27 March 2017

One of these things is not like the others

Last year I promised myself that for the next Wetherspoon Real Ale Festival I'd go and explore the newer northern branches of the chain in Dublin. Sadly, time constraints last weekend meant that plan had to go on the long finger so, on a beautiful clear cool Saturday morning I set off, as usual, for Dún Laoghaire.

Word on the street was that Mild the Gap was the beer to look out for, brewed at Hook Norton by Italian brewery MC-77. Happily it was on the bar when I rocked up to The Forty Foot. It arrived looking unattractively half-headed, though pleasingly jet-black underneath. The ABV is on the high side for mild at 4.5%, but otherwise it's a very very good interpretation of the style. The texture is light, without being thin, with a delicate creaminess precision-engineered for premium drinkability. It took genuine effort to drink slowly enough to get an impression of the flavour. This is a gentle coffee character -- a light dry roast up front, fading to a faint back of the throat bitterness. There's a very slight forest-fruit tang to this as well, but it's not in any way sharp, with everything softened by that mellow cream. One pint screamed out for another but as a disciplined scooper I was deaf to its cries.

Moving to thirds, then, and a California-themed pale ale from Hilden. Pale Oat Ale is 4.8% ABV and employs a power combo of American hops: Chinook, Citra, Columbus and Mount Hood. It certainly looks west-coast: properly bright and golden. I was expecting citrus but the flavour is a strangely sweet coconut vibe instead. There's a leafy herbal bitterness behind this, and it's set on quite a heavy, almost syrupy, body. It's a strange one but actually highly enjoyable. Complex and off-kilter, yet a pint or two would be no hardship at all. Bet it goes great with curry too.

Next, the dad-dancey new one from Yorkshire's Black Sheep: Pathmaker. Some branding consultant told them that a lumbersexual with a hop beard on the clip would bring the kids in. Urgh. But... this is another rather good beer even if, again, it's very definitely British in its sensibilities. Though the hop is Chinook all the way through, there's a soft bubblegum flavour which is much more at home in summery English blonde than any US pale ale. Just a twang of herbal bitterness enters the picture on the end, incorporating Chinook's signature spice, while underneath the hop special effects is a solid biscuit malt base. The green hop oils linger long on the palate, probably reducing its value as a session beer, despite a modest ABV of just 4%. After only a third I was worried about being able to taste the next beer properly.

The next beer was another international collaboration: Brazilian Burton, brewed at Banks's in Wolvo. 5% ABV is a bit light for a Burton by my reckoning, though the rich dark copper colour is spot-on. The flavour seems to be an attempt at presenting an illusion of strength, showing marker-pen phenols up front and then rich caramel and cocoa behind. It doesn't really work for me: hot without being actually warming. The hop quotient definitely needs a boost.

Before making tracks for Blackrock, I noticed a new addition to the keg line-up on the bar. Wetherspoon Ireland now sells Bud Light, a beer I had never tasted, despite its brief period in production by Diageo. I'm guessing the version served here is brewed by A-B InBev in the UK. Interestingly, it was being sold even cheaper than the cask beers at The Forty Foot: just €2.45 a pint. That it's only 3.5% ABV probably has something to do with that: the locally-brewed version was never that weak, as far as I recall. And in marked contrast to the low-ABV British brewing tradition, it's incredibly watery and it takes work to detect anything other than fizz in the flavour. Given a moment or two to warm up there's a harsh wax bitterness and warm-fermentation fruit esters, both flaring for a second before fading to a metallic jag in the finish. It's hard to be offended by something so anodyne, but I definitely can't think of a use-case for this beer: there is no circumstance under which something a little more flavourful would not be more appropriate.

It had turned 3pm and the queue was five-deep at the bar. Time to pack up and head for the more refined surroundings of the Three Tun Tavern in Blackrock.

I was pleased to see an Oakham beer on here, one I wasn't familiar with. Enough Rope is another American-hopped job, dark gold and 4.3% ABV. It's nearly very good: the hopping is exceedingly generous and it's assertively bitter, in a way Oakham have made their own with beers like Citra and Green Devil. But this particular half had a problematic rubbery overtone which I'm not sure is part of the spec. Every mouthful starts with a horrible astringency which then calms down and becomes merely a sharp citric kick. On balance it's not very enjoyable. There's a frustratingly good beer underneath, but spoiled by that wonky foretaste.

