Friday, 30 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Eleven - De Dolle Brouwers Oerbier

Day Eleven - De Dolle Brouwers Oerbier (Belgium, 9%)

Whilst the glassware on this occasion may not have helped matters, Oerbier conforms to a trend amongst De Dolle beers in that it was an absolute ordeal to pour (see below for a comic attempt at decanting a bottle of Arabier from earlier this year). Having caught it within seconds of gushing all over my Grandma’s mantelpiece, the above picture captures the glass in the middle of several minutes’ worth of cautious pouring and settling, and I was desperate for the bloody thing to calm down so I could taste it.

Another delicious glass of De Dolle foam

And when I finally did, guess what? Treacle and plums. Well, amongst lots of other things, but they’re there. On a similar theme, there are figs, caramel, and plenty of dried fruit, recalling the booze-soaked currants in Christmas cake. There’s also a little black tea and a strong red wine undercurrent. It’s rich but just ever-so-slightly tart, which is lovely and really lifts it out of heavy winter-warmer territory. Further ageing reportedly accentuates this quality, and although I'm unsure how old this bottle is (BBE February 2017), I'll try and hold onto future bottles for as long as possible, because it's by far the most interesting element in the beer for me.

The end is in sight. Join me tomorrow for the final beer of this run as I ring in the new year with something special.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Ten - Thornbridge Love Among the Ruins

Day Ten - Thornbridge Love Among the Ruins (UK, 7%)

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I regularly underestimate Thornbridge, and tend to mentally file everything they do as "solid but unexciting". This is vastly unfair, and beers like Love Among the Ruins demonstrate that their restraint and subtlety are actually their strongest attributes.

'Sour red ale' is the descriptor on the label, and whilst I can appreciate why they might hesitate to use the term, style-wise its closest relative is the Flanders red. There's a similar complexity and balance between sweet and sour flavours, wild yeasts and bacteria bringing acidity whilst residual malt sweetness and addition of cherries mellow this out beautifully. This recalls balsamic vinegar, and there's also a slight botanical or herbal edge which comes off like old fashioned cough sweets, and a touch of clementine in there, too. The wild elements contribute a hint of musty leather, but nothing especially funky, and the lengthy barrel ageing results in a very dry and tannic finish.

The brewery excel in lager styles, and there's a similar perfectionism and patience at play in this beer. It's a much-needed reminder to drink more Thornbridge in 2017.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Nine - Schneider Aventinus Eisbock

Day Nine - Schneider Aventinus Eisbock (Germany, 12%)

After a couple of diversions, we return to 'treacle and plums' territory with Aventinus Eisbock, a beer that sits alongside Traquair House Ale and Brother Thelonious in a category of strong, dark, warming winter ales. Although unusual in some ways - it's produced using the controversial eisbock method in which ice is removed from partially frozen beer, leaving liquid with a higher concentration of alcohol - the flavour isn't so far out. It has close cousins in Belgian beers like Westmalle Dubbel or strong British ales like Adnams Broadside, though its considerably stronger than either. Although it's a variation of weissbier, the estery banana and clove flavours common to that style are no more pronounced here than in either of those examples.

The alcoholic strength is a notable factor in the flavour; this tastes seriously strong, although the heat is pitched at fireside warmth rather than unpleasant alcohol burn. I swear I could feel my cheeks ruddying after just a couple of sips. There's a huge concentration of flavour, too, with madeira, figs, blackberries and blackcurrants leaping out amongst the aforementioned treacle and plums, and there's a pleasant tingly citrus thing in the finish which recalls sherbet or cola.

Pleasant though it is, I found it heavy going - it took me over an hour to finish the 330ml bottle, which ideally I ought to have shared. I'd drink it again, although preferably no more than about a third of a bottle and never if the regular Aventinus was an option.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Eight - Mikkeller SpontanPassionfruit

Day Eight - Mikkeller SpontanPassionfruit (Belgium/Denmark, 7.7%)

And here's today's second post, bringing us back up to date. To begin, I must apologise for the so-called 'Iceman pour', which was purely accidental and resulted in me spilling what should have been the first mouthful over the counter, further proof that this is a bloody stupid trend. The beer is Mikkeller's SpontanPassionFruit, one in a seemingly endless series of fruit-infused lambics. These beers come from De Proefbrouwerij in Belgian, and if I understand correctly are produced by fermenting wort bought in from lambic breweries in wooden barrels with the added fruits.

