21 April 2017

Well again

After a year's absence, I returned to Cork for the Easter Beer Festival at Franciscan Well last Saturday. I got an early bus down so had time to pop by Rising Sons to see if there was anything new on the taps. Of course there was; it's an essential part of the deal with brewpubs.

I began on Dark Matter, which must be about the sixth beer I've encountered using that name, and the second Irish one in 2017 alone. This is a porter of 4.3% ABV and, in defiance of its name, is not very dark at all, more a garnet red colour. It's quite thin and sharply fizzy and the flavour veers between super-sweet caramel and drily bitter roasted grain. I could detect a certain element of smooth chocolate buried deep within, but it never really gets the chance to shine, battered down by the overactive carbonation. I think this beer needs to be bulked up and calmed down.

On the opposite bank of taps was Rising Sons's Vienna lager Pull Like A Dog (which was also pouring at the festival under the less topical name of "For Vienna"). It's 5% ABV and a hazy dark gold colour. The body is full and the texture smooth, entirely in keeping with the Vienna style, but the flavour is something else entirely. There's a lovely sweet orangey fruit punch which turns oily and spicy towards the end, bringing in elements of incense or sandalwood. It's perhaps not as elegantly simple as one might expect a Vienna lager to be, but it's a lovely beer however you look at it.

On then to the festival for opening time at 1pm. A major revision of the layout has helped get rid of the crampedness and dead corners of previous years. Now there were two bars, facing each other across the yard. I began with the beers on offer on the left, and stayed on my lager buzz.

First call was Port Lager by Metalman, made for their local market in Waterford and using one of the best multilingual puns I've seen in a while. It's a light 4.1% ABV but is no lowest-common-denominator basic commodity lager. This is a proper big-bodied helles with as assertive noble hop green-celery bite. The balance between the two is bang on and the result is extremely drinkable. I'd love to have something like this as the local beer in my town.

White Gypsy had a new (to me) lager as well: Viktor. It's even softer than Port Lager, placing to the fore the Bavarian malt which the brewery swears by, giving it a pillowy candyfloss softness. The hops are relegated far to the back, bringing only a very mild bitterness, and there's also a whisper of sulphur in the mix as well. Really, though, it's not a beer for standing around sipping and writing notes about. Great draughts are encouraged, nay required, by that texture and cleanness.

The day's first IPA was the new one from 9 White Deer: 5 Stags, here making its first outing on cask. The festival being of the plug-and-play variety, the beer wasn't quite presented the way it deserved, showing up murky and thick with a substantial yeast bite overriding the flavour. But what's beneath that is excellent. The hops are all American classics: Cascade, Centennial, Willamette, and Chinook for dry hopping. They start by giving it a soft and peachy fruit flavour which builds gradually as it goes along into a sharper lime bitterness. It'll be interesting to compare the more processed bottled version, but I'd really love to try a cask of it that's been let settle out properly.

Another IPA to follow: Lost Weekend is a rye and wheat one, brewed by Kinnegar as a collaboration with their distributor Grand Cru Beers. It's another dark and murky ochre-coloured beastie and this time the hops include Columbus, Amarillo and Vic Secret. 6.5% ABV gives it a very chewy texture and there's a lot of savoury yeast covering up where the hop brightness ought to be. The spice from the rye comes through well, as does the heavier, danker side of the hop equation. But I missed the sharper, bitterer notes that I think ought to be on show if, once again, the beer was given the time to drop brighter. Without cleaning up it's a bit of a chore to get through.

As always, UCC Pilot Brewery had brought a few beers to show, staying in the vein of way-out recipes that they've been pursuing in recent years. Two lagers and a wheat beer show that they're still in touch with their German roots, if not the actual Reinheitsgebot.

The first lager is called Basil Instinct, and though basil features in the recipe, the name, and on that distinctly undergraduate tap badge, it's the other ingredient that defines the flavour profile of this beer: juniper. It's a peppery spice that calls good gin to mind, without tasting directly like it. The basil is mild and imparts a general sort of herbiness rather than fresh green basil in particular, reminding me of the old-fashioned medicine cabinet flavours you get in root beer and Euthymol toothpaste. I don't think anyone else in the place liked it but I thought it was great fun, compromised only by an almost total lack of carbonation.

