Saturday, 11 November 2017

Craft bier in Amsterdam

I have a self-imposed rule when travelling — drink the local beer wherever possible. It just seems sensible. I don’t travel to, say, Denmark in order to drink Belgian beer, and the trends and influences in domestic craft beer are always more interesting.

Arriving in Amsterdam for a few days of exploring, however, I broke that rule with my very first drink. I walked into Craft and Draft to find a cask of Shumacher Alt propped on the bar, pouring from gravity. I couldn’t turn that down — where else, without taking a dedicated trip to Dusseldorf, would I encounter such a thing again? It was a good decision, and I followed it with a delicious Kellerbier from St. Georgen in Franconia. The scope and variety of beer on offer in Amsterdam is huge, and whilst there’s plenty of great beer being brewed in the Netherlands, for me it’s this variety that make it such a great beer city.

But actually, aside from some very classy imports, the most notable feature of my beery survey of Amsterdam was a uniquely Dutch tradition. Bokbier has been brewed in the Netherlands since the 1860s, evolving from German bocks and morphing into a distinct style of their own. Order a bok and you’ll usually find something strong – above 6% ABV – and somewhere on the deep red to dark brown continuum, with a deeply malty flavour. It might be top or bottom-fermented, though originally would have been the latter. Though their appearance recalls a heavy stout, they’re typically quite light-bodied in the way of a Belgian dubbel.

On this autumnal visit, it’s herfstboks that dominate the bars — lenteboks are released in spring. And dominate they do. The Dutch take their bok seriously. The PINT Bokbierfestival has been running for 40 years, and Bockbierkrant van Nederland, a dedicated free newspaper, keeps drinkers up-to-date on the latest releases. Specialist beer bars were all offering multiple boks, and the likes of Heineken, Amstel and Grolsch also put out their own seasonal offerings.

My brother has been living in Amsterdam for a few months, getting to know the local brews well. Sitting down for our first beer in Gollem’s Proeflokaal, he took a sip of Brouwerij de Leckere’s Rode Toren and said, “typically Dutch”. Caramel and straw are the characteristic flavours amongst the autumn boks, he reckons, and they’re definitely in there, along with an earthy, savoury note that even verges towards tomato. I like it a lot. Jopen’s eponymous Bokbier’s treacly malt is similarly soft and comforting, but manages to be refreshing at the same time, with a restrained citrus note in the background. There’ll be plenty more herfstbok on my journey around the city. 

Arendsnest is run by More Beer, a small group of bars that includes the aforementioned Craft and Draft and a couple of others. Its USP is that is serves only Dutch beer, across an astonishing 52 taps. At least ten of these are dedicated to bok but, thirsty after a brisk cycle across the city in the sun, I wanted something pale and refreshing. Mooie Nel IPA, again from Jopen, fulfilled that brief perfectly — squeaky clean and resinous with a gentle citrus bite and substantial bitterness, it was glorious. After that conservative start, I chose a couple of weirdos to follow. First was Lambiek from Toon van den Broek, served from cask through a beer engine. There’s very little information about this beer online, but it appears to be a genuinely spontaneously fermented Dutch beer, and was very good. Sharp and tannic as you’d expect, it’s livened by a faintly sweet peach note which pulled it into balance. To finish, a cute 150ml glass of Burning BBQ, a smoked Belgian-style quadruple brewed at Uiltje in collaboration with Largum Bieren. Predictably bonkers, it combines boiled sweets, milk chocolate, orange oil and spiky booze, with the smoke only revealing itself once I was about halfway down the glass. Somehow, it didn’t taste a foul mess, even if it sounds like one on paper, though the experience of drinking it felt like trying to figure out a puzzle.

From there, we left the city centre and cycled to the Butcher's Tears taproom. As is common for such spaces, it's in an industrial unit with the obligatory folding tables, and white tiling that suggests it might actually once have been a butcher's. I was delighted to find Spiral Scratch on tap — a strong ale based on a 1956 J.W. Lees recipe which I believe the brewery initially made for Ron Pattinson's 60th birthday. Despite its relative strength, it was easy drinking, all honey and golden syrup with a very English tobacco-like hop character. The inevitable bok, Broomrider had the aforementioned caramel and straw, with a treacly burnt bitterness in the finish that livened it up. Pooka-delica was billed as 'brown IPA on acid' and is some kind of variation on their regular brown ale. I'm not sure exactly what the twist was, but it had an intense, sharp sherbety citrus flavour that overwhelmed the warming, toasted malt backbone I had hoped for. I liked the place a lot, and would happily have stayed and tasted some more, but dinner was calling and the bok booze was starting to catch up with me.

