30 August 2007

A sudden chill

It's a damning indictment of the state of Irish beer that our largest independent brewer, owner of a chain of pubs which does not stock the vapid products of Ireland's macrobrewers, has always had a Bud clone in its repertoire. Because it has to. (Ireland's Bud, for the record, is brewed by Diageo down at the old Smithwick's plant in Kilkenny.)

I'm sure I tried this Chiller way back when the Porterhouse (or The Porter House, as it was then) first opened the doors of its Temple Bar brewpub. Recently, however, after years of tireless beer education I've become curious about it. How accurate a rendition is it? How do you make a tasty, hand-made beer that trades on its tastelessness?

Today I gave in and had my first Chiller in eleven years. Believe it or not, it really does take the worthwhile elements from pale American cooking lager and put them in a proper beer. It's very dry, but in a refreshing way, almost like my old friend Fischer. The mouthfeel has a stimulating sparkle to it which leads to criticism number one: the gassiness. I can't imagine drinking very much of this without becoming bloatis in extremis. Perhaps the reason the Porterhouse is so fond of ear-splitting skiddley-eye music is that it covers the belches of the Chiller drinkers.

More problematic was the chemical aftertaste that came with it, a bit like disinfectant. Could have been a bad glass or stale beer, but I sincerely hope it's not supposed to be there. I'll confirm this on my next tasting in 2018.
Michael Jackson, inspiration, RIP.

28 August 2007

Scoop life

Thanks to beer blogger Maeib for telling me what I am. I've been doing this blogging lark for over two years now, but it's just this month that I find I am a "scooper": one who samples beer widely and takes note of all. In Hilden on Saturday I felt my scoopness acutely. As far as I could see, I was the only one of my kind present. You could say it was me and my notebook that made it a proper beer festival. But you wouldn't.

Having finished with the Hilden brews, I turned first to Moorhouse's brewery in Lancashire. The pump clip of its Black Cat dazzles with bling from the Brewing Industry International Awards and CAMRA's Champion Beer of Britain. I was disappointed, however, and found the black ale rather bland. Their Premier Bitter isn't much better, being quite thin and the least bitter bitter I've ever encountered. I was similarly unimpressed with two beers from Sheffield's Abbeydale brewery: Moonshine, a dull and slightly musty pale ale, and Matins, a vaguely hopped even-paler blonde cousin. At the far end of the festival bar, ignored by everyone, was Damson Porter by Burton Bridge. The base here is a very light porter, touched on by some sour damson fruitiness. Flavourwise it could have done with a bit more of everything.

A total contrast was Flat Cap, from Bolton's Bank Top brewery. This is a light ale sporting a superb zesty hoppiness. E&S Elland in West Yorkshire are similarly unafraid of the hop plant, providing Bargee, a light, smooth but marvellously tasty bitter, and Beyond the Pale, a deceptively pale ale with a powerful dry hops flavour. Titanic Brewery in Stoke-on-Trent make Anchor, a weighty yet quaffable orange ale, with an excellent hop-malt balance. Triple Screw was their other brew, a foamy red-orange ale: smooth, caramelly and satisfyingly heavy.

My finds of the festival, however, came from Manchester's 3 Rivers brewery. Their Manchester IPA is mega-hoppy, full-tasting, aromatic and warming: ticking all the IPA boxes. They also supplied Old Disreputable, a beautiful sweet black ale, reminding me of the Speight's Old Dark I found in New Zealand and which I miss every now and then.

At this point the railway timetable forbade any further tasting, and I failed to achieve the full scoop. I can't overstate how much I enjoyed this sort of drinking and am already making plans for the CAMRA Belfast festival in November. I might even get a new notebook, special like.

27 August 2007

Seven pints of the Devil's buttermilk

"Welcome to Belfast International Airport," the old joke goes, "please set your watch back 300 years." My native Northern Ireland hasn't garnered the best reputation for progressiveness and liberality over the years. The old puritanical streak left by the Planters can still be felt in the many spotlessly pretty villages which curiously lack pubs. Sunday trading is still a relatively new phenomenon and looked upon sceptically by the hardcore saved. So it is with extra delight that I report on a beer festival I attended on Saturday in the little village of Hilden, in the east Ulster heartland just south of Belfast.

