28 April 2011

Now we are six

Grab your paper hat and curly squeaker thingy: my blog turns 6 today and I'm throwing a party for it. I need a game suitable for a 6-year-old beer blog's birthday celebration, and luckily BrewDog have obliged with their IPA is Dead fourpack: fun for three players, neatly packaged in a single box.

The beers are all 7.5% ABV IPAs, brewed to 75 IBUs and dry-hopped, but each using a different single hop from a different continent: Bramling Cross, Citra, Sorachi Ace and Nelson Sauvin. Loaded up on cake and with paper hats in position, I sat down with the two Party Guests to go through the four beers blind, picking a favourite and seeing if we could make any stab at guessing which beer was which from what we know of the respective hops' flavour profiles.

The first beer I found to be the dullest: lacking aroma and foretaste, it's quite acrid, creating a burning sort of bitterness. Its redeeming feature is a sort of gunpowder spice, but in a heavily dry-hopped beer I feel entitled to at least some fruit flavours, which this didn't deliver. Not knowing how to classify this I played my wild card, deeming it Sorachi Ace, the only hop of the four I'd never knowingly tasted before. Though there was no cross-consultation (all games at 6th birthday parties should be played in silence), Party Guest 1 agreed with me, reckoning there was something innately Japanese about the taste. We were both wrong. Party Guest 2 hit the nail on the head, spotting the English stylings of Bramling X.

From the start of the second beer I was thinking Citra, though the lemony flavour was rather more muted than I thought it would be. Like the previous beer, it's harshly bitter, if not quite as intense and leaving room for some of the fruit sunshine to come through. I'd nearly call it balanced. After checking along the row for signs of citrus in the others, I deemed this the most lemon-like and therefore Citra. Again, Party Guest 1 thought the same, however Party Guest 2 decided it was Nelson Sauvin. The shoe was on the other foot this time, and the scores levelled thanks to my and PG1's superior Citra-spotting abilities.

I got a real shock from the nose of beer three: an intense hit of tar or burning pitch. Once again the bitterness is stonking, and the first flavour is pure grapefruit skin, but when it faded I thought I could detect a subtle white grape note at the back. Despite that initial unpleasant surprise I kept coming back to this, getting more grape and less acid with each turn. By the end I'd decided it was my favourite of the bunch, though with the Citra not far behind. Guided by the grape flavour, I opted for Nelson Sauvin as my guess. Party Guest 1 detected none of the harshness of the others and decided this well-mannered example had to be Bramling X. Party Guest 2 couldn't get past the grapefruit, which screamed Citra to her. Three different guesses and the points went to me: I was expecting much more light and juicy things from Nelson Sauvin, but that's what it was.

And so we're down to the wire. Beer four was the most gentle, I thought: lots of orange pith and rough, perhaps, but not harsh. I had trouble believing that it was a full 7.5% ABV, and for all these reasons picked it as my nomination for Bramling X. Party Guest 1 described it as extremely wine-like so was in no doubt at all that it was Nelson Sauvin. Party Guest 2 found it an odd mish-mash of citrus and green veg with little by way of aroma so picked Sorachi Ace, and was, of course, correct.

Final scores: me 2 -- PG1 1 -- PG2 2. No-one really covering themselves in hop-related glory there, but at least no-one cried, threw up or had to be sent home to their parents early.

Apart from learning that too much of a hop can kill off a beer's best features, I was very interested in the demonstration of the yawning gap between IBUs and perceived bitterness. Though these were all, on paper, as bitter as each other, the difference in taste between Bramling X and Sorachi Ace was remarkable. Were I asked to guess their IBUs I'd have been saying 90 and 65 respectively. Bittering units aren't a metric I pay much attention to when compiling a beer recipe and I feel somewhat justified now in doing that.

Looking at these purely as beers-to-drink, I didn't enjoy them as much as the Mikkeller single-hop series. If BrewDog are planning a second set of these, or if any other brewery is contemplating it (it's a great way to get drinkers actively thinking about beer and what goes into it), I'd advise toning the hop levels down a little to let those distinctive flavours speak more clearly. Yes, that's my excuse for scoring so poorly...

