22 August 2014

Down with the kids

The strand of British brewing I'm looking at in the last of my posts from Bristol is the one that mostly ignores what has gone before, taking its cues from the brewing practices of other places.

The company at the forefront of that movement is BrewDog, whose rapidly spreading pub estate eschews cask ale and cosy fittings, going for a much starker style-conscious vibe. From the couple of visits I made to BrewDog Bristol I could tell that the style is backed up with plenty of substance: the staff being more service-oriented, more knowledgeable about beer and more generally pleasant to be around than those in the vast majority of traditional pubs. Special edition beer of the moment was Vote Sepp, a thin pink 3.4% ABV thirst-quencher tinted with hibiscus flowers. There's a nice red berry flavour which gradually builds, backed by light digestive biscuit malt. It's fun for as long as it takes to drain a half-pint but I wouldn't go much further than that.

Seeking a bit more substance I switched to Clown King, BrewDog's 12% ABV American style barley wine. It's alcohol all the way here, starting with the port-like aroma and continuing with the blast of boozy heat that scorches the back of the palate on swallowing. There's lots of heavy umami in the flavour, the only light relief coming from the cherry-chocolate liqueur notes. An acrid bitterness in the background suggests that the hops have been laid on almost as heavily as the malt. It's a little bit of a mess but, like Vote Sepp at the other end of the strength spectrum, enjoyable for one. Thankfully there are plenty of good, less extreme, options on tap at BrewDog Bristol.

Moving from BrewDog to Zero Degrees was like stepping back in time. Even though the chain only dates from 2000 and the Bristol branch is four years younger again, it feels like a period piece from a time before bare wood and distressed lettering, when iconoclastic British beer meant cavernous halls, bare concrete and steel gantries. The vast brewpub is built into the side of a hill overlooking Bristol city centre, the main floor area stretching away beneath your feet when you come in via the main entrance above it.

Before pale ales were the styles that upstart British breweries made their name on, it was all lagers and wheat beers. I'd enjoyed Zero Degrees Black Lager on a visit to their London branch some years ago and was pleased to see it is still in production, but it was Zero Degrees Mango Wheatbeer that really caught my eye this time. Sadly it's a bit of a half-hearted effort, all sticky-sweet fruit syrup, lacking a decent head and proper cleansing fizz. The aroma has some nice grainy notes, but any good beer flavour has been buried under the mango goop. There was a nod to contemporary beer fashion in the form of an American Rye ale: 5.2% ABV, dark red and this time completely headless. There's a little rye grassiness but also a surprising amount of chocolate in the flavour. It seems all about the malt until the finish when a bitter and acidic bite kicks in. It's the sort of beer that reminds me why I never used to like rye as an ingredient. A serious dose of hops is needed here.

And that's where we left Zero Degrees. It wasn't short of customers so maybe it can keep doing what it's doing, but I departed with the distinct impression of a speciality beer house that no longer offers what the speciality beer drinkers -- a bigger market than ever -- want to drink. Perhaps I should have had a black lager.

For a better take on the grungy faux-industrial pub style, I recommend The Grain Barge, about twenty minutes' walk along the river from the central harbour. It is, as the name suggests, a barge, and the drinking deck commands wonderful views across the water. It's one of a number of pubs owned and operated by Bristol Beer Factory. Two of their pale ales were on cask. Sunrise is a very light gold colour, 4.4% ABV and popping with bags of grapefruit zest and lime marmalade. The pith takes a little getting used to, but it's very drinkable once you're in. Beside it was Nova, a little darker though weaker at just 3.8% ABV. The aroma is all heavy tropical fruits: chew sweets and breakfast juice. There's a definite fullness to the body which adds weight to the bubblegum fruit flavours but which also leaves the bitterness very restrained. It's not a beer that holds the attention very well, however.

