31 October 2011

Dæve's diphthongs

At long last, the third of the Hardknott bottles Dave and Ann gave me while we queued for the Great British Beer Festival last year. I've disposed of the Infra Red and the Granite, which leaves just this bottle of Æther Blæc 2009. I do feel a bit guilty leaving it this long -- the point of brewers giving out freebies is to promote their wares, of course, and this wasn't promoting anything by sitting in my attic for 15 months -- but as I said in relation to the other two: Dave makes a big deal on his labels about how his beers are best left to age so it's really his own fault.

Anyway, Æther Blæc is an 8% ABV stout that's had several months' maturation in a Caol Ila whisky cask. The recommendation (he's big on his recommendations, is Dave) is to serve at room temperature but this came out of my attic on a chilly day so my first sip was quite a cool one. The phenols jumped out a mile, delivering powerful and rather unpleasant disinfectant flavours and little else. Given a while to warm up, however, and it rounds out quite nicely. Yes, there's still a lot of that TCP thing. If you don't like peaty whisky you probably won't like this. But there's also bags of sweet creamy chocolate (Galaxy bars, specifically), some quite dry un-vanilla-ish oak and a proper tang of bitter green hops. The aroma is an enticing peaty one, offering a subtle prelude to the bigger flavours to come.

I can kind of see how this might mellow with even more aging, but it's still perfectly drinkable now. Cheers Dave.

27 October 2011

Curd your enthusiasm

Bord Bia have designated the upcoming long weekend as the Irish Farmhouse Cheese & Craft Beer Weekend. They've helped organise a whole raft of events all around the country over the next few days, celebrating two things we produce in Ireland which are well worth making a fuss about. A full calendar of events is available on the Bord Bia website here.

I've been catching up on the new Irish beers which were launched at the All-Ireland Craft Beerfest in Dublin last month, which I missed. BrewEyed Vanilla Amber Ale, for instance, which went on tap in L. Mulligan. Grocer recently. No surprises here anyway: it's certainly amber, attractively dark and enticing. The aroma is a bit off-putting, however: a sickly waft of strong vanilla essence that leaves you in no doubt that this is not a subtle beer. First taste produces a deafening clash as the sweet vanilla smashes headlong into powerful hop bitterness. It's a mercy it's as bitter as it is, otherwise the vanilla could have taken over completely and turned it into an alcopop. But it's definitely a beer, and designed for grown-ups. The pay off comes at the end: the flavours calm down and there's a long lingering finish of vanilla-infused bitter which works rather well. Overall I think it's probably too weird to enjoy in any great quantities, but hooray for novelty and I'm really looking forward to what BrewEyed come up with next.

Following their Coffee & Oatmeal Stout special, Dungarvan Brewing have gone back to basics for their sixth beer: a straightforward 3.7% ABV bitter called Comeragh Challenger, named after the local mountains and the single hop variety employed, respectively. It was back to Mulligan's once again to give this a spin. On the first sip I did a double-take. On the second, I was still confused. Fortunately, Colin was on hand to answer my question: "Are you sure this isn't Helvick Gold?"

It has the same soft fruit palate and the same invigorating gunpowder finish. The light in Mulligan's isn't great (that's my excuse for these crappy photos) but it certainly looked to be the same shade of yellow. There did seem to be an extra smack of bitterness in the middle, but that could easily have been my imagination. Colin took a sample and assured me that it was the correct beer; that it tastes totally different to Helvick; and that I have the gustatory acuity of a donkey with a headcold. Colin doesn't get these things wrong.

I stand by my initial impression, however. Comeragh Challenger tastes very much like Helvick Gold only a little more bitter. As Helvick is one of my favourite Irish beers, especially from the cask, this is by no means a criticism.

But National Beer & Cheese Weekend isn't just about beer. There is also cheese. So with the long-anticipated arrival of Eight Degrees's new porter I reckoned I needed to introduce it to some cheesey goodness. Or some cheesey randomness at least.

Knockmealdown Porter, like its stablemates, is 5% ABV and deftly performs the Eight Degrees signature move of taking a familiar style and beefing it up slightly. It tastes dry at first, followed by a really interesting mature sourness, riding high on the extra alcohol and doing a surprisingly good impression of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. A dash of chocolate comes right at the end, finishing the whole thing on a smooth and sweet note. I like this a lot. So how does it go with cheese?

My last outing with beer and cheese on this blog concluded, er, inconclusively, with the feeling that beer and cheese matching is a mystery and that the random approach works best. Bord Bia have given us some (PDF) guidelines on what pairs with what, but I still prefer the random approach. This way I get to tick cheeses as well.

The three I picked, pretty much arbitrarily, at the cheese counter were ones I've never had before and know nothing about: Ballintubber, a softish cheddar with chives; Killeen Fenugreek, a goat-milk Gouda clone, seasoned as the name suggests; and Cooleeney, the pungent runny one essential to any cheese session line-up.

Ballintubber was my favourite by itself and faired reasonably well with the porter. The sourness of the beer bounces nicely off the sweetness of the cheese and the chives give it an almost hop-like herbal finish. I really liked the Killeen too because of the domineering fenugreek. It's too domineering for the beer, however and while the taste doesn't get lost completely it's not pulling its weight in the match. The Cooleeny I found tough going: though it has a beautiful socky Camembert finish, the main taste is powerfully acrid and rather off-putting. So I was delighted to find that Knockmealdown Porter puts some manners on it, smoothing the harsh bitter edge with its chocolate while leaving the heady mature cheese vapours to linger at the end. I wouldn't recommend attempting to approach Cooleeny without a bottle of strong porter in your hand.

