31 December 2012

Strong recollection

My end-of-year ambition was to clear out all the scribbled unused tasting notes I have and turn them into proper blog posts. I nearly did it too. Among the stragglers were two from Hardknott brewery, from separate occasions earlier in the year. Rhetoric came courtesy of brewer Dave via Reuben back in August. It was supposed to be opened, consumed and commented on across the Internet in a coordinated way at an appointed time, but that sort of thing is way too difficult so we settled for sharing a bottle in our own time later on.

It's 10.2% ABV and Dave has branded it as a Belgian-style quadrupel, and my first surprise was the colour: a clear red rather than the murky brown I was expecting. But who gives a toss about colour? I do give a toss about oxidation, however, and I can taste it in spades here. The first hit is a not-at-all unpleasant sherry kick and it's only after this that a bit of stale wet cardboard creeps in. In the middle there's a lovely balsamic strawberry effect, plus a lacing of liquorice from the star anise. It's a busy, chaotic sort of beer and tasted rather homebrewey to me: like one of my batches where I try too many different experiments at once. With a little refining it could be superb.

A few weeks previously I had picked up a bottle of Hardknott's Vitesse Noir in York. This is an 11% ABV imperial stout with added coffee, chocolate and vanilla, with a label which promises an "over-the-top explosion of stimulating flavours". It's certainly a dense beast and won't be rushed into the glass, showing little signs of carbonation and lazily forming a dark brown head. Nothing especially stimulating jumps out of the aroma: just the sweet roasted smell you get from any decent strong stout. But this is just a trick, to wrongfoot the unwary drinker. The flavour is intense. It's hard to pick out any individual elements at first: it's just a blast of fruit and roast and alcohol, but by the third sip it had come into focus. Milk chocolate and the vanilla to begin: literally sweetness and light. The sweetness changes tack in the middle, turning fruity, with elements of black cherry and sultana. The liqueurish booze makes its presence felt at this stage too, introducing the sort of headiness you get in suspicious stoneware bottles from olive-skinned peasants. Then a grand crescendo of dry roast to finish, overlaid with darker, more serious, chocolate notes. A magnificent beer and one to remember.

So while I'm looking back at beers consumed earlier in the year I reckon I may as well take the whole year into consideration. As usual I'm employing the template created by Mark and Andy. Can you believe it's year 4 already? Cor.

Let me just slip into my sparkly cocktail dress and sashay up the red carpet for...
The Golden Pint Awards 2012

Best Irish Draught Beer: Dungarvan Rye-PA
Almost literally a blink-and-you-missed-it appearance at the Irish Craft Beer Festival this year. And while this pale ale combined two things I don't normally approve of in beer, namely rye and very limited availability, it was stunning: spectacularly combining bold assertive hops with smooth cask drinkability. The hope of a more regular supply is just one reason I hand over this award.

Best Irish Bottled or Canned Beer: 8 Degrees Ochtoberfest
I'm cheating a wee bit here as I drank a lot more of this on draught than from the bottle (especially that memorable night in Farrington's when Barry was over), but it was gorgeous in both varieties and a definite contender for Ireland's best ever lager. Two in a row in this category for the trans-Tasman partnership in Mitchelstown.

Best Overseas Draught Beer: Raging Bitch
I made a decent fist of travel this year, making it to nine countries, including much beery delight in England, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. But the gong here goes to a beer served much closer to home. Against the Grain seems to have a permanent selection of Flying Dog beers on tap, and this old favourite of mine is the one that made my year. Raging Bitch is one of the very few to get the right balance between pungent American hops and funky Belgian yeast.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer: Kernel Export India Porter
Looking at other people's Golden Pints, I can see that the Wizards of Bermondsey have been sweeping the board. Reason enough for me to pass them over. But I have memories of that balmy summer's evening in the York Tap, when I thought my palate was completely exhausted, and my Export India Porter nightcap served as a reminder for once and for all that there's always room to enjoy another beer, if said beer is good enough. And robust yet delicate Kernel Export India Porter certainly is that.


Best Overall Beer: 8 Degrees Ochtoberfest
Looking at my four nominations, that's a pretty broad range of styles, and all them are beers which suit particular moods and settings while being less appropriate for others. I'm tempted to give it to Dungarvan, but I don't think I can justify it on the paltry amount I drank. So this will be going to the plentiful all-weather lager.

Best Pumpclip or Label: Dr. Rudi
They don't put a foot wrong, the L. Mulligan Grocer team, when it comes to the look and feel of their product. Usually you'll find it in the ambiance of their pubs or the playfulness of their menus, but their attention was turned to beer this year, and Dr. Rudi -- first in a series from "The Brown Paper Bag Project" -- was the result. Classical, sober, understated, but with more than a hint of fun about it.

Best Irish Brewery: White Gypsy
A return to the podium for the 2009 winner in this category. White Gypsy has kept the headlong rush of limited edition cask and keg specialties coming. But there's been a settledness too, with their excellent Belgian Blonde and Pils a regular feature at Bear (which would win my restaurant nomination for 2012 if there was one), and the long-awaited delivery of the bottled series of strong beers. From session red ale, to lager, to imperial stout and doppelbock: all things to all drinkers is just what you want from your local brewery.

Best Overseas Brewery: Evil Twin
I was sipping on thimblefuls at the Borefts festival so no single Evil Twin beer gets an award from me, but there were some absolute corkers in there, not least of which were the Hey Zeus! imperial stout and Molotov Spicy Cocktail IPA with chilli. With merely a pang of guilt that they're not really a brewery, I give this one to Jeppe.

Pub/Bar of the Year: Rody Boland's
A firm handshake, sincere well done and Silver Pint to WJ Kavanagh's which opened in Dublin this year and where I've spent many happy afternoons and evenings being well fed and beered, but once again I'm giving the award to a non-specialist pub. Being a mile from my front door means Rody Boland's doesn't quite qualify as a local for me, but it's not exactly a drinking destination either. Shopping in Rathmines, or going to the cinema, it's just there and you can drop in for a pint of something decent for a very reasonable price. Exactly what we need from pubs, in short.

Beer Festival of the Year: Irish Craft Beer Festival
Easy one this. Stand aside Borefts, move over Berlin: Dublin's three-day extravaganza in September was the year's top ticket, for the beer offer as well as the amazing atmosphere of joy and beery bonhomie. I may have spent quite a lot of it sticking wristbands on punters but there was still plenty to enjoy. Well done to the Seamus and Bruce who organised and the army of Beoir volunteers, ably coordinated by Andrew, who pitched in. If you've yet to experience Ireland's craft beer revolution, the RDS in September is one of the best places to do it.

