11 December 2017

Dropping a twenty

Way back in September, the PR firm for the supermarket Aldi sent me a no-strings €20 voucher. The German discounter has been upping its game recently, as part of the bigger war between the grocery giants which has had beer as one of the fronts for a couple of years now. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see what sort of a selection €20 buys, beerwise, in Aldi these days. Of course, a more sensible and rational human, one without a blog to feed, would have blown the lot on Spaten, a beer which offers about the best quality-for-price ratio in the country. Would I be able to find the beatings of that?

I managed eight different beers before running out of new ones, and didn't even clear the voucher, spending €19.62 in total.

It was just before Halloween so there was a selection of Wychwood offerings available. We begin with Dr. Thirsty's No. 4 Blonde, a whopping 4.1% ABV and a middling lager-yellow. There's a definite caskish feel about it: low fizz and a loose head. I was expecting dull but there is real character here, beginning with a spicy incense aroma. That intensifies on tasting, turning to dry cedar balanced by a bubblegum sweetness and a gentle green bitterness. It sounds busy but it's light enough to carry it effortlessly. This is easy-going English blonde ale done exceedingly well.

So a tough act for Hobgoblin Gold to follow. Another blonde ale, this time a direct brand extension from Wychwood's dark flagship. There's a smidge more alcohol at 4.5% ABV and with a surprising haze. An off-putting funky aroma is how it says hello, and the flavour is roughly acidic as well, with worrying gastric overtones. Hobgoblin isn't the best beer in the world but it's inoffensive. This is rather more extreme. There's maybe a softer element of stonefruit in the background: lychee if you're feeling charitable. Overall, however, it's quite grim stuff.

Williams Brothers supply the next two, starting with Re#Dial lager. "What's this? It's got a good beat!" exclaims the label. It does look well: a flawless golden hue topped by a handsome layer of pure white foam. The aroma is the first sign of trouble: sour and sweaty, like a forgotten gym bag. After the effort of pouring I wasn't sure I wanted to taste it. It wasn't as bad as I'd feared: a little over-sweetened, and yes there's a tinny twang that doesn't belong in decent lager, but the flavour is unobtrusive enough that it can be downed quickly, refreshing as it goes, and not cause offence. It's a mere 4% ABV, and if it wasn't for that woeful aroma I'd go so far as to describe it as sessionable. The texture is probably its best feature: light and spritzy, the carbonation in the Goldilocks zone below fizzy but well above flat.

Its stablemate for this round is Iconic, an American-style pale ale. This one is all Cascade, the ABV rocketing up to 4.4%. It certainly smells of Cascade: that classic, earthy, marmalade-and-metal aroma. It looks well too: the body clear and the head tight. It's another sweet one, with a flavour that's primarily spun sugar and golden syrup. The hops have the measure of this, however, giving bitter cabbage leaf and sharp grapefruit. The end result is an uneasy balance, with both the malt sugar and hop acid threatening to take over at any moment. It works, though, and while it doesn't taste especially American, it's a decent and light pale ale, one which is particularly good value at just €2.19 a bottle.

Medusa is next in line, brewed for Aldi by Marston's under the supermarket's "Harpers Brewing" fake brand. It's a red ale and the label promises "roasted chocolate". Eh? Who roasts chocolate? It's a lovely dark garnet colour, tinting red around the edges and topped by a thick layer of creamy snake-free head. The aroma is a very strong caramel and apples vibe, slightly headache-inducing and every inch of the powerhouse 5% ABV. The green apple is dominant in the flavour, and it's not pleasant, tasting like a harsh chemical solvent. There's no softness, no nuance, just aggression, and not even the good sort. An attempt has been made at something rich and autumnal but it hasn't worked out. This beer tastes of pure hangovers and half a litre was a struggle.