And at the end of that I wanted to immediately run out and try more cheese with it, explore more taste combinations, but I'll have to leave that to this weekend when hopefully I'll get to visit at least one of the Dublin beer and cheese events. The Bull & Castle's tasting platter looks right up my random-pairing alley. You'll find Eight Degrees at the Ballyhoura Spook mountain biking Halloween party on Sunday while Dungarvan Brewing have organised a beer and cheese pub quiz in The Moorings tonight. There are loads more events going on around the country. As I say, check the website.

In the interests of honesty and transparency I should mention that Bord Bia have paid me absolutely nothing to promote this event on my blog, not so much as a snifter of beer or a sliver of cheese. In fact they didn't even ask. I just think it's incredibly cool for a state agency to be spending my taxes on promoting our breweries and cheesemakers this way, and I'd like to see the event be a roaring success.

24 October 2011

Let the bad times roll

It's part superhero, part Victorian-industrial: I do like the Malheur logo. These two Flemish beers have been on sale in Messrs Maguire for the last year or so but I've been slow getting around to them.

Malheur 12 was the first I tried, and I wasn't impressed. It's incredibly heavy and boozy with bucket-loads of brown sugar flavour, but not much else. Concentrate and there's a layer of ripe bananas, reminding me of Kwak, only not as good. Behind that, if you let it sit long enough, there's a kind of oily, herbal, eucalyptus tone. But it's all very subtle and not what you want from a 12% ABV dark Belgian ale.

After that I was in no rush to try the lighter, blonde the Malheur 10, a milksop at a mere 10% ABV. I took a bottle home with me from the Doppelbock launch last month and opened it on a quiet Sunday evening as an end-of-the-weekend nightcap, too tired to approach anything that might require my attention. And I was confounded by how tasty it was. At least once I'd managed to pour it through the insanely busy fizziness.

It's a hazy shade of pale gold and gives off the same exciting spicy yeast aroma as Duvel. Like the 12, it starts off very sweet, but does a lot more with it, offering honey, golden syrup and then more daring notes of eucalyptus and aftershave. Warming, filling and comforting, it conjured the image of a beefed-up Duvel, and I really liked that.

It's very unusual for me to be saying avoid the dark beer and go for the pale one but so it is with Malheur.

20 October 2011

Rot' 'n' Hell

They have a bit of a cult following, the Rothaus beers. Perhaps that explains why they cost over €3 when they arrived in Dublin. The branding is retro and the bottles have had more than one trip through the brewery, but is the beer inside as steadfastly old-fashioned?

Well obviously I've no idea how German beer tasted back in the good old days -- you'll have to ask Ron about that -- but Rothaus Pils definitely shows that some time has been taken over it. Never mind the Hopfenextrakt on the ingredients list, the hop flavours in this beautifully rich gold lager are fresh, green and slightly spicy. They're balanced by a big sweet malt base, laid on thicker than you might expect for a mere 5.1% ABV. Best of all, the carbonation is low, allowing the smooth heavy beer to glide over the palate and slip down the throat spreading hop goodness along the way.

A tough act for Rothaus Märzen Export to follow. I'm not sure if it's any darker than the pils. It's only marginally stronger than it at 5.6% ABV. I was expecting big breadiness, but it's much more subtle than that. It's heavy, smooth and really satisfying to drink, but it's hard to pin down anything distinctive about the flavour. A little bit of dry grain, some mild alcoholic heat, but not a whole lot else stands out. From my limited understanding of these styles I'd guess it's far closer to being an Export than a Märzen.

On to the Rothaus Hefe Weizen, an opaque bright orange shade and is as breezy as it looks. None of your heavy banana notes in this 5.4% ABV package, just some zesty orange and a light gunpowder spice at the back of the throat. Another smooth easy-drinker, this.

The Pils is the standout beer for me, but it's understated end-to-end quality with all this lot. If you're looking for a house lager in particular, these are worth buying in by the case.

17 October 2011

My kind of pub crawl

Festival over, we went to the pub. The wife Derek and I headed to Amsterdam on the Sunday after the Borefts festival. High on the agenda was a recommendation from Ron's mate Mike for Oude Jenever, so early on the sunny afternoon we darkened the doors of In De Olofspoort and received a wonderful impromptu tutorial in 3-, 5- and 10-year-old jenever from the friendly barman. You're right, Mike: it does taste like really good Scotch.

While in the area we also paid a brief courtesy call to De Prael. The brewery's eclectic tasting room was little more than a hole in the ground last time I was through Amsterdam, and the comfy chairs they have now are far more conducive to beer tasting than the alley in which they used to serve them. Derek got the round in, serving me Gepijpte Nelis, a smoked version of the dark autumn bock. With its fruity spices, it's perhaps closer to a Belgian dubbel than a Dutch bock, and the gentle smoke character lends a little complexity to an otherwise quite simple strong and sticky beer.

From there we headed down to Beer Temple. I was at the grand opening of this American-themed bar in 2009, or at least I stood outside. This was the first time I've ever been able to sit inside and peruse the prodigious selections. I figured it would be easier and more economical to limit myself to the draught offerings, but then I spotted a can in one of the fridges: Maui Coconut Porter, a beer I've been hunting for several years, having heard amazing things about it. So I duly bought it, popped the ringpull, poured it and got ready to be amazed. I wasn't amazed. It's a very fizzy dark brown beer giving off quite subtle coconut scents. It tastes extremely dry, a little sulphurous, and rather gritty, like a stout that's had a bit too much roast barley added. The sweet coconut flavour makes a very late appearance and lingers oilily on the lips. I definitely think I'd built it up too much. I mean, it's nice, in its own way, but at the same time a huge disappointment. The main thing is that it's done and I won't have to go to Maui to experience the loneliness of the long-distance ticker.

Beer Temple has commissioned its own house beer from Dutch brewery Jopen, and of course it had to be an IPA. Tempel Bier is a little bit on the light-to-watery side: a session beer in a pub without pints. But the refreshing zesty orange flavour can't be argued with. The fresh hoppy benefits of not having to cross an ocean are used to full effect.

