28 July 2011

Cornish freedom

The nice people who do PR for the St Austell brewery sent me a box of the new one: Trelawny, a 3.8% ABV bitter, named in honour of a local hero who fought valiantly against religious tolerance in 17th century England.

Australian Galaxy hops are, we're told, at the centre of this dark amber beer. It's no hop-bomb, however, preferring subtlety and understatement throughout. The hops impart a fresh and succulent fruitiness: some nectarine, perhaps shading towards more tart plum and even rhubarb notes. The malt base is light and quite dry and tannic, something I always enjoy in English bitter. Putting them together you get a refreshing quencher designed very much for session drinking.

My only real criticism is that it's a little thin and gassy. While I'm sure the cask version cleans that up, I'm not sure if the lovely fruity hops would come out of that arrangement well. I'd have to try it on draught to know, of course, which I'd be very happy to do should I ever see it in a pub.

25 July 2011

Does this taste irony to you?

There's something just a little bit poignant about Goose Island Demolition in the weeks after the Chicago micro was acquired by Earth's largest beer company. The beer was brewed as a tribute to those who kept the Goose Island spirit alive as their Chicago neighbourhood was ripped down around them. Whether A-B InBev end up doing a different sort of demolition job on the brand remains to be seen, of course.

My bottle pre-dates the takeover by several months. In fact, it's over a year since it left the windy city and the label specifies it's best before six months. I was worried that the flavours may have done their own self-destruct job as well, but if they did, they've built a damn fine edifice in their place.

The vital statistics are a 7.2% ABV Belgian-style golden ale. I was expecting something Duvellish: quite bitter with lots of fizz. The carbonation is low, however, though enough to leave a layer of foam on top. The beer itself is rather dense, gold coloured with nonchalant floating sediment through it. The real action starts on the aroma.

First out is a sticky honey scent, quickly followed by light and succulent melon fruit. The middle eastern theme continues on tasting as the honey is accompanied by chopped nuts and buttery pastry, finished off with the mouth-watering juicy fruit. There's nearly mead-like quality to it, though it also reminds me of sauternes or similar botrytised dessert wine.

And it is insanely easy to drink. The light and subtle fruit flavours do a great job of distracting the drinker from the weight of malt behind it, and a dry tannic finish sets up the next mouthful straight away. The 650ml bottle is probably meant for sharing, but nuts to that.

Close the door and stage a demolition of your own.

21 July 2011

More Belgian tinkering

Witbier, blonde, amber: the standard trinity of styles put out by lots of middling Belgian breweries, where back-of-an-envelope market analysis trumps imagination and individuality every time. The Ghent City Brewery have also gone for the same three, but opted to make one significant change to the well-worn recipes: the removal of hops.

Presenting the Gruut range from Gentse Stadsbrouwerij: three plain looking Belgian beers with a slight twist. Gruut Witbier is a very pale and watery-looking yellow, the whitest wit I've seen. The aroma is normal enough: light spices like coriander, nothing unusual for this sort of beer. There's definitely something different going on on the palate, though. I get ginger up front, and lots of elderflower plus some light liquorice. The body is quite full, and leaves a sweet sticky sensation after swallowing. Despite this, it's an ideal summer refresher. And skunk-proof too.

On to Gruut Blond next. Lots of foam from this as it pours, the thick head atop a barely translucent yellow-amber body. A mildly chemical, chlorinated nose, but altogether more natural tasting. I get honey and jasmine plus a finishing bitter tang from the yeast. Though a mere 5.5% ABV, this feels lushly unctuous and is best enjoyed as a sipper. Too fast and it could turn sickly, I fear. Granted, if you're not a fan of sweet and thick Belgian blonde ales this probably won't float your boat either, but I think there's enough interesting and different things going on in here to make it worth a try. That's always the joy of unhopped beer.

After the haziness of the previous two, Gruut Amber's clarity was a surprise. It's rather more one-dimensional than the others: all caramel with only a tiny herbal piquancy stopping it from becoming an undrinkable sugar bomb. As a winter warmer it might fly: there's quite a bit of booze to the flavour and it's 6.6% ABV. On the patio of a sunny afternoon, however, it doesn't hit the spot.

These three are an interesting aside to mainstream Belgian beer styles and worth a look if you fancy something different, but not too different. In the absence of an efficient bittering agent, however, be prepared for a rather sweet experience.