Supermarket/Shop/Online retailer of the year: No-one
Once again I've bought next to no beer in supermarkets this year. Tesco seem to have made a bit of an effort, with Dunnes and Superquinn coming up behind them with a better beer offer than before, but none of this has really affected me. My regular haunts for beer buying -- DrinkStore, The Beer Club and Redmond's -- are still there and still as great as ever, but I'm not going to pick one out. And I don't buy beer online, though it's good to see Bradley's in Cork getting into that game as well. So no trophies, just an all-round keep-doing-what-you're-doing.

Best Beer Book or Magazine: Shakespeare's Local
Another area where I'm not in much of a position to make a call. This year's top reference work seems to have been Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb's World Atlas of Beer but I've not seen it; while Stan Hieronymus's For the Love of Hops arrived too late for me to get a proper look at it. Which leaves, by default, Pete Brown to take the Golden Pint Award for Only Beer Book I Read All Year. Shakespeare's Local is a fascinating social history of the London Borough of Southwark, told with particular reference to The George, last of London's galleried coaching inns, all told in Pete's usual fun and matey style.

Best Beer Blog or Website: The Drunken Destrier 
Writing a blog of just tasting notes is a lonely furrow, I have found, and there aren't many others that I read. Too many are just lists of flavour descriptors or, worse, numerical ratings. So it's refreshing to find a blog that keeps a similar line to mine and does it in a lucid and entertaining way. For that reason, Kill of The Drunken Destrier is my blog of the year. Bonus points for some impressive beer photography as well.

Best Beer Twitterer: @BrouwerVanKlomp
A rare, sometimes terrifying, but always fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of Belgium's -- and the world's -- greatest brewers. Worth a follow if you feel you're worthy, though you obviously aren't.

Best Online Brewery Presence: Dungarvan Brewing
Oh how all those wonderful websites launched two or three years ago by the new wave of Irish breweries have fallen into abeyance. No-one seems quite able to keep their seasonals and availability quite up to date. I suppose it all goes on Facebook, though I don't. So this will be a Top Marks For Effort job, and it goes to Dungarvan for lots of quality tweeting and a shiny new website. Brown paper seems to be quite the design trend this year.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year: Lunch at Jacobsen
Food and beer is a big part of what Carlsberg subsidiary Jacobsen does, so when they hosted the European Beer Consumers Union delegates in September it's not surprising that they pulled out the big guns. I won't go into detail, but if you are in Copenhagen do tear yourself away from Fermentoren and Mikkeller for an hour and have lunch in Jacobsen. And try the cheese.

Open category: Best Cider: Double L
It doesn't get mentioned much on this blog, but cider has become a much bigger part of my drinking life in the past year. The Irish cider revolution rumbles on apace and the quality of produce coming from the north -- Armagh Cider and Tempted? in particular -- is fantastic. Down here there's quality cider from the likes of Stonewell and Longuville House, but my cider highlight of the year was cask Double L at WJ Kavanagh's. Apple perfection in a glass.

In 2013 I’d most like to... get reacquainted with Belgium
It has been far too long. The Cantillon open day in early 2009 was the last time I set foot in Brussels. I have to get back and do some serious catching up: Moeder Lambic Fontainas is calling.

27 December 2012

Reflections on the lake

You know how it is on those crisp, breezy autumn afternoons when you hop on the paddle steamer at Nyon -- first class, of course -- for the leisurely cruise along the lake shore back to Geneva. Seated in the forward lounge you peruse the menu, seeking something that will help untwist those knots of muscle which develop in the frame of a flatlander, unused to Switzerland's pretty but often near-vertical urban landscape. Your companions are making selections from the fine range of whiskies and local liqueurs on offer, but for you it must be beer. A cool glass of lager is just what's required.

Options, however, are limited. Cardinal Spéciale is the height of it, brewed by those clever Carlsberg chaps at the nation's largest brewery, right by the border with Germany. At 5.2% ABV it packs enough weight to begin the unwinding process quickly, and you relax into it. It's a shame about the plastic cup it's served in: the golden age of travel is plainly far behind us. Even given the strength, you weren't expecting the pale gold lager to be quite so heavy. There's almost a syrupy texture to it. But it's not at all unpleasant as the stickiness is balanced by quite an assertive bitter bite.

On dry land this would not be a beer you'd give much for but, grasping your plastic cup and wandering out onto the deck to watch the vineyards and chateaux of Geneva's lush hinterland drift by, it's perfectly adequate for this setting.

As the city emerges from the haze ahead to herald your journey's end, you drain the last of the beer. Below decks, the engines begin their preparations to dock.


24 December 2012

Santa Gueuze

You have to hand it to De Troch's Chapeau range of beers: they keep on surprising. I mean, they look like knock-off candy-lambics: doing a pineapple version suggests they aren't even trying to be taken seriously. And then this came my way: Chapeau Winter Gueuze. Sour lambic and Christmas spices are not a natural pairing, so what have they done here? With trepidation I popped the cap and pulled the cork.

It's 5.5% ABV and a murky red-brown sort of thing, light on fizz despite the thick champagne glass and double stopper. Mostly it smells like a kriek, with perhaps a little extra warmth: cherry strudel, maybe. The kriek theme continues on tasting, coming across like one of the sweet baby-steps starter krieks like Mort Subite or Bellevue. That strudel thing comes in again shortly afterwards and suggests raisins and stewed apples alongside the cherries. To finish there's a barely-there woody sourness of the sort you find in mild Flemish brown ale.

To be honest it's hitting neither my Christmas beer nor lambic receptors. It's really just a thick sugary concoction and the sort of thing I quite enjoy but wouldn't be running to recommend to anyone else.

So my scepticism levels were high when I turned to Cuvée Chapeau, their purported oude gueuze. It seems a very serious and difficult style for a brand which tolerates tropical fruit and cartoon Santas on its labels, but they have managed to pull this one off, I think.

The aroma from the dark gold beer isn't overpowering but it does more than hint at the sourness, complicating it with elements of flint and white grape as well. The first sip is properly puckering but the recoil doesn't last and an inviting warmth follows it, suggesting more than the 5.5% ABV. After that it finishes quite quickly with just a bit of not-unpleasant wine cork mustiness. So while it's neither as complex nor as quaffable as the top-tier oude gueuzes it certainly doesn't taste like fake lambic to me.

Two more reasons to regard Chapeau as the most surprising lambic producer. Here's wishing all my readers more lovely surprises this Christmas. Pass the cheese.

20 December 2012

By the numbers

I didn't realise I'd bought an antique. But it turned out that the XVII barley wine from Utah's Uinta brewery which I acquired at The House of Trembling Madness in York during the summer has a bottling date of 23 November 2010: so over two years in the bottle by the time I opened it. Would this be a good thing or a bad thing?

