30 January 2015

Up Andorra

Drinking in a micronation: is there any sweeter feeling? My New Year trip to Barcelona incorporated a day in Andorra, a grey little country perched high in the Pyrenees, three hours by bus from the Catalan capital. This particular Shangri-La charges no duty or VAT on anything so tends to be thronged by the neighbours filling up on cheap booze and fags. It's weird going to a place which is plainly designed with the wealthy in mind, but where the prices of things are comically low. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Liechtenstein.

There is but one brewery in the country, and one specialist craft beer outlet in the capital city Andorra La Vella.

La Birreria is technically an off licence, but it also has taps and tables and serves snacks, much like Dublin's own Probus Wines. I started on the house beer which is not, in fact Andorran, but brewed in Ibiza. Up in the mountains that feels a lot further away than it actually technically is. The beer was a Christmas porter called Trapella, 6% ABV and brewed with carob beans. It's a murky homebrew-ish brown colour and smells of nothing. The flavour is fun though: proper Christmassy, with spiced brown sugar overlaid with fresh herbal pine. A slight burnt-pudding edge finishes it off. The carob doesn't contribute a whole lot, but even before I read it was there I could detect the faint presence of a fake chocolate flavour, which makes sense. Decent stuff, if a little rough around the edges.

Cereveses Alpha brewery is on the ground floor of an apartment building some way north of the city. I didn't venture out to it, but you can have a wander through the dinky brewhouse, shop and bar on Google Streetview if you fancy.

Sant Corneli is the pale ale, strong at 6.4% ABV, looking hazy and leading to an almost Belgian IPA kind of flavour: lots of sweet honeydew fruit and jasmine spice from the hops but also a pillowy texture and a contribution of tasty warming esters from the yeast.

La Font del Bisbe also claims to be a pale ale, albeit a torrado (toasted) one. Heavily toasted, it turns out: it's a dark russet colour in the glass. More Belgian goings on in the aroma: alcohol heat, caramel and figs, like a strong dubbel. And yet all that disappears on tasting and you get a clean, highly attenuated beer, with lemon sherbet at the front of the flavour and not much behind it. It's a very strange effect. I would drink more of it, though.

The winter ale is a 7.5% ABV job called La Dama de Gel and is infused with cacao and whisky. It's a deep brown colour with a vinous aroma, and muscat in particular: the sweet and quite perfumed white grape. That comes out even stronger in the flavour where it's joined by a little hint of jaffa orange and a chalky minerality. It's another strong one without much by way of residual sugar and I found myself warming to this house style.

And now things get a little weird. Alpha makes a smoked beer called Fums, 6.2% ABV, headless, and a clear brown colour. I'm not at all sure I would spot that it contains smoked malt if it wasn't flagged on the label because it doesn't really taste smoky. The single, resounding, unambiguous flavour here is silage: that funky green stench of farmyards in winter. Perhaps it should be surprising that more beers don't taste like this. Like silage, beer is essentially fermented grass. Anyway, Fums is very odd, but not unpleasant, to me anyway.

The last remaining Alpha beer on the shelf was Full Fusion, a concoction containing ginseng, guarana and taurine. And I would say there's lots of taurine in here: it's the same blinding pale yellow as an energy drink and has exactly the same sickly artificial-candy-lemon smell and taste. It's very unbeery -- no sign of any malt or hops -- but perfectly drinkable. While I was doing that I got to wondering if the brewers had simply pitched yeast onto a bucket of Red Bull. I'd imagine that would end up something like this.

It's great that Andorra has its own beer brand, and an accessible specialist bar. Sadly, because I spent pretty much the whole day in it I can't tell you very much else about the country. But definitely drop by La Birreria if you're passing.

28 January 2015

Visiting dignitaries

The same smallish set of foreign breweries tended to show up on the blackboards of Barcelona's craft beer bars when I visited, though all obviously chosen for their geek-drawing power. The Brits seem to be doing particularly well out of the inbound keg trade. Take BierCaB, for instance. The high-tech, high-concept, high-stool, eye of the Barcelona craft beer storm counted Siren and Weird Beard among its tap offerings when I was there.

