24 May 2017

Summer on a budget

The German discount supermarkets are great when summer rolls around and your requirement is for things merely decent, cheap, refreshing and in quantity, for drinking outside. Normally I wouldn't look beyond Aldi's Spaten or (and) Lidl's Crafty Brewing IPA, or any of the dry Irish ciders they both carry, but during a recent sunny spell I spotted a couple of new candidates and thought it only right to give them a go.

Lidl's Perlenbacher marque has been a byword for cheap lager since time immemorial. I hadn't seen Perlenbacher Radler before, or maybe I had but passed it by because the half-litre green can resembles any old tin of budget beer. It cost €1 and is 2.5% ABV, a whole 25% stronger than Lidl's Austrian radler which I reviewed last year. I didn't think much of that one, but this is way better. The sugar level is far lower and there's the tang of real lemons front and centre. The carbonation is gentle and the overall effect is like sherbet lemon sweets, the flavour finishing mostly cleanly with only a slight residue of syrup. And the whole experience, while not exactly high-class tippling, is really aided by the large-format can. This is perfect for glugging back to quench a thirst before opening a proper beer, though it's probably not a good idea to drink more than a couple lest the sugar jitters set in.

The next one is a seasonal and came from Aldi. The season in question, according to the label, is the beginning of Spring so perhaps Schwaben Bräu's Das Frühlings Festbier has been sitting around a while. This is badged as a Märzen and certainly has that classic rich dark gold colour typical of the style. It's a full 5.7% ABV and I detected a certain thickness as it poured, the tight foam head forming slowly. And the flavour... is rather plain, unfortunately. The big texture is certainly there, and I found myself chewing past it to find nothing very much. There's a little bit of the wholesome breadiness I expected, right on the foretaste, but it disappears quickly, as does the mild golden syrup sweetness. Where a hop bite might have been installed there's just a slightly unpleasant plastic burr. This beer meets the bare minimum standards for a medium-strong pale German classic, but it feels like a rush job, a festbier that's lost its party spirit.

Back to the Spaten then. Celebrate!

22 May 2017

Advanced for his age

Dublin's DOT Brew celebrated its first birthday with a slew of new barrel-aged small-batch beers, brought out to meet the public in Idlewild (and later Abbot's Ale House in Cork) a few weeks ago. The Idlewild event was fun, with only three lines dedicated to the selection so turnover was quick. If only life could be like this more often.

First of the newcomers was Teeny Tiny Barrel Aged Pale Ale. As the name hints, this is a mere 3.5% ABV. The barrels in question are Chardonnay, where it spent 9 months and the resulting aroma is fantastic: a sumptuous juicy white grape ripeness. I was down to earth again with the first sip of the clear gold liquid: it opens with quite a harsh pine sawdust flavour, which I'm guessing is the oak at work. The Chardonnay fruit does come out increasingly as the beer warms, and delivers a refreshing tartness in the finish, but after a while the fruit and the wood become overpowering. There just isn't enough heft in the underlying beer to counterbalance them. It's a fun experiment, but one which could do with a little fine-tuning next time out.

The next beer also highlights its smallness, going by the name of Baby Bourbon Birthday Barrel, though there's not much babyish about its 6.2% ABV. It poured black and headless, giving off a husky woody aroma with a pinch of vanilla thrown in. That develops beyond a pinch in the flavour, with vanilla becoming the dominant feature. The wood calms down and it's all very gentle and chocolatey after that. Great dessert drinking.

Tequila Saison was next on the roster. This is light and clean, saison as it should be, founded on dry grain husk flavours with a burst of white pepper spice right in the middle. The tequila has definitely made its mark on it, and there's more than a hint of that sweet prickly pear fruit flavour that's particularly prominent in the likes of Sierra Nevada's Otra Vez. The novelty feature doesn't dominate, however, and allows the beer to maintain its classical saisonosity. There's a lightness of touch here that belies the frankly unreasonable 6.2% ABV.

