30 September 2008

Czech, mate

I am agog at the news coming out of the Czech republic from the beer blogosphere's correspondents there -- Evan, Velky Al and Pivní Filosof. It seems that the overweeningly lagered Czech market is starting to expand in fascinating new directions, and the results from the micros are impressive. My only first hand experience of this deliciously velvety revolution is the Kocour rauchbier I sampled in Copenhagen, and I liked what I had. A lot.

I can only pray, then, that Dublin's ex-pat hang-out, the Czech Inn, gets in on some of the new ale action. Though granted that's as likely as an Oirish pub in Barcelona or Bangkok stocking O'Hara's Stout.

Still, I'm encouraged to see that the pub appears to be taking steps to court more local business, with the rebadging (sort of) of two of the house beers. I don't remember which jaunty moniker they've given to Pepinova Destika, mentioned back here, but its stablemate Francinova Dvanáctka now goes by "Frankies". I'd been surprised recently by the sweetness of Pilsner Urquell and I found this one to be only very marginally less malty -- another full-bodied tasty pale lager selling for next-to-nothing.

A further indication of the local attraction of the Czech Inn came while I was ordering. An Irish chap came to the bar, perused the taps (an activity almost unknown in this country), and then asked where the dark beers were. "Upstairs", he was told, so that's where I got the next round in. "Dark" is a serious misnomer, as the darkest they were doing was Staropramen Master, an amber lager. It's not earth-shattering stuff, bittersweet with some good liquorice notes, but in a pub with such an array of pale malty lagers something vaguely different is always welcome.

While I was upstairs getting the Masters in for Thom and Mrs Beer Nut, I spotted Zlatý Bažant on the bar. I knew full well it was a mediocre Slovakian lager, but I figured it would be worth a tick. That's about all I can say for it: lighter of body and milder of taste than any of the Czech beers. There's not a thing wrong with it, it's just nondescript and very easy drinking, which I'm guessing is all that most of the clientele, both local and foreign, are after.

So this is about the best I can do for Czech beer in these parts. However, it seems there's never been a better time to visit the homeland.

27 September 2008

Encore: the quare stuff

I couldn't leave the European Beer Festival without some words on the strange beers, the ones made with methods and ingredients that stick-in-the-mud style purists and fans of the Reinheitsgebot turn up their noses at.

Mrs Beer Nut, a De Molen fan to the bone, steered me towards Menno's Cuvée No. 1 on arrival. This is a blend of several strong stouts, aged in a barrel which was never more than arm's length from the brewer all weekend. It's quite an experience: an explosion of busy flavours, from high octane dark malts, through dark fruits and smoke, then into tangy bitterness. On balance I think it's a bit too intense for me, with a little of the solventy flavour I mentioned before. I enjoyed the component stouts individually much more. And before I go any further, an apology to Menno that the only picture I have of him, Diogenes-like with his barrel, has him scratching his nose.

Baggaardsbryggeriet refuse to have any truck with this barrel-aging nonsense, preferring instead to just bung the liquor straight into the beer. So from them we have Drunken Sailor, laced with Islay whisky, but still only 6.5%. I think this may be because they didn't put a whole lot in there, so what you get is a slightly sour pale ale which doesn't do very much. At least it isn't a waste of much good whisky.

While there are all manner of adjuncts that can be thrown into the brewing copper, not many brewers are doing anything extreme with their water. Except, that is, for the lunatics at the Grønland Ice Cap brewery. The company itself is based in Copenhagen but imports ice directly from the tail end of a Greenland glacier, ice which fell as snow about 180,000 years ago, they say. Not only that, but your bottle has a unique reference number which can be looked up on the Interweb so you can find out exactly where on the glacier the ice you're drinking came from.


Anyway, I had a go of the Ice Cap Amber Lager and it wasn't very good -- sugary sweet and really quite tough to drink. All gimmick and no flavour, I'm afraid.

It has long been my opinion that place of hops in beer is overstated. We can pretty much do without hops, I reckon, and still have wonderful beery experiences. I cite the Helene Heather I had from Nørrebro as the perfect example. The other side of that equation, however, is Carlsberg Jacobsen's Hopless, a desperately dull, worty, grainy affair without even any redeeming malt features. The whole idea of getting rid of hops, Mr Carlsberg, is to replace them with other more interesting things.

Like bog myrtle, for instance. Porse Guld Ekstra was a decent unremarkable lager, but spiced with the aforementioned shrub to give it a tasty bitter kick. And as a bonus, according to the festival programme, the brewery picks all its bog myrtle during four company picnics each year. Awww. For the Finns it's juniper all the way, and Lammin Sahti is a traditional concoction made from barley, rye and juniper, fermented with baker's yeast. The result is sweet and deliciously spicy with fresh banana and lemon flavours.

Honey is another adjunct with a lot of involvement in beer. My experience of such brews is mixed, but I quite liked Ørbæk's Honningøl, with its wonderfully meady nose and full-on fun honey flavour, though perhaps shading into artificial sweetness at the very end. Monkeying about with grains is another option, and Indslev's Spelt Bock is one example. It's an opaque brown colour and starts with quite a scary dry chalkiness which takes a bit of getting used to. When the flavour settles down there's a nuttiness which I rather enjoyed. Not caramelly like a Dutch bock, or heavily sweet like a German one; it's its own thing, and tasty with it.

