31 January 2018

Downmarket upgrade

Tesco's Solas beer brand has been granted a revamp. In 2014 it was just a substandard red and a decent stout; now the line-up has been given a full craftastic overhaul, while still being brewed at Rye River.

Overhaul doesn't necessarily mean modernisation, and the first beer of the new set to cross my path is in a delightfully retro style: Solas Brown Porter. It's a modest 4.5% ABV and a surprisingly pale ruby colour. Expecting sweet and creamy coffee I was disappointed to find it rather dry and acrid, a bitter burnt rasp scouring the palate and scorching the throat. This is accompanied by a jammy blackcurrant Ribena effect, which I'm guessing is the hops (is that you, Bramling Cross?) and this doesn't match well with the dark malt. There's a more pleasant soft and floral hint right at the very end, and more coffee as it warms, but it's too little too late. I found the whole thing harsh and difficult, in a way that porter should never be. But at least it's not bland.

I hoped for better things from Solas Belgian Wit, even if budget witbier is rarely the portal to a flavour wonderland. It's quite soupy looking, without a proper head. The aroma has the appropriate mix of lemon and coriander while its texture is light and effervescent, and properly full, reflecting the 5.2% ABV. Tastewise it's quite decent: maybe a little sweet but all the elements of good witbier are present and correct. I got a strong hit of herbs, and yet none are listed on the ingredients: only the basics of beer plus wheat, and orange peel. Go figure. I can't really fault this at €2.69: crisp witbier, perfectly on point.

The third in the series, Solas Session IPA, wasn't available in the tiny local Tesco opposite my house so I had to schlep all the way around the corner to the big Tesco to find it. We're back at 4.5% ABV, which is fine for the style, and it pours a dark gold colour with some fairly large suspended particles in it. I'm guessing the gritty aroma is not unrelated to that, though there's a decent spark of limey citrus behind it. The flavour is definitely all-hop: fresh cool grapefruit first, and then a spring onion quality, intensifying to a full-on herbal dankness, especially as the beer begins to warm up. When that fades the citrus fruit steps back in to provide a lengthy finish. It's very good, overall, and once again especially at the price point. The thought of it cooking on the ambient shelves of Tesco makes me want to go and save every bottle. Feel free to help me out.

I somehow doubt that these beers, so much braver than a stout and a red, would exist were it not for Dunnes's Grafters and Lidl's Crafty Brewing range, both also produced by Rye River. For the latter, the brewery has created a new American Style Brown Ale, and something about the colour palette of the label suggests that America isn't the country they had in mind branding wise. It's 5% ABV and a dark ruby colour, smelling spicy and herbal with notes of lavender and honeysuckle. It turns highly floral on tasting with an almost rosewater perfume, plus dark chocolate, black cherry and bitter liquorice. The texture is pleasingly chewy which helps boost the complexity, and the long finish blends coffee and greenly acidic hops. They should have stolen Dogfish Head's Indian Brown Ale branding because this is very much along those lines. Great job.

The yang to its yin is Golden Fields Saison, and it's not often you get a half litre bottle of saison, let alone for €2.29 -- only in Ireland? It looked the part: a misty bright gold topped with bright white foam, and bonus points for being just 4.8% ABV. While smelling dry and almost musty when poured fresh from the fridge, a gentler and altogether more enjoyable peach aroma develops. Still dry on tasting, though: corn husk and white pepper. This has all the features of classic saison as it goes, but is just a little too dusty for my taste. I find it impossible to fault it on stylistic grounds, however, and true saison purists ought to love it.

I don't know how the mechanics of these commissions work but at least some credit has to go to the brewery for raising the standard and keeping it high. Which supermarket will have a budget sour beer first?

29 January 2018

Got DOT

Dublin's DOT Brew had a busy 2017, finishing with a rake of new releases. To show how far behind I am in writing about them, the first in today's overdue catch-up post is the Autumn: Seasons of Saison release. This one is 5.8% ABV, making it the lightest of series, and includes rye in the recipe. It's a handsome clear gold colour topped by a fine tight foam. The aroma is fruity but clean. I get white grape in particular. It tastes much more savoury than that: there's a smokiness at the front of the flavour, then sweeter apple and pear behind. I found it a bit harsh overall, and the busy fizz is distracting. The finish is a burnt plastic burr that didn't suit me at all. While its fruity side is tantalising, the rest, too much of it, is interference.

But that was merely prologue to the grand finale of Seasons of Saison: Winter. The biggest of the lot at 7.2% ABV, obsidian black and aged in both a whiskey and a port barrel. It's dry, but makes you work to find the saison characteristics after that. There's a very stout-like roast, and then a tar-and-tobacco bitterness. I think I get a touch of dark grape from the port pipe, as well as a more saison-specific peppery spice. Although there's plenty of sparkle it's still beautifully smooth, and I think that's what fits it best for winter: the fact that it's comforting and sippable; a saison for a quiet evening in. It's certainly very different from your typical saison, and manages that without doing anything silly, which is commendable. It was a fun series and I look forward to where DOT's saison adventures go next.