The Hilden Brewery has been quietly turning out cask ales since 1981, mostly, I assume, for the export market as I have no memory of ever seeing them for sale. On the last weekend of August every year all and sundry are invited to the brewery yard for live music and a prodigious selection of real ales, both local and imported. This was my first ever trip to this sort of festival, whereby punters can buy an empty glass at the gate and have it repeatedly filled with wonderful liquids. Somewhere over 30 beers were available, about half of them from this island. I skipped the southern offerings out of familiarity (it was good to see a roaring trade in Galway Hooker), and passed on a Belfast Ale from the Whitewater Brewery as I've already reviewed it in bottled form. Instead, I concentrated first on the produce from Hilden itself.

The eponymous Hilden is a deceptively smooth orange-coloured ale that seems rather thin to begin with but waits a couple of beats before hitting the palate with a big no-nonsense bitterness. Scullion is in the same general style but a step up in strength and weight, quite filling and tasting much more than its 4.6% ABV. Hilden's light and tasty summer ale, Silver, was also on tap, as was Molly Malone, their classic Irish stout: bitter and chocolaty yet highly drinkable. Just a shame about the shamrock livery: Irish stout does not need more paddywhackery.

For (hopefully) a limited time, Hilden are also making the beers for the College Green Brewery in Belfast, soon to be established at Molly's Yard restaurant. The house ale is the oddly-named Headless Dog, a smooth, rounded golden ale: pleasant but unchallenging. Molly's Chocolate Stout is also quite light, especially by chocolate stout standards. The flavour is more reminiscent of sweet milk chocolate than bitter dark. Bravely, there is no lager in the set. Instead, lager-drinkers are directed towards Belfast Blonde. This is a lip-smackingly gorgeous bitter keg ale. It's a touch watery, but I can't imagine any dyed-in-the-wool Harp drinkers wanting to go back after one of these.

Beer news from the North, then, is good. I only wish some of these made more of an appearance south of the border. Tomorrow, the beers controversially described in the programme as from "the mainland".

23 August 2007

Knife and fork porter

Yesterday, Boak and Bailey advised snapping up Okocim Porter on sight. Today I was roaming my hunting grounds for Session prey and happened across a stash of it getting old on the shelves of Carvill's. Far be it from me to disobey orders, so here I sit with my swarthy Polish friend.

It's a big lad, for sure: 8.3% and tasting every bit. Stablemate Okocim Mocne is characteristically sweet, but this takes sweet to a new level. It's incredibly heavy and thick, with gallons of malty, treacly sugar. No chocolate, no coffee, no burnt anything much. There's barely a hint of bitterness, and that comes more from the saccharine uber-sweetness than, say, the hops.

This is a challenging beer, and not to be attempted lightly. Fair play to them for selling it in full-sized bottles, where many brewers would have opted for 33cl. It's one to finish your night with. Especially if you've not had much to drink.

19 August 2007

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that

Since I discovered that a neighbour runs a home brewery, my approach to buying beer has changed somewhat. I've promised to supply my empties for reuse, which has led to a preference for beers sold in bottles suitable for this purpose. So it has to be brown glass, it should be as large as possible and the jackpot is a swing-top cap. Not that there's any fear of me buying nothing but Fischer from now on: it's a good beer, but I don't swing that way. Instead, the effect has been to quicken my decision of which of a number of new beers I'll take home.

My last trip to Redmond's was rather truncated as a result. I only paced the floor a couple of times before coming away with Kapsreiter Stadtbräu. (Brown, 500ml, swing top, since you ask.) At first I was disappointed: I had no idea before pouring what style this was, and for no reason was expecting something dark and caramelly. What I got was a cloudy lager, with very little up-front flavour. It took a couple of swigs before I really got it, however. This beer shares ancestry with Munich lager, but hasn't had so many of its edges knocked off: there's a malty roughness that puts the brakes on the underlying sweetness. At a mere 4.9%, you could easily drink another one straight away if it wasn't for some fairly serious gassiness.

Oh, and it's organic as well. Perhaps the answer to the problem of organic blandness is to lower the hops quotient. Central European lager A-OK, but English ale, fuhgeddaboutit.

17 August 2007

The Bamberg Amber Hambeer

OK, it's not really proper amber: it's a deep treacly ruby red-brown, but the title was irresistible. I've been waiting for this one for a long time. My only previous experience of smoked beer (rauchbier in German) was in the Craft brewpub in Athens and I was smitten. So I'd been keeping an eye out for proper German rauchbier, a speciality of Bamberg in Franconia, for some time. This week I gleefully brought home a bottle of Schlenkerla Märzen. It certainly has the smoke character in spades, with roast smoked ham being the closest parallel. However, I found the underlying beer to be a little watery. I expect märzen to be quite a full smooth lager, but this one just didn't cut it. However, you don't buy Schlenkerla for its lager-like qualities. You buy it for the smoke, and I could very happily neck a couple of these with gusto.

