30 April 2012

Let's get literal

"What shall we put on the label of our Moose Drool Brown Ale?"
"How about... a drooling moose?"

The beer is from Big Sky out of Montana and is a very dark brown, clear, and turning to deep deep ruby when held up to the light. There's quite an intense sparkle though not much by way of head. In the aroma I find dark and sweet fruit: sultanas and black cherries, plus hints at something more bitter as well. And there it is in the taste: liquorice perhaps, or the slightly metallic tang of heavy treacle. The beer itself isn't all that heavy: the strong sugar flavours are melded together and rendered less intense by the fizz. A simple pleasure and nice in small doses.

I wasn't sure what to expect from 21st Amendment Bitter American. The name suggests something powerful, though it's badged stylistically as a "Session Ale", whatever that means. A stiff heads tops a dark orange body which is very slightly misted with haze. I got a blast of grapefruit as I popped the ringpull but oddly no typically Californian citrus on tasting. The aroma offers sugary jaffa oranges rather than anything more zesty and the flavour gives me perfume and orange blossom: old world hop flavours rather than anything I'd associate with the US.

Is it literally a bitter American? With all the succulent fruit I'm going to have to say no. It is damn tasty though.

Both cans came courtesy of the non-bitter American Richard Lubell. Did you see his bit on Irish beer in Draft recently? Top.

28 April 2012

Phenolic felicitations

A little bit of off-the-cuff real-time bloggery this Saturday afternoon, the seventh birthday of this here blog. The something special picked from the stash is Nøgne Ø's Holy Smoke, one of those beers designed by a home brewer and picked by the pros for commercial scaling up. Ireland's equivalent  -- Trouble Brewing Spelt Saison -- is currently on cask in The Black Sheep in Dublin. I had a pint yesterday. It's lovely.

But back to Norway. This is a 6% ABV smoked dark lager. It pours thickly, with lazy ivory-coloured bubbles meandering upwards to form a pillowy head and then clinging tightly to the glass as it empties. The body is a dark chocolate brown and the texture is reminiscent of a doppelbock, though it's not quite in the same league strengthwise. The smoke is unmistakable, heading towards that medicinal, TCP, Laphroaig flavour, though it doesn't overpower. Unbelievably there's still a clean-tasting crisp lager underneath.

And perhaps that's its downfall: there's no real follow-through, no aftertaste. The smoke is gone from the palate as quickly as it arrived. I would have thought a full bodied, strong tasting beer would have left more of a lasting impression.

As phenolic smokebombs go, this is one of the more well-mannered ones.

26 April 2012

Canterbury stale

Three from Kiwiland today: Harrington's of Christchurch have been going since 1991. These bottles haven't been in my fridge since then, but I've held on to them for far too long, with the expiry dates for this lot having come and gone towards the end of last year. No matter. Here goes.

The Rogue Hop is first, an organic pilsner. The label claims Bohemian credentials for the recipe but I detect more than a little Kiwi influence. Off the dusty-looking pale gold beer I get hints of sweet tropical fruit, mangoes at first, turning sharper -- more towards satsuma -- on tasting. It's an aroma and flavour I associate strongly with New Zealand hops. The promise is a short-lived one, however, and it all fades away quite quickly leaving a slightly stale and hollow-tasting lager. Drink this when it's fresh, I guess, preferably at lattitudes below 30° south too.

I hoped the Classy Red would be a bit more robust. It's cloudy again, and while I'm not a subscriber to the importance of how a beer looks, red ales are always much more attractive when they're limpid and crystalline. Hazy reds just look unpleasantly swampy. There's an odd mix of flavours here, mostly over-ripe strawberries plus an added bitter yeast tang. It's OK as these things go, but I'm not detecting a whole lot of class in my glass.

The style designation "Porter Ale" will induce a shiver in anyone familiar with British brewing history, but that's what Wobbly Boot claims to be. It's an attractive dark red-brown and the cleanest tasting of the lot. I get a nice hit of smooth caramel, with some heavier burnt toffee behind it, shading up to full-on roast after a few sips. A little one-dimensional but not at all bad.

Nothing to travel 12,000 miles and write home about, then. But I have cleared three bottles of elderly beer out of my fridge, which counts as a win.

