30 May 2017

The many shades of Pajottenland

The final stop on day one of the 2017 Toer de Geuze was Lindemans, probably the showiest of all the sites we visited. The setting is rather beautiful, on high ground in the countryside, with Brussels's tallest buildings almost visible to the east. The campus is low and sprawling, and from the front entrance visitors were treated to a meandering stroll through the brewery, past copper brewing vessels and foeders atmospherically lit with red light, the spookiness enhanced with an actual smoke machine. One emerged from the ghost train in a vast warehouse space at the rear where bars and tables had been set up. A brass band, wheel of beery fortune and the de rigueur bouncy castle all added to the festive atmosphere. The ominous black helium balloons not so much.

To business, then. In addition to Tilquin Mûre which I wrote about yesterday, the only other beer on my must-drink list for the Toer was BlossomGueuze, a sequel to Lindemans Spontanbasil, one of my favourite beers of recent years. This time the added ingredient is elderflower and it leaves no doubt about that in the aroma: a massive, rich, fruit-and-flower smell from the dark gold glassful. The flavour is just as unsubtle, but not in a good way. There's a syrupy taste of concentrated elderflower, a steely bitterness and only a slight sour sharpness as a reminder that this is actually a geuze. It's not a quality blended product, nor even a fun and silly sweetened geuze. It just plain doesn't work.

The Lindemans menu was big on the mediocre sweetened beers that are its bread and butter but one that did catch my eye was Cuvée René Special Blend 2010. This is a limited edition oude geuze released in 2015 incorporating 4-year-old lambic, blended as usual with a younger one. It's another one that ticks off perfectly what I want geuze to taste like: an invigorating sharp pinch at the front, spreading out into a complex mix of minerals and chemicals: saltpetre, nitre, gunpowder: you know the vocabulary by now. The main thing is it's absolutely beautiful and ended the day's touring on a real high note for me.

Day two started the same way, picking up the bus in Halle and this time the first destination was More Subite. Poor old Mort Subite: the first geuze I ever drank, in Dublin's Belgo back in 2000 or so. It doesn't have the best of reputations among the lambic brewers and fanatics, in part because of its product, though also because it's owned by Heineken. It doesn't participate in the celebratory Megablend produced for the Toer de Geuze every two years.

The brewery is tucked well away in the Pajottenland countryside, in one corner of the tiny village of Kobbegem: little more than a church, two pubs and a scout hall. I had been expecting a large industrial facility but it's actually quite a compact site, much smaller than Boon or Lindemans. A marquee with a bar had been set up in the central courtyard and brewery staffers brought groups on regular tours of the facility. At the front is a pretty copper brewhouse which looks like a museum piece but is still fully operational. From there we had a look at the back end and here things were a little more space age, with rooms full of huge stainless steel tanks ageing the product, though there was a modest collection of giant wooden foeders as well. A little wood-aged lambic goes a long way in the blend here.

Mort Subite excelled particularly in the value for money stakes. If you wanted to buy a beer at the bar they were a mere €1.50 each, but just walking in got you a complimentary pour, plus the brewery tour, and a commemorative special edition bottle to take away. Not bad for free.

I've noticed in recent years how the less reputable lambic breweries have begun putting out quality oude geuzes to capture a market (like me) that isn't particularly interested in the sweetened stuff. I've really enjoyed the examples from Lindemans and Timmermans so I was absolutely going to spend my freebie beer token on Mort Subite Oude Geuze. Sadly it's not on a par with the others. The sharpness is a little too severe, veering into vinegar territory, and there's nothing much behind it; few interesting complexities. Just like Mort Subite is lambic for beginners generally, this is oude geuze for beginners too, though I'd direct any actual beginners to Boon's Mariage Parfait first.

To complete the set, herself took a Mort Subite Oude Kriek Lambic. This is rather better, with a beautiful deep purple colour and an assertive sourness plus lots of smooth mature oak. It's maybe a little bit simplistic but it does manage to balance the age thing with the fruit thing quite well.

