17 January 2018

Essential groceries

There was an Albert Heijn supermarket conveniently across the street from where I was staying in The Hague over the Christmas break. The beer selection was small but with a few interesting options. I mainly used it as a source for cheap and disposable lager, however.

My eye was caught by the smart branding on Brouwers Pilsner (who else's?), one of the chain's own brands. The graphics proved to be a lot classier than the beer behind them, however. This is 4.8% ABV and a dark gold colour. The flavour matches the appearance, being sweet and sticky with an unsubtle musty wax bitterness bolted on to the finish. Charitably, it could be described as a bock, and it is impressively dense given the ABV. With a touch of smoke around the edges as it warms it's definitely not the vapid watery supermarket lager I was expecting, but not good lager either.

One from megabrewer Grolsch to follow: a fancy-pants craft-killing pils called Kornuit, a beer which incorporates Cascade hops, because we know how much you kids love that Cascade. It's a clear pale yellow colour, looking every inch the average lager, while it tastes... fine. I didn't get anything resembling an American hop, though I did drink it from the balcony where it was rather above fridge temperature. What was actually delivered is a perfectly decent pale lager with a medium-full body and lots of tasty toasty golden syrup malt. In particular I'm reminded of Budvar, which is quite a compliment. If the intention was to make a novelty or gimmick, it failed, but I'm quite happy with the result.

A sequel next, to the long-named Flying Dutchman beers I found last year in Amsterdam. This one is called Flip Flopped White Socked Strong Hopped White IPA. It's 5.5% ABV, with coriander, orange peel and, oddly, juniper. The pour produced a pale yellow glassful with just the faintest haze. Lots of witbier herbs come through on tasting: savoury and slightly soapy. The hops (Centennial, Citra, Ekuanot and Cascade) provide a bitter spike for the finish. It takes effort to produce a white IPA that does this hybrid style justice, and this one doesn't quite manage it, being mostly a big and blousey witbier, throwing herbs around and caring not for proper hopping. As such, it's perfectly decent. Just don't hold your breath for that Citra.

I was quite intrigued by this camouflaged bottle on the high shelves. It turned out to be Übersee Hopfen India Pale Ale, from Insel Brauerei in Rügen, off the Baltic coast of Germany. And it made it clear that it was proclaimed Earth's Greatest IPA at the World Beer Awards in 2016. How could anyone resist that?

It took a bit of poking around the small print to discover that "übersee" here means Japan as Sorachi Ace is the only hop used. Not that it needs writing down: there's a powerful oily orange whiff from it. The flavour is remarkably crisp: a clean bitter bite of orange, with sweeter coconut tailing behind it. I've had beers that tasted more strongly of Sorachi, but few where the taste is so clipped, so precise. Although it's bottle conditioned and quite cloudy, there's no yeast interference, except for maybe a pleasant spicing. I don't know that I'd say it's the best IPA in the world -- you really need to like Sorachi Ace -- but it's still jolly nice drinking.

When Mr Heijn isn't meeting your grocery requirements, there's always the posh people's supermarket Marqt (cards only, no cash, you plebs). In there, one particular Dutch brewery's wares caught my attention...

16 January 2018

Choosing freely

A week of posts on my winter break in The Hague continues today with a look at the city's better off licences.

Free Beer Co. is a poky little corner shop with a single set of shelves offering a small but interesting mix of bottles and cans from Europe and the US. Behind the counter is a three-tap growler system, and having dropped a few quid I felt entitled to a taste of something. I was also very curious about Milk Shake Stout from Bristol's Wiper & True, not having had any of their beer in ages. To be honest it wasn't very impressive from the sample. There's a considerable hop character, for one thing, a bitter resin which has no place in the style. Then there's not a whole lot else: a plain, slightly dry, slightly roasty stout; fine but unexciting. I like my milk stouts sweet and creamy, and would prefer if brewers didn't mess with the format, thank you.

The first bottle from my haul that I opened was another dark Brit, Collabageddon '17 from Weird Beard and six other brewers. It's 6.4% ABV and described as a Belgian black IPA. It smells like a straightforward black IPA, and a very good one at that: tar, liquorice and roasted coconut. I suspected that Sorachi Ace had been liberally applied as it tasted hugely of that hop's signature orange pith. The label confirmed it's in here, with Simcoe, and also mentions that the Belgian yeast was fermented at an usually low temperature, to minimise ester formation. It worked, because it doesn't taste in the slightest bit Belgian. What you get instead is a classic big and bold black IPA, and I for one am not complaining. I doubt it really took seven breweries to come up with it, but maybe everyone learned something.

