29 June 2009

Flemish paradox

It's one of those legends of the beer world that, up until recently, had never crossed my path. I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Liefmans Goudenband: lots and lots of people have told me it was brilliant, but no-one ever said why.

Here, for the record, is why it's brilliant:

The sour notes start early, hitting the nose as soon as the cork is disgorged, with only a slight pop. There's not a whole lot by way of fizz or head, and the body is a brackish red-brown. The first sip reveals that yes, it's definitely a Flemish sour ale, with Rodenbach being the most obvious comparator. We're talking tart summer berries balanced against mellow vanilla and caramel. But there's more. I'm guessing it's the added sugar that makes it bigger and meatier in the taste department. It's certainly stronger, at 8% ABV, but that extra alcohol hasn't made it boozy or heavy or sticky -- it's dangerously drinkable, in fact -- rather it seems to have added an extra dimension to the slightly woody sour Flemish flavour: ripe cherries, soft sticky toffee, that sort of thing. Decadent luxury, yet with buckets of zing.

A sparkly refresher at tramp-juice strength? It would appear so.

25 June 2009

Bock shock

Few terms have an effect on me like "bock". It conjures up instant images of thick, sugary, dark-gold lagers which become nigh-on impossible to drink after the third sip. Conversely, however, Mrs Beer Nut is quite fond of her bock, so if I see one when I'm out and about, I'll generally get it for her. (We have a similar arrangment with pinot noir: nectar to her; mouldy wool overcoats to me.)

And so last week I was stocking up in DrinkStore and an offer of Anchor Bock was made. Not for me, I said, but I'll get it for the wife. When she opened it some days later I was very surprised to see the beer which poured forth was a tarry shade of pitch black. That's promising, I thought.

There's no nose to speak of, straight from the fridge, but the taste is a bit of a rollercoaster. It starts with intensely sweet burnt caramel which somehow manages to coat the tongue, despite the beer itself being relatively thin. After a moment this shades into a strange and heady medicinal iodine flavour, and then this finally stretches itself out into a really quite nasty long metallic buzz.

It's complex, and highly interesting, but I didn't like it. Then again, I wasn't expecting to. The main thing is the missus enjoyed it: the one and only thing I ask of any of the world's bocks.

22 June 2009

A curate's egg

I don't remember why I thought to buy a bottle of Innis & Gunn Triple Matured last October. As I recall it was relatively expensive at £3 for 33cl, and I didn't particularly like the original Innis & Gunn. Plus I'm always a bit stand-offish about contract-brewed beers which don't state clearly where they're made. Anyway, I came home from Newry with it and it's been sitting about the house ever since. Time to bite the oaken bullet.

The colour is a rather attractive dark red gold, and the nose is enticing, packed as it is with sweet, rich woody notes. The fun doesn't last long, however. Even from the first sip the sweet-sour oakiness is just too much -- filling the palate with nasty cloying flavours, with none of the subtle fruit or toffee promised on the box. There's some pleasant warmth from the high alcohol, but also a bit of a nasty stale cardboard buzz as well. And then it just stops: after swallowing there is no virtually no aftertaste. I'm amazed that such a whoppingly overflavoured ale, possessed of 7.2% ABV, is completely legless.

It's certainly a complex beer, but only a small proportion of its many elements are any way positive. Perhaps I would have been better off with some of what Lars had.

18 June 2009

Beer in the park

I've been going to Taste of Dublin for the last three years. It's an annual highlight on my calendar and generally involves a large group of friends and some superb food. I don't think it's just my perception that the event has been getting beerier -- appropriate, perhaps, given that the venue was once the Guinness family's back garden. As with previous years, many of the country's big importers were there, but there were some interesting new additions. The Porterhouse were sporting their new design livery, plus a bigger range of beers than before: I was very happy to be able to get a pint of the marvellous Wrassler's XXXX. They also had some very cool looking mocked-up bottles on display, a hint that we may not have to wait much longer for bottled Porterhouse beers? None of the other Irish micros had a presence, though I did meet Kay and Seamus O'Hara from Carlow Brewing, there in an unofficial capacity.