So it was back on the bus without having to put our hands in our pockets. Them Heineken lads are all right.

Stop two for day two was Beersel, home of Oud Beersel, which had taken over the neighbourhood for the weekend. The ancient former brewery is tucked away behind a tumbledown brick terrace, with a more modern and stable-looking building next door, dating from the business's revival in 2005.

The Vandervelden family had brewed here since 1882 but when the last member retired in 1991 the company began to fall into disrepair. By 2002 it was moribund until three years later a local man, the Steve Carell lookalike Gert Christiaens (left), took it on and began the revival. First to go was the brewing: without space to modernise this was outsourced to Boon. Interestingly, Oud Beersel qualifies as a lambic producer rather than merely a blender because it specifically commissions its own beer from Boon, as opposed to the likes of Tilquin which buys beer that other breweries originally made for themselves. Beer ageing happens at the top of the building where the attics have been kitted out with ranks of Italian-built foeders.

Tour over, exit through the giftshop, and across the road where the bar marquee (and bouncy castle, obvs) had been set up. I hope the residents who lost their front yards for the duration were sufficiently compensated. My first pick was Vandervelden 135, an oude geuze recently released to celebrate the company's anniversary. It's lovely too: not especially sour, but with a beautiful soft honeydew melon taste up front, the tartness gradually rising to deliver a burst of saltpetre in the finish. This is very nicely balanced between the soft ripe fruit and harder mineral sourness.

For the lady, Bzart Lambiek, which appears to be a kind of lambic-prosecco hybrid, based on the former but created using the methods of the latter, presumably in an attempt to open up a sector of the drinks market that wouldn't touch traditional geuze. It smells like a tripel and is off-puttingly sweet, with the candy flavour of a strong top-fermented Belgian ale. There's a fun rocket-like pepperiness to it, but the lambic character seems to have got lost somewhere along the way. I wasn't a fan.

Uniquely among the sites I Toer'd, Beersel was offering collaborative beers from other breweries. My curiosity was piqued by Black Acid, a blend of lambic and stout produced by Lervig in Norway. It was also aged in an akevitt barrel and that's very apparent all the way through: there's a powerfully herbal character, full of sweet basil and bitter liquorice. 8.5% ABV gives it a thick tarry consistency and there's a touch of umami: soy sauce, turning to Bovril. But the lambic side holds its own and the tartness does a great job of keeping the extreme sticky bitterness in check. It's a tough beer to sip through but is absolutely gorgeous in its complexity.

I'll be dealing with the peripheral beers and pubs of the trip later in the week, but while we're here I should just throw in a mention of Oud Beersel Framboise which I happened across in Toone shortly after arriving in Brussels the previous Friday. It was served unpleasantly warm and ended up tasting like yoghurt: actually creamy and thick, with a slightly metallic tartness and the wooden bite of real raspberry seeds. It's quite fun but is missing a proper sour edge, with neither the raspberries nor the lambic pulling their weight.

Anyway, that's enough geuze for today. Tomorrow we'll finish the tour and head for the obvious follow-on destination.

29 May 2017

Geuze bus tours!

Once every two years a group of the lambic beer producers scattered through the Pajottenland -- a mostly rural patchwork of towns and villages to the immediate west of Brussels -- open their doors to visitors. Their industry representative body, HORAL, provides a bus service so that pilgrims can travel easily between the sites, and so the Toer de Geuze is born. For the eleventh outing of the Toer in 2017 the event was expanded to two days, covering a Saturday and a Sunday. So it was that on the morning of 6th May, the wife and I took the train from Brussels Centraal to nearby Halle where the Toer's coaches were lined up waiting.

There are ten different bus routes, each covering a different combination of sites. I picked bus 8 as it offered the best combination of my favourite brands of lambic as well as some others about which I was merely curious. And it started at Tilquin.