Staying on the session vibe, Raï was next, a session IPA from Bulgarian brewer Бял Щърк ("White Stork") but brewed at De Molen. It's a fizzy beast, and I let that foam subside before taking a closer look. The aroma is beautifully tropical, full of tinned pineapple and sharper guava. There is a vanilla sweetness on the flavour, but with enough hop citrus to turn it away from cheap ice cream towards an altogether more classy lemon sorbet. Amazingly it's only 3.5% ABV, bulked out with oats and that lactose I could taste, and the trick works quite well: there's no thinness and the generous hopping doesn't make it harsh. My biggest gripe is really just that carbonation: the fizz adds an unpleasant bite to a beer that shouldn't really be allowed warm up before enjoying. Let it sit in the fridge after pouring? Awkward.

Another foamy one followed next: Between Thieves, a session IPA by Uiltje. It seems to be very much going for a New England vibe, including oats, wheat and spelt in the recipe, pouring murky as hell under all that head, and smelling deliciously juicy. The flavour follows that up with lots of mango and pineapple, though there's an unpleasant yeast bite as well, adding a savoury harshness to the finish. A garlic complexity begins to develop as it warms, complementing the fruit quite nicely. Despite the bubbles this one isn't fizzy, and slipped down smoothly. It's very nearly excellent, squeezing oodles of tropical hop fun into a sober 4.1% ABV. There are just a couple of wrinkles that could do with ironing out, however.

From the same brewery, with the same minimalist can design, comes Me Myself & IPA. No head drama this time, a medium-amber body with just a slight haze. The aroma mixes citrus bitterness with juicy fruit beautifully, promising good times ahead. The flavour is suitably spectacular: heavy resinous dankness kicks it off, then fades and calms, allowing spritzy lime and softer mandarin come through. The finish is maybe a little sweet, adding a note of orange cordial. Overall, though, it's still a well-balanced and flavourful American-style IPA, no messing.

Next out of the lucky bag was Teerling Hopstout from Zeglis. This was a downright gusher, pouring innocently and thickly first before fobbing madly in the glass. That gave me plenty of opportunity to appreciate the aroma, which is indeed delicious, all richly green winter vegetables. The flavour is softer, introducing smooth fresh coffee and floral rosewater, finishing quickly with next to no bitterness. A slight metallic twang is the only bum note, other than that it's a spot-on big hop stout, or a black IPA, whatever you fancy.

A new Dutch brewer for me next: Breda's Bliksem ("Lightning"), and their Pale Rider pale ale. It's 5.6% ABV, presenting quite a dark shade of amber. The aroma is unpleasantly worty: wholesome smelling, but almost sickly sweet. The flavour is indeed sweet, but also dry and tannic, like sugary black tea. The hops add a somewhat harsh cabbage bitterness, and the whole thing gives an impression of a sort-of English-style bitter, by someone who didn't really know what they were doing. I immediately began feeling regret that I'd bought a second Bliksem beer. Oh well...

So to follow it's the alluringly-named Grom, an imperial stout. It looks decent, the brief head a pleasing dark brown. The aroma is a bit rough: savoury yeast and headachey phenols. On tasting, the flavour is rather better integrated, showing assertively bitter dark-roast coffee. It is still a bit severe, however, lacking roundness and warmth, and still with a touch of that high-alcohol marker-pen burn. It unfolds to reveal tobacco oils and a gut-coating tarry thickness. On balance this is passable, but not in the first string of Dutch imperial stouts by any means. Bliksem has been going a couple of years now and, on the evidence of these two beers, I think it still has a game that could do with being upped.

The next one I picked on stylistic grounds: you don't see a black tripel very often (my previous and only was in 2014). Kandy Express is from Utrecht's Neobosski, a tiddling 7.5% ABV, and pouring like a stout, with its dense black body and latte-coloured head. That stoutishness continues on drinking, offering a roasted tarry aroma and lots of dark chocolate and black coffee in the flavour. There is the merest hint of tripel spicing in there, but it's easily missed: this really doesn't meet the requirements of tripel at all. As a stout, it's pretty good, if a little overly fizzed.

