30 November 2015

Two nights at The Headline

Dublin's premier destination for beer Irish beer launches™, 57 The Headline, staged special nights for two breweries on consecutive Thursdays recently. Both involved beers I'd never had before so of course I was in attendance.

The first tap takeover was by Rye River, bringing a bunch of the specials it had at the Irish Craft Beer Festival last August, plus a couple of new regulars. I'd missed the Keeping Ale at the festival and it was presented here in oak-aged form. It's 6.5% ABV and dark red in colour. Strawberry is the main flavour I got from it, then some milk chocolate and a sort of rubberiness which I suspect may be the oak at work. It has a woody, cola-nut aroma and the texture is smooth. I don't think it quite works: the base beer is undoubtedly well made, but rather boring after the first few sips, and the oak ageing hasn't done anything to improve it.

The following week, Trouble Brewing were front and centre, occupying ten taps and launching three new beers. I started on #TeamTrouble, an amber ale designed and assisted by the Ladies Craft Beer Society of Ireland. First impressions are of something very pale for an amber ale, and there's no sign of the rich malt sweetness that I'd regard as its hallmark. What you get instead are fruity front bits -- blackberry in particular -- and then a very sharp waxy finish. It rounds out a little as it warms and there's a pleasant buzz of jasmine spice adding interest, but it never quite loses its harshness. Perhaps you need several pints for your palate to adjust, but of course that wasn't an option when there were more beers to try.

Schwarzbier is one of those styles sorely neglected by Irish brewers so it was exciting to discover Trouble have made one, and at a nicely sessionable 4.5% ABV, by the name of Black Flag. Once again, though, I think the nuances of the style have been missed. It does have a good dark roasted crispness, and a subtle bitterness in a green, celery or courgette, sort of way. But there's a lot of sweetness all through it, a streak of caramel and a dusting of raisins. Not unpleasant in and of themselves but it left me hankering for a drier beer. A schwarzbier, in other words. Consensus among the commentariat was that this is more a Munich dunkel than a schwarzbier but I think it lacked the metallic liquorice bitterness they often have, and similarly with regard to Czech tmavý, before you ask. Black Flag is good clean fun but I'd love to see some of the sugar knocked out of it.

From black lager to black IPA, and Dead Ringer, one of the lightest examples of the style I've met, at just 4.3% ABV, but tasting convincingly stronger. I think it's because of the texture: thick and tarry with a majorly harsh, burnt component in the foretaste. The hops have their say in the aroma more than anywhere: gorgeously fresh honeydew melon, totally out of place in such a severe beer, but also providing a welcome softness. A small peach note appears in the aftertaste as well. It's a funny arrangement but it does work, in its own odd sort of way, though it's not quite in the same league as previous dark 'n' hoppy Trouble ales, Oh Yeah! and Fallen Idol.

The Headline being The Headline, there were other beers from other breweries to try on both nights. The autumn special from Jack Cody's rejoices in the name Curly Hole, a red ale brewed with sour cherries and apricots. I didn't know the fruit was there when I bought my pint and completely failed to identify them. Instead, I found a smooth and toffee-laden dark red ale with a strange sort of corky mustiness, which I'm now guessing may have been down to the cherries. It's little more than a slightly intensified version of plain Irish red ale and rather underwhelming.

Finally, Carrig Brewing's Grand Soft Day pale ale has been around since the summer but it wasn't until I was sitting about waiting for Trouble to take over the taps that I actually got to try it. And it's definitely a suitable summer sessioner (4.2% ABV) but works just as well on a dark November evening. It begins with a tasty spritz of satsuma and then settles back into a more serious resinous bitterness. That's all it does but it's enough to create something quaffable with sufficient complexity to hold the drinker's interest.

Cheers to Máire, Geoff,  all the crew of The Headline and the guys from Trouble and Rye River for two excellent evenings.

26 November 2015

A few days in beertown

I left you last time in Moeder Lambic Fontainas, Brussels's ticker heaven. The other beer I had there before moving on to the cask Cantillon lambic, was L'Amer des Moeders, brewed for the house by Jandrain-Jandrenouille. It's a golden ale of an approachable 5% ABV, pale and slightly hazy with a sugary perfumed nose. This resolves on tasting into a weighty Belgian blonde with spicy jasmine up front and quite a dry finish. It's good, as pretty much everything the brewery produces is, though it's also a little severe, especially if it's intended for repeat purchase.

There's a new geek bar in town next to Centraal station: the first Belgian outpost of the BrewDog chain. It occupies a cavernous space, with oddly less seating than I'd have expected. There are also signs that this is a licensed franchise rather than part of the main operation as the staff don't seem to have the precision customer service expertise that's a hallmark of the UK branches. The menu is a mix of the core BrewDog range and a well chosen selection of mostly unusual Belgian guests. To wit:

Monkey Monk is a new Belgium-based brewing operation founded by Finnish ex-pats. The beer I had was a 6.5% ABV IPA called API and it's all rather simple and tasty, with that orangey hard candy taste common to many Belgian and Belgian-style IPAs, plus a dusting of light spices. Straightforward, no gimmicks; clean and well-made.

