30 June 2008

Nostalgia: not what it used to be

It's almost five years since I was in Australia. In the week or so I was there I worked through as many of their beers as I could get my hands on, which meant a lot of pale lagers. I haven't retained much memory of most of them -- though Toohey's Extra Dry sticks in my mind as my go-to lager. Had I been blogging at the time, I'm certain I'd have given an honourable mention to Boag's Premium, from Tasmania.

Declan from the Bull & Castle gifted me a bottle, only slightly out of date, following a root through through the pub's backroom store. Never one to refuse free beer from a pub manager I took it home to give it a proper write-up.

Grassiness is the dominant characteristic here, on the nose and in the foretaste. Oddly -- and maybe this is the bottle showing its age -- the aroma had a kind of sharp, sugary tartness to it, almost like a lambic. The flavour is very definitely bitter, however. Green and slightly vegetal, though not straying far from the clean refreshing lines of hot-country lawnmower lager.

Perhaps not as good as I remember it, but better than the brewery's Strongarm lager, and not bad at all for free.

Anything else back there, Declan?

26 June 2008

A completist writes

OK, it may well be some time before I encounter Brew Dog's Buzz, since it's not likely to be imported on cask, and one sort of Paradox isn't really the complete set, but I was still really happy when I saw the two Brew Dog bottled beers that I had yet to try on the shelf in Redmond's last week. (Most of the rest I covered here, with a pint of Hype in Manchester last year).

Hop Rocker is the inevitable pale lager, and one I might not have bothered with if I hadn't been wanting to try them all. An odd beastie of very bright but pale yellow hue, with just a hint of a haze through it. The aroma is bitter and almost lemony, though not especially strong. They've struck just the right balance with the carbonation, giving that refreshing cleanness you want from this style without it being too much of a bloatmaking fizzbomb.

The flavour is... interesting. The citric notes are there all right, presumably deriving from a light hopping, albeit with some pretty pungent varieties. But there's also a strong sugary character to it as well. It's not the syrupyness of your typical tramps' lager, but more like the candysugar flavour from certain Belgian beers. The two flavours don't sit too well next to each other for me, and I'm not sure how a committed lager drinker would find them. It's an interesting beer, but just not in the right way.

I'm consistently amused by Brew Dog's labelling (even if certain humourless busybodies don't get it). I also used to live in Aberdeen, just down the road from the brewery. I found it impossible to read the description of Hardcore IPA without hearing the lilting Grampian tones. The text is reproduced on the right. It's the word "relatively" in the last sentence that's pure Aberdeen to me. Roll that R.

Like the brewery's lighter Punk IPA, this 9% ABV bad boy is pale yellow in colour. Hardly any head is produced on pouring, nor is there much aroma -- just a vague hops-and-boiled-water smell of the sort you get on a brewery floor. The first taste leaves you in no doubt of how much alcohol is in here: big, high intensity boozy warmth fills the mouth. But that's not to say it's malty, oh no, the bitterness actually stings. There's no trace of the fun-and-frolicsome fruity, citrusy gee-whizz American hops. This is a serious hard-as-nails Calvinist IPA with no quarter offered. Well, almost no quarter: as it warms up the caramel malt notes begin to make themselves felt and the sweet-bitter flavour takes on nearly a perfumey character. But the aftertaste remains big boozy bitter hops. Hardcore, as the label says.

I don't really know many other IPAs of this kind of power and strength, but if I had to compare Hardcore to another beer I'd be more inclined to point at Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot barley wine than, say, Great Divide's Hercules IPA. There's a definite market for this sort of beer, and I'd say it'll sell well on the other side of the pond, but extreme experiences like this aren't anything I'll be running to repeat on a regular basis. Now and again, however, it's worth it.

And just as I post this, I discover the brewery has started a blog announcing a new bottled imperial stout in their range. My completist plans are in ruins. Thanks a lot, guys.

23 June 2008


It was miserable on Saturday. Sheets of horizontal rain to the accompaniment of the occasional ka-thunk-ka-thunk-ka-thunk as bits dislodged from my incomplete roof. In the early afternoon I trekked down to the docklands to see if Ely HQ was selling O'Hara's stout on draught, like its sister house on Custom House Quay. It was, but that was a very damp Beer Nut enjoying his pint and steak sandwich by Grand Canal Dock. Lesson learned. If ever an evening was meant for staying in and exploring strong Belgian ales, it was Saturday.

