27 February 2013

Hope springs Italian

Spring? But I haven't finished my winter beers yet! Oh well, back in the stash they go.

First of the new season is New Morning from Birrificio del Ducato near Parma. It's 5.8% ABV and the label lists a cocktail of grains including wheat, rye and oats, plus some unspecified "spices". Bottle conditioned but well settled, it's a lightly hazy pale amber. The aroma offers a pleasant blend of clovey weissbier and hop bitters, but the latter almost vanishes on tasting.

What's left is mostly sweet cinnamon biscuits, dusted with apricots. It's the sort of combination that could get a little difficult to drink, except the high carbonation helps dry it out and the gravity is modest enough that it isn't in any way thick or cloying.

I don't see what makes it particularly springy, though. Surely cinnamon (or the cinnamon effect - research indicates that it's ginger and chamomile at work) is more a winter thing. Decent as it goes but probably not worth the €4.50 DrinkStore took off me for it. I certainly won't be rushing to spend the €14 they're asking for Ducato's barley wine and imperial stout, even though I know the latter, Verdi, to be lovely.

25 February 2013

What's in a name?

Festival season kicked off a couple of weeks ago with the first of 2013: the Franciscan Well's Cask and Winter Ale Festival in Cork. The emphasis was very much on the first part of the offer, with a little over 20 cask beers available in the covered beer garden, though not much that was particularly wintery.

Among the highlights was a return of Franciscan Well's wonderfully spicy Alpha Dawg IPA and a superb dry-hopped edition of Trouble Brewing's Ór golden ale. Just two on the list were completely new to me, and curiously enough they had something in common.

One was White Gypsy's Amber, a 5% ABV pale ale which I'd narrowly missed at the big festival in Dublin last September. It's a pale amber shade and quite sweet: packed with all manner of fruit flavours. The tasting committee around the table picked out peach, lychee, banana and vanilla. I got more than a hint of chewy Refresher sweets too. Not suitable for hopheads but I really enjoyed it. It's not the first beer from White Gypsy to be called Amber: a couple of years ago Amber was an excellent Munich-style lager. Hopefully nobody was expecting the lager when they ordered this, and hopefully also we'll see the old award-winning Amber back at some point, under the same badge or another.

The second new one was Chameleon Bräu, a "lager-style" blonde by Metalman. It's quite a simple beer but does what it does exceedingly well, blending dry grain notes with clean lemon zest. There's perhaps a hint of diacetyl butterscotch on the finish, but nowhere near enough to spoil it. So I was perfectly happy about the taste, but the name makes me grumpy.

Originally, Chameleon was a single beer which was altered in various ways before serving, so there was a chilli version and a variety of dry-hopped editions: a neat idea and fun to explore. But then late last year there came Chamelon Garnet: a completely new beer with a recipe unrelated to the earlier Chameleons. Now Chameleon Bräu is something different again. The official line from the brewery is that the Chameleon range is a series of small batches and experiments, just like the first ones were. That's fair enough, but surely the customer should be allowed to expect that a beer with the same name has something in common with previous ones. I could understand "Bräu: part of the Chameleon series", but "Chameleon Bräu" raises a customer expectation that isn't met. In this customer, at least. Galway Bay Brewery used to practise this unfriendly naming method with their Strange Brew series, but thankfully that has been knocked on the head now: every beer gets an individual name and this makes them much easier to talk about.

Still, it's nice to be whinging about beer nomenclature rather than beer quality. No complaints about the latter at this festival.

While in Cork I also took the opportunity to call in at the new branch of the Porterhouse in the Mardyke Centre, not far from Franciscan Well. They've done a lovely job here, creating a comfortable spacious pub with an atmospheric vaulted ceiling, the usual great range of Porterhouse beers and best of all, a full-length shuffleboard table:

Every pub should have one.

21 February 2013

Bring the hops

I had one of my occasional impromptu tastings with Richard recently, which tend to consist of random stuff we've accumulated. There was a bit of an abiding theme with the last one, though: hops. Lots of them, in varying doses.

We started on Cumbrian Five Hop by Hawkshead, a 6% ABV pale ale with, you've guessed it, five different hop varieties. It was a strange beer. I expected something fairly bitter with lots of citrus fruit but first impressions were of heavy violet perfume in the aroma and a dense funky flavour. It lacks the zing I'd expect from conscientious hopping and there's even a vegetal tang at the end. Among the varieties used are Citra and Amarillo and I think I was able to detect a bit of a burn from the former and some juicy orange from the latter. But I couldn't match any flavour to the Bramling Cross or East Kent Goldings, though I'll put the nasty sprout tang down to the Fuggles 'cos I'm a bit of a racist that way. This beer just didn't quite cohere for me.