I followed it with Mont des Cats, a newish trappist brand, brewed under licence at Chimay. It's 7.6% ABV, a pale orange-brown colour, and smells enticingly of rum, rasins and bananas. The flavour is very much that of a strong dark trappist, with more raisins and a great deal of crusty brown bread, though the texture isn't as heavy despite the substantial strength. I kept expecting some tripel-style spicing, but that doesn't feature. Decent stuff and a pleasant change away from your Chimays and Westmalles while staying broadly within the genre.

That's all there was time for before dinner, hosted by Brussels's most renowned cuisine à la bière establishment, Restobières. Eccentric chef-patron Alain kept thrusting bottles of his house beer at us: ForMi Diable, a blonde ale complete with extensive punning ant cartoons on the label. The use of coriander and orange peel at 6.5% ABV make it something like a souped-up witbier, though the savoury herbal effect is more reminiscent of clean Belgian blondes like Duvel and makes it a better food beer. Which is the point, I guess. Anyway, a nice dinnertime conversation beer, though I'm still none the wiser about why the ants.

Also being passed around was a limited quantity of 2009 De Cam Framboise. I'm new to this gueuze brand, but have always enjoyed it so far. This red one is 6% ABV and very funky: lots of brett, traces of vinegar and just a tiny wisp of residual raspberry fruit. The most distinguishing feature was the sharp acidity, making it pure heartburn in a bottle. Fun to try, but a sip is plenty for my unrefined tastes.

For afters, a trip around the corner to Pin Pon, which I mentioned on Monday. As well as the house beer, I also had a go of St Feuillien Grisette Fruit des Bois, much to the bemusement of my companions. And the bar staff, actually. We're used to grisette as very much a craft style -- so craft that I don't think anyone in Ireland has made one yet -- but I suppose in Belgium this light saison still carries the less romantic associations of its industrial past. And especially when a load of purple syrup is dumped into the vat. The end result is 3.5%, bright pink and very sweet. The flavour is that of a forest fruit yoghurt, all fruit gunk and not much beer behind it, just a kind of vague stale mustiness. I'd be interested in trying the naked version of this, but it scratched my sweet fruit beer itch for a while.

A pub crawl on a different evening began with dinner in La Lombard, washed down with Petrus Aged Pale, a beer which, from what I've read lately, did rather well out of its sponsorship at the 2015 European Beer Bloggers' Conference. This is a whopping 7.3% ABV and features an odd aroma of candycanes and vinegar. It falls somewhere on the spectrum between proper Belgian sour beer and the high-volume industrial gueuzes, a properly bitter tartness sits next to quite a heavy sugariness. A simple flavour, with no woody or bacterial complexity, it's accessible and drinkable, despite the strength. And the good news is that importation to Ireland is imminent.

Dessert was Troubadour Imperial Stout. A little disappointing, this. I was expecting bigger and better but instead I got something which called ancient memories of chocolate-flavoured Ready Brek to mind: that fine sawdust wheatiness and sweet milk chocolate. A metallic hop kick in the finish and a light pepperiness adds a modicum of complexity, but that's your lot: just because something is from one of Belgium's best brewers and is 9% ABV doesn't mean it will alter your perception completely.

Guest photobomb by Tim Webb
After a quick stop in A La Bécasse and a pair of big jugs, the evening wound up in Toone and my nightcap was 3 Fonteinen Oude Kriek. This chap is only 5% ABV but very dense with it, a dramatic dark blood-red colour. I reckon the thickness helps offset the sourness because this is quite gentle in that respect, taking away the harsh acidity and leaving a pleasant spiciness. No fruit sweetness has survived the process and the flavour is more like tart blackcurrant than cherries to my mind. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a kriek this much.

The last event of the trip was a reception the EBCU held for politicians and the drinks industry, in celebration of the group's 25th birthday. Member organisations had shipped in beer from their homes so there was a veritable buffet of varied European beers -- special thanks at this point to Carlow Brewing for providing Beoir's contribution to the party. I was only around for the set-up of the event so had time to sample just two of the beers on offer. One was Visioen, an 8% ABV stout from Dutch brewer 7de Hemel. It's a perfectly classical example of a strong stout: roasty and creamy at first and finishing with an assertive dry bite. The other, also a stout, was East London's Quadrant. This includes oatmeal and gets the benefit of its smoothing effect. But there's plenty of roast too and a certain sourness as well. Very drinkable and it would have been nice to compare both of these to Leann Folláin, which I'm told was very popular on the night.

But I had to make my excuses and depart, shoplifting as much as I could carry from behind the bar. Posts about my ill-gotten gains will follow in due course.

23 November 2015

Brussels brewing

In Brussels for the Autumn 2015 EBCU meeting, I didn't mean to visit every operating brewery in the city. It just kinda turned out that way. I trod a path similar to the one Steve did here during the summer, though with more of the breweries actually in action. It's interesting to observe just how fast the brewing scene in Brussels is currently moving.

First stop as soon as I reached the city was Brussels Beer Project which had opened specially for delegates just ahead of its grand launch a week later. The taproom, on the edge of the city centre just beyond Sante-Catherine, is open Thursday to Saturday and the intention is to pour the brewery's own beers alongside selected guests. In a room behind it is the shiny steel brewkit and a handful of wooden casks with experiments ageing within. The plan, the founders told us, is to make around 20 different beers a year, collaborating as much as possible and becoming an integral part of beer in Brussels. Bottles of the first few new ones were on display but weren't quite ready for drinking so we made do with the last of the beers BBP has been producing elsewhere over the last couple of years.