Apprehension, then, going into Wild Bill's IPA, from the same producer. It's a worrying dark brown colour and is once again 5% ABV, with rye and unspecified American hops mentioned on the label. It smells bitter and spicy, which is fine, but the flavour is simultaneously sugar-sweet and harshly astringent, neither of them making for a pleasant sensation. There are hops too, funky and resinous, interacting with the dark malt to create the sweaty taste I often find in amber ales and really do not care for. This is another pass from me. I get how it's been put together but  the harsh aspirin and tin astringency strips it of merit. As far as the UK beers go I think the Williams Brothers take this round with Wychwood in second place.

To Germany next, and an Aldi stalwart I've never tried before: Rheinbacher Weissbier. Seemingly it does actually come from a real place called Rheinbach, just outside Bonn. It's surprisingly dark for the style, looking more like Schneider Weisse than any other mainstream weissbier. Bananas in the aroma? Present and correct, though not overdone. The flavour is a little muted, reflecting perhaps the slightly low ABV of 5%, but I like that. It's very easy to drink and the bubblegum sweetness doesn't clag up the palate. There's enough crisp grain character to clean it off, and even a tiny touch of dry roast. This is a perfect budget weissbier and I don't think I could ask more of it at €1.49.

All that still left me well short of the total so I topped it off with a ten-pack of stubbies. I quite like this format for easy-access, swig-from-the-bottle, lawnmower lager. This one has probably the least imaginative name in brewing history: Brasserie. "Quality Brewers" and "Bière Supérieure" exclaims the packaging, in an almost pleading tone, alongside depictions of what look like competition medallions but aren't, as though it totally could win some, if it wanted to, like.

I was just happy that it wasn't skunked. Cardboard sleeves appear to provide better protection against UV than science was aware. Should one decide to pour it into a glass, one will find it flawlessly clear with lots of bubbles, almost resembling a glass of champagne. Almost. It's only 4% ABV but actually tastes like less: it's very thin and makes you work to find any flavour. There's a slightly contrived malt sweetness -- a bit like powdered malt extract -- and a sharp green bitterness which might charitably be described as grassy, though there isn't enough of it to describe it as anything much. Like I say, this is fizzy and thirst-quenching and isn't really designed to do anything else. There's not a thing wrong with it, however.

A couple of genuine bargains in this lot, particularly on the paler side of the spectrum. I'm still going to advise you to buy Spaten, however.

08 December 2017

Wrapping up

I haven't mentioned the Scott Duff pub in my week of Milan posts yet, even though we visited it on three of the four days we were there. It's a roomy and rambling venue, the large tables and tiled floor reminding me most of a central European inn where foaming mugs of one type of lager are the mainstay. And though you can get excellent lager here -- Keesmann Herrenpils on my visit -- there's plenty more besides on offer.

Sucker for a house beer that I am, my first choice was Scott Joplin 3, brewed by Opperbacco for the small chain of which the pub is a part. Broadly, it's an American IPA, but a dark amber one, and 6.4% ABV. The flavour is quite severe: very dry and bitter loaded with pith and tannin. Doubtless there's a market for this sort of thing but it's not me: I generally prefer a level hop fruitiness to be at least some way present.

A late-nighter on Friday, staggering home from Lambrate, brought me into contact with Nordic Lean, produced jointly by Lervig and Stillwater. It's a sour IPA and I'm a fan of them at any time of the day or night. A variety of berries went into this too, and I'm less keen on fruit in IPA, but the pink cherry taste they create is inoffensive. The use of Brettanomyces brings a heady funk, and then the hops give it a slick of resin on top. It's perhaps not terribly sour, missing the palate-scrubbing tartness of the best of them. It is massively complex and interesting though, even if badging it as an IPA is a bit of a reach.

And then we come in where I left you in the last post, hurriedly quaffing the last beers before almost missing the airport train. I went for CocoBänger, a coffee and coconut imperial stout from Põhjala. A café crème head sits over a dense black body. Unsurprisingly it smells like a Bounty bar, and there's a bonus chilli spice as well, wherever that's from. A dense and intense first mouthful presents an Irish coffee creaminess, all arabica beans and warmth. An unctuousness lingers on the lips and coats the insides but it doesn't get hot or cloying, and is almost easy drinking for 12.5% ABV. Excellent stuff.

