29 February 2012

Low hopping on leap day

My first post with this datestamp, and a couple of bottles from West Yorkshire's Saltaire brewery.

The chocolate one was my primary target but Saltaire Blonde was on the shelf next to it to I figured I may as well give it a go while I'm at it. It's good, if a little bit solidly by-the-numbers: balanced between the bubblegum malt and the gentle, very slightly metallic, hop bitterness with the hops announcing their presence as soon as the cap came off. It uses Saaz and shows off a little of the golden syrup flavour I always enjoy in Budvar and have met in another Yorkshire blonde: Black Sheep's Golden Sheep. Mostly, however, it's understated and sessionable summer drinking.

The main event was Triple Chocoholic and they're cheating a bit here in trying to get one over on those southern jessies at Wells & Young and their merely Double Chocolate Stout. In fact they're both made with cocoa and chocolate syrup, with Sataire cheekily claiming a chocolate bonus point for the chocolate malt, which Wells & Young also use and which, of course, involves no actual chocolate.

It's a fizzy beer, giving the candy sweetness a dry carbonic bite. There's also a considerable bitterness on the finish as well. While the chocolate provides a gooey candybar middle, the bitter tang and the dry fizz predominate. I don't think I'd take this over Young's Double Chocolate, if given a choice.

Hopefully there's more impressive beer than these in the Saltaire line-up.

27 February 2012

Responsible retailing

Pierre of Delice & Caprice in Brussels knew nothing about Giesbaargs Muurken, nor had he even tasted it yet as it was brand new on his shelves. And like any responsible shopkeep he therefore could not bring himself to ask for money in exchange for it. I mean, what if it wasn't any good? That would be embarrassing. So for the fourth blog post in a row I'm drinking a freebie. This doesn't happen very often.

Some research tells me the beer was launched last summer and is contract brewed at Proef. It's 7% ABV and squarely in the Belgian blonde ale category, pouring a pale gold with an enthusiastic fizz which settles to a rocky white head. The aroma is intense and almost witbier-like with its citrus and coriander piquancy, promising sweet bubblegum underneath. So I was surprised to find on tasting it's actually shockingly bitter: I get a kind of raw greenness that shades towards washing-up liquid and lingers in the back of my throat. It's a beer I enjoyed smelling far more than drinking: even adding the lees to the glass did nothing to soften the harshness.

With a bit more late-hopping we could have zingy marvel on our hands. As-is, I'm quite glad not to be out of pocket.

23 February 2012

The backpacker factor

It's a few years since I last went beering in Asia. I must confess, however, that I've never come home hankering after any particular beer I've tried there, even though there's some great stuff to be had if you put the effort in to look for it. Nevertheless, the company who have just begun importing Beer Lao to Ireland are going all-out for the recognition factor among people returned from south-east Asia (somewhere I've never been), in the hope it will stir fond memories of whatever it is people get up to on holidays down that way.

It's a fair target market. I've been told quite consistently that Beer Lao is close to the only thing worth drinking around Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The region's top beer blogger has it as his benchmark, although he tends not to be shy about pointing out this is only because everything else available is utter crap. Not so much a diamond in the rough as, umm, an OK beer among lots of very-not-OK beers.

You want a bit more detail than that? Fortunately the importers kindly supplied me with some samples (and -- for full disclosure -- a sandwich [ham]) and I got to take the measure of the beer at first hand. My initial impression is that it's non-descript, which is probably a good thing for an Asian lager. Nothing really jumps out: no off flavours but little by way of hops or malt either. Although rice is an ingredient it's not the wan yellow colour you often get with adjunct lager, but rather a properly full rich gold. 5% ABV should provide a big enough base to propel some lovely lagery flavours, but they're just not there.

Full marks, then, for being what it is no doubt supposed to be. But points off for dullness. We make better lager than this in Europe and buying a bottle in Dublin in February will not bring you back to that, loike, amaaazing week in Phuket.

20 February 2012

Start spreading the brews

A couple of weeks ago my friend, The Dubliner's beer columnist and native New Yorker Richard Lubell called over bearing some interesting finds from a recent trip home to the Empire State. Would I help him drink them? Well, let me just check the diary...

Southern Tier's Un*Earthly is an IPA I enjoyed immensely a few years back. Richard brought the oak-aged edition over and I was hoping for a repeat, or improvement, on my recent fun times with Great Divide's Rumble oaked IPA. Unfortunately, balance does not appear to be in the Southern Tier vocabulary. The beautiful fresh hops are simply buried deep beneath layers of cloying loud and sappy oak. There's a small trace of fruit and spice: a bit of sandalwood and a dash of mandarins, but nowhere near enough big IPA character to justify the whopping 9.9% ABV investment in alcohol. It's the hops I feel sorry for. They deserved better.

The other bottle was something of a mystery. Port Jeff is a small brewpub on the north coast of Long Island. They have seven regular beers, but Cold North Wind barley wine isn't one of them. Richard didn't know if the bottle he got was new, aged or what: just that the proprietor was keen for him to have it.