Along similar lines we had Nils Oscar Hop Yard: 7.3% ABV and with remarkably little aroma at all. I spotted the Simcoe funk straight away, and it's matched by an intense mouth-watering bitterness which could be the Nelson Sauvin or Cascade, though I suspect the dry-hopping with Citra may have played a role in it too. There's some lovely honeyish and tannic notes in it as well but I'd given up trying to match hops to flavours at that point. There's also Amarillo and Pacific Gem, but you figure it out. It's a lovely IPA, however, and that's all that really matters.

My contribution was a couple of Belgian IPAs I've had sitting about for too long. I had really enjoyed Troubadour's Westkust last time I was in the Netherlands so I reckoned it would be worth opening my bottle of Magma now. Tragically I think it was past its best. It's 9% ABV and has some beautiful toffee and marzipan notes, but the hop possé skipped town some months ago. I really must give this another shot when I see it fresh. The other was Belle-Fleur by De Dochter van de Korenaar, bringing us back down to 6% ABV and giving off a lovely orange grove aroma: fruity and very slightly grassy too. The initial flavour is sharp in a refreshing sort of way though I detected a bit of an oxidised sherryish tang after a moment. As it warms the intensity wanes a little though it's still nicely pithy. Not outstanding, but quite decent.

The headline act was a beer Richard expected big things of: Galaxy White IPA from the Anchorage brewery. "White IPA" is a fancy-pants Alaskan way of saying "hoppy witbier", though instead of orange peel they've opted for kumquat, and included pink peppercorns with the coriander. The hops are all, as the name suggests, Galaxy. Oh, and then they oak-aged it and infused it with Brettanomyces, making it nearly a cliché of extreme US brewing.

It pours out a fairly innocent hazy yellow: so far so witbierish. But here's the thing about citrus hops and Brett -- you get a smell like a toilet: an aroma of somewhere that was pine fresh just before the lunchtime rush and now needs the cleaner again. It took a bit of work to get beyond the initial impression, and down at the back I found some honeydew melon, white pear, and a nice roundness from the oak, but all of that had to be mentally filtered through the old sour sweaty brett funk. Pink peppercorns? Forget it; they're gone. I'd love to know how this tasted before they ruined it with the Brett, but I'm not planning to be in Anchorage any time soon.

A mixed bag to say the least, and a microcosm of why saying a beer is "hoppy" could mean anything.

18 February 2013

Baby brothers

My bottle of Gregorius Trappistenbier predates the Engelszell monastery's recent accession as the eighth member of the trappist brewery club so I'm still claiming I drank it before it was cool. It's 9.7% ABV and intriguingly mentions honey on the ingredients list -- honey being one of the many products marketed by the Austrian monks.

It looks typical enough on pouring: an opaque red brown with just a soft downy skim of ivory foam for a head. However, don't expect any of the dark sweet fruit found in most dark trappist beers, this is very much doing its own thing. The malt base is dry and roasty with more than a hint of high-cocoa dark chocolate and biscuit. Then it's complicated by a bittersweet herbal note which I'm guessing comes from the honey.

Between the dryness, the herbs and the alcoholic weight it's not easy drinking, but I really enjoyed it. The mix of dry and sweet and bitter offers a fascinating all-round taste experience. I don't know if Engelszell have anything else planned now that they've got their stripes, but I'd be very interested to try it if they do.

14 February 2013

A spanner in the works

Different: that's my main assessment of the new IPA from Trouble Brewing, Sabotage. It's the Kildare-based brewery's third regular beer and they launched it a fortnight ago in Against the Grain, serving both cask and keg versions to the shower of freeloaders who showed up, alongside the respected members of the totally legitimate electronic media. Head brewer Paul is doing the honours on the right there and you can see the results below. At 5.5% ABV it's that little bit stronger than the nearest rival O'Hara's IPA and in a different bracket to the rest of Ireland's hop-forward craft pale ales.

However, where O'Hara's has opted for bold and tart American hops to mask its strength, Sabotage is altogether mellower and fruitier, eschewing citrus for more of a soft peach and mandarin sensation, the summery juiciness I've come to associate with Galaxy hops in particular.

