Down at Kronenbourg HQ they appear to have been sitting around a bottle of Hoegaarden, attempting to dissect it and find out what makes it tick. The result of their endeavours is Kronenbourg 1664 Blanc. It is paler than Hoegaarden, being a very light greenish hue. It tastes overwhelmingly of lemons. I know lemons and witbier have a long history, and that finding a slice floating in the froth is quite normal in bars across Europe, but I shudder to think what would happened if you added actual lemon to Kronenbourg Blanc. Probably some kind critical lemon mass and a zesty implosion. Suffice it to say that I don't intend to find out. More spice and less lemon would have improved this recipe. Mine's still a Hoegaarden.
Recently I was braving the Christmas shopping crowds on a weekend afternoon in Dublin. Having acquired most of what I was looking for, with the evening closing in, I stopped off in a city centre hostelry for a refreshment before heading home. Sitting over my pint of stout I lamented that Ireland lacks the seasonal winter beers that civilised countries produce. What I wanted was a small glass of something deep and rich and red, but what I ended up with was a pint of plain.
Never fear, however: Maguire's to the rescue! The current seasonal beer at the Burgh Quay brewpub is called Jul-Ól, and is a wonderfully dark (almost black) winter ale. Perfect for an early evening tipple this time of year.
With my taste for winter beers awakened, I revisited the produce of Weltenburger-Kloster, this time their Winter Traumale. It's an excellent rich aromatic beer, and full-flavoured as long as it isn't served too cold.
I'm all in favour of screwing with tradition for the hell of it. It makes the world a more interesting and diverse place. So I was amused when I saw that La Trappe, not content with the usual dubbel and tripel styles of Trappist beer, also make a "Quadruple". For all the iconoclasm of the name, however, it's a fairly normal strong, dark Trappist ale, weighing in at a fairly hefty 10.9%. It remains drinkable despite this and is chock-full of varied fruit flavours. Nice for a change from the Belgian norm.
Currently on the shelves in Dunnes we have BB Bürgerbräu, a Czech lager from České Budějovice (formerly Budweis). It makes it quite clear on the label that it is a real Budweiser beer, and that this is now an EU-protected geographical designation, à la Champagne and Stilton.
However, for all its concerns that a big nasty American corporation has stolen its intellectual property, Bürgerbräu still has the feel of a cheap knock-off, of Budvar. It has the deep rich golden-syrup colour of Budvar, and does a fairly good impression of that full malty Czech taste. But it doesn't quite go all the way to perfection, lacking the smooth drinkability of Budvar. I think I'd pay the extra to trade up.
Fair play, however, for the game attempt to take back the Budweiser designation. I notice a few new Bohemian lagers around in Ireland these days. Here's hoping they can turn this geographical designation issue into a real campaign.
Rotterdam was the destination last weekend. I made a beeline for the city's only brewery, Stadsbrouwerij De Pelgrim. It is a brewpub and restaurant in picturesque Delfshaven, taking its name from the Pilgrim Fathers who left from the church next door to travel to America. I'm sure the thought of a brewery on the spot would thrill them no end. They do five beers, though the house witbier was off when I paid a visit. Their blond is in the Belgian abbey-style, quite similar to Leffe, though it is stronger and has a crisp bitterness that shows it is handmade rather than mass produced. Mayflower Tripel is again aping a Belgian original, and doing a very good job of it too: it is strong and cloudy and very satisfying. Much rougher round the edges than a Trappist tripel and better for it. The last of the regulars is Stoombier. It is a red ale, lighter than anything else on tap (5%) and I found it quite plain. There is a subtle hint of fruit somewhere in the flavour, but it's barely noticeable. Lastly, Pelgrim always has a seasonal beer (Seizoensbieren) available. Autumn is bock season, and the Pelgrim Bock is a classic: full of sweet treacle with a slight, but not overpowering, taste of burnt caramel.
Bock season extends beyond the microbrewery, and each of the big brewers produce one. Amstel's is pretty easy-going, lacking the bombastic caramel sweetness of its rivals, but gaining drinkability in exchange. Heineken's is quite burnt tasting, but with enough sugar for it to remain pleasant, similarly Grolsch's. Hertog Jan's bock is a rich red colour, rather than brown, and especially heavy and sticky.
Two other beers from the weekend of note: Wieckse witbier is the commonest witbier in Rotterdam. As someone who is used to Hoegaarden I found this a bit too rough and bitter for my taste. Finally, I tried Gordon's Halloween beer. This is an ale, light brown in colour with a subtle fruity taste that belies a whopping 8.8% alcohol. A wonderful little beer.
Rotterdam is a good destination for beer tourism: it is compact and easy to get around, offers quite a bit of variety (I didn't even get to any of the specialist 200-beer bars, of which there are several) and has a damnably pleasant brewpub. All this with none of the overcrowded chaos of Amsterdam.