Delta IPA and Dark Sister black IPA I've covered before; suffice it to say that the latter was on particularly good form and I hope the recipe makes the transition to in-house unscathed. My first was Babylone, a dark amber coloured IPA of 7% ABV with a fun gimmick in that 30% of the grist is made up of unsold bread they collect from bakeries. (40% is possible, said Dimitiri the bar manager, but inadvisable.) The hops are a transatlantic mix of Chinook, Crystal and East Kent Goldings and the end result a gorgeously thick and spicy beer, oozing bitter resins as it sparks with black pepper. I'm not sure how much I could get through in one sitting, but I wouldn't mind putting that to the test.

But there was another beer to try, namely Grosse Bertha, a hybrid of the German weissbier and Belgian tripel beer styles. It could pass for either on appearance and the opening impression is soft and wheaty like a weizen, incorporating the de rigeur bananas plus the sort of green celery effect that German hops sometimes bring to these. However, it's also 7% ABV and carries all the heat and spice you'd expect from a tripel as well. It fascinated me for a while, standing with a glass on the brewery floor, flipping my perception between the two styles like a lenticular picture. The problem arose when it came time to finish the glass and move on to something else: the flavour is so big and busy that it actually becomes difficult drinking quite quickly, especially if it gets warm. Sharing 33cl measures of beer is, of course, a dreadful abomination, but you might get away with it here.

Naturally the trip incorporated a visit to the city's oldest working brewery, Cantillon. It's undergoing a bit of a supply-side crisis at the moment, and though the range of beers being produced has never been greater, a lot of it seems to be confined to the brewery bar: off sales are severely limited, in both variety and permissible order size. The issue is one of space, we were told, and a new warehouse currently being prepared will go some way towards relieving it. Meanwhile, just one new Cantillon for me: Haute Densité. You can read the convoluted history of this one here, and it certainly lived up to its name, being 9% ABV and incredibly heavy despite the high attenuation. There's the characteristic earthy lambic funk alongside a very uncharacteristic sweet honey flavour, as well as an intense beeswax bitterness. Yet all throughout, there's a mature smoothness that ensures its drinkability. A lovely twist on good gueuze, and I look forward to Cantillon getting more experiments like this out on the market.

From the oldest brewery to the newest (or at least the newest then; these guys have opened subsequently with no regard for my publishing schedule), En Stoemlings is a two-man operation in a tiny premises by Chapelle station, not far from both Gare du Midi and Place Fontainas. The name translates roughly as "the sneaks", recalling the time before their commercial operation was quite as above-board as it is now. They make one beer, 125 litres at a time, and sell 80% of it at the front door of the brewery. The beer is called Curieuse Neus and is a 7% ABV tripel, available in 75cl bottles and on draught in a handful of outlets, including Bar Recyclart around the corner under the railway tracks. The beer is... OK. Workmanlike. The ABV is on the low side for a tripel but it's still surprisingly heavy. The classic tripel spices are present and correct though a touch of hot marker pen phenols on the finish compromises it a little. Decent for a first effort and I'm sure it's merely the gateway to greater things.

That just leaves Brasserie de la Senne, a relative brewing veteran at this stage. My first encounter with their beer this time was at Pin Pon, a charming little stand-up bar in a renovated fire station on Place du Jeu de Balle. Senne makes a house lager for them, which is also called Pin Pon. It's 5.2% ABV, a perfect clear blonde and with a slightly waxy pils bitterness but not much else to say for itself. Not made for the geeks, but that's OK: they're allowed brew beer for normal people to drink.

Not being a normal person, a couple of days later I went up to the brewery. It was Finnish delegate André's idea, and Reuben and I accompanied him to keep him out of trouble. The journey is a long one on the 82 tram through the heart of the Molenbeek district almost to the north-west edge of the city. You duck in behind a car wash, along the back wall of a cemetery and the warehouse is there at the end, past the industrial laundry. It's a large and busy space inside but they've boxed off one corner of calm with chipboard sheets and installed a bar and tables. And a merchandise shop, of course.

I started with Brusseleir, badged as a "sweet IPA" which, it turns out, means something brown and portery with lots of chocolate in the foretaste followed by a mellow hop bitterness in the background, plus a wisp of coconut, because why not? It wears its Belgian credentials in the aroma: an earthy and estery warmth, as might be expected at 8% ABV. Overall a very classy blend of English and Belgian flavours, and sure to piss off the people who still think the letters IPA actually mean something, which is good.

We'll finish with a final Senne beer in the hallowed hall of Moeder Lambic Fontainas. Schieve Tabernak is a hazy orange ale, mixing in pleasant peach and apricot with a less welcome savoury yeast bite. Good potential, but it could really do with cleaning up.

It does, however, lead us neatly away from the breweries and into the pubs: always a highlight of Brussels. A full account of what I drank in them follows next.