I've had a couple of liquorice beers from a home brewer of my acquaintance (hi Fergal), and my feedback tends to be "needs more liquorice". I hereby pass on the same message to whoever was exhibiting Liquorice Pils (I can't find the brewery's name): it's sweet, light and really not very interesting or liquoricey. Fergal also makes a damn fine chilli stout, with specially imported California chipotle. It has become my benchmark chilli stout, and I thought Brøckhouse's Chili Chokolade Stout compared quite favourably with it: a good dry roasted heat to warm the back of the throat. Not so much by way of chocolate, however.

Even more warming was Stevn's barleywine, the one they call Experiment D041-A. This has had most of the things you can do to beer done to it. There's both wheat and barley in there; a Belgian ale yeast to start with then a second fermentation with [sticks pin in yeast catalogue] cider yeast; some dry hopping with Amarillo; and rounded off with some aging on whiskey cask chips. And yet it's not a mess: it's delicious. There's a definite Christmas pudding character with raisins and spice and booziness from the 11% ABV. Many more flavours come and go, but it's not any way busy or unpleasant and none of that nasty solvent character. An experiment worth repeating, in my opinion.

Things get even warmer though. Not content with brewing a dark dark beer at 20% ABV, MyBeer were serving Ultraprés heated, topped with whipped cream. And it was really quite delicious, very reminscent of a French coffee to me -- quite sweet and exceptionally smooth. I don't know why you'd want to substitute a beer for a liqueur coffee, but at least now you can.

Which brings me to the very last beer of the festival and, for me, probably the best of the lot. It came from Roskilde's Herslev brewery and rejoiced in the name Aspargesøl. As the handle suggests, it's brewed with asparagus. As far as I can determine, a lot of asparagus. The nose promises fresh green crunchy veg and that's exactly what the taste delivers, including with it a spicy peppery tang. Sitting on a soft, full, wheat base you end up with an extremely drinkable beer with an utterly fascinating flavour. Well done to Herslev for raising the weirdness bar. Now, who wants to make me a smoked asparagus beer?

And that's your lot from Copenhagen, a festival I cannot stress the brilliantness of -- excelling in atmosphere, facilities and quality of product. Thanks to all the Internet beer folk I met who provided valuable directions and information: Chris, Joris, Kim, Knut, Niels and Ron. Being able to socialise internationally is one of the best non-beer things about these sorts of events.

Finally big big thank you to the Irish delegation, whose lax approach to personal beer security allowed me to taste far more than I actually bought. Cheers Declan, Declan, George, Sarah, Séan, Thom and of course Mrs Beer Nut.

Last week Thom said "If you love beer you must attend this event. No excuses. " I couldn't put it better myself.

26 September 2008

Darkness falls

And so to the far end of the colour chart at the European Beer Festival: those lovely black beers. Of course, I've already written about a fair few of the good ones in with my posts about Mikkeller and the US breweries, but there's always room for more.

I'm quite a fan of Heineken's Krušovice brand, so was delighted to see Krušovice Dark, which I haven't had in many years, available in bottles on one of the stands. I liked it: very dry and quite sharp in that mouth-watering schwarzbier sort of way. Holbæk Bryghus claimed that their Munkholmer was a stout/schwarzbier hybrid, but it definitely tasted much more like the latter, though with a nice touch of fruit amongst the dryness that would have me calling it a plain porter more than anything else. Nothing wrong with that. Lund Teknik also had a Dry Stout on display, promising lots of roasted barley on the nose but having quite an understated roast flavour, with a hint of caramel to lift the dryness. Well balanced and very drinkable.

Sadly, Wintercoat Oatmeal Stout was a much less pleasant experience, with some nasty phenolic marker-pen notes in it, but not much else: the complete opposite of Engbo by DaCAPO, a marvellously full-bodied and roasty simple, no-nonsense, high-quality session stout.

There was lots of woodiness apparent among the dark beers. Like Black Oak, a porter from Braunstein. Here the wood is fresh and fragrant, with the rich roasted flavours only arriving afterwards. Similarly with the very sweet Roskilde Imperial Stout by Det Lille-- freshly hewn timber dripping with sap is what I got here. A more mature woody character comes with Struise's Black Albert, a dry, sour, and oaky imperial stout. Det Lille's Roskilde Oak Aged Porter, was perhaps the most complex of them all, possessed of that strange sweet-dry character which aged malty beers take on, plus smoke, nuts and a touch of phenolic booziness.

I spent the early part of the Saturday afternoon camped out on the soft furniture of Carlsberg subsidiary Kongens Bryghus. When the dirty looks of the staff became too much I opted to try the brewery's "Caribbean Porter" Vestindisk. I'm glad I did too: it's a wonderfully smooth and smoky beer. Not especially challenging; easy-going but tasty. Another simple but suppable black one came from Stensbogaarde: their English Dark Stout is very heavy and sweet -- sticky but not too sticky. One of several beers I'd have liked a pint of.

Some good sweet milk chocolate notes in Stormakst porter by Närke of Sweden, sitting on a huge thick treacly body. Svaneke's Choko Stout is, obviously, chocolatier still, with much more besides. Cocoa, fudge and sweet tobacco say my notes. I must have liked it. The award for chocolate beer with no actual chocolate in, however, goes to BrewPub's cask porter Cole. This is light-bodied yet very creamy and loaded with chocolate and molasses. BrewPub has come a long way from what they were serving back in 2005.

And that's the dark beers put away. But I'm not quite done with Copenhagen just yet...

25 September 2008

Gold and brown

Yes, we're coming to the end of my pieces from the European Beer Festival, and I think it's time for some colour-themed posts. We'll start up at the lighter end of the scale with the golden and brown ales.

