29 July 2010

Francis of A Sissy

They were a little sheepish, the Cork contingent of ICB when the local brewery launched a pink beer. While new brews are always welcome, it's best not to get too excited in case someone thinks you're a bit... you know. Me I'm always ready to embrace my fruity side, so it was on with my most flamboyant outfit and off down to The Franciscan Well to see what all the excitement manly banter was about.

There's no doubting the pinkness of Raspberry Weisse, though my camera seems to have spared the head its blushes: in real life it's very very pink. However, I think it's unlikely that this has ever had a real raspberry near it. Raspberries ferment, and generally leave quite a dry beer, whereas this gives off a powerfully sweet artificial aroma that immediately activated one of my nostalgia sensors: if you weren't raised in Northern Ireland or Scotland around the same time I was this isn't going to mean much to you, but it smells exactly like Creamola Foam, and that carries through on tasting in the powdery effervescent mouthfeel.

My assumption was that they'd just added the raspberry flavour into the house weissbier Friar Weisse, but I'm not 100% sure of that. Friar Weisse (which changes quite a bit from batch to batch) is going through one of its more Bavarian phases at the moment, whereas the base beer of Raspberry Weisse is rather dry with quite a nice wheaty cereal finish. And so tacked-on is the fruit flavouring it's actually possible to ignore it and enjoy the real beer underneath, with only the screamingly pink colour to assault your senses (as well as your dress sense, hairstyle and proficiency on the dancefloor).

I'd go as far as to say it's worth drinking. Though with craft beer fans of a girly persuasion a bit thin on the ground on North Mall, it remains to be seen who actually will.

26 July 2010


My run-in with Dogfish Head's Raison D'Être a while back left me a little suspicious of the Delaware brewery's abilities to make nice beer with fruit. So it was with some trepidation that I opened the cap on Festina Pêche, a self-proclaimed "malt beverage brewed with peach concentrate" which doesn't claim to even be beer. Oo-er.

The pour gives lots of dramatic sparkle, champagne-like, subsiding quickly to a pale orange cloudy body with no head whatsoever. On the nose, subtle peaches and a bit of carbonic fizz. Flavourwise it's quite dry, with the peaches -- fresh and juicy -- having nothing more than fizzy water to bear them up. The lack of any real body or follow-through taste are a bit of a letdown. It could, in fairness, have been much worse. They could very easily have packed this with sugar and made an alcopop out of it. Instead, while much closer to a Bellini than a beer, it is at least drinkable.

Next up, the much more promising Indian Brown Ale. It boasts of being "well-hopped" which, from the makers of 120 Minute IPA, should really mean something. But there's not a whole lot of hops in evidence. Instead, this very dark ruby ale is loaded with smooth and creamy milk chocolate, accentuated by the light carbonation. If you pause a second after swallowing, the echo of hops makes itself felt: pithy and herbal, but not lasting long as the residual chocolate cream takes over the aftertaste. I was on the edge of my seat waiting for some sort of stale, oxidised bum note, but that never came. Overall, this is a simple but interesting beer. The velvety texture leaves no hint of the 7.2% ABV and it was only after slipping back half the glass that I started to feel a warming glow from it.

Conclusions of this research: one beer for frivilous summer chugging and one for warm autumnal comfort. Or whatever works for you.

22 July 2010

Oldies but goodies

There's an e-mail address from an ancient UK ISP on the label of Arundel's Old Knucker, one of those domain names that will forever be associated with dial-up modems and plain-text websites. It shows that when Arundel do an old ale, they do it properly archaic. Old ale is one of my consistent favourites among UK beer styles but it's almost impossible to get hold of here (Clotworthy Dobbin is probably the nearest approximation we have, though it's dubbed a "ruby porter" by its creators and has more of a hop character). So when I was in Brighton last month I grabbed what old ales they had on the shelves of Waitrose and made off, grinning manaically.