Guezerie Tilquin is an anonymous modern warehouse, just off a country road surrounded by truck and tyre dealerships. From Google Streeview it appears that it used to be one itself. For the Toer, a marquee and bar had been set up, with a pig on a spit awaiting hungry visitors. When it was time to look around the inside, the first thing our guide told us is that Tilquin is not actually in Pajottenland, being just over the Flemish border in Wallonia. Since it doesn't brew beer and merely blends lambics from other producers there's no problem with the authenticity of the product. And that also means, of course, that there's no shiny brewhouse or coolship to see, just tiers and tiers of lambic filled wine casks, a small blending room and a bottling and warehousing section.

By way of illustrating how the process works, we were given a sample of lambic from the handpump at the start of the tour. This is presumably the beer that they release as Tilquin Jonge Lambic, though I guess that means that it's unblended so comes from one of the supplying breweries. If so, we weren't told which one. If anyone more knowledgeable on the ins and outs of gueze knows, give me a shout in the comments. Anyway, it was beautiful: soft fruity peach and explosive saltpetre, uncarbonated so with just the gentlest effervesence, and altogether extremely sessionable. But we were on the hoof, so that wasn't an option.

At the beer tent, top of my to-try list was Mûre, an oude geuze with blackberries, kind of a sequel to their plum geuze, Quetsche. It looked lovely in the glass: a shining even pinkish-purple. But the flavour was a little lacklustre, being quite sharp and waxy with none of the smoothness one might expect from an aged product, and not much by way of fruit character either.

Out of pure morbid curiosity I took a punt on Tilquin's Meerts, or "March beer". This is a very young lambic of 3.6% ABV which gets blended with older lambics to create Tilquin Gueuze. I can see why they don't normally serve it straight: worty and watery, it has only a slight sourness, but that fades very quickly leaving little behind. I'm sure it does a bang-up job when put to proper use, but is no more than a novelty on its own.

For each Toer de Geuze, a subset of the participating producers create a Megablend which is available at the sites. I had intended to buy a souvenir bottle of Megablend 2017 but since Tilquin had it on draught I thought I'd try it out first. It's a dark orange colour and hellishly fizzy, the overactive carbonation all but drowning out the flavour. Underneath that it's a fairly basic geuze: a clean mineral sourness with no real distinguishing features. My plan to purchase a bottle was in review as we re-boarded the bus and set off for the next stop.

After the compactness of Tilquin, Brouwerij Boon felt like a sprawling conurbation. As well as the glass-fronted brewhouse there's an assortment of other buildings on the campus, including vast halls of giant oak foeders with the lambic slumbering inside. This is geuze production on a massive scale. The tour here was self-guided, through the shiny bits, past the packaging machinery, silenced for the day, and finishing in amongst the showpiece foeders.

Down at the far end of the site an Oktoberfest-style tent had been set up with seating for hundreds and two bars. The main one had all the flagship Boon beers though wasn't getting a whole lot of action this early in proceedings as the smaller one at the other end was dishing out the specials and rarities, some from Frank Boon's personal stash, apparently.

Much attention was being lavished on Vat 44 which had only just become available. This had been originally released in a limited edition in 2013 and is now in very short supply. I reviewed another Boon monoblend -- Vat 77 -- a while back and found it a little heavy and plodding. This too appears to have had the joie de vivre aged out of it, tasting maturely of toasted walnuts and hazelnuts. Though the aroma is enticingly sharp and spicy, the flavour has only the mildest of tart edges. Obviously I just don't have the refined palate for this sort of thing, but I thought it quite bland.

My wife's choice, Boon Lambiek 5-Year Old, was much more like it. This was a special edition released specifically for the Toer and poured on gravity from the cask. Every description of lambic will mention the role of local strains of Brettanomyces in its production but this is the first one I've encountered that has Brussels Brett's riot of tropical fruit flavours. It's quite thick and flat but smells and tastes magnificently of peach, pineapple and lychee. The density does make it a little cloying after a few sips though there is a lovely clean chalky finish. It's spectacularly different to any lambic I've had before, even other aged ones. Definitely one of the weekend's highlights.

