24 November 2017

Yellow streak

My week of scattergun Irish beer reviews ends today with a bit of focus for once. YellowBelly has been firing out the new releases at high velocity so I'm giving them a post of their own. I'd like to say I chased these around the pubs of Dublin, but it's more that every time I went in for a beer, there was another one on tap.

Kellerbier arrived unannounced on the taps at Cassidy's. "Unfiltered helles" says the badge but there's precious little sign of it being unfiltered: it's almost completely clear, shining gold even in the gloom of this too-cool-for-proper-lighting pub. It's extremely soft, all bubblegum and the fluffy spun sugar that seems to be the fashion in donuts these days. It makes for a lovely texture and at 4.3% ABV it's eminently sinkable. By way of balance there's just a pinch of mild noble hop veg, but really you need to like your lager sweet to enjoy this fully.

At the Black Sheep I caught the tail end of a keg of Fruit to Thrill, a sour ale with assorted fruits. I wonder if this shares an ancestry with Commotion Lotion and Mindreader: it has a very similar blend of strawberry, raspberry and other summery fruit, light on alcohol at 4.3% ABV again, and this time tinted with a tang of sourness. Childhood memories of sugar-coated sour jelly sweets and raspberryade came immediately to mind on drinking it. It's definitely not a sophisticated beer, but it's a simple and refreshing one.

Within a few hours of my drinking that, it had been replaced by Snooze Button. This is billed by the brewery as a breakfast stout, containing oatmeal and lactose, though lighter than most others at just 5% ABV. I can't say I found it particularly breakfasty either. Rather it's a classically constructed dry Irish stout, with charcoal and bitter dark chocolate being the main features. The Black Sheep was serving it ice cold that evening, and I made sure to let it warm up, to see if anything else emerged. Not much did; maybe a fresher and sweeter coffee character, but that's your lot. This is another good, straightforward, unspectacular beer. Is a theme emerging?

Kind of a Big Deal, found at UnderDog, is the first to suggest otherwise. This is a saison, and quite a big one too at 6.7% ABV. At least some of that alcohol is down to the ageing it got in a wine barrel. The aroma is normal enough: peppery, like a saison should be and mercifully lacking in sweet esters. The wine really makes an impact on the flavour, bringing a gooseberry tartness and a certain tacky fresh oak sappiness. I got an edge of diesel as well, a flavour I associate with German white wines in particular, though it's a Burgundy which donated the wood in this case. The classic saison is still there underneath all this: clean and spicy. The barrel adds a really fun twist, complementing the saison flavour and adding to it. I'll bet it takes real skill to make something this complex seem so effortless.

And if that one felt like a re-directed Otterbank beer, this goes even more so for The Harvest King. The description really doesn't do this one justice, telling us merely that it's a sour saison brewed using Irish hops. Around here, local hops tend to be more of interest as a concept than as a flavour. I wasn't expecting much from it when I chanced across it at Against the Grain one quiet Tuesday evening. It's only 5% ABV and a hazy yellow colour. It doesn't really fit the saison flavour profile, nor is it simply another sour blonde ale. The aroma and foretaste are both pure Gewürztraminer: that juicy and sweet white grape flavour with just a naughty lacing of fusel alcohol. There's some lambic-like saltpetre spicing and a dry flinty finish, turning the Gewürztraminer into a Sauvignon Blanc. The luscious fruit makes it incredibly easy drinking but the complexity is such that I took ages over it, savouring every sip. A little goes a long way and you'll still find yourself wanting another. I couldn't help but think of US brewer Hill Farmstead, whose reputation as one of the world's greats is built on beers like this: La Vermontoise and Florence both have a similar act. As an ultra-seasonal beer this one won't be around long. Grab it if you see it.

Not a dud amongst these, I'm pleased to say, and a couple of the best Irish beers I've had all year. The brewery recently launched a beer club which will ship exclusive beers to subscribers throughout 2018. If the current form continues it will be well worth joining up.

23 November 2017

Loving a trier

The range from Hillstown Brewery has had a makeover: bright primary-coloured labels, and a couple of beers in cans. I spotted them when perusing the shelves in Redmond's and decided to take a chance, hoping that the new branding was going hand in hand with an improvement in quality.