23 April 2012

Hit and Smis

I scoured the label of my bottle of Smiske Extra for ages trying to find the ABV. Just as I was about to give up and open it anyway before it got warm I found it, hidden in the dot of the Comic Sans i. From the poorly printed, poorly applied, fourth-form artwork, I wasn't expecting much. It's a "nature-ale" which has me thinking it may have some organic credentials or something, but if so they've neglected to write that anywhere. It pours a lightly hazy blonde and gives off a gritty Belgian blonde aroma. That slight harshness from the yeast dominates the flavour too, and there's a meaty, sweaty locker-room funk underlying it as well.

I'm looking hard for redeeming features but there's basically no malt character and what hop there is is just a sharp bitterness, more like something that poured from a plastic tub than infused via the cheery leafy cone some teenager has crayoned onto the label. The bucketloads of fizz do it no favours and... is that vinegar? It gets worse the more I think about it. I'd be better off just moving on to the next beer...

... which is from the same brewery (Smisje, in East Flanders, in case you were wondering) and is a clearly marked 9% ABV Smisje Dubbel, though the least said about the creatures on the label the better. Another fizzy one, the foam literally roared as it subsided, leaving me with a heady-smelling swampy glass of brown. The booze vapour is overpowering: a mix of port, dark rum and kirsch thrown together in a way that screams hangover fuel but actually tastes quite nice. I've never met a dubbel like this. Each sip boasts serious alcohol, but then sings daintily of autumnal orchard produce and old oak in dusty cellars. I find it disarmingly tasty and would love to know how they did it. It would make an ideal dessert beer and if I had more I'd be giving serious thought to introducing it to some quality ice cream.

The problem then is: given my diverse reactions, are Smisje beers to be recommended? Ah sure go on then. I'm intrigued to find out what they do next.

20 April 2012

London's brewing

No visit to London would have been complete without at least a cursory look at its growing brewing renaissance. I had expected to see more from the likes of Brodie's, London Fields, Redemption, Sambrooks and so on, but I don't think I encountered any. Maybe I was just in the wrong sorts of pubs. Camden Town I saw plenty of, and most of the beer specialists had Kernel bottles.

It was to the latter that we headed on the morning of Day 3. Kernel, in a railway arch near Bermondsey Tube station, is normally only open to the public on Saturday mornings but Evin very kindly allowed us to drop in on them during the week. Forklift training was in progress when we arrived, and the guys took it in turns to show us the shiny new kit and taste a couple of beers with us. It's an impressive set-up, and even though only two beers had made it into the new fermenters so far the potential is enormous. Hopefully we'll be seeing more taps, and bottles further afield, in due course.

Having imposed long enough we headed for the day's second brewery, to the north east in Stratford. The gargantuan Westfield Stratford City shopping centre was heaving with Easter Tuesday shoppers, though only a handful had made it as far as the distant end of the ground floor, opposite the international railway station, where Tap East nestles in its alcove.

Though the brewkit was puffing away merrily, only one house beer was available: John Edwin Bitter. It's a clear orange-amber colour with a sharp and waxy bitterness at the front plus some of the grainy flavour I've come to associate with brewpub lager on the tail. It's decent as it goes, but not a great example of small-scale brewing. Not to someone who's just come from The Kernel, anyway.

The keg selection included Brewster's Chocolate Cyn and I just had a wary taste of this. I didn't order a full pint, however. Just not enough going on in it. Instead I opted for Thornbridge's Chiron, a Lucozade-coloured pale ale of 5% ABV, simple yet very drinkable, with some lovely chewy fruit candy flavours. Last tick of the session was Brooklyn Brewery's Dry Irish Stout, a title which manages one out of three. It's very sweet, giving off rich toffee aromas and with a flavour packed full of molasses plus a matching unctuous texture. There's atin' and drinkin' in it, it's lovely, but it's pretty far from tasting like an Irish stout.

We stayed in the east for the third and final brewery of the day, taking the Docklands Light Railway down to Greenwich to visit Meantime's new facility The Old Brewery. This place really acts as the cafeteria of the Naval College Museum, with all the atmosphere and charm of modern museum catering facilities everywhere. It's brightly lit, brightly decorated and has a continuous flow of patrons in and out between the adjoining museum. I sat opposite the gleaming three-tier brewkit, and even that began to annoy. Why would you put the mashtun and kettle at the bottom and then have to force wort up into the fermenters above? I understand from James's article here that the fermenters feed serving tanks in the basement, but it still makes no sense to me.

