03 August 2015

Tyne gentlemen please

The first of three visits to England this summer happened in mid-July when work landed me in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for a few days. I'd never been, so was very happy to be packed off. It's a tidy little city, though somewhat vertical -- three days of nipping up and down between the quayside and the upper town left my shins aching, and instilled a profound respect for anyone who negotiates those gradients, the cobbles, and Britain's Unevenest Flagstones, in high heels. Decent pubs are in plentiful supply and there's a good concentration of them around the foot of the iconic Tyne Bridge.

But, staggering blearily off the plane and metro, my first stop was breakfast at the Wetherspoon near my hotel. I was just in time for the beginning of beer service at 10am and, since I'd been up since 4.30, I figured it counted as at least lunchtime. The options, however, were less than inspiring and the only thing of any interest was 't IJ Indian Red Ale (can't see that style designation catching on somehow), one of those Wetherspoon international collaboration jobs, this one produced at Everards. It's an attractive dark burnished copper and nicely tannic in a very typical English and entirely unDutch way, with some light red fruit -- strawberries, mostly -- and then a mild piney bitterness at the end. Perfectly pintable stuff, if not exactly inspiring.

Local intelligence had it that The Free Trade Inn is one of the city's finer establishments so at the first bit of free time I had I made the trek along the north bank of the Tyne to where it sits, perched on the edge of a bluff, overlooking the sampler catalogue of bridges spanning the river. It's a smallish L-shaped pub, big on shabby-chic, but comfortable and friendly. I got the feeling that it's a genuine part of the community. But it's also a beer geek paradise with a carefully chosen selection of beers from interesting micros, mainly from the neighbouring counties.

My first choice here was a Yorkshire beer, North Riding Brewery's 4.3% ABV Mosaic Pale Ale. A pint of technical perfection: a rich dark gold colour, flawlessly clear, and retaining its head all the way down the glass without the aid of a sparkler, the tongue-tingling fizz lasting the whole way through. It showcases the bipolar nature of Mosaic beautifully too: soft and fluffy peach and mandarin flavours, twisting naughtily into sterner oily resins. The bitterness builds as it goes, becoming harsh and acidly dry, but still fantastically invigorating drinking. The sort of bad boy you can't help falling in love with.

Scottish brewery Fallen gets mentioned a lot in dispatches and I had been looking forward to trying its wares. The Free Trade was pouring Off the Rails on keg, a 4% ABV gose. In the stemmed glass it looks for all the world like a chardonnay with a head. The aroma is sharp, but softened a little by a burst of elderflower. The salty seawater effect is a big part of the flavour and it's followed by a mild tartness and a floral finish. I was looking for a palate cleanser after the previous hop assault, and this did the job nicely, without being watery or any way boring.

And lastly for the moment, Bergamot Citra Saison by Two By Two Brewing which is situated just a few bends along the river from the pub. Information was sparse but I suspect that this is a saison, brewed with Citra hops and added bergamot. It's nicely peppery though there's no escaping a soapy bubblebath effect, for which I'm blaming the citrus additive. At 5.2% ABV it's not one of those powerhouse saisons but I did find it getting a little heavy and sickly as it went. Still, it finishes cleanly and there's a kind of grapeskin tannin effect which keeps the more cloying elements in check. I probably wouldn't have had another, however. Besides, there were more pubs to explore.

Crown Posada is a Newcastle institution, its stained glass windows securing its place on CAMRA's National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors. I arrived in a bit after 5 on a Thursday evening, just as the place was beginning to fill up. And it doesn't take much filling: two small open spaces at the front and back linked by a cramped narrow corridor with the bar in it is the extent of the premises. The beer selection wasn't terribly impressive either, compared to The Free Trade and other places I'd been to by this point. I perched on the edge of a banquette with a half of Rat Brewery Anth-Rats porter. It's 4.5% ABV and very grainy, with lots of crunchy burnt cereal. There's maybe a little bit of black cherry for complexity, but otherwise I found it too heavy and sickly to be enjoyable. Sorry, Crown Posada -- I'm sure many other travellers will extol your virtues but I just wasn't feeling it on my visit.

