30 July 2012

Tapped

"Daddy's taking us to see a model railway" yelped the excited young'un as our train pulled into York. Two rows away I felt a pang of sympathy. Daddy hadn't done his homework. It's a few years since I was last in the city, but even I knew that the model railway in the old station tea rooms had closed and relocated some time ago, replaced by the leather banquettes and dark woodwork of the York Tap. Daddy had this explained to him by the receptionist in the neighbouring Royal York Hotel as I was checking in. I'm sure the family found something fun to do instead, but I wasn't disappointed at all: three days in this fantastically beery English city, staying right next door to the town's top pub for serious beer geekery.

I had been travelling since before 6am, with a pause for the full, salty, Irish at Dublin airport. By noon on the muggy July day I was tired and incredibly thirsty, in need of a pick-me-up. The Tap offers twenty casks plus a dozen or so keg beers. After a full lap of the bar I settled on a pint of Gentleman's Wit, brewed on the remote windswept moors of Camden Town. This arrived as fizzy and hazy as one might expect, a washed-out shade of pale yellow, kicking off with immediate aromas of spiced boiled sweets. One long pull wiped the thirst clean off my palate, the second brought soothing vaporub notes of chamomile and similar herbs. The bergamot with which it's brewed comes later, adding a drier, tannic element. While a boon when the beer is fresh and cold it does introduce an unfortunate soapy aspect to the taste if it's allowed to get warm. But for the first two-thirds, this was exactly what I needed: a super-refreshing quencher which avoids all the pitfalls of wonky witbier: no watery lack of body and no cloying sweetness.


I felt I should pay my respects to the county next, and opted for Ilkley's Mary Jane. It's a golden bitter of 3.5% ABV and my pint showed worrying clumps of yeast lava-lamping around in it. The aroma is quite sickly and sugary while the flavour is unpleasantly sharp and soapier than the foregoing beer. I suspect that I was served the dregs of the barrel but it was hard to imagine what the underlying beer was supposed to taste like, if not this. Still, at a mere £2.70 a pint I wasn't going to start a debate and simply moved on to something I reckoned would have a bit more wallop.

Colorado Red: another Thornbridge-Odell collaboration, 5.9% ABV and "massively hopped". Yes, that'll do. There's a little haze but that doesn't distract even slightly from the gorgeous chestnut red colour. The blurb is a bit of an overstatement, however. No hops, massive or otherwise, are apparent in the aroma, just some light cocoa and turkish delight. There's perhaps a little back-of-throat bitterness in the finish but the centre ground is all creamy milk chocolate plus a touch of the familiar mandarin Odell hops. A welcome upgrading of plain brown bitter, this, but no more than that.

Somebody must have been enjoying it because the Colorado Red was gone soon after, replaced by another from Thornbridge: the inquisitive Wye. The unique selling point of this golden ale is the generous addition of cucumber (in the recipe not in the glass). A dry green vegetal nose starts it off and there's a very clear, crisp, cucumber bite in the flavour, lingering long in the palate and even reasserting itself in cucumber-flavoured burps. Thankfully there's enough lagerish golden-syrup malt to keep it more like a beer than a cucumber alcopop, though once again the hops are lacking.

I finally hit the hop jackpot I'd been seeking with Marble's Lagonda IPA. The aroma is understated but it delivers a massive bitter punch on the first taste followed by an intense flavour of concentrated tinned peaches. Yum. You get a bit of a harsh acidic burn, but it's not unpleasant and the finish is clean: not hanging around oilily on the palate the way some of these intensely hop-forward beers do. When it's gone, it's gone.

I started to hit the law of diminishing returns with the York Tap selection at this point. Kirkstall's Dissoloution Rye IPA had some interesting orange and lavender flavours going on and thankfully none of the harsh grassiness that usually puts me right off rye beers. There was no indication that it's all of 6.2% ABV but even odder were the massive yeast clumps that sat in the liquid, suspended as though in jelly. What's up with that?

Blue Monkey's Infinity was quite nice: extremely pale with some sherbet and lots of the mineral qualities I've found in all of their beers. Hambleton Hurdler is a better-than-average brown bitter, buttery with an extra strawberry tartness I enjoyed. Can't say the same for Black Jack First Deal. In fact this brown bitter was almost completely undistinctive.