From a 6.2% ABV beer that tastes light to a 6.5% ABV one that tastes much much stronger. Cherry Choco Bourbon Dark leaves little to the imagination, being a dark ale aged in bourbon barrels with added cocoa nibs and morello cherries. It gets great value out of all that, resulting in a veritable sweetshop of flavours, opening on Parma Violets and Highland Toffee bars and moving through Opal Fruits, Refreshers and even a Bounty. Though thick and quite oily it's light enough to not get cloying as the multifaceted flavour kicks in. This is a sensation and would really shine in bottle form.

The final beer is a big-hitter at 9.5% ABV, named Cab Sav Malt Rye, based on a brown ale with three kinds of rye and double barrel ageing: the Cabernet Sauvignon followed by Irish whiskey. It tastes very strongly of chocolate, so much so I was wondering if it had got mixed up with the cherry chocolate one. There's a bit of cherry fruit character, but boozy, like cherries soaked in port. You end up with something along the lines of Mon Cheri chocolates, which is great 'cos I love them. The texture is light despite the high strength, and despite the roll call of serious ingredients it's an incredibly fun beer to drink.

I tend to be quite sceptical of advanced barrel-ageing with weird ingredients. For a lot of brewers it's just gimmickry, at best well-intentioned, though sometimes I suspect only done to make the name of the beer look awesome when written down. But this set from DOT has, for the most part, really got the best out of the barrels used. Hopefully we won't have to wait a year for the next set.

19 May 2017

Smooth moves

Three beers from Dano-Belgian contract brewers To Øl today. To begin, the continuation of a series of soured pale ales, a style of beer I've become very partial to. Sur Citra follows Sur Amarillo which I enjoyed last year. Just like it, this one is a hazy orange colour and the aroma is understated, hinting gently at the citrus and sourness to come. The tartness leads: first sip produces a round juicy acidity, a bit like an oude gueze but without the oak-and-nitre complexity. The Citra adds a little lime zest to this but doesn't compromise the smoothness. This is a light Sunday-jazz sort of sour beer, not a jangling punky noise-bomb. It's easy on the palate and very accessible. Substitute your brunch Bellini for it; serve it to guests arriving at your wedding reception; give it to someone who thinks they don't like sour beer.

The latest in the set is Sur Sorachi Ace which I happened across at the Abbot's Ale House bar in Cork on the way back from the Easter festival. They've messed with the formula a little here, raising the the ABV from 5.5% to 6.5% and introducing Brettanomyces yeast. All of the elements delivered in the flavour are exactly as promised in the dark orange beer. The orange peel zest that is Sorachi's hallmark is the headline, with the askew coconut hit coming in behind. Running counter to this there's a pronounced, but understated, funk from the Brett which manages to integrate into the flavour without stealing focus from the signature hop. Once again, it takes a daring set of contrasting tastes and manages to blend them seamlessly into a very approachable and fun beer. Brett and Sorachi are both sticking-point flavours for some drinkers and this expertly tames the pair of them.

The last beer is one I found on draught in The Black Sheep: Cloud 3, a low-strength witbier. I hadn't sought it out and I honestly wasn't expecting much from it, especially given that comedy ABV of 2.8%. But it really gets your attention with its aroma: bright fresh tropical fruit and a touch of exotic perfume spice. The flavour is simple, though far from bland, all mandarin and mango. It's straight-down-the-line refreshing with no sideshows or unnecessary complexity. And that's not a euphemism for watery thinness: this is properly substantial, with enough fruity-candy consistency to carry the mouth-flooding hop juiciness. Irish microbreweries get a double tax-break at 2.8% ABV and not a single one takes advantage of it. If they were able to turn out something like this I, for one, would be a very happy customer.

Their labels can look a bit scary and pretentious, but this set of To Øl beers offers easy-drinking bouncy fun. Three glasses of hazy happiness.

17 May 2017

Advance party

The Hop City festival took place in Leeds at Easter. As part of the promotional run-up, host brewer Northern Monk brewed a collaboration beer with Cloudwater and hop supplier YCH called, imaginatively, Hop City IPA.

It's squarely in the New England style, 6.2% ABV, 20 IBUs and a soupy yellow colour. The aroma is bright and fresh, throwing out juicy mandarin and spicy green rocket. In keeping with the style the body is soft and the carbonation low, making for some smooth and easy-going quaffing.