The room next door housed a slightly more atmospheric bar, though one totally lacking in customers. From here I procured a Bohemian Amber and a Yakima Red. As usual, Meantime get full marks for their gorgeous glassware.

The Amber was made on-site and was a very hazy red-brown lager. It tastes... wholesome: lots of sweet and porridgey grain, plus some almost Belgian dark candy sugar and more than a hint of butterscotch. All seeming a bit thrown-together for something produced on such a slick and shiny brewkit.

The Yakima Red was a much better proposition: clear as a bell, crisp, light and thirst-quenching. The hops add some gentle orange overtones, the bitterness building gradually to a slightly catty peak.

The early version of our schedule had us eating here, but we weren't inspired by the menu. With some time still left to play with, we had the opportunity for a bonus round.

The Parcel Yard is a brand-new Fuller's bar in King's Cross station, just above platform 9¾ (no, really). Not so much a yard, it's more a winding series of dimly-lit rooms laid out with sparse antiqueish furniture and railway bric-a-brac. Somewhere on the twittersphere I'd been promised the full range of Fuller's beer so marched excitedly to the bar to order a Black Cab Stout and a Past Masters XX, the former being new; the latter around for a while but not sold at home. And neither were sold here, either, unfortunately. No Mighty Atom either. I could have had my pick of the Vintages, or some Past Masters Double Stout, but that's not what I wanted. I glumly opted for a protest pint of Gales HSB. It's a fairly dry brown bitter, with some raisins and a kind of salty toffee flavour. Or maybe that was just the tang of disappointment.

What wasn't a disappointment was the food -- classic English pub fare done incredibly well. It's very unusual for us to order a two-course meal in the pub, but from this menu it had to be done. One scotch duck egg with pork crackling, warm beef salad, steak and ale pie and rump steak cheese burger later we were pleasantly replete and ready to roll back to Gatwick.

I broke my new-pubs-only rule with a pint of Rooster's Cogburn (geddit?) in the airside Wetherspoon: a bitingly refreshing blonde bitter. And then the plane home.

I had really hoped to delve into the heart of London's beer scene, new and old. Yet I feel I've barely skimmed the surface. There's so much more to explore.

18 April 2012

The Dog and the Rock

Easter Monday was a dismal one in London, though the weather did little to damp the crowds of tourists queuing round the block outside museums and attractions. We passed the hordes awaiting admission to The London Dungeon on our way west to the first beer stop of the day: Cask in Pimlico. The pub is situated on a corner of the iconic Lillington Gardens development, a low-rise red-brick 1960s housing scheme. Through the door it's a fairly small one-room bar attracting a mostly young crowd, plus a handful of older locals. The bottled beer selection is prodigious, though the draught offering is impressive too, split between cask and keg.

While waiting for a plate of nachos we began exploring the beers on offer from renowned new Huddersfield brewery Magic Rock. I opted for High Wire, a 5.5% ABV American-style pale ale, orange in colour and pretty straightforward in style. I detect Simcoe among the US hop flavours here, a weighty, funky dankness that borders on cheesiness to me. I was reminded of BrewDog's Punk IPA, another Simcoe-forward pale ale. The next handpump over was serving Rapture red ale and here the BrewDog parallel is unmistakable: this beer owes a lot to 5am Saint, in my opinion. Simcoe again, in spades. The cask serve lends it a bit more balance and subtlety than its Scottish counterpart, however.

To complete the set of cask Magic Rock ales, a half of Curious. At 3.9% ABV it's a little more traditionally English. It's a slightly hazy shade of yellow, delivering a serious bitter bite up front followed by a more frivolous hint of bubblegum. Over on the keg fonts the Magic Rock Dark Arts had just run out, though I got a little taste of the dregs of this 6% ABV stout: smooth and sweet, if a little formulaic, laying on the coffee and milk chocolate rather thickly. I opted instead for another keg beer, chosen solely for its name: Shoreditch Hipster by Evil Twin, brewed as Cask's house beer and served in an appropriately stylish stemmed glass. Though only 5.5% ABV it makes for tough drinking, being heavily oily with a kind of chocolate-orange bittersweet character, building to a medicinal eucalyptus flavour. A half was enough and the nacho plate had been cleaned. Time to move on.