Bristol Beer Factory is well known for its stouts, with the Milk Stout being the one I've heard most about. The dryness in the aroma was a pleasant surprise here and there's lots of fruit in with the milk and the chocolate, strawberries in particular. The texture is super-smooth and while it's sweet this doesn't interfere at all with the drinkability. Belgian Conspiracy is BBF's saison, a dark hazy orange colour and a massive 7.5% ABV. The hallmark saison pepperiness is there (a hallmark missing in manys a modern saison; just saying) and there's a Duvel-like gritty earthiness while a pithy hop bitterness finishes it off. It took a little while to get used to everything that was going on but I found I enjoyed it more and more the further down the glass I went, and I'm not putting all of that down to the effect of the alcohol.

Before leaving the Barge I had to try one of the guest beers, Weird Beard's Hit the Lights, just because I'd heard good things about it. It's an IPA of 5.8% ABV, arriving from the keg a bright hazy orange. It's very sweet for an IPA, with lots of pineapple and apricot (Nugget, Target and Aurora are the hops), and not too fizzy. I could quibble about the lack of bitterness, but it still has plenty of refreshment power without it.

No fashion-chasing beer hunt would be complete without a burger in a brioche bun and some mac 'n' cheese, and Spyglass at the end of King Street sorted us out for that. To wash it down there was Tiny Rebel Fubar. Like Hit the Lights, it's another tropical fruit delivery system, this time all peach and mango. Again nothing too assertive, just good drinking.

We'll finish the trip in Bath, and an excursion to the city's only brewpub, The Bath Brew House. It's a large premises, looking like it was once a rambling down-at-heel superpub but has now been given a lick of varnish, some mismatched furniture and the James Street Brewery. The beers are in fairly traditional styles but done rather well and I think the dimple glasses they serve them in are ironic young-person dimples, not anachronistic old-man dimples: an important distinction.

Gladiator is the name of the best bitter, a dark amber colour with lots of light and tannic lemon tea notes. Fantastically sinkable, packing lots of complexity into the 3.9% ABV. There's a "hoppy pale ale" too, called Emperor. This was served in an unpleasantly warm mug and was a little lifeless as well. Oranges are the main thing it has going for it: freshly squeezed jaffa in both the aroma and the flavour. There's a certain astringency which makes the first few mouthfuls nicely refreshing but which grows as it goes, resulting in a pint that's just too puckering by the end. Stick to the bitter, is my advice.

There was a house wheat beer too but I didn't get to try it. My one for the road was by Wiper & True, a 5.1% ABV kegged pale ale with the irresistible name Kiwi Lilt. I was a little disappointed to find it's not very Lilt-ish at all, being far bitterer for one thing. There's a peachy aroma and while the implied tropical fruits are present, there's lots of bitter pomegranate in with the mango, no pineapple to speak of, and an unsettling blast of coconut. "Kiwi Bounty", anyone?

And that's where this West Country adventure ends. Regardless of what genre you feel like drinking in, Bristol and Bath have you well covered. Just bring your own beermats.

20 August 2014

Traditional matters

From my previous post you might get the impression that British beer these days is all new world hops, weird ingredients and unfamiliar styles, but that's far from the case. On my few days in Bristol last month I found the home fires to be very much still burning.

The nearest pub to my hotel was The Shakespeare Tavern, a homely little traditional boozer with big screen sports sports and lager for the regulars down the back, and a cosy front parlour for tourists like me. "Shakespeare Bitter" said one of the pumpclips and I'm reasonably certain this is Greene King's House Ale, known by a number of localised names across the brewery's large estate. It's an absolutely standard twiggy brown bitter, all plums and Ready Brek. Solid if unstimulating stuff; enjoyable for the first pint but I was very happy to switch to Tribute after.