The aroma is fantastic, full of vibrant passion fruit but also hinting at acidity. As you'd obviously expect from a beer of this style, the taste is tart, with the usual lemon and Granny Smith apple along with a touch of wheat and oak character. The addition of the fruit is nothing short of masterful, the two elements blending perfectly - the result is a beer which is tart in exactly the way that passion fruit is and incorporates all of the nuances of the real thing, including its honey and floral components and the crispness of the seeds. The best part is the finish, a kiss of passion fruit flavour which is as tropical and sticky as it is dry and wine-like. The ABV is staggeringly high for the style - the Cantillon Kriek I drank at the start of this run was a mere 5% - but there's no sign of elevated booze in the flavour, and its smooth and harmonious throughout.

The Spontan beers may be pricey, and may not involve ol' Mikkell himself doing much more than selecting a fruit adjunct, but on the strength of this I'll be seeking out others in the series.

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Seven - BrewDog Paradox Heaven Hill

Day Seven – BrewDog Paradox Heaven Hill (UK, 15%)

Having incorporated writing and posting a blog into the Christmas day festivities, on Boxing Day I was too busy having a nice time eating and hanging out with family to worry about blogging. I did manage to drink my intended beer, though, so I hope to post twice today to catch up.

Paradox is a range of imperial stouts each aged in a barrel from a different whiske/y distillery, and this incarnation spent time in casks from Kentucky’s last family-owned bourbon distillery, Heaven Hill. As the old-school BrewDog branding suggests, I’ve held onto this one for a while, partly because of its eye-popping ABV and partly because I thought that time might smooth out the intense bourbon flavour a little.

Whether that plan paid off or not, there’s still plenty of bourbon here, but I’m not complaining. The aroma is bold and boozy, a blast of vanilla fudge with occasional hints of blue cheese funk. The initial taste is pure bourbon – more of that vanilla, lots of caramel and a hint of honey. It’s very sweet and ever more so as it warms, but as your palate adjusts to the bourbon, the base stout offers a touch of burnt, treacly bitterness which just about balances it out. The body is full and the mouthful thick and slightly oily, with carbonation thankfully kept to a minimum, all of this encouraging a slow, contemplative approach; get carried away with too eager a glug and you’re chastised by an intense alcohol burn, but sip gently and this is largely absent. Nevertheless, as well executed as this is, it’s an intense experience, and even half of the 330ml bottle was a little too much for me.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Six - Monkish Olivia

Day Six - Monkish Olivia (USA, 6.8%)

A tart and acidic beer may make a great aperitif, but it's equally good for reviving a tired palate at the end of a big meal. I cracked open Olivia, a blonde wild ale fermented in barrels with 100% brettanomyces and ages in white wine foudres, within minutes of forcing down the final Christmas sprout, and it woke me up at the moment when the probability of a cat-nap on the sofa was at its highest.

It pours an attractive golden colour with a slight orange tinge, and fizzes energetically before any sign of a head completely evaporates. It's deceptively simple on a first taste - tart and slightly salty with the sort of acidity you might expect from a Berliner weisse, but without the funky, grainy quality I often note in that style. Complexity builds the more you drink, though; there's a touch of sticky sweetness to balance that acidity, and the ghost of the white wine foudre sprinkles in some subtle oak and crisp apples, contributing to a dry, tannic finish. The brett doesn't manifest itself as musty and leathery as I usually recognise it, but it may be responsible for the tropical fruit notes - honeydew melon, and perhaps a touch of kiwi.

A suitably sophisticated entry for my favourite day of the year. Merry Christmas to all those reading.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Five - Alaskan Smoked Porter

Day Five - Alaskan Smoked Porter (USA, 6.5%)

I've been patient about opening this 2012 vintage Alaskan Smoked Porter, but in truth, it was already fairly mature when I picked up from the bottle shop shelf. Beers of this strength don't always age well, but Alaskan actively encourage this practice on the label, giving an ambitious best-before date of '26/12/2026 (and counting)'.

