24 March 2017

What Touken do

My experience with Breton beers hasn't been great, so when a new set arrived courtesy of my father-in-law last year I didn't exactly lamp into them straight away. They ended up sitting in the back of the fridge an indecently long time and I was surprised when I finally got round to drinking them to find that there was still quite a few months to go on the expiry date. How considerate of Brasserie Artisanale Touken to give their beers such generous lifespans.

I started with Philomenn Blonde and got a nice clear glass of it, the sediment having had time to settle neatly to the bottom of the bottle. There's a bit of an appley tang in the aroma, and that's one of the features of the flavour, but it fits into a matrix of other fruit and spice notes in a complementary way. There's a honeyish base, and then a sprinkling of cinnamon. A light texture and a cleansing fizz make for easy drinking and none of the cloying stickiness these sorts of beers often have. 5.6% ABV is an eminently sensible strength, it turns out. All-in-all, rather well put-together.

To follow, Philomenn Blanche, again at 5.6% ABV. It was a little enthusiastic to get out of the bottle and poured me another clear glassful. With it being a witbier and all I took the risk of clouding it up with some of the lees from the bottom of the bottle. It was worth doing too: without them it's sharply acidic -- dem apples again -- but it softens and rounds out with the yeast in. Still not great, though, in fairness. There's a husky dryness that tastes of wheat all right, but lacks the herbs, spices and fruits that are usually included in the witbier profile to keep it interesting. While the Blonde is clean, the Blanche is dull and stuffy. A dash of coriander and a squeeze of lemon would do it the power of good.

Philomenn Rouse is the prettiest of the lot, and the gushiest too: I'm glad I was prepared. The ABV gets a boost to 6% here. Apples again in the aroma, this time soft brown ones. The flavour is a rather bland mix of light caramel, woody nutmeg and the vaguest hop bitterness. I let it warm up to see if anything else was going to happen, but that's it. Enjoy the alcohol boost as that's the only favour this one offers to its customers.

I feel I got off lightly with this lot, for all their shortcomings. While not terribly exciting, there are no serious faults in the way they've been brewed nor any prominent off flavours. If I were stranded in their native land with nothing else to drink I think I'd get by OK. For a while.

22 March 2017

Stranger in a strange land

I found this bottle of Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale in Bucharest, of all places, on the beer shelves in a supermarket. Odd, but presumably related to Boulevard of Missouri being, since 2013, a subsidiary of Belgian giant Duvel-Moortgat, and the supermarket a local manifestation of Belgium's ubiquitous Delhaize chain.

Like the flagship beer at the mothership, Tank 7 is 8.5% ABV and a clear golden hue, big fizz giving it a substantial head. It smells a bit like Duvel too, though sweeter, with a fruity mix of lemon sherbet and melon rind, plus a menthol and eucalyptus herbal spice. And that spice is the headline in the flavour: clean and minty at the front of the palate. Behind this is a quite sticky boiled sweet flavour, all oranges and lemons. This, too, reminds me of Duvel, but a bargain-basement version: louder, much less subtle. A bitter acid tang is its parting shot.

What's really missing from this is any sort of saison character. I suppose it doesn't claim to be a saison, but the word "farmhouse" suggests that more than it suggests a strong Belgian blonde ale.

Maybe I'm taking this beer too seriously. It's fun and frivolous: a bigger, brasher, American take on the more quietly spoken beer of Belgium. I can appreciate that, but it doesn't half make me want a bottle of Duvel.

The text above was written a few months ago and had been waiting its turn in my scheduled posts ever since. Then last weekend I was in Utrecht where I spotted Boulevard's double IPA, The Calling, on the shelves of Albert Heijn, Delhaize's outpost in the Netherlands. I felt it needed to be included here with its farther-flung sibling.

I'm guessing they aren't shifting much of this as the best-before is only two months away. Yet it tastes perfectly fresh, with a lovely tropical pineapple and guava foretaste, fading to a thicker, heavier marmalade shred bitterness; sufficiently bitter to qualify as lime marmalade, I think. There's a belly-sticking warmth in the finish as a reminder that this, too, is 8.5% ABV, but it doesn't cloy, or spoil the hop fun with toffee or unnecessary booziness. While maybe just a little syrupy, it's still a classically constructed double IPA with all of the features to show why this became such a popular style in the first place.

Welcome to Europe, Boulevard. It's nice to see your Belgian owners letting you out and about.

20 March 2017

In a black mood

A couple of recently-encountered dark beers today, though their colour is pretty much all they have in common.