Yet more American hops to follow: Midland Red by Everards is brewed with Amarillo, Columbus and Willamette. It's a properly autumnal red colour and even tastes autumnal: I get woody maple, strong comforting tea and distant smoke. After the jangling loudness of the previous beer it's all wonderfully calming. The flavour is aided by a beautifully rounded mouthfeel, the sort of texture that British cask ale brewers can turn out at 4.5% ABV which everyone else needs to go past the 6% mark to achieve. This was one of those beers that makes the twice-yearly Wetherspoon excursion worthwhile.

The final pair of halves were not on the festival roster, but since they're there... Farmer's Branch first, a blonde ale from Dukeries in Nottinghamshire. It's very husky: dry dusty grain, with overtones of white vinegar. I suspect this had been on a while and was definitely past its best. Unusual for a Wetherspoon, that, even in Ireland.

That had me worried about the last of the day's halves, Mahseer IPA from Suffolk's Green Jack brewery. It's 5.8% ABV and an attractive amber colour. The flavour is odd. I don't think it's expired or infected, but there's a strange acetone quality to it: pear drops more than nail varnish remover, but in that zone. It's not harsh, though, having an endearing soft fruity quality, but it's also nothing like an IPA -- even an English one -- the bitterness level being pretty much zero. It's pleasant drinking and doesn't taste as strong as it is, but I reckon there's something in there that would make it feel like a bruiser the morning after a few pints of it.

The mild and the red are my top picks for this round, with honourable mentions to Hilden and Black Sheep. The festival runs all this week until Sunday. The beer costs next to nothing.

24 March 2017

What Touken do

My experience with Breton beers hasn't been great, so when a new set arrived courtesy of my father-in-law last year I didn't exactly lamp into them straight away. They ended up sitting in the back of the fridge an indecently long time and I was surprised when I finally got round to drinking them to find that there was still quite a few months to go on the expiry date. How considerate of Brasserie Artisanale Touken to give their beers such generous lifespans.

I started with Philomenn Blonde and got a nice clear glass of it, the sediment having had time to settle neatly to the bottom of the bottle. There's a bit of an appley tang in the aroma, and that's one of the features of the flavour, but it fits into a matrix of other fruit and spice notes in a complementary way. There's a honeyish base, and then a sprinkling of cinnamon. A light texture and a cleansing fizz make for easy drinking and none of the cloying stickiness these sorts of beers often have. 5.6% ABV is an eminently sensible strength, it turns out. All-in-all, rather well put-together.

To follow, Philomenn Blanche, again at 5.6% ABV. It was a little enthusiastic to get out of the bottle and poured me another clear glassful. With it being a witbier and all I took the risk of clouding it up with some of the lees from the bottom of the bottle. It was worth doing too: without them it's sharply acidic -- dem apples again -- but it softens and rounds out with the yeast in. Still not great, though, in fairness. There's a husky dryness that tastes of wheat all right, but lacks the herbs, spices and fruits that are usually included in the witbier profile to keep it interesting. While the Blonde is clean, the Blanche is dull and stuffy. A dash of coriander and a squeeze of lemon would do it the power of good.

Philomenn Rouse is the prettiest of the lot, and the gushiest too: I'm glad I was prepared. The ABV gets a boost to 6% here. Apples again in the aroma, this time soft brown ones. The flavour is a rather bland mix of light caramel, woody nutmeg and the vaguest hop bitterness. I let it warm up to see if anything else was going to happen, but that's it. Enjoy the alcohol boost as that's the only favour this one offers to its customers.

I feel I got off lightly with this lot, for all their shortcomings. While not terribly exciting, there are no serious faults in the way they've been brewed nor any prominent off flavours. If I were stranded in their native land with nothing else to drink I think I'd get by OK. For a while.

22 March 2017

Stranger in a strange land

I found this bottle of Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale in Bucharest, of all places, on the beer shelves in a supermarket. Odd, but presumably related to Boulevard of Missouri being, since 2013, a subsidiary of Belgian giant Duvel-Moortgat, and the supermarket a local manifestation of Belgium's ubiquitous Delhaize chain.