The warm-up act was St Bernardus Prior 8. At first taste I wasn't astounded by it, and then scolded myself for getting so blasé about what is a really really good beer. Brown of body, it's heavily sedimented, with skirls and eddies of yeast clumps riding the gas bubbles inside. The texture is one of the high points: lightly carbonated, leaving a smooth body and a superb thick and creamy head. The flavour is not especially strong and is redolent of dark fruit: plums, damsons, that sort of thing. The lees contribute just a bit of a sharp kick on the end. Other than the understated flavour, my other criticism is that the mouthfeel is just a little thin for such a strong dark ale, though that could be down to the slightly higher-than-recommended temperature I drank it at. Should have left the bottle out in the rain a bit longer.

I moved on then to the next in the range: Abt 12. The cap came off with a pop, followed by some foam. Then more foam. I waited for it to stop. It didn't. So my horrible soon-to-be-disposed-of carpet got the benefit of a fair bit of the beer. More than it deserves. Despite all those bubbles, the head didn't stay on this for very long. The gassiness keeps going, however, and I found the sharp sparkle got in the way of the flavour. It's dark fruits again, but drier, and not really as noticeable as with the Prior. The bitter, fruity aroma is nice, suggesting that this has the makings of a better beer in it, if only they got the other parts right. I have to say I was disappointed.

There are more St Bernardus beers around on the Irish market at the moment, and I'm aiming to get to them all eventually. With these ones, the Prior 8 is worth a look as a low-budget alternative to the first-string Trappists. But I'd exercise more caution with the Abt 12. Like opening it over the sink and within reach of a glass.

19 June 2008

Not royal but ancient

Despite being very aware of the importance of date-checking when buying unusual beers, I drop the ball quite regularly. Rarely as spectacularly as I did recently, when I picked up this bottle of Belhaven St Andrew's Ale and noticed at home a date of August 2007. Yikes!

It's no hard-wearing high-alcohol affair neither, at just 4.6% I was afraid this pale ale would be very far past its best by the time I opened it. Only one way to find out...

Out of the oddly-sized 355ml bottle comes a darkish amber beer with a fluffy long-lasting head. The aroma offers spicy malt, though not in abundant quantities. There's quite a full body, but with the light carbonation it's still pleasantly easy-going. The taste is dominated by an almost bacon-like smokiness which I thoroughly enjoyed. There's very little information on how it's brewed and from what, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were wood chips involved somewhere along the line. There's only a very faint musty staleness deriving from the beer's superannuation, and I've little doubt but that this is a superb beer when in top condition. Understated, unchallenging, but still very tasty.

No freshness issue with the next Scottish beer: a light (4.2%) IPA which is scheduled to last well into next year. Carronade is by Falkirk's Tryst brewery and was ranked Scotland's top bottle-conditioned ale in 2005. The bottle was kindly donated by Thom from his CAMRA beer club stash.

It's a worrying shade of pale amber with a fair bit of gas. Aroma it has in spades: zesty orange and lime notes acting as a wake-up call to the tastebuds. The body is as light as expected, but it's hard to pay any attention to matters of texture when there's such a massive flavour. The western US hops give it a powerful bitterness, dominating the palate on first taste and then fading slightly, allowing those aromatic fruity tones to spread. I detect a hint of an off-flavour -- a slight soapiness -- just on the end of it. It's very strange finding a big-flavoured sipping ale, bottle-conditioned, at a mere 4.2%. Well done to Tryst for achieving this. Carronade will definitely keep the serious hop heads happy.

16 June 2008

Now we're cooking

God loves a trier, and I couldn't suppress a smile when I found a bottle of Mann's Original Brown Ale recently. Instead of a description on the back, there's a recipe for beef stew, and more recipes are promised on the reverse of the front label. If ever a beer screamed "Drink me!" this 2.8%-er from Cheshire isn't it.

Of course I couldn't resist buying it, pouring it into a pint glass and drinking it. It's very very not unpleasant. You get the expected caramel sweetness, but not too much, and nowhere near the point where words like "sickly" and "cloying" are wheeled out. You also even get a very English stiff-upper-lip restrained hoppy bitterness as well. And there are no off flavours: nothing to suggest this is made on the cheap with substandard ingredients. Everything is in tip-top shape, just toned waay down flavourwise. The result is a very easy going quaffing beer that I really rather enjoyed.

A quiet and well-mannered old gent, who gets little regard from his family and carers, but is perfectly content with who he is. Here's to you, sir.

And from intentional cooking ale to unintentional cooking lager. On a recent sunny afternoon I attended the graduate exhibition at Dublin Institute of Technology's art school (hi Nicole and Bernard), held in a strange and rambling former convent in the north inner city. DIT had laid on food, drink and music. Beer options were Miller or Sol. I've no memory of ever trying the Mexican so I plumped for that. Holy crap is it bland. Utterly tasteless. I mean, it's not even refreshing. I can understand why it's the done thing to put limes in this, because that way it'll taste of limes. Instead of nothing. Like a fool I declined the citrus option, preferring mine neat. I won't be doing that again.

