30 June 2010

Three controversies ago

It's hard to believe that the whole furore over Tokyo* was less than a year ago. Since then two more, even stronger, beers have come out of Fraserburgh knocking the so-strong-it'll-cure-binge-drinking barrel-aged imperial stout into a proverbial cocked hat. If I'd known how quickly its notoriety was going to wane, maybe I wouldn't have spent so much on it in Utobeer last December. And if I'd known that it was going to be sold in Dublin off licences for a fair bit less come summer I'd have made a point of drinking it sooner.

As is, it was only last weekend that I rescued the blighter from my sweltering beer store (currently, refugee bottles are crammed into every hidey hole in the house, all but wearing babushkas and playing mournful violin music). With all the fuss a distant memory, how's the beer?

After the unpalateable mess that is Tactical Nuclear Penguin I was on full alert for boozy harshness, but boozy harshness came there none. The nose is heady and alluring, like a tasty liqueur, with hints of wood and cigars. Texturewise it's incredibly smooth. The 18.2% ABV gives a warming sensation, but doesn't burn or cloy: think Drambuie or similar. The taste reminds me a little of Samuel Adams Triple Bock but it's much mellower and more balanced, calmly soothing with chocolate and cherries, not leaping up to show you flavour after flavour from its toybox. It's very easy to forget this is a stout. To the point, perhaps, where stout fans and Paradox fundamentalists might be disappointed. This stuff is playing a different game altogether.

Overall, a beautiful beer for taking time out with, its softly-spoken dignity ill-deserving of being dragged through the gutter press.

28 June 2010

Hefe nice day

I've been using the recent spell of warm weather to work gradually through my stash of hefeweizens. It's a style I've gone off a bit of late, reverting only to the odd Flensburger Weizen to go with a curry (and to add the swingtop bottle to my hoard of reusables). So, what's been happening with weissbier in my absence?

O'Brien's made a bit of a song and dance about the arrival of Erdinger Urweisse a few months back. Despite the brewery's reputation for blandness, they are capable of the odd gem (Pikantus, for instance) so I reckoned this was worth a go. It certainly has a lot more happening than your standard Erdinger: lots of big banana flavours and a distinct alcoholic heat, despite being just 5.2% ABV. In the finish up, however, there's just not enough here to keep me entertained and I won't be rushing off for another.

Unertl Weissbier Bock looked much more promising: a full 6.7% ABV and pouring a gorgeous shade of chestnut. The first signal that things were not going according to plan came with the aroma. Beyond the fruity esters coming from the yeast which was floating on the head, there was no smell; no caramel sweetness, no roastiness, no crisp dryness: nothing. The texture was the next let-down: thin and exceptionally gassy where mellow smoothness might be a reasonable expectation. And finally the flavour. The yeast is doing its utmost to give a bit of banana character, but beneath this veneer there's a rough and woody vibe -- bark, mulch and rubber -- not enough to spoil or unbalance the beer, but hard to escape when there's not much else going on inside. Mrs Beer Nut claims that there's a vanilla element too, but adds that while it might make a decent sorbet, this is not a beer for drinking.

Last up a weiss that has been getting very mixed reviews since MolsonCoors began shipping it over earlier in the year: Grolsch Weizen. Pouring it into my Grolsch glass was a mistake as the headkeeper made it go mental. On a warm evening after a long day at work I do not want to spend ten thirsty minutes trying to get my beer under control. When I finally got to it, my first thought was "watery". But then the pineapples kicked in: big, fresh and juicy and marvellously thirst-quenching. It's not watery, it's light. Perfect for charging through cold and won't leave you feeling like you've just had half a litre of 5.3% ABV beer. Which you have. I would return to this for future al fresco refreshment, certainly long before MolsonCoors's other wheat beer Blue Moon.

On this showing I doubt I'll be converting to all-weissbier diet this summer, but it definitely has its place, with curry and without.

24 June 2010

On the up

A quick Google tells me Black Diamond's Peak XV has only been with us a couple of weeks at this stage. The 8% ABV imperial porter is made with fresh vanilla and California cocoa nibs. And, perhaps because it's so young, is incredibly fizzy at first. Mountains of head piled up as I poured, though subsided relatively quickly leaving a layer of tan foam on the surface.