Final beer in this haul from Free Beer Co. is by local brewer Kwartje. It's called RSI (Rye Smoked IPA; yes, the "I" stands for "IPA" *sigh*). 6.5% ABV and with yet more awkward gushing as it poured. It's a murky ochre colour and smells downright infected, though I guess the bitter phenols are there by design. It's smoke to begin with on tasting, lots and lots of Laproaigish TCP. Underneath it is a fresh and juicy pale ale, showing mandarin and a extra spike of jasmine spice, but that only flashes tantalisingly briefly before vanishing again. It left me feeling I'd like to get to know the beer beneath the smoke better. Usually I like smoke, but it's just an interference here, I think.

A couple of streets away from Free Beer Co. is De Filosoof, an upmarket wine boutique which also runs to a very decent selection of beers.

First up from there is Mr Cacatoe, a strong porter by Bird Brewery, an Amsterdam-based client brewer brewing at Jopen in Haarlem. They've added cocoa and lactose to this, which does give it a gummy sweetness, though one which struggles to assert itself over a rich herbal bitterness with elements of dark-roast coffee, liquorice and smoke. The unfermented sugar is really put in its place, allowed to make a contribution but leaving the main one up to the malt and hops. Though a large head formed on it, it's not too fizzy, and with a proper milk-stout thickness and smoothness, something that helps give the flavour extra legs.

"I don't know how they did this" said the guy in De Filosoof when I brought the bottle of Septem 8th Day to the counter. Ooookay, I thought, it's  a 7% ABV US-style IPA; how bizarre can it be? It certainly smelled superb, if not special, as I poured it: the aroma is a striking fresh mandarin and lemon, promising much citrus joy to come. That is sort-of delivered, but there's a lot of malt in front of it, and a savoury hop dank too: it's not just bright and fresh tropical fruit. As old-fashioned malt-forward American-style IPAs go, this is one of the better ones, describing a world where Mosaic was available in 1998. I enjoyed it, and I bet it's a lifeline to beer enthusiasts in its native Greece, but world class it ain't. Good beer, though. I'd be happy if I had made it.

The Septem beer that really caught my interest was the one in the half litre bottle with the fancy brown-paper label. Lava, it's called, described as an "imperial India red ale" and 9% ABV. It's an opaque muddy brown with little head. The aroma is a lovely ripe red fruit thing, all strawberry and red cherry. There's a bitterer kick than that in the flavour: aniseed, coconut and thyme. This contrasts nicely with the malt and the whole thing is rounded and warming; properly hoppish but giving plenty of smooth sweetness for balance. It's a beer to sink into and be enveloped by. I can't imagine drinking it under Greek sunshine.

Filosoof's house beer, piled up by the case and decorously displayed by the till for impulse tickers, is Beirut, a product of Lebanese drinks giant Kassatly Chtaura. Like all the festive beers, it was set on the balcony to chill when I got it home, and I only realised a few days later that leaving a green bottle in daylight was probably a poor idea. The north-facing aspect came to my rescue, fortunately, and it wasn't skunked when I got round to opening it. It's actually not a bad effort, quite similar to a million other beers made and consumed around the Mediterranean, with the added advantage of being all-malt. It's satisfyingly full-bodied, but not too heavy at 4.6% ABV. There's an authentic Bohemian grassy buzz as well as a mineral softness. Thirst-quenching when cold, and tasting like proper beer. Sometimes that's all that's required.

A final outlier comes from Doorst off licence in the south of the city. De Molen's Quirks & Quinine is described as a "gin & tonic spiced saison" on the label and was brewed in collaboration with Beavertown. It's a saison all right: straw yellow in colour and smelling of white pepper. The flavour continues in that vein: a spicy herbal bitterness set on a hard dryness with a swish of smoke but no fruit or booze heat. It's certainly dry, and full marks there, but I don't get what makes it gin and tonic themed. I'll take it, but ding it for lack of novelty value at the same time.

So that's where the cool people buy their beer. Tomorrow I'm joining the norms at the supermarket.

15 January 2018

Haag-stravaganza

I escaped Christmas and New Year this time round, to hide out at my friend's place in The Hague. It was a very relaxing few days, largely spent indoors with a waxing and waning stash of beers which I'll be telling you about later in the week. I didn't do a lot of exploring of the city's pub scene but did pop into a handful of pubs which is what today's post concerns.