Maybe I should have gone for the Miller. Word has it the European Commission fears we may lose our Miller in the Scottish & Newcastle takeover, and they're determined to prevent this. I hope, in the Brussels café where this was decided, they were drinking something nice.

12 June 2008

Playing with the big boys

As I mentioned the other day, the Porterhouse invited a bunch of interested parties out to their brewery last night for the launch of their new summer seasonal. Along with a dozen or so other members of Irish Craft Brewer I trekked out to the grim industrial estate on the edge of Dublin where the largest Irish-owned brewery has been operating since it moved out of Temple Bar in 2001.

We had an introductory talk from one of the Porterhouse's founders, Oliver Hughes (pictured right demonstrating the deference and respect he believes is due to Arthur Guinness & Son Co. Ltd.) followed by some words on the new summer seasonal, Hop Head, from Peter the chief brewer.

The new beer (in Oliver's right hand) was served from the keg at the brewery's tasting bar (demonstrated by the lovely Paul, left), and a cask version was waiting inside on the brewing floor. It was interesting to compare the two versions. Kegged Hop Head is an uncompromisingly bitter beer. It doesn't really have the zesty citrusy flavours I would have expected from the Cascade hops, but has a much rougher, harder edge. This sits on a big heavy body and the whole thing adds up to a no-nonsense powerhouse of a pale ale that demands the drinker's full attention. Comparisons with Galway Hooker are inevitable, but I can safely say that they are two remarkably different beers. Hop Head lacks the biscuity crystal malt notes of Hooker and its weight makes it much less sessionable. However, if you're having just one, and you want it bitter, Hop Head is the beer to go for.

The cask version was somewhat less demanding. Natural carbonation knocks a few of the edges off, and you get a relatively easy-going sipping ale. The bitterness creeps up on you gradually instead of serving an immediate smack in the face. Sadly, as is the way of these things, cask Hop Head is for export only and will be found gracing the bar of the London Porterhouse alone. It's good, but not good enough to send me into that place on a summer's evening.

My duties to the new arrival thus performed, I started noticing my fellow visitors with glasses of black beer. "Plain Porter," I was gleefully told, "from the conditioning tank". I had already bent the ear of the brewery's other head honcho, Liam, about the evils of nitro stout so was desperately keen to try this one. Porterhouse Plain Porter is a pretty good, understated, sort of beer. Free of nitrogenation, even at low brewery temperatures, it is amazing. I have never before encountered a beer that smells almost too good to drink, but this one manages it. The coffee and chocolate wafts coming from the foamy head are overwhelming. Add that to the strong, sweet roasted flavours and the silky texture and you have something very like the perfect session stout. My feedback to the Porterhouse management was fairly explicit. It included the word "crime".

The Porterhouse remains convinced that nitro is the only way to go in the Irish stout market. But if I've managed to sow even the beginnings of a seed of doubt about this, I'll be very happy indeed.

Finally, a big thank you to all the Porterhouse staff who arranged the visit and welcomed the thirsty swarm of beerites. We may not agree with everything the company does, but the Irish craft beer scene would be much worse without it.

10 June 2008

Hop it

After their recent poor show with a raspberry beer, I was very glad to find Meantime's Pale Ale a return to form. I like this brewery and knew I wouldn't stay angry with them for long. At 4.7% this is a medium-strength ale, though is supplied in a 33cl bottle to save customers from the temptation of overindulgence. How thoughtful. It pours fizzily, a surprisingly non-pale dark rich amber, with just a light dusting of suspended sediment. Not much on the nose, but the flavour is far from understated. We get those marvellous mandarin-and-sherbet notes that are the hallmark of great hoppy pale ales, and which won Franciscan Well's Purgatory ICB Beer of the Year. They say there's East Kent Goldings in here, but they've definitely put Cascade in the driving seat. My only criticism is the texture: there's just too much fizz and it interrupts the palate's enjoyment of the complex malt-hops interplay. With a little less conditioning this could be a champion. Still, highly enjoyable and recommended.

