30 March 2009

Refusing Brussels stouts

I have not, hitherto, felt particularly positively disposed towards the stouts of Belgium. Hercule is often lauded as the finest of the genre, and while I appreciated that it was well made and did everything a very strong Belgian stout is supposed to do, the thick sweetness of it meant I just couldn't warm to it as a regular. It's still streets and streets ahead of Leroy Stout, a saccharine bomb I picked up in Ypres and which I really should have left on the shelf. As a result of all this, when I'm feeling stouty in Belgium, I'll generally go for Guinness Special Export, since it has that lovely balance between treacle and roastiness that the others just can't seem to manage. It takes a lot to move me away from it.

It was the terribly cool socialist-realist label that made me pick up and bring home a fourth stout on my January trip to Belgium. Stouterik is brewed by De La Senne of Brussels at the De Ranke brewery (thanks for the correction, Stan), and at only 4.5% I should have known this was going to be different from the bigger ones. It's very pale for a start, pretty much a red-brown shade. There's a dry roast barley nose, and a gorgeous sulphurous gunpowder flavour fading to dryness, with just enough sparkle to keep it moving. We get a fleeting glimpse of something very sweet right at the end: violets or lavender or similar, but it vanishes quickly. All in all it's a wonderful stout experience and I could drink a whole heck of a lot of this. Shame it's in 33cl bottles.

My perception of Belgian stouts has been altered and I'm a lot more willing to give new ones a try. Recommendations always welcome.

26 March 2009

To the barricades!

Oliver Hughes was in campaign mode on Monday night, telling war stories of his time as a start-up brewer in Blessington in the 1980s and how difficult -- impossible, in fact, as it turned out -- it was to break into a beer market dominated by massive foreign-owned, brand-driven macrobreweries.

He noted that things have changed a bit since then, with Ireland now home to a number of small independent breweries, including his own Porterhouse. Yet even from his established position of owning the largest independent brewery in the country, with a tied estate of five pubs in two countries, Oliver sees that there is still a battle against blandness to be fought. And with the recession making itself felt in every sector of the economy it has never been more important to ensure that our beer money ends up in the hands of Irish brewers rather than the shareholders of British and Dutch multinational corporations.

To these ends, today marks the beginning of the Porterhouse's Independent Irish Beer & Whiskey Festival (a slight misnomer on the whiskey side since there is only one Irish-owned distillery in operation, and the Irish brands owned by Diageo and Pernod Ricard are also represented here -- booo!). Almost all of Ireland's craft brewers, from both sides of the border, will have a range of their beers available at Porterhouse outlets in some form or other over the next eleven days. Among them is the new one from Galway Hooker.

Galway Hooker Dark Wheat Beer is in something approaching the German dunkelweiss mould, though with a very Irish plain flattop, rather than a big fluffy Bavarian foam dome. Underneath it's an opaque dark brown and the aromas are definitely banana-esque, but not overwhelmingly so. Weizen fruitiness is not top of the flavour agenda. Instead there's a crisp spiciness -- more the kind of thing you might find in an altbier -- mellowed by a smooth caramel toffee sweetness. I had been sorely disappointed by the absence of this character in the last dunkelweiss I had, Paulaner's Hefe-Weissbier Dunkel, so I really welcomed it here.

There's a lot to like here, and much for the Erdinger/Paulaner drinker to enjoy. If it became a permanent part of their line-up and gets a fair crack at the market (never a guarantee) it should do very well. Another daring-yet-accessible beer from Aidan and Ronan at Hooker.

The Independent Irish Beer & Whiskey Festival continues at all Porterhouse branches until 5th April. Other highlights include Clotworthy Dobbin -- a kegged dark ale with an amazing hoppy nose followed by the usual fruit-and-nut chocolate flavours. There are also new editions of Franciscan Well's Purgatory (very orangey and English this year) and Porterhouse Chocolate Truffle Stout (darker, bitterer, stoutier than last year), plus yet another new cask for Ireland, albeit temporary, in the form of the decent, solid, Hilden Ale.

You'd want a really good excuse for continuing to drink Heineken and Diageo's vapid offerings.

23 March 2009

Hopping up to Dundrum

There was quite a turnout on Friday evening for the second beer tasting evening run by Deveney's off licence in Dundrum. Ruth did a great job keeping the punters' glasses filled, and in the correct sequence too.

The theme was Belgian, and there were a few in the line-up I'd never had. Vedett Extra White, for instance. Though I'm not a fan of Vedett lager, I thought this worked quite well, and had a hoppy bite you generally won't find in a witbier. It's a tasty alternative to Hoegaarden, even if not quite up to the standard of St Bernardus Wit in my estimation.

I was also quite impressed with Chapeau Kriek -- a wonderfully aromatic and easy-drinking cherry beer which put me in mind of Bellvue Kriek, an old favourite now gone from the Irish market. I can see myself getting a few of these in for al fresco drinking as the longer evenings arrive.

Find of the evening, however, was another of those oh-so-fashionable hoppy Belgian blondes: Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor. Unlike most of the others I've tried, this has a really crisp, green, fresh hop character sitting on a very typical blonde Belgian ale which is not a million miles from the likes of La Chouffe. Remarkably, the hops aren't crushed under the sharp bitterness of the Belgian yeast. Ruth had some LeFebvre Hopus -- another of this style -- lying around, a beer which I tried recently but hadn't yet got around to posting about. I was interested to try them side by side to see if the Hopsinjoor really is hoppier than the opposition.

