The capricious gadabout who buys and distributes beer for Dunnes scattered a couple of bottles of Valentins Weissbier within my reach recently. It's remarkably similar to Erdinger, with the characteristic soft fizz and banana flavour. Despite being a smidge stronger than Erdinger, Valentins is lighter and a bit blander. It also leans more towards the bitter hops than the sweet fruit, which is not at all unpleasant. This stuff is too similar to Erdinger to offer a change, but as a low-rent mid-week stand-in, it's not half bad.
A year ago I remarked on La Trappe's fondness for breaking the mould, so I was only momentarily surprised to find they've come out with a very un-trappist witbier, called De Witte Trappist. For all the novelty it's a bit of a bland affair, lacking the fruit and spice of other witbiers. And who ever heard of a bottle-fermented beer weighing in at 5.5% ABV? I suspect its formulation may have had more to do with the marketing monks than the brewers...
It's an odd one, is Radeberger. On the surface this Saxon lager appears to be as good as any other German beer: clear, fizzy, unchallenging but totally delicious. The foretaste has a prodigious smoothness, reminiscent of some very fine German lagers, but after that there's a weird musty bitterness that spoils the experience. The date on the bottle suggests that this isn't a freshness issue, and I've encountered it more than once. What I suspect is that this beer is not meant to be bottled. It is such a delicate flower that anything stronger than the caress of a bar tap upsets the flavour. Strange, then, that the manufacturers flag themselves as an exportbierbrauerei.
The third in Guinness's Brewhouse stout series has arrived, called North Star. Once again the marketing blurb is, to my mind, totally off the money. It says this variation on Guinness stout is "light, silky and well-rounded". Maybe it was because my pint was first out of the keg but I found it quite coarse and bitter, in a very pleasant way - almost like real stout. It definitely has the characteristic bland smoothness of Guinness underneath, but on top it nearly tastes like a handcrafted porter. I'll be trying this one again.
After a long wait I finally managed to get my hands on the Porterhouse's 10th anniversary Celebration Stout. This is an extra extra strong (10%), bottle-conditioned porter. It is a very traditional Irish stout in the style of the Porterhouse's Wrassler's: sharp and dry with little by way of a head. Yet its strength adds an extra complexity and there's a faint sweetness to it as well, a little reminiscent of Belgian double-figure-strength ales. Complex, and worth waiting for.
The fourth and final part of my observations on the beers of New Zealand: the brewpubs.
The Loaded Hog is a fairly ubiquitous chain and I visited branches in Wellington and Christchurch. Brewing is done centrally, in Levin, where they make four signature beers. Draught is the standard New Zealand amber ale. It's a little lacking in flavour but redeemed with a barely-detectable smoky caramel taste. Wheat comes with a slice of lemon, suggesting that they are going for a Belgian witbier. However, it's rather sharp and carries an offputting aftertaste of chlorine. They also make a dark, roasted, German-style dunkel, imaginatively titled Dark Ale. My chief criticism here is, like just about all New Zealand beers, it is served way too cold. Finally there's Gold, the best of the four. It's a rich, fruity, dry lager with a taste that just goes on and on.
On to Dux de Lux, a smaller chain based in the picturesque Arts Centre in Christchurch and less salubrious quarters in Queenstown. I didn't quite get to the end of the beer menu at the Dux, but there's quality there. Hereford Bitter is the least special in the range -- cold and fizzy with a dry bitterness. Nor'wester is similarly inoffensive, being a rather bland American-style amber ale. Ginger Tom is a whole different matter. It's a real ginger beer made of ginger and beer, making it very dry and excitingly spicy. The gold continues with Black Shag Stout, an incredibly silky sweet creamy stout of the sort brewed by angels. That set me up to expect big things of their seasonal extra-strong stout Sou'wester. I was disappointed, sadly, finding a rather fizzy and slight-tasting stout, despite its 6.8% alcohol.
The last brewpub I visited was the Shakespeare in Auckland. Nine homemade beers on draught led me to an unusual course of action: ordering a sample tray. Naturally they have a Draught, a slightly dull amber pale ale with a hint of smoke, and a couple of token lagers, one called Barraclough which has an interesting touch of lemon to the flavour, and the other called Bohemian which is sweet and malty but a little lacking in taste. The selection leans heavy on the ale side, including Pistol's Old Soldier an intense hoppy copper ale which I found a little overpowering. There's also Macbeth's Red Ale -- dark, toasted and bitter with a pleasant smoked cheese taste, and Falstaff's Real Ale -- floral and light with the tea-like flavour of English bitter. Getting heavier, there's King Lear Old Ale which is utterly black, heavy and very dry. The stout is a fairly easy-drinking affair called Willpower Stout which has gentle coffee and chocolate notes in the background. There's one last ale at the Shakespeare called Puck's Pixil(l)ation a mega-strong, super-sweet ale, much smoother than its Belgian counterparts like Bush, having a candy sugar foretaste and a wonderful toffee aftertaste. Satisfyingly complex.
Right, that's your lot from NZ. Long may its varied beer culture thrive.
Where was I? Oh yes, small New Zealand breweries. "Small" covers a sizeable range, however, so I'll try to do this with some sense of scale.
Moa claim to be the boutiquest of boutique breweries, with every bottle enunciating its rareness. It's certainly quite hard to find. Methode Moa is their wonderful lager - cloudy and strongly flavoured with a very tight frothy head. Moa Noir is a deep dark stout with smooth coffee and chocolate notes. Moa Blanc is a witbier in the dry French style which I'm not terribly fond of, but is nowhere near as severe as most of them. Where I would criticise Moa is the difficulty in opening their crown caps. Those three bottles all took a couple of lumps out of me before they fulfilled their destinies.