18 July 2011

Big red comes to town

The second of the three core beers from Mitchelstown's Eight Degrees brewery arrived on tap in Mulligan's recently. Sunburnt is (small sigh) an Irish red ale. They've promised us hoppy in the advertising copy, and it's got a fair bit more poke than the typical Irish red at 5% ABV. Putting my style-based prejudices aside, I went out to see how it measures up.

My pint came out very very cold, which wasn't in its favour. I got a sharp bitterness but not much else. So I sat and waited for it to come up to pub temperature. It was worth doing: buried under the ice there's a lovely rich strawberry fruit flavour, buoyed up on sticky caramel. The hops aren't up front as I was kind of hoping, but contribute a waxy bitterness to the finish. All-in-all, though, and true to style, the malt is still firmly in charge.

I can't help but think there are more things one can do within the confines of a 5% ABV Irish red. Personally speaking I'd be saying feck the style and dry-hopping the bejasus out of it, but no-one likes a back-seat brewer. If you're generally better disposed towards Irish red than me, this will give you a pleasant bang for your buck.

14 July 2011

The mashtun and the critics

If you read any beer blogs other than mine you'll probably know all about this one already. BrewDog invited three English beer writers to Fraserburgh to devise and brew a beer, and Avery Brown Dredge is the result.

It's a pale lager at 7.5% ABV and loaded with Saaz hops, earning it the punning style designation "Imperious Pilsner". And it burns. Right from the aroma there's an alcoholic heat I tend to associate with much stronger lagers, along with a sour musty grain thing I've met in quite a few German pale bocks, and is one of the main reasons I avoid them. On tasting, the boozy warmth continues, in a soupy central-heating-for-tramps sort of way, and it's added to by the acid bitterness of the hops. There's enough weight to balance the heavy hopping and stop it from making the beer harsh, but it still sizzles greenly on the tongue as it finishes.

It's not really a reflection on the beer that I don't like it: browse these pages enough and you'll find I have a history with strong intensely Germanic pale lagers. They're just not my thing. I prefer my pilsner to be a little more meek.

11 July 2011

Capital idea

I'm sure I've remarked on this before, but having globe-trotting friends is an enormous boon to the beer bon viveur.

Derek is a case in point: always on the look-out for oddities from the off licences of planet Earth. He brought a couple of sharers back from a recent trip to Washington DC and we gathered in his place one Saturday afternoon to try them out.

First up, 25 to One, a dark Belgian style ale from Stillwater, a new operation native to Baltimore. There's lots of sweet roast on the nose, akin to a porter, but it becomes rather drier on tasting with just a little bit of high alcohols and phenol. I can't really decide whether it's simple or complex: while there's a lot going on in it, it's very smooth and convivial. At 8.4% ABV it's worth taking time over, yet don't be surprised to look down and find you've emptied your glass sooner than you thought.

Derek had asked if there was anything particular he should bring back. As a picker of random beers I hate being asked this question, as much as I appreciate it. After some hasty research I suggested Loose Cannon as an interesting-looking local beer brand for DC. Hop3 IPA was the Loose Cannon beer he came back with. It's possibly the most English-tasting US IPA I've yet come across: an aroma full of marmalade and tasting of bitter orange pith plus the heady sugary waft of boiling jam. There's not a whole lot else going on, but it's a tasty beer. I'd love for it to be sessionable, but at 7.25% ABV it's going to hit you after only a couple. A price worth paying, I'd say.

Finally over to the west coast and Lagunitas. Wilco Tango Foxtrot is the beer (I guess the more correct "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" would have run afoul of the same US labelling laws that gave us the abhorrent designation "Barleywine Style Ale") and it's pure class. Pouring a gorgeous chestnut amber, it wastes no time pushing out herbal hop aromas mixed with warm toffee. Deceptively light and easy-drinking with lots of busy fizz, despite being close to 8% ABV. It reminds me a lot of American Amber Ale -- one of my favourite US styles -- but bigger and rummier. "Double Amber Ale", maybe? All that matters is it's gorgeous. I'd love to see more from Lagunitas over here if this is any way typical of what they turn out.

Thanks to Derek for transporting and sharing.

07 July 2011

I know why the lizard croaks

All of a sudden it seems like there's loads happening on the Irish beer scene. For one thing, Franciscan Well have a new seasonal out which I caught up with in the Bull & Castle recently.

