30 May 2012

Ooh René!

Lindemans may claim a history going back to 1811, but these days it's one of the big national brands in Belgium, with all that entails. So I wasn't really expecting a whole lot from Kriek Cuvée René, despite the numbered champagne bottle proclaiming the 2010 vintage, bottled in October 2011 and good for six years past that: anyone can fake that sort of thing. The blood-red beer which poured forth did little to assuage my cynicism. Proper aged kriek is nowhere near as gaudy, everyone knows that.

But Cuvée René is actually pretty stunning. It's merely intensely dry rather than full-on sour, but there's not a trace of the cloying sugar you so often get with mass-market lurid krieks. The nitre brick cellar flavour I always enjoy in this style is mostly absent, but there is still  a gentle mouldy damp funk, melding seamlessly into sweet-sour cherry. I think the term I'm looking for is balance: not normally a feature of artisan kriek, but something it seems the corporate suits are able to bring to the party without ruining everyone's enjoyment.

This is a possible gateway between the alcopoppy candy lambics and the more serious stuff, but far more importantly it's just a really enjoyable beer.

28 May 2012

Dodgy bottomry

I caught a bit of stick for dissing Shipyard's Pumpkinhead beer last month. The apologists thought it unfair of me to be casting aspersions on a beer that had been a whole 7 months in the bottle and therefore past its best. Though I noted several comments suggesting that its best is far from good anyway.

Two more from Shipyard of Maine today, and both of these were well within date, bearing best-befores of March next year. What follows cannot reasonably be blamed on the ravages of Old Father Time.

First up is Shipyard Export. The Americans are normally straight up-front with style designations, cringe-makingly so sometimes, but I'm fairly sure this isn't lager in the Dortmund style. It's more like a pale ale and is 5.1% ABV, and nothing wrong with that per se.

The first alarm bell is in the aroma: it's an off appley smell, bringing the apple notes I found in the pumpkin beer right back to me. The flavour is heavy and cheap-tasting brown sugar and could really use some livening up with a decent malt profile, or some hops, or even pumpkin spices. Overall it's a dull beer: too sweet with almost no redeeming features.

Shipyard IPA to the rescue! Hopefully...

This is a much more attractive dark amber colour, with a gorgeous thick ice-cream-float head. The signature hop is apparently Fuggles, which wouldn't be my immediate choice for an American IPA, but let's see what they did with it.

Not much, it seems. The beer had almost no hop character to speak of. No aroma at all, and just a vaguely green tang in the foretaste, but it's more melted plastic than fresh hops. The main flavour is stale and oxidised and there's yet more of that brown sugar.

I really have to wonder what the reasoning behind these recipes is, or who they're brewed for. Corner cutting, poor brewing skills, or just different tastes? I don't know.

I do know that it was very tough getting to the bottom of both these glasses and I'm not minded to go chasing more from Shipyard.

24 May 2012

Never pass a beer with your name on it

That's my reason for picking up this bottle of Harrington's Big John. The label makes a suspicious comment about it being "brewed with a hint of Bourbon" which doesn't sound too appetising to me, but leaving it on the shelf wasn't an option.

It poured quite thickly but with lots of fizz too, the head settling an uneven ivory over a dark brown body, looking for all the world like an Irish coffee. There's not much going on in the aroma, which I find slightly strange for something so heavy and fizzy and with all of 6.5% ABV: maybe just a dry woody hint of fino.

The flavour is a bit on the understated side too. Dark chocolate is at the centre, surrounded by vinous notes that remind me more of a blousy Spanish red than any of Kentucky's finest. The finish is suddenly dry leaving lingering overtones of fusty wood; the mild funk of charity shop furniture.

Where Big John really shines, however, is in the texture. It's pillowy soft and provides a creamy comforting warmth. Flavouring a beer with whiskey, or anything else, can be a very easy way of making it undrinkable. Here, however, Harrington's have started with a beer solid enough to survive what has been thrown at it.

Good man, John.