The Baroona range I could have covered with the brewpubs as I tried them all on site at Onetangi Road on Waiheke Island. However, they are sold elsewhere, apparently. Original is a strongly flavoured and slightly cloudy golden ale, reminiscent of its Belgian cousins. Weiss is a remarkably clear and rather bland beer which claims to be unfiltered. Dark is the best of the bunch, being thick, flat and caramel-sweet. It was almost closer to a liqueur than a beer. Finally, the seasonal at the time was a dark ale called The Full Malty. Though 7.5% alcohol, it was quite light and easy-going with a gentle fizz and a mild roasted coffee taste.
I've already covered Cardrona Gold from the Wanaka beerworks. It has two stablemates: Brewski, a slightly bland pilsener, and Tall Black, which is a heavy, gently sparkling, dry stout reminiscent of that produced by Ireland's microbreweries.
The Tuatara brewery (named after New Zealand's rare native reptile) makes six beers, of which I tried four. Ardennes is another golden ale, perhaps a little lighter than Duvel but otherwise very similar. The IPA is everything an IPA should be: deep amber and slightly cloudy with lots and lots of hops thrown in. Heffe is a lighter version of German weiss -- fairly fruity but somewhat hollow and watery as well. Very unchallenging. Their Porter is a fizzy effort, yet remains headless. It's quite mild with only a trace of burnt caramel in the aftertaste.
Emerson's is a Dunedin institution, though not anywhere near as ubiquitous as its near neighbour Speight's. I only managed to try three of the many beers they have on offer, but I was very impressed with what I found. Old '95 is a rich and bitter ale, while their 10th Anniversary IPA is another strong and flavoursome IPA. Maris Gold is a strange but pleasant blonde beer with a vibrant citrus kick to it.
Dunedin's other big brewery is Speight's -- "Pride of the South" and a legend in New Zealand beer. Largely because of their TV ads, as far as I can determine. I've already covered their Gold Medal Ale but they have a few others. Their IPA is rather dull, and the red beer they call Distinction Ale wins the prize for Most Unsuitable Name, being quite indistinct and forgettable. Speight's Porter is better, being dry and fizzy with a great real stout flavour. Old Dark, however, is their champion: a super-sweet red-black ale which reminded me of the Netherlands' lip-smacking Oud Bruin beers. For a limited period, Speight's was also making a Chocolate Ale which is based on a fairly light ale, allowing the full chocolate flavour to come through. The end result is somewhere between Young's and Floris in the chocolate stakes, and quite delicious.
Mac's brewery runs a number of brewpubs, including one at its headquarters on the quays in Wellington. They also sell their beers through off-licenses and other pubs as well. Mac's Black is very popular with the locals, but I found it somewhat lacking in oomph, being nearly closer to a dunkel than a stout. Wicked Blonde is a decent grainy microbrewed lager while Sassy Red is an aromatic red ale, supposedly like English bitter but more like quality Irish red to me. Copperhead is a toned-down version of the Sassy, like a better class of Smithwick's. Mac's Blonde is a spiced wheat beer, clear with a slight citrus edge. They also do a German-style crystal weiss called Verboten Vice, light and fruity like Franziskaner, and a sharper Erdinger/banana tasting weiss called Great White. I think someone at Mac's likes wheat beer. Lastly there's Mac's Mojo, an extremely tasty, heavy, smoky dunkel.
The last brewery for this post brings us to the west coast of South Island and Montieth's of Greymouth. Their Original is covered below, but they also do a dry smooth Pilsener and a Munich-style lager called Golden (lighter than the likes of Spaten or Hofbrau, however). Their Radler isn't a true radler (shandy) at all, but a full-strength lager flavoured with generous amounts of lemon and lime, resulting in something much tastier than the likes of Hoegaarden Citron or Superbock Green. On the ale side, Montieth's Winter Ale claims flavouring with cinnamon but I found it quite disappointing with only the fainest trace of spice in the taste. There's also Celtic Red which is blander than most Irish reds, having only slight caramel notes, and Black, which is apparently not a true stout but tastes very much like one: strong and sweet, yet fairly smooth and easy-drinking. On tap at the brewery in Greymouth they had one further beer for me to try which they had not yet announced the name of. It's a super-hopped green-tasting ale, almost like a hemp beer, but not overpoweringly vegetal. It's due to be launched, with a name, in a week or two. I'll try and recognise it in order to report back.
New Zealand certainly has no shortage of breweries. As well as several big players and a couple of brewpub chains there are innumerable small-to-middle-sized operations all making a surprisingly wide range of beers. In the time I was there I could only hope to get a taster of what was on offer from these breweries, and with several I only managed to try one of their beers. So before I move on to the breweries I am most familiar with, this post is about the individual beers whose stablemates never reached me.
Duncan's Founder's range offers a broad selection of beers, of which Generation Ale was the only one I managed to try. It's a very smooth and satisfying dry nutty brown ale. Monk's Habit is an even more complex bitter with a strong burst of grapefruit on the nose and a taste both fruity and spicy at once. Green Man Organic Bitter is remarkably pale, but is most definitely bitter - probably the bitterest bitter in New Zealand. It has a full-on vegetal taste with notes of sprouts and broccoli, but in a good way.