Hopus gives off an innocent and sweet tropical fruit aroma: mangos, melons and the like. There's quite a bit of head, which settles stiffly after a few minutes. The fruity aroma is complemented by that sharp yeasty character once the lees are poured in. The bitterness in the flavour -- and there's a lot of it -- is probably half-and-half from the yeast and the hops. It's peppery and tangy, unlike the raw vegetal Hopsinjoor, and the 8.3% ABV gives it a very pleasant overall warmth.

The bottom line is, I guess, if you want your hopped-up blonde to taste of actual real hops, the Hopsinjoor is the one to go for. However, if you'd like them to contribute to a more complex overall fruitiness, then Hopus is your only man. As a person of simple tastes, I think I'd go for the former, but that's not to say Hopus isn't a great beer.

Thanks to Ruth for her hospitality again, and it was great meeting Lisa of What We Eat as well. I'm heartened by the interest in quality beer being shown by the upstanding citizens of Dundrum. Long may it continue.

And if you're in the area, don't forget to drop in to Deveney's to pick up a bottle or two of something interesting.

18 March 2009

Of lions and lambs

March, eh? You never seem to know what the weather is going to do next. One minute it's fresh sunny afternoons, the next it's hailstones and face-stripping gales. It makes a nonsense of any kind of seasonal drinking, which is why I had no problem buying both the summer and winter ales from Anchor at the same time, and drinking them back to back on what turned out to be quite a pleasant chilly-but-sunny mid-March afternoon.

I started with the Anchor Summer Beer, accompanied with a lunch of assorted ham, salami, cheese and smoked salmon on French bread. Overall, this isn't a very interesting beer at all. There's a good body, as might be expected from a wheat beer, but the flavour is rather dry and grainy. The salt in the meat absolutely destroyed it, though the creamy brie worked quite well. It's a beer for warmer, sunnier, less cognitive drinking.

To finish, I opened the bottle of Our Special Ale 2008, a beer I'd been looking forward to getting hold of for some time. The spices are interesting, for about five minutes. I do like spiced beers, but the spruce and fig flavours in here were just a bit two-dimensional. Worst of all, there's was something badly wrong with the base beer underneath: I detected a stale, cardboardy flavour which I'm sure shouldn't be there. On the plus side, the hopping is generous for this sort of beer, but the flaws -- whether deliberate or accidental -- spoiled my enjoyment of it somewhat. Still, the great thing about changing the recipe every year is that I'll still be queuing up to buy the 2009 edition if that ever appears here.

17 March 2009

Interlude

High Cross Monasterboice, photo by Tom Haymes on FlickrIt was a turf war: plain and simple. The independents had all been swallowed by the Big Three who were now each using the political influence they'd garnered along the way to try and crush the other two. The prize was total national dominance of the market, and a hefty slice of the action abroad where the product had been zealously pitched to a receptive customer base, building up a lucrative following among locals and ex-pats alike. The three sides had reached a stalemate, a state of perfect competition where no-one was able to out-manoeuvre the others in any practical way. All that was left was marketing. Three huge propaganda machines geared up and began staking their claims on monopoly.

We're in Ireland, by the way, and it's coming up on the year 700. Kildare is probably in the strongest position of the Big Three monasteries who control the church between them. It has a loyal following of smaller monasteries, a strategic position near the centre of the island and a clear pedigree going back to Brigid the first abbess. Their advertising copy was first out of the scriptorium: a Life of St Brigid which clearly stated that Kildare was Ireland's primary Church, the rightful mother-house of all the nation's religious institutions, with all the associated power, influence and revenue.

In terms of sheer political clout, however, Iona had primacy. Its worldly power was based on its founder St Columba: a clever aristocrat who, 150 years previously, could have ended up as one of Ireland's most important kings had he not entered religious life and established his monastery on the island. But its off-shore position was a weakness, and not even the well-placed daughter houses in Derry and Durrow could collectively wield the political influence it needed to overcome its rivals. The Iona marketing department's Life of St Columba had conscientiously downplayed the distance factor and put the case that this monastery and its founder had always attracted the loyalty of Ireland's secular powers, and should do so today as well.

And then there was Armagh. While long-established and built on a loyal power base beside Ulster's capital city, the monks of Armagh's Ministry of Truth had nothing. Nothing. They leafed aghast through the gratis copies of the founders' biographies sent gloatingly from Kildare and Iona. Though long dead, Brigid and Columba were still carving out a bigger piece of the pie for their monasteries, and Armagh needed to react. Fast. Except... no-one knew who the founder of Armagh was. There was no great legend told around the refectory fire of "St X of Armagh" being shown the site of the monastery by the angels; no story of how St X had converted the local pagan king to the Faith and been granted the lands, nay, the island, in perpetuity. The Irish kings would soon start believing the claims of Kildare and Iona that they had always been top dogs, and Armagh would be out of the race. Unless...

There was a shout from the bookstacks and one of the younger monks came rushing into the scriptorium with a slim volume. They were the writings of some long-forgotten missionary from Britain: mostly maudlin navel-gazing, sections plagiarised from St Paul, and more than a bit of borderline-racist commentary on the barbarous Irish he believed himself appointed to save. It was undated, it mentioned no recognisable placenames, and nothing about the founding of monasteries. To the propagandists, however, all that mattered was that it was old, and that its author, "Patricius", considered himself to be the first bringer of Christianity to Ireland. The scribes looked at each other across the table. It was a crazy idea, but it might just work...

