29 December 2007

A la maud

What will probably be the last beer of the year is another of my winter Canadians: Maudite from Unibroue. It's an interesting mix of the Belgian golden ale and the typical bière de garde. The former comes through in the rich, powerful and spicy flavour, the soft texture and also the mandatory demons on the label. The latter lends a dark amber colour, opaque as the yeast goes in at the end of the 75cl bottle, and also a lovely sweet and malty character.

Maudite is a magnificent beer, and the perfect send-off for what has been a busy year on this blog, and in the beer blogging world in general. I'm away now for my annual New Year jaunt. Christmas has left me with enough new beers to keep me in entries for the first couple of weeks of 2008. Looking forward to getting stuck into that.

25 December 2007

Selection box

Christmas Day draws to a close. I was fortunate enough to make it to a Sainsbury's yesterday, where I picked up a variety of seasonal beers from their compact but bijou range.

The first isn't at all appropiate to this season: Try'd & Tested was brewed by Harviestoun for the rugby world cup back in the autumn. It pours a beautiful deep red colour and delivers lovely porter-like coffee and chocolate notes. True to the Harviestoun way, it's mostly very smooth with just a slightly unpleasant bitter buzz at the end. Nevertheless, it was just the sort of thing I was in the mood for and I enjoyed it.

I don't think I've ever been so disappointed with a beer as I was with Fuller's Old Winter Ale. It's dark enough, but is packed with very harsh, dry, bitter flavours. There's tonnes of alcohol in the taste, despite a mere 5.3%, but a total absence of spice or sweetness or body. Rarely have I been so looking forward to opening something else at the end.

Fortunately, the something else I had to hand was Meantime's Winter Time. This is full-bodied and full-flavoured, with slightly bitter dark winter fruits to the fore. The triumph of this rich and warming number is that it manages to be heavy, satisfying and sippable without being for a moment cloying or difficult. Another hit from the folk in Greenwich.

And so to the day itself. I picked two beers to go with my pudding: the first being, imaginatively, Young's Christmas Pudding. This is one of those ales that I really enjoyed but which wouldn't be to everyone's taste. It's very strange, possessed of an odd spiciness which tastes vaguely fruity but not at all Christmas-pudding-like. It's an easy going and rather quaffable beer, but it's not one to buy in large quantities if you've never tasted it.

Finally, having been disappointed by Wychwood Bah Humbug, I decided to give them a second chance with their Plumduff Christmas ale. I'm glad I did: it's lovely. It's a sweet red beer, light of body and loaded with real plum flavours, putting me more in mind of a Belgian fruit beer than anything English. If I had to fault it, it would be because it lacks a heavy, malty, bready character which would have made it genuinely puddingy. Still, very tasty.

And that's it all over for another year. Apart from the box of beery goodies Santa left me. Compliments of the season to all readers.

21 December 2007

The Adoration of the Shepherds

The Christmas holiday begins today. This year I managed to avoid the worst of the work-related bad-drink events that I tend to get sucked into: just a couple of fairly civilised lunches for me. To celebrate the end of work for two weeks, I laid in a couple of Shepherd Neame Christmas Ales, having seen them last week for the first time.

I cracked one open by the fireside this evening, and was struck first by the heady aley aroma from the neck. It's pretty close to a skunky waft, which wouldn't be surprising given the brewery's ridiculous preference for clear glass bottles. I rather like that smell, however: it's the first signal that this is proper beer. On tasting I was surprised there wasn't more of a Christmas character to it. There's just a little more warmth coming from the high alcohol (7% ABV), and a hint of spice on the very end as it warms, but mostly there are just big, candied, crystal malt flavours, and I must say I loved them.

This is a very easy drinking number, and the sort that could very easily sneak up on an unwary drinker and knock them out. Just a couple as the logs crackle in the grate, though? Lovely.

20 December 2007

High Plains snifter

Right, I'll skip the usual bit about American beers and irritating tiddly bottles. We'll take that as read.

This post is about three beers which have just appeared on the Irish market, hailing from breweries headquartered in Colorado (though yes, I'm aware that one of them has recently moved all production to the east coast, but it took me ages to come up with the title of this post and I'm not changing it now). I'm told they're being imported in minuscule quantities for strictly limited periods, and will be replaced by other American craft brews supplied on the same basis. Sounds fun, for as long as it's kept up. To business, then:

Flying Dog's Old Scratch is an amber lager and, as such, I was expecting something from the same general gene pool as Samuel Adams's Boston Lager. While the taste is some way similar, this beer is a darker, redder affair. I was disappointed by a lack of body, but then I guess you're supposed to be drinking this by the six-pack. At the end of the flavour there's a strange, but not at all unpleasant, estery taste with a hint of raspberries and similar summer fruit. Not a bad beer, but I won't be hankering after it when it disappears from the shelves.