On the lager front, the local Indian-style curry lager is called Monsoon which isn't a success, being blander and fizzier than Cobra or Kingfisher which it is presumably trying to emulate. The Pig and Whistle bar in Rotorua serve an own-brand lager called Swine which is very light, but carried an overtone of mustiness which spoiled it for me and I'm not sure if it was intended. Could be I just got a bad pint.
The Limburg brewery make a Witbier which is both orange in colour and taste. So overpoweringly fruity is this one that drinking more than 33cl would be a tall order, I think.
Lastly, and most interestingly, is Spruce Beer. The label claims this is based on an original recipe used on Captain Cook's voyages and incorporating the nearest thing New Zealand has to spruce, the rimua, as well as tea-tree leaves. The result is a fairly smooth beer but with a bizarre and distracting mediciney taste. It's certainly nothing at all like Scotland's real spruce beer Alba. Still, Kiwi as.
Back from my travels with much to report. After Singapore the rest of my time was spent in New Zealand. I was quite surprised that it has a wide and varied brewing culture very unlike its larger neighbour across the Tasman Sea. Small breweries abound, and the variety of product is impressive. I think I scratched the surface by trying seventy different beers, so it'll take me a few posts to get through them all. This one is about the basics.
What struck me most of all is that the basic beer style, the one that almost everyone makes whether they're a mega-corporation or a small brewpub, is not a lager but a light amber ale. The biggest brewery in the country is Auckland's Lion Nathan and they make Lion Red. It's rather plain, light and unchallenging. Tui is another common brand, and one step up, I think, being drier and more interesting than Lion. (Like Tui, lots of kiwi beers are named after local fauna - before the end of this we'll have had tuataras, moas and a black shag). Waikato Draught is an odd example of this type of beer. It claims on the label to be "Bitter Beer" but is in fact very sweet, almost sugary. It's pleasant for all that though and goes down very easy.
Moving away from the industrial end of the market, Speight's Gold Medal Ale is ubiquitous in the South Island especially and is pretty decent if a little unexciting. Though it is definitely an ale it's light enough to remind me of Carlsberg more than anything else. Monteith's is the other small South Island brewery punching above its weight. It's Original is also quite plain and easy drinking. Cardrona Gold from the Wanaka Beerworks is probably the best of this lot - leaning away from the pale ale towards the more flavoursome IPA. It is dry and zesty as well as pleasantly light. There will be more from these three breweries in later posts.
Of course, basic lager is inevitable everywhere. Steinlager is probably the commonest in NZ. It's in the bitter German style, reminiscent of Beck's in taste as well as the label. Export Gold is a rather more non-descript fizzy lager, as is the rarer Canterbury Draught. Neither are recommended, given the many alternatives in every bar.
That will do for a taster. I promise more interesting beers to come.
Off on my travels again, and I paid a flying visit to Singapore, calling in at two of its microbreweries. Brewerkz is a monument to the faux industrial school of brewpub architecture: a huge converted riverfront warehouse. It does a sizeable range of beers across several genres.
On the lighter side, their Golden Ale is a typical grainy microbrewed lager, slightly cloudy and quite light. Unusually, also, they do a Fruit Brew which was made of strawberries on my visit but which apparently changes. I found it quite bland: too warm and with a touch of ale hops neither of which should feature in this kind of beer. The strawberries were barely identifiable.
Moving on, they do two IPAs: the plain one being very similar to the mainstream English IPA and the Xtra IPA having a subtle malty foretaste followed by a serious hops afterburn. It's 7.2% and tastes it.
Other dark beers include a bock lager, which is cloudy rather than properly dark and carries a delicious smoke and burnt caramel flavour which reaches parts of the nose other beers don't reach. They also do Hopback, which claims to be in the real ale style, and is indeed complex and bitter like the best of them, but is a tad too fizzy to be counted with proper real ales, in my opinion. There's also the inevitable stout, this one being made with oatmeal. It has a strong roasted grain flavour and is very heavy and satisfying.
All in all, the range and style of Brewerkz makes it one of my favourite brewpubs and definitely worth a visit should you need something other than Tiger or a gin sling.
Less worth the effort is the Singapore branch of the Paulaner brewhouse chain. I had to cross a ring of steel put up for the World Bank conference to get to it and I don't think it was worth it. They produce a helles and a dunkel, both rather insipid and neither as good as the mass-produced mainstream Paulaner. This is the first of this chain I've been to and I suspect it is just pointless big-brewery gimmickry of the highest order. You don't have to be independent to make great beer on the premises, but it helps.
At the back of my cupboard since I got back from France has been a bottle of Doreleï, an amber ale from Fischer of Alsace. Part of the reason I haven't opened it is the stunning art nouveau bottle. This evening I succumbed.
The beer advertises itself as being spiced with vegetable extracts, but really there was very little sign of that. In the absence of instructions I drank it at a little below room temperature and found it so lacking in taste I wondered if it's meant to be served cold where flavour is less of an issue. True, it has a faint hint of gingerbread in the foretaste and the characteristic Fischer dryness at the very end, but it's too little too late.
Probably the only beer in the world better in the bottle than out.
Raiding a friend's fridge recently, I happened across some Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Americans of my acquaintance rave about this beer as one of the world's greats. I have to say I'm not wholly convinced of that. It's good, certainly, and leagues ahead of most American mass-market beers. What I like most is the distinctive maltiness on the palate: a soft, velvety smoothness - quite unlike any other lager I know. A world-beater, no. But classy stuff nonetheless.
