29 December 2007

A la maud

What will probably be the last beer of the year is another of my winter Canadians: Maudite from Unibroue. It's an interesting mix of the Belgian golden ale and the typical bière de garde. The former comes through in the rich, powerful and spicy flavour, the soft texture and also the mandatory demons on the label. The latter lends a dark amber colour, opaque as the yeast goes in at the end of the 75cl bottle, and also a lovely sweet and malty character.

Maudite is a magnificent beer, and the perfect send-off for what has been a busy year on this blog, and in the beer blogging world in general. I'm away now for my annual New Year jaunt. Christmas has left me with enough new beers to keep me in entries for the first couple of weeks of 2008. Looking forward to getting stuck into that.

25 December 2007

Selection box

Christmas Day draws to a close. I was fortunate enough to make it to a Sainsbury's yesterday, where I picked up a variety of seasonal beers from their compact but bijou range.

The first isn't at all appropiate to this season: Try'd & Tested was brewed by Harviestoun for the rugby world cup back in the autumn. It pours a beautiful deep red colour and delivers lovely porter-like coffee and chocolate notes. True to the Harviestoun way, it's mostly very smooth with just a slightly unpleasant bitter buzz at the end. Nevertheless, it was just the sort of thing I was in the mood for and I enjoyed it.

I don't think I've ever been so disappointed with a beer as I was with Fuller's Old Winter Ale. It's dark enough, but is packed with very harsh, dry, bitter flavours. There's tonnes of alcohol in the taste, despite a mere 5.3%, but a total absence of spice or sweetness or body. Rarely have I been so looking forward to opening something else at the end.

Fortunately, the something else I had to hand was Meantime's Winter Time. This is full-bodied and full-flavoured, with slightly bitter dark winter fruits to the fore. The triumph of this rich and warming number is that it manages to be heavy, satisfying and sippable without being for a moment cloying or difficult. Another hit from the folk in Greenwich.

And so to the day itself. I picked two beers to go with my pudding: the first being, imaginatively, Young's Christmas Pudding. This is one of those ales that I really enjoyed but which wouldn't be to everyone's taste. It's very strange, possessed of an odd spiciness which tastes vaguely fruity but not at all Christmas-pudding-like. It's an easy going and rather quaffable beer, but it's not one to buy in large quantities if you've never tasted it.

Finally, having been disappointed by Wychwood Bah Humbug, I decided to give them a second chance with their Plumduff Christmas ale. I'm glad I did: it's lovely. It's a sweet red beer, light of body and loaded with real plum flavours, putting me more in mind of a Belgian fruit beer than anything English. If I had to fault it, it would be because it lacks a heavy, malty, bready character which would have made it genuinely puddingy. Still, very tasty.

And that's it all over for another year. Apart from the box of beery goodies Santa left me. Compliments of the season to all readers.

21 December 2007

The Adoration of the Shepherds

The Christmas holiday begins today. This year I managed to avoid the worst of the work-related bad-drink events that I tend to get sucked into: just a couple of fairly civilised lunches for me. To celebrate the end of work for two weeks, I laid in a couple of Shepherd Neame Christmas Ales, having seen them last week for the first time.

I cracked one open by the fireside this evening, and was struck first by the heady aley aroma from the neck. It's pretty close to a skunky waft, which wouldn't be surprising given the brewery's ridiculous preference for clear glass bottles. I rather like that smell, however: it's the first signal that this is proper beer. On tasting I was surprised there wasn't more of a Christmas character to it. There's just a little more warmth coming from the high alcohol (7% ABV), and a hint of spice on the very end as it warms, but mostly there are just big, candied, crystal malt flavours, and I must say I loved them.

This is a very easy drinking number, and the sort that could very easily sneak up on an unwary drinker and knock them out. Just a couple as the logs crackle in the grate, though? Lovely.

20 December 2007

High Plains snifter

Right, I'll skip the usual bit about American beers and irritating tiddly bottles. We'll take that as read.

This post is about three beers which have just appeared on the Irish market, hailing from breweries headquartered in Colorado (though yes, I'm aware that one of them has recently moved all production to the east coast, but it took me ages to come up with the title of this post and I'm not changing it now). I'm told they're being imported in minuscule quantities for strictly limited periods, and will be replaced by other American craft brews supplied on the same basis. Sounds fun, for as long as it's kept up. To business, then:

Flying Dog's Old Scratch is an amber lager and, as such, I was expecting something from the same general gene pool as Samuel Adams's Boston Lager. While the taste is some way similar, this beer is a darker, redder affair. I was disappointed by a lack of body, but then I guess you're supposed to be drinking this by the six-pack. At the end of the flavour there's a strange, but not at all unpleasant, estery taste with a hint of raspberries and similar summer fruit. Not a bad beer, but I won't be hankering after it when it disappears from the shelves.

American IPAs being what they are, I was expecting a hop attack from the bottle of Snake Dog. Instead I got a rather easy-going beer, paler than most IPAs, and with strangely sweet bubblegum and toffee notes. Approachable and eager to please, this is my sort of IPA, though probably a hophead's worst nightmare.

At the other end of that spectrum is the rather less accommodating Hercules Double IPA from Great Divide. I served this at cellar temperature and was immediately struck by how harsh and alcoholic the aftertaste was, with very little up front. Those big hops flavours just didn't sit well with the other notes and the end result was quite discordant and unappealing. I thought perhaps I should have been drinking it colder, to take some of that blunt edge off, but as it warmed I found it became smoother, rounder and infinitely more drinkable. The bottom line, however, is that this is more effort than I'm willing to put into drinking a beer. Hercules lacks the interesting and complex flavours to justify the exertion required on my part.

So, the next batch is supposed to include Anchor Christmas ale, but the next batch was also supposed to have arrived last week. This is me not holding my breath.

18 December 2007


A couple of posts ago I reported on falling into the rebadge trap: not realising Old Wallop was Director's Bitter. My excuse is that I've only had Director's once, back in 2003 in what was then Northern Ireland's first and only branch of Wetherspoon's: a pub which stuck out, in Belfast, like a sore thumb with a sticky carpet.

I'm not entirely sure if my experience last weekend really counts. At the Bull & Castle they're currently serving Raging Bull, a strong (6% ABV), dark, red, highly-hopped ale. It is, I'm told, a rebadge of Messrs Maguire Jul-Ól, which I last tasted just over two years ago and, judging from what I wrote at the time, this is a rather different product. I'm annoyed now that I missed the version they had out last year as it might help me follow the evolution of the recipe.

Same recipe, different name, same brewer, different taste. Beer can make one's head hurt in so many ways...

15 December 2007

It's windmiller time

"What brings you to Bodegraven?" I was asked three times last Sunday on my short visit to the sleepy village between Utrecht and Leiden. My response, "Why, the brewery, of course", drew unanimously surprised looks, particularly odd since two of the questioners were staffing said establishment, and the other was drinking at the next table.