At 10.4% ABV it's certainly a robust beer, pouring thickly into the glass and presenting a murky mahogany body under a thick old-ivory foam. There's that very American aroma of bags of crystal malt laced with bags of C-hops: a messy collision between the toffee lorry and the grapefruit train. The hop aromas are muted, though, and the sweetness almost shades towards syrup notes, indicating immediately that this is perhaps not the hop powerhouse it once was. It tastes beautifully warming and there's definitely still a sherbety freshness to the hops here, with hardly any trace of bitter harshness. The thick, linctus-like texture spreads across the palate and slips silkily down the throat, spreading smooth caramel and naughty liqueur chocolates as it goes. Only a slight twang of stale cardboard arrives at the end to indicate that everything is not as it once was.

I'm reminded in particular of Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot in its more mature form, so perhaps this one too is a beer that needs a year or two to calm down. A superb sipper, it's really hard to know if freshness would be much of an improvement.

17 December 2012

What would happen if..?

As a dabbler in brewing I know what it's like: the temptation to not leave well enough alone. Sometimes, brewing experiments are born of necessity, other times it's just for the hell of it, or to prove a point. "I've proved a point" is a totally valid response to the question "Why does this taste weird?" Two commercial experiments today, from points as far away as Denmark and New Zealand.

Well, sort of. To Øl is one of those Danish gypsy brewing operations and Ov-ral -- a collaboration with Mikkeller -- isn't actually brewed in Denmark at all. It's badged as an Imperial IPA and is 10.5% ABV, but as the name hints it's had a dose of wild yeasts added in the brewing process like Belgian Trappist classic Orval. And it presents in a fairly Orvallish fashion: a cloudy orange colour and smelling of barnyards and vinegar. The imperialised hopping comes out on tasting, with a bittersweet oily citrus pith at the front contrasting with the sour funk from the wild yeast. Think orange barley sweets dipped in manure and you're close.

Out of interest I cracked a bottle of Orval for immediate contrast and found it tasted of very little by comparison. If you like what Orval does but find it somewhat lacking in character, then this is the beer for you, and you're an idiot.

We head down under next for one from renowned Kiwi brewery Epic, new to these shores. Zythos is a pale amber coloured IPA and has the same citrus and toffee aroma of a million crystal-malt-laden American IPAs, plus a surprisingly alcoholic smell for a relatively modest 6% ABV. But while the nose is quite run-of-the-mill there's a bit more going on in the flavour. For one thing there's a big and very English hit of tannins at the front, and the first taste called to mind a cup of strong black tea more than Californian craft beer. Behind this there's more of the powerful jaffa bitterness we met in the Ov-ral, but also some lighter, more softly spoken, mandarin notes as well. It's a very decent, quite straightforward beer which doesn't try to pull off the same sort of tricks as the Dane and is the better for it.

The experimental novelty factor here lies in the hops: eschewing the more famous American varieties which are often in short supply, this is brewed with a secret blend of more accessible breeds. To be honest I think it hasn't been a complete success and it lacks the welly of a beer loaded with Citra, Simcoe or the like. But that doesn't change the fact that it's enjoyable to drink.

Today's lesson, then, is that messing about with hops is pretty safe, but with yeast it helps to know exactly what you're doing, and preferably do it in someone else's brewery. Big thanks to Richard for providing both of these.

13 December 2012

Tastes like a dead dog

OK, that's unfair of me: I thought of the title before opening the beer. But I'm not much of a fan of the beer from Sharp's -- MolsonCoors's Cornish operation -- nor of telly chef Rick Stein who put his signature on this one, nor of Chalky's Bite, the other beer named after his late mutt, so I wasn't expecting to be impressed by its little brother Chalky's Bark.

But really, it's not a bad beer. Yes it's massively overcarbonated making it difficult to taste anything in it at first, and at its core there's a watery nothingness where I think I'm within my rights to expect some sort of malt-derived weight, especially at the not-insubstantial ABV of 4.5%. But the centrepiece of the flavour is a lovely bittersweet lemon that teeters a little towards washing up liquid yet never quite gets there, fortunately. That the promised centrepiece of the flavour is ginger, of which I can detect no trace whatsoever, bothers me not in the slightest.

Chalky's Bark is a perfectly acceptable sunny day quaffer, as long as you let the dog blow off some of his trapped gas first.

10 December 2012

Not on the level

Flat surfaces are hard come by on the streets of Amsterdam. When having drinkies outside Arendsnest last September with the wife, Zak Avery and Rick Kempen, I harboured a constant fear of my glass sliding sideways off the table and into the Herengracht. Thankfully we all managed to keep it together long enough to get a few down our necks.

Pairs of beers are always interesting, so picking randomly from the Arendsnest blackboard I had an Ongelovige Thomas by Jopen. "Doubting Thomas" is a 10% ABV barley wine which manages to pull off being unctuous and hot while still remaining drinkable and flavoursome, throwing plenty of fresh mango in with the marker pen. Its credulous counterpart is Gelovige Thomas by De Molen: two points stronger but similar in a lot of ways. There's no doubt that all the alcohol is in there: it has cockle-warming caramel aplenty, but once again the hop fruits are also very present bringing balance to the picture, causing the beer to disappear much too fast, when one is seated on an incline.

Sticking with these two first-string Dutch breweries, the next round brought De Molen Dubbelbock, another one in the strong mahogany genre, though with a single-figure ABV. At first I didn't make the link between this and normal red, sticky Dutch autumn bock, but that's what it is, just done very well with everything turned up a little higher: more toffee and more herbs. Mooie Nel, say Jopen, is an IPA. 6.5% ABV and hopped with a heady mix of Citra, Simcoe, Nelson Sauvin and Glacier it throws out masses of gorgeous tropical fruit: the pineapple effect when Nelson Sauvin is behaving itself (when it isn't you get cat wee). The base is soft and heavy, like a Belgian blonde though without any major Belgian yeast notes spoiling the hop party. Jopen is the Dutch brewery I keep forgetting the brilliance of. I must pay them a visit in Haarlem some time soon.

Rick explained that the dodgily-named Tasty Lady is the creation of a group of women (here they are) at the Breugems Brewery in Zaandam. Without meaning to stereotype or anything, it's a very bubbly blonde which smells quite perfumey. My notes say there was a toasty characteristic as well, but to be honest I've no memory of how it tasted, just that no one at the table of either gender was very impressed.

De Snaterende Arend is the brewing company in charge of the house beers for Arendsnest and its sister pub Beer Temple. Among its other beers -- brewed at various sites around the Low Countries -- is Roodburst, a gorgeous red-orange number smelling strongly of toffee but heavily hopped-up giving it a dank and funky quality which I really enjoyed.