Samichlaus Bier, from Austria, proclaims itself "The strongest lager beer in the world". At 14% I'm not going to argue. The gimmick continues with the statement that it is brewed but once a year, on December 6th, then aged a further ten months before bottling. So what does all this effort produce? Samichlaus fizzes violently out of the bottle, then settles immediately to a flat brown-red colour with a faint sparkle. On the nose it has a rich sugary character, somewhere between a fine Belgian dubbel and a nasty special brew. It tastes like a heavier version of the heaviest barley wine, heading into the dodgy liqueur or cough medicine end of the spectrum. The first sip is a shock, for sure. After a while, however, it does round out and become almost warming rather than creating the sickening overload I expected. It's a hard one to call. If you know your way around your Trappists and your barley wines then this as another one to add to the collection. If you didn't read further than the words "lager beer" on the label you can't say you weren't warned...
A La Bécasse in Brussels is one of my favourite bars in the world. Their Lambic Doux is a very fine beer, being a sweet version of Brussels's bitter local speciality. I happened across a kriek being sold under their brand recently and decided to give it a go. I'm a big fan of kriek, in its sweet to medium-sweet incarnations. Liefmans is the benchmark, with honourable mentions for Bellevue and Timmerman's. I was expecting something similar from La Bécasse. I was wrong. While there is no doubt that Bécasse kriek wears its ripe cherries up front, at heart it is an unreconstructed, down home sour Brussels gueuze. The contrast in the flavour is remarkable and is unique as far as I know. Despite being made by monster brewer InBev, this stuff couldn't be more Brussels if it tried and is well worth sampling if you can find it.
Terre de Brume is a bière de garde, one of the characteristic strong amber ales of north-east France. Like most of its peers, it comes in a tall 75cl bottle. It has a light reddish-brown hue and a gentle fizz. At first, I found the taste quite sweet and syrupy, with lots of the caramel notes one expects from much darker beers. However, when I poured the end of the bottle I discovered the yeasty sediment adds a sharp bitterness to the flavour that balances it quite beautifully. They don't come much more complex than this: magnificent stuff.
English brewer Greene King have come up with a light ale especially designed as an accompaniment to food, with the unfortunate name of The Beer To Dine For. It's a very pleasant brew: dry and subtly fruity; complex without being busy. However, as with the FrometonI reviewed recently, I think the food association is something of a gimmick. As a beer this stands by itself, and in my opinion is no better suited to food than any other tipple of one's choice. This is a beer I'd definitely buy again, but I think its flavour would be done better justice by being allowed stand by itself.
I spent a couple of days in London over the weekend and managed to fit in a fair few pints of the interesting. Or at least what counts as interesting to me.
Starting simple I tried Young's Bitter, which is London's answer to a pint of plain: very well-balanced and ticking all the right boxes for bitter without being too fussy. Another quality Young's beer. Courage Best is in the same league, though lighter and less challenging. Also at the entry level is Greene King'sIPA. While this suffers from a bit more of a sparkle than is strictly warranted in this kind of ale, the bitter, hoppy aftertaste is very pleasant.
Broadside is a fairly common premium bitter. It is, in fact, very bitter indeed. I think they were trying to do something daring with the recipe here, and while the result is certainly bold and distinctive it lacks the warmth and subtlety of good bitter. Olde Trip tries to do something similar as well, but fails and fades into quite an average, non-descript beer.
Turning up the hop quotient we have a Welsh bitter on sale in Wetherspoon's called Brain SA. It has a very unusual raw green vegetal taste with hints of smoke. Very tasty. Similarly vegetal is Landlord, though this one crosses the line from bitter into sour and is a bit of an acquired taste, I reckon. Reverend James is so hop-laden that is has almost no foretaste but packs a big bitter hops punch at the end. Yet even it pales in comparison to my find of the trip: Theakston's Black Bull. The Bull is strikingly headless, despite having a faint trace of sparkle. Tastewise it has nothing up front but holds back a massive green hops taste which is quite delicious. And at the end there are hops dregs in the bottom of the glass. If that's a gimmick, it worked. Theakston's, you've done it again.
While I was contemplating my Black Bull in the Museum Tavern in Bloomsbury last Friday evening, one of the regulars mentioned to the barman that it was too warm to be drinking ale. Nonsense, I thought, but over the weekend I noticed that the brewers and their marketing people seem to have been making an effort for the ale fans who want something in their line more suited to warm weather. And so, from Fuller's, we have Discovery. This is hand-pumped but lager-like in appearance. It's certainly much lighter than bitter, but it didn't put anything back where the bitterness and warmth were taken out. The result is rather hollow and bland. Summer Solstice is in the same genre and suffers from the same lack of flavour.
Not only was it summer, of course, but the World Cup was on. Our friends at Greene King have produced a series of guest ales being sold in Wetherspoon's. 4-4-2 is a pale ale with a big taste. Daring, but a bit cloying. Perhaps one pint is supposed to last the full ninety minutes plus stoppages. 1966 is much better: bitter and spicy with a solid dose of hops for flavour. The Wychwood people have also made a World Cup beer, called England's Ale. This is dark, smooth and easy-drinking with a smoky, burnt character. Up to scratch with the other quality Wychwood beers.
So much for England. While in London I made the obligatory visit to the mighty Belgo. I wasn't especially adventurous in my beer selection: plumping for two from the Grimbergen stable on draught. The blond is a very full-flavoured heavy, dry beer. The dubbel is rich, sweet and chocolatey.
If every weekend was filled with this much English and Belgian beer I'd be very happy. And very very fat.