First up is Henrietta the Hen, described as a west coast IPA though only chalking up 4.7% on the ABV scale. The pour began positively: a clear golden liquid and a strong burst of citrus aroma. Only when the stream turned to brown mud did I stop, so I didn't get a completely clean glassful. A warning about the can-conditioning would be beneficial. I was expecting hops but this is very malt-forward, bearing much more of a resemblance to an English bitter than anything down San Diego way. There's a wholesome and sweet orange spongecake vibe, with the bitterness provided by an aspirin bite rather than hard pine or grapefruit. The carbonation is cask-level low, which adds further to the effect. There are thankfully no properly bad points, no infections or other unpleasant off flavours, but it's not a great beer, and certainly not going to make any west-cost purists happy with its co-option of their badge.

To follow, then, Pamoja, a black IPA with coffee. It took a while to get to this, what with the gigantic pillar of beige foam it produced. The aroma is a heady mix of strong green cabbage -- one of my favourite features of good black IPA -- and fresh coffee. I'm not at all sure that those two things go well together. The first pull brings... coffee, loads of coffee. It's sweet and creamy to begin with, turning dry and roasty at the end, y'know, like coffee does. That bursting green acidity is disappointingly thrown into a supporting role. The texture is surprisingly thin for 5.6% ABV and I can't help thinking it would be more of a multidimensional experience if it were thicker. Nevertheless this is a good, well-balanced beer, even if it really deserves to be called a coffee porter rather than a black IPA.

I still can't shake the feeling that Hillstown are gentleman amateurs rather than proper professional brewers. There's just a lack of finesse to these beers that suggests lack of attention to detail. And as everyone who's friends with a home brewer knows, sometimes that means getting amazing beer, and sometimes not so much.

There's a hint of homebrew from this one, new from Lacada, too. Elephant Rock IPA is an opaque orange-brown colour and smells tangy, the jaffa hops having a metallic edge to them. It tastes cleaner, however, with orange sherbet at the front and a warm marmalade jamminess. The impression of a brewer not fully in control doesn't go away completely, however. For one thing the carbonation is much too high, crackling in the glass and stinging the mouth. There's a definite savoury yeast buzz too, stifling the American hops somewhat. I don't think bottle conditioning has done this one any favours, turning what could have been a bright American style IPA into something much more trad and British, much like the Hillstown IPA above, in fact. It could do with a polish.

I followed it with Shore, a stout brewed with north-coast seaweed delicacy dulse as well as malt smoked in a local smokery. This is 5.8% ABV and a dense and gloopy black, topped by a café crème head. Tasting confirms the thickness, all velvety smooth, while the flavour is a stouter-than-stout mix of liquorice, espresso, dark chocolate, caramel and cabbage. The latter has a salty tang to it which I'm guessing is the seaweed at work. A slight twinge of Laphroaigish phenols indicate that the smoked malt is also present, but it doesn't dominate. There's nothing rough or homebrewish about this one: it's a daring experiment that has produced no gimmicks and one superior stout, each ingredient making a contribution to the overall harmony.

Both Lacadas came courtesy of the brewery's roving ambassador Simon. It's actively seeking a distributor in the south, so if anyone out there is interested it would be worth getting in touch with them. There's some great stuff in their range.

One final Northern Irish bottle to round out this set, the hostage-to-fortune named Galaxy of Hops from Northbound in Derry. It's a 5% session IPA, a pale copper colour with a slight haze. It is not as billed, however. Above all it's dry, highly attenuated with a sharp flinty bitterness. The aroma is spicy red cabbage while the flavour brings grain husk, pear drops and a vague lemon bitterness. It's not homebrew-rough but it is quite dull. The fruit side does grow a little when it warms, but there's also a harsh plasticky off flavour which remains. Other Irish brewers are turning out much better session IPAs than this these days.

This was a random sample of what's coming out of the North's breweries at the moment, though perhaps not a particularly representative one. Nevertheless I was left with the impression that some process improvements are needed in the way they brew up there.

22 November 2017

Unlucky dip

The final gleanings from the 2017 Killarney Beer Festival judging leftovers begin today's post: two beers, two breweries, both beers new to me.

Arrow is part of the core range at the Elbow Lane brew-restaurant in Cork. It's been around a few years but I've never had the chance to try it. Weissbier is the style, and it's in the dark orange end of that colour spectrum, without the proper haze. I guess the yeast sank to the bottom of the bottle giving me a semi-kristall. First marks off are for head retention: I expected a big dome of foam but what's there fades to nothing unacceptably fast. The aroma is pleasingly banana-ish with a light toffee complexity, as often found in the darker weissbiers. The flavour, however, introduces a nasty thin vinegar note that's definitely not meant to be there and which flaws it fatally. Each mouthful opens on sweet banana but then turns rapidly sour and slightly metallic. Perhaps worst of all is the way the body is rendered thin, combining with the poor carbonation to make for a very wonky weiss indeed. I didn't judge this at Killarney but I hope whoever did gave the brewery appropriate feedback if their bottle was like mine.