The De Molen brewery and restaurant, as the name suggests, is in a windmill, much like my beloved 't IJ brewery in Amsterdam. The large back room was occupied by a private party so I took up residence in the sunny front parlour to begin working my way through the beer menu on the adjacent blackboard. Menno, host and brewer, was on hand to offer notes on the background of each. I may even remember some of what he told me.

Pilz first. Menno said he had to make a pils because the market demands it. I was very glad to see that Ireland isn't the only country whose microbreweries have to face this hurdle. It's pretty inoffensive: dry, grainy and generally unchallenging. The red-amber Bock lager is a very different proposition. This one is highly malty, yet bitter, with none of the sugariness often found in dark lagers.

The strangest thing about De Molen Dubbel is its apparent opaque muddy brown colour. Only when held up to the light is the deep red hue apparent. It's heftily bitter and the only hints of fruit -- raisins to be precise -- arrive after a few minutes of warming. Much more fruit is present in the powerful and bitter hazy orange Tripel. 9.2% ABV and deceptively smooth drinking.

Oddity de jour was Ongemoutgraan, a 4.5% ABV pale yellow beer made mostly from unmalted barley. It's a laborious process, says Menno. What it produces is a grainy, worty, porridgey flavour balanced against a zingy hoppy bitterness, and much more flavour and body than the strength suggests. An ideal summer refresher, but pretty good on a December afternoon too. Engels is another masterpiece of originality: its English heritage is apparent from the sweet and hoppy aroma. While there are a couple of English ales with the whole chocolate-and-oranges thing going on (Young's Bitter springs to mind), none have it expressed as strongly, and deliciously, as this one. And, frankly, there aren't enough beers named after the founders of communism.

I was fortunate that Menno chose the time of my visit to show off one of his latest creations to a regular. Cue expectant look from the Beer Nut in the corner. The dry-hopped Amarillos Winter Warmer was just a week in the bottle. It's another 9.2% monster, this time in an IPA sort of style, though made with La Chouffe yeast. The flavour is brimming with peaches and madarins, balanced against that IPA bitterness. Add in the flat and sticky feel of a very young and very strong beer, and you have the ideal dessert accompaniment.

De Molen beers aren't confined to their place of birth, however. Most are bottled, and a shop on site sells them alongside a variety of other artisan products. I took two bottles away with me. My only previous experience of Stoombier was the one produced by Pelgrim in Rotterdam, by which I wasn't terribly impressed. De Molen Stoombier is much much better: brimming with citrusy flavours resulting from its dry hopping. It pours to a lovely foamy head and makes for very easy drinking, despite a fairly weighty 5.7% ABV.

Proudly displayed in the De Molen shop is the brewer's certificate from the 2005 Great British Beer Festival, where Borefts Stout won Favourite Belgian/Dutch beer. Borefts is a very dry and gassy beer, and begins with a carbonic sharpness, reminding me in particular of Guinness Foreign Extra, but in a good way. It's very filling and warming, possessed of a mild chocolatey bitterness. Not the world's greatest stout, but I can see how it would be a "favourite".

In the microbrewery windmill leagues, I think my heart still belongs to 't IJ, just for its sheer oddness. However, the warmth of the welcome and the quality of the beer make De Molen well worth the trip to Bodegraven. The regulars and staff ought not be at all surprised by this.

14 December 2007

King of Beers

First stop on arriving in Amsterdam was legendary beer emporium De Bierkoning. Amongst the prodigious range of Low Countries bottles, there is an impressive selection of foreigners. I surprised myself by picking an American, a Norwegian, a German and just the one Belgian.

Flying Dog beers are just starting to touch down in Ireland, but I've not seen the Gonzo Imperial Porter yet. It pours very thickly with a slow-rising café crème head. The aroma is rich and estery, with almost the essence of a solvent. A syrupy feel and sweet coffee notes are at the front, followed by an orangey, pithy, bitterness. Not a beer to be taken lightly, despite a piddling 8.7% ABV. More from Flying Dog soon(ish).

It seems to me that Norway's craft brewers are turning out new beers faster than I can drink them. (The fact that they're not sold in my home country doesn't help either.) I'm just now catching up to Haandbryggeriet Dark Force, another strong black beer. This goes all-out for a powerful hoppy bite, with only a gentle coffee mellowness to take the edge off. I detected some licquorice notes at the very end as well. Half a litre of this is a bit of a rollercoaster.

The German, chosen largely at random, was a pale bock: Leonhardi Bock Heller, by Hummel-Bräu. It's a beautiful dark gold colour and the flavour engages in a tugging match between sugary alcoholic notes (it's 7.5% ABV) and dry throat-catching bitterness. This all makes for a complex, interesting and highly enjoyable experience.

To Belgium, then, and a bottle of legendary Christmas ale Stille Nacht. It pours a hazy orange colour with a big foamy head, yet has a very light and typically Belgian carbonation. It's strong, it's bitter and it's hoppy, but I just didn't feel warmed by it. As Christmas ales go, I think I'd pass on this one.

I didn't have time for a whole lot of pubbing around Amsterdam, but did squeeze in an hour or two on the mezzanine of Café Gollem -- the best seat for a view of the blackboard menu around the walls. Here I had another one from the makers of Stille Nacht, Arabier. It's a pale Belgian ale with the contrast of malty sweetness and hoppy bitterness I most associate with Duvel, but here the two flavours act separately and the result is a little bit sharp and discordant for my liking.

Quite possibly my favourite beer of the trip was that trans-North-Sea oddity Martin's Pale Ale. Here we find the floral and tannic notes of an English ale, but tempered -- quite beautifully, in this blogger's opinion -- with some very Belgian sugar notes and a soft carbonation. Shame about the 33cl bottle: I could neck this by the pint quite happily.

I've come this far and managed to avoid mentioning a single Dutch beer. No more. First up was La Trappe Tripel, a gorgeous red-gold honey colour with yet more honey on the nose. Alas it's not as much of a feast for the tastebuds as it is for the other senses. While there's a little bit of honey in the flavour, there's not a whole else going on. The absence of the full-on fruity and spicy and bitter tripel experience makes it a disappointing example of the genre.

How does one follow a La Trappe? Why, with an Amstel, of course. In a café in Haarlem on Monday afternoon I saw table cards advertising Amstel Rijpe Bock, and I figured I'd have me one of them. Not surprisingly, from Heineken's low-rent offspring, this doesn't taste of much. However, the slight sweet-sour fruit flavours with a hint of smoke, and especially the light ungassy texture, make this quite a pleasant drinking experience, if not exactly a challenging one.