There were a couple of strange versions of familiar beers on tap, including Flying Dog Double Dog on cask. The softer carbonation produces a different sensation to the bottled version, coating the mouth with extra-sticky toffee malt and turning the citric hop notes into something funkier and more spicy. John John Dead Guy is a barrel aged version of Rogue's Dead Guy Ale. Rogue's in-house distillery makes barrel acquisition particularly easy for them, and this one had seen some of their own whiskey before the beer went in. I'm not a fan of Dead Guy normally and this was little better. Massive wood flavours don't help the cloying stickiness, though the little bit of bretty sourness helps take some of the edge off, as do the sharp vegetal hops. I'm still glad I was just stealing a sip of someone else's rather than having a glass to myself.

The Maryland-based Stillwater brewing company were holding a tasting session in the back of the pub while we were there and as each tasting tray was brought to the corralled punters, the relevant beer went on general availability to the rest of us. RateBeer tells me that the two we tried were imported from no further away than Belgium. Jaded was brewed with the assistance of De Struise and is a dark red-brown ale doing a great job of balancing Belgian fruity esters with fresh and pithy hop zing. ’t Hofbrouwerijke near Antwerp was the birthplace of Love & Regret, another zesty one, though this time loaded with aromatic spices like coriander and white pepper. Apparently it was actually done with heather, lavender and chamomile, but you get the idea.

There was more white pepper -- a flavour I really enjoy in beer -- in Dieu du Ciel's Route des Épices. This time there is real pepper present: green and black corns are added to the recipe. There's a lovely rich chocolate biscuit aroma, but after that it's all pepper all the way. Before moving on I spent a bit of time with Marshall Wharf Old Ale. The Maine brewery has done a fantastic job with this: cola red and with a pungent vinous, almost vinegar, nose. It's one of those big textured strong ales filling one's face with sweet treacle and moreish umami, finished off with a distinctly sharp hop bite. Amazing stuff. I could have had another, but one does not leave Amsterdam before dropping in to Beer Temple's sisterhouse Arendsnest.

So we made it our last stop. Things have changed a little at Arendsnest in recent years. Gradually, the blackboards are starting to take over the walls. Since the pub serves exclusively Dutch-brewed beers that's probably a clear sign of how robustly healthy the beer scene is in the Netherlands these days.

A couple from Jopen to start: their Extra Stout is a tour de force with some fantastic smoky roasty aromas and a smooth texture given a cheeky burnt kick at the end. Barrevoet is their barley wine: dark red almost to the point of blackness. In combination with some majorly aromatic and grapefruitish hops it's almost a black IPA. But what's in a style? All you need to know is that it's one to look out for.

Perhaps inevitably, De Molen now has a blackboard to itself in Arendsnest. From that came Rijn & Veen, a cloudy pale ale with a lovely big orangey aroma. The taste is a little bit of a let-down, however: sharp and with some unfortunate disinfectant notes. Hemel & Aarde was a much better proposition: a sublimely smooth imperial stout with a touch of smoke on the nose. The flavour is heavy on the roast side but balanced by lavender perfume. Easy-drinking, balanced, but softly powerful too.

The airport train beckoned, so just one more for the road. My big finish was Bommen & Granaten: a dark red ale of a full 15.2% ABV, and possibly tasting like more. It's incredibly viscous, almost chewy. A knife and fork job. The flavours are sweet of course, but amazingly not cloying. "Turkish delight" was one comment as the glass got passed around. I was still tasting it all the way to Schiphol and was still thinking about it when I got to my own bed in Dublin hours later. Sometimes, good beers follow you home.

16 October 2011

Festival ethics

Cheeky Belgians! Struise were the only one of the twelve breweries at Borefts to be asking for more than one token for some beers. Though the range was prodigious -- far more than advertised in the programme -- our party was generally a bit circumspect about the whole thing and only took a few punts on Struise offerings. One was Tsjeeses Reserva, an oak-aged tripel. Not a whole lot of oak in evidence in this 10% ABV dark orange number, and the tripel elements are quite toned down too: sweaty apricots, a touch of honey. Worst of all, a big thick layer of foam. For two tokens you could at least have taken it to the top.

Black Damnation VII was also on the roster. Not a super-strong imperial stout like the others in the series, but a mild: some light chocolate notes and a bit of a nasty oxidised off-flavour: the sort of thing that's hard to hide in a 2% ABV beer. Yes, this one was just one token. KB Max was rather better: a light (though 8% ABV) and tasty blonde ale, and again just the one token, I think.

And then we move on to the silly name department. First up: Shark Pants. If that doesn't immediately interest you, its billing as a 288 IBU imperial IPA is probably supposed to. Lots of hop haze in here and not much by way of fizz. Actually, not much by way of bitterness either, just some pleasant citrus balanced by light tannins. Yet another beer that shows IBUs aren't a measure of anything meaningful.

Finally, stupidest name award goes to Struise's Supreme Hoppy Intensive Taste. That's right folks: it's SHIT. Haha! No seriously, that'll be two tokens please. Not in the programme so I've no idea what it's supposed to be or what it's made from, but it's quite sour and bretty, with some disinfectant phenols and the dark sugars of cheap cola. Of hops there's just a brushing and some interesting spiciness, but overall nothing to get excited about.

For the extra tokens these should have been the best beers in the world. But they weren't. We rinse our glasses and move on.

Dutch brewery Sint Christoffel had an unobtrusive stand in the back room of the windmill. Some interesting recipes, including a Wet-Hopped Wijs. Dry-hopped with wet hops, in fact. Suitably pale orange for a witbier, the hops do get a bit lost under the wheaty, worty malt, just arriving at the very end to add a mild grassiness. Perhaps I would have had better luck with the dry-dry-hopped version, but I didn't get round to it.