From the former: Soundwave, a New-World IPA at a modest 5.6% ABV. Kiwi-style grassy herbs and fleshy peach feature in the aroma, and while the flavour kicks off on grapefruit and lime bitterness it suddenly floods with fresh juicy mango and satsuma, with just a small grassy bite on the end to add seriousness. As an IPA, Soundwave is damn near perfect. Now available in Ireland too. Huzzah!

More peaches followed in Weird Beard's Lord Nelson, a 6.8% ABV saison which the west London brewery has produced in association with Elusive, a new brewing company due to start production in Hampshire soon. For a saison it's rather sickly sweet, the sugary fruit effect weighing heavily on the palate. A rising bitter backing track fails to balance it and creates a disconcerting sort of green apple skin effect. Are we done with saisons yet? I think I may be done with this kind.

And obviously you can't fling a beer mat in a geek bar anywhere in Europe these days without hitting a Buxton tap. BierCaB had Battle Horse, one of those black double IPAs I can never decide if I like or not, all green-smelling and tasting powerfully cabbagey, to the point of acidic sourness. Bizarrely my notes say I found it enjoyably refreshing, even at 11.1% ABV. Wrong-footed again. Meanwhile over at Ale & Hop they were pouring Buxton's Wyoming Sheep Ranch, a clear gold double IPA with a lightly zesty aroma but laying on the complexities when it comes to tasting: big resins, lots of heady dank, a dose of wax plus a dusting of spices. Yet it's all harmonised rather beautifully and the result is smooth, clean and very satisfying. You'd take your time with this one even if it wasn't 8.4% ABV.

Last of the English beers comes courtesy of Homo Sibaris: Moor's So'Hop, a sharp and lemony pale ale of just 4.1% ABV, hazy yellow in colour and with a heap of dry, back-of-the-throat bitterness. The aroma promises oodles of lemon sherbet fun but it's all acid business on tasting. Instead of sweet fruit you get a serving of green celery or asparagus in the flavour. Eat it up, it's good for you.

It's probably a healthy sign that American beers were thin on the ground. Not so much as a Sierra Nevada or Brooklyn tap to be seen. I did spot one beer from Kentucky's Against the Grain, home of the dad-joke beer name. Mac Fannybaw (sigh) is a Scotch ale (sigh) of 8.5% ABV, dark red-gold and smelling of smoke and seawater -- pleasantly so; I could sniff it for ages. Smoky sourness is the main feature of the flavour, light and clean, having a lot in common with good German rauchbier. Names aside, I liked it a lot.

Canadian beer was easier found than American, and Black Lab had two IPAs from Flying Monkeys in Ontario. Smashbomb is a beer you've tasted before: a middling shade of orange with a slight haze, sticky candy and a jaffa bitterness. Enjoyable, but rather generic, I thought. Still better than Hoptical Illusion, a darker rose-gold and rather toffeeish: crystal malt, a vegetal bitterness and not much else. The brewery claims there's Centennial, Amarillo and Cascade in here, but I'm damned if I can see where they went.

The nordics were fairly well represented and I had my first Estonian IPA in the form of Virmalised by Põhjala while in La Resistència. No head to speak of, but it had some nice wintery herbs in the flavour profile, sage in particular, and an interesting touch of coconut, but was ultimately rather watery and unexciting. I'd expect a bit more of a kick at 6.5% ABV.

Next to it, one from Lindheim in Norway: their O-Pale. Same strength; more weight. This reddish-gold beer shows big English characteristics, all marmalade and meadows in both flavour and aroma, spread on a wholegrain-toast malt base and dusted with a pinch of bubblegum which is slightly out of character but does it no harm at all. I liked it but, as with the Virmalised, I think they could have got the same effect at a more sociable ABV.

Back to BierCaB then, for a beer brewed by Lervig of Stavanger in collaboration with Surly of Minneapolis. 1349 Black Ale is 13.5% ABV and as tarry as you might expect. It smells woody and boozy, tasting sweet like a barley wine, heading towards cherry cough-sweet territory. The brewers' notes say there's Yirgacheffe coffee in here so, hey, now mine do too. I couldn't taste it though. Overall a smooth and warming end-of-evening sipper, but a small one is plenty.

