31 December 2012

Strong recollection

My end-of-year ambition was to clear out all the scribbled unused tasting notes I have and turn them into proper blog posts. I nearly did it too. Among the stragglers were two from Hardknott brewery, from separate occasions earlier in the year. Rhetoric came courtesy of brewer Dave via Reuben back in August. It was supposed to be opened, consumed and commented on across the Internet in a coordinated way at an appointed time, but that sort of thing is way too difficult so we settled for sharing a bottle in our own time later on.

It's 10.2% ABV and Dave has branded it as a Belgian-style quadrupel, and my first surprise was the colour: a clear red rather than the murky brown I was expecting. But who gives a toss about colour? I do give a toss about oxidation, however, and I can taste it in spades here. The first hit is a not-at-all unpleasant sherry kick and it's only after this that a bit of stale wet cardboard creeps in. In the middle there's a lovely balsamic strawberry effect, plus a lacing of liquorice from the star anise. It's a busy, chaotic sort of beer and tasted rather homebrewey to me: like one of my batches where I try too many different experiments at once. With a little refining it could be superb.

A few weeks previously I had picked up a bottle of Hardknott's Vitesse Noir in York. This is an 11% ABV imperial stout with added coffee, chocolate and vanilla, with a label which promises an "over-the-top explosion of stimulating flavours". It's certainly a dense beast and won't be rushed into the glass, showing little signs of carbonation and lazily forming a dark brown head. Nothing especially stimulating jumps out of the aroma: just the sweet roasted smell you get from any decent strong stout. But this is just a trick, to wrongfoot the unwary drinker. The flavour is intense. It's hard to pick out any individual elements at first: it's just a blast of fruit and roast and alcohol, but by the third sip it had come into focus. Milk chocolate and the vanilla to begin: literally sweetness and light. The sweetness changes tack in the middle, turning fruity, with elements of black cherry and sultana. The liqueurish booze makes its presence felt at this stage too, introducing the sort of headiness you get in suspicious stoneware bottles from olive-skinned peasants. Then a grand crescendo of dry roast to finish, overlaid with darker, more serious, chocolate notes. A magnificent beer and one to remember.

So while I'm looking back at beers consumed earlier in the year I reckon I may as well take the whole year into consideration. As usual I'm employing the template created by Mark and Andy. Can you believe it's year 4 already? Cor.

Let me just slip into my sparkly cocktail dress and sashay up the red carpet for...
The Golden Pint Awards 2012

Best Irish Draught Beer: Dungarvan Rye-PA
Almost literally a blink-and-you-missed-it appearance at the Irish Craft Beer Festival this year. And while this pale ale combined two things I don't normally approve of in beer, namely rye and very limited availability, it was stunning: spectacularly combining bold assertive hops with smooth cask drinkability. The hope of a more regular supply is just one reason I hand over this award.

Best Irish Bottled or Canned Beer: 8 Degrees Ochtoberfest
I'm cheating a wee bit here as I drank a lot more of this on draught than from the bottle (especially that memorable night in Farrington's when Barry was over), but it was gorgeous in both varieties and a definite contender for Ireland's best ever lager. Two in a row in this category for the trans-Tasman partnership in Mitchelstown.

Best Overseas Draught Beer: Raging Bitch
I made a decent fist of travel this year, making it to nine countries, including much beery delight in England, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. But the gong here goes to a beer served much closer to home. Against the Grain seems to have a permanent selection of Flying Dog beers on tap, and this old favourite of mine is the one that made my year. Raging Bitch is one of the very few to get the right balance between pungent American hops and funky Belgian yeast.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer: Kernel Export India Porter
Looking at other people's Golden Pints, I can see that the Wizards of Bermondsey have been sweeping the board. Reason enough for me to pass them over. But I have memories of that balmy summer's evening in the York Tap, when I thought my palate was completely exhausted, and my Export India Porter nightcap served as a reminder for once and for all that there's always room to enjoy another beer, if said beer is good enough. And robust yet delicate Kernel Export India Porter certainly is that.

Best Overall Beer: 8 Degrees Ochtoberfest
Looking at my four nominations, that's a pretty broad range of styles, and all them are beers which suit particular moods and settings while being less appropriate for others. I'm tempted to give it to Dungarvan, but I don't think I can justify it on the paltry amount I drank. So this will be going to the plentiful all-weather lager.