I've wanted to visit Brouwerij 't IJ for years, and the next day I was happily able to make the tick. Cycling from the fast-paced heart of the city, it was pleasant to move into the more relaxed and residential district that houses the brewery. The place is popular with tourists, perhaps because the original brewery is housed in a postcard-perfect windmill, and I'd been advised to get there in time for 2pm opening to avoid the crowds. Sure enough, I was far from the only punter waiting outside for the doors to open, but it never got particularly busy during our stay. It's popular for good reason; bright and airy or shadowy and bohemian, depending on where you choose to sit, with welcoming staff and a wide range of 't IJ's diverse beers on offer.

Bok is a big deal here; 't IJ brew not one but five of them, variously incorporating smoked malt, rye, orange peel and other intriguing ingredients. I plumped for Amarillobok. Though appropriately malt-driven, it also had a beautiful marmalade spice about it, along with some stone fruit and gentle marzipan in the background. To follow, we split a bottle of Struis, an English-style barley wine which was bursting with treacle, demerara sugar, espresso roast and hedgerow fruit. The booziness is deftly judged; enough to let you know its there and to gently warm the cockles, as a barley wine should, but not enough to become hard work.

Back in the middle of town is In de Wildeman. Housed in an ex-distillery, it's a beautifully worn-in old pub, all vintage breweriana and varnished wood. The fact that the bland-verging-on-hellish central shopping zone has grown around it only improves its appeal — it's an oasis in a desert of boring shops and oblivious tourists with no spatial awareness. I again relaxed my local beer rule here, because the offering is a superbly diverse representation the best of European beer. From Bamberg, Mahr's Ungespundet was just as wonderful as I remembered, with an enormous depth of malt flavour, a touch of honey and a poke of herbal noble hops in the finish. Cantillon Lambic (presumably it was Grand Cru Bruocsella?) was similarly brilliant, in a totally different way — intense where the Mahr's is subtle, it's full of tart green apple and woody tannins, but had a tiny hit of weed about it that I wasn't expecting. You'd be extremely lucky to find these beers in the UK, let alone both on the same tap list at the same time.

Refreshed, we were back on our bikes headed for the ferry that runs from Centraal Station to Amsterdam Noord. Though the ferry is free, regular and takes no more than a few minutes to cross the water, this area still feels a little cut off from the centre of the city. As a result, though, it seems greener, quieter and a little more relaxed, with an attractive waterfront area full of hip cafés and the beautiful Eye Filmmuseum. Our destination was Oedipus, a brewery and tap room surrounded by what seemed to be re-purposed warehouses housing organic supermarkets and fancy restaurants.

The potentially cavernous, industrial feel of the place is softened by the homely decor — all potplants and well-worn sofas — and colourful murals, and it has the same kind of approachable, artsy, gently hippie-ish vibe I've found in squatted and state-subsidised music venues in the Netherlands. I started with Swing Lolita Swing, a collaboration with Austrian brewery Bevog. This was a gose with added passion fruit and raspberry and I loved it. It gets the sweet/sour balance spot on, threatening sweetness at first but ending with a puckering, quenching tartness and a gentle kiss of salt. Chateau Akkerman, Oedipus' take on bok, is much more ale-like than the other examples I'd encountered, and the malt had more stouty roasted and chocolate character. It's dry hopped, which must be unusual for the style, and added an intensely floral note that came off like rosewater. I was perhaps more interested in it than I actually enjoyed it.

Back on the other side of the water, we went for an after-dinner nightcap at the Raamsteeg branch of Café Gollem. Small, cosy, well worn in and just back from the canal, this felt like a real Amsterdam experience, and I'd highly recommend settling in and enjoying the ambience of this place for a while. Even better if it's cold and dark outside. Sharing bottles of Rodenbach Alexander and Achel Extra Bruin kept us busy.