Old Knucker (no I don't know what the name means and I'm not going to look it up) doesn't disappoint either. It has that gorgeous limpid ruby colour topped with a loose off-white head derived from very gentle conditioning. The heady aroma promises chocolate covered raisins, but there's even more inside. The first pull (it's definitely a beer for taking pulls of) confirms that beautifully light cask-like sparkle revealing succulent damsons, milk chocolate and sweet pipe smoke. A rich and comforting beer that I really wish I had more of.

I was expecting something very similar from Hepworth Classic Old Ale, and sure, it poured the same lovely dark red hue. But the taste experience was quite different. Only traces of the fruit and chocolate are present, mostly in the aroma. The taste is startlingly dry and roasty, reminding me a little of the lovely red ale that Carlow make for Aldi. Additionally there's a sulphurous bite making it extra crisp and complex, and very drinkable. This is perhaps not an old ale as I would normally recognise it, but it's still very very tasty.

Hooray for old ale, and more of this kind of thing please.

19 July 2010

The sweet taste of summer

It's that time of year already when the Porterhouse sets up an eleven-day celebration of Belgian beer across its estate of pubs (well, possibly: I'm not sure if the new Shanghai branch is participating). The draught list isn't exactly brimming with rarities and is a little light on the dark beers, but there's something for everyone I'm sure. There certainly was plenty for me when I went along to the launch on Thursday evening last.

Fruit beers have always featured strongly in the line-up, and this year sees the return once again of quaffable Newton apple, plus the inclusion of house strawberry wheat beer Früli -- both favourites of mine, even if I do only drink a couple of pints of each per year around this time. The fruit newbie is Kriek Boon, and while I'm sure I've had this on many past occasions I've no record of it here other than in a sauce at a Porterhouse gig some years back. The House of Boon, though not quite in the top flight, are one of the better-reputed lambic breweries so I knew this would be good. I was a little surprised at how unsour it was. In that, what sourness the heavy, sticky red beer has comes not from the lambic but from a chewy cherry skin flavour -- a strong, concentrated cherry taste that I liked a lot. There's of course a sweetness to it too, though despite the stickiness, it's not overpowering: fresh and fruity rather than cough mixture sickly. Nicely positioned between the tooth-stripping acidity of Cantillon Kriek and the tooth-rotting sugar of Floris, Boon was a nostalgic reminder of how I ever came to like Belgian fruit beers in the first place.

For those in search of less frivilous Belgian beers, the Porterhouse are offering the strong toffee-banana stylings of Gouden Carolus and the rather astringent St Bernardus Tripel. On the lighter side, they have LeFebvre's Blanche de Bruxelles, a witbier I've seen around in bottled form but never took the time to try. It's a light and zesty affair -- slightly dry and with quite a low carbonation, at least on this draught outing. What separates it from a million other wits is a piquancy on the tail end, a similar sort of incense note that I found in Kiuchi's Classic Ale recently. It's not massively complex, this, but it's always nice to have a simple session beer that's a little bit different from the norm.

The Porterhouse Belgian Beer Festival is on until Sunday. Thanks to Rachel and the team for the launch invite.

15 July 2010

What's it all about? Alpha?

I'm sure the term "bog standard" doesn't get used in the same sentence as "Three Floyds" much, but Alpha King is the nearest the Indiana brewery gets. This is their flagship brew, though very far from being beer-by-numbers.

After pouring the dark amber ale I noticed that head formation wasn't a strong suit. It's actually quite a heavy and thick one, and I can't help feeling that a few degrees below cellar temperature would have made it a little less work to drink. No ABV on the label but the Internet tells me it's 6% ABV, and it feels it, leaving a sticky residue behind in the mouth.

Toffee and mandarins are the main things I get from the flavour, finishing citric, though not as intensely hoppy as the name might suggest. The aroma is rather understated for a hop-driven beer of this sort, possibly due to the low carbonation. It's a shame, because more often than not the aroma is the best bit of these kinds of beers.