Best Pumpclip or Label: Dr. Rudi
They don't put a foot wrong, the L. Mulligan Grocer team, when it comes to the look and feel of their product. Usually you'll find it in the ambiance of their pubs or the playfulness of their menus, but their attention was turned to beer this year, and Dr. Rudi -- first in a series from "The Brown Paper Bag Project" -- was the result. Classical, sober, understated, but with more than a hint of fun about it.

Best Irish Brewery: White Gypsy
A return to the podium for the 2009 winner in this category. White Gypsy has kept the headlong rush of limited edition cask and keg specialties coming. But there's been a settledness too, with their excellent Belgian Blonde and Pils a regular feature at Bear (which would win my restaurant nomination for 2012 if there was one), and the long-awaited delivery of the bottled series of strong beers. From session red ale, to lager, to imperial stout and doppelbock: all things to all drinkers is just what you want from your local brewery.

Best Overseas Brewery: Evil Twin
I was sipping on thimblefuls at the Borefts festival so no single Evil Twin beer gets an award from me, but there were some absolute corkers in there, not least of which were the Hey Zeus! imperial stout and Molotov Spicy Cocktail IPA with chilli. With merely a pang of guilt that they're not really a brewery, I give this one to Jeppe.

Pub/Bar of the Year: Rody Boland's
A firm handshake, sincere well done and Silver Pint to WJ Kavanagh's which opened in Dublin this year and where I've spent many happy afternoons and evenings being well fed and beered, but once again I'm giving the award to a non-specialist pub. Being a mile from my front door means Rody Boland's doesn't quite qualify as a local for me, but it's not exactly a drinking destination either. Shopping in Rathmines, or going to the cinema, it's just there and you can drop in for a pint of something decent for a very reasonable price. Exactly what we need from pubs, in short.

Beer Festival of the Year: Irish Craft Beer Festival
Easy one this. Stand aside Borefts, move over Berlin: Dublin's three-day extravaganza in September was the year's top ticket, for the beer offer as well as the amazing atmosphere of joy and beery bonhomie. I may have spent quite a lot of it sticking wristbands on punters but there was still plenty to enjoy. Well done to the Seamus and Bruce who organised and the army of Beoir volunteers, ably coordinated by Andrew, who pitched in. If you've yet to experience Ireland's craft beer revolution, the RDS in September is one of the best places to do it.

Supermarket/Shop/Online retailer of the year: No-one
Once again I've bought next to no beer in supermarkets this year. Tesco seem to have made a bit of an effort, with Dunnes and Superquinn coming up behind them with a better beer offer than before, but none of this has really affected me. My regular haunts for beer buying -- DrinkStore, The Beer Club and Redmond's -- are still there and still as great as ever, but I'm not going to pick one out. And I don't buy beer online, though it's good to see Bradley's in Cork getting into that game as well. So no trophies, just an all-round keep-doing-what-you're-doing.

Best Beer Book or Magazine: Shakespeare's Local
Another area where I'm not in much of a position to make a call. This year's top reference work seems to have been Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb's World Atlas of Beer but I've not seen it; while Stan Hieronymus's For the Love of Hops arrived too late for me to get a proper look at it. Which leaves, by default, Pete Brown to take the Golden Pint Award for Only Beer Book I Read All Year. Shakespeare's Local is a fascinating social history of the London Borough of Southwark, told with particular reference to The George, last of London's galleried coaching inns, all told in Pete's usual fun and matey style.

Best Beer Blog or Website: The Drunken Destrier 
Writing a blog of just tasting notes is a lonely furrow, I have found, and there aren't many others that I read. Too many are just lists of flavour descriptors or, worse, numerical ratings. So it's refreshing to find a blog that keeps a similar line to mine and does it in a lucid and entertaining way. For that reason, Kill of The Drunken Destrier is my blog of the year. Bonus points for some impressive beer photography as well.

Best Beer Twitterer: @BrouwerVanKlomp
A rare, sometimes terrifying, but always fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of Belgium's -- and the world's -- greatest brewers. Worth a follow if you feel you're worthy, though you obviously aren't.