From Pimlico, the Tube took us beneath central London and we emerged in bohemian Camden. The destination was BrewDog's London tap, the first of several I'm sure, given how quickly they seem to be expanding. It was bustling with an unsurprisingly young and urban crowd. Eschewing the high stools of the ground floor we took our drinks to the basement to flop on a comfy sofa. Tempting as a full pint of Zeitgeist was, I opted for one of the imports: Little Sumpin' Sumpin', a Californian IPA by Lagunitas. This is one of those fabulously drinkable American IPAs with bags of zingy orange sherbet and boiled sweets. Any overpowering sugariness is kept in check by assertive bittering. Full-on yet balanced. Beautiful.

My other half's half was IPA Is Dead: Galaxy, from the new set of four single-hop beers. As with last year's batch, I think they've over-egged the hopping on this somewhat. There's a an intense pungency from the garnet-coloured ale which leads on to a palate-burning acridity. Just at the end there's a hint of tasty mandarin, but the bitterness has already spoiled the show by that point. I'll give a full report of this and its brethern when I get my hands on the new fourpack.

Time was ticking down to our 7pm curry appointment on Brick Lane and there was one more pub on the list before that, so off we went.

The Ten Bells opposite Spitalfields Market gained notoriety as a regular haunt of two victims of the 1888 Whitechapel murders. It was even known briefly as The Jack The Ripper in the 1970s and '80s. I decided to drop in because I was going to be passing that way, and because I'm a huge fan of Alan Moore's  From Hell, which features the pub, including during its 1990s incarnation as a strip club. We stood in the small crowded pub, where the bar occupies the centre of the floor, and tried to figure out where you'd put a pole.

Of course, Spitalfields has its own beery history, being once the home of the megalithic Truman, Hanbury & Buxton whose stamp is still firmly on the area in the architecture, the street names and the pub liveries. Though the company was merged out of existence in the 1970s and production ceased altogether in 1989, the brand has been revived by new owners, doubtless taking advantage of, as Boak and Bailey put it, "the free advertising all over London". It was a pleasant surprise to find two of the new beers on tap in The Ten Bells, though I suppose it's entirely natural they would be there in this former Truman's house. They're currently being brewed at Everard's, pending the building of a new Truman's brewery in east London.

Runner takes its name from a porter Truman's were once known for, London of course being a porter town. The beer itself is a 4% ABV dark brown bitter with warming toffee notes. The other tap was serving Number Eight, 3.5% ABV and lighter in colour as well as alcohol. It's pleasantly tannic and sinkable: not interesting enough to spend any time over, however, so we didn't.

After dinner, it was time for a nightcap or two in the sister pub of Cask, Clerkenwell's Craft Beer Company, a fairly traditional old-fashioned corner bar that has been given the beer geek treatment and now numbers both its keg and cask taps in double figures. Plus three fridges of bottles, of course.

More Magic Rock and yet more Simcoe, this time in their black IPA Magic 8 Ball. It looks very stouty when poured: pure black and topped with a layer of cream-coloured foam. There's even a good dose of chocolate and a dry roasted bite in the finish. But the middle belongs to our funky friend Simcoe.

Human Cannonball double IPA finished the day's Magic Rocking with lots of 9.2% ABV alchol heat. I'd be tempted to start pointing out the similarities with BrewDog Hardcore, but this is a much better beer, giving lots of pithy zest and Opal Fruit candy flavours rather than just tandem hop burn and booze burn.

For the last round my wife was drawn to the De Molen offering Heen & Weer, a fairly dark 9.5% ABV tripel. It has all the sugary fruit one might expect, and no shortage of alcohol heat here either. But there's also some beautifully peachy hop notes as well. Only a slight disinfectant tang spoils the party a little.

And I just had an orange and pineapple smoothie. No, the beer on the right of the picture is Clementine from the Clown Shoes brewery of Massachusetts. It's a wheat-based beer and as opaque as any lassi I saw on Brick Lane earlier. To the traditional coriander and orange peel they've added clementine essence which brings a marvellous tangy backdrop to the light and almost sour beer. As with the previous day's Siberia, 6% ABV is well concealed.