Beside it is John's Aeromancia, a wheat IPA from Valencia's Zeta Beer. In, I guess, typical Valencian style, it leans towards the orange in a big way, in colour and flavour. The aroma offers an invigorating citrus zest while the flavour is sweeter, showing chew sweets in particular. A clanging metallic aspirin taste finishes it on a bum note. I'm not sure I'd like this, even if I hadn't been drinking a powerhouse imperial stout at the same time.

Redemption for Zeta comes in the next round with My Name Was Barack, a barley wine. It's a dark brown colour, with a density that directly reflects its 10.5% ABV. There's a heady mix of incense and cedar spicing, sparking against lavender and bathsoap. Given more time I'd probably have found more in it, but what was there was good.

And bringing us out the door, Back to Black by De Ranke, a strong barrel-aged porter. It smells like a kriek: very tart with balsamic notes. The flavour is a lot cleaner and more integrated, with fruit but also a mild coffee element. Nine months in an oak foeder has given it a fantastic smoothness and it's very easy to forget the 9.5% ABV. Another beer I would have liked to have spent time over.

Of time we had plenty when we got to the airport. In a posh bar on the concourse they were serving Baladin beers so we ordered one each. For me, Birra Nazionale, quite a generic number, smelling and tasting like a straightforward witbier, though all of 6.5% ABV. The brewery claims it's the first beer brewed entirely from Italian ingredients and I guess that bit of novelty explains why the flavour isn't up to much.

John went for Super Bitter, a beer that piles in the hop resins which combine with 8% ABV to produce a pleasant warming experience with overtones of orange and cedar.

I had noticed Itala Pilsen in a couple of the airport cafés and was interested in finding out if that's any good before leaving Italy. It turns out this is a legacy brand, acquired and killed off by by Peroni in the 1970s and revived last year, presumably in a desperate rummage through the archives for something to give them a bit of class. It's fine: nicely balanced, with a sweet base and just enough hop kick to pass as a decent pilsner.

For balance, something much shittier by Peroni next to it: Peroni Forte, an 8%-er that lends Italian panache to your park-bench drinking. This is a dark amber colour with a sticky texture and an unpleasant earthy mushroom flavour. It's possible to drink without gagging, but classy it is not.

And that's Milan, as drank by me. Northern Italy certainly has a lot going on beer-wise. I'd love to get further into it at my own pace, but some other time.

07 December 2017

Freedom!

Alessio Selvaggio heads up Unionbirrai, the Italian microbreweries' association which is affiliated with the European Beer Consumers Union. He also owns a brewery, Croce di Malto, in Trecate. For the EBCU's autumn meeting in Monza, he brought one of his beers along to share with the delegates at lunch.

Magnus is in the Belgian dubbel style, if a little bit of a lightweight at 7.3% ABV. The flavour is no slouch, however, with all the prunes and dark chocolate of many a quadrupel. The intensity builds as it goes, peaking on a slightly harsh astringency. I don't know that it's better than any of the classic Belgian dubbels, but I enjoyed this local take.

I'll be honest: after nine hours in Carrobiolo (see last post) I had pretty much given up on ever being anywhere else and was preparing to spend the rest of my life there. My liberator came in the form of Monza's other beer specialist, SoloBirra, and a few of us made a break for there once it opened for the evening.

It's a sparse cube of a pub, and as the name suggests, you come here for the beer and the beer alone. There's a bar at one end and a giant blackboard with the rotating draught list at the other. Our merry band of beer geeks was happy, and around the table we had: Sun Flower, a simple golden ale by Birrificio Valcavallina -- 4.3% ABV, light, clean and peachy; Spils, an attempt at pilsner by Birrificio Argo which was far too sweet, floral and perfumey to be enjoyable; and an Italian Brown Ale, created in collaboration by Birrificio Italiano and Stone, which was very tasty: a monster at 9.3% ABV, and boozy as hell, but balanced by a light-touch spiciness which adds a jovial dimension and renders it embarrassingly easy to drink.