Best Online Brewery Presence: Dungarvan Brewing
Oh how all those wonderful websites launched two or three years ago by the new wave of Irish breweries have fallen into abeyance. No-one seems quite able to keep their seasonals and availability quite up to date. I suppose it all goes on Facebook, though I don't. So this will be a Top Marks For Effort job, and it goes to Dungarvan for lots of quality tweeting and a shiny new website. Brown paper seems to be quite the design trend this year.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year: Lunch at Jacobsen
Food and beer is a big part of what Carlsberg subsidiary Jacobsen does, so when they hosted the European Beer Consumers Union delegates in September it's not surprising that they pulled out the big guns. I won't go into detail, but if you are in Copenhagen do tear yourself away from Fermentoren and Mikkeller for an hour and have lunch in Jacobsen. And try the cheese.

Open category: Best Cider: Double L
It doesn't get mentioned much on this blog, but cider has become a much bigger part of my drinking life in the past year. The Irish cider revolution rumbles on apace and the quality of produce coming from the north -- Armagh Cider and Tempted? in particular -- is fantastic. Down here there's quality cider from the likes of Stonewell and Longuville House, but my cider highlight of the year was cask Double L at WJ Kavanagh's. Apple perfection in a glass.

In 2013 I’d most like to... get reacquainted with Belgium
It has been far too long. The Cantillon open day in early 2009 was the last time I set foot in Brussels. I have to get back and do some serious catching up: Moeder Lambic Fontainas is calling.

27 December 2012

Reflections on the lake

You know how it is on those crisp, breezy autumn afternoons when you hop on the paddle steamer at Nyon -- first class, of course -- for the leisurely cruise along the lake shore back to Geneva. Seated in the forward lounge you peruse the menu, seeking something that will help untwist those knots of muscle which develop in the frame of a flatlander, unused to Switzerland's pretty but often near-vertical urban landscape. Your companions are making selections from the fine range of whiskies and local liqueurs on offer, but for you it must be beer. A cool glass of lager is just what's required.

Options, however, are limited. Cardinal Spéciale is the height of it, brewed by those clever Carlsberg chaps at the nation's largest brewery, right by the border with Germany. At 5.2% ABV it packs enough weight to begin the unwinding process quickly, and you relax into it. It's a shame about the plastic cup it's served in: the golden age of travel is plainly far behind us. Even given the strength, you weren't expecting the pale gold lager to be quite so heavy. There's almost a syrupy texture to it. But it's not at all unpleasant as the stickiness is balanced by quite an assertive bitter bite.

On dry land this would not be a beer you'd give much for but, grasping your plastic cup and wandering out onto the deck to watch the vineyards and chateaux of Geneva's lush hinterland drift by, it's perfectly adequate for this setting.

As the city emerges from the haze ahead to herald your journey's end, you drain the last of the beer. Below decks, the engines begin their preparations to dock.

24 December 2012

Santa Gueuze

You have to hand it to De Troch's Chapeau range of beers: they keep on surprising. I mean, they look like knock-off candy-lambics: doing a pineapple version suggests they aren't even trying to be taken seriously. And then this came my way: Chapeau Winter Gueuze. Sour lambic and Christmas spices are not a natural pairing, so what have they done here? With trepidation I popped the cap and pulled the cork.

It's 5.5% ABV and a murky red-brown sort of thing, light on fizz despite the thick champagne glass and double stopper. Mostly it smells like a kriek, with perhaps a little extra warmth: cherry strudel, maybe. The kriek theme continues on tasting, coming across like one of the sweet baby-steps starter krieks like Mort Subite or Bellevue. That strudel thing comes in again shortly afterwards and suggests raisins and stewed apples alongside the cherries. To finish there's a barely-there woody sourness of the sort you find in mild Flemish brown ale.

To be honest it's hitting neither my Christmas beer nor lambic receptors. It's really just a thick sugary concoction and the sort of thing I quite enjoy but wouldn't be running to recommend to anyone else.

So my scepticism levels were high when I turned to Cuvée Chapeau, their purported oude gueuze. It seems a very serious and difficult style for a brand which tolerates tropical fruit and cartoon Santas on its labels, but they have managed to pull this one off, I think.

The aroma from the dark gold beer isn't overpowering but it does more than hint at the sourness, complicating it with elements of flint and white grape as well. The first sip is properly puckering but the recoil doesn't last and an inviting warmth follows it, suggesting more than the 5.5% ABV. After that it finishes quite quickly with just a bit of not-unpleasant wine cork mustiness. So while it's neither as complex nor as quaffable as the top-tier oude gueuzes it certainly doesn't taste like fake lambic to me.