In a grocery shop in Ardres I had a bottle of local beer foisted upon me by the shopkeeper (it takes a lot of effort to foist artisan beer on me, it really does). Entitled La Bière à Frometon, it is sold as an accompaniment to cheese, and bears the name of the brewer (Christophe Noyon) and the cheesemaker who helped with it (Philippe Olivier).
It is in the style of the Flemish golden ales, and Duvel in particular: strong, slightly cloudy and brimming with flavour. There is an added artisan quality to it as well, a well-honed smoothness reminiscent of the Trappist tripel-style ales. Perhaps it's the Trappist connection that brings the cheese into the equation, Chimay being one brand which produces both products. Other than that, I really don't see what makes this a special beer for cheeselovers, and I suspect it may be a slightly cynical effort by a brewer and a cheesemaker to introduce the customers of the other guy to their own product. Still, you can't argue with the quality of the beer.
As an excercise in synergy, then, it leaves something to be desired; as a beer it is first rate.
Last October, Guinness launched the first of their limited edition Brewhouse series (report here). The second one is out now, under the name Toucan Brew.
Once again, the taste is very very similar to ordinary Guinness and I had a hard time trying to figure out how this one is different. If anything, it is blander than ordinary Guinness, lacking even the faint hint of stout bitterness that Guinness have steadfastly sought to remove from their product. My guess is that they intend to market this as a light stout for easy summer drinking, or for the ladies who don't like the taste of beer, or something equally patronising dreamt up by the market research people at St. James' Gate. The official word is that's it's "triple-hopped", to be "bright, smooth and refreshing". To me, it's just bland. Bring back Brew 39.
On my recent trip to France I didn't get a chance to have a drink in the L'Audomaroise microbrewery in St. Omer, but I did come away with what promised to be three of their more interesting beers.
Blanche à la Pomme is, unfortunately, in the typical dry French blanche style, though it isn't quite as bitter as most of the rest of them. Of apples there is the faintest whiff, but very little by way of taste.
Blonde à la Rhubarbe isn't really blonde at all: it's a cloudy pale amber beer, almost like a light ale. It has a pleasant musty character which presumably comes from the rhubarb, but doesn't actually taste rhubarby. Not what I expected and a pleasant surprise.
Ambrée à la Chicorée lacks the warmth of normal French ambrée beers. There's also not much of a chicory taste either. This beer is quite bland.
There's no doubt that L'Audomaroise put a lot of care into their beers and have produced a very high-quality product, but I found the flavours just a bit too subtle for my palate. If it says rhubarb on the label, I expect rhubarb in spades. I appreciate that this is Beer As Fine Art, but I think I prefer the rougher approach.
As I've said before, there's a lot to be said for mucking about with standard brewing practices: weird methods and ingredients are what keeps the industry fresh and interesting, and I have huge respect for the small producers in particular who take chances on these things.
It seems one of the world's largest brewers is at it now, too. InBev (formerly Interbrew) have recently launched Hoegaarden Citron. It's a lighter (3%) version of plain Hoegaarden, with an added lemon flavour. The lemon hint in standard Hoegaarden was one of its strong points, and what we have now is some kind of ultra-sweet alcopop for people who don't like the taste of real beer. You have to wonder what focus group prompted this one.
InBev also make Bellevue Kriek, one of my favourites of the genre. At a motorway service station in Belgium I discovered Bellevue Kriek Extra. It comes in little Red-Bull-style cans, and is lighter than the normal product, at 4.3%. The idea is that it contains even more fruit than usual. It certainly tastes sweeter, but the dry gueuze character of Bellevue is one of the main reasons I like it. Once again, I'm not sure what the point of this beer is.
So, recently I was complaining about Ch'ti, and about how France can do better beer. I'm back from France now and can confirm that there is a vast and fascinating brewing tradition in the area of north France which backs on to Flanders. And I didn't even touch the Jenlain.
Starting with one of the more prosaic, barbecue lagers, we have something called 33 Export which is drier than your average lager, and slightly, but not unpleasantly, bitter. It works well as an aperitif, I found. Moving up a level, Pelforth is a fairly ubiquitous brand. The blonde has a strong sticky honey flavour which is delicious. The brune is also sticky, but in a caramel sort of way, with a touch of coffee. Surprisingly easy drinking, for all that.
No visit to France would be complete without some Kronenbourg. They make Wilfort, which is a very thick, dark, sweet beer, similar to a Czech or German dunkel. Quite impressive, given that most of what Kronenbourg make is muck.
The Fischer brewery in Alsace had a number of beers on the shelves in Pas-de-Calais. Their ordinary lager is another of the dry ones. It has a sharp, tangy flavour and a heavy fizz, creating a sensation not unlike drinking mineral water.
The main St. Omer brewery makes four artisan style beers, sold in 65cl swingtop bottles. Blonde de Brasseurs is the lager, and is fairly humdrum: the least interesting of the strong lagers I tried. Pelforth set the standard here. Blanche de Brasseurs is similarly unimpressive: dry and ash-bitter, like Ch'ti Blanche. The Brune de Brasseurs is decent, however: very caramelly and sweet. I was glad that the bottle was only 65cl instead of the stanard 75: this was tough, heavy going. Finally, Réserve de Brasseurs, the ambrée, was the best of them. This is a light ale, clearly related to the Brune but much easier-going.
