Saturday, July 19, 2014

Drinking in Switzerland

A bunch of us attended a conference in French-speaking Switzerland last week, and knowing of breweries like Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes and Docteur Gab's, I was looking forward to tasting more craft beers of that ilk while in town for nearly a week. Switzerland has a tradition of craft brewing, both German-style lagers and the more Belgian/British-style ales, but in the small town we were stuck in there were very few bars or restaurants, and almost all those we found served only cheap lager; at best there might be one brune on offer (and Swiss taste in brune seems to run to the yeasty and chewy, rather than any of the quality or flavour you might expect from French or Belgian styles). Where better quality beer was available, it was in the form of a white or wheat beer in the German or sometimes Belgian style, very crisp, dry, subtle—actually pretty nice on a hot day (although it was raining non-stop the mid-July week we were there!) and lacking the gummy, chewy, spoiled sweetness that some English wheat beers suffer from.

The first decent beer I got to taste was in a tradition bar/brasserie next door to the train station. This was after a rather nice meal with some exquisite local red wine made with unusual, rather antiquated "Humagne" grapes, so I only had one beer, the local brune, Cardinal, Brunette (above). Pleasantly tan-colored, with a subtle malty head that promised of flavorsome beer, this was served chilled and a bit more bubbly than I would have hoped; nevertheless there was a woodiness in the mouth that suggested good cask origin, and live yeast dominated the swallow. This may sound like a somewhat meh review, but after the first two days of refrigerated soda-stream piss, this was a very welcome brew!

On the last morning we spent some time in the old town, visiting the cathedral that overlooks the whole of this hilly town, and the "castle" (which is not much bigger than my house, but has nice, hanging corner turrets), and had lunch in a lovely little side-street restaurant that served locally brewed beers. Again I only had time for one, but San Martino, La Rossa was a lovely amber ale, strong but more cheekily fruity than most of the malty-yeasty local offerings, with a crisp finish and a sappy aftertaste that I could have happily gotten used to. I was very tempted to buy a couple of bottles of this to take home with me, but we were in a rush.

Finally, in Genève waiting for our flight home, we stopped in a large, warehouse-sized and touristy bar opposite the train station called Les Brasseurs, and had a couple of Belgian style beers in their collection, including "L'India Pale Ale", brewed by their own brasseur. This was a disappointing way to end the trip, because—despite some citrusy hop notes in the mouth—this wasn't much more than a brown lager, really; fizzy and yeasty in the swallow, more musty than pithy, and with no lingering aftertaste that you wouldn't get from a malty blonde. I guess you can't account for taste, even in an establishment that prides itself on its local brewing…

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gluten-free Real Ale

One of the SFTP reviewers was diagnosed with Coeliac disease a few months ago, which at first led to much gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair that she was never going to be able to drink real ale again. The challenge raised, we gathered together and have now sourced half a dozen brewers in the UK who produce at least one gluten-free real ale, plus myriad others in the USA and around the world. The landscape looks pretty promising, so far (but we'd appreciate more suggestions or comments in this GoogleDoc).

Last night we had a tasting of the first few beers we've been able to track down, and our notes and comments follow below.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

An Estonian perspective on Impossible Love

My first contact with Estonian beers is a lunch time conversation in Tallinn. One of the local colleagues comments that “British beers are boring, compared to Estonian ones”. That’s an intriguing statement! I start imagining exotic flavours and unexpected combinations. So, when someone suggests a pub night I accept without even thinking.

The appointment is at the door of a lovely brick building. Then my Estonian host enters a code on a small keyboard and the door opens. I wondered if this is what they mean with “less boring”. Aside from the bizarre means of access, the pub is nice and quiet. But the beer offering comes as a little disappointment. Basically, you can only choose between two versions of the popular (and omnipresent) Saku beer: Classic (a pilsner style), and Dark (Tume, in Estonian).