19 November 2015

Hard graft

It's quite a few months since Rye River announced they were making two new beers especially for Dunnes. "Easy," I thought, "I'll just swing by Dunnes and pick some up." And I did the first bit, several times, but on each occasion the cupboard was bare. Only just a few weeks ago, in Henry Street, did I finally succeed. Dunnes has got quite good in recent years at providing well-chosen Irish beers at highly competitive prices. How would they fare with a brand of their own? It's perhaps not surprising, given global beer trends and their application to Ireland, that both of these are hop-forward ales.

Grafters Pale Ale poured lazily into the glass with barely any fizz. I thought it might have been a dud but the head still formed perfectly, loose bubbled like an unsparklered pint of cask, and it has a similar gentle effervesence rather than full-on carbonation so I really don't care if it's not meant to be like this, it's perfect for a cheap 4.5% ABV sessioner. The colour is a clear dark copper and the caramel malt which caused it is very much present in the flavour as a light sort of toffee. But the hops aren't shy either, providing a waft of sweet satsuma in the aroma and while it doesn't taste fruity, or particularly bitter, there is a pleasant zesty lemon tart effect. Only a very slight soapy twang on the finish prevents this from being an astounding beer for the money, but you still won't get better under the €2 mark, even allowing for temporary deep-discount deals.

So what does trading up to €2.50 get you? Grafters IPA is here to tell us. A few extra ABV points is the immediate answer: at 6.5% ABV it's definitely leaning on the American style. It's nicely pale too, clear and golden. The aroma isn't especially strong but I do get a promise of heat and hop oils when I sniff. The texture is thick and the first taste I get is a very grown-up bitterness, quite waxy and metallic, and definitely more English than American to my mind. There's a bit of citrus pith after it and a lovely mouthwatering juicy finish which balances the weight nicely, making it both easy and satisfying to drink. Sure, there are better IPAs out there, but really not at this price point.

Well played Dunnes and Rye River, and let other brewers and commissioners take note: there's room for something tasty and even a little daring at the value end of the market.

16 November 2015


I'm looking at some German beers today, ones that are a little, but not too much, outside of the normal run of things for brewers there.

Störtebeker Atlantik-Ale offers no explanation as regards a style, only that it's 5.1% ABV and brewed with a mix of German and American hops. It pours out a pale hazy yellow with a big fluffy head, looking for all the world like a witbier. The smell isn't far off either, with lots of fresh lemons and a hint of herbs too. The flavour is an odd mix of spicy and juicy. A sharp bitterness, which I think is hop-derived, opens it up. But there's a certain yeast contribution too: a bathsalt spice that adds its own kind of sharpness. Soft fruit then floods in behind this, mango and passionfruit, with sharper lime elements. A crisp and dry cereal quality finishes it off, leaving just an echo of the initial hops and yeast behind. It's quite an intense experience and takes a bit of getting used to, but I liked it. My bottle was older than I should have allowed it to get so it's possible that a fresh one would have even brighter hop notes.

I followed it with Brewers & Union Unfiltered Dark Lager, Brewers & Union being a self-consciously "craft" Munich-based gypsy brewing operation. But to be honest, only the English-language label and the "I Drink Craft" logo on the bottlecap marks this as any way out of the ordinary. It's 5% ABV and tastes to me like an absolutely straight-up well made Munich dunkel, mixing sweet milk chocolate with bitterer liquorice, finishing with a herbal noble hop flourish. It's smooth and very drinkable. One off-kilter feature is that it's bottle-conditioned, leaving quite a lot of yeasty goop in the bottom of the bottle. And I think this unusual (for bottled German lager) part of the the production process really stands to it. Its flavours certainly seem bigger and brighter as a result.

To The Beer Market for the last one. Legendary Bavarian weissbier brewer Schneider has been trying to earn some craft cred in recent years with its Tap X series of offbeat beers, and they haven't been a universally liked bunch. The presentation has tended to be an expensive large-format bottle so I was surprised to see the latest Tap X, Mathilda Soleil, on draught at The Beer Market. It's a 7% ABV weizenbock and looks more like a modern pale ale than a traditional Bavarian anything. The nose gives sweet orange candy backed by classic weissbier banana esters. So far so fruity. On tasting it makes it very clear that this is a strong beer: the instant heat, spice and density lays down a marker. But it's also madly easy drinking: there's a flowers and tannins effect reminiscent of the best English quaffing bitters and then the juicy mandarins and hondeydew of US or New Zealand pale ale. Only the high carbonation brings you back to Kelheim and a reminder of what kind of beer this is. But styles be damned, it's perfection in any vernacular.

I'm sure I've said this before, but new-wave German brewing does seem to do a particularly good job of incorporating what the industry already does well with new influences. Long may that continue.

13 November 2015

Downsizing to trade up

Saisons; single-hopped beers; 750ml bottles: all things that give me pause when I'm out shopping for beer. I've no direct issue with any of those factors, but each one has a certain risk attached which makes me a little more inclined to pick something else. The combination of all three is the reason I had not hitherto got round to trying Brooklyn Sorachi Ace even though it's been knocking about for ages. But now the brewery has elected to send it out in more manageable 355ml bottles so that left me fresh out of excuses.

