30 December 2009

In the deep Smith-winter

Travel. It's just as well I love it. Not just the Being Somewhere Different, but the act of Getting Up And Going does it for me. Which is just as well, given the amount of time I've spent on the road recently. I'm in Germany when you're reading this, but I'm writing it holed up in my parents' house in rural Northern Ireland, with the snow falling and nothing much to do except drink beers and try desperately to make my phone take a half-decent picture of them.

Offering me comfort right now is a bottle of Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome which I picked up in a local supermarket. It pours a lovely red-gold shade with quite a bit of fizzy froth from the 55cl bottle. Toffee and golden syrup are hinted at on the nose, but while it's strong and malt-driven, it's no sticky park-bench paper-bag job. There are sophisticated glimpses of licquorice and honey in here as well, and the 6% ABV produces just the right amount of warming sensation, without overdoing it. It's one of the best seasonal-type beers I've had this, er, season.

I'm following it with the same brewery's India Ale, an IPA very much in the rough English vernacular. It's surprisingly forward about the malt, with lots of hard toffee chewiness. The hops aren't in the least bit subtle -- adding a jolt of bitterness, finishing very slightly metallic and only offering a little hint of gunpowder piquancy by way of contribution to flavour complexity. The two elements maintain an uneasy truce, and the finished product is nicely drinkable as a result. It wouldn't be a favourite of mine though, and as it warms it's giving me echoes of the rather unpleasant Fuller's IPA. I can't see myself swapping a nice juicy, zingy American IPA for this rather dour Yorkshireman.

And that's it for 2009. Join me on Friday for more auto-posted delights and the first Session of the new decade.

28 December 2009

Wetter don't mean better

Maybe it was just because I opened it immediately after finishing a particularly sugary dessert, but the first sip of Sierra Nevada Harvest Wet Hop gave me a sharp jolt of astringency which I really didn't care for. The label makes much of the added complexity and spiciness that they claim comes from using straight-off-the-vine fresh hops, but to me this stuff is just bitter to the point of unpleasantly sour. An hour later it had mellowed a bit, but not hugely. Sierra Nevada claim this is what "hop fanatics dream of", so I can only assume that "hop fanatics" are people who enjoy getting alpha acid chemical burns on the roofs of their mouths.

The body is rather thin and there's only a faint trace of caramel malts and mango hop flavours -- I would expect a bit more warmth and fun from a 6.7% ABV ale. The overriding sensation is of having a grapefruit ground slowly into one's face. It's a bully of a beer and I'd much rather play with its more charming (or at least less harsh) antipodean sibling.

24 December 2009

A BrewDog's not just for Christmas

I picked up a cheap Trashy Blonde in the Sprucefield Sainsbury's. I mean, who hasn't? Brought her home, kept her in the attic a few months -- you know the drill -- and then finally plucked up the courage to pull her top off. Shall I stop now? Yeah.

It's a beautifully golden ale with lots of clean refreshing fizz. The nose gives me lager malts and peachy hops. Much like 77 lager, the flavour is powerfully bitter, though tempered nicely with the juicy fruit flavours, and finishing dry. Superb complexity for a 4.1% ABV beer, and at a quid a bottle there's no guilt about chugging it back cold, or smothering it in spicy food. I really should have bought more...

Instead, there's Devine Rebel, the result of when Mikkeller met BrewDog, with a charming illustration of the eponymous Mikkel facing the eponymouser Bracken on the label. Two of the continent's top brewers; 12% ABV; barrel aged in whisky casks: you can expect that what pours forth is a good time.

It seems to arrive a murky brown, but hold it up to the light and there's a certain saintly amber radiance to the colour. The first sip produces a heavy filling sensation, coating the mouth just like all the best barrel-aged beers I've met. The first wave from the flavour platoon fills the palate with milk chocolate and juicy raisins. While these charming raconteurs keep your tastebuds busy, a pincer movement of vanilla wood and sharp hops nip round the back and take control of the situation before you realise what's happened. Next thing, you're up to your eyes in whisky casks and bitterness yet still enchanted by the fruitsome candy loveliness of the first sensations. It's best just to surrender and enjoy the occupation. Kiss a squaddie; paint stocking seams on the back of your legs -- that kind of deal.

This is a beautifully crafted beer, and a perfect example of how the new extremists of European brewing ought not not be dismissed as fad-chasers, but are clearly capable of sublime beers that only the terminally stultified could deem poor.

All these fruits and fun, plus bitterness and wood, means that Brewdog will definitely be appearing on both Santa's nice and naughty lists this evening. Just as well Bracken has four stockings.

Wishing a very merry Christmas to all my readers. Cheers!

21 December 2009

Sahti'll do

Mr Dredge has requested an awardy round-up thingy from the beer blogosphere, and I went looking in my stash for a suitable beer to drink while I performed my deliberations. The one that's been nagging me to drink it for a while now is Nøgne Ø-Dugges Sahti. I recall Knut Albert telling me it's not a true sahti, presumably because of the malt and hops. But such intricacies concern me not. All I'm worried about is how it tastes.