My adventures, meanwhile, brought me to Idlewild. The Fade Street cocktail bar had worked with DOT to create a beer that tasted like a cocktail, specifically, an Old Fashioned. Real Friends was the name: 10.7% ABV with rye, a convoluted combination of botanicals, some orange, and aged a whopping 15 months in bourbon barrels. I can't tell you how closely it resembles an Old Fashioned as I've never had one; I can tell you that it tastes nothing like a beer. It arrived flat and headless, a grim murky brown colour, with a thin texture to match. My impression on first tasting was of a Negroni: that dry rasp, accompanied by an explosion of vermouth-like bitters. Oily aniseed is most prominent, evaporating up into the nostrils for a very wintery sort of refreshment. The fruit and the oak vanilla follow afterwards, though the finish is quick. Once you get past the strangeness, it's a very enjoyable beer, and I had a second straight after my first. I'd normally criticise this sort of thing for being unbeerlike, except this is so unbeerlike as to be superb on its own terms. Daring doesn't begin to cover what DOT has assembled here.

Before turning to the bottled line-up, a beer I thought I was going to miss out on as it was created as a bottled special for Blackrock Cellar, an off licence that's just too far out of my way for hunting a single beer. Then lo and behold it arrived on draught at 57 The Headline where I could enjoy a dirty great pint of it. Joel's Barrel Aged Vietnamese Coffee Stout Batch II (I did miss the first batch in 2016) is a blend of a dark ale with an imperial stout. Both components were barrel aged separately, the stout with additional coffee beans and espresso, and the results came out at 6.9% ABV. I was expecting it to go big on coffee but it's actually quite restrained, light bodied and with a pleasingly low carbonation. Milk chocolate and rosewater are the primary flavours, like a Turkish delight from the Milk Tray box. There's a slight whiskey burn in the finish but it's mild, more like the whisky component in Drambuie or Irish Mist than anything neat. It's very sweet, and yet not cloying, presumably because of that lightness of body. I really enjoyed my pint, and came away happily reminded that massively intricate dark beers can be created without resorting to syrupy booze bombs.

Another spirit barrel comes out to play in DOT 013: Belgian Blonde Aged In An Irish Single Malt Ex White Rum Barrel, with its stellar label designed by Aran Brazil. The title preempts anything I have to say before tasting, other than it's 7% ABV and turns out a hazy orange colour with a rather plain oak aroma. The flavour is pithy, with a spritz of orange zest, fading quickly without much behind it. As it warms, more of the oak comes out, as well as savoury yeast and an alcohol burn, and the whole thing is a bit too heavy and serious for my liking. Perhaps this is where a wine barrel would work better than a rum barrel. I'm thinking of recent beers like Eight Degrees's The Oak King, YellowBelly's Kind Of A Big Deal or DOT's own Champagne Beer, where the barrel gave the base Belgian-style beer a fresh and fruity lift. This lacks that, and seems bogged down on the sugar cane plantation. A near miss, then.

A big beast follows next: Barrel Aged Cab Sauv Grain Rye. "But you already had this!" I hear you exclaim, referring back to DOT's first birthday last year. Foolish child, that was the Barrel Aged Cab Sauv Malt Rye. Grain is completely different, and 0.1% ABV stronger, at 9.6%. It's the same dark red-brown, mind, with a nose of toasted malt loaf. It has the same flavour of booze-soaked cherries as the malt one, though seems tarter, almost veering towards vinegar notes. The rye adds a distinct acidic bitterness that I don't care for and the whole thing would benefit from some maturation, or possibly just being served colder. There's a lot going on in it, but no one element takes the reins. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that it's more of an abstract painting than a portrait.

The finale is the one that nabbed DOT the prestigious Irish Whiskey Society award for best barrel-aged beer in 2017, and it's only 4.6% ABV! Single Grain Cab. Sauv. Session Ale is the name, or 012 if you're keeping count that way. It's a whiskey-ish honey amber colour, topped with a generous pure white head. Wood in the aroma again, this time with grape must and piercing spicy incense. That wine element is a major feature of the flavour, and it surprises me slightly that the whiskey heads would be into it: there's no spirit in the flavour that I can detect. I get smoky malt coupled with juicy white grape and a bitter herbal backing track featuring thyme and desiccated coconut. For all the panoply of flavours it is actually sessionable: nothing tries to dominate the palate or hangs around too long, though the carbonation is a smidge high. Possibly not the amazing finisher I was expecting, but a very good beer to go out on.

I'd hazard a wild guess that there will be more barrelly shenanigans from DOT later in 2018. Stay tuned.

26 January 2018

Peeking over the fence

The great and the good of UK brewing in today's post, collected randomly from all over the place in recent months.

Mobile Speaker came courtesy of BrewDog as part of my Beer Geek Awards prize. It's a collaboration between Cloudwater of Manchester and Dry & Bitter of Gørløse, a double IPA placed in the de rigeur 440ml labelled can one month before I opened it. No mention is made of New England but the inclusion of oats and the JW Lees yeast is a dead giveaway, as is, of course, the orange-tan opaque colour. 30 grammes of hops per litre of beer have gone into the dry hopping, and this huge concentration certainly shows in the aroma: a heady mix of fresh garlic and sweeter mango. The first flavour I get is caraway. Mosaic isn't a headline hop, but it's on the list, so I guess this is its fault. Behind it there's a garlic burn and a substantial booze heat, which is unusual for this sort of beer, even at 8% ABV. The finish is bitter and yeasty but the body is thick enough and smooth enough to avoid it being harsh. It's still not great, however: lacking fun fruity hop character and instead being all serious and savoury. As is so often the case I want to try it after the gunk has been cleared out of it.

Possibly one of my biggest regrets was not drinking Wylam's Jakehead IPA when I was in Newcastle a few years back. I drank other stuff instead, but Jakehead was the one attracting all the buzz a few months later. It's terrible being left out of the conversation. Thankfully, it has now arrived in Ireland in bottled form so I get to have my spake.