Big surprise of the session was the new IPA from Amsterdam's veteran microbrewery 't IJ. Their labels have always had quite an old-fashioned theme, with only the colours and wording changing around the ostrich logo. For 't IJ IPA they've gone for a different sort of leggy bird: a mid-life crisis Harley Davidson of a design. There's a bit of the signature 't IJ funk about this at first, with obviously plenty of suspended yeast in the hazy orange liquid. But underneath the pithy hops are also making their presence felt, adding a stimulating sharpness. Really it's not a million miles from the kind of bitter and funky IPAs that lots of Belgian breweries are turning out these days.

So that was the slanty Arendsnest. We had started out previously in Beer Temple, a short walk away. The menu has got a little more diverse in the three years since it opened, incorporating more local fare among the American beers, but also including unfamiliar breweries from unexpected places. Like Bridge Road in Australia, and their Beechworth Pale Ale. This is a sticky and bitter golden concoction with a heavy accent on the oranges. How it manages to be as thirst-quenching as it is I do not understand.

From the US offerings I picked Southern Tier's Back Burner, an oak-aged barley wine. It's smooth and sweet to start with; the hop kick coming in late and gradually, building from jolly juicy mandarins to more serious pithy jaffa and then on towards more bitter, herbal territory. It's only when it warms that the oak shows up, and it brings quite a harsh, sappy flavour which is often a risk with barrel-aging. I presume it's some combination of these elements that gives it an odd burnt coconut flavour as well. It has all the elements of a great beer but doesn't quite put them together in the right way, unfortunately.

Drinking in Amsterdam is rarely wall-to-wall gold, but there's always something interesting.

07 December 2012

Thar she blows!

Session logoThe Session this month includes one of my hobby-horse subjects within its remit. Mr. David J is our host and "Don't Believe The Hype" is the topic he has chosen: does a beer's reputation affect how we perceive it?

Following on from this issue is the whole matter of high profile "white whale" beers: the limited editions and hard-to-finds that plague the beer world. Not that they're bad beers, normally. My experiences with the likes of Westvleteren 12 and Dark Lord have been very positive indeed, but there are plenty of beers out there in the same league that don't have so much of a fuss made about them. The drive that some beer drinkers have to capture the white whales unsettles me a little. The make-it-anywhere-from-anything nature of beer means that the notion of special rare beers is a bit ridiculous, and label-chasing makes beer culture a little less of a pleasant place to be. I find more than an echo of the wine snob about some of the Captain Ahabs I've encountered.

All this makes me a little wary when a new, rare, special, limited edition beer comes my way. Yes I want to drink it -- it's what I do -- but I end up trying not to make a big deal of it, unless it warrants it, of course. The hype ahead of the Franciscan Well's new one was substantial. Like last year's Shandon Century it's a strong-ish stout presented in a numbered 1 litre bottle. The big change this year is barrel-aging. At first the brewery gave no more detail than it was maturing in a cask acquired from the Irish Distillers plant in Midleton. The lack of whiskey specifics left me wondering if Irish Distillers simply don't distinguish between the casks used for their many whiskey brands, or whether the brewery didn't want their beer associated with Jackeen labels such as Jameson and Power's, produced in Cork though they may be. They came clean eventually and Franciscan Well Stout Aged in Jameson Irish Whiskey Casks is the full title: 7.8% ABV in a run of 900 bottles.

It pours out jet black but not thick or gloopy and the mouthfeel has a little creaminess yet remains light and easy-going. The carbonation level is set only little above token, of which I heartily approve. There's not much of an aroma either, but it seems to be mostly a sweet and slightly burnt treacle thing, with just a brief hit of the whiskey vapours if you inhale deeply enough.

Charmingly for a strong barrel-aged stout, it's not a smack in the face on the first sip. A host of flavours line up politely to be appreciated, starting with the dark dry roast, overlaid with more of that treacle and accompanied by subtle honey and vanilla from the Jameson. There's a surprise in store at the end when a fairly generous hop character asserts itself: the big vegetal, almost metallic, flavours I associate with bitter powerhouse stouts like Wrassler's XXXX. The hop tang is the takeaway from this feast of a stout. I wasn't expecting that.

No, it's not Dark Lord, true; and nor is it trying to be. But while it's a wonderful example of what you can do with barrel aging a stout it's not worth obsessing over either. It's barely possible to justify the €12 price tag it came with so it would be foolhardy, in my opinion, to pay multiples of this on the grey market. When it's gone, it's gone: accept it and wait for the next beer.

And by all accounts it may not be around much longer. Bottles have been selling fast in what's already a busy season for this sort of beer. And today offers a rare opportunity to try it from the cask at the source. Only two have been filled and one will be tapped tonight and given away free, and exclusively, to Beoir members. Drop along to North Mall from 8.30 and bring your membership card.

Or you can wait for the second cask, scheduled for public consumption at the Cask and Winter Ales Festival in the 'Well in a couple of months' time (edit: confirmed for 15-17 February 2013). I can't make it along this evening so am planning to be there early for that.

Everybody will be talking about it, after all.

05 December 2012

Wary Christmas!

It's that time of year when I can start putting a bit of a hole in the more wintery parts of my Belgian ale collection. They're a random bunch so this could go either way.

First up is Abbaye de Roc Spéciale Noël whose serious dark blue label looks classy enough to be trustworthy. But as soon as the cap came off there was beer everywhere. Corralled into a glass it's the picture of innocence again: dark red and blanketed by a thick white head. But look closely and there are unsettling gobbets of yeast bobbing around in the dark murky depths. Worse, the flavour is a complete mess: far too hot, to begin with, with those lovely dark Belgian fruit flavours doused in cheap sherry. Beyond that there's a weird medicinal eucalyptus thing, shading towards unpleasant disinfectant. This stuff is severely lacking in seasonal cheer.

Hopes were higher when it came to De Ranke and their jolly green-label Père Noël. It's a modest 7% ABV and a decidedly unfestive orange colour. Among the ingredients helpfully listed is liquorice, the only bit of seasonal enhancement. I can't say I'd have picked it out from the taste alone, or indeed any trace that this is supposed to be a Christmas ale. More than anything it tastes like a tripel, with the mix of honey, herbs and spices that that entails, plus an appropriate bitter kick at the end. All in all it's pretty straightforward, inoffensive stuff. Fine for year-round drinking, but I want a beer with a bit more yuletide character.

Time to break out the big guns: if Brasserie De La Senne can't deliver a satisfactorily beery Christmas, no-one can. The stash gives me X-Mas Zinnebir and let's skip over the bizarre manger scene on the label. It's another gusher but slow enough for me to catch, thankfully. From the dark red 7.8% ABV beer I get an aroma of roasted chestnuts, so that's appropriately wintery for starters. The texture is also spot-on for a winter warmer: rich and heavy and just gently sparkled. Disappointingly there are no festive spices in the flavour but instead you get a rock-solid malt-forward ale brimming with sweet toffee enhanced by whispers of pipesmoke and a very unChristmassy strawberry tartness. Not amazing but there's nothing upsetting going on either. Sometimes that's the best we can hope for at Christmas.

