29 May 2008

Sodding great

It started with some puerile punnage last month on Knut's blog. Actions have consequences, even in the blogosphere, so next thing Knut presents me not only with a bottle of the hilariously-titled Soddøl, but also an actual can of sodd: the Norwegian stew after which it's named. That's me taught a lesson about idle blog-commentary.

I'm used to the (for want of a better word) sober approach to beer names employed by Norwegian craft brewers Nøgne Ø and Haandbryggeriet. When they make a pale ale, they're most likely to call it "Pale Ale". But their new compatriot, Inderøy Gårdsbryggeri, has taken a more liberal approach to labelling, and as well as this stew-inspired pale ale, they have a porter called Ankerøl and a kölsch-alike called Kvamsholmer. By the sounds of it they're a tiny operation in a hostile environment, but I wish them the best of luck. Especially since I can now say first-hand that at least one of their beers is excellent.

Red-amber Soddøl has that typical Norwegian high gassiness, making pouring a long-drawn-out affair, but leaving a firm and lasting off-white head above a lightly cloudy body. The dense sediment collects in the bottom of the bottle, of which more later. The aroma is sweet and candy-like and the mouthfeel very full. First up flavourwise are roasted, almost smoky, malt notes followed up with a heavy brown sugar sweetness. An understated bitterness finishes it off perfectly. With the substantial lees added to the glass, this bitterness rises slightly, but the heavy treacley malt remains the driving force.

After a few filling mouthfuls I thought to look at the strength and was surprised to see it's a mere 4.5% ABV. Big flavour in a sessionable beer is definitely something to be welcomed. It makes for a perfect year-round winter warmer, and I think I can see where the stew associations came from.

From this day forth there shall be no higher compliment to pay a pale ale than "That stuff? Tastes like Soddøl."

26 May 2008

Beer pressure

Beer Nut Towers is currently undergoing extensive renovation. As a result, I am making a concerted effort not to accumulate Stuff while I'm living out of cardboard boxes under a permanent pall of cement dust.

But I was sorely tempted when word went around both on ICB and Boards.ie that Lidl were bringing in a supply of electric minikeg dispense units this week for a limited time only. Geoff from the Bull & Castle even volunteered to stockpile them for anyone interested, since he has a particularly convenient branch of the German supermarket chain.

I resisted. I've nowhere to put it and I'm not really keen on feeling obliged to buy whatever minikegged oddities Aldi and Lidl bring in. The Franciscan Well do their decent Rebel Red by the minikeg, but they only sell it out of their pub 150 miles away. My only regular option would be Irish-made Warsteiner. No thanks.

However, the Lidl offer also featured two beers to go with the device and, it being another sunny day, I decided to go for the Grafenwalder Weissbier (their pils was the alternative). I documented my only previous minikeg experience here, and my reasoning was that the oodles of foam associated with the format would rather suit this type of beer. Now that I have a glass in front of me, I'm not so sure.

The problem is body, and the fact that this beer has none. It's extremely thin and really quite flat. It's also remarkably pale, so while the texture problems could be down to an unsuitable serving method, it's perfectly possible that the beer is just cheaply-made rubbish. The listing of "hop extract" among the ingredients goes some way to suggest this is the case.

In fairness, there is a brief flash of the fruity weiss flavour, but with no body to sustain it, it fades to wateriness almost immediately and that big head disappears far too quickly. It would be an easy-going party quaffer if it wasn't for the full 5% ABV. Just as well I have people coming round to help me out with the remainder.

23 May 2008

Oh no! More Budweiser!

Back when I was young and innocent -- in December 2005 -- I was quite positive about the arrival of a new beer from České Budějovice; but that was before I realised that the tide of imported pale lager would continue to rise until we risked drowning in the yellow fizz that still dominates our imported beer market.

Still, in the Bull & Castle this week I asked if there was anything new in stock and the options presented were both from the Budějovický Měšťanský brewery, the same one that makes BB Bürgerbräu.

Named after the brewery's foundation date, 1795 exhibits a lot of that typical budweiser maltiness. However, it lacks the weight of body that I think ought to go with it, ending up overly sweet but still rather slight. It's refreshing, in its own way, but so are dozens of other European imports, and Irish licence-brewed macrolagers for that matter.