There was a fair bit of buzz surrounding the guys who had come from Kosovo to exhibit their lager, Peja. Knut dismissed it as "one for the tickers" so I was immediately off in search of it. It's actually not half bad: a decent low-strength pils, unremarkable except for its place of origin. From rather closer to the festival grounds was Langfartsøl by Carlsberg subsidiary Kongens Bryghus. This is a cooling, refreshing blonde ale, and likely to be an excellent summer refresher. Bitches BrewThe name means "Longboat beer", in case you're wondering. Finally for the golden ales, DaCAPO's tripel, Trio, failed to impress, having too much by way of sharp yeasty flavours and not enough warmth from its 9% ABV. Some nice fruity appley notes to it, though. Wintercoat's Bitches Brew (named after a Miles Davis record, apparently) was rather better: easy drinking yet intensely fruity and bitter, like a super-smooth tripel.

Back to lager, and Herslev Oktober Bock was the sort of autumnal bock I can get behind: sweet in a caramelly way with hints of dark fruit and smoke. Similarly seasonal was Mørk Festival (no. 71 in Fuglebjerggaard's Kølster series, if that means anything to you). It's a cloudy brown ale with a tasty sharp gunpowder spice to it. A much rounder sweeter autumn experience came from Ølfabrikken Harvest Ale, a beer brimming in warming toffee and caramel notes, quite a contrast to the surprisingly bitter Randers Brown Ale.

Getting browner still, we have Juletrolden 2008, a preview of this year's Christmas brew from Troldhede. It's quite light and very drinkable, despite some major chocolate notes in the flavour. Yet even they pale when put next to Svaneke's Sweet Mary, a dobbelbock loaded with cherry-liqueur-like boozy sweetness.

Time to dim the lights next. Have you noticed just how many Danish microbreweries there are, by the way? By my count it's loads and loads and loads.

24 September 2008

Pale ale parade

I mentioned yesterday how Danish craft brewing seems to have followed, to begin with, an American model. The number of Danish pale ales and IPAs at the European Beer Festival reflects this to a considerable extent. And yet it's not like they were all grapefruit-laden hops bombs. Take Gl. Skagen, for instance -- despite claiming American ancestry, this is full of floral peachy flavours on top of a tannic body and puts me in mind of the finer kind of English bitter. The peach blossom continued in Lund Teknik's APA which was so packed with soft fruit flavours as to be almost juicy. And again in the very floral notes of Randers Pale Ale, which is only let down by a slightly off-putting dry carbonic character. Only when we come to Amager Festival IPA do those peach flavours build to the point of tipping over into grapefruit. This is despite Amager's claim that there are no American hops in here and that the main grain is basmati rice. Are they having a laugh? Still superb beer though.

The bitterness levels start to go up here, starting with India Gold by Wintercoat. All their beers were served from casks, which left a wonderful smoothness to the IPA, still with English blossomy notes, but with a sharp orange zing to it as well. Their Double Hop offered the same only more so: the warming alcohol and zesty hops making me think of spiced Fanta. In a good way. Hantverks IPA (the only Swede in this lot) adds bitter raspberry notes to its citrus kick making for one of the more refreshing IPAs on offer.

Stensbogaarde IPA was among the more complex IPAs I tried, starting with toffee malt and running the full gamut of fruit flavours. Every sip produced a different bitter sensation. Conversely, Hornbeer Imperial IPA concentrates on strong orange flavours and holds back on the bitter spice to make a no-nonsense drinkable strong beer. I wasn't so thrilled with the simplicity of Midtyfyns Double IPA, which started off with promising grapefruit aromas but the flavour was dominated by an unfortunate earthy character that buried any complexity there may have been.

And the best of the pale ales? Believe it or not, it's one from Carlsberg (well not really, see comments). Slejpner is 10.5% ABV and begins with an innocent orangey aroma. On tasting, however, it builds this into a huge bitter fruit flavour that simply will not stop. Leaving aside your super-strong barrel-aged ales, I don't think I've ever encountered a beer with this much legs. No wonder they named it after a horse with double the usual number.

23 September 2008

Nordic Americans

The influence of American craft brewing on the Danish micros was very apparent at the European Beer Festival. It's not surprising, then, that the American industry was quite well represented among the various stalls.

I had missed Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA at the Great British Beer Festival this year so made damn sure to try it this time round. My interest was largely morbid curiosity and I didn't expect to enjoy it at all. But it's delicious: full of those orange sherbet flavours I associate most with Goose Island's marvellous IPA. Not at all the monster I was expecting. Mind you, I was drinking it straight after a glass of 120 Minute IPA, and that's a beer that will tone down the flavour in most things. Nevertheless, I found the 120 surprisingly drinkable. It has some big solventy alcoholic notes all right, but there's enough of a balance in there to make it work: bitter without being harsh; malty without being tramp juice. I'm no hophead, but this was an eye-opener.

Two more strong and hoppy ales, this time from Avery in Colorado: Maharaja is their Imperial IPA and is another orangey one with a particularly mouth-watering aroma. The 9.7% ABV gives it warmth without making it sticky. Also available was a Collaboration they did with Russian River in a Belgian style. This is an immensely complex concoction full of peaches and nuts and spices and cloves, yet remains light and drinkable at 8.2% ABV.

