25 February 2010

Patron saint of hopless cases

I had vague recollections of hearing good things about Odell's St Lupulin when I saw it for sale. It's a 6.5% ABV summer ale, with a name that promises big things in the hop department. I'm never sure with strong American beers whether that's going to be a good thing or a bad thing. There's only one way to find out.

The beers pours a rather sickly and pale cloudy yellow -- my camera is being very flattering to it over on the right there. The aroma is bubblegum and lemon washing-up liquid: equal parts alluring and repellant. A grey yeasty deposit stayed over in the bottom of the bottle.

The first thing that struck me on sipping was the body. Disappointingly thin for such a strong beer with no mouth-coating effect leaving little by way of residual flavours. The first notes are a sharp bitterness, with a dull tang on the end suggesting some mild oxidation not quite covered by the citric west-coast hops. The flavour rises to a sugary Juicy Fruit crescendo, then crashes out into wateriness in quite an unsatisfactory sort of way.

In fairness the bottle didn't last long -- I sunk the whole lot in just a few minutes without dwelling on it too much, and maybe that's how it's supposed to be treated. It's just very odd to find a beer that has both sweetness and bitterness in spades yet offers very little by way of balance.

22 February 2010

Tribal imbibements

Friday saw me in Galway where one of the ICB lads had arranged a visit to Ireland's newest brewpub, Oslo in Salthill. Straight off the train my first stop was Sheridan's on the Docks -- a cosy watering hole where the beer list is conscientiously chosen and the macro taps are overshadowed by huge fonts for Budvar, Staropramen and Galway Hooker. It was a pint of the hoppy local that quenched my thirst before I moved on.

Destination two was a new pub for me. The Salt House is part of the chain which includes Oslo, and I was lured in by the promise of cask White Gypsy ale. Sadly, while the engine was in place, the tap was dry and I made do with a pint of Porterhouse Oyster. The pub is a narrow and compact boozer offering free wi-fi and a fantastic range of beers. The guest tap was pouring a deliciously spicy Messrs Maguire Weiss and I had that to accompany the burger I brought in from Mustard, a nearby restaurant under the same ownership. The Salt House is open from 3pm and is managed by James: a kiwi beer fanatic with a robust approach to customers seeking the bland usuals he doesn't stock. It's a definite must for drinking in Galway.

On then to Oslo, in the centre of Galway's seaside suburb of Salthill. This is on a much grander scale, stretching back from the front door along a long bar to a large saloon at the back. Windows here offer a peek at the stainless steel vessels of the Bay Brewery where John the brewmaster plies his trade. They don't have a kegging setup as yet so the beer is pumped directly from the bright tanks to the bar. Two beers are on offer at the moment: Bay Lager and Bay Ale. The former is probably going to come as a surprise to the unsuspecting yellow fizz drinker: it's orange and cloudy for one thing and tastes very dry and crisp. There's a touch of oxidised cardboard in it and I got a mild appley vibe as it warmed. Bay Lager is a work in progress, I'd say. The red Bay Ale is a far more rounded product. It's very much malt-driven and is full of sweet biscuity notes, though the hopping is generous too, adding a lovely fruity dimension to the finish -- definitely one of the better examples of the Irish red out there.

From the wide bottled selection I got a chance to try the 16-year Ola Dubh. It's not very different to the one aged in 12-year-old whisky barrels, but the phenols are more pronounced. It's tasty, but I think I prefer the milder incarnation. I wonder does the marker-pen taste get bigger and bigger with the ascending age of the barrels? If so, I dread to think what the forthcoming 40-year edition will be like.

The group adjourned to The Salt House afterwards for a few Hooker nightcaps and Galway was still partying when we turned in.

It was great fun and I'd like to thank Tom who arranged things and all the crew at Oslo and The Salt House for their generous hospitality. Oslo will be hosting the first Brewers on the Bay festival of Irish craft beer this May Bank Holiday weekend. It promises to be a fantastic couple of days.

18 February 2010

Suffolk 'n' tasty

Of the plain brown bitters commonly served in the pubs of London, Adnams is my favourite. There is, I think, a distinctive flavour to all Adnams beers. It's a crisp, dry, almost sulphurous mineral quality which I'm guessing comes from their water. And I love it. Late last year I noticed how it carries over into the winter session beer they make for Marks & Spencer. And then my local supermarket began carrying Adnams beers in bottles. I was all over that.