A cold six-pack is probably the optimum method for enjoying this -- it's not a beer that lends itself to considered analysis.

12 July 2010

One out of three ain't good

It's not Nutty Black, it's Very Nutty Black: this is Thwaite's super-charged mild with the ABV savagely ramped up to 3.9% ABV from the usual 3.3 -- handle with care.

Once you're safely strapped in and have popped the cap with your asbestos bottle opener you'll find a beer that pours promisingly black with a nice tan head. The texture is velvety smooth and the flavour is... really quite boring, actually. I'm looking for the roasted coffee notes that one would expect from a mild but there's no sign of them. I've always liked Thwaites beers in the past and I know they're the sort of brewer that can pack all sorts of interesting stuff into a low-ABV package, but this isn't one of those. Yes it's slightly dry and if you concentrate really hard you might get a whisper of plums, but there's little else. There's certainly nothing that I would count as even remotely nutty. But it is black: I'll grant them that.

08 July 2010

The owl ones

Cheers to Special Agent Richard for the intelligence that Dublin's landmark Japanese restaurant Yamamori is now selling beers from the Kiuchi brewery. It took a few months to get round to it, but on Monday last I met up with Dave and Laura for an evening of sushi, sake and Japanese ales.

I'll leave the food aside, only to mention that the four course set menu is great value and the sake tasting tray is well worth it. There's also soju, and a few other, more sedate, Asian beers. But the main reason we were there was for Kiuchi's Hitachino Nest range, with their dinky 33cl bottles and impossibly cute owls on the label.

First up the White Ale. It's surprisingly spicy for a witbier. A look at the ingredients shows that, along with the coriander and orange peel, they've added nutmeg and it really adds an extra dimension. A bit more typically there's a lemony perfume to it which balances the spices without being overpowering or artificial. Witbier with a twist, this, and a great match for my tiger prawns.

The Weizen is a long way from its purported style. Bavarian heritage and banana flavours are promised, but I couldn't find them. Laura got lemons from this one, and I think she's closer than the label copy is. It's piquant to an unusual degree, while also pumping out earthy, funky vibes. Add this to a brown body, lighter and fizzier than your typical weizen, and the word that springs to my mind is saison. And who wouldn't prefer a saison to a plain old weizen anyway?

The funk jam continues with the Japanese Classic Ale, though it's no louder for the beer being 7.5% ABV. The chilled glassware in Yamamori did a lot to take the edge of the flavour (as, in fairness, did the banoffi pie). After a few minutes' warming and a palate-cleansing sake, however, the complexities were more apparent. More saison-like spice, but it's deeper and edgier with strong elements of incense and aftershave. Had I read the label, the reason would have been obvious: it's aged on cedar. I don't think I've knowlingly had a cedar-aged beer before (Baladin Nora, maybe?) but I approve.

I'm very pleasantly surprised with this lot. Given what generally passes for Asian beer around here Yamamori's imports are a welcome addition. It would be great to see them in off licences and more restaurants.

05 July 2010

Strange provenance

I don't get sent much free beer (yeah yeah, boo-hoo etc) but was rather intrigued to be offered some lager by a US PR company a few weeks back. "Sure," I said, "send it on over". And then waited for the "Oh wait, you live very far away, sorry about that" mail. It didn't arrive. Instead I got a box containing a bottle and a can of Minott's Black Star plus some accompanying press materials. I supposed I'd better read the stuff now that I've committed to writing about the beer.

A slightly odd tale unfolds between the lines of the press release. The beer boasts of origins in Whitefish, Montana though is brewed in Milwaukee and is being marketed specifically at Northern California. It looks like desperate attempt at preserving a beer's credentials of origin while having it contract brewed elsewhere and being upfront about it. Convoluted, but at least it's honest: lots of other beer companies are nowhere near as forthcoming about where their product is made.