The notebook in the picture on the right, by the way, is the larval stage of Knut Albert's beer blog. Knut had dropped in for a flying visit, and to exchange a bottle of Norwegian craft beer for two small tins of crappy Cuban lager -- an exchange rate which could do wonders for the Caribbean island's economy if continued on a larger scale. Anyway...

Second up was Samson, indistinguishable in appearance to its stablemate. The malt levels are down here and it steers clear of the almost-cloying sweetness of 1795. Unfortunately, there's nothing in there to fill that flavour gap. A touch of mild bitterness, but nothing you'd describe as hoppiness, not by a long stretch. This is one of the blandest bottles of Czech beer I've ever met.

Between the two I'd pick the 1795, purely for the fact that it has some flavour rather than none. But it's just as well that the pub I was drinking in has an amazing selection of tasty beers to wash away the unpleasantness. A Galway Hooker and a bottle of O'Hara's stout and all is forgiven.

19 May 2008

Yer Man in Havana

Ten days in Cuba was quite enough for me. I stayed mostly in sweltering Havana, with just a brief side-trip to El Che's mausoleum in similarly-sweltering Santa Clara via a nightmare rail journey -- Cuban public transport seems to have been meticulously designed to prevent people from travelling anywhere. The intense heat meant that my preferred drink for the trip was the daiquirí: basically crushed ice with perhaps a dash of rum in it. But obviously it was impossible to pass up the opportunity to try the nation's beers, despite their less-than-fantastic reputations.

I mentioned in relation to Oslo last year that it's usually possible to tell the big players in the local beer market from advertising seen on the journey from most any international airport. The ban on advertising alcohol in Norway makes it impossible there, and similarly in Cuba where there is no form of advertising at all of anything. The occasional branded fridge, ashtray or other point-of-sale breweriana is as close as any commodity gets to being advertised. The three main lagers are made by (state-owned, obviously) Bucanero in the south-eastern city of Holguín. Bucanero Fuerte is the commonest, and the strongest I found. The big 5.4% ABV is made by adding copious amounts of Cuba's abundant sugar, and I doubt that anywhere near all of it gets fermented as the result is extremely heavy and thickly sweet with little refreshing fizz. It just about stands up when it's very cold, but nothing stays cold for very long in the tropical heat. On the plus side, for that little reminder of home, there's a portrait of Colin Farrell on the label. Bless.

Stepping down the heaviness chart we come to Cuba's next most ubiquitous beer, Cristal: la preferida de Cuba no less, if the label is to be believed. I captured this photograph of a rare bottled specimen in an upmarket Havana restaurant, but it's almost exclusively sold in 355ml cans. Again, added sugar is on the ingredients but it's used much more judiciously here and a hint of malt character is allowed through. There's a good, cleansing fizz to it and, at 4.9%, this is the one to drink by the poolside when the weather forbids anything more strenuous. Think of it as somewhere south of Heineken but north of Bud: the mainstay hot country lager which forms the backbone of world beer.

Bucanero's final offering is the rarest, and the only one I saw sold exclusively in the on-trade and in bottled form. The beer is a very light lager called Mayabe. This is a mere 4% ABV and shockingly pale with it. With concentration it's just about possible to discern that some class of grain went into this but which ones is anyone's guess as no ingredients are listed. Other than that it's watery, tasteless, and a waste of anyone's time but the ticker's.

Of course, if you want something darker, more flavoursome, with a bigger hops dose and a good thick head on it, you're best going for Bucanero's Malta. The bad news is that this isn't a beer and contains no alcohol. I saw quite a few children drinking it. Malta is especially popular in parts of the Caribbean and Africa where stout has a strong foothold in the beer market. I was surprised to see it here where there is no stout of any kind to be had at all. I was also a little disappointed that Hatuey beer, as referenced by Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea is no longer brewed or sold in Cuba. Its owner, Bacardi, moved all operations off the island when the government's programme of nationalisation struck in 1960. A photo of the old Hatuey brewery decorates the wall in Havana's, indeed Cuba's, only brewpub: Taberna de la Muralla.

The taberna is a joint Cuban-Austrian venture on Plaza Vieja in a classically Cuban high-ceilinged colonial mansion house. Tables spill onto the arcade out front and further into the square itself. A barbecue dishes up excellent and cheap meat and seafood, and behind the bar a Salm brewing kit merrily puffs away.

There are three house beers, all presented with the typically Cuban approach to information: there's no indication what they're made from, how they're brewed, how strong they are or even what measures they're served in, though I think the latter is somewhere in the region of 400ml. Each one is titled with a slight misnomer as well.