For my part, I brought a Birrone Fuckin porter, because haha, sounds a bit rude. Did I mention I'd been drinking since 10am? It's a damn fine example of the style: low octane at 4.2% ABV with a lovely soft texture and warm milk chocolate notes you can just sink into. It manages this without being sweet or claggy, sweeping off the palate quickly and bringing your thirst away with it.

We took the train back to Milan next and ended up on the south side of town, at La Belle Alliance, a narrow L-shaped pub with an excellent international draught line-up, including our own White Hag and Kinnegar. I'm still not used to seeing great Irish beer when abroad. I'm sure it'll be normal soon.

I started with a beer from Rurale, a brewery we see a bit of in Dublin, though not this particular beer: Castigamatt. It's a black IPA with a big ABV of 7.5%. That's well hidden, however: the flavour subtly roasty, with an effervescent baking soda or bathsalts texture plus a sweet seam of lavender and violet. I tend to like my black IPAs a tad punchier, but I found the smooth stylings of this elegant example very enjoyable nonetheless.

Keeping it dark with a stout next: HumanFish Stout, from the HumanFish brewery in Slovenia, served on cask. Something wasn't right with this one, and I don't know if that's the beer or the dispense, or a combination. It was highly astringent and far over-attenuated: thin and sharp and just too off to get a sense of what it was supposed to be.

I moved to Slovakia and switched to IPA for the next round, choosing  IPA 14° by Svätojánsky. No joy here either. It's one of those hard, mineral talc-and-aspirin IPAs I've encountered in eastern Europe before, as dour and penitential as Moldovan arthouse cinema. This one adds an extra twang of saltiness for extra punishment. What it lacks is any proper hop flavour, or possibility of fun.

We stayed for a possibly ill-advised last one and I wasn't in the mood for something terrible after the previous two. A Bavarian doppelbock? That will most certainly do. Palmator from Prösslbräu Adlersberg is classic perfection in a glass: packed with sweet chocolate and bitter liquorice; fantastically smooth and easily sinkable by the half-litre despite the 7.5% ABV. After that I felt ready for anything, which is just as well as we were on the wrong side of an unfamiliar city after the last metro had left and it had just started to lash rain.

The evening trudge was a distant memory by the time Sunday dawned. And it did actually dawn: the fog clearing and a genuine blue sky for the first time all weekend. For a late lunch I followed a recommendation for a restaurant called Al'Less, one which also alleged a decent beer offer. The food was excellent, ingredients fastidiously chosen and prepared, with everything strictly local. The beer options had been wound down for the winter, with just one available, so we had that.

Agricola Bionda is a saison from the 2 Sorelle brewery in Piedmont. It was interesting to try saison in its natural habitat, ie when you're thirsty and it's the only beer there is. This one acquitted itself well: dry and spicy with subtle notes of cardamom and coriander. No fancy fruit or funk and a modest 5.5% ABV. Unexciting, perhaps, but very decent.

With Sunday afternoon drinking options limited (thanks as always, southern Europe!) we ended up in the Pilsner Urquell bar next. It's noteworthy how the transfer of SABMiller's former brands into the Asahi portfolio has happened seamlessly in Italy, and wherever you see Urquell there'll be Meantime and Peroni too.

There was also Du Bocq's abbey brand, St. Benoît, and I opted for St. Benoît Blanche. This is a pale, bright opaque yellow. The foretaste is floral, but takes a turn for the soapy almost immediately, coming through like fabric softener. The coriander is very prominent, and there's a star anise bitterness. A soft soda texture helps it stay drinkable but overall it's a smidge too sweet and lacking the crisp wheatiness of good witbier. One was plenty, especially since one of our favourite pubs had just opened for the day and we had time for one more before heading home.

06 December 2017

Bonza Monza

Early on a dark and dismal Saturday morning in October, Dr John and I made our way through northern Milan to Porta Garibaldi station. The venue for the second day of the autumn EBCU meeting was Monza, a small city around 20 minutes north of the metropolis.