It made me even more eager to get at Meantime's India Pale Ale: bigger bottle, higher strength and allegedly hopped nine ways from Sunday. The cork eases out with more of a puff than a pop. No overwhelming hops funk comes from the neck of the bottle. The pour is a lurid orange, topped with a big fizzy head that dissipates quickly. Even in my wide-bottomed glass I'm finding it hard to drum up an aroma. A vague fruitiness, but not much else. The main thing I can taste is the alcohol: heavy and sticky-sweet. But there's more underneath it. The Fuggles and East Kent Goldings impart a dry back-of-the-throat sort of bitterness that works better in lighter, more sessionable beers, but gets squashed by the booziness in this 7.5%er. There's a slight orangey-citric fruit tone to it as well, but nothing like the moreish big citrus of American IPAs, a flavour which may have spoiled me for most British and British-style IPAs: I end up thinking fond thoughts of Goose Island half-way through. All-in-all, I'm finding this beer tough going.

More of the green stuff is on the horizon for tomorrow evening when I'll be at the launch of the Porterhouse's new summer ale: Hop Head. Pilgrim, Nugget, Cascade and Hallertau in this one, and just a pinch of black malt. Doesn't sound like much could go wrong in that, does it?

06 June 2008


It's beer festivals for The Session this month, and I'm pretty much regurgitating points from a discussion I had a while ago on maeib's blog. He was wondering about the minimum number of beers an event needed to be selling to qualify as a beer festival. I brought up my observation regarding Oktoberfest in Munich: it's not really a beer festival; it's a festival of being drunk. Stonch wasn't having any of this, but I stand by my taxonomy (I'm a librarian -- it's what we do). Oktoberfest is a festival, for sure, in a big big way. But they could be serving vodka or cava in those tents, instead of six specific and unchanging beers, and the whole thing wouldn't be much different. Though there might be more women.

Conversely, when a pub buys in a large variety of beers, it will often put up posters claiming this is a "festival", even though it's business as usual as far as the atmosphere is concerned. I've a few examples of this on here, like the Porterhouse's Belgian "festival" last summer. Beer yes. Festival no.

So, to have a real beer festival you must have both the emphasis on the beer and a proper festive feel to it. In my opinion, the latter cannot be achieved unless the event is held somewhere people can't normally drink. If you're going to have it in a pub you must at least adapt or expand the premises in some way, as the Franciscan Well do when their Easterfest tent (right) goes up in the yard. But the most festive festivals are the ones held somewhere else entirely, since nothing kills off atmosphere faster than one of the locals grumbling at the bar about blow-ins. CAMRA, at least in east London and Belfast, seem to favour dull exhibition space. The lack of music at Pig's Ear almost has me questioning its festiveness, but it still managed to feel properly festivalish. At least the lonely grumblers there had made an effort to leave their usual boozers.

If I had to pick a favourite out of the half dozen or so festival and festival-like events I've been at in the last twelve months, the prize goes to Hilden. It didn't have the beer selection of CAMRA NI's gig, nor the wonderful local emphasis of the Franciscan Well, but it had damn good beer, and most importantly it had a brewery yard full of people -- families, mostly -- just having a fun day out. With top-notch beer. And even if not every grown-up was drinking the good stuff, this infectious enjoyment is what really makes a beer festival so much better than than, say, simply going to a pub with a great range of beers.

That said, family fun is all well and good, but at the same time there was no way I was going to miss The Big One: September's 2000-beer, three-day tickfest in Copenhagen. Anyone else out there going?

Warning: Tenuous theme linkage ahead

Of course, my drinking life is one big beer festival -- an endless amble along the global bar, perusing the pumpclips and labels, picking up samples here and there, and doing my damnedest to make the best use of the time and capacity I have available.

Capacity is a big practical issue where festivals are concerned. I drew a discreet veil over just how ratted I was when I rolled out of the King's Hall last November after inadvertantly completing the strong beer set. So just two strong beers this session.

First up is Vitus, the weizenbock from Weihenstephaner. The only other weizenbock I know is the mighty Aventinus, one of my all-time favourites. I was expecting something along the same lines so was shocked by the bright yellow beer that poured forth. I should really have known that Aventinus is no more typical of the weizenbock style than Schneider is of weissbier. I braced myself for the onslaught of cloying sugariness that so often arrives with strong and pale beers. But no, I got something else instead. The 7.7% alcohol adds a warmth to the flavour, quite reminiscent of the Scheider-Brooklyner Hopfen Weisse I had back in April. A gentle layer of weissbier clove notes adds to the warmth even further, and the result is a beer you could easily curl up with. I'm enjoying it with some strong cheddar which cuts through the spice beautifully. It has been observed that beer festivals and cheese festivals belong together. Vitus and vintage cheddar would make a great headlining act.