Obviously enough, the initial noseful brings a lot of smoke along with some rich malt aromas, a slightly uneasy mix of golden syrup and that processed smoked cheese I'm fond of. The smoke hits first on the first gulp, tasting something like the blackened exterior of char-grilled food, and this is followed by some more traditional malty porter flavours of dried fruit and coffee. A different kind of smoke jumps out in the finish, this time more acrid and ashy. However, my palate adjusted to the barbeque vibe fairly quickly - less than halfway down the glass and I was barely noticing the smoke, save for the odd flash here and there. Luckily, there's a solid porter underneath, bringing chocolate and cola fruitiness. The finish, once that ashy flavour fails to register, is largely acidic with some liquorice bitterness, too. It's light of body, and the mouthfeel actually recalls a dark lager, which just makes it easier to drink and doesn't detract from the experience whatsoever.

It's a classic, and a beer I'm glad to have sampled. I'd love to try a younger bottle - might it have a more assertive smoky character? But for now, my thoughts are on the big day tomorrow...

Friday, 23 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Four - The Kernel Imperial Brown Stout

Day Four - The Kernel Imperial Brown Stout (UK, 9.6%)

There are few safer bets in beer than something dark from The Kernel. Their stouts and porters, based on historical recipes from London's illustrious brewing past, are always good. Come to think of it, their paler beers aren't too shabby either, but you take my point.

It's a lovely pour - near black with a tan coloured head, and a huge aroma hits you instantly. There's a lot of booze on the nose, along with some brown sugar, and the combined effect suggests dark rum. There's some cocoa powder in there too, and on tasting this evolves into something more like chocolate milk - chocolatey, but in a very smooth, easy-going way. The more conventional bitter edge of dark chocolate is present in the finish, joined by some liquorice and an espresso note which is rich without being especially roasty.

There's a certain mustiness in the finish too, which is hard to write about without it sounding disgusting. Michael Jackson sometimes described beers as having a "cellar character", and this is the kind of flavour I think he's talking about. It adds complexity and increases the perception that you're drinking something special, decadent and sophisticated, like a prized bottle of dusty wine. The sweet dulce de leche flavours that increase as the beer warms enhance this effect, too. It's another beer that isn't specifically designed for the festive period, but works brilliantly for Christmas - next year, I'll consider procuring a bottle for after-dinner sipping.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Three - Traquair House Ale

Day Three - Traquair House Ale (UK, 7.2%)

I first heard of Traquair House from Boak and Bailey's excellent Brew Britannia, in which it is used as an example of an early microbrewery. The eponymous Traquair House Ale has been brewed since 1965 and is now widely exported and hailed as a benchmark example of Scotch ale. It's a style I like in theory, but rarely crave, and as such this bottle has been repeatedly nudged to the back of the cupboard for several months.

I'd be repeating myself if I said that it smelt of treacle and plums, but it really does - this appears to be a consistent trend amongst dark-ish, malt-heavy, wintery strong ales, and is really quite inviting. Those flavours carry into the flavour, too, along with some raisins and cooking chocolate, and some caramel sweetness and warming booze are teased out as it warms. Like Brother Thelonious, yesterday's beer, it's light of body and low in carbonation with it. I don't mind that, but a less charitable drinker might describe it as thin, watery and flat. The main obstacle for me is a definite oxidised flavour - the bad cardboard kind rather than the pleasant dusty sherry kind. Oddly, this characteristic comes and goes; in some mouthfuls it's barely perceptible, in others merely a background irritation. However, at times it tastes like I'm drinking a ream of paper rather than a fine example of British brewing tradition, and it's hard work.

A dodgy bottle, perhaps? Or have I caught this bottle during an awkward adolescence - old enough to let some oxygen in, too young for the resulting flavours to smooth themselves out? I'd be curious enough to try it again.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Two - North Coast Brother Thelonious

Day Two - North Coast Brewing Co. Brother Thelonious (USA, 9.4%)

Brother Thelonious has been on my 'must drink' list for almost exactly two years. I know this because my dad gave me a copy of Adrian Tierney-Jones' 1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die for Christmas in 2014, in which this brew features. I was instantly taken with the label, which features jazz great Thelonious Monk decked out in a habit and holding a foaming chalice of ale. And on top of that, with every bottle sold the brewery makes a donation to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, an organisation offering free jazz education to children all around the world. Despite my keenness to try it, this bottle has been in my possession for about 9 months, consistently pushed aside in favour of something with a more sensible ABV.

