29 May 2015

Varietal performance

Single-hopped beers are what we're about today, and two recent Irish releases which utilise American breeds.

Radik Ale is a brand new gypsy brewing company run by Alain, a displaced Belgian in Cork. The first beer out is called Hopster, brewed at Black's of Kinsale. Alain kindly dropped me a couple of sample bottles to try.

It's single-hopped with Chinook, a hop which perhaps unfairly is more associated with bittering than flavour. 5.2% ABV and with a sizeable quantity of crystal malt it pours a dark amber shade with a loose-bubbled head and an aroma rich in biscuit sweetness but with a spicy citrus edge too. And it's the spiciness of Chinook that's the centrepiece of the flavour, given an extra warmth by the roasted malt. It fades to quite a sharp metallic tang which I guess is why this tends not to get used as a late hop, but it doesn't spoil the party here. The light carbonation ensures that the beer stays drinkable, and while it's not especially complex it is substantial enough to hold the drinker's attention all the way to the end. Or if you want to just throw it back, that works too.

Trouble Brewing also has a single-hop beer out: Equinox SMASH, a sequel to the Centennial one they released during the spring and this time using Maris Otter malt. I found it on keg amidst the Victorian charm of The Swan on Aungier Street earlier in the week.

The hazy pale blonde colour makes it look almost like a witbier and it's light of body too, as might be expected at 4.8% ABV. The flavour opens with a huge pine and grapefruit pith sharpness, fading only gradually to reveal more delicate peach and pineapple underneath. The Maris Otter isn't saying much: this beer is all hop and I think unashamedly so. It was served very cold which, while boosting its refreshment power, meant that there was almost no aroma to begin with. But I persisted and eventually found subtle wet honeydew and tart lime notes coming off it. One could perhaps criticise it for being one-dimensional, but if you're on board for a session-strength hoppy sledgehammer then it gets the job done, much like its stablemate Graffiti.

I guess it's tough to build flavour complexity into a single-hop recipe but both of these show that this need not be seen as a barrier to brewing something enjoyable. You don't have to be a forensic brewing nerd to get value out of them.

27 May 2015

The sweet wheat beat

Two slightly off-kilter German wheat beers today, further indication not so much of an explosion of diversity, but that you don't have to stick to the dominant styles when picking a German beer.

Maisel is one of the well-established Bavarian weissbier breweries and has recently, for whatever reason, begun producing large-format bottles in more craft-ish styles, with English language labels. I've never been a big fan of the brewery, finding their beer far too sweet, but I figured this was an opportunity to give them another chance. According to the blurb, Jeff's Bavarian Ale isn't really a non-German style -- its use of the A-word is the only real nod to foreign brewing. Behind the label it's a 7.1% ABV weizenbock, but hey: weizenbocks aren't exactly thick on the ground, even in Germany. Unfortunately this isn't a great one, and yes it's the sweetness again. I guess when you're used to strong beers from Belgium, where the cunning devils cheat by adding sugar, the all-malt German equivalent can be heavy going to drink. A hop-derived orange candy flavour adds a nice bit of complexity to it and overall it's not a bad beer, but it's quite one-dimensional and not as special as the presentation would like us to think.

Up the other end of the country now, and the Störtebeker brewery from the Baltic coast. They've thrown some rye in to the mix to make Störtebeker Roggen-Weizen, another amber coloured beer, this time a more approachable 5.4% ABV. There's an understated and enticing whiff of bubblegum in the aroma and I spared myself the lees at the bottom of the bottle so the flavour I got is clean: mostly quite sweet and cakey but with a dryer roasted edge, from either the dark grain or the rye. The carbonation is typically high for the style, but there's plenty of soft full body to carry that. I was amused by the label making a point of stating that the beer is Reinheitsgebot-compliant and it took me a minute or two to figure out how, forgetting that the rules mostly don't apply to warm-fermented beers like this. But I don't know that Störtebeker is really getting much value from its rye, other than the novelty. At its heart this is a plain ordinary medium-dark weissbier, no more and no less.

