Brewers Association also had their own bar in the festival main hall, a larger version of the one they had at the RDS in Dublin, with a few extra beers. My wife was smitten with Epic's Big Bad Baptista and went back for it a couple of times. It's a 12% ABV imperial stout enhanced with cinnamon and coffee. It smells of rum and chocolate. I got coconut from the flavour -- the raw husk rather than sweet flesh -- as well as a hot whiskey burn. This isn't as smooth as I'd like but it is very impressive.

For my part, I couldn't resist another pumpkin beer, a sequel to the O'Fallon one I tried in Dublin. O'Fallon Vanilla Pumpkin: what's not to like? It's an opaque orange colour with a fun custard aroma. There's custard in the flavour too, and, unsurprisingly, cinnamon. "Tastes like Starbucks," she said. I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not. What I really like is that this isn't overly sweet, staying light and drinkable. You won't like it if you're a pumpkin beer hater but I thought it was a fun twist on the format.

Karl Strauss is one of those breweries I hear mentioned now and again but had never seen in real life. It's a veteran of the San Diego craft scene, dating back to the late 1980s. It seems they have distribution in Sweden so this was an opportunity to try a couple of their wares.

Tower 10 is the IPA, a very pale and slightly hazy one. I don't know if it's me, the beer, or the serving, but this didn't seem right at all. The first alarm bells came with the disinfectant aroma, followed by a sticky boiled-sweet flavour with dry cereals and a burn of higher alcohols, even though it's just 7% ABV. Quite poor all round, though it may be just that this is how west coast IPAs tasted in the '80s.

In the same style and at the same strength, but rather better, was Aurora Hoppyalis. This is heavy and green, with an almost sickliness to its dank aroma. The flavour roars with spring onion, cabbage and weed, with a backing of sweet and cake-like malt for balance. In its big-impact bitterness it's also quite old-fashioned but is a marked improvement on its predecessor.

The same importer has another San Diegan on its books: Modern Times. I had never tried the brewery's flagship amber ale Blazing World and here was my chance. It's quite pale for the style and lacks the malt quality that the best ones use to launch hop flavours. Instead it's rather pithy and dry, with a chalky texture, some savoury sesame seed and a splash of citrus juice. I even got a slightly sour and curdled note, in both aroma and flavour. I was genuinely taken aback by how poor this one was.

Firestone Walker was pouring around the corner and I chanced a Parabola imperial stout. This is a Bourbon-aged beast at 14.5% ABV and the aroma lends that a stamp of authenticity. There is sufficient Tia Maria and tiramisu here to bolster an '80s dinner party. The flavour begins with a bitter coffee followed by a mellow old whisky smoothness. The cask vanilla is quite strong but not overdone: there's enough of everything else to integrate it successfully. Overall a beautiful beer and fine example of Bourbon ageing in action.

That wasn't even the strongest beer I had at the gig. My fellow award winner Lena mentioned that one of the stands had a bottle of Samuel Adams Utopias behind the counter. Ten or twelve years ago this super-strong spirit-like beer was spoken of in hushed tones. Now it isn't spoken of at all and I had all but forgotten that it existed. Even at the height of the Celtic Tiger craziness I wouldn't have shelled out the three-figure price of a bottle, but the chance of a taste for a handful of kroner wasn't something I could pass up.

So here it is: 27% ABV and a clear ochre colour. Devoid of fizz, of course, and the first flavour I get is concentrated chocolate essence. This is followed by a heady mix of unctuous olorosso sherry, warm tawny port, and building to hot, cheap, gutrot whiskey. This is definitely more a bad spirit than a fine beer and I wouldn't recommend it, for any money really. But I'm glad I tried it. With the current financial woes of Boston Beer Company it might not be around much longer.

I topped that with an equally rare American beer; well I'd never seen it on sale before: Schlitz is an old-school Milwaukee lager, now part of the Pabst empire. It's pale gold, extremely watery and smells of cooked veg. There's a tiny tang of real hops in the finish, though frustratingly little. I don't normally mind bland beers but this one is actually annoying in how vacuous it all is. Offensively boring.

Before I move on to the Swedish beers, a quick look next at some of the other foreign offerings.

27 November 2017

Up and away

Over the summer BrewDog ran its first ever Beer Geek Awards, setting out seven types of geeky behaviour for each of which a package of prizes were up for grabs. I was delighted to be the recipient of the Beer Review Geek for my musings here, and at the end of September BrewDog arranged for me and the wife to go to Stockholm for four days and attend the Stockholm Beer & Whisky Festival. I had never been to the Swedish capital, and had been given several recommendations for the festival over the years, so it was brilliant to have this opportunity handed to me.