While not bitter per se, there is a certain edge to the flavour, with the mild burn of raw garlic and a touch of pine resin. That works in parallel with gentle nectarine and mango, backed by a milkshake and candyfloss pillowy sweetness. It's all finely balanced, the contrasting flavours working in a delightful harmony.

This is a beer I could drink a lot of. Hopefully the festival lived up to it.

15 May 2017

Quirky Catalans

When I wrote about the Alltech Brews & Food Festival a few months ago, I mentioned that James from Alltech was kind enough to fill the gaps in my Barcelona Beer Company sampling with an armful of freebie bottles. Today, at long last, I'm getting them written about as well.

There's an endearing quirkiness in their artwork, enough to let me forgive the fact that the first one I opened doesn't have an ABV on the label. The brewery website tells me that Big Bear is 5% ABV. It's an amber-coloured pale ale which goes big on malt, all wholegrain bread and bourbon biscuit. There's enough of an old-world hop tang -- jaffa oranges and metal -- to give it the overall feel of an English bitter, and Young's Ordinary comes to mind in particular, though it's quite a while since I last tasted that. The extra weight from all that malt does mean it's not as quaffable as a typical bitter, but it's fine for slower drinking. Sometimes it's nice when a brewery which goes all-out with its yoof craft branding delivers a resolutely traditional-tasting beer. Psyche!

On to the IPAs next, and the first is Cerdos Voladores using prestige US hop varieties Amarillo and Centennial. The brewery says it's their "rowdiest" beer, though it seemed pretty lazy when I poured it, taking a bit of agitation to get a head on. It looks handsome, though, a deep orange with just a slight haze through it. There's no slacking in the aroma: it's fresh and punchy, all lime zest and juicy nectarine. It tastes quite sweet, but in the balanced sense, with the hops still to the fore. The acidic waxy citrus underlies everything and lasts the longest, but on top of that thumping rhythm is a melody of mandarin and mango. The low carbonation I complained about actually makes for really easy drinking and despite that palate-pounding bitterness and not-insubstantial 6% ABV, I could definitely see myself reaching for another of the same after finishing one.

High expectations, then, for what did come next: Miss Hops, Barcelona's "high IPA", though still the same ABV and only a slightly higher IBU level. It looks the same, and has a similar reticence about head formation, but is much less -- how shall I say? -- hoppy. The aroma is a gentle peach and honeydew with a warm undercurrent of alcohol beneath. The first flavour I got was quite savoury and dry, almost musty. There are bright notes of tangerine and a resinous dank, but it's all quite monotone and serious. After the blazing jollity of Cerdos Voladores I was really in the mood for something happier, something this very saturnine IPA didn't deliver.

Quite a rollercoaster there in just three beers but my overarching advice is plump for the pigs.

11 May 2017

The hazy, the crazy and the just plain weird

Belgian New England IPA: I never thought I'd see the day. But here we are. A couple were on show at the 2017 Zythos Beer Festival in Leuven. The first one I spotted was called Ceci NEIPA Une IPA and was from the Broers brewery. Like what I suspect is a majority of beers in this style, it's clear: a bright orange-gold colour. It offers very much a Belgian perspective since, alongside the heavy dankness and fresh mandarin, there's a spicy clove and fruit ester quality. NEIPA's signature Vermont yeast does tend to leave behind a smooth, almost greasy body, but in this it's pretty much indistinguishable from any other big-bodied strong Belgian ale. I enjoyed it, though. There's no arguing with those lovely hops.

That was one of my early beers of the day; the last one I drank before leaving was another New Englander: Me So Juicy by Préaris. This is a wan yellow colour and has a decent bit of haze going on. Though only 6% ABV it has quite a boozy aroma, with just a hint of fruity chew-sweet thrown in. The texture is unforgivably thin, watery even. It does have that style-appropriate spun-sugar quality in the flavour but it's useless without the body to match. The hops are generous but the bitterness is too high, giving it a jangling sharp grapefruit aftertaste. I guess this is the point where NEIPA meets Belgian blonde ale, and it's not a happy place.