Not very much interested in the pilsner, I go for the dark one. I am expecting something like a dark lager, but when we open the bottle a very nice roasted barley aroma comes out of it. Saku Dark turns out to be a not too bad one. It is dark brown coloured, and tastes of cane sugar, malt and caramel. On the swallow, it has something of the slightly sour but very tasty brown bread they bake in Tallinn. It could be a porter style ale, if it wasn’t for the fizziness, which is a bit off putting at the beginning. But after few minutes I get used to it (or it goes away, I cannot say). Actually, I don’t mind it at all, and I happily order another bottle.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Bull, Highgate

In Highgate to see a band play the other night, we turned out to be in a very nice little brewpub, home of the London Brewing Company microbrewery. It was relatively quiet when we arrived, and service was pleasant and professional, but felt a bit all-hands-to-the-pump already, with three different table waiters and several bar staff milling around frantically serving about two people total. Hard to imagine what a busy night would look like! The menu looks really great, with high-end gastropub food, although the prices are equally high-end, and there was nothing appetizing in the vegetarian selection. (There is a surprisingly wide range of gluten-free offering, though.)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Bricklayer's Arms, Putney

A late addition to our Top 25 pubs tour, the Bricklayer's Arms in Putney was quiet on a Sunday night: literally the kind of atmosphere were the locals look up at you and go quiet when you walk in. Which for a multiple award-winning, often recommended pub that must get a lot of visitors, is kind of strange, no?

They don't seem to serve food, and only two ales appeared to be on offer at the bar. (But a dozen pumps, the rest of them empty, may be promising for a better selection on busier nights?) The bar itself is not very comfortable, but classic, dry wood-floored pub style, with vintage but not terribly imaginative decor. They don't take credit card, or make much effort at friendly service (again, maybe unless you're a local?), and I kind of get the feeling it will be busy, too loud and understaffed on a Friday night. I hope the normal beer selection is what caused Des De Moor to rate this so highly.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Reading Beerfest 2014

We visited the Reading Beer and Cider Festival again this year, after being very impressed by the organization, scale and quality in 2013. Again, this is a huge and attractive festival, with a wonderful range of real ales, ciders and perries, wines, snacks and hot food, and even games and live music. The significantly cooler weather this year did rather highlight the drawback of holding a festival outdoor/in a pavilion in British spring, as by evening it was almost intolerable to be sitting about even in outdoor coats. (Can't blame the organizers for the weather though!) The food queues were also long and not terribly well-organized, but it would be invidious to complain about catering that was better than almost any other festival I've ever been to. And as always, there was an excellent range of beer to be had. Some highlights:

Friday, April 25, 2014

St George's Beerfest, Old Mitre

Ye Olde Mitre, near Chancery Lane (which we visited a couple years ago as part of the 25 London pubs tour), held a St George's Day beer festival this week, serving up at least half a dozen patriotically themed ales for the occasion. By the time we attended on Thursday night, there were only three beers left, but we dutifully tried them all. (Unfortunately, a table for four in the already-crowded upstairs bar had been booked for a party of 30+ city shirts, so after our beers we moved on to a more pleasant environment.)

Everards, Ascalon: a dark amber/fruity brown ale, which was pretty much odorless (although the smell of burning bread from the cheese toasties which are the Mitre's only food offering made it pretty hard to smell anything). On the tip of the tongue it was watery, almost bready, and only slightly more smoky and malty in the mouth; maybe a hint of overripe fruit (apple or pine rather than citrus). Then it was woody, yeasty, maybe almost a hint of mushroom earthiness and loam in the swallow. The aftertaste barely lingered, but maybe held a little spice, liquorice and soy. Overall this was more interesting than the insipid first taste suggested, but still meh. (**/5)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Wandsworth Common Beerfest, La Gothique, March 27-29, 2014

We went to the Wandsworth Common beerfest in summer last year, and found it very charming, a pleasant venue, excellent beer range and all-round lovely day (the weather and company obviously helped!). The spring beerfest they hold in March is less sparkling (although the company was just as great), as it's not yet warm enough to sit outdoors all evening, and the venue is less well-equipped than we remember it being in July. No food trucks out back; no seating on the grass; the beer ran out more quickly on the Saturday afternoon. It was still a good fun day out, and I'm sure we'll come again some time.