In the flash of a quill, the Life of St Patrick was circulating alongside the rival biographies from the other monastic oligarchs. Of course, everyone already knew the history: the first Christian missionary to Ireland was Palladius, sent by Pope Celestine in 431. That was an established, unassailable fact. The new book out of Armagh didn't deny it, of course. But it said, for the first time, that Palladius wasn't up to the job and never actually reached Ireland, yes, and that Patrick, arriving just a year later in 432, was really the man single-handedly responsible for spreading the faith through Ireland. Bits of Patrick's own writings were interspersed to give a whiff of authenticity to the thing, but the main message had been cobbled together in Armagh just the previous week: Patrick was first; Patrick was best; and Patrick established his monastery in Armagh.

The politicians bought it. Hook, line and sinker. Soon tributes were pouring into Armagh and its daughter houses, and Kildare and Iona gave up the fight. Ireland had a single, central church for the first time -- headquartered in Armagh and based around the legends of its "patron saint" who was now, by extension, the patron saint of the whole island: St Patrick -- a man who had lived and died in utter obscurity during the last gasps of the Roman Empire, only to be figuratively disinterred over two centuries later to front a propaganda campaign for some power-hungry monks.

Cheers. Mine's an O'Hara's.

15 March 2009

When they met, it was Moeder

Last Sunday in Brussels was quiet. The city was buzzing -- with market stalls in Place d'Espagne and Grand Place, and the cafés all busy -- but Mrs Beer Nut and I were drifting about in a slightly fuzzy-headed world of our own. We had an early lunch in one of the upper corners of Grand Place, and I righted my head with carbonnade flamande and a Kwak -- the latter from a proper glass, I hasten to add. That fortified me for a trip to Bier Tempel to do some shopping, and then we drifted over to Le Cirio -- a gorgeous grand café beside the Bourse which, like A La Mort Subite, was one of those Brussels drinking landmarks we'd not visited since our first trip in 2002.

We settled in near the door for a bout of people-watching (and, it being a Belgian café, dog-watching too). Looking for something plain but wholesome on the menu I realised I was hankering after Guinness Special Export. It really is the perfect Sunday afternoon sipping beer. Séan had gone home on the morning flight, but Dave and Laura caught up with us briefly, then headed off on their merry way. Our own merry way involved some exploration, to an unfamiliar district of the city and one of the few legendary Brussels watering holes I'd never visited. After my second bottle of Guinness, we were off.

The pre-métro underground tram thingy brought us southwards, and a short walk from Horta through a rather well-heeled neighbourhood took us to Chez Moeder Lambic: Brussels' beer geek central. It was just gone 4 so the bar had opened recently and was inhabited by just a couple of regulars, plus a dog belonging to one of them who walked round, inspecting that the drinks being served were up to scratch.

It's a small bright corner bar, laid out in slightly rustic style with brick and wood, and a minimal scattering of breweriana -- notably only from quality Belgian breweries. Boxes of comics line the windowsills, and the menu itself is styled very much in the Belgian comic tradition. It's not one of those 400+ whoppers like Bier Circus or Delerium. Instead, everything seems to have been chosen by hand with only the smallest nod to the token beers required for economic purposes. I don't think they even had a pilsner available. Each item was assigned a comic-book icon indicating its status as from either "microbrasseries", "indépendants/familiales", "trappistes" or "grands industriels", and the beers were divided into style categories. My particular favourite was a category which contained just one item, one which I'm guessing the management aren't terribly happy about having to have, or else they stock it just to wind up the manufacturer:That's "Based on 1% lambic, filled up with totally chemical syrup". Mi-aow.

Also of note was the beer engine on the bar, serving Cantillon Gueuze. The draught menu listed Cantillon Faro, so I figured I would attempt to redeem my experience of the style following Friday's nasty experience. As far as I know, Cantillon don't actually make a faro, and this is mixed in-house. Blending in the sugar removes a lot of the sharp tart edge you get from the Gueuze but doesn't make the beer taste sugary as such. It's a different experience to drinking the beer neat, and works quite well I thought, for those of us who like sweet beer at least.

The two guys running the place really seemed to know what they were talking about. A group of Americans who came in after us engaged them in a conversation about brewing which resulted in a case of raw malts being produced for them to taste, followed by a tour of the cellar. Our perusal of the blackboard listing the current draught beers produced two recommendations. De Ranke's XX Bitter is a deliciously sharp golden ale absolutely crammed with grapefruity C-hops and raw vegetal flavours. Deliciously intense. From Jandrin there was V Cense, which Joe was enjoying simultaneously at the Zythos festival. This amber ale reminded me a lot of quality English bitter -- slightly tannic with a beautiful mandarin nose. Very tasty and extremely drinkable.

Time was beginning to press us at this stage, so our ones for the road were Witkap Pater Double -- a foamy brown abbey ale with a very interesting herby botanical character and a touch of cardamom, I think; and Guldenberg, another blonde ale "with the taste of every hop" according to the merchandising. It starts with a perfumey aroma and tastes quite spicy at first, giving way to a dry bitterness. Like so many of the Belgian hoppy beers around at the moment, it has used the hops to create a strong bitterness while avoiding any of the more fun fruity characteristics they can impart. The end result is quite an understated beer, but I didn't have time to sit around being disappointed. Having enjoyed adding Moeder Lambic to our personal map of Brussels, we headed back to the city centre.

We caught up with Dave and Laura at a Moroccan restaurant just off Boulevard Anspach. They were staying another day, so it was just us who shovelled our molten tagines into us like we hadn't eaten in days. The menu included a Moroccan lager called Casablanca. Classy stuff this -- every bit as good as you'd expect a lager from Morocco to be.

And then we were off again, to the airport where there was just time for a quick Leffe before the flight home.