The final two pubs for this post are both a short stumble from Crown Posada's front door. Redhouse is just around the corner to the right and is all low-hung lights and narrow passageways, like an inn in a fishing village. Again a small selection on the handpumps, but well chosen, I thought. I went for Tyne Bank's Silver Dollar, a 4.9% ABV American-style pale ale, golden in colour with a beautiful mellow sherbet lemon flavour. The malt base complements it beautifully and brought to mind Budvar, with the same sort of hop-spiked golden syrup effect. I could have drank a lot more of this if I hadn't been hurrying on somewhere else.

As an aside, I also had a pint of Tyne Bank Brown Ale at the airport on the way out. I'm guessing they're cashing in on the collapsing brand equity of Newcastle Brown Ale since Heineken moved production to Tadcaster. The Tyne Bank one is OK: plain and caramelly, but it's actually not as complex or enjoyable as Newcastle Brown Ale (the best of a bad lot in my hotel bar) which has a bonus metallic hop tang beside the burnt sugar.

But back to the pubs. My joint favourite in toon, besides The Free Trade, was The Bridge Tavern, tucked between two supporting pillars of the Tyne Bridge itself. It's a large single-room space and seems to be pitched more at an upmarket evening crowd, though it does open during the day. What separates it from any other yuppie hang-out is the brew kit lined up against the back wall.

"Tavernale" is the house brand, and the house beer of the same name is not actually brewed in-house, but at Wylam Brewery, out to the west of the city. It's a beaut, too. 3.9% ABV and bright gold, the flavour full of zingy orange barley sweets, with incense spicing on the finish. Delicious and very sessionable, but there were plenty of other tempting offers.

There was just one from their own equipment, Dark Matter, a 4.5% ABV stout. It's a very intense example of the style, absolutely roaring out the roasty coffee aromas and slipping thickly down the throat, more linctus than beer. Yet it's not hotly alcoholic, nor overly sweet; just warming and soothing. It tastes, in short, like winter, and would be the ideal beer to come in from the cold to. But I was still well able to appreciate it even with the full summer sun beaming through the pub windows. Another great example of the magical power of cask serve when applied to even simple dark beers.

Picking from the guest selection was hard but first to catch my eye was The Lights Are On, a collaboration Wylam did with the mighty Siren Brewery. It's a dark 5% ABV bitter, full of fresh yet earthy resinous hops; spicy, dry and thirst-inducing. Very much a rounded effort: neither a jangly hop dancer nor a malty marmalade comforter, but combining elements of both. Fans of the Porterhouse's Hop Head may have an idea of what I'm getting at: this very grown-up beer did a lot of the same things.

From East London Brewery, a 3.6% ABV mild called Orchid. It's the appropriate dark ruby colour and displays lots of toffee flavour, which is unfortunate because I much prefer a bit of dryness in my milds. There's a stickiness too and a sweet floral rosewater thing. Research indicates that the recipe has vanilla in it, which is probably where all these off-kilter flavours are coming from, but I wasn't able to identify it as anything other than interference. All this plays out on rather a watery body so overall not a beer for me.

And a black IPA to go out on: Zoji by Track Brewing in Manchester. It's black all right, though ruby at the edges and smells of sherbet and cabbage: not unusual in a black IPA, and not unpleasant either, at first. There's a fun hit of red fruit in the flavour, bringing cherries and redcurrants, but shortly afterwards it gets crushed by heavy ash-dry roast and acidic green bitterness. After a minute or two that's all I could taste and I got bored by the whole thing. A cask beer designed for drinking in third-pints, perhaps.