It was almost as an afterthought on my last session in the Tap that I opted for a bottle of the Export India Porter from The Kernel. Everything they say about it is true: incredibly smooth for a bottled porter with a complex bittersweet flavour profile including dark chocolate and rosewater. I'd go so far as to say it's damn near perfect, as this style goes.

I did venture out from the York Tap on a couple of occasions during the stay. One of these was a bijou pub crawlette  in the company of York resident Ally of Impy Malting fame. We met, perhaps appropriately, in The House of Trembling Madness, a poky attic bar above the best beer shop in town. Tragically the Hardknott Cool Fusion had just run out so I started off on a 7% ABV US-style double IPA from Ilkley called, with appropriate racial sensitivity, The Chief. It's a very hazy orange colour and packed with pleasantly zesty mandarin notes. None of the hop burn I might have expected from something branding itself as this style. Ah well.

Following Steve's advice, I dragged us across the street to The Punch Bowl, now under Nicholson's management and alleged to have a much improved beer offer. Well, it's still a rambling low-ceilinged traditional pub and was quite quiet for an otherwise bustling Thursday evening. John Smith's was still on cask but there was also Cropton's Hawaii 340. I was expecting big Pacific hops in this pale ale but the biscuit malt flavours are dominant. Ally enjoyed it, but it wasn't for me. I think I did better with my XT8, a stout from XT Brewing down in Buckinghamshire. A nicely balanced number this, with quite an intense roastiness offset by full-on liquorice sweets. Predictably, our crawl wound up back at the York Tap. Cucumber beer for all!

My solo adventures in York brought me, of course, to Pivni (rebadged since my last visit) for a swift pint of Fyne Ales Rune. The Scottish masters of pale 'n' 'oppy are at it again here: 3.5% ABV, a very pale gold, and gorgeously, gobsmackingly, bitter. It's waxy and harsh at first but this calms down soon after providing tart raspberries and crab apples. Puckeringly good. I downed it fast enough to leave time for a swift half of something else. From the keg selection I opted for Mary's Maple Porter from the Brooklyn Brewery. It looks the part of a 7.5% ABV porter: a lustrous and silky black. I found it hard going to drink, however, with lots of hot and heavy fruit esters plus cloying milky coffee. It's akin to trying to down a boozy banoffi milkshake, and a half was more than enough.

The Maltings was last on my hitlist, a poky ramshackle boozer just inside the city walls. It was busy but the layout meant I was still able to find myself a quiet corner, just opposite the toilet which some design guru saw fit to install in the room. Stars 'n' Stripes by Rooster was first up, a beautifully clear pale ale of 4.2% ABV. There's a nice balance of grapefruit and bubblegum notes here: pinchingly bitter followed by soft fruit notes like lychee and white grape. It did get a little boring half way down but was eminently sinkable while I thought about what to have next. And that was the beer of the trip: Brasscastle Brewery's York 800 imperial stout. 8% ABV yet only £1.90 for a half. You have to laugh. Under the tan head sits an immensely complex beer, introducing itself with big and tart red fruit notes of cranberry and redcurrant. There's a little touch of putty which suggests oatmeal to me, as does the silky smoothness. Only after swallowing does the dry roast flavour make itself felt. End to end beautiful.

So yeah, not bad beer options in York. Not bad at all.

26 July 2012

Doug takes charge

Pond Hopper describes itself as a "Double Extra Pale Ale" on the label, which is a bit of an oddity in itself. It's a collaboration between the Odell brewery in Colorado and Thornbridge which, according to the label, is situated somewhere near Cherbourg.

Brewing took place at the former, and more than any other American brewery I know, Odell has a very distinctive hop profile across all its beers: a sweet and tangy fresh orange flavour. It's very very apparent in Pond Hopper: not so much in the aroma where I got little beyond carbonic dryness and a worrying funky hit of Brett, but the flavour is all big and punchy tangerines; tangerine skin, even. There's an oiliness and a heat which speaks of a beer much stronger than the mere 8.9% ABV we have here. It finishes on a satisfyingly dank note: a long-lasting herbal and vegetal funkiness providing a pleasant counterpoint to the more innocent tangerines.

I can sort-of see where the style designation came from. The pale and hazy gold colour are the sort one would associate much more with a pale ale, and perhaps influenced their decision to shy away from the more commonplace "IPA" label. What I can't see, however, are the fingerprints of Thornbridge anywhere -- though admittedly with Thornbridge's hugely diverse range of beers it's hard to know which fingers to be looking out for. The label copy says Thornbridge provided the English malt, but there's very little sign of that under Odell's all-conquering orange flavoured hops.