Avery had come recommended to us from the Bull & Castle's Declan who attended the Great American Beer Festival last year. Mephistopheles Imperial stout was his first recommendation. It's incredibly thick and loaded with sweet molasses and bitter black coffee flavours. It was the last beer I had on the Friday and awoke on Saturday to find the dregs had congealed into a tar-like lump in the bottom of my sample glass. The other big black American was Great Divide's oak-aged version of Yeti, a stout I thoroughly enjoyed in Amsterdam last month. It's pretty much what I expected: the usual big chicory maltiness, with a fresh acidic hop character, but smoothed out with that woody vanilla flavour that comes from barrel aging. A more refined Yeti than the plain one. My last big American stout was an east-coaster: Brooklyn's Black Chocolate Stout. It's hops in the aroma once again, with sugary molasses and more than a hint of delicious smokiness. I'd had a fair few beers that were beyond the 15% ABV mark at this point and this mere 10.1%-er was well able to hold its own in the flavour stakes.

And just to show that American beer isn't just about high alcohol, I was extremely impressed by Flying Dog's Doggie Style pale ale. Only 4.7% ABV, this is possessed of an intense citric bitter fruity character, yet is still light enough to be very easy drinking.

Yes, the Danes definitely have the right idea when it comes to picking a country to emulate with in their brewing culture. That the industry in both countries is feeding off both the experience and marketplace of the other can only be good from a drinker's perspective.

22 September 2008

Smoke 'em 'cos you got 'em

On reflection I probably didn't get nearly enough smoked beers into me over the three days of the European Beer Festival, despite running for every one I saw. Of course, Schlenkerla featured, at the stall of one of the importers -- the lager, which I tried here, and the Weizen, which was new to me. Unsurprisingly the big hammy Schlenkerla flavours dominate, quite yummily I might add, but it's also possible to detect the wheat beer softness under them -- just. My preference is for the bigger body of the märzen and this isn't different enough to provide a real alternative so I doubt I'll be going for it again.

Another new style getting the smoke treatment for me was an IPA called Sgt Pepper being served by Lund Teknik, a microbrewery equipment supplier who had quite a few examples of finished products available at their stand. I had to double-check with the festival guide that it wasn't simply barrel-aged, because my notes go on extensively about the peaty scotch notes present in this one. It's on the paler side of the IPA colour scale and much sweeter than anything else labelled with the style. Still tasty, though, but since the flavour leans more to whisky than bacon, I can't say it's my kind of smoked ale.

I'm going further afield for the last two rauchbiers. The stall which specialised in Czech microbrews had Kocour Rauch Lager on sale. It has the big full rich maltiness expected of Czech lager, but -- perhaps out of national pride -- it doesn't let the smoke flavour dominate this. You end up with something well-balanced and drinkable. My baconish needs were much better served by another smoked lager, this time from Finland. Sauhusanttu is a lot lighter of body but has a much bigger bacon flavour which builds gradually on drinking, instead of hitting the palate with a Schlenkerla-style hamslap. This is one I could quaff cheerfully forever without feeling full or overpowered by smoke.

Odd, isn't it? Ultimately there's not a whole lot of difference in the taste of rauchbiers: smoked ham is smoked ham, yet I get such a kick out of sampling new ones. "Ooo, that tastes like bacon too." Yum. More please.

21 September 2008

Deepest regrets

What I'd like, right, is a massive beer festival where all the beers are really good. Unfortunately the European Beer Festival wasn't one of these, so now that I've done a couple of posts raving about the beers and breweries I liked, it's time for one just for the stinkers.

We'll start at the end, shall we? Events on Sunday concluded with the Irish delegation trooping off to Christiania for sundowners. Three mediocre pilsners were available, all from the Thy organic brewery. Their specially-branded Pilsner Christiania is one of the better ones: dry, but otherwise uninteresting. Humle is the same only in sweet. Worst of the lot was their badly misnomered Økologisk Classic: unpleasantly bitter and waterier than water. My previous visit to the commune was much better, beerwise.

Early on the Friday, Thom, MrsBeerNut and I set up camp next to the Klosterbryggeriet stand. Given my fondness for silly Scandinavian beer names, their Årsøl just had to be tried. Apparently there's blueberries in this, but I couldn't detect them: just a heavily alcoholic sugariness. The same sort of over-malted sweetness was to be found in the brewery's Hamburgøl as well.

That Germanic bock-like sweetness was something of a recurring theme in my blacklist. Blå Chimpansee, for instance, is a nice shade of dark brown but loaded with nasty cloying sugars. The same goes for the paler "open source" Free Beer Version 4, though with added mustiness as well. I guess Willemoes 200 År, an actual bock, should be forgiven its sugariness, but it just didn't cut it for me, offering very little else alongside it. GourmetBryggeriet also had a ropy bland bock, called GB Bock2. Drinkable, but incredibly boring.

Other blandities included a dodgy English bitter knock-off called Old Nutty, where soap was the only detectable flavour. I was also hugely disappointed by Flying Dog's Kerberos tripel, finding the flavours far too understated here.

And that brings us to the must again. Aarhus Julebryg was the biggest offender here. The supposed sweet malty notes are just about detectable under a thick layer of yucky mustiness. Troldhede's Railroad Rye also laced its signature flavour -- grassiness -- with a stale dry character which ruined it for me.

OK, that's enough bitching for one post. I promise something really tasty for tomorrow.