So that, broadly speaking, is what I had in Newcastle on the more traditional side of the beer spectrum, though some of the above indicates just how useless such notions are becoming. In the next post I'll cover the beers which, for the desperate want of better terminology, I'll call the craft side of the house. And I'll go to those pubs you're itching to tell me in the comments that I missed.

30 July 2015

Firestone Walk With Me

I'm slightly surprised there wasn't more of a fuss made about the arrival of Firestone Walker beer in Ireland a couple of months ago. By all accounts it was quite a coup by Grand Cru beers to get them over this way. But the first ones just quietly started showing up in specialist beer bars and off licences without anyone making too much noise, in my earshot anyway. I probably shouldn't complain. And with the company now part of a large multinational I expect they may start becoming more commonplace in Europe.

Anyway, three from the mid-Californian brewery today, though only two purchased on the white market, and only the one off the shelf of an Irish offy.

This can of Pivo, the brewery's pils, was acquired for me by Chris The Beer Geek, who took pains to ensure I got a fresh one, so the beer was a smidge over three weeks in the tin before I tipped it into a glass. The first surprise was the colour: a very nondescript pale yellow. At 5.3% ABV I thought it would at least look like a quality lager. Any fears over lack of substance are banished by the texture: the malt gives it a beautiful rounded and filling feel, plus that classic Dortmunder breadiness, shading towards the sweeter end of the spectrum with a hint of candyfloss. The promised hops are present but aren't at all overdone. There's the classic waxy, almost plasticky, noble hop bitterness then a mouthwatering cut-grass and pine effect, finishing quickly and cleanly, the way good lager should. I was expecting American hop perfume but that's not what it does at all: this is pure old-world elegance, reminding me a lot of the better, fresher, hoppier pale lagers I've caned in Bavaria. I'd happily see the whole "India Pale Lager" genre replaced with this sort of thing.

The Easy Jack IPA I obtained in DrinkStore so it wasn't quite so fresh, but still less than three months out of the brewery. It's another pale one: a crystalline golden hue. The aroma is rather candystore, all lurid chewsweet and sherbet fruit, plus the promise of plentiful sugar, which is surprising as it's only 4.7% ABV. The first pull reveals it to be pure Lilt, with a huge hit of juicy mango and pineapple. The sugar arrives after it and it's similar to the candyfloss in Pivo, much more than just a malt base. You need to wait around for any kind of bitterness but when it eventually arrives, right on the finish, even it is bringing fruit in tow: limes in particular, and maybe a slight spritz of grapefruit zest. At first I was really impressed by all that juiciness, but the sugary aspect makes each mouthful a little harder than the last. It's unusual to be saying a Californian IPA is unbalanced away from the bitterness side, but I think this is.

Finally, Wookey Jack, an 8.3% ABV rye black IPA I found on tap in BrewDog's Newcastle outlet recently. It's a dense beast, pure opaque black in colour and smelling worryingly of marker pens. The first thing to hit me on tasting was the texture: it's as viscous as it looks, thick and tarry with a slick, palate-coating bitterness but not much by way of hop flavour. Instead it's all roast, the only real hop presence being a certain dankness in the aroma. A disappointing experience, all told. Not what I'm after in a black IPA and completely lacking that dry grassy bite that hops and rye do so well together.

Double Jack has also been sighted on keg around Dublin. I wasn't a fan of this super-sticky double IPA when I first met it a couple of years ago, and recent revisits confirmed it's just not for me. I think perhaps they have too loose a hand at Firestone Walker when it comes to tipping the maltsack.

27 July 2015

Beers without borders

You have to admire the international outlook of Carlow Brewing. Following on from a Japanese-themed Sorachi Ace IPA earlier this summer, two new beers produced in collaboration with brewers from abroad invited to the international crossroads that is Bagenalstown.