We called it a day at that point and disappeared out into the rainy Clerkenwell evening.

16 April 2012

The traveller's dilemma

The world's great cities pose a problem to the traveller who visits them. What makes them the world's great cities is their inexhaustable nature: there's always something new to try, or something old that you've just never got round to experiencing yet. And it's very easy to find favourite haunts, be they museums, markets, restaurants or pubs, whole favourite neighbourhoods even. For the traveller, indulging in such familiar comforts comes at a huge opportunity cost: the experiences that you've not yet had, the markets not yet browsed, the pubs not yet troubled for a pint and a pickled egg.

London is of course one of the world's great cities, and tantalisingly close, as I can easily get from my front door to any front door in London in under five hours. But I never have enough time when I'm there. For my three-day visit over the Easter break I took a decision to snag myself firmly on one horn of the traveller's dilemma and devote my trip to new experiences only. Sorry The Harp, sorry The Euston Tap, sorry The White Horse Parson's Green, The Rake and The Jerusalem Tavern: you guys sit tight, I'll be back in a bit.

Meanwhile, I based myself in Southwark, under the shadow of the ever-present Shard. Off the Gatwick train and a beeline down Borough High Street for introductory pints at The Royal Oak. This neighbourhood pub is the London footprint of Harvey's of Lewes, and both brewery and boozer are famed for their down-home, no-nonsense, high-quality offer. On Sunday that took the form of a pint of Harvey's Best Bitter and a game pie. I've never had a bad pint of Harvey's Best and I was happy to leave all thoughts of ticking and exploring to one side for a moment. It's a sublime orangey spicy beer and no different in a Harvey's house to anywhere else I've had it, which is a very good thing indeed. Thus fortified, it was off to do more exploring.

We didn't go too far, to begin with. Just up the High Street again and in to The George. This place is about to get a lot more famous as the subject of Pete Brown's forthcoming book Shakepeare's Local. And it's delightfully picturesquee, tucked away in a yard down an alley and made up of long thin passageways with bars and seating squeezed in where there's space. Greene King are running the show these days, though oddly had none of their new IPA brand-extensions on tap. So first tick of the trip was the house beer George Inn Ale, a brown bitter of reasonable quality: nicely tannic with a bit of raisinish fruitiness in the finish, getting increasingly toffee-like as it warms. Next to it was London Glory, similar but with less colour, less flavour and only a touch more roast. Still completely surplus to requirements, however. The guest ale was Straw Dog, a wheat beer from Wolf Brewery and absolutely dire: a clear yellow, it's sharp and sour at first, building to an overly sweet bad-lager syrupiness. Unfinishable.

We headed eastwards next, dropping in for a quick one in The Dean Swift, near Tower Bridge. I was pleased to find Siberia on, a rhubarb saison from Ilkley Brewery, produced with the assistance of Melissa Cole. I loved this: lots of fresh and juicy red berry flavours on a light and quite dry base. The near-6% ABV is well hidden. The missus opted for Camden Ink, a keg stout though one mercifully served without nitro. It's an intensely heavy beer with lots of gorgeous roast grain on the nose. Tasting starts with a gentle caress of chocolate followed by a major jolt of espresso. I wouldn't say it's exactly sessionable, despite a very reasonable 4.4% ABV, but it is a beautiful example of how to do stout well.

I stuck with Camden Town Brewery when we moved round the corner to Draft House. Just four cask beers and a bank of keg fonts serving beers from home and abroad (including a couple from Dublin's Porterhouse). Camden Pale Ale was among them and is another winner. Coming from the Irish beer scene it was quite familiar: 5% ABV, almost blonde in colour and loaded with zingy citrus. It went great with the smoked cheese and bacon burger.

That brought day one to a close. Venturing north of the Thames was on the agenda for Monday.

12 April 2012

Full of Easter promise

It was all a bit compact-and-bijou at The Franciscan Well for the Easter Festival this year. The rambling village of brewery bars that in recent years threatened to take over the yard completely if left unchecked was pruned back somewhat for 2012. No representation from regulars Hilden and Barrelhead, while Beoir Chorca Duibhne, Messrs Maguire and the hosts were relegated to taps on the main pub bar inside. It did leave the space less cramped than last year, and of course there was still plenty of beer choice.