More Dutch beer to follow, and then I'll finally be caught up with everything. Unless I try a new beer in the meantime, of course. The Flying Dogs are calling me, as Kate Bush might have said if she were rather madder than she already is.

12 December 2007

The outsiders

The foreign beer selection at Pig's Ear was astounding, but I wasn't there to drink non-British beer. Nevertheless, when one of my tablemates offered round something particularly worthy to taste, who am I resist? Two Danes first, both from Ølfabrikken. Their Brown is a very tasty drop: bittersweet, round and rich but, like lots of Scandanavian craft beer, a smidge too much carbonation. The same brewery's Porter is an even more delicious proposition. It packs a mighty, uncompromising bitterness which is brimming with coffee and chocolate flavours -- I defy anyone not to enjoy this.

Still in parts northern, I was offered a taste of Nøgne Ø Imperial Stout, a smooth and easy-drinking black beer which offers a wonderful warming sensation. Yet another classic from the Grimstad crew.

Last of all, some Westvleteren 12 came my way. Sure, this is as rich and fruity as everyone says, but the flavours are kind of muted and more subtle than I like in this style. I think I'd take one of the higher-digit Rocheforts first, frankly.

And no sooner was I home than it was time to head off again. Beer fun in Amsterdam: next on The Beer Nut.

11 December 2007

Royal Borough of Kensington & Hackney

Back to London again. Not literally, but in the notes I have scribbled on the back of a map of Kensington.

It was in Kensington, at the Scarsdale Arms, that I had my first pint of the trip. Accompanied by Knut Albert and a most excellent steak and ale pie, I had a Fortyniner -- a smooth cask bitter with lovely, rounded and slightly sweet flavour notes. My guess is that the ancestors of John Smith's and similar crap keg ales tasted like this. Much later the same evening I dropped in to the Prince of Wales on the way back to my hotel. There they were serving Timothy Taylor Landlord, a beer I believe is due to arrive, bottled, in Ireland soon. It's a very bitter bitter which arrives quite harshly on the first sip. After a while it mellows a little, but doesn't come through with enough malt or fruit or the other things I like -- my opinion of it hasn't changed since last time.

Next day I was at a corporate party in a swanky Bloomsbury winebar. Amongst the canapes and vins de table was an (almost) endless supply four-pint copper jugs of Old Wallop (re-badged Director's sayeth Stonch -- see comments). We were given pewter mugs to drink it from, so I'm not 100% sure of the colour, but it appeared to be quite a bright, clear red shade. It looked to be served from a keg, and was indeed very cold, but the faintly carbonated texture was that of a beer cask conditioned: a remarkable achievement, if I'm right. Tastewise, it is a sweet and malty ale, and very easy going. Good for a session and great for free.

Finally, to my English local: Wetherspoons, landside, Heathrow Terminal 1. Normally I'd have one of the four cask ales they always have on. Nothing interested me this time round so I went for a bottle of Shepherd Neame Late Red. This "autumn hop ale" is a lovely ruby shade and, despite the name, hardly bitter and really quite malty -- anyone looking for serious hops will want their money back. On first taste there's a big sugary crystal malt explosion but it's not followed by very much at all. On the second sip the novelty wears off and the beer blogger runs out of things to write about. Next!

In between all this, there was my trip to the Pig's Ear in Hackney, as mentioned in my last post. Once I was satisfied I had clocked up enough Christmas beers (and was fed up with the pale ones) I settled down to enjoy myself properly. First up, Fox & Newt Dark Side. This is in the old ale style, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite beer genres. The dominant flavour is mildly bitter chocolate and the whole lot slips down easily and silkily. It's a contrast with Custom Special Mild, a ruby ale which is sharp and fruity but still manages to keep a lid on any harsh or powerful flavours, just like a mild should.

Among the drinkers at my table, many complements were being paid to Twickenham Strong and Dark, and rightly so for this delicously smoky, hammy ale. The festival special everyone was talking about was a barleywine: Night on Mare St. 2. Stronger than its predecessor last year, this one is 14.2% ABV and tastes every bit. Yet, amidst the overwhelming sugary alcoholic notes, there is a tasty touch of ripe, dark fruit.

As well as the main bar, another one at the back of the hall was serving foreign beers, mainly bottled but with a handful on cask. The few bottles I had a sip from (not directly!) will be covered in the next post.

07 December 2007

'Tis the Season, or is it?

For once, I knew I'd have it easy getting hold of suitably Sessionable beers. The theme is winter warmers and comes a couple of days after I paid a visit to the Pig's Ear festival in Hackney, whose stunning list included quite a few Christmas specials. I also had one held over from my trip to Belfast a fortnight ago: Sanity Claus by Whitewater. I had been expecting something dark, warming and, y'know, Christmassy, but was surprised and disappointed to find it pale, dry, watery, yet rather harsh as well. It turns out that this pale Christmas ale is a style made by several UK brewers. In Hackney I had a taste of Rudolph's Balls. It's quite bland, yet also hard to drink because of its uncompromising bitterness. There's a huge hole in the flavour where some spice would fit perfectly. After these two I was relieved to find a pale Christmas ale that actually tastes good: Santa's Swallie by Inveralmond. Here, there's a tasty maltiness sitting alongside the dryness which, to me, resembles the lighter kind of lambic. I enjoyed it, but none of these pale beers are what I'd be looking for at Christmas time.

Thankfully, there were a few what I'd regard as "proper" Christmas ales on cask at Pig's Ear. Probably the best of the lot was Nobby's Santa's Secret. This dark ruby beer has pronounced sweet and spicy cake notes overlaying a rich and satisfying warmth and finishing with a lingering chocolate flavour. Textbook stuff. The St. Jude's brewery provided St. Gabriel's Christmas Ale, a mild and dark beer with pronounced coffee flavours and a gentle kick of nutmeg. Beautifully crafted and effortless to drink (despite a hefty 6.5% ABV) but not exactly warming per se. Ramping up the alcohol to 9.8%, there's Ballard's Blizzard. This is an incredibly heavy beer which goes down very easy but sits in the stomach for ages. There's a lovely strawberry flavour in amongst the malty alcoholic notes.

It's hardly surprising that dark winter beers are popular in Norway, and two examples were kindly donated to me by fellow blogger Knut who accompanied me to Hackney on Tuesday. From macrobrewer Ringnes there's Juleøl: a red ale with a very sticky, sugary aroma but which is surprisingly unsweet. It has the warming alcohol flavours one would expect but is ultimately a little tasteless. A much better proposal is Nissemor from Haandbryggriet. This is similarly red brown but is brimming with flavour: raisins, chocolate and a gorgeous spiciness. Like the St. Gabriel's it's strong (6.5% again) but not exactly warming and rather heavily carbonated. However, the abundance of great flavour keeps the palate too busy to notice or complain.