L: Foeder No. 97, R: Foeder No. 104
There was a fun opportunity to learn about the effect that the individual foeders have on their contents with a pair of lambics from neighbouring vessels. We got Lambiek Foeder No. 97 and Lambiek Foeder No. 104 to try side by side. Both are pale orange, though the 97 was a little lighter in colour. 97 also had more of a carefree breezy vibe about it, spritzy with fresh peach and just a cheeky sour bite in the finish. It was hard to believe it's all of 6.5% ABV. 104 on the other hand was more taciturn and serious, eschewing the fruit for an intense bricks-and-nitre sourness and a rougher finish. Both were excellent but I think I preferred the growling minerals of 104 to 97's giggling orchard.

I mentioned the Megablend above and Boon is where the blending actually takes place each time, so there was a fine selection of older vintages. I took a chance on Megablend 2013 to see if it was any calmer than fresh 2017 and it really was. While still a little bit thin there was a fantastic and unusual complexity, all herbs and spices with a strange combination of nutmeg and coconut. That made up my mind to definitely acquire a 2017 but to leave it away for a couple of years at least. Lambic guru Dina, conveniently on-hand, advised that even the 2015 edition was not fully matured yet. As it transpired later, I was able to pick up a 2015 when I bought my 2017, so that's something to look forward to around 2021.

I've long been a fan of Boon's classic Mariage Parfait but had never tried the cherry version. Here they were serving a 2015 vintage of Kriek Mariage Parfait so one of those was acquired. This is blood-red, heavy of texture and smooth of flavour. The sour geuze side is understated, favouring instead a rich and jammy cherry flavour. It's sweet without being overly sugary, and has just a pinch of gunpowder in the finish. This is a fun take on mature kriek without going all the way to frivolous or silly.

It would have been wrong to leave without at least saying hello to the poor bored servers over at the main bar and, oh look, there's a beer I've never heard of before. Duivels is a strong and dark brown ale and is a throwback to a local beer style passed between various breweries in the area over the 20th century and finishing up at Boon. Moortgat's more famous Duvel is a descendent, though it turned pale in the 1960s. Wikipedia tells me Duivels was originally brewed for pilgrims and I can see the benefit of it there: it's heavy and wholesome, tasting of bread and raisins. There's a tiny touch of sourness in the profile but it's heavily concealed by all the brown sugar and treacle. This is simple and pleasant, and not million miles away from many a dark Belgian abbey beer. It's nice that Boon has given the old-timer a home.

After a fine long spell at Boon our own pilgrimage was ready to move off. Stop three was 3 Fonteinen, not the brewery but the Lambik-O-Droom café they've opened in Beersel. A note here about organisation: probably the most frustrating thing about the Toer de Geuze was the variation in the way each site was organised. While admission was free everywhere, most had a token system for beer, some required a deposit on a glass too, some had guided tours and others self-guided. Trying to figure out exactly how to do the visit when there was a relatively small time allotted for each stop was a bit of a ballache. And the Lambik-O-Droom, because it's accessible by public transport, was packed, with long queues for glasses, tokens and beer. And although there's a grand bar inside the facility, it had been closed in favour of serving everything from a marquee bar on the lawn. To top it off, only a handful of the beers on the menu were actually available at any given time. I had been really looking forward to 3 Fonteinen, and now I'm looking forward to visiting it properly on a later trip when it's more manageable.

3 Fonteinen Jonge Lambik, which was complementary and did not require a deposit for its glass, put me in a better mood straight away. This one-year-old is lambic the way I like it: sharp and edgy, evoking grand vaulted brick cellars, dripping with white nitre stalactites; a gunpowder factory of spicy saltpetre, the acidity scouring the palate and catching in the throat. Gorgeous.