Quick note re my beer notes: I've given each ale a star rating, roughly speaking, (1*) = so terrible I couldn't even finish the glass; (2*) not bad, but I'd rather not drink this in future if there's anything else on offer; (3*) pretty good, I could drink a few pints of this if it was on in my local one night; (4*) very good indeed, I enjoyed this very much and might seek it out; (5*) this is such a great beer, it's on my list of all-time favorite ales and I'll actively seek it out from here on in. There were no 1s or 5s tonight, but I've highlighted a couple of 4s below with (****) as they are the standouts of the festival for me.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

London Drinker beer festival, Camden, March 14

Our second visit to the London Drinker beer festival in the Camden Centre on Bidborough Street, a stone's throw from the British Library. As before we were pleased by the size of the venue, with a huge main hall and several smaller sections where food and imported beer were served, and the not-terribly-comfortable but quieter balconies. As we attended on the last day of the festival a lot of beer was starting to run short: at the beginning of the evening about half the titles in the programme were gone; by 9PM only a handful of British beers remained, but we'd had a chance to try a good few by then. Staffing was as usual amateurish but friendly, with many of the familiar faces from CAMRA beerfests all over London showing up at the bars. (The only sour notes being the sarcastic steward trying to get us to use the cloakroom "for charity!", and the pushy chap from the Save Our Pub campaign who tried to get us to buy £50 shares in the Antwerp Arms, gave incorrect information about dividends—that we hadn't asked for—and dumped a hug pile of coasters on me that both contained errors in the site URL, and a site where their own project seemed not to be listed yet! Laugh or cry.)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Black lagers in Slovenia

While teaching at a European-funded workshop in Ljubljana in late February (the surprisingly frisky façade of the Slovenian House of Parliament shown right), I was generally less than impressed by the ability of that city to cater for any food tastes other than sausages and creamy steaks, but made up for it by trying a handful of the local dark lagers. I didn't take detailed tasting notes of any of them (I had enough to keep in mind with the half-dozen project ideas that were flying around), but some of my impressions and comparisons of the main drinks remain, and were mostly positive.

The apparently more classy (or at least expensive) of the local beers I tried was Laško, which comes both in regular (blonde) and "temno" (dark) varieties on most bar menus. I of course opted for several half-liters of the Laško Temno (shown in bottle, left, and glass, below right). This was much more flavoursome than the typical black Czech or Japanese lager you can find here (but not as brutally coffee-caramel-chewy as the Stolichno Bock I tried in Sofia last year!), a bit smoky and with a hint of savory herbs, perhaps cumin or some mellow alium vegetable stewed with a touch of balsamic vinegar to get it nice and crunchy. There must have been a fair bit of unfermented sugar, and perhaps a hint of methylic alcohol, in here too, considering the jackhammer of a hangover even a small amount was capable of delivering!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Return to the German Real Ale

Back in Germany for a flying visit last month, I had the chance to try one of the beers I left behind last time, and another bottle, the gift of a generous friend from Berlin. My tasting notes follow:

Hopfenstopfer, Citra: You can smell the fruit a mile away in this light, almost colorless but cloudy pale ale, brewed in Bad Rappenau, which pours with a frisky but ephemeral head. The aroma may be of lime and tangerine, the sweet rather than tangy fruit, but the first taste is surprisingly tart. Thereafter it's mildly sweet, almost to the extent of being watery. Ripe and bland orange leads to a brief pithy bitterness, but it doesn't really stick around or leave much of an impression. (I may be being unfair, because we were eating very spicy food when we tasted this.) Even if there was nothing to write home about on the evidence of this glass, the beer does have a delightful smell, and it would be a perfectly pleasant session ale if we discovered it in a pub in Baden-Württemberg one night.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Clown Shoes, Crunkle Sam

The last of the gift bottles of American craft ale, which I didn't drink during my tasting marathon over the vacation, because I was a bit scared and wanted someone to share it with. I'm not sure 22oz of barley wine in one sitting is a good idea for anyone! The following review includes the input of my co-conspirators/co-revelers.

Clown Shoes, Crunkle Sam Barley Wine (11% ABV): this potent ale from Ipswich, Massachusetts is somewhere between a ripe red and a dark amber (there was a bit of argument within the group over whether there was any red in there at all; others preferred to say it was just brown), with a creamy foam and a rich smell of cherry and dried fruit. On the tip of the tongue the beer is sickly sweet, with orange zest, burnt toffee and stewed currant; a lovely blend of hops combines with harsh sweetness further back in the mouth, making it hard to swallow in any quantity, but somehow comforting a sip at a time. There's a subtle but not particularly long-lasting aftertaste of citrus, sand and fruity yeast. It was really not bad at all, less brutal than some barley wines, but still far too sweet for my taste. Nobody was especially scathing about it, but I don't remember any great enthusiasm either (even among the cider drinkers who presumably don't mind cloying, fructose-filled drinks!).