American IPAs being what they are, I was expecting a hop attack from the bottle of Snake Dog. Instead I got a rather easy-going beer, paler than most IPAs, and with strangely sweet bubblegum and toffee notes. Approachable and eager to please, this is my sort of IPA, though probably a hophead's worst nightmare.

At the other end of that spectrum is the rather less accommodating Hercules Double IPA from Great Divide. I served this at cellar temperature and was immediately struck by how harsh and alcoholic the aftertaste was, with very little up front. Those big hops flavours just didn't sit well with the other notes and the end result was quite discordant and unappealing. I thought perhaps I should have been drinking it colder, to take some of that blunt edge off, but as it warmed I found it became smoother, rounder and infinitely more drinkable. The bottom line, however, is that this is more effort than I'm willing to put into drinking a beer. Hercules lacks the interesting and complex flavours to justify the exertion required on my part.

So, the next batch is supposed to include Anchor Christmas ale, but the next batch was also supposed to have arrived last week. This is me not holding my breath.

18 December 2007


A couple of posts ago I reported on falling into the rebadge trap: not realising Old Wallop was Director's Bitter. My excuse is that I've only had Director's once, back in 2003 in what was then Northern Ireland's first and only branch of Wetherspoon's: a pub which stuck out, in Belfast, like a sore thumb with a sticky carpet.

I'm not entirely sure if my experience last weekend really counts. At the Bull & Castle they're currently serving Raging Bull, a strong (6% ABV), dark, red, highly-hopped ale. It is, I'm told, a rebadge of Messrs Maguire Jul-Ól, which I last tasted just over two years ago and, judging from what I wrote at the time, this is a rather different product. I'm annoyed now that I missed the version they had out last year as it might help me follow the evolution of the recipe.

Same recipe, different name, same brewer, different taste. Beer can make one's head hurt in so many ways...

15 December 2007

It's windmiller time

"What brings you to Bodegraven?" I was asked three times last Sunday on my short visit to the sleepy village between Utrecht and Leiden. My response, "Why, the brewery, of course", drew unanimously surprised looks, particularly odd since two of the questioners were staffing said establishment, and the other was drinking at the next table.

The De Molen brewery and restaurant, as the name suggests, is in a windmill, much like my beloved 't IJ brewery in Amsterdam. The large back room was occupied by a private party so I took up residence in the sunny front parlour to begin working my way through the beer menu on the adjacent blackboard. Menno, host and brewer, was on hand to offer notes on the background of each. I may even remember some of what he told me.

Pilz first. Menno said he had to make a pils because the market demands it. I was very glad to see that Ireland isn't the only country whose microbreweries have to face this hurdle. It's pretty inoffensive: dry, grainy and generally unchallenging. The red-amber Bock lager is a very different proposition. This one is highly malty, yet bitter, with none of the sugariness often found in dark lagers.

The strangest thing about De Molen Dubbel is its apparent opaque muddy brown colour. Only when held up to the light is the deep red hue apparent. It's heftily bitter and the only hints of fruit -- raisins to be precise -- arrive after a few minutes of warming. Much more fruit is present in the powerful and bitter hazy orange Tripel. 9.2% ABV and deceptively smooth drinking.

Oddity de jour was Ongemoutgraan, a 4.5% ABV pale yellow beer made mostly from unmalted barley. It's a laborious process, says Menno. What it produces is a grainy, worty, porridgey flavour balanced against a zingy hoppy bitterness, and much more flavour and body than the strength suggests. An ideal summer refresher, but pretty good on a December afternoon too. Engels is another masterpiece of originality: its English heritage is apparent from the sweet and hoppy aroma. While there are a couple of English ales with the whole chocolate-and-oranges thing going on (Young's Bitter springs to mind), none have it expressed as strongly, and deliciously, as this one. And, frankly, there aren't enough beers named after the founders of communism.

I was fortunate that Menno chose the time of my visit to show off one of his latest creations to a regular. Cue expectant look from the Beer Nut in the corner. The dry-hopped Amarillos Winter Warmer was just a week in the bottle. It's another 9.2% monster, this time in an IPA sort of style, though made with La Chouffe yeast. The flavour is brimming with peaches and madarins, balanced against that IPA bitterness. Add in the flat and sticky feel of a very young and very strong beer, and you have the ideal dessert accompaniment.