25 April 2011

All 'Well and good

Easter weekend once again brings the centrepiece of the Irish beer calendar at the Franciscan Well in Cork. This year, the Easter Festival featured 13 guest breweries from around Ireland, including newcomers 8 Degrees, based in nearby Mitchelstown.

The company is the result of a trans-Tasman détente between Aussie Cam (right) and Kiwi Scott, playfully branded and with big plans for its entry into the market proper. The primary product will be 33cl bottles of three different beers, most likely sold by the six-pack. It's not a standard method of beer delivery for Ireland and it'll be interesting to see how it pans out. There will also be draught, and the first to arrive on tap is Howling Gale, a blonde ale hopped up on Chinook, Centennial and Amarillo. Aren't there a bazillion craft beers like this in Ireland already? Well, yes and no. At 5% ABV, Howling Gale is weightier than most, with a full wheaty body, despite the absence of wheat. It's arguable how well it'll work as a sessioner, given those extra few strength points above most by-the-pint beers, but I can see it performing in the 33cls as long as they get the pricing right. Its other distinguishing feature is the lack of filtering. Only the finest of haze is visible and it more than pays its way with the extra citrus flavours being delivered. Howling Gale is a promising start for the new brewery, and its unusual vital statistics could well be the beginning of a new spin on the craft beer revolution in these parts.

While I'm banging on about filtering, a word on Galaxy Pale Ale, brewed by Trouble as the grand prize in their Trouble Maker competition last year, the winning recipe provided by Rossa O'Neill. You can read his account of his day at the brewery here. I liked the finished product, honest I did: a gorgeous shade of garnet, super-light cask-like carbonation, a firm bitterness and a subtle biscuity follow-up. But I couldn't help feeling there should be more to it, that a fruit and citrus contribution from the hops should be at the centre of the flavour but has been stripped out by the evil filter. No amount of limpid sparkling beauty can make up for a beer that has been gutted like this. If the flavour is bold enough to cover any yeasty tang -- as is the case with most any of these US-style Irish pale ales -- I don't see why the beer can't be cloudy. Rant over; comments welcome.

A smooth and calming glass of stout next, and my first try of Dungarvan's special edition Coffee and Oatmeal Stout. Cormac tells me the recipe is very different from Black Rock, but I couldn't help but notice the similarities, a function of cask's tendency to smooth out distinctive flavours, I reckon. Anyway, it's a rock-solid stout, well-balanced between roasted dryness and plummy fruit esters. I couldn't say I was able to pick out the coffee, but I'm guessing the dry aspects of it were down to this in some measure.

I had a good natter with Seamus and Liam from the ever-expanding Carlow Brewing Company. Liam has begun a series of smoked beers in half-batch runs, and the first example was on their bar at the weekend. O'Hara's Smoked Ale No. 1 is a reddish-brown bitter, with chocolate malt in the ascendant plus hints of raisins. The smoke infuses this with a subtle kippery tang. A few fellow-drinkers were hard pressed to identify this as smoke but it was familiar to me from my own experiments with rauchmalz. Liam was a little disappointed that it didn't come out smokier, expecting more of a bang for the substantial bucks the brewery spent on the speciality grain. The frustration looks like it may well lead to some messing about with peated malt later in the series: then we'll be talking serious smoke. Can't wait.

After many years of sharing a bar, Messrs Maguire were totally separate from former host White Gypsy at this year's festival, serving two beers that Melissa brewed in Dublin herself, plus the sublime leftovers of Barrelhead's Franciscan Well-brewed Pale Ale: eight months old and tasting fabulous, like Harvey's Best on steroids. Meanwhile, White Gypsy was twinned with its new protégé Metalman, making their first appearance at the Easter Festival with their second beer: Windjammer, on cask. Three different New Zealand hops have gone into this (Pacifica, Southern Cross and Nelson Sauvin) and the result is a punchily bitter pale ale which calms down quickly, presenting the palate with a basket of pineapples, mangoes and nectarines. I only had a half, but I want more. Once the palate has adjusted to the bitterness, I'd say the second pint is a marvel. Hopefully I won't have to wait too long to find out.