To follow, Tutti Frutti by Carrig, a beer I know nothing about, other than it's a fruited IPA at 4.7% ABV. Sometimes it's best to go in as blind as possible. I could have done with a warning about the bottle conditioning in this one: clumsy pouring left me with a murkier dark orange glassful than I expected, though the thick head did calm down respectably quickly. It smelled good: properly pithy and nicely fresh given that it had been sitting in the fridge for an entire summer. The flavour, however, really lost out to the accidental yeast. There's a massive gritty bite at the front, and only the faintest mix of citrus-skin spicing and pith behind. It's one of those tantalising efforts that probably has a decent recipe behind it but is let down by the way it's presented.

Is it rude of me to boggle slightly that these were both entered into a competition in this state? There's a definite lack of polish in both; a feeling that they've been lashed together and sent out into the world as "good enough". Whatever audience the brewers had in mind for them, it's not me.

Moving on, I  bought the following pair of bottles in Molloy's off licence on Francis Street and got a small handful of small change back from my tenner. These weren't cheap, but were they cheerful?

First is In The Pink, an hibiscus IPA in Dungarvan Brewing's limited edition series. It's a fun blood-red colour, pretty much clear when poured properly, and 5.8% ABV. It smells floral and fruity. Hibiscus gets used a lot in beers these days, and I think there's a cherry blossom sweetness that I've come to associate with it. This guy has that in spades. The flavour pits that fluffy pinkness against a hard, dry, waxy bitterness. Perhaps they're supposed to balance each other but this is all-out war. The acrid bitterness is just too full-on for me; too harsh and riding roughshod over everything else. I mentioned in relation to a previous Dungarvan special, Magic Road, that the bitterness was off the scale. That beer got away with it; with this one it's just unpleasant. Balance has left the building.

So I was quite apprehensive when turning to Bark & Bite, a double IPA brewed to commemorate the third birthday of Wicklow Wolf. It pours thickly, turning out a slight murky copper-coloured glassful. The aroma is quite vinous, with a bitter edge, like retsina. I guessed another harsh half hour was on the cards. But actually the hops are on the back foot here: the flavour is very much malt driven, a candycane sweetness that says barley wine to me, more than it says IPA. I had to do some research into what the taste reminded me of as it's something I hadn't tasted since the 1980s. I settled on aniseed balls: those spicy red spheres of candy sugar. It's the same sweetness and the same herbal spice. This is like no (fresh) IPA I've ever had. I can't imagine anyone who enjoys double IPAs of the sort, say, Whiplash has been turning out lately getting on board with this. A barley wine badge would have suited it better.

Both of these beers are asking top dollar for Irish packaged beer and I don't either justifies it. Expensive IPA should be about bright bright fresh hops and neither of these offer that. I have similar gripes about today's final pair of beers, both double IPAs I found on tap at 57 The Headline recently.

Club Hopicana is the first new Stone Barrel beer I've had in a while. That name makes certain promises -- show me the mango -- but when I raised my glass, mangoes came there none. My first impression on tasting it was rubber. Was this a phenolic infection of some sort? I'm still not sure, though it probably isn't. That taste eventually resolved itself into a kind of poppyseed savoury quality, which isn't unheard of in IPAs, but just isn't very enjoyable. It's 7.4% ABV yet remarkably thin, the lack of booze and body adding to the severe dry quality. The whole thing is just too harsh for me.

I followed it with  Lucky No 7, from Two Sides. This is dark opaque orange colour and smells jammy: sweet strawberry is the dominant aroma, and that theme continues in the flavour. The texture is thick this time round -- no ABV was advertised but I'm guessing from the name it's only 7%. Thankfully it's not boozy or phenolic, however. But once again there's just no fresh hop flavour and it ends up being more like a strong red ale than anything else. It did grow on me towards the end. I can see it as a good dinner beer: heavy and filling, but not fighting with the flavours in the food. It would also work as a warming sipper for a cold day. But it does not work as a double IPA.

I'll stop the griping there for the day. I take it as a healthy sign that there's a proper bell-curve of quality in Irish brewing, even if that means somebody has to be at the low end of it.