It's the medium amber colour that all US IPA used to be. The pour was clear but surprisingly flat, leaving a crescent of impacted yeast on the bottom of the bottle. A head formed but disappeared quickly. The beer itself isn't flat at all, having a pleasingly gentle sparkle. The aroma is quite resinous, almost funky, and certainly not the bright hop colours I had been expecting. Its flavour, meanwhile, is generally bitter, showing aspirin, orange pith and a rough dry sackcloth burr. There's a growing dankness as it warms but it never quite takes over. To me this sits somewhere on the spectrum between English bitter and old-school American IPA. And to be honest I don't see what the fuss is about. England makes much better IPAs than this, across all the sub-genres.

Another Wylam next, but on tap, at Alfie Byrne's. Hickey the Rake is described as a "limonata" pale ale, though I can't find any significance for the word, beyond it being Italian for lemonade. It's certainly lemon-tasting, and pleasingly heavily textured at just 4.2% ABV, so the overall effect I got is of lemon curd. It poured perfectly clearly and was as clean tasting as it looked. When beers attempt lemon flavours, whether derived from hops or by a direct fruit addition, there's always the risk of it coming out like detergent or furniture polish. This manages to avoid all of that, thankfully.

Taking a break from the hops next, with Raindrops on Roses, a rose-petal-enhanced witbier by Thornbridge, in collaboration with homebrew competition winner Phil Sisson. Oddly, rose petals aren't listed in the ingredients, nor are any of the fruit or herb additions normally employed in this style. It looks the part, a hazy pale orange topped by handsome pillow of foam. The aroma is a summery jug of fresh lemonade: citrus muddled with sugar. The rose is very apparent on tasting. It actually tastes pink, a mix of strawberry chews, sugar-dusted Turkish delight and retro pink-iced biscuits. At the same time it isn't particularly sweet, in the heavy sugary way of some beers. It has been fermented out properly and there's a dryness to the base beer that really helps to project the floral qualities. First-rate head retention and a cuddly fluffy texture make it a very comfortable beer to sink into and relax with. I'm not saying it's not weird, because it genuinely is, but more than anything it's fun, cheeky, and maybe a little silly, yet fully infused with joy. Well done to all involved.

A swift one at The Black Sheep next: Hard Rollin' by Siren, a lactose-and-oats-infused IPA, created in collaboration, again, with Dry & Bitter. It arrived headless, a bright murky orange colour. Orange in flavour too, with the concentrated orange squash sweetness gently spiced with red cabbage and nutmeg, before gradually giving way to an acidic hop burn in the finish. There's just enough of this bitterness and spice going on in the background to prevent it becoming an all-out candy bomb, though it's still not the way I like my IPAs. While I'm not doubting the sheer quantity of hops employed, I would like them to have provided a greater complexity of flavour.

I chose this over Northern Monk's Knucklepuck, of which I had a taster. It's one of those super-savoury IPAs, loaded with caraway seed. It's clean and clear, which offered a refreshing change, but was ultimately unengaging. The fruit element of Hard Rollin', simple and all that it is, offered a more interesting prospect.

Beavertown had two special editions on tap at Underdog just before Christmas, both at curiosity-dampening prices but I decided I'd give them a punt anyway. Logistical Nightmare was first, a milk stout which didn't taste very much like a milk stout to me. It's crisp, for one thing, with a dry bite that would be better placed in a schwarzbier. There's even a wisp of smoke in the finish which I thought completely misplaced. Beyond the stylistic niggles, it's a perfectly decent glassful, if rather lacking in the complexity one might expect from a special edition beer, especially at 6.3% ABV.

At time of drinking, Beavertown's Sonoma Pride was the most expensive beer yet served at Underdog, asking €9.75 for a 33cl glass. It's a clone recipe of Russian River's Pliny the Elder double IPA, and was created as a fundraiser for fire relief in California. It arrived a luminous gold colour and smelled promisingly of juicy peaches. This flashes only briefly in the flavour, however, before being overtaken by quite a harsh set of bitter flavours including aspirin, wax and overcooked vegetables. It gets danker as it warms, almost developing a cheesy Camembert-rind taste. What it doesn't do, is taste anything like Pliny the Elder. I found it harsh, insipid and generally lacking in pop. It was surprisingly watery for 8.8% ABV too. For the price asked, this beer should have been literally awesome, but it wasn't.

Finally, a can I picked up in the January sale at Stephen Street News: Beavertown and Green Cheek's The You Zoo. The New Englandishness is very apparent here, it being a dense opaque yellow with only the faintest skim of a head. The added ingredients are yuzu fruit and oolong tea. It's a while since I last had a tea-and-yuzu beer. The IPA aspect is very much in control of the picture: a heavy dank and bitter aroma, almost metallic in its intensity, like iron-rich liver. The flavour is similarly heavy and serious: a green onion acidity and lots of yeasty fuzz. I was expecting bright, clean and zingy but it's not that at all. Half way through I was finding it sickly and difficult, this sensation doubtless enhanced by the 7.5% ABV. As it warmed and flattened, more of the citrus juice emerged, but that dirty yeast quality never quite leaves. Presumably a one-off, it's not in need of a re-brew.

Cloudwater, Wylam, Thornbridge, Siren, Northern Monk and Beavertown: that's every brewery that exists in England, right?

24 January 2018

From all directions

This bottle of Meckatzer Weiss-Gold was a surprise arrival, delivered by blog reader Sebastian who picked it up in its native Allgäu in southern Bavaria. It's a pale lager, of course, bright gold in colour though with a slight haze through it. This, coupled with the 33cl bottle and a bit of English on the label, suggests that Brauerei Meckatzer, if not bitten, may have been at least nibbled by the craft fairy. No particular style is given but it's 5.2% ABV so I was thinking broadly helles when I opened it.