Think of Europe's dream beer destinations and some obvious capitals leap out — Bamberg, Prague, Munich, Brussels, and so on. Amsterdam might not seem an obvious addition to that list, but I think it's a worthy contender. And of course, the experiences noted here barely scratch the surface. I'm already considering a return visit — perhaps to coincide with the emergence of the lentebok.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Clear as mud: in defence of the New England IPA

This post is a contribution to The Session #126, hosted by Gail Ann Williams at Beer By BART on the topic 'Hazy, cloudy, juicy: IPA's strange twist'.

Rarely has a beer style (sub-style? Pseudo-style?) been so divisive as the New England IPA — cloudy bordering on murky, often brewed with oats for maximum fluffy mouthfeel and smooth, juice-like texture, and hopped only in the whirlpool for intense hop flavour and aroma with minimal bitterness. In the US at least, grown men queue for hours to get their hands on these beers, then trade them online like Pogs. Meanwhile, cynics take to Twitter to energetically lampoon the ‘trend’ for ‘murk-bombs’.

Clearly, the NEIPA is not for everyone. I’ll nail my colours to the mast early on; I’m a fan of these beers, which to me seem less of a trend and more of a natural evolution in the IPA style, which has been growing ever fruitier for several years. What concerns me is the wilful ignorance and negativity amongst those who don’t like the style, which I think runs totally counter to the spirit of beer geekery.
For example, a brewing company who will remain unnamed recently tweeted (plus some emojis which I’ve removed);

WARNING. THERE’S A NEW BEER HEADED TO TOWN. Here’s a hint, its not a passionfruit mango barrel-aged oatmeal lupulin powder double IPA.

Perhaps I need to lighten up, as the tone here is obviously humorous and hyperbolic. The ‘barrel-aged’ bit doesn’t apply to the New England style anyway. But is it really necessary to mock other brewery’s products in order to sell your own? The inference here is, “we have a new beer, but it’s not one of those stupid New England IPAs everyone else is making. It’s proper beer.”

This tweet frames this company in opposition to other small, like-minded craft breweries. What it comes down to, I suppose, is positivity. I would suggest that marketing your beer based on what it is rather than what it isn’t — what you’re for rather than what you’re against — reflects better on your brand. And the same sentiment applies to the way all of us focus our energy in communicating about beer online, whether through blogs or Twitter. It’s futile complaining about beers you don’t like, especially if there’s nothing wrong with them beyond your own personal preferences, and it makes for pretty tedious reading. It’s fine to dislike a beer, or beer style, or perceived trend in brewing, but why not let others have their fun?

Alright, so they’re not especially bitter and you prefer bitterness in your IPAs. That’s OK. There are plenty of IPAs like that. I can think of only a handful of UK breweries who specialise in the style, and most others experimenting with the NEIPA also produce at least one standard IPA alongside it. Maybe it feels like all anyone is brewing these days is murky fruit juice, but I’d say that’s a warped conception based the fact that those who are making New England-inspired beers are currently getting a lot of social media attention.

The idea that all NEIPAs taste the same is also somewhat misguided. As The Beer Nut has already highlighted on his post on the subject, there is actually considerable diversity amongst these beers. Whilst many are intensely tropical, there are plenty that retain a dank, resinous tang. Some have strong savoury notes — onion and chive — and others don’t. Some, like Cloudwater’s recent IIPA Centennial, marry the East and West coast approaches beautifully, using the intensity of the New England style to beef up the fleshy citrus quality of a now relatively old-school hop variety.

But most importantly, we need to steer clear of the idea that beer should be a certain way. Those who vocally reject the New England IPA because it doesn’t look or taste like beer are edging towards What’s Brewing-letter-page territory. Lambic is beer, and so is porter, so what does beer taste like, exactly? Hefeweizen is beer, and murky beer at that, so what’s the difference? Whether the NEIPA represents progress or not is open to debate, but the idea that producing juicy, hazy beer is somehow inappropriate opposes the experimentation I love in craft beer.

Criticism has its place, for sure. Badly made, infected beer? Call it out. Perfectly well-made beer that many others enjoy but that you happen not to like? Let it be. 

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Håndværk øl i København

At one point, I wasn’t planning to blog about my trip to Copenhagen. I felt like I was always reading about the city, especially in the wake of the annual Beer Celebration festival, and that anything I wrote would just be noise. But when I came to compile a list of bars to visit, I realised that that wasn’t actually true. Beyond the multiple Mikkeller-operated venues, I didn’t know anything about beer in Copenhagen beyond (accurate) reports of eye-watering prices. So, here's what I found.