I spotted The Fiddler on a walk around town on day one. It's striking because, from the external lettering, it very obviously used to be part of the Firkin chain of brewpubs which started in London in 1979 and was finally wound up in 2001. You can get the full story, and its significance for modern British beer, in chapter seven of Boak & Bailey's Brew Britannia. I stumbled across one ex-member in Maastricht some years ago, and here was another Dutch one.

From the inside it looks like little has changed from the Firkin days. It's still decked out in the chain's traditional livery, a '90s English pub straight from the replicator, including the twee and cringingly risqué signage. It wears its foreignness so strongly that Dutch customers and Dutch staff speak English to each other. Most surprisingly, and pleasingly for me, the brewkit is still fully operational and turning out cask and keg beers, under the name of the Animal Army brewery.

I began with the cask stout, Cream Bee. It ought to have been a belter at 6% ABV but turned out to be surprisingly lightweight. The appearance was the beginning of that: a reddish brown rather than black. The flavour had that slightly meaty quality of plain-tasting beer with a substantial portion of yeast still in it. A mild cocoa flavour is about all it can muster on the stout flavour front. It's smooth, and quite easy drinking, but boring with it and, unforgivably, did nothing to lift the chill of a late December evening.

The seasonal beer of the moment, to the right of it there, was Animal Army Porter. The strength goes up to 6.4% ABV though it looks even thinner: a cola colour. The aroma is intensely roasty, and the first flavour to come out is a dark, dry bite, rather like a schwarzbier. A rising bitterness develops in its wake, driven by a chewy texture, so no thinness here despite appearances. This heavy and bitter yet clean beer reminds me of a Baltic porter more than anything. It's certainly a deal more interesting than the stout.

Round two brought me Sea Lions IPA, again on cask. So I waited for it to settle, but it didn't. Turns out it was just a murky pint, and not in the modern and cool way. It's rather harsh, the hops mainly coming across as acidic, with just a slight jaffa flesh sweetness. The yeast runs rampant, however, making it taste extremely dreggy. Its big 6.2% ABV is entirely unnecessary as well. There's a real amateurish vibe about the whole thing, and I don't know if that's because of the brewing or the dispense, but given that they both happen a few metres away from each other there's no excuse.

A token keg beer to finish on: Howling Wolf bock, strongest of the lot at 6.8% ABV. It's a spot-on interpretation of the Dutch autumn bock style: dark red in colour with a flavour which mixes maple syrup with seasoned logs and forest floors. A mint-humbug spice balances the sweetness and keeps it drinkable. Very nicely done, and perhaps a sign that sticking to the familiar beer styles from closer to home works better than pushing for exotic Englishness.

A beermat flip from the front door of The Fiddler is Beer Garden. As the name suggests, this bar is crammed into a low-ceilinged vault beneath one of the city's historic buildings. The demographic is a youthful one, with trendied-up fast food and a decent if unspectacular beer selection on offer. The table next to us was occupied by a group of international students, or possibly international academics: I've reached an age where it's increasingly difficult to tell the difference.

The house beer is called Beer, and is brewed at one of the local micros, Brouwerij Scheveningen. It's a pretty straightforward blonde ale, a little Duvel-like in its blend of estery fruit and yeast spices, at least in the aroma. It's much plainer to taste, offering little beyond white sugar and a vague green asparagus kick, plus far too much fizz. This is no lightweight either, at 6.3% ABV, but overall is too sweet and otherwise dull.

I saw a few beers from Amsterdam's Lowlander (brewing at Jopen) during the trip, but this Lowlander IPA is the only one I took the trouble to try. And very good it is too. There's coriander and white tea in the recipe, which adds a hint of witbier complexity to a clean and classical new world IPA. Founded on a substantial malt base, it offers gentle lime and grapefruit notes, all balanced and completely novelty-free. Note to self: try more Lowlander.

I can't remember the last time I had a bière de garde so wasn't about to pass up Oersoep's En Garde! It's 6.5% ABV, an appropriate pale amber colour, and beautifully spicy. I picked up cedar and incense, plus more herbal pine, for a kind of aftershave effect. It's not overdone or harsh, however, and there's no interference from yeast, esters, or anything else untoward. I may have forgotten what the style is supposed to taste like, but I'll take this as a good example.

Something rather sillier next, in the form of Kees! Pink Grapefruit IPA. This wasn't what I was expecting, turning out a murky brown colour and tasting of oily coconut. It's heavy going and there's no zing. It needs zing.