I met both beers at an event in 57 The Headline, to celebrate the visit of Virginia's Starr Hill brewery, but before those proceedings commenced I had a pint of Lublin to Dublin Milk Stout, the second in a series with Poland's Browar Pinta. Anyone expecting a janglingly sweet milk stout is in for a surprise. At 6% ABV this is serious business, and while the lactose sugar is certainly present, it combines with the dark malt to create a sumptuously smooth milk chocolate effect yet still maintaining a roast bite on the end. It pulls a surprise special move with the hop additions, bringing at first a floral Turkish-delight element which then builds into a proper hoppy juiciness as it goes down. This is all stout, but I really liked how it touches on a few amber ale buttons too.

At the main event, Wayne "Irish Beer Snob" Dunne hosted a panel discussion between Seamus and Conor from Carlow and Brian and Robbie of Starr Hill, comparing notes on their respective breweries and beer scenes. The visitors had brought a couple of examples of their work to taste, so I got to try Little Red Roostarr, Starr Hill's "coffee cream stout". The coffee isn't mucking about in the aroma here: a massive waft of fresh-brewed hits the nostrils straight away. Underneath, it's a very sweet and creamy beer. There's a proper roasted-grain edge to it but overall I found it just a little too sweet to be enjoyable.

And also floating around there was Starr Hill Reviver, which is a red IPA with a huge grapefruit aroma. The flavour is more malt-driven, with a sweet and almost meaty caramelised crystal malt character, but plenty of citric bitterness as well. Brewer Robbie says that when he brews established beer styles he does it by the book, but I don't know if red IPA is in the book yet. Something a bit like American amber ale, only a little bitterer is possibly how it would be described, and this certainly meets that specification.

The guys also brought along a pitcher of their collaboration brew, then just a couple of days in the fermenter but already showing promise.

A little over a week later the beer was finished, and Carlow Brewing's PR folk kindly sent me a couple of bottles. Foreign Affair is also badged as a red IPA and is a modest 4.8% ABV. It's a perfect clear shade of copper, topped by a loose-bubbled head from what proved to be pleasantly low carbonation. The aroma doesn't exactly leap out, but there's good stuff present: peaches, shading to grapefruit, and just touching on heavier piney dank, all done using the Falconer's Flight hop blend. These are joined by a generous dose of coffee in the flavour, but that's really all the malt does: there's none of the toffee or marzipan one often finds in American-style amber ale and the texture is light. I like it. That dry and citric hop bitterness is complemented nicely by the dry coffee roast, and while it's assertively bitter it remains quite easy and refreshing drinking. One to enjoy young, I'd say: the 14-month best-before date printed on the neck is perhaps ill-advised.

Conor and the guys at Carlow Brewing certainly seem to be on top of their game at the moment. How generous of them to share their acumen with others.

23 July 2015

Shaking my confidence daily

Gluten-free beer seems to be where it's at these days. More and more brewers appear to be going after a slice of the intolerance dollar and, whereas once gluten-free beers were very much a compromise option not tasting convincingly like beer, more recent offerings like Wold Top Against The Grain and the quinoa beer UCC presented at Franciscan Well last Easter, have been closer to the mark.

The latest exhibit is Celia, a lager brewed in Žatec with, predictably, Saaz hops. Organic barley is high on the ingredients list and no other fermentable is named so I don't quite see how the claim of under 0.5mg of gluten per 100ml at 4.5% ABV was achieved, but there you go.

It's an enticing red-gold colour and smells like a proper Czech výčepní: gently grainy with a seasoning of fresh mown grass. The texture is light and smooth though pleasantly prickled, and the flavour perfectly clean. The hops are on the down-low and there are some additional soft fruit esters: a bit of peach, maybe. Really it's quite an unremarkable-tasting beer, delivering everything that most consumers of 33cl bottles of lager want. Good news for any of them that have found they aren't able to handle gluten, then.

Cheers to DrinkStore for the sample bottle.

20 July 2015

Siren call

There are more Siren beers coming into Dublin than I can keep up with, a phenomenon which delights me. The importer is also the management of The Beer Market so that's where I've encountered most of them, including...