Carlsberg’s dominance is immediately apparent, as the airport is swamped with adverts for the stuff. Most cafés and bars seem to offer only that or Tuborg, and one of the world-class restaurants I was lucky enough to dine at had nothing more exciting than their mediocre Jacobsen sub-brand. Plan ahead, though, and Copenhagen’s astonishing beer scene reveals itself. What follows is far from comprehensive — the number of intriguing bars was so high that I actually felt anxious about not being able to visit enough of them in the time I had. If you’re visiting, my advice is to hire a bike. Copenhagen is flat with cycle lanes all across the city, and whilst it’s not such a big place, some of the beer spots are a little far out by other modes of transport.

My first stop was BRUS, a brewpub in the trendy Nørrebro area run by the To Øl brand. It’s a large, clean space in a former factory, with a dedicated restaurant area (the food was excellent) and adjacent bottleshop. As you might expect, the interior is remarkably clean, sparse and stylish as per the Scandinavian fashion. However, it has bags of character and a buzzing atmosphere, which is sometimes missing in such self-consciously hip venues. I stuck to the house brews, although plenty of To Øl and guests were available. One Ton … of Blackberries, a generously fruited sour, was a great start. Like the fruit itself, it was well balanced between sweet and sharp, and the earthy, husky flavour from the blackberry seeds added satisfying depth. Das Fruit, a double IPA, wasn’t as intensely tropical as I expected. Hazy and full bodied, its restrained juiciness included a twist of tart berry and a little pepper in the finish, and was both satisfying and interesting. Finally, a Baltic porter, Jackie Wants a Black Eye. It's a style I love and this is a great example — clean and easy-going like a dark lager, but with a big, semi-dry cocoa flavour and just a hint of warming booze. 

Just around the corner is another brewpub, Nørrebro Bryghus. Though named after the local area, the large space is decked out to look like a New York subway station, spreading out over two levels and proudly displaying shiny fermentation tanks. The crowd here was mostly younger, perhaps students from the nearby university, and it had a pleasant, down-to-earth atmosphere. Sadly, it was last orders soon after we arrived, so I tried just one of the beers. King’s County Brown Ale was billed as American-style, but was really a comforting festival of malt — treacly, with a little caramel and some earthy, twiggy notes, and yet finishing somewhat dry. I'd like to have spent more time here, but I had further ticks to chase.

The next day, my party all went their separate ways for a couple of hours, and I took the opportunity to bomb over to Mikkeller Baghaven, the newest addition to the cuckoo brewer’s mini-empire. I didn’t necessarily mean to, but I saw a lot of the city on the way, incompetently weaving across the bike lanes, taking endless wrong turns as I unwisely tried to follow the map on my phone whilst preventing it from bouncing out of the basket. I rather like the unreconstructed industrial aesthetic of the place, and it’s a wonderful spot to sit and drink in the sunshine. Vesterbro Spontanale was my hard-earned thirst-quencher. This is the straight version of the lambic that is sold in a variety of flavoured forms, and was very impressive. Crisp, tart apple skin was the dominant flavour, followed by puckering sour lemon, just about balanced by some honeydew melon sweetness in the background. The finish is bitter like quinine, and extremely dry.

To follow, Beer Geek Riesling caught my eye. I assumed this was another in the Beer Geek series of stouts, aged in a Riesling wine barrel. Wacky stuff, and surely worth a try. Just after ordering, I said, “it’s a stout, right?” The barman looked puzzled, and replied, “no, it’s wine.” I was just about to say “I know Riesling is a wine, but…” when the penny dropped — no beer involved at all. “How does that work?” I asked. “I mean, how is Mikkeller involved?” He shrugged, and his colleague chipped in “He just wanted to make wine. It’s made in Germany. We call it a collaboration…” Perhaps ‘commission’ might be a more honest word, but since I’m trying to be more open-minded about wine anyway, I decided to give it a shot. The aroma is wheaty, with a hint of barnyard, as funky as any Bretted saison. Perhaps as a consequence of following the Spontanale, it was intensely sweet at first, like a too-strong glass of elderflower cordial. This mellowed as I drunk on, and some dry tannins emerged before a lightly acidic finish. It was delicious, and not something I’d normally have tried, so cheers to Mikkel for that one.