On to the smaller breweries, producing the bigger, corked, bottles. Vivat is a smooth, dry, malty lager, while the blonde made by Abbatiale de Sant Amand is gently flavoured with juniper berries, giving it a subtle but strong geniver taste. The other Sant Amand I tried was their Speciale Noel beer: this is a copper-coloured ale, spiced with almond, coriander and lots more besides. The overall effect is of Christmas pudding as a beer. In season, this would really be a winner. Goudale is another common artisan blonde beer from the area. It has the rich honey taste but without any of the sticky cloying one might expect, plus a gentle fizz, making this a very easy-drinking beer.
There are a number of brewpubs in the area, most of which belong to the Les 3 Brasseurs chain. This afternoon I visited the branch in the Cité Europe shopping centre in Coquelles, called Le Moulin à Bière. It's a fairly normal looking shopping centre food court family restaurant, which just happens to have a working brewery along one wall. They do four beers in unsurprising genres: the blonde is dry and crisp; the brune is heavy and stouty; the ambrée is quite light; and the blanche is the best: soft and lemony. What spoiled all of these, except the last, is that they carried a distinct aftertaste of fish. On the blonde and ambrée it was particularly unpleasant. The blanche had a little bit of a fish kick too, but given the lemon element, it worked with the flavour rather than against it. I'm all in favour of novel ingredients in beer, but I think something may have gone wrong with the recipe here.
And on to the top prize so far. Christophe Noyon appears to be the area's only Big Name Brewer. He makes two main beers. 2 Caps is a cloudy blonde which is fantastically smooth and wheaty: utterly refreshing. Blanche de Wissant is streets ahead of all the area's blanches, being very light and gently frangranced with a bittersweet lemon aroma. Both are very high quality product. M. Noyon has teamed up with the area's Big Name Cheesemaker (Philippe Olivier) to make a special beer-for-cheese. A bottle is in my bag somewhere and I'm really looking forward to making a report.
Also in my bag are some beers from the Audmaroise microbrewery in St. Omer, and a few other odds and sods, which will keep me in blog entries for the next couple of weeks. For the moment, I shall say that the beer tourist could do a lot worse than travelling the roads of Nord and Pas-de-Calais, between the endless fields of barley, picking up some samples of some really top class beer on the way round.
I'm in the beer country of north-east France at the moment, and I have much to write in later posts of the beers here. This post, however, is of a recent side-trip to Bruges.
I visited the legendary Halve Maan microbrewery. It seems that its famous Straffe Hendrik beer is no longer made there, and instead it does a blonde and a brune, both called Brugse Zot. The former is quite coarse and grainy: an interesting aley Belgian take on standard brewpub lager; the latter is rather slight and served oddly cold. They're both OK by general beer standards, but disappointing for a microbrewery in Belgium of all places.
The bar itself looks much like a normal restaurant, with only the beer bottles, the merchandise and the big tanks in the corner giving it away.
Still in England. Today I went to a supermarket and chose a couple of beers off the shelf, in between sobs at the price difference compared to back home where English ale is a speciality product.
I came away with Wadworth 6X, which is one of the better bitters. It's not quite as sharp as my Bateman's benchmark, but a fruity smoothness comes in to compensate for that. A well-balanced beer, all in all.
My big find, however, was Daleside Duff. This is a fantastically complex beer and achieves the Holy Grail of English bitter by being smooth and easy-drinking while still loaded with flavour. It's all there in spades. Welcome to the pantheon.
I'm in England today and just went for a couple of pints in an uber-generic off-ramp pub, the kind of which dots arterial roads from Truro to Sunderland. I was quite pleased, in such a wash of generic lagers, to find Old Speckled Hen on tap. Old Speckled Hen is the kind of English beer that other beers should look up to. On tap, however, it is a whole different ball-game, it seems. What I received was ice-cold with a frothy nitrogen head and took about half an hour in the sun to develop something resembling the taste of Old Speckled Hen from a bottle. However, I'm taking a positive slant on this: by drinking this beer by the bottle back home I am getting a better experience than those consuming it in the pub in its country of origin.
From the same McPub I tried Bombardier. This was at least honest in its approach (or maybe it's just that I've never had it from a bottle). Again it was cold and frothy, but this time there was no attempt at flavour: this is one of those ultra-smooth ales which goes down silkily but basically tastes like air. It's not an unpleasant experience, by any means, but it really drives one's thirst for a decent cask ale.
Ch'ti is a range of French artisan beers sold in 75cl bottles. The Blanche and Blonde are fairly commonplace in Irish supermarkets. I'm not a fan of either, however. Ch'ti Blanche is a cloudy witbier but is intesely bitter with no fruit flavour offering relief. I had high hopes of the Blonde: at 6.4% alcohol a comparison with Leffe would be in order, I thought. Instead this is a very plain, vapid lager with very little flavour of any kind.
I know France isn't a beer-drinking culture, but there are some good French beers out there: Jenlain springs immediately to mind. I expected better of Ch'ti and won't be trying it again.
It is not my intention to turn this blog into a rolling account of the seasonal beers available at the Porterhouse, but I can’t pass without mentioning the incumbent. Früli is in the Belgian light fruit beer genre. The base is a gently frothy inert wheat beer, but the overwhelming character comes from the fruit, strawberries in this case. And they did not skimp on the strawberries, either: Früli is a solid opaque red colour with more than a hint of the smoothie about its appearance and taste. It seems pretty obvious that tub after tub of real strawberries have simply been liquidised and dropped into the mix, juice-bar style. The result is outstanding: 100% fruit drink, yet 100% beer. Nice one.
Last month I posted a review of Meantime Chocolate (here). Since then the Porterhouse reintroduced their Chocolate Truffle Stout as part of the March stout-fest so I thought I'd do a quick round-up of Chocolate Beers I Have Known.