After pouring, the noble hops sing from the aroma: a hard waxy greenness. Mercifully it's softer to taste, the malt puffing out, by turns candyfloss, honeycomb and spongecake. There's a herbal, medicinal quality to the hop flavour, running in parallel: mint, eucalyptus and fennel. A slightly sharp, almost metallic, tang finishes it off. My guess about the style is borne out by a classic helles smoothness.

It's a jolly nice lager, perfectly balanced between the malt and hops. At the same time I didn't think it's particularly special: I imagine there's a brewery producing gear of this quality in every corner of Bavaria.

Cheers to Sebastian for dropping it over.

22 January 2018

All that I did leave behind

Per last week's posts, I was away for the Christmas and New Year break this year. I made an effort to get my backlog of Irish beer written up, but there were a few that either arrived on the bar too late to make it into that one, or had been acquired for pre-Christmas drinking at home and ended up languishing in the fridge while I was away. This post is dedicated to those 2017 throwbacks.

Last festive season I had completely missed 5 Lamps's Ale Mary Full of Spice, but fortunately it was back for a second coming in 2017, around the corner from the brewery at 57 The Headline. If obvious Christmas spices in your obvious Christmas ales are a problem, this won't be the beer for you. It roars with downright stereotypical cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, with not much else to say. Though an attractive shade of dark red, there's barely any room in the flavour for any malt characteristics. I confess I quite liked it, though partially because we are largely spared this sort of seasonal spice-bomb, so ubiquitous in the UK in particular. While silly, it's hard to be outright angry at it, and it most definitely brings Christmas spirit to the bar counter, as I'm sure was the brewery's intention.

The good people of Honest Brew sent me a couple of bottles last month, largely off the back of the Downstream project, begun by exporter Ireland Craft Beers. Downstream Hybrid IPL is the first in the series and the (possibly) USP here is a QR code which leads to a website offering forensic detail on the brewing and fermentation process. Funnily enough, the avalanche of information doesn't provide the IBU number, though it would be possible to calculate it from what's there. Anyway, it's an India pale lager, 4.5% ABV and brewed at Mourne Mountains Brewery up north. It's a surprisingly dark amber shade, and the back-up information tells me that's likely due to the inclusion of roasted barley, though we're not told how much. The flavour is sharply lemony, invigorating, but with a touch of scented hand-wipe about it. There's a light biscuit crunch behind this, both sides aided by the clean lager framework. A long bitter finish full of raw cabbage and spinach completes the picture. It packs a lot into quite a small package, and gets great use out of the largely-Cascade hop charge. I liked the punchiness here, and it's almost a pity that it's being produced for small-pack only: a pint would go down a treat.

With it arrived Boundary's Of the Hills porter, seemingly another Honest Brew joint venture. Honey and tea have been added to the mix here, and the end result is 4.8% ABV. It poured a muddy brown colour with a head that crackled quickly away to nothing. The honey makes itself felt in the aroma, and it smells delightfully like a Toblerone, mixing different kinds of sweetness, including the honey, chocolate and nuts. It tastes of chocolate, primarily, though is irritatingly thin: the first chocolatey pop should open the way to layers of gooey complexity but instead it stops dead there and then, a watery echo the only finish. It's fine; there are no off flavours, but a recipe this involved ought to produce a more full-flavoured beer, I think.

The next porter comes from Lough Gill, this time with chocolate in the recipe, and an ABV raised to 6%. They've called it Lovers Blend and I think I got a dose of yeast from the can into the glass, coming through in the aroma as gritty, covering up anything more porter-like. That dregginess is present in the flavour too, though it's possible to get past it. There's a gently sweet chocolate taste, not overdone though at the same time perhaps not as pronounced as it ought to be. A milky coffee roast accompanies it, and some stickier chocolate sauce. It's fine but never quite escapes that yeasty home-brewishness. A porter in need of a polish.

A third porter to follow: Coco Joe from Kinnegar, based on their Yannaroddy, with added coconut and coffee. It's still only 4.5% ABV but looks handsome, a dense cola brown, topped with dark beige foam. It's quite dry, and rather plain-tasting with that, the dessicated coconut being about the only point of interest. Some dry and dusty ground coffee emerges as it warms but I think both additions suffer from the lack of body, not given enough of a base beer from which to present themselves to the drinker. Though quite different in ingredients and flavour to the Boundary one, it has a fair bit in common with it, offering a simplistic flavour profile after promising something intriguing and different.

Kinnegar's other release in late 2017 was the first in a trilogy. Three Bagger - 1st Base is a sasion brewed in collaboration with Belgium's Siphon Brewing. The next two in the sequence, all from the same batch, are currently barrel ageing in Letterkenny. The first glass out of the large bottle was clear amber colour, exuding an intriguing mix of white grape and white pepper. It's sweeter to taste: Ovaltine malt and very typically Belgian candy sugar. Perhaps because of my deft pouring there's no gritty yeast quality, just a dusting of clove and cedar. I don't miss the grit. Overall it's a clean and enjoyable beer, sufficiently chewy and warming, tasting all of its 8% ABV while remaining well balanced. It will make a good neutral base for the next two editions, I think.