It pours a cloudy, murky orange-yellow giving off some interesting herbal and sticky sugar aromas. The body is very heavy and the first sensation I got was sweetness, leading me to believe that this is somewhat under-attenuated -- perhaps made with bread yeast as I understand is traditional for sahti. So that's the first bit I got wrong: the yeast is a blend of German, Belgian and British strains and is efficient enough to whack the finished product up to 11% ABV. Funny how it's only when I know that that I start to feel the warming sensation.

I didn't even begin to try and identify the flavours: it's sweet like the aroma with a sharp berry undercurrent and a spicy Belgian-yeast finish. The berries are juniper and I'm guessing that at least some of the bitterness -- the grassy sort -- comes from the use of rye, while more is from an exciting-sounding Nordic herb called "sea wormwood". As for the sweetness, part of it must be the big boozy body, but at the very front, and in the aroma, the herbal sweetness is from heather honey. It's great to find another beer like BrewDog Speed Ball/Dogma where honey works harmoniously with the other flavours: just adding that little bit of extra complexity when lots of other things are going on. And Dogma's a heather honey beer too. I think honey quality might have a lot to do with how well it works as a beer adjunct.

I like this. It's a lovely winter sipper and I could write about it all day. But I've got gongs to hand out. So here goes:

Best Irish Draught Beer: Goods Store IPA
The best thing to happen to Irish beer in 2009: a cask IPA with whackloads of dry Cascades. Access is strictly controlled by the Bull & Castle management, but I hope this will continue being brewed in 2010, even though it owes its name to being the last ever batch made at the old Carlow Brewing Company plant in the railway station's former goods store. "Muine Bheag Business Park IPA" doesn't have the same ring, unfortunately, but I'll still drink it. A big hand for its creator Liam O'Hanlon (right), please.

Best Irish Bottled Beer: Clotworthy Dobbin
Yeah, an obvious choice, beating stiff competition from newcomers such as Porterhouse Hop Head and Plain, and Whitewater's own first-rate Belfast Black. But this chocolatey ruby porter is the one to beat. The recipe includes a late Cascade addition: I think a pattern may be emerging here.

Best Overseas Draught Beer: Affumicator
Beck Bräu's utterly batshit dreidoppelrauchbock gave me pause when I encountered it in Amsterdam back in September. There's just not enough smoked lagers in the 9.4% ABV category around.

Best Overseas Bottled Beer: Wädenswiler Hanf
I very nearly made another obvious choice here, and Three Floyds's Dark Lord is very very good indeed. But this award goes to the little Swiss beer that could: Wädenswiler Hanf. So drinkable; so peppery; and a big inspiration to me to get off my arse and start assembling my own hemp beer recipe.

Best Overall Beer: Goods Store IPA
And out of the lot, I'm going for Goods Store, not just because of what it is, but also what it means: hoppy Irish ale was unknown just a couple of years back; cask was something you got up North, at festivals, or from a token handpump in selected Porterhouses. Goods Store -- which flies out of the cask -- gives me such hope for the future of beer in this country. Excuse me, I have something in my eye...

Best Bottle Label or Pump Clip: Zeitgeist
This was the hardest one to pick. I learned to brew this year, and also learned that the best bit of the whole process is designing the labels. Nothing that I'd seen during the year really struck me, as especially brilliant, though the sparse monochrome De Molen branding immediately jumped to mind. But I think I'll give this one to Heather Brennan -- designer of BrewDog's Zeitgeist label. Even I look cool holding one of these.

Best Irish Brewery: White Gypsy
Goods Store isn't the only cask IPA knocking about Ireland, you know. White Gypsy's, though not as full-on, is damn good. However, it's a bit harder to find, what with the brewery's dogged determination to carve out a niche in rural Ireland where the stranglehold of Diageo, Heineken and C&C is strongest. The courage to draw a line in the Tipperary sand, to make and distribute top-notch beer from behind it, is where this nomination comes from.
(Photo courtesy of Laura. Who's currently in Jamaica, so the least we can do is nick her stuff.)

Best Overseas Brewery: De Molen
For consistent wows. Beer after beer of brilliance, to the point where a white label with plain black text turns me into Pavlov's beer drinker. Though I'd like to add an honourable mention for Cantillon of Brussels, whose public brewday in March was one of the best days out I had all year.

Pub/Bar of the Year: The Bull & Castle
A no-brainer. A consistently good selection; the introduction of regular cask beer; the continued tolerance of homebrewers treating the place as a club house. I'm proud to call it my local, even though I have to pass at least half a dozen pubs to get there.

Beer Festival of the Year: Hilden
For proper festival atmosphere it has to be Hilden -- the last weekend in August. This year was better than ever, with an extra bar, more shelter, and a bigger crowd of my beery friends. The Franciscan Well at Easter is the AGM of Irish brewing, but Hilden is the after-party.