I was extra pleased when the plane tickets were from SAS. A couple of years ago Mikkeller began producing beers especially for the airline and only available on their flights. You can watch (incredulously or otherwise) a video on their creation and the sensory challenges around getting beer to taste right under aeronautical conditions.

Northern Trails was what they had on my flight, a bright yellow hazy IPA brewed with Citra, Amarillo, Polaris, Simcoe and Mosaic. The aroma, even 12,000 metres up, is freshly peachy with a light dankness and a touch of pepper too. It's quite savoury at first, throwing out lots of caraway in the foretaste. The fruit comes later: bitter green kiwifruit and softer white plum, finishing on a greenly acidic bite. It certainly tasted like a proper, uncompromised, IPA to me, if a little too bitter. Maybe that's just the altitude.

Stockholm airport, or at least the wing of it we departed from a few days later, doesn't have the best of beer offers but there were a couple of likely looking bottles at one of the concourse cafés. I picked The Avenyn Ale from well-reputed Swedish brewery Dugges. It's an American-style pale ale, 5% ABV and a mucky yellow colour. It smells zesty but tastes rather plainer, with mild jaffa and mandarin. The texture is light, to the point of watery, and while it's decently refreshing there's not much to it. I wonder if freshness was an issue: the place wasn't exactly pushing it.

For herself, Coppersmith's Queen's Pale Ale. Nice label but a very amateurish beer. It fizzed massively, taking ages to pour, and therefore not suited to airport drinking. The body is a murky orange colour, the suspended yeast adding a spice to the aroma. The flavour is rough, with hot esters and a hard metallic hop bitterness, set on a thick texture with surprising dark roasted elements. This recipe is just confusing, and the whole package far from pleasant.

Most of the trip was spent at the festival though we did manage to squeeze in a couple of pub visits. High on the agenda was Akkurat, possibly the most famous beer bar in the city. The prize package was supposed to include dinner here but for whatever reason that was changed. We popped in on the first evening to find quite a large and rangey pub fitted out in dark wood in a vaguely American style.

I took the sour option with Monstrosity by Tempel Brygghus. I don't get the name: it's only 4.9% ABV and quite a simple beer. The sourness level is no higher than tangy candy while the billed hoppiness is mildly lemony, along the lines of a witbier. And that's pretty much it. It's fine, but I expected more.

Herself went smoky with Rököl by Helsinge, which is Swedish, not Finnish. This is a handsome clear dark garnet colour, like a proper Bavarian rauchbier. The aroma exudes a subtle yet alluring smokiness and the texture is smooth, just begging for big gulps. It almost achieves Franconian perfection in the flavour, which is deliciously bacony but there's a very slight TCP twang at the very end which wrongfoots it a little. It's still very nice, though, balancing its sweet malt side with the rasp of smoke. I could have settled into this beer, except it wasn't mine.

My favourite of the handful of bars we visited was Zum Franziskaner, a longtime fixture on the southern end of Gamla Stan, the small island that forms the historic core of the city. As the name suggests, it's going for a German tavern vibe, and the beer list reflects this, with luminaries from Spezial, Schlenkerla, König Ludwig and the like. And Gänstaller! I had my first try of Gänstaller Pils. It's heavy and resinous, packed to the gunwhales with noble hops. A super sweet candyfloss malt backbone tries to provide balance, and pretty much succeeds too. Though only 4.9% ABV, this is a beast of a lager, brimming with flavour and absolutely in keeping with Gänstaller's well-established prowess.

On a subsequent visit I went with a Swedish pils for comparison: Pickla by Nynäshamns. They've gone all out for herbal here and I got elements of grass, marjoram, rosemary and peppery rocket from this, plus a certain pleasant citrus incorporating a sweet lemon meringue base. It's maybe a bit too fancy to pass as German but it is a very well-made pils.

Across the table there was Brännskär brown ale from the same brewery. This is a handsome cola-red colour and again with the herbs, though this time it's an apothecary shop or old-fashioned candy rather than the country kitchen. There's a fun spice to it too, gunpowder and incense. The texture is pleasingly light and on the whole it's clean and pleasant drinking with just enough bitterness in the finish to give it an edge. Two quality beers here, and unsurprisingly there's more to come from Nynäshamns in a later post.