There's much more to report on from London and the Pig's Ear (and some slightly better photos), but it'll have to wait a few days as I'm off to Amsterdam tomorrow for a weekend of rest and, possibly, a couple of beers. In the meantime you can read about it from the perspectives of Stonch, Maeib and Boak&Bailey (update: now with added Knut Albert).

01 December 2007

Die bürgermeister

Gourmet burgers are the new rock 'n' roll in Dublin at the moment, and a new fancy joint opens every couple of months. I had avoided all of them until this afternoon when I found myself in the vicinity of Jo'Burger in Rathmines and reckoned I'd chance it. It's fashion victim heaven, and I think an effort has been made to have a beer list reflecting this uber-avant-garde-ness. None of your Tiger or Erdinger for the bohemians of Dublin 6; instead you may choose between Duvel (in two sizes), Vedett or Schneider Weisse Kristall. I opted for the latter as I've never had it. Kristall, in general, just doesn't do it for me.

First surprise was how pale it was: a bright washing-up liquid yellow. It's very fruity, even by weissbier standards, with a powerful banana punch up front. I've read and heard a lot about clove flavours in weiss but I had never before encountered them in real life. After a couple of sips of Schneider Kristall, however, there were the cloves climbing into my nose from the back of the palate. I was impressed, but I very much doubt I'll ever opt for one of these over normal dark and cloudy Schneider.

Opposite Jo'Burger there's an Aldi, currently selling 5 litre minikegs of Dortmund's DAB Original for €15. I went home with one, feeling like Gene Hunt carying a party seven (second TV reference in two posts: need to get out more). Minikegs are very popular in Germany, but are relatively new here, and mostly contain Irish-made Warsteiner or Heineken. DAB is a cut above either. Following the instruction to serve at 8-10° C, I found it had a very pleasant full, smooth and ungassy mouthfeel, very like an ale. There's plenty of head, but I'm led to believe that's a feature of minikegs. The taste is dry and corny; smooth yet interesting enough to hold your attention. I understand that Dortmund lagers are very similar to kölschs, despite the latter being top-fermenting ales. I can see the similarity in this, but it's definitely easier drinking than most any German kölsch I know.

And with that, my Maßkrug (pictured) is empty and I must return to the minikeg. Four litres to go. Prost!

30 November 2007

The Alan Partridge Project

Last year I reported on a visit to a dire pub in what used to be rural England but is now just off the road to somewhere else. This week I went one further and found myself in a generic low-rent business hotel in the English midlands: exactly the sort of Travel Tavern that Alan Partridge used to live in. It was, of course, a real ale desert (how did he survive so far from his beloved Director's Bitter?), with the bar taps dominated by InBev products, including Boddington's. It's a very sweet, light keg bitter: unchallenging but still quite tough drinking. I stopped at one pint.

My trip was far from a total waste, however. With some careful planning I found myself with a couple of hours to spare in central Manchester. I had picked out a handful of pubs worth visiting, but never got past the first: the gloriously appointed Marble Arch. This quirky boozer is kitted out in steel-and-ceramic Victorian bling and boasts a curiously slanting floor throughout. Out back, the house brewery produces a range of cask and bottled beers, the latter available to take away. Everyone in the house was drinking Manchester Bitter, a shockingly pale yellow lager lookalike. The resemblance ends there, however. This has a strong fresh hoppy aroma and greets the palate with a lemony bitterness which would appeal to any witbier fan. It's a wonderfully refreshing classic bitter and, I can only presume, the sort of beer that Boddington's would like to be.

The house range also includes Stouter Stout, a very sharp, bitter, but creamy stout. The abundance of hops is there right from the nose and is carried through in the strong rich bitter flavours. For a stout this is just too tart to my taste: IPA dressed as stout and off-puttingly weird, despite the care and attention that obviously went into making it. The house also makes Ginger Marble, another very yellow ale. The clue's in the title here, but in case of doubt there's a sweet, candied ginger aroma first off. This is followed by a gorgeous back-of-the-mouth raw ginger burn on the first swallow, with a legacy of ginger nut biscuits on the lips. I think this is the best ginger-flavoured beer I've ever tasted and would make a superb aperitif. And every flavoursome beer the Marble Brewery produces is 100% organic: proof that most everyone else is just doing organic wrong.

Of the guest ales, Spitting Feathers caught my attention first. This is a "smoked autumn ale", thick and creamy with little foretaste and almost reminiscent of a nasty keg ale. The smoke comes through afterwards in a vague sort of way, after some unpleasant dry mustiness. My limited experience of smoked beer has led me to expect the full-on bacon flavour experience and you don't get that with this. Two guest taps were displaying clips from Scottish craft brewing's enfant terrible Brew Dog. When I asked the barman whether I should go for Hype or Buzz, he told me he'd sold more Hype that evening, so that's what I ordered. Again, this is a very pale affair but it more than makes up for it in texture and flavour. It's warm and hits the palate with a hefty bitterness. A heavy and filling beer, all-in-all, despite having a mere 4.1% ABV.

With a heavy heart I left the pub and headed to the airport. A little previous research allowed me to stave off the return to keg ale for a few more precious minutes. The online menu of terrifyingly cheery family restaurant Giraffe included, among the Corona and Tiger, Brooklyn Lager. This is an impressively amber beer with a hoppy aroma, smelling for all the world like the lighter sort of American IPA. On first sip there's a full body and a strong malty flavour, carrying through to a dry bitter bite at the very end. Brooklyn is a thinking man's lager, and not just because the brewmaster is now a published philosopher.

A delay to my flight meant the time eventually came to bite the bullet and approach the main bar, where Worthington's Bitter was the house ale. Unlike the Boddington's, this is properly amber coloured. It has a striking burnt corn flavour, liked singed tortilla chips. Flavoursome, but not really in the right way.

I feel Manchester definitely warrants further barstool-based research. It'd just be a question of tearing myself away from the Marble Arch.

26 November 2007

'Bout ye, big lad

Behind the taps at the Belfast Beer & Cider Festival were a number of strong beers being poured directly from the cask. I didn't mean to try every single one that was on, but looking at the list now, I think I did. Oops.

The only pale one was Thomas Sykes, a very heavy amber ale from Burton Bridge, with 10% ABV. This has off-putting strong fruit ester flavours making it warming but just a bit too cloying and difficult to stomach in any great quantity. I derived much more enjoyment from the rich hoppiness of Titanic Wreckage: a lightweight at only 7.2%. There's a little more sugar in the flavour than is strictly warranted, but mostly it has a lovely rounded double (or at least one-and-a-half) IPA kick to it.

Robinson's Old Tom was one I had really been looking forward to. It must have been on trying something like this dark red ale of 8.5% ABV that someone invented the term "barleywine". This has many of the flavour and aroma characteristics of a robust wine, but is unmistakably a beer. It offers fantastic per-sip value, starting with the exciting fruity and spicy nose all the way through to the chocolatey aftertaste which lingers for ever.

