27 November 2008

London calling

Another beer brought over to my place on Saturday (cheers Séan) was Meantime London Pale Ale. As it happens, I bought a bottle of it on my last trip to Sainsbury's, so I've had well more than my fair share of this recently, and it's one that warrants repeat visits.

A straight-up honest half-litre bottle contains a slightly hazy orange beer at 4.3% ABV. The head forms tight and lasting, with zesty fruity aromas ascending from beneath. These continue in the slightly grapefruity notes in the flavour -- signature of the American hops. But they're not allowed dominate, sitting next to some of the delicious floral English variety, redolent of juicy oranges with a hint of peach and some black tea tannins giving a dry finish.

Basically, this has all the benefits of the US and UK pale ale styles with none of the catches: no overcarbonation, no metallic tang, no tiddly bottle and no understated flavours. Beautiful.

So I'm psyched for next week's trip to London and a return visit to the Pig's Ear Festival in Hackney on Wednesday evening. Anyone out there going to be around?

24 November 2008

He came bearing urbock

Thom arrived over to Beer Nut Towers on Saturday evening carrying a swing-top flagon of Eggenberg Urbock 23°. With assistance from some other guests, we managed to put away all two litres of the 9.9% ABV dark Austrian lager.

And it's tasty stuff, though takes a bit of getting used to, what with the intense sugary sweetness. Until it warms up a bit there's not much else to be said about it, but after a while the strong boozy flavours start to kick in, with burnt caramel and more than a hint of sherry, accentuated by the minimal carbonation levels.

This is very much a beer for considered post-prandial sipping. Eggenberg have a number of distilled beer products in their line and this stuff tastes like it's already half way there.

Cheers Thom. You're welcome to revisit when you've refilled the flagon.

20 November 2008

Best in show

I was in early to the Belfast Beer & Cider Festival on Saturday. When newer arrivals appeared and squinted inquisitively at the beer list I gave them one unequivocal recommendation: Dark Star Hophead. Yes, perhaps it's not a beer to start a sampling session with -- partly because of the intense flavour, and partly because it makes other pale bitters seem hopelessly inadequate -- but it's not one to be missed, and I was surprised it hadn't already sold out. Shame on you, beer philistines of Belfast. And thanks.

The aroma starts Hophead as it means to go on: fresh, green hops, like sticking one's nose into a bag of Cascade. On tasting it combines with the malt and there's a little of the sherbet character I enjoy in the likes of Goose Island IPA or, closer to home, Meantime Pale Ale. But it's no American wannabe: there's a considerable English floral character here, and a dry, not-quite-metallic, finish. Certainly it isn't a beer of balance, but that matters not one jot to its supreme drinkability.

Hophead is probably my beer of the festival, but one of the dark beers really left a lasting impression too: Old Slug from the RCH brewery down Somerset way. This porter really goes to show how amazing the simplest black beer can be when served naturally, putting me strongly in mind of my experience drinking Porterhouse Plain directly from the conditioning tanks. The nose is rich, freshly ground coffee in spades, and the flavour too is sweet and coffee-like, sitting on a silky-smooth creamy body. That particular combination of knee-weakening aroma, flavour and texture is something I only seem to get from cask-conditioned stouts and porters, like O'Hara's at Hilden during the summer and Druid's in Cork at Easter. We need something of this sort in regular production south of the border. I can't imagine anyone with half a brain going back to nitro stout after their first mouthful.

It's very easy to have a go at CAMRA. I was particularly scornful of their "CAMRA supports choice" banner in Belfast, given their prime directive limiting choice to beers produced and served in a manner of their own choosing. But I have to admire the Northern Irish branch's determination to pull off an event like this in a market environment which is almost as hostile to decent beer as the one where I live. Of course, being able to ship the beers over from Britain without trouble from the exciseman helps enormously in assembling the line-up. I guess I'll have to keep petitioning the southern breweries if I'm ever to get my pint of cask stout down the local.

19 November 2008

The lighter side

In yesterday's post on CAMRA NI's festival in Belfast, I mentioned the collective decision by my cohort that a particular beer smelled of urine. It did -- Bateman's Valiant exuded a powerful odour of railway station toilets, as Adeptus has also already said. It's still enjoyable, though, having a full body and a sharp bitter flavour, with just a touch of burnt corn on the end. Holding my nose I could drink a pint of this no problem.