My final bit of scooping was at the UCC Pilot Brewery bar, once again giving it the whole Teutonic thing, with pretzels, dirndls and Tyrolean hats. Inevitably, the beers were a lager and a weizen, though it doesn't look like much work has gone into the names: Traditional Bavarian Beer (an alleged Oktoberfestbier) and Fruity Wheat Beer. The latter really doesn't look like much on coming out of the tap: murky brown and headless, but as I may have said before, how a beer looks doesn't matter. There's a lovely spice to it alongside the bananas, putting it in the same general end of the weizen spectrum as Schneider-Weisse and that's definitely a good thing. A bit more condition would have lifted these great flavours a bit more, however. The lager was another fruity one: miles and miles from any helles or Oktoberfestbier I've tasted, other than those you sometimes find in wonky brewpubs. Still tasty, though, and clean enough to stay drinkable and refreshing.

Trade had been brisk from the moment the doors opened and the festival yard was jammed by 8pm when I left for my train. It would have been nice to go back and spend another leisurely afternoon pinting my way round the plethora of summery beers I'd been sampling, but that'll have to wait until someone (anyone?) more local to me starts running a great event like this. In the meantime, thanks as usual goes to the Franciscan Well team and the 13 visiting breweries for making it all happen.

21 April 2011

Amber gamble

I do love a good American amber ale: gentle but assertive hop fruitiness based on a firm and biscuity malt base and a middle-of-the-road ABV, between 5 and 6%. It's the best of all possible worlds and great fun to just drink through without giving it too much thought.

Anderson Valley's Boont is a relative newcomer to these parts, hailing from California as all the best amber ales do -- Speakeasy's Prohibition, for the record, is my benchmark here. It's certainly amber, a deep shade of orange, darkened further by a suspended haze: it's not amber if there aren't things trapped in it, I guess. Sherbet lemons and gingerbread on the nose, and a flavour dominated by toffee malt. The hop notes are rather muted, dialled down from bitter, below fruity, and only just hanging on as floral, though a little bit of citric tang kicks in cheekily at the end. And I wouldn't change a thing about it. At 5.8% ABV it's light enough to drink freely, but with enough weight to carry the different flavours and aromas. End-to-end tastiness.

And with this canary still happily chirping in its cage, I deem it safe to explore the rest of the Anderson Valley range in due course.

18 April 2011

None of your fancy stuff

Just a bog-standard, cheap, everyday saison for this post. You won't see any paeans to it on the beer geek fora, nor find it on sale at massively inflated prices in dusty beer antique emporia, but Lefebvre's Saison 1900 is perfectly OK.

My bottle was a few months past the best before and had settled to an almost-clear gold. After a few sips I dropped in the lees, restoring the firm shaving-foam head and giving it more of an opaque amber tint.

There's none of your farmyard funk here, nor any fruit esters, nor any of the other bass and treble notes found in Belgian beer. It's soft yet crisp with an insistent fizz; dry for the most part, decorated tastefully in shades of honeydew and pineapple. A solid 5.4% ABV ensures plenty of wiggle room for the subtle flavours and avoids any danger of wateriness that could so easily be left in the wake of the voracious saison yeast strain.

I can see this working well as a cold and casual refresher, a breezy conversation beer which keeps the voicebox lubricated and moist without interrupting or quite disappearing into the background. No fireworks here, but an entertaining caberet nonetheless.

14 April 2011

Minor royalty

How they got away without putting David Bowie on the label I do not know.

Anyway, King Goblin is an extension of the Wychwood Hobgoblin brand. More-or-less the same label, they're a democratic bunch these goblins, though proudly proclaiming its boosted alcohol content of a hefty 6.6% ABV. I was surprised to find it a little paler than plain Hobgoblin but it's definitely stronger: all the chocolate charm is gone and there's a sweet alcoholic warmth immediately apparent. A surprising amount of hops too: bitter jaffa oranges at the centre of the flavour.