Also arriving in a festive 75cl bottle was Arthurstown King's Bay Coffee IPA. It's a foamy beast, an unattractive murky amber colour underneath. There has been no skimping on the coffee (provided by Waterford roastery Coffee House Lane) here: it smells of raw coffee husk, slightly dry and papery, with no sign of any hops. The flavour is a lot less scary, even if it's not much closer to an IPA. The coffee isn't roasty the way it comes across in darker styles, but fruity and floral, with sumptuous maraschino cherry, rosewater and milk chocolate. The hops almost escaped my notice, but there's a bitter green bite riding the coffee's coattails into the finish. It's a really brave and interesting recipe, a little gimmicky perhaps, but very well put together, making good use of all the ingredients.

The next two beers are draught specials I just kept missing when they were first doing the rounds of the usual venues. I was delighted to catch both unexpectedly in recent weeks.

Trouble Brewing's Rum & Raisins is a dubbel. Though bang in the middle of the accepted ABV range at 7.5%, Alfie Byrne's was still happy to throw it into a pint glass. Maybe it was an illusion caused by the look of the thing, but it didn't seem heavy like a dubbel usually is, going easy on the caramel and banana, deriving a spicy gunpowder note from (I'm guessing) black malt, rather than the Belgian yeast. It's light, drinkable, but rather plain fare even for an ordinary dubbel, let alone one with additional flavourings.

Also going for a Belgian theme, but missing the mark, I think, was O Brother with The Puppetmaster. It's described as a Belgian pale ale, is 5.8% ABV and was on cask in The Black Sheep as part of their tap takeover there last Thursday. It was poured beautifully cool and perfectly clear: a bright golden hue. Despite the strength the texture is light without being thin. The flavour, meanwhile, is an absolute riot of flowers and spices, presenting jasmine, juniper, incense and cedar. A herbal undercurrent gives almost an impression of vermouth. I'm guessing some alchemical combination of the yeast and hops caused this, but it's amazing and distinctive, if a little severe, and not like anything Belgian I can think of. Thankfully a dry chalk mineral finish bookends it neatly and prevents the madness from taking over completely. This was a reminder, if one be needed, that cask beer is not all smooth malty blandness. Look out for the punch in this one.

Lastly, Sullivan's Barley Wine is the second of the style from the Kilkenny brewer, produced on its pilot kit with the help of Stuart Clarke of Ireland's perennial culture bible Hot Press. The brewery's PR folk kindly sent me a bottle. Though a mere 7% ABV it's pretty dense looking, a stoutish black with a creamy head. The effect is largely dispelled by an aroma of ripe black grapes: Málaga wine or Pedro Ximinez sherry, though there's a lacing of toasted grains there too. It tastes quite savoury, to begin, the fruit taking a while to assert itself on the palate. The fortified wine effect continues and increases in intensity, turning to tawny port and even reminding me of some Spanish dark brandies I've tried. To say it's warming is an understatement, so I guess that's mission accomplished. It's not overwrought, however, and the alcohol heat is at an acceptable level: a benefit of that modest ABV I'm sure. I drank mine fairly cold and was just beginning to experience some extra complexities -- liquorice, dark chocolate, eucalyptus -- when I finished the glass. If, like me, you only have one bottle, take your time with it.

I'm told by those in the know that 2018 won't be quite as full-on as 2017 was, with regard to Irish new release beers. If so, I look forward to spending some quality time away from this keyboard.

19 January 2018

Bosch!

Emerging from the Christmas shut-in period, the first bit of exploring we did was to Delft. It's almost a suburb of The Hague, served by the same tram system. And it was mostly still closed for the holidays. We had a quick lunch in the Belgian beer café Belvédère where, looking for something simple and easy-going, I went for Het Anker's Maneblusser blonde ale. It's pretty damn basic, earning a pass in its Belgian beer exams with a gently spicy aroma and light peach, plus a sprinkle of white pepper for flavour. There's not much to say about it beyond that, though it did meet my requirements at the time.

The following day we ventured further afield, to the North Brabant capital Den Bosch. There was a lot more life about the place here, and the Christmas market and ice rink were still in full swing. Our first pit stop was Le Duc, a typical brown café, long and narrow with a mezzanine down the end. What distinguishes it from others in the city is the adjoining Kolleke microbrewery whose beers are exclusively served here. Let's get stuck in.

Round one brought Kolleke Winterbier for me, 8.2% ABV and a muddy brown colour. The flavour has a bit of cherry-chocolate, which is fun, but also lots of unpleasantly gritty yeast interference, like it hadn't been left to drop bright for long enough. It's warming, which is most of what's asked of a winter beer, but that's about it.

I'm well overdue an exciting beer at this stage, though Oude Jan (left of picture) wasn't it. It was rather better than the Winterbier, however, despite looking quite similar though clearer. This is lighter at 7% ABV and correspondingly thinner. The flavour is simple and crisp with a bite of red grape tannin. There's no Belgiany esters meaning it's easy to drink and quite refreshing if still rather lacking in character.

The surprise of the set was Jheronimus, the 7% ABV blonde ale. This is dense and beautifully spicy with lots of sweet Muscat grape, fading to apricot and honeydew melon. It's a little sticky, but that aids its rounded, warming nature, a role it performs better than either of the dark beers. Perhaps pale beers are where Kolleke's true skills lie. Time for another round.

Ome Jan, the pils-a-like blonde ale put that theory to the sword pretty quickly. For one thing it's amber coloured and not properly pale at all. There's a slightly soapy aroma which carries through to the flavour a little. It doesn't upset the overall picture, but then there's very little in the overall picture. This is one of those grainy brewpub lagers that most of them make: designed to be inoffensive and thirst-quenching, which it is, though the ABV is excessive at 6.5%.