Recently I picked up a bottle of Weltenburger Kloster Anno 1050. For a beer that's only 5.5% alcohol it tastes very strong. It has that chewy, syrupy taste normally associated with special-brew-type lagers of 7-8%. This makes it quite difficult to drink and a bit of a let-down, really.
Back in 1998 when the craft- and micro- brewing industry started to take off in Ireland, brewing megalith Guinness, possibly fearing some kind of challenge to their overwhelming dominance, test-marketed a series of craft-style beers. They labelled them the "St. James's Gate" beers, and there was a dark lager, a red ale, and what I think was Ireland's first wheat beer. Anyway, I guess they bombed because they disappeared shortly after. Later the same year Guinness mass-marketed a new weissbier, Breó, which has since gone the way of its predecessors (it wasn't a classic of the genre, but it was nice to have a wee bit more choice).
Anyway, it looks like the guys up at Guinness HQ are feeling a bit antsy about the whole diversity issue again, and a new Guinness stout has appeared in Dublin this week. They're calling it "Brew 39" and it is the first in the Guinness "Brewhouse Series", limited edition stouts which will each appear for six months at a time. So what's it like?
Well, it's very very like Guinness: smooth and easy drinking almost to the point of blandness. The only difference I detect is a slight sweetness at the back of the taste. In short, it is Murphy's, brewed by Guinness, only not as good.
"Guinness Brew 39 has the same alcohol content as Guinness Draught, uses the same gas mix, settles in the same way and has exactly the same creamy head as Guinness. It will cost the same as Guinness Draught."
Which begs the obvious question: well why did you bother, then?
I think the answer lies in the fact that this is a series, and they want to get the drinking public involved in it before they throw anything (shock horror!) interesting at them.
So, even though I recognise that this is a cynical ploy by a gigantic firm to make them look like your friendly neighbourhood brewer, I still welcome this growth in the variety of beers available in Ireland, and look forward to the next in the series.
However, if you want a flavoursome and individual stout, there are many places to go before ordering anything branded as Guinness.
A short note in praise of Banks's Barley Gold, a magnificent barley wine from the Wolverhampton brewery. It comes in a tiddly 275ml bottle but packs a lot into that. A whopping 9.1% ABV, but still very easy to drink with a very complex sweet spicy barley flavour.
The Porterhouse in Dublin are staging their annual Oktoberfest at the moment, with a variety of bottled and draught German beers, and one seasonal German-style lager. They call it Kölsch, being in the style of Cologne. It is a phenomenally dry blonde with the crisp grainy character that infuses all of the Porterhouse lagers. But mostly it's dry. Beer that makes you thirsty: it's a wonder there isn't more of it.
Also on tap they have Andechs Dunkel, which tastes like no dunkel I've ever had before. Rather than the usual smooth caramel flavour, this has a rough smoky taste, like drinking cheap Turkish cigarettes. An odd one, for sure.
Tried two English bottled ales over the weekend. The first was Marston's Pedigree, with which I was disappointed. It lacks any really distinctive flavour, going instead for a mildness that fades into tastelessness.
Fuller's London Pride is a whole different matter. Despite being of the same genre and similar strength there is a world of difference between the two. London Pride has a full-on heavy malty taste which is extremely satisfying. I did, however, detect a slight metallic tang which is a little off-putting. Still: quality stuff.
A couple more notes on the beers I discovered in Bavaria last week.
Double bock beers are produced by the main breweries at Easter time each year. These are very sticky, rich, dark beers, not dissimilar to the Trappist dubbel style. Löwenbräu's version is called Triumphator, and has a sharp, burnt taste to it. Paulaner make Salvator which is extremely sweet and obviously loaded with sugary calories: a beerbelly in a glass. At the brewery-run pub in Erding, I discovered Erdinger make something similar, a "weizenbock" called Pikantus. This has all the rich flavour of the double bocks, but incorporates a wheatbeer softness that is very pleasant. And it comes in a clay mug: always a plus! Lastly on this front, I happened on Moncshöf Schwarzbier. As the name suggests it is stout-black and tastes something similar, though lighter and with more of a charcoal character.
In a town so dominated by big beer brands, I was lucky to find a brewpub, even if it is run by giant Löwenbräu. Unions-Bräu Haidhausen was independent until 1921, when it was bought by the big firm and closed down. It was reopened as a pub in 1991. They had two beers on tap: Helles and Dunkel. The former was cloudy, unlike any other helles I've found. It had a dry, light taste and was good but unchallenging. The dunkel had a satisfying richness to it often missing in German and Czech beers of this sort, though it was let down by a metallic tang.
The main impression I'm taking away from the beer scene in Munich is the absolute dominance of a few big players, and this, no matter how good the product is, will always rank it below somewhere where lots of operators make a wide variety of products: Belgium being the prime example. Munich the Beer Capital of Europe? I don't think so.