Not far away, in the redeveloped docklands, there's a Lloyd's No. 1 -- a chain which resulted from someone looking at the JD Wetherspoon model and deciding it's insufficiently drinking-barn-like. I was only in during the daytime, when the offer was indistinguishable from any JDW, and that included the beer. Ruddles Best Bitter for £1.85 a pint? Would be crazy not to. 3.7% ABV and an attractive red-gold colour. I feared more of that heavy porridgey effect I found in the Greene King one but this is actually quite thin and tannic: just how I like my old-man bitter to be. There's just enough of a jolt of vegetal bitterness to keep the drinkers' attention, though an unpleasant husky grain creeps in as it warms. At that price and that strength there should be no excuse for letting it warm, however.

Independence Ale caught my eye when I spotted it on the bar -- it's one of those semi-guest beers Wetherspoon regularly brings American brewers to Britain to make: this time it's Devil's Backbone at Banks's. 4.7% ABV, a medium gold colour and lovely wafts of sherbet and bubblegum followed by lovely flavours of honeydew and watermelon, turning even sweeter in the finish, towards canned peaches. I liked it, though it may be a bit sweet for most fans of US pale ale. I'd direct them a couple of taps over to Phoenix's West Coast, one of those classic tangy marmalade-ish English IPAs. Or a can of Sixpoint. It's all good.

So we've done Greene King, we've done Wetherspoon, that leaves one more bastion of plain English drinking, the grand-daddy of them all: Samuel Smith. We go back to King Street to find The King William Ale House, almost lost next to the other showy pubs on the stretch. It's surprisingly roomy inside and was rarely in want of customers as I was passing. But I was determined to finally have a go at their legendary Pure Brewed Lager and achieved that on a Sunday afternoon just as I was on my way to the airport. "Pure" is a valid marketing term: it's a limpid crystal gold, albeit with masses of fizz. The flavour is super crisp, all crunchy husky grains with just a handful of fun fruity extras: a bit of peach, perhaps. We're not in Munich here, nor Vienna nor Berlin, but Tadcaster will do just fine.

The range of house beers in the King William is prodigious, the illuminated cubic keg fonts stretching far along the bar. Sovereign Bitter was one I'd never seen before, though I'm sure it's hardly new. "New" isn't really a word in Mr. Smith's vocabulary. It's a rose gold colour and smells toffeeish. Malt-forward  in the flavour, but barely even that. Not a patch on the more usual Old Brewery Bitter, and even that isn't exactly a world beater. Still, the authentic 1970s vibe you only get in a Samuel Smith house is part of the English beer experience not to be missed.

I took one side trip out of Bristol during my stay, to the picturesquee town of Bath. It's not exactly crawling with fine drinking opportunities, especially for those of us who aren't fans of the ubiquitous Bath Ales. But I did have a very pleasant lunch in the upstairs room of The Raven of Bath, a poky little pub entirely in keeping with the town's cutesy vibe. Their two house beers are brewed by Blindman's Brewery. Raven Gold is a straightforward 4%-er, smelling Lucozade-like of fake fruit with a springy sherbet and mandarin zip to the front followed by a sterner bitter finish. Quality sessionable stuff. On the dark side, Raven Ale is a Hobgoblinish chocolate-driven ale, a dark garnet colour rather than raven-black and 4.7% ABV. Unexciting, perhaps, but a great match for my game pie.

We'll stay in the West Country for the next post, but don't expect anything twiggy.

18 August 2014

King for a day

King Street is a cobbled stretch of central Bristol, linking two of the waterfronts in this inland maritime city. It is exceedingly well-pubbed, enough to warrant a mention in the opening chapter of Boak & Bailey's recent Brew Britannia as an example of the radical changes currently happening in British beer. But there's even more than that: King Street is a veritable microcosm of British pub life, from shooters to schooners and everything in between.

I spent a few days in Bristol in July and managed to darken the doors of several of the varied establishments of King Street.

The central draw for me was The Beer Emporium, essentially the cellar of an off licence with a vaulted bar and a solid range of British beers on cask and keg. Proceedings here kicked off with Soul Train from the Box Steam brewery in neighbouring Wiltshire. It's an innocent pale gold colour but exhibits intense bitter orange peel and pith. Biscuit malt flavours form a background, but no more than that. A straightforward clean and enjoyable introduction.