To begin, a new dunkel lager from White Gypsy called Dark Lady. I think the Irish beer market has been crying out for a decent dark lager. Could this be our saviour? I thought the fill on the bottle was a little shy but there was no shortage of carbonation, a big meringue of foam forming as it poured. It's an attractive, and authentic, chestnut brown colour and smells classically of hazelnuts and roast. That nuttiness is the first thing to hit the palate on tasting, backed by mild chocolate and caramel smoothness, a touch of bitter blackcurrant and then a razor-sharp clean lager finish. This is a beautifully executed example of Munich's sweet dunkel style. It did leave me hankering for something drier, however, but at least I know which brewer to badger for a proper Irish schwarzbier.

Funnily enough, shortly afterwards, I encountered an Irish beer that did have something of the schwarzbier about it. It was the rare appearance of a product from Donegal Brewing Company on tap in Dublin, at 57 the Headline. The beer was Espresso Stout, one which does indeed smell and taste of coffee but not as strongly as others of the genre. I've come to expect (and rather enjoy) big oily creamy tastes and textures in coffee beers, but this is lighter with only a vague roasty smell, a mild coffee flavour and, most surprising of all, quite a thin texture. The carbonation is high too which pummels the palate before it all cleans quickly away. Like I say, there's more than a hint of schwarzbier in the way this stout goes about its business. It's off-kilter for a coffee stout but still makes for enjoyable drinking.

If there's a lesson here it's that trueness to style is no guarantor of anything. Dark Lady hits all the attributes square-on while the Espresso Stout takes a more unorthodox route, but both lead to a decent glass of beer at the end. Make of that what you will.

17 March 2017

Gas crack

Happy St. Patrick's Day, readers. I'm celebrating it with all due reverence by getting out of the country for a couple of days, but before I left I made sure to wrap the green flag around me by opening the special commemorative beer that The White Hag has released for the occasion. Naturally it's a stout, 4% ABV, and titled Snakes & Scholars.

They've done that nitrogenated-in-the-bottle thing. Or at least attempted to. I think Irish breweries must just buy bottles of Left Hand Milk Stout, think "We could do that", and not realise that they actually can't. So, following instructions to open the cap and upend the bottle, I got a glass of dead-looking, almost flat stout. Breweries: please do not try and nitrogenate your beer in the bottle. It won't work and it's not worth it.

The flatness really makes it difficult to give this a fair assessment. It just feels limp and unfinished without carbonation. Though the aroma is pleasantly chocolatey, the first flavour I get is a bleachy twang. The beer behind it is dry, with somewhat astringent dark roast and a subtle vegetal bitterness. But that's it. It slinks weakly off the palate leaving nothing behind.

This beer simply does not work. A bigger body; more chocolate sweetness; proper fizz: the lack of all of them is painfully apparent all the way through. If you have a few in the fridge for today, have a couple of other beers beforehand.

15 March 2017

Tidefail

To be honest I wasn't in a big rush to try the third beer from Clearsky, the cuckoo brewery that works (still, I think) out of Hilden in Co. Antrim. The IPA was OK, the weissbier was somewhat ropey, so how would they fare with a lager? I suppose we'd better find out.

Tidefall is 4.5% and a lovely medium gold, though shot through with a slightly worrying haze. I left a centimetre of dregs in the bottom of the bottle but even that didn't guarantee me a clean pour. The body is very thin and there's an unfortunate tang of white malt vinegar in the aroma, but especially in its flavour. Even more unfortunately there's pretty much nothing behind this: no malt substance and no hop complexity, just a very vague and barely-noticeable grain husk. That old saw about brewing flaws having nowhere to hide in pale lager has rarely been truer.

I turned to the label for help on what this was meant to be. "an authentic premium lager that surges with flavour," it says, "an exceptionally clean flavoursome taste experience." Perhaps author and brewer had never tasted a lager before; they certainly seem to have no idea what makes a good one.

I'm always a little saddened to see lager treated this way. I'd much rather breweries left it out of their portfolios instead of doing it badly.

13 March 2017

Put up your dukes

Late last year, Eight Degrees announced that their winter trilogy would be a bit different this time out. The three new beers would all be released in large-format bottles, each a different style but all aged in Burgundy wine barrels. "The Three Dukes of Burgundy" they've called them, and the first two arrived in late November. Duke the third, a barley wine, was due in January but has now been pushed to even later in 2017 so I've decided not to wait for him and open the first two.

