29 October 2009

Show us your dimples

Murray's is what you might call a boutique superpub. It's right at the, ehm, unfashionable end of O'Connell Street and has had a succession of names over the years. The current incarnation is perhaps a little bit more pleasant than some earlier versions, and on my visit the food seemed decent and some of the punters actually looked like they were gainfully employed.

What had me in there in the first place was news that they had a house beer now on tap. Not expecting much, I have to say I was extremely impressed by Murray's Lager. First thing that struck me was the serving temperature: see the frost on the glass in that picture? Exactly. I'd say it comes out somewhere closer to a cask ale: refreshingly cool, yet warm enough so you can actually taste it. And what a taste: Saaz, Saaz and more Saaz. The spicy bitter Czech hop is balanced by a candyfloss malt character, and the whole thing is tasty, extremely drinkable, and at a mere €3.30 is one of the best value pints in central Dublin. The cute dimpled pint mug, something I've never been served beer in before, was the icing on the cake.

All other things being equal, I'd assume this was a Czech import. It tastes a lot like Pilsner Urquell. The barmaid in Murray's even told me it was a Czech import. Except, the postering and font badge are promoting it as "Home Grown Beer" with merely "Imported Czech Hops". So, like Pifko Premium, Solas Lite and the TramCo range we have another mystery beer. It's great the way the beer choice keeps expanding, but why does the provenance have to be such a big secret?

Late late edit: apparently it's a rebadge of one from the Chotěboř brewery in the Czech Republic. Thanks Cliodhna!

26 October 2009


I was really quite disappointed with Meantime's India Pale Ale when I tried it last year. Still, I've been roaring through their amazing London Pale Ale ever since, and they're a brewery of considerable repute, so there was no hesitation when a bottle of Meantime London Porter crossed my path recently.

Like the IPA it's an historical recreation, conditioned in a corked 75cl bottle, and weighing in at a respectably hefty 6.5% ABV. The colour is a gorgeous dark ruby which just catches the light, and is topped with a long-lasting creamy head. There's a touch of roastiness on the nose, but it's not until the first taste that the action starts. My first reaction is digestive biscuits: slightly sweet yet slightly salty baked graininess. But the flavour continues, hitting milk chocolate notes as well as mellow dryer roastedness. It's really quite a wonderful experience, with nothing metallic, phenolic, or otherwise off at all. The smoothness of the carbonation carries it all along beautifully. This beer is a definite hands-down world classic.

I'm heading back to London in early December, for the annual round of work things that happily coincide with Pig's Ear in Hackney. I'm determined to get some other beery stuff done too this time, and was thinking of heading eastwards to Greenwich. Anyone know if Meantime opens for visits?

22 October 2009

Chico and beyond

The internationalism of beer is one of the things I love about it. Local styles are all well and good, but my respect goes to breweries who break the mould a bit, rather than produce another 3.8% ABV bitter / dry session stout / pale fizzy lager / [insert national beer stereotype here]. It was great to see Californian mega-micro Sierra Nevada looking to Germany for a revamping of their previous lacklustre wheat beer. What they've given us instead is Sierra Nevada Kellerweis, and a promise of authenticity you can take to the bank.

Open fermentation tanks and Bavarian yeast were enough to convince Al of its credentials, pronouncing it "pretty spot on". I'd agree with that, in general: it's appropriately cloudy and appropriately orange. There's a nice bit of weissbier banana, but not too much. However, I'm finding it a little lacking at the finish, with no sign of the cloves or hops dusting I'd be after. The body is a bit thin, and it's light on alcohol at just 4.8% ABV. So, yes it would pass muster as a Bavarian wheat beer, but it's just not on the money when put next to my favourite real ones. And where it really fails the quality/authenticity test is the serving size. I had a crisis trying to find a suitable glass for it. Sessionable weissbier is just not enjoyable in this sort of portion.

Funnily enough, I have the same observation I made when I tried the old Sierra Nevada Wheat last year: "Who in their right minds would go for a small bottle of American wheat beer when there's half a litre of Schneider-Weisse on the shelf next to it, probably for less money". It's come to this: quoting myself. Sorry.

The reach of Sierra Nevada goes even beyond Germany, however. Not content with harvest ales made with hops from their own estate and the next state over, they managed to lash another one out in the Spring made with fresh hops from New Zealand. Sierra Nevada Southern Hemisphere Harvest Fresh Hop Ale, appropriately for such a mouthful, comes in a very respectable 700+ml bottle, so no qualms about serving size here.