The last beer is the charmingly titled Liquid Lobotomy, an 8% ABV stout whose claim to fame is that all the alcohol is grain-derived, with no added extract or sugars. The aroma is a little shocking, with pronounced sulphurous notes. On the palate this is reduced to a mere tang, however. The rest of the flavour is rather mild, with more fruity-winey notes. Despite the mildness, the thick and syrupy texture makes this one quite tough going.

I have to put a footnote in about the other side of the festival: the cider. Normally I wouldn't go to the back door for cider, but ever since I read about it in Iorwerth Griffiths's guide to Irish beer and cider (p. 143), I have been intrigued by the nascent government-sponsored craft cider movement in Armagh. I was born and raised in the Orchard County, and the idea that my homeplace could be turned into a cider attraction like parts of Normandy and Brittany feels quite strange, yet has a certain obviousness about it. So I made sure I tried a half of Mac's Dry cider -- sharp, slightly cloudy and up there with the best France has to offer, in my totally unbiased opinion.

25 November 2007

CAMRA, action!

Yesterday I paid my first visit to a CAMRA-organised event, the 2007 Belfast Beer & Cider Festival at the King's Hall. I was in early and spent the whole afternoon merrily ticking away. I'll be needing two posts to cover everything, so here goes:

Dragon's Fire was one of the first up, a light ale from J.W. Lees. This has a powerful raw maltiness of the sort you get from chewing grains of crystal malt. There's very little bitterness or alcoholic weight to it which, coupled with the sweetness, put me in mind of an unhopped, unfermented wort. Tasty, but curious. Another pleasant odd one was Tom Wood's Old Timber which does exactly what it says on the pump clip, giving off a strong woody aroma and having a sharp woody foretaste, followed by tea-like notes and a touch of burnt corn right on the end.

Staying on the light side of the colour chart, there's the gloriously-named Tabitha the Knackered. It wasn't just the name that intrigued me: the festival programme described this as a "Belgian style warming Tripel", yet having only 4% ABV.The answer to the enigma was a rather disappointing straw-coloured lagery quaffing beer. A better session option is the legendary Woodforde's Wherry, perhaps best known in its homebrew kit form. This is a pale amber bitter with light hops on the nose and almost no carbonation. Coupled with a slightly thin mouthfeel and only 3.8% ABV, this gently citric ale goes down very easily and pleasantly.

There were a couple of beers on from Fyne Ales in Scotland. I tried out Vital Spark, a dark amber bitter, marvellously smooth with a chocolate-and-hops character and some strong tannic notes at the end. Thrappledouser is another deep orange Scot, mildly and refreshingly hoppy. The award for best use of hops, however, goes to Pressed Rat & Warthog by the Triple fff brewery of Hampshire. This deep dark ruby ale has a powerful hoppy aroma and delivers an electric hops burst to the back teeth at first sip. If one takes the time to savour it, there's a tart and sweet peachy flavour at the front of the tongue backed up by some tea-like tannins. This one's a full mouth workout.

On to the dark side, then. Adnams Old Ale, while not a stout, has smooth roasted stouty flavours with just an added pinch of vanilla. More complex is Black Adder, which has a sweet and malty nose and a big mouthfeel. The foretaste carries a sense of the forest floor: earthy, mushroomy. After that there are pleasant bitter coffee notes and a wisp of smoke. Dark Island from the Orkney brewery is another smoky dark one, but quite easy drinking with it: I'd expect nothing less from the home of Skullsplitter.

Finishing off the dark section are two superbly well-crafted beers: Black Dog from Elgood's is a mild, and is the appropriate shade of very dark brown. There's a distinct hoppiness and a slightly fruity crab apple bitterness, but they're balanced beautifully with the warm roasted notes of the classic mild. A slightly thin mouthfeel make this very moreish and a beer I'd love to spend more quality time with. On the heavier side is O'Hanlon's Port Stout: a powerful, filling, satisfying beer. The ruby port with which it is laced is present on the nose, but not so much in the taste. Instead there's an intense coffee bitterness coupled with dry and malty stout flavours. A beauty.

That's a run through the lower strength beers on offer. However, a range of top-shelf casks were available to the discerning and/or foolhardy strictly by the half pint only. These powerhouses will be the subject of my next post.

23 November 2007

Auld silkie

Temperatures have dropped below zero for the first time this winter, so my preference for dark and warming beers continues and this evening is combined with my investigation of the many Scottish craft brews in Dublin's bottleshops. Broughton Old Jock is about as Scottish as they come, even if it's from just across the border from the Sassanachs. It's a rich and deep dark red ale, lightly carbonated pouring to a stiff head. The mouthfeel is incredibly smooth and rounded, making it effortless drinking despite a powerful 6.7% alcohol.

There are hops on the label and hops embossed on the glass, but little by way of hops in the flavour. Instead you get a malty ale with mild and tasty milk chocolate notes. As it warms, there's a faint peppery spice to it as well. The fullness of its flavours and the lightness of its touch suggest to me a kind of half-barleywine: strong and malty, but you could easily put a pint away by the fireside and feel much the better for it.

18 November 2007

Max power

It's another dark and dreary evening, calling for another dark and comforting beer. I'm going with Maximator, one of the famous -ator doppelbocks from Munich. I tried both Salvator and Triumphator, from Paulaner and Löwenbräu respectively, when I was in Munich a couple of years back. Maximator is by Augustiner, a brewery I particularly associate with exceptionally smooth lagers and it's this smoothness that is a hallmark of their doppelbock too.

If memory serves me, it's lighter in colour than the others, being a coppery red rather than the usual caramel brown. On the palate there's a fair bit of sugar -- but not too much -- and a faint wisp of smoke, but not really a whole lot else. Coupled with a full but not heavy mouthfeel, this slips down easily in the right sort of filling and satisfying way. Gemütlichkeit from a bottle.

17 November 2007

Goldy lochs

Before I opened the bottle, Lomond Gold did strange things to my complex of prejudices. It's a Scottish craft beer, which is normally good; but it's also a golden ale, a style I'm getting seriously bored with; and it's organic, which in my experience means it will be lacking full-on aley flavours.

Two against one beats, as it turns out. Lomond Gold is quite a dull and difficult affair. It has a very heavy mouthfeel: thick, sugary and cloying. This is allied with a sharp gassiness to make it hard going to drink. The rewards for this effort aren't great. There is very little by way of flavour here. Hunting around, there's a hint of honey that goes with the sugary thickness, and there's a very slight citrus zest in the aftertaste, but really I may just be imagining it.

There are more Scottish beers than ever before in my local off licences these days. I'm really looking forward to trying them all out. But I'll be disappointed if many of them turn out like this one.