21 November 2017

In the clear

Central Dublin's pair of brewpubs are the subject of today's post, starting over at Urban Brewing in the Docklands. I had been a bit down on the beers here when they opened and promised I'd give them some time to bed in before re-assessing. I figured two months should be plenty so was back in late October for lunch and a run through what was on the house taps.

I began with Urban Brewing Belgian Pale Ale, and hey presto it is indeed clear. It's a very unBelgian 4.8% ABV and there's a lightness to the flavour which reflects that. Banana esters are the main feature, and the principal way in which it expresses its Belgianness, though there's also a softer honeydew melon quality and a whiff of gunpowder spice. A decent amount going on, then, and nothing interfering. An auspicious start.

I followed that with Urban Bitter. This is very much in the traditional English style, even if it's a tad strong at 4.6% ABV and served on keg. It's a copper colour and tastes dry: grain husk, shading to sackcloth. A metallic bitterness is the hops' contribution. While quite authentic tasting, it's a perfunctory example of the style, not taking English bitter in any particular direction or emphasising any of the features. The drinkability is first-rate, however, and it's well suited to session drinking, which I guess is the point.

The dud in the set was Urban Brewing Rye IPA. The description brings certain expectations, none of which were met by the beer. A pale gold colour was the first surprise; the second was the massive chemical ester flavours, intensifying to marker pen solvents by the end. Hops: none. Rye: none. If I hadn't been trying all of the other beers available I'd have assumed there's been a mix-up somewhere. This recipe needs to go back to the drawing board.

Lastly it was Urban Brewing Session IPA. There was a fun fruity aroma from this darkish amber job, though not the citrus explosions that mark a really good example. It's another understated one, showing dry grain and a pleasant pinch of grapefruit skins with some heavier resins, but not much of any of it: a flash is all you get, and neither the foretaste nor finish have much flavour. It's a little watery overall, inoffensive, but again not doing the style as well as most other Irish breweries.

There have definitely been production improvements at Urban Brewing but it still has a ways to go to catch up with rural brewing.

Around the same time, JW Sweetman held its first ever Cask Weekend in the basement bar. Before getting on to what was pouring, I would like to mention how wonderful it was to have have an entire bar dedicated to independent draught beers, being served by genuinely enthusiastic staff. More of this kind of thing please, Jay Dubya.

There were four handpumps on the go, with all pints an extremely reasonable €5. Only one was new to me; indeed the entire brewery was new to me. Kildare Brewing Company operates out of the Lock 13 brewpub in Sallins, and yes I'm shamefully overdue a visit. Their cask offering here was the modestly-named Kildare Brewing English Pale Ale, a bright golden one at 4.2% ABV.

First impressions were of quite a sweet beer: full of unctuous honey. The kicker comes later on when a big grassy, waxy bitterness takes over. It's in no way harsh, however, but punchy and invigorating; balanced yet assertive. What it reminded me most of is Timothy Taylor's iconic Landlord bitter. It's not a multifaceted flavour kaleidoscope by any means, just simple, sinkable and very high quality.

Kildare Brewing Amber Wheat was also present, though served kegged. It's a murky orange-brown colour and 4.8% ABV. The fancy name hides a pretty straightforward and unexciting dunkelweizen. There's banana, a little caramel, and a sharp roasted dryness. This is an easy going, fault free beer, and I'm sure it does well on its home turf. I couldn't muster up much enthusiasm for it, however.

The house had a brand new beer for the occasion, though it too was kegged. With good reason: I'm not sure Hamburg Pilsner would have been improved any by being on cask. No plain pale lager, it's a substantial 5.3% ABV and goes straight for the sharp, green leafy hop kick right from the outset. When the vegetation fades there's a beeswax bitterness remaining. To balance this there's a bubblegum sweetness which adds a different sort of intensity: every sip brings loadsa sweet followed by loadsa bitter, all the way down. It's bang on, though: a big blousey lager, with no apologies and not trying to be anything else. Just how I like them, in fact.

I'll be doing my best to keep up with the output of both outlets in future posts. Support your local brewpub, wherever you are.

20 November 2017

Curate this!

I'm taking a break from the travel blogging for a week, to catch up with some of what I've been drinking from around Ireland this past while. It's a list that can get out of control too easily, given how hyperactive our breweries are these days.