The last one down here is Dark Roast, a coffee stout by vandeStreek of Utrecht. No coffee appears on the ingredients list, though the brewery website says a Kenyan variety was used. And used well it turns out: there's a lovely sweet café crème aroma, followed by a flavour which is properly roasted and stouty, reflecting the big 8% ABV, and complemented perfectly by the fresh coffee oils. It's nice to see a beer like this harmonise its features so well.

A further vandeStreek offering featured when we checked out De Paas, another of the city's well-reputed beer bars. Ice Mint IPA: well that sounds cool. Alas, the reality was rather less fun. It's a thick and murky beer, a full 8% ABV and tasting every bit of it. The mint element, however it was done, is laid on incredibly heavily, beginning at the herbal menthol aroma and then moving on to an unsettling spearmint flavour, reminiscent of mouthwash or toothpaste. Please let this not be a new trend in IPAs: fruit is bad enough.

The Tongerlo Christmas ale, Pax, was advertised via a standy on the table as coming with a complimentary portion of cheese. This did not materialise. De Paas, I name you and shame you, you complimentary cheese deniers. The beer? Oh, it's a 7% ABV job and clear amber-gold, neither of which is particularly Christmassy. It smells and tastes lightly spicy, of nutmeg mostly, with a bit of brown sugar and banana. Overall a fairly meagre celebration is on offer here.

For the serious craftophile, The Hague offers the recently-opened Brody's Taphouse, going all-out for an American look and feel, though mixing US beers with local ones in the line-up.

To begin, Caldera IPA, from Oregon. I wasn't a fan of this old-skool IPA, 6% ABV, dark amber and bitter as all hell. There's a harsh waxy quality to it, and then a tacked-on fruity perfume. It's one of those flavour profiles that just doesn't gel together properly and is hard to enjoy as a result. Even allowing for the brewery's 1990s vintage, this isn't a good beer.

A much better choice was the beer beside it, the thoroughly modern Colorado Wild Sage Bretted saison from Crooked Stave. It's a big 7.2% ABV, and highly carbonated too. The aroma mixes funk and herb beautifully, while the flavour is remarkably sweet, incorporating orange sherbet in with the bathbomb and farmyard notes. The complexity was great fun to explore, each flavour distinct yet contributing to the whole, with the Brettanomyces rendering it just dirty enough to be properly interesting. This has been available in Ireland for a while so I'm probably the last person to try it, but it's well worth your while.

I went local on the next round, getting Apfelstrudel Doppelbock from 't Uiltje. Pastry doppelbock is clearly a genre whose time has come. It's a massive 11% ABV and dark red-brown with a creamy head like an Irish coffee. It does actually smell of pastry: sweet and cakey with a topping of caramelised brown sugar. That turns to marzipan on tasting, with milk chocolate but also an unpleasant plasticky burr. The texture is smooth but the alcohol heat is too strong for my liking and further detracts from it. As is so often the case with pastry stouts, the essential beer characteristic is lost under the gimmickry. I expected a doppelbock on ordering and that's not what it gave me.

The beer in the smaller measure beside it is Oskar Blues Ten Fiddy imperial stout, slightly weaker at just 10.5% ABV. This one is extremely dense, however, with all the dense stout features, like a dark brown head and tarry consistency. The aroma gives strong espresso, and the coffee continues in the flavour, accompanied by dark chocolate, some faint light cherry and... no, actually that's it. It all tails off surprisingly quickly. While this is balanced and drinkable, it's unforgivably uncomplex for the price usually asked for it. Poor value, Oskar.

The parting shot is a Canadian beer: Naughty Neighbour, a pale ale by Nickel Brook. This is a spicy affair, redolent with earl grey, bergamot, orange peel and jasmine, packed into a sub-5% ABV bundle. It looks innocent and calm -- pale yellow with a slight haze -- but really brings the excitement on tasting, and without using any non-standard beer ingredients.

More pub action later in the week when we get out of town. The next few posts, however, will be from behind closed doors.

12 January 2018

New zeal

Reuben brought a collection of Kiwi beers back from the Lions tour last year. We gathered in Brian's to film us drinking them for The ICB Show, because apparently some people like watching that sort of thing. Breweries featured include national stalwarts like Moa and Garage Project, but also a few that were entirely new to me, beginning with...