It's 8.7% ABV and poured gloopily to a bright garnet colour. Peaches in the aroma and a beautiful mouth-watering juicy mandarin and jaffa foretaste. The bitterness kicks in after but it plays things smooth avoiding all the pitfalls of big hop barley wines: there's no harshness, no boozy heat and no cloying syrupyness either. They could certainly offer the folks at Southern Tier a few pointers on balance.

We followed it with some 2011 Sierra Nevada Bigfoot barley wine, another beer that seemed hot and harsh in comparison. This one's a victory for the little guys.

Thanks for sharing, Richard.

16 February 2012

Answers on a beermat

The Oxford Companion to Beer doesn't have an entry on Landbier. My only other experience with the style was back in 2007 when I quite enjoyed the light toffee of Distelhaus Landbier. The second landbier of my life comes by way of my Beoir buddy Adam who has no more of a clue about what makes a landbier than I do. If anyone can enlighten us, we're all ears.

So this is Wüllners Braumeister Landbier, hailing from the west German town of Bielefeld (or does it?) and like its Distelhaus colleague is a vaguely dunkelish amber-to-brown lager. The nose offers up toffee and molasses, shot through with a very German grassy hops complexity. The big fizz subsides very quickly leaving only a vague sparkle to the beer.

Tastewise there's not a whole lot to it: the herbal hops sit at the front and the toffee is more of an afterthought, barely present and creating a sensation less like a malty beer and more like slightly flat Tizer.

There is potential in the style; it could be improved. Except... I think when the problems of texture and flavour are fixed, it stops being landbier and starts being Munich Dunkel or Alt. Or am I missing something about what makes the quintessential true-to-style landbier?

13 February 2012

Pure Manc

Picking randomly from the plethora of English ales knocking around in Dublin at the moment I got these two from Holt's of Manchester.

Fifth Sense is an amber ale of 4.3% ABV. Its most impressive feature is the head: a thick layer of foam that's still largely in place towards the end of the pint. Everything else about it is muted: a mildly toffee-like crystal malt sweetness dominates, finished off by an almost pilsneresque green herbal bitterness. The fairly busy fizz enhances its lagerish qualities.

I finished it quite quickly, more out of boredom than anything else. It's fairly quaffable, though the toffee does get a bit sickly before the end.

On to the next one then: 1849. Not such a good head on this, but lower carbonation which more than makes up for the aesthetics. It's 4.5% ABV and a dark red colour. And once again the sweetness is what it's all about. I get a massive hit of brown sugar up front untroubled by any hop character at all. Caramel follows, plus just the slightest hint of the strawberry taste I get from some of the better Irish reds at the finish. The middle, however, is unpleasantly watery. The mix of heavy sugar and a thin lack of flavour does not make for enjoyable drinking.

Another beer that's best downed with no more said about it, I think.

09 February 2012

It's still winter

Thanks to the good offices of my lovely wife I have a sizeable stash of Belgian winter and Christmas ales knocking around at home. Most of them I think I'll leave in storage until the nights start drawing in again, but I may as well put some sort of a dent in the collection before the clocks change.

So first up is Winterse Heerlijkheid, from Eutropius in West-Flanders. My convoluted efforts to translate the name using my rudimentary Flemish were cut short by Google Translate's abrupt "Winter Glory". Spoilsport. Of course, I was expecting a dark beer and was quite surprised when a hazy blonde poured forth.

That had me immediately preparing the Duvel Comparator Scale to see where abouts on that it fits. It's the same strength (8.5% ABV) and the aroma has the same sort of sweet and juicy fruits: mandarins and a little bit of peach or white plum. On tasting, however, I found it much closer to my memories of La Chouffe and its distinctive white pepper flavour.

The consensus among those sharing the bottle was that there was a big hit of coriander in it, and though I can't say it's something I noticed myself I'd be doing you a disservice if I didn't mention it, so there you go. What I did get were some other slightly bitter herbal complexities, reminding me of a gruit ale I made a few years ago using oregano and sage. (Edit: Ha haaa! Follow-up investigations have revealed it is flavoured with sage. Coriander indeed. Tch!)

It's an interesting and refreshing concotion and I think I like it rather more than old Duvel. There's not much by way of alcohol heat in it, however, so if you're looking for a winter warmer this is probably not the best one to go for. I could easily have enjoyed this on the patio some months hence.

06 February 2012

I bought beer in Ikea!

I bought beer in Ikea. Just because it was there. I don't know if Ireland's Ikea sells beer, but Geneva's does, though unfortunately not specifically shop-branded: they're missing a trick there.

Anyway, Stockholm is from the Krönleins brewery in Halmstad (the other side of the country from Stockholm) and is a 5.3% ABV pale lager. All of that strength is present in the flavour, it being very sweet and heavy. There's a bit of a bum note on the end where I found an unfortunate metallic tang.

I didn't dwell on it long. If you're after something to chug down to take the edge off some difficult furniture assembly then I guess this is ideal. I won't be running back to the big blue shop for a refill, however.