Not for the first time, the best expression of New England IPA's qualities was to be found in a beer that wasn't badged as one of the style. This was at the Totem stand, Totem being a client brewer, brewing mostly at Bryggja in Moerkerke, near Bruges. It was the first bar where I saw a queue, punters drawn in by the off-kilter styles of both the beers and the bar staff. Shame about the Comic Sans on the ol' signboard, though.

So, Aðumla, then, is a "milkshake IPA" and combines a fresh and peachy hop flavour with a luxurious soft and creamy body. The hops are piquant rather than bitter and the whole thing is as refreshing as an actual milkshake while still being definitely beer. I wanted to try more of what Totem were offering, so back in the queue.

L: Qwertyuiop, R: Itzamna
Their session IPA was next, called (if I've got this spelling correct) Qwertyuiop and a tiddly 2.9% ABV. They've done a great job with the aroma, which is all bright and punchy citrus but that daring ABV was a step too far and has left the beer watery as a result. The hops are grand on the opening sip but it all tails off very quickly leaving just a plain grainy crunch by the end. So there's a reason people don't generally do IPAs at this strength.

Next to it is Itzamna, an oatmeal IPA. There can't possibly be any problem with the body here. Bizarrely, there is. Even at 5.8% ABV it's still thinner than it ought to be. But the hops are its saving grace, bringing some real bitter new-world action, with pine in the aroma, an intense bitter lime kick running right through the flavour and leaving a long and satisfying acid scorch on the palate long after swallowing. It's a long way from balanced but has decided that that's your problem. Deal with it.

I popped back later for just one more Totem beer, after the crowds had died down a little. Another session IPA, this time with added smoke, and called Ah Puh. The smoke almost completely covers up any IPA qualities and there's just a tiny trace of light lemon zest to be found in the background. The foreground is a massive honking kick of chlorophenols for the full 3D 4K surround-sound Laphroaig experience. And yet it manages to remain crisp and clean, which is down to the modest 4.5% ABV strength, I guess. You'd probably have to be a peat fan to enjoy it but I am and it uses it very well.

With all of that strange and interesting stuff from Totem, I figured I should drop around to Bryggja's own stand to see if they were being equally daring. Not really, but I tried their Triple-B IPA. It's not great. Perfume looms large in this one: spicy jasmine on the nose, which isn't a problem, but intensified in the flavour, simultaneously far too sweet and far too bitter, with a nasty melted plastic edge on it. Poor show.

Also in the mediocre one-offs file was Sterrenhemel, part of the Eulegoemse range from Hemelbrouwers. How many brand names does one beer need? I was drawn to their bar by their cool logo, and of course good branding indicates that it's a contract brew, produced at Pirlot in east Flanders. Sterrenhemel is a 7.5% ABV black IPA and does everything a black IPA normally does, except in disappointing miniature. There's a mild tarry roast and a wisp of green spinach acidity plus a pinch of spiced red cabbage. It feels like there should be more, that the big flavours are just about to kick in, but they never do. It's inoffensive stuff but at that strength should definitely taste of more.

Even in Belgium, gose is inevitable these days, and I was looking for the plain one produced by Brasserie du Brabant. It was sold out, however, so I had to make do with Rêve de Gose Pom, the version with added pomegranate. It's the unattractive beige colour of an abandoned mug of milky tea. There's the soft briney flavour of a balanced gose, livened with a small fruity acidic boost. I felt it ended up falling between two stools, having the classical quaffable qualities of straight gose but also the dullness they often show. The fruit interferes with the simplicity without adding anything bold or fun. As a fruity gose it's fine, but it's no Salty Kiss.

The same brewery produced the most daring beer I saw at the festival, the portentously named Plato's Cave. This is a double IPA which they've aged in cognac barrels. Cognac grande champagne barrels, they are at pains to point out, so they must have cost a bit. From the first sip there's a shocking kick of harsh incense and aftershave so my first impression was that this was a total disaster. But after a moment or two it settles down and becomes more softly spoken. There's a pleasant warming quality, and those incense fireworks fizzle out to a nostalgic and comforting Old Spice fug, much smoother than at the outset. I could see myself sipping this, and it was really only at the end of my sample that I realised that this double IPA has no hop character. Oh well.