And speaking of strong and coffee-infused, they had De Molen's Kopi Loewak in the display fridges at La Cervesera Artesana. This is a mere 11.2% ABV and you really can smell the coffee, and the alcohol too: Tia Maria in a big way. The first impression is of a rather dry and burnt coffee stout and it takes a while to open out and let the rich chocolatey imperial flavours come through. They blend with the coffee to make a kind of sweet chestnut nuttiness. If you like a coffee beer to really taste of coffee, in a raw bean sort of way, this is what you're looking for.

Only one German brewery had much of a presence on the Barcelona beer scene: Aktienbrauerei Kaufbeuren from south-west Bavaria. I chanced Steingadener when I was in La Cerveteca, chalked up simply as a dunkel. And I thought it a good, powerfully flavoured, version of the style: huge liquorice, lots of caramel, generous chocolate and a very German herbal bitterness. Though it was indeed sweet, I was very surprised to find it's actually a dunkelweiss, being far cleaner of flavour than they normally are. Shows the power of suggestion. I'm sure I'd have noticed loads of brown bananas if I'd been told to expect them.

And that's your lot from Barcelona. I hope I've shown over the last two posts that there's plenty of variety to be had (though you doubtless all knew that already). The good news for the beer tourist is that some places, including BierCaB, are open all day, not just in the evenings. Even more open early on weekends, though some close in the afternoons. In short, you need to do some schedule planning before setting out for any specific establishment. It could do with more space, however. Many pubs just got too crowded, with the staff too few and the beer too foamy, for comfortable drinking. But it certainly shows promise and there is clearly room for lots more establishments, of all sizes.

And if this is the point where you're thinking "Yeah, I really should go/go back some time soon", the Barcelona Beer Festival is 13-15 March this year. What better time to visit?

26 January 2015

Beercelona

My most recent New Year jaunt was to Barcelona: the hub, I'm told, of Spain's expanding craft beer movement. And while that may be true, interesting beers are fairly tightly contained within a small number of specialist outlets, though new ones are opening all the time.

Black Lab, for instance, still smelled of paint and sawdust, having welcomed customers for the first time a few days before Christmas. It's situated in the handsome old harbourside building which also houses the Catalonian Historical Museum. In due course there will be a brewery here and the interior layout allows for prominent display of the equipment when it arrives. In the meantime, two house beers brewed at the nearby Edge brewery, plus a few international options.

Black Mirror is the session-strength stout: 4.5% ABV though a little lacking in darkness and foam for the style, I thought. It's barely carbonated and smells of cocoa and treacle while tasting of chocolate syrup and bitter coffee, the sweetness rising to an almost metallic saccharine tang with time. Perhaps a little too sweet to gulp down but I found it a reasonably pleasant sipper.

The companion piece is El Importador, a 5.5% ABV amber ale which arrived looking a nasty muddy brown colour. It was a surprise to find it's really a rather clean beer, the rye coming in strong at the start adding a huge grassy bite, then big pine hop flavours in the middle with a kind of baking soda chalkiness as well. I liked it but I'd say rye fans will appreciate it much more.

Black Lab will be a very nice little place when it's finished and pouring its own beers but it's still worth a visit now.

The first Barcelona beer pub I visited was La Resistència, a long narrow café-style establishment with minimalist decoration. It was IPAs all round here, starting with Espiga Black IPA, an 8.5% ABV whopper with a thick and creamy stout-like head. The aroma is pure fruitcake: warm baked raisins and glacé cherries in particular. There's more of a juicy mandarin thing happening on tasting, however, overlaid with a drier green bitterness and lots of dark roast but no sign of that alcohol in the flavour. This a really good, drinkable, complex powerhouse of a beer and a lot more fruity and fun than black IPAs tend to be at this sort of strength.