First up, Lighthouse, and props to whomever decided to put a 3.4% ABV beer on the market in Ireland -- a country where light lagers have to make it clear that they're at least 4.2% ABV or no-one will buy them, and where the only mainstream sub-4% ale goes to great lengths to hide its lack of intoxicating power (today's challenge: go to the swish new Smithwicks website and see if you can find out how strong it actually is). Lighthouse is indeed light, and the lack of body leaves it just a bit on the gassy side. The flavour is mild toffee and caramel, with that signature mineral character, perhaps just fading to soapiness at the end. All-in-all I found it very similar to the M&S one. On the far side of €3, however, it represents similarly poor value. Someone's having a laugh with the pricing gun here, I reckon.

For the same sort of money you can get a bottle of Innovation, much better suited to the ABV-conscious Irish palate at 6.7%. And in conjunction with Lighthouse we get an excellent lesson in the role alcohol plays in flavour complexity. The cloudy orange-amber ale isn't at all boozy -- the aroma is all alluring and exotic spiced citrus fruits. The base of the flavour is a light tannic tea layer, with a sweet and perfumed Riesling level above it, and then a topping of zingy orange sherbet. Wonderful sophistication and utterly perfect balance. Amazingly for a beer this strength it's fantastic as a cooling refresher and one I'll definitely be keeping in mind for sunny summer evenings.

Remember those? No, me neither.

15 February 2010

With all Jew respect

Knut Albert was hovering behind me as I made my selections at Utobeer. While I was still boggling at the selection on the shelves he leaned over and pointed out Bittersweet Lenny's RIPA by American brewery Shmaltz, giving it a glowing endorsement. It's a 10% ABV double IPA with added rye and brewed in honour of the late Lenny Bruce as part of Shmaltz's Jewish Stars tribute series.

The first thing that struck me was the texture: it's very thick and pours slowly from the bomber, the ivory head settling slowly, almost like it's nitrogenated. On the first pull it coats the mouth and is very nearly chewy -- one of those knife-and-fork beers.

Oddly, it doesn't have much to say for itself aromawise. There's just a mild herb-infused toffee vapour from the surface. Toffee is the dominant flavour, underlaid with hot boozy sherry notes. The big hops start fruity -- lychees and peaches -- but run the gamut through oily, roughly bitter, metallic, to finish with an acid burn in the back of the throat. Hopwise it's less of a beer and more a tour of duty. The finish is oddly quick, yet because of the thickness there's a residual flavour left behind. It's only here that the grassy notes from the rye are apparent. Frankly, that's a good thing in my book. I'm just not a fan of rye in beer.

I'm not sure Knut's enthusiasm is justified. It's certainly a huge and interesting beer, and I wouldn't be so gauche as to accuse it of lacking balance or subtlety. But the soupy consistency just doesn't do it for me.

11 February 2010

Beers in the sun

Dave and Laura were kind enough to bring me back some tropical drinking from their winter trip to Jamaica. All stouts, of course: the preferred drink of hot country dwellers with any sense.

First up, one of those just-plain-bizarre throwback beers you meet from time to time in foreign parts. Mackeson's is an old brand of English stout, now part of the A-B InBev family, and sold for cooking purposes in the UK. I've never got round to trying it, but you can read Thom's account of it here. Over in Trinidad, however, the name is still pitched at drinkers rather than chefs, centred on Mackeson Triple, a milk stout of 4.9% ABV. They seem to have taken a typically laid-back approach to updating the labelling machine in accordance with global developments in the beer trade, as it claims to have been brewed for "Interbrew UK Ltd". That was two mergers ago, lads.

It pours gloopily to form an opaque black body, showing red tints only at the edges. The head is a very dark shade of tan as a final indicator of the sort of density involved -- you can say goodbye to any keyboard this gets accidentally spilled on. Unsurprisingly, the texture is smooth with just a pleasant tingle of sparkle and the taste is equally unsurprisingly sweet. After the initial massive sugar hit there's a slight metallic tang and then a sweet roasted finish of the sort you might expect from caramelised onions or roasted sweet peppers. A sticky residue remains on the lips and I don't want to know what it's doing to my teeth. On the whole it's a very drinkable affair despite the lashings of sugar.

Dragon I'd had before, knowing it to be another thick and sweet stout. It's a fair bit stronger at 7.5% ABV so I was shocked to discover it's nowhere near as sweet as the Mackeson. It's paler too, with a head that's off-white rather than tan, and the flavour overall is almost understated, certainly less in-your-face than the Trinidadian. It's balanced, but balance can be over-rated.