Sharply bitter pale ales were something of a recurring theme among the exhibits. Hopback's Crop Circle was one of the poorer examples, with the hops bitterness giving way to astringency and the flat body being a bit too grain-laden. Amber coloured Brecon Red Dragon avoided the worst of these pitfalls but finished up a little behind in the bitterness stakes. I much preferred Easy Rider from Kelham Island, with its very sharp and more-ish piquancy, and yet with only a tiny bit more alcohol, Bradford's own Salamander Brewery managed to create a beer with magnificent warmth in amongst the tangy bitterness in their Golden Salamander.

Inevitably with a festival of UK cask ales there was going to be a fair bit of tasteless dreck. Dullest Beer of the Day goes to Potton's Shannon IPA, a beer which lies somewhere far beyond the tastelessness event horizon, though dishononourable mentions go to the vaguely sulphurous Snowdonia by Purple Moose and the yawn-worthy Frog Island Natterjack, recommended to me by a complete stranger when I was trying to decide what to have next. Thanks a lot, mate.

Laura describes the pun-tastic hilarity surrounding an ale called Auntie Myrtle's from Mayfield. Sadly the beer wasn't anywhere near as entertaining, with its slightly sour and very understated flavours. Skinner's Ginger Tosser also came close to being interesting, with its low-lying sweet honey notes but very little else. My glass of Hidden Brewery Hidden Pleasure had a powerful disinfectant taste and big floaty bits -- thankfully bar manager Adrian was on hand when I was served it, so a replacement was swift and painless. There seems to be some interesting toffee underlying it, but really I couldn't say for sure.

However, shock of the day concerned one of my priority targets: reigning Champion Beer of Britain Alton's Pride by Triple fff. Evidentally once it leaves Britain all its tastiness drops away leaving a worty, cold-porridge concoction which manages to taste of special brew despite being only 3.8% ABV.

That just leaves three beers on the sweeter side of the spectrum, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Atlas Latitude is a cask pils bearing no resemblance to any continental pils I've had, being lemony and wonderfully cleansing on the palate. Farmers Blonde is probably not to everyone's taste, but definitely to mine: this is Bradfield's 4% ABV summer ale and it has a gorgeous bubblegum character to it, making it taste stronger than it is without tipping over into cloying. From bubblegum to toffee, and Spellbound from the wizards at Robinson's brewery. This was a little bit flat, though very easy drinking and deliciously sweet and caramelly.

Which almost brings me to the end of the festival, except for the two beers I've decided to separate out for special praise...

18 November 2008

A riot in Belfast

It's important that I note how much fun Saturday's trip to Belfast actually was. These posts are mostly confined to what I thought of the beers, which might make it seem that the event was more like an exam than a festival. But despite such appearances (like Adeptus and Oblivious, right), the company and the atmosphere were superb. Indeed, the quality of the banter is one of the main reasons my remarks will likely bear a strong resemblance to those already published by Adeptus: we discussed at length how much that beer smelled of wee, for example. But more on it in the next post. I'm starting here with the darker brews.

Everyone's opening gambit was the much-anticipated Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild, last year's Champion Beer of Belfast. It's certainly dark ruby in colour: like a freshly-filled bag of blood, and almost as opaque. A sour nose wrong-footed me for the sweet vinous follow-up on the palate, with an added sharp piquancy, like spiced port. Very much a heavy, sipping, winter beer, and it boggles the mind to think that pints of this sort were once the norm for beer drinkers in these parts, before typical alcohol strengths dropped to their current levels during the twentieth century.

Next on my must-have hitlist was Hooky Dark from Hook Norton, a brewery that seems never to put a foot wrong. Alas, this one just didn't live up to expectations: it's a vaguely bitter mild, but with none of the rich, warming flavours I like in this style. Spire's Dark Side of the Moon did them much better, being a mild which wears its roasted qualities up front with pride.

A fair bit of sourness was on show in the milds, with B & T's Black Dragon being one of the best of this sort, including some creamy coffee notes in with a pronounced sourness and a soft lambic-esque texture. It was the same only less so with Copper Dragon Black Gold: interesting in its own slightly sour understated way, but really a shadow of the flavour profiles of the other milds on offer.