We dropped in to Oliver Twist as it was fairly close to the bus stop we used for the festival. It's a vaguely English pub with a good selection of beers, including lots of locals. Oppigårds is one of the longer established Swedes, around since the mid-1990s. Here I opted for their Everyday IPA, expecting it to channel the spirit of Founders. It didn't. The flavour is low, and almost insipid, with a floral character that's also slightly soapy. A pleasant rising dankness saves it eventually though the end result is merely acceptably refreshing which probably flew in the '90s but Sweden doubtless expects better now.

Beside it is RyeOT from Fjäderholmarnas Bryggeri. This one gets straight to work with the funky grassy rye aromas and is packed with thick oily resins. For all that, the bitterness is surprisingly mild though there is a slightly harsh metallic twang, softened by a jaffa juiciness. I'd say this is a good one for introducing people to the effect of rye on beer: everything it does to flavour is very present here, and it's decent drinking to boot.

It would have been strange to visit Stockholm and not call by Omnipollos Hatt, even though I'm not a huge fan of their work. It's a tiny phonebox of a place which most people seem to go to for the pizza primarily. There's a blackboard with ten draught offerings and prices going up to around the €14 mark for a 20cl measure of beer. We didn't go that way.

In fact I went for the second-cheapest item: Arzachel session IPA, only 3.5% ABV and a steal at €8 for the 30cl measure. Session's on! I was immediately charmed by its resemblance to Little Fawn: the same hazy yellow colour. Proper IPA resins are present, as is the requisite bouquet of tropical fruit. The finish is long and refreshingly bitter, with the grassy quality of good pilsner, while the texture is light but without being watery, which is very impressive at that strength. I really enjoyed this: it's not the sort of thing I'd associate with Omnipollo. That price though...

My wife chose something much more Omnipollish: Blueberry Slab Cake, from the signature soft-serve machine which I think may have been first used for beer here. The beer is an attractive purple colour capped by a swirl of stiff pink froth. It smells of raspberry ripple ice cream from the 1980s and the taste... eww! It's sickly sweet and powdery, reminding me of chicory coffee or off-brand drinking chocolate. It's advertised as sour but it most definitely is not, with just a vague berry tartness floating in the background. The 20cl glass cost almost €11, a lot to pay for a seriously substandard novelty.

Better value for Omnipollo was to be had beyond their pub. For example I picked up a bottle of Nebuchadnezzar double IPA on a visit to Systembolaget, where the prices were remarkably reasonable and the selection superb. This is a beautifully dry beer with clean green celery-like hops, sparks of citrus and a champagne toastiness. There's a thirst-quenching peach tea finish belying the 8.5% ABV. It's rare to encounter such controlled elegance in a double IPA and I loved it.

My last three Omnopolloi came when we got to the festival, in the vast exhibition rooms at Nacka Strand. First was Brush, an imperial stout created in collaboration with J. Wakefield in Florida. It smells deliciously like an Irish coffee, all cream, brown sugar and hard liquor. The flavour is over the top, however, with too much sweet toffee coupled with powerfully bitter espresso resulting in a hot, harsh and tarry mess. Even at 12% ABV it's possible to make a subtle imperial stout, but this wasn't one.

Two more IPAs next, both a sickly yellow colour. On the left is Fata Morgana, which smells of aniseed plus a touch of onion. There's a thick New England texture and the aniseed continues in the flavour, running from the candy foretaste right through to the herbal finish. This is laced with garlic around the edges as well as a wisp of white wine or diesel. It's a savoury combination which shouldn't work but is actually quite delicious.

I wasn't as much of a fan of Aurora next to it. It's even more herbal and savoury, with an aroma of urinal cakes and a dull cardamom flavour. It's fine, and perfectly drinkable, just not very interesting. Omnipollo's beers usually prompt more of a reaction than this one.

Here we are at the festival, then. It offered an odd combination of exhibitors, the halls dominated by the flashy stands of large corporate whisky brands and the long bars of big international beer distributors, then interspersed with the more modest presence of the local brewers. Our patron BrewDog was here too, though surprisingly had quite a small bar near the back entrance. I dropped by to say thanks and to try Blitz Gin.

This is a Berliner weisse with gin botanicals including angelica root and juniper. It's a hazy yellow colour and the flavour comes straight out of the traps with a puckering sour hit. The sweet botanicals come in after it, though offering nothing more complex than lemon and lime. I had been expecting something more complex, but this