I'm just back from a week in Munich, including quite a bit of time loitering within tents at the Wies'n, the world's biggest folk festival, known in these parts as Oktoberfest. It's often referred to as a beer festival, but given that the whole shebang is governed by a closed shop of four brewing giants, and that only six kinds of beer are available, it's much more a festival of drunkenness. The beer is merely a contributing factor.
It was tremendous fun, though, mostly thanks to some careful planning. The beer tents fill up early in the afternoon (even earlier on weekends) so I found the best strategy was to go early and have one or two. At noon, generally, the tent was filling up, the atmosphere was building, the music was playing and things were at their best. I tended to leave soon after, since by two it became crowded, noisy, smoky and unpleasant. So I put the work in: I made it to all twelve tents, and managed to have a beer in all but one (I got to the Augustinerbräu tent at 9.50 yesterday morning and there was no space left, consarnit). So what about the beer?
Each of the six brands makes an Oktoberfest beer especially for the festival, which are sold at the shops and pubs around town as well as in the tents. They are roughly of the märzen variety: slightly stronger and sweeter than ordinary lager. Spaten was the best of them, in my opinion: dark gold and rich tasting. Second I'd place Löwenbräu which is much lighter and easy to drink, which is a clear advantage when trying to get through a litre of it. Augustiner is very smooth, but this tends towards a lack of flavour, which puts it in third. Very close behind it, and for similar reasons is Hacker-Pschorr. Hofbräu is fifth: I found it the fizziest and thus the hardest to drink. And bringing up the rear the mighty Paulaner brewery which seems to have put very little effort into adjusting their ordinary helles lager recipe into something special for the festival.
So that was the festival. Further notes on other beers of Munich and Bavaria to follow.
I could just as easily have made this blog about curry rather than beer, Indian food being my other great passion. Last night I was out in my local curry place and discovered they have a new house lager - Bollywood Beer. It's something of an enigma: the label claims it has its roots in Goa, yet is brewed in an unspecified part of the EU. The address on their web site is of a packaging firm in Bray, and the company is also registered at an address in Glasnevin, north Dublin. Very curious, and it makes me wonder what they have to hide. Anyway...
More importantly: the beer. Well, not surprisingly it is quite reminiscent of the standard curry beers, Kingfisher in particular. It is lightly sparkling with a hoppy bitterness. Very easy to drink and accompanies curry quite well. I have little doubt that the restaurant has made the switch because the margins are better on the new stuff, but at the same time I welcome a new brand onto the market, especially if it's a local one.
And with that I hear Oktoberfest calling and I'm off to Munich...
Several weeks ago, I mentioned the German hemp beer Turn, and how it didn't compare favourably with Hanf, by 7 Stern in Vienna. Well, the Porterhouse have produced a seasonal hemp beer, imaginatively titled "Hemp Beer" as part of their "Summer of Love" promotion which ran during July and August.
It's a rich, deep red colour, and the base of the taste seems to be Porterhouse Red, their excellent Irish ale. However, up front there is a massive, striking, bitter flavour of hemp in all its glory. It took a while to figure out what it tasted like, but eventually Mrs Beer Nut worked out that it was grapefruit, with all the inherent acid bitterness. Nevertheless, this isn't an unpleasant beer: it is quite possible to down more than a pint in one sitting. It's definitely interesting, though not a recipe likely to become anyone's regular tipple, unlike the version in 7 Stern. So, the Irish are still behind the Austrians on this particular beer front: big surprise there, eh?
I didn't particularly enjoy my only previous experience with beer made from honey. It was several years ago, in the late lamented Dublin branch of Belgo, and the beer was from the Floris range. So I haven't been in a mad rush to try the English honey beer Waggle Dance, but I picked up a bottle in Cork recently just to give it a go. My suspicion was justified. Waggle Dance has very little by way of a honey taste, but contains bucketloads of hops. As a result it is very very dry and bitter, which is not what the term "honey beer" conjures up. It still seems to me that honey and beer do not mix well. Leave honey where it belongs: in mead.
I've never been very good with numbers, which is something of a disadvantage when dealing with the produce from St. Petersburg's Baltika brewery. I have a recommendation to try Baltika 10, but I can never remember that number when I'm in the field. So, I thought I'd hit the jackpot in Cork last week, bringing home a bottle of Baltika 9, but was disappointed to discover, to paraphrase Obi Wan, it's not the one I'm looking for.
It's not bad, though. It's another strong lager (8%) slighltly flat, with a full, bold, beery taste. Certainly much better than the very plain Baltika lagers, 3 and 7. The quest for the elusive number 10 continues.
In the meantime, while in that part of the beer world, I chanced a taste of Švyturys Ekstra, from Lithuania. I wasn't impressed and I can't think of anything remarkable about this one. Like the Zywiec, it's something you buy in its native country where the price is negligible.