Hawkshead's NZPA is along similar lines only with more of everything, including alcohol at 6% ABV. A candy sweet aroma kicks it off but the flavour is all about palate-scorching high-alpha hops. Once acclimatised, one can detect notes of grass, mangoes and grapefruit. The first of these takes ultimate control of the flavour profile in the finish, as a sort of nettle juice greenness. Fun stuff, but strictly in small doses for me.

Switching to keg for one, I liked the look of Siren's Liquid Mistress, a red IPA of a modest 5.8% ABV. It's a very dark red colour with a dense off-white head and features one of my favourite beer flavour analogues: Turkish Delight. I assume it's achieved by some combination of floral hops and roasted malts and I normally find it in porters but it's here in a big way: all the rosewater and all the chocolate. There's a lot of fizz, which spoils the effect to some extent, but it's still a gorgeous beer. Whatever you say, Mistress.

Back to the beer engines to finish, and some Bleddyn 1075 by Celt Experience. This is a 5.6% ABV IPA, red-gold in colour with rich and exotic flavours of spicy sandalwood, bitter myrrh and peppery rocket. The body is full and the beer complex and satisfying.

So no quibbles about quality on emerging blinking into the daylight again. When I first came to The Beer Emporium it was lunchtime and the bar hadn't opened yet. I asked for a recommendation from the beery smorgasbord that is King Street and the off licence staff suggested Small Bar across the street.

We're definitely in craft territory here. Small Bar looks like a front room that's had a war through it, all dangling bulbs and partially exposed brick. Design is minimalist to the point of absence, with knitting-needle-thin handles on the beer engines and keg taps hidden completely out of sight below the bar. Magic Rock Ringmaster was on the blackboard so I figured I'd start with that. A lunchable 3.9% ABV, assisted by the pub's no-pint policy, it arrived looking a little sad -- all wan and headless. There's a vague dankness in the aroma and the texture is thin, like it's not really trying. It picks up a little on tasting, with some grown-up herby flavours: sage, eucalyptus, thyme, but overall it's not especially interesting and was disposed of quickly.

Having been in the West Country for hours and not had any Wild Beer Co. products yet, I followed it with a glass of Rubus Maximus, their collaboration with London's Beavertown. As billed, this is blood red, topped by pink foam. It smells decidedly girly, of sweet raspberries, and while this is present in the flavour it's buried under a massive steaming pile of dirty brettanomyces, honking like a spooked farmyard in front of any subtleties. Imagine a fresh punnet of raspberries dropped in manure. Imagine durian as a beer. Imagine... but think carefully before ordering.

Let's leave King Street for a few minutes and take a wander down the Avon. Steve had suggested a pub called the Bag of Nails and I'm delighted he did. Quirky doesn't cover this little place: festooned in plants, scattered with vintage toys, infested by tumbling kittens and operating a strict vinyl-only music policy. It has a definite community vibe, though still felt incredibly welcoming. To drink, a pint of Towles' Independents APA,  in vintage glassware, natch. It's not terribly impressive, with simple melon and pear flavours before a butterscotch finish. At a big 5% ABV it doesn't represent great value for the alcohol. Arbor's Hoptical Delusion did a much better job. This is 3.8% ABV and quite resinous, with oily vegetal hop flavours, just shading towards dank. Stimulating stuff.

Before leaving I couldn't pass up the chance to try Dorset Brewing Company's Castaway Coconut Rum Ale, despite an intense fear that it could resemble something by Innis & Gunn. It's a clear dark red-brown and tastes pleasantly of muscovado sugar: sticky, and slightly burnt. Not much rum or coconut to speak of, but on the whole it could have been a lot worse.