A beer to rank alongside Odell IPA and Myrcenary as among the best of their range. It doesn't need to be special, limited or rare to be enjoyable.

23 July 2012

Office rocker

"It was the cheapest Italian craft beer the importer could get", said my drinks-trade source who will remain anonymous. He was talking about the Brewfist range which has recently appeared on our shelves and which has been getting less than enthusiastic notes from Irish drinkers online.

At around €4 a bottle it's pricey enough stuff so I wasn't going to shell out on the whole range, based on what I'd heard. So, to begin, just Burocracy: an IPA.

There's a pleasing spritzy zest aroma as it pours, which is a good start, and above the dark amber body the head is the colour of old ivory, something I associate with unctuous palate-burning American hop napalm. There's lots of haze though, and this is where my criticisms start: bottle-conditioning does not sit well with me when it comes to hop-driven beers in small bottles. Brewers of the world: please stop it.

The zestiness is gone by the time I get a proper sniff of it, replaced by a mildly catty pungency. And not fresh cat neither. At the front of the flavour there's a short blast of Simcoe or something very like it but there's no follow-through: it just vanishes leaving a lasting bitterness on the palate. It all came across like a slightly wonky version of 5am Saint to me.

It's not bad beer, though, and certainly not dull. I'm not put off the brewery and intend to get round to the others in due course. But I'd say it's not what anyone is looking for in Italian beer. Anywhere you see this on sale there'll be examples of the Americans doing the style better.

19 July 2012

Claymates

You don't see many beers in stoneware jars these days. Actual stoneware, that is, not the spraypaint effect that Huyghe use for Delirium Tremens and a couple of their others. These four from the Flemish Sterkens brewery were hiked back from Belgium by the missus and are the real deal: stamped earthenware, hygienically crown-capped with the swingtop left loose for resealing. If you're the abstemious type. Mine all got consumed in one sitting.

Bokrijks is a pretty straightforward Belgian blonde. There's a light haze in the glass but the flavour is clean, infused with some pleasant soft fruits: I got peaches in particular. The carbonation is on the low side, and all of its elements add up to a simple, drinkable Belgian blonde. It's 7.2% ABV so right in the middle between sticky Leffe and its many clones, and bigger, bitterer powerhouses like Duvel. It's a nice place to be.

Just a shade or two darker and a smidge stronger at 7.5% ABV we have St Sebastiaan Grand Cru. It's hazier too, and much closer to a bazillion other Belgian blonde ales. It doesn't go overboard with the yeasty spices and allows the grainy lagerish malt flavour to come through. I don't have much else to say about it: inoffensive, undistinctive, and possibly even a bit dull.

St. Sebastiaan Dark is a little better, a modest 6.9% ABV and conker-red with bags of fizz, but balanced by a heavy enough body to keep it drinkable. The nose is sweet and spicy, like mince pies. I was expecting lots of unctuous dark malt in the flavour, but the spices -- from the yeast, I assume -- win through and there's a touch of pepperiness plus some candied fruit. Smooth and satisfying, like the best strong dark ales.

Finally, another dark beer. This one is 6.5% ABV and carries the titterworthy name of Poorter. It's a porter, but on the paler end of the spectrum: more amber-brown than properly black. Like the Bokrijks it comes in a 75cl bottle and, like the Bokrijks it's not trying to show off with its flavour profile. Instead, it starts off with some gentle dark fruits in the aroma: I got figs and fat juicy raisins in particular. The first taste delivers a quick burst of sweet perfume but this fades quickly to Turkish delight before disappearing altogether, leaving behind some silky milk chocolate. I could have downed well more than 75cl in quite a short space of time: the resealable top was definitely not needed.

Nothing to get too excited by in this lot: the blondes are workmanlike; the darker ones subtly complex. Not a bad place to be considering some of the messes that pass for beer from small Belgian breweries.

16 July 2012

Watchoo talkin' 'bout, Williams?

Reuben has already had a go at this one, and I'm sure it's the first thing that any beer writer notes when sitting down to tackle the Williams Brothers' Caesar Augustus: "Lager/IPA Hybrid". Really, Williams Brothers? Really?