In the middle is Jonge Jan: apparently a witbier. It's completely clear and smells worryingly vinegary. The flavour has a concentrated lemon cordial thing going on. This eventually fades to a pleasant lemonade vibe but only at the very end, and by then you've already dealt with the unforgivable flatness and the nasty sweaty overtones. This can't possibly be what the brewer intended and I've never been happier to have a small serve.

Still the biggest surprise of the afternoon was Kolleke IPA. I mean, the damn thing is brown! It's murky too: again with the not enough time in the tanks. There's a spicy incense aroma, and just about sufficient hop character in the flavour to qualify as an old-fashioned IPA on a technicality, but this is really not a very good beer.

We left Le Duc distinctly underwhelmed. You needn't include it on your itinerary in Den Bosch.

It's situated in a busy area for eating and drinking establishments, and just around the corner is 't Paultje, a friendly little bar with a small but interesting beer selection. Desperate for a palate cleanser I chose Jerry Sauertopf, a Berliner weisse by Kompaan. It's a mere 3.8% ABV and a hazy medium-amber colour. The flavour is beautifully bright and clean, simply tart and acidic at first, but quickly developing a juicy grapefruit flavour before finishing quickly. Yes it's as thin as might be expected, but it's fantastically light and refreshing, as the style ought to be.

The murky yellow beer on the left of the picture is Wunderbar by Berging Brouwerij, created with the help of Amsterdam client brewers Pontus. Despite the soupy appearance it's clean and fresh, giving out lovely fresh melon aromas followed by flavours of peach and mango. The bitterness is low, and it's quite simple overall. While the yeast stays out of the picture for the most part, there is a tiny spicy contribution which adds seasoning and does the beer no harm at all. Very enjoyable drinking.

L: Larrun; R: Beagle Juice
One last stop on the way to the station, and it's Thornbridge's bar. It's a fairly convincing take on an English pub: bright and roomy with three handpumps and a slew of kegged options. Jaipur was in fine form but I went with Beagle Juice, a session IPA. It's a total lemon bomb, to the point of sourness, and definitely too tart for my tastes. Lemon zest is as close to nuance as it gets, with a vague perfumey afterglow. I found it hard to enjoy a half so can't imagine a session on it.

The third beer engine was pouring Brock, a stout. The landlord ran off a pint before pouring my half as it was the first of the day. I don't think he got all of the line cleaner out as I got an extremely bleachy glassful. The light cocoa one might expect from a 4.1% ABV stout was present, just about, but I could barely taste it and, infuriatingly, didn't have time to bring it back. Serves me right for thinking I could squeeze in one for the road.

While this drama played out in my mouth, the wife was enjoying Larrun, an 8.5% ABV rye IPA by Basque brewery Bidassoa. This dark red beer smells of thick caramel, and is every bit as dense as the aroma suggests. A massive liquorice bitterness opens it up, followed by heady ripe strawberry. It's much more like an imperial red ale or a barley wine than an IPA, but is mostly quite enjoyable, if a little on the hot side.

Then it was back to The Hague and, the following day, home. Until next time, Netherlands.

18 January 2018

Further Hoopla

It looks like the Dutch brewery with a sister in Dublin, Hoop, has been busy. The beer was much more widely available on my last trip to the Netherlands than it had been earlier in 2017. And there are new ones! I bought a four-pack in upmarket grocer Marqt.

First up is Bleke Nelis, a pale ale. It took a while to pour, with far too much froth forming. It settled to a medium orange-amber, eventually; mostly clear with just a few skeins of yeast hanging under the head. The aroma is modern and tropical, with concentrated pineapple juice and lighter, fresher, mango. The flavour suffers a little from the suspended yeast, introducing a gritty note to an otherwise bright and fruity beer, though there's also a fun spark of spice, which may also be the yeast's doing. It's pleasantly light bodied, and although a candy malt sweetness begins to appear as it warms, the hops are very much in the driving seat. Overall a very good example of an American pale ale, performed cleanly and competently.

The next beer caught my eye because it's part of Hoop's Limited Edition series. And it's a 5% ABV Oatmeal IPA. And Hope also has a Limited Edition series, which also included a 5% ABV oatmeal IPA, almost a year ago. Could it be a re-run of the same recipe? 8 EBC, 40 EBU, Munich malt, Carapils, Simcoe and Citra: the label on my bottle and the description on Hope's website match. The appearance is broadly similar: a hazy pale orange. The aroma is sharply citric but the flavour is softer than I was expecting. Not tropical like the pale ale, but a gentle orange and lemon buzz. This bitterness is tempered by a buoyant malt body which still leaves the hops plenty of room to sing. The only interference is the fizz, for though the beer didn't gush this time, the mouthfeel is unpleasantly jagged. Otherwise it's another good and clean hop-forward beer. Where do they go from here?

A more regular IPA, I'm guessing, is Kaper. The ABV is up to 6.4% and it's all gone weirdly herbal. I get a densely bitter black liquorice on sniffing, and then a heavy oily sweetness in the flavour, with overtones of bitter herbs. It's harder and harsher, by turns plasticky, vegetal and resinous: hops as our grandpappies drank them. I found it a bit of a chore overall, much preferring the zing I got from the previous two.

A total change of tack for the finisher: Oude Heyt, an old ale at 9% ABV. It's paler than I had been expecting: a muddy brown and headless. It smells like a chemical soup, all sweet acetone and esters, giving it an air of rotten fruit. The flavour is calmer, leaning more to the toffee side, with a cherry jam sweetness and some very ripe banana. After a moment the booze buzz sparks off and by the finish the flavour is subsumed into a raging alcohol burn. "Old ale" carries a sense of rich dark beer, its edges smoothed by time. This just tastes like a poor attempt at quadrupel.