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The rest of the American craft beers

Following from my last post about bottled American craft beers, brought to me as gifts by Scott, Elli and Hugh last year, here (without further elaboration or digression) are my tasting notes:

Avery Brewing Co., duganA IPA: this powerful pale ale from Boulder, Colorado, modest at 8.5% abv, is a slightly cloudy orange color with a lively but thin head of foam (recurring enthusiastically if you swirl the glass a little) and a biscuity aroma of both fruit and caramel. It's tangy with a berry flavor on the tip of the tongue, then rapidly spreading sour pith, like unripe orange or kumquat; a lovely mix of citrus notes sizzles all the way back in the mouth—some lime flesh, grapefruit pith and unwashed zest, with crushed pits in the back for that wince-making intense bitterness. Overall this beer comes with hints of buttered yeasty bread, malt cake or ovaltine, but all washed a bit to the rear by the rich, raw hoppiness, blended and complex to give the subtle IPA tones, plus that little something extra for the undiluted American double-drop intensity. A lingering wood-smoked meatiness in detectable in the aftertaste. Nice, though, and while too strong for a session ale, if you drink it at the pace of wine with something light to eat like omelette or stir-fry, it would go down very nicely of an evening. Clearly a lot of thought went into the production and presentation of this beer; it's just a shame that the label had to be so fetishistically objectifying and exoticizing, because otherwise it would have been worth keep as a monument to a fine drink.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bières suisses de la montagne

I could swear we've reviewed beers from the Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes before—I've certainly drunk several of them over the years, since I was first introduced to the brand in 2006—but I don't see any reference to them here. It's a shame that all I had in for this tasting was two of their lightest, most French-tasting bottles; there are some great real ales in their range as well. I'll have to look out for more of these next time I'm in Switzerland, and keep better notes next time!

Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes, La Salamandre: this is a clear, light gold, fizzy beer with a gentle head, which has a lagery malt smell with a hint of orange and maybe even cider vinegar. On the tip of the tongue it's sweet and zesty, rather fruity, a little tart but more pithy than soured. It's a bit more lagery in the mouth, with classic Belgian malt but not much flavour; the swallow is better, with some peppery notes and lingering soft fruit: pear, maybe apple-blossom and even coriander. It's not bitter, but memorable, certainly not the generic lager or Weissbier it looked like coming out of the bottle.

Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes, La Meule: a watery yellow beer, again with a lagery fizz and brief foam; the odor is subtle, with candyfloss and vanilla, overlaid with bread flour and some savory herbs (maybe a seasonal sage and parsley stuffing?). Sparkling fruitiness in the first taste, with a cheeky zestiness behind the pert lager foreground, persists in the mouth, giving both orange and lemon. The tastes of zest and pith overcome a dull wheatiness, and lead to a herby finish without much bitterness but somehow leaving me with a lasting impression of well-seasoned steak. I probably wouldn't chose this blonde beer very often, but it wasn't bad at all, for its kind.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Looking Gift Beers in the Mouth

In one week in November, I received three different visitors from the USA, who between them brought me over a dozen bottles of American craft real ale. I promised I'd share my notes on them, and here are the first few. (I don't remember who gave me which bottle, now, but needless to say it was all massively appreciated, even the ones I may be snarky about below.)

Cosmic Ales, Cosmonaut California Blonde Ale (5%): this bottle has an absolutely adorable label with a way-over-the-top cartoon space scene, which always goes down well around here. It's a slightly cloudy golden beer with an ephemeral head of froth, and a cheeky aroma of orange, pollen and spring berries. A first taste of light fruit and flour is a bit sparkly, turning sour quite quickly in the mouth, but with a lovely sweet/hops balance. In fact it's very smooth all the way down; the pithy bitterness isn't very complex or lingering, but it was a very pleasant pint for a Fall evening.