03 December 2012

Chope shop

Rue de Boeuf is little more than an alley running through Lyon's old town, packed with antique shops, artisans and wine cellars. La Chope de Lug at number 9 is really more an alcove than a proper shop. Along one wall of the tiny narrow premises is a set of shelves with the only product on sale: French craft beer. Dozens of breweries are represented, each with four or five beers, spanning a generous range of styles. And I knew none of them. As I was keeping the friendly proprietor from closing up for the night, and had a train to catch myself, I let him make a few recommendations and chose a couple of randomers myself.

He was especially keen for me to try Supernova, a collaboration between Brasserie de la Pleine Lune in Chabeuil, just south of Lyon, and Brasserie du Pays Flamand situated, as the name suggests, in the far north-east of the country in Blaringhem, near the Belgian border. It's 6.2% ABV and the brewers have declined to give it a style designation.

It presents as a quite beautiful dark amber ale, loaded with fizz and quite eager to escape the bottle on opening. Thankfully a significant viscosity holds it back enough to get it poured, the busy carbonation forming a massive loose-bubbled head. From this I get a distinct aroma of Duvelesque Belgian yeast spice, with some interesting orange candy hop notes too. The first thing that comes through on tasting is its density: an intense and slightly unpleasant stickiness, not helped at all by all the gas. Once you're past this it's much better, however: the hopping has left it mostly reminiscent of the better English bitters and IPAs, with an assertive pithy bitterness tempered by lighter jasmine notes. It occasionally shades into the peach and nectarine zone of American pale ale. The Belgian spicing is still present, getting more pronounced as we reach the bottom of the bottle. The heavy malt combines with the other flavours to give it a finish reminding me of chocolate lime sweets. All said, it's a wonderful amalgam of characteristics drawn from different brewing traditions and made to work in harmony.

I couldn't resist grabbing a French IPA while I could, and Brasserie du Mont Salève had two in La Chope de Lug, resplendent in their everso smart art deco labels. Mademoiselle Aramis was the one recommended to me by Monsieur Le Patron. Though only .2% ABV lighter than the Supernova it's a much more softly-spoken affair, pouring a cloudy orange with gentle carbonation and a subtle marmalade aroma. Despite the haze, the yeast doesn't really interfere with the hopping, and what comes through is mild grapefruit and mandarin with just a hint of gunpowder spice behind it.

Having been exploring hoppy Belgian beer of late it's interesting to see a French take on it. These breweries are working in more or less the same way as the progressive Belgians, but seem better able to keep the yeast flavours from smothering the hops. Happy days for French beer fans, especially those wandering the back streets of Lyon.

More from La Chope de Lug's range in due course, and you can read about the Mont Salève beers I met at September's Borefts Beer Festival here.

29 November 2012

The best of what's left

As usual, the tail-end of November means it's up to the Ulster Hall for CAMRA Northern Ireland's annual festival. Even though this is just the third year in the refurbished venue, it's already very familiar: a four-sided bar in the middle of the floor with an impressive stillage arrangement looming up behind it. Generally it takes me a couple of laps before I decide on where to start, the choice made extra difficult by the fact that I'm normally there on the last day and the most anticipated casks tend to have been long drunk dry.

Luckily I had CAMRA volunteer Paul -- himself as much a part of the festival scenery as the scaffolding -- on hand to give me my first steer: Otley Croeso. 4.2% ABV and a very sickly shade of yellow, it didn't look too promising, but all doubts faded on tasting. This is a big, assertive beer with a serious lemony citric punch up front yet backed by some smoother bubblegum to keep it balanced. My other half didn't hit it so lucky first time out, opting for McMullen IPA. Alas this brown offering is a hot marker-pennish mess, with any hopping buried under the weight of alcohols, despite it being just 4.8% ABV.

Trying my best to eschew the many dark beers at this early phase, my next was Yeovil Stargazer, chosen because it won some award or other, according to the pumpclip: it's good to have a bit of direction when all the high profile stuff is gone. It's a mid-amber colour and hits that sherbetty tannic note that I find in the best thirst quenchers, with just some mild fruity raisin notes for complexity. After that the ironically-named Hopback Heracles, their answer to the UK government's invitation to brew beer at 2.8% ABV. It wasn't much cop as a golden ale, being very dry and grainy and lacking any decent hop character. Perhaps a fear of unbalancing the result meant a light hand on the hopsack but it could definitely have done with a few more cones in the kettle.

One beer I had noticed in advance and was delighted to see still available was Stewart's Edinburgh No. 3. Not that I'd ever heard of the beer, or even the brewery, but I'm always up for an historical recreation to bring out my inner Ron. Although at a piddling 4.3% ABV it's definitely a clone from the late-20th century, compared to the rather more robust versions from the 1860s and 1870s. Ron mentions parallels between Younger's No. 3 and Burton ales and that's quite apparent from this: dark ruby with some smoky treacle and ripe figs: all that's good about deep red beers generally. All that's missing for the full Burton is a stack more booze and perhaps more aggressive hopping, but as a winter session ale this is ideal, and not too filling either.

To the properly dark beers, then, and Phoenix's Monkeytown Mild to begin. It's dark ruby rather than full black and does the things decent mild is supposed to do: nice roast, plenty of nuttiness, but nothing too extreme. The same can be said for Purple Moose's Dark Side Of The Moose: this one's a notch or two sweeter though retains sufficient roast dryness for balance and drinkability.

Herself had long since got stuck into the porters. Oakleaf Piston was a good pick, tasting quite a bit heavier than its 4.6% ABV suggests, with some seriously chewy, greasy esters tempered by sharp rhubarb tartness. Uncompromising and not for the weak of palate. As the name suggests, Milestone's Harry Porter was a bit more friendly. It's light and effervescent making for a great thirst quencher while some light red fruit stops it from being boring.

Meanwhile I was going the full Edwin, starting with Edwin's Ruby Porter by Great Western -- ruby by name but utterly black and dry as burnt toast by nature -- and finishing on Banks & Taylor's Edwin Taylor's Extra Stout -- another massively dry one but this time with substantial rich roasted grain flavours and a full stouty texture.

As is becoming traditional for me at this stage, a few ciders finished things off. It was great to see local brand Tempted? easily holding its own against more established competition from England and Wales on the cider bar.