Light and hoppy seems to be where Hoop is currently excelling. Perhaps they need to borrow one of Hope's stout recipes next.

17 January 2018

Essential groceries

There was an Albert Heijn supermarket conveniently across the street from where I was staying in The Hague over the Christmas break. The beer selection was small but with a few interesting options. I mainly used it as a source for cheap and disposable lager, however.

My eye was caught by the smart branding on Brouwers Pilsner (who else's?), one of the chain's own brands. Unfortunately, the graphics proved to be a lot classier than the beer behind them. This is 4.8% ABV and a dark gold colour. The flavour matches the appearance, being sweet and sticky with an unsubtle musty wax bitterness bolted on to the finish. Charitably, it could be described as a bock, and it is impressively dense given the ABV. With a touch of smoke around the edges as it warms it's definitely not the vapid watery supermarket lager I was expecting, but not good lager either.

One from megabrewer Grolsch to follow: a fancy-pants craft-killing pils called Kornuit, a beer which incorporates Cascade hops, because we know how much you kids love that Cascade. It's a clear pale yellow colour, looking every inch the average lager, while it tastes... fine. I didn't get anything resembling an American hop, though I did drink it from the balcony where it was rather above fridge temperature. What was actually delivered is a perfectly decent pale lager with a medium-full body and lots of tasty toasty golden syrup malt. In particular I'm reminded of Budvar, which is quite a compliment. If the intention was to make a novelty or gimmick, it failed, but I'm quite happy with the result.

A sequel next, to the long-named Flying Dutchman beers I found last year in Amsterdam. This one is called Flip Flopped White Socked Strong Hopped White IPA. It's 5.5% ABV, with coriander, orange peel and, oddly, juniper. The pour produced a pale yellow glassful with just the faintest haze. Lots of witbier herbs come through on tasting: savoury and slightly soapy. The hops (Centennial, Citra, Ekuanot and Cascade) provide a bitter spike for the finish. It takes effort to produce a white IPA that does this hybrid style justice, and this one doesn't quite manage it, being mostly a big and blousey witbier, throwing herbs around and caring not for proper hopping. As such, it's perfectly decent. Just don't hold your breath for that Citra.

I was quite intrigued by this camouflaged bottle on the high shelves. It turned out to be Übersee Hopfen India Pale Ale, from Insel Brauerei in Rügen, off the Baltic coast of Germany. And it made it clear that it was proclaimed Earth's Greatest IPA at the World Beer Awards in 2016. How could anyone resist that?

It took a bit of poking around the small print to discover that "übersee" here means Japan as Sorachi Ace is the only hop used. Not that it needs writing down: there's a powerful oily orange whiff from it. The flavour is remarkably crisp: a clean bitter bite of orange, with sweeter coconut tailing behind it. I've had beers that tasted more strongly of Sorachi, but few where the taste is so clipped, so precise. Although it's bottle conditioned and quite cloudy, there's no yeast interference, except for maybe a pleasant spicing. I don't know that I'd say it's the best IPA in the world -- you really need to like Sorachi Ace -- but it's still jolly nice drinking.

When Mr Heijn isn't meeting your grocery requirements, there's always the posh people's supermarket Marqt (cards only, no cash, you plebs). In there, one particular Dutch brewery's wares caught my attention...

16 January 2018

Choosing freely

A week of posts on my winter break in The Hague continues today with a look at the city's better off licences.

Free Beer Co. is a poky little corner shop with a single set of shelves offering a small but interesting mix of bottles and cans from Europe and the US. Behind the counter is a three-tap growler system, and having dropped a few quid I felt entitled to a taste of something. I was also very curious about Milk Shake Stout from Bristol's Wiper & True, not having had any of their beer in ages. To be honest it wasn't very impressive from the sample. There's a considerable hop character, for one thing, a bitter resin which has no place in the style. Then there's not a whole lot else: a plain, slightly dry, slightly roasty stout; fine but unexciting. I like my milk stouts sweet and creamy, and would prefer if brewers didn't mess with the format, thank you.

The first bottle from my haul that I opened was another dark Brit, Collabageddon '17 from Weird Beard and six other brewers. It's 6.4% ABV and described as a Belgian black IPA. It smells like a straightforward black IPA, and a very good one at that: tar, liquorice and roasted coconut. I suspected that Sorachi Ace had been liberally applied as it tasted hugely of that hop's signature orange pith. The label confirmed it's in here, with Simcoe, and also mentions that the Belgian yeast was fermented at an usually low temperature, to minimise ester formation. It worked, because it doesn't taste in the slightest bit Belgian. What you get instead is a classic big and bold black IPA, and I for one am not complaining. I doubt it really took seven breweries to come up with it, but maybe everyone learned something.

Staying on the session vibe, Raï was next, a session IPA from Bulgarian brewer Бял Щърк ("White Stork") but brewed at De Molen. It's a fizzy beast, and I let that foam subside before taking a closer look. The aroma is beautifully tropical, full of tinned pineapple and sharper guava. There is a vanilla sweetness on the flavour, but with enough hop citrus to turn it away from cheap ice cream towards an altogether more classy lemon sorbet. Amazingly it's only 3.5% ABV, bulked out with oats and that lactose I could taste, and the trick works quite well: there's no thinness and the generous hopping doesn't make it harsh. My biggest gripe is really just that carbonation: the fizz adds an unpleasant bite to a beer that shouldn't really be allowed warm up before enjoying. Let it sit in the fridge after pouring? Awkward.