I'm back from a couple of days in Cork, where I paid a long-overdue visit to the Franciscan Well microbrewery along the river on North Mall. It's an odd, pokey little place that lacks some of the pizzazz of some other brewpubs around the place, but they're clearly proud of what they do. Their Shandon Stout is a first class dry porter with complex coffee-and-chocolate flavours: rich, but very easy to drink (presumably because it is competing with Murphy's -- a beer with similar qualities). Their Rebel Red ale was a little disappointing: watery and a touch bland, taking its lead from Smithwick's, I guess. The Rebel Lager is an enigmatic one. It hits you up front with an intense and not-very-pleasant sour note, but then calms down for a smooth finish. It's one for quaffing rather than sipping, I think. Much more palatable is the Blarney Blonde, which contains fewer surprises. It lacks a strong flavour, but still has hints of that crisp grainy-corny taste of a good microbrewed lager, despite being an ale. Lastly, they do a token weissbier: Friar Weisse. It's properly orange and cloudy, but a little lacking in the fruit flavour I would expect. I suspect overall that they are trying not to offend or surprise a conservative clientelle with their house beers and I would say the place really comes into its own when the Easter and Christmas beers are on tap.
Cork is also home to a great beer off-licence called the Abbot's Ale House on Devonshire Street. I took a few interesting things away from there, on which I will report in due course, but I began by continuing my investigation into the beers of Poland, with two from the Staropolskie brewery. The plain green label is pretty good: full and round with a tight creamy head, though without the fruitiness of Okocim, but once again it is the stronger mocnelager that excels. Staropolskie Mocne can stand proudly with the best of Bavaria's stronger brews. It reminded me of Spaten's Oktoberfest beer in particular: rich, smooth and delicious. Rarely has alcohol been used so well to enhance the flavour of a strong lager.
After being let down by a much-hyped Polish beer recently, I was a little wary of trying out the competition, but I'm glad I did. At the weekend I discovered Tyskie, which is a decent, though not very special, Polish pilsner. My real find, however, was Okocim. It's another Polish lager and has a wonderful appley tartness which is very unusual. As well as the standard lager, Okocim make strong beer called Okocim Mocne, which is even more laden with apple flavours - sweeter and fuller.
I think I need to continue my research into the beers of Poland, but it seems we have a running champion for the moment.
The last of my Danish kroner were spent at the airport shop on a six-pack of Carlsberg Elephant beer. Lots of European breweries make a strong (7-8%) lager of this sort, though a lot of them are almost undrinkable. Elephant is an exception, however. It is crisp and sweet, beautifully golden in colour and quite flat. I reckon more than 330ml would be tough going, but in this kind of quantity it makes for a wonderful dessert beer.
I spent the long weekend in Copenhagen and managed to pack quite a range of beers into it. The brewery scene is unsurprisingly dominated by Carlsberg and its subsidiary Tuborg, and another big brewery, Royal Unibrew. They each produce a number of lagers and red ales. Bog-standard Carlsberg pilsner, I found, is largely the same product as is brewed under licence abroad. I was expecting it to be different the way Heineken is different in the Netherlands, but I guess Carlsberg take better care of their global identity. On the ale side, Carlsberg make Carl's Special which I found quite vapid and flavourless, much like the American Killian's Red. Slightly better is Carlsberg Dark, which has a sweeter, more caramelly flavour. Both of these suffered from being served very very cold. I had to let them stand several minutes before I could taste anything.
Another surprise was that Tuborg, the lesser brand in the Carlsberg stable, is more prevalent in restaurants and bars than the flagship product. The basic Tuborg Green is very dull and tasteless, reminding me of Budweiser. Tuborg Classic is a fuller pilsner, reminiscent of Carlsberg in taste, though somewhat darker coloured. Finally, Tuborg Gold is a deliciously sweet lager and very easy to drink. Probably the best lager in Denmark, in fact.
Royal Pilsner brings us back down to the Tuborg-Green-level: nothing to write home about. Royal Export is a lager with a bit more oomph. It weighs in at 5.6% and feels every bit of it. Stella is probably the closest approximation. Finally, Royal Classic is a red ale and the best of the genre in Denmark. Even though it is also served too cold, the sweet, rich taste comes through it. Royal Classic is one of the best mass-produced draught red ales I've tasted.
On then to the microbreweries, and I managed to squeeze in visits to three in Copenhagen. BrewPub is one of the newest and seems to be still finding its feet. I didn't see any signs of any brewing apparatus, for instance. I tried the William Wallace 80/- and rather enjoyed it. It's much less fizzy than any of the mass-produced 80/- I've had in Scotland from the likes of Tennant's or McEwan's. I also had BrewPub's IPA which turned out to be really light and I reckon rather good as an accompaniment for curry.