I won't repeat my Meantime review: just to say it gets points for being different, but isn't a patch on normal chocolate stouts. My usual fallback in this genre is Young's Double Chocolate Stout, which is about as rich and creamy as bottled beer gets, and carries a big chocolate kick in the foretaste.
Yet even Young's pales in comparison to the Porterhouse chocolate stout. I'm not sure what the "truffle" element adds to it (about 500 calories, at a guess) but this seasonal stout is utterly sublime: very smooth, very heavy and very very chocolatey. It is definitely one of my favourite beers: a sure sign it's about to be discontinued.
And happy birthday to the Beer Nut Blog. One year and seven countries done: much more to come.
A quick round-up of some of the less notable beers I encountered on my recent trip to Greece, mentioned purely for completist reasons.
Mythos is the most ubqitous beer I noticed in Athens. It's the standard Mediterranean lager, generically refreshing. Mostly it was served in a frozen pint glass, yet developed what one might call an actual flavour when it warmed up slightly. The other common lager is Alpha, which struck me as blander yet: even when the sun hit it there wasn't much of a hint of a lager taste. Still, it does the job for that place and climate and I'm not complaining.
I travelled through Budapest and just had time on the way back for a swift pint at the airport. The choice was Stella, Beck's, Franziskaner, Leffe Brune or something strange called Borsodi. No contest, of course. Borsodi is pretty cheap and nasty, but when you're drinking it from a plastic cup under fluorescent lights in an eastern European airport it's the only appropriate drink. Just another sacrifice for this blog...
I'm in Athens for the next few days. Currently I'm collecting information on the standard beers hereabouts and I'll make a full report on them in due course. Yesterday, however, I visited the city's only microbrewery: Craft.
The decor is in the mock-industrial brewpub style, rather than the Anglo-German light-wood-and-hops motif. The beer is excellent. They do two fairly basic lagers: the pilsner is classic brewpub lager with that coarse, grainy microbrewed taste: backbone of the industry. Then they do "Athens Lager" which is a more refined, bittersweet, Austrian style beer.
Craft Red Ale is a Belgian-Abbey-style beer: aromatic, fruity and complex. The oddly named "Black Lager" is just like a light stout, sparkling rather than creamy, and full of the burnt caramel flavour that sets it apart.
The Weiss at Craft is a fairly good imitation of Erdinger, right down to the banana aroma, though perhaps a little lighter and softer.
My big find, however, is Craft Smoked Lager. As the name suggests, this is made with smoked hops for a real smoke taste: something akin to drinking a pint of smoky bacon crisps. It is marvellously strange and I look forward to finding another smoked beer to compare notes.
Craft, then, is a first-rate brewpub, and a real find here in southern Europe where beer is not taken as seriously as it should be.
I went on my first beer-hunting excursion abroad back when I was 20. Prague was the destination, and there I discovered the wonderful Czech lager Krušovice. I hadn't seen it in a number of years since, so I bought a bottle recently to check if it is really as good as I remember.
It is. Czech beers, for the most part, are characterised by their rich full malty taste and relatively dark colour. Krušovice is lighter in colour and milder in taste but by no means lacking in character. It is one of the very few lagers that manages to be smooth and easy-drinking without tasting as though all the goodness has been brewed out of it. Krušovice is quality to the last drop. It's kind of gratifying to know, several years, many pints and thousands of miles after that first trip to Prague, that back then I knew good beer when I tasted it.
Cider is, strictly speaking, outside the remit of this blog. That's generally a moot point since you won't normally catch me drinking the stuff. However, Maguire's current seasonal is an organic cider called Blossom and I feel obligated to make a report.
Speaking as a non-cider-drinker, Blossom is not half bad. It has an extremely pale yellow colour and carries a very sharp, tangy, acidic flavour that is quite invigorating and refreshing. It certainly isn't sickly and cloying the way ciders often are. The biggest let-down is that it becomes difficult to drink when its temperatures rises above the icy coldness at which it is served. I found myself rushing to the end of the pint, and at 5.6% alcohol, that's not something I'd want to be doing several times in a session if I hoped to get out of the pub upright.
Blossom, I'd say, is ideal for sunny summer afternoons in the beer garden. It's just a shame that the only pub in the world serving it doesn't have one.
Spitfire is a quite ubiquitous ale in England, but I never got around to trying it until recently. I was a little disappointed. It is a very very light beer, very easy to drink but lacking the robustness I expect in a bottled ale. Fine for the pub, I guess, but not one to take home.
The alternative is Ruddles County, which is stronger and more full-flavoured. However, for all its up-front robustness it is still missing something vital. Hops dominate the flavour, making it somewhat bitter but not enough to give it a firm character. The result is a beer that grabs your attention but doesn't quite know what to do with it.
Number 8 in the Baltika series was not a beer I had seen before, so naturally I had to buy it and try it. It is the Russian brewery's wheat beer, and is unfiltered and cloudy with a fair bit of yeasty sediment in the bottle. Tastewise it tries to emulate its German rivals, and comes closest to Franziskaner. The sediment makes it a more bitter experience, though, lending overtones almost reminiscent of a northern European witbier, but not quite. Falling between these two stools, I can't imagine that anyone would prefer this slightly rough Russian to its more refined western neighbours.
The supermarkets have knocked a few cent off the price of the Carlow Brewing Company's three beers, so I thought a reappraisal was in order.
O'Hara's is their stout: a straightforward, easy drinking, traditional black beer with no fancy texture or flavour. It's quite pleasant and refreshing for all that, very much a pint of plain and your only man.