Back to King Street, then, and The Famous Royal Navy Volunteer, aka The Volly. A big and quite foodish pub, decorated in classic minimalist gastro style, all painted wood and leather sofas. Picking randomly from the beautifully modernist beer board I sat down with a pint of Wiper & True Mosaic Pale Ale. A sumptuous deep orange and served beautifully cold from the cask, the hop flavour blends sharp pith and savoury dank notes so fresh I could almost taste the bursting colours: synaesthesia in a glass. Behind this some quenching tannic astringency and sandalwood spices, all set on a body that's full and warming: a magnificent paradox in such a refreshing beer. An absolute virtuoso performance.

Dragging myself off King Street and back to the hotel for a quick palate-cleansing nightcap. Freedom Four lager was pouring so I gave that a go, and it was perfect for the occasion. Very crisp, dry and cereal-driven it makes for an excellent reset button.

So that's the beginning of my Bristol beer adventure. More to follow, on King Street and beyond...

14 August 2014

Finalmente!

There are many epithets that one can attach to Mr Mick Wallace, though one of the ones he made his name on was "Italophile". Enamoured of the Italian way of life on returning from the 1990 World Cup, the construction magnate used his later prosperity to bring a little of it to Dublin. The city's "Italian quarter" is of his making and La Taverna on its southern edge is still his personal property, recent financial and legal woes notwithstanding. It's a centrepiece of the Italian quarter vision and in the boom years Mick would often have lunch here. I know this because I often had lunch here too, and still do. The food is of excellent quality and very reasonably priced, while the wine and olive oil are (I think) imported especially, with an emphasis on the Piedmont region for the former. The beer was... Peroni. As the Italian beer renaissance took wings, I would fume over my Modenese salad that none of the good stuff was coming on the containers from Piedmont, stacked next to the Barbera.

I've no idea what prompted the change earlier this year, but it finally happened: a handful of beers from Birrificio Montegioco in the east of the province, north of Genoa.

Demon Hunter is a dark amber ale of 8% ABV with definite Belgian characteristics, in that it's rather hot and has a good deal of banana ester about it. The aroma has hints of acetone and the finish is acridly bitter. All of these factors made it just too hard going to be enjoyable, for me at least.

The lighter Rurale was much better. It's a little bit pale and a more accessible 5.1% ABV. There's a lovely spicy, perfumed hop nose with some marzipan sweetness. The malt looms large in the flavour, showing masses of caramel and golden syrup. The perfume hops make a comeback next: assertively floral, if that's a thing. A decent bitter smack finishes an end-to-end quality beer experience.

I had no idea what to expect from Bran, only that it's 9% ABV and only comes in a 75cl bottle. That said bottle arrives wrapped in paper doesn't help either. And after drinking it, I'm still not sure what style best fits it. It's jet black and pours out gloopily, with little by way of head. The aroma is a hot and sour combination of alcohol and plums, placing it somewhere on the dark Belgian-style spectrum, but the flavour is all about the chocolate: sweet to begin with, and finishing dryer, with more marzipan in the middle for complexity. That makes it more of a porter to my palate, and a very good one at that. However you want to slice it, this is a very well done beer and exactly the sort of wine substitute that I'd been longing to see at La Taverna.

I have rarely ventured into any of the other members of the Wallace group, but the promise of Montegioco on draught was enough to get me through the doors of Enoteca delle Langhe, situated just behind La Taverna. Rurale was an option but I went for Runa, 4.8% and arriving the colour of spun gold with just a slight haze. There was something off about the aroma, a sort of stale-weissbier rancid banana smell, but it's much better to the taste. First impressions were of a simple witbier, softly wheaty and with a gentle spice. As I got further in, the hops started to come through clearer with a lemongrass and beeswax bite, reminiscent more of an assertive German pils than a Belgian-style wheat beer, with just some background fruit esters suggesting to me that it's warm fermented. A best-of-both-worlds sessionable quencher or complex continental sipper here. The first appearance of a teku glass in the wild in Dublin, too. They're really not very nice to drink from.