Beside it there is Nocturne, a spontaneously fermented dark beer of 5% ABV, brewed as a one-off in 2015. It's brown and unattractively flat and headless. The flavour is a raving umami bomb, smelling and tasting of soy sauce in particular, with just a touch of wet cardboard on the side for bad measure. The flatness and density just add to the savoury saucey effect. I found this actively unpleasant.

Herself opted for 3 Fonteinen Oude Kriekenlambik which was flat again but tasted much better. Rather than sweet cherries it pulls out the essence of the fruit, creating a finely spiced perfume, seasoned with what I assume is the oak but ends up tasting of exotic sandalwood. Utterly luxurious and one of the finest expressions of kriek I've met. Another mood swing bringing happy thoughts about 3 Fonteinen before we left.

There was one more brewery on the day's itinerary but I'll pick that up in tomorrow's post. In the meantime, to comply with all relevant laws governing blog posts about lambic breweries, here's a photo of some giant foeders, at Boon:

26 May 2017

What's brewing?

The National Homebrew Club's annual conference returned to Smock Alley Theatre in April. As usual there was a stellar line-up of home-brewing royalty, both local and international, sharing their wisdom through the course of the day. Not with me, though: I was only there for the after-party, by kind invitation of the (very) outgoing president -- cheers Thomas!

For the ensuing bottle share I brought a bomber I took home from Portland last year, Culmination's 4 & 20 imperial black IPA, a 9.5% ABV monster. I figured that seven months' maturation wouldn't have done much for the aroma but it still smelled bright and fresh, of damp grass in particular. The texture is beautifully smooth and there's mercifully no high alcohol heat, but the flavour is the weak point. Not that there's anything wrong exactly, but it lacks any distinctive features: there's no punch from the hops, nor any tar or liquorice or spice or other complexities that one might expect to find in a black IPA of this calibre. The bottle did get finished, though. Eventually. So what did everyone else bring?

Steve opened with a bottle of Shepherd Neame's Mashtun No. 1, a strong ale the iconic Kent brewery produced in 2014 to celebrate said mashtun's centenary. I don't know whether it's the age or something in the base beer, but this was absolutely disgusting. "Mmm... funky..." was my first thought, followed by "Arrgh! Too much funk!" It's sharply rubbery at first, swerving into less offensive but quite cloying HP Sauce dark fruit and spice, before finishing with a long, long twang of dry rot and corked Burgundy. This is easily the worst beer I've tasted this year; I think it's the persistence of that rank aftertaste that makes it so offensive. What else is there?

Thankfully there was a very good palate-cleanser on tap courtesy of Wicklow Wolf. Their Born In Bray was (I'm told) a commission from their neighbours at The Harbour Bar for a light session beer. The result is a 4.2% ABV pale ale, single-hopped with Mandarina Bavaria. It's certainly light and sessionable, served on the cold side there wasn't much malt in evidence in the flavour but the texture was far from thin or watery. The hops give it an odd combination of flavours -- I got hints of coconut and a touch of onion in amongst the jaffa and satsuma zest -- and the whole thing is just complex enough for interesting drinking, while also perfectly capable of being knocked back to slake a thirst. Recommended if you're heading Bray way some sunny day soon.

Back to Steve's stash, then. Telegraph Brewing of California is next, and Buellton Silent Partner, a saison. It's one of the strong ones at 7.4% ABV and suffers a little from alcoholic overheating. Unfortunately the alcohol doesn't carry a whole lot of flavour with it: there's just some light white pepper and a whiff of peach in the aroma. Beyond that it's quite plain and inoffensive.

The Bruery's Humulus Terreux is another Californian take on a broadly Belgian profile, giving all of the fermentation work over to Brettanomyces yeast. Guess what? It tastes and smells like Brettanomyces yeast. The aroma is a heady, musky funk, with just a little lacing of honeydew melon for complexity. The flavour is pure farmyard, however. If you're still at the phase where Bretty funk impresses you by itself then here's a beer that will knock your socks off. I got bored of it fairly quickly.