The next hazy yellow lager was called Noot Noot and is a single-hop Polaris job. This one is very herbal indeed, to the point of getting difficult to drink. While there is a decent clean graininess underneath, it mostly tasted like I'd imagine a shot of neat pine floor cleaner would. Polaris is supposed to provide a mint flavour, but I think it only does if used at low enough levels, and possibly at lower strengths than this one's substantial 5.4% ABV.

Finally from UCC was Crimson Cassis, a wheat beer with added blackcurrants. They really went overboard with the fruit here, maybe to achieve that handsome bright purple colouring, but rather than any kind of beer it tastes like the sort of super-cheap rustic red wine you accidentally order on holidays. It has that harsh grapeskin bitterness, the dry tannins and the sickly residual sugar. Hooray for experimentation and all that, but this didn't work.

That finished off the first bar for me and I took a quick break inside the pub before starting the second half. Here they were pouring a brand new Franciscan Well beer: Crafty Cuckoo, a 4.5% ABV blonde ale. It's super pale, a flawless crystalline yellow. The flavour, such as there is, is crisp with grain husk and a touch of some very light nonspecific fruit sweetness, a part that grows in prominence as the beer warms but never really goes anywhere. It's inoffensive but I really don't see the point of it as a limited edition. The brewery already has a blonde ale and this one is not exactly pushing boundaries.

Back out to the yard and at the top of bar 2 there was Black's of Kinsale's inevitable New England-style IPA, Ace of Haze. It's hazy, but far from opaque, and dark orange in colour like Carlow Brewing's 51st State which I reviewed back here. There's a fun spiciness to it but it's not terribly complex and certainly isn't laden down with hops the way these often are. It also hasn't quite mastered the fluffiness that's part of the spec. But these are just stylistic quibbles, not really material to anything. It's a jolly nice US-style IPA at a reasonable 5.1% ABV and very nice to drink it is too.

Cotton Ball's latest celebrates 45 years of Cascade hops with a single-hop pale ale called, funnily enough, Cascade 45 yrs. They've really done it justice too: this has all of the light and spicy Cascade fruit quality and there's plenty of body for a beer of just 3.8% ABV. It's simple, in the way single-hop ones tend to be, but still has plenty of flavour.

JJ's was next in line. I'd been seeing a few of their beers in bottles in supermarkets but hadn't taken the time to try them. First up was Balbec, an IPA. It's strong and sweet, 6% ABV and tasting of orange cordial first, before a slightly harsh aspirin metallic bitterness comes in behind. It's quite old-fashioned in its way, eschewing the clean and bright stylings of modern IPA in favour of a heavy earthy funk. As a result it's tough going to drink.

Next to it was Bill's Red Ale and this was much better. Maybe I'm getting old but I'm finding Irish reds much more palatable these days. This one is immensely complex, having the summer fruit and dry roast that are the basics for doing the style well, but also adds an exotic lightly spicy perfume of rosewater and cedarwood. It's all of 5% ABV so there's plenty of heft to the body as well. I imagine it would really come into its own at wintertime.

Down in the far corner, opposite where I started, was Black Donkey Brewery, who had their first IPA on tap. It's called TKO and, like Balbec, is another heavy earthy beast, sacrificing citrus zing for an almost savoury, meaty flavour. The bitterness provided by the American hops is dry and calm but it's hard to pick out any specific flavours; everything is kind of blended together. If "Farmhouse IPA" were a thing, I think it would taste like this.

The new beers complete I spent my last few tokens on some cider and a couple of old favourites, before starting the trek back home. It's great to see how this festival has continued to evolve yet still retains its essential intimate atmosphere. Thanks to the management, staff and guest brewers who make that possible.

19 April 2017

A few social beers

My Easter weekend began last Thursday afternoon with leaving work and heading straight for the Open Gate Brewery at St James's Gate. I'd been invited, with Will from 5 Lamps Brewery, to talk to staff about beer and brewing. With that out of the way it was over to the bar to see what was new on the roster.

They've added two new lagers to the line-up. From the in-house brewery there's Amarillo Pilsner which, as the name suggests, is a pilsner using Amarillo hops. Not too many of them, mind. It has that same soft whisper of new world varieties that you find in the likes of Smithwick's Pale Ale and Hop House 13. It's not an exciting beer (and I am the sort that can get excited by really good pils) but it's clean, crisp, refreshing and decent.