From this there comes an oddly sharp aroma with a strangely green and herbal character: I get the distinct impression that, a journey of 5,000 miles notwithstanding, this stuff isn't quite ready for drinking yet. Chocolate is the main flavour: dry and dusty like cocoa powder. The vanilla is present too, adding a depth and richness otherwise lacking in this busily youthful but quite two-dimensional beer. The only other beer badged as "imperial porter" that I can think of is Flying Dog's Gonzo, and this has none of the big hop complexities present there.

The texture is relatively heavy, and once the head has settled it's as smooth and ungassy as this sort of beer should be -- a bit of a prickle livening up the mild alcohol burn as it slips down.

At the moment, Peak XV is a big, cacophonous powerhouse of sharp, unsubtle, unblended flavours. While I enjoyed it, I recommend a year or two's cellaring before approaching the thick moulded plastic seal over the cap.

21 June 2010

My dearest England...

We two have been intimately acquainted for many years now so it is with a heavy heart that I compose this melancholic missive. I cannot escape the feeling that, as we have come to know each other better, our relationship has changed. Perhaps it is a maturing, a sign that our youthful frolics are now properly put away to be replaced with a more cerebral mutual understanding. I hope so. But all I can say now is that things between us are unlikely to ever be the same again.

I began to suspect this when I visited you last summer, but it only really came home to me during our most recent meeting, little over a week ago in Brighton. It is my newfound belief, England, that to be a ticker in you is pointless and unfulfilling.

Please don't take this the wrong way -- I still have the greatest respect for your beers and will uphold to the death your reputation for making tasty and sessionable ales. It's just, so many of them are so similar to each other that I now find little joy in picking new ones arbitrarily in the hope that they will excite my senses and inflame my passions. Maybe it's my advancing age which speaks, but they so rarely do either.

Let us start, as I did that sunny Wednesday afternoon, in the rustic bare wood surrounds of The Evening Star. From the Dark Star range available I opted for Solstice, expecting little more than irrigation for my travel-parched throat. In fact, it's quite a beautiful hop-forward golden ale: full-bodied and satisfying, redolent with succulent peaches and nectarines. Indeed it eclipsed even the Hophead which followed, a beer which has truly delighted me in the past but proved rather watery on this occasion.

Over the following days I sought out as many of the Dark Star range as I could find. Original is a seemingly quite strong porter at 5% ABV, though tastes light with a pleasant roastiness to it, let down by a nasty metallic buzz on the end. Festival is a brown bitter, endowed most unfortunately with a flatulent egginess redeemed only by a fruity raisin complexity. Returning to the pale, there is Argus, a very bitter pale ale which wears its hops deep, offering the drinker little by way of flavour or aroma. Solstice and Hophead i would return to willingly, and while I didn't feel I'd wasted my time with the others, I did begin to suspect that perhaps sticking to what I know and like may be a useful rule of thumb in your company.

Beyond this local fare, the Evening Star was also serving Thornbridge Hopton. "Ah", I thought, "here's a brewery whose beers deserve special ticking attention, so distinctive and tasty are they, by repute". But, while there's nothing wrong with golden Hopton per se -- it's earthily bitter with a hint of jaffa oranges, chalkily dry and finishing on burnt toast -- it's not terribly interesting and certainly wouldn't have me singing the praises of Thornbridge by itself. At the opposite end of the tickable scale, elsewhere in Brighton, there was cask Bass. Not expecting much from this I actually quite enjoyed it: dry again, sulphurous as a Burton bitter should be, but balanced by a sticky caramel fruitiness. As a solid and drinkable beer, it's streets ahead of its stablemate Marston's Pedigree. That I accord equal status to these beers -- one artfully crafted in small batches, the other mass-produced under contract for a large corporation -- shows me that your beers are not be be judged by their rarity or the craft credentials of the brewery. An unsettling realisation for the travelling ticker, I hope you'll agree.

The other Brighton pub I spent a bit of time in was The Victory, a charming little L-shaped hostelry with a tempting range of draught beers. Hepworth Pullman was probably the best of them: a nicely hoppy golden pale ale with some tasty bubblegum notes. Much better than the tired by name and nature Arundel Footslogger: flat, grainy and completely uninspiring. I had finally forsworn my ticking tendencies for our future dalliances by the time I got Gatwick, offering them one last chance with Exmoor Gold on sale there. The sharp-tasting eggy-smelling beer decided me that sticking with what you like is definitely the most apposite behaviour when venturing to imbibe beyond the Irish Sea.