There was just time for a swift one before the train home and we dragged Reuben along with us to The Crown. It's still beautiful; it still has awful service and gets uncomfortably full of amateur drinkers; but new management has meant the beer offer has taken a turn for the interesting. Where once were three routine Whitewater beers on cask there was now a choice of one from Whitewater, one from Hilden, the St Austell-brewed Nicholson's Pale Ale (for it is now part of that chain) and a complete stranger to me: Black Pearl from the Wooden Hand Brewery of Truro in Cornwall. It's another from the Heavy, Rich and Bitter school of stout and after an afternoon and evening of tippling and sipping, drinking an entire pint felt like going to big school. Maybe it's the maritime branding but I swear I got a briney hint from this, almost like the seaweed flavours in some Islay whiskies. Like I say, I'd had a few at this point.

And that's Belfast done for another year. Congratulations to Adrian and his organisation team at CAMRA Northern Ireland, and a special round of applause for the concerted effort at getting more than a few south-of-the-border casks onto the bar. I hope the locals appreciated them as much as we do down here. It certainly looked that way on the day.

26 November 2012

Rule 42 and all that

It's incredibly heartening to see a more eclectic range of styles coming from Ireland's breweries. On the one hand we don't really have any native beer styles of our own (isn't it high time someone made a commercial Irish gruit ale?) but up until relatively recently it was nearly all stouts, pale lagers and red ales, seldom venturing much above or below 4.5% ABV. 2012, however, has seen Ireland's first Oktoberfestbier, a rye-based pale ale and something which may or may not be a black IPA, depending on how you feel about such matters.

Latest in this celebration of beery diversity is Dr. Rudi, a Belgian-style ale, single-hopped with the eponymous New Zealand variety, and launched in Dublin just last Saturday. It's 7.4% ABV and a middling amber shade, where orange turns to russet, so on the pale side for a dubbel which is the style it most resembles. Its Belgian credentials are to the fore in the aroma, with a heady warming alcohol vapour drifting off, heavily laden with fruit esters. These crystalise on tasting into dark fig and raisin notes, though the texture is quite light, not at all suggesting the beer's full strength. Not long after that first sip the hops kick in and remind the drinker why Dr. Rudi hops were originally sold under the label "Super Alpha": a huge, tongue-stripping bitterness initially melding with the fruit but eventually dominating the palate with grassy resinous flavours. The sweet malts just manage to hold it in check. It's an unsteady sort of balance and quite interesting to observe.

The people behind the beer are the crew of L. Mulligan Grocer and W.J. Kavanagh's, utilising the brewing facilities at Eight Degrees in Mitchelstown. It's the first of a gypsy-brewing series they've titled The Brown Paper Bag Project, presumably targeting vagrants as the primary demographic. It's a particularly tough market segment and already well catered for, so with thanks for the freebie bottle I wish them every success and look forward to the next in the series.

Meanwhile, I've managed to get my mitts on another from White Gypsy's series of thoroughly unIrish large-format strong beers. This is the White Gypsy American Pale Ale, a beer which rapidly achieved legendary status in 2011 under its original name of Mustang. This was my first time tasting it after well over a year of believing the hype. It's a mite stronger than Dr. Rudi, but while the former's label is effusive on the philosophy and production details, this White Gypsy is downright taciturn, giving you fair warning that the beer is bitter, tastes a bit like grapefruit and goes well with grilled chicken and that's all you need to know.

Colourwise it's the wholesome brown of strong black tea. Perhaps this is why I detected tannic elements in it, but I hope I'm not imagining it because it's lovely. The hops aren't laid on too heavy and the beer is neither over-perfumed nor harshly bitter. Instead it has much more of a floral, English vibe. I get elderflower and lilacs rather than grapefruit and mandarin: more a soft-spoken lady than a brash tatoo'd metalhead. And like the best English pale ales, it's extremely easy to put away, the balanced flavours conspiring with light carbonation resulting in 75cl of 7.5% ABV disappearing with indecent haste. Get the chicken out of your George Foreman before you pop the cap.

You probably won't find anything like Dr. Rudi in Belgium, and I've never encountered an actual American beer like White Gypsy American Pale Ale. Perhaps this whole nationalisation of styles is overstated in the first place.

23 November 2012

To the sea

Day two of the EBCU meeting brought us south out of Copenhagen to the port suburb of Køge. Amongst the anonymous warehouses on the quiet wharfs sits the Braunstein brewery. It was set up with the sole intention of acquiring the legal right to distill spirits, which they now have and do, but the brewery remains in place.

While our meeting was on upstairs, the brewery was having one of its open days, with troops of visitors being brought around the kit and given tasters at the bar. Pride of place there was given to Braunstein Heritage 2011, a red-brown winter warmer that pours quite flat. The 10%+ ABV strength is very apparent in its aroma, with lots of sticky dark treacle smells, and it's unsurprisingly warming when tasted: a rush of smooth molten caramel down the gullet, spiced with a little hop-tang. I found it somewhat one-dimensional, but enjoyable to sip. Their misnomered White Christmas is along similar lines. The hops aren't as pronounced here, coming through a little cabbagey, but otherwise it's a decent sweet dark winter ale.

Braunstein's brewer and distiller is a fellow phenol fanatic and the whisky collection available in the on-site shop runs heavily towards the peated scotch variety. The only Irish bottle I saw in the place was, inevitably, Connemara. Unfortunately I didn't get to try any of the homemade whiskies, but there was a definite atmosphere of peaty smoke in the brewhouse. So much so that on trying Braunstein Porter I was left wondering if it was made with a smoked malt. Turns out it isn't, but it does have lots of lovely roast coffee notes and a generous herbal vibe from the hops.

My last Braunstein sample, chugged on the way out the door, was their Økologisk Pilsner: neither pilsners nor organic beers tend to excite me, with only a handful of exceptions. This was one of those: an utter tour de force, possessed of an assertive weightiness, almost a creamy texture, while still remaining sparkly and fresh. The hops are bursting with life, delivering huge doses of fresh mown grass. The result is a ridiculously drinkable beer that I immediately wanted loads more of.

But we were off to the pub. Down a hobbithole just off main street Køge is Hugo's Vinkælder. The name is deceptive: I'm not sure if they even sell wine. The poky low-ceilinged basement bar does, however, boast a huge selection of beers from Denmark and beyond. Most of it is bottled but there are a dozen or so draught taps too. Hugo's Achilles heel is its cavalier approaching to labelling. Several taps are marked "Hemmelig Hane", which sounded like a perfectly respectable name for a brew until one of the locals pointed out that this means "Secret Tap" in Danish. I like many things in my beer, but mystery isn't one of them.