Bootleg Brewery, in Hamilton. Blind Mule is the beer, a 5.9% ABV American-style pale ale. And it hits all the style points pretty much head on, as well as being a nice beer to drink. There's a layer of soft toffee in the background, and this is fronted with a mix of spritzy citrus and more serious marmalade. A pleasant spark of lime zest finishes it off. Nothing madly complex, and certainly no gimmicks, but a great benchmark to begin the session.

Garage Project pulled one better next, with a saison called Persephone. Yes, there are pomegranates in it, before you ask. In fact, it's a very real tang of juicy-yet-peppery pomegranate seeds, as well as a tart complexity which turns out to be from the inclusion of a balsamic reduction. At 6.2% ABV, it's one of the bigger saisons, yet avoids any harshness or overpowering esters, integrating its medley of flavours extremely well. I feel the place of pomegranate in beer is under-explored.

It was an IPA next from Garage: Party & Bullshit, which is a dreadful name. They say this is an east-coast style job, promising haze, juice and tropical flavours. The haze turned out to be actual lumps, while the fruit was all onions and garlic. It was still very decent drinking: those big, dank aromas would let it get away with a lot, while the texture is lovely and chewy, bigger than 6.2% ABV might suggest.

The modern stylings of P&B certainly stood up well against the more old-fashioned Los Lobos. This is an 8% ABV IPA, channelling California. However, its Simcoe, Amarillo and Citra provide nothing but bitterness, with none of the nuance one might expect, just harsh thick-shred marmalade. This is set on a too-heavy malt base which I found made for quite difficult drinking. It may well be exactly what the brewer intended but it didn't suit me.

A Garage Project stout to finish on, called Aro Noir. This is a big hitter at 7% ABV, with lots of roasted grain dryness. The surprise comes a second or two after sipping when a huge hop flavour unfolds, sending lemon and grapefruit flavours straight to your pleasure centres. The hop component is bright, fresh and dominant enough for this beer to be classified as a black IPA. At the same time, it's rich and satisfying, as a stout should be. One to just drink, enjoy, and not worry about, I think.

Another new brewer for me next: Funk Estate, a client brewery with some very striking retro can designs. First out was Doozy, an NZ-hopped IPA at 6.6% ABV. And I'm pretty sure it was infected. All through it was that sweaty, funky smack of Brettanomyces, rough and harsh. Where it interacted with the hops there was an optimistic touch of Orval to it, but mostly it was just too off-kilter to be enjoyable.

Beaut was next, and frankly even worse. This pale ale promises "juicy, fruity tasty flavours and aromas" but delivers your mate's worst homebrew effort: oxidised and underattenuated; smelling of wet cardboard and tasting of that plus sugary wort. Bad beer is problem enough; bad beer that promises you a hand-crafted good time is just cruel.

There was one more Funk Estate beer to come: Pearler, another IPA but this time with Australian hops. And yet again it goes big on Brett, or possibly vice versa. This time, however, it's not as much of a chore to drink. There's a pleasant oiliness and discernible flavours of herb, orange and clove. If they owned up to the infection, this might actually pass muster for fans of that kind of beer.

Just to be clear, I did check that Funk Estate wasn't so-named for a fondness for chucking Brettanomyces and the like into its beers, but there is no mention of such a strategy anywhere on its site. These three beers were supposed to be bright and, above all, clean pale ales. And they are definitely not that. The name turns out to be nothing more than tragic irony.

Two quickie stouts next. Sawmill Chocolate Stout uses oats and cocoa, and comes in at a reasonable 5.5% ABV. The chocolate character is a little understated, and I got more of a wheaty breakfast cereal vibe from it. It's not the first chocolate beer with which I've had that experience. Still, I was underwhelmed.

That was followed by an Imperial Stout by Martinborough Brewery. It's only 8% ABV and suffers a little from that lightness. I got notes of prunes and putty from it, making for a so-so stout, but definitely lacking the oomph to be accorded imperial status.

We finish on one from Moa: Perris Sky Juice, a California-style IPA. So I was surprised by how English it tasted. The ABV is up at 7.2% yet it's very smooth, simple and drinkable. Its hops bring a calm and earthy meadow-flower and orange character, finishing on a peculiar but pleasant note of dark chocolate. Though hazy, it tastes like a pin-bright English bitter. Very nicely done, if not especially Californian.