Of all the beers I drank on the trip, I enjoyed none so much as the two pints of Harvey's Best I had on separate occasions. I will be turning to this, and Landlord, and Adnams Bitter, and Proper Job whenever I see them. I now need a reason to stray to the other handpumps.

I must bring my ramblings to close, fair England, and bid you adieu until next month when we shall be united once more. And please rest assured that I still hold your beers in the highest regard and you have a great deal to be proud of.

Your most humble, obedient and thirsty servant,

The Beer Nut

17 June 2010

Arse Gratia Artis

What is up with this label? A candidate for Pump Clip Parade, or an attempt at being classily arty (in the way that nightclub signage sometimes tries to look classily arty)? Maybe there's some kind of Danish gag that I don't get. I dunno. I suppose all that matters is that the headless, armless nude bird did mean that one more bottle of Mors Stout got sold, to me. The brewery is Refsvindinge, on the island of Funen, just between Zealand and the Danish mainland.

Mors is as full in texture and flavour as one might expect a 5.7% ABV stout to be. The body is totally opaque while the head is thick and creamy, lasting all the way to the end. That said, you also get a good cleansing fizz, as befits a decent bottled stout.

The nose would have you expect to find dryness in the ascendant: roasted barley, perhaps. But on tasting the initial carbonic dry flavours are quickly followed by a rich and thick chocolate flavour, with half the sweetness of creamy milk chocolate, and half the biting bitter cocoa of top-quality dark.

A very satisfying beer and far more sophisticated in the drinking than its toilet-wall labelling might suggest.

14 June 2010

Not as dramatic as it sounds

I was expecting anguish, powdered wigs and lots of furious organ music from Barock Hell, but all I got was a rather nice pale gold lager.

It carries itself heavily, at 5.6% ABV, with a little bit of sugariness complicated pleasantly with honey and light toffee overtones. The carbonation is gentle enough to make it great as a thirst quencher -- something I rarely find in pale German beers of this strength.

Perhaps it's its Bavarian heritage, but I really could see myself under a chestnut tree drinking this by the litre. And I'm surprised. I haven't touched anything by Weltenburger in many a year, having had a bad experience with the first one I tried. But I'd go for this smoothie again no problem.

10 June 2010

Caramel jakey

In its defence, the bottle of McEwan's Champion had been sitting around for a few months longer than recommended on the label. I'm putting the slight staleness down to that. For the rest there's no excuse other than execrable beer-making.

It looks fine: a very dark, almost opaque, red with a fairly loose fluffy head. The aroma is fairly sweet but is nothing compared to the taste: like mainlining golden syrup. At 7.3% ABV I knew I was in for something hefty, but I wasn't expecting such a foghorn blast of sugar. Mostly, it's the sticky, sickly and slightly musty syrup flavour I most associate with German bock. But there's a fruitiness to it as well, a sort of cherry liqueur / cough mixture thing. Not pleasant and very much at the tramp juice end of the beer spectrum, despite the colour.

They probably thought that some aggressive hopping would add balance, but they've just made it acrid and harder to drink. The finish is metallic which, when combined with the intense sweetness, makes it taste like an artificial sugar substitute.

A couple of times I felt like pouring it down the sink, but the thought that it might suddenly improve kept me going. It didn't happen. And at the end I found it had stuck my lips together.

07 June 2010

Are you local?

I promised some Brooklyn Local No. 1 after having reviewed No. 2 well in advance. The bottle had been sitting about for ages, and seems to have been rather well conditioned. I hadn't finished twisting off the cage when the cork shot skywards and the beer made an early exit.

It's a Belgian-style tripel and a very clear golden one, going by the first glass from the 75cl bottle. It's a long time since I've had tripel so I doubt I'm in a position to assess this New Yorker against its Belgian equivalent. But I enjoyed it: it hit all the spots I expect from a tripel. Properly boozy at 9% ABV, yet light and crisp. The dryness is offset by honey and a touch of sultanas. The head stays soft and fluffy for a remarkably long time after pouring.

So I won't do my usual oh-why-won't-Americans-stop-sending-us-European-style-beers. I'll just say: this stuff is proper tasty.