There are other beers in the range, and I'll definitely be keeping my beadies peeled for them. That, and putting Bamberg firmly on the travel agenda, preferably in Urbock season.

16 August 2007

How very retro

If this was the other other sort of beer blog, the sort that reports interesting things from the world of beer, there'd be a post about how a group of Galway-based archaeologists have theorised that the ancient stone mounds called fulacht fiadh scattered about the Irish countryside were used for brewing beer, and that they attempted to recreate the ancient brewing process, and that the results were mostly surprisingly drinkable -- despite the opinion of one "Guinness and Bulmer's man" in this video. (Mind you, it was made with proper beer yeast supplied by the Galway Hooker brewery -- should've gone for something wilder, I reckon.) But the story has already been adequately covered by the beer blogging world at the likes of A Good Beer Blog and Lyke2Drink, for example. There's even a Beer Haiku on it, though for the record we're talking long before the Dark Ages here: by that time brewing was already the monks' domain.

But since this isn't that sort of blog, have some random ramblings about a beer I found. Actually, I was looking for an unhopped beer for this post, since hops wouldn't have been part of the ancient Irish brewing scene. Unfortunately, unhopped beers in Dublin off licences, other than the mighty Fraoch, are as rare as hen's teeth (unlike Hen's Tooth, which is readily available), so I've settled for an Aussie craft brew called Black Wattle Superior, which is hopped but is also flavoured with wattle seed which, the interweb tells me, comes from acacia trees.

It pours a beautiful clear amber-red with a lasting off-white head. The dominant flavour is malt with a gentle roasted barley character. I'm not quite sure where the wattle seed comes in. The mouthfeel is quite thick, but in a smooth and satisfying way. Even though it's not as out-of-the-ordinary as I had hoped for, I approve of this beer. Perhaps it's more distinctive when fresh: the bottle I have is a couple of weeks past-date, always a hazard with unusual beers in Dublin. Still, it's not like it's been sitting in a trough in rural Galway for the last three thousand years...

11 August 2007

Can't afjord not to

Naturally, the brewpubs were the highlight of the trip. Forty minutes south of Oslo, in the rather dull fjordside town of Moss, lies the Møllebyen Mikrobryggeri. This large pub-restaurant in a restored industrial building brews five beers on site. Two are lagers: pale, musty Kong Carl and smooth bitter Mossepils. The latter is far superior. There's a Krystal Dunkel Weiss which touches on the all-important caramel and smoke buttons but ultimately lacks full-on flavour. The English Ale is better: warm, floral and mildly bitter, very similar to beers I've had in England, right down to a slight metallic twinge at the very end. As ever in Norway, it's the Porter which excels. Møllebyen's Porter has a wonderful toasted flavour, bitter but not dry. There are notes of chocolate and a touch of liquorice in there as well. A very well-rounded complex beer. The beers in Moss are significantly cheaper than anything I found in Oslo's bars. Unfortunately, high public transport costs mean you'd need to be drinking 28 pints to recoup your train fare. The Moss trip is for the die-hard beer aficionados only, and I'm happy to do it on your behalf.

Oslo itself has just the one brewpub, inventively called Oslo Mikrobryggeri. This place has been going since 1989, much longer than most brewpubs, and has damn near perfected its art in that time. Steamer is the flagship beer, a dark-red ale, not too heavy but with a refreshing bittersweet character. Like an Irish red with an extra dose of hops. The IPA is the weakest of the bunch, nitro-kegged, much too cold and lacking in the strong flavours of the style. Have an Amber X instead: this is another relatively light ale, but with a zesty hops kick reminiscent of an American pale ale. Finally their Imperial Chief Stout isn't really an imperial stout, but is one of the finest black beers I've ever tasted. The sweet chocolate notes are complemented by a late dry bitterness and the whole flavour hangs together in perfect balance. Smoothly drinkable yet not at all bland.

And that ends my Norway round-up, with the conclusion that, if you can get past the extreme prices, Oslo isn't a bad place to go beer hunting, especially if you stick to the darker side of the selection.

By haand

The second Norwegian craft brewery makes its beers by hand. With the traditional Norwegian sense of irony, it's called "HaandBryggeriet". Once again I'll do this according to the colour chart, starting with the dark end. The 6% Porter is a tad lighter than Nøgne Ø's, but with added smokiness. Their London Porter is only 4.5% but tastes much bigger -- rich and sweet on the nose but satisfyingly dry on tasting. Here, London: you might want to slap a Protected Geographical Indication on this one. Both beers are superior to HaandBryggeriet Weizenbock, a black beer which suffers a bit from over-gassiness and is very sharp and bitter.

