28 September 2018

Barley dodgers

Belgian beers have become a bit of a rare sight on this blog of late. Two today from the Green's gluten-free range brewed at De Proef. They've been around forever (ie slightly longer than the blog) but these dry-hopped variants were new to me. Unlike most gluten-free beers, they haven't been formulated normally and then had the gluten (or most of it) stripped out; instead "alternative grains" have been employed, though the label does not deign to tell us which ones. I'm guessing sorghum.

First opened was Gold Dry-Hopped Lager. It's a fairly watery-looking gold, appearing somewhat washed out. The aroma is sweet and peachy, promising soft and ripe stonefruit. That's not really what the flavour delivers, however. There's quite a harsh bitterness, the sting of tasted perfume, after which it tails off suddenly. It's only 4% ABV and I suspect the base beer is quite a plain affair. Whatever hops they've used on it make it taste artificial and strangely stale. A check of the best-before revealed that it wasn't an old bottle. In fact it had a year and a half still to run. The whole smacks of a brand that doesn't take beer seriously. Anyway, this lager is not recommended and I apprehensively move on to its sibling.

The muddy colour of Grand India Pale Ale is at least partly my fault as it's bottle conditioned and I had it sitting on its side in the fridge. The poor carbonation is entirely theirs. Once again the aroma starts us off well: it smells of juicy watermelon, which is granted not a customary beer aroma but is a perfectly acceptable and attractive one. The flavour is not unpleasant, but it is odd. There's a candy sweetness; a touch of bubblegum or other luridly-coloured confectionery. This settles for a moment into a real tropical fruit note -- mango and passionfruit -- before fading out and leaving a punchy bitterness behind. It's another thin effort, and I guess that's what not brewing with glutinous grains gets you. The flavour combinations would be interesting in a fuller-bodied beer, and I don't even miss the fizz: there's enough of a sparkle.

The IPA is actively nice to drink; the lager definitely isn't. But neither really tastes like actual beer. There's a reason our ancestors selected barley and wheat for brewing.

26 September 2018

Real Mexico

Variety in Mexican beer is hard come by in Dublin these days. I guess it's C&C's fault. They're the distributor for Grupo Modelo, via the various arrangements with AB InBev, and they seem to have decided to concentrate on Corona and Corona Light in this segment, for obvious reasons.

Therefore I was disproportionately pleased when I spotted Pacifico in the fridge at Pablo Picante on Aston Quay. I mean, it's only a mass produced hot-country lager and nothing to get excited about, but I still felt like I'd achieved something by locating it.

The burrito bar does not run to glassware so I didn't get a look at the liquid, or a proper smell, really. I found it quite sweet to taste: lots of melanoidin malt, which I guess shows its Viennese heritage. It's good that that's still perceptible after everything this brand has been through since 1900. A tinny twang is all you get by way of hops, or anything else, but the malt is enough. While easy drinking and quenching, as you'd expect, it's also heavy enough to match up to a glutinous cheesy burrito.

This isn't a beer to be dismissed readily, and certainly not to be lumped in with Corona.

24 September 2018

All done for now

I've mentioned before my gnawing unfulfilled ambition to visit the last two JD Wetherspoons in the Republic of Ireland. They're both in the greater Dublin area so it shouldn't have taken me this long to do it, but it wasn't until earlier this summer that I set out to complete the project.

I had never cycled to Blanchardstown before and, as often turns out with these things, it's not as far away as I thought. In fact it took about as long as my more usual run to JDW in Blackrock, so I guess I have expanded my horizon for the Real Ale Festival next month. And like Blackrock, The Great Wood seems to be one of the nice Wetherspoons. This sunny Saturday morning it was all happy breakfasting families and ladies catching up over coffee, and all cask pints are €2. Cor!

I sat in the beer garden and drank a Golden Newt by Elgoods. It was a dark golden amber colour and a little hazy with it, and 4.1% ABV. There's a waxy bitterness up front, fading gradually to lemon rind, then lemon juice and finally lemon sherbet. A classic summer golden bitter, it's clean, complex and very refreshing. It was tempting to stay for another, but the day's goal was in sight.

Metaphorically, that is. My trip to Swords was a long one, travelling along the picturesque Royal Canal Greenway (above) as far as Drumcondra, then turning north and up past the airport which is a horrible road to cycle, even on a quiet Saturday afternoon. I was never so glad to swing off the final roundabout and roll into the village.

The Old Borough should be as pleasant as The Great Wood: it's in a grand old building with lots of smaller rooms instead of a big modern drinking hall. But the crowd seemed rougher and the worse for wear, in some cases. The beer selection was uninspiring, made up of too many boring English standards, and all at an outrageous €2.75 a throw. I selected Stonehenge Danish Dynamite IPA and went out to the beer garden.

