30 July 2009

Het Steir et Château

More Belgian beer today, I'm afraid. In fact, our glass has been runnething over with draught Belgian loveliness in Dublin recently. Last weekend, on the tail of the Porterhouse's 11-day Belge-a-thon, the Bull & Castle got in on the action with not only a bunch of draught Belgian beers, but a food menu to go with them. The mussels in lambic sauce was wonderful -- full of the hot wheaty smell of brew day at Cantillon. Framboise duck was another winner.

The beery highlight for me was draught Kwak -- deliciously sticky with major banana fruitiness, akin to drinking a banoffee pie. It sat in pleasant contrast to the hoppy sharpness of Poperings Hommel Ale.

The new ones on me were both Wittekerke witbiers. The basic one pours a bright, opaque yellow and is predominantly bitter and spicy, with only a hint of green apples holding up the fruit side of the bargain. The dry, almost sour, kick had me wondering if it's some sort of throwback to the days when this type of beer was fermented spontaneously. To take this edge off, they also make a version with raspberry syrup in: Wittekerke Rosé. It takes the edge off, all right, and everything else with it. You end up with an incredibly sweet syrupy pink beer of the sort any sane and self-respecting beer drinker would hate. I drained my half litre in about three minutes, but I wasn't up for another.

Dessert was one not from the weekend specials, but a regular that's been knocking around a while now: Steenbrugge Dubbel Bruin, the abbey beer from Belgian giants Palm with its ever-so-complex neck label arrangement. It's so-so: a touch of fruity bananas but not much else going for it. A real shadow of a strong dark ale when put next to Kwak, and I find it hard to believe this is the same beer I enjoyed on draught last time I was in Amsterdam. Maybe it isn't.

It's nice to have these little diversions from the regular line-ups in Dublin's decent beer pubs, though the rotating cask at the Bull and Castle is also doing its bit to keep my life adequately spiced at the moment. Long may that continue.

27 July 2009

Is that it?

I'm a bit conflicted when it comes to Sin É on Dublin's north quays. Like many of Dublin's trendier hang-outs it has a dark, shabby kind of air, which is probably not so noticeable when in its natural state of being packed to the rafters with sweaty youngsters under the nonchalant gaze of the DJ. I'm guessing here, though, as I've never been in after dark. During the day, it's a lovely little shelter from the bustle of the city and sitting at the bar reading a book or the paper is an experience which I'd always found greatly enhanced by the presence of Galway Hooker among the beer taps.

Alas, the Hooker is no more, so something else has to be selected from the small-but-eclectic range of draughts. The management have recently taken it upon themselves to begin importing kegs from the Van Steenberge brewery in Belgium under their own Big Hand Brewery label. I mentioned the lager, Sparta Pils, back here, and in a suspicious parallel to A-B InBev's core Belgian range, there's also a wit and an abbey blonde.

Pierre Celis was midwife to the rebirth of Hoegaarden. Celis White, we're told, is what he got up to in Texas after the big mean conglomerate muscled him out, recreated now in Belgium by Van Steenberge. The aroma is superb: full of spicy coriander. After that initial herbal kick it settles into a long dryness, refreshing and with just enough sparkle to set the gums tingling. Is it better than evil factory-brewed Hoegaarden? Probably not, actually, but it's an interesting step sideways.

The abbey beer is called Augustijn and weighs in at 6.5% ABV. It has a very similar honeyish nose to the Leffe Blonde it's clearly running after. Like Celis White, however, it quickly becomes dry and that doesn't work so well in this kind of beer. Fortunately, the textbook malty sweetness stays in place all the way through so that even though the hops leave it a little bit harsh on the end it's still a pleasantly civilised sipper.

Neither beer is especially earth-shattering, but variety in Dublin pub taps is always worth cheering on. Given the careful targetting of the styles, I doubt we'll see any great expansion in the range from Big Hand, bit I'd certainly welcome it if we did.

23 July 2009

Had your oats?