Two more reasons to regard Chapeau as the most surprising lambic producer. Here's wishing all my readers more lovely surprises this Christmas. Pass the cheese.

20 December 2012

By the numbers

I didn't realise I'd bought an antique. But it turned out that the XVII barley wine from Utah's Uinta brewery which I acquired at The House of Trembling Madness in York during the summer has a bottling date of 23 November 2010: so over two years in the bottle by the time I opened it. Would this be a good thing or a bad thing?

At 10.4% ABV it's certainly a robust beer, pouring thickly into the glass and presenting a murky mahogany body under a thick old-ivory foam. There's that very American aroma of bags of crystal malt laced with bags of C-hops: a messy collision between the toffee lorry and the grapefruit train. The hop aromas are muted, though, and the sweetness almost shades towards syrup notes, indicating immediately that this is perhaps not the hop powerhouse it once was. It tastes beautifully warming and there's definitely still a sherbety freshness to the hops here, with hardly any trace of bitter harshness. The thick, linctus-like texture spreads across the palate and slips silkily down the throat, spreading smooth caramel and naughty liqueur chocolates as it goes. Only a slight twang of stale cardboard arrives at the end to indicate that everything is not as it once was.

I'm reminded in particular of Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot in its more mature form, so perhaps this one too is a beer that needs a year or two to calm down. A superb sipper, it's really hard to know if freshness would be much of an improvement.

17 December 2012

What would happen if..?

As a dabbler in brewing I know what it's like: the temptation to not leave well enough alone. Sometimes, brewing experiments are born of necessity, other times it's just for the hell of it, or to prove a point. "I've proved a point" is a totally valid response to the question "Why does this taste weird?" Two commercial experiments today, from points as far away as Denmark and New Zealand.

Well, sort of. To Øl is one of those Danish gypsy brewing operations and Ov-ral -- a collaboration with Mikkeller -- isn't actually brewed in Denmark at all. It's badged as an Imperial IPA and is 10.5% ABV, but as the name hints it's had a dose of wild yeasts added in the brewing process like Belgian Trappist classic Orval. And it presents in a fairly Orvallish fashion: a cloudy orange colour and smelling of barnyards and vinegar. The imperialised hopping comes out on tasting, with a bittersweet oily citrus pith at the front contrasting with the sour funk from the wild yeast. Think orange barley sweets dipped in manure and you're close.

Out of interest I cracked a bottle of Orval for immediate contrast and found it tasted of very little by comparison. If you like what Orval does but find it somewhat lacking in character, then this is the beer for you, and you're an idiot.

We head down under next for one from renowned Kiwi brewery Epic, new to these shores. Zythos is a pale amber coloured IPA and has the same citrus and toffee aroma of a million crystal-malt-laden American IPAs, plus a surprisingly alcoholic smell for a relatively modest 6% ABV. But while the nose is quite run-of-the-mill there's a bit more going on in the flavour. For one thing there's a big and very English hit of tannins at the front, and the first taste called to mind a cup of strong black tea more than Californian craft beer. Behind this there's more of the powerful jaffa bitterness we met in the Ov-ral, but also some lighter, more softly spoken, mandarin notes as well. It's a very decent, quite straightforward beer which doesn't try to pull off the same sort of tricks as the Dane and is the better for it.

The experimental novelty factor here lies in the hops: eschewing the more famous American varieties which are often in short supply, this is brewed with a secret blend of more accessible breeds. To be honest I think it hasn't been a complete success and it lacks the welly of a beer loaded with Citra, Simcoe or the like. But that doesn't change the fact that it's enjoyable to drink.

Today's lesson, then, is that messing about with hops is pretty safe, but with yeast it helps to know exactly what you're doing, and preferably do it in someone else's brewery. Big thanks to Richard for providing both of these.

13 December 2012

Tastes like a dead dog

OK, that's unfair of me: I thought of the title before opening the beer. But I'm not much of a fan of the beer from Sharp's -- MolsonCoors's Cornish operation -- nor of telly chef Rick Stein who put his signature on this one, nor of Chalky's Bite, the other beer named after his late mutt, so I wasn't expecting to be impressed by its little brother Chalky's Bark.