Finally, from the same brewery, the Jamaican version of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. I grabbed a bottle of the Irish version to compare side-by-side and it's interesting even from the outside to compare them. Great Uncle Diageo has obviously decreed that the bottle shape and label design be the same, though the Jamaican is 275ml while the Irish one is 330ml, in accordance with packaging traditions in the respective regions. I'm guessing it's because Dragon occupies the 7.5% ABV niche that Guinness is a mere 6.5%, a full point weaker than the Dublin-brewed one. Knowing Foreign Extra to be quite a sour beer (it's the extra jolt of lactic acid that does it in this post-barrel-aging era) I was interested to see if the sweet-toothed Jamaicans would put up with that.

Short answer: they don't. Jamaican FES is certainly nowhere near as sugary as the other two, but it's still pretty sweet next to its European counterpart. There are extra heady phenols in there but it lacks the dry, sour complexity which makes Irish FES worth drinking. If you need a come-down from your Dragon-induced sugar high, Foreign Extra is the way to go in Jamaica, but it'll only take you some of the way. And if you're finding it too dry for your palate you can always do what the locals do and lash in some Red Bull. If that doesn't have you bouncing off the walls, nothing will.

I enjoyed getting to know these Caribbean beers, though I don't know how I'd survive in a world with a choice between just them and Red Stripe*. Oh yeah: rum.

*Or similar yellow fizz: expert commentary provided below by Melissa.

08 February 2010

A boutique festival

Tuesday of last week saw the Bull & Castle's beerhall given over to the first Deveney's of Dundrum Beer Festival, a modest affair: just 240 punters and a mere three hours of drinking time. Ruth had invited in the major distributors to hawk their wares from tables around the hall, and the varied crowd was as interesting as punters at Irish beer festivals always are. It's only at events like this that you get to stand behind someone inspecting the label of an exotic IPA and remarking to his friend how amazing it was that the beer had come all the way from India. Bless.

My first port of call was the California Wine Imports stall, debuting three new American beers, albeit from New Jersey rather than the more usual left-hand coast. River Horse Belgian Freeze was proferred first, a dark red-amber winter ale. I wasn't so keen on this. At 8% ABV it tastes very hot and boozy, with a bit of an unpleasant syrupiness added on to unsubtle banana notes. Hop Hazard was next -- a sessionable 5.5% ABV pale ale, in which the hop fruitiness is slightly jarringly set against a harsh bitterness, though there's not really enough of either for my taste. River Horse were zero-for-two until Hop-a-lot-amus was poured. This is an 8.5% ABV double IPA and has that intensely resinous hop bitterness I love. Harsh? Yes, maybe a little, but it works beautifully.

Over at Premier International, Dean McGuinness was showcasing Harviestoun's Ola Dubh 12, one of the barrel-aged versions of Old Engine Oil. There's a definite hit of marker-pen phenols in this, but I don't think it interferes with the rich and smooth chocolate flavours -- I'm looking forward to spending some more considered drinking time with this, and to trying the others in the range. After my recent shockingly-sweet experience with Maisel's Weisse, I gave the Maisel's Dunkel a go late in the evening and quite liked it. There's a decent bit of caramel without it being at all sugary. And at one point Mrs Beer Nut thrust a mystery beer at me, an amber affair which tasted weirdly porridgey. It turned out to be Hambleton's gluten-free GFA. Interesting, but not something I'd choose to drink unless I had to.

Anyone who asked me for recommendations got sent to the table where Goudenband was being poured. Next to it was Liefmans Cuvée Brut kriek which I'd never tried before. For some reason I'd thought it would be a bit more mature and sour but it's actually very sugary with just an underlying current of Rodenbach sourness. I'm not sure I approve -- it made my teeth hurt.

Grand Cru were serving 3 Monts, a French blonde I'd not had the pleasure of in ages. I like the soft fluffy texture and the not-too-bitter yeasty character: a lighter and more easy-going Duvel. Wally's team were also showcasing the latest from The Porterhouse bottle-conditioned line in the form of their strong ale, Brainblásta. I really enjoy the toffee-and-apples kick off this 7%-er, and the new version is wonderfully smooth and drinkable, toning down any harshness that may be present in the cold fizzy kegged edition. I noticed at the weekend that The Porterhouse have printed up beermats to promote the new release of their Celebration imperial stout. That'll make a welcome addition to the line-up for their annual stout festival in March.