Supermarket of the Year
: Tesco
I've probably bought more beer in Superquinn than any other supermarket this year. Their commitment to diversity and changing the palate of the Irish beer drinker deserves enormous applause. But Tesco's occasional discounting of Brooklyn Lager has made it the bigger influence on my day-to-day drinking in 2009. Mmm... Brooklyn Lager.

Independent Retailer of the Year: Deveney's Dundrum
A blog; a monthly beer tasting; a forthcoming festival; a consistently wide range of beers. Deveney's has become a regular supplier for me this year, and Ruth's commitment to beervangelism is highly commendable.

Online Retailer of the Year: DrinkStore
Another easy one. Ken and Richard were pushing an open door when they set-up a website through which buyers nationwide can assemble a case of whatever quality beers they want and have it delivered at a reasonable rate. The days when decent beer was limited to Ireland's big cities only are over.

Best Beer Book: Hops & Glory
A daft category, Mark. One beer book has been head and shoulders above the rest. You'll laugh; you'll cry; you'll get very very thirsty. Actually, you've probably already read Hops & Glory. Why am I even bothering? Honourable mention to Ben McFarland's World's Best Beers -- a lavish coffee table job, but well assembled with virtually no filler beers (you know the ones I mean -- the national icons that are really worthless macrocrap) and a great section on beer and food.

Best Beer Blog: Zythophile
I've ticked so many beer bloggers (yeah, I ticked you when you weren't looking; feel dirty now?) that it's hard to separate the blog from the person, so I'm limiting this to beer bloggers I've not actually met, and despite a too-long hiatus, Martyn Cornell is still top of the pile for style and content.

Best Beer Twitterer: @beerinator
The wittiest of the beer Twitterers. Pointing out "Goose Island cask stout is better than you. No offense" is what got me into Twitter in the first place.

Best Online Interactive Brewery:
I'm not awarding this one. Sure, there are loads of breweries doing some great interactive stuff at the moment. But of the ones that make a difference in my normal drinking life: nada. Most have poorly maintained websites; some have Facebook and Twitter accounts where nothing happens for months. Irish breweries are terrible at the Internet, and until that changes I can't think why anyone should be commended here. Must try harder.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year: Bull & Castle Fisherman's Pie with Galway Hooker
Reuben put me on to this one, and I've never looked back. The hot, cheesey, fishy, spuddy, rib-sticking goodness of the pie meeting the chilled, sparkly, bitter bite of the pale ale is classic.

Open Category: Best Beer Town: Amsterdam
I've hit lots of great beer cities this year. York was a fantastic discovery and highly recommended. But it's always going to be Amsterdam for me, for Wildeman and Arendsnest (right) alone. Throw in Bierkoning (whence my sahti) and Cracked Kettle; Gollem and Belgique; 't IJ and BeerTemple; and Amsterdam is my beer heaven. Plus, you meet a better class of drunk in the pubs there.

Next Year I’d Most Like To...: Go to Copenhagen
At the moment my one ambition for 2010 is the Danske Ølentusiaster festival in Copenhagen on 6-8 May. The last one, back in 2008, was unutterably brilliant (and by "unutterably" I mean I went on about it at considerable length last September). I'm well up for that again, and hope that by writing it down here I'll be more likely to do something about organising myself to go.

Which brings us neatly back to Scandinavia. It's possible that my foreign bottled beer judgement might have been different if I'd opened the gorgeous looking Norwegian winter ales Knut gave me a few weeks ago, but I haven't yet. Perhaps they'll feature next year.

17 December 2009

More than pants

On my last trip up North I made a point of checking out the beer selection in Marks and Spencer, having heard interesting things about their new range. I hadn't expected it to be quite so extensive, however, and found myself having to choose carefully for transport purposes. As was I came away with just four, but I thought I'd picked the ones that would best suit my tastes. (And hooray to M&S for having beers that are even suggestive of my tastes).

Dark 'n' strong is one of the ways I like 'em, so the Christmas Ale from Cropton was a definite. It's an appropriate shade of dark red-brown, pouring quite flat and nearly headless. The nose gives off a suspicious plastic whiff, as of a Christmas-themed air-freshener. My first taste impression was good -- sweet and chocolatey, overlaid with lots of cinnamon and clove. The light, thin body was a warning sign, though, especially in a supposed 6.5% ABV warmer. Beneath the seasonal flavours there's a certain citric edge, one which reminded me of mulled wine when the fresh oranges and lemons have just gone in. Mrs Beer Nut described it as "cheap champagne-cider with orange juice", thereby demonstrating she's a veteran of many more crappy Christmas drinks receptions than I. Still, I was enjoying the beer and decided to let it warm up a bit to see if it rounded out any. And it sort of does, just not in a good way. That plasticky spice sensation enters the flavour and it starts being tough going to drink while still being rather thin: a mortal sin. So, despite my sweet tooth and fondness for spiced beer, this one just doesn't cut it.