It pours a perfect shade of amber and gives off that lovely spiced herbal toffee aroma I associate with the best American-style IPAs. Tastewise, yes, it's very fresh and hoppy, but I got a bit of an unpleasant harsh resinous dryness at the end, around where I'd like to have been basking in peaches and similar soft succulent fruits. The bitterness also covers up what's quite a hefty malty body, delivering 6.7% ABV. Yet of caramel or toffee there's barely a trace, lacking the balance of the brewery's supposed hop extravaganza, Torpedo. Or at least that's what I thought: both Mrs Beer Nut and Thom had a much more balanced experience than me.

It sounds like I'm a bit down on the Chico guys, but I'm not. These two beers really are quality stuff, and the criticisms are purely ones of fussy personal taste. The conscientious attention to detail is to be applauded, not just because it gives a human touch to the beer, but also because of the incontrovertibly interesting drinking experiences it produces.

19 October 2009

I want a beer, not a lifestyle choice

I've remarked before that there are breweries out there who appear to see an organic tag as a useful means of hocking more product to a demographic that cares about such things. I'm sure the market research has been done and that there are people pre-disposed to buying products because they're organic, and that they buy beer, and that therefore a readymade niche exists for organic beer. However, it appears that beer marketeers working along these lines rarely pay much attention to what the actual beer is like, what it's made from, where it's made, and by whom: the things that matter to me, a beer drinker who puts the drinking experience ahead of the farming methods.

I don't think I've seen a stronger example of this approach than with Daas. The company in charge of marketing these beers have a blog which collects stories about all sorts of ethically sourced luxury goods. There's a busy Twitter feed giving nuggets like "we believe beers brewed free from chemical's & fertilizer's taste just FAB!" and "All beers made using hops & barley without pesticides/chemical fertilizers r more healthy, delicious & appetizing.Despite what the FSA say!!". But about the beer: bugger all. Go looking for a brewery address on the website and you get a mail forwarding service above a west London boutique. "Brasseries Daas", I was told on asking, is in Tournai*, and it may well be, but the dearth of information about it, and the heavily anglo-centric marketing, have more than a whiff of contract brewing about them. The whos and the wheres are not something the drinker ought to be concerned with -- here, have some burlesque models instead, aren't they pretty?

*Update, August 2012: this transpires to be either a lie, or no longer true. Daas is brewed under licence at Brasserie Brunehaut, south of Tournai.

Nevertheless, the Daas people were kind enough to send me a bottle each of two of the beers so I could look the product over in person (it's not sold here, and I've never seen it on sale in Belgium). Still no mention of a brewery, and no address more precise than "Belgium", plus the enigmatic legend "Abbaye Export, Odsardus[?] d'Tournai". Can anyone shed any light on what this means?

Daas Witte pours pale and cloudy with the appropriate fluffy white head. Less appropriate were the big gobbets of brown yeasty goo that came out as well, but I don't let such things faze me, and just fished them out. I was pleasantly surprised to find they didn't leave this beer sharp or unpleasantly yeasty. Instead it's quite light and dry with just a faint trace of orange on the end. The ingredients listing claims it contains organic spices, but declines to name them -- there's very little sign of them on the palate. All in all, not terribly exciting, even as witbiers go, but as a don't-think-just-drink refresher it's perfect.

Perhaps less appropriately, the dryness theme continues with Daas Blond. It has a slight haze to it and a rather unpleasant carbonic nose which I wasn't expecting. There's a light sparkle which makes it almost as easy drinking as the wit, despite the hefty 6.5% ABV. If anything, it's rather watery. Flavourwise you don't get much beyond the dryness, just a hint of peaches as a saving grace on the end. Again it's refreshing in its own way, but that's not something I'd be looking for in a strong Belgian blonde. I think I'd take the added sugar of chemical-laden unethical Leffe Blonde over this.

In fact, anyone who wanted more environmentally-friendly beer would. Beer is not a green product, and never will be. The amount of water that gets wasted in the beer-making process alone should outweigh any efforts at greenwashing it. And while there may not be any scary chemicals used in the farming end of the operation, there certainly will be in the brewery's sanitising regime. That's just how beer is made. If the ecological impact of your beer makes a big difference to you, you're much better getting it from an industrial brewery whose economies of scale and relentlessly squeezed margins will mean far fewer resources will be wasted in the making of the product.

But for this drinker at least, it's the taste of beer that counts -- not the market segment it's trying to occupy.