Another foamy one followed next: Between Thieves, a session IPA by Uiltje. It seems to be very much going for a New England vibe, including oats, wheat and spelt in the recipe, pouring murky as hell under all that head, and smelling deliciously juicy. The flavour follows that up with lots of mango and pineapple, though there's an unpleasant yeast bite as well, adding a savoury harshness to the finish. A garlic complexity begins to develop as it warms, complementing the fruit quite nicely. Despite the bubbles this one isn't fizzy, and slipped down smoothly. It's very nearly excellent, squeezing oodles of tropical hop fun into a sober 4.1% ABV. There are just a couple of wrinkles that could do with ironing out, however.

From the same brewery, with the same minimalist can design, comes Me Myself & IPA. No head drama this time, a medium-amber body with just a slight haze. The aroma mixes citrus bitterness with juicy fruit beautifully, promising good times ahead. The flavour is suitably spectacular: heavy resinous dankness kicks it off, then fades and calms, allowing spritzy lime and softer mandarin come through. The finish is maybe a little sweet, adding a note of orange cordial. Overall, though, it's still a well-balanced and flavourful American-style IPA, no messing.

Next out of the lucky bag was Teerling Hopstout from Zeglis. This was a downright gusher, pouring innocently and thickly first before fobbing madly in the glass. That gave me plenty of opportunity to appreciate the aroma, which is indeed delicious, all richly green winter vegetables. The flavour is softer, introducing smooth fresh coffee and floral rosewater, finishing quickly with next to no bitterness. A slight metallic twang is the only bum note, other than that it's a spot-on big hop stout, or a black IPA, whatever you fancy.

A new Dutch brewer for me next: Breda's Bliksem ("Lightning"), and their Pale Rider pale ale. It's 5.6% ABV, presenting quite a dark shade of amber. The aroma is unpleasantly worty: wholesome smelling, but almost sickly sweet. The flavour is indeed sweet, but also dry and tannic, like sugary black tea. The hops add a somewhat harsh cabbage bitterness, and the whole thing gives an impression of a sort-of English-style bitter, by someone who didn't really know what they were doing. I immediately began feeling regret that I'd bought a second Bliksem beer. Oh well...

So to follow it's the alluringly-named Grom, an imperial stout. It looks decent, the brief head a pleasing dark brown. The aroma is a bit rough: savoury yeast and headachey phenols. On tasting, the flavour is rather better integrated, showing assertively bitter dark-roast coffee. It is still a bit severe, however, lacking roundness and warmth, and still with a touch of that high-alcohol marker-pen burn. It unfolds to reveal tobacco oils and a gut-coating tarry thickness. On balance this is passable, but not in the first string of Dutch imperial stouts by any means. Bliksem has been going a couple of years now and, on the evidence of these two beers, I think it still has a game that could do with being upped.

The next one I picked on stylistic grounds: you don't see a black tripel very often (my previous and only was in 2014). Kandy Express is from Utrecht's Neobosski, a tiddling 7.5% ABV, and pouring like a stout, with its dense black body and latte-coloured head. That stoutishness continues on drinking, offering a roasted tarry aroma and lots of dark chocolate and black coffee in the flavour. There is the merest hint of tripel spicing in there, but it's easily missed: this really doesn't meet the requirements of tripel at all. As a stout, it's pretty good, if a little overly fizzed.

Final beer in this haul from Free Beer Co. is by local brewer Kwartje. It's called RSI (Rye Smoked IPA; yes, the "I" stands for "IPA" *sigh*). 6.5% ABV and with yet more awkward gushing as it poured. It's a murky ochre colour and smells downright infected, though I guess the bitter phenols are there by design. It's smoke to begin with on tasting, lots and lots of Laproaigish TCP. Underneath it is a fresh and juicy pale ale, showing mandarin and a extra spike of jasmine spice, but that only flashes tantalisingly briefly before vanishing again. It left me feeling I'd like to get to know the beer beneath the smoke better. Usually I like smoke, but it's just an interference here, I think.

A couple of streets away from Free Beer Co. is De Filosoof, an upmarket wine boutique which also runs to a very decent selection of beers.

First up from there is Mr Cacatoe, a strong porter by Bird Brewery, an Amsterdam-based client brewer brewing at Jopen in Haarlem. They've added cocoa and lactose to this, which does give it a gummy sweetness, though one which struggles to assert itself over a rich herbal bitterness with elements of dark-roast coffee, liquorice and smoke. The unfermented sugar is really put in its place, allowed to make a contribution but leaving the main one up to the malt and hops. Though a large head formed on it, it's not too fizzy, and with a proper milk-stout thickness and smoothness, something that helps give the flavour extra legs.

"I don't know how they did this" said the guy in De Filosoof when I brought the bottle of Septem 8th Day to the counter. Ooookay, I thought, it's  a 7% ABV US-style IPA; how bizarre can it be? It certainly smelled superb, if not special, as I poured it: the aroma is a striking fresh mandarin and lemon, promising much citrus joy to come. That is sort-of delivered, but there's a lot of malt in front of it, and a savoury hop dank too: it's not just bright and fresh tropical fruit. As old-fashioned malt-forward American-style IPAs go, this is one of the better ones, describing a world where Mosaic was available in 1998. I enjoyed it, and I bet it's a lifeline to beer enthusiasts in its native Greece, but world class it ain't. Good beer, though. I'd be happy if I had made it.

The Septem beer that really caught my interest was the one in the half litre bottle with the fancy brown-paper label. Lava, it's called, described as an "imperial India red ale" and 9% A