We'll start in the pubs, and the joyous occasion of a new release from Hopfully at their tap takeover in 57 The Headline. Açai Porter is as described: a porter with added açai berries. The presentation wasn't the best: carbonation problems left it flat and headless, the lack of sparkle doing nothing to improve the muddy appearance. It's mostly dark brown with a fun purple tint from the fruit. Cappucino coffee opens the flavour and you get a slice of cherry pie tartness on the side, including the sweet pastry crust. A mild kirsch burn finishes it off. Despite the modest 5.2 % ABV this is a very dessertish or aperitif-appropriate beer, sweet and weighty. The flavour combination works very well but it really needs the carbonation sorted out before it goes any further.

Staying dark and moving over to UnderDog, Black's of Kinsale have a schwarzbier out. I love schwarzbier and have been consistently disappointed by Irish examples: they're often decent beers but they don't get the dry toastiness right. May the Schwarz Be With You, for such is its name, nails it. It's the proper dark cola brown, though comes with a head that looks almost creamy. I got a lightly floral aroma which put me on guard but the flavour goes straight for dry roast and bitter dark chocolate, yet gently and cleanly, taking full advantage of the lager spec. There is a little hint of lavender floating around the edges which means it's possibly somewhat too complex for the style, and I'd prefer a half-point or so knocked off the 5.3% ABV. I can't complain, however: this is what I've been hankering for and I hope to see more of it.

O Brother's new session IPA The Dreamcatcher was also on at UnderDog. It was the keg version though cask has also been in circulation. I've started to measure the sessionability of session IPAs by the price, and at €6.25 for 44cl this wasn't quite there. It's pretty good though: a pale hazy yellow colour with an aroma of pith and dank that should get any IPA fan's juices flowing. There's almost a New England sweetness to the foretaste: a layer of vanilla cream. Although the body is nicely thick, there is a little bit of a watery finish to the flavour, but by the time you get that far you're up to your neck in bright hop flavours: mandarin flesh and grapefruit pith, neatly balancing juice and bitterness. The inevitable comparison with Little Fawn says it falls short by overemphasising the bitterness. You can certainly see where the money has gone as regards hops, however.

Galway Bay's latest offering is an IPA of a similar appearance though a full-fat 7% ABV. Regular Legs is a sequel to the summer's Baby Legs. The two don't compare well. While the original went all out for dank and bitter hops, this one is more quietly spoken, with orange candy and a talcum perfume. It all finishes very quickly and is remarkably thin for such a strong beer. The guilty parties are Azacca and Calypso hops so it should be fruitier. I was underwhelmed. Bring back Baby.

Because everything has to be a Rick & Morty reference these days, Trouble Brewing's new IPA is called Get Schwifty. Cassidy's had even abandoned the official tap badge in favour of a still from the cartoon, and that did actually seem to be drumming up trade. It struck me as having a lot in common with the now-classic Ambush, but in more of a west coast than New England style. It has the same fresh garlic and grapefruit, laid on thick with a massive bitter punch at the front, though it's set on a cleaner, harder texture. After the initial shock comes a gentle peach and mango juiciness, before the bitterness returns with a grass and pine finish. This is an absolute powerhouse of hop flavour, offering the full 3D surround-sound experience, and all at a highly pintable 5.3% ABV. Nice.

Cassidy's' sister pub Blackbird launched three simultaneous new beers from Rascals a couple of weeks ago. I began with Milkshake Stout and this deserves an award for delivering exactly what it promises. It is extremely chocolatey, starting out as a Dairy Milk and moving steadily towards Galaxy bars, with a very slight Flake-ish dryness. I guess that some of the smooth and sweet effect is down to the vanilla, though it doesn't actually taste of it. There's coconut in the recipe as well but I couldn't detect that in the flavour either. Part of me was hankering after some proper stout bitterness, as found, for example, in The Porterhouse Chocolate Truffle Stout, but that would probably spoil the effect. This is unashamedly one-dimensional and offers what is described precisely.

To cleanse and contrast next, Rascals Flanders Red, a sour beer aged a full year in Sangiovese barrels. It's a big fellow at 6.4% ABV, with a big chewy body packed with balsamic resins. There's a genuine wine flavour as well: sweet and juicy balanced with dry tannins, and then a bitter rosemary and fennel herbal finish. The sourness is quite understated behind all this, overburdened by the texture I'm guessing. It certainly lacks the clean fizz of Rodenbach, though that's to be expected given the strength. I enjoyed it but I think it will really come into its own after it has been cellared for a while. Look out for bottles in the next few weeks.