And that was Brussels. We went to see Cantillon making beer, but got so much more out of the couple of days we spent there. Brussels really is one of those cities where the beer hunter will always find something new and interesting, if he or she can resist the draw of so many old favourites.

14 March 2009

Stepping out

Dave, Laura, Séan and I left Cantillon in the late afternoon and caught up with Mrs Beer Nut on Rue Tabora, just outside one of my very favourite Brussels boozers. I wrote about A La Bécasse after my last visit in 2007. It's well hidden up an alley with only the giant flashing red neon sign indicating that it exists. It was quite crowded when we got in, but we squeezed round a table and ordered Lambic Doux for four, which arrived in one of their trademark clay jugs.

I absolutely love this beer, and I think most of my drinking buddies did too. They noted a certain cidery quality to it which I'd never noticed but is definitely present. The drinkability is just astounding. With the jug drained we moved on.

We didn't move very far, mind: just up Rue du Marché aux Herbes to A L'Image de Notre Dame. I'm a big fan of this Brueghelesque two-room affair concealed up yet another alley. It has quite an extensive beer list for a central pub, and my first pinstick got me a Belgoo Magus. It's quite a light and spicy blonde ale. A touch of yeasty spiciness starts it off, moderated by some zesty oranges and lemons. The sort of classic easy-going beer that Leffe Blonde would give its eye-teeth to be.

Also around the table was a light and caramelly Pater Lieven and a strong and malty La Divine, but Séan was the one who really struck gold with his La Gauloise. I think it was more than just the name which suggested a smoky character, and this sits next to rich dark plumminess on a very full body.

Time to move on, and for some reason A La Mort Subite was chosen as our next stop. It had been many years since I visited the brown café that thinks it's a beerhall, and which is famed for its lousy service. The main room was packed so we scurried upstairs and found a table there. We didn't have to wait too long for service either, which was pleasantly surprising. Alken-Maes beers dominate here, and I decided to follow Boak & Bailey's recommendation of Ciney Brune. Quite complex, this clear red-brown ale. Mostly it's the sort of sweet and malty affair I was expecting, but there's a very interesting sour kick mixed in with the caramel. I liked it.

Mrs Beer Nut has a particular penchant for the restaurants of Rue Rollebeek so that's where we dined, passing over Séan's suggestion of In't Spinnekopke La Rose Blanche. We came back towards Grand Place after, finding Poechenellekelder full. The possibility of drinking beer from ceramic skulls at Le Cercueil had been something of a running joke through the evening. With a few beers on board this seemed a perfectly natural option. When we found that Le Cercueil -- where the light is ultraviolet, the tables are coffins and the soundtrack is rrrrock -- includes Orval among its skullable beers the joke just got funnier. Five skulls of Orval around the coffin. I'm not sure where I stand on Orval. I've found it tough going in the past, but supping it from a ceramic cranium without really thinking about it I really quite enjoyed it. Not too powerfully horsey but still loaded with character. Perhaps from-the-skull is the best way to enjoy it. Noted for future reference.

Fun and all that Le Cercueil was, it's damned expensive. So we moved on, back to Rue du Marché aux Herbes. This time we hit Au Bon Vieux Temps, probably my least favourite of the three pubs on the street. Still, it wasn't too crowded and the beer was good. Looking for a good Flemish red, I opted for Bourgogne des Flandres, mistaking it for Duchesse de Bourgogne. Oops. Anyway, it's still quite enjoyable, though a little unexciting. Needing more malt in my life, I moved to Westmalle Dubbel and stayed there for the rest of the night.

I don't do pub crawls very often. When the occasion does present itself, it's nice to do it properly. Just one more day of beering left in Brussels.

13 March 2009

The main event

Stupid Belgian railways. Our (mostly my, actually) dicking about with ticket machines and timetables meant it was heading for 7 by the time we reached Brussel Zuid. There was light in the sky over Place Bara as we crossed on our way to Cantillon, and the party was already in full swing inside, with M. Van Roy a one-man welcome committee at the door. After coffee and croissants, we had the unusual privilege of a real life tour guide taking us round the brewery. Mashing had just begun and the mechanical tun was turning over the grist being poked down from the grain mill above.

Back at the tasting room we got our morning glass of gueuze. I think I was the only one not bemused by the concept of drinking beer before 9am. I mean, it was a Saturday. As the other tours went through we staked a claim in the tasting bar to soak in the atmos. Lots of atmos in Cantillon, and here it had just started to smell of wort. As it began to pour from the mashtun we went for a taste. Porridgey, funnily enough. I'd never really noticed the wheat character of Cantillon beer, but here it was -- very pronounced, and slightly steaming.

The clock was heading for 10. Time for another beer. I fetched us a bottle of Iris, served from an unmarked bottle in a basket. Even the bar is old school at Cantillon. As the beer was sunk, so the eyelids began to droop, and most of the group decided that a nap was the best way to make the most of the rest of the day. Not me though. It was a gorgeous bright morning in Brussels and I went for a walk, up to Beer Circus to find out if it opened for lunch (it doesn't on Saturdays) then watched the world go by in Parc du Bruxelles before it was time to see what the sleeping beauties were up to.

We reconvened in Grand Place and lunched in one of the many shameless tourist traps fine dining establishments on Rue des Bouchers. Mrs Beer Nut decided she's seen enough brewing for one day so went off in search of chocolate while the rest of us schlepped back to Anderlecht. When we got there, the boil was done and the hot wort was being pumped into the shallow cool ship in the attic -- raw lambic as far as the eye could see (which wasn't very far, what with all the steam). Wafts of afternoon air were being blown over the tray, carrying the magic beasties which would, when the temperature had dropped sufficiently, begin working wonders on the liquid. Suitably awed, we decided it was time for a beer.