Like the flagship beer at the mothership, Tank 7 is 8.5% ABV and a clear golden hue, big fizz giving it a substantial head. It smells a bit like Duvel too, though sweeter, with a fruity mix of lemon sherbet and melon rind, plus a menthol and eucalyptus herbal spice. And that spice is the headline in the flavour: clean and minty at the front of the palate. Behind this is a quite sticky boiled sweet flavour, all oranges and lemons. This, too, reminds me of Duvel, but a bargain-basement version: louder, much less subtle. A bitter acid tang is its parting shot.

What's really missing from this is any sort of saison character. I suppose it doesn't claim to be a saison, but the word "farmhouse" suggests that more than it suggests a strong Belgian blonde ale.

Maybe I'm taking this beer too seriously. It's fun and frivolous: a bigger, brasher, American take on the more quietly spoken beer of Belgium. I can appreciate that, but it doesn't half make me want a bottle of Duvel.

The text above was written a few months ago and had been waiting its turn in my scheduled posts ever since. Then last weekend I was in Utrecht where I spotted Boulevard's double IPA, The Calling, on the shelves of Albert Heijn, Delhaize's outpost in the Netherlands. I felt it needed to be included here with its farther-flung sibling.

I'm guessing they aren't shifting much of this as the best-before is only two months away. Yet it tastes perfectly fresh, with a lovely tropical pineapple and guava foretaste, fading to a thicker, heavier marmalade shred bitterness; sufficiently bitter to qualify as lime marmalade, I think. There's a belly-sticking warmth in the finish as a reminder that this, too, is 8.5% ABV, but it doesn't cloy, or spoil the hop fun with toffee or unnecessary booziness. While maybe just a little syrupy, it's still a classically constructed double IPA with all of the features to show why this became such a popular style in the first place.

Welcome to Europe, Boulevard. It's nice to see your Belgian owners letting you out and about.

20 March 2017

In a black mood

A couple of recently-encountered dark beers today, though their colour is pretty much all they have in common.

To begin, a new dunkel lager from White Gypsy called Dark Lady. I think the Irish beer market has been crying out for a decent dark lager. Could this be our saviour? I thought the fill on the bottle was a little shy but there was no shortage of carbonation, a big meringue of foam forming as it poured. It's an attractive, and authentic, chestnut brown colour and smells classically of hazelnuts and roast. That nuttiness is the first thing to hit the palate on tasting, backed by mild chocolate and caramel smoothness, a touch of bitter blackcurrant and then a razor-sharp clean lager finish. This is a beautifully executed example of Munich's sweet dunkel style. It did leave me hankering for something drier, however, but at least I know which brewer to badger for a proper Irish schwarzbier.

Funnily enough, shortly afterwards, I encountered an Irish beer that did have something of the schwarzbier about it. It was the rare appearance of a product from Donegal Brewing Company on tap in Dublin, at 57 the Headline. The beer was Espresso Stout, one which does indeed smell and taste of coffee but not as strongly as others of the genre. I've come to expect (and rather enjoy) big oily creamy tastes and textures in coffee beers, but this is lighter with only a vague roasty smell, a mild coffee flavour and, most surprising of all, quite a thin texture. The carbonation is high too which pummels the palate before it all cleans quickly away. Like I say, there's more than a hint of schwarzbier in the way this stout goes about its business. It's off-kilter for a coffee stout but still makes for enjoyable drinking.

If there's a lesson here it's that trueness to style is no guarantor of anything. Dark Lady hits all the attributes square-on while the Espresso Stout takes a more unorthodox route, but both lead to a decent glass of beer at the end. Make of that what you will.

17 March 2017

Gas crack

Happy St. Patrick's Day, readers. I'm celebrating it with all due reverence by getting out of the country for a couple of days, but before I left I made sure to wrap the green flag around me by opening the special commemorative beer that The White Hag has released for the occasion. Naturally it's a stout, 4% ABV, and titled Snakes & Scholars.

They've done that nitrogenated-in-the-bottle thing. Or at least attempted to. I think Irish breweries must just buy bottles of Left Hand Milk Stout, think "We could do that", and not realise that they actually can't. So, following instructions to open the cap and upend the bottle, I got a glass of dead-looking, almost flat stout. Breweries: please do not try and nitrogenate your beer in the bottle. It won't work and it's not worth it.

