To an alarming extent, all trade shows, exhibitions and the like end up looking the same: a maze of aluminium-framed white laminate counters. The European Beer Festival was no different: by way of illustration, here's the lovely Sarah getting some mead action at the Plan-B stall.
Anyway, a couple of stallholders bucked the trend for blandness by decking themselves out all in black with just a monochrome logo for identification. Well, and some taps too. One such was the Grimstad minimalists, Nøgne Ø. They had a fairly rapid turnover of beers through the weekend, so I made a few trips down to their wonderful dark little corner. Plus, they were staying in my hotel -- nothing like establishing your brand over the toaster to ensure customer loyalty.
When I arrived down there on Friday, they were busily sawing up a bit of a non-specific animal. Knut tells me this was fenalår, a rural Norwegian delicacy made from salted lamb's leg. I didn't get a chance to try any, though. I was there, again on Knut's advice, to sample a Nøgne Ø beer which (*gasp*) went wrong. Apparently it started out as a lingonberry lambic, but something didn't go as planned and the result was undrinkable. So they did what any self-respecting craft brewer would do: blended in a load of their Christmas ale, spiced it with some spruce, bunged it into a keg and sent it off to the geeks in Copenhagen. Lingonberry Juløl, for want of an actual name [but see comments], is quite light and refreshing, with a pronounced fruity tartness. In general, the blend has left the flavours understated and dry, but still a ballsy attempt and well worth drinking.
On Saturday afternoon, their Dobbel IPA made an appearance. This was brewed with the aid of Yoho's brewmaster Toshi Ishii and is far from being a hoppy monster, having great balance between the fruity hops and the warm alcoholic malt. They sit together under a wonderful peachy fragrance and add up to a beer that whispers of effortless quality. Typical Nøgne Ø, in fact.
I've noted before the sober approach to beer names generally employed by the brewery. I was therefore surprised to see them serving something with a way-out name like Tangerine Dream. An IPA laced with mandarin, this is as zesty and fruity as you'd expect. The hops and orange combine to create a marvellous spicy flavour, which is given legs by a full IPA body. Very special indeed.
At 7 on the dot on Friday evening, I was at the stall for the opening of Dark Horizon Second Edition. There were no signs advertising it and it was being served from an unlabelled bottle strictly behind the counter. A fascinating experience it is too: on the first sip it's intensely vinous, more like a port than a beer. The flavour doesn't even touch the throat, instead heading straight up the nose into the sinuses. Wow. Definitely one to sip at leisure, and with some good cheese it would be perfect. Still, the up-the-nose sensation had me hankering for something with a bit more mouth texture, so I whipped out my trusty Knut-o-matic beer navigation system which steered me back up to Plan-B where, as you can see from the picture above, Dark Horizon First Edition was available. This is a much rounder affair, with a generous dose of coffee flavours in with the portiness -- like the Second Edition, only in 3D. First Edition is definitely the one to go for, but I wouldn't turn down the opportunity to have either again.
The death-metal sensibilities of Bryggeriet Djævlebryg ("Devil's Brew Brewery") meant that black curtaining was the only way to go for them. In typically rebellious flouting of trade description laws, the English version of their website describes their beers as "diabolical". This is far from the case. The centrepiece of the range is the Nekron beers, brought to my attention by Declan of the Bull & Castle who Knows These Things. I didn't try plain old Nekron itself, opting first for the doubled-up tricked-out version Pride of Nekron. This is very much an imperial stout in the American style, with hops sitting right up front. Yet the bitterness doesn't take over the flavour entirely and there's still a rich and sweet malty warmth to go with it. Son of Nekron is a smoked porter, down the alcohol scale at 6.5% ABV. The peat-smoked malt is quite apparent, though it adds more of a dry charcoal flavour rather than the big phenols. And again there's a complexity which allows the sweet chocolate flavours to come through as well.
Their amber ale is called Schopenhauers Vilje ("Schopenhauer's Will") and is another example of the great balance that can be achieved by matching the right hop flavours with chewy toffee notes on top of a full body. The warmth here makes it hard to believe it's only 6.5% ABV again. Lastly, their barleywine Old Mephisto is another amber-coloured beer, richer and creamier than most any barleywine I've tasted, with chocolatey overtones.
It shouldn't be surprising that the darker beers are really where Djævlebryg succeed best. Nor that, behind the horns and pointy tails, they're really a very sweet bunch.