We took a position by the stove, watching the old barrel staves being thrown in as fuel and realising too too late that swiping one for homebrewing purposes would be a nifty idea. Oh well. David was buying this time out, and fetched us a bottle of Rosé de Gambrinus -- the raspberry lambic. Yet again, I just don't rate the fruity Cantillons above the plain gueuze. Still, the acidic tartness delivers a short sharp shock to the tastebuds, and then a fresh fruit-flavoured juiciness finishes the whole thing off. A good beer, no question, but not good enough to claim a place in my 20kg of beery baggage. Plain, wonderful, Cantillon gueuze made up (almost) the sum total of my purchases.

At 4.30, our day's work was done. Saturday night on the town in Brussels was beckoning.

12 March 2009

Belge-ward!

Mrs Beer Nut and I arrived in Brussels late last Friday evening. The rest of the group who had come from Dublin (Dave, Laura and Séan) were waiting for food in one of Petite Rue des Bouchers' slower establishments, but Séan said they'd catch up with us in "the puppet bar" in due course. So Toone it was -- one of my favourites among the pubs of Rue du Marché aux Herbes.

Everyone in the theatre-cum-pub was drinking Kwak when we went in. I noticed, for the first time, free-standing Kwak glasses. I really don't approve of that sort of thing. The ancient wall-mounted beer engine on which they hang their towels gave us something else to look at while we waited to catch the waitress's eye. I wonder when it last had any beer through it?

I was in lambic mode myself, since we were over to visit Cantillon the following day, and Dave had been asking me about peach lambics earlier in the week. Never having had it I opted for St Louis Pêche from the menu. It pretty much went where I expected it: very sweet, very peachy and extremely easy to drink. It didn't last long.

Herself, meanwhile, was drinking a Gouden Carolus ("Would you like to be in the picture with your beer? ... No that's not what I meant"). It's remarkably ungolden and gives off some strong weissbier-ish banana aromas from the big fluffy weissbier-ish head. The body is packed full of big, sweet, chewy toffee notes. Very nice.

By the time the others arrived in, I had moved on to Vieux Temps. Pretty nondescript, this dark amber ale. A nice malty weight to it; a hint of smoke on the flavour, but not a whole lot else.

Last beer of the night was a return to an old favourite. Or at least I thought it was. I have very fond memories of the Easter of 2004, sitting in a dim canalside café in Bruges, drinking Lindemans Faro -- a lambic sweetened with plain old sugar instead of fancy fruit juice. As an unabashed fan of sweet beers, it was right up my street and I think I had a couple that day. Five years later, it was time for another. And I was shocked. For a start, I've no memory of it being brown, but it is. Also, my memory of that afternoon does not include the burning taste of sick, but this beer does. The sugar is there, and so is the sour lambic, but the two just do not sit well together at all one little bit. But the glass is nice. I like the glass.

On that slightly bum note we all turned in for the evening. We had a date the following morning down in Anderlecht to witness the birth of new lambic. Procedures were scheduled to commence at 6.30am, and we all tried very hard not to think about the fact that this meant 5.30 Irish time.

10 March 2009

Loved lager: The Session round-up

Session logoThanks to everyone who got down and clean-tasting for my lager-themed Session last weekend. 49 participants is a very respectable showing and I think between us we really covered the topic -- one which I hoped was usefully broad, even if some of you disagreed.

I've spent the last two evenings going through the posts and have thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I couldn't help but start categorising them into those who gave me the mass-market beers I wanted, and those who just couldn't bring themselves to do it. So, without it being any measure of the quality of the posts themselves, I give you the Fails and Wins of Session 25:

The Fails
First fail, of course, was me. Some microbrewed lager and then a rare specialty? I really didn't represent my home country's crap lager very well, though neither did any of my fellow countrymen and countrywoman for that matter, as we'll see below.

Thom at Black Cat, for instance, tries to hide his fail behind science, picking an African import, and rather liking it. Hop Talk's Al also went for an import because he happened to be mostly drinking Samuel Smith's last week and far be it from me to change that.

Ray of The Barley Blog reckons he's found the "the perfect beer for this month's Session, both in terms of style and relevance." It's an ale. That word again: Ale. Maybe I didn't make the theme clear enough in the title. At Musings Over A Pint, David tells us there's enough good lager out there for us not to be concerned at the reputation of the mass market stuff, but gives us nothing on whether that reputation is deserved or not.

Paul of A Flowery Song is among the conscientious failers: denying that his beery exploits began with pale lager, and refusing to go mass-market just this once. His Frugal Joe's Ordinary Beer is just a bit too knowingly cheap to count, I think: classless beers are only fun when they're trying to be something they plainly aren't.

Mario would like us to believe that he had to make do with a Lagunitas Pils, because every other beer he saw for sale was a powerful and/or hoppy ale. Maybe that is what "Sonoma Joe Six-Pack" goes for when he wants a lager, but by the sounds of it he doesn't have much time for the style at all. Up in Portland, Bill has similar trouble and opts for a retro-styled local craft lager. A World of Brews also goes craft on me -- Coney Island Lager -- but does put in a good word for Pabst Blue Ribbon when out with the Hash House Harriers. Rob of Pfiff! is another claiming the California Defence -- no crap beer to be found -- and refuses to go out and play with the other kids. Top marks for title punnage though.

Edmond of MMMM....Beer gives us Legends, a Virginian micro-lager up with the best Germany has to offer and therefore a total fail. At I'll Have a Beer, Couchand tells us that Millstream's Iowan pilsner is leaning more towards Bavarian than Czech influences this year. Well fancy! Fail. At least Tom has an excuse for his microbrewed Stoudts Pils: he works for the distributor. Cha-ching!