Negra is light brown rather than black and tastes to me very much like a typical Vienna lager. There's lots of caramel in there, balanced with a hoppy dryness. A lack of gas makes for an almost aley smooth drinkability. My only criticism is one I have for all of these beers: it loses its cool very quickly and the all-important refreshment quotient is severely reduced by the time the glass is even half finished.

My favourite of the three was the middle one, Oscura. "Dark" is a relative term, I suppose, but this looks to me the colour of light ale. There's not much by way of hops going on, but there's a pronounced tannic quality which lends it the thirst-quenching properties of ice tea. Light enough to chug down, this is the perfect pick-me-up for the heat-sensitive northern European tourist. Well, this one, anyway.

The last beer is the pale and cloudy Clara. It isn't a wheat beer, as far as I can tell, but it exhibits a little of the lemony character found in the Belgian variety. I found it a bit too sweet to gulp in quantity like the Oscura, but it rewards sipping so long as, of course, it's not allowed to get warm. Some foam insulators for their glassware would be a good investment for this bar. And a bug zapper: you get flies with that whether you ordered any accompaniments or not.

My sucker-for-novelty streak wouldn't let me go past the beer cocktail section of the menu. From the trade news I read on US blogs, micheladas are sweeping the beer scene in the Americas, with their strange mix of lager, salt and citrus fruit juice. Taberna de la Muralla offers a tomato-based entity along the same lines based, I assume, on Clara. It's not up to much: rather bland in a way that suggests to me that some Tabasco wouldn't have gone amiss, but also that this doesn't offer anything even resembling a beer experience: replace the lager with rum and you have a cubanito. Why anyone thought to do this with beer is beyond me.

Still, speaking as a veteran of the Cuban railways, it's far from the strangest thing I saw in this utterly unique country.

08 May 2008

One for the road

The time has come for the second part of my Sunny Islands With Bad Beer series, or at least the research end of it. This time I won't be blessed by the gods of wi-fi so you'll be spared the real-time details of my agony. I'll just be concentrating it into one or two posts in a fortnight-or-so's time.

My send-off beer this time round came from an off-licence I complained about last year: D Six in Harold's Cross. A year on, they've definitely put the effort in on their beer selection. It's not Redmond's class, and the friendly staff clearly wouldn't know Kwak from Coors Light, but the selection is some-way decent, and they deserve credit for that when so many others just go for tray-upon-tray of Heineken and Bud.

The beer in question is 1488, another one from the enigmatic Traditional Scottish Ales Ltd of historical FK7 7NP. Associations are drawn on the label with the Tullibardine distillery, in whose oak casks it is matured, but once again there's no clear indication of where the stuff's actually brewed.

As Thom said, it's a beer of contrasts. I acknowledge and repeat his accurate detection of a sherry flavour in amongst the oak and malt. There's very little gas and a sweet/sour Jack-Daniels-and-lime sort of aroma. What Thom describes as a lactic tang I'd say is a tartness, resembling the more involved sort of lambic. It engenders a mouth-watering lip-smacking finish which rounds off a very smooth and flavourful beer which sinks surprisingly easy given the 7% ABV and the hard liquor associations.

So that's my lot for now, as the darkness falls on this sunny island with limited quantites of good beer.

05 May 2008

Against all odds

What are the chances of two gorgeous sunny days in a row on the May Bank Holiday weekend? It's crazy. Yesterday I paid a social call (hi Q), and the afternoon was all about sauvignon blanc and Midleton Very Rare. Today I've just finished doing the lawn and it's all about weissbier.

It would appear that Ireland's speciality beer suppliers know something about the weather that the rest of us don't. The latest wave of new beers to hit our shelves seem to be almost entirely German wheat beers, an ideal style for lazy outdoor afternoons like today. I'm starting with a bottle from one of my favourite Munich breweries, Augustiner Weissbier. The pour is a promising deep orange colour. With my nose buried in there I should be getting big banana or clove notes, but instead all I get is next door's barbecue, and I could smell that before I popped the cap. Sadly, the blandness continues with the drinking. There's a wheaty dryness buried in there somewhere, but there's no fruit, no spice and basically no flavour. The texture is characteristically weiss-like, fluffy and sparkly, but the shocking tastelessness makes it seem watery. With the slight dryness it's not even a quenching lawnmower beer. Have I conveyed my disappointment sufficiently? Good. Back to the fridge now. Don't let the magpies steal my laptop...