Last of the set was Otherkin OK, a New England IPA with added vanilla and orange peel. There's almost no bitterness here and a major vanilla ice cream flavour. A vague dankness in the finish is about as active as the hops get, with maybe a slight savoury twang, but I had to reach for it. Ice cream is the default position. Fortunately it's not claggy or gummy, the way some of these can be, remaining clean and easy drinking throughout. I'd prefer a bit more of a hop buzz, however.

Hope celebrated the change of the seasons with its Winter Session IPA: the same 4.5% ABV as the summer one but this time using rye and turning a crystalline copper colour. It smells like a good IPA: fresh pine and citrus leapt out of my glass in Against the Grain. The malt really starts to throw its weight on tasting, however. There's a heavy oat biscuit sweetness, tempered by slightly sweaty green hops. That funkiness is something I've encountered before in red IPAs and it's not a good feature. The bitterness is much lower than I'd expect, especially given the rye. A pleasant kick of resins does finish it off, along with a mild woody cinnamon spicing, but overall this wasn't a beer for me.

A previous visit to the pub put me in touch with Gravity's Rainbow from Whiplash, their second collaboration with Galway Bay Brewery. It's a big double IPA, and you can read the eye-watering hop spec here. It's an absolutely classic expression of the style, packed with heavy, oily dankness, balanced by fresh and pithy grapefruit. That's probably useless as a description because there are a million DIPAs it could be applied to, but that's the kind of platonic ideal we're dealing with here. I liked it a lot, and hopped-up 9%-ers aren't normally my bag.

The next Whiplash beer arrived canned: Bone Machine: a 6.2% ABV IPA brewed with Ekuanot, Cascade and high-alpha tropic-heavy experimental hop BRU-1. It's a pale orange colour and mostly quite clear. I get slightly claggy orange-flavoured chew sweets from the aroma, and an odd sour sweaty funk. Not a good start. I blame the Cascade. The Cascade definitely plays a major part in the flavour: earthy and bitter. There's an attempt at balance with fruitier notes from the modern hops, and that lime and mandarin combo runs late into the finish, joined by a sterner pine bitterness which gets the mouth watering. Nevertheless I'm not sure this hop combination quite works: after several mouthfuls and doubtless several degrees temperature increase, the old-school dry bitterness starts to clash with the more fruity modern varieties while the big malt base eggs them on. It ends up a little sickly and stomach-curdling. I get modern US-style IPA and appreciate the older sort, but this is neither one nor the other, which is a brave experiment but not one for repeating.

I was thirsty when I opened the can of Lough Gill's Tart Peach Ale, only pausing long enough to let the head settle and take a snap before getting stuck in. And lo, it was good. Much more tart than peach, a dry and flinty sharpness is the main feature all the way through. The fruit is barely perceptible at first, coming through mostly in the finish, softly and sweetly, though I think I'd be hard pressed to guess it's peach. The beer does suffer a little from the thickness I found in the previous Sour Wheat Ale, which is what prompted me to check the ABV. That one was 5.7% ABV and this is a whopping 8%! It really does not taste it and is impressively clean and refreshing for such a powerhouse. I certainly got through the 440ml in jig time and felt the better for it. This is a smooth and tangy delight.

Scepticism back in place, I turned next to The Black Sow, a new coffee milk stout from The White Hag. Sceptical because it's nitrogenated, and the brewery's record of packaged nitrogenation has been less than stellar -- I'm looking at you, Snakes & Scholars. Can open and upended... and look at that! A creamy head, albeit a thin one which gradually faded as I drank. But still. The nitro doesn't disguise the aroma any: there's a massive bang of coffee from it, as well as a sprinkling of chocolate and booze. It's a little surprising to find it's only 5.4% ABV. The texture is understandably smooth, though with enough sparkle that it doesn't seem lifeless. The flavour, meanwhile, delivers exactly what it says on the tin: lots of sweet chocolate and milky coffee. There's even a cheeky kick of Tia Maria right on the end. It's not the most grown-up of stouts, lacking significant hop character, but it is fun to pour and drink.

Ahh, it feels good to get this lot written down. More to come tomorrow.

18 November 2017

Summer's end

A rare Saturday blog post from me, but I just want to tie off the last few beers from my couple of days in Amsterdam in September.