The Apollo microbrewery is next to the main entrance to the Tivoli gardens. There is a distinct Austrian character to both the pub and the beers. Only two were available on Saturday night: a dark and cloudy pilsner with a quite sharp taste, and another IPA: cloudier and tastier than BrewPub's, but still lighter than any of the IPAs I know from England.
The best microbrewery of the three, in my opinion, is Nørrebro Bryghus. It's a bit further out of the city centre than the other two but well worth the journey. It is in a cellar which is divided between the bar and the brewery, giving the clearest insight into the brewer at work of any brewpub I've been to. There's even a small but select library on beers and brewing. Like the other two microbreweries, it only sells its own produce, and there is a substantial variety. Of course, not everything on the menu was available at the time. What was on tap had a Belgian theme running through it. The Abbey-style golden beer did a very good impression of Westmalle tripel: very full-flavoured. The S:t Hans Dubbel was also a worthy imitation: dark and sweet and sticky as a dubbel should be. They also, uniquely for a microbrewery of my experience, did a framboise beer. Belgian brewers add fruit (raspberries in this case) to gueze beer to take away the worst of the sudden dryness that some find unpalatable. However, this version doesn't seem to be based on gueze, and instead there is just the raspberry flavour and not much beyond it. An interesting novelty, but not something I'd make a habit of drinking, and I don't think it's part of the regular house beer selection. Nørrebro Bryghus is somewhere I look forward to going back to when I next happen to be in Copenhagen.
But there are plenty of other places to go without covering my tracks. I took advantage of Copenhagen's rail link to Sweden and scooted across to Malmö to try out the beers of another country for an afternoon. Åbro Original is another one of the plain, bog-standard lagers, though better than Tuborg's effort described above. Åbro also make a premium lager called Bryggmästarens which is deliciously sweet and fruity, similar to Tuborg Gold and to another Swedish lager called Spendrups. The Spendrups brewery also makes Mariestads lager. I found this to have an unpleasant dryness that hits the back of the throat, a bit like Red Stripe.
Just one more beer completes the Scandanavian experience, although it's German. No trip to Copenhagen would have been complete without a visit to Christiania. In the Nemoland bar I discovered a German hemp beer called Turn. It certainly has the green vegetable taste I'd expect, and was quite enjoyable, but having already tried the hemp beer they make in 7 Stern in Vienna I know it can be done better.
So there we have 21 new beers, which is not bad for a trip that lasted less than three days. They say that Copenhagen is an up-and-coming destination for beer tourism, and it certainly seems to be heading that way. I suppose if you're bored with the usual places (how anyone could get bored of beer in Brussels is beyond me) it's worth a quick look, though beware of the prices: in this the cheapest Scandanvian capital you'd be lucky to get a pint for less than €6, and for the microbrewed stuff it's possible to sail towards €8-9 for 40cl. Priced for the connoisseur, I suppose...
Talking to an off licence proprieter yesterday I discovered that the Dublin Brewing Company has ceased production. This, of course, explains the difficulty in finding their beers in shops, the recent drop in the price where they are still sold, and what yer man in the Stag's Head was talking about. It is a crying shame that Dublin Brewing is gone (and not just because my first date with the woman I later married was to their North King Street premises). The man I spoke to yesterday said their marketing and distribution operation was extremely poor and they've paid the price for it. I guess all they wanted to do was make beer. Hopefully this means we haven't seen the last of them.
So my immediate plan is to buy every last bottle of Maeve's and Beckett's I can get my hands on. I wonder is there a market for beers from defunct breweries the way there is for Scotch whisky from "silent distilleries". Probably not. Not that it matters, since I'm going to drink every bottle myself.
Here's to DBC and to better times for craft beer in Ireland.
Banana Bread Beer. Fascinating stuff it is too: it's basically a pale ale, and quite a light one, despite the label's claim to be beer in the "liquid bread" style of brewing (the guy who wrote that needs a good dose of Westvleteren to show him what liquid bread really tastes like). What makes this stuff really special (and the name kinda gives it away) is the kick of real, fairly-traded (kudos for that) bananas. It has to be tried to be appreciated properly. This isn't a subtle hint of banana tones, nor is it a big overpowering banana-in-your-face. It's a very gentle incline towards bananas, gradually accumulating on the palate until you finish your pint and say "Mmm. Bananas". And it is a pint too: a full 568ml, which is a very nice touch.
It does suffer a bit from the trouble with Bateman's, but that's more to do with my ineptitude than anything else. Practice, dear boy.
You really won't know if you like this stuff or not until you try it. And you should try it.