Finally, the refugees from my over-heated attic have all been liberated, with Broughton Scottish Oatmeal Stout the last under the wire. I have it in my head that I don't generally like oatmeal stouts, finding them a bit heavy and phenolic. This one's just 4.2% ABV -- how heavy could that be? Not very is the answer, but that's not a good thing here. Not much of a nose and very little on the palate either, other than some mild, dry roastiness and bags of watery fizz. As it warmed I got a little bit of a sweet phenolic vibe, but it could well have been my imagination. Mrs Beer Nut claims there's more going on, but still hasn't a good word to say: "like something you eat for breakfast because it's good for you". Ouch! Stern and beardie Mr Broughton won't be welcome back in my gaff, by the looks of things.

So, while I was being a glutton for punishment, I figured I may as well get rid of the other one of the genre knocking about the house: Goose Island Oatmeal Stout. The Chicago team insist on it being served in a "balloon goblet" -- a Duvel glass will have to do. Even though it's only slightly stronger at 5.1 ABV, it really delivers on texture with a big, chewy body. The nose is a bit sickly with the promise of sticky treacle, yet the flavour is dry and very slightly spicy with a lasting toasty aftertaste. I think this may be the first oatmeal stout I've had which actually tastes oaty and I reckon I'd have it again.

So, it turns out that oatmeal stout isn't a lost cause after all. Duly noted.

20 July 2009

A drop of Irish

The wife and I took the day off on Friday and headed down the coast to Bray, a town we hadn't visited in several years. This is where The Porterhouse began, before the building of their (now dismantled) Temple Bar brewery, and it still retains a more traditional vibe, with Guinness and Heineken on tap. The annual Belgian beer festival is on across the chain at the moment, and in addition to some lovely draught Belgian ales (Abt 12, Tripel Karmaliet, et al) they've brewed up a new batch of their wonderful Chocolate Truffle Stout normally only seen in the spring. Chocolate, Belgian: geddit? A couple of pints of that in the front yard, overlooking the sea, made for a fine start to the weekend.

Saturday was brew day at home: an uncertain attempt at a dubbel. After the clean-up we headed for the Bull & Castle where the cask of the moment is Carlow Brewing's Curim Gold. I've never really been a fan of this in the bottle: it's a little bit bland and soapy. They'd never casked it before, but did so on request from the Bull & Castle who wanted something light and summery for the handpump, after a succession of stouts. Good thing they did, because it was fantastic. Belgian witbier is the closest approximation, and it has that spicy yeast character on top of refreshing zingy lemon flavours enhanced by some supreme sparkly conditioning -- so good you'd nearly think it was from a keg. Between four of us, we had the barrel drained by closing time.

There was just one deviation to the wheatiness -- a recently-arrived strong red ale from Hilden called Cathedral Quarter. It's the second in their series named after districts of Belfast, and I have to say I wasn't keen on the first one -- Titanic Quarter. However, the pour from this 5.3% ABV beer was promising, offering up summer fruit aromas and more than a hint of a Fuller's-esque toffee effect. The first sip was a major let-down, then. Stale, musty and cardboardy: a shame because there's clearly a good beer under it. As I drank, I found it mellowed a bit and the toffee returned accompanied by milk chocolate and butterscotch. I was getting quite into it by the end, though Níall who was drinking one beside me was less impressed. Can't really recommend this, I'm afraid.

It can be a bit swings-and-roundabouts with Irish beer sometimes, but with a gorgeous chocolate stout and a delectable cask wheatbeer in exchange for a musty red, I reckon I'm still up on the deal.

16 July 2009

A game of two halves

After a wait of several years, I finally got to sit down recently with a bottle each of Anchor Small Beer and the brewery's Old Foghorn barley wine. For those who don't know, these two beers from the San Francisco brewery are made from the same mash, with Old Foghorn fermented from the high-gravity first runnings and Small Beer a product of running water through the grain a second time to wash out a lesser amount of the sugars for a weaker final result. Making multiple beers of descending strengths is a throwback to the days before commercial brewing, and Anchor are the only ones I know of who are doing it today.