What you get is a highly fizzy golden beer whose flavour is centred on a sweet biscuity graininess: the sort that's common to good-quality lagers. And indeed a lager is what it really is: the brewing process is helpfully described on the label and we're talking about a lager yeast and a month or so of low-temperature maturation. That's lager, that is.

Hop-wise there's a little hint of soft fruit in the aroma and an initial bitter catch in the back of the throat on first gulp. A vague kind of peachiness emerges as it goes but there's nothing I'd consider serious hop impact.

It's a decent enough lager. Clearly the "IPA" tag is little more than an attempt to jump on that particular style bandwagon and shift a few units to beer drinkers who perhaps regard lager as a dirty word, the fools.
To the rest of us it's a short-lived curiosity followed by a nice refreshing beer.

Thanks to Derek for the bottle.

12 July 2012

Hot metal

"There's this one from Left Hand."
"Ehhh..."
"It's a pepper porter."
"Sold!"

Ken in DrinkStore knows which buttons to push when I'm browsing the shelves. So I walked off with a bottle of Fade to Black Volume 3: 7.2% ABV and brewed with rauchmalt and chillis. Right up my alley then.

What little head I could coax out of it didn't stick around long and the finished product is an unattractive murky black-brown. The aroma is all sticky bitter liquorice with just a hint of eye-watering spice behind it. Lots of body, but not too much, and little interference from the carbonation. The rich dry flavours of espresso and dark chocolate are to the fore, with the chilli only coming into play at the finish, more as piquant white pepper than fiery capsicum. And it stays in play after swallowing too, settling down below and gently radiating endorphins.

I'm well impressed by this. Subtle: no; balanced: maybe; but it's the sort of beer that reminds me of beer's myriad possibilities.

09 July 2012

Old flame

Much as I love De Molen -- the brewery, the approach and most of the many, many beers -- Vuur & Vlam IPA wasn't one that floated my boat when I tried it a couple of years ago. But someone must have liked it, because Menno released the recipe to all the brewers attending his festival at De Molen in 2010, to brew their own version and have them judged by the festival punters. Haandbryggeriet took the gong on the day, and Marble dined out on their second-prize-winning iteration for a while afterwards.

I don't know where Struise placed, but I recently got hold of a bottle of their version, dubbed Ignis & Flamma. 7% ABV and hopped with Galena, Chinook, Simcoe, Cascade and Amarillo. It should be a bit of a powerhouse but, like the original, it's rather tame. Yes I know it's two years old, but there's very little sign of those hops: it's smooth and a little spicy but not properly bitter and in no way fruity. I find it a little strange that two brewers, working independently, managed to hide all those high octane hops.

Its not a bad beer by any means: rounded and pleasantly warming. Hopheads would be disappointed, however.

06 July 2012

Hitori

Session logo
I feel it's one of the world's great injustices that being "not a morning person" is socially acceptable while exhibiting the same sort of misanthropy at hours later than 10pm is frowned upon. Well to hell with that: I'm proud of being a morning person, I'm happy in the pub before noon and if I decide in the evening that it's too loud and crowded to be enjoyable then I'm out of there. You can stay and enjoy the "atmosphere", a term which as far as I can tell means "nowhere to sit and you can't hear what anyone is saying". Grrr.

All of which means I'm no stranger to drinking alone. The afternoon pint is my favourite one and while you're very welcome to join me, I won't be waiting around for you to be ready. I may even have moved on by the time you arrive. The joy of solitary drinking is this month's topic on The Session, hosted by Nate of Booze, Beats & Bites.

I had a spare hour in Dublin city centre recently and used it to check out a relatively new bar, Yamamori Izakaya below the Oriental Café on South Great George's Street. It was early evening and I had the place to myself, taking a stool at the bar because I always feel a bit guilty occupying a table if I'm on my own. What brought me in was a tip-off (thanks again Richard!) that they had a Hitachino Nest beer on draught in addition to the three bottled ones stocked across the Yamamori chain and reviewed back here. And there it was, two taps over from the O'Hara's IPA: Nipponia.

I was presented with an innocent-looking golden coloured pint. Casting my nose over the surface I received just a hint of sourness, reminding me that getting the first pint from the tap is one of the hazards of early-day drinking. Nothing hint-like about the flavour, however. There's an intense foghorn blast of orange-peel hops which I am reliably informed is Sorachi Ace in full voice. It lingers oleaginous on the lips and soft palate as this is a heavy beer much more suited to accompanying food than session pinting. (Research afterwards suggests it's 6.5% ABV; research at the time revealed it goes great with a teriyaki burger and side dish of noodles.)

