27 September 2012

Sugar rush

Through the good offices of my wife I've accumulated a bit of a collection of sweet Belgian fruit beers. She knows I have something of a weakness for these concoctions and always have an eye out for new ones. So, one sunny evening before summer finally took down the umbrellas and brought in the tables for another year I decided to have a clear out.

First up was Lindemans Apple. A mere 3.5% ABV, this, due I'm sure to 25% of its bulk consisting of apple juice, the rest being lambic beer and some flavours and colours for good measure. The result is an opaque orange-yellow beer that could easily pass for unfiltered cider until you sniff it. In the aroma the apples take a back seat to massive sweet sugar with some mild acetone: like shoving two Jolly Ranchers up your nose. But all is forgiven on the first mouthful. Yes, it's sweet, get over it. There's also a proper crisp green apple tang and if you let it hang about for a second it's possible to detect the wheat and even hops of the underlying beer. Best of all is the light effervescence instead of full-on fizz, meaning it went down the hatch in pretty short order. Refreshing.


Second beer was Pecheresse, one that has long amused me, not because of the beer itself -- I'd never tasted it -- but because of how it's categorised on the menu of Chez Moeder Lambic in Brussels: Contrary to the picture above it's only 2.5% ABV, but I can see why they chose to mention the sirop: it's syrup all the way here, only barely discernible as peach so concentrated is it. The beer is almost flat and tastes of nothing else except the sickly fruit gunk. I have a genuine love of sweet beers, but I find it difficult to believe any adult could enjoy drinking this one.


And finally we have Kriek Max, and unlike the foregoing joke beers, this one comes with credentials: a gold medal for best kriek at the 2011 World Beer Awards.The pour produces a lovely serious blood-red body topped by an altogether more frivilous pink fluffy head. There's no escaping the sugar here, its laid on pretty thickly but it does serve a purpose: buoying up a very full-on cherryade flavour. You know you have a kriek in front of you. For just 3.2% ABV it packs in rather a lot of fun fruity taste without being overpoweringly artificial. But best kriek in the world? Maybe not.

And after that, the side effects. These low ABV, soft-textured beers may be easy to chug down on a warm evening on the patio, but I could feel my heart rate accelerating by half way through the session and at the end I was ready to bounce off the walls. Something big and hoppy was required as a downer and palate cleaner afterwards.

24 September 2012

Blown cover

Majestic. That's the word I'd use for the Brooklyn Black Ops bottle, a tall tapering 75cl embossed with the Brooklyn logo and labelled silver on black with matter-of-fact sans serif lettering. It's the sort of class that bottles which strive to be classy never quite manage and makes you feel like you really have something as you twist the cork cage open.

This imperial stout is a little light on its feet for a barrel-aged job, just 10.7% ABV and you can see in the pour that it doesn't gloop out like others of its kind, splashing into the glass and forming a lively dark brown head, settling down to a tan skim. Coffee is what leaps out in the aroma to me: a big, sweet, almost fruity, roast smell. There's an echo of the bourbon cask too: that sharp sour mash tempered by vanilla oak.

The coffee is still there in the flavour but takes more of a mocha direction as bitter dark chocolate comes into play. The wood and whiskey thing is still going on, but it doesn't blend so well with the stouty flavours, drowning the sweetness in the foretaste somewhat and taking most of the credit for the finish with its heady alcoholic vapours.

It's a class act, though perhaps not as multidimensional as some of the stronger barrel-aged imperial stouts. And I'm beginning to think, between this and the Bourbon Barrel Ale I had recently, that maybe bourbon is a little to brash for aging beer well. Something called "Black Ops" should be a little more subtle, I think.

20 September 2012

Handbags

My bottle of Adnams Spindrift says the beer "evokes images of sea spray blown off a cresting wave". Shut up, bottle of Spindrift! That's my call. I get to decide what you sort-of-but-not-really taste like. If breweries are going to start writing wanky bloggish tasting notes on their labels, we're all done for.