Winterse Christoffel Bok was a fantastic example of the Dutch bock style: dark red-brown and giving off heady alcohol vapours with a flavour profile full of bourbon biscuits and raisins. Thick and beautifully warming. There was also a touch of the bock about XXV, Christoffel's barley wine: loads of caramel and toffee plus a tiny hint of saccharine. But also bucketloads of spicy herbal hops. Cracking stuff.

If you've been keeping count you'll have noticed that's eleven breweries, so just one left. In the corner beside Närke was Loverbeer, a Piedmontese operation specialising in big, sour ales. D'Uvabeer was the first I went for, a grape lambic. It's actually not all that sour, and the sweet and juicy Freisa grape shines through beautifully, enhanced by a whiff of summery perfume.While D'Uvabeer is all red grape, Madamin, though grape-free, reminds me more of the white: bright amber, mildly tart but quite dry and fruity too. Perfect summer beers, both.

BeerBera is brewed with classic Piedmontese Barbera grapes and tastes to me quite like a kriek, having a pronounced sour cherry flavour but also some lovely earthy brett notes. Meanwhile BeerBrugna claims "high acidity" but, while tart, is wonderfully smooth and very drinkable. Plums are the added ingredient here. And of course you have to bring an imperial stout to the party, and LoverBeer brought Papessa, a beer which blends lovely toasted dark grain flavours with sweet dark fruits: dates in particular. Just a sour edge reminds you of the house signature style.

And that's the end of the festival. If you fancy the idea of sipping teeny glasses of powerhouse beers from some of Europe's élite craft breweries in convivial surroundings, then Borefts is where it's at.

15 October 2011

See Emelisse play

I referred to Emelisse as the other big Dutch presence at the Borefts festival, but that has as much to do with the beer names as anything else. It reads like someone's taken beer geek key words, thrown them on a table and brewed what they say. You've got to have a Black IPA these days and theirs is pretty much on the money: a mild apricot waft, some juicy soft fruit and lots of dry roast. It's perhaps a little too intensely dry for some tastes but I enjoyed it. Likewise their Imperial Doppelbock (11.5% ABV in case you're not familiar with what the style designation means) was very drinkable with lots of smooth and viscous caramel, though it did have a slightly off-putting sickly sweet aroma.

It seems they like their peat at Emelisse: as well as the boozy-but-smooth Peated Imperial Stout -- speaking more of turf in the heady aroma than in the slightly ashen taste -- there were two beers who'd spent time in Laphroaig barrels. The White Label Laphroaig Imperial Stout showed little sign of the wood or whisky, being a sticky 11% ABV stout to its core. The Laphroaig phenols just lace it slightly, adding character without dominating. When the imperial stout is blended with their 10% ABV "Triple IPA" before aging and then given three months together in a Laphroaig barrel, the result is Emelisse Black & Tan Laphroaig. The hops just get lost here, however, and the end result is a slightly diluted imperial stout which also tastes a bit like Laphroaig. A blending and aging step too far, I think.

The other distillery Emelisse had taken barrels from from was Lynchburg's finest. And only. Jack Daniel's Imperial Stout again showed little actual whiskey, instead coming up dry, very woody and with lots of alcoholic heat. Neither stout nor spirit character means a thumbs down from me. Jack Daniel's Barley Wine had much more of that sour Tennessee whiskey aroma, though the flavour is all wood again, unfortunately, and the texture is thinner than I'd like from a 10% ABV ale.

All-in-all, you'd want to be brewing a better class of wood-aged strong beers if the plan is to haul them over the threshold of De Molen.

14 October 2011

Inside job

It wasn't all open-air pouring at the Borefts festival. Several breweries didn't get coveted spots in the sunshine, though I'm sure they'd have been glad of the shelter had the weather been less clement. Two of the indoorsies were the nordic representatives Nøgne Ø and Närke.

The Norwegians were at the front of the house, behind an unusual bar which showed off their keykeg arrangements to all and sundry but featured no badges or beer names at all. They also provided a nice bit of variety in a world of dark beers. Nøgne Ø India Saison was a beaut: incredibly clean and refreshing with delicious sherbet and fresh orange notes. The Tiger Tripel was tasty too, though a little bit by-the-numbers: some spice, some booze, but nothing to write home about.

There was a touch of tripel spice about the nose of Aku-Aku, a hazy pale amber beer they've brewed with lemongrass. But the nose is the best thing about it: it gets a bit watery after that. I was expecting much better things from Nøgne Ø Citra IPA too, but there are just some nice candied lemons and not a whole lot else.

Of course they didn't dodge the dark beers altogether: there was Not So Mild, a, er, dark mild. I liked it: it hits the super-smooth light roast coffee notes a good mild should have, but adding some lovely and distinctive hop tones to the aroma. Their Oak'd Bruin was less of a success. Though gorgeously exotic in its cedarwood aroma, the taste is too harsh: dry and powerfully woody, like chewing a sideboard.

Top of the pile for Nøgne Ø, and one of my favourites at the festival, was one that's recently appeared in Irish off licences: #500, a 10% ABV, 100 IBU imperial IPA. Dark amber and exhibiting that beautiful highland-toffee-studded-with-hops balance of really good hopped up strong pale ales. The booze adds a comforting warmth and in no way detracts from its drinkability.

Swedes Närke were in the next room over from the Norwegians, sharing a bar with the Italians. Just two beers from them. Örebro Bitter is a pretty solid dark red bitter, meeting all my requirements for the style: lots of tannins and a solid, grown-up, bitter tang. But the rent is too high: 5.7% ABV is unreasonably strong for this sort of beer.

That leaves us with Bästa Rököl. It's rather less simple. Dark mahogany, the rök is out in force, with lots of peat flavour. Juniper was promised too, but that never broke the surface of the sweet smoky flavour profile. Even with just 100ml I settled in to enjoy this. The guy at the next table was smoking a cigar which, second hand, paired wonderfully with it. Such is life.