Third time's the charm: Lectio Divina is a Trappist-inspired amber ale by Saint Somewhere Brewing in Florida. The label says 8% ABV but it tastes much stronger than that, heavy and cakey in the middle with a building peach fruit. However there's also a much less enjoyable -- and questionably deliberate -- TCP and vinegar. The aroma isn't much fun, smelling of soda bread and yeast. It's a bit of a mess, really. Not a total disaster but I doubt it would pass any Trappist's quality control.

Back across the Atlantic and a crowler of Weird Beard's Mesca Ulad whiskey-aged porter which Steve acquired at The Errigle in Belfast. This is a multi-brewer collaboration on the theme of Ulster and the flavour has been designed around the Veda malt loaf. My first impression on sniffing it was of banana bread rather than Veda: it's sweet and unctuous, smelling every bit of its 8.4% ABV. The misdirection continues on tasting and I got more banana, vanilla and buttered fruitcake. I would need to be prompted to spot the Veda. Overall it's lovely and warming, a great fireside sipper. Though thick and sweet it doesn't get cloying: the flavours are clean and distinct and don't hang around on the palate longer than they're welcome.

Last of this lot is Green Walnut by lambic producer Oud Beersel. This is made with the addition of your actual green walnuts where cherries or raspberries would normally go. I can't say I got anything particularly walnutty from it but it is an excellent gueuze, roaring with dry nitre and saltpetre; sharply sour yet finishing elegantly smooth. It's a class act. Cheers to Steve for all the beers he brought along.

One of the conference speakers also took some beers from home, namely Brandon Jones, brewer at Yazoo Brewery in Nashville.

The first he opened was Maracuyá y Tradicional, a Brett-fermented golden ale of 9.9% ABV aged in tequila barrels. It smells almost oppressively fruity, like one of those lurid mixed breakfast juices. That's a big part of the flavour too, spiced up with some heady spirituous booze and a smooth mature wood seasoning. Odd, but very drinkable for the strength and wonderfully complex in unusual ways.

The next one was brewed especially for the brewery's local gas station and bears its name: Belle Meade Express High Octane. It's a dark red colour and is broadly in the Flemish red style, though 10% ABV, with that classic sweet-savoury balsamic sourness but also a touch of balancing chocolate. The acetic quality builds quite quickly, outstripping any sweetness and starting to scorch the palate. While that's happening an oily herbal myrrh flavour begins to creep in as well. It's an intense experience, but a very tasty one too. It does that classic American thing of taking the flavour profile of a European beer style and cranking everything up on it. It's brash, but fun.

After those two big-hitters we finish on the much more modest Yazoo Grisette, a pale yellow 4.6% ABV example of the light saison-like style. It's surprisingly tart, though this is softened by pineapple fruit flavours and a savoury yeast bite. It could perhaps do with a little bit of a polish, but it's fine if not very exciting as-is. A big thanks to Brandon for bringing his wares over to share.

Thanks also, of course, to the tireless team of organisers from the National Homebrew Club who put BrewCon together, and to all the attendees who brought their own beers for sampling. You can meet a few of them all this weekend at the Killarney Beer Festival at the INEC. Which reminds me, I have a train to catch...

24 May 2017

Summer on a budget

The German discount supermarkets are great when summer rolls around and your requirement is for things merely decent, cheap, refreshing and in quantity, for drinking outside. Normally I wouldn't look beyond Aldi's Spaten or (and) Lidl's Crafty Brewing IPA, or any of the dry Irish ciders they both carry, but during a recent sunny spell I spotted a couple of new candidates and thought it only right to give them a go.