20 September 2008

The British invasion

It goes without saying that the section of the European Beer Festival serving UK cask ales was called a "pavilion". They were serving cheese at one side of it, but no cucumber sandwiches. As with most of the stands, it was staffed by volunteers from the exhibiting breweries. Outside on Sunday afternoon I got chatting to a very nice chap from one of the southern English breweries who was telling me that CAMRA actually stands for "Come And Meet Real Arseholes" and that he used to gleefully burn his cardboard membership card on the way out of the Great British Beer Festival each year until the bastards switched to plastic. Someone, at least, was glad to be free of real ale tyranny for a weekend.

One particular beer drove me straight to the British Pavilion. For quite a while now I've been intrigued by the press that Thornbridge's Jaipur IPA has been getting. I was really looking forward to it and was hugely disappointed with the reality. It's a very thin, very pale (despite appearances, left) affair and is utterly one-dimensional: hopjuice of the worst kind. Should I be putting on my flameproof suit now?

Thom was insistent I try the Brakspear Triple, and I wasn't going to resist, having enjoyed their EPA very recently. This was from the bottle and is an interesting concoction. I was immediately struck by how little it resembles a Belgian tripel, but it's not typically English either. What you get is a sweet honeyish flavour with just a touch of spice, on a light ale body. Interesting, and worth further investigation.

Other light beers included Belhaven's Twisted Thistle -- a fairly hefty 5.3% ABV, but gently hopped to be dry and easy drinking. Wold Top's Falling Stone was tougher going: crisp but possessed of an off-putting sulphurous tang. I was much more impressed by Otley OG, another easy drinker, almost to the point of blandness, but with a saving lemon zest flavour. The award for quaffability, however goes to Archer's IPA. There's just enough body here to keep things interesting, but everything else is toned-down to make it eminently sinkable.

The chap from Wickwar talked a very good game, and only by agreeing that Station Porter was indeed excellent but I'd already tried it, was I able to smooth-talk him into giving me something else. He wouldn't let me go without recommending Mr Perrett's from the bottled selection so that was one of my first ports of call on Saturday. I have to say I prefer my stouts to have a bit more body than this, especially when they're sailing towards 6% ABV. However, there was a nice touch of liquorice to it, making for a pleasant experience, but still only a shadow of the full-on joy of Station Porter.

In all probability the difference in my perception of the two Wickwars is down to presence or lack of smokiness. I was therefore immediately drawn to Manx brewery Okell's and their Aile smoked porter. It's very dry and incredibly roasty with lovely back-of-the-throat flavours. Not so much smoke, however, but the quality here can't be argued with. I had great hopes for Harvey's Porter, speaking as a huge fan of their best bitter. I was disappointed though: it's an unchallenging beer with a nice touch of raisins in it, but not a whole lot going on generally. Smoke. That's what it needs...

Another one of those legendary English beers that I only get to read about on blogs is Hook Norton's Old Hooky. I liked this: very sweet, almost leaning towards marzipan notes, and a tasty elderflower character as well. Their Black Country Mild is also pretty damn good: a relatively pale shade of ruby with a superb balance of charcoal dryness and dark fruit.

Finally it was back to the bottles for some Yorkshire Stingo by Samuel Smith's. This bottle conditioned 8% ABV strong ale is wonderfully warming with big big malt notes, yet manages to avoid being any way cloying. Stonch is currently offering a chance to win some. If you happen to be in the right neck of the woods, this stuff would make it well worth trying your hand.

19 September 2008

The black stuff

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.

18 September 2008

The Irish and the Oirish

Ireland was very poorly represented at the European Beer Festival, with Hilden the only Irish-owned brewery exhibiting. They had recently launched Titanic Quarter -- named after the big urban redevelopment scheme currently underway in Belfast's shipyards -- and it was available bottled. This is the second beer (after Galway Hooker) to brand itself an "Irish Pale Ale". It is, however, a very different proposition, having the paleness and aleness of the British variety rather than Hooker's American roots. It's exceedingly pale, in fact with quite a bit of haze. Tragically, I could detect very little flavour to it. I guess it's designed as one of those unchallenging by-the-pint quaffers, but I was disappointed nonetheless.

Everything else from Ireland was by Diageo: their usual export brands. One enterprising Danish micro -- one with especially good lawyers, I assume -- has produced an organic beer called Geniuss Extra Stout. They've pretty much nailed what they were going for, it being nitro-cold, thin, vaguely dry, and generally a complete waste of effort. There is perhaps a smidge more of a malt character than you get with a certain other stout, but not enough to make this worth drinking. Bryggeri Skovlyst made a much better fist of an Irish-style stout worth drinking. Their Full Stout is admittedly thin, but still manages a creamy texture without nitro and is packed full of chocolate flavours -- just how I like my Irish stouts.

For some bizarre reason, Søgårds Bryghus in Aalborg has taken it upon itself to recreate traditional Irish recipes. I tried just one from this Irish House range, the Irish Ale. It's a very strange beast indeed, totally unlike any actual Irish ale I've had. It's really thin and watery but is possessed of a very strange milky-lactic sweetness which, when mixed with sweet crystal malt notes, gives it a sort of Cadbury's Caramel effect. It's not unpleasant, just... surprising.

That was just the start of the weirdness. Over at the Polish stall, there were two beers available which claimed some sort of Irish heritage. Irlandzkie Mocne first, and the comedy English programme (p.232) tells us "It owes its mysterious character to match special components, which are a secret of brewery." Well, quite. What you get is an immensely sweet dark red ale -- sugary almost to the point of being saccharine. It's still easy drinking for all that; its secrets aren't really worth the pondering. Next to it, the bar was serving Irlandzkie Zielone. To whom, I don't know, since the beer's most notable characteristic is its lurid green hue. A single Irishman with a morbid fascination for beers connected to his country? Quite possibly. Anyway, it's basically just lager with green syrup in -- dull, sweet and a lot more Polish than Irish.