Ratpenat 2014 IPA is more orthodox: 6% ABV, a hazy orange colour and smelling brightly of orange and lemon zest. Unsurprisingly that's how it tastes too: a big burst of citrus with a bonus sprinkling of exotic jasmine perfume spice. It got to be a little heavy-going after a while, but nice for a small one.

Food is obviously a big part of the equation when it comes to beer in Catalonia and most of specialist bars will do good quality tapas as a minimum. Ale & Hop, in the Barri Gotic, goes further and has a proper vegetarian restaurant at the back behind the pub section. The food is very cheap and pretty decent, though small portions come with the pricetag. The veggie burger filled a hole adequately, however. To drink, more from Barcelona's own Edge Brewing.

La Sense Nom is a saison at a proper saison strength of 5% ABV. Not so proper is the blending in of apple juice which adds a sweet red-apple flavour to the coppery-gold coloured beer and quite possibly covers any saison spicing which may be present. There remains an assertive sharp bite in the finish, so while there's a slight air of alcopop about it -- especially the easy drinkability -- there's still a proper beer underneath. Slightly weaker, in strength and quality, is Edge's La Flor De La Vida, a rather watery attempt at a pale ale with the overpowering floral bitterness of tasted perfume, fading to a barely-perceptible celery greenness. The brewery claims it's English style but I don't think they've got the right angle on what English pale ale is supposed to taste like at all.

Before leaving, a go of Fort IPA, Fort being another one of the local outfits. A big 7% ABV here but all that malt just leaves a musty grainsack aroma and flavour. The hops are heavy and resinous and the whole thing tasted old and tired, all booze and bitterness. It disappeared from the blackboard soon after so I suspect I got the tail end of a keg which may well have been tapped quite a while previously. Them's the breaks.

At the opposite end of the old city from Ale & Hop we find La Cerveteca, a pleasantly bohemian corner watering hole with nine taps and a laidback acid jazz soundtrack. The first thing that caught my eye were the handpumps, one of which was pouring St Joan, a pale ale by the Agullons brewery. Now this lot have nailed the English style: all the meadowy flowers of English hops, as well as the mildly metallic bite that comes with it. There are heavier hop resins too, and a spicy sticky incense complexity. Yes, at 5% it's a little overclocked for the style, and there was a rather harsh yeast bite which they really should sort out if they're going to insist on cask dispense, but overall a surprisingly good go at the genre and a very satisfying pint of beer.

I looked for something cleansing to follow it and eschewed the German lagers in favour of Naparbier's Aotearoa Pils. That was a mistake. This hazy 4.2% ABV yellow lager is massively piss flavoured, far beyond catty and into concentrated kidney territory. Where the lovely kiwi tropical fruit should be there's a sickly peach nectar effect, though there's no quibbling with the malt base: golden syrup and crisp oatmeal biscuits. This is not a beer which does things by halves but should probably only be consumed in them.

One more foray into Edge's portfolio comes via Homo Sibaris, another neighbourly café-style beer pub. Hoptimista hits the sweet spot for amber ale, combining fresh floral hopping with rich and cakey caramel malt. The flavour is awash with marzipan and comforting sticky toffee pudding, finishing on a sharper grassy bite which balances it beautifully. It's strong at 6.6% ABV, but leaves it up to you whether you want to gulp it down and enjoy the hop refreshment, or linger longer and let the malt confectionery soothe. On this showing I can't say I was overly impressed by Edge's beers -- it's the sort of brewery that would be grand to have as your local producer, but isn't worth crossing the continent for. Hoptimista is the one possible exception to that that I found.

Taking shelter in Dunne's Irish Pub while waiting for somewhere else to open, I was offered Barcino Bogatell Blat as their one sop to Catalonian craft brewing. The specs are those of a weissbier, with wheat, Hallertau hops and "Bavarian yeast", but it poured crystal clear with a thin lagerish head. There are cloves in abundance in the flavour, but not much else. It's very one-dimensional and started to get sickly as it warmed. Definitely not a good ambassador for the region's microbrewing scene.