In De Wildeman is closed on Sundays, so that's where we rocked up first on Monday afternoon. I hadn't seen an Uiltje beer in ages so Commisaris Rex was my first choice when I saw it on the menu. The brewery describes it as a "Doppelsticke Alt", which I think is fair enough. It's a very dark brown, 8.5% ABV and smells of chocolate and celery, the latter a result of the single-hopping with Spalt. Despite this, the flavour is all malt, constructed from grain and chocolate, like a kiddies' breakfast cereal. A growing dry wheatiness and absence of proper carbonation meant that it began to resemble a breakfast cereal a little too closely by the time I got to the end of it. It's well put together, however.

Herself was all over the Cloudwater offering: Spring Summer Wit Loral. Though the ABV is quite high at 6.1%, this one has some serious classic witbier chops. The aroma is an enticing mix of lemon candy and fresh damp coriander leaves. The texture is smooth and the flavour massively herbal, a long bathsalts lavender buzz lasting for ages alongside a burst of juicy orange. It takes a lot to impress with a witbier, and I honestly didn't think it was even possible, but this is a triumph.

I couldn't pass the opportunity to drink a half litre of draught Jever pils next, so didn't. De Prael Barleywine for the lady, a 9.6% ABV one, dark orange and smelling hot, heavy and harsh, something I often find with Prael's beers. It tastes of cough drops; Fisherman's Friends, to be precise. There's a too-heavy eucalyptus and pine bitterness that just burned my palate. I was very glad to have the Jever to hand when tasting it.

A new bar for me next. I dragged us all the way up beyond Centraal station to visit the Delirium pub that's secreted on the waterside under the roadway there. Not many other punters on the chilly terrace that afternoon, but the service was still lousy. It was, however, pleasing to see a too-rare Greek beer on the menu, so I had that.

Saturday's Porter is from Septem, just outside of Athens. It's only 5.5% ABV but packs a lot in there, most of it in an uncompromising and old fashioned style. It's very dry with a bitter liquorice component, a slight sourness and even a touch of smoke. Coffee is an ingredient, but the burnt roast is the only part which comes through. I found it tough drinking to begin with but gradually settled in, getting used to its severity. By the end I was charmed and interested in what else the brewery was doing, but that was the only one of theirs on the menu.

The tall glass behind it contains Stout & Moedig by 7 Deugden. It's another chocolate cereal job, at least in the aroma. The flavour is a little more complex, adding rosewater. The texture is thick and tarry and overall I didn't really enjoy it. At 7.5% ABV there should have been plenty of leeway for a much more interesting beer.

Last call was to Café Belgique. I can't find any evidence of me having been here since 2004, which is kinda crazy. I guess nearby Gollem is just that good. Anyway, we were welcomed in and took a table by the front window. Two Chefs Funky Falcon for me, an American Pale Ale that's extremely sweet, opening on orange flavoured chewing gum, leading into a long candy finish. A certain apricot element emerges as it warms, still sweet but adding nuance. At no point did it get cloying or sticky, which is a plus, and I finished it quite happy with what I'd been given. I wonder do they get grief because it's not funky?

The other beer is Wildebok from good old Scheldebrouwerij, it of the comedy caveman labels. This is an absolute spot-on version of the Low Countries autumn bock style: a clear dark garnet with a flavour mixing warming toffee with drier dark roast but perfectly clean and free of esters, phenols and other headache-inducing nasties. The 6.5% ABV places it on that perfect cusp between not being aggressively alcoholic while still giving the feeling of a slightly naughty treat. A perfect beer on which to end this autumn break.

17 November 2017

Amsterdam and company

Hello Amsterdam! This was the final stop on the ten-day bimble across Belgium and the Netherlands I did in September. We arrived in on a Sunday afternoon and headed straight to Beer Temple, meeting up with a friend who has recently moved to Den Haag and who joined us for the day's crawl.

I'd picked Beer Temple specifically because they had a Hill Farmstead on, and Hill Farmstead generally makes good beer. This was Florence, a saison. Except it's nothing like a saison, except maybe the cloudy pale yellow colour. It's tart, for one thing, almost like a young lambic but with extra fizz. With the tartness goes a gentle lemon zest, some dry straw and a pinch of farmyard funk, all beautifully balanced and complementary. It was hard to hold onto this one for long enough to write about it; suffice it to say it's highly enjoyable.