The biggest beercentric event was the Beer Naturally Academy, organised by the macrobreweries' campaign to promote beer and food matching. They had flown in beer guru Marc Stroobandt to run the half-hour seminars, and he did a pretty good job of it, especially considering the tasteless materials he had been given to work with: Carlsberg, Heineken, Paulaner, Smithwick's and Guinness, matched with cheddar, chili prawn, smoked sausage, cheese tartlet and Belgian chocolate tart, respectively. Thom gives a full run-down of the gig here. It's easy to be cynical at this sort of thing, but there's a lot to be said for driving home the message of beer and food, and the emphasis on cheese and chocolate was particularly welcome. Stroobandt knows his stuff and is well able to deliver it in an entertaining way.

I missed getting to taste the Mexican chili lager one of the stalls was enthusiastically pimping, but I'm sure I'll get round to it eventually. It looks horrible. Instead, I hot-footed it from the Jaipur stall to California Wine Imports and announced "I have curry; give me beer!" Jonathan presented me with one of his newer arrivals: Black Diamond Amber Ale. "British Inspired" it says on the label, which explains why it's not as incredibly citric as the likes of Speakeasy Prohibition, say. What the English hops lend it is a gentle, tannic, very slightly metallic bitterness, sitting on a beer that's very much malt-driven: smooth, big-bodied and well-balanced. Jonathan also gifted me a jar of Sierra Nevada Stout Mustard, something else he's bringing into Ireland. I look forward to trying that -- it sounds brilliant. He also raised the possibility of adding the Stone beers to his range. That would be nice. Very nice.

And that was Taste for another year. Thanks to Jim and Liam from the Porterhouse, Dan from Beer Naturally, and the California Wine Imports team for their generosity. The variety of beers available was truly heartwarming, and here's hoping for even more beer goodness next time round. Perhaps another Irish micro might want to take a stall?

15 June 2009

Reserve judgement

Ruth Deveney tells the story of how she got hold of a case of Knappstein Reserve Lager, from Australia's Clare Valley, over on her own blog. It's an odd fish in many ways: for a start, the winery/brewery where it's brewed works by hand with small batches, despite being owned by multinational drinks giant Lion Nathan, makers of such luminaries as Castlemaine XXXX and Tooheys. But possibly the weirdest thing about this beer is the title and description: it claims to be a Bavarian-style lager -- and Ruth even claims to know someone who's had beer like this in small-town Bavaria -- but it's far away from anything I've ever tasted from Germany.

Light, delicate fruit flavours are at the centre, the sort of melon and passionfruit you'd associate with a Gewürztraminer, or even Tokaji. The texture is reminiscent of a dessert wine: heavy and almost sticky, but the light sparkle removes any possibility of it becoming difficult to drink. This all makes it very hard to believe that it's a mere 5.6% ABV -- it could easily pass for 8 in my estimation. Magnificent post-prandial summer sipping.

The roster of other beers (all English) for tasting last Thursday is here, and there were a few of my current favourites in there. I discovered a new joy of Meantime London Stout, finding it much fuller and tastier than the first time I tried it. The only new one for me was Sharp's Single Brew Reserve 2008 -- of the recently-arrived Sharp's bottled beers, only this is not presented in clear glass.

I don't think I've met a Sharp's beer I've liked -- Doom Bar I found acceptable but rather dull; Chalky's Bite is much too lacking in flavour for a Belgian-style ale. Single Brew Reserve starts promising, if odd, with a nose full of weiss-y bananas and some very girly peaches and flowers, all from a serious looking dark amber body. But there's really not much beyond this: the beer is very light on taste, with only a hint of that fruitiness and maybe a touch of caramel. Another understated mediocrity from Sharp's, I'm afraid.

Needless to say, it was a couple of bottles of the Knappstein I walked off with at the end of the session. There's just the one case, so if you're interested I recommend high-tailing it to Dundrum forthwith.

11 June 2009


Do I really have to add my own howls of derision to everyone else's comments on Estrella Damm Inedit? I think the world could do without yet another blogger pointing out that the marketing of a beer designed specifically as an accompaniment to fine dining should be received the same way as a hypothetical winery announcing that, at last, they have created a wine that goes with food. The guff surrounding Inedit is the point where ignorant snobbery meets cynical niche marketing, and the less this sort of thing is encouraged the better.