Next up, the other big Dutch presence at the festival.

13 October 2011

The inevitable Danes

Our tour of the breweries at the Borefts beer festival this year brings us to Denmark next. Well, sort of. Mikkeller is still brewing in all corners of Europe and beyond, and there was certainly no lack of diversity in the beers they presented. They even had comedy legend Chris Morris helping out at the stand.

I went for a couple of the sour ones first, attracted in particular to Rhubarb Lambic 2010. Though I'm not big into rhubarb generally, I have known it to work really well in beer. This cloudy pale yellow beer doesn't have much by way of rhubarb flavour characteristics, but is more appley, with a pungent cider aroma and apples sitting next to the normal, invigorating, lambic tartness. The texture is very interesting, with a dry bicarbonate of soda style fizz. Not a beer I'd drink lots of, but great as a palate cleanser in small quantities.

Though a variety of fruit lambics were on offer, the other one that really interested me was Spontancranberry as I'm fairly sure I've never had a cranberry beer before. It's not too tart and the hefty 7.7% ABV goes a long way to mute the sourness with alcohol. Instead of sweet fruit, the cranberries impart a pink peppercorn piquancy, finishing a little bit acrid. I think this would be a better beer at a lower strength, but I liked it.

I just had a quick taste of the barrel-aged edition of Mikkeller's smoked chilli porter. Texas Ranger Speyside is much like the original version, not giving much bang for all it promises. There's some dry powdery chocolate, a mere suggestion of chilli, and an unfortunate wet cardboard finish.

Mielcke & Hurtigkarl appears to be a house beer created for a Copenhagen restaurant. A spell in sauternes barrels is the draw here. I can't honestly say I would have guessed that from tasting it, but it is rather nice: broadly in the tripel style with a little extra spice to liven it up. Great with posh nosh, I'm sure.

I was a little underwhelmed by Mikkeller's Monk's Elixir at the 2008 European Beer Festival in Copenhagen. As is the way of these things, the recipe has moved on since and spawned an array of variations. Monk's No Brett is a particularly odd one: dark brown and sour like a Flemish oud bruin, gushing fizz. It's stopped from all-out sourness by a sweet milk chocolate flavour which sounds like it should clash but actually provides a weird sort of balance. But even this seemed normal next to Monk's Trippin' On Cherries. Full-on Rodenbach Grand Cru vinegary intensity follows an enticing sweet and sour nose from a dark dark red beer topped by innocent pink foam. The cherries come through the vinegar quite assertively and the whole experience is intensely weird, but in a nice way. I could have had another but there was one more Mikkeller I couldn't pass up.

Again, a bit like racehorses, it's possible to guess the pedigree of this beer from its name. BooGoop is one of a series of collaborations Mikkeller has done with the Three Floyds brewery of Indiana. This is a 10.4% ABV "buckwheat wine" and starts with huge peach and apricot aromas, following it up with more of the same on tasting. The immensely heavy body was offset by a low serving temperature and it came out really quite refreshing in the end. A great beer on which to leave Mikkeller.

Just one other Danish brewer was at Borefts. Amager had a choice location in the shadow of the windmill. I've always found them to be a little staid in the branding department, though the quality of their beer speaks for itself. However, it looks like they've put a bit of graphic design effort into their series of beers based around the seven deadly sins, two of which (arguably the best two sins) were available at the festival.

Gluttony is an orange-coloured pale ale and very much hop-forward, offering a refreshing bitterness plus lots of fresh and summery hop high notes. Lust wasn't so popular among my drinking buddies but it hit the spot with me. A beautiful conker-red and very sweet, almost worty. Give it a moment, however, and there are hidden depths: a vinous complexity and some lovely tannic notes.

Amager were also serving a couple of different versions of their Hr. Frederiksen imperial stout. The plain one is a heavily textured and massively roasty example of the style, with lots of dry fresh-ground coffee on the nose and palate. Amazingly, Hr. Frederiksen Whisky Barrel edition manages to bury all that with a combination of big boozy scotch and a little touch of unpleasant vinegar. Stick to the original is my recommendation.

That's Denmark done. Where next?

12 October 2011

Kernel knowledge

The Kernel needs very little introduction from me. This London microbrewery has been making big waves since it started out in early 2010. As an ex-homebrewer, Evin makes beers of the sort he actually likes to drink and the results, I've heard, have been spectacular. Big IPAs and old-fashioned porters and stouts seem to be the stock-in-trade. Why waste capacity on lesser beer styles?

The Borefts festival programme promised a broad cross-section of the range but in the event we were a little stiffed on the dark ones. Plenty of IPAs, though. I started with Kernel Citra IPA, what with Citra becoming something of an endangered species at the moment: who knows where the next all-Citra pale ale will come from? It's a punchy little bugger, as you might expect. 7% ABV but you don't get any chance to taste the alcohol. The hops burn right through everything and completely dominate the flavour. At the finish it just shades into cheesiness or freshly-sawn wood, something I associate more with harsher hops like Simcoe. On balance I think I prefer my Citra a little more toned-down. Kernel Galaxy IPA ran on similar lines: assertive palate-sharpening hops and that slight touch of cheese.

Both of these were still better than the Motueka Pale Ale which I found had a sharp and brassy tang, plus some bandagey phenols which I didn't enjoy at all. And that meant I was on full alert when it came to the festival special. Kernel Borefts IPA was brewed with rye and cara-rye. The hops included Simcoe plus a dry dose of Motueka. Everything about this murky dark orange beer screamed "Run away!" at me. So I was stunned by how good it was. The hop cocktail lines up the citric flavours in mannerly order and the rye grassiness that follows complements and accentuates it beautifully. Just when I thought I was done with rye in beer, along comes The Kernel with this.