I'm glad I saved it for the festive period, anyway, because although it isn't sold as a Christmas beer, it does a lot of the same things. The aroma is pure fruit cake - plums, currants, almonds - and the malt character suggests sticky confectionery - treacle, caramel, a faint suggestion of chocolate - without being exactly sweet. It's boozy in the best way, never burning as you drink but leaving a pleasingly fiery sensation in the chest which is perfect for a chilly winter's evening. It also has a staggeringly long finish, ultimately culminating in a gentle dryness.

I had intended to listen to Monk's Dream, one of my all-time favourite jazz records, whilst drinking this, but instead I opted for the far less classy pairing with not-quite-classic festive farce The Ref, and that's a recipe for a great Christmassy evening in. So good I might do it again next year.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day One - Cantillon Kriek

2016 marks the fourth year of the 12 Beers of Christmas event, overseen by Steve of The Beer O' Clock Show and Hopinions fame. The concept is simple - from the 20th until the 31st December, drink a different beer each day and write about it using some form of social media.

I'm taking part this year partly as an exercise in discipline. 2016 has been a busy year for me, and I've let blogging slip a little as a result. However, for the first time in many years, I've actually got a decent Christmas break to look forward to and so no excuse not to post something every day. I've also got a bit of a backlog of beer taking up valuable cupboard space needed for the many liquid Christmas presents I'm presumably soon to receive. A number of these beers have been saved because they deserve a certain a mount of ceremony - they're not all outrageously strong or rare or expensive, but they've lasted this long because cracking them open in front of the TV didn't feel quite right somehow.

I'll begin with a Belgian delicacy.

Day One - Cantillon Kriek (Belgium, 5%)

Besides pilsner, has any beer style has had its good name so thoroughly debased as kriek? Many of the brews that misleadingly appropriate this title conjure up images of sweet shops - saccharine sweetness, together with an artificial fruit flavour of a cherry drop. The real thing, on the other hand, is acidic and dry, carrying all the nuances of the fleshy fruit itself.

Cantillon's example is, obviously, in the latter camp. It pours with a predictably pinkish hue, a substantial head fizzing energetically before evaporating almost completely. Carbonation is restrained, something like the faint tingle of a well-conditioned cask ale.

The first sip brings plenty of acidity, and this registers before the taste of the cherries. The fruit flavour builds as your palate adjusts to this tartness, but never overwhelms the base beer, and this tastes as much like a great lambic as it does cherries. The most attractive element for me is the woody, tannic quality, which I think comes from the cherry stone - it's drying, almost puckering, making you want to smack your lips. It adds depth of flavour, but also sends you back for another gulp, and for all its acidity, this is a highly drinkable, moreish beer. I could happily have opened another if I'd had one to hand. The finish suggests almonds, which in some krieks can come across as marzipan or even cherry bakewells, but here I'm reminded of the slightly bitter edge to the nut itself.

It's a class act all round, and a fine start to my festive journey.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Golden Pints 2016

Best UK Cask Beer
After first drinking Kissingate's Murder of Crows at the Sussex CAMRA festival in March, I was lucky enough to sample it three more times, always in situations where a 10% monster was a foolhardy choice. But if it's on the bar, I have to order it, because it hits the perfect balance between straight-up delicious and fascinatingly complex. Rich coffee, caramel and muscovado sugar form its foundation, before a balasmic sweet and sour tang takes over, finally wiped out by a dry, tannic finish. A decadent treat.

Best UK keg beer
I'm awarding this to the keg beer most firmly imprinted on my memory - Wylam's Club of Slaughters, which stopped me in my tracks. The malt character is conventionally smooth and warming, all chocolate and berries, but acts as a vehicle for blue cheese funk and deep, savoury, lingering peat smoke.