The current unavailability of Revolution red ale by the Dublin Brewing Company has gone on too long. It disappeared around the end of last year and hasn't been seen since. When it went, there was the sudden reappearance of Maeve's Crystal, which had similarly been off the shelves for ages. And now, horror of horrors, that batch of Maeve's seems to be selling out and there's no sign of the red stuff back. It all makes my life very difficult indeed.
Anyway, another new beer to report on is Schöfferhofer which, despite the name, is not a joke. It's a German weissbier, of a rich orange cloudy hue. The label suggests that it's brewed mainly for export to the Czech and Slovak republics, and there's certainly a hint of that Czech-pilsner-crispness at the back of the taste, behind the typical weissbier banana flavour. I found this stuff to be a pleasant change from my usual Erdinger, but it ultimately lacked the full-on fruitiness that this sort of beer typically should have.
I never thought I'd see the day when Hoegaarden was easier to get on draught in Belfast than in Dublin, but there you go. Things have certainly changed in the city where beer was recently limited to Guinness and Harp/Smithwick's or Tennent's/Bass depending on who controlled the supply to that bar.
Amazingly, in the Duke of York, where one can get Hoegaarden, Stella, and Carlsberg (among others) on tap, people were still drinking Harp. What's that about? Still, people were also drinking alcopops so I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised it's a low-taste zone.
On the higher-taste front, while in Belfast I discovered an English beer called Curious Brew. It's a strange little dark lager, with distinct yeasty-aley overtones. One to be savoured (and not chugged down in the hotel bar at the end of a ten-hour session and after everywhere else has closed, ahem).
And just for the sake of completeness (which is what this blog is about), I also added Eisbrau Czech pilsner to my list of beers tried (something I will actually add to the side panel one of these months). It's passable, in the mould of Budvar. And, er, that's all I have to say about it.
On the J.D. Wetherspoon's web site I found a description of the Polish beer Zywiec. It has, it said, "a hoppy bitterness and a hint of malt" and "a sweet lemony aftertaste". Intrigued, I bought a bottle yesterday. I don't get it, however. Zywiec is pretty bland - straw colored with no trace of all that alcohol (5.7%) in the taste. It reminds me a little bit of Spaten or the other classic Bavarian lagers, but it lacks their flavour. Maybe in Poland where this stuff costs half nothing I'll go back to it, but when it shares a shelf with much cheaper and tastier beers I'll be giving it a miss.
Those Scots and their Belgian-style dubbels. Who'd've thought they'd be so damn good at it? I've long been a huge fan of the Heather Ale Company's Alba, which is made from Scots pine trees and is fantastically sweet and smooth. I used to get it from the Celtic Whiskey Shop in Dublin, but they've tragically cut back on their beer selection, probably because I was the only one buying the stuff.
They have kept a few things beyond the cans of Guinness for the tourists, however, and on a recent visit I picked up a bottle of Skullsplitter from the Orkney Brewery. I guess I was expecting some class of extra-strength stout (the label was big on history, short on description). It turned out to be a rich brown barley wine and a great excuse to use my Westmalle glass which doesn't get as much use as I'd like. Skullsplitter has a woody-smoky kind of taste, though not in the least overpowering. Damn good stuff, though I think I'd marginally prefer an Alba, given the choice.
I hadn't intended for my weekend's drinking to have a theme, it just turned out that way.
On the roster were three beers I'd been meaning to try for ages but hadn't got round to, and all with their gritty little secrets.
First up was Hen's Tooth. I'm a big fan of Old Speckled Hen, so I thought it only just to give the reserve beer a go. I wasn't disappointed: it's incredibly smooth and delicately flavoured, very similar to the best pints of draught cask ale I've had in Britain. And it has a hefty 6.5% strength, so much more satisfying than the 3-4.5% that ales tend to hover around. And surprisingly, the sediment didn't get in the way. I did my best to keep it out of the glass, but some of it ended up suspended in my pint. Didn't affect the flavour though, or at least not unpleasantly.
Continuing on the enhanced editions theme, I tried a bottle of Aventinus Eisbock. Schneider Weisse is my favourite German beer, and their Aventinus is great too, so I figured the concentrated Aventinus was definitely worth a go, despite the €5.50 price tag. No strength on the label was the first black mark. I read, however, that it's around 12%. This is the same as Bush, Belgium's strongest beer, and the taste was similar too: ultra-heavy and very cloying. After a few sips I managed to get into it, but it's hard, chewy work. A 330ml bottle and a considerable quantity of sediment meant that at least the experience was curtailed slightly. This stuff is an acquired taste for sure, and given the price I'm not sure it's wholly worth the effort.