Spindrift looks pretty simple: a pale orange ale of 5% ABV, though served from an odd 33cl blue glass longneck. The aroma conjures up old Adnams favourite Innovation, with its powerful spiced marmalade character. The first sip brings that marvellous dry mineral note that is the Adnams hallmark and what keeps me coming back to their beer. Under that there's a complex of heavy, sticky, sweet Jaffa orange and much lighter zesty spritz, both working in parallel and neither dominating.

I can see why they went with the smaller bottle here: the texture is dense enough and the flavours strong enough that it would be harder to take in larger measures. But it's not difficult or overly heavy. It pains me to say it, but this bottle of Spindrift put me more in mind of a nice glass of Chenin Blanc or Riesling. No sea spray, but lovely fruit, dahling. Mwah!

17 September 2012

Gorgeous Georges

It's still just about apparent that the area around Perrache station was once a beautiful part of Lyon. The railway arrived in 1857 and brought with it the elegant streetscape one sees all over Europe, dotted with grand hotels and apartment buildings. The twentieth century, however, was not kind to the neighbourhood, witnessing the imposition of an autoroute, extra urban trainlines and a tangle of concrete overpasses and throughways which destroy any impression that the district was ever planned with humans in mind.

Cowering in the shadow of the new, modern Perrache station sits Brasserie Georges. It had stood here a good twenty years before the first locomotives, effortlessly transitioning in 1924 from edge-of-town drinks factory to grand art deco railway buffet. Times have been hard since, but in 2005 it was lovingly restored to its previous splendour, with the addition of a shiny new microbrewery tucked discreetly into one corner.

It's an impressive sight when one enters from the dingy street outside: liveried waiters glide across the floor, serving an orderly array of tables from a menu that blends in seamlessly with what this city -- the gourmet capital of Earth's most gastronomic country -- has to offer the hungry diner. Off to one side an aproned gentleman tends the dark wood bar, beyond which the brewkit gleams in copper and steel. Blackboards on the ten fermentation vessels tell us something about the demand being met by the beer supply: six vessels of pils, two of golden ale and one each of witbier and red. So popular, it seems, is the pils that we had to choose something else when we sat down and ordered our round.

Bière Georges Dorée is brewed with honey, though shows little sign of it on tasting: just a delicate floral perfume and a slight waxy bitterness. Other than that it's quite plain drinking, perhaps a little on the heavy and sticky side but not so much that it gets difficult or anything.

The Blanche is a pale hazy shade of almost-green. As is so often the case in French brewing they haven't gone out of the way to produce anything strange or iconoclastic, but as an everyday witbier it's spot on. There's just the right balance of dry wheatiness, laced with gentle spice from the coriander. What marks it out for me is just a few extra notches on the sweetness dial, more candied orange than plain bitter orange peel. It came to me cool rather than cold with a light fizz, making for a wonderfully refreshing drink: everything you could ask for in a wit.

Lastly there was Bière Georges Rousse. This is another almost opaque beer, dark amber in the middle, more watery looking at the edges. A lovely aroma of orange blossom greets the nose and the taste begins with dry roast, turning to mild milk chocolate. It finishes with a wonderful Jaffa flourish, doubtless the result of some surprisingly generous hopping. It's definitely a significant cut above the normal boring old French ambrée and wouldn't be out of place among some of the best German altbier.

If you're in Lyon, Brasserie Georges is unmissable. Even leaving the history aside, the refurbished dining room and bar are spectacular. Prices are fairly reasonable too, with 40cl of beer costing under €5 in a town where even modestly-priced cafés will take €7 off you for a glass of Stella. Brave the concrete jungle out the back of Perrache and spend some time in a more civilised age.

13 September 2012

Out to launch

The Irish Craft Beer Festival rolled in to the RDS in leafy Dublin 4 last weekend, the second time it has been held here. A combination of great weather and Leinster playing at home in the stadium next door ensured a brisk trade, with somewhere over 6000 punters crossing the threshold over the three days, easily accommodated in the spacious Victorian splendour of the Industries Hall.