Siren and Omnipollo Life's a Peach, a 6.4% ABV IPA which tastes like the union of a marijuana bud and a pineapple: heavy and resinous in texture and flavour, but with a breezy tropical fruit zing bursting out of the oils. It delivers a lovely fresh hop sensation which coats the palate without getting too sticky or cloying and without any trace of bitterness or harsh acidity. Added lactose and peaches? Who cares? This is just a pure quality IPA with no perceptible extra weirdness.

Sticking with the orangey IPAs, Dippy & The Equinox is a double IPA Siren produced with the help of Oregon brewery Boneyard. It presents dense and opaque, and innocently pale. However, it explodes violently on the palate, shedding a napalm bitterness that shocks at first and fades only gradually. The flavour it brings with it is a beautiful but deadly mix of gunpowder and mandarins. The fruit doesn't last quite as long as I'd like it to, getting replaced by a rather harsh waxyness after a short while. Overall, though, a beautifully constructed complex hop powerhouse.

With this sort of hit rate there just had to be a failure, and it came in the form of Liquid Monstrous, a beefed up version of Siren's rather tasty red IPA Liquid Mistress. Its appearance did it no favours at all: a very muddy red-brown. The aroma started well, with zingy orange sherbet, but it was no surprise to get a waft of mucky yeast sludge with that as well. It doesn't taste yeasty, mind, though there was a definite gritty quality in the texture. Instead it's hot and sharply bitter, big hops being part of that, but there's also a coffee-like bitterness from, I assume, the dark malts. Cherry fruit flavours lighten it only slightly, but it wasn't enjoyable drinking and lacked the usual bright and clear flavours I've come to expect from Siren beers, even the hazy ones.

We switch over to The Porterhouse next. Calypso showed up as their €4 bottled special a while back and that was enough to draw me in to try it. This is a 4% ABV Berlinerweisse, dry-hopped with varieties that vary from batch to batch. Code G377 tells me I got one with Mosaic. It poured clearer than I expected, with just a slight haze through the gold. The head dissipates quickly, the millpond surface giving off enticing aromas of lemon sherbet, dank resins and the promise of a puckering sourness too. The sour leaps to the front of the queue on tasting, a big smack of tangy vinegar. But in proper Berlinerweisse fashion it fades very quickly. First in behind it is a crisp and grainy, wheaty effect of the sort that predominates in Berliner Kindl's weisse. The hops don't do much here, adding little more than a whiff of urinal cake to the finish, but they don't get in the way. This hits exactly the refreshment points that a beer like this is supposed to and is, I would say, capable of resetting even the most jaded of mid-session palates.

And home again for the last one: Bones of a Sailor Part III. This is a 9.5% ABV imperial porter brewed with vanilla, raspberries and cacao and then aged in Pedro Ximinéz barrels. That's a lot to put on a label but the flavour does a great job of reminding you about all of it as soon as the dense black liquid goes in your mouth. The raspberries are first: an unmistakeable fruity tartness that shouldn't really be so obvious in a strong dark beer, but like that raspberry imperial stout Thornbridge did, it's very very present here. Pedro Ximinéz is so fashionable for beer ageing these days that I bought a bottle of the dark sherry when I was last in Spain to find out what it is. And as well as looking like it, this beer really tastes of it too, all sweetly tannic like plump boozy raisins. Vanilla and dark chocolate are present -- but only just -- underneath this, and I guess they're flavours you'd expect to find in an unadulterated oak-aged porter anyway. There's a smoky roast quality too, just in case you weren't sure that this busy concoction started life as a real beer. Though quite sticky, it's buoyed up by a busy prickle that helps with the drinkability. I was expecting a heavy and rich beer entirely unsuited to the sunny afternoon on which I drank it but the raspberry acid cuts through all that and gave me a powerhouse porter that's also really rather refreshing.

Liquid Monstrous notwithstanding, I'm in no rush to change my current high opinion of this brewery.