15 October 2009

They can never take our Freedom

They, of course, being the security staff at Birmingham International. The liquids ban on flights is a real pain for the beer traveller, and not only directly. When my sister came over to Dublin from Brum she picked me up a bottle of Freedom Organic Lager at an airside kiosk, asking them to leave the cap on. Oddly enough, they did, so the bottle reached Dublin intact and has been languishing in my fridge for a while now. I finally got round to opening it last weekend.

Turns out it was just three days before the best-before date, and I'm fairly sure it suffered from my tardiness. It fizzed enthusiastically out of the bottle but settled quickly, leaving a bright gold, slightly hazy, body where the carbonation is definitely on the light side letting the malt shine through. And shine it does: this is a sweet caramelly lager with quite a full and smooth texture. Very little hops are in evidence, and the only flaw I can detect is a certain staleness which in all probability is caused by the bottle's antiquity. Fresh, I bet it's a cracker, of the decent everyday sort.

There's some great beer to be had in the English midlands, and not all of it's ale.

12 October 2009

Goldenest Oktober

It's that time of year again, when the mighty merchandising machines of Noreast and Heineken -- distributors of Erdinger and Paulaner respectively -- flood the quality beer outlets with acres of blue and white chequered material, adorned with their competing brands. Yes: Oktoberfest in Dublin.

The Porterhouse were first out of the traps, launching their festival on Tuesday last. Alt is back for a second year and seems bigger and maltier than before. Perhaps not 100% true to style but you'll have to wait a while for my gives-a-crap face. The imports are always great fun year-to-year, and this time round we've got Einbecker's sweet and warming Ur-Bock Dunkel, crisp dry Früh and a wheat beer I didn't know: Unertl. It's one of the darker weissbiers, though not a dunkel. More than anything else I was reminded of Schneider, though it's not quite as spicy and rounded, going instead for a lighter and crisper sort of wheat character. A nice refresher and leagues ahead of your typical yellow weiss we get in these parts.

The bottled selection of course includes some classic Munich Oktoberfestbier, as well as some interesting oddities from further afield. My eye was particularly caught by three from Münster's organic brewery Pinkus Müller, not only because it's Barry's local, but also because the Original Münster Alt he sent me earlier this year was really good in an odd sort of way. Just my kind of beer. In the oddness stakes, both Pinkus Müller Pils and Weiss stood up very well. They're both pale examples of their genre, with the pils a gorgeous limpid gold and the weiss an opaque light orange-yellow. Here's the thing: the pils tastes like weiss while the weiss tastes like pils. That is to say, Pinkus Pils has a very soft carbonation and fruity esters in with the more typical north-German pils bitterness. Pinkus Weiss, conversely, is almost esterless, being light and quaffable like a tasty but easy-going lager.

Pinkus Special is also in the line-up. This is another pale one with just a little bit of haze to it. You get some fascinating grassy herby flavours, and a light touch of bubblegum (pre-chewed bubblegum, as someone around the table charmingly put it). It's certainly an interesting beer and I reckon I'll revisit it before this weekend, when the festival wraps up for another year.

Thanks, as always, go to the Porterhouse team for their hospitality.

My second Octoberfest event of last week was up at Deveney's off licence in Dundrum, where the monthly beer tasting session was moved to the top end of the month. Good to see, since it's been clashing with the Irish Craft Brewer meeting in the Bull & Castle this past while. There were most of the usual suspects on offer, but also a couple of things I wasn't familiar with. Take Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Märzen for instance. At first glance, perhaps, nothing unusual there. Sure every schoolboy knows Oktoberfestbier is a Märzen. But only broadly. Hacker-Pschorr's actual Oktoberfestbier can be seen in Ron's blog, here: a bright golden yellow. Actual Märzen tends to be more of a reddish gold shade, which is what this is. It's really rather flat and though relatively light of body, there's a certain syrupy greasiness to the texture that I don't much care for. The taste is predominantly sweet and bready, as one would expect, and it sails close to being cloying. But I think it just stays on the good side, with a nibble from the hops and a warm comforting finish. And with a swingtop bottle? Well, all is forgiven from this home brewer.

I was slightly late getting to Deveney's on the tasting evening and everyone else was a couple of beers ahead of me. Ruth had cued up Schneider Wiesen Edel-Weisse as last on the roster, so I got to hear everyone else's opinions on it before getting to it myself. It wasn't going down well with the crowd, which was disappointing because I was expecting big things from the new beer out of what's probably my favourite German brewery. "Too much pepper" was the cry. I was intrigued.