By the half way point I was accustomed to the bitterness and the hops became more nuanced, with notes of mandarin and lychee thrown in. I rushed things a little at the end as I found it was getting heavier and stickier as it warmed. Overall a very interesting beer in a bar that brings something delightfully different to the Dublin pub scene.

Next time I might just bring a friend.

04 July 2012

Back in the race

On Saturday last L. Mulligan Grocer celebrated its second birthday and I dropped in to eat lots of free black pudding sausage rolls celebrate with the guys, who had also just scooped Licensing World's first ever Craft Beer Pub of the Year award. Cask Fraoch was a little disappointing, lacking much of the subtle complexities of the bottled version. All-new Waterford-brewed Metalman Pale Ale was in magnificent form: a darker, funkier version adding a nice edge to the previously light and fruity quaffer. But the big occasion for me was the first sighting of Clanconnel's new beer, one with which the Co. Down brewery pulls itself up onto the pale ale bandwagon at last.

There's nothing immediately striking about McGrath's Irish Pale Ale: a par-for-the-course orange-amber body topped by generous foam and a manageable 4.4% ABV. I was a few gulps down before the pint glass began trapping any aroma for me: all sharp and slightly acrid. It's a theme which is borne out by the flavour too. No innocent breezy summer fruits; instead it has a rather harsh acidic edge: a squirt of grapefruit to the back of the palate; a teeth-cleansing rhubarb squeakiness.

I'm sure it will find its fans but it was a little severe for me. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, a bit of dry-hopping would do it no harm at all at all. By coincidence, Steve has a review of this on his blog today too.

A "white ale" is also on its way from the new Clanconnel line-up. More on that doggy when it comes around the track.

02 July 2012

The call of duty

Any student of British beer history can tell you loads about the direct effect of taxation on the contents of people's pint glasses. All of us on these islands still live in the shadow of the Great Gravity Drop of 1917, after all. Most recently I've been interested by Ron's theory that war hasn't had the same lasting effect on our beery continental brethren because they've tended to enshrine beer styles and strengths in law, and still do in the likes of Germany and the Czech Republic.

It's not always about war, however. Brewers seldom see anything wrong with a bit of profiteering in peacetime too, should the opportunity arise, and so it is with the new 2.8% ABV tax band that offers a halving of excise duty for beers brewed below it. The late Minister Lenihan introduced this in 2008 "to encourage the safer use of alcohol and to make a contribution over time to reducing death and injury on our roads". Since then, not a single new sub-2.8% ABV beer has been brought to market by any of our brewers, meaning the only real effect of the law has been to boost the profits made by British multinational Diageo on their pre-existing golf club editions of Carlsberg and Guinness.

It's a different story in the UK, however, where the same rate has applied only since late last year yet breweries -- reputable and otherwise -- have been falling over themselves to create product that fits. I offer no comment on the reputation of Manchester's JW Lees brewery, but their Brewer's Dark is one from their back catalogue that has been adapted to dodge the exciseman, knocked down to 2.8 from the former lofty heights of 3.5% ABV, whence I tasted it a couple of years ago. I don't know how much of the difference is down to the carbonation method, but I'm getting none of the rich chocolate creaminess of the cask version from this new bottle. There's still a lovely roast bite, however, making it a deliciously refreshing dark quaffing beer. Light, without being watery, thin or dull. Yes, we could do with something in this style over here.

We're not stuck for 4.x% stouts, however, though I was still interested to see Fuller's of London launched a new one last year. This was followed by disappointment when I couldn't get any on a trip to their home turf in April. But, resilient as ever, I tracked down a bottle in Dublin and here it is. 4.5% ABV, so a teeny bit stronger than the draught version they had out as a seasonal last November.

They've gone all-out for density here: almost totally opaque black with a thick dollop of off-white head and a smooth weightiness. The flavour is unusual, showing a little of the unctuous caramel I associate more with stouts in the 6%+ bracket, a distinct dark chocolate dryness and then a bitter hop tang on the end which calls Porterhouse Wrassler's XXXX to mind. Comparisons with London Porter are inevitable and I don't think Black Cab is as well-rounded. Still, there's definitely something different here for the seen-it-all stout drinker, I reckon.

That'll be £18 please, mate.