The IPA loveliness continued with Double Black IPA, though it's brown rather than properly black. 8.8% ABV read the badge (and not very clearly: it's actually 9.8% ABV, see comments) but it could easily pass for much less, so drinkable is it. The hops bring lots of fresh and juicy orange pith and this is tempered by mild coffee and chocolate flavours. A really beautiful combination and an object lesson in how to do dark hoppy beer well.

That leaves just Kernel Breakfast Stout. So much more simple compared to the others, this is light of body with lots of sweet caramel and a hint of banana. There's just a wisp of smoke to add complexity and make it properly interesting.

This brewery, it seems, really is turning out beer as good -- or at least as bold -- as everyone says. It was great chatting with you Evin and I hope to be able to drop into Kernel HQ before too long.

11 October 2011

Brits abroad

Stillage arrangements at Borefts meant a couple of the English breweries had especially impressive bar set-ups. None more so than Thornbridge who had seven casks on the go with Dom (right) & co. at the taps. I started with the beer I'd been looking forward to most: Coalition Burton Ale was brewed at Thornbridge with the help of London's Kernel brewery and recipe input from Ron Pattinson. Strong and sweet is what I'd been told to expect from proper Burton, so I wasn't expecting the bitterness in this. 80 IBUs, apparently, and with a powerful, almost metallic, hop bang. Behind it there's a lovely soft and quenching beer, laden with tannins. I really liked it and would love the chance to taste it a few months down the line. Sadly I doubt the small batch will last anything like that long.

Also on the Thornbridge historical roster was their Courage Russian Imperial Stout, one of the iconic strong beers of Britain and one which I understand current brand owners Wells & Young are due to bring back to the market soon. In the meantime, Thornbridge have knocked up this 9.5% ABV version, dry-hopped and seasoned with sea salt. It's sticky and incredibly sweet with big brown sugar notes, tasting a little unfinished to me. Ordinarily I'd still be very impressed, but at a festival inside the De Molen brewery the standard was somewhat higher.

Evenlode was Thornbridge's other dark offering, and the weakest beer they brought, at a tiddly 6.2% ABV. A dark brown porter, it has a slightly sour and yeasty aroma and tastes very dry with lots of roasted grain. Poking around the back of the flavour I found some peaches and scented soap. The missus got a liquorice hit from it. I can see this working better in quantities greater than the 100ml festival glass.

On the paler side of the Thornbridge range there was Geminus, an imperial IPA made on rye. I'm rarely a fan of rye beers and this heavy-drinking pale orange one just gave out too much of a sweaty hop vibe to be enjoyably drinkable. Your rye-based mileage may vary, of course. Halcyon 2009 IPA was a much better proposition. Despite getting on in years now, this has masses of fresh mandarin pith sitting slickly on a smooth, heavy body, shown off beautifully by the cask conditioning. It's a little sweet and sticky, with a touch of boiled sweet about it, but the hops stop it from being cloying and keep it drinkable, even at 7.7% ABV.

That just leaves the two 10%+ whoppers on the Thornbridge stillage. Alliance 2007 (picture, right) was another collaboration beer, this one brewed with the help of Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery. Pouring a very attractive dark amber shade, it shows off lots of boozy wood but in very suave sophisticated way: all smoothness and charm with none of the cloying impetuousness of younger wooded beer. I can see this working great as a fireside beer. It's fine in a brewery car park on a sunny September afternoon too, mind. The same goes for Alchemy XIV barley wine. Though rather pale for the style it's quite big-bodied and loaded with flavour. I got honey, toffee and lavender in different measures: the floral notes complementing the sticky malt quite beautifully.

All-in-all a great showing from Thornbridge and I really relished the opportunity to try the beers I read so much about but rarely see in real life.

Next we go up to the windmill beer garden where Manchester's Marble brewery had their gravity casks arrayed. They weren't playing the same high-strength game and even brought along Pint, their 3.9% ABV bitter. Perhaps they were trying to attract custom from the Dutch beer consumers' union. Pint is a clear yellow shade and very much hop forward. I found it a little watery, though the flavour did start to build quite nicely as I drank. Obviously it's not meant to be consumed in these tiddly festival glasses. At 5.9% ABV, Dobber worked much better. This hazy pale ale has lots of satsuma in the aroma and adds a coriander spiciness in the flavour. Supremely refreshing, I thought.

I didn't get Chocolate Marble at all: a soapy nose and rather dry tasting but with very little discernible chocolate. But then it was my last beer on the Friday so perhaps it's another one that needs a larger serve to be appreciated. Decadence imperial stout was much better suited to the festival milieu: there's a wonderful union of big bitter hops and rich dark chocolate to give a powerful coffee and oranges taste sensation.

Marble Barley Wine is quite a simple and pleasant one. Over 10% ABV and oozing big ripe strawberry flavours. For something more complicated and complex, there was Old Manchester, brewed with recipe input from Fuller's John Keeling. The hops are a mix of Goldings, Motueka and Simcoe, brewed to 7.3% ABV and given an extra dose of dry Simcoe. The result is a loud beer, yelling candied fruits at first, then throwing a serious big citric tang and hard bitterness into the glorious cacophony.

Another English brewery I don't see enough of, but there was one set up just behind Marble whom I'd never met before at all...

10 October 2011

Borefts!

And so we went to Bodegraven, the wife and I, and our fellow Dublin-based beer traveller Derek. We went for the third annual Borefts Bier Festival, a two-day gig at the De Molen brewery featuring an invitation-only roster of brewers from around Europe and a wide selection of serious geek-bait beers. You want it imperial? You want it sour? You want it imperial and sour? This is where you're supposed to be in late September.

Our host was showing off his everso shiny new brewery, a couple of hundred metres down the street from the De Molen windmill, so the festival was set over two locations and a steady traffic of drinkers wandered between them. It was possibly the most civilised beer festival I've ever been at: a diverse crowd from pushchair pushing families all the way up to elderly gentlemen who look liked they were more used to pints and pipes than 100ml glasses but who were having a great time nonetheless. The guy on the left even rolled up on Friday afternoon for a couple of snifters. Food was plentiful, facilities were suitable and no-one got rowdy, unpleasant or any way less than convivial, at least from what I saw.