First up is The Fearless, a 6.4% ABV pale "farmhouse ale". The barrels used for this were Chardonnay ones and there's definitely a hint of dry white grape in here. Not for the first time I'm finding the wine character in a Chardonnay-aged beer to be more like Sauvignon Blanc than Chardonnay. There's a woody edge too, though more dry and splintery than the usual oaky vanilla. At its heart, however, it is a straight-up saison: lightly textured, gently spicy and with a generous helping of succulent soft fruit -- peaches and lychee in particular, to my mind. There's a bit of a rasp to its dry finish making me wish it were a little softer, but I'm thankful that as a saison on the stronger side of the style spec it's not overly estery or in any way hot. That I got through the whole bottle by myself in one sitting is a testament to its cleanness and drinkability and nothing else.

The middle child is The Bold, an imperial stout aged in Pinot Noir barrels and chalking up 9.9% on the ABV scale. It's thick: glugging out of a bottle filled almost to the brim, forming a café crème coloured head which builds dramatically before fading to a much more reasonable level. With all that drama, and the name, I was expecting a big hit from the first taste but this duke is actually quite restrained. The aroma is coffee, though of the fruitier sort, and the flavour carries that as well: glimpses of cherry and redcurrant amongst the sharper spikes of burnt grain. It's not terribly complex for all of that, the dense creamy texture buoying the flavour but what you get on the front is the complete picture, with no added side flavours unfolding in the wings. There's substance enough to remind me somewhat of top-level Dutch and Danish imperial stouts, but it just doesn't operate on that level. I suspect that the wine barrels weren't ballsy enough to make an impact on the big beer which went into them: there's a reason that whiskey casks are de rigueur for this sort of project. The end result is an understated barrel-aged imperial stout, delivering the chocolate and coffee you would expect with little by way of vinous decoration.

Both beers were perhaps less impactful than I'd been expecting. They lacked the bells and whistles that breweries in this game tend to attach. But both are solid examples of their style: workmanlike quality and very enjoyable to drink. That they set off my novelty sensors without delivering actual novelties is probably the beer world's fault, not theirs.

10 March 2017

Distinguished guests

Concluding this week's run through the beers of Alltech Brews & Food 2017 with the ones from abroad and afar. The centrepiece of the weekend is the Dublin Craft Cup, where a champion beer and cider are crowned following two days of judging by an experienced tasting panel earlier in the week. The winning cider was Rochdale Pear Cider from McCashin's in New Zealand. I had a sample and thought it a bit too syrupy for my taste, but what do I know from cider?

The top beer prize went to Hungarian outfit Horizont and their Saison Witbier. Horizont didn't have beer on sale at the festival but a bottle of this one found its way to the Trouble Brewing bar and thence into my beaker. Thanks guys! It's 6% ABV and a pale opaque orange colour. The aroma deserves an award by itself: a beautifully juicy peach-pineapple combo. On tasting it's more wit than saison, dominated by fresh lemon and smooth fluffy wheat. Only a hint of mild pepper in the finish indicates that there's some saison activity happening in parallel. I liked it; it would make for a fantastic summer refresher even at that sizable strength; but I definitely tasted plenty better than it from the festival bars.

Some leftovers from the competition found their way into the fridge in the media room, and out again, unsurprisingly. One I had was Amor Fati by WhiteFrontier, the Swiss brewery best known in Irish beer circles as the current workplace of Chris Treanor, formerly of Galway Bay. It's a 6.5% ABV IPA, hazy gold in colour and smelling enticingly of watermelon. The flavour is sweeter than I like my IPAs to be, though nicely complex, with notes of honeydew and nectarine. There's bitter kick too, but it feels a little tacked-on; I didn't quite believe it. Much as I wanted to like this, its flavours just didn't gel together well for me.

Also not at the festival in an official capacity was Portrush's Lacada Brewery but thankfully its unofficial brand ambassador Simon was on-hand with a few sample bottles for sharing.

We started on A Portly Stout, a 5.8% ABV limited-edition beer with a frankly worrying sharp acidic aroma. The moment of fear passes with the first sip however, and the underlying beer is smooth and creamy with a clean dark roast almost reminiscent of a Baltic porter.

Also in this series is the Whiskey Barrel Aged Stout, one which received the benefit of 6 months in a cask from local distillery Bushmills. Oak dominates the aroma, freshly sappy with a touch of dry sawdust. The flavour is all about the whiskey, however: warming and honeyish. It's a bit too much about the whiskey really, and I found myself searching for some proper stoutiness, a reasonable expectation for a 7.4% ABV beer. A dollop of roasty coffee or sweet chocolate would really help balance this one better.