Something along similar lines happened with the Cheshire Chocolate Porter. The alarm bells started here with the ingredients listing: "Wheat syrup"? Is that just to beef up the gravity to reach 6% ABV? The beer itself pours a remarkably pale amber colour. Once again it's very thin and I found the chocolate flavour to be horribly artificial. And yet again, as it warmed it got worse, even sicklier. Though this time Mrs Beer Nut lapped it up and asked for more. Dunno what that's about.

Back to the wintery brews, and I confess to being rather sceptical at first about Southwold Winter Beer, a seasonal ale brewed to just 4% ABV. It pours a clear shade of copper and balances some seriously heavy caramel sweetness with a solid, funky English Fuggles bitterness. I thought for a second I detected a hint of skunkiness, but after a moment I realised it was more of a mineral sulphur vibe, the sort I love in crisp Adnams Bitter. Could this be..? Yes, it's brewed by Adnams. Well that makes sense. I still don't know how far I'd venture to label it a "winter" beer, but as a beer and nothing else, it's lovely. A summer session on this would suit me fine.

And lastly the one that caught my eye before all the others: M&S Scottish Ale. It's brewed with thistles! Thistles! It didn't disappoint either -- another dark ruby body, though with loads of fizz through it. It remains entirely drinkable, however. The flavour starts with a flash of spicy ginger and follows it quickly with a herbal complication which, I'm guessing, is from the dried pointy lads they've thrown it at some point. The finish is dry, maybe leaning slightly towards metallic, but I loved it and could quaff it merrily. More thistle beer please.

Though more of any of this lot would be good, to be honest. I went along to a Dublin branch of M&S and was pleased to see that a number of beers in the range had made it across the Irish Sea: about five lagers and four or so ciders. And the Cheshire Porter. And that's it. It's such a stupid, facile, misreading of the market. Yes, Irish people drink lager and cider (and black beer to a certain extent) more than anything else. But they drink it branded. Giving them a fake Heineken and a fake Bulmer's isn't going to work. And I doubt the people who pay M&S prices for their booze will be tempted. Conversely, British ale is a novelty. It could very easily be one of those things you go to Marks for because you can't get it elsewhere -- think Scotch eggs; think pork pies. It seems incredibly short-sighted, to this amateur market analyst, but there you go. One bit of cross-border shopping our recent excise duty cut won't prevent.

14 December 2009

Caning it

The festive season has been a busy one for me recently. There's been something on pretty much every evening since I got back from London. Between pub crawls, the work do, catching up with people I've not seen in ages, I'm just about partied out. Tragically, I didn't even have time to dig out some pics for Alan's photo competition this year (it'll be double the quality for 2010, Alan -- wait and see). Just two more events -- tonight and tomorrow -- and that's it, I'll be hanging up the humbugs and barricading myself into the house with just my beer stash to keep me company.

However, I'm immensely proud that at none of these engagements have I had to stoop to drinking bad beer. Beer I didn't especially like, perhaps, but nothing from the Big Two or otherwise undesirable has crossed my lips in quite a while. When one doesn't get to choose the venue for these things, that's quite an achievement in my book. Though socialising with beery people does tend to help with the steering clear.

Wednesday's pre-Budget search for low-cost quality in the Dublin on-trade finished up in the Bull & Castle, where they'd just taken a shipment of Sierra Nevada Celebration. This is a relatively powerful winter beer -- 6.8% ABV but warm and heavy enough to pass for even stronger. The intense hopping has made it extremely bitter, and to my taste it's all a bit too much: whatever's being Celebrated here, it's not a cause I support. And before I get called a hop-grinch, I'll note that the stronger and hoppier Torpedo IPA from Sierra Nevada is much more enjoyable than this is. So there.

As I photographed my beer like the weirdo I am, one of our merry band of pub-crawlers (hi Richard!) asked me if I'd be rating it based on that one single tasting. Of course I said that I would, in full recognition that it wouldn't necessarily give me a definitive opinion on the beer, and adding that more fragile brews, like cask ales for instance, are much harder to get a full impression of with just one glass. But nowhere does this blog claim to offer a full and fair evaluation of every beer mentioned. Really I'm just making this stuff up to fill space.

However, it just so happened that the following evening saw the last Deveney's Beer Club tasting session of the year. The theme, funnily enough, was winter beers and Ruth had Celebration in the line-up. So I got to try it again on a fresh palate, and I can categorically state that it's not for me. I hope you're happy with that, Richard.

Also on the roster on Thursday was the 2009 edition of Anchor's Our Special Ale. This was much better than the 2008 one I had back in the spring -- loaded with zingy seasonal spices set on a cosily warm dark malt base. Goose Island's Mild Winter is rather less of a full-on sort of a sensation. Yes, it's dark and has some lovely smooth and subtle caramel tones in it, but it keeps itself to itself, with no major exciting flavours jumping out. Mild indeed, and quite the converse of the Goose Island Christmas Ale. This is a big 7%-er in a 65cl bottle, and like the Anchor version it's made to a different recipe each year. Again, like San Franciscan, the spices run amok on the palate creating a whole sequence of piquant sensations. But right next to them there's a hefty wodge of those oh-so-typical sherbety Goose Island hops, the ones which should be familar to anyone who's had their IPA (which should be everyone). An adorable beer, and possibly my favourite of the many seasonals knocking around at the moment.