Our host for the day was the Carrobiolo bar, brewery and restaurant. Not the largest space to spend a nine-hour day in, but it did at least allow for a very thorough investigation of what they brew there. Pleasingly it's only house beers too: I always grant extra kudos to a brewpub that doesn't admit guest beers.

You know what came first, of course: Carrobiolo Pils. No mere placeholder for the Peroni-bibbers this, it's smooth and creamy; bitter and grassy; with a generous dollop of candy malt for good measure. A wiser man might have stuck drinking this all day. It's certainly built for it.

The next lager for me was Carrobiolo Keller, another clear, smooth and clean one. In fact it resembles the Pils quite closely, just missing the big hops, showing a very mild waft of meadow flowers instead, as well as a touch of astringency in the finish. It's very unexciting, and I guess that's why the brewery has used it as a base for some of the more out-there experimental recipes, of which more anon.

The brewery's gluten-free American Pale Ale is less hop-forward than either of the lagers, weirdly. It's very dry and quite dusty tasting, the clear amber colour making it look a lot more full-flavoured than it transpired to be. What hop character there is is a muted caraway seed thing. I had to wonder what sort of pale ales the brewer had been drinking that he thought they were supposed to be like this.

There's also something off about the double IPA, Amanipa Phalloide, too. It's one of those thick and funky US-style ones, going all out for dankness. In doing so, however, it misses any fresh qualities in the hop profile: it's dark and serious, unlit by tropical sunshine or invigorating forest pine. There isn't even a proper bitterness to the resins. I get the feeling that US styles are really not the brewery's area of expertise. Moving on...

Estiva summer ale brings us back to the light. This one is hazy and definitely doesn't taste as clean as the lagers, having a touch of yeast bite and a slightly gummy New England IPA vanilla flavour. Beyond that, however, there are plenty of bright fresh hops, with the zing of grapefruit pith and and heavier oiliness as well. This is the beer to go to if you're after a pale ale, even though it isn't badged as such.

A trilogy of novelties follows next, beginning with Monza Mule. Not for the first time, I found myself the only person in the room enjoying a beer that everyone else was passing around while grimacing. It's brewed with ginger and cucumber, and tastes massively of both: a green salad foretaste starts things and is followed by a rasping ginger burn. Interestingly, the cucumber doesn't go in until the end of the production process, pretty much as a dry-hop equivalent. It certainly ends up tasting fresh and real. Yes it's a very silly beer but it works, even if the light pale base doesn't really stand up to the additions.

The beer the place seems proudest of is ITA, and that's possibly because it's a real rarity. Based on the Keller, the addition this time is local tomatoes, as well as a seasoning of basil. And like the Mule, these additions come through loud and clear in the finished product: fresh and juicy tomato and slick oil-rich leafy basil. There's a dry and peppery quality to the whole thing which lends it the air of a classic saison. Overall it's very well integrated and doesn't seem like the novelty it undoubtedly is.

The next one is definitely not a novelty, and is the sort of beer I hoped to find lots of on this trip to Italy. Mo'scanzati Azzo is a grape ale, pinkish purple in colour, and just as complex as a fine Italian wine. Black pepper is the first flavour I noticed, resolving into spicy oak. A fresh supple leather character follows it, then finally the fruit: a luscious summery grape juiciness, as you'd find in a young Barbera. This mix of serious maturity and youthful frivolity is achieved at an amazing 5.6% ABV. Why would you ever drink wine again?

For dessert at lunch there was Stanislao barley wine: 10.2% ABV though remarkably pale and light-bodied. The flavour is superb, however: crammed with Madeira and prunes, livened by a gentle sparkle and showing just a hint of sherryish oxidation. If the previous beer was your Barbera, this is your oloroso for afters.

We're back on more orthodox ground next with Carrobiolo Tripel. It probably shows that I'm just trying to get to the end of the line-up before it's time to go. This smells Belgian from the get-go and the flavour demonstrates all the big alcohol and esters that are typical of the style, though perhaps more common in non-Belgian tripels than the usually-cleaner native versions. By way of balance this has a strong but fun bitterness, with intense jaffa pith and a floral jasmine spice. I have no arguments with it as a tripel, though it's definitely more than a by-the-numbers job, showing a real personality of its own.