Croaking Lizard is a brown ale of the murky reddish variety. Where one might expect a certain sweetness, this is incredibly dry with lots of roasted grain, almost akin to a stout or schwarzbier, in fact. At the end there's a little kick of vegetal hop bitterness. But no coffee, no caramel: none of the flavours I'd consider important in a brown ale. I did have a second one, just to get my head around it, but I don't think it's for me, really. If you're looking for something light, crisp and quite fizzy, however, this could be the dark beer you're after.

Meanwhile, the most hotly-anticipated new arrival finally made its debut at the end of June, with the appearance of Galway Hooker in bottles. I'm actually a little surprised by how hotly-anticipated it still was. Irish drinkers have been clamouring for bottled Hooker since the time (up to a mere three or four years ago) when it was the only Irish beer in permanent production and distributed widely that had any kind of hop character to it. Since then we've been able to take home Porterhouse Hop Head and O'Hara's IPA, yet still the cry has been "We Want Hooker". Now that I've had a bottle -- a half-litre resplendent in its county colours -- I think I can see why the attraction is still there. Though lacking the punch of Hop Head and the strength of O'Hara's, it's doing its own thing: very sessionable at 4.3% ABV yet rounded out with a crystal malt sweetness that the others haven't matched. For me, the real bonus has been a whole glassful at cellar temperature. The anticipation of a dry-hopped cask version is almost unbearable.

Also fresh off the bottling line is Eight Degrees's Howling Gale. Bottle conditioning in 33cls makes this an even more complex affair, with a bit of yeasty grittiness in with the intense hop bitterness, plus some sweet biscuit malt just peeping through at the end. The guys say the second batch was done with an adjusted hop schedule so I'm looking forward to comparing the two, pathetic geek that I am. In the meantime, keep inspecting the fridges for Howling Gale. The second in the Eight Degrees series -- Sunburnt Red -- should making an appearance soon too. (Oh, today, as it happened. Now on tap at L. Mulligan Grocer.)

And finally a whole new brewery has brought its wares to Dublin. BrewEyed is based in Co. Offaly and met the public at the Brewers on the Bay festival in Galway last April. I happened across BrewEyed Lager when out for a few leisurely Sunday beers in The Village on Wexford Street a couple of weeks ago. This is their first release and as such I wasn't expecting much from it. The tang of cider in the aroma immediately put me on guard for a poorly constructed lager. But beyond it I found a remarkably well-made pilsner. There's a decent amount of sweet candyfloss malt forming the base, and then some lovely grassy Czech hop notes, including a touch of asparagus, rounding it out. Maybe there's a slight oxidised note in there too: another flaw one can expect to find in a first-run beer. But overall a promising start and I look forward to trying the blonde ale when and if that appears in these parts.

04 July 2011


Polhawn FortIt feels odd even writing it, but it's true: on my last visit to England, a two-day trip in mid-June, I didn't visit a single pub. My friends Sarah and David were getting married in a remote corner of east Cornwall and the most straightforward way of getting there was flying into Bristol and driving down. We opted to stay in a precariously positioned clifftop cottage near the venue, which meant nipping out to a nearby licensed hostelry wouldn't really have been an option, had we had the time to do it. But none of that matters: the wedding was wonderful and there was decent beer aplenty.

In fact, beer was the theme of the wedding, each table named after a hop variety and decorated with tasting glasses and a beer which demonstrated the specific hop in action. I don't know who I pissed off to get seated at Fuggles, but there you have it. Mercifully the showcase beer was a last-minute substitution and instead of Bombardier it was a local(ish) Devon brew called Otter Bright. I'm happy to report it's a largely malt-driven beer, a golden ale of 4.3% ABV. The nose is a little off-putting, being slightly musty and oxidised, but the beer underneath is sound. There's lots of golden syrup and pale sugary biscuits. The hops are mostly present in a final bitterness that balances it nicely. Even at room temperature, this was a success.

While I didn't get to go to a pub, I did drop into a brewery briefly. There was a concern that the beer supplies laid in might not have been enough, so on the morning of the wedding I was dispatched on a 120-mile mission along most of the length of the county to Redruth and the Keltek Brewery, sited in an unglamourous industrial estate outside the town. I wasn't even tempted to swing off the A38 at the signs for St Austell and fill the car with Tribute and Proper Job instead of what was ordered.