So, ranting aside, what's the beer like? I shared a bottle with Adeptus on his recent visit to Ireland (thanks to him for the photo). It presents as a cloudy yellow witbier, and the tag promises all the usual witbier things -- coriander, orange peel -- plus some extra bonus liquorice. The latter does add an interesting kind of herby flavour, but it adds it to something that is otherwise a really really dull, thin Belgian-style wit. More than any of the interesting ingredients, it's the suspended yeast which stands out as the most notable element in the flavour profile, making the whole experience amount to little more than yeast-infused fizzy water with slight herbal overtones. Maybe the methods of production are supremely artisan and the pinnacle of the gastrozymurgist's art, but it still comes out like diluted Hoegaarden at the end.

If you're serious about choosing beer to go with your food, you could do a lot worse than pick up a book along the lines of The Brewmaster's Table by Garrett Oliver, or take a look at some of the many excellent blogs that deal with the subject in an entertaining and mouth-watering way. And if you're running a restaurant and are interested in high-quality beer to go with your food (and you should be), then start with a case each of Duvel and Westmalle Dubbel -- both available in diner-friendly 75cl bottles -- and perhaps some Brooklyn Lager or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for the spicier dishes. Or, if the wheaty stylings of Inedit appeal, there's always Hoegaarden.

Beer and food: yes. Special food-beer, as I keep saying: no.

08 June 2009

Battle of the blondes

Belgian behemoth A-B InBev seems to be making great inroads into the Irish market with Leffe Blonde. Both the bottled version and the draught have been showing up in places where one would not necessarily expect to find imported specialty ales, and have been gaining plaudits from drinkers who wouldn't normally touch non-lager with a stick. Obviously this medium-heavy pale sweet style has something going for it.

Inevitably, then, the discount retailers would like a piece of that niche action, and Abbaye du Park Blonde at Aldi was their Leffe-killer in stores last month. At 5.6% ABV it is a token amount stronger (by which, obviously, I mean lighter -- see comments) than InBev's blonde, and knocked some €2 off the price of a large bottle. But is it any good?

Short answer: yes, for the money. It pours a very dark shade of orange with a light effervescent texture. The flavour isn't particularly exciting: a touch of honey, some sherbet perhaps, but quite hollow beyond that. It's not going to set the world on fire, but if you need a quaffable and inoffensive easy drinking blonde ale, then there's no better use for €4.

And that's why I feel a bit guilty about writing about it several weeks after it appears to have vanished from Aldi's shelves. Keep an eye out for its return.

05 June 2009

11,894 miles

Session logoI do love the Google Maps street view thingy. For this month's Session we've been asked to talk about a beer from the furthest brewery we've ever been to -- a topic hand-picked for a checklist beer tourist like me -- and Google Maps lets me wander up and down Rattray Street in Dunedin, home of the Speight's Brewery which I visited back in 2006 and is the most distant one I've been to. Look: you can even see the free water fountain to the left of the front door which the brewery provides for the townsfolk.

It's just a shame that the beers made by Speight's (a division of all-conquering antipodean drinks giant Lion Nathan) are mostly not very good. I really enjoyed a couple of them though -- the Old Dark and Chocolate Ale -- but all you ever see here is the flagship Gold Medal Ale.

New Zealand must be one of very few countries in the world -- alongside Ireland and the UK -- where the default beer style isn't lager. Instead it's a bland, light red ale generally called "Draught". Like Irish reds, I assume that there is a full flavoured English pale ale somewhere in its ancestry, but big brewing interests have shaped the national taste to their own nefarious ends, and New Zealand Draught is the cold, dull result.

It took a fair bit of effort to track down a bottle in Dublin, but the redoubtable Deveney's in Dundrum was able to meet my needs. Mind you, since this is brewed in factories in Christchurch and Auckland as well as the headquarters down in Dunedin, I can be fairly sure that the particular bottle I had did not actually come from the brewery I visited. I hope that doesn't put me outside the Session rules.

My abiding memory of the beer, as recorded after first meeting it, was that it tasted like Carlsberg. Now, nearly three years later, I think it's actually worse. It's very watery and slightly musty, despite being several weeks inside its best-before. There's a trace of a caramel malt sweetness somewhere at the back, but it's gone in an instant. It may be an ale on a technicality, but this is far closer to generic world lager than the ale it probably once was.