Contrasting the sparse, open spaces of Mikkeller and BRUS, Søernes Ølbar is so unassuming from the outside that I initially cycled right past it. Situated on the edge of one of Nørrebro's lakes, it has a small, cosy inside space and tables by the water. Though the beer list is long and impressive, only a few taps are Danish, of which I chose To Øl's Mochaccino Messiah, a brown ale. More than mocha, this reminded me of tiramisu, with sweet milky coffee leaning towards hazelnut complimented by dry, bitter cocoa flavours rather than the rich, deep chocolate I'd expected. It would make a great desert beer. Søernes could form part of a mini-Nørrebro crawl along with BRUS and the Bryghus but if, like me, you prefer to drink local when travelling, you may not want to linger too long here.

My final stop was Fermentoren, a tip I picked up from this Good Beer Hunting article and sought out based on the vibe-heavy candelight and lack of (fellow) tourists. As it happened, I found myself in the old meat-packing district during daylight hours, but the indoor space was still pretty dim in a bohemian rather than dingy way. The beer list here is truly world-class, and if I wasn't so hell-bent on sticking to Danish brews, I'd have been sorely tempted by the offer of Schlenkerla Urbock or Rodenbach Caractére Rouge. Instead, I plumped for New Slang, a New England-style IPA from Gamma. Although demonstrating the pillowy mouthfeel typical of the style, New Slang is less milkshake-thick than some, which made for easy, thirst-quenching drinking. The flavour is pure sticky tangerine, perhaps a little on the sweet side but far from cloying, and there's little bitterness to speak of. Whilst I'm a confirmed NEIPA fan, there are undoubtedly examples which use hazy appearance to disguise inattentive brewing and muddied, indistinct hop character. New Slang demonstrates that clarity of flavour is crucial in even the most opaque of beers. I loved it.

I managed to squeeze all of these venues into just a few days on what was not primarily a beer-focused trip, based on minimal forward planning. You could stay in Copenhagen for weeks and still not make it round all the beer spots, perhaps bankrupting yourself in the process. It's one of the most exciting beer cities I've visited, all the more impressive given the apparent dominance of macro lager.

For more tales from Copenhagen, I recommend the series of posts on Martin's blog starting here. He made it to lots of interesting places that I didn't and even tracked down a pint of cask Harvey's Best...!

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Another brief encounter with the beers of the North East

After a flying visit at Christmas, I was back in the North East recently for a family wedding, and again had a little time available for beer hunting. What follows is a kind of sequel to this post, covering a couple of the venues I missed out on last time.

But first, a return visit to the Boathouse in Wylam. The pub itself remains basic, and though a lot warmer than it had been on my previous visit, seems to have developed a problem with flies. The little dog sat opposite me was driving himself crazy trying to catch them. But as I said last time, you come for the beer (and the pickled onion crisps), and the atmosphere was pleasant as the sounds of the folk night drifted through from the lounge bar next door.

The pub showcases Hadrian Border brewery from Newcastle, and their beer dominated the bar. I was able to return to Tyneside Blonde which had impressed me so much last time, and it was superb. It’s the kind of simple beer that would be unlikely to make an impression if served in anything less than perfect condition. But it was perfect – cool, with gentle carbonation and a sturdy, creamy sparkled head, and each constituent ingredient positively sang. There’s a suggestion of Digestive biscuit from the malt, a gentle fruitiness from the yeast, a distinctive sulphurous snatch from the water and a subtle sprinkling of floral hops in the finish.

Its companion, Tyneside Brown was similarly simple and very good, too — quite intensely malty, like malt extract, with a hint of toffee and toast. The French Saison, also from Hadrian Border, started well, with suggestions of coriander and lemonade that really does recall a French biére de garde. Sadly, it didn’t sustain my interest and became bland and watery before I’d finished the pint. Continental farmhouse styles can work at sessionable strength, and can work on cask, but the combination of both of these concessions adds up to an underwhelming pint. A final Hadrian Border offering, Ouseburn Porter was far better, wonderfully creamy and full-bodied with a gentle coffee roast character backed with a little toffee and finishing with some grassy hops.