Lidl's Perlenbacher marque has been a byword for cheap lager since time immemorial. I hadn't seen Perlenbacher Radler before, or maybe I had but passed it by because the half-litre green can resembles any old tin of budget beer. It cost €1 and is 2.5% ABV, a whole 25% stronger than Lidl's Austrian radler which I reviewed last year. I didn't think much of that one, but this is way better. The sugar level is far lower and there's the tang of real lemons front and centre. The carbonation is gentle and the overall effect is like sherbet lemon sweets, the flavour finishing mostly cleanly with only a slight residue of syrup. And the whole experience, while not exactly high-class tippling, is really aided by the large-format can. This is perfect for glugging back to quench a thirst before opening a proper beer, though it's probably not a good idea to drink more than a couple lest the sugar jitters set in.

The next one is a seasonal and came from Aldi. The season in question, according to the label, is the beginning of Spring so perhaps Schwaben Bräu's Das Frühlings Festbier has been sitting around a while. This is badged as a Märzen and certainly has that classic rich dark gold colour typical of the style. It's a full 5.7% ABV and I detected a certain thickness as it poured, the tight foam head forming slowly. And the flavour... is rather plain, unfortunately. The big texture is certainly there, and I found myself chewing past it to find nothing very much. There's a little bit of the wholesome breadiness I expected, right on the foretaste, but it disappears quickly, as does the mild golden syrup sweetness. Where a hop bite might have been installed there's just a slightly unpleasant plastic burr. This beer meets the bare minimum standards for a medium-strong pale German classic, but it feels like a rush job, a festbier that's lost its party spirit.

Back to the Spaten then. Celebrate!

22 May 2017

Advanced for his age

Dublin's DOT Brew celebrated its first birthday with a slew of new barrel-aged small-batch beers, brought out to meet the public in Idlewild (and later Abbot's Ale House in Cork) a few weeks ago. The Idlewild event was fun, with only three lines dedicated to the selection so turnover was quick. If only life could be like this more often.

First of the newcomers was Teeny Tiny Barrel Aged Pale Ale. As the name hints, this is a mere 3.5% ABV. The barrels in question are Chardonnay, where it spent 9 months and the resulting aroma is fantastic: a sumptuous juicy white grape ripeness. I was down to earth again with the first sip of the clear gold liquid: it opens with quite a harsh pine sawdust flavour, which I'm guessing is the oak at work. The Chardonnay fruit does come out increasingly as the beer warms, and delivers a refreshing tartness in the finish, but after a while the fruit and the wood become overpowering. There just isn't enough heft in the underlying beer to counterbalance them. It's a fun experiment, but one which could do with a little fine-tuning next time out.

The next beer also highlights its smallness, going by the name of Baby Bourbon Birthday Barrel, though there's not much babyish about its 6.2% ABV. It poured black and headless, giving off a husky woody aroma with a pinch of vanilla thrown in. That develops beyond a pinch in the flavour, with vanilla becoming the dominant feature. The wood calms down and it's all very gentle and chocolatey after that. Great dessert drinking.

Tequila Saison was next on the roster. This is light and clean, saison as it should be, founded on dry grain husk flavours with a burst of white pepper spice right in the middle. The tequila has definitely made its mark on it, and there's more than a hint of that sweet prickly pear fruit flavour that's particularly prominent in the likes of Sierra Nevada's Otra Vez. The novelty feature doesn't dominate, however, and allows the beer to maintain its classical saisonosity. There's a lightness of touch here that belies the frankly unreasonable 6.2% ABV.

From a 6.2% ABV beer that tastes light to a 6.5% ABV one that tastes much much stronger. Cherry Choco Bourbon Dark leaves little to the imagination, being a dark ale aged in bourbon barrels with added cocoa nibs and morello cherries. It gets great value out of all that, resulting in a veritable sweetshop of flavours, opening on Parma Violets and Highland Toffee bars and moving through Opal Fruits, Refreshers and even a Bounty. Though thick and quite oily it's light enough to not get cloying as the multifaceted flavour kicks in. This is a sensation and would really shine in bottle form.