One of the strangest, and best, beers I had was Bruin, a mild by Yorkshire's Old Bear Brewery. No sourness or roasted grains here, just big big chocolate and caramel flavours. "Like drinking a Cadbury's Chomp bar" somebody (Mark? Laura?) said: absolutely spot on.

A couple of fake Irish stouts were among the dark beers, including the quite decent Black Pearl from Milestone of Nottinghamshire, which had some worthy dry roasted flavours to it. No such luck with O'Hanlon's Dry Stout, shipped from Devonshire with seemingly all of the flavour left behind -- a residual dryness is all it has to say for itself.

It's nice to have a bit of non-Irish fruitiness in a stout, and Warlock from Renfrewshire's Houston brewery delivered this quite beautifully, having tasty plum notes in amongst the bitter roasted flavour. Going in the other direction, I enjoyed Spire's super-dry Twist and Stout, with its lip-smacking sour nose and full-on hoppy bitterness.

Then, perhaps inevitably, in came the phenols. I suppose I should have expected it from Moonraker, the 7.5% ABV sweet dark ale by Lees, but I was taken aback by the felt-tip markers present in Eclipse, a porter by Blindman's of Somerset with a mere 4.2% ABV. Eclipse starts well with some nice milk chocolate flavours, but once the phenols arrive it becomes hard to finish.

It's all getting a bit cloying now, isn't it? Time for some palate-cleansing pale beers next, I think.

17 November 2008

Local beer for local people

Saturday saw the end of the 2008 Belfast Beer & Cider Festival, Ireland's only CAMRA-organised event. Accompanied by some fellow beer aficionados up from Dublin, I put in a solid seven hours of tippling during the afternoon and evening. One of the main draws for me was a couple of unfamiliar beers from one of the province's two cask beer breweries: Whitewater of Kilkeel.

Crown & Glory is brewed especially for the Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast, a pearl of Victoriana owned by the National Trust and one of the most beautiful boozers on the planet. The tribute bitter is much less elaborate, being pale and light of texture, with an unfussy quaffable character. The malt and hops are carefully balanced to produce a very easy-going pint with no really dominant flavours.

There's a bit more of a challenge with Nut Brown, a darker shade of amber with a touch of sharp astringency. I still enjoyed it, however -- there's plenty to keep the drinker interested, with a sweet toffee-like base making it quite more-ish.

In my considered opinion, neither of these is as enjoyable as Whitewater's standard ales: Belfast Ale and Clotworthy Dobbin, though I've consistently found the bottled version of both to be an improvement on the cask editions. Though one doesn't say that too loudly in front of the CAMRA officials.

More from Belfast anon. I didn't get to try Wickwar's excellent Station Porter from the cask since it was inconsiderate enough to win beer of the festival on Thursday, and was therefore long gone. Still, a well-deserved prize I'm sure.

13 November 2008


It was the middle of December during my soujourn in Aberdeen that I discovered I could never live there. It wasn't the coldness of the winter, nor the damp pall that would waft in from the North Sea on slightly warmer days. No, it was the darkness. Those days when the sun would climb wheezily over the horizon, only to disappear back to bed after only a couple of hours' work, just freaked me out. Aberdeen in mid-winter doesn't do afternoons: you go straight from grey dawn to grey twilight with nothing in between.

Even here, several degrees south of the Granite City, I find the short days and long nights leave me permanently exhausted. Yesterday evening, as a tonic, I picked out a bottle of drug-laden beer formulated by people who work even further north than Aberdeen: Fraserburgh's BrewDog, and their Speed Ball strong ale.

At 7.8% ABV, it's relatively light for a BrewDog beer, but the alcohol isn't the most important ingredient. There's kola nuts in here, and guarana, and California poppy, plus a measure of heather honey as well. Quite a mix. The almost-headless dark amber beer is quite thin of body, as British strong ales often are, but there are certainly some interesting flavours. A bitter, herby pungency is the dominant one, reminiscent of aniseed or similar semi-medicinal botanicals. Underneath it, the vaguely metallic, presumably English, hops make themselves felt by adding a dryness, and then the whole thing is buoyed up on a cushion of alcoholic warmth.