I sympathise with, and apologise for, the crisis I induced in Damien when he just couldn't bring himself to buy a full six-pack of crap as his beer shop didn't do singles, and opted for something more interesting instead. Similarly, my attempt to lay the smack down on Ted of Barley Vine failed as he avoided the beer equivalent of Kraft Singles and steered a middle course for something decent, local, but generally avoided by serious beer-drinkers for no good reason he can see.

Beer-O-Vision's Dan manages to avoid telling us much about drinking beer, with no mention of any actual brand of lager, but then he was judging a homebrew competition.

I missed talking to Thirsty Pilgrim Joe at the Cantillon open brew day on Saturday, and I also totally forgot to pick up a bottle of the Slaapmutske Dry-Hopped lager while I was in Belgium, even though I meant to. But Joe skips past Jupiler to get to this, so it's a fail, I'm afraid.


The Wins
Velky Al and Adeptus, living in the Czech Republic and Germany respectively had fishes in barrels for this one. Al gives us a run down of the Czech Republic's legendary lagers, and why they should be stripped of their status (corn syrup!), then shows us where to look for the good stuff. Adeptus really went above and beyond with the theme this time round, staging a blind tasting of five common German lagers for his pilsener-loving workmates. It looks like Jever isn't the German classic it's often made out to be.

From the Acceptable Uses For Bland Lager file, we have Steph's game of frisbeer and Jimmy's moving-day philanthropy. Leigh goes for the sun holiday -- several, in fact -- but comes back home to big up Yorkshire's Moravka lager as still enjoyable even in the heart of Real Ale country. Brad, meanwhile, goes far beyond the lawnmower to list a variety of mileux where crap lager is acceptable, nay, desireable. The Cellarman gives us some alternative uses for mass-market lager other than drinking the wretched stuff, and his suggestion of slug-bait gives me an excuse to post this wonderful practical experiment.

Boak and Bailey creep in under the wire with a review of Skinner's Cornish Lager. Yes it's an independent English brewery trying to ape a Mexican giant, but it seems to be getting ubiquitous enough, they say, to count for the Session. It's certainly bland enough.

We welcome Beer Sagas from Norway to the Session and he can find no greater pleasure after a long flight than a plastic cup of Heineken. Too right. Extra points for being the only participant to mention the world's favourite lager.

On Beertaster.ca, Devoid gives us two down-home world-famous Canadian beers, and notes the universal truth of industrial lager: they all taste the same. Alan also stays local with some Keith's and associated memories in the hope that it'll make me happy. It did, Alan. It did.

Beer Sage keeps it short and sweet on My Beer Pix, summing it all up with a picture of some recently-pounded cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon in a sunny back yard. That'll do. The multimedia PBR carnival continues at Geek Beer's podcast about it and a couple of other American macros -- the first Session podcast there's been, I think.

Wilson of Brewvana has never had Schlitz before, and believes he may have found himself a new lawnmower beer. So we achieved something on Friday.

Mark at Pencil & Spoon gives us the full lager-based biography from helping Dad with the lawn, through teenage rebellion, to the background noise of any beer drinker's life. Conversely, Todd at Krausen Rising was denied the proper lager education most of us receive in our youth but does manage to recall a brief encounter, later in life, with some Hamm's. He gives us at least 60 degrees of the macrolager flavourwheel: "swamp water, despair, trailers, warehouse shows, barbecues where things go horribly wrong and end up with helicopters circling the house". Beautiful.

At Red, White and Brew, Brian says he hasn't touched the bad stuff since his student days, but avoids failing by whipping out Colin, the trusty lagerhead he keeps on his spare bed. Every home should have one.

Buttle struggles a bit with the notion that "fancy-pants imported beer" is a relative term depending on where you happen to be. He opts for Genesee Bock anyway and as it's a local mass-market affair I'm happy to let it pass.

Even though I'm sending Jon of The Brew Site back over old ground, and even though he lives in Oregon, he still takes the time to tell us about Pabst Blue Ribbon and Coors Original and defend their existence. Wonderful dedication to the daft topic. D M goes one further and heads undercover to a dive bar to seek a kind of full immersion in macrolager culture. Captain Hops has his own personal macrolager culture, an active outdoorsy one he expresses, of course, as Beer Haiku.

Jay Brooks straddles the Win/Fail border with Reading Premium. Certainly there's no arguing with his account of it as the cheap and available beer of his youth, but when he veers into the recently re-introduced micro-version "updated to modern sensibilities" there's a danger we may be talking about something special, and therefore verboten for this Session. I'll let it pass, however. Similarly, Laura tells us about an ordinary everyday lager on Aran Brew. It just happens that it's the ordinary everyday lager in Jamaica rather than Ireland -- a win on a technicality, that one. Stan does the same for Germany. Mmmph.

The Reluctant Scooper succumbs to the inevitable Underworld reference, begins with a run-down of own-brand UK supermarket lager (including the joy of polyvinylpolypyrrolidone) but gradually becomes a soapbox piece on the importance of crap lager in the life of the conscientious beer drinker. I think I struck a chord with this one.

It's certainly a factor for the distracted Lew of Seen Through A Glass: Narragansett offers something to drink when you just don't want to have to pay attention, whereas Tomme Arthur prefers a Mickey's Malt Liquor in similar circumstances -- something that started as an April Fool's joke but stayed with him. Generik, meanwhile, finds macrolager just the ticket once palate-fatigue creeps in after a night on the tasty stuff.