Alongside a couple of the new-wave cider producers (McIvor's, Tempted? and Stonewell), some homebrew show-and-tell from the Beoir fermentationists and assorted ancillary food and drink retailers (Pieman Café, I bloody love you), most of the country's independent breweries had a stand. And lots of them were using the event to launch new products or limited specials. Lots of scooping potential, then.

There was one totally new beer brand in the form of Bo Bristle, the Co. Offaly brewery formerly known as BrewEyed. Bo Bristle IPA is the flagship, a big sticky-sweet 5%-er in something of an English vernacular. Lagery golden syrup is the heart, lightly laced with citrus and finishing floral. Bo Bristle continues to brew Carrig under contract and has produced a new beer to go with the pale lager: Rower, an Irish red. Yeah, I know: Irish red, yawn, but it's one of the better ones, with lots of toffee plus a solid hop bite. This extra oomph means it does get a bit heavy as it warms up, but overall a decent take on the style.

The O'Hara's range had two new additions, making appearances on draught: Natural Blonde is a dark golden ale loaded with weighty banana esters, far away from the thinner paler lagerlike blondes one normally sees. O'Hara's Winter Star is their first ever seasonal, a lurid orange-coloured winter ale of 4.3% ABV. Orange peel, cinnamon and coconut provide the excitement here, and while I got a hint of marmalade in the foretaste, the aroma and finish are coconut in a big way. The cinnamon has completely disappeared, and it's light on malt and hops, so a little bit one-dimensional, but simple and interesting.

And much as the new ones from Carlow were the centre of my attention, there was also an oak-aged version of Leann Folláin stout on cask. This was beautiful: massive vanilla wood in the aroma but with plenty of rich and smooth chocolate stout flavours still making themselves felt in the flavour. Great balance and one of the best oak-aged beers I've tasted in a while. Less convincing was one of the American guests at the festival: Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. It's not unpleasant, per se, it just tastes powerfully of whiskey, shooting its 8% alcohol right up the back of the nose. You'd be better off with an actual glass of bourbon, to be honest.

Whitewater were also at the barrel game, with a limited supply of their oak-aged Clotworthy Dobbin for sale in bottles. I sneaked a taste before I purchased and it really lives up to the hype: big Christmas cake flavours with sweet cigar tobacco, all on a very sippable lightish body. From their beer engine there was Down Pilgrim, a new cask ale. The USP here is all-local barley from a neighbouring farmer coupled, as the name suggests, with Pilgrim hops. You get a light-coloured pale ale which begins with a little bit of toasted biscuit, following it up with a sharp bitter finish. One of those sessionable beers with character that are always great to settle into. I wasn't so keen on Whitewater's McHugh's 300, a 3.5% ABV keg blonde brewed for the Botanic Inns chain, a big customer of the brewery's. I found it just too sharp -- pretty much acetic -- to be enjoyable.

From the Odd Experience file, we have my first ever taste of Beal Bán from Beoir Chorca Duibhne. This blonde ale had a weird phenolic twang, and apparently a dash of smoked malt went into the recipe, which would explain things. There's also quite a bang of boozy heat from it, at 5.3% ABV: another golden ale that's anything but bland. And then there was a dry-hopped version of Dungarvan's Copper Coast. You know the ad for Best Western that they show on Dave? Where the brewer says his beer has "A hint of coffee with a nice green apple finish"? That.

Dungarvan provided three of my favourites from the whole gig, as well as a chocolate stout I could take or leave but seemed quite popular. Standout star of the show -- of the festival -- was Rye-PA. Normally I'd run a mile from rye in beer, disliking the harsh grassiness it normally creates. But there's only a hint of that in here, the cloudy orange beer being awash instead with massive succulent nectarine hop flavours. Of course there wasn't enough of it to keep the punters content and both casks sold out soon after being tapped. There were also limited supplies of a 6% ABV IPA which I only got a taste of (thanks Oblivious!), another mouthwatering full and fruity one. And briefly we had an unnamed dark beer with a wonderful bitterness to it. It's one of those where I couldn't tell it was dark when tasting with my eyes closed so could probably be safely badged as a B***k I*A, were the brewery so inclined.