It's interesting, it's potent, and yet it's deceptively easy to drink. There's none of the big sticky malt of English strong ales I know. In fact, it's hard to believe that something so complicated, made from such way-out ingredients, could come together in such a balanced way. But that's BrewDog for you.

The picture above is the first of hopefully many taken in the room in which is now, officially, my study. I've had it painted a bright, stimulating yellow, to keep the darkness away.

10 November 2008

My NoCal life

Thom has beaten me to the punch on this one, with his account of how we spent Friday night in Lilac Wines on Dublin's northside. I introduced him to Jonathan, the American I met a couple of weeks ago who is bringing the Gordon Biersch and Speakeasy beers into Ireland, and taking a very hands-on approach to promoting his business. Along with a couple of other members of the already-converted, Thom and I stood about drinking free beer and trying not to distract Jonathan too much as he attempted to convince innocent Heineken-buyers that they could be doing so much better.

I'd never before spent three hours in a Dublin off licence on a Friday night, despite what my wife might tell you. It was fascinating to watch how the post-work crowd between six and seven were amenable to trying something new, and even buying a six-pack of it in some cases, but as 10pm last orders approached, the customers were much more focussed on grabbing cans of rubbish and legging it out again, paying scant heed to the chirpy yank offering them a sip of nectar (I'm still very much in love with Speakeasy Prohibition, incidentally).

Aside from the seven beers I've already reviewed, Jonathan had sample bottles of a couple of other Californians he's thinking Ireland might be interested in. Well I certainly was. Two were from the Blue Frog brewery in Fairfield, both served from 75cl bottles. Blue Frog IPA is rather thinner than one would expect from a 7% ABV American IPA. It puts all its resources into the hopping, going for a tangy, almost astringent, character. Bizarrely, the double version -- The Big DIPA -- cranks up the malt levels, and although it claims a big 83 IBUs against the single's 60, the end result provides a much fuller, rounder and better balanced experience. Big DIPA is the one I'll really be looking out for if and when it hits the open market.

Continuing in Opposite Land, the bitterness of Blue Frog's single IPA was topped yet further by Butte Creek Pale Ale (that first word is pronounced "beaut", by the way, which means it's not as much of a companion to Knob Creek bourbon as I'd hoped, in my own puerile little way). This stuff tastes green: an intense earthy vegetal hoppiness which reminded me of nothing so much as Timothy Taylor Landlord. A little bit of firm malty body peeps in behind, but mostly this is a beer that assaults the side of the tongue and pierces the sides of the jaw. I doubt I could drink a lot of it.

Jonathan wasn't happy with the few bottles of E.J. Phair Pale Ale he'd brought over, and with good cause: the one we shared was intensely vinegary and undrinkable. I trust he'll be getting a refund on that. Or preferably another batch of samples. For the last beer of the evening we returned to Speakeasy for a go of their White Lightning wheat beer, remarking on the unfortunate decision to go for a name already used by a legendary tramps' cider. Frisco's White Lightning is better but I couldn't recommend spending actual money on it: the wheat is really, well, wheaty, with none of the fruit or spice one expects from European wheat beers. It's a fairly typical US-style wheat beer, in fact, and as such best avoided.

After paying my respects to the house (and its frankly excellent beer selection, half of which is displayed left) I hopped on mo rothar for the 40 minute cycle south to Beer Nut Towers. Cheers to Ronnie and the rest of the Lilac Wines crew for letting us get in the way of your Friday business, and of course to Jonathan for the... well, for the free beer.

Who'd have thought handing out free beer in Dublin off licences would prove so popular?

07 November 2008

What's yours?

"What do you normally drink?" is a question I get asked a lot by friends, after I've gone off on one about how the pub we're in doesn't have anything worth drinking, and how the pint of Guinness I'm suffering through is horribly cold and tasteless. As a relentless pursuer of new beers, it's an uncomfortable question. I don't really have anything I'd describe as my regular. With two exceptions.