So, no new wheat beer classics to report this time. At ease, Herr Schneider.

25 May 2015

To travel in hope

The novelty of having a JD Wetherspoon 45 minutes away still hasn't worn off, though it's a benefit I only really feel during their biannual beer festivals. So, at the start of the most recent one, back in late March, I trooped out to Blackrock early on a Sunday afternoon to see what was on.

With lunch, to begin, Fort English-style IPA which was brewed by Shepherd Neame and poured an attractive bright copper colour. Its historically-accurate 5.8% ABV can really be felt from the first pull: rich and warming, like being hugged by freshly-baked cookies. The hops add an old-fashioned green veg bitterness, tangy at first, then leaving a long brassy finish. You can almost taste the flat cap here, but it's not twiggy or flabby. A charming old geezer of a bitter.

Because I'm a good and dutiful husband I offered up the California Breakfast Ale to the missus, against my JDW festival rule of Always Have The Adnams One. 4.8% ABV, golden, California, Adnams: on paper it looked the pick of the bunch. But the reality was a little disappointing. There was a slight haze to the blonde pint and I'm positive it wasn't the hops what did it. The aroma is all grainsack and it tastes of dry gunpowder spices but there's not even a suggestion of any citrus or the like. As a thirst-quencher it did the job, but no more than that. Only afterwards did I read there was coffee in the recipe: neither of us could taste any.

And so to thirds. Elgoods Spring Challenge first. 3.7% ABV and a perfect limpid gold topped by a fine white mousse. Rather toffeeish to taste: burnt caramel butterscotch popcorn, followed by a dishwater tang that adds nothing helpful. I'd been hoping for refreshment but I didn't find it here. Next!

One glass to the left on the paddle, Ye Olde Admiral by Wadworth: a 5% ABV amber ale. Rather pale for the style, it's very bitter too. There's just a hint of sweet caramel wafers and then lots of harshly metallic notes, nodding towards gastric. Squint and there's a trace of bitter herbs -- fennel or marjoram -- but blink and you'll miss it. This beer nearly works, but doesn't.

I almost skipped Barley Brown's ESA after a disastrous black IPA in Aberdeen airport Wetherspoon last year. But this one's from a more trustworthy source: Marston's. And here's the snatch! Big spa-town sulphur is the centrepiece; mineral, shading to swimming pool. There's a little caramel, but not too much, and almost zero hop character. But the body is light for 5.1% ABV and it's actually quite refreshing and cleansing. I left Blackrock with my palate sparkling.

A quick skip down the coast to Dún Laoghaire's Forty Foot revealed Shipwreck IPA from Wychwood, in collaboration with Canadian brewery Lighthouse. Dark gold in colour and 6.5% ABV it does a great job of showcasing English hops, in all their marmalade and bubblegum glory. The texture is pretty dense but it's not hard work to drink, even at cellar temperature. A spike of waxy resin on the finish prevents it from getting cloying. Not something I'd have a second pint of, but a nice one on which to finish the excursion.

Across the table it was Hightail brewed at Hook Norton with Australian brewery Mountain Goat. It's a dark mahogany colour with lots of roast and a lovely dry tannic finish. There are elements of great old-fashioned stout in here, a solid bitterness with an edge of burnt toast. Only as it warmed did a little unwelcome caramel note start to creep in, but at 4.5% ABV it's not one to sit over.

And that was my lot from this festival. Even though it ran for another fortnight, a chance visit to The Forty Foot a week later turned up no cask ale whatsoever. It seems that the chain's teething troubles in Ireland are still being worked through. Hopefully they'll be fixed by the time this year's autumn festival rolls around, by which stage the number of branches in the country will have more than doubled.

22 May 2015

Busy Rascal's

A couple of new ones from the brewery on the edge of Dublin today. Rascal's has been striking a balance between maintaining a presence for its three core beers, all of which have changed for the better in the year or so that they've been available, and turning out specials, under its own marque and under the Brewtonic badge in Dublin's Bodytonic bars.