I started with the Small Beer, which comes in a large 66cl bottle, with the tiny label accentuating its bigness. I figured that this 3.2% ABV ale wasn't one for considered sipping, so it all went into a large mug to be quaffed. Unfortunately, it proved an impossible task: this beer is far too fizzy for that kind of thing. Genteel mouthfuls are forced upon the drinker by the bubbles, making it entirely unsuitable as a thirst-quencher and a failure as a small beer as a result. But there is a lot going for it otherwise: the body is an attractive dark red-gold colour and the nose is redolent of a hoppiness I can only describe as "beery": that funky aromatic smell that I most associate with English bitters. We don't get much of the hop flavours in the taste -- instead there's a slightly severe acid bitterness which could do with being tempered by some malt sweetness. And there's also the rough carbonation, making it quite a difficult sup, all in all. The finish combines the carbonic dryness with the hops bitters to leave the drinker in need of something altogether more quenching afterwards.

I knew Old Foghorn wouldn't be it, fully aware that the 9.4% ABV monster would be as big and bitter as the day is long. But I was wrong. Yes it's a big beer, no doubt, but big in unusual places. The hops are out in force, of course, but they're remarkably fruity, imparting a kind of fresh orange juice flavour that's actually quite refreshing. The malt, meanwhile, puts an almost chocolatey base on this: biscuity sweet and not the syrupy soupy thing you sometimes get with strong beers like this. All in all it's quite easy-going. There's maybe a slightly off-putting cloying sweetness in the aroma, but none of that transfers to the palate: there it's a gentle soothing sipper with light carbonation and only a slight aftertaste, to keep the drinker coming back for more.

I honestly can't say I see any relationship between these beers. They're both very much hop-driven, and are hopped according to rather different recipes. Why they didn't think to put more late hops for flavour and aroma into the Small Beer I will never know. Still, Old Foghorn saves the day and I'll be having this one again.

13 July 2009

Pannewha'?

There's a long-winded explanation on my bottle of Pannepeut 2007 about how it's Pannepot with the name changed "as a wink to the Danish market". I'm sure there's some joke behind this that was absolutely hilarious to both the Belgian and Danish senses of humour in the drunken aftermath of some beer festival, but I'm not going to dwell on it. Instead, I'm taking it as read that this is Pannepot, the legendary strong ale brewed by the Belgian breweryless brewing company most favoured by the Yanks: De Struise.

Brewed to a round 10% ABV it pours out a deep shade of chestnut brown with lots of sediment on the bottom of the glass and cappuccino-esque brown flecks on top of the creamy head. The nose shouts Belgian yeast into your face, though whispers of a fruity sourness underneath. None of that sourness in the flavour, though. This is big big sugary molasses on a thick syrupy base. There's a smidge of spicy woodiness for complexity, but mostly it's like drinking a malt loaf.

It's pleasant, in its own way, as a sipper. But I won't be rushing for it again and I certainly wouldn't have more than one in a sitting.

10 July 2009

Some corner of a foreign field

"World Beer Freehouse" is an epithet to conjure with. I spotted Pivo, a three-storey pub in Tudor pyjamas, from the far end of the street. It was jammed last Saturday night, but we made a return visit on Sunday afternoon before leaving York.

The downstairs barroom is long and narrow with a walk-in bottle fridge at the far end. Casks on stillage behind the bar are marked with what's coming next, and on the counter there are several handpumps plus a range of keg fonts for beers from the Barbarous Lands. Upstairs, a spacious lounge gives drinkers a bit more elbow room so long as they don't mind navigating the narrow stairs down when they need a refill or the narrow stairs up for, er, the reverse.

Mrs Beer Nut passed up the opportunity to travel abroad, going no further than Somerset with Butcombe Blonde. It's a tasty little bittersweet number with a slightly vegetal hops bitterness, though lacking in legs. Unchallenging, but solid, I thought. I had spied the draught Sierra Nevada Blonde through the window the previous day and was itching to try it. It's full of those good old California hops found in the best Sierra Nevada beers, but places them on a tasty bubblegum sort of base. Very refreshing and moreish. I don't know why they bother with Summerfest when they have this up their sleeves.