With all the pub-hopping I barely had time to sit in my hotel room drinking. When I did, it was Montseny Negra from a slickly branded brewery whose wares I didn't see anywhere in the on-trade. This one sold itself to me by claiming to be "following the Irish tradition". Oh yeah? A malt cocktail of barley, wheat, oats and rye bring it to 5.2% ABV and it pours an opaque brown-black, topped by a short-lived ivory head. And yes, despite the off-kilter grain bill and high-ish ABV, it does do a very good impression of quality Irish stout, balancing mineral and roasted dryness with chocolate and latte sweetness. There's even a lovely touch of creaminess in the texture, begorrah. A very well put together dark beer, all-in-all.

I just had time at the end of the trip for a couple of beers in La Cervesera Artesana, the Barcelona brewpub I first encountered back in 2002 and re-visited the last time I was in town in 2007. It's still tipping away, with a modestly ambitious range of beers, though few of those advertised were actually available. On a carefree whim I chose Boletus from the line-up, knowing only that it's something in a Belgian fashion. What I got was a hazy amber beer, heavy and warming, with a pleasant granola cereal aroma. It tastes lightly orangey and lacks the Belgian-style esters, putting me more in mind of an English strong ale. And then there's a slightly nasty gastric edge which didn't help things, or leave me any the wiser as to what the brewer was intending.

Iberian Wheat was also a strange one. It's the dark orange shade of many a weissbier but has a massive sharp and sour vinegar-and-lemon bite. Infected? Maybe, but it didn't spoil things. There was also a nice dry carbonic catch in the back of the throat and some fun fruity peachade. I can't think of anything to compare it to, but I rather enjoyed it as a novelty.

I've stuck rigidly to locally-brewed beers this post, and if you're familar with Barcelona you'll have noticed I've missed (at least) one major landmark on the bar scene. I'll come to it in the next post when I'll be looking at the foreign beers I found on the trip.

22 January 2015

Two portraits of hops

Another rattle of the Brown Paper Bag last month yielded two new beers from the Dublin-based gypsy brewing collective, both created at Gadd's Ramsgate Brewery in Kent.

On a Thursday evening in early December I trekked up to The Back Page on Phibsborough Road -- no hardship really; it's a lovely pub and worth going out of one's way for. Lupe Garou, for such is the new beer's name, is available kegged only, and Baggers Colin and Brian were present to launch it. This is a 100% wet-hop ale, made with lots of freshly-harvested East Kent Goldings on a base of nothing but classic English malt Maris Otter, up to a weighty 6.5% ABV. It certainly shows off the features of the hop, in very clear terms: waxy bitterness, turning even towards a herbal honey effect at the extreme edges. The strength lends it a certain amount of golden syrup unctuousness, but really it's all about those stern and serious English hops. It's a fun and creative use for ingredients we tend to take for granted, but they're also the reason it's not a headline grabber: you have to really like traditional English ale flavours to be wowed by this.

Just over a week later, the lads were working late again, this time in top south Dublin offy Redmond's of Ranelagh. The occasion was another new beer, Howrye [pronounced "how'r'yeh", with an interrobang and a cheeky Sligo wink]: a 10% ABV rye wine. What's really interesting with this one is the Projecteers did not consider it ready when first bottled several months ago, so have been storing it to let it mellow and mature. And the result is spectacular: all the flavour from the US hops, and Chinook in particular, is still there, all oily and palate-coating. But there are no bitter edges, not a trace of harshness, and while it's warming it's not hot or even particularly boozy. Howrye slips down easily like a smooth liqueur, flavoured with bright peppery and citric flavours. It's great to not have to wonder if it'll improve with age: I suspect that this is at its absolute peak and highly recommend getting stuck into it now in case those bright hops start to fade.

Cheers to Colin and Brian for the free samples, however I did actually buy some Howrye of my own, and will quite likely buy more.

19 January 2015

That's refreshing

At last! A white IPA that's comfortable with its true nature. While the civil war rumbles on over black IPA with neither the hoppy porter faction nor the IPA purists gaining ground, white IPA is simply hoppy witbier. No question. End of. That Sierra Nevada have decided to call theirs Snow Wit is to cut any stylistic controversy off before it starts.