The orange grove aroma is much more apparent in the cask edition (left, foreground), though I think the one we were served on the night suffered a little murkiness having not been left to settle fully. The clear keg version hasn't by any means had all the hops stripped from it, but it's not quite the same 3D experience.

But the oddest most striking thing about Sabotage is the weight: a massively full body laden with unfermented sugars. It unbalances the hops a little but makes for a very filling pint.

I suspect we'll be seeing that balance somewhat restored in the next batch of Sabotage, but that's on the other side of a brewery move. Meanwhile, give this a go if you fancy something out of the ordinary.

11 February 2013

Knock-out stout

In the black corner, the champ -- brewed since the 1780s at the Barclay Perkins brewery in Southwark, surviving the merger with Courage and now, following nearly twenty years on hiatus, revived under the stewardship of Wells & Young of Luton: the original of the species, Courage Imperial Russian Stout!

And in the other black corner, the contender -- from darkest Yorkshire, representing the entirety of progressive British craft brewing, sporting the modernist typography of the Soviet Ewe-nion: Black Sheep Imperial Russian Stout!

At the weigh-in, the champ had a few points on the sheep: 10% ABV vs. 8.5%. To keep things fair the bout was fought blindfolded. Seconds out; round 1!

No real head on either beer when poured, though what little foam there was showed much darker on the Courage. This extra density came through in the mouthfeel too, with the Black Sheep thinner and fizzier than the beautifully full and rounded Courage. Looks like this might not be much of a fight.

Black Sheep put in a good showing in the aroma, lots of lovely sweet treacle and molasses against Courage's rather bitter liquorice offering. But the knock-out punch is delivered in the flavour: Black Sheep drops its guard with an autolytic tang, producing a kind of unpleasant sour coffee effect, while the Courage avoids any big risky manoeuvers, instead going for a subtle dark smooth caramel with just a mild metallic hop tang. Deft, graceful, and the unanimous winner for the judges.

For its mix of heavyweight brawn and classically traditional flavours I don't know whether to match it against Guinness Foreign Extra or Brooklyn Black Chocolate in the next bout.

07 February 2013

A rare occurrence

Hooray for freebies! This collection arrived courtesy of Molson Coors Ireland who seem to be on a bit of a PR drive at the moment, hot on the heels of their recent acquisition of the Irish microbrewing veteran Franciscan Well down in Cork. No Rebel Red in the bundle, however. Instead there was a bottle of Sharp's Doom Bar: a dull brown bitter which even from the cask I've never been a fan of, and which isn't in any way helped by the clear glass bottle. Also a bottle each of rightly acknowledged classic English IPA Worthington's White Shield and the newer blonde ale Red Shield: a worthy sibling. A bottle of P2 imperial stout would have closed off this set from the William Worthington Brewery in Burton nicely, but moochers can't be choosers.

And then the ones that really interested me: three brand extensions from the company's American faux-craft line, Blue Moon. The styles are varied -- a pale ale, an amber ale and an abbey beer -- yet the strengths are pretty uniform at around 5½% ABV.

I opened the Belgian-Style Pale Ale first, a beer known elsewhere as Pale Moon. I notice the unpleasantness a few years ago with the Confederation of Belgian Breweries hasn't prevented them describing this as a "Belgian Pale Ale" elsewhere on the label, despite it never having been near the low countries in its life. Corporate shenanigans aside, how does it taste? Well, not of very much. It's far more of a dark amber than would be normal for a pale ale, and there's a weight which comes with that: a slightly sugary malt thing, though without any of the caramel or toffee depth that one might expect. On top of this there's a mild fruity tang which I think owes more to the orange peel and hibiscus they've inexplicably thrown in here than the Cascade hops they also claim. The label adds further that wheat has been included, making the whole thing a sort of hybrid of standard Blue Moon and pale ale. Odd that it doesn't have more going on in it then, but it's not unpleasant either. Anyone looking for an American-style pale ale, or something in the Taras Boulba genre, will be sorely disappointed.

I was hoping for something a bit more interesting from Blue Moon Spiced Amber Ale. This is a few grades darker: a beautiful chestnut red and lighter in texture than the Pale Ale. Complex it isn't, but it's certainly interesting. The one flavour that jumps out is the cinnamon, toasted grain and brown sugar of Christmas cookies, not in any way sickly or artificial, but smooth and pleasantly warming. This is one of two Blue Moon winter seasonals and is perfectly, seasonally winterish.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Blue Moon Winter Abbey Ale. This poured quite a pale, clear red and completely headless, despite lots of interfering fizz. Unsurprisingly it's sweet and caramelly but this isn't given any fruity depth by any Belgian yeast flavours, which makes it a non-runner as an abbey beer. Overall it's just too thin and one-dimensional to be worth anyone's time, especially since it'll likely be sharing shelf space and price brackets with several world-class Belgian dubbels.