Maybe it was my disillusioned mood but I didn't take to this. It's a big 5% ABV but looks pale and watery. It soon had me wishing for watery as it turned out cloyingly thick, full of banana syrup with only a figleaf of light yeast spicing and no real hop character. There's a flatness that has nothing to do with carbonation; this is just a dull lump of a beer.

But at least I got my set completed and that's me done until Camden Street opens in the winter.

The second part of this post arose by accident. On a different bike ride a couple of months later, on my way somewhere else with time to spare, I stopped by The Forty Foot in Dún Laoghaire. One beer immediately caught my eye from the selection: Yakima Grade, the version of the Brendan Dobbin classic relaunched by Conwy Brewery in 2014 (more details via Tandleman). I make this my third version of it to try. It was a bit flat and sad, to be honest. It has some of the resinous quality as well as the amber colour of the other versions, but it lacks a proper bitterness or any other significant flavour. The beer here is usually reliable but I suspect I may have got one that had been sitting in the cellar a while. It wasn't unpleasant, though.

Time just for one last pint, in the form of Pacifica from Yorkshire's Saltaire brewery. I assumed it was single-hopped with the titular variety but it turns out it uses a range of hops from around the ocean's edge. It's a dark gold colour, 5.5% ABV and with a full and creamy texture. This is another waxy one, at least to start with, which then develops a soft and sweet stonefruit taste: apricot and plum. It's this which separates it from a million other generic bitters and is a great use of exotic hops in a very approachable beer. Too often the fancy hops just don't pull their weight in English cask.

A fairly typical Wetherspoon mixed bag, but it's good to be able to try beers from breweries we otherwise wouldn't see here. That's very much the point of the chain as far as I'm concerned.

21 September 2018

Postponed journey

Musgrave's Journeyman range has been around for a while now at SuperValu and Centra. It's brewed by Stationworks and bears a cosmetic resemblance to the brewery's own Foxes Rock line. With the recent uptick in beer quality at Stationworks I decided it was high time I tried them.

I started out on Journeyman Session IPA, the lightest of the bunch at 4.5% ABV. The colour was a surprise: a bright and even orange colour, showing no sign of the over-processing one might expect of an own-label supermarket beer with over twelve months on the best before. The aroma is sharper than I expected: a bracing squirt of lemon juice up the nostrils. Candy malts emerge, tentatively, on tasting: tangy orange travel sweets. They're overset by a stronger citric bitterness; those lemons again, this time acidic enough to add a slightly vomity or aspirin note to proceedings. That was stronger when the beer was fridge-fresh, but disappears into the background as it warms up and balances out. It's not Ireland's greatest session IPA by any measure, but it is a characterful and flawless hoppy quaffer and worth dropping into your 4-for-€10.

It seems a little odd to have a Journeyman Pale Ale in a range with a Session IPA but here it is, just a smidge stronger and a little darker. There's a pleasant orange sherbet aroma which develops on tasting into a herbal bathsalts tang alongside the fruit. A smooth lemon-tea tannic character rounds it out. The texture is just heavy enough to give all of these flavours room to move while still keep it light and thirst quenching. It shares quite a lot of its character with the Session IPA but is better balanced, I think  While not terribly complex, this is enjoyable and tasty with plenty of hop oomph.

Next is Journeyman IPL, which ordinarily I would have opened first, but I decided to follow the ABV up from 4.6% to 5.2%. It's another hazy one, though this time a pale gold. For a refreshing change, this IPL does actually taste and feel like a lager. There's a clean crispness at the heart of it, offering refreshingly dry and husky grain. And to be honest I found myself wishing they didn't bother India-Paling it. The hopping is harshly metallic: a similar profile to the session IPA but rendered too intense by the cleaner base. I found myself trying to ignore the acidity and pay attention to the decent helles that underpins it all. That didn't work, though. This is just unbalanced and difficult to drink. It's trying too hard, but maybe that's just in the nature of the style.

From lager back to ale, and Journeyman IPA, at the same strength but coming in a dinky little can. This is thicker, darker, and altogether more serious looking than the previous. With the thickness comes the dankness and there's a real old-school west-coast vibe here: fresh American hops, oily and green, with peppery spices. At the end there's lovely sharp bite and I'm pretty sure it's the same metallic kick found in the others, just better integrated and given something substantial against which to provide balance. This is the best of the set, and in the own-brand battle, up there with Rye River's Grafter's IPA for Dunnes, if a little off the pace against their Crafty Brewing IPA for Lidl.