But really, it's not a bad beer. Yes it's massively overcarbonated making it difficult to taste anything in it at first, and at its core there's a watery nothingness where I think I'm within my rights to expect some sort of malt-derived weight, especially at the not-insubstantial ABV of 4.5%. But the centrepiece of the flavour is a lovely bittersweet lemon that teeters a little towards washing up liquid yet never quite gets there, fortunately. That the promised centrepiece of the flavour is ginger, of which I can detect no trace whatsoever, bothers me not in the slightest.

Chalky's Bark is a perfectly acceptable sunny day quaffer, as long as you let the dog blow off some of his trapped gas first.

10 December 2012

Not on the level

Flat surfaces are hard come by on the streets of Amsterdam. When having drinkies outside Arendsnest last September with the wife, Zak Avery and Rick Kempen, I harboured a constant fear of my glass sliding sideways off the table and into the Herengracht. Thankfully we all managed to keep it together long enough to get a few down our necks.

Pairs of beers are always interesting, so picking randomly from the Arendsnest blackboard I had an Ongelovige Thomas by Jopen. "Doubting Thomas" is a 10% ABV barley wine which manages to pull off being unctuous and hot while still remaining drinkable and flavoursome, throwing plenty of fresh mango in with the marker pen. Its credulous counterpart is Gelovige Thomas by De Molen: two points stronger but similar in a lot of ways. There's no doubt that all the alcohol is in there: it has cockle-warming caramel aplenty, but once again the hop fruits are also very present bringing balance to the picture, causing the beer to disappear much too fast, when one is seated on an incline.

Sticking with these two first-string Dutch breweries, the next round brought De Molen Dubbelbock, another one in the strong mahogany genre, though with a single-figure ABV. At first I didn't make the link between this and normal red, sticky Dutch autumn bock, but that's what it is, just done very well with everything turned up a little higher: more toffee and more herbs. Mooie Nel, say Jopen, is an IPA. 6.5% ABV and hopped with a heady mix of Citra, Simcoe, Nelson Sauvin and Glacier it throws out masses of gorgeous tropical fruit: the pineapple effect when Nelson Sauvin is behaving itself (when it isn't you get cat wee). The base is soft and heavy, like a Belgian blonde though without any major Belgian yeast notes spoiling the hop party. Jopen is the Dutch brewery I keep forgetting the brilliance of. I must pay them a visit in Haarlem some time soon.

Rick explained that the dodgily-named Tasty Lady is the creation of a group of women (here they are) at the Breugems Brewery in Zaandam. Without meaning to stereotype or anything, it's a very bubbly blonde which smells quite perfumey. My notes say there was a toasty characteristic as well, but to be honest I've no memory of how it tasted, just that no one at the table of either gender was very impressed.

De Snaterende Arend is the brewing company in charge of the house beers for Arendsnest and its sister pub Beer Temple. Among its other beers -- brewed at various sites around the Low Countries -- is Roodburst, a gorgeous red-orange number smelling strongly of toffee but heavily hopped-up giving it a dank and funky quality which I really enjoyed.

Big surprise of the session was the new IPA from Amsterdam's veteran microbrewery 't IJ. Their labels have always had quite an old-fashioned theme, with only the colours and wording changing around the ostrich logo. For 't IJ IPA they've gone for a different sort of leggy bird: a mid-life crisis Harley Davidson of a design. There's a bit of the signature 't IJ funk about this at first, with obviously plenty of suspended yeast in the hazy orange liquid. But underneath the pithy hops are also making their presence felt, adding a stimulating sharpness. Really it's not a million miles from the kind of bitter and funky IPAs that lots of Belgian breweries are turning out these days.

So that was the slanty Arendsnest. We had started out previously in Beer Temple, a short walk away. The menu has got a little more diverse in the three years since it opened, incorporating more local fare among the American beers, but also including unfamiliar breweries from unexpected places. Like Bridge Road in Australia, and their Beechworth Pale Ale. This is a sticky and bitter golden concoction with a heavy accent on the oranges. How it manages to be as thirst-quenching as it is I do not understand.

From the US offerings I picked Southern Tier's Back Burner, an oak-aged barley wine. It's smooth and sweet to start with; the hop kick coming in late and gradually, building from jolly juicy mandarins to more serious pithy jaffa and then on towards more bitter, herbal territory. It's only when it warms that the oak shows up, and it brings quite a harsh, sappy flavour which is often a risk with barrel-aging. I presume it's some combination of these elements that gives it an odd burnt coconut flavour as well. It has all the elements of a great beer but doesn't quite put them together in the right way, unfortunately.