Moreish or not, it was time to go. We'd allowed ourselves plenty of time to get back to Manchester airport, and I had given solid assurances, based on concrete experience, that there was Brooklyn Lager available airside and that all would be well.

All was not well.

Giraffe was clean out of Brooklyn. Disaster! Of course, any good ticker is capable of turning such crises into pointless opportunities, so while my wife opted for some Rioja, I requested a Cruzcampo. I'd never had it before. Won't be having it again, neither. My notebook says "clear corny mank" and I don't really have anything to add to that. The food in Giraffe was decent, though. And I discovered the joy of Chipotle Tabasco: truly there is not a food or drink on earth that cannot be improved by smoking it.

And next thing, we were home. Thank you for having us, England. See you at Earl's Court on the 4th.

09 July 2009

Cittie of Stagge and Henne

We hit York early on Saturday evening, wandering through the chocolate-box streets of one of the prettiest British cities I've ever visited. Dinner was in Nineteen on Grape Street (formerly Grope Street, the medieval red light district) where the food and service were both superb. The night was drawing in as we left, and that's when we noticed that York has probably the highest concentration of stag and hen parties of anywhere we've been. I mean, I live in Dublin -- I've been through Temple Bar on a Saturday night on more than one occasion (though never inhaled) -- but nowhere have I seen quite so many, and so elaborately coordinated, prenuptial piss-ups as were being conducted on the streets of York last weekend. It was, quite literally, as though everyone inside the city walls was absolutely hammered.

Searching, foolishly, in the old town for a quiet postprandial beer we ended up by the banks of the Ouse at the King's Head, one of those delightful novelty Samuel Smith's pubs where cask ale is unknown and if you don't want own-brand drinks you can naff off. We got the last available table so were spared the worst of the crush from the victims of drive-by fake-tannings and the men-behaving-stupidly. I recommended the Old Brewery Bitter for herself, having enjoyed the bottle I picked up in Switzerland earlier this year. Meanwhile I scoured the fridges for something interesting and came away with a bottle of Organic Cherry Ale. It's 5.1% ABV but tastes much heavier, with big boozy cherry flavours, somewhere between kirsch liqueur and cough syrup. The body was as big as this suggests, but there was just enough sparkle to keep it light enough to drink. My impression is that this beer is best served very cold, and the hefty flavour will stand up well in such conditions.

We left through the throng towards the south gate of the old city, almost passing by a civilised-looking pub, mistaking it for a restaurant, since every other licensed establishment seemed jammed with raucous bingers. But a peep in the door revealed it to be a pub and only when I sat down did I discover it was one I had marked on my map as a must-visit: Brigantes is York's current top CAMRA boozer, and I could see why. Rather like The Wellington it's modern, clean and open. In addition to the half-dozen or so cask ales from breweries both in Yorkshire and further afield, there was a small but solid collection of Belgian, German and American beers on offer, and staff who plainly knew their way around them and were enthusiastic about serving them.

To keep things local, my first pint was York Brewery's Yorkshire Terrier, but I found this bitter straw-coloured ale just a bit too heavy, waxy and tough going, so I swapped it for what the missus was having: the unalloyed joy of Timothy Taylor Bitter. This limpid amber beer starts off with a beautiful honey-sweet flavour and finishes on a bitter bite of the sort I've never met before. I would go so far as to say that Taylor's Bitter operates beyond the malt-hop axis in a delicious flavour world all of its own.

As we sailed towards last orders I got another round in and this time I picked Wentworth's Black Zac for me, a gorgeous dry roasty mild with lots of lovely charcoal flavours. Mrs Beer Nut had a Samba, from the Leeds Brewery, a company I've been well impressed with in the past. It's a very pale summer ale packed full of lemons and bubblegum, which we both rather liked. That took us through the bells (English pubs, eh? Bless) to the end of the drinking day, well for us at least: I'm sure the party which is York was only getting warmed up.