The wedding itself was, happily, at a brewery — High House Farm Brewery in Matfen, a charming little place and a stunning setting for a lovely wedding. The High House beers were fun, unchallenging fare, and since the focus of the day wasn’t beer, I enjoyed them without too much analysis. Matfen Magic, a brown ale, was a treacly, malty affair that benefitted from a satisfyingly full body and a beautiful creamy head, whilst Auld Hemp was a simple but effective bitter. Thompson’s Blonde, named in honour of the bride, was available from a self-service hand-pump along with the food. I think this was Nel’s Best rebadged, and was highly drinkable. The main excitement for me, though, was pouring my own pint, something I’ve never done before and was unjustifiably proud of, especially when a guest at the adjacent table remarked, “aye, decent head on that, like.”

The next evening, I had some free time, and decided to hop on the train into Newcastle to visit the Free Trade Inn. It’s a brilliant pub — properly pubby, worn-in and characterful and pouring a vast range of great beer. I made the most of the evening sun and soaked up the fantastic view of the Tyne, sipping a pint of Wylam’s Swipe Right. Whilst I associate Wylam with dry, bitter beer, this one is full-bodied and juicy and is amongst the best of the New England-influenced pale ales currently doing the rounds. There’s little bitterness to speak of, and it crams huge flavour — peach, mango, mandarin, melon — into a sensible ABV.

The cask selection leans quite heavily towards local beer, though there are sadly no sparklers here. Three Kings is a Newcastle outfit and a new name to me, but Lost Light is impressive. It's billed as a saison but doesn't really taste like one, coming off something like a cask equivalent of Duvel, if you can imagine such a thing. The fruity, distinctly Belgian esters are huge, oozing pear, rhubarb and bubblegum flavours, and the low carbonation makes these even more impactful. If I describe a beer as interesting, it might imply that it wasn’t enjoyable to drink, but Lost Light is both of those things. I’ve heard good things about Almasty, but Echelon, a pale ale, was disappointing. Though pleasantly dry and bitter, I couldn’t get past a savoury, grainy, wheaty note that spoilt everything.

The final stop is my grandma’s local micropub, the wonderfully named Wor Local in Prudhoe. Like many micropubs, it’s in what looks like an old shop, and in its sparseness and spiralling carpet slightly resembles a working man’s club. Nothing wrong with that, especially when the welcome is warm and the atmosphere friendly. Lager is frowned upon in many micropubs, but is on sale here — the mysterious Birra Quattro (I think), which doesn’t have a brewery name on its suspiciously homemade-looking optic. In this setting, offering lager strikes me as a wise, inclusive choice. It was selling well during my visit, as were a wide selection of gins, and presents an attractive alternative to intimidating Sky Sports-type pubs to those who’d rather not drink cask ale.

Toon Broon, from Blaydon’s Firebrick brewery, hit the spot with a big comforting smack of treacle and toffee and just a hint of tart hedgerow fruit — a perfect rainy day beer. Also from Firebrick, Stella Spark impressed with a palpably fleshy pink grapefruit quality, finishing on a more delicate floral note, but the highlight wasn’t strictly local. Wild Gravity, from North Yorkshire’s BAD Co., reminded me of Punk IPA, though weighted more towards caramel malt. On further analysis, I suspect generous doses of Simcoe are what the two have in common, and I think it’s this hop that is responsible for the suggestions of woody herbs and dank forest floor.

I haven’t done enough drinking in this part of the world to come to any grand conclusions, but I will say that in the Boathouse and the Free Trade Inn, the area boasts two of the best pubs in the country and I thoroughly enjoyed this brief, beery trip. I look forward to my next visit.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Craft bjór í Reykjavík

As just about any article on the subject will tell you, Iceland’s beer culture is very young. In fact, beer over 2.25% ABV was illegal in Iceland until 1989, long after prohibition on other stronger alcoholic beverages was lifted. You’d be forgiven, then, for not making a mental connection between Iceland and beer beyond the country’s reputation for eye-wateringly expensive pints.

In recent years, though, we’ve seen Einstök beers become increasingly common in the UK, imported by James Clay. I’ve always thought that their popularity here rested on the exoticism of their Icelandic origin rather than the perfectly well-made but generally unexciting beers, but you’ll find plenty of Einstök in Reykjavik, too. I didn’t drink any – I can get them at home, and you don’t have to look too hard to find plenty of interesting alternatives.