Its twin is one for the "outreach" taps -- the Open Gate branded beer lines that have cropped up in pubs around the country. Like all such beers, it isn't brewed at Open Gate at all but at the main brewhouse at the north end of the campus. Open Gate Pilsner is the name and this time the hops are Cascade and Citra. The volume knob has been turned up a lot louder in this one, with a heavy, greasy dank funk on top of the light and clean malt base. It's certainly more characterful than the Amarillo Pilsner which I drank alongside it, but didn't meet my requirements for the style quite as well.

The latest stout is the portmaneau'd NitrOatmeal, which looks innocent and creamy but packs 8.4% ABV in there. That's not immediately apparent on tasting. It's smooth, obviously enough, and also sweet, with a big hit of ripe strawberries front and centre. Only after swallowing does the reality of the strength kick in, with a sharp and hot alcohol burn which is shocking at first but becomes more pleasingly warming as it goes down. While enjoyable, it's still a beer to have just the one of, I think.

The Open Gate IPA series, with its now de rigueur "v" numbering sequence, continues with number four: Pretty Citrusy. This is a heavy beast, amber coloured and 6.4% ABV. The citrus is the olde worlde sort, more oranges and lemons than lime or grapefruit. The hops are more than balanced by a heavy biscuit malt making an IPA that straddles the Atlantic, too zesty to be English style but with a bready weight you rarely find in an American. It's nice though, but not exactly thrilling.

My one for the road was the brand-new Open Gate Ginger Beer. I confess I didn't detect the ginger straight away but felt silly for it because the ginger is really obvious. What I did notice is its beautiful refreshment powers, akin to an ice-cold bitter lemonade. The ginger doesn't give it heat; it's gentler than that, flavoured like a ginger biscuit or cake. The big fizz adds to its cleansing qualities and tie off a light package which provides everything required of summery ginger beer.

I said my goodbyes and made for the second engagement of the evening, 57 The Headline where a Rascals Brewing tap takeover was in full swing.

The main act here was the release of Project Sour #4: Blood Orange Sour. It's a sour beer with added blood oranges. Rather than spritzy tartness, it's quite heavy and savoury, giving an almost gose-like saltiness. The oranges give it their flavour but not really their juice. It's fine, but I think I'd prefer if it were tuned a bit higher, with either more fruit or a punchier sourness. No pleasing some people.

Though not part of The Project, I guess, there was another sour beer on tap: Pilot Brew Sour with strawberry and black pepper. They've gone soft and heavy again, though it's less surprising in this one, with its 7% ABV. The strawberry is laid on jammy and thick, then spiced, quite beautifully, with coarse and oily black pepper. It's a strange combination and it works really well, though more cleansing sourness would be an improvement, as I think lowering the ABV would be as well.

Last of the the new ones, for me, was Pilot Lager: only 3.9% ABV and once again infused with oranges. It's a very pale yellow shade and nicely crisp with the orange coming through subtly on a low carbonation. It's clean, refreshing and just flavourful enough, reminding me of an evening drinking Bavaria lager with a dash of Pisco, once the house special at The Abbot's Ale House bar in Cork. Unorthodox, perhaps, but a great way to jazz up an unremarkable pale lager.

So endeth my evening. Cheers to all at Open Gate, The Headline and Rascals for the entertainment. After the Good Friday hiatus -- hopefully the last -- Easter's festivities continued on Saturday down in Cork...

17 April 2017

Easter parade

I haven't done one of these Irish beer round-ups for a while and the note pile has been building. With the Easter weekend nearly over, here is a selection from breweries around the country and pubs around Dublin.

But starting at home, I'm already two Dungarvan seasonals in arrears so began with Curious Orange, another saison, following on from their popular seaweed one. It looks lovely: a rich orange colour and carefully poured for clarity. 6.9% ABV gave me a scare when I saw it advertised on the label but thankfully it's not one of those hot and thick saisons, being clean and attenuated instead, with pepper rather than fruit as the main feature. The added ingredients are sweet orange peel and thyme and it's the second one of these that shouts loudest. In the aroma it's a lovely oily winter herb thing, like a decongestant rub or the garnish on a roast. In the flavour, however, it gets a bit harsh, creating a deafening klaxon of bitterness that all but drowns out everything else. Thankfully the base saison is robust enough to just about survive the onslaught but the poor orange peel doesn't stand a chance. It's a bit of a workout to drink and I think could be as good as the Seaweed Saison if the thyme were dialled back a few notches.