Overall, this lot met most of my expectations and in a couple of cases exceeded them. Well played, Stationworks.

19 September 2018

Don't wine

This was a surprise freebie from English beer label Curious: a 75cl bottle of Curiouser & Curiouser Chapter 2. It's a collaboration between Curious's parent winery Chapel Down and London microbrewery Brew By Numbers. They've come up with a wine-channelling saison, designed to mimic the German grape Bacchus by using elderflower and grapefruit zest with Hallertau Blanc and Hüll Melon hops. It's a bit of a beast at 7.3% ABV.

Despite the cheery sparkle and my cheeky choice of champagne flutes, it doesn't look like wine in the glass, being a hazy dark yellow colour. The aroma is definitely saison: a husky cereal dryness with a touch of diesel and honeydew melon. I do get a certain buzz of Champagne grape in the flavour, and I suspect that's the Hallertau Blanc's doing. The strong alcohol helps with the effect, and there's an acidic edge which I'm guessing is from the grapefruit but which genuinely does bear a resemblance to that found in a flinty Sauvignon Blanc.

And with all that said I should stop trying to squeeze this into wine-shaped clothes and add that it's also a very well made, hop-forward, strong saison. The raspingly dry grain, boozy fruity esters and tiny sprinkle of white pepper it offers belong to beer and beer alone. And despite the strength it still quenches a thirst in a way wine simply can't.

This was a well thought out and executed idea. One of those beers that expands the parameters of what beer can be without resorting to silly gimmicks. I'm glad I got to try it.

17 September 2018

Gan bei!

I have my friend Dave to thank for today's subjects. When he tweeted he was off to China for work I asked if he could help me scratch my most persistent beer itch. Chinese lager Snow is the biggest selling beer in the world and I've never tasted it. Would he be able to bring me a can back? Star that he is, I subsequently took delivery of six cans of unfamiliar beer.

The Snow issue proved more complicated than anticipated. The brand covers a dizzying array of variants, each seeming to have its own multiple packaging designs. After considerable research I'm not even sure that there is even a core Snow beer. Dave's bundle included two Snows.

The one I started with is called Globe Trekker, announcing that vertically on the can in characters bigger than the ones spelling "Snow Beer". And that may be the last time "character" gets mentioned in this post. Globe Trekker is 2.5% ABV and an anaemic yellow colour with a fast-dissipating head. It's as watery as you might expect: extremely thin and not even very fizzy. Still, the brewers seem to know the limits of their brief as it shows none of the flaws often found in this sort: no tinny metal, cheap sweetcorn or stale cookedness. There is a clean malt sweetness at the centre, flashing briefly before fading away completely. It is therefore thirst-quenching and perfectly serviceable as a weak hot-country lager. While not something I'd actively seek out, it is at least inoffensive and well made.

The next Snow is branded "Refreshing" and I don't know if that's a name or a description. Either way, the claim's veracity is thrown into doubt by it being marked as 10° Plato and 3.3% ABV, which suggests under-attenuation to me. It's even flatter than the previous one, looking more like a cider in the glass. Now here we have those classic lager flaws. There's a syrupyness I associate with much stronger, cheaper lagers, and an on-style metallic tinfoil buzz. The stickiness does mean the flavour has more legs than the Globe Trekker, but that's really not a good thing.

We leave the Snow investigations here. I'm still interested in finding out if the One True Snow exists, so if there are any experts in Chinese beer out there, let me know.

The next pair are from AB InBev's brewery in the far north-east of China: Harbin. Harbin 9° gushed forth with an abundance of fizz, but again no head retention. There's a decent substance to this, even if the pale gold colour isn't very striking. There's a wisp  of white pepper in the aroma while a cakey sweetness forms the foretaste. But a foretaste is all there is: no follow-up for good or ill comes after it, just water. Given a decent noble hop pinch, this has the makings of a genuinely good pilsner. As is, it's a much more satisfying glassful than either of the Snows, and again only 3.3% ABV.

That boded well for the bigger sequel: Harbin 10°. It looks identical and tastes very similar, but a little more intense. This time the pepper makes it into the flavour, and the texture is bigger too, almost sticky, despite an ABV of just 3.6%. I got a slight plasticky burr on the very end, something I occasionally find with German hops so I probably can't mark it down as a flaw. A raw sugar sweetness sits at the centre of it all, somewhat balanced by the hop spice but still a little overdone, especially considering the very modest strength. I think I preferred the cleaner profile of the 9° out of this pair.