It presents a pale lemony colour with a mild aroma of lemon rind and bathsalts. The lemon quality for which the Sorachi Ace hop is (in)famous really makes its presence felt from the first sip: a powerful oily citrus effect, like a scented candle. Behind this there's a strong bitter bite and a definite mineral chalkiness -- those bathsalts again. It took a few mouthfuls to get used to, but once I did I really enjoyed it, finding it perfectly refreshing on a warm summer afternoon. It was very easy to forget that the ABV is a whopping 7.2%.

Once you get past the initial shock, this is a charming and well-integrated beer, maybe lacking a little in saison fruit or spices but making excellent use of Sorachi Ace hops. A 750ml bottle would be no hardship at all.

11 November 2015

Some corner of a foreign pub

According to Mark last weekend there are still a few beers from the latest JD Wetherspoon International Real Ale Festival knocking around, even though the two-week gig ended on 1st November. So it's possible that someone out there might benefit from my experiences a few Saturdays ago when I saddled up and wheeled out to the coast to visit the south County Dublin branches.

Only three specials were on at The Three Tun Tavern in Blackrock, and my eye was drawn first to Yakima Sun by Fat Head of Portland, Oregon, brewed at Hook Norton. One of the stronger offerings at 5% ABV, it's golden coloured and mixes honey, spices and husky grain in a very classical English bitter sort of way, building to an invigorating metallic bitterness. A slight grassiness in the finish hints at resinous US hops but there's no way you'd guess any American pedigree. A solidly enjoyable pint, though, and a great start to the day.

On to thirds to complete the set, and next was Flying Dutchman, brewed at Caledonian though I didn't recognise the name of the guest brewer: Henk Oexman. It turns out he runs the pilot plant at Caledonian's mothership, the giant Heineken factory in the Netherlands. This is badged as a "spiced ale" and the brochure elaborates that it includes coriander, cardamom, lemongrass and liquorice. It's 4.4% ABV and dark gold with a very slight haze, capped by a tight layer of foam. The aroma is aftershave-like, but in a pleasant way, and it wears those spices right up front: pine and pith, Christmas trees and mince pies. There's next to nothing behind this, no malt substance or body, but I liked its simplicity and I think the thinness actually helped keep the spices from making the beer hard to drink. I certainly could have managed more than a third.

An Australian collaboration next: Young Henrys Real Ale, Young Henrys being in Newtown, New South Wales and the beer was brewed at Bateman's. It's a similar red-gold to the previous beer and 4% ABV. There's a charming mix of wax and sherbet, bitter first with a gentler tangy middle. Like the Yakima Sun it's very English tasting, in a good way. The body is full without being heavy and serves to balance the hop bitterness nicely. A slightly sweet mild toffee comes in late, but the last word belongs to the assertive acidic hops. This is a top-notch English bitter of the sort we just don't get in this country normally.

And so to Dún Laoghaire, where The Forty Foot has had a pretty poor track record on festival beers in its ten months of life. But they certainly had their act together this time because I found a very decent selection on the taps, including the one I had been really hoping to try. Minagof is a 5.5% ABV smoked porter brewed at Wadworth by Toshi Ishii. A little dark chocolate in the aroma is its only nod to traditional porter, then on tasting it explodes with burnt smoky phenols right from the start: ash dry, with a generous layer of peaty TCP. Only the light texture saves it from being undrinkable and I found that the long phenolic finish was the only bit I didn't enjoy. The rest is bold, flavourful, and if smoke is your bag then this beer delivers.

Moving from the international selection to the UK breweries' own efforts, Oakleaf 10 Little Acorns was next. I was attracted by its description as a mild but disappointed to discover it's a pale amber-coloured one. It's very plain, to the point of being insipid, tasting of toffee, oaty biscuits and acrid vegetal hops. You could describe it as wholesome; I wouldn't.

With trepidation I approached the second Caledonian beer to cross my path: Rare Red Rye. A perfect clear dark copper colour, it offered an odd mix of malts: creamy barley and spicy rye. Unfortunately there's an iron or zinc twang that spoils it, and I think that's the hop contribution. Not what I was expecting from the promised Cascade and Columbus. It's not a bad beer -- I could get used to Caledonian beers that aren't lousy with diacetyl -- and I forgive its thinness since it's a mere 3.9% ABV, but the recipe isn't quite right for me. Bring the grains out a little more and it could be a winner.

Tap & Go is an IPA brewed for the Rugby World Cup by reliable Norfolk brewery Woodforde's. It's 5% ABV and copper coloured, promising in the festival programme an Anglo-American blend of Cascade and Challenger hops. I couldn't detect any aroma but hops are there in the flavour, albeit in an understated way. There's a fresh lemon rind bitterness set against warmer caramel malts but it's neither harsh nor sticky, making this one of the more sessionable beers of the day.

South to Newcastle, next, and Mordue Admiral. There's a selection of English hops in here with the titular variety and it's a dark shade of red. The first taste gave me a very autumnal mix of burnt caramel and dark forest fruits, followed later by a spicy saltpetre effect from burnt malt husks. The big warming texture belies a mere 4.8% ABV and the overall effect is of a charming fireside sipper.

And since I was in Wetherspoon I couldn't resist a go of Wadworth's "Irish style" stout Corvus. It's the proper dark ruby with a bone-white head. Milk chocolate is the main part of the flavour with some sweet, lightly buttery toffee and a slightly acrid hop bitterness. It's good stuff and a deal more complex than the mainstream nitrokeg stouts it's trying to substitute for.