De Molen beers aren't confined to their place of birth, however. Most are bottled, and a shop on site sells them alongside a variety of other artisan products. I took two bottles away with me. My only previous experience of Stoombier was the one produced by Pelgrim in Rotterdam, by which I wasn't terribly impressed. De Molen Stoombier is much much better: brimming with citrusy flavours resulting from its dry hopping. It pours to a lovely foamy head and makes for very easy drinking, despite a fairly weighty 5.7% ABV.

Proudly displayed in the De Molen shop is the brewer's certificate from the 2005 Great British Beer Festival, where Borefts Stout won Favourite Belgian/Dutch beer. Borefts is a very dry and gassy beer, and begins with a carbonic sharpness, reminding me in particular of Guinness Foreign Extra, but in a good way. It's very filling and warming, possessed of a mild chocolatey bitterness. Not the world's greatest stout, but I can see how it would be a "favourite".

In the microbrewery windmill leagues, I think my heart still belongs to 't IJ, just for its sheer oddness. However, the warmth of the welcome and the quality of the beer make De Molen well worth the trip to Bodegraven. The regulars and staff ought not be at all surprised by this.

14 December 2007

King of Beers

First stop on arriving in Amsterdam was legendary beer emporium De Bierkoning. Amongst the prodigious range of Low Countries bottles, there is an impressive selection of foreigners. I surprised myself by picking an American, a Norwegian, a German and just the one Belgian.

Flying Dog beers are just starting to touch down in Ireland, but I've not seen the Gonzo Imperial Porter yet. It pours very thickly with a slow-rising café crème head. The aroma is rich and estery, with almost the essence of a solvent. A syrupy feel and sweet coffee notes are at the front, followed by an orangey, pithy, bitterness. Not a beer to be taken lightly, despite a piddling 8.7% ABV. More from Flying Dog soon(ish).

It seems to me that Norway's craft brewers are turning out new beers faster than I can drink them. (The fact that they're not sold in my home country doesn't help either.) I'm just now catching up to Haandbryggeriet Dark Force, another strong black beer. This goes all-out for a powerful hoppy bite, with only a gentle coffee mellowness to take the edge off. I detected some licquorice notes at the very end as well. Half a litre of this is a bit of a rollercoaster.

The German, chosen largely at random, was a pale bock: Leonhardi Bock Heller, by Hummel-Bräu. It's a beautiful dark gold colour and the flavour engages in a tugging match between sugary alcoholic notes (it's 7.5% ABV) and dry throat-catching bitterness. This all makes for a complex, interesting and highly enjoyable experience.

To Belgium, then, and a bottle of legendary Christmas ale Stille Nacht. It pours a hazy orange colour with a big foamy head, yet has a very light and typically Belgian carbonation. It's strong, it's bitter and it's hoppy, but I just didn't feel warmed by it. As Christmas ales go, I think I'd pass on this one.

I didn't have time for a whole lot of pubbing around Amsterdam, but did squeeze in an hour or two on the mezzanine of Café Gollem -- the best seat for a view of the blackboard menu around the walls. Here I had another one from the makers of Stille Nacht, Arabier. It's a pale Belgian ale with the contrast of malty sweetness and hoppy bitterness I most associate with Duvel, but here the two flavours act separately and the result is a little bit sharp and discordant for my liking.

Quite possibly my favourite beer of the trip was that trans-North-Sea oddity Martin's Pale Ale. Here we find the floral and tannic notes of an English ale, but tempered -- quite beautifully, in this blogger's opinion -- with some very Belgian sugar notes and a soft carbonation. Shame about the 33cl bottle: I could neck this by the pint quite happily.

I've come this far and managed to avoid mentioning a single Dutch beer. No more. First up was La Trappe Tripel, a gorgeous red-gold honey colour with yet more honey on the nose. Alas it's not as much of a feast for the tastebuds as it is for the other senses. While there's a little bit of honey in the flavour, there's not a whole else going on. The absence of the full-on fruity and spicy and bitter tripel experience makes it a disappointing example of the genre.

How does one follow a La Trappe? Why, with an Amstel, of course. In a café in Haarlem on Monday afternoon I saw table cards advertising Amstel Rijpe Bock, and I figured I'd have me one of them. Not surprisingly, from Heineken's low-rent offspring, this doesn't taste of much. However, the slight sweet-sour fruit flavours with a hint of smoke, and especially the light ungassy texture, make this quite a pleasant drinking experience, if not exactly a challenging one.