No sooner had I put that away than Magic Road rye IPA had appeared. It poured a bit flat but did manage a head, while also pumping out a heavy grass and citrus aroma familiar from Kinnegar's classic Rustbucket. A sip revealed the carbonation to be as low as expected. I appreciated the gentle sparkle, reminiscent of many a cask ale; doubtless there are others who would just describe it as flat. The dominant aspect of the flavour is bitterness, backed by a distinct bitterness, rising to become bitter before leaving a long bitter residue in its wake. This beer is bitter. There isn't much room for nuance in that: I couldn't say it's grapefruit bitter, or cabbage bitter or rye-grass bitter. If anything, I get the harsh tang of a metal pencil sharpener from it. A bit more cleansing fizz would probably help fix the severity, and perhaps that will develop when the beer gets longer to condition than this one did at a mere two weeks in the bottle. At least there's no risk of it losing its subtleties with age.

Finally for the home set, King's Bay Maple Ale from Arthurstown, picked up in SuperValu. It's a mild mannered 4.4% ABV and a pale amber colour. The aroma is sweet and grainy leading me to expect something weighty and sugar-filled on tasting but it manages to keep matters light and clean. There's nothing I'd specifically cite as maple, but there is a vague woodiness and an unanticipated waft of autumnal smoke. If I'm finding faults it's that it's all a bit boring. I miss the days when a brewery would totally mess up a beer spectacularly by whacking a load of syrup into it, but this isn't that. It's easy to sling back and fits into the space that Irish red occupies best: have it at the barbecue; drink it with your fry-up; meat meat meat, you know the drill.

Back to the fruit beer next. YellowBelly's Juice Wayne is a double IPA brewed to a recipe designed by my fellow blogger Irish Beer Snob. It was produced especially for the Beer Now conference in Sheffield last month but has been making appearances around Dublin, Cork and Galway too. Lemon and lime zest are the bonus ingredients here and they make a big impact on the bitterness. It's quite severe to start with, a citrus intensity that has a spark of the bathroom cabinet about it. After a moment or two it calms down a little, reaching the level of an old-fashioned gritty lemonade. As an IPA it's a bit of a bust: the hops are absent, or drowned, from the flavour and there's basically no aroma, nor indeed any of the titular juice. It's perfectly refreshing though, once you're used to that bitterness it's complemented well by a light texture which is very unusual for a 7.1% ABV beer. An extra little complexity creeps in as it warms with a whisper of sandalwood spicing, but it doesn't go quite far enough to fix the intensely harsh pith.

That was in The Taphouse in Ranelagh, and was followed by a visit to The Hill to try their wonderful new dim sum pop-up, Lucky Tortoise. As an aperitif I chose High Cotton, the new one from Whiplash, brewed as a collaboration with Max Lager's of Atlanta. "Belgian single" is the style designation in scare-quotes, dry-hopped and with added grapefruit. It tasted like a witbier to me, and not an especially good one. There's a major soapy twang of the sort you get when a wit has over-done the fruit and herbs. I wasn't able to pick out the grapefruit, finding it tasted more like lemon: refreshingly bitter, like the beer before it. A decent burst of oily green peppercorns adds a little bit of a counterpoint, but again this beer just tastes too harsh for my poor delicate palate.

Just one other beer in this set gets an added flavouring and that's In Cahoots, a elderflower-infused sour beer brewed by The White Hag for the Brewtonic project and available in all the Bodytonic pubs. White Hag's head brewer Joe would like it made very clear that this is the only kettle-soured beer the brewery has made: all the other sour ones are mixed-fermentation beers, using the house culture. With that disclaimer out of the way, I get to explore a pint of it in The Back Page. It's a bright pale gold colour, almost green, and a very pintable 4.8% ABV. Concentrated honeydew melon is the first flavour I noticed, mellowing to a kind of botrytised Sauternes sticky sweetness. Then it suddenly turns a corner leading to an abrupt tart finish. While great fun at first, it does struggle to hold one's interest after the first few gulps and I found myself getting a bit bored of it by the second half. As a low-ish ABV house beer, it's probably not meant to be anything more than decent and quaffable, which it definitely is, but that tantalising complexity feels like something they should be doing more with. Just don't ask me what.