There's not a whole lot else going on, unfortunately. I like the plain sweet charm of Hobgoblin, and all that seems to be gone from this beer. Its not unpleasant, but there are much better bitter strong English ales in the mainstream.

My vote's with the rank-and-file goblin-in-the-street anyway. Fight the power!

11 April 2011


They get a bit of grief, Sierra Nevada, for being something of a one-trick pony. Big and hoppy is their shtick, and their efforts away from that genre are somewhat patchy. So no pissing about with European styles for this one: a straight-up 10.4% ABV Double IPA that's more American than Steve McQueen driving a Mustang through a gun show. It's not merely hopped up, it's Hoptimum.

Even before the little green guys start their work this is an attractive beer, pouring the sort of mingled cream and amber that would have Poe scrambling for a clean piece of paper and a biro. Stick the nose in and you get lovely big mandarins at first. Inhale deeper (you'll want to) and there's a lingering threat of pine resins and sinister grapefruit. Strident, wall-to-wall west coast hops.

The taste is quite harsh at first: a green acid acrid bitterness with vegetable notes. Leeks to me, broccoli said the missus. The texture on which this is delivered is all slickness: greasy and heavy without any soft malt fullness or roundness. Add in the prodigious hopping and the overall feeling of oiliness is unavoidable.

I confess I had a moment of disappointment at this stage, rejecting the beer like the other Sierra Nevada hop-bombs in 710ml bottles (Southern Hemisphere and Wet Hop) which were just too unbalanced and difficult. But then I had a fit of the vapours. That amazing smell just does not quit. Even when your tongue is drowned in acid bitterness, the aroma just keeps on coming, filling the nasal cavity with those gorgeous juicy fruit flavours. However they've constructed the aroma here it works fantastically, balancing a beer that's basically all hop.

Hoptimum is a symphony to the hop, an aria in lupulin. Clearly the work of someone who knows quite a bit about which hops to put in, in what order and how much. I'd recommend this beer, though I wouldn't recommend following it with a bottle of Torpedo, which ended up tasting as malt-driven as Samuel Adams Boston Lager in the aftermath.

07 April 2011

What the..?

I'm sure it's very tempting, as a brewer, to just go nuts on a recipe. Project drift probably creeps in very easily and what started as an experiment with a new kind of malt can end up as a multi-directional concoction of things that were never really meant to go together. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. While I'm the first to scoff at pre-conceived beer styles, they do at least provide a template, a jumping off point for sensible experimentation.

Where am I going with this? Tasmania, and Huon Dark Ale from the Two Metre Tall brewing company, a gift from globe-trotting Derek. Lots and lots of information on the label. Too much, perhaps. Dark ale? Okay. Five different malts? Fair play. Hallertau hops? A surprise, but why not. And apple juice. Eh?

My bottle is quite elderly, having gone into the fermenter on 5 December 2009, but for a 5.5% ABV dark beer that's not an unreasonable drinking age. It's fully bottle conditioned with lots of sediment in the bottom of the bottle, though pours a clear ruby and shows little carbonation. The aroma has a touch of vinegar, but not an unpleasant amount: very much at the Flemish brown end of the house. It tastes broadly sour with a lot of roasty and slightly sweet coffee notes underneath. But that's about it. I really like the different flavour elements, but all together in the same beer? I'm not sure. It's just a little too jarring.

There's a lot to be said for experimentation, but even more to be said for getting it right.

04 April 2011

This little piggy

The people behind Zlý Časy in Prague have opened an off licence at street level next door. Pivkupectví was pretty cramped when a bunch of us went in to peruse the shelves. The Czech micros are well represented, with their distinctive plastic screwtop bottles, and there's some serious geek-fodder on the shelves as well. I was travelling hand-luggage only so there was no question of bringing a stash back with me. I bit my lip for, oh, about four or five minutes, then caved in and picked up a bottle of Mikkeller Beer Geek Bacon to take back to my hotel room. With a name like "Beer Geek Bacon", how could I not?