Soon, I will find the time to give them a proper tasting. And adjust this post if I need to...

11 December 2009

By royal disappointment

Last week the Franciscan Well released its 2009 Christmas ale, under the jolly seasonal name of 3 Kings. Having adored last year's mad maple syrup and ginger confection, Phúca, I was well up for what Russell and the Cork gang had for us this time round. When I heard there was rauchmalt involved, I was off to the Bull & Castle at the earliest opportunity.

Unfortunately the reality didn't live up to expectation. Yes, there's smoke there, but rather than the hammy goodness I love, it's the rather harsh iodine-like smokiness you get in the likes of Laphroaig scotch. The late great Messrs Maguire Imperial had this as well, but it was balanced against the sweetness of dark roasted malts. Here there's just more bitterness and no cheery seasonal spices or warming sweetness. It rounded out a little as it warmed, and I did manage to get through two mugs of it -- Mrs Beer Nut not able to handle more than a mouthful -- but it was a disappointing experience.

Thankfully, Colin and 9 Bean Row of California Wine Imports were on hand to whisk us us away from all the pain. It was Colin's birthday and celebrations were in full swing at the Irish Museum of Contemporary Art -- celebrations which included a keg of the fabulous Speakeasy Big Daddy IPA. When this ran out it was replaced with Gordon Biersch Märzen, just as solid a lager on draught as it is from the bottle, and nice to get a full pint of. Thanks for a fun evening, guys.

And back to Irish beer to finish. Carlow Brewing now have an Irish red -- Traditional Irish Ale -- in Aldi's own-brand line-up. When I first heard of it I assumed it was rebadged O'Hara's Red, and the ABV is the same, but anyone I know who's tried it has said it's different. Only one thing could settle this (well, I could of course have asked the brewer, but where's the fun in that?): a taste-off.

They're both the same colour, and I got a better head from the Aldi one, though I put that down to it being at a slightly higher temperature when serving. First impressions confirmed that these are not the same beer. They're similar, though, and it took me a while to figure out how. The Aldi ale is heavier and warmer than O'Hara's, and finishes drier. It might not look darker, but it tastes it. The O'Hara's compensates with a bit more spice shining through the sweetness.

Interesting that Carlow have opted for the world "traditional" on both beers. This is a tradition that doesn't date further back than about 1960, when Guinness finally took complete control of Irish ale brewing and set about downgrading the national pale ale to appeal to a wider audience and extend its shelf life. As a result, beer that was probably indistinguishable hitherto from English bitter, became what Michael Jackson in the following decade dubbed "Irish red". It follows that when English breweries followed suit -- kegging and blandening their beers -- they'd end up with the same thing. I got to put this theory into practice recently when Dave set up a blind tasting of red ales that I went along to, with Mrs Beer Nut, Laura and Séan.

O'Hara's came away as the favourite of most -- that signature piquancy comes out far more in the keg version than the bottle. Just about no-one in the group was able to express a preference between Smithwick's and kegged Bass, and it was a 50-50 for who could guess which was which (they're both watery rubbish). They are, essentially, the same beer, proving my theory. One of the upshots is that if one were foolish enough to decide that "Irish red ale" is a beer style all its own, then you'd have to include John Smith's Extra Smooth, and the keg versions of beers like Worthington's in there too. Probably kegged London Pride and Bombardier, for that matter. Daft.

Nevertheless, I hereby claim Watney's Red Barrel as the sovereign territory of Irish ale. Where's my flag?

10 December 2009

At the finish up

Since they re-arranged the departures section of Heathrow Terminal 1, I've always looked forward to bookending every visit to London with a pint of Adnams Bitter -- the best of the common London session ales in my estimation. I'll usually nip into the landside Wetherspoon beforehand, as there's often something I've never had. Thankfully, the airport was quiet last Friday evening so Wetherspoon (properly "The Sky Lark", to give it a name which speaks of a pleasantness it doesn't have) wasn't as awful as when it's jam-packed. One of the four handpumps was Moorhouse Black Panther and I figured that was worth a swift half. Nah: boring. The opaque porter has a little bit of chocolate and a whisper of plums, but very little besides. I downed it and headed for the departure lounge and my Adnams.

Disaster! The Tin Goose had no Adnams, but there was a beer I didn't recognise: Flowers IPA. Post-drinking research reveals this to be one of those cask beers that a foreign multinational (A-B InBev, in this case) now owns and has decided to keep on for some reason, with brewing contracted out to a brewer who knows how to do it (Badger, in this case). It's not half bad, believe it or not. Maybe it's the name, but I got a definite floral, lavender sort of vibe from it. Yes, it's a bit watery, but as a beer in a hurry it was great. Still would have preferred an Adnams, mind *sniff*.

And that, finally, brought my latest excursion to London to an end. In the words of Ronnie McGrew, whatta town.