It's even closer in ABV to witbier than most of the white IPAs I've met, at just 5.7%. The colour is a very pale yellow, worryingly like the cheaper, less well-made Belgian wits. The aroma is gentle but wonderfully complex, pushing out peach and passionfruit juiciness with a spicy gunpowder background -- not bad, given the "seven varieties of experimental dwarf hops" with which it's brewed. Such gimmickry seldom works in the drinker's favour.

The dry wheaty quality dominates the flavour, and it's perhaps even a little watery, but the spice and fruit are there to a degree as well and there's a sharp bitter tang giving it a perfumed waxy scented candle finish which isn't really to my taste but may keep hopheads happy.

That said, my preference for this style of beer is bigger and badder hopping and I don't mind sacrificing the witbier spices and subtleties to get it. Snow Wit is just a little too well-behaved.

15 January 2015

Egged on

They make a cute couple, this pair from Den Ouden Advokaat, a Belgian maker of egg-based liqueurs. I've no idea why they felt the need to commission two beers, but when in Belgium... Neither of them contain any actual eggs, I was relieved to discover.

Boerken is a murky dark red ale of 9.5% ABV. It smells like a bakery on Good Friday, heavy with wholemeal flour, raisins, sweet spices and heat. One might expect it to be a heavy affair but the texture is nicely light and barely troubled by carbonation for a kind of vinous quality. The flavour intensity is up to this descriptor as well: there's a certain spiced and fortified wine vibe, with juicy boozy raisin notes out in force. The bakery theme is well represented too, with a massive cakey-bready element to the taste. There's a slight crisp roast flavour at the very end, adding a very mild dryness to the whole, but the lasting impression is of sweet dark fruit, almost like a dubbel but benefiting greatly from the lighter texture. Still, the impact of the taste, amplified by the alcohol, meant that one was plenty.

So we turn from the farmer to his wife, Boerinneken. She's just as strong as the oulfella, though paler -- an orange amber shade. The alcohol heat is just as apparent here, and has less space in which to hide. The flavour just isn't as complex, with the honey and golden syrup sweetness of a tripel but none of those invigorating spices you usually get in the style. Instead there's a kind of warming herbal element, Deep Heat and eucalyptus. It is not a fun beer, nor an easy beer, but I can't really say there's anything technically wrong with it. The warning is right there in the ABV.

Two slow sippers for a winter's evening are what we have here. For refreshment, best look elsewhere.

12 January 2015

Out for a scoop

Word arrived via the Beoir forum recently (cheers Cathal!) that a pub in the northern Dublin suburb of Swords had set up a brewery in its basement and that the first beer was now available. As it happened I had some spare time at the end of my extended Christmas holiday so ventured up last Friday afternoon for a looksee.

The Old Schoolhouse is one of those organic, rambling country-style pubs, nestling into an embankment just outside Swords village and covering multiple levels, inside and out. The normal mainstream beers are available on tap, as well as a couple from Rye River. Behind the main bar, however, is another set of taps, one of which bore the legend Scholar Black Stout. This is the first beer from the basement nanobrewery which they've named "Ravenbrew".

Sadly the brewery is not on display and is out of bounds so the details will have to wait until a visit can be arranged. By then there should be a pale ale available too, meaning there's definitely a reason to go back. For the moment, I contented myself with a pint of the stout.

Scholar Black is a very straightforward take on Irish nitrokeg stout and has plainly been designed as a direct substitute for the big industrial brands. Don't expect any unorthodox complexities or high intensity flavours. Instead you get a super-smooth creamy pint with just enough chocolate to prevent it from being bland and a very nice dry and slightly bitter tang on the finish to keep it in line with the Irish dry stout style spec. I doubt I'd be crossing the city again to get another pint of it, but if it was on tap in my local, especially at just €4 a pint, I could see it being a go-to beer.

Flavour aside, what I really love about the whole thing is a pub simply setting up to brew its own beer on-site. We don't have nearly enough of that kind of thing in Ireland, and for no good reason I can see. I hope the Old Schoolhouse becomes a beacon for publicans who want to get into the production game. It has certainly set an example of how to do simple decent quality beer well.