Finally, it was great to get a taste of the beers from Siphon Brewing, the brewery recently established by Belgium-based Irish beer blogger Breandán Kearney, aka Belgian Smaak.

Stout to begin with, of course: Cassandra, a 7% ABV one which includes crushed oyster shells for a bonus salty tang. I can't say I noticed the oysters in the flavour as this is big and rich and thick, all sticky toffee pudding and chocolate brownie. There's a boozy coffee bit in the middle which turns it to tiramisu, plus a generous sprinking of hazelnut. This is the entire dessert trolley in one beer and is sumptuous.

As is Tronk, Siphon's vanilla and orange quadrupel. It smells a little bit unpleasantly hot -- a touch of the marker pen -- but calms down on tasting. It's still fairly boozy with a banoffi pie sweetness, some chocolate and a nice balancing oily orange vibe. You know you're getting full value out of the 10% ABV.

And to finish something in completely the opposite direction: Rule of Three, a golden rye ale of just 3.3% ABV. This was brewed to celebrate Belgian Smaak's third birthday and was a collaboration with Donegal's own Kinnegar. You can read more about its creation -- breaking the conventions of Belgian brewing -- in the latest issue of the Beoir magazine here. I found that it manages to be light and refreshing without being thin and has a flavour profile reminiscent of good central European pilsner: the same sort of honey and grass. Great as a palate-cleanser, especially after the other two Siphon bruisers.

It's fascinating to watch the Belgian speciality beer scene grow to become almost as diverse as the ones in less tradition-bound European countries. I hope the drinkers are having as much fun with it as the brewers seem to be.

10 May 2017

The Zythos file

There's usually a very good social programme around the serious business of the EBCU's biannual meetings. At the end of the Friday session of the Spring meeting in Brussels last month we were joined by Thomas Vandelanotte, brewer at the venerable Belgian producer and importer John Martin, for a talk and tasting of some of their beers. He covered the company's history, their more recent projects, and lots of fun technical stuff about lambic, via Martin's lambic label Timmermans.

We began with Récolte, from the brewery's Waterloo range. It's roughly a saison, 6% ABV and a very pale blonde colour. There's a sharp and dry quality to the flavour, rustic and grainy like rye bread. It's fine, but not very exciting.

The bag of Timmermans Oude Lambiek 2014 got the room's attention, however. I was amazed by the level of fruit flavour in this: it has a sweet botrytised-wine quality in the foretaste, finishing clean and sharp with a seam of gunpowder spice running throughout. I love the idea -- and unfortunately it's mostly just an idea these days -- of straight lambic as an everyday cheap session beer, served from the cask and knocked back quickly. This is one that would fill that role beautifully while also possessing a magnificent complexity. The bag didn't last long in a room full of international beer obsessives, unsurprisingly.

Martin's seems to be engaged in a big push for Bourgogne de Flandres as its flagship beer these days. They have a fancy new showpiece brewery in the middle of Bruges. As I'm sure you're aware, Bourgogne is a blend of Timmermans lambic with a strong brown ale. Thomas brought along some samples of the latter, named Bruinen Os ("Brown Ox"). This is 8.2% ABV and a very dark red colour. It has a serious amount of umami in the flavour, the earthy savoury taste of shiitake mushrooms. There's a more typically Belgian brown banana element behind that, as well as a big dose of dry roasted grain. It's all rather severe and difficult to drink; definitely a sipper, if even that. I can see why somebody decided to start cutting it with lambic.

The brewery also does some barrel ageing and Bruinen Os given time in a red wine barrel comes out rather better: smoother and, while still meaty, it has a lovely chocolate and toffee flavour as well.

The after-meeting arrangements on Saturday were nothing more elaborate than go to the Zythos Beer Festival which had just opened in Leuven. I was last at this four years ago but it hasn't changed much, though they have reduced the number of stands in the hall slightly. I had skimmed the list of exhibitors in advance and there wasn't much that struck me as must-trys, although there were a couple of Rodenbach brand extensions available here that I hadn't got round to yet, so my first stop was the Palm bar.