The brewery's weizen, Weisse Al Farro, was less successful. It has the crisp noble-hop celery flavour that some German weissbiers have, but there's none of the banana, bubblegum or clove style markers, and the texture is crisp and angular rather than round and fluffy. Think of it as a lager and it's fine, if not very characterful.

A tour of the brewery next turned up a few final interesting fellows which weren't on tap. The Christmas beer was still being matured in the bottle and we got a sneak preview. They have decided to confound expectations with this winter release, opting for a Christmas Framboise. It's another that started life as Keller but aged a year with added raspberries. It's mostly quite dry and crisp, so that much hasn't changed, though there's a slightly sour complexity and a bite of tannin as well. A bright and fresh spritzy quality suggests that it still had a little more maturation to go, though as an unusual alternative to dark and heavy Christmas beers I can see it working well.

Coffee-Brett imperial stout was another one still a few weeks away from release. It was tasting pretty good though, with a massive fresh and oily coffee bean flavour, all but burying the stout. The Brett hadn't really asserted itself, and perhaps that will come later. Here it supplied a slight earthy funk but no more than that. A tang of bitterness finishes it off. This one is 11% so will doubtless keep well in the bottle. I think it'll be interesting after a year or two when the Brett has really gone to work on it.

And finally OG 1111, of which our host seemed to have a particular personal affinity. It's named after the original gravity and is a peated strong ale, coming out at 13% ABV. We got to taste the 2014 vintage which was flat, viscous and earthy, mixing funk and smoke with a beefy autolytic quality. There's a lot of going on, but I think slightly too much of it was what generally get called off-flavours. Any attractive complexity is offset by tastes that are just not quite right, in any beer. I'd chalk it up as a draw: it's fine, but probably better when not aged.

That concludes the day's Carrobiolo beers, but we don't get to escape just yet...

05 December 2017

Hung for a lamb

I promised you a brewery in yesterday's post, and yes our group of delegates from EBCU did indeed visit Birrificio Lambrate on our trip to Milan in October. We got the full tour of this ever-evolving 1996-vintage micro, but didn't get any beer. That had to wait until we walked a few blocks over, to their neighbouring pub.

It's an odd but charming little place, in a vague dark-wooded English style, decorated with maritime and tram bric-à-brac -- Milan being a tram-spotter's dream. A raucous Friday evening crowd was already filling the cramped place out, spilling into the street outside, though it thinned gradually as the evening rolled on.

At the bar, a dozen or so taps supply Lambrate beer and everything except the cask is pouring high. This means a wait at the counter while your glass of foam settles and is topped up repeatedly. Thankfully the bar staff are expert at remembering who ordered what.

Well I ordered the pils, starting out, as I often do. Montestella is part of the brewery's original line-up. I was parched, unprepared for the powerful Pavlovian thirst engendered by leaving a brewery without having a beer there. This absolutely hit the spot and was almost gone by the time I realised I should be considering how it tastes. It tastes fine: mostly quite dry with a mild noble hop bite in the finish and a growing cake sweetness as it warms. Unremarkable, then, but sometimes that's all a golden lager needs to be.

I followed it with something a bit more showy: The Magic Tram, a New England-style IPA brewed with the assistance of Magic Rock. It starts bitter: heavy on grapefruit, with an acceptable lacing of garlic. The pithiness fades after a moment allowing a pineapple and jaffa juiciness to flow in. The finish is quite sweet, with a pinch of real vanilla accentuated by the creamy body. It's very nicely done, at once immensely complex, hitting every beat of the style, yet still effortless to drink.

For reasons known to themselves, Lambrate brews a pilsner with the attractive name of Magut. I had a variation of it next: American Magut. This had a lot of the issues found in the Montestella: there's really not a lot to it. Yes, it does offer a more hop-forward experience, but it's overly bitter and quite sharp, lacking the malt weight to balance it. There's nothing technically wrong with it but I didn't enjoy it and failed to see what was supposedly American about it.