Perhaps if the festival Saturday hadn't clashed with the first Bord Bia Septemberfest in Dublin, there might have been a better showing from my locals. I was kicking myself I missed it too, since the elusive MM Imperial was there on cask. I have to content myself with the vicarious pleasure of sampling through the eyes and palates of Wobbler, Beer Novice and Laura. Still, I don't think I'd have swapped.

17 September 2008

Mikkeller, su keller

Day two of the European Beer Festival, like the first and third ones, dawned bright and breezy. After a hearty breakfast I walked around the corner from the hotel to find a queue outside the local beer specialist Ølbutikken. We were there for the launch of several new special edition beers from Mikkeller, a gypsy brewer situated just next to Carlsberg's headquarters where the festival was happening.

Judging from some of the labels I saw in the shop, Mikkeller and Ølbutikken have a very close working relationship, making for what I suspect are some of the tastiest shop-branded beers in the world.

A few minutes after my arrival, the Mikkeller funk soul brothers appeared from the nondescript shopfront and began filling punters' glasses with Jackie Brown. I really enjoyed this when I picked up a bottle recently and was quite prepared to make a second breakfast of it at 10am on a chilly Copenhagen morning.

Next, I noticed that customers coming out with their six-packs were holding something different: deep purple and interesting. Chris_O from RateBeer told me it was Blåbær Lambik, Mikkeller's blueberry lambic. Inside, a tap had been set up on the counter and free samples were being generously dispensed. This stuff, I'm told, is aged two years in Cantillon barrels. It's absolutely wonderful, beautifully tart yet still full of blueberry sweetness. Amazing harmony and a really nice shade of purple too.

So there we were, basking in the cool sunshine on a Copenhagen sidestreet, about fifty of us, inspecting our purchases, sipping lambic and chatting about beer, all to the bemusement of passers-by. Events like this, I thought, are what makes this a festival rather than just drinking in a warehouse for three days.

My fascination with Mikkeller had begun early, as I perused the beer list on the plane over. Inside the venue, their banner was a handy meeting point, even though the bar around it was always thronged. And with good reason. Two cask festival specials were my starting point on the first two days. On Friday it was "Beer Geek Breakfast Pooh Coffee Cask Festival Edition", marked simply on the cask as Breakfast Pooh. It's an aged stout laced with kopi luwak, fresh from the arseholes of Vietnamese civets. This is a surprisingly mellow vanilla flavoured stout, smooth and creamy with just a hint of bitter chocolate. Dunno if it's worth the poop-scooping, but still delicious. Bizarrely, this didn't appeal to everyone, and the cask was still there on Saturday when it was joined by Beer Geek Breakfast Chilli/Chocolate. This provides a low-level full-mouth long chilli buzz, but the taste is dominated by strong coffee and chocolate notes. Tasty, though I think I'd have upped the chilli quotient to something sharper. But that's just me -- I'm not complaining.

I mentioned yesterday the solvent sensation engendered by one of Nørrebro's beers. I got this from Mikkeller's Monk's Elixir as well; only the strong chocolate flavours saved this beer for me. A much better proposition was their Black: an imperial stout alleged, at 17.5% ABV, to be Denmark's strongest draught beer. There's a sharp bitter kick up front followed by a long dark chocolate and rum flavour -- very tasty indeed.

There was only one Mikkeller beer I didn't actively enjoy, though I think I may have been alone in that: Simcoe IPA. There's a mild hoppy aroma which left me totally unprepared for the harsh acidic sting of the hops. With nothing else going on, this ended up tasting like the smell of a brewery floor -- hops and boiled water. Too unbalanced for me, but clearly one for the hopheads.

And that brings us back to the fruit lambics. In the festival they were selling Redcurrant Lambic, another sharp and tasty one from Cantillon's barrels, but easier on the fruit, making it outstandingly refreshing.

I barely scratched the surface of what Mikkeller were up to, but I'm not singling them out just because of their beer. It was their bells and whistles, like the countdown timer before the launch of the various limited editions, the Ølbutikken event, and lots of blokes in silly wigs, that gave the impression of a bunch of people having fun making beer for a receptive market. That kind of enthusiasm is what beer festivals should be all about.

16 September 2008

And the winner is

With an event the size of the European Beer Festival in Copenhagen last weekend, I had no idea that any of the hundreds of breweries would stand out. According to my notes I sampled 112 different beers -- and over the next while you'll get to hear about every damn one of them, you lucky people -- but reflecting on the whole event I've realised that one brewery in particular really stepped up to the mark beerwise and were offering an especially wide range of superb products.

Granted, Nørrebro Bryghus were on their home turf, being sited just across town from the festival grounds. But I visited the place last time I was in Copenhagen and I've some idea of the size of their operation. That they were able to sustain a constant supply of over two dozen beers for three days is nothing short of amazing.

And there was nary a dud among them, though more than a touch of cheekiness in some cases. Take New York Lager for instance: a pale orange hue with more hops than one might expect if it were anything other than an obvious knock-off of Brooklyn Lager. Ron says that Carlsberg is Brooklyn's import agent in Denmark, so I guess that makes them fair game. Anyway, the end result is an easy drinker with a well-honed toffee/hops balance. Believe it or not, there's a similar sensation with their North Bridge Extreme, a 9.6% IPA which managed to avoid any burning or cloying and remained chewy, hoppy but perfectly balanaced with it.