It's great to welcome another new event to the growing Irish beer calendar, and it's extra good when they happen on my doorstep. Venues are always going to be difficult, but I'd love to see this even bigger next year.

05 February 2010

All it's casked up to be?

Session logoI love cask beer, but there's an awful lot of horseshit preached about it, particularly from certain sectors of that lot over to the east of here. One of the observations that often gets trotted out is "I've never had a well-kept cask beer that's not been better than the brewery-conditioned version". Fair enough: you can't argue with anecdotes, but I have a theory that this cask-is-always-best principle only holds up for beers which were designed for cask in the first place. It is, by and large, a British thing, and people who believe it need to get out more.

So, mostly for my own reference, I thought I'd take advantage of this month's Session to examine the handful of beers I know in various dispense formats and see just how often natural condition is the best method of serving.

The two examples I trot out most frequently are Clotworthy Dobbin and Galway Hooker -- two of the best ales in regular production on this island. Bottled Hooker does not yet exist, but I've encountered it on cask on several occasions and it's always lacking. It's very much a hop-driven beer, and the Cascade and Saaz get deliciously propelled by the pressurised CO2, creating a clean, refreshing zingy session beer. When that force is taken away it ends up flat, watery and quite green-tasting, like it's not finished. What it probably needs for cask purposes is a dose of dry hops, but as-is it just doesn't work. Clotworthy also loses its hop character on cask. I'm most familiar with the force-carbonated bottle where late Cascade adds a mouth-watering fruitiness to the dark chocolatey ruby porter. The one time I had it on keg this interplay of malt and hops was even more pronounced, and if it wasn't for a bit of a metallic bum-note on the end, it would have been sublime -- I definitely look forward to seeing the keg version again. But on cask this all gets blended into a homogeneous brown lump, indistinguishable from a zillion other brown beers. A case for dry-hopping again, I reckon. Consider this next to the extremely unhoppy Curim Gold wheat beer from Carlow Brewing. I don't think I've met anyone who likes the dishwater bottled version; the keg edition has more of a fanbase but was still a little soapy for me; but on cask it's stunning -- jam-packed with witbier spice and refreshing lemony zing.

And yet, big hop flavours don't always die in the cask. Porterhouse Hop Head is a beer not at all dissimilar to Galway Hooker -- a bit bigger, a bit bitterer -- and it works equally well from cask, keg and naturally-conditioned bottle. If anything the bitterness is even more extreme in the cask edition, which is why I'd generally opt for it kegged, if given a choice.

Where I've found cask really works best, however, is with black beers. O'Hara's Stout, Porterhouse Plain and Porterhouse Oyster all far outshine their force carbonated incarnations. At least part of this is the unmitigated evil of nitrogenation. I can completely understand why Guinness came up with it: I'd say the early test batches of keg Guinness Extra Stout didn't get very far since the feel of CO2-pressurised draught stout was all wrong. It would have been so good if they'd just said "Well, there you go: you can't keg stout" and went back to casking. Instead, they managed to recreate the texture of the cask beer, but via a method which destroys its taste and aroma. I've met very few beers which are bold enough to stand up to nitro, Wrassler's XXXX being about the only one I can think of, and the Porterhouse have achieved this by brewing a monstrously aggressive stout that's probably undrinkable any other way (bottle-conditioned edition out soon, I hear: beware!). It's a massive shame that even across the water, in the spiritual home of cask beer, the style of beer which works best on cask is overwhelmingly represented by smoothflow keg rubbish. Where are the mainstream cask stouts from Britain's large regional breweries? Why aren't they as ubiquitous as the brown bitter and nitrokeg stout?

I should add that even stout-is-best-on-cask isn't a universal rule. Hilden's Molly's Chocolate Stout manages to dodge most of the rich sumptuous roasty flavours and comes out rather boring and thin. The bottled version at least adds a certain carbonic dryness that makes it a little more interesting. Which brings me on to the beer I'm wedging in for review in this post. It's not one I've had from the cask, but it is bottle-conditioned and wears its "CAMRA says..." badge up front with pride on its neck.

On pouring, Hook Norton Double Stout does a very good impression of a cask stout, coming out smooth and foamy though just a teensy bit overzealous with the carbonation. From the off-white head you get an enticing nosefull of dry and crunchy roasted barley or black malt. The foretaste contrasts this with a silky, creamy, chocolate sensation, followed by a brief tang of hops. Finally, there's a dry finish to clear the palate for the next mouthful. All this complexity on a mere 4.8% ABV makes it nearly perfect as a session stout. I'd love to try it on cask and would be willing to bet that the dryness tones down and even more of that chocolate creaminess comes to the front and hangs around. Yum.