The beer I heard most good reports about was the new one from 8 Degrees, a Märzen called Ochtoberfest: celebrating the number eight and in no way, shape or form connected to any trademarked seasonal German beer event. I was wary at first as it's quite a dark shade of orange, the same colour as all those undrinkably sticky American Märzens and Oktoberfestbiers. However the proper bready aroma set my mind at ease, and on tasting: wow! They've pulled the usual 8 Degrees trick of taking an established style and moving everything up just a notch. Or maybe two. So from a big dose of Saaz and Hallertau there's a nettle flavour rising to a rocket-like pepperiness, as well as all the rounded and filling Munich malt. Proof perhaps that you don't have to be VLB-trained to make kick-ass lager, but it helps.

Staying in Cork, another festival favourite of mine was Franciscan Well's Mi Daza. This stout is a commission from the owner of several pubs in Cork city so isn't meant to be seen elsewhere, and certainly not in the posh end of Dublin. But there it was, and splendid too: light of body but with a strong vegetal hop tang, like a lighter, more sinkable version of Porterhouse Wrasslers XXXX.

Time was, getting a new Irish beer onto this blog meant drinking a glass of it and writing down how it tasted. Increasingly these days it has become a multi-stage project. So it was with the latest one from Metalman: Moonbeam. The first version of it I tasted was served from the cask and had some bonus cranberries added dry. It was nice as it went: a smooth and dry dark ale with a tart finish and just a whisper of sweet red berries. Later I got to taste the unhacked keg version and found it quite different. The tart finish spreads throughout the flavour to become a full-on bitter hop tang. The hops also leap out in a wonderful spicy green aroma which is sadly absent from the cask edition. Another one the brewers could go calling a *lac* *P*, y'know, if they wanted to.

A bit of a dry account of the new beers at the gig there: such is the nature of this blog. I also had plenty of old favourites, including Hilden's Barney's Brew: first time I'd met it in Dublin, and some fantastic dry-hopped cask versions of Franciscan Well's Rebel Red. I haven't even mentioned the splendid new bottles from White Gypsy, due to hit the off licences in the next couple of weeks, but since I took one home with me (thanks Cuilán!), those notes will be coming later.

Above all, my abiding impression was that the Irish Craft Beer Festival was not simply a big hall with beers for sale, nor a three-day piss-up, but a proper celebration of beer in Ireland as it is now, with plenty to excite both wary newcomers and jaded old hacks like me. I'm looking forward to many more years of this event.

10 September 2012

Hélène again

It's another one from Brasserie Sainte-Hélène today, something of a climber in my estimations of Belgian beermakers. Following on from La Grognarde a few weeks ago, this is an inauspicious-looking beer given a name no more elaborate than Barley Wine. The bib on the champagne half-bottle tells us it's 12% ABV, brewed with Brewers Gold and Strisselspalt hops and with a recommended serving temperature that goes all the way up to 16°C.

After a good six weeks solid chilling in the kitchen fridge this still had about 3cm of sediment glooping about in the bottom of the bottle. Thankfully, unlike many other bottle-conditioned Belgians, popping the cap didn't result in the muck being spread throughout the liquid by overenthusiastic fizz. The carbonation here is low and the beer is nicely viscous.

Getting to the drinking bit, I found a marvellously round and warming beer with dark honey flavours, laced by black cherry and sweet plums: all putting me in mind of heady oloroso sherry, or Harvery's Bristol Cream, if your tastes run that way. Even when the yeasty dregs are poured in, the flavour is strong enough to be untroubled by them. It still has a certain Belgian quality, however, carrying fruit and spice characteristics of both dubbel and tripel.

This is a great fireside beer for the coming winter, the only thing that would give me pause is the hassle of pouring after a long and tiring day. The yeast might not disturb the taste, but I do prefer not to have to strain big gobbets through my teeth when I drink. Big bottles or a little filtration would be appreciated, Brasserie Sainte-Hélène.

06 September 2012

Ursa major

We don't see a whole lot from California's Bear Republic brewery in these parts, so when I spotted their Red Rocket on sale last time I was in England I couldn't just walk past. They claim a Scottish ancestry for this 6.8% ABV red ale, but let's just leave that aside and spare them any blushes.