There weren't so many of the stag-and-hen crowd out and about bright and early last Sunday morning. The streets were rather quiet as we made our way back to the city centre. After some general meanderings of a touristic nature we found ourselves at the Three-Legged Mare opposite the Minster. It's another CAMRA award winner and another with helpful and friendly staff -- I sense a theme here. The York Brewery owns it, so obviously their beers are to the fore. And again obviously, I started with a pint of their well-renowned Centurion's Ghost. Colour me philistine (as usual) but I wasn't keen. This dark dark ruby ale had a slight haze to it, I think, but there wasn't a whole lot of flavour. Concentrating hard, there are bitter dark fruits -- plums and damsons -- buried deep in here, but I just couldn't get excited about it. Mrs Beer Nut was on another black tan-headed pint: Banks & Taylor's SOD. This was a definite cut above, displaying tasty plum pudding and blackberry notes. In the sunny beer garden, under the pub gallows, it made for slow, considered drinking. I might have garnered a pint of it myself, but we wanted to make the first tour of the day down at the York Brewery itself.

In an odd reversal of the old order, York Brewery is owned by a chain of pubs. It was set up in the mid-1990s as the first brewery in the city since the '50s but last year passed into the hands of Mitchell's Hotels & Inns. It's still a charming micro, though, with a ramshackle tasting lounge in the attic, which operates as a private members' club for anyone willing to stump up the princely annual subscription of £12. A half of Yorkshire Terrier was handed out on arrival, and I found this much lighter and more palateable than the previous evening's pint. After the short tour (the place really isn't that big) it was back to the bar to work through the collection.

The summery session ale is called Guzzler, a 3.6% ABV slightly hazy yellow ale. It achieves a wonderful malt-meets-lemons combo, a sort of lemon Horlicks effect that makes it sublimely refreshing and, well, guzzlable. No trip to England would be complete without a sports-related seasonal, and York had Ashes on. Because of the Ashes, see? Clever. It's a pale gold ale with a grainy malt character and definite dry/bitter hop notes. Dry, but not ash-dry. And last up was their malt-bomb, Constantine. Packed with smoky caramel flavours plus a spicy hop finish, I loved this.

Before getting too comfortable in our wing-chairs, with the sun streaming in the velux windows, we moved on. Lunch was in the Punch Bowl (the old-fashioned one in the city centre, not the Wetherspoons of the same name near the station). I was attracted by the Bass sign hanging outside. My disappointment with the lack of cask Bass inside was tempered by the delight of seeing John Smith's Cask instead. With the Tetley's I'd had in Manchester, I was generally quite positive about the whole cask-versions-of-crappy-keg-bitters thing. John Smith's didn't let me down, either: this red bitter is light and sweet with just a hint of sulphurousness keeping it interesting.

Emerging into the daylight from the back room of the pub, it was nearly time for the train to the airport. There was a tiny allowance for one more quick beer each, and the previous evening I'd spotted just the place for them...

08 July 2009

Drag me to Hull

She's a sport, is my wife. I'm sure I've mentioned this before. It would have been pretty obvious to anyone marrying a massive fan of both The Beautiful South and Philip Larkin that, sooner or later, a trip to Hull would be on the cards. If I didn't write it into the wedding vows, I certainly meant to. My work trip to Manchester last week provided the opportunity, and when that wrapped up she flew in to join me and travel eastwards to Humberside.

While I waited for her flight I made my second visit to B-Lounge, just down from Piccadilly station. It's a trendy/businessy sort of place and I had been expecting to be drinking coffee as I took advantage of the complimentary wi-fi, so was delighted on my first visit to discover they had three handpumps. It was a return to old favourite Theakston's Bitter first time out, and while I watched the Manchester Airport live arrivals page, I supped upon Thwaite's Lancaster Bomber. Despite the name, I enjoyed this. It's light of body and somewhat lacking in condition but, served cool, was an excellent refresher on a muggy afternoon with its tannic flavours offering an iced tea kind of experience.