Also around the table there was King Gose from Hoppin' Frog. It's an especially nasty version of what should be a light and quenching style. This one is a murky orangey beige colour and smells of Jolly Rancher sweets, all artificial fruit and solvents. The texture is greasy which heightens the briny foretaste. This is followed by a worrying gastric acidity, harsh herbal aniseed, plastic and aspirin: all the wrong kinds of tang, all at once. The herbs make it taste like some Victorian medicine, like it should be good for you. It's a downright penitential beer and a travesty of gose.

Next it's X, an "extra pale ale" from California's Alesmith. It didn't have much going for it, being super sweet without any trace of bitterness. The hops bring an orange flavour which, without proper balance, make it taste like orange flavoured cake icing. At 5.25% ABV it probably thinks it's light and easy going but it's really surprisingly hard work.

Last one here before moving on is one of those dessertish confections from Evil Twin: Imperial Mexican Biscotti Cake Break. It's definitely one of the better ones, managing to blend all the constituent parts into a single coherent piece. For reference, those parts include coffee, cinnamon, almonds, cocoa, vanilla, and habanero chilli. Phew! The aroma is both rich and spicy, its impact heightened by the 10.5% ABV. The texture is thick too. Obviously cinnamon is the loudest element, but its cookie sweetness is tempered by strongly bitter coffee, while the chilli is little more than a seasoning on top of this. It's still a silly novelty beer, but a silly novelty beer that's incredibly well made.

Gollem next, and a quickie Van Vollenhoven Princesse. It's a throwback wheat beer recipe, apparently, using a mix of lager and saison yeasts and flavoured with coriander and orange peel. Once extremely popular, it lost ground to pils in the late 19th century and the original Van Vollenhoven brewery stopped brewing it in 1900. I found it crisp and simple with a pleasant green celery hop flavour. Think weissbier without the banana esters or witbier minus the herbs and fruit. It's very refreshing even if the ABV is a smidge high for that at 5.5%.

Our meanderings brought us past De Brabantse Aap at one point, a pub which was on the shortlist of great Amsterdam beer destinations when I started coming here but which you hardly hear mentioned any more. I certainly hadn't been in in years.

It shares an owner with De Bekeerde Suster, the brewpub, so serves a few of its range. Auld Sister was new to me: 5.3% ABV and allegedly an attempt at an old fashioned IPA. The ABV holds true to that at 5.3%. I couldn't say if the rest of it does, however. It is massively dry, which is certainly part of the spec, largely achieved through the huge tannic flavours. This makes it taste of stewed black tea and I confess I always like that in a beer. There's a spicy saltpetre edge which reminded me of several homebrewed red ales I've tasted: I guess it's a yeast thing, and there's lots of roast as well -- not something I'd expect in an IPA. I doubt the dark red colour would fetch it much of a price on the docks of Calcutta either. A bit of a rough diamond this, though not without its charms.

My companion was back on the American gose, this time Holy Gose from Anderson Valley. This one was much more like it. It has the classical balance of good gose with mild salt and a gentle sourness to make it easy drinking and instantly refreshing. There's also a fun Californian bonus in the hints of added tropicality: a burst of pineapple in the aroma and some sweet mango in the flavour. It's deftly done and all the better for not trying to be too clever.

The evening wound on and there was oude jenver tasting and rijsttafel: proper Amsterdam stuff. We finished at another of Peter van der Arend's pubs, near Leidseplein. Last time we were here, in 2015, it was called Jopen Proeflokaal. The tie-up with Jopen must have come to an end as it's now called 'Cause Beer Loves Food and BrewDog is the headline brewer.

We went with two from Flying Dutchman, a Finnish gypsy brewer that gets beer made in Belgium and the Netherlands. These were from a sequence they've literally called the "series of beers with weird and long names".

First is Tight Lipped Dry Humored Why So Serious Nordic Berry Sour Fruit Beer. It's 4.5% ABV and a bright purple colour, topped by lurid pink foam. Turns out it's a glass of pure jam; damson in particular, I'd say. It's altogether too sweet and claggy, with a harsh tacked-on sourness that does nothing for balance. Beer should be able to hold the drinker's attention for longer than it takes to say its name.

Beside it is Tree Hugging Wood Chopping Mother-Nature Loving IPA. This is rather better, albeit not very distinctive. It's one of those US-style IPAs that runs big on oily resinous unctuousness, with a heavy sticky body and lots of toffee malt, but also has enough bitter citrus pith incense spicing to balance it. It could pass for more than its 6% ABV and does a pretty decent job as a nightcap.

Day one in the 'Dam is down. Home tomorrow, but not before another few pubs...