Like all good beer festivals, it was an opportunity for brewers to show off some new and experimental recipes, and of course De Molen, with a bar at both sites, got stuck right in. Festival Smoked Black IPA was the first of theirs I tried, and I wasn't sure what to make of it really. You get some beautifully zingy fresh peach flavours seriously dirtied up by harsh and phenolic peat notes. Normally I like both of these elements in beer, but together in one glass just tasted wrong. And it looks like Black IPA may have moved on before I've got a proper punt at the style. Oh well.

Top gimmick of the weekend was De Molen Eer & Geweten, an 11% ABV imperial stout, again made especially for the festival. Upon entry, as well as a tasting glass, programme, bottle of water and some beer tokens, everyone was given an entry form on which to guess this beer's mystery ingredient. Finding anything specific in a big imperial stout is a needle-in-a-haystack job. The beer itself was gorgeous, with loads of gooey chocolate overlaid with delicious cherry flavours and a hint of sherry. A slight sourness at the back meant that "plums" went down as my guess. I was wrong and, so it seems, was everyone else. The secret ingredient was later revealed to be aged balsamic vinegar. Perhaps that's where those mild sour notes came from. Stand by for the new wave of balsamic vinegar beers.

Two versions of the deservedly legendary Hel & Verdoemenis imperial stout were on tap. Hel & Verdoemenis 666 Vintage 2011 was one of the overall standout beers for me: infused with 40-year old-cognac soaked out of oak chips. Massively heavy, with the sumptuous thick chocolate almost demanding a churro to be dipped in it. Hel & Verdoemenis MacAllan was less successful: the flavours from the scotch barrel have taken over completely and left next to no stoutiness, unfortunately. Next to it, Rasputin Bruichladdich imperial stout tasted almost bland, but showed much better balance between sweet roasted coffee and slightly woody whisky, all in a lighter and more drinkable package, despite being all of 11.4% ABV.

The Russian theme continues with two versions of Tsarina Esra. Yes, that's another imperial stout. Esra Cognac came out very dry, rather harsh, and unpleasantly spirituous. Wild Esra on Cherries, however, was fantastic. The feral yeast have chomped their way through the high gravity wort leaving an 11% ABV stout with the light body of one less than half its strength. It's beautifully warm and roasty, shot through with puckering sour notes in equal parts from the yeast and the fruit. An amazing symphony of contrasting flavours and an absolute work of art.

Last of the De Molen stouts is Hart & Ziel, a sweet and fruity 11%-er. None of your dark and brooding roasty bitterness here, this is all floral and fruity high notes of raspberries and vanilla with just a smidge of smooth, sweet coffee. Beautiful.

It being Bock season in the Netherlands, De Molen had one out, typically dark red and sticky but with nothing very special about it. The house lager of the moment is an interesting construction: Fresh-Hopped Bohemian is a grainy brewpub pils at heart but has a fantastic bright and clean aroma of lager malt and new hops.

Lastly a couple of pale ales. Bed & Breakfast isn't one to get out of bed for, being slightly oxidised but otherwise uninteresting. Then Amarillo Upgreyde which is nearly too interesting. I first encountered Chris O wandering around the brewery carpark looking a little bewildered by it. My initial impression from its aroma was scented handwipes: there's definitely something a bit cleaning-product about it. It tastes powerfully perfumed, with Earl Grey notes of sweet lemon candy and bitter bergamot. It just didn't sit right with me but my drinking companions were much better disposed towards it.

OK, that's the first of the twelve breweries covered. With cheery thanks to Menno for hosting the gig and brewing some absolute crackers, we move on.

07 October 2011

Home, and away

Session logoFor only the second time in its history, The Session comes to Ireland. This one's in the care of my good friend and drinking buddy Reuben, and the  topic is Thanks To The Big Boys. It's something we know a bit about here, with two foreign breweries controlling 90-something per cent of the beer market. But I'm not going to talk about them.

Instead, a different foreign multinational which operates in Ireland, though three beers it doesn't actually sell here. These came courtesy of Reuben himself, via Kristy and the MolsonCoors people in the UK. All three are brewed at the William Worthington Brewery which is sited in the National Brewery Museum at MolsonCoors's base in Burton-on-Trent, recently developed and expanded under the supervision of master brewer Steve Wellington, one of the most respected names in English beer. So how does the Canadio-American giant do when it comes to quaint English ale?

The only truly modern one in the bunch is Red Shield, a brand extension from the well-known White Shield IPA. This suffers a bit from the problem Pete Brown identified with Stella Black a while ago: breweries should not include a beery colour in a beer name if the beer isn't actually that colour. Brown's Law. So Red Shield isn't red, it's a golden blonde affair throwing off bittersweet scents of posh cloudy lemonade from the the get-go. After it you get lovely summery fresh peachy flavours, deepening to boiled sweets with the bitterness asserting itself as it warms. I'm not seeing much in common with the stoic orangey warmth of White Shield, but as a lightly-sparkled zingy sunny day refresher, served chilled, Red Shield is impossible to dislike.

Next up is Worthington E. An odd choice for resurrection, this, as it was previously best known from its time as a dodgy bitter back in the 1970s, before England learned how to brew nice keg beer. Prior to that it had been a well-respected Burton pale ale, and the recipe used here is one from 1965. It is, for rheumey-eyed hankerers after the classic beers from England's Big Six, the closest thing to Bass ale as it was in its heyday. (For those not familiar with the history, Bass acquired the Worthington brewery in 1927, and in 2002 MolsonCoors took possession of the Bass brewery, the recipes and everything else except the Bass name).