Their mild, Berufsverbot, was one of the first I went for. It's surprisingly pale red but has a lovely fruit-and-nut chocoloate character to it. I was expecting something darker and coffeeish, but still enjoyed this. Staying sweet but getting darker was the house stout La Granja. This is a creamy, woody affair, tempered with long-lasting roasty notes. Tasty, filling and satisfying. The woodiness goes off the scale with their barrel-aged Imperial Porter. In fact, it introduces a kind of solvent flavour (phenols?) which almost spoiled the experience for me. It's something I encountered in several of the barrel-aged beers I had at the festival, so there's more on that to come. A much more balanced wood experience came from Oak Wise, a sweet/sour lambic-esque "wild-fermented wheat beer". Apparently there's apricots in here too, but all I was getting was the extra tang from the oak chips.

When tanginess goes awry you end up with something like their approach to Oud Bruin. It was brown, anyway, but tasted acetic rather than sweet. I couldn't shake the notion that I was drinking HP Sauce with a head on it. I like HP Sauce, however, so I wouldn't call this a failure; more like an endearing attempt at a style that's silly to begin with. Despite all of these sour delights, my Nørrebro prize for tanginess goes to a very strange aged kriek they were serving, called Stevns CCC. The cherries are quite hard to identify under thick layers of warming cinnamon and tartness. Refreshing, complex and very delicious.

And my favourite out of this lot? Why, the one with basically no hops, of course. Helene Heather is spiced with all manner of botanicals and just a teensy sprinkling of hops in there. It's gorgeous, carrying a rich and warming mince-pie effect in a surprisingly pale blonde ale. There's more than a hint of floral honey flavours as well, and a little bit of tartness in with the cinnamon on the end. A truly sublime beer and one of the best I had all weekend.

While Nørrebro was my top brewery just for beer, one of the other locals really put the effort in to turn drinking-in-a-shed into a proper festive festival, while turning out some amazing beers as well. More anon.

(And yes, if I'd known I was going to start by enthusing about Nørrebro, I probably would have taken a photo of their stall -- the image left is used with kind permission of Knut Albert.)

11 September 2008


There's a certain daftness about brewers' fondness for three letter acronym names, particularly when they're used to make a beer seem more English than it actually is, as in Sierra Nevada ESB or Porterhouse TSB. Nothing fake about Brakspear EPA, however, apart from the fact that there's no actual Brakspear brewery any more and it's all made at the Refresh plant in Witney, but none of that matters: it's made in England and, far more importantly, tastes English.

In fact, to me, it's a perfect example of my favourite kind of English bitter. There's a touch of fresh floral aroma and a tannic bitterness on top of a full, almost greasy, body. It's very simple and completely unfussy, but far from the tasteless mediocrity that so many English brewers pass off as bitter.

Filtered, pasteurised and containing who-knows-what: yes, probably. But still the beer for me.

And that's your lot until I come back from Copenhagen, where the European Beer Festival kicks off tomorrow afternoon. Three days of beer in 10cl measures is likely to keep me in posts for a while.

08 September 2008

Belgian, however you look at it

I was underwhelmed with my last Urthel experience, but was looking forward to Hop-It, a "superieur hoppig blond". It's 9.5% ABV and boasts "large quantities of aroma hops". Naturally I was expecting something in an American vein from the Belgian.

As usual, I was way off. No major hoppy aroma hit me on opening, nor even when poured into a chalice glass. It is a lovely colour, though: a pale amber gold with one of those typically Belgian creamy heads.

And on tasting... it's a tripel, straight up, no messing tripel. The bitterness is that very Belgian spicy sort, redolent of pine and lemon juice without a trace of grapefruit or sherbet. There's a hefty malt profile too, giving the bitter flavour a stickiness that keeps it on the lips for ages.

On mature reflection (one paragraph later) perhaps tripel isn't the best analogy. Instead, imagine Duvel with less fizz and the bitterness turned waaay up. Regardless, this is a highly enjoyable sipper: not one I'd drink a whole lot of, but a superb standalone.

05 September 2008

We will rauch you

Just when we thought we were getting an easy topic for The Session this month -- Germany -- Lootcorp has imposed a variety of terms and conditions into the theme. We get extra points for Bavaria-related posts, but we're not allowed write about Oktoberfest unless we really have to (fair enough: my trip to the 2005 Oktoberfest is covered here). Most of all, we've been asked to discuss how "Germany and beer have become intertwined in your life". Well, ever since this post my interest in German beer has centred on the hammy delights of rauchbier, a speciality of Bamburg in (guess where) Bavaria. Look at those points racking up.

Tragically, Schlenkerla Märzen is the beginning and end of German rauchbier in Ireland. I'm not really complaining as it's one of my standard go-to beers now and I'm still thoroughly enjoying it on a regular basis. However, when I visited De Bierkoning in Amsterdam last month I headed straight for the German section to seek out new smoky delights.

And so, first up is Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier, and I got a little bit worried when I brought this home: there's no mention anywhere on the bottle of it being smoked, nor is the label the fancy faux-parchment style of the other rauchbiers. Is it possible they just make a bog standard helles alongside the specialities? When the cap popped, no smoky vapours greeted me, and a good sniff of the poured beer didn't reveal any either. The paleness also had me thinking I'd been sold a smoke-free pup. Thankfully, I was wrong.