The first one I had, from Hugo's green mystery tap, was Hornbeer Jul Øl. The barman introduced it as a stout and it's definitely properly dark: deep brown without any of the reddish shades more typical of Danish Christmas beers. Treacle is the first hit, but there's a gradual build-up of fresh and fruity mandarin as it goes down, making this strong winter warmer actually quite refreshing, without reducing any of its warming qualities.

Kloster Jul Øl was much more typical: definitely red amber and predominantly sweet but not in an overpowering way. There's some gentle spicing but what really caught my attention was the hopping: pulling some odd savoury tricks and giving out herb garden flavours like fennel and oregano. As with most of this style you get a relatively understated, very drinkable, dark sweet beer, but this one has more to say for itself than most.

And that brings us to the end of the trip. A big thanks to all the members of Danske Ølentusiaster who put together a great programme in this, one of Europe's most consistently interesting beer cities. The next EBCU meeting is in Brussels next Spring. I wonder if there'll be any good beer at that...

21 November 2012

Of craft and macro

Oh no. You won't catch me wading into that whole debate on this blog. It's much better suited to the hit-and-run format of Twitter, I find. Or go have a look at Jeff giving the nail a sturdy whack on the head. I merely offer here some observations from my recent visit to Copenhagen.

I was there to attend a two-day meeting of the European Beer Consumers Union and the first session was held in the opulent surrounds of Carlsberg's event centre, just up from the famous Elephant Gate. A tour guide gave us a walk around the complex, taking in the silent kettles in the cathedral-like New Carlsberg (right) and the much more sober brick buildings of Old Carlsberg, founded by JC Jacobsen, the father -- and later bitter rival -- of New Carlsberg's eponymous Carl.

The vast site is on the verge of redevelopment, following an end to industrial scale brewing here some years ago. But they're still keeping their hand in, and in one of the Old Carlsberg buildings you'll find the shiny modern Jacobsen brewery, turning out a piddling two million litres of beer each year. It's an interesting relationship that Jacobsen has with the mother ship. Though independent to a degree, the head brewer is still directly answerable to head office and there's a lot of input from the suits over there. Recipes move effortlessly between the various Carlsberg macro and faux-craft brands.

We had lunch in the airy café-bar situated directly above Jacobsen's brewing and bottling plant, a smørrebrød of mixed Danish delicacies matched against some of the Jacobsen beers. The brewery's current pride and joy is Single Malt 2012, a dark beer which starts out with bourbon-biscuit malt flavours but swings suddenly left into a big field of apricot and peach notes, the result of generous amounts of Citra hops. We're told there's some smoked malt in here too but it was wasted on my palate. It matched fantastically well with the mature cheddar provided to accompany it.

Dinner later was just outside the Carlsberg complex and involved yet more Jacobsen beer (at our own expense, this time). Maybe something is lost in translation but I was left confused by the sober Jacobsen branding being attached to a beer called Golden Naked Christmas. It's not golden at all, but a deep chestnut red. It's 7.5% ABV and produced using both ale and wine yeast: an experiment of the craft-beery sort. There has been some light spicing resulting in a pleasant pepperiness, but also lots of orange peel for an almost juicy effect. There were also tasters of Jacobsen Velvet, their beer for people who don't drink beer: not such a craft beer phenomenon. This is a light golden beer along the lines of Kasteel Cru by Molson Coors, made using champagne yeast for a dry appley effect, perhaps shading a little towards cider tartness. Some grainy crispness is lurking in here as well. I quite liked it as a change from the heavier beers, but I wouldn't make a habit of drinking it.

Sticking with the Carlsberg off-shoots, I gave Årgangsøl 2012 a go when I saw it in a pub the following evening. This is produced each year and the main focus is on the arty label. Behind it there's a 10.6% ABV pale lager which is a little sticky but not at all as hot or unpleasant as I was expecting. This was after that evening's dinner across the street in BrewPub, an establishment whose beers I've almost always enjoyed over the years. We had been joined by the officers of Danske Ølentusiaster so there was a big crowd of us by now. For convenience the beer arrived in jugs, three per table: a pale ale, weissbier and the inevitable Christmas beer.

Fearing the BrewPub Pale Ale would vanish first (damn hopheads!) that's what I went for immediately. Bleuh! Phenols! There are some fresh hops buried somewhere in the murky orange depths, but a blast of sticking plaster almost covers them completely. BrewPub Weiss was a little better: a good bubblegum nose though not much to the flavour except that damn disinfectant thing again. And the BrewPub Xmas Red had the same moves: rather plain with a modest measure of toffee but once again a sign that things are not as they should be in the hygiene department.

It's a real shame: BrewPub does make some cracking beer and I'd recommend it to any visitor to Copenhagen. Hopefully they'll get their act cleaned up promptly. For now, I'll just hold them up as an example of how "craft beer" definitely does not mean "beer I like".

I couldn't have asked for a better palate cleanser than the Thisted Limfjords Porter I had immediately after. The bottle label declares this to be a "Double Brown Stout", and 7.9% ABV indicates they do mean double. Nicely weighty, there's plenty of caramel for the fan of strong sweet stouts but it's balanced beautifully with a whack of uncompromising bitterness, then some light herbal overtones to finish. This is one of those resolutely old-fashioned beers that manages to make unexotic flavour combinations do some wonderfully complex tricks.

Thisted also brews the house beer for Jernbanecafeen, a raucous early house right next to central station (thanks for the recommendation, Anne-Mette: it was an experience). We dropped in early on the Sunday afternoon on the way to the airport and the place was as crammed, loud and smoky as it apparently always is. 7 Expressen is the beer, a dark gold pils with a solid bitterness at its heart, just breaking out some lighter grassiness on top. Not at all far from the likes of good old Jever.

Lastly for this round-up, a superb beer we chanced upon completely by accident in genteel Nyhavn where we stopped for Sunday brunch. Cap Horn is brewed by Ørbæk for the restaurant of the same name and is a 5% ABV dark amber beer. It moves in quite subtle ways, with a little bit of toffee at the base, layered with a sherbet complexity and just a dusting of citrus on top. The aroma combines almost stouty dry roast with a dash of grapefruit. Much like the Limfjords, it hits that sweet spot of complexity and drinkability.

Craft beer isn't all foghorn hops and puckering sourness, any more than macro is bland and samey.

19 November 2012

Beergasm!

It's very easy, upon arriving in Copenhagen, to just go nuts and drink oneself into an inadvertent stupor on some of the finest beers available to humanity. Fortunately, the ever-sensible Danish government (and drinks industry) have taken steps to ensure the damage by impressionable southerners is kept to a minimum via the means of high taxes and outrageous pricing. You won't get much for under €7 a pint here, so you'd best make it good.