The flatness really makes it difficult to give this a fair assessment. It just feels limp and unfinished without carbonation. Though the aroma is pleasantly chocolatey, the first flavour I get is a bleachy twang. The beer behind it is dry, with somewhat astringent dark roast and a subtle vegetal bitterness. But that's it. It slinks weakly off the palate leaving nothing behind.

This beer simply does not work. A bigger body; more chocolate sweetness; proper fizz: the lack of all of them is painfully apparent all the way through. If you have a few in the fridge for today, have a couple of other beers beforehand.

15 March 2017

Tidefail

To be honest I wasn't in a big rush to try the third beer from Clearsky, the cuckoo brewery that works (still, I think) out of Hilden in Co. Antrim. The IPA was OK, the weissbier was somewhat ropey, so how would they fare with a lager? I suppose we'd better find out.

Tidefall is 4.5% and a lovely medium gold, though shot through with a slightly worrying haze. I left a centimetre of dregs in the bottom of the bottle but even that didn't guarantee me a clean pour. The body is very thin and there's an unfortunate tang of white malt vinegar in the aroma, but especially in its flavour. Even more unfortunately there's pretty much nothing behind this: no malt substance and no hop complexity, just a very vague and barely-noticeable grain husk. That old saw about brewing flaws having nowhere to hide in pale lager has rarely been truer.

I turned to the label for help on what this was meant to be. "an authentic premium lager that surges with flavour," it says, "an exceptionally clean flavoursome taste experience." Perhaps author and brewer had never tasted a lager before; they certainly seem to have no idea what makes a good one.

I'm always a little saddened to see lager treated this way. I'd much rather breweries left it out of their portfolios instead of doing it badly.

13 March 2017

Put up your dukes

Late last year, Eight Degrees announced that their winter trilogy would be a bit different this time out. The three new beers would all be released in large-format bottles, each a different style but all aged in Burgundy wine barrels. "The Three Dukes of Burgundy" they've called them, and the first two arrived in late November. Duke the third, a barley wine, was due in January but has now been pushed to even later in 2017 so I've decided not to wait for him and open the first two.

First up is The Fearless, a 6.4% ABV pale "farmhouse ale". The barrels used for this were Chardonnay ones and there's definitely a hint of dry white grape in here. Not for the first time I'm finding the wine character in a Chardonnay-aged beer to be more like Sauvignon Blanc than Chardonnay. There's a woody edge too, though more dry and splintery than the usual oaky vanilla. At its heart, however, it is a straight-up saison: lightly textured, gently spicy and with a generous helping of succulent soft fruit -- peaches and lychee in particular, to my mind. There's a bit of a rasp to its dry finish making me wish it were a little softer, but I'm thankful that as a saison on the stronger side of the style spec it's not overly estery or in any way hot. That I got through the whole bottle by myself in one sitting is a testament to its cleanness and drinkability and nothing else.

The middle child is The Bold, an imperial stout aged in Pinot Noir barrels and chalking up 9.9% on the ABV scale. It's thick: glugging out of a bottle filled almost to the brim, forming a café crème coloured head which builds dramatically before fading to a much more reasonable level. With all that drama, and the name, I was expecting a big hit from the first taste but this duke is actually quite restrained. The aroma is coffee, though of the fruitier sort, and the flavour carries that as well: glimpses of cherry and redcurrant amongst the sharper spikes of burnt grain. It's not terribly complex for all of that, the dense creamy texture buoying the flavour but what you get on the front is the complete picture, with no added side flavours unfolding in the wings. There's substance enough to remind me somewhat of top-level Dutch and Danish imperial stouts, but it just doesn't operate on that level. I suspect that the wine barrels weren't ballsy enough to make an impact on the big beer which went into them: there's a reason that whiskey casks are de rigueur for this sort of project. The end result is an understated barrel-aged imperial stout, delivering the chocolate and coffee you would expect with little by way of vinous decoration.

Both beers were perhaps less impactful than I'd been expecting. They lacked the bells and whistles that breweries in this game tend to attach. But both are solid examples of their style: workmanlike quality and very enjoyable to drink. That they set off my novelty sensors without delivering actual novelties is probably the beer world's fault, not theirs.