04 June 2010

Back to black and back again

Session logoSession beer is the subject of this month's, er, Session. It seems to be a bit of a preoccupation among the brighter sort of American beer enthusiast: why is all our good stuff ABV'd up to the hilt? Why can't we have top-notch flavoursome beer that you can stay with for a whole night's drinking and not end up bladdered before bedtime? I can't really speak to that motion, but am very happy that it's not an issue here. In fact, I wish the reverse -- that there were more beers outside the 4-5% ABV range available on the bar in Ireland. In both directions. I suppose I could write about Porterhouse TSB and Smithwicks, representing, respectively, the best and worst of sub-4% Irish beer. But that would bore me. Instead, I'm writing about stout because you can't beat a good stout session. Last night's Dungarvan shindig at the Bull & Castle, featuring sumptuous Black Rock on cask proved that beyond any doubt.

Much as I'd love to have more Irish session stout to write about, I'm looking across the Irish Sea and a couple of British ones that have crossed my path lately.

We kick off with Hopback Entire Stout, a case of which landed with a friend (hi Peter!) recently. It's 4.5% ABV and carries the hallmark of a good session beer: balance. The main flavours are sweet caramel and dry coffee, but not too much of either. The body is quite hefty -- entire, you might say -- but nowhere near filling enough to make you think twice about opening a second bottle. It's just the right level of chewwiness to show the flavours at their best.

Since I rarely have the attention span for the same beer twice in a session, next up was Night Beacon from the Breconshire Brewery, a company I've had an unpleasant encounter with previously. This started off worryingly by pouring almost completely flat. There's a very slight tingle of carbonation, but otherwise it's a pancake -- a dud bottle, perhaps? So the flavour compounds are not in any hurry to create an aroma and it doesn't smell of much as a result, just a hint of dry roast. The flavour is also dry, but in a crisp and minerally sort of way, with a slight background of chocolate and tobacco. The lack of condition leaves it on the thin side, but that adds to its sessionability: not exactly a lightweight at 4.5% ABV but definitely good for more than one if the flatness doesn't put you off. Redemption of a sort, then, for Breconshire. (I should add also that I tried their Golden Valley golden ale too a while back and quite liked it -- another understated plain sessioner).

Low ABV, balance, light fizz: all these elements go in to make beer properly sessionable. Any colour and flavour profile will do. Getting this right without making the beer dull is one of the challenges for the brewer. I reckon the guys at Hopback and Breaconshire have it down, however.

02 June 2010

Road-testing the unleaded

An unusual turn of events saw me out one evening last week while in possession of motorised transportation. Of course, my drinking options for the evening were manifold, but I decided I may as well use it as an excuse to try out some of the alcohol-free beers available. Y'know, the ones I wouldn't normally dream of touching with a barge pole (unless I were actually piloting a barge, of course; then they might be appropriate).

The original intention was just to get the Erdinger and Paulaner ones, but it turns out that there's a much bigger range out there, much of which was carried by a local off-licence (I got the Paulaner in Superquinn where, oddly, the automated checkout still made sure to card me).

I lined them up for a mugshot before sticking them in the boot and off to my destination (Séan's gaff; fabulous 8% ABV stout on tap; untempted; look at me the responsible adult). First out of the traps was Cobra Zero, and I liked this, but not for any of the reasons I like Cobra. Cobra Zero makes more-or-less no attempt to be a beer. Though my bottle was rather lightstruck, what came out most on tasting was a very sweet and malty wort flavour -- porridge with loads of sugar. It reminded me a lot of the dark non-alcoholic malt drinks you get in Africa and the Caribbean, and which I really rather like. I don't know that I could drink much of this, but I did enjoy the bottle.

Beck's Non-Alcoholic didn't work so well. It's sort-of faithful to the Beck's recipe, in that it's quite sharp and hoppy. The worty sweetness is there again, mostly on the nose, but this translates to an unpleasant soapy flavour which, coupled with the thinness, does not make for a pleasant drinking experience.

I figured the Germans would be better propositions altogether and, while this broadly turned out to be true, the two beers were as different in quality as their real-beer counterparts. The Paulaner Alkoholfrei was my favourite of the lot. Yes, there's that unfermented sugar, but it's buried under a hefty dollop of fruity banana esters. It's very drinkable and is distinctively a weissbier. I'd go for it again. Not so the Erdinger Alkoholfrei which tried to do all the same things but comes out weak (well, you know what I mean) and lacking in character.

Was it worth it? No, not really. If I wasn't a ticker I'd probably have settled for drinking non-beer, and will likely do so in the future. Unless I can find some Baltika 0 or alcohol-free Bavaria, of course...