Another brand extension next, this time to the Baltic porter Ghisa, one of the few Lambrate beers I had tasted previously. Imperial Ghisa is a mere 8.5% ABV but tastes like far more, offering a whole range of unusual flavours. It starts dry and tannic then brings in huge billowing wafts of liturgical incense. Chocolate, red wine and candlewax follow this. It's a serious beer: the lack of sweetness places it as far away from pastry stout as it's possible to be on the strong dark beer scale. Majestic and baroque, this is one to savour.

The city's patron saint gets his own Lambrate beer: S. Ambroeus. It's a strong golden ale, roughly in a Belgian style, though is another dry beastie. Sharp herbal grass flavours are tempered only slightly by softer stonefruit, and that's all you get. An amateur but inoffensive attempt at making something like Leffe, it says in my notes, somewhat cattily.

The other blonde ale, Ortiga, was much more enjoyable, and lighter too at just 5% ABV. It's a riot of fruit-chew flavours, orange and lemon in particular, and despite the unabashed sweetness it's clean and easy going. I was getting the impression that Lambrate beers divide into the serious ones and the frivolous ones. This is definitely the latter.

My parting shot was 60D-01, a seriously heavy American-style IPA. Amber in colour it tastes as thick as it looks, absolutely saturated in sharp and dry hop resins, all but sucking the moisture from the drinker's mouth. A fruit seam runs through it, but that's more tannic red grape than anything citrus. At 6.5% ABV it's not even that strong, packing a lot in, including the body and warmth of a much bigger beer. I was impressed, though I didn't expect to be able to taste anything else for a while so left it at that.

Tomorrow we're striking out on an excursion beyond Milan itself.


04 December 2017

Buongiorno Milano!

It seemed I was only just back from Stockholm when it was time to go to Milan and the autumn 2017 meeting of the European Beer Consumers Union. I was accompanied by Dr. John and we landed into a foggy Milan which was to stay foggy for almost all of the four days we were there. We were both keen to get stuck into exploring where the Italian beer scene is at these days, and said as much to the waiter at our first pub, Sloan Square, beside Cadorna station. Seems we picked the wrong place.

Sloan Square doesn't serve Italian beer. It does have a very impressive line-up of international offerings, however, specialising in UK beer as, in retrospect, the pub's name implies. A glass front on the bar counter displays the array of KeyKegs and they've chosen to hook most of them up to handpumps, cask-style. It's a fun gimmick and perhaps surprising that more places don't do this, just for the theatricality. I doubt it makes much difference to the beer that comes out.

But back to John's quest for an Italian beer. The nearest our server could offer is Last Minute, a porter from Moor of Bristol but brewed in collaboration with Milan's own Birrificio Lambrate. Pretty good it was too. Ostensibly a porter, it's 7.1% ABV, with a suitable rich body balanced with quite a gently dry smokiness. There's a lot of the Christmas cake about it, which shouldn't be surprising as it contains orange, lemon, ginger and raisins, as well as liquorice and allspice. This could easily have been a mess of clashing flavours but everything holds together extremely well.

I had to stop drinking his beer when he came back from the bathroom, and concentrate on my own instead. I'd had a good run of luck with Brew By Numbers beers lately so opted for 11|09, a session IPA. Motueka and Citra are the hops in this pale cloudy yellow job. The former brings its signature medicinal eucalyptus flavours and I was expecting that to be harshened further by the Citra, but there's actually a soft fruity counterbalance instead, juicy melon and tangy apricot. Bitter resins finish it on a flourish. The texture on which all this is set is beautifully smooth while the ABV is just 4%. A very session session IPA, then.