08 December 2009

Crawl of Fame

An Irishman, an American and a Norwegian walk into a bar...

I caught up with Knut Albert in Borough Market just before 11 on Friday. He was finishing one of the delicious-looking pies from the stall opposite Utobeer. As we browsed the shelves, along came Zak Avery and Marks Dredge and Fletcher, all looking remarkably fresh-faced, given the previous night's revellries at the British Guild of Beer Writers (I always imagine it being something like the Stonecutters in The Simpsons).

When The Market Porter opened for business, Knut and I were straight in, to begin a long day of beering around London. The final member of Team Beer Quest -- Ally -- arrived a little later. After the previous day's excellent lager experience, I started with Meantime Helles. This isn't a patch on Moravka, however. Instead of the soft bready smoothness I'd expect from a Munich Helles, this is sharp and bitter, and quite earthy, presumably made with English hops. There was a nasty stale mustiness to it as well. It stayed on the good side of drinkable, but it was a bad start to the day. Knut wasn't doing much better, with his Freeminer Iron Brew. The flavour has a little bit of sweet biscuit and a lot of long-lasting disinfectant: think Hob-Nobs dipped in Dettol. Ack!

Things picked up with a beer called Sauvin Blanc, by Pictish. As the name implies, this pale golden ale is packed with the complex aromatic hop Nelson Sauvin. It's supremely bitter and almost becomes harsh, but doesn't. Instead, the lush grapey fruit flavours charm the palate, and last for ages after swallowed. It completely buried whatever flavour was in Knut's Labeski IPA so I'll leave him to tell you what that was like.

At noon, Ally, Knut and I headed round to The Rake, where we found Melissa Cole holding forth at the tiny bar (if all the name dropping is bothering you, tough: there's loads more to come). Highlight of the staggeringly amazing draught selection there was Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA. This Californian is 7% ABV but tastes about half that. It's light and fruity, with peaches and melons aplenty, plus a bonus lip-smacking bitter grapefruit finish. There was also a bottle of BrewDog Nanny State waiting for Knut. Everyone made the appropriate disgusted noises at this 1.1% ABV super-hopped brown "beer" (you can see from the photo how impressed Knut was with it), but there was something in it I quite liked. Yes, the aroma is terrible, like hops boiled in water, but the flavour has a certain charm to it, with a distinct toasty, roasty coffee thing going on just before the bitterness kicks in.

While I was savouring these very different taste sensations, the two Marks had caught up with us, and opted to stay on at The Rake while we headed off, taking Mr Dredge's directions to The Greenwich Union -- just two stops on the train from London Bridge. This is Meantime's brewery tap and is as smart, clean and modern as everything else with their brand on it. I went for the Smoked Bock, a red-brown lager which I found a little disappointing, being all bock and little smoke. Just a little bit of caramel which comes out as it warms redeems it. There was also a shared bottle of the fabulous London Porter, and when the stragglers caught up with us there was an interesting comparison of the cask and keg London Pale Ale, neither of which were up to much: lacking the zip and zing of the bottled version. This, Mr Dredge said, is an unusual state of affairs.

Leaving that enigma behind, the Fellowship of the Pint Pot returned to central London. The journey was not uneventful, with Ally having to cut up rough with one of those ogres that live under London Bridge and attempt to block the path of innocent wayfarers. With the foul creature bested in combat and Ally's quarterstaff cleaned of ogre brains, we marched on The Wenlock Arms as darkness fell.

The Wenlock is a freehouse in a residential/industrial area of the north inner city. It looks rather out of place there, almost like it's on a film set. I found out later that it started life as the tap of the Wenlock Brewery, though these days it's known for its diverse selection of cask ales. Inside it's homely, and was quite cramped with the Friday after-work and instead-of-work crowd enjoying themselves. Dark Star's Over The Moon was my first choice: a very drinkable dark brown bitter with lovely tannic peach notes, for a superb thirst-quenching quality. I scored a second time with Horsham Old Ale which had all the plums and toffee that I want in an old ale. The rest of the team weren't so lucky, there was the grainy and flat Shake, Ramble & Roll, the marginally more interesting caramel-tinged Spearfish and the bitterly smoky Newcastle United-themed Loony Toons, which was just a bit too full-on to be the sessioner it would like to be.

Ally took her leave of us at this point, and the rest of the League of Extraordinary Drunks hailed a hansom cab, instructing the driver to bring us to Clerkenwell without sparing the horses. The Gunmaker's was already spilling out into the street, and a veritable beer bloggers' jamboree was going on inside -- Jeff was run off his feet with the crowds, Woolpack Dave was around, and Ron Pattinson was propping up the bar. I don't remember a whole lot of detail about the pints of Purity Mad Goose and Harviestoun Haggis Hunter I had, only that they're decent, unfussy drinkers, with the former pale and hop-driven while the latter is ochre and sweeter. Both were consumed while having a good old chinwag with Ron, whence, of course, I picked up that nugget about The Wenlock's history.