21 May 2012

Getting legless

Behind another gorgeous label from Brasserie De La Senne sits Jambe de Bois, a tripel brewed in honour of Belgium's 1830 revolution. "Graah!" yells the peg-legged old codger astride the cannon. "Aieee!" cry the big-hatted Dutch soldiers beneath. I'm expecting something rather more po-faced from the 1916 centenary beer I believe one Irish brewery is planning. For shame. This is how it should be done.

The first thing that strikes me about the beer is its brightness. Not in the sense of clarity -- there's lots of haze and floaty bits here -- but the vibrant orange hue, like someone sneaked a vial of tartrazine in. Little by way of a head remained after a minute or so, just a patchy adolescent's beard of foam.

I don't get much by way of aroma, just a faint grittiness from the yeast, which doesn't bode well. But the flavour is superb. There's a light touch on the booze as it's a mere 8% ABV but it has a big juicy jaffa orange heart that makes it incredibly drinkable and almost thirst-quenching. A rising hop bitterness comes afterwards but the finish is all about that slightly herbal honeyish quality you get in really good tripel.

Interestingly, the label doesn't list sugar among the ingredients. Perhaps an all-malt recipe is the secret to full-flavoured tripel. I won't pretend to know the answer. I do know I want more Jambe de Bois: a beer that does Belgium proud.

17 May 2012

Greatly exaggerated

The big problem I had with BrewDog's IPA Is Dead series last year was that they overdid things. Intended to show off the flavour and aroma characteristics of individual hop varieties, I found them for the most part too bitter, too harsh, with the hops shouting so loudly that what they had to say ended up incoherent. So I was slightly trepidatious when I approached this year's edition. The alcohol has been toned down somewhat for 2012, to just 6.7% ABV from 7.5. But the IBUs are still up at 75 across the board. There's no tax on bitterness, I guess. The hop varieties this year are Challenger, Galaxy, Motueka and HBC, representing England, Australia, New Zealand and the US respectively.

As with last year, I set up a blind tasting to find my favourite, free of any prejudices. HBC is an experimental variety so I had no idea what to expect from it, only that new-breed US hops tend to be highly citric. Challenger I've brewed with plenty of times and I enjoy its subtle spicy grassiness. Motueka I've found a bit medicinal in the handful of beers I've tasted with it, and Galaxy I'm a big fan of: I love the juicy mandarin character it imparts.

So, eyes down for the full house...

It was very much a game of two halves with this lot. Though they all poured the same clear orange colour they divided themselves in half instantly with their aromas. Beer 1 had merely a trace of pith on the nose while beer 2 just showed the ghostly slops of an old drip tray. Beer 3 had the biggest aromatic impact -- oranges turning to sharp plasticine -- while beer 4 got it just right: proper zing and a touch of the artificial fruit of lurid chewy '80s sweets: what I'm after in a hop-forward beer.

And this theme continued when I began tasting. Beer 1 was thick and oily with a bitterness that lingered long after swallowing. Spicy rather than fruity, with just a hint of grass, it ticked enough boxes for me to decide this was Challenger. In fact, this was Motueka. Once that was revealed, of course I could taste the hallmark eucalyptus notes. Of course. While it was near bottom in my estimation, this was the wife's favourite out of the four.

Sloppy number 2 made very little effort as far as flavour is concerned. Stale and cardboardy with just a harsh waxy finish, it was simultaneously bland and unpleasant. I pegged it as Motueka, but this one turned out to be the Challenger.

Beers 3 and 4 were clear reminders that I was drinking BrewDog: big dank flavours, heady and resinous with just a little bit of that funk I associate with Simcoe. 3 was the more fun and frivilous of the two: an enjoyable fruit zest that doesn't take itself too seriously or try to dominate the conversation. I reckoned this was Galaxy and I was right.

Which just leaves HBC at number 4. While I enjoyed this, it had just too much of an acid burn in amongst the mouth-watering jaffa to have the beatings of the Galaxy. I did guess the variety right by elimination, though.

