Obviously, being a member of the international beer drinking community is its own reward. You meet lots of great people from around the world and you tend to socialise over the best available beer wherever you happen to be. Our opinions on what makes a good beer may vary -- quite a lot in some cases -- but we all care about quality and we tend to recognise it when we see it.
However, I'd be lying if I denied that another enormous benefit is the bucketloads of interesting, exotic, rare -- and often mind-blowingly delicious -- beer I get given free by the people I meet along the way. It just so happened that last week was particularly good on that score. On Thursday night, the Bull & Castle played host to visitors from Chicago in the form of Dave and Deena (members of Irish Craft Brewer and RealBeer.com may know Dave as "Mill Rat"). They'd brought along a goodie bag of beer from their neck of the woods for a few of us to sample and, punctuated by a few of the best of what Ireland's brewers have to offer, we worked our way through them.
We started at Three Floyds of Munster, Indiana. The town is named after a Dutch guy, but that hasn't stopped them from producing a tribute to Ireland's Munster in the form of Brian Boru, supposedly an "old Irish red ale" but a zillion miles from anything made in these parts. It's red, all right, with sweet clean-tasting malt and a rather quaffable disposition (hiding 5.9% ABV) but the dominant feature, unlike most any Irish beer, is hops. Big big fresh citrus hops saturate the air above the beer's surface and the flavour is heavily infused with them. The whole package is really quite delicious, reminding me a bit of the excellent Red Frog from California which a couple of Irish off licences are carrying these days. So these Three Floyds seem to know what they're doing.
We moved on to Two Brothers and their Cane and Ebel. I found this a much bitterer affair, though definitely malt-driven. It took me a couple of minutes to twig that the base grassy bitterness wasn't from hopping, but from rye. On top of the bitter foundations they've built a slightly chewy malt edifice which balances the whole thing quite nicely. Not a show-stopper, this one, but solid, well-made, and interesting.
Last of the pale ales was an imperial IPA by Southern Tier called Un*earthly. Like a lot of the strong IPAs from the US I've had lately, this manages to strike a tasty balance between the high-alcohol (11% ABV) malty warmth, and the big fresh-hop bitterness. Effectively, the citric hoppiness allows Un*earthly to cleanse the palate as it goes, keeping it from becoming difficult. I'd count it as dangerously drinkable, had I not been sharing 66cl with six other people, with no question of opening another bottle.
The second Two Brothers beer of the evening was their coffee porter, Red Eye. It reminded me a lot of the coffee stouts my home brewing friends have made, which is a good thing. The coffee adds an extra dimension to the very dry roasted porter notes, but at no point takes over the flavour: this is still porter first, then coffee. The texture is excellent too: smooth and rather creamy.
We paused for food before the final beer. I'm not a subscriber to the whole bolloxology that surrounds Three Floyds Dark Lord. I think their decision to only sell it from the brewery on one day a year is a bit of a cynical marketing ploy, to be honest, but I'm still glad that Dave took some time out in 2007 to go and buy some. It's a cracker of a beer. You can smell the heady chocolate aromas from the far side of the table once the cap comes off. There's a lot going on in this 12% ABV imperial stout: definite porty notes, more than a hint of chocolate syrup, a bit of sweet dark fruit -- cherries and raisins -- and all based on a thick, gut-coating, molasses-like body. Beautiful stuff. Hardly unique, though. I was put immediately in mind of Avery's Mephistopheles, Djævlebryg's Pride of Nekron, and even Samuel Adams Triple Bock. Nøgne Ø's Dark Horizon is a fair comparator too.
And then it was back to Irish beer until chucking-out time. It was a great evening, and honestly the brilliant free beer was only part of what made it so. I haven't mentioned that Dave and Deena weren't the only Americans with us that evening: Chris and Merideth from TheBeerGeek.com are visiting Wales and Ireland at the moment, and I had a couple of pints with them last week. A brace of fine looking Californian beers have been added to my stash and I'll be getting into them in the near future.
Who says you have to go travelling to get great beer?