Flight of Icelandic beers at Micro Bar

A tip I picked up from Kaleigh’s excellent blog proved very useful – stocking up at the airport. Upon arrival at Keflavík airport, you’ll see a large duty and tax free shop which stocks a decent range of Icelandic beer in six packs. There are two good reasons to load up here – firstly, the prices are good and worked out to about £2.50 per bottle on our purchases, and secondly, buying beer in the city is not as simple as you’d expect. One of the conditions of Iceland’s uneasy relationship with beer is that normal shops can still only sell low-alcohol beers, and anything stronger must be purchased in the stated owned Vínbúdin stores. There are a couple of these in Reykjavik including one on the main shopping street, but I never once saw it open. So if you’re planning to take beers home or buy something to drink in your hotel, the airport is your best bet. There are duty free shops on the departures side that sell beer, too.

Our purchases here served as our introduction to Borg Brugghús, based in Reykjavik and common in bars and restaurants. Borg is actually a smaller enterprise within the large Ölgerðin brewery which makes Iceland’s mass-produced lager, Gull. This kind of arrangement rarely pays off in the UK but seems to be working beautifully in Borg’s case — they produce a huge range of varied, bold and ambitious beers. In bottled form we sampled Leifur, a saison brewed with arctic thyme and heather. It has a very earthy aroma and a moderately funky note in the flavour. The herbal and floral notes add some depth to the typical peppery saison characteristics, and the brisk carbonation is palate-cleansing and refreshing. Snorri, a witbier, also has artic thyme in it, which adds a delicious and satisfying depth to what can be an insipid style.

We arrived at the hotel just in time for happy hour at Uppsalir, the smart little adjacent bar. Luckily, happy hours are common in Reykjavik —  whilst I'm used to paying higher prices in craft beer bars and the prices in Iceland never made me jump out of my skin, it's certainly not cheap — and most of the craft-focused bars have them. The deal here was particularly good with two-for-one offers on draft beer, including a rotating pump dedicated to Borg. Garún, a wonderful imperial stout, was pouring on our visit — hugely rich and decadent, it was bursting with brown sugar, milk chocolate, caramel and vanilla, but also had enough of an austere booziness and a gentle acrid bitterness in the finish to balance it out. With dinner, I had Úlfur, a solid IPA with a floral hop character that reminded me of Thornbridge’s Jaipur, albeit with more of a caramel malt foundation.

Later, we headed to Kaldi, a buzzing bar operated by Bruggsmiðjan, the first microbrewery to open in Iceland in 2006, and serving only Icelandic beers. I had a few tasters of the brewery’s beers but none really appealed, so I ticked off yet another Borg offering with Úlfur Úlfur, their double IPA.  This was fantastic — although ostensibly a souped-up version of Úlfur, it was much paler, which allowed the hops to lead with deeply dank and resinous notes and lots of sticky orange.

The next evening, we decided to check out Mikkeller and Friends. I like to stick to local beer when I’m travelling, but I was intrigued to visit a Mikkeller bar, and the availability of exclusive ‘house’ beers twisted my arm. Of these, I had Hverfisgata Brown, a very smooth and clean brown ale with citrus and sherbet notes alongside fresh peach and apricots. The rest of the extensive selection was largely dominated by To Øl, with more Mikkeller and a couple of Warpigs beers available, too. The bar itself was a bit too achingly hip to enjoy and felt a bit sterile and stuck-up; we only stuck around for one, although our round was free due to a problem with the card payment system!

I much preferred the atmosphere at Micro Bar. Originally, the bar was situated in the Center Hotel, but has now moved to a larger, cosy basement space just across the street. All of the taps are dedicated to Icelandic beer, including a handful from the Gæðingur brewery that run the place. I opted for a tasting flight which included several of these. Hveiti is sold simply as ‘wheat beer’ and tasted more like a Belgian wit than a German weizen, with a tangy citrus finish that tasted like juicy orange flesh. Sadly, the Pale Ale that followed was ropey stuff, with a dirty, yeasty flavour that wiped out any suggestion of hops. Strange, then, that Tumi Humall, their IPA was so good, and so clean — dank pine followed by sticky mandarin and mango. After skipping the Bruggsmiðjan beers at Kaldi, I sampled their Black IPA here and, although not as hoppy as I’d expected, I really enjoyed it. It had the appropriate focus on smooth, chocolatey depth of malt flavour over aggressive roast, with a peachy hop character in the finish.

The final beer on the board was OMG Súkkulaði Porter from