A hard one-two of big malt and big hops smacks the nose on first sniff: warm toffee infused with lemony citrus. It's a little bit sickly on tasting with the hops taking a back seat and a heavy barleywineish candy flavour at the front. The bitterness -- firm without being harsh -- kicks in shortly afterwards, and there's a concentrated floral tang, like accidentally-tasted perfume. It's a little bit more balanced in the aftertaste, presenting a twin track of caramel and bitter beeswax.

Complex though it is, I'm a little concerned that some of the finer points of this beer have been lost to time. I don't know how long it is since it left the brewery and it just didn't sing with the fresh succulent hop flavours I would have expected from a brewery of this calibre. Still, this kind of hoppy red-amber ale is fast becoming one of my favourite styles and there's plenty here for a more local brewer to learn from and steal.

And speaking of local brewers, the second Irish Craft Beer Festival at the RDS in Dublin kicks off tomorrow. I'll be knocking around all three days with the Beoir delegation. Come and say hello.

03 September 2012

Gold in the village

Has it really been three years since I was last at the Hilden Beer & Music Festival? Time flies when you're doing other things with the last weekend in August. But I was back this year and spent a jolly afternoon in the company of many fine friends exploring this year's offerings.

I noted in relation to the 2009 line-up that golden ales featured very strongly. This year, confining myself to the beers I'd never tasted before meant it was almost exclusively a golden line-up. The first one I went for was Bath Ales's Summer Hare, and it was a dud. I've noticed before the masses of buttery diacetyl in Bath beers and while it's acceptable, and sometimes even pleasant, in a darker amber beer, it was just wrong in this light and supposedly refreshing quaffer. Summer Hare opens quite dry and finishes with just a hint of hop tang, but the middle is pure liquid toffee and spoiled the show for me completely.

I got something similar from Bank Top's Pavilion: a heavy, sickly difficult beer, which just didn't fit with an idle afternoon in the beer garden. Still, both of these were better than the Penine Sunstone, which smelled like someone tried to use vinegar to mask the odour of a swimming pool recently vacated by over-excited toddlers. That got passed round the table and sent back to the bar.

Several of the blondes had more than a touch of pilsner about them, balancing grassy hop bitterness against sweet biscuit. Ghost by the Partners Brewery of West Yorkshire laid on the latter in a big way, heading towards golden syrup territory. Lymestone's Stone Cutter was a step better, properly bitter opening with the sweet grain coming out at the end. The most full-on of these, however, was Phoenix's Struggling Monkey, a 4.5%er packed with delicious sticky honey, studded with fresh citrus hops. Big flavours, yet balanced ones.

Barnsley Gold from Acorn was worryingly cloudy but tasted spot-on, with a lasting sharpness sitting on some fruity bubblegum. Very interestingly complex, yet extremely drinkable. The palest of the lot was Brigantia by Allgate's. This was light and breezy but had plenty of gorgeous lemon notes to keep the palate awake. Shading towards pale amber we have a beer with the unlikely name of Mr Chubbs Lunchtime Bitter. It begins on a slightly nasty gastric note but settles down to grapefruit then mellowing to strawberries. I liked it a lot.

Talk of the festival was Ossett's Hop Monster: a symphony in Nelson Sauvin, bursting with intense gooseberry and passionfruit. I'm glad I left it towards the end. Ossett also provided the only dark tick for me in the form of Dirty Rat, a dark mild which begins simply enough with lots of stouty dark roast but gets more complicated as it finishes, introducing fruit esters and a little bit of smoky phenol. Not everyone was a fan, but I enjoyed my half, and Steve liked it too.

There was just time for my customary pint of Hilden Barney's Brew: still in cracking form, and a beer I'm really looking forward to seeing bottled. Then a Tempted? Special Reserve cider and a Mac's Armagh Scrumpy saw me merrily to the train home.

Kudos once again to all at Hilden for putting on a great show. The beers may not have all been stone cold classics, but anyone would be hard pressed not to find something nice to drink, golden or otherwise.