But back to the cask ales: while there was no stand-out stunner in the ones I drank, I did have quite a bit of well-made, well-kept, well-priced decent British-style beer. It's a poorly-served niche and, much as I would like to have local breweries and pubs filling it alongside everything else they do, I'm really happy that JD Wetherspoon is there for now.

09 November 2015

While I was away

In between my excursions to Lithuania and the Netherlands which have been occupying this blog of late (and the one to Belgium on the way) the Irish beer scene has been chugging along as usual. I've long since given up trying to get hold of every new Irish beer, but I have managed to get my hands on...

Rascal's Rugby World Cup special was a pale ale called Holy Schmidt. At 4.5% ABV it's clearly designed to accompany big-screen sports though it's not lacking in substance: the inclusion of oatmeal in the grist lends it a nice weight and a certain pleasant stickiness. Pleasant because of the lovely fresh candied orange imparted by the El Dorado hops, alongside the earthy bitterness of Cascade. Classic flavours and a very enjoyable, sessionable pint.

In other pale ale news, the second beer in Carlow Brewing's single hop IPA series, O'Hara's Hop Adventure Galaxy, arrived last month and a couple of samples were kindly sent over by the PR squad. They've stuck to the 5% ABV spec, brewed pale to get the maximum impact from the hop. It bears a striking resemblance to the Irish Pale Ale from the core range: a similar lemon biscuit aroma and a crisp dry flavour, with maybe a little juicier passionfruit where the other has grapefruit but this is still plenty bitter, a refreshing acidic bite that lingers long. I can't help feeling that a bit more balancing malt would have enhanced the juice-giving properties of Galaxy, and this certainly isn't the hop showcase that the Sorachi Ace one was, but then Sorachi Ace is a very showcaseable hop. Still, a decent beer but if you can't find it, an O'Hara's Pale Ale will do just as nicely.

Galway Bay's sour beer project produced two new ones in recent months. The first is Godspeed, 5% ABV and with added peach and mango. Like its predecessor Maybe Next Monday, there's an unsettling fruit yoghurt aroma but the fruit almost disappears in the flavour. Instead, the foretaste is all about the funk: a gritty spiciness that almost resembles the saltpetre effect found in proper geueze, with  a pinch of added pepper. The tropical fruit floods in after this but doesn't really add anything useful to the overall flavour and then it finishes on a really quite nasty oxidised cardboard twang. It's a cut above Maybe Next Monday in terms of complexity, but it's not a beer I'd choose to drink again. I think I'm pretty much done with these sorts of fruited sour beers.

Then with much fanfare the next Galway Bay sour beer arrived in bottles. The Eternalist was created under the direction of Enda Cleary who was a home brewer when the beer was brewed but has since gone on to found Wild Bat Brewery. 24 months in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, brettanomyces, lactobacillus, pediococcus and raspberries are all part of the vital statistics here and the end result is 5.5% ABV. While I was expecting something pink it's more of a murky orange-brown. The aroma is the first indication that this supergroup is being fronted by the fruit and the brett: tart and funky. The body is thin and fizzy and the raspberries jump in first but there's not a whole lot behind them. There's a kind of savoury rye bread flavour which I think is masking the sourness, a dirty yeast effect which I'm used to interfering with hoppy beer but it's the first time I've met a sour beer that could do with cleaning up. It has a lot going for it, but like the other sour Galway Bay beers it's merely a point in the journey towards making these styles as good as the Belgians do. I'm not at all convinced that the complicated biochemistry involved here, with its attendant price tag, was worth the effort. If you have an unopened one, I suggest leaving it to settle for a winter or two.

Last but by no means least, the second release from young James Brown, a follow-up to his award-winning Chocolate Orange Stout, and brewed once again at Brú. This time it's American-style IPA that gets the fruit treatment and, by his account, Rhubarb Tart IPA has a lot of fresh rhubarb added to it. By way of beery balance it's a big 7% ABV and hopped with Cascade and Chinook. It's a dark orange colour with maybe a slight pinkish cast and the aroma is all about the hops: classic American grapefruit. The texture is very light for such a strong beer and there's a lot of fizz to begin, though it actually becomes quite smooth when that fades. The hops dominate the flavour too, at least when the beer is cold. As it warms, however, the rhubarb acidity builds, adding a gentle refreshing green sharpness to the finish as well as a slight metallic aspirin tang. The fruit and hops work surprisingly well together with neither dominating the other. At its heart it remains a US-style IPA, but with just that slight twist making it more interesting than most. I've certainly never encountered anything like it before.

That's all for the moment, but I can already feel the next backlog starting to build.

06 November 2015

Food for thought

Session logoCelebrity chefs and beer. Why do they do it? Has there ever been a convincing tie-in, one which makes the drinker think "Wow, this guy really put his finely-honed gastronomic abilities to work here and produced something that only an expert could have created"? No. It's always mediocre, lowest-common-denominator, beer for people who aren't especially interested in beer. Ferran Adrià, Richard Fox: j'accuse. And now here's toothsome Kevin Dundon off of RTÉ, setting up a brewery round the back of his posh country house hotel. What wonders will the inventor of tomato and poitín soup work upon humble malt and hops?