Mrs Beer Nut is at the shops and I just remembered another new German weiss that I've been meaning to try, so I rang her to send her on a mission. The glassware is in the freezer in anticipation.

Anyway, so much for the betrayal by an old friend, now for the unknown quantity. Heidelberger HefeWeizen Hell is one of two wheat beers from this brewery to make an appearance in Ireland recently, the other being the same only in Kristall, which I passed on. It's basically the same colour as the Augustiner but is thinner and a fair bit flatter: I expect a big foamy head on a weissbier, but it took a fair bit of effort to work one up on this, and the froth didn't last long. Not much on the aroma front, more of a carbonic gassy nose than any distinctive beer character. The flavour is workmanlike: a far cry from the fruitier weissbiers, although it has definite but understated sweet floral notes. The gassiness remains and my biggest criticism here is overcarbonation. Still, it is refreshing, and light (only 5% ABV). It's the sort of beer you'd buy by the crate in Germany for next-to-nothing, but not one for writing considered notes on, unless you can do it on a sunny afternoon like this one.

Mrs Beer Nut is back and succeeded in her quest. The destination was Aldi, the objective was refreshment and the beer was the extreme silliness of Schöfferhofer Grapefruit, now cooling in the freezer.

This describes itself as a "hefeweizen-mix", being a blend of plain old Schöfferhofer -- admittedly not my favourite wheat beer -- and grapefruit juice. It's marketed squarely at German kiddies, and contains just 2.5% ABV. I must say, I'm loving it. There's basically no head, and only a slight fizz, but that's OK because there's pretty much no beer taste to it at all. Instead it reminds me of a tooth-rotting soft drink of my youth. I can't remember the name. Mrs Beer Nut says it's Lilt and she is bang-on as usual. When I first heard of this I assumed it was an attempt to lure the youth of Germany away from alcopops and on to proper beer. Now I've tasted it, I think it has much more to do with making them familiar with the brand, to get them loyal at the earliest possible opportunity. Moving from this to real beer would probably be quite shocking.

The web site says "Weizenbier aus der Flasche? Kein problem", so I've abandoned my glass for my second one and it makes absolutely no difference. It's sweet, cold, fruity and refreshing: exactly what I was after when I sat down here earlier.

My afternoon is shaping up nicely, so I'll leave you with words published this morning by Ireland's truthiest blogger, Twenty Major:

be aware folks that this is our summer happening before your very eyes. Make the most of it. Don’t come crying here when the deluge continues through June, July and August.

Enjoy it while you have it.

03 May 2008

Don't screw up

Every time I approach a bottle of Sierra Nevada beer, I smile. "Fresh seal cap" it says, "use bottle opener". As opposed to what? Yes I'm aware that American beers frequently have twist-off crown caps. I even remember the days when our Miller Genuine Draft came direct from Milwaukee in such bottles, before Beamish & Crawford acquired the rights to make it in Cork. But a childish sense of glee derives from images of lazy gits shredding their fingers trying to screw off the cap from a bottle of Beer For Grown-Ups.

Schadenfreude aside, this evening's beer is Sierra Nevada ESB: yet another new arrival from the US. The first hiss from the cap gave me a very American jet of hops aroma. The pour also produced a satisfying rich orange coloured ale, leading me to expect the same sort of hoppy surprise I got from the brewery's Anniversary Ale.

Denied! The first sip left no doubt that this is a malt-driven beer. The hops are a mix of English and US varieties, but I'm pretty sure that the former are in the ascendancy, imparting dryness rather than real bitterness. The malt flavour adds candy notes which come close to cancelling the hops out. The sum total of all this is really not very much, and I see no excuse for a hefty 5.9% ABV.

This is the sort of beer which would work well by the pint, cask conditioned, with a little over half the alcohol. As an imported baby bottle, proper cap notwithstanding, it's just not working for me.

02 May 2008

A moment of clarity

Boak and Bailey's quest for the origins of beer obsession lead me to revisit a story I touched upon three Sessions ago.

Two days after I turned 19 I moved to Dublin. Guinness, of course, was what one drank in the capital, and I took to that without complaint, getting to know the pubs around town that had a reputation for a good pint. As my first year in college ended I was in no rush to leave city life so rented a flat in Temple Bar and got a job at a nearby pub, one very conscientious about the quality of its Guinness, of course.