Moling's red ale is the best of three, and a contender for Ireland's best ale now that Revolution is sadly out of the picture. It has a caramel-candy sweetness coupled with a mild smokiness adding up to a complex and interesting flavour that keeps you turning it over on your palate the whole glass through. Porterhouse Red probably still has the edge on it, but in the take-home stakes, Moling's is the bottle to beat.
Finally, Curim Gold is the brewery's wheat-beer-in-place-of-a-lager. It certainly is gold: a deep amber hue and slightly cloudy. Like its red brother, Curim has a complex taste, with hoppy bitterness to the fore, but tempered by a soft wheat flavour. It's a little bit cloying, and therefore maybe not the best session beer, but ideal as an accompaniment to spicy food.
So that's the round-up. Support your local small brewery and happy St. Patrick's Day.
On a recent trip to the UK I conducted a selective raid on Sainsbury's and came away with three new finds: Theakston's Old Peculier is a familiar name, but I hadn't actually tasted it before. I'm a big fan of the normal Theakston's and was very interested in trying the premium product. It's very good and has the wonderful round warmness of England's best ales. Duchy Original is a bit of a gimmick: an organic ale made with ingredients which may (or may not) have come from the Prince of Wales' Highgrove estate. The label is striking and of a very high quality. The beer, alas, is not. When it comes down to drinking, this is a very ordinary bitter. I'm generally in favour of organic produce on principle, but I have yet to encounter an organic beer which is better than its non-organic competitors: sad but true. Lastly, Meantime Chocolate from the Greenwich Brewery comes in an interesting ship's-decanter-style bottle and, as the name suggests, is a chocolate beer. It's not a stout, though. It's a strong ale with an equally strong concentrated chocolate flavour - rich and bitter, with coffee overtones. Not something one would get through lots of, but an interesting variation on the usual chocolate theme.
New in Tesco's Finest range of premium own-brand groceries is their French Wheat Beer, which comes in a wonderfully continental 750ml bottle, just like Hoegaarden. That's where the comparisons end though: it's awful. Incredibly bitter and dry, it lacks any of the witbier zest and fruitiness, and at €4 a bottle, it's really not that much cheaper than the branded beers. Avoid.
Never one to pass up a bargain, no matter how suspicious, I chanced across American Diesel Lager Beer on sale in Whelan's for the princely sum of 50c for a 33cl bottle. It's a light, red beer, a mere 4.2%, and quite easy-going with it. Sure, it lacks a strong flavour or distinctive character, but it retains that caramel sweetness of better central European dark beers which is rather pleasant. Not a classic, but still a cut above any number of American lagers in the light refreshment stakes.
Another, quite different, recent discovery is Piraat: a golden Belgian ale, in the style of Duvel. It lacks the harsh dryness of Duvel however, and is rather more fun and fruity on the palate. All this and stronger too. Worth checking out if you like that sort of thing, and if you can find it.
I began 2006 in Lisbon, where the beer scene is dominated by two giant brands: Superbock and Sagres. The former is slightly more high-profile, and makes three main beers. The basic Superbock is a fizzy lager made with extra glucose to bring the alcohol content up to a whopping 5.6%. This unfortunately gives it the thick sugary special-brew taste which is a little off-putting in an otherwise decent lager. Superbock Stout is also made with extra sugar, making it very sweet and quite flat, almost reminiscent of the Guinness Foreign Extra stout, but not quite as good. Finally, Superbock Green is a light, sparkly, lemon-flavoured summer beer - Hoegaarden meets Lemsip. It is a mere 4% alcohol and very easy to drink: doubtless marvellously refreshing on hot days.
In competition, Sagres's plain lager is drier and hoppier than Superbock's, but lacks the oomph of its rival. Instead of a stout, there is Sagres Preta - a deep, dark, smoky ale with a powerful bock flavour: quite delicious. There's also Bohemia, a warm red ale, smooth and easy-going despite a strength of 6.5%. My only criticism is that it's a little too smooth and could use a fuller flavour. Finally, Sagres sell a straw-coloured party lager called Imperial, which comes in 330ml bottles with a funky label. It tastes of almost nothing.
And so to the micro end of things. Until recently, the excellent Frog chain of brewpubs had a Lisbon branch advertised on their web site. Then it disappeared. I assumed it had closed down, but went along to the address anyway in the hope that the good work was being continued under a new brand. There, to my surprise, stood the Frog at Expo brewpub, completely as was, advertising the full range of homemade beers. Inside it was a different story, however: no Frog beers were actually on tap, leading me to suspect that the Frog chain has left the business but the new owners haven't bothered rebranding yet, and that microbrewed beer is not in the business plan. Disappointing, but there you go. Nearby at Parc das Nacoes is the only working brewpub I found in Lisbon: República da Cerveja. It's quite a pleasant, modern, bar and restaurant. The blackboard selection of beers was impressive, but only two were actually on tap on the day. Artesanal is quite a dull fizzy lager, a little drier than Superbock but really not very different. Natal is the Christmas ale which had the requisite strength and deep colour, but was served too cold and lacked flavour. Nice pub, shame about the beers.
Given that Lisbon is in southern Europe, with a thriving high-quality wine industry, I think I did quite well on the beer front to find such variety. The fondness for dark ales and stouts was certainly a pleasant surprise, as was finding a large bottle of Chimay Bleu for less than €6 in a supermarket. Nevertheless, I wouldn't count Portugal as one of the places one goes for the beer.