16 November 2007

Arbitrating the arbitrary

Random shelf sweeps in off licences are a fairly routine part of my drinking life. A recent one turned up a bottle of Honey Brown Lager from the Sleeman brewery in Ontario. The amber colour (or "honey brown", if you prefer) is impressive, and there's a gently sweet honey aroma and foretaste. Coupled with the light carbonation and full mouthfeel, a sip of this is a pleasant experience. However, it's also a short-lived one. After a second the honey flavours give way to... nothing, and the drinker is left with just another quite tasteless North American lager. A shame, because a little tweaking could make this one of the very few genuinely tasty honey beers. I can't complain too much, however: with random selection, it's not the quality of the beer that counts so much as the knowledge it brings. *Tick*

Very occasionally, I get to do the opposite of random selection when a beer I've been looking for shows up on a shelf in front of me. Top of my want list, until yesterday, was Old Engine Oil from Harviestoun. My experiences with Bitter & Twisted and Schiehallion tell me that this crowd know a thing or two about making beer. While their other two are readily available in Dublin's better off licences, the lack of the final beer in their range seemed like an anomaly. Some distributor has now rectified that, thankfully.

The pour leaves one in no doubt why the brewer who invented it, an ex-engineer, bestowed this particular name on the beer: it's very thick and very black. Carbonation is light and results in only the thinnest of heads. There's an aroma of ripe, dark fruits which reminds me a lot of the Trappist ales. Unsurprisingly the mouthfeel is thick and chewy, as one gets with much stronger dark beers. Conversely, the taste is rather more subtle than one would expect for a dark beer of 6% ABV. That's not to say it isn't complex, however. The ripe fruit is there again, included in quite a sharp sourness. I served it chilled, as recommended, but found that the sourness gradually subsided as it warmed and was replaced by richer bitter chocolate notes. When combined with the lack of gas, this makes for some very smooth drinking indeed.

My bottle was dated March 2009, so I'm wondering if the sourness was a product of the beer being too young, as it may have been with the Westvleteren 8 I had recently. At the moment I have a box of beers I'm planning to set aside for a year or so to see if they improve. I reckon I'll throw one of these in there as well.

10 November 2007

Putting the "meh" into Meles Meles

A recent haul of ales from across the border included a "sett" of Badger ales from Hall & Woodhouse in Dorset. This variety four-pack includes Tanglefoot, which I covered for the purposes of the brew zoo -- it's nice as far as it goes, but not a classic by any means. Tonight it's the turn of three more badgers.

I'm starting with First Gold, a double medallist in the ale category at the Brewing Industry International Awards in 2005. It's a beautiful red colour with a lasting creamy head. On the first sip there's a delicious caramelised sugar piquancy, but this unfortunately doesn't last long. The hops, which are intended to be the defining characteristic of the beer, show up next but in too few numbers. The bitterness is enough to kill the malt notes, but insufficient to make the beer genuinely interesting. Impressive for just 4% ABV, but that's about all I can say.

The opposite is true of Golden Champion: it's a full 5%, but tastes much lighter. That's not to say it isn't complex, however. It greets the nose with a gentle lavender perfume and follows it with a perfumey flavour, tempered with honey, which is striking and distinctive but not at all cloying. I'm not the greatest fan of England's golden ales, but this is how they ought to be done.

And so expectations were high on approach to Badger number 3: Golden Glory. I didn't read the label first (I never do) but I didn't need to have it in writing that this is made with peaches (peach blossom, actually), because there are peaches on the nose and peaches aplenty in the foretaste. Alas, like the First Gold, the immediate sweetness is rudely sat upon by a sharp and rather harsh bitterness that contributes little else to the flavour.

I'd come back to the Golden Champion on a summer's day, but the rest: meh.

09 November 2007

Zero sub-zero tolerance

I was in Egypt a couple of years ago. It's not, you may be surprised to learn, the world's greatest beer destination. A frequent hazard of drinking Egyptian bottled lager (Stella Export for preference, Saqqara at a pinch) was the possibility of it being ceremoniously poured while partly frozen, and having to either send it back and explain why, or try to drink round the beery ice chips. I was highly amused, therefore, when I read the label of a Lebanese beer I had last night. There with the ingredients, strength and provenance of the bottle of Almaza was the stark proviso in red lettering: DO NOT FREEZE. It's nice to know that in Lebanon at least, someone is looking after the fussy drinkers like me.

Alamaza isn't half bad. It's made with sweetcorn -- and lots of it, I suspect -- so it has a very sweet and grainy taste. The mouthfeel is smooth and quite Germanic. Making beer with maize sounds like a terrible idea, but the flavour here was at least interesting, which is not something one often gets with middle eastern beer. And there aren't many 33cl bottles of lager to be had in the Dublin on-trade for €3.50. I think I got value for money.

Some closer-to-home sweetcorn beer next. After my mezze I was in Mulligan's of Poolbeg Street for the evening. It's one of the few establishments with Macardles on draught. I'd only ever had this Irish red ale, made by Diageo in Dundalk, from a can before and was hugely unimpressed. On draught, however, it's not half bad. There's not a trace of the hollow wateriness of the canned version. Instead there's a full body and a powerful sugary sweetness, tempered by a dry and bitter finish. Few Irish reds are this complex. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. And the maize? Well, Iorwerth Griffiths, in his indispensable Beer & Cider in Ireland: The Complete Guide, tells us that the McArdle's recipe includes flaked maize for head retention. Isn't it great when someone else does my tenuous linking for me?

02 November 2007

Manic Stout Porters

I'm going through a bit of a black beer phase at the moment. Stout and porter, when done properly, offer a highly complex texture and flavour experience. The way the different elements work in harmony is quite similar, I think, to how a piece of music works. Since this month's Session is on beer and music I'm wondering what it would be like if the international stouts and porters I've had recently were bands.

To England first, and Wychwood's Black Wych. I'm never quite sure what to expect with Wychwood, having had very good and very bad experiences. Despite the name, this is a good wych. It pours to a thick, tight head and gives off a disquieting sweet estery aroma, like cheap and nasty chocolate. There's very little trace of it in the taste, however. Instead there's a sharp dry tang of roasted barley followed by a lasting aftertaste of mild and milky coffee. Best of all is the silky smooth mouthfeel, nearly worth the price of admission alone. If it were a band, Black Wych would be one of those hard-working groups who are head-noddingly good live, that you are always glad to see as a support act, but you're not likely to own any of their records.

Beer does flow and men chunder in the home of the next candidate: Cooper's Best Extra Stout. Like the Sparkling Ale from the same brewery, this stout is full of yeasty floaters, occasionally visible in the deep gloom of the beer. Texture is the strong point here: a lovely creamy mouthfeel and amazing head retention, with a centimetre of parchment-coloured foam lasting for all of a slow tasting. Alas, this beer doesn't come through on the flavour. It's incredibly dry and unsurprisingly yeasty. It's not bitter, however, and without some sort of hops or roasted grain element I can't warm to it. In the music industry it would be a very well-equipped band capable of an amazing sound, but utterly lacking in talent.