I've omitted another Moa beer because it's already reviewed elsewhere on this blog. Watch the video (when it appears) to see how it all fits together. Thanks to Reuben and Brian for this whistle-stop tour of New Zealand brewing. If there's a lesson, it's probably that Garage Project is one of the country's more famous breweries with good reason.


10 January 2018

A yeast by any other name

If you've got it flaunt it. Brussels has a strain of Brettanomyces named after it so it makes sense that the city's number one non-lambic brewery has made a beer with it as the centrepiece.

Brasserie De La Senne's Bruxellensis is the result, a pale ale at 6.5% ABV. It's a yellowish orange colour with the tall crackling head that tends to come parcelled with Brett's high attenuation. Funky aroma? Check. There's that durian-like mix of tropical fruit and lavatorial stank. The flavour is cleaner, and dominated by hop bitterness rather than funk. It softens a little after a moment or two, showing spicy incense, cedar and black pepper. The fruit has almost vanished leaving only a faint trace of peach in the finish. And obviously a fairly intense fizz runs all through it.

Overall this is very good, doing a great job of showing how much multifaceted fun can be had from this unique yeast. An ideal starting point for the Brett-curious.

08 January 2018

Express delivery

The Sierra Nevada Fresh Hop 12-pack was boxed up on 31st October 2017, around the end of the hop harvesting season, I guess. It arrived in Ireland five weeks later and I was lucky to get to try a few when brewery co-founder Steve Grossman was over visiting.

The trilogy begins with Sierra Nevada Fresh Hop Session IPA, with thanks to the UnderDog crew for sharing from their stash. It's pale gold with a powerful weedpatch nose, all nettles and rocket. The flavour brings an intense acidity, much too harsh for my liking. A growing oat-cookie grain taste emerges as it warms, but does nothing for balance or drinkability. Balancing the hops is always the major challenge of session IPA, and this should have had plenty of scope at 4.8% ABV. Sadly, it doesn't manage it. Moving on...

Sierra Nevada Fresh Hop IPA is a surprisingly murky beast: the company is renowned for the way it keeps yeast stuck to the bottom of the container but this one had skeins of grit floating through it. Thankfully that doesn't get in the way of the hops, which start their day's work with a brightly bitter aroma, all eye-watering citrus spritz. The flavour is an entirely predictable mix of grapefruit and jaffa, sharp and hard, though softened by a big malt base (it's 6.4% ABV) that provides texture without adding unwanted sweetness. This is an absolute classic of US flavours, with all the pith and pine we've grown to love, in a balanced and approachable package. No gimmickry or trend-chasing from Sierra Nevada here.

I was surprised by the brownness of Sierra Nevada Fresh Hop Double IPA, though it settled in the glass a clear and handsome amber colour. Hey, SN: fresh means it's supposed to be murky! What are you playing at? An aroma of hazelnuts and coffee does not say double IPA to me, fresh hop or otherwise. The flavour is bitter, almost to the point of being acrid. The roasted note I got in the aroma turns ashen on the tongue and the whole tastes the very opposite of "fresh". At least it's not boozy: the texture is surprisingly light for 8% ABV. This is a dramatic turn away from the previous two beers, and one I don't care for. At least you don't have to worry about freshness with this one: I doubt it has anything to lose as it gets older.

All three of these, and the Fresh Hop Celebration which completes the set, are available at 25% off in the Stephen Street News January sale which runs until 10pm this evening. Worth a detour if you're in the area.

There were a few other specials on rotation during Mr Grossman's visit to UnderDog. The highlight was the first opened: Cocoa Coconut Narwhal, from the brewery's "Trip in the Woods" barrel-aged series. The base imperial stout is 10.2% ABV and that has been boosted to 11.9% here, turning even more unctuous and gloopy. There's a huge dollop of coconut in the foretaste, then a long a smooth rich fudge middle, before an invigorating spirituous finish. All is classically elegant and balanced, with just the merest hint of oak. My only niggle is that the stout itself is a little lost in all the fripperies: I recall Narwhal being properly bitter, and that seems to have been ushered away without ceremony. The texture is still that of a big imperial stout, though, and maybe that's enough. At least it isn't pretending to be a cake.