Last up was a beer I've seen many times but hadn't considered buying because it looks so unassuming: Cooper's Sparkling Ale. Australian beer for me is limited to Toohey's Extra Dry and Carlton Cold, and even then only when I'm actually in Australia and have limited choice (though I do recall a great Carlton Cold drinks promtion in an Irish bar in Hong Kong some years back). Recently while trawling the Internet for beer suggestions I happened across a review of Cooper's Sparkling that made enormous claims for it -- a true connoisseur's beer, a proper ale from a country where beer terminology is badly abused. However, while it does stand above its compatriots, this stuff just can't cut it in a European context. The taste just isn't bold enough, leaving it watery and having an annoying fine sediment. I can completely understand why one would turn to this if VB or Toohey's New was your only other option, but otherwise I don't get it. One for the ex-pats only, methinks.
While getting my Bateman's fix in Aldi, I discovered Breda Royal Lager among the varied weird-and-cheap beer selection. It's Dutch, it does a very good impression of Beck's, and it comes in a wonderfully swiggable 660ml bottle for just €1.99. For those parties when you just can't be arsed fighting your way back to the kitchen.
The trouble with Bateman's XXXB is one of temperature. "Serve cool but not chilled" it says on the label. Having conducted extensive experiments in this I know why: too cold and you lose the flavour, room-temperature and the bitterness (which is its major positive characteristic) becomes overpowering. Having rejected the chill-then-let-stand method as insufficiently precise, I have discovered that ten-minutes-in-the-freezer is the best approach.
The great thing about Bateman's is that Aldi flog it for €1.99, though I suspect that it's not really a pile-em-high product here in Dublin. Since Redmond's of Ranelagh sell it for €3.75 a pop, however, I know where I'm going to be stocking up for as long as I can.
On a trip to a distant and exotic off licence in West Dublin I chanced upon Bravara lager from Brazil. Quite enjoyable, especially on a hot day after some vigorous DIY. Unfortunately there are a million beers that fit this remit too, Corona for instance, and most of them are cheaper. Still: Brazilian beer. Another pin in the map.
Even though I rank it below the Porterhouse in the microbrewery stakes (see side column), I spend more time in Maguire's than I do in the Porterhouse. This is mainly because of its better location and bigger size (thus likelihood of a seat).
So why isn't it one of my favourites? Well, there's my own personal snobbery to start with: as well as their own brews, Maguire's serves the popular mass-produced beers sold in every other city centre bar. Of course, they have to do this to afford to maintain such a big premises in such a prime location. I should be taking the microbrewery as an added bonus rather than whining, but I'll stick to my guns on this one because I think the drinking tastes of Ireland and her visitors should be changed, and I derive great personal amusement from seeing people in the Porterhouse being told they can't have Guinness.
However, the main reason I feel let down by Maguire's is its unreliability. In fairness, when they do seasonals they do cracking ones, but such availability occurs between long periods of minimal choice. Today, for instance, only three of the seven supposed house beers were on tap (I had a Rusty, which is a very close contender in the Irish red ale stakes). Not only does the range fluctuate, the flavours do too. Last year they changed the recipe of their excellent Weiss and made it even better, making it darker and spicier. And then they changed it again into something yellow that tastes like soap. I firmly believe in the master-brewer's right to muck about with his recipes, but do us a favour and warn us first, or sell the new stuff under a different name.
I'm whining too much about Maguire's. I dearly love the fact that we have a microbrewery right in the heart of Dublin, and my negative experiences there are outweighed by many many positives. Just a bit more attention to the needs of the beer nuts would be much appreciated.
On the experiment roster for tonight was Dark Side Stout from New Zealand's (excruciatingly named) Brew Moon brewery.
It's bloody nice. It's really really dark and thick and chocoloately. Reminds me a little of Guinness's Foreign Extra Stout, though with less treacle and more chocolate. It's pretty robust at 5.6%, though has an odd fizz to it. What is it about the Pacific and fizz?
And, joy-of-joys, Redmond's are disposing of it for 50c a bottle. A refill sooner rather than later, methinks.
If you like interesting stout, you should give this one a go. Though if you like interesting stout you probably don't need me to tell you. As you were.
Popped into top offy Redmond's of Ranelagh on my way home this evening for a browse. As well as some regular supplies (mostly Maeve's) I picked up a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, for a try.
I was quite impressed. I have had some bad run-ins with American beer in the past (proper beer - not industrial run-off), but this was among the better ones. The fizz was a bit unexpected in something claiming to be bottle conditioned, but it quite suited the crisp sharpness of the beer overall. However it still suffered from a lack of depth: I've yet to find an American beer that has the satisfying roundness of a European ale (though the guys at Allagash come close). Still, pale and crisp was presumably what they were going for and they can't be faulted for achieving it.
A plus for putting the strength on the label, though a minus for the absence of a formal ingredients list. How do you Americans do it? How do you buy beer without even knowing how loaded it's going to get you?
All in all, a positive experience, but given the hefty price tag I think mine'll be a Duvel next time, I'm afraid.