I was a terrible barman and hated every minute at the taps. I loved the quiet afternoons just moving glassware around, and treasured evenings in the cellar, shifting and stacking kegs. Serving people drink was a pain, and cleaning up afterwards even more so. The pub was jointly-owned by three very hands-on managers. The youngest was quite the bon viveur and made a point of visiting every new restaurant and pub as soon as it opened, and would report back to his co-managers about what the competition was up to.

After closing time one evening I was cleaning up and making my usual heavy work of it. The owner I mentioned, who had been on an evening off, strolled in under the shutters, poured himself a pint of Bud and plonked himself down on a barstool.

"Went to that new place round on Parliament Street," he told his colleague on duty, "and get this, they're making their own beer. In the pub. And they don't even sell Guinness."

I remember distinctly, over in the corner, I stopped dead with my mop. They do what?!

It's no exaggeration to say I felt a personal paradigm shift right there. The notion that beer could be made anywhere other than in a big factory by anyone other than a multinational corporation staggered me. At the first opportunity I headed down to this "Porter House" to find out what they were up to. Sure enough, there was no Guinness. The centre of Dublin, on the well-worn tourist path between Trinity College and St James's Gate, and no Guinness. Not only that, but a whole soapbox piece on the back of the menu on how our beloved national brands had steadily killed off the variety that once existed in the Irish beer market, and how, once they controlled the market, they set about dumbing-down their beer to meet the needs of their accountants and shareholders. I was sold before I ever ordered my first pint of novelty beer.

That summer I dragged everyone I knew to the Porter House to show them what a pub could be like in this brave new world. Few took to it, though I tell myself it's because so many of my friends were cider-drinking students on whom craft beer was utterly wasted. My immediate first love was Porter House Red. This was the mid-1990s and the nitro-red craze was in full swing, led by Caffrey's but followed swiftly by Guinness's own Kilkenny. I'm a little surprised that PH Red is still available, given that the style has long gone out of fashion -- Kilkenny is pitched squarely at tourists and Caffrey's is no longer made or sold in Ireland. Yet this beer and another craft clone of the same vintage -- Messrs Maguire Rusty -- are still going strong. Within a few weeks of my first visit, the Porter House had added Wrassler's XXXX stout to the line-up. It was the boldest tasting beer in the country, strong and uncompromising, and I was hooked immediately.

In the following years I began to travel and discovered that pubs with in-house breweries could be found all over the world. It became a habit that, as part of my trip planning, I'd check BeerMe and European Beer Guide for the presence of brewpubs at the destination. This inevitably led to going out of the way to find microbreweries, and then, also inevitably, making trips just for beer. After doing that for a while I became more interested in getting good beer at home -- life's too short to drink bad beer, I reasoned. Or to drink each bad one more than once, at any rate.

But how do I avoid drinking a bad beer twice, or recognise a good beer the second time it comes my way? A bit over three years ago I figured I should start writing this all down. And so here we are. As every quantum theorist knows, observing anything changes its nature. My interactions with beer have certainly changed by being written down here, and reading all the other great beer blogs out there just makes me thirstier.

In the meantime I kind of drifted away from the Porterhouse (as it renamed itself). It gets very crowded and loud, the service is lousy and that initial draw -- beer brewed on the premises -- came to an end as the company outgrew its brewery and moved production to a new facility in the suburbs. I'll still go back for specials and seasonals, but I've mostly lost touch with the place.

So last weekend I went back, to my old seat by the window, for a couple of pints of nostalgia. Porterhouse Red is much bitterer than I remember it. In my head it's loaded with slabs of toffee flavour; in reality there's a good solid dose of galena hops in the driving seat. It's still very refreshing, though I don't know how much of that is down to the temperature and nitrogenation. Interesting without being challenging -- what a good session beer should be. But not what I was expecting.

Wrassler's hasn't changed, however. After all these years it still has the power to shock: intensely bitter tobacco notes kick in first, smoothed out by an underlying and lasting chocolate flavour, and based on a thumping great dense body. No amount of nitro can tame this one, and I'm very minded to re-establish more frequent contact. The newest branch of the Porterhouse is considerably more civilised than its parent. If we get a summer this year I might just make an appointment with some Wrassler's in its beer garden on a regular basis. We have some catching up to do.