The US is next on the hitlist: Sierra Nevada Porter, to be precise. Again the head is thin but resilient and the beer has a promising malty nose. Typical of an American, however, it's inappropriately over-carbonated giving a prickly mouthfeel instead of smoothness. And it tastes of bugger all. It's half-heartedly dry and has these metallic off-notes at the end. As a band, I'd expect it to be a motley assembly of teenage buskers demonstrating little-to-no understanding of tempo, melody and harmony.

The Basque country's Pagoa Zunbeltz brings us back to Europe. This is quite an undemanding stout: light and fizzy with coffee notes in the ascendant. It's a high quality craft beer but I can't imagine growing to love it. That elegant lady singing standards to a light jazz backing is what it is.

We finish back in England with a bottle of Fuller's London Porter, a beer of very great repute. Dark brown in colour, it's smooth yet sparkly, but without much by way of head, relatively speaking. The aroma carries the rich promise of malt and chocolate. It's not overly flavoursome, but letting it sit on the tongue for a while brings forth milk chocolate with a bitter hoppy twang at the end. I was expecting Hendrix on the Isle of Wight, but got present-day Springsteen instead. I can live with that.

(Incidentally, if you were expecting a post about Irish music, all you need to know is in this short film.)

31 October 2007

A Samhain whine

As sure as the turn of the seasons itself, one can rely on articles in the Irish papers this time of year about how Halloween is our own festival, being sold back to us by the Americans, with added sundry commercial bells and whistles.

When I was a child the Halloween tradition was to hollow out and carve a face in a turnip. We didn't actually do it, but it was a tradition nonetheless. Our parents would tell us about it, and buy turnips, which would sit uncarved and then get thrown out several weeks later, before the Christmas decorations went up. Of course when the tradition was exported to North America, the turnip became a pumpkin: indigenous to America and way easier to carve. I swear I never saw a real live pumpkin for sale here until about three or four years ago. That J.K. Rowling has a lot to answer for.

Last weekend a friend invited me over to his place to carve pumpkins. There was drink involved so it was OK and no-one lost any thumbs. You can see my surrealist masterpiece at the bottom of this post. The topic around the carving table was how pumpkins really don't taste of much, and that you need to throw in buckets of cinnamon or nutmeg to get any value out of cooking one. And that, presumably, is why the pumpkin beer I'm drinking this Halloween night is made with mace. It's a bottle of Pumpking from the Wychwood brewery in Oxfordshire.

The pourer is greeted with a lovely rich red colour and a soft foamy head. The aroma calls to mind another Halloween tradition, the toffee apple. Flavourwise the mace is there, adding a bold spiciness, but underneath there's the warm caramel maltiness of really good English ale. Of fruit there is none, but that's hardly surprising.

Pumpking is a lovely beer and, despite the OTT branding, really is a seriously enjoyable autumn tipple.

Time one of our local brewers started making a turnip beer, I reckon.

29 October 2007

Spontaneous dégustation

My visit to the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels back in 2004 was something of a revelation. I knew my lambics and my gueuzes from a drinker's point of view, and I knew that they were created through a process called "spontaneous fermentation". However, it wasn't until I was standing in the attic of the brewery looking at the huge shallow copper tray that I realised what that actually meant: the brewers just spread the wort out on the flat surface and wait for the natural wild yeasts to come in and do their stuff. When I explain to brewers that I quite fancy having a go at making beer this way they give me a Look. Some day I will, and learn my lesson while doing it, no doubt.

In the meantime, I'm content to drink the commercial examples available to me, and in Belgium last month I made a point of trying out as many as I could get. This post is a run-down of those, and finishes the series of posts on the trip.

Two of the beers I regard as beginners' lambic and both are made by some of Belgium's largest brewers. Bellevue Gueuze (InBev) is sweet and unchallenging almost to the point of being non-descript. There's a smidge more character to Mort Subite Gueuze (Alken-Maes), with its candy sugar foretaste and just a hint of sourness at the end. I think this was the first gueuze I ever tasted, and it's a good one to start with.

Off next to what's probably my favourite pub in the whole wide world. On every visit to Brussels I make time for a visit to A La Bécasse. A big part of the attraction is having beer served in clay jugs, but the main draw for me is the house speciality: Lambic Doux. This is a light, sweet-and-sour golden lambic which slips down with indecent ease: a large jug for me, and I don't need a glass. I did manage to tear myself away from it briefly to try their other house beer, Lambic Blanc. This is an odd hybrid of a Belgian witbier and the sweeter sort of lambic. The result is a bitter and dry fruity wheat beer with sweeter notes in the background: complex and lip-smackingly good. Both beers are InBev products and clearly demonstrate that brewing behemoths can make quality beer if they want to.

Which brings me down to the smaller operators. Of course I had a Cantillon Gueuze, and brought one home too. It pours a pale orange colour, with a slight haze to it. The taste is fresh and zesty, popping with notes of citrus and gunpowder. It's sour, of course, but not astringent. In fact, it's almost quaffable, but is best savoured. Cantillon is organic too, which I think makes it my favourite organic beer.

Finally, I had heard very good things about the 3 Fonteinen range, so took the opportunity to try their Oude Geuze. In contrast to the young and lively Cantillon, this pours out a mellow red-gold colour with almost no carbonation. It has the sharply alkaline taste of the sourer gueuzes, reminiscent of nitre and brick cellars, but it's smooth and rounded with it. This is a beer that's not in a hurry and needs to be taken seriously.

So that's a few days' adventures in lambic. Making my own though: that's the real adventure.

28 October 2007

Last beer blues

Oktoberfest in the Bull & Castle wrapped up last night. I enjoyed a variety of different beers during the evening and was planning on finishing with something dark and malty -- Aventinus or Kwak were particularly in mind. However, at the last minute, and possessed by a sudden need for novelty, I ended up opting for a Samuel Adams Octoberfest. I was sadly disappointed. This rather thick, flat beer pours a shocking reddish colour. It's certainly sweet, but not at all in the way a märzen should be. Instead, it has the corny-syrupy cloying sweetness of a high-alcohol tramps' brew.

I really wish I'd had that Aventinus now...

26 October 2007

A storm brewing

There's no doubt that the beer market in Ireland is currently undergoing an upheaval. Choice on the shelves has never been greater and several new Irish breweries are said to be on their way. However, I'm sitting here (offline: I'll post this later) in the pub with the truest indication yet that the revolution is at hand: it's a pint of draught Irish stout without a nitro head. Ten minutes ago I would have told you such a thing was unthinkable, and that consumer taste in Ireland -- sculpted by Diageo to its own ends -- would never stand for it. But here we are. Only marginally less odd is the fact that it's being brewed and served in Messrs Maguire, a Dublin pub known for its laissez faire attitude to the often excellent house beers.