6.30 meant that my quest was at an end and I departed for Heathrow. Hell of a day, that. I know it's been said before, by me and by others, but just to repeat: beer people are the best bloody people in t'whole wide world. Cheers, all.

So, while my part in the epic drinkathon was over (I believe it continued later back at Pig's Ear), my day's beering hadn't quite finished yet...

07 December 2009

The whitest room in Hackney

For the third year running, early December has me in London for work stuff. When I escaped on Thursday evening and sauntered over to Hackney for the Pig's Ear Festival, my first stop was the nearby Pembury Tavern, one of London's pantheon of top-notch beer outlets. I was quite surprised by the interior -- eschewing any plushness, it's all hardwood, rickety tables and chairs chosen more for function than form. The large open space makes the whole place feel more like a parish hall than a pub. There were a dozen or so handpumps, but it was the keg font that caught my eye first: Moravka, a renowned Czech-style lager brewed in Taddington in Derbyshire. Its reputation is well-deserved: there's that grassy saaz aroma coming off a firm, almost greasy, body of malt. It's insanely drinkable and really should have been called "More-avka". I wasn't alone in liking it as every single other punter in the pub was drinking it too.

Time for one more, and I opted for Milestone's Sup-Porter. 'Tis the season, and all that. It's another powerful-smelling beer, this time of strong coffee. The body was a dark shade of ruby with very little condition to it, and the texture quite thin. It avoids tasting of cold coffee by letting up on the roasted flavours and allowing a little sour dark fruit kick at the finish. Only towards the end of the glass did the wateriness start to irk me. Time to move on.

I caught up with Team RateBeer at their usual table in the Ocean, where Pig's Ear was in full swing. The line up was very heavy on dark beers, which suited me fine. First up, Dark Star Porter which had little by way of roasted grain flavours but lots of lovely sour fruitiness: plums, damsons and the like, giving it an almost Belgian complexity. I decided to leave their imperial stout to the end, foolishly, as it was taken off before I got to taste it.

I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try Gadd's Faithful Dogbolter porter, another one I've read much about. Once again, it's fruits over roastedness, this time light summery ones such as raspberries and redcurrants. It doesn't sound very portery but it works really well, with supreme drinkability. At the other end of the spectrum was Shropshire Stout: loaded with nasty phenols for a severe TCP sharpness. A dry finish takes the edge off, but not enough to save the beer, and it gets its revenge with the bad bandage burps it induces. Evil.

Farmers Stout was much better: not particularly complex or different, just light and mild easy drinking with a hint of chocolate. Perfect for sipping while catching up with the banter around the table. And as the evening started to draw to a close, I got the one and only imperial stout of the evening in, Transforming Tomorrow by Cambridge Moonshine (sounds like a pedigree dog). This was pancake-flat and showed its from-the-wood credentials very clearly with a fresh and sappy wood flavour. In with that there's sticky toffee, dry roasted grain, and lots of heady alcohol. A lovely sipper. I'm not sure where Yates's Yule Be Sorry gets classified -- it's dark and strong but not stouty -- but it's lovely: very drinkable with a fascinating dry and funky complexity.

A few pale ales passed my lips during the evening. Skinner's Betty's Big Sister was one of them. There's a nice touch of fruitiness from the hops, but it's otherwise as unimpressive as the rest of the Skinner's range. Hog's Back A Over T strong ale was a lot better. At 9% ABV it has some very wine-like characteristics, yet avoids being any way hot or boozy. There are sweet strawberry flavours in it and just a tiny hops sharpness at the back, all set on a gently sparkling base. I was impressed.

Top pale ale of the evening, though, was an even stronger one -- the 10% ABV Pitfield Stock Ale. There were all manner of things going on here: juicy grapes, sweet sherry, and lots and lots of fresh English hops. Tasty and wonderfully warming.

I thought the foreign bar was a bit lacking at Pig's Ear this year, with not much from the Italians. However, one particular beer made up for all of this. De Molen produced a festival special, though without doing an actual new brew. Lood & Oud IJzer is a blend of two of Menno's top beers: Rasputin imperial stout and Amarillo American-style pale ale. The resulting reddish ale wears its bitter and fruity West Coast hops up front, but adds in the heavy stout body and the vanilla barrel flavour. Somehow, there's also a Belgian-style spiciness to it as well. Amazing. I've no idea why he thought it would work.

Kicking-out time was at an unreasonably reasonable hour, and I sauntered across to my lodgings, The Old Ship. I noticed on my way through the bar that they had Landlord on, so I decided to have my third ever pint of that while they cleared the non-residents (everyone else), and see if I could figure out what all the fuss was about. My two previous pints of this Yorkshire bitter were both in London and both had the same nasty harshness to them. At the Old Ship, however, they've got it right. All of the honey and peaches were where they should be, making for a lovely nightcap, cutting easily through my jaded palate.

A second pint was tempting, but I turned in early, leaving my drinking boots under the bed, ready to go on again the following day.