It's part of the Danish gypsy brewer's Beer Geek Breakfast series of coffee imperial stouts which have featured a variety of methods and ingredients over the years. He brewed this one at Nøgne Ø and, sadly, it's 100% pork free. The name comes from its use of smoked malt, but it doesn't lay this on too thick. Instead you get an absolutely first rate imperial stout, unctuous and sweet despite a piddling 7.5% ABV, giving off big bitter hop aromas and finishing dry and sticky: much like any of the range, really. You have to hold it on the palate and roll it round to find the smoke subtleties, but they're there.

Yes, I'd have preferred more bacon: I always do. But I've no complaints about this beer.

01 April 2011

New brew hoodoo

"How do they make us buy their beer?"Session logo asks Alan for this month's Session. "Quite easily", I'm afraid, is the answer in my case. I'll try pretty much anything once, and then proceed to bore you, the innocent reader, with what I think of it.

The brewers don't have to put much effort in to get my attention either. Recently I sprung a bottle of Marks & Spencer Southwold Winter IPA from my stash. It's brewed by Adnams, a consistent favourite English brewer of mine and I'd heard good things about it. At first sip I realised something dubious was going on: it tastes identical to Adnams Innovation, not a bad thing by any means, but there was a moment of disappointment when it occurred that I wouldn't be getting a new beer to write about. Damn you, Marks & Spencer!

Not being one to hide my disappointments, I let Twitter know and word came back from the ether -- from none other than Adnams's illustrious head brewer Fergus -- that Southwold Winter IPA is very slightly different from Innovation. Saved! Specifically, it's dry hopped in a different way. I don't know how differently, and frankly I don't care. A new tick is a new tick and the ridiculously high price that I paid in M&S is now, officially, justified.

What does Southwold Winter IPA taste like? Exactly like Innovation, as I say: fresh peaches and candied oranges. Lots of summer zest, which means the "winter" designation is a serious bum steer. Cracking beer though.

You don't even need to adjust the recipe for me to buy the beer, though I do try and avoid straight re-badges of things I already know (unless they're good, of course). An increasing number of the more, shall we say, geek-friendly breweries are turning out specials and collaborations that are simply blends of existing beers. I'm slightly bothered by this. I think it's cheating, even if it is likely to offer a taste experience quite different from the constituent beers. I tend to pick carefully among such offerings and am only likely to buy if I like the breweries and the beer genre.

At first I thought that was what De Molen and Flying Dog had done with their Bat Out of Hell collaboration. And, as a fan of both Hel & Verdoemnis and Gonzo I was quite prepared to ignore my principles and get my paws on some. But it's not a mere blend, it's a brand new brew from out of the Bodegraven windmill: score!

At the start of the pour I thought this 9.18% ABV imperial stout was totally flat: no bubbles and no head for the first few seconds. Turns out it's just so damn thick it takes ages for the carbonation to get its act together, but when it does a thick, tan-coloured, long-lasting head is the reward. The goodies keep coming with bitter, vegetal hops on the nose: a familiar aroma to anyone who knows the joy of Flying Dog Gonzo, though it's similarly lacking in stoutiness here. But while Gonzo keeps pumping the hops in the flavour, they ease off on tasting here. Instead it's much more of a classic imperial stout: the gloopy scrapings from the bottom of the coffee machine, the first cigar of the evening, one of those terribly posh bars of dark chocolate with the minimalist wrapper, and the inside of the saddler's workshop. The hops pop up again towards the end, though more as a balancing bitterness than a green vegetal flavour.

Bat Out of Hell isn't cheap: DrinkStore took nearly €18 off me for it, but I definitely got my money's worth. Brewers I trust, a style I love, fun branding and local availability: all things that will pretty much guarantee I'll be reaching for my wallet.