16 July 2015

Bags of flavour

It's been a while since my last Belgian beer. Thankfully the Brown Paper Bag Project is there to scratch that particular itch with Aul Bruin Bagger, one they brewed at their usual Belgian outpost, ’t Hofbrouwerijke. They've squeezed a lot into that title: yes it's a Flemish oud bruin and there's their own name, but also that of their near-neighbours animation studio Brown Bag Films, for whom it's a 21st birthday beer. The twist on the regular style is an addition of cherries to the recipe, the alcohol content finishing up at 6.4% ABV. And how did that work out?

Quite interestingly, actually. The fruit leaves the beer more of a maroon colour than brown and there's a pleasantly strange interaction between the tart and tangy acetic element and the still-juicy cherries, in both the flavour and the aroma. The sourness is relatively mild but it does linger long, bouncing around the back of the palate, aided by quite a heavy texture for a sour beer. At heart this a classic brown-saucey Flemish oud bruin with the cherries adding just a subtle extra complexity. Nicely done.

Closer to home, Brown Paper Bag also produced a 4.5% ABV cask Summer Ale as part of the 5th birthday celebrations at parent pub L. Mulligan Grocer. An arrangement with north Dublin brewery Craftworks (more on them when I've had time to drink their beers) means that BPBP can produce beer on their own junior brewkit, covered by the Craftworks licence.

My pint, as shown, was murky as hell but tasted delicious when cool, blasting out jubilant peals of mandarin and peach. The yeast grit only began to show its dirty face as it warmed, but this isn't a beer to let warm; it's a chugger. Though that's not to say it wouldn't be a whole better experience if left to settle properly. This was over a week ago so maybe it has by now. Anyway, the idea of the  'Project brewing cask beer locally is an exciting one and I hope there'll be more along these lines in due course.

13 July 2015

Trust exercise

On a number of occasions Richard has said that Lagunitas is one of the breweries he trusts enough to buy their beer without knowing anything about it in advance. And, in general, I trust Richard. Or perhaps I have an interest in proving his rule to be flawed. Either way, I bought a bottle of Lagunitas Hop Stoopid.

8% ABV and 102 IBUs it proclaims on the label, so it's a bit of a beast. In the small print it mentions that it's brewed using hop extract rather than real hops, for "cleaner" hop flavours with none of the vegetative mess. And from the first sniff that seems to have worked: there's an intense fresh lemon smell, turned sherbety by the generous amounts of malt.

It all takes a turn for the stoopid on tasting, however. The malt is absolutely dominant here, intensely sweet like honey or lemon curd, turning to toffee as it warms. Meanwhile the hops are merely a light perfume backdrop. It does not taste like a zingy west coast IPA, though I noted that it makes no claim to that style. And bitterness? A hundred and two bitternesses? No. I peered down the neck of the bottle and they weren't in there either.

I guess it's not a bad beer, but it tastes to me like a dodgy Belgian impression of an American IPA. I was in the mood for fresh American hops and it left me wanting.

And while that was sitting in my drafts folder I also chanced upon Lagunitas Sucks on tap in 57 The Headline. This is a multi-grain affair, including rye, oats and wheat, finishing at 7.85% ABV but once again missing a style designation. Most sources seem to regard some sort of IPA as the best category to fit it into but I'm not so sure. Though certainly pale -- a clear golden hue -- there's not much hop aroma from it, just a slight Californian buzz of dank and citrus, while the centrepiece of the flavour is heavy, sugary malt with a disconcerting caramel note that's really incongruous with the colour. The hops cavort behind this, a sticky-fingered mix of succulent fruit: nectarine, pineapple and sweet plums. It's a strange beast and I don't think it suits my tastes very well. The sheer density makes it hard work to drink and there's a dizzying back and forth between the hop kick and sickly ick.

I'm not going to write off Lagunitas completely on this showing: there have still been more hits than misses for me in the range. But these two have definitely not inspired any blind loyalty.