Naturally, HaandBryggeriet make an IPA. This is more in the English style than American: as malty as it is hoppy, sweetish and quite pleasantly easy-going despite the thick sediment which makes this an opaque orange beer. The Bavarian Weizen is also orange, and carries the banana notes one would expect from the name. However, there's also a lemony twist to this one which steers it closer to Belgium. Lastly, and also orange, is Ardenne Blond. This is probably the gassiest commercial beer I've ever tasted and the bottle I ordered exploded over the bar on opening. Given that I was paying about €12.70 a bottle I was very glad to have it replaced gratis. After a slow and careful uncapping I found this to be a fascinating beer: sour and peppery with mediciney characteristics. I have no idea what beers come from the Ardennes and taste like this (edit: oh, it's probably La Chouffe, isn't it?), but I'd love to find out.

My last Norwegian post concerns the brewpubs.

Naked in Oslo

As it happens, Norway's craft brewers seem to be doing quite well, though there are only two of them in the bottling game. Both produce a staggering range of beers, with hardly a dud between them. For this post I'm concentrating on those from the Nøgne Ø brewery in Grimstad. Their Porter is a marvellous deep black affair, 7% ABV, and brimming with bitter chocolate notes. Havrestout is similarly chocolatey, but much lighter and quite quaffable, despite being a little more prickly than is strictly warranted.

Nøgne Ø IPA is a textbook example of the American style, rich and bitter, though rather strong at 7.5%. It's not to be confused with their Pale Ale which is fizzy, bitter and quite rough. Oddly, they make it alongside their Amber Ale which seems to be in the same genre but is totally different: bitter oily hops on top of a rich deep red ale add up to the beer equivalent of a Terry's Chocolate Orange. It's not as hoppy as an the IPA, but remains quite delicious and one of their best.

Back on the lighter side, Nøgne Ø Wit is another by-the-book perfected style. It's a dark yellow with a sharp citrus tang on the nose and even more on the tongue. It's a little drier and bitterer than most of its Belgian cousins, but isn't quite as ashen as the dry French wits. A touch of lemon, a dash of orange and loads of equilibrium. Turning up the volume from here is Nøgne Ø Saison, a maibock/saison/passbier-type affair. It is classically orange and cloudy with a soft foam and hints of peach. Like the wit, however, it's a tad drier than average, but still first rate.

(I've got this far and realised I haven't explained the title of the post. Nøgne Ø is Norwegian for "Naked Isle" and is a reference to an epic poem by Ibsen, set in the Grimstad area. It's good to know there are other literary beers out there, since Dublin lost Beckett's Lager.)

Blogger's limit on tag length, my tagging policy, and the long name of the next brewery all mean another post is in immediate order. Continued...

Norway? Way!

You won't find too many travel agents offering beer-drinking holidays in Norway. I'm all about niche products, however, and so it was I found myself in Oslo last week, seeking a brewski in a land where alcohol is tightly controlled and taxed into the stratosphere. I was very surprised, therefore, to find that the range of beers brewed in Norway is substantial. So much so that I've had to divide this post into four, and I begin here with the mass-produced stuff.

I'm not entirely sure if alcohol advertising is totally illegal in Norway, but it must be pretty close if it's not. Usually, on arrival in a new country, it's pretty clear who the big breweries are. You can depend on seeing ads for beers, and beer-sponsored events, at least a couple of times on the journey from the airport. Not so in Norway, however. My assumption of who the big players are is based solely on bartaps and shop shelves, and the brewers appear to be Hansa, Ringnes, Borg, and Aass. That's right: Aass. Titter now and get it out of the way. Danish brand Tuborg also has a sizeable presence in the Norwegian market.

All these big brewers make an ordinary pils, mostly of quite a decent quality. Hansa is golden and malty; tasty but gassy. Ringnes, conversely, is sharp and quite nasty. Borg pils is light and dry, with slightly citric notes notes making it a good aperitif. Bringing up the rear, Aass (I said stop tittering) is similarly light and slightly bitter. Oddly, there's a UK beer called Bass and a Korean one called Cass. Pint of Dass, anyone?