For me, however, the pleasure of travel is far more in the anticipation than the memories. I've drank beer on all but one of Earth's inhabited continents; only South America has eluded me so far. To get a little bit of a vicarious thrill from a far-away brewery, I picked up two beers from a Brazil's Cervejarias Kaiser. First up is Palma Louca, their pale lager. Not much by way of a head on this one and the fizz is fine and balanced. I thought I detected a whiff of vinegar from it on pouring, but I may have imagined it as it is fairly odourless and as light in the taste department as it is in colour (very). But I have to say I quite liked it. It could easily have been an overly fizzy, sugar-laden monstrosity, or a watery concoction that barely resembles beer, but despite some scary E-numbered adjuncts, this is an easily quaffable no nonsense hot-country lager. If it's left to get warm, a hint of green apples appears, but letting it get warm is really not what this beer is about. It was slightly out of date so I paid €1 for it in DrinkStore and, drinking it on a stiflingly hot evening earlier this week, I couldn't help but feel I got my money's worth.

Xingu is the name of the brewery's black lager, also €1, but I don't think I did as well here. It looks attractive enough, with its tan head and dense brown body, and I think there's a pleasant, mild-like light coffee roastedness hidden in there somewhere. But for the most part it's as tasteless as the lager, and the little bit of flavour that does come through has a rather unpleasant brown sugar stickiness to it. Again it's far too bland to be actually considered bad, but it leaves you searching for the taste, and when you find it you feel you wasted the effort.

Like most of the world, I expect South America to be a mixed bag, beerwise. And isn't that half the joy of intercontinental beer travel? I wouldn't have it any other way.

03 June 2009

Stitch this

The recent spell of hot weather meant that my attic ceased to function as the wonderful cellar it has hitherto been in the seven short months of its existence. So I'm doing a bit of a determined clear-out at the moment, which recently featured two dark American beers I found sweating at the back.

Brooklyn Brown Ale claims to be richer than its English forbears, but at only 5.6% ABV, you have to wonder how it would compare to some of the extinct styles Ron has told us about. Given that Napoleonic-era English breweries were turning out aged brown beers of not dissimilar strength, where could this richness have come from? The underlying flavours of Brooklyn Brown are dry, with roasted coffee notes and sweet hints, shading to metallic at the end. Not what I'd call rich.

It also claims higher levels of hoppiness compared to its antecedents, and that's hard to argue with. The citric bitterness jumps right out at the front in a way very like Brooklyn Lager. In fact, at first sip it's nearly hard to tell one from the other. Only the colour, the minor secondary sugary roasted flavours and the soft carbonation set them apart.

On the one hand it's hard not to like this, but on the other I don't know why you choose it over the mightily tasty Brooklyn Lager.

I don't think there's any historical British basis claimed for Samuel Adams Honey Porter, but it still nails its colours to the mast with Goldings and Scottish heather honey. There's a lot going on in this even-darker ruby ale, at first anyway. It's quite sticky, and smoky, with more than a hint of treacle. A fresh note of honey follows after, but the whole taste sensation ends far too soon, and the drinker is left with nothing very much at all. I enjoyed it, but the lack of legs really lets it down as a purportedly "robust" porter.

All the sweetness in these beers has me hankering after the plain simple dryness found in Ron's 1914 Whitbread porter.

(The title? Answer here.)

01 June 2009

Just reward

I got a proper sunny Saturday a few weeks ago, after about a fortnight of solid rain. I spent most of the day outside, going for two short spins on my bike with a bout of gardening in between. As the sun began heading for the horizon, I had a thirst which needed quenching. It was possibly the only time I have ever felt than an English golden ale is what's required.

The candidate was Trade Winds, by the Cairngorm brewery. On the label it claims to be light gold, but is actually rather red, close to the reddishness of Budvar. The nose promises luscious tropical fruits: mangoes, melons and mandarins. On the palate it's smooth and full: creamy, but in a good way that has nothing to do with nitrogenation, and with just enough prickle to be refreshing. The hop character continues the fruit theme: sweet, lively and with just a tiny dry note right on the end which shades towards metallic but doesn't quite get there. Overall, Trade Winds is very well balanced and wonderfully quaffable. Summer starts here.

The second one from Cairngorm is Wildcat: a darker amber ale. The flavour here is all chocolate and raisins, which put me in mind of Irish classic Clotworthy Dobbin, though it's a fair bit thinner. There's also a very interesting spiciness to Wildcat, which I'm assuming comes from the hops. It's best described as a kind of sandalwood effect, being slightly smoky and exotic. As with Trade Winds, this scores very highly on the drinkability chart.

This Cairngorm lot seem to know what they're doing. I'll be keeping an eye out for more from them.