Went to The Stag's Head after work and ordered a pint of Beckett's. I can't have one, I'm told. "The Dublin Brewing Company are no longer with us". I didn't push it, since getting a straight answer out of a publican on such matters is like trying to nail jelly to a raindrop, suffice it to say I'm disappointed. Over my pint of Guinness (in fairness, the Stag's does a good Guinness) I lamented the passing of decent beer from a decent hostelry and a step backwards in the fight against the oligopoly of corporate giants in the Irish drinks industry.
I spent the long weekend in England's West Midlands. While trying to squeeze as much quality ale into very little time I am sorry to report that I didn't get a chance to sample Banks's: the local brew and therefore the yardstick by which all else should be measured.
My top find was Hobsons Mild, a very light and tasty ale with a gorgeous deep red hue. That was in Pennyblack's in Birmingham's Mailbox. I was drawn in by Casque Mark displayed in the window and wasn't disappointed. While there I succumbed to the power of marketing and ordered a pint of What The Fox Hat, though it wasn't the perplexing experience the name suggests, just a fairly normal pale bitter with that slightly sharp edge.
Out at Ironbridge on Sunday I sat in the sun outside The White Hart and enjoyed a couple of pints of Abbot's: slightly sharp, but still way better than most of what passes for draught ale over here in Ireland.
Two other dalliances with cask ale were in The Hill and the Briar Rose: Broadside and Castle Eden Ale respectively. Neither worthy of special comment within their surroundings, but again the sort of stuff England should be proud of.
The Briar Rose is a Wetherspoons, a chain I have a huge amount of respect for. Their corporate responsibility and general policy of common sense regarding their customers and their products is to be admired. I suspect it's one of those things the British take for granted or complain about, like the NHS and the rail network. I was disappointed I didn't get my Theakston's fix, though. Wetherspoon's can normally be relied on for Theakston's, even in Northern Ireland where it is a very strange and exotic substance indeed. But alas, in Birmingham, it was not to be.
On to the dregs, then. Went to Santa Fé in the Mailbox too. It had a fairly impressive beer list, beyond the obvious (San Miguel and Corona). I tried their own-brand organic lager which managed to taste of just about nothing. Water with yellow colouring counts as organic, right?
The first watering stop of the weekend was in a cavernous super-theme-pub. Having given up any chance of there being a cask ale on offer I examined the taps and saw that Tetley's was about the nearest thing available. Deciding not to be so gauche as to order it by name I asked for "a pint of bitter", for when in England one must do as the English do. The Australian barkid looked confused and leaned over to shout into a back room "Is Tetley's bitter?" That was bookended with a swift Worthington's at the airport last night and the reflection that the English, in terms of beer variety and quality, have things so much better than us.
For all my ravings about craft-brewed this and complex-flavoured that, I do like to keep a supply of easy-drinking fizzy lager in the house for everyday drinking. My beer of preference for this is Euroshopper lager from Superquinn, which I took a shipment of last night.
Euroshopper beer has a bit of a bad press, having a dodgy name, being dead cheap and the favourite of Dutch al fresco alcoholics. But this reputation is ill-deserved. The case for the defence:
1. It's Dutch. Imported from the Netherlands: a nation who know how to make beer and expect much of it (though why Heineken allow their name to be used on such dreadfully vapid lagers brewed under licence around the world is beyond me. It might possibly have something to do with the money).
2. The can, though not designed by a team of psychologically-trained marketing experts, features a list of ingredients (and there's nothing there that shouldn't be there). Listing ingredients ought to be mandatory and it would certainly help to show people in this country at least what shite goes into the beers made by the big industrial breweries.
3. It's drinkable. A lot of the cheap lagers we get taste awful. Dutch Gold, for instance, is made from and tastes of, sweetcorn. Harp, Carling, Fosters and the other less-than-premiums all have something wrong in the flavour department. Euroshopper, however, is at least as good as Carlsberg and Heineken and significantly better than Bud. I think the reason for this goes back to point 1.
4. It's full strength. The premiums weigh in at around 4.2-4.3% ABV. Euroshopper is the full 5. Why pay more for less?
5. It's cheap. At €1.15 per 500ml it's close to half what you'd pay in a supermarket for Budweiser, Carlsberg, Heineken or Miller. That €1.15 pays for the beer that's in the can and the journey from the brewery. It does not pay for TV advertising, sports sponsorship or all the other expensive stuff the big guys use to get us to buy their mediocre beer at hyperinflated prices.
Having said all that, I notice that DBC's Beckett's lager is now being sold for €1.29 a bottle. I'd trade up to that in a heartbeat if I could find a way of buying it in the quantities I want.
After years of looking at menus and beer shelves and bar taps and wondering "Have I had that before?" I've decided it's about time I wrote down a bit about the beers I've tried, the places I've tried them and what I thought of them.
So here it is: The Beer Nut Blog -- an infrequently updated, disjointed account of one man's journey into beer.