Each big brewery also produces a range of subsidiaries. It being August, the shelves were full of the respective summer beers. These are mainly lighter than the regulars, Hansa Sommerøl being particularly light and vaguely bittersweet, as is Ringnes Sommerøl, which carries a slightly peachy fruitiness but not much else. Aass Sommerøl, conversely, is grainy and dry, but not very exciting. Finally, the only foreigner of the whole lot, Tuborg Sommerøl is the blandest of the bland: light fluffy and practically tasteless. Additionally, for some reason, Ringnes make another light summery lager called Skjærgårds. This is slightly maltier than the sommerøls, but really not much different. I really don't understand how, in such a tightly-squeezed marketplace there is room for all these varieties of the same dull product. Anyway, so much for the dreck.

Before moving on to the darker side of the main players, a note about Ringnes Weiss. This is properly orange and cloudy, like its German cousin, and quite flavoursome, if a teensy bit bitter. I'd opt for this in summer over any of the above.

It seems they like their bock in Norway, and they're mostly pretty good at making it. Frydenlund Bokkøl from Ringnes is one of the weaker ones, being rather dry and more watery than one would expect. It's priced accordingly, however, costing a mere €3 a bottle in the state-owned off-licence: dead cheap by the standards of Norwegian strong beer. Aass Bock is also quite easy-going, but makes up for it with a rich fruit and toffee flavour: not watery at all. Finally, Borg Bokkøl is exceptional: heavy and pitch black, with smoke, caramel and liquorice. I think this is a superb beer, and I'm no fan of bock in general.

I'll end this post by touching on two dark lagers, a style called "Bayer" in Norway. Frydenlund Bayer, is rather light and sweet, reminding me of Smithwicks more than anything: another miss by Ringnes. I preferred CB Bayer, which is a tad fizzy, but with caramel and lip-smacking sour notes that make for a refreshing red-brown lager.

That's a small cross section of what the big boys are doing in Norway. So in a land without beer advertising the craft brewers should be thriving, right?

03 August 2007

Far flung fruit

The Session is upon us once more, and this time the theme is fruit beers. The Low Countries, and Belgium in particular, are the spiritual home of fruit beer. Brewers there have been softening lambics with fruit syrup and spicing up witbiers with orange peel since time immemorial. I've decided to step away from the native styles, however, and go for something a bit different: exotically-themed Benelux fruit beers. Surely there can't be too many other Sessioneers writing on that today.

So first up is the delightfully-named Iki Beer. It hails from the Netherlands but is very much pitched on a Japanese theme. As well as the usual hops and barley, cloudy orange Iki contains green tea and yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit. Refreshment appears to be the product's main aim. Alas, what that actually gives us is blandness. The foretaste is dominated by lots of gas making it difficult to taste anything. The aftertaste is quite strong on lagery malt, with the hops level turned slightly higher than the average lager. But of fruit and tea there is only the faintest trace at the end. I'd have hoped for a bit more citrus out of this one, so a bad start to the day's fruitiness.

I admit I'm stepping outside the remit of the Session theme with my next one, Palmnut from the Belgian Mongozo range of African-themed fair trade beers. When one describes a beer as "amber", one does not normally mean to imply the serious quantity of suspended floaty bits characteristic of that gemstone, but Mongozo Palmnut is very definitely amber. You'd almost expect to see a dino-blood-carrying mosquito in amongst the debris. It tastes pretty smooth, though, and carries the full weight of its 7.5% alcohol. Unfortunately there's not much else going on: no nuttiness or fruitiness, just vaguely acidic sour notes, like a lesser class of Rodenbach. I am none the wiser as to what palm nuts actually taste like. Strike two on the fruit quest.

Staying in the same range, my last offering is Mongozo Banana, and there is no shortage of fruit here. Two years ago I reviewed Banana Bread Beer and remarked how well-balanced its banana flavour was. Mongozo cares not for such subtlety: this beer presents a rampant banana dominating everything else. It's incredibly sweet, to the point of turning sour again, and only the soft fluffy texture stops it from being hard to drink. I have little doubt that every single person I know would hate this beer, but I have a soft spot for it. Bananas on the label; bananas on the palate; bananas out and proud. It makes up for the lack of fruit in my other two beers all on its own.

To sign off I'd like to give props to Greg over at Beer, Beats & Bites for hosting this Session and for choosing such a daring topic. Fruit beer has a very bad reputation among beer fans of my acquaintance, and I'm sure there were groans at keyboards across the beer blogging world when the topic was announced. But bunging fruit into beer is one major way of Keeping It Interesting, and for me that's a big part of what makes beer worthwhile. Oh, and if anyone's interested in my actual recommendations for good fruit beer, two very different ones are Früli and Cantillon's Lou Pepe Kriek: both Belgian, natch.