I can't imagine this bottle-conditioned version is much like the cask classic. It's fizzy as all hell with an irritating thick mattress of foam blocking access to the slightly hazy dark amber body beneath. The nose is subtly hoppy, reminding me of the not unpleasant stale beer aroma of a mostly-empty pub on a Saturday afternoon. The first pull delivers sticky, hard caramel followed by a mildly bitter orange oiliness. It keeps its balance and finishes on a classic Burton spark of gunpowder sulphur. In that typical English way it's understated without being at all bland; but the whole is let down by the overactive prickly fizz. This beer deserves more quiet dignity than the bottle affords it.

Last of the line-up is P2, a name which for me conjures images of Roberto Calvi hanging from Blackfriars Bridge with bricks in his pockets. No, I wasn't part of the focus group when this was launched. It's a full-on big-flavoured imperial stout, making waves at 8% ABV normally associated with beers in the 10-12% bracket. Like all the best imperial stouts the hops have been laid on heavy and bitter, giving an invigorating vegetal tang to the foretaste. The middle is all smooth and woody sherry followed by luxuriously silky dark chocolate. 8% ABV: I check the label again like a drunk in a cartoon. When the dark booziness leaves the stage the hops stir themselves for a slightly metallic encore. P2 is one of those complex but very drinkable beers that expert British brewers excel at.

Of course, any sane beer drinker knows that brewery size is no measure of beer quality, and that delicious beer can come from a Fortune 500 company just as easily as a tiny family-run one, so long as attention is paid to the ingredients and the methods. MolsonCoors may not be quite Fortune 500, but they seem to know what they're doing at the William Worthington plant.

Thanks to Reuben and the MolsonCoors UK folk for the bottles.

Next month The Session crosses the Irish Sea to be looked after by Mr. Brown himself, but we're taking it back in December when Steve in Cookstown will be at the reins.

05 October 2011

Gebraut in Amerika

Blumenau -- pic from Wikimedia Commons
We had a visitor from Brazil at the monthly Beoir homebrewers' meeting in the Bull & Castle a couple of weeks ago (hi Tiago!). Though not a brewer himself, he brought us a few bottles of one of his favourites from back home: Eisenbahn Weizenbock. The brewery is based in Blumenau, a little piece of Germany in southern Brazil, and the output is appropriately Teutonic. The weizenbock certainly hits all the dark caramelised banana notes you'd expect from the style, though it lacks the spicy finesse found in top-drawer strong and dark wheat beers like Aventinus. One could get cross that it's another one of those by-the-book South American beers that shows little by way of creative brewing flair, but that would be churlish and ignores how tasty the contents of the glass actually are.

Meanwhile, on the Bull & Castle bar, a rotating tap had been given over to Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest. I had high hopes for this: a brewery as conscientious as Sierra Nevada wouldn't produce one of those awful sticky orange Oktoberfests that all the other American craft breweries do, would they? Sadly, they would: whatever demonic force compels them all to turn out these cloying horrors instead of something resembling clean German-style Oktoberfestbier was at work in the Chico brewhouse. Do people actually manage to get through this by the litre in the US? The thought is stomach-churning.

One nil to Brazil when the whistle went.

03 October 2011

On the pig's back

Hooray for freebies! The lovely people at Hogs Back in Surrey have been keeping FedEx busy and my beer fridge full with their wares. Before it burst at the seams I figured I'd better get to work clearing them.

Hop Garden Gold I opened one evening, arriving home from work tired, thirsty and in need of a hoppy pick-me-up. Gold it certainly is: dark, starting to shade towards red. Not much by way of head or fizz as it pours: usually a good sign in the drinkability stakes. It's pretty heavy, though, which limits its thirst-quenching power. The nose is sticky and even a little sickly, but the taste pulls the whole thing back from oblivion. It's not the hop-forward quaffer I was expecting, but it has some lovely floral honey flavours, spiked with jasmine and hibiscus. Rather than something to quickly drown my thirst it became one to sit over and enjoy slowly. Which I did.

I was still thirsty at the end, though, so opened a TEA. Can't say I'm a fan of the use of the word "traditional" on beer labels generally, and "Traditional English Ale" is more meaningless than most. Still, a 4.2% ABV loose-bubbled brown bitter. What's not to like? Well, there's really not a whole lot to it. Virtually no aroma, and no crispness or tannic notes. I get a little hint of caramel at the end, and as it warms this turns a little more complex to slightly tart red berries, but overall there's not enough here to hold my attention. For "traditional" read "boring", I'm afraid.

They also sent me a couple of the new season winter beers. Rip Snorter is the strong one, all of 5% ABV and a lovely shade of dark amber -- clear, of course, due to the brewery's open committment to brewery conditioning. The carbonation is low once again and that lets the heavy warming malt through. It's not any way boozy or hot, however: more ripe and full like squashy strawberries or country wine. There's a solid kick of bitterness at the front and a dry finish that does wonders for its balance and drinkability. I can see this really coming into its own when the nights draw in, and at that strength there's no need to stop at one.

Impressed by Rip Snorter, I was more sceptical about the full-on Christmas ale Advent. Only 4.4% ABV? That can't be good. It looks the part at least: dark red, shading to brown and it tastes... surprisingly nice, actually. It has a lot of the coffee and milk chocolate character of a brown-malt-laden porter, but adds in some subtly Christmassy spice as well (without the addition of actual spices, I think. It's not one of those beers). While definitely not as wintery and warming as the Rip Snorter, it's tasty, easy-going and sessionable. I imagine it would be great with Christmas pudding without being too filling. But perhaps it's just a bit early for thoughts like that.

Some lovely new additions there to the bottled English ales on sale in Ireland (available in all good etc etc). Thanks to John at Hogs Back for sending them over. Particular kudos for the way they've set their carbonation: this sort of light and loose sparkle should be an example to other brewers of how to do bottled ale well.