While I remain incredulous in the face of the CO2 fundamentalists, it's only when we turn to stout that I have to bite my lip.

03 February 2010

Last of the winter beer

Spring is almost upon us (yeah, I know that Spring in Ireland officially begins on 1st February -- that's just mass self-delusional wishful thinking if you ask me). So I've been clearing out the final few Christmas ales I bought at the arse end of 2009. Not that there's anything wrong with drinking beers out of season, I just don't trust what'll happen to them when the house temperatures start going up.

Among the most outwardly seasonal is Gouden Carolus Christmas, a whopping 10.5%-er from a Belgian brewery already well known for its big full-flavoured beers. It pours a dark shade of amber, though without much by way of nose: normally I'd expect those funky Belgian yeast notes to be jumping out of the glass, but they're barely present. Nor is there any big boozy heat either. I was quite wrong-footed by the whole thing. Instead there's a sharp herbal bitterness to the taste, exactly like liquorice to me. The body is remarkably thin, though mercifully it's not too fizzy. And yet despite this thinness, the flavour runs for miles, leaving a long-lasting aniseed echo in almost exactly the way pastis does.

Yes, it's the Pernod-as-beer you've been waiting for all these years.

01 February 2010

Ancient history

There are a few places and beers that will always remind me of the early days of my beer education. The Celtic Whiskey Shop is one such, and when it opened on Dublin's Dawson Street just after the millennium (the main one, not Dublin's local one twelve years previous) I worked nearby and was a regular customer. Alongside a massive range of hand-picked whiskies, whiskeys and other spirits, they had a modest but far more interesting selection of Irish and Scottish beers. It was here that I first encountered the "Heather Ale Company", these days going by their much more prosaic "Williams Bros." moniker.

Over several weeks I worked through their portfolio of ales made from traditional, yet exotic, ingredients. An early one was Kelpie, the dark seaweed ale. I recall being horrified by it and after one bottle vowing never to touch it again. Most of the rest of them I simply didn't care for; Fraoch I adored (and still do); but thoughts of Kelpie gave me the shivers for years after. Then recently I spotted a bottle in DrinkStore and started to wonder if it was as awful as I remembered. Wasn't it possible that my taste in beer had moved on to a point where seaweed flavours can now be welcomed? I bought a bottle.

It pours a red-brown Coca-Cola shade with a busy sparkle but not overly fizzy. The aroma is mild and chocolatey, like a mild or porter. I took a sip and waited for the other shoe to drop. But it didn't! Kelpie is actually quite nice. At only 4.4% ABV, it's rather light and possibly a touch watery, but the sweet roasted flavours are beautiful and there's a salty tang from the seaweed, adding character and finishing it off well. The whole reminds me of a lighter, simpler edition of Porterhouse Oyster Stout. It just goes to show that it's worth re-checking your opinion on every beer at least once a decade.

Tragically, Celtic Whiskey's days as a purveyor of fine beer didn't last. Probably sick of me as the only proper beer customer, the range was cut back until it was little more than cans of Guinness for the tourists -- I've not been in in a while so I really should go and check if the winds of change blowing through Irish beer at the moment have breezed down Dawson Street at all. The loss I felt most keenly, even more than the Fraoch, was Alba: the Williamses' strong scots pine beer. When I saw a bottle on the shelf of The Cracked Kettle last year I snapped it up. I have such fond memories of this beer, and it nearly pained me to open it: could it possibly taste as good as the nostalgia? One sniff and I knew the answer was yes.

Alba has always smelled and tasted of strawberries to me: not the fresh and firm kind, but big old sloppy, mushy, dark, half-fermented strawberries: it's a gorgeous heady sensation. Behind this there's a dry peppery spice and a little bit of yeasty ester, and possibly a funky hint of mushroom too. Barry got cloves in a big way, and I can see where he's coming from, but it's more subtle than that. It's quite a bit lighter than I remember, but then I've had plenty stronger than its mere 7.5% ABV in the six or seven years since my last bottle.

I definitely need Alba back in my life. A whole range of new and exciting Williams Bros. beers are now in stock in DrinkStore, and I hope to work through them during the year. But I'll always be yearning for an Alba.