Best UK bottled/canned beer
At the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, I opened a bottle of Wild Beer's Squashed Grape, starting as I meant to go on. This beer has the weirdest discrepancy between smell and taste; the aroma is of neglected public toilets and damp, which makes for a pleasant surprise when the taste is vibrant, refreshing and unusual. Sweet, then dry, tannic and quenching, with a final kiss of tart grapefruit.

Best Overseas Draught
Birrificio Italiano Tipopils. Having previously been let down by a limp bottle, I was delighted to find this on draught at Ruzanuvol in Valencia, and on top form. I often daydream about its bubble-bath head and deep smack of grassy hops. 

Best Overseas Bottled/Canned Beer
Oude Gueuze Tilquin รก L'Ancienne at Craft Beer Co. in Brighton after receiving some good news. Who needs champagne? Beautifully balanced between tart and sweet, with a savoury, husky fruit skin quality and a very crisp, dry finish. Simply beautiful.

Best Collaboration Brew
Three's Company, an IPA born of collaboration between Cloudwater, Magic Rock and J.W. Lees and utilising the latter's 4709th generation yeast strain. A glorious beer all round but conceptually, I love the idea of ultra-modern and established traditional breweries sharing ideas and learning for one another. Let's see more of this sort of thing.

Best Overall Beer
2016 was the year of the double IPA - a bandwagon style, but one that I rarely tire of when done well. Cloudwater led the way, and of their efforts I particularly enjoyed v3, v5 and v7. Brew By Numbers' 55|03 with Citra, Mosaic and Wai-iti was right up there, and Gun's Sorachi Ace DIPA was an absolute dream for those like me who can't get enough of this odd, divisive hop. However, Beavertown's Double Chin was the pick of the bunch, and gets extra props for amplifying an existing beer (their Neck Oil session IPA) without losing the essence of the original. 

Best UK Brewery
I've always held Burning Sky in high esteem, but they're on fire lately. All of their beers - from sessionable cask classics to IPAs to mixed-fermentation saisons - demonstrate great delicacy, and their ambition and imagination is astonishing. They introduced a few new beers in 2016, amongst them Gaston, which is probably the most accomplished use of an estery Belgian yeast strain I've yet encountered from a UK brewery. They've also just announced that they'll be installing a koelschip next year, so 2017 promises even more excitement.

Best Overseas Brewery
I'm not sure whether Stone Berlin really counts, being more of a European outpost of an American brand than a brewery in its own right. They're my pick, anyway, with the important caveat that I don't unreservedly love any of their beers. However, Stone was one of the first US brands to fascinate me as a beer novice, and I was repeatedly let down by stale bottles and lifeless kegs before giving up altogether. Cracking open a fresh can of Ruiniation, I felt a wave of boyish excitement and even if the palate-pumelling bitterness isn't really to my taste these days, I had to smile because my younger self would have been blown away. 

Photo: Rebecca Pate @ Brewing East

Pub/Bar of the Year
The Evening Star again. It's the pub I go to the most, and the one I'd insist all visitors to Brighton must visit, both for the beer and the people-watching. An honourable mention for The Westbourne in Hove - a smaller but lovingly curated cask and keg selection, good food and a friendly atmosphere. 

Independent Retailer of the Year

Trafalgar Wines, as ever. Scandi minimalism and growler stations are all well and good, but I prefer the unpretentious approach here - it's basically a small room packed to the rafters with beer. Prices are reasonable, and if I go in for something particular, I'll almost always find it. I'll also give Beer Shop St. Albans a shout for their always interesting selection, particularly on 750ml curiosities. 

Online Retailer of the Year
I don't need to rely on online retailers, but I put in at least one order to Beers of Europe every year, primarily for their German and Belgian selection which is slightly lacking locally.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
It didn't come out this year, but I've been really enjoying Jeff Alworth's Beer Bible. I'll use it for reference in the future, as it's well researched, but it's also a joy to read in cover-to-cover because Jeff is so fun to read.

Best Beer Blog or Website
Alec Latham's Mostly About Beer was a happy discovery this year. Nobody is writing about beer the way Alec does - pub crawls that verge on psychogeography, a beer festival write-up that includes an ode to a gas container, and so on. He's certainly never boring.