One sip reveals this to be rauchbier to the core. The strong bacon tones sit on top of a rather sharp and bitter hoppiness, of the sort I associate with parts further north than Bavaria. The two flavours vie for dominance briefly before the smoke prevails and gives the taste wonderful legs. I think the smokiness works better with the fuller märzen body under it, but it's definitely still a success as a helles.

At only 4.3% ABV, what I've got here is a superbly tasty session beer and only its gassiness might prevent me spending a whole evening necking it cheerfully. Well, that and the fact that I have to travel several hundred miles if I want another bottle.

My second beer of the Session is another lager, this time from the other Bamberg rauchbier specialist: Spezial Lager. It's a much more attractive, and smoky, shade of amber. No smoke on the nose though and... oh dear. Oh dear oh dear: there is virtually no smoke flavour to this at all. It could be the after-effect of the Schlenkerla, of course, but I doubt it. All I'm getting is a rather full-bodied heavy lager with very little hopping and just the faintest dry wisp of smoked malt. Specialist concerns aside, this is quite a dull beer by any standards: the smoke-free pup I was dreading earlier.

Of course, this is more about me than about the beer: yes it's a lager made with rauchmalt, and I'm sure it has legions of fans who wouldn't touch something as crudely flavoured as Schlenkerla with a bargepole, but such subtlety isn't for this drinker: I want a beer that screams smoke at me while waving a packet of bacon fries in my face. And this is very far from being it. Certainly, I'm willing to take a chance on the other beers in the Spezial range, but when given a choice between breweries, I know for certain where my loyalties lie.

03 September 2008

Data systems and why I love them

Over the last year or so, Superquinn's attitude to beer has been that of a skittish yet inquisitive kitten when faced with a new Object in its midst. The supermarket chain had always been very positive to Irish beer, and I remember fondly the days when they would have shelves resplendent in beers from the Kinsale, Finian's, Dublin Brewing, Irish Brewing and Carlow Brewing ranges. Sadly, only the latter of these brands remains in existence, and Superquinn's selection suffered as a result, reverting back to the macro rubbish that everyone seems to prefer.

And then, around the time of last year's rugby World Cup, we started to see some new and interesting stuff appear for a few weeks, then be gone just as suddenly. Deuchars IPA was one of the first, then Theakston's Old Peculier. Maisel's. Samuel Adams. Paulaner. Competing supermarkets took up the call and we have now a modest yet highly gratifying range of decent beers on our supermarket shelves. I don't buy many of them -- the independent retailers are far more interesting -- but this, I firmly believe, is where the revolution in Ireland's beer market will happen: in the aisles of Tesco, Dunnes and Superquinn.

So I barely batted an eyelid, a couple of weeks ago, when I noticed my local Superquinn had added Samuel Adams Boston Ale to their selection. €1.95 a pop: good enough; better than buying a basket of six anyway. I took my bottle to the checkout.
*bip*... *bee-bawwp*
"Oh, it doesn't like that."
*bip*... *bee-bawwp*
*brrrrrring* "This won't scan in for me."
The supervisor with a face like a bag of spanners inspected the barcode. "Naw, you have to buy six of these, see."
They weren't shelved in six packs (see above right), and they were priced individually, but I was in too much of a hurry to fight it.
"No, it's fine, I'll leave that aside then." And on I went.

And then, a week or so later, I was back in Superquinn.
*bip*... *bee-bawwp*
"Oh, that's not scanning in right... It's free. Company policy."
That's more like it.

On pouring, it looks a lot like the amber Boston Lager -- it's far from an unattractive colour, but I don't buy beer to look at it. The first taste also resembles its stablemate: that Malteser-like sharp maltiness, though sitting on a slightly less carbonated base. It is, in fact, much less fizzy than most of the bottled American ales I've had. The hops kick in later, and don't quite cut through those big sticky malt notes. What this needs is some of the floral, tannic, English hop flavours to raise the bitterness a notch and add a fruity complexity which would sit very well with the beer underneath.

Still, I'm liking it and I'd buy more. In fact, I'd even deem it worth my while arguing with Spanner-Face Manager about company policy to get a stash of this for free. Compliments don't come much higher on this blog...

01 September 2008

Fissure jumping, and the cottony sigh

It was one of the very few dry evenings this summer. The sun had set somewhere beyond the Poddle and I'd just finished cutting the grass. What I needed, I reckoned, was a lawnmower beer. To the fridge, then, where I found a bottle of Gaffel Kölsch. That'll do.

When I picked it up a few weeks ago I'd been amused by the variety of bottle caps on offer. The brewery supplies the beer with the European flag of your choice on top. Of course, unimaginative purist that I am, I went for Germany. My experience of the kölsch style remains fairly limited, but this was pretty much what I was expecting: crisp and dry, more than anything, though it also exhibits a pleasant mild banana-like fruitiness right on the very end. Anyway, it didn't last long -- just the refreshment I had been craving.

And so back to the fridge where the only thing resembling it I could find was König Pilsener. Medium gold, medium fizz and quite wonderfully balanced. There's a touch of that north German hoppiness at the front, but it settles down quickly into a long smooth maltiness that's very satisfying. In fact, I think I sat over it a bit too long, as the evening's warmth started turning it heavier and maltier. It still remained perfectly drinkable, though, and with a definite light bitter touch, unusual in what's basically a fairly strong (4.9% ABV) lager.

I don't know how much more lawn mowing I'll be doing this "summer", but I reckon either of these will make excellent rewards for my labours.