More Dutch beer to follow, and then I'll finally be caught up with everything. Unless I try a new beer in the meantime, of course. The Flying Dogs are calling me, as Kate Bush might have said if she were rather madder than she already is.

12 December 2007

The outsiders

The foreign beer selection at Pig's Ear was astounding, but I wasn't there to drink non-British beer. Nevertheless, when one of my tablemates offered round something particularly worthy to taste, who am I resist? Two Danes first, both from Ølfabrikken. Their Brown is a very tasty drop: bittersweet, round and rich but, like lots of Scandanavian craft beer, a smidge too much carbonation. The same brewery's Porter is an even more delicious proposition. It packs a mighty, uncompromising bitterness which is brimming with coffee and chocolate flavours -- I defy anyone not to enjoy this.

Still in parts northern, I was offered a taste of Nøgne Ø Imperial Stout, a smooth and easy-drinking black beer which offers a wonderful warming sensation. Yet another classic from the Grimstad crew.

Last of all, some Westvleteren 12 came my way. Sure, this is as rich and fruity as everyone says, but the flavours are kind of muted and more subtle than I like in this style. I think I'd take one of the higher-digit Rocheforts first, frankly.

And no sooner was I home than it was time to head off again. Beer fun in Amsterdam: next on The Beer Nut.

11 December 2007

Royal Borough of Kensington & Hackney

Back to London again. Not literally, but in the notes I have scribbled on the back of a map of Kensington.

It was in Kensington, at the Scarsdale Arms, that I had my first pint of the trip. Accompanied by Knut Albert and a most excellent steak and ale pie, I had a Fortyniner -- a smooth cask bitter with lovely, rounded and slightly sweet flavour notes. My guess is that the ancestors of John Smith's and similar crap keg ales tasted like this. Much later the same evening I dropped in to the Prince of Wales on the way back to my hotel. There they were serving Timothy Taylor Landlord, a beer I believe is due to arrive, bottled, in Ireland soon. It's a very bitter bitter which arrives quite harshly on the first sip. After a while it mellows a little, but doesn't come through with enough malt or fruit or the other things I like -- my opinion of it hasn't changed since last time.

Next day I was at a corporate party in a swanky Bloomsbury winebar. Amongst the canapes and vins de table was an (almost) endless supply four-pint copper jugs of Old Wallop (re-badged Director's sayeth Stonch -- see comments). We were given pewter mugs to drink it from, so I'm not 100% sure of the colour, but it appeared to be quite a bright, clear red shade. It looked to be served from a keg, and was indeed very cold, but the faintly carbonated texture was that of a beer cask conditioned: a remarkable achievement, if I'm right. Tastewise, it is a sweet and malty ale, and very easy going. Good for a session and great for free.

Finally, to my English local: Wetherspoons, landside, Heathrow Terminal 1. Normally I'd have one of the four cask ales they always have on. Nothing interested me this time round so I went for a bottle of Shepherd Neame Late Red. This "autumn hop ale" is a lovely ruby shade and, despite the name, hardly bitter and really quite malty -- anyone looking for serious hops will want their money back. On first taste there's a big sugary crystal malt explosion but it's not followed by very much at all. On the second sip the novelty wears off and the beer blogger runs out of things to write about. Next!

In between all this, there was my trip to the Pig's Ear in Hackney, as mentioned in my last post. Once I was satisfied I had clocked up enough Christmas beers (and was fed up with the pale ones) I settled down to enjoy myself properly. First up, Fox & Newt Dark Side. This is in the old ale style, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite beer genres. The dominant flavour is mildly bitter chocolate and the whole lot slips down easily and silkily. It's a contrast with Custom Special Mild, a ruby ale which is sharp and fruity but still manages to keep a lid on any harsh or powerful flavours, just like a mild should.

Among the drinkers at my table, many complements were being paid to Twickenham Strong and Dark, and rightly so for this delicously smoky, hammy ale. The festival special everyone was talking about was a barleywine: Night on Mare St. 2. Stronger than its predecessor last year, this one is 14.2% ABV and tastes every bit. Yet, amidst the overwhelming sugary alcoholic notes, there is a tasty touch of ripe, dark fruit.

As well as the main bar, another one at the back of the hall was serving foreign beers, mainly bottled but with a handful on cask. The few bottles I had a sip from (not directly!) will be covered in the next post.

07 December 2007

'Tis the Season, or is it?