Sweeping the geography puzzles aside, the beer is an attractive dark gold lager, a colour that immediately had me thinking Budvar thoughts. Saaz and Mittelfrüh are the hops, says the marketing, so that's definitely the right direction. And the body is similarly big and rich with that golden syrup sweetness. But that's where it ends: those hops are nowhere to be found and it all tails off rather sadly.

It's not a bad beer, but with just a bit more hopping it could have been a very good Czech-style lager. I suppose it's wrong of me to criticise it for not being the beer I'd like it to be. With that heavy texture I think it'll stand up well to a curry, so that's where the can will be going.

And if you're reading in Northern California: hey look, here's a beer you can buy.

02 July 2010

Mothers of the revolution

Session logoTom and Jeff at the Lug Wrench Brewing Company blog are in charge of The Session this month and have asked us to write about "craft beers inspired by homebrewing". It's a growing issue here in Ireland, with most of the recent spate of start-up breweries having grown from homebrew operations -- the guys behind Clanconnel, Trouble and Dungarvan all came to the business via hacked picnic coolers, plastic buckets, cornies and the like, and they won't be the last. Increasingly, as the Lug Wrench guys say of themselves, drinkers are discovering beer connoisseurdom through making their own beer and experimenting with the myriad flavours and textures that can come from manipulating different varieties and combinations of malt, hops, yeast, and whatever else you fancy throwing in to see what happens.

I always find it strange that someone would turn their nose up at a homemade beer -- made for drinking pleasure alone, untainted by economic concerns -- while regarding anything else homemade to be of superior quality to the pre-packaged factory-made alternative. Homemade beer, like homemade food, is only bad when the maker gets something wrong. Tales of hotpresses (airing cupboards; linen closets) and kilos of table sugar are beer's answer to lumpy gravy and rubbery steak.

Ireland's new breweries are merely reflecting a global trend which started in the US where the craft beer revolution went hand-in-hand with the growth of home brewing -- backyard breweries turning out compromiseless beers which in turn were either aped by the commercial micros or themselves became commercial beers when the home brewer turned pro.

Over in Europe, something similar happened, especially in places where the beers were blandest. You'll find an ex-home brewer at the helm of Italy's Del Borgo, for instance. And of course, in Scandinavia you can't move for former amateurs working full or part time at getting their beers onto the market, and the resulting quality and diversity speaks for itself.

I'm marking this Session with one from Norway's Nøgne Ø, again a brewery with domestic roots. Specifically, it's Nøgne Ø Imperial Stout Highland Edition, a gift from Knut Albert. It pours thick and treacly, leaving a dark mocha head. The aroma had me immediately questioning the wiseness of putting it in a post next to Tokyo*, as it's very similar -- vanilla, chocolate and cherry liqueur richness. In fact, BrewDog get name-checked on the label as having assisted with barrel procurement (though a shame the Nøgne Ø guys didn't do them the courtesy of dropping the e from "whiskey" on the label copy). It's different from Tokyo* on tasting, however, as one might expect given that it's under half the strength. You get lots of big rich roasted flavours and more soothing silky chocolate, finishing quite bitter -- a touch metallic -- from some very generous hopping. Being ex-homebrewers they of course tell us exactly what hops they chose: big old American Columbus, and a fine job they're doing.

It's a gorgeous beer: satisfying and tasty yet completely drinkable. Any brewer would be proud, whether they'd crafted it for themselves and their friends, or merely lashed it up for the money.

This Session is quite timely, too, as yesterday marked the day Ireland's online home brewing community officially transformed itself into a full-on craft beer campaign group (website coming soon; when Barry gets the finger out), tasked with carving out a sustainable niche for native microbreweries, delivering choice and quality for the drinkers. It goes without saying that providing a forum -- virtual and real -- for home brewers will remain a cornerstone of what the group does. It's hard to imagine a beer revolution taking place without the people who brew their own to drive it.

So here's to the home brewers, their compromise-free beer, their commercial ambitions and their game-changing effect.