I was impressed enough to follow it with an other from the same brewery, and look: here was 01|01: well, you've got to start somewhere. It's a saison, and a surprisingly clear and pale one. There's Citra here too, and this time it's true to form, adding a lime-and-urinals tang to the aroma. The flavour is more gentle, thankfully: peach and melon with a slight lacing of coconut. It's clean and refreshing, and not overdone at a respectably modest 5.5% ABV. Maybe it lacks the more obvious farmhouse qualities but it's still a rock-solid beer.

With the sun presumably over the yardarm above the fog somewhere, John went with an imperial stout: To-Øl's Goliat. The head is loose-bubbled and a dark tan colour, rather caskish in appearance. There's lots of creamy malt running all through the flavour, making it seem almost wort-like. A brown sugar sweetness accentuates the impression of something not quite finished. In parallel to this there's a huge herbal bitterness, dominated by cardamom, followed by a sweet coffee finish and some drier background tannins. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it's enjoyable once that happens. The chewy mouthfeel is probably its best feature, making it a beer that forces the drinker to sip and savour.

We got properly introduced to the Italian beer that evening at LambicZoon. Here's another one where the pub's specialism is right there in the name, though this place has a much broader range beyond its fine selection of sour Belgian classics.

I opened my account with Black Cherry Drop by Birrificio Stradaregina, in western Lombardy. It's a 9.5% ABV imperial stout with cherries but doesn't make very good use of either element. At the base it's quite a plain beer: smooth and chocolatey but having no more character than that. The fruit puts a Black Forest gateau spin on it though there's also a hot solvent quality too that spoiled my enjoyment rather. Not an auspicious start.

I ploughed on with the brewery anyway, picking Sourflowers 02 Robinia next. 01 used elderflower, this pale sour 6%-er uses black locust flower. I still got a lot of elderflower from it, perhaps because I have no reference point for black locust. There's a hint of watermelon candy but mostly it is sour: an intense acidity. It just manages to avoid harshness, however, with enough balance to make it well-constructed and invigorating. And exactly  the sort of thing I came to Italy in search of.

Beside it there is an English beer, Imperial Leisure by Brighton Bier. It's billed as a brown ale though is a little pale for that, an ugly and unattractive shade of amber. The flavour is good, though: tannic and peachy, laced with incense spicing. I'd probably be calling it a bitter more than a brown ale: it shares more characteristics with the better sort of brown bitter than with any actual brown ale, not that style counts for much.

Dinner was downstairs. I switched breweries to Hammer, from near Bergamo, and their Koral IPA. This is a medium-gold colour, throwing a slight haze, and topped by a thick stack of foam. It's grapefruit all the way, making for an instant classic: from the intensely citric aroma, through the sharp and pithy flavour, to the waxed-rind finish. There's just enough malt weight to balance it while still leaving the hops in control, resulting in an IPA that is at once powerfully bitter yet approachable and delicious.

John's pick was Belka, a saison by  local brewer Muttnik. I was already well-disposed towards this when I saw it was only 4.6% ABV. It's very pale, even for a saison, but there's plenty going on: all the white pepper, honeydew and peach in both the aroma and flavour. There is a strong earthy, gritty, yeast component to it which does drain a little of the fun away. Luckily that still leaves enough fruit and spice in place to save it. Overall a really good job of a low ABV saison.

My finisher here was Flos Alba Bergamotto from Birrificio Italiano. It's badged as a Berliner weisse though aged in white wine barrels and pumped up to a stonking 5.8% ABV. The end result is something much more like a real lambic, complete with the gunpowder aroma and damp bite of nitre  in the flavour. The juicy citrus fruit softens it and adds to the drinkability. I was really impressed with this one, far exceeding my expectations of what I was going to get.

The EBCU meeting started the next day, and these tend to be long and very dry. There was respite at lunch, where the restaurant was serving Isenbeck Premium, seemingly an Argentinian macrolager but I would guess brewed locally. When cold it's an absolutely fine glass of generic fizz but develops a mustiness in the aroma and a plastic off-flavour if it's allowed to warm up at all. Consider this a public service announcement to drink it quickly should you ever be stuck with it.

Finally, when the talking was over for the day, we got to visit a brewery, and that's in tomorrow's post.