When m'lady arrived in to Manchester, food was top of the agenda and we made for Lees's Ra!n bar, as mentioned previously. Over pies and tennis I decided on a Lees Bitter for me but wasn't too keen on it. It's very malty and sweet but had just a slightly off-putting cardboard thing at the end. Mrs Beer Nut loved it, unlike the Brewer's Dark I'd recommended for her, so it was an easy swap.

And so to Hull.

Yes, it's grim. It's as grim as you've probably heard it is. The little we saw of downtown resembled the sort of British dormitory town that doesn't have to strive to be interesting -- except this is a major regional city and therefore should know better. We stayed up in Pearson Park, near Larkin's first Hull residence, the point where the city just starts to turn leafy and pleasant. After a long day, neither of us had the energy for anything other than a stroll round the park and a pint of beer in the hotel bar -- steeply-priced but quite decent Director's Bitter.

Next morning we struck northward to Grafton Street, site of The Housemartins', and later Beautiful South's, headquarters for many years. We were a bit early for a pint in the bands' local, The Grafton Hotel (spot the fanboy, left), but they do have cask ales according to the sign, which is encouraging for future reference.

Northwards again, to Newland Park, Larkin's final residence, and across the street to the university where he spent most of his working life. From there we made the long trek out to the quite pretty suburban village of Cottingham, and beyond to the small municipal cemetery where he's buried. After that, we were thirsty.

On heading back to Hull city, the first stop was The Whalebone, an ordinary little locals' pub which seems to mainly serve the surrounding industrial areas and depots. What it serves them with, however, includes several beers brewed on site. I opted for the Diana Mild and loved it: about the palest of the milds I met on the trip, it's an attractive shade of ruby with some lovely creamy chocolate flavours, almost shading towards caramel sweetness. My other half was on the Neck Oil, a clean and lightly hoppy bitter with that peachy, floral character we both love. One in the Whalebone was enough and we were getting a bit close to our train time, with another pub to visit on my list.

I had picked out The Wellington Inn simply because it was the reigning local CAMRA pub of the year. It looked nice enough when I dropped off Mrs Beer Nut there and went to collect my bag from the hotel. When I returned half an hour later she was drinking Pegasus, a very caramelly amber bitter with a sweaty sort of finish that would take a fair bit of getting used to.

Hot and tired from my walk I wasn't in the mood for random ticking (not that such things are tolerated here, see left) so on going to the bar I asked for something pale and hoppy. Two beers were proffered by the friendly barmaid. Icarus was the requisite shade of yellow but rather dull. Askrigg by the Yorkshire Dales Brewery, however, fitted my requirements perfectly. It's supremely hoppy with an uncompromising, unashamed dandelion bitterness with more than a little bit of metal about it, but it was palate-cleansing, invigorating and just what I needed.

As I sipped, I looked around and came to realise how The Wellington had earned its laurels. It's a bright, cool and airy pub on a more-or-less open plan with high ceilings and wooden floors. The decor is simple and consists almost entirely of breweriana, with a collection of pumpclips arranged by brewery in a way that makes me look like, well, someone who isn't an obsessive-compulsive maniac. As well as the six or so handpumps, there's a range of quality kegged beers from around the world and a magnificent bottled menu with most of what you'd want from the US, Belgium and Germany, including rare specials, and all displayed through the glass walls of a walk-in fridge near the bar. This lot, combined with the evident love that the management have for their beer and their bar makes The Wellington Inn one of the nicest pubs I've ever drank a pint in. Would I recommend you travel to Hull for it? Probably not, but if you make it to Humberside for any other reason it's simply unmissable.

We contemplated staying for another and getting a later train, but York was calling so, content with our lot, we got our stuff together and made the short walk to Hull station.