That set the standard for the other Trip in the Woods beer, Ginger Bigfoot, which unfortunately couldn't match it. It's another bruiser, at 11.4% ABV, though I think the added ginger contributes more than the whisky barrel. The aroma is like freshly baked ginger biscuits, warming and spicy, while the flavour put me immediately in mind of Canada Dry ginger ale. The texture is sticky which adds a medicinal tone to the whole thing, and more than a hint of herbal mouthwash. The barley wine is buried far too deep in the woods to be tasted any more, only the sickly sweetness remains. This is very much a gimmick beer and by no means an improvement on the original. A small sample was loads.

A different Bigfoot variant pre-dates the Trip in the Woods series, going by the simple name of Barrel-Aged Bigfoot. Once again, however, it succeeds in simply dirtying-up a perfectly good clean and hoppy barley wine. The aroma here is immediately off-putting, all hot and sticky. A foretaste heavy with sappy oak segues into syrupy toffee before finishing acridly bitter. There are no smooth edges or added subtle complexities, which should be the point of barrel-ageing. You get all of the downsides and none of the bonuses. Bigfoot ages much better when left to its own devices.

Finally, a beer that isn't a version of something else, just a plain old Cherry Chocolate Stout. This seems modest by comparison, at just 8.5% ABV, and the flavour is similarly reticent. There's not much by way of chocolate, beyond what you might reasonably expect in a stout of this calibre; and almost no fruit: a wisp of pink cherry creeps in at the very finish. What that leaves in the middle is a perfectly decent, simple, strong stout: cleanly dry and with an assertive hop bitterness. I like how, despite the showy label, the novelty features haven't been allowed to spoil it, even if they're all but redundant.

It's great that an establishment player like Sierra Nevada is still bringing us new things, instead of resting on one or two iconic beers. Steve certainly had that air of restless energy about him which is always good to see in a brewer; even more so in an owner. A big thanks to the folks at Grand Cru Beers for introducing him, and the beers, on the night. Now go out and grab all of that Fresh Hop IPA wherever you see it: it's not getting any fresher.

05 January 2018

And now this

The Brewers & Union beers from Bavaria have been around in Ireland for several years now, but I've only written about one previously, which won't do at all. On a visit to the newly refurbished Molloy's Off Licence in Tallaght late last year, I picked up a couple of their striking minimalist cans to take a look.

To begin, Unfiltered Lager, a 5% ABV helles, self-described as "old school". It's a bright pale gold colour and yes, lightly hazy. It smells sweetly of nectarine and silverskin onions, while the flavour is all juicy white grapes and gooseberry. A dry crispness helps balance it which, coupled with the grapes, makes it taste like a delicious sparkling wine. Until it warms a little there's virtually none of the malt that makes helles helles but I still absolutely loved it: elegantly balanced, brightly flavoured, and still ultimately a lager. I'll be coming back to this.

Its companion in the fridge was Sunday, a pale ale. The beer was almost the same lurid orange colour as the tin it came in, with lots of dreggy gunk in the bottom. It smells of oranges too, plus a more intense metallic aspirin and a hard icy mineral smell. The malt takes control in the flavour, turning it incredibly sweet, like orangeade. There's a touch of crisp biscuit in the finish but not enough to offset all that cloying sugar. I'm not a fan of this and I'm glad I only had a 33cl can of it instead of the larger bottle also available: I'd say that one is hard work.

Surprise that this German brewer makes better lager than US-style pale ale? Probably not.

03 January 2018

The Hopping Order of St Joseph

I admit that that's a somewhat sarky remark about Trappist IPA which signs off my review of Spencer's first beer. And when I unexpectedly encountered the real thing in a beer shop in Bruges, I felt I needed to atone and bought the bottle, despite the quite spendy €5 price.

Spencer India Pale Ale is quite pale, it transpires. The Massachusetts monks have stayed true to their Belgian influences by including a fair quantity of fine yeast haze, unavoidable when pouring. It still tastes bang on like an American IPA, however, albeit quite an old fashioned one. A strong grapefruit bitterness is the opening shot, followed by the balancing toffee malt. Everything an IPA needs, right? The fruit fades quite quickly, leaving a harsh cabbagewater bitterness. The flavour is really all over the place, at once sticky sweet and acridly bitter, everything accentuated by an ABV of 7.2%. There's no finesse here, no charm. Perhaps they're going for a traditional angle but there's a reason that this sort of IPA fell out of fashion some years back.

I'm not sure whether the lesson is that Trappists shouldn't attempt to brew American IPA, or shouldn't ship it over to Belgium if they do. Either way, anywhere you buy this will have better IPAs available.