There are two beers in the range and, as it happens, the theme for this month's Session is compare two beers of the same style. I think there's value in looking at two celeb-chef beers back-to-back. They are presumably, after all, intended to pair with the entirety of food, something that, according to my count of the Dunbrody House menu, takes 77 different wines to do. These are the hardest-working beers in brewing history and they must be astounding.

Arthurstown Brewing Company is the name of the new brewery, and King's Bay is the name they've chosen for both the beers. Both are 4.7% ABV and come in half-litre bottles. King's Bay Irish Red Ale mixes a bit of Cascade in with its more orthodox Fuggles and crystal malt. There's a good layer of foam on top when poured but it's not overly carbonated, with a happily light sparkle on a full chewy body. It's certainly not bland, with a meaty, savory aroma and a flavour which has a big dry and bitter centrepiece, resembling a stout more than anything. Only as it fades is there an echo of sweet toffee and the pithiness of the English hops. I actually think this would work well with those dishes that Irish red suits best: roasts, stews, sausages and the like. The boldness of the taste matches that of any Belgian dubbel or English strong ale. I feel my cynicism beginning to waver.

So, that's your dark and heavy one. Has Arthurstown managed to produce a yang to its yin?

Sort of. King's Bay Irish Pale Ale is another big-bodied beer, including oats in the grist. It's a bright, clear amber-gold and smells rather gastric and acidic, unpleasantly so. Citra, Challenger and Cascade is the hop combo, in case you want to avoid something similar happening to your beer. The taste is quite simple, with light and lemony citrus over a dry biscuit grain and a sharp waxy finish. Maybe it's just the frame of mind I'm in, but I can actually imagine drinking this with lighter fish and salad dishes. Part of me thinks that under a perfectionist like Chef Dundon this should really be one of those fresh and zingy US-style pale ales, because that's how you know when a pale ale is excellent. But on the other hand, going back to the food thing, the malt weight and present but restrained hopping probably make it a better beer for matching, allowing the flavours in the meal (the bit you paid more for) have the greater impact. Perhaps, after all, these really are the two single best beers to put on a fancy restaurant menu.

Well, almost. What's missing from the King's Bay range is something sweeter and stronger in a small bottle for the cheese and dessert, and possibly something lighter and spritzier for the hors d'oeuvres as well. But this is not a bad showing for a brewery that's only a couple of months old.

I honestly expected the result of this compare-and-contrast exercise to be very similar, samey beers. They're not, though they work inside very similar parameters and do share characteristics in common: that chewy texture for one thing. But if we're assuming that these are primarily designed for restaurant consumption then I think the similarities can be justified.

I look forward to seeing what Arthurstown produces next.

04 November 2015

Where eagles dare

The empire of Amsterdam publican Peter van der Arend has begun extending its reach out of the city centre. Until 2009 it was just his Dutch-only beer bar Arendsnest on Herengracht, and then the American-themed Beer Temple opened, not far away in the heart of the old city. But 2015 has seen the numbers double and now there's Craft & Draft and the Jopen Proeflokaal, the latter a joint project with the Haarlem brewery. Unique among them, and unlike most decent Amsterdam beer bars, Arendsnest opens early in the afternoon. So here we were on a sunny Monday just past 12 with the pub almost to ourselves. I picked up a flyer that advertised the four establishments and the promise that if you bought a drink in all four in one day, they'd give you a commemorative t-shirt at the last stop to celebrate your achievement. Well! The prospect of owning a t-shirt with something beer related on it was too tempting to resist.

The flyer helpfully includes the information that all four bars are situated along the number 1 tram route, and it happened that we were already carrying transport passes. The only logistical question was one of time: the other checkpoints didn't open to late and we couldn't very well sit in Arendsnest all afternoon. Side trips would be necessary.

All this was discussed and planned over the first beers of the day. For me, a Huisvader, a pale ale from Amsterdam's own Oedipus brewery. It was suitably breakfasty for the occasion, with fresh grapefruit and jaffa notes and then a kind of chocolate orange oiliness. A little bit of oxidation spoils it slightly, but otherwise a pleasant pithy refresher. And while I had the juice, she had the coffee: Mikkie = Cattivella was brewed for the pub at Del Ducato and is billed as a crème brûlée stout: 9.5% ABV but with a subtle and sober coffee aroma. There's certainly vanilla and dark chocolate in the flavour but it's not overdone and not oversweet, adding merely a touch of complexity to an otherwise serious and roasty big stout. I expected a novelty sugarbomb but it's actually very well put together.

With these on board, we went off to do some light shopping at De Bierkoning and then pay the visit to 't IJ I wrote about on Monday. By the time we came back to the city centre, Beer Temple was open. Picking randomly from the American selection I came away from the bar with a glass of Hop Hash by Caldera Brewing in Oregon. It's the classic sort of sticky American IPA I thought had nearly died out. 6.5% ABV, murky amber in colour and loaded with toffee to the point where the hops are barely discernible. I feel no love for its retro stylings. Across the table, a Resin IIPA by Sixpoint who, apparently, don't just make beer for JD Wetherspoon. This is 9% ABV and a limpid shade of red-gold. The aroma is an intense bong-hit of weedy herbs while the body is light and the flavour spritzy and peppery, finishing on a crisp green celery note. It's very happy and easy-going for such a thumping great ABV but it's impossible not to enjoy.