03 February 2012

Grrr

Session logoDunno what I'm supposed to do with this month's Session topic. Our host, Kendall at The Washington Beer Blog, has chosen "Growlers Galore" as the topic. I trust I can leave the more puerile responses to some of my colleagues from this side of the Atlantic. I shall simply explain to those who may not be familiar that a growler is a large reusable bottle holding generally somewhere around two litres, used in North America and Australia to bring draught beer home from pubs and breweries.

It seems to me to be a function of low population density, poor public transport and lack of a proper pub culture. You don't want to stay in the bar for a few hours of drinking, and/or you have no choice but to drive to get beer, so you get your draught beer bottled on demand and in quantity.

Hey, each to their own. Who am I to judge? Let's just say it's not something I could see myself availing of, even if it were an option, and leave it at that. I like pubs.

So what to do about a beer for review in this growlerless land of ours. Best endeavours turns up an American beer, from a large bottle, next to a small wooden jaguar. Not growley enough by a long stretch I'm sure, but tough.

The beer is Great Divide Grand Cru and the 650ml bottle (a "bomber", rather than a "growler", fans of stupidly-macho bottle names may be pleased to learn) proclaims it to be a "Belgian Style Dark Ale" and says no more that that. It's 11% ABV so I was expecting big and meaty things from it.

Alas, it really doesn't have much going for it. There's an interesting, slightly woody aroma: that coffee-made-on-sour-milk you sometimes get from beers which have been visited by the bacteria that thrive in wood-grain. Oddly, it's not sour at all on tasting. I get a biscuity, Ovaltine-ish malt flavour and... nothing else. It's like chewing Special B or a similar Belgian malt straight from the bag. The bit where the Belgian yeasts roll in and do the fig-and-plum dance simply does not happen. There's maybe a vinous booziness somewhere under the biscuit, but not in any notable quantity.

It's soft, smooth and quite drinkable, though gets a bit sickly after a while. However the one-dimensional flavour is unforgivable.

All yap and no growl, I'm afraid.

01 February 2012

Again! Again!

Now we're cooking! The alternatives to standard pubby Irish beer are finally coming out of the woodwork lately -- and in one case, literally. Following after Franciscan Well's big 'n' balanced Shandon Century come two more, from different breweries, with ABVs circling double figures, and both carrying the promise of more like this.

Irish brewing seems to have grown a pair at last. One of them's black and the other is blonde.

White Gypsy Belgian Blond appeared suddenly on the bar at the Bull & Castle in early January. At 8.4% ABV I was expecting a fairly straight Duvel or La Chouffe clone, but that's not what I got. It's completely clear for one thing and, while fruity, is much cleaner than the other two. I found out later that it was done with a saison yeast strain which has chomped through the heavy sugars leaving behind cool refreshing apricot and lychee notes. There's an invigorating, almost lambic-like tartness up front, finishing dry and with a heady perfumey ambergris aroma throughout. It's very drinkable and there's no sign of all that alcohol. Digestible, as the Belgians would have it.

And the good news is that this isn't the end of it. Cuilán says there's more in the tank and the plan is to release them little by little and see how they change. Keep watching the taps at the Bull & Castle.

Meanwhile, down the hill, the third edition of The Porterhouse's Celebration imperial stout showed up on tap in their Temple Bar branch just before Christmas. At 11% ABV it's their strongest yet: the strongest ever Irish beer I can think of. I'm guessing at least some little bit of that is down to the time it has spent aging in a Kilbeggan whiskey barrel.

As it happened, I had some of the permanent 7.5% ABV Celebration lying around and opened the pair last week for comparison (you can see me comparing it, in turn, with the original Celebration here).

I had more trouble raising a head on the aged one, while the youngster poured thicker, darker and, oddly, more mature-looking. The aromas are quite distinct: leeks and liquorice on the straight one and lots of woody vanilla, as one might expect, from the Kilbeggan-aged.

A sip of the plain: amazingly smooth, loaded with silky chocolate. A tough act to follow. But the barrel-aged Celebration aces it: a little more sparkly, true, but still sumptuously rich underneath it. The whiskey flavour is pretty full-on, making me think of a sour-mash American job rather than honeyish Irish whiskey. Bags of vanilla too, of course. You have to look for the rest: a woody nuttiness is next in the queue and the chocolate hides under that. The slightly metallic hop tang is just gone. If I were in charge of this recipe, I'd up the hop quotient somewhat.

Later, I called in to the Temple Bar Porterhouse to find it was still on tap. It's not every day you get the opportunity for a full imperial pint of an 11% ABV stout, so that's what I ordered. And that's what leads me to a final word of warning to anyone in possession of a bottle or two of this: serve it off the shelf. Cold from the keg all those lovely barrel flavours just disappear. I was almost finished my pint before I could definitely confirm that it was the same beer.

And the good news, the really good news, is that the label proclaims this to be part of the Porterhouse's "Barrel Aged Collection". We're getting more! I'm told there are sherry and rioja barrels waiting in the wings, but it'll probably be another year before we get to see the results.

With this lot, and the upcoming (it is upcoming, isn't it, Liam?) second in the O'Hara's smoked ale series, things are looking rosy indeed for the future.