From Peter at BetterBeerBlog we get a deeply personal story of love, loss and light lager. Ally also reminisces, over on Impy Malting, and continues her education in British culture by learning a new (lager-related) word: ladette.

In California, Craig of the Beers, Beers, Beers team reports on the erratic Truman pils, brewed in Berkeley by an Austrian brewery. Quite poorly, as it happens. Chris at Pint Log, finally, gives us some superb thoroughness, right down to the essential brown paper bags -- a great first Session post.


And that's your lot. Thanks everyone for participating. If your link got lost in the flabby folds of my inbox, or I've linked you up wrongly, or misspelled your chosen ersatz pilsner, drop me a line. On April 3rd we're doing something called rauchbier (?), courtesy of some yank called Bryson (?)

But before I go, another lager and some good news. Local readers may remember the late great Dublin Brewing Company of Smithfield which went out of business back in 2004, just as the progressive beer duty law kicked in. Well, it looks like they're getting back in the game: same logo, same font, but Big Hand Brewery is the new name. No beers of their own yet, but they've started by importing three from Van Steenberge in Belgium. One, of course, is a lager -- an unpasteurised pils called Sparta. I sampled it in Sin É on Ormond Quay last week. It's rather different from the beers I covered in my own Session post, being much sharper with an uncompromising but tasty bitter bite. The first own-brand product out of Big Hand will be a revival of DBC's Wicked Cider. Can we expect it to be followed by D'Arcy's, Beckett's, Maeve's and Revolution? Here's hoping.

Between these new imports, my recent weekend in Brussels, and current shape of my stash, I've a feeling things are going to be fairly Belgian around here for the next while. Oh well...

06 March 2009

Love lager

Session logoWhen it comes to beer, Ireland is pretty much synonymous with stout. As far as I can tell, this is largely down to Diageo's marketing power rather than what anybody actually drinks. The latest figures , from 2006 (p.12 here), say that 63% of all the beer sold in Ireland is lager (stout is most of the rest, with ale a mere 5%). The typical Irish pub certainly offers a dizzying array of locally brewed lagers. You'll find Bud, Carlsberg, Heineken, Miller and Coors Light side-by-side on almost every bar. More upmarket places will also have draught imports like Stella Artois and Beck's Vier, and bottles of Sol, Corona and Tiger as well, while pubs serving a less affluent clientele will have local Amstel and Fosters bringing up the rear.

When Ireland's first lager brewery closed up shop in the summer of 1893 after a meagre 19 months in business, I'm sure Mr Stoer who owned it never dreamed that the daring new style he found in Bavaria and the US would one day rule supreme in Irish beer. Yet when the latter-day beer pioneers Oliver and Liam set up The Porter House in the 1990s, it was inevitable that lager would be a key component in their success. The first brews were called Probably Lager and WeiserBuddy, each with its own distinct and individual branding.

Of course, the multinational which holds the licence to brew Carlsberg and Bud in Ireland threw a fit, and the beers were hastily renamed. I've already covered the Porterhouse's Bud clone back here and today I'm looking at the other two lagers they make and sell: Temple Bräu and Hersbrucker. And yes, I'm well aware that by writing about fancy-pants microbrewed beer I'm breaking my own Session rule on plain everyday lager. Sue me.

I got my first sip of Temple Bräu in just before the rain started and we had to leave the beer garden of Porterhouse North. I hadn't tasted it in a long long time so had basically no expectations, other than what you see here: a fizzy yellow lager aimed at the mass market. I was still surprised, however. It's nice. The body is quite full and comes close to the creaminess you get in the best German pilsners. The aroma indicates a definite hop character and it tastes pleasantly bitter with a long aftertaste. All is not completely rosy in the beer garden, however: there's a bit of a metallic tang as well, right in the middle of the whole thing, though not enough to spoil the enjoyment. Despite its flaw, Temple Bräu remain a tasty quaffer for sunny afternoons.

Inside, I moved on to Hersbrucker. Once upon a time, this was Mrs Beer Nut's regular tipple but she quit a couple of years ago, citing an unpleasant change in the beer. I had never been a fan so was very much on the alert as I took my pint back to the table. Rightly so, as it happened. Hersbrucker, slightly darker than Temple Bräu, is damn near undrinkable. The only thing that saves it is its watery hollowness. The flavour starts with nothing but is followed by a massive disinfectant flavour: pure essence of hospital. Sharp, tangy and unpleasant. I did, in its defence, finish the pint, but I couldn't help thinking that I might have been better off with a pint of Carlsberg, sadly.

I was going to leave this post here, but the guilt about drinking microbrewed lager got the better of me. I had to go back to my roots.

It's very hard to find a pint of Harp in Dublin. It was still relatively common in the mid-1990s but pretty much disappeared soon after. Diageo brew it in Dundalk and just about all of it heads north across the border. Fortunately (or not), there are a couple of hold-outs around town, one being O'Neill's of Suffolk Street, a vast pub that seems possessed of the desire to stock every draught beer that exists anywhere on the Irish market. They have a Harp tap. Since it's the beer I drank most when I started drinking beer, I felt I owed you all a pint.

And it's not awful. I was astounded at how unawful it is. It's not in the least watery and has quite a sweet foretaste with a bit, but not much, of a bitter kick at the end. To be completely frank I doubt I could tell this blind from your typical pale Czech lager. In fairness that's probably more a damning indictment of what the multinationals have done to the established lagers of Prague and Plzeň than any kind of kudos for Diageo, but still: I could actually drink Harp without complaining. That's an eye-opener for me.