Having claimed the recipt, we headed off, but we did stop in at Beer Temple again the following day. I insisted because, while I had been on an American kick on the previous visit, I didn't want to miss the Rodenbach Foederbier they had on. This is an unblended iteration of their wood-aged sour classic. It looks murky in the photo but held up to the light was actually a perfectly clear dark red. I was surprised how sweet it was, laying on lots of balsamic strawberries and then a smooth, tannic, peach tea effect in the finish. It's not, I guess, hugely different from plain Rodenbach, though a little stronger at 6% ABV. It's just sweeter and rounder and that little bit more complex. I'm glad I stopped for it.

Over my oohs and ahhs, the missus tucked into an Evil Twin I Love You With My Stout, a thick 12%-er with spicy herbs in the aroma and a whole chain of olde worlde sweetshops in the flavour, redolent of humbugs and liquorice. It does get a little harsh after a while, but works well as a sipper.

But back to Monday and before continuing the quest we had an afternoon appointment around the corner in Gollem with fellow visitor from Dublin Dr John. Not that one ever needs an excuse to visit Gollem. My choice from the draught listing was an uncertain one: Troubadour Magma Triple Spiked Brett. Magma is straight up one of the world's great beers so why would you mess with that, especially with something as invasive as brettanomyces yeast? I was expecting disappointment and dismay but it is amazing. If anything, the brett enhances the hop juiciness and despite the very definite farmyard funk it still tastes gorgeously fresh. The funk is not a gimmick, it's not there for its own sake and really does provide a tart balance to the tropical fruit sweetness in the base beer, clearing out some of the heavy sugary malt. Tangy, refreshing and counter-intuitively clean, this is an absolute triumph. I couldn't imagine ordering anything else for the second round.

We parted ways after the two beers and it was back to the mission at hand. Tram 1 took us down towards Leidseplein and Jopen Proeflokaal. Though the area is densely packed with bars and restaurants it was very much a quiet Monday evening. We had the pub, a clean and sparse café-style joint, entirely to ourselves. I was expecting a heavy Jopen presence on the taps but, like Uiltje-Bar the previous day, it's more about the guest beers. I insisted, however, and chose Malle Babbe, Jopen's 5% ABV wheat beer. It's savoury and grainy; crisp and clean; inoffensive and nondescript. There's a bit of bubblegum under the cereal but it's rather underdone. I chalked this one up to a palate reset after a long day's beering.

For herself I chose Stone Ruination 2.0. I'd been disappointed by the reformulated Pale Ale at GBBF so was keen to see if this double IPA was any better now that I had it on keg as the brewer intended. There's a lovely spicy mandarin aroma and seriously big hop resins and bitterness. But it's rather thin for 8.5% ABV, leaving the flavour harsh and uncharacteristically unbalanced. I do hope they haven't messed up the whole range with this 2.0 business.

By now, ten hours and five pubs on, it was a race against the alcohol in our bloodstreams. A few stops further south got us to the door of Craft & Draft, I ordered two beers, shoved the receipts at the barman and Hooray! T-shirts!

Craft & Draft is a very nicely done bar, very American in its styling, spacious and angular, with a line of taps behind the bar that seems to go on for ever. To celebrate our achievement, imperial stout seemed liked the sensible option. One of us (no idea which) had Thoughtless from English brewery Red Willow. This is a beautifully balanced beer, even at a thumping 9.4% ABV. The chocolate and light caramel notes make it sweet and add a solid no-nonsense heat, but it's gorgeously silky and slips away indecently fast. Kees! Export Porter, meanwhile, is an even bigger 10.5% and makes sure that you know it. The aroma burns like a dark sherry and the flavour is a rush of strong dark beer flavours: putty, green veg and marker pens. There's perhaps a little too much going on in it.

Somehow we got back to the hotel and amazingly I remembered the can of Maui Mana wheat beer I'd bought in Bierkoning earlier and left in the room fridge. A hyperactive spider has scrawled in my notebook that it tastes a lot like Blue Moon: the same sort of sweet, slightly artificial, orange cordial flavour that's thirst-quenching when nicely cold but shouldn't be allowed warm on the bedside table while you rest your eyes for just a minute.

Next thing the binmen are rattling their way along the street outside and you have to pack and check out. On the final afternoon we took a long and lingering wander back to Centraal for the airport train, dropping in that second time to Beer Temple followed by a farewell round at In De Wildeman. They seem to have a penchant for vintage versions of fairly mainstream beers in here, though there was nothing gimmicky about the 2014 Brand Doppelbock I tasted. It retained a classic mix of chocolate and liquorice, full-bodied and smooth in a warming 7.5% ABV. And I finally got to try 't IJ Galaxy Session Ale after being denied in Gollem last year and at the brewery the previous day. It was well worth the wait: a dark gold colour with an assertive jaffa pith bite at the front and then a tangy aftermath with a little ice tea. Very refreshing, very flavoursome and, at a strength unheard-of for Dutch craft beer -- 3.8% ABV -- absolutely sessionable. But I only had time for one. Station. Airport. Home.

Always a pleasure, Amsterdam. I look forward to whatever challenge you have for me next time.