What was ordered was two 10L polypins of Keltek beer: Golden Lance is another slightly musty golden ale, though dry and very drinkable. Magik is a smooth brown bitter with lots of puddingy caramel, great for dessert. It was my first experience with beer-in-a-bag-in-a-box and I felt the carbonation could have done with being upped a bit more, though I don't know if this is a gripe with the dispense method or the brewery.

And so it was back on the road again on the day after the ceremony. Obviously, I called in at Buckfast Abbey on the way back to Bristol: as an Armaghman one simply does not pass up the opportunity to see such an important part of one's heritage. At Bristol airport, with the car (a ghastly Vauxhall Meriva: don't ever buy one) back in the lot I checked in and was able to, for the first and only time all trip, walk up to a bar and order a pint of beer. Butcombe Bitter was on the one and only handpump. There'd be times when I'd dismiss this as a boring brown bitter, but at the end of a long trip it was a delicious cool copper pint of pure refreshment. On the whole it's quite dry and rather tannic in a marvellously thirst-quenching way. There's a touch of eggs in the aroma and a hint of soap on the flavour: stereotypical faults of English beer, but they compromised my enjoyment not a jot. If my flight hadn't been called madly early, I'd have launched into another no problem.

I returned home eager for more travelling in England. O to have time for those interesting excursions off the motorway, to stop in those villages and drink in those pubs. And to fill the car with cases of cider from those farms. Some day.

01 July 2011

Looking for redemption

Session logoHere it is folks, the last roll of the die for Odell. We're down to the wire, backs to the wall, pulling out all stops and full steam ahead for a land flowing with strained metaphors. Can the Colorado brewery give me a beer that has the beatings of their IPA? I've been quite unimpressed with all the others I've tried and I'm running really short of new ones to try. Three more today: will one of them redeem this much-lauded brewery?

As it happens, redemption is the theme for this month's Session. John tells us of the long period in the wilderness on which he sent Smuttynose brewery following some bad experiences with their beer. While I'd never go so far as to describe anything I've had so far from Odell as bad, I feel they're not living up to their reputation. Redemption or damnation: three beers to decide it.

First up, 5 Barrel Pale Ale, a tribute, apparently, to the brewery's pilot operation. Like all of these, the bottle conditioning leaves it slightly hazy on pouring: a pale amber with a thick and lasting pillow of foam on top. There's no sign of that suspended yeast in the flavour, however. It's clean and tangy offering a sugary kiss of lightly caramelised malt overlaid with some lovely juicy mandarin hops, rising to a definite bitterness at the end. The body is big and on the whole it's a very satisfying beer to drink. It's not a stand-out, though, being in the same league for me as the likes of Goose Island IPA. Still, it looks like redemption may indeed be on the cards.

The Red next. Not a name to inspire visions of beer excellence, but really this is much more along the lines of an American Amber, though with rather more oomph at 6.5% ABV. Out of the bottle it's busy straight away with an aroma of sweet dark fruit: raisins and plums. On tasting you get a little bit of sherbet, some roast and a tiny hint of gunpowder spice. More of any of these elements would be great, but it's quite understated all-in. Like the 5 Barrel, it's solid, enjoyable, but there are plenty of other beers just like it out there. I couldn't go singing Odell's praises on the basis of this alone.

And so we come to Cutthroat Porter, where the yeast sediment at the bottom of the bottle is clearly visible through the glass, light brown on black. It pours out promisingly gloopy, though the carbonation is quite busy, resulting in an another dense head that lasts all the way to the end. It's a beer of two halves, and I didn't like it at first, finding it too dry and too fizzy. Given a few minutes to warm up and flatten out, however, and it's a treat. Sweet roast on the nose, a mellow smooth texture and a flavour, while still nicely dry, with lots of other stuff going on too. Chocolate and marzipan is a big part of it, and some light peppery spices as well. My only problem is that it's all over too quickly. But, at 4.8% ABV, what I'm supposed to do is open the next bottle.

So yes: redemption, then, for Odell. There's still nothing with the wow-factor of the IPA, but Cutthroat is definitely up there with the best of American porters I've met. The others I'd be happy to drink if they were plentiful and cheap, but as I've said before, beer really ought to be doing something interesting and different to justify a journey of thousands of miles.