The latter has included Same Sex, which I caught up with in The Back Page. It's a saison brewed to commemorate today's equal marriage referendum. Doesn't the presidential minimum age referendum deserve a beer too? Anyway, Same Sex is 6% ABV and a clear pale lemon-yellow, arriving without much by way of head. It smells (forgive me) quite fruity, and there's a light crispness at the front of the flavour but the main feature is a nectarine tartness mixed with some sweeter mango and pineapple. The alcohol is quite apparent too, but just as it was getting too much there's a gunpowder spice note which offsets the worst of the boozy esters. On balance, I like my saisons to be lighter and drier than this one, and while I enjoyed the complexity, it left me wishing for something cleaner to follow. The bar is promising a free glass of this to everyone when the result is declared tomorrow.

The other newcomer is an IPA and part of a sequence of nationally-hopped beers. Following last February's Kiwi Pale Ale comes Wunderbar employing Mandarina Bavaria and Hallertau Blanc from Germany. I got my first taste, followed by several pints, at the launch event in 57 The Headline.

6% ABV once again, it's a surprisingly pale gold colour with a light, crisp texture. If you like your hoppy beers to be roaring with tropical fruit you can jog on, but if you're looking for something more unusual this is unmissable. The flavour mixes a kind of burnt orange bitterness with a sticky honeydew melon sweetness. There's a generous dose of tannins for added drinkability and a yeast bite which provides a spicy edge without getting in the way of the hops. This beer pulls in several directions at once but it all serves an overall blend of flavours that I really enjoyed. On this evidence, more new wave German hops would be very welcome in Irish beer.

More from the Rascal's to come next week. But in the meantime, don't forget to vote.

20 May 2015

Old and krieky

I'm not sure how long I've been hoarding this bottle of Alvinne Kerasus, but not as long as the "Vintage 2009" designation on the label might suggest. I've probably only had it since about 2011. Unhelpfully, no best-before is given on the bottle, nor even an ABV: on the unlawful side of artisanal, then.

It presents in my kriek glass a hazy maroon with no head to speak of, just a smattering of lazy bubbles breaking the millpond surface. On the nose it's a classic sour kriek, all saltpetre and balsamic, with barely a trace of fruit. The taste begins with a puckering tang followed quickly by a deeper brett-like funk, though I'm not aware that there's any brett involved in Alvinne's proprietary souring yeast strain Morpheus (more on it here). And then the cherries roll in at the end, warming and rich, like the filling in a hot fruit tart.

It's a beautiful sipper and while perhaps not as classically clean as the big-name Belgian krieks, it has a depth and complexity all its own. Worth waiting for.

18 May 2015

A bit of a grilling

The second Big Grill Festival takes place in Herbert Park, Dublin on 13-16 August. Last year's was one of the highlights of the summer, not least because of the excellent beers on offer, with Irish luminaries Eight Degrees, Rascal's, Trouble and The Porterhouse representing alongside Grand Cru's portfolio of US imports, including Founders and Sierra Nevada.

All these and more are due to make a return this year, and there was a taste of the beer options at the launch event held at The Bernard Shaw pub a couple of weeks ago. To accompany the pit-roasted lamb and smoked chicken wings in a moonshine glaze, there was the latest from Sierra Nevada's Beer Camp series of one-offs: Hoppy Lager.

It looked beautiful in the glass, er, cup: a bright, dense gold colour. The first sip, when cold, zinged with lots of spicy citrus zest: beautifully clean and quenchingly sinkable. I was surprised, then, to learn that the ABV is way up at the 7% mark. With this realisation I slowed my drinking a little and as the beer warmed it started to show more of its true colours. A slightly sickly tramp-lager note creeps into the aroma while the warmth of the alcohol becomes more pronounced once the late Citra and Equinox have departed from the palate. For al fresco drinking on a chilly May evening in Portobello it works rather well. But if the main event in August proves a scorcher I reckon it could be just as suitable. Assuming there's any left by that point.

Thanks to Andy and the Bodytonic folk for the invite.