07 July 2009

Manchester Evening Brews

I met up with Tandleman last Thursday in the Lass o' Gowrie, and the evening started with pints of Allgate's Groundhop Day, a very pale yellow ale with a tasty hoppy bite on a light malt base. It's light and moreish and just perfect for kicking off a sunny afternoon session. We moved on, through the Victorian charm of Peveril of the Peak (Everard's Tiger on its second chance: still not convinced) and across the street to the JW Lees flagship pub, Ra!n Bar -- sited in a beautifully-converted umbrella factory. Here I started with Brewer's Dark, a well-mannered pint with mild roasted notes and a touch of creamy milk chocolate. Plain, simple and delicious. I wasn't so keen on Lees's new Coronation Street amber ale, finding it quite dull.

Onwards then to the long narrow front room of The Briton's Protection. Here my curiosity was piqued by Wem Lime Zinger: a beer which does exactly what it says on the pumpclip. The nose is full of sweet lime cordial and the taste is intensely limey, like chewing lime skin, with the malt adding a kind of lime candy sweetness at the base. Is that enough lime for you? One for beer purists to hate, but I loved it.

Next up was The Old Monkey, a Holt's house where I started with their creamy-yet-dry Mild while pondering the taps as we stood at the bar. I was amazed at the range of own-brand keg beers Holt's brew. A half of Holt's Black satisfied my curiosity: it's another dry roasty one and very similar to the cask mild -- make of that what you will, casketeers. The last half in The Old Monkey was Holt's Bitter: a dull beer with a bit of a musty wet dog finish to it.

We nipped in to the teeny-tiny Circus next, where Tetley's Bitter was on. As the man himself says, it was being served far too warm, but I liked the beer underneath. There's lots of rich roasted malt in here making for a round, grainy, chewy sort of pint.

This is where I lose track of the pub names. But it was a nice little boozer (edit: The Grey Horse -- cheers T.) where I found Hyde's Sacre Bleu: a light and peppery blonde which was perhaps just a little short on body but still highly enjoyable. I'm pretty sure we were in a Wetherspoons when I had Grainstore's Ten Fifty, a tasty number with pleasant candy and bubblegum notes.

Finally, we came to The City Arms. Here I found a curious throwback in the form of Ind Coope's Burton Ale, a complex bitter with a sweet floral nose and elements of honey and rosewater in the flavour, but also a sulphurous Burton kick as well. One to sit and contemplate after Tandleman headed off for his bus leaving me to wander hotelwards.

It was a fun evening and I definitely felt I'd got the full benefit of Manchester's top pubs, something I regretted missing on my last visit to the city. Thanks for being my tour guide, Tandleman.

06 July 2009

The In-betweeners

A busy conference programme kept a lid on my beer explorations for the first few days of my visit to Manchester last week. I was fortunate, however, to have a nice little Marston's house on my doorstep for those occasions where I had a chance to nip out for a swift one. The Bull's Head is just across from the back door of Piccadilly station and, I'm told, was a Burtonwood property until very recently. It's slightly shabby and lived-in, but nice for all that. Obviously enough the Marston's brand portfolio was well represented at the taps. The first one that caught my eye was Banks's Original: mostly because of a Brummie college friend who I remember telling me years ago that where she was from everyone drank this stuff called Banks's and it was "voy-yil". So that was pint number one, and it took several more before I became accustomed to sparklerisation: the look and feel of the beer is just too close to nitro for comfort. And yes, I know how irrational that is. Back to the Banks's: it's a strikingly sweet dark amber beer with an almost saccharine foretaste. This fades to a graininess full of chewy crystal malt. I don't think I'd go so far as describing it as vile, but it's just a bit too thin and sugary for my liking.

Wychwood is a recent addition to the Marston's range and here they had the excruciatingly-named Wizard's Staff (pumpclip featuring a wizard flashing three shocked witches -- ugh!) on. Despite the branding it's really rather good: full bodied yet crisp and refreshing with a stimulating sparkle to it. The flavour is very hop-driven but has an underlying bubblegum sweetness.