Rodenbach Alexander is made with added cherries. It's quite a confection: sugary sweet, like one of those mass-market krieks the less-reputable lambic houses produce. The base beer is still discernible, however, with its cornbread dryness and an acidic burn. From the stern gaze of Mr Alexander on the bottle label I was expecting something classy and serious rather than the frivolous fun that this is.

For classy and elegant, there's Rodenbach Vintage. This is a dark brown colour and has a seriously funky aroma as well as a heavy texture. The weight of it takes some of the sharper edges off the sourness but there's a definite malt-vinegar tart quality. At the centre of the flavour is a blend of fruit and savoury flavours: the tamarind and date you get in gloopy Indian dipping sauces, or even plain old HP. This is definitely a Rodenbach for sipping, though it doesn't lose sight of its essential Rodenbachness.

Like Martin's, Palm also has a small experimental brewery these days, pushing out small-batch specials very obviously designed to compete in the craft arena. There's a series called "Arthur's Legacy" and the first beer under the badge is a 7.1% ABV wheat beer with added juniper, called White Widow. Someone passed me a glass of it at one stage in the evening because they were horrified by it. I was horrified too. It tastes of burnt plastic. This experiment should never have passed the brewery gates.

Also from the big brewers' limited editions file, I gave Duvel-Moortgat's Lost In Spice a go. This is a clear golden ale brewed at De Koninck and seems to have been popular enough to be made permanent. I don't know what went into it but there's definitely ginger. It's very light, to the point of being thin, but I don't think that's really a sin in these lemonadey ginger beers. They're designed to be thirst-quenching and refreshing, and this definitely meets those criteria. It is just a little bit too sweet, though. While the ginger flavour is present, I'd like a bit more dryness from it. Overall, though, I could happily quaff lots of this if spending the summer in Antwerp.

I was expecting more sweet and spicy from Toetëlèr's Speculaas but this strong and thick dark brown beer doesn't really taste like the cinnamon cookies that inspired it. It's more herbal than spiced, reminding me first of cola and then of Fernet Stock: ansieed, cardmom and that sort of thing. I don't know how much of it I could handle in one sitting, but it's fun and surprisingly tasty.

The festival was very crowded when we arrived, though mercifully began to clear out steadily as the evening progressed. At one point it was so difficult to get around that I just grabbed the nearest beer I could find. It happened to be Scotch Silly from Belgian fixture Brasserie Silly. It's pretty damn good. too. Beautifully smooth with soft and luxurious toffee yet not too heavy or overly sweet. The texture is just chewy enough to be substantial and the whole thing is masterfully balanced. I really was not expecting to come out of the festival raving about this old-timer, but there you have it.

Nearby was 't Kroontje brewery and my colleague John decided to give their Rebelle Brett a go. On just a small taste I found it a bit too harsh. It starts well enough, with the lovely tropical peach and passionfruit flavour certain strains of Brettanomyces produce, but there's a piney hop bitterness that rises and eventually smothers any subtlety, resulting in a beer that tastes too close to floor cleaner for comfort.

Over the wires from Carlow came a recommendation by Liam to try the beer from De Leite, and their Cuvée Soeur'ise in particular. So off I went and procured what proved to be a kriek: pale pink in colour and tasting brightly of fresh cherry juice. Behind this is a sherbet spice and just enough sourness to balance the sweet fruit. It was all rather lovely and fun so I was straight back to their bar to see what else they had.

Femme Fatale was next, a hazy golden tripel of just 6.5% ABV. As befits the low strength it's not exactly bursting with flavours, but what's there is good, mixing up honey, beeswax, grain husk and sweet lychee. After that it was Fils À Papa, described intriguingly as a "dubbel kriek". It's a dark shade of pink with a similar cherry juice flavour to the Soeur'ise but seasoned with a strong element of oak as well. It gives an assertive acidic burn at the back of the throat but still manages to remain fun and drinkable with all the ease of an alcopop kriek plus a more serious complexity. Very nicely put together overall.

That's it for this first run through Zythos. More tomorrow, including a look at some of the more daring and outré offers.