Drinking in Amsterdam is rarely wall-to-wall gold, but there's always something interesting.

07 December 2012

Thar she blows!

Session logoThe Session this month includes one of my hobby-horse subjects within its remit. Mr. David J is our host and "Don't Believe The Hype" is the topic he has chosen: does a beer's reputation affect how we perceive it?

Following on from this issue is the whole matter of high profile "white whale" beers: the limited editions and hard-to-finds that plague the beer world. Not that they're bad beers, normally. My experiences with the likes of Westvleteren 12 and Dark Lord have been very positive indeed, but there are plenty of beers out there in the same league that don't have so much of a fuss made about them. The drive that some beer drinkers have to capture the white whales unsettles me a little. The make-it-anywhere-from-anything nature of beer means that the notion of special rare beers is a bit ridiculous, and label-chasing makes beer culture a little less of a pleasant place to be. I find more than an echo of the wine snob about some of the Captain Ahabs I've encountered.

All this makes me a little wary when a new, rare, special, limited edition beer comes my way. Yes I want to drink it -- it's what I do -- but I end up trying not to make a big deal of it, unless it warrants it, of course. The hype ahead of the Franciscan Well's new one was substantial. Like last year's Shandon Century it's a strong-ish stout presented in a numbered 1 litre bottle. The big change this year is barrel-aging. At first the brewery gave no more detail than it was maturing in a cask acquired from the Irish Distillers plant in Midleton. The lack of whiskey specifics left me wondering if Irish Distillers simply don't distinguish between the casks used for their many whiskey brands, or whether the brewery didn't want their beer associated with Jackeen labels such as Jameson and Power's, produced in Cork though they may be. They came clean eventually and Franciscan Well Stout Aged in Jameson Irish Whiskey Casks is the full title: 7.8% ABV in a run of 900 bottles.

It pours out jet black but not thick or gloopy and the mouthfeel has a little creaminess yet remains light and easy-going. The carbonation level is set only little above token, of which I heartily approve. There's not much of an aroma either, but it seems to be mostly a sweet and slightly burnt treacle thing, with just a brief hit of the whiskey vapours if you inhale deeply enough.

Charmingly for a strong barrel-aged stout, it's not a smack in the face on the first sip. A host of flavours line up politely to be appreciated, starting with the dark dry roast, overlaid with more of that treacle and accompanied by subtle honey and vanilla from the Jameson. There's a surprise in store at the end when a fairly generous hop character asserts itself: the big vegetal, almost metallic, flavours I associate with bitter powerhouse stouts like Wrassler's XXXX. The hop tang is the takeaway from this feast of a stout. I wasn't expecting that.

No, it's not Dark Lord, true; and nor is it trying to be. But while it's a wonderful example of what you can do with barrel aging a stout it's not worth obsessing over either. It's barely possible to justify the €12 price tag it came with so it would be foolhardy, in my opinion, to pay multiples of this on the grey market. When it's gone, it's gone: accept it and wait for the next beer.

And by all accounts it may not be around much longer. Bottles have been selling fast in what's already a busy season for this sort of beer. And today offers a rare opportunity to try it from the cask at the source. Only two have been filled and one will be tapped tonight and given away free, and exclusively, to Beoir members. Drop along to North Mall from 8.30 and bring your membership card.

Or you can wait for the second cask, scheduled for public consumption at the Cask and Winter Ales Festival in the 'Well in a couple of months' time (edit: confirmed for 15-17 February 2013). I can't make it along this evening so am planning to be there early for that.

Everybody will be talking about it, after all.

05 December 2012

Wary Christmas!

It's that time of year when I can start putting a bit of a hole in the more wintery parts of my Belgian ale collection. They're a random bunch so this could go either way.

First up is Abbaye de Roc Spéciale Noël whose serious dark blue label looks classy enough to be trustworthy. But as soon as the cap came off there was beer everywhere. Corralled into a glass it's the picture of innocence again: dark red and blanketed by a thick white head. But look closely and there are unsettling gobbets of yeast bobbing around in the dark murky depths. Worse, the flavour is a complete mess: far too hot, to begin with, with those lovely dark Belgian fruit flavours doused in cheap sherry. Beyond that there's a weird medicinal eucalyptus thing, shading towards unpleasant disinfectant. This stuff is severely lacking in seasonal cheer.