It appears to be squarely pitched at the American market, with its USDA Organic badge featuring prominently, and the inclusion of Cascade with the Hallertauer in the hops listing. Oh, and the highly unGerman, almost microscopic, inclusion of the word "ale" on the neck label. It pours a pale hazy amber, giving off quintessential wiessbier yeast fruits with a definite spice behind it. This yeast-hops combination has me thinking of the collaborative Hopfen-Weisse straight away. But it's a lot more drinkable than that badboy, at a mere 6.2% ABV. Cloves are in the ascendant, giving it a spice that I wouldn't describe as peppery per se, but would describe as really tasty. The finish is short, but the body is light and soft enough for another sip straight away. I like this a lot. And I'm very heartened to see an old stalwart like Schneider pushing the boundaries of tradition further in the interests of opening up new markets and, more importantly, new flavours. That's my kind of globalisation.

October, eh? It's great to be spending my time whizzing round Dublin on my bike drinking free beer; but it's probably just as well it's only one month a year.

08 October 2009

It's a short way to Tipperary

He doesn't look like your typical slow-food advocate. Plain-speaking ex-plumber Cuilán Loughnane is rarely seen without either his Munster rugby or Tipp GAA jerseys. I doubt he even owns a pair of sandals. Yet, as an advocate for locally-sourced hand-crafted produce, Cuilán is among the most visionary in the country. A brewer of many years' experience, he only recently set up his own operation in his home town of Templemore, Co. Tipperary using the former brewkit of the now-defunct Kinsale Brewing Company. His White Gypsy beers are starting to make their first appearances in the area's pubs, and Cuilán intends to expand this to as many as possible -- to make White Gypsy the beers you drink when you're in north Tipp. He firmly believes that every town in Ireland should have its own brewery supplying the local area, as it was before the market consolidated under a handful of foreign-owned national brands.

Furthermore, Cuilán intends to source all his ingredients locally, with water from the family well, a hop garden in front of the brewery, and barley from the local farmers, traded at a fair price. If his plan can be successfully executed, and then repeated elsewhere, the face of Irish beer will have undergone enormous change.

A couple of weeks ago Cuilán and family staged an open day at the brewery, a chance for the locals to have a look at what he's doing, and I'd hope one or two publicans were there to discuss possible enhancements to their beer line-up. The farmer whose livestock receives the benefit of White Gypsy's spent grain provided a bit of pig pro quo, so there was roast pork washed down with Cuilán's award-winning Bock, his quaffable Blonde and an achingly fresh and delicious IPA on cask.

Prior to all this there was work to be done. His new imperial stout -- White Gypsy Vintage -- had just finished primary fermentation and was due for racking into oak barrels for a few months of aging. Cuilán invited us the beer enthusiasts to come watch, and have a taste of the green product before it undergoes maturation. It's harsh stuff -- 10% ABV (OG 1.104; SG 1.029) and with an intense Play-Doh sort of flavour, finishing on a nasty hit of marker pen. This is, of course, entirely deliberate. Cuilán dislikes barrel aged beers which taste of nothing but the barrel, and deliberately brewed this one to be a thumper so that the woodiness and the stoutiness will balance each other in the finished product. Whether it works or not remains to be seen. Dave from Hardknott has his doubts about this sort of thing.

There were three barrels to be filled: a retired Bushmills cask, and two of virgin oak -- one French and one American. The finished beer will then be bottled in 75cl bottles and corked Belgian style. The world premiere is expected at the Franciscan Well next Easter -- two of the guys from the 'Well were along to lend a hand, as well as the other great advocates for localised craft beer in Ireland: the Beoir Chorca Dhuibne team from Dingle. When it's finished we'll have the first wood-aged Irish beer since Guinness substituted old-fashioned maturation for the injection of lactic acid which their beer has been getting for the last fifty years or so instead. I'm really looking forward to getting my mitts on some of this when it's ready.