Though I don't have a set of all eight in front of me, I do think this year's are an improvement on 2011: the individual characteristics were more, well, individual than before. I still think they could do with reducing the bittering levels substantially and give those aromas a boost, however.

Until next year...

14 May 2012

Seasonal adjustment

Few tears were shed, I'm sure, when Sierra Nevada's execrable Wheat Ale went out of production, to be replaced by the superior Kellerweis. And I was not overly distraught when I read the news that the spring bock Glissade was being retired after only a couple of years to be replaced by the new Ruthless Rye IPA. Yes, another hop-forward beer from Sierra Nevada might seem a little boring, but it's a medium in which they work pretty consistently well. Rye, on the other hand, isn't usually my bag, beerwise. I'm slightly dismayed by the current fashion for it. Still, hop-confident I bought four bottles of the untasted newbie to bring home.

Alas and alack the rye is in the driving seat. The hops are in a binbag in the boot, hoping that if they stay quiet they'll get out of this alive -- just a light dusting of mandarins in the aroma and a hint of mangoes on tasting betrays their presence. The rest of the flavour shows everything I dislike about rye in a big way: the grassiness that's harsh at the start of the flavour and then lingers on the palate for ages as a sharp, dry sort of unpleasant tang.

I've no doubt there are people who like big rye flavours in a beer. There must be. But for me they just spoil an otherwise enjoyable hop party. I'm afraid I won't be crying at Ruthless Rye's funeral either.

10 May 2012

Your dog is where?

How many pairs of words are there in Dutch anyway? Surely he's going to run out soon? Mooi & Meedogenloos is the latest De Molen binomial to come my way. No style designation so I had to stare at the malt, hop and yeast listings to figure out what sort of a beast it was. That's proper geek-friendly labelling that is. I feel like I've achieved something before even bringing it to the till.

Home. Bottle open. Beer everywhere. Gush central. Lots of rich silky chocolate aroma from the pools of beer I mopped up with the kitchen paper. It has been a week for highly carbonated beer from the low countries. The tan foam settles stiffly, like an ice cream float. And underneath, a body as black as a certain Motörhead song.

Certainly chocolate is at the heart of the flavour profile: milk chocolate shading towards the mild roast of milky coffee. I'd swear there's some brown malt in here but the grain bill on the label says just pale, chocolate and cara. Overlying that sweetness there's a layer of pleasant sherry-like alcoholic fuzz. It's a mere 10.2% ABV but could pass for stronger, reminding me of a tamer, more coherent, version of Thornbridge Bracia. A slightly waxy hop tang finishes things off.

Flavourful enough to keep my interest. Simple enough to drink at a pace. Pretty and ruthless. Like the name says.

07 May 2012

Hanging out with the Dream King

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Morpheus. Morpheus is the house yeast of the Alvinne brewery in Heule, West Flanders. According to their website it's a semi-tame blend of wild yeast and lactobacillus, and they seem inordinately proud of the bugger since lots of their bottles bear the "Morpheus yeast inside" badge. I have a few of them knocking around the collection, and decided on Columbus as the first to open. Hop freshness and all that.

Morpheus did not endear itself to me from the outset: bucketloads of foam gushed from the bottle and pouring became a two-glass job with beer refusing to stay in the bottle for more than a couple of seconds before making another bid for the neck. The stirred-up lees meant each glass turned out a different colour of hazy orange.

7.1% ABV and 136 IBUs says the stats. There's a touch of sherbet in with the sharp yeast in the aroma but the flavour is all about funk: a real down and dirty wild yeast barnyard taste, tempered only slightly by the citric hops. I'm reminded a lot of fresh Orval. It's the same sort of uncompromised tangy sourness, though with a little less balance, and more of an accidentally-tasted-perfume intensity.

I expected more from this. I hoped for more of an American hop character. As-is it's a bit of an awkward, messy, difficult beer, and not really for me. Nevertheless, more from Morpheus in due course. I'll be ready with the buckets next time.

04 May 2012

Irredeemable

Session logoOh no! Pete Brown wants us to write something for normal people, a piece on Beer Moment expressing the joy of beer in a way that ordinary, social, humans will understand. The trivial minutiae which concern the obsessive beer geek or ticker are not for this Session.