But before I get on to that, a few words about one of the absentees. I caught up with Messrs Maguire Olympic Gold in its home pub in Dublin last week. This new seasonal is certainly, well, gold: a darkish shade thereof, shading to amber. Though billed as a golden ale it's very highly attenuated and feels quite lagerlike, its dominant crispness given extra bite from the strong carbonation. The only nod towards aledom that I detected is a slight bubblegum aftertaste, but it's nearly not there. It would be a decent if unexciting summer refresher were it not for a rising disinfectant tang which started small but built quite quickly as I chugged my pint.

Right, back to Cork then. It goes without saying that as well as fewer breweries than usual, there were no newcomers either. A shame, since I'm aware of at least a couple of new operations on the way, including a second brewpub in Cork city itself. Still, these things can't be rushed.

We'd met Scott from Eight Degrees in the nearby Bierhalle just before showtime, where we both tore into the fantastic full Irish they serve. Eight Degrees were launching their new Barefoot pilsner. It's not yet bottled so arrived to Franciscan Well straight from the lagering tanks, unfiltered and not quite fully carbed. And lovely it was too, displaying that wonderful soft biscuit sweetness one gets in good pils, balanced by an almost metallic tang from the hops. It could possibly do with more pronounced hopping, but maybe we'll get that with the fizz.

The people who didn't have a lager, shockingly, was the UCC pilot brewery. Though they abandoned cold-fermentation they didn't abandon their teutonic stylings completely. Moritz was billed as a pale ale but the description of it fell back into the German vernacular with mention of a Kölsch influence on the recipe. It was certainly the correct shade of wan yellow and had a decent crispness to it, but also a jarring slap of butterscotch too which made it tough drinking after the first few seconds. Describing this as "honey" in the tasting notes was a game effort, but didn't leave me any better disposed towards it.

Moritz's brother beer Max was a down-home weiss and it showed that the brewers were on much more familiar ground with this style. A biggish 5.8% ABV but slipping down easily, fresh and fruity with sinus-clearing clove flavours. You could have mistaken it for Schneider Weisse were it not for the golden colour.

In Dublin we tend to think of Galway Hooker as a bit of a one-trick pale ale pony, though it is a fine trick and performed well. Over on the left-hand coast, however, there are a couple more strings to Aidan and Ronan's brewing bow. An earlier experiment with the dunkel weiss style appears to have been regularised into Opus II. This came from the cask at The Franciscan Well and presented as a murky muddy dark brown affair. The weissbier sweetness was transformed into milk chocolate, rendered extra smooth by cask conditioning. A pleasant dash of dry roast hits the back of the palate and is followed by a totally unexpected bitter kick from the hops. I'm not sure how sessionable this would be, but as the first dark beer of the day a half was very welcome.

Also on the Hooker bar was Nectar, an amber ale brewed as the house beer for Tigh Neachtain in Galway City. Allegedly influenced by Samuel Adams Boston Lager, I thought of it more as a dark Hooker. Yes there's a toffee hit up front, but it's followed by a very clear and quite assertive hop tang. The two combine beautifully. While not as full-on as the best American amber ale I was very happy with this and would love to see it given a wider distribution. It will certainly get me through the doors of Neachtain's next time I'm in Galway.

Home brew champion Mark was cutting a fatherly figure by the Trouble Brewing bar when I arrived in, doting on his winning recipe for Spelt Saison. I had a taste of the homemade version when the competition was being judged and Paul at Trouble has got the scaling-up pretty much bang on. The light sour bite is there, created by the tandem action of greedy saison yeast plus a whack of real grapefruit. Generous hopping removes any claims that could be made for fidelity to the saison style, but I don't imagine anyone who drank it cared. There's a little bit of grainy warmth in the background and I can't help thinking this summer refresher would be better with keg carbonation to lift it. Either way, I've never tasted anything like it from an Irish brewery and it proves how vital it is to take homebrew recipes and produce them on a commercial scale. Vital.

Across the way we had something new quirky and fun from Team Metalman. Chameleon is, at the basic level, a light and summery blonde ale, though packing a well-hidden wallop of 5% ABV. The unique selling point, and reason for the name, is that the casks have each had something extra added to them. On Saturday afternoon Chameleon Pacifica was pouring, one that had a gorgeous Opal Fruit juiciness from the New Zealand hops. It was next to the 2012 edition of Windjammer, darker than last year's and similarily Kiwitastic, but with some bonus light caramel. Tragically I missed smoked chilli Chameleon and hope it'll come my way at some point.