15 May 2015

Post-industrial brewing

Łódź has two brewpubs, at opposite ends of the city's outskirts. There's room for plenty more, though: the old factory buildings which make up so much of the place are ideal for conversion.

Buddha Pub is to the south, based in Księży Młyn ("The Priest's Mill"), a vast factory complex that now houses a Swarovski crystal dealer in the premises adjoining the pub. The venue is appropriately blinged up, its crystal chandelier as much a feature as the gleaming copper brewkit. In the vaulted roofspace above is the Gronowalski restaurant, which is where I got to actually work through the Księży Młyn beers.

Atłasowe was the first, a märzen. It's as brewpubby as brewpub lager can be: hazy orange and tasting rich, rounded, wholesome and calorific. That warming malt is pretty much its only flavour feature and it's a lot more like a kellerbier than a clean factory-brewed märzen. Only the extra weight gives it away. It's one of those brewpub beers that is fine but unremarkable when cheap at the source but would never make it out in the world.

To the pils next, Bawełniane. This has the same sort of roughness as the märzen but is much better drinking. While hazy and far from clean-tasting, it's also beautifully crisp and thirst-quenching with some lovely tinned fruit hop notes. This is the one I'd make my usual when hanging out at the Buddha.

Wlokiennicze is described as an Extra Special Bitter and the signature house murk is very apparent here too, being an unattractive opaque brown colour. There's what seems to be a certain smokiness to it, suggesting perhaps that rogue phenols are at work. A harsh liquorice bitterness is apparent too. Drinking it is hard, dirty work, especially after that light and carefree pils.

The last two beers I don't have the official names for. Księży Młyn's Ginger Beer prompts an apology to all those over-sweetened un-beery sickly concoctions: this one makes them seem like finely balanced IPAs in comparison. It's purest black and just tastes of Christmas cookies and nothing else, roaring out ginger and cinnamon without even so much as a hint of actual malt. It's fun for a sip but I imagine the joke would get very boring very quickly. Księży Młyn's Honey Beer is another dark and dense one, heavily and messily perfumed and far too sticky and cloying to be drinkable. I'm all for playing with styles and recipes, but this place would be better off tweaking the regular beers instead of trying to be daring.

Bierhalle is the name of the brewpub to the north of the city centre, part of a chain of six around the country. It's huge but almost lost in the vastness of the Manufaktura shopping and entertainment complex, a grand project which has beautifully restored an enormous redbrick former factory. It's the first place I've ever seen transparent brewing vessels but unfortunately they weren't in use on the day.

German styles predominate once again and this time I kicked off with pils. Bierhalle Pils is another hazy pale yellow job, and is just as crisp as Księży Młyn's but with a more authentically German herbal hop character, popping with freshness as one would expect from a brewed-on-site lager. After an epic trudge around the shops at Manufaktura this strikes me as a very appropriate pick-me-up.

I opted for Bierhalle Pszeniczne next, their weizen. Rather soupy-looking, I thought. It tastes sweet and very banana-like, though not quite in Cornelius's league. There's a savoury characteristic from the yeast and that gradually grows as it warms, which is balance of a sort. Still not a great beer, however. Or maybe just not the sort of weissbier I like.

Just time to chug a last one back before we leave Poland altogether, and it's Bierhalle Weizen Doppelbock. Well, that's what they called it. It may have a different official name. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it is very good: a medium amber-brown and showing lots of hard toffee, caramelised to the point of burnt, and plenty bitter with it too. The texture is very smooth making it easy drinking for the beer blogger in a hurry. A stein might be too much but 40cl is just right.

I hope this week's posts have given a broad view of what's going on in Polish beer at the moment, even if it did concentrate entirely on just one city's offerings. Poland strikes me as somewhere a lot like Ireland, beerwise: lots of brewers on a learning curve in terms of recipes and quality, but one or two like Bednary and Doctor Brew really breaking ahead of the pack and ready for a place on the world stage. It's an exciting time, I'd say.

A massive thanks to Jan, Sara and all the team at Bractwo Piwne who masterminded the trip and proudly showed off what their local brewers are making.