Speaking of brewery/pub tie-ins, the Licensed Vintner's Association, which represents Dublin's publicans, turned 200 years old this year. To celebrate, Diageo brewed a special beer for them. There can be no better indication of the close and long-standing ties between the two organisations than the fact that I paid €7.25 for a pint of it in The Temple Bar. Guinness Dublin Amber is the name, and it's a 4.5% ABV ale, served nitrogenated. The first sip stayed my cynicism somewhat. There's an inarguably good fresh citrus spritz, a puff of lemon sherbet to the back of the tongue. Proper hops. I'm not sure of the mechanics of what happens next, but that all just... goes away. It could be the nitro, because the next dominant feature is the claggy creamy viscosity, doing a foam fire extinguisher on the palate and covering up the action. A bland stale-biscuit taste is all that remains, familiar from many a low-grade nitro Irish red. I expected that the lost lemons would re-materialise at the beginning of the next mouthful, but they don't. This is a pint of pure bait-and-switch and really best avoided, at any price. It'll be around all summer but if you miss the limited edition you can probably recreate it by leaving a pinetree-shaped car air-freshener to soak in a pint of Kilkenny.

Just down the street, I dropped by The Norseman for the first time in ages, to try the latest from Carlow Brewing: 51st State New England IPA. The idea of such a long-established microbrewery producing this cutting-edge on-trend beer style seems faintly ridiculous. Mind your hip jumping on that bandwagon, granddad. And the pint I was served in The Norseman did little to dissuade me of this prejudice: dark amber and brilliantly clear, it's almost the direct opposite of what NE IPA is supposed to look like. But again the first mouthful stopped my guffaws, a little bit at least. Yes, it's properly -- deliciously -- bitter, which the style shouldn't be. But there's a beautiful bouncy softness to the texture which is entirely appropriate. The fresh hops lend it a kind of lemon sorbet or lime milkshake sort of effect and the combination of citrus and softness works rather well. Nearly as enjoyable as the indignant howls of the style purists. Well played, Carlow Brewing.

A few days later I was further along the street again, at The Porterhouse where they were pouring Retribution, a new black IPA from Eight Degrees, brewed with input from Terrapin of Georgia, USA. It's a dark red colour and comes in hard and heavy with a punchy green-cabbage bitterness. There's rye in mix and the spicing it brings is the next noticeable element, turning that leafy green cabbage into a spicier red one. A lightly roasty dryness adds a certain stout-like quality, but really it's all about the big green. I was surprised to find myself enjoying the way the veg from the hops combines with the grass from the rye. It's not harsh or any way overdone and the beer is refreshing and remarkably easy drinking, even at 6.2% ABV.

That's enough Temple Bar boozing; turning south next, and up Camden Street to Bourke's. This is a tiny stand-up bar at the front of Whelan's music venue, occupying the space that used to be their off licence. The beer selection is mostly from the independents though it's definitely going more for an old-fashioned pub vibe than a trendy craft beer bar. Maybe that's even more trendy. Like I would know. They've made a feature of their cask offer though I didn't try that on my brief visit, captivated instead by the house lager. Whelan's is brewed at Brú and it was the second version of the recipe that was pouring when I visited. Mine host explained that the first version was deemed "too malty" so that was dialled back for this one. Too far, I think. The body is decently full but there's a weird savoury umami flavour, like shiitake mushroom, and then a nasty plastic or pasteboard twang. It still manages to be pretty bland, though: those off-flavours don't jump out the way they do in some wonky lagers. I was given a bottle of version one to try at home, which I did, and it was much better. I can see where the "too malty" argument comes from: it's big and chewy, with a weighty melanoidin cookie and golden syrup vibe, but it's characterful and quite tasty with it. Maybe there's a sweet spot to be found between the two recipes but personally I'd just run with the first one again.

Journey's end for this virtual meander is 57 The Headline. Landing in in search of something else I was struck by the neon stylings of Eighties Baby, badged as being from "The Beer Council", I'm told it's brewed at Carrig. The badge also tells us that this IPA has been dry-hopped with 7.5g per litre of Summer and Ahtanum hops, which sounds like it should be plenty but my tastebuds thought otherwise. There's a soft mineral texture and a very vague nectarine sweetness, but not much beyond this, just a slightly sweaty sharp tang. Maybe it's because the branding reminded me of the excellent Vacuum Boogie IPA from Rascals Brewing, but I was left rather forlorn and disappointed by this one.