The final beer is a big-hitter at 9.5% ABV, named Cab Sav Malt Rye, based on a brown ale with three kinds of rye and double barrel ageing: the Cabernet Sauvignon followed by Irish whiskey. It tastes very strongly of chocolate, so much so I was wondering if it had got mixed up with the cherry chocolate one. There's a bit of cherry fruit character, but boozy, like cherries soaked in port. You end up with something along the lines of Mon Cheri chocolates, which is great 'cos I love them. The texture is light despite the high strength, and despite the roll call of serious ingredients it's an incredibly fun beer to drink.

I tend to be quite sceptical of advanced barrel-ageing with weird ingredients. For a lot of brewers it's just gimmickry, at best well-intentioned, though sometimes I suspect only done to make the name of the beer look awesome when written down. But this set from DOT has, for the most part, really got the best out of the barrels used. Hopefully we won't have to wait a year for the next set.

19 May 2017

Smooth moves

Three beers from Dano-Belgian contract brewers To Øl today. To begin, the continuation of a series of soured pale ales, a style of beer I've become very partial to. Sur Citra follows Sur Amarillo which I enjoyed last year. Just like it, this one is a hazy orange colour and the aroma is understated, hinting gently at the citrus and sourness to come. The tartness leads: first sip produces a round juicy acidity, a bit like an oude gueze but without the oak-and-nitre complexity. The Citra adds a little lime zest to this but doesn't compromise the smoothness. This is a light Sunday-jazz sort of sour beer, not a jangling punky noise-bomb. It's easy on the palate and very accessible. Substitute your brunch Bellini for it; serve it to guests arriving at your wedding reception; give it to someone who thinks they don't like sour beer.

The latest in the set is Sur Sorachi Ace which I happened across at the Abbot's Ale House bar in Cork on the way back from the Easter festival. They've messed with the formula a little here, raising the the ABV from 5.5% to 6.5% and introducing Brettanomyces yeast. All of the elements delivered in the flavour are exactly as promised in the dark orange beer. The orange peel zest that is Sorachi's hallmark is the headline, with the askew coconut hit coming in behind. Running counter to this there's a pronounced, but understated, funk from the Brett which manages to integrate into the flavour without stealing focus from the signature hop. Once again, it takes a daring set of contrasting tastes and manages to blend them seamlessly into a very approachable and fun beer. Brett and Sorachi are both sticking-point flavours for some drinkers and this expertly tames the pair of them.

The last beer is one I found on draught in The Black Sheep: Cloud 3, a low-strength witbier. I hadn't sought it out and I honestly wasn't expecting much from it, especially given that comedy ABV of 2.8%. But it really gets your attention with its aroma: bright fresh tropical fruit and a touch of exotic perfume spice. The flavour is simple, though far from bland, all mandarin and mango. It's straight-down-the-line refreshing with no sideshows or unnecessary complexity. And that's not a euphemism for watery thinness: this is properly substantial, with enough fruity-candy consistency to carry the mouth-flooding hop juiciness. Irish microbreweries get a double tax-break at 2.8% ABV and not a single one takes advantage of it. If they were able to turn out something like this I, for one, would be a very happy customer.

Their labels can look a bit scary and pretentious, but this set of To Øl beers offers easy-drinking bouncy fun. Three glasses of hazy happiness.

17 May 2017

Advance party

The Hop City festival took place in Leeds at Easter. As part of the promotional run-up, host brewer Northern Monk brewed a collaboration beer with Cloudwater and hop supplier YCH called, imaginatively, Hop City IPA.

It's squarely in the New England style, 6.2% ABV, 20 IBUs and a soupy yellow colour. The aroma is bright and fresh, throwing out juicy mandarin and spicy green rocket. In keeping with the style the body is soft and the carbonation low, making for some smooth and easy-going quaffing.

While not bitter per se, there is a certain edge to the flavour, with the mild burn of raw garlic and a touch of pine resin. That works in parallel with gentle nectarine and mango, backed by a milkshake and candyfloss pillowy sweetness. It's all finely balanced, the contrasting flavours working in a delightful harmony.

This is a beer I could drink a lot of. Hopefully the festival lived up to it.