Generally speaking, Molson Coors's attempt to twist their passable orangey wheat beer into different styles is not something that's in the drinker's interest, even when he's getting the bottles for nothing.

04 February 2013


I smelled a bit of a rat when I first encountered the Einstök range up north. Icelandic beer, in the supermarket, with an English language label? It screams inauthenticity (a difficult word to scream, in fairness). But it's only sort-of inauthentic: the beers are actually brewed in Iceland, albeit under contract at a large industrial brewery. The brand itself is American-owned and the beers are barely available in Iceland: they're certainly not typical of the place.

Missing the seasonal Doppelbock, I got three from the range and the first I opened was Einstök White Ale, brewed with coriander and orange peel. So, a witbier then. Well, not really. They've got some lovely juicy citrus fruit and a hint of the herbal spice, but it's totally clear: a wan yellow-gold. And I think the spicing you get from suspended witbier yeast is an important part of making this sort of beer worth drinking. But witbier isn't a style to get precious over: it's intended as quaffable summery refreshment and that's exactly what you get with this. Drinking closer to the source, Icelandic blogger Haukur had similar thoughts, though his beer was properly hazy.

Next I tried the Einstök Pale Ale. At 5.6% ABV and a deep orange colour, this started me thinking immediately of English-style IPA. It has a bit of the marmalade too, but not nearly enough hops. In fact, it's a bit sticky, with more burnt sugar than fruit or bitterness. The bottle had been sitting about for a few months so I may have missed the best of the hop flavour and aroma, but it's hard to believe they disappeared leaving so little trace. I'm not about to run out for a fresh one anyway.

Dessert in this puffin-free Icelandic feast is the Toasted Porter, 6% ABV and quite thick with it, forming a long-lasting ivory head over a black body tinged with red at the edges. The aroma certainly lives up to the "Toasted" moniker, exuding an intense burnt roasty dryness. It's not all toast in the flavour, however, and there's a generous dose of dark chocolate and coffee to lighten the load. Not to add weight to this particular style argument, but this porter reminds me more of many an English mild, what with the roast, and then a vaguely fruity finish suggesting damsons and plum jam.

Icelandic dark mild: could be a winner.

01 February 2013

Serially and cereally

Session logoSession time again. February's host is Montana Beer Finder and the topic is "How We Love Beer". Well this shouldn't be too hard. Specifically, Ryan's Valentine's-inspired theme asks for the little things we do that show our affection for beer. Or the big things.

I'll leave aside the nearly eight years of scribbling tasting notes here and the beer consumers' organisation I help manage, and say on a more personal level that I express my love for beer by usually having a different beer to the beer I just had. In fact, I almost don't have a go-to beer, and when I revisit old favourites they're generally beers I haven't tasted in several years. My first call, everywhere, is for the one I've not tried before. The new experience, the thrill of an unfamiliar brewery, especially one that lots of other people are talking about. Adding a new famous beer to my tick list gives me social ammunition to fire when beer is being talked about. Yes, I'm a beer bore, but beer loves me all the same.

So it was with a frisson of excitement that I heard the new one from Galway Bay brewery had landed in Dublin. Its real name is Buried At Sea but it was travelling under an assumed identity, introducing itself as "Galway Bay Chocolate Stout" when we made our rendez-vous at The Black Sheep.

It's billed as a milk chocolate stout so I was expecting something thick and sweet and creamy but it's not in that vein at all. Instead we have a 6% ABV thumper very much along the lines of Carlow's wonderful Leann Folláin: heavy with dark malts and a generous dose of dry roast at the end. It hides the chocolate coquettishly, revealing it gradually as the pint slips down. Not overly sweet, it's a kind of a crumbly, flakey effect. This is the sort of stout to enjoy as you disappear under a waterfall in a rowing boat.

Only the satisfying weight of the beer stops it from being a wham-bam down-the-hatch sinker. Take it slow and don't think about other beers as you're doing it. It'll know.

Beer: whatever the colour, whatever the weight; no matter how it smells or tastes, I have time for it all. Form an orderly queue.