And that's all I've got to say on the yellow fizz of Ireland. Post your linkages somewhere on here, or e-mail me or whatever. A round-up will be forthcoming some time in the next week. In the meantime, I'm off to Belgium for the weekend where I won't be so much as tempted by a Jupiler. I'll likely be Twittering my way through Cantillon's public brewday tomorrow, but unfortunately won't be able to read your jealous howls until I return.

04 March 2009

A nice glass of merlot

I'm heading back to Cantillon this weekend for their public brew day. On my last visit I picked up a couple of beers to take home, one of which was chosen on pure novelty: the grape lambic Saint Lamvinus. Even though the label recommended not opening until the year after purchase, I needed to know whether I had to buy lots more next month, or save my bag space for something else.

Adding fruit to lambic is not a new or exciting thing. Cherries and raspberries are probably the most common, though blueberries and peaches aren't unknown. But this was the first time I'd seen someone decide that grapes -- merlot, to be precise -- could go in instead. An alcoholic beverage made from grapes? That's the kind of radical thinking that always interests me.

It pours a light bright hazy red, sparkly with a girly pink head on the top. I had been hoping for big juicy grapey fruitiness, but this is Cantillon, so what I got was dryyyy. It's sharp and acidic very much in the same way the standard Cantillon Gueuze is. As a result the fruit comes through more as tart redcurrants or raspberries than juicy grapes. However, it's still relatively mild. I've tasted many a beer far more vinous than this. I suppose that shows that grapes are just another fruit -- as suited to making booze as any other.

I don't think I can justify paying the extra €2 or so that Saint Lamvinus costs over Cantillon Gueuze. Perhaps after the recommended year's maturation it'd round out nicely, but I still dunno that I'd bother. I can't see it getting any sweeter, that's for sure.

The other one I'm auditioning is Grand Cru Bruocsella their 3-year-aged (that's right: barrels are in) lambic . They describe this as "a cereal-based wine", even though it's a mere 5% ABV. My usual question for non-fruity Cantillons: how is it different from my beloved standard Cantillon Gueuze? Well, it's sourer. Remember the shock of your first ever sip of Cantillon? It's like that again. The nose is nearly pungent, with even more of a damp moldy funk than usual, and the taste just pierces the sides of your jaw quite disconcertingly. The texture is almost totally flat. I've no doubt that this is an acquired taste, but I think the extra sourness just tips it over into imbalance. I'll stick to the regular, thanks.

And finally just a quick reminder that The Session: Love Lager kicks off on Friday. Go out and have some yellow fizz in my honour. I'll be in Brussels drinking something better.

02 March 2009

Some dateless moose

It probably says a lot about me that the best summers of my young adulthood are forever bound in my memory to a particular off licence beer promotion. The one spent dossing about Belfast (there was no work to be had, honest) was all about the dirt-cheap Michelob Golden Draught on sale at the tiny offy just off Botanic Avenue (we had to clear our fridge of its extraneous contents, like food, and shelves). I left college several years later and took up my first proper job the following June. Having rented what seemed like a massive one-bedroom apartment in Harold's Cross, I discovered that the Londis opposite the park was doing six-packs of Moosehead Lager for a fiver. It seems now as if every evening involved climbing the hill up to the shop, filling my German army surplus rucksack with Moosehead and striding jauntily homeward with the sun on my back. It was probably only most evenings, however.

Moosehead Lager has been a regular fixture on the Irish beer market ever since, though the price has gone up quite a bit -- it being an early victim of the Great Euro Changeover Gouge, in which the licensed trade indulged shamelessly. And of course my interest in lager isn't what it was back when we had warm summers, so I have not felt the need to indulge in any Moose-related nostalgia.

And then, just a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a red-label Moosehead Pale Ale on the shelves in DrinkStore. Like much of the stock there it was covered in dust so I searched the bottle for a best-before date. There was none. I asked the proprietor who assured me it had just come in, but went to fetch the box. No date on that either. I'm not a stickler for dates -- no Irish ticker can afford to be -- but it does make a difference with pale light beers: that stale mustiness you get is really not nice.

I decided to take a chance anyway. Fortunately, through the miracle of Twitter, the brewery found me and taught me how to decode the encrypted born-on date on the bottle (the first letter is the month, the next two the day, and then the year followed by 52, so my G03852 means my beer was made on 3rd July last year -- should still be fresh enough).

On pouring, I discovered an incredibly pale beer, pretty much pilsner-coloured. No aroma to speak of, but there's a bit of body to it. Unfortunately, once the taste kicks in, this body gives the impression of being sugar-derived. Not that it's especially sweet, but there's no hop character at all -- there's really nothing to the flavour except that minor sugariness. Perhaps ice cold it might be enjoyable, but the carbonation would likely be all wrong without the refreshing lager fizz. I retain my fond memory of Moosehead Lager, but I won't be buying the pale ale again.

While I was at it, I opened another pale ale from eastern North America. Genesee Cream Ale is another super-pale ale which doesn't really resemble ale at all. There's no head on this one, despite unpleasantly large amounts of fizz. The body is bad-lager-thin and there's a vague dry, sour, burnt corn kind of flavour, a bit like nasty English keg ale -- Worthington's in particular -- only with fizz instead of nitro. Not pleasant, even though I was having it cold. "Cream" and "ale" are two words I really wouldn't associate with this travesty.

So, there you go: proof that ale -- lager's sophisticated cousin -- can be just as deserving of lager's reputation for bland rubbishiness. Remember that this Friday is lager time on The Session, and you lot can tell me whether your own local yellow fizz matches the quality of these ales.