For once, I knew I'd have it easy getting hold of suitably Sessionable beers. The theme is winter warmers and comes a couple of days after I paid a visit to the Pig's Ear festival in Hackney, whose stunning list included quite a few Christmas specials. I also had one held over from my trip to Belfast a fortnight ago: Sanity Claus by Whitewater. I had been expecting something dark, warming and, y'know, Christmassy, but was surprised and disappointed to find it pale, dry, watery, yet rather harsh as well. It turns out that this pale Christmas ale is a style made by several UK brewers. In Hackney I had a taste of Rudolph's Balls. It's quite bland, yet also hard to drink because of its uncompromising bitterness. There's a huge hole in the flavour where some spice would fit perfectly. After these two I was relieved to find a pale Christmas ale that actually tastes good: Santa's Swallie by Inveralmond. Here, there's a tasty maltiness sitting alongside the dryness which, to me, resembles the lighter kind of lambic. I enjoyed it, but none of these pale beers are what I'd be looking for at Christmas time.

Thankfully, there were a few what I'd regard as "proper" Christmas ales on cask at Pig's Ear. Probably the best of the lot was Nobby's Santa's Secret. This dark ruby beer has pronounced sweet and spicy cake notes overlaying a rich and satisfying warmth and finishing with a lingering chocolate flavour. Textbook stuff. The St. Jude's brewery provided St. Gabriel's Christmas Ale, a mild and dark beer with pronounced coffee flavours and a gentle kick of nutmeg. Beautifully crafted and effortless to drink (despite a hefty 6.5% ABV) but not exactly warming per se. Ramping up the alcohol to 9.8%, there's Ballard's Blizzard. This is an incredibly heavy beer which goes down very easy but sits in the stomach for ages. There's a lovely strawberry flavour in amongst the malty alcoholic notes.

It's hardly surprising that dark winter beers are popular in Norway, and two examples were kindly donated to me by fellow blogger Knut who accompanied me to Hackney on Tuesday. From macrobrewer Ringnes there's Juleøl: a red ale with a very sticky, sugary aroma but which is surprisingly unsweet. It has the warming alcohol flavours one would expect but is ultimately a little tasteless. A much better proposal is Nissemor from Haandbryggriet. This is similarly red brown but is brimming with flavour: raisins, chocolate and a gorgeous spiciness. Like the St. Gabriel's it's strong (6.5% again) but not exactly warming and rather heavily carbonated. However, the abundance of great flavour keeps the palate too busy to notice or complain.

There's much more to report on from London and the Pig's Ear (and some slightly better photos), but it'll have to wait a few days as I'm off to Amsterdam tomorrow for a weekend of rest and, possibly, a couple of beers. In the meantime you can read about it from the perspectives of Stonch, Maeib and Boak&Bailey (update: now with added Knut Albert).

01 December 2007

Die bürgermeister

Gourmet burgers are the new rock 'n' roll in Dublin at the moment, and a new fancy joint opens every couple of months. I had avoided all of them until this afternoon when I found myself in the vicinity of Jo'Burger in Rathmines and reckoned I'd chance it. It's fashion victim heaven, and I think an effort has been made to have a beer list reflecting this uber-avant-garde-ness. None of your Tiger or Erdinger for the bohemians of Dublin 6; instead you may choose between Duvel (in two sizes), Vedett or Schneider Weisse Kristall. I opted for the latter as I've never had it. Kristall, in general, just doesn't do it for me.

First surprise was how pale it was: a bright washing-up liquid yellow. It's very fruity, even by weissbier standards, with a powerful banana punch up front. I've read and heard a lot about clove flavours in weiss but I had never before encountered them in real life. After a couple of sips of Schneider Kristall, however, there were the cloves climbing into my nose from the back of the palate. I was impressed, but I very much doubt I'll ever opt for one of these over normal dark and cloudy Schneider.

Opposite Jo'Burger there's an Aldi, currently selling 5 litre minikegs of Dortmund's DAB Original for €15. I went home with one, feeling like Gene Hunt carying a party seven (second TV reference in two posts: need to get out more). Minikegs are very popular in Germany, but are relatively new here, and mostly contain Irish-made Warsteiner or Heineken. DAB is a cut above either. Following the instruction to serve at 8-10° C, I found it had a very pleasant full, smooth and ungassy mouthfeel, very like an ale. There's plenty of head, but I'm led to believe that's a feature of minikegs. The taste is dry and corny; smooth yet interesting enough to hold your attention. I understand that Dortmund lagers are very similar to kölschs, despite the latter being top-fermenting ales. I can see the similarity in this, but it's definitely easier drinking than most any German kölsch I know.

And with that, my Maßkrug (pictured) is empty and I must return to the minikeg. Four litres to go. Prost!