I was starting to get antsy with the thought of sinking a cool pint of Dungarvan Comeragh Challenger at this stage, but there was one last tick to be ticked. And I'm glad I didn't miss it. White Gypsy was serving, among others, Red Oak, a 4% ABV blend of two malt-forward dark styles -- Irish red ale and Belgian-style bruin -- which was then dry-hopped. What? Why would you...? Oh. Oh wow. The result is a lightly astringent fruity quencher, brimming with delicious tannins. Irish red meets English mild, with all the complex flavour and extreme drinkability of the latter. A beauty of a beer and not to be missed. But I didn't follow my half with a pint. The Challenger had dibs first.

And so it was back home on the 8.30 train, with some Eight Degrees bottles Reuben had managed to charm out of Scott. Much appreciated, both.

Sometimes the explosion of beer specialist pubs in Dublin (another one opened on Amiens Street yesterday) makes me question the need to travel to out-of-town festivals for beer in the first place. But even with a limited showing, the Franciscan Well Easter Festival offers a reminder that there's no substitute for a yard full of brewers and their wares.

09 April 2012

Happy Halloweaster!

I won a Shipyard Brewing hat in Alan's photo competition a few years back. I don't wear this style of hat, but I still have it, against the eventuality I may at some point lose what little fashion sense I possess and change my mind. I also won a Shipyard Brewing t-shirt which is of a size that will likely only become useful should I find myself in either a bedouin caravan and needing to make camp, or attempting to win the Americas Cup but lacking a sail. Anyway, I still have it.

And that, hitherto, has been the sum total of my experience of the Shipyard Brewing Company of Portland, Maine. Until I chanced across their Pumpkinhead beer which has just cropped up in Dublin. I'm guessing from the subtle clues on the label that it's a beer made with pumpkins, though the descriptive small-print says merely it is a "Malt Beverage with natural Flovor added". And you know how much I love Flovor.

There's a whiff of spiced fakery from the beer as it pours, like an apfelstrudel air freshener. It's a lurid, limpid, Irn Bru orange and lacks any significant foam topping. Maybe it's just because it looks like an alcopop that it tastes like an alcopop; or maybe it's the watery texture, the overactive fizz and the unpleasantly sickly cinnamon and fruit (pumpkin, I guess, though it resembles apple more) flavour. This is a beer you might put up with once, because it's Halloween, and you're already three t-shirts to the wind, but there's no excuse on Easter Monday. No excuse at all.

06 April 2012

Drink all the beer; write all the beer

Would I have been surprised to learn, on Day 1Session logo, that my new blog will see through seven whole years? Probably not, to be honest. I reckon I'd be very surprised at what I'm writing, and hopefully impressed. This blog has seen me through a considerable education in things beery. Around 2008 I even stopped sniggering at "bottom fermentation".

This month's Session is hosted by Brewpublic and the topic is "What Drives Beer Bloggers?" I'll take a punt on the top answer being "beer". It certainly is for me as this blog fulfils a very simple primary purpose: to record for future reference what I think of every beer that comes my way. It does make it very easy to write. If I'm looking for inspiration all I have to do is open the fridge.

I don't do industry news or commentary, I don't do pub reviews, I don't do home brewing, brewery visits nor a-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-the-bar anecdotes, except when these are in some tangential way related to the beer in front of me. Not that there's anything wrong with such topics, but plenty of other beer blogs do them and if I have an opinion on the issues you'll find it in their comment sections. Which leads on to the secondary purpose of this blog: to give me the guiltless freedom to comment at length on everyone else's without looking too much like a hurler on the ditch.

And that's about as much introspection as I can handle. Blogging about blogging is a pet hate of mine and I'm only making an exception this once, because the nice people of Brewpublic asked me to. Now for beer.