The beer itself is Messrs Maguire Imperial Stout, and it's a cracker. Light for an imperial at only 7% ABV, but style-shmyle. It hits the nose with powerful roasted aromas and follows them with a bitter and almost mediciney foretaste, followed quickly by a chocolate middle, the classic Irish stout dryness at the end and ohhh that rich mouthfeel of a purely carbonated draught stout.

Clearly a well-deserved poke in the eye for our domineering Uncle Arthur. They should have called it anti-Imperial Stout.This is the third delicious new beer in a row I've found following intelligence received on the IrishCraftBrewer.com forums. So I'd just like to say thank you to any ICBers who may be reading for making my drinking life so much better. And a special cheers to the site's management (they give me free homemade beer sometimes, so I'm basically owned, but I'd probably say it anyway...).

Here's to the future: may the only nitrogen be outside the glass.

No penance

Last night was the first of Oktoberfest at the Bull & Castle Beerhall (continuing today and tomorrow -- tell your friends). Among the special additions to the stock are two from the Franciscan Well pub-brewery in Cork: Rebel Red and their regular seasonal, Purgatory.

I love trying a beer with no idea what style it is. For no reason at all I was expecting Purgatory to be fruity and spicy, like a maibock perhaps. However, it's a super-hoppy, slightly cloudy, light orange American-style pale ale ("Anglo-American" it says on the web site, but the texture is all wrong for England). After the first bitter smack of hops, the flavour settles down to a lasting crisp dryness.

Like many of the Franciscan Well beers, Purgatory is a bit rough round the edges. For me, this shows it's made by humans not machines and I have no complaint.

Much as I love the notion of brewpubs keeping their seasonals exclusive to themselves, I'm a lazy, lazy man, and having a direct line from the 'Well to Dublin is something I could get used to.

24 October 2007

Pistoles at dusk

With the evenings drawing in, it seems to be that time of year when beer bloggers' thoughts turn to dark and warming brews (well, in the northern hemisphere anyway). Never one to let a bandwagon roll by me, this evening I've popped the cork on a bottle of Trois Pistoles from Quebec's Unibroue. One is left in no doubt as to its bottle-conditioned, er, condition, from the thick layer of sediment in the bottle. It pours a dark rich red-brown with a giant cream-coloured head. It's definitely not over-carbonated, however, as the mouthfeel is quite smooth and rounded. Tastewise, it's very similar to the fruitier trappist beers, and Chimay Bleu in particular. The only bitterness, however, is on the nose. Otherwise it's plums all the way. And of course, the 9% alcohol provides just the right warming effect. Job done.

Expect more here from Unibroue on later, darker evenings.

21 October 2007

The best fest in the west

The Black Box is a slightly shabbyThe Black Box Galway theatre/function room in a retail park on the edge of Galway city. Yesterday it played host to the first Great Irish Beer Festival, an event viewed with no small amount of scepticism by the Irish online beer community, mainly because so few of the country's brewers signed up for it. The Porterhouse and Galway Hooker had their own stands, but most of the rest were run by importers and distributors. With the emphasis on bottled product, then, it was clear this wouldn't be in the style of a UK real ale festival. It was still highly enjoyable, however.

While waiting for the doors to open, I noted with trepidation the Macnas van in the car park.The Macnas van It must have been there in some other capacity, however, and there were mercifully no giant papier maché pints dancing in formation through the venue. You just never know in Galway. Inside, attendees were issued with a starter pack of beer chips and a surprisingly decent plastic beer receptacle. This could be rinsed between drinks at the various water coolers around the room, which was just as well since a burst pipe cut off the building's mains water supply for a couple of hours in the middle of the event. Some time after it came back, the slops bins all disappeared from the floor, making glass rinsing very difficult indeed.

The InBev stallAs I mentioned, just two Irish brewers were running stalls, though there was also Moling's and O'Hara's on tap. Lithuanica, distributors of the Švyturys range, were handing out mini-basketballs and guides to Vilnius: European Capital of Culture 2009. InBev had the best swag, though: Leffe glasses and Beck's hats. In fact, the InBev stand had an extensive range of glassware on display. Play to your strengths is the lesson here, I guess...

The entertainment wasOffline taps mercifully acoustic, and the only Heineken and Guinness taps on show were for display purposes only, as part of a keg hire company's exhibit.

To the beer, then. I mentioned on Friday that the promise of Budvar Dark was one of the major draws. It took some concerted searching to find it, the relevant barman having at first denied stocking it. Thankfully one of my ICB colleaguesMusicians persisted, and there was a brief roaring trade in the Czech black lager. Like most of the bottled beers, it was being served inappropriately cold and I was at first surprised by how sour Budvar Dark is. After a few minutes of warming this mellowed and an almost stout-like roasted grain flavour came through. The other eastern European I tried was Švyturys Baltas, a wheat beer. It's served with lemon and is quite sparkly: hallmarks of a Belgian wit, but the flavour is fruity, not spicy, with distinct banana notes, edging it closer to the German weiss style. An odd and interesting beer.

Aussie beers seem to be growing in popularity in Ireland, though as yet we have few decent ones. I tried a Boag's Strongarm at the festival: a powerfully sweet and malty golden lager with a dry bitter hops bite at the end. Surprisingly, given the taste and the name, this weighs in at only 5% ABV.

Most of the rest of what I drank was English. I have little to say about Wychwood's Goliath: it's rather sugary and not to my taste. BeeWyched gives off a pungent hops aroma, though this doesn't come through in the strong perfumy taste. Interesting, but you couldn't drink a whole lot of it. Finally, Bah Humbug is Wychwood's Christmas ale and is much lighter than a Christmas ale has any right to be. The flavour is sweet, but there's not a whole lot else going on. I wish now I'd spent more time sampling the beers on offer from Black Sheep, which are rare in Dublin but apparently quite common in Galway's bottle shops. The only one I had was Riggwelter, a marvellous black ale, with a strong caramel aroma and a complex taste full of sticky malt and bitter chocolate.

Everything else I tasted I'd had before, though it was the first time I tried the reformulatedRonan of Galway Hooker Árainn Mhór Rua, now down to 5.2% from 6, due to a tendency to knock punters on their arses rather too quickly, which in turn was adversely affecting sales. It was great chatting to Aidan and Ronan of Galway Hooker as well. Thanks for your hospitality, guys.

All-in-all, a few organisational wrinkles to be ironed out, but generally a positive start to what will hopefully become a regular event. And here's hoping the next Great Irish Beer Festival will properly be a festival of great Irish beer.