A new Irish dark lager always brings an air of excitement for me and 57 was the first place I found Wicklow Wolf's Brayvarian Dunkel. It's the correct shade of cola-brown, with a very Mitteleuropa thick pillow of froth on top. Chocolate and caramel opens the flavour but it quickly turns dry and gritty. Green leafy hops swing in next, giving it a blackstrap or liquorice herbal bitterness. While 100% in keeping with the style, this was a little bit overdone for my tastes. I'd prefer more of that milk chocolate smoothness and lower bitterness, but fans of the more grown-up dunkel flavour profile will doubtless enjoy it. I give it a polite round of applause for at least giving us more local dark lager, but I'd pick White Gypsy's Dark Lady over this.

That leaves just one final beer, and it's a biggie. The Fresh Prince of Kildare is a 9% ABV New England-style double IPA and it's one which believes its own hype. I was mistakenly given a pint of the custard-yellow substance, very nearly boss-poured to the brim. There's still space for an aroma of fruit candy to waft out and I was all set for a mouthful of bubblegum, candyfloss and pink unicorn farts. Nope. This stuff is bitter as hell, with a lot of the spicy red cabbage kick found in the very different Retribution black IPA above. When the intense acidity subsides there's a more orthodox grapefruit and pine aftertaste, which is still pretty damn punchy. Amazingly it manages to avoid tasting harsh, which I'm guessing is down to the texture, and that miracle Vermont yeast that creates it. So, this isn't the true New England effect any more than 51st State is, but it's a beautifully made clean-tasting hop-bursting moreish double IPA, deserving a place at the end of everyone's drinking session.

And this is the end of mine, for now. I'll try not to leave it so long until the next one.

14 April 2017

Sour in all directions

Rounding off this week of posts from the Utrecht beer scene with a look at a handful of imported beers I tried.

Of course, most of the beer imported into the Netherlands is from neighbouring Belgium and all the flagship brands are available where beer is sold. Le Clochard was a case in point. We landed up to this restaurant one evening, where I intended to indulge my penchant for cheese fondue. It was busy and we were escorted to the cosy fireside for pre-dinner beers while we waited. The substantial beer menu is big on solid Belgian ales, though without anything especially exciting. With my dinner I picked Hapkin, one of the few on the list unfamiliar to me.

This strong blonde ale comes from Heineken's giant Alken-Maes brewery in Mechelen. It seems to be a very obvious go at cloning Duvel, something I've seen attempted many times but rarely this successfully. The cleanness, the herbal bitterness and the boozy candycane punch: all present and absolutely correct.

For the rest, all sour, we return to Utrecht's top craft beer bar DeRat, which I wrote about at length on Monday. They were very excited about the arrival of Sang Noir, all the way from Cascade Brewing in Oregon. Personally I didn't get quite why it was so interesting in the context of a drinking environment where Rodenbach is cheap and plentiful. It's very much in that style: dark red-brown with a balsamic resiny sourness. Yes, it's a stonking 9.2% ABV, which does give it an extra forest-fruit complexity, showing blackberry and blackcurrant in particular; and while the body is light enough to keep it drinkable there's an extra greasy intensity, a depth to the sourness incorporating a tasty liquorice bitterness. It's very nice, but mostly it kept reminding me of what a fantastic beer Rodenbach is, at a fraction of the price.

It was great to see a beer from Sweden's Brewski in the line-up, even if it did have the cringeworthy name of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Buckthorn Band. What? It's a Berliner weisse they've brewed as a collaboration with Late Start Brewing in Florida and is just 3.7% ABV. It looks like orange juice. It tastes like orange juice too, specifically the rougher sort with the bits still in, giving you popping packets of sweet juiciness in amongst the tart acidity. The alleged white pepper made no impact on my palate, and neither did the buckthorn, though I'm not at all sure what that's supposed to taste like. Anyway, this is pleasant and refreshing, blending fruit and sourness in a way I approve of.