I gave a full account of Galway Hooker when I first tried it last year, and it remains the beer I drink most often when I'm in the pub (this was much to the annoyance of the nice phone poll lady who bizarrely didn't have it on her beer list when she asked me the question above). I'm still in love with its blend of sweet Irish crystal malt with a four-hop formula led by late Saaz and Cascade.

But, for the moment at least, Hooker is confined to the bar tap only. I do most of my drinking at home, and my fallback, regular favourite here is one I've been drinking for years but never actually given a proper account of: O'Hara's Stout. This month's Session gives me the chance to put that right.

Matt asks us to put on our BJCP hats. I don't have one, and I really don't see the point of applying style guidelines to commercially brewed beer unless one is actively engaged in selling it. However, the Programme does have a category called "Dry Stout", citing the Irish ones as examples, and the overwhelming characteristic of O'Hara's is certainly its dryness. You get a brief chocolatey overture on the nose, but it's followed swiftly by a stunningly, tongue-witheringly dry, almost sulphurous, flavour. After a second the bitter, roasted coffee notes rise to take the edge off, and then the chocolate makes a reappearance for a smooth, sweet finish. Bottled O'Hara's Stout, at cellar temperature, is jam-packed full of flavour.

There is a draught version, served on nitro in a handful of pubs, but it lacks the real dry character. The fact that I proved myself unable to tell it from chocolate-malt-laden Murphy's shows, I hope, just how injurous nitrogenation is to the bold flavours of decent stout. Bottled O'Hara's is available in lots of Irish off licences and supermarkets, and is exported to the US and several other countries. I'm not sure how much ends up in the UK but its makers, Carlow Brewing, produce an Irish Stout for Marks & Spencer to a very similar recipe.

Like virtually all Irish craft beer, O'Hara's is a simple, no-nonsense product in a traditional style. It won't get any plaudits from me or anyone else about exotic flavours or strange and exciting ingredients. So why is it my favourite? The answer is simply because it's always there and it's always good.

05 November 2008

Too much taste, and too little

When I went to open the bottle of Poacher's Choice I bought in Newry the other week, I suddenly recalled Leigh's comment about Badger beers tasting artificial. It's not something I'd noticed before, but here it was: on flipping the cap of this dark ale I got a strong whiff of sweet sugary flavourings. And on the first sip, the taste is sickly raspberryade, not the damsons and liquorice which are supposedly in here.

As far as redeeming features go, there does seem to be a passable sticky toffee malty beer at the base here, and the texture is full bodied, unfizzy and quite satisying. But I just can't get past that sweet artificial taste. Yes I know I said I wanted the volume turned up on unusual ingredients, but poor-quality beer can't be hidden behind fun adjuncts.

And speaking of poor-quality beer, a note on two others I encountered while in Newry, at a friend's wedding. I began my drinking career in Northern Ireland on Harp and Tennent's -- generally the only lagers available in the pubs of my youth. I was amused to see that the brewers have produced new versions of both, for those who find the taste of the usual lager too much to handle. Both Harp Ice and Tennents Ice taste of quite literally nothing. A shot of raspberryade would be an improvement, but I had moved on to Bloody Marys after just one swift pint of each.

And yet they say British beer is among the best in the world...

03 November 2008

Velky Alcohol

It's over six years since I was last in the Czech Republic, and even longer since I spent any significant time there. I was very new to beer on my earlier trips, and came away with two joyous discoveries in particular. One was pale Krušovice (as mentioned here), and the other was a sweet liquoricey dark lager called Velkopopovický Kozel. I was overjoyed to discover the latter on tap in the Czech Inn recently, and then rather perturbed to find a pale beer put in front of me.

So, it turns out our friends at Velky make four different beers, and that what I was used to drinking was Kozel Černý. What I was given was the 4% ABV Velkopopovický Kozel Světlý. But it was no hardship at all. My recent forays into the strange world of pale lager in the Czech Inn have tended to yield very sweet malt-laden beers; Kozel Světlý is not one of those. Instead, this fairly light lager is packed with some classic Czech Saaz bitterness, leaving it clean and refreshing, even when it's probably the first pint of the day out of the tap.

My longing for another crack at the Černý has not abated, despite Al's claim that the brewery no longer makes any good lager. However, now that I'm running out of new Czech Inn beers to try, I think I may have found my regular, for as long as they have nothing properly dark.