Recently I picked up a bottle of Weltenburger Kloster Anno 1050. For a beer that's only 5.5% alcohol it tastes very strong. It has that chewy, syrupy taste normally associated with special-brew-type lagers of 7-8%. This makes it quite difficult to drink and a bit of a let-down, really.
Back in 1998 when the craft- and micro- brewing industry started to take off in Ireland, brewing megalith Guinness, possibly fearing some kind of challenge to their overwhelming dominance, test-marketed a series of craft-style beers. They labelled them the "St. James's Gate" beers, and there was a dark lager, a red ale, and what I think was Ireland's first wheat beer. Anyway, I guess they bombed because they disappeared shortly after. Later the same year Guinness mass-marketed a new weissbier, Breó, which has since gone the way of its predecessors (it wasn't a classic of the genre, but it was nice to have a wee bit more choice).
Anyway, it looks like the guys up at Guinness HQ are feeling a bit antsy about the whole diversity issue again, and a new Guinness stout has appeared in Dublin this week. They're calling it "Brew 39" and it is the first in the Guinness "Brewhouse Series", limited edition stouts which will each appear for six months at a time. So what's it like?
Well, it's very very like Guinness: smooth and easy drinking almost to the point of blandness. The only difference I detect is a slight sweetness at the back of the taste. In short, it is Murphy's, brewed by Guinness, only not as good.
"Guinness Brew 39 has the same alcohol content as Guinness Draught, uses the same gas mix, settles in the same way and has exactly the same creamy head as Guinness. It will cost the same as Guinness Draught."
Which begs the obvious question: well why did you bother, then?
I think the answer lies in the fact that this is a series, and they want to get the drinking public involved in it before they throw anything (shock horror!) interesting at them.
So, even though I recognise that this is a cynical ploy by a gigantic firm to make them look like your friendly neighbourhood brewer, I still welcome this growth in the variety of beers available in Ireland, and look forward to the next in the series.
However, if you want a flavoursome and individual stout, there are many places to go before ordering anything branded as Guinness.
A short note in praise of Banks's Barley Gold, a magnificent barley wine from the Wolverhampton brewery. It comes in a tiddly 275ml bottle but packs a lot into that. A whopping 9.1% ABV, but still very easy to drink with a very complex sweet spicy barley flavour.
The Porterhouse in Dublin are staging their annual Oktoberfest at the moment, with a variety of bottled and draught German beers, and one seasonal German-style lager. They call it Kölsch, being in the style of Cologne. It is a phenomenally dry blonde with the crisp grainy character that infuses all of the Porterhouse lagers. But mostly it's dry. Beer that makes you thirsty: it's a wonder there isn't more of it.
Also on tap they have Andechs Dunkel, which tastes like no dunkel I've ever had before. Rather than the usual smooth caramel flavour, this has a rough smoky taste, like drinking cheap Turkish cigarettes. An odd one, for sure.
Tried two English bottled ales over the weekend. The first was Marston's Pedigree, with which I was disappointed. It lacks any really distinctive flavour, going instead for a mildness that fades into tastelessness.
Fuller's London Pride is a whole different matter. Despite being of the same genre and similar strength there is a world of difference between the two. London Pride has a full-on heavy malty taste which is extremely satisfying. I did, however, detect a slight metallic tang which is a little off-putting. Still: quality stuff.
A couple more notes on the beers I discovered in Bavaria last week.
Double bock beers are produced by the main breweries at Easter time each year. These are very sticky, rich, dark beers, not dissimilar to the Trappist dubbel style. Löwenbräu's version is called Triumphator, and has a sharp, burnt taste to it. Paulaner make Salvator which is extremely sweet and obviously loaded with sugary calories: a beerbelly in a glass. At the brewery-run pub in Erding, I discovered Erdinger make something similar, a "weizenbock" called Pikantus. This has all the rich flavour of the double bocks, but incorporates a wheatbeer softness that is very pleasant. And it comes in a clay mug: always a plus! Lastly on this front, I happened on Moncshöf Schwarzbier. As the name suggests it is stout-black and tastes something similar, though lighter and with more of a charcoal character.
In a town so dominated by big beer brands, I was lucky to find a brewpub, even if it is run by giant Löwenbräu. Unions-Bräu Haidhausen was independent until 1921, when it was bought by the big firm and closed down. It was reopened as a pub in 1991. They had two beers on tap: Helles and Dunkel. The former was cloudy, unlike any other helles I've found. It had a dry, light taste and was good but unchallenging. The dunkel had a satisfying richness to it often missing in German and Czech beers of this sort, though it was let down by a metallic tang.
The main impression I'm taking away from the beer scene in Munich is the absolute dominance of a few big players, and this, no matter how good the product is, will always rank it below somewhere where lots of operators make a wide variety of products: Belgium being the prime example. Munich the Beer Capital of Europe? I don't think so.
I'm just back from a week in Munich, including quite a bit of time loitering within tents at the Wies'n, the world's biggest folk festival, known in these parts as Oktoberfest. It's often referred to as a beer festival, but given that the whole shebang is governed by a closed shop of four brewing giants, and that only six kinds of beer are available, it's much more a festival of drunkenness. The beer is merely a contributing factor.
It was tremendous fun, though, mostly thanks to some careful planning. The beer tents fill up early in the afternoon (even earlier on weekends) so I found the best strategy was to go early and have one or two. At noon, generally, the tent was filling up, the atmosphere was building, the music was playing and things were at their best. I tended to leave soon after, since by two it became crowded, noisy, smoky and unpleasant. So I put the work in: I made it to all twelve tents, and managed to have a beer in all but one (I got to the Augustinerbräu tent at 9.50 yesterday morning and there was no space left, consarnit). So what about the beer?
Each of the six brands makes an Oktoberfest beer especially for the festival, which are sold at the shops and pubs around town as well as in the tents. They are roughly of the märzen variety: slightly stronger and sweeter than ordinary lager. Spaten was the best of them, in my opinion: dark gold and rich tasting. Second I'd place Löwenbräu which is much lighter and easy to drink, which is a clear advantage when trying to get through a litre of it. Augustiner is very smooth, but this tends towards a lack of flavour, which puts it in third. Very close behind it, and for similar reasons is Hacker-Pschorr. Hofbräu is fifth: I found it the fizziest and thus the hardest to drink. And bringing up the rear the mighty Paulaner brewery which seems to have put very little effort into adjusting their ordinary helles lager recipe into something special for the festival.
So that was the festival. Further notes on other beers of Munich and Bavaria to follow.