And the news is just in that the group's beer offering is due for further expansion very soon, including the arrival of products from one of my top Italian breweries, the sour specialists LoverBeer. That could well move the Wallace group from fun novelty beer stockists to unmissable Dublin icons.

11 August 2014

Topin' all hours

I reaped a boon from Richard's most recent trip to the US, and from his fondness for super-fresh hop-forward American beers, and from his willingness to open them within my reach.

Day Tripper comes from the Indeed Brewing Company in Minneapolis. It's a 5.4% ABV pale ale and arrives a cheery bright orange colour, though almost completely opaque. There's a certain harshness in the aroma; the promise of palate-scouring acid bitterness. But the palate doesn't actually get much of a going over. It's rather a thin beer with very light carbonation and is almost watery as a result.

The flavour is one-dimensionally hop-centric when cold: pine resin, with just some cute peachy frills around the edge. It needs a little time in the warmth for the malt to smooth things out adding a sweetness which introduces some beautiful mandarin notes, though sadly doing nothing to improve the texture. The blurb on the can denies it's a "one-hop-trick pony" but I'm still not so sure about that.

The counterpoint beer to Day Tripper is Night Time, an 8.2% ABV black IPA from Lagunitas. Lots of fizz as this poured, turning out jet black with hints of brown where the light hits it and topped by a comfortable pillow of foam. The aroma is pure tyre fire: all harsh acrid burnt rubber. And this kicks off the flavour too, but after the initial bitter shock passes, it opens out into strawberries and similar light summer fruits. There's a heavy and rather enjoyable dankness in the centre as well, adding hop weight to the malt. Eyes closed it would probably be difficult to tell it's a dark beer, the massive hopping smothering any dark malt characteristics. Only the smooth creamy texture suggests that it would have anything in common with a stout.

It's refreshing -- literally and metaphorically-- to encounter two hop-forward American beers that don't layer on toffeeish malts to create a semblance of balance. Could it be that crystal malt's time has finally passed?

07 August 2014

Berried deep

Hello My Name Is Vladimir is the first of BrewDog's Hello My Name Is... series to have come my way. They're double IPAs with a berry addition and this time it's limonnik doing the honours.

It's a fairly clear orangey-pink colour, with just a very fine haze suspended evenly through it. There are strong Lilt-ish mango vapours which I don't know whether to assign to the berries or the hops, and behind them a sterner piney smell from the Citra. And it's the Citra leading the charge in the flavour: a strong spicy bitterness, lots of oily dank, and a lighter spritzy finish. There's a red berry complexity in amongst it, not quite hidden but struggling to be felt, while there's just enough caramel malt to provide a comfortable base to launch the hops. For an 8.2% ABV pale ale the texture is mercifully light and overall it's very drinkable; almost refreshing, in fact.

The twist in this IPA-with-a-twist is a subtle one, but the base beer is good enough to enjoy even if it passed the drinker unnoticed.

Thanks to Steve for the bottle.

04 August 2014

Cry wolf

I've seen ads for Lupulus from Les 3 Fourquets in many a Belgian pub, its sad grey wolf pup staring balefully at the drinker. The brewery designates it as an "Ardennes Tripple" [sic] leaving me wondering whether I'm supposed to be measuring it against La Chouffe or Westmalle Tripel. It's not very much like either, really, being all hot sweet candy to begin with, tasting much stronger than its 8.5% ABV. At the last minute there's a peppery piquancy which swings in and saves it, but its still not one I'd go running back to.

And just to get it out of my notebook while we're in the Low Countries, De Molen Hamer & Sikkel, a 5.1% ABV porter. I wanted to like this but it's a bit of a mess, all homebrewy yeasty flavours blocking any nice chocolate or coffee porter notes. A rare misstep in the dark beers from Bodegraven's finest.

Belgium and the Netherlands are fantastic beer producing countries in general, but into every drinking life the occasional dud must fall.