A couple of Jennings beers (Marston's again) came and went over the days of my residence at The Bull's Head. Cumberland Ale is a fairly unexciting dark golden ale. It's mostly malt in here, but with a light hoppy nose and perhaps a touch of white pepper spice. My notes make it sound more interesting than it actually is: one of those beers that makes you dig deep for a description. Hate that. The other one from this brewery was Honey Bole: a bright yellow beer which took ages to clear. Again there's not a whole lot going on with it. It's a bit bitter and a bit dry and possibly more of that pepper, but nondescript otherwise and certainly totally lacking in honey.

Also handy for the conference was the Lass o' Gowrie, an odd little pub with bags of character plus, inexplicably, a fine collection of vintage video games and a wall-mounted tableau displaying the three generations of Sinclair Spectrum. Odd. My first one here on Tuesday night was Mild At Heart by Allgate's. It's surprisingly bitter in a very English, metallic sort of way but with a good dark roasted flavour underneath. I found it a little sharp, to the point of being almost gastric, but I suspect that has more to do with the state of the barrel than the beer itself. It disappeared from the bar soon after.

When I was kicking about on my own on Friday morning, waiting for Mrs Beer Nut's arrival, I followed Tandleman's recommendation to call in to MicroBar in the Arndale Food Hall. It's a lovely little set-up with a variety of cask beers, plus a big bottled range, including several interesting ones from BrewDog. Not wanting to push the boat out too far this early, I opted for some Zeitgeist, a dark lager I'd been curious about since its launch in a blaze of glory last year. I'm struggling to find a better description than spot-on perfect. It's not too fizzy and kicks off with a beautiful charcoal dryness and then follows it up with some sumptuous caramel and chocolate notes which last ages. It's simple yet complex and likely works just as well cold from the bottle as it does savoured from a glass: move over Brooklyn Lager, there's a new super-flexible beer in town.

What happen with Tandleman the evening previous will be recounted next. There was beer involved.

03 July 2009

Gone tickin'

Session logoI'm sorry, I'm not at home right now. By the time Blogger publishes this, I'll be on my last day in Manchester, preparing to head east to Yorkshire for the weekend.

The Session this time round is called Will Travel For Beer, ideal for a blog like mine that tries to mix travel and beer as much as time and budget will allow. Except... I don't travel for beer. Well, not much. I do the odd local trip to a festival in other parts of Ireland, and maybe further afield in recent years like the Great British Beer Festival or Oktoberfest. Mostly, however, the travel comes first and the beer is there when I arrive, and that's just the way I like it.

Now once I've checked in somewhere, I will remorselessly hunt out whatever beers are there to be had, and will go far out of my (and my wife's, admittedly) way to visit bars and breweries where I think there might be something interesting or different to drink. But I try to keep it within reason and I rarely let beer become the main driving force behind my travel.

Er, except once. Last September Mrs Beer Nut and I spent three days in Copenhagen at the European Beer Festival: a massive gathering of beers and breweries from across the globe. Other than some brief strolling around town on the last day, that trip was pretty much beer all the way. I really enjoyed it, but I doubt it's the sort of thing I'd be inclined to make a habit of. On the Saturday morning, we went along to Ølbutikken where I bought a six-pack of special releases from Mikkeller. I've covered three of them earlier this year, and number four was opened in honour of this Session.

It's a collaboration between two Danish beer firms: Xbeeriment and Mikkeller and styles itself a "Belgian Stout" under the name Brewers United. The fact that it's 11.1% ABV suggests that it's on the imperial side of the stout genre. And that's certainly how it tastes: it's hopped up to buggery in the American style with some fairly serious acid bitterness. But that sits on a beautiful espresso base and the two sorts of bitter flavour complement each other wonderfully. It finishes by depositing the hop oils on the lips for a finish that runs and runs. I'm put immediately in mind of the likes of US imperials like Great Divide's Yeti and Flying Dog's Gonzo, but this exhibits more charm and balance than either of them.

And there you have it: A Danish take on a Belgian style based on a British beer made for Russians and latterly popularised by the United States. Sometimes beer travel comes right out of the fridge in 250ml bottles.

01 July 2009

The coming-soon and the never-left

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.