04 December 2009

Call and Bustle

Session logoThe number of pubs around Dublin which carry at least some drinkable beer is getting bigger. Our national microbreweries are doing a great job of getting out there and convincing managers and owners that their product has something going for it. Yet the city's Beer Central remains on a pedestal, and is the subject of this month's Session.

The Bull & Castle has changed a lot since it converted from being a scummy inner city boozer to being the epicentre of Ireland's tentative craft beer revolution. The range of draught beers continues ever upwards, with the wonderful O'Hara's Red being the latest permanent addition to the line-up, while the capacious fridge now includes the two bottle-conditioned Porterhouse beers, Plain and Hop Head. Best of all, earlier this year the management installed a beer engine, whence has poured some great Carlow beers, including two new draught-only dry-hopped ales, Malty Bitches and Goods Store IPA -- both raising the bar for the quality of Irish beer generally.

Any wonder, then, that the Bull & Castle is the headquarters for Dublin's beer aficionados. If this wasn't enough, the home brewers get some fairly special treatment, with the upstairs beerhall hosting a tasting night every month where all-comers can bring their own beers, share them round, and generally geek out on zymurgy.

Of course no proper beer connoisseur is ever completely happy with what pubs do, so it's only fair that I throw in a few criticisms. Top of my list is the halbe glass: a German-style half-litre mug that's the preferred vessel in which most of the beers (though not the cask ones) are served. Aside from not being a proper pint, the tall narrow glass is terrible for bringing out aromas. The restaurantiness of the downstairs bar during the evening is also a bit irksome -- once you have a please-wait-to-be-seated inside the door, you've stopped being a pub. Ordinarily I don't mind nipping up to the beerhall instead, but at weekends that gets impossibly crowded, and with the DJ in full flow it's not the place for a pint and a chat.

But these are minor issues. I remember all too well what Dublin was like in the days when looking for decent beer meant either drink in the Porterhouse or stay home (and of course I still enjoy both). There are beers available today which I doubt would have an outlet but for the Bull & Castle.

This month's Session is called "Stumbling Home", with an emphasis on the transport aspects of beer connoisseurdom. Fortunately the Bull & Castle is a mere three miles or so from my gaff and well served by buses. Dublin's noble city fathers have also seen fit to position a municipal rental bike depot right outside the front door. Even were I possessed of my own motorised transport, I doubt I'd be bringing it the pub.

On one recent stumble home, I brought back a bottle of beer the manager on duty, Declan, had donated to me. It was a sample left by a wholesaler and I had spotted it from my barstool by its unusual bottle shape, but that doesn't seem to have been enough to win it a place on the stocklist. Viru hails from Tartu, though appears to have been commissioned by a UK importer. It's not too bad, I thought, being sweet and smooth, in the style of a Munich helles. I don't know how long it had been sitting in that fridge, but it could definitely benefit from being fresher. This one had started to unravel a bit at the edges and turn unpleasantly stale. Still, far better than I expected an Estonian lager in a novelty bottle would be.

Cask beer; rare beer; home-made beer; free beer. And people to talk to about it. The Bull & Castle is pretty much as good as it gets around here.

02 December 2009

Dark enough

December is upon us, a long way from the scorching heat of July in Manchester (all right, it was freezing cold and pissing rain, but you get the idea). At the door of the Marble Arch pub, Tandleman proffered to me a bottle of Lees Moonraker and one of the brewery's trademark "Get A Grip" pint glasses. Both have lain dormant as the seasons passed, waiting for the right moment.

With the start of winter proper, hail, fog and all the rest of it, that moment has definitely arrived. I should point out that I was singularly unimpressed with Moonraker the first time I had it. The phenols leapt out of the glass and assaulted my senses in a most improper fashion. So there was more than a little trepidation as I approached the hopefully-tamer bottled edition.

It pours a deep and murky chestnut shade, mysterious and alluring. A sniff reveals those phenols, but they're much more toned down compared to what I feared, though there's still more than a hint of marker pen about the aroma. None of that on tasting, though. Instead it's all about the spices: I got an eastern sort of vibe, with ginger and allspice. This sits on a solid base of chocolate-coated toffee, you know the really hard ones? The finish is heady and warming, with 7.5% ABV providing a rush of alcohol into the sinuses. About half way down I realised that the heat and complexity make this far more similar to a Belgian dubbel than any other English strong ale I've had. And it's definitely another beer which works better from the bottle than the cask.

Continuing the winter theme, I ramped things down a notch with the relatively lightweight Rosey Nosey from Bateman's, one of my favourite British breweries. At a piffling 4.9% ABV, I wasn't expecting a similar sort of warmth from it, and I was right. There's sort of a spiced candy nose and the taste is subtle (for a Christmas ale), letting the hops do all the work, rather than any exotic flavours. It's quite bitter, bearing a striking resemblance to the brewery's excellent XXXB, with added subtle floral overtones and a dry finish.

It's not a beer to get excited about, and certainly not one to save up one bottle of for the Big Day. Rather, we have a plain-spoken sessionable winter warmer which, quite frankly, I'd be happy to drink all year round.