Keeping it Nordic, we turn next to Estonia and the unEstonian-sounding Anderson's Craft Beer, a client brewer based in Tartu. Sour Park is described as a "session ale", though strong enough at 5% ABV. Celebrity hops Citra and Nelson Sauvin have been employed and the Nelson gives it a lovely moist white grape aroma, though there's also a more serious sweaty funk going on as well. Citra takes over in the flavour, combining with surprise tannins to give a lemon tea effect. It's another one of those sour beers that isn't really very sour. Though the hops are bright and fun, and it's ages since I last met that lovely Nelson Sauvin vibe, the base beer could do with being cleaner: the flavours would benefit immensely from it.

That just leaves Sky Mountain Sour, a collaboration between Danish gypsies To Øl and Derbyshire's Buxton. It's 4.9% ABV and an attractive clear copper colour. The added strawberries don't make an appearance until the aftertaste, where their contribution is a mild one. Before that it has the wholesome wheatiness of an unadorned Berliner weisse: plain and easy-going. The advertised sourness is once again low-level, coming out in the aroma more than the flavour. A bit more everything would have been nice in this one. A dramatic name requires a dramatic beer.

That's it from this trip. Good night Utrecht, and do check out Café DeRat and say hi to the cats if you're passing.

12 April 2017

Brew trekked

Following on from Monday's saunter around the pubs of Utrecht, today I'm visiting two of the local brewpubs.

The first is situated in the city centre, in the imposing Stadskasteel Oudaen. The building began as a medieval castle but now houses function rooms, a theatre and the brewery-restaurant on the lower floors. We didn't tour the brewery so didn't get to see the gear, but did work through the beer range in the rather grand bar at the front of the complex.

Start with the pils is my normal procedure, and the one here is a 5%-er called Linteloo Gold. From my barstool I had full view of the thunk-and-slap routine that is beer being pouring in the Netherlands. It looked bang on: a clear bright gold body, topped with a fine snow-white head. Things went a bit askew on tasting, however. The bold herbal bitterness I could handle, even if it did have a touch of liquorice about it, but the sickly fruit-ester-filled middle is absolutely not what I want to find in a pils. It could pass fine as a blond ale, in a rustic brewpub stylee, but the quenching crispness demanded by the pils spec is entirely absent.

Herself went straight for Oudaen IPA which was much better. A modest 5.5% ABV and a clear dark amber colour, it exudes a welcoming tangerine aroma. As the colour suggests, it's fairly sweet but not so much that it gets heavy or difficult to drink: there's enough spritzy zest to keep it bright and fun. Serious IPA connoisseurs might be a little underwhelmed by the lack of punch but I think it performs its job perfectly competently.

I chose Oudaen Stout next, a big-hitter at 8.8% ABV. It's more dark brown than black and tastes sweet and meaty, like barbecue ribs. The finish is sweeter still, turning to milk chocoate and caramel. There's no big-alcohol heat, but neither does it have any big-stout presence, feeling rather thin and, overall, quite underwhelming.

To the right of it there is the cockney-sounding Dubbele Daen: immediately captivating with its beautiful dark ruby colour, though less pretty when the head dissipated soon after pouring. At 7% ABV it's on the money for the style and smells it too, with all the caramel, raisin and biscuit aroma anyone could need. Once again, however, the flavour veers off to the left, turning bitter and thin: more like a Dutch bock than a Belgian dubbel. It's nearly great but just loses its way at the end.

A bit disheartened with the last couple of beers we went on our way but I dragged us back a couple of days later to finish the tick. It was late Saturday afternoon and the place was heaving so we settled at one of the outdoor tables.

I had Ouwe Daen, the witbier. There was a disconcerting blast of banana from this, and bubblegum too, in case it wasn't already weissbier-like enough. There's a slight high-alcohol headache-inducing heat as well, despite an ABV of just 5%. It's all fine once you get used to it, but isn't very exciting, regardless of what sort of wheat beer it's meant to be.

Finally, Oudaen Tripel, which is darker than expected: a clear coppery red-gold shade. It's 8.2% ABV and very hot and sticky with it, smelling of boiled sweets and tasting of seaside rock, adding in clove and aniseed spicing. It lacks many of the subtleties of good tripel but it is enjoyable to drink. It and the IPA are the beers to prioritise when visiting Oudaen.