That said, curiosity had got the better of me when Séan and I rolled into town a couple of weeks back, and while we waited for access to our hotel I eschewed the inevitable delights of the Mikkeller bar and brought us for a sensible lunch in a brewpub I'd never been to before: Vesterbro, opposite the Tivoli. Vesterbro IPA was procured, arriving in a generously filled goblet if somewhat headless. It's quite thin and rather lagerish: "IPA made by an Austrian," said Séan, in reference to the shiny copper Salm brewkit gleaming by the doorway. There's a vaguely floral aroma and a bitterness like tasted perfume on the foretaste. It finishes sweet, like foam banana candy. Not an auspicious start and not one of the finest beers available to humanity.

Still with a few minutes to spare before hotel time we nipped across the street to Apollo. I was expecting even less of a wow factor here, based on past experience of this touristy brewpub built into the main entrance of Tivoli, but it surprised me. The waiter all but forced an Apollo Jule Bryg down us. This was the Thursday before the first Friday of November: a day etched on the Danish beer calendar as the launch of all the independent breweries' Christmas beers (the following night belongs to Tuborg's). Apollo's is a wholesome and balanced affair, an appropriate dark mahogany with caramel at the beginning, a little bit of bitterness later on and infused with warming banana esters, wrapped up in a reasonable 5.8% ABV.

Apollo's other offerings were a little less traditional. The American Brown Ale was more of a porter, I thought: lots of brown malt for some major milky coffee flavours and aromas but finishing with a crisp, dry roast barley bite. Not sweet enough to be a brown ale, I reckon, and certainly too few hops for the American angle, but spot-on as a porter. Funnily enough I met something just like it on coming home: Galway Bay brewery's Brown Ale currently pouring from the Strange Brew tap in the Cottage Group pubs strikes lots of very similar notes. I'm a fan.

The last one from Apollo was their Mango Weissbier. And sure why not? It presents quite dark: brownish-orange, like Schneider-Weisse. The aroma offers a sweet fruit sorbet effect and the flavour wrongfoots you immediately by kicking off with a big bitter hop tang. The mango follows quickly afterwards: full and sticky, more like mango flavoured bubblegum than fresh fruit. I got a twang of copper just at the finish. It could get a bit difficult after a while, but just a small glass was interesting and very different from the usual.

We caught up with our European colleagues later in Café Globen, more a travellers' club house than a proper bar, but with a damn decent selection of Danish beer. First up for me was Lupulus from Beer Here. A straight-up no-messing IPA, though light at just 4.7% ABV and a bright, clear orange colour. Spicy sherbet on the nose, super zingy citrus flavours and a kind of interesting Belgian funk just at the end to keep things interesting. The same brewing company had a Jul IPA too, another bright orange one but definitely fuller and more warming with a good dose of toffee amongst the pithy citrus. It's a winter beer first, given just a bit of a pale 'n' 'oppy twist. Before moving on, a swift No. 16 from Refsvindinge: red and sweet with lots of toffee. It hits a lot of the notes that good Irish red ale does, though at 5.7% ABV packs more of a wallop.

This is where it starts to get a little heated. We followed the crowd to Fermentoren, a pub owned by the people behind Croocked Moon brewery and which opened a little over a year ago. It's a sparse place, in that slightly canteenish Nordic way, though sufficiently comfortable and atmospheric. And the beer selection is top notch. I had two from Flying Couch, a company which shares its brewing load between Herslev and  Nørrebro. Pillow Fight is a 4.6% ABV American amber lager, though quite a full-bodied and ale-ish one with some delicious fruity hop perfume amongst the caramel sweetness. Green Velvet is a 7% ABV IPA, heavily bitter with touches of boozy golden syrup and a dry tannic finish. Quite a a workout. But I really struck gold with Mikkeller's Christmas porter To Via From. It's stoutishly dry with just enough central heating from the 8% ABV. But on top of this there's just a subtle dusting of Christmas spices which accentuate the other elements and make the whole into this wonderful buttery bready pudding of a beer, creamy and bitter and spicy simultaneously and completely harmoniously. It's a supreme achievement and really restored my faith in Mikkeller as one of Europe's top beer brands.

So you know what comes next: up the street to the Mikkeller bar. It's gone midnight now and I need an eye-opener. The blackboard shows Girardin 1882 white label: that'll do. I had the black one recently and it's a powerhouse. This seemed altogether more smooth and rounded, though still every inch a sour lambic. Then just something hoppy to go out on: 8 Wired's Superconductor, an IPA that travelled all the way from New Zealand to the old one. At 8.88% ABV and 88 IBUs one suspects that this may be more of a gimmick than a beer, but it's a pretty straight clone of good US IPA: that slightly unctuous bit of toffee followed by a hop one-two of bitter pith and sweet mandarin. I've seen this many times before but it's no hardship at all to meet it again.

And that's where evening one ended. On to Carlsberg next. Would the beer be as good there?

15 November 2012

Flipping the birds

I made a special return visit to the Yamamori Izakaya when I heard they'd got the Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale in. It's brewed using a mold-dyed rice known as "red rice koji" and the Kiuchi Brewery claims on the label that this turns it pink, but it didn't look that way to me: more of a hazy orange, I thought. There's an interesting sort of strawberry flavour to it, the sort you find in the better class of Irish red ales. The texture is smooth and wheaty and it's all very jolly up to a point. It finishes abruptly, however, with no proper aftertaste: an unforgiveable sin in a beer of 7% ABV.

I had heard disparaging comments about it from various sources but having tasted it now I can't agree with them. It's just not really as interesting as the vital statistics ought to make it.

The way the beers are listed on the Izakaya blackboard leaves it unclear whether the Pale Ale is a separate beer or just a description of one of the others. Turns out it is a beer in its own right: 5.5% ABV and dark gold in colour with a large fluffy head. No half measures here: it starts out with a blast of bitter and pithy orange, overlaid with an intense waxyiness I associate most with English bittering hops in large quantity. And then in the middle there's a surprising acrid funk, almost lambic-like in its vinegary sharpness and a long way from the flavours best associated with pale ale. It's not that I didn't enjoy it -- it's definitely a beer that makes you take notice -- but it was just one of those that's a bit too confusing to really impress.

Kiuchi's Japanese Classic remains my go-to in this line-up, with an honorable mention for the Nipponia.

12 November 2012

Abbey out

For some reason I'd always thought of Tongerlo as just another one of those by-the-numbers abbey ales, brewed to a bland formula and given a tokenistic association with some random monastery to try and lend it an air of legitimacy. I'm nearly positive I remember drinking some in a pavement café in Ypres a few years back, but there doesn't seem to be any record of it in my blog archives. And these days I trust my blog archives more than my memory.

So I wasn't expecting much when I pulled three from the range out of the back of the fridge. They're brewed by Haacht, a company better known for mainstream pils like Primus and