With the Franciscan Well Easter beer festival kicking off tomorrow afternoon, I have a bottle of their new IPA Alpha Dawg. As with their two previous bottled offerings it arrives in a massive, hand-numbered, 1-litre swingtop. 5.9% ABV and hopped with Admiral and Cascade says the label. Inside it's quite a pale shade of orange, fogged slightly with what I hope is hop haze. The aroma is quite bitter, not the zesty high notes one might expect from the Cascade. And this carries through to the taste as well: it's a kind of sharp resinous bitterness, the sort that gets harsh if it's too pronounced but here is merely assertive. Some more subtle fruit tones are lurking quietly behind it but they don't get much of a say. The punchy bitter tang lasts long after the beer is swallowed.

While I think this would have benefited from more, later, hops, they've made a pretty decent fist of an IPA.

Stay tuned for more writing about beer and absolutely nothing else.

04 April 2012

The Tykely Lads

Three from that Yorkshire today, part of the ever-expanding range of English bottled beers currently knocking around Dublin's offies.

My first is Thoroughbred, a pale ale from Hambleton's. I confess I wasn't expecting much, the brewery being better known in these parts for its lacklustre gluten-free efforts. Thoroughbred is all of 5% ABV and a hazy shade of light orange. There's not much by way of aroma but the flavour more than makes up for that. You get lovely big, ripe juicy mandarins followed by a stimulating sandalwood spice all set on an assertively waxy bitter base. Subtle it ain't, but I really enjoyed the combination of tastes. Harvey's Best in hobnail boots, as well as one of the closest-tasting beers to draught Timothy Taylor Landlord that I've met. And I'm including bottled Landlord in that.

Wold Top's Mars Magic next: a dark red-brown beer, looking not far off some of the Irish reds, and Carlow's in particular. It's the dose of roast barley that does it. There's a thick boozy, beery drip-tray aroma, though the taste isn't as sweet as I expected from that. The roast barley jumps in early with quite an assertive dryness. In the middle there's just a flash of black cherries or blackberries, and then its dryness as usual at the end, with a dash of dark chocolate and more than a little bit of metallic bite. It's heavy going and quite fizzy with it: one of those beers I found myself wishing was over before I was half way through.

And finally Against the Grain, another one from Wold Top. This beer caused a bit of a nine-day wonder when it was launched here at the end of last year, sharing its name as it does with one of Dublin's top beer pubs. The name comes from the fact that it is gluten-free, and lists maize and lager malt on the ingredients. Lager malt is gluten-free? Really? (Sort of.)

Behind the punky distressed lettering (yawn) is an exceedingly pale yellow beer with a sharp and citric smell: quite a wake-up call after the boozy bloaty dark beer which preceded it. And the taste is... convincing. Yes it's a bit thin for the serious hopping it's been given, presumably to cover up for flaws in the compromised grain bill, but it's genuinely enjoyable to drink. I'm reminded of crappy pseudo-lagers I've made from kits and then loaded with dry hops to render them drinkable: it's a very easy and cheap way of making palateable beer. Were I to be sentenced to a gluten free lifestyle tomorrow I would definitely view this as a welcome comfort, depending on what the doctor says about lager malt.

02 April 2012

Beer for Belgian punks

The wobbly distressed lettering tells us this is a beer with attitude, though the comedy English name adds a certain europunk weirdness to it. Rebel Local is basically the Plastic Bertrand of beer.

There's next to no information on the label beyond the basics. Am I the only one who gets a little wary when a brewery calls a beer an "Indian Pale Ale"? It's 8.5% ABV, brewed with sugar and comes from Brouwers Verzet ("Brewers Resistance" \m/) in Anzegem, near the point where Flanders, Wallonia and France meet. And like many an actually-Belgian Belgian IPA it tastes very Belgian indeed.

On pouring it's pretty much blonde, with oodles of bubbles, congealing to a shaving foam consistency. The aroma is gritty yeast only slightly troubled by some slightly acrid hops. For all the fizz it's actually quite smooth drinking, but the hops are once again an afterthought, adding little more than seasoning to what's really a fairly run-of-the-mill strong blonde ale. Even though the Belgian yeast is in control of the flavour, it stays clean delivering some lovely peppery spices which complement the hop bittering and subtle soft fruit notes quite well.

You have to wonder why a self-consciously iconoclastic Belgian brewery would be using the same sort of yeast as almost all of its conformist compatriots, but I probably shouldn't judge them on the strength of one beer. Once again, however, I'm left with the impression that combining Belgian and American brewing styles is something best left to the Americans.

Prove me wrong, Belgium.