Hopes were higher when it came to De Ranke and their jolly green-label Père Noël. It's a modest 7% ABV and a decidedly unfestive orange colour. Among the ingredients helpfully listed is liquorice, the only bit of seasonal enhancement. I can't say I'd have picked it out from the taste alone, or indeed any trace that this is supposed to be a Christmas ale. More than anything it tastes like a tripel, with the mix of honey, herbs and spices that that entails, plus an appropriate bitter kick at the end. All in all it's pretty straightforward, inoffensive stuff. Fine for year-round drinking, but I want a beer with a bit more yuletide character.

Time to break out the big guns: if Brasserie De La Senne can't deliver a satisfactorily beery Christmas, no-one can. The stash gives me X-Mas Zinnebir and let's skip over the bizarre manger scene on the label. It's another gusher but slow enough for me to catch, thankfully. From the dark red 7.8% ABV beer I get an aroma of roasted chestnuts, so that's appropriately wintery for starters. The texture is also spot-on for a winter warmer: rich and heavy and just gently sparkled. Disappointingly there are no festive spices in the flavour but instead you get a rock-solid malt-forward ale brimming with sweet toffee enhanced by whispers of pipesmoke and a very unChristmassy strawberry tartness. Not amazing but there's nothing upsetting going on either. Sometimes that's the best we can hope for at Christmas.

03 December 2012

Chope shop

Rue de Boeuf is little more than an alley running through Lyon's old town, packed with antique shops, artisans and wine cellars. La Chope de Lug at number 9 is really more an alcove than a proper shop. Along one wall of the tiny narrow premises is a set of shelves with the only product on sale: French craft beer. Dozens of breweries are represented, each with four or five beers, spanning a generous range of styles. And I knew none of them. As I was keeping the friendly proprietor from closing up for the night, and had a train to catch myself, I let him make a few recommendations and chose a couple of randomers myself.

He was especially keen for me to try Supernova, a collaboration between Brasserie de la Pleine Lune in Chabeuil, just south of Lyon, and Brasserie du Pays Flamand situated, as the name suggests, in the far north-east of the country in Blaringhem, near the Belgian border. It's 6.2% ABV and the brewers have declined to give it a style designation.

It presents as a quite beautiful dark amber ale, loaded with fizz and quite eager to escape the bottle on opening. Thankfully a significant viscosity holds it back enough to get it poured, the busy carbonation forming a massive loose-bubbled head. From this I get a distinct aroma of Duvelesque Belgian yeast spice, with some interesting orange candy hop notes too. The first thing that comes through on tasting is its density: an intense and slightly unpleasant stickiness, not helped at all by all the gas. Once you're past this it's much better, however: the hopping has left it mostly reminiscent of the better English bitters and IPAs, with an assertive pithy bitterness tempered by lighter jasmine notes. It occasionally shades into the peach and nectarine zone of American pale ale. The Belgian spicing is still present, getting more pronounced as we reach the bottom of the bottle. The heavy malt combines with the other flavours to give it a finish reminding me of chocolate lime sweets. All said, it's a wonderful amalgam of characteristics drawn from different brewing traditions and made to work in harmony.

I couldn't resist grabbing a French IPA while I could, and Brasserie du Mont Salève had two in La Chope de Lug, resplendent in their everso smart art deco labels. Mademoiselle Aramis was the one recommended to me by Monsieur Le Patron. Though only .2% ABV lighter than the Supernova it's a much more softly-spoken affair, pouring a cloudy orange with gentle carbonation and a subtle marmalade aroma. Despite the haze, the yeast doesn't really interfere with the hopping, and what comes through is mild grapefruit and mandarin with just a hint of gunpowder spice behind it.

Having been exploring hoppy Belgian beer of late it's interesting to see a French take on it. These breweries are working in more or less the same way as the progressive Belgians, but seem better able to keep the yeast flavours from smothering the hops. Happy days for French beer fans, especially those wandering the back streets of Lyon.

More from La Chope de Lug's range in due course, and you can read about the Mont Salève beers I met at September's Borefts Beer Festival here.