In the meantime, the brewery I should regard as my local is the Porterhouse. They seem to be going through something of a local expansion themselves at the moment, with more bars outside their own estate carrying their beer -- you'll find it in classic Dublin boozer The Palace as well as fatcat eatery Bentley's, to name but two. And, as I mentioned in my post about SeptemberFest, the first of their bottled beers have just started to appear in shops and discerning bars. I've covered Hop Head already, but just recently nabbed a bottle of Plain from DrinkStore (and you can too, if you're in Ireland -- their new online store is open for business). Here we have Ireland's only bottle conditioned stout, a beefed-up version compared to the draught at 4.7% ABV. There's a subtle hint of coffee on the nose, so there it's already better than the odourless nitro draught. When served at cellar temperature, the body is light and quite fizzy, which in turn adds to a dry and carbonic flavour. However, let it warm up and it really comes out of its shell with heavier roasty and chocolate flavours. This is one for drinking straight from the shelf, I reckon. Incidentally, the Porterhouse's annual Oktoberfest kicks off today, seeing the return of their tasty Alt for a second year, and plenty of interesting imports. More on them next week.

While getting hold of exotic beers from far away -- and preferably collecting them in person -- is very much what I'm about, a decent selection of quality local produce is a notion I whole-heartedly support. Best of luck to all involved in such projects, wherever they may be.

05 October 2009

A kriek for all seasons

Having bought the Liefmans Kriek in Brussels last winter, intending to save it for some balmy summer afternoon, I finally admitted defeat. After the third crappy summer in a row, a cold wet autumn evening was deemed a sufficiently special occasion to unwrap the paper and pop the cork.

I first discovered this beer about five years ago in Amsterdam's Café Belgique and was very impressed from the get-go. I have catholic tastes in kriek and will happily chug the light sugary ones, like Timmerman's, but also enjoy taking some time over the sharper, more cerebral craft krieks like Cantillon Lou Pepe. Liefmans occupies a wonderful space right between the two varieties.

The base beer is unambiguously sour, but the cherries add a lip-smacking sweet fruitiness which dominates the flavour yet avoids tipping over into cloying syrupy yuck. The natural carbonation is soft, making it a very drinkable beer, and one which is highly refreshing when served cold; but there's also a satisfying warmth to it, derived from the hefty 6% ABV.

Whatever you're looking for in a kriek, this one can substitute nicely.

02 October 2009

The high road

Session logoWe are encouraged to go east for this month's Session. Well that shouldn't be too hard. For all the variety of decent bottled beer in Ireland, the vast majority is coming from the UK, Belgium, Germany or the US -- all east of here but one. It would be nice to have something interesting from Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Italy, Australasia or the like to write about, but we're mostly left to our own devices to get hold of that lot.

Tempting as it is to pick some random crap Asian lager imported at enormous expense for idiots trying to relive their holidays, to rot skunkily under the fluorescent lights until it's sold off a year later for 50 cents a pop, I'm not going to do that. I'm going to stick with the country that's so barely east of me that tracts of it are to the west: the UK.

Scotland to be precise, a country whose beers need very little introduction in the contemporary beer blogosphere, which sometimes gives the impression that Caledonian beer starts and ends these days with BrewDog. Other breweries do exist, believe it or not, and they don't all follow the American approach to designing and selling beers (not that there's a damn thing wrong with that). Both of these were donations from Dave and Laura, brought back from their summer trip to Scotland.

Laura had been talking up Red MacGregor and I was expecting big things of it, with a head full of sumptuous American reds like Three Floyds Brian Boru and Red Frog. But it's not one of those. Pouring a beautiful shade of deep rosewood, it's actually quite a light 4% ABV sessioner. The nose makes it clear that it's not a bland quaffer, however, with some lovely mandarin notes coming out. On tasting, you get sharp and slightly metallic English hops, but this mellows to a succulent fruity -- vaguely American -- hoppiness. Barley barely gets a look in, but when it does there's a laid-back biscuity caramel flavour, giving directions while the hops drive. The body and carbonation are both unobtrusive, which would make it a sublime session beer, but I only got the one. Oh well.

Second up is an oatmeal stout, a style I'm still quite wary of. That heady, glutenous, marker-pen taste I get from the stronger ones does nothing for me, but Glencoe doesn't have this. It's much smoother and very easy drinking, with proper toasty, oaty aromas. Yes, the phenolic thing is there, but it works for a change. There are a couple of worrying enigmas, not least of which is the fact that it comes from the mysterious Traditional Scottish Ales company about whom I've grumbled before -- I want more than a postcode as beer provenance -- and then there's the "organic wild oats". How does that work? How do you know there haven't been drive-by pesticidings while no-one was looking? However, none of this detracts from what is an all-too-quickly-disappearing quality stout and one I'd happily have again.

Our host requests stereotypes of us from the chosen beer country. While I'm fairly sure fruity hops are terribly unScottish, you can't go far wrong with oatmeal though, eh?