Well tough titty, Mr Brown, 'cos you know what my Beer Moment is? My "moment to savour, a moment of mateship, potential, fulfilment, anticipation, satisfaction, and sheer bliss"? Spotting a beer tap I don't recognise. Ha! Get it up ye! Score this one for the anoraks!

So recently I dropped in to Dublin's newest beer specialist (they crop up like weeds these days), The Brew Dock over by Connolly Station. There's a slightly New England-ish maritime feel to all the painted wood, though at least three centuries have passed since the site faced directly onto the waters of Dublin Bay. As one might expect for somewhere between the bus station and a railway terminus, it has never been the most classy or welcoming of venues. Fortunately the new owners have a proven record of turning such places around and it's well on its way to attracting tourists and the office crowd from the adjoining Financial Services Centre over the bus depot derelicts who haunted its former incarnations.

Said owners are the Cottage Group, and naturally enough The Brew Dock stocks beer from their own brewery: Galway Bay over in sunny Salthill. They've been twiddling the recipes of their three lately, but it looks like they may have finally settled, since experimental "Strange Brew" is gone, replaced by Full Sail Pale Ale.

I had to squint at the tap to notice the lettering had changed, but when I did: here comes the rush. A new beer! A new Irish beer! In recent years this has become less of a rare phenomenon than it used to be: the new wave of Irish breweries keep us plied with seasonals and special editions, and there are enough festivals and guest taps around the country to afford the opportunity to try them (the brewery's own annual festival kicks off in Salthill tomorrow, just FYI). But it's no less exciting for all that, and the prospect of a new full-time beer is an extra thrill.

Part of me feels I should end the post here. Because despite the joy of discovering a new beer and the warm afterglow of having ticked it off, Full Sail really isn't very good. It's a lightly-carbonated orange-amber affair and strikes early with a sharp, almost gastric, foretaste. This theme continues in the middle where there's just a touch of pithy fruit in amongst plenty of sharp waxy bitterness. And then it all just tails off. It leaves loads of room for some lip-smacking high-hop citrus flavours but they're entirely absent. Uncomplicated and sessionable is the plan, I suppose, but a pale ale like this really needs more late hops to be a  success, in my estimation at least.

Lucky I got my money's worth before the first sip then, eh? That was the moment I savoured.

2013 update: A change of brewer has seen Full Sail reformulated into something which does really give you a proper bitter bang for your buck. Recommended.

02 May 2012

Indus crispy Dancakes

We're Lancashire-bound today, with two beers from Thwaite's.

I started with Indus, an IPA. It looked to be pouring a bit flat and it took a bit of coaxing to get a loose-bubbled head to form on the top. It didn't last long. However the beer really benefits from the low carbonation as it creates a wonderful cask-like effect, with just enough sparkle to push the flavours out. Naturally enough, it's hops out front: good honest English varieties by the taste of them, with lots of floral orange blossom laid on quite intensely, creating almost a resinous burn while staying clean and crisp, avoding all harshness. At 4.6% ABV it's around a percentage point weaker than the likes of White Shield and Bengal Lancer, but I'd regard it as being very much in the same league. The balance of marmalade and toffee you get in the others isn't present here, but the hop punchiness makes up for it for me. Tangy, sinkable and with a lasting bitterness, I really enjoyed it.

I think I only bought the Indus because it was in a four-for-a-tenner deal in my local branch of The Beer Club and what I was really after was the brewery's old ale Old Dan. Dan had a tough act to follow. I was expecting something much darker than this red-amber beer, which proved quite gold around the edges and topped by a pale beige head. The first sniff gave me boozy sherry or calvados and the taste is pure fruitcake: plums, raisins, cherries and a great big glug of alcohol. More than 33cl would be hard to take, I reckon: the flavours and the thick syrupy texture build up on each other until it starts to get quite cloying. As an after dinner liqueur substitute, shared perhaps, it's wonderful.