The striking similarities between California and Northern Ireland are too many and obvious to bother listing. Any of you with even a passing acquaintance of both will have noticed this time and again over the years, while the sheer number of tourists who mistake Strabane for San Diego should silence any doubters. So when Colin from Dublin's California Wine Imports told me he was about to begin bringing two of Hilden's bottled beers across the border I hardly batted an eyelid. It is, after all, the next logical progression. Both beers are from Hilden's College Green range.
I'd met Belfast Blonde a couple of times in the past, on keg, and I've always loved it. It's a light, easy-going, golden ale designed for the skittish lager-drinker but packing in bags of flavour. From the bottle it's marginally fizzier than the draught edition with just a gently sherbety zing up front, followed by a long and satisfying candycane aftertaste. The icing on the cake is the nose: brimming with zesty succulent fruits like mangoes and melons.
I'd never allowed Belfast Blonde to warm up before -- it's a definite quaffer -- but when this got a few degrees under its belt it developed some marvellous fruit complexity, mostly peaches, as well as the signature chalky flavour I've found in Hilden's other pale ales and which I really rather enjoy. That got me thinking about the next bottle in front of me -- surely a mineral character like that would work great in a stout?
My previous experience with Molly's Chocolate Stout was less positive (unlike my encounter with the eponymous lady of Hilden herself, pictured right, who is a delight). The beer is made with chocolate malt rather than any actual chocolate and I've always found it a bit thin when poured from the cask. It goes into the glass a very pale shade of ruby-brown: among the least stout-like of stouts I've ever seen. Little bits of sediment demonstrate, in case you missed it on the label, that it's bottle-conditioned. The nose is sour and acidic, followed by a foretaste which is extremely dry and quite sharp. The chocolate malt may have given the beer its name, but there's very little trace of it in the flavour profile.
With the cask version, thinness is the flaw; without that cask smoothness you get a jagged and jarring stout. If your tastebuds are up for a challenge, this is the session stout for them.
(Incidentally, readers in Ireland can see me, and Colin, and Laura and Séan and Kieron in the July/August edition of Food & Wine magazine, out now.)
While I'm on the subject of Irish beers, here's a little bit of an enigma. Last year I was compiling a list of every beer currently brewed in Ireland for the Irish Craft Brewer Beer of the Year Awards. The inclusion of Satzenbrau on the list drew remarks from several people who hadn't realised it still existed. This ersatz German pils is brewed by Diageo and was heavily advertised in the 1970s and '80s before the big Irish brewers decided that contract brewing American big-brand lagers was much more cost-effective than running their own. And yet umlautless Satzenbrau survives, mostly in those parts of rural Ireland where the ladies have yet to convert to Coors Light. Behind the bar it comes in a 33cl long-neck, but in the off trade it's almost always presented as a 50cl can. I realised recently I'd no idea how it tastes, and resolved to fix that.
I could, of course, just have read the can:
Sounds great, doesn't it? But ever the empiricist I went as far as to open it and pour it into a glass. First mistake...
Satzenbrau is strikingly thin. The wateriness is such that I could well believe they didn't bother with any malt to get it up to 5% ABV, they just loaded it with white table sugar. The smell is quite distinctive: hoppy, almost to the point of skunky, and really quite accurate for a German-style pils. There's also a carbonic odour from the gassiness. So far so poor, and I won't even tell you what happens if you allow it to get warm.
There's a reason even the likes of Diageo aren't doing much to promote this. I reckon they're hoping it'll eventually go away on its own.