Two random outliers to take us home. Laoshan Beer, from AB InBev's Tsingtao brewery in Qingdao, is 10° Plato and 4% ABV, which is more like it. There's a proper golden lager colour too, and a rich malt aroma. The flavour is middling: quite dry and minerally, showing an aspirin tang that veers towards metallic sharpness but thankfully stops short. There's also a slight funk — cheese, or possibly phenolic — that adds a mildly unpleasant note to the finish. This is almost a passable lager but just misses the mark.

We come back to the capital to finish, with Yanjing. I reckoned this would be the best for absolutely no other reason than the vaguely German-style blackletter font on the can. It looks like it contains a proper pils. It doesn't really, though. Despite the statement on the side "Quality Grade: Excellent" this is another dull one, pale and watery like Snow. It is clean and flawless in the manner of Globe Trekker, and offers more of a bang at 3.6% ABV. It doesn't have much to say flavourwise at all, however.

It's just as well there's a growing beer scene in China these days. I don't think I'd like to be stuck with just these six as my only options, though I guess I'd make peace with  Harbin 9° if that happened. Cheers Dave!

14 September 2018

The last of them

I've been away for the last couple of weeks, leaving in a rush of hastily-scheduled blog posts. Today's concerns the final few Irish beers I tried before I left.

We begin with Toothless Grizzly, the first brand new beer from Mountain Man in quite a while. They've badged this as a schwarzbier but my pint at the Black Sheep was distinctly amber-coloured, and a bit murky with it. The aroma is a strange mix of sweet dark malt and an out of place sour tang. Thankfully the sourness goes no further. It's properly crisp and lager-like, with a mild orangey citrus in with husky biscuit before finishing on a green and peppery bitter noble hop bite. On the downside, it's over-carbonated: nobody wants a flat lager, but here the jagged fizz is detrimental to the flavour; and, just as the colour is wrong, the distinctive dark lager flavours -- charcoal, liquorice, tar -- are completely missing. The recipe has potential but desperately needs darkening.

YellowBelly produced a beer to commemorate 85 years of Molloy's off licences. Covert Operation is described as a juicy pale ale and very much delivers on that promise. A bolt of pineapple strikes the nostrils immediately on opening, and it pours a hazy medium orange. The texture is fluffy, as fashion dictates, and all the fruit is worn up front: ripe mango, passionfruit and tangerine. There's just enough of a citrus punch late on to balance it, as well as a wisp of savoury garlic. It's very similar in style to Trouble's now-legendary Ambush, with the same level of satisfying drinkability. The tall can was emptied in short order.

At Hagstravaganza I missed the third Canvas offering, Double Wingmirror, so I was pleased when it showed up bottled in DrinkStore. The first warning light comes with the label, where "Double IPA" has been unconvincingly blacked out. It fizzed busily on opening, pouring a dark copper colour. There's a homebrewish yeasty spice in the aroma and the flavour mixes Belgian esters with burnt caramel and a touch of phenolic smoke. The marker was right: this isn't anywhere close to being a double IPA. I'm not quite sure what it is instead: though less than six weeks in the bottle it reminds me of long-abandoned home brewed pale ales, their hoppy days long past and the deathless yeast steadily drying them out. My 33cl bottle cost €4: top dollar for a beer that really doesn't warrant it.

Back from my train trip it was straight to The Brew Dock to try the newest from Galway Bay. It's the second sequel to Goodbye Blue Monday, a collaboration with Begyle called Last Goodbye, just a little weaker than the original at 5.8% ABV and utilising Hallertau Blanc, Azacca and Ella. I expected Opal Fruits from that lot but got Fruit Salad chews instead. It's mouthwateringly juicy: an almost sickly blend of pineapples, mangoes and apricots. There's an oddly prominent booze buzz cranking this up unexpectedly, but thankfully also a lime and guava tropical bitterness, shading into garlic as it warms on the palate. It is, above all, a fun beer, much as Goodbye Blue Monday was: a fruity hop celebration, albeit no longer served by the pint. No matter: you probably don't want this getting warm.

Whiplash treated us to two new double IPAs in August. I tried Do You Wanna Touch Me, their collaboration with Wylam, at Alfie Byrne's. The murk level is off the charts here. I mean, it's not even beige, more a bile-coloured grey-brown. It smelled fantastic, though: fresh tropical fruit, with a background hint of custard. 8.3% ABV means you get an alcohol burn as the first flavour. The fruit is in the middle and, unlike so many of these, it actually sticks around for subsequent sips, staying sweet and interesting and fun. The usual hangers-on are present for those that expect them: an oily garlic buzz and some dry gritty yeast and protein bits, but they confine themselves to the finish and the next mouthful tops you up with mango and pineapple again. It's an excellent interpretation of a super-fashionable style that is done too poorly too often.