Of course, that place was very obviously for the casual beer drinkers, the tourists and the norms. Hardcore geeks take the train three minutes out of town, to a large low industrial lock-up just next to Utrecht Zuilen station. For the last year, a large section at the front of the building has been home to Oproer brewery which was formed from the merging of client brewer Rooie Dop with a local brewery RUIG Bier. Oproer is roomy to say the least: the tiny brewhouse and bar are dwarfed in the hangar-like space, but it's warm and comfortable with friendly and helpful staff. The onsite kitchen is vegan so you may need to bring your own bitterballen.

To the beer, then. Just a small selection of their own range, plus a variety of rotating guests. I kicked things off with Oproer's Black Flag, partially because I'm slightly afraid that one day soon all the black IPAs will be gone. Brown more than black, it's a mere 6.5% ABV but is very thickly textured, almost like tar. Yet the hops are pure sweetness and light: a floral meadowy breeze of an aroma and spicy exotic perfume in the flavour: sandalwood, jasmine and rosewater. As that fades a rich and comforting dark chocolate bite creeps in on the end. Beautifully complex and highly entertaining as a result. This sort of thing is why we must save the black IPAs at all costs!

There were only two other house beers on the tap list. 24/7 is the session IPA, a murky orange colour and tasting of orange-infused cookies and yeast bite. The bitterness is low, which adds to an impression of sugary orangeade. But at least it wasn't thin, which is an achievement at 3.9% ABV. Down the hatch and on to the next thing.

Oproer Imperial Oatmeal Stout is another oddly pale black beer, this time with a reddish hue. It's 9.5% ABV and smells very sticky, all toffee and darker caramelised sugar. It scrubs up OK when tasted, however, with raisins and chocolate in the ascendant though just a mild savoury tang of Bovril on the end. Once accustomed to it, the flavours blend into a smooth, warming and pleasant beer, doing what imperial stouts are meant to.

It was a little disappointing that there weren't more Uproer beers on, and it seems that production of the regular range is about to move away from that facility to a bigger industrial brewhouse elsewhere, which is a shame. I hope it'll still be possible to drink some beers at the source when that change happens.

On to the guests, then. W.A.R. is a Berliner weisse, brewed at Frontaal in Breda in collaboration with Garage Brewing from Barcelona. They've tossed in blueberry, raspberry and mint, and ramped up the ABV to a substantial 5.4%. It smells sickly sweet and concentrated, like Ribena, but the sourness saves it, blending pleasingly with the mint for a clean and cleansing mojito effect. The berries are a bonus on top of this, adding complexity. Yes, it could stand to be sourer. Yes, pissing about with Berliner weisse like this is an affront to the glory of Prussia. But it's fun and it works: all the advertised elements play their role visibly. And I think mint deserves more of an outing in beer than it normally gets. A better hop substitute than citrus fruit? I'm just putting it out there.

Hard to believe I've got this far without meeting an Uiltje beer so here we go: Matryoshka Doll, an 8% ABV Baltic porter. There are all sorts of things wrong with the flavour: rubber in the foretaste, then aniseed, tar and stewed coffee. It shouldn't be absolutely delicious but it really is. Part of it is the silky texture which makes it moreish, and there's also a lip-smacking light smokiness and a layer of juicy red grape. It's one of those endlessly multifaceted beers, a bingo card of flavours, yet all of them perfectly integrated into a drinkable whole. Maybe that's how it got its name.

The amber beer beside it is Arcticus, an "American strong ale" from Maximus. Yet again I was put on edge by a sickly sweet aroma but placated by a flavour which is admittedly sweet but has a very frivolous and fun cactus or watermelon pink bubblegum vibe, like you find in Sierra Nevada's Otra Vez. Though 8% ABV and dense it manages not to get cloying or boozy. It's silly, but sufficiently well made to get away with it.

Kromme Haring is another brewpub on another edge of outer Utrecht. We didn't go there but one of its beers, Smokey the Barracuda, was my valedictory glass at Oproer. It's badged as a smoked imperial porter and is 7.5% ABV. I got mild pipesmoke on the nose and then a smooth, sweet and milky porter flavour with just a slight kippery tang on the end. I had been expecting a full-on smoke attack but this is very restrained in smoke, sweetness and alcohol, and much the better for it. It's probably best as a sipper but you don't have to drink it that way.

As for us, we had a train back to Utrecht Centraal to catch. There's one more post of the trip to go, and it's back to Café DeRat to explore some of its imported offerings.