And finally Devil's Washtub, amusingly badged as a "North Coast IPA". It's a very dark red colour and has a lovely well-balanced, well-integrated fruit-and-nut flavour. There's just enough of an edge to the blackberry element, peeking over the chocolate, to pass it broadly as a black IPA, but really this is a beer for drinking, not quibbling over styles. It's 5.2% ABV so not rocket fuel, and has a perfect silky texture. I'm reminded a little of Clotworthy Dobbin at the height of its pomp. A small sample of this was nowhere near enough.

But that's all there was, so back down to the floor late on the last day, to catch up with the beers I didn't want to miss. BrewDog's Strawberry Vanilla Blitz had come on, and since Saison Blitz was one of my beery highlights last year I made sure to give this one a go. It's properly tart: the Berliner weisse sourness given an extra acidic kick from the very real strawberry flavour. It certainly doesn't taste pink. The vanilla just got in the way, depositing a greasy dollop of soft-serve ice cream in the middle of a classy sorbet. It doesn't ruin it, but it definitely takes away from the enjoyment.

Barcelona Beer Company has been knocking around the taps of Dublin bars since last year, with their Nicotto Japanese-style pale ale. Japanese-style here means it includes green tea, jasmine, tangerine peel and Sorachi Ace hops, and boy is that a combination that doesn't work. It tastes incredibly harsh, like burnt plastic. I blame the jasmine for that, figuring it's a perfume effect gone way overboard. There are some pleasant tannins in the finish but I found this next to undrinkable.

La Niña Barbuda brown ale restored my faith in the brewery straight after. It's a strong one at 7% ABV, but perfectly balanced, and with a beautifully juicy raisin fruit flavour, laced with chocolate and finishing on a dry roasty bite. Some green vegetal hops are thrown in for good measure. I could happily quaff this serially, or sip it seriously: a great all-rounder.

A few punters had been suggesting La Bella Lola blonde ale as the best on the Barcelona bar. I only had a very small taster but it didn't impress me particularly. It's grand, like: there's a fun and easy-going peachiness, achieved by a combination of Mittelfrüh and Citra, but it's a bit thin-bodied at 4% ABV and lacks distinguishing features. A step up from lawnmower beer, for sure, but still something that's going to be of most value when quenching thirst.

Last of this set is the ginger wheat beer Piquenbauer. I wasn't able to identify the ginger in this: it doesn't have that sweet candied effect that ginger in beer usually produces. Instead there's a serious, and very enjoyable, saison-like pepperiness, which allies with a tropical fruit element to make a highly unusual and fun overall flavour profile.

Barcelona Beer's importer, James, sent me away with an armful of the company's other beers so expect reviews of them here in due course.

My last port of call before the lights went up in the hall, and down in my brain, was St. Austell. When I first saw them listed as an exhibitor I began entertaining comforting thoughts of lovely great pints of cask Tribute, but alas the selection was keg only.

I started with Under Dog, a session IPA at a very English 3.5% ABV, and an extremely English ability to brew a beer at that strength with a properly full body. It's very much configured for the sessioning, being dry with a slight mineral or soda complexity. I detected a touch of coconut in it and asked if Sorachi Ace hops had been used, to be told that it's actually Styrian Wolf, which makes me two for two on that particular mistake (see my review of O'Hara's Styrian Wolf single-hopper here). Overall this is a very decent and nicely complex quaffer.

Moving up to the American-style pale ale, the single-hopped Eureka. Though all of 4.9% ABV I thought this had less going on in it than Under Dog, and what was there wasn't great. I got onion, some celery and bitterer spinach, but no real US hop action. The volume could do with being turned up significantly on this one.

St. Austell's flagship stout, Mena Dhu, was next. It's quite sweet but there's more than just simple caramel in the dense depths of this black beastie. There's lots of balancing roast, for one thing, and an old-fashioned liquorice bitterness. I swear I could detect a curl of smoke in it as well. I was impressed, especially since it's only 4.3% ABV. It's one of those beers I really need to go back to and explore properly.

There was more liquorice flavour in Proper Black, a 6% ABV black IPA which St Austell introduced back in 2011 but which had hitherto escaped my notice. The yang to that dark herbal bitterness's yin is a bright effervescent lemonade and sherbet sweetness, plus a typically American pine edge. I hope this one escapes the overall decline of black IPA as it's a lovely example of the fun to be had with the style.

But that was it for another year. Thanks once again to the fantastic Alltech crew who put on such a great show, and to all the brewers who put up with my bothering them and asking silly questions (like this) over the weekend. While it was, of course, over far too soon, part of me (mostly the feet) was glad there was no Sunday session this year. Five posts' worth of beer is enough, as I'm sure you'll agree if you've read this far.