And speaking of vintage... The second offering in my home festival of strong beers comes from down under: Cooper's Vintage Ale. I'm not sure what the label, depicting a man being savaged in the face by a badger, says about the product. It could be some kind of health warning about the beer's tendency to attract badgers. Seems unlikely, but I'm going inside the house anyway, just in case.

It pours a red amber which, frankly, looks a bit watery to me, despite the vast amount of dense sediment in there. The head doesn't hang around long, but there's a fairly strong malty aroma which is carried through into the flavour. It's quite barleywine-ish, with rich and smoky flavours as well as a touch of toffee and maybe even damsons as well. I can't help but be distracted by the thinness, though, which is worsened by an inappropriately heavy fizz. It could well be that the beer's still a bit green, being a mere 2006 vintage -- the only beer I've ever seen with a "best after" date stamped on it.

Alan reviewed it recently, but I think he might be better left alone today. He'd enjoy Hilden, I'd say. Bring the wains.

04 June 2008

Wife beater beater

What were they thinking? How many of Stella Artois's core UK drinkers have enough French to get the association? For that matter, how many of them shop in Marks & Spencer? And yet, with its white can emblazoned in red and gold there can be no doubt of the market at which Etoile D'Or is pitched. Maybe they're after ABC1s who like the idea of the strong Belgian lager, but simply cannot be seen buying it, let alone serving it to guests.

Unlike Stella, which proudly proclaims that it contains only natural ingredients like maize, this adds ascorbic acid into the mix. For extra freshness, see? Mmmm... crisp.

I think the contract brewer has done quite a good job of this. It even has a whack of that corny-grainy taste that I used to enjoy in Belgian-made Stella but which seems to have vanished from the British-made variety we get nowadays.

However, it's still quite watery with an unpleasant chemical flavour. Perhaps with strongly-flavoured food it might just work as a barbecue beer but I've a nasty suspicion that bad hangovers wouldn't be far behind.

This can was liberated from my Dad's stash (he has a keen eye for crap lager) so I've no idea how much it costs. I'm just guessing, based on previous M&S experiences, that it's hideously overpriced.

At your own risk, people. Public service blogging ends.

01 June 2008

British Summer Time

I'm weekending up north at the moment and staged a minor beer raid on a local supermarket. Not Sainsbury's, so I wasn't actually expecting to find much of interest, here where a certain tonic wine from Devonshire is the tipple of choice for many. But there behind the stacks of alcopops and a veritable Aladdin's cave of tramps' brews ("I say, Jeremy, shall we go for the Tennents Super or the Carlsberg Special this morning?" "Why not something delightfully continental, Tristran, from the extensive Polish selection?") there was a well-chosen core collection of English ales: the best of Fuller's, plus Black Sheep, Young's Double Chocolate and the like. Hardly ground-breaking, but there was nothing like this when I lived in these parts. However, nobody wants to read more "Northern Ireland is making progress" headlines, so I'll stop.

There was an old favourite of mine, Bateman's XXXB, but I passed on it to try another from the same brewery: Combined Harvest. It would usually take a lot for me to pick an English golden ale out of a line-up, but a beer made from barley, wheat, rye and oats presented just enough of a gimmick to pique my curiosity. Unwisely, it's presented in a clear glass bottle, but there was only the very faintest whiff of skunking on opening. It pours to a limpid orangey-gold, with a big head that dispells quickly leaving just a light skim of foam. Marmalade is the governing feature here, both in the aroma and the foretaste. Big, tart, zingy orange notes turning to just a hint of citrus hoppy bitterness at the end. The fizz, while far from overpowering, is just right to add to the refreshment power of this beer, and I'm delighted to discover another member for that tiny pantheon of good, interesting, English golden ales. An instant beer-garden classic.

On Friday, before I left Dublin, I nipped in to the Bull & Castle to give another recently-arrived English summer beer the once-over. Raspberry Grand Cru is from Meantime, a London brewery I have a lot of time for, and whose darker beers I've particularly enjoyed. This one wrong-footed me from the outset with its pale orange hue. I was expecting something, well, pink, like a Belgian raspberry lambic. But they haven't gone for fruit here, preferring instead to aim for the sourer flavour I associate with mature fruit lambics, and Cantillon's Rosé de Gambrinus in particular. But really there's not enough of either characteristic for my liking. The sourness finishes up as dry, without any real lip-smacking tang, and the fruit flavour is on a par with that found in an ice lolly. These miniflavours are buried under a massive 6.5% ABV for which there is no excuse, not with this rather thin and gassy body. More Meantime beers have just arrived in Ireland, and I'm really hoping they've made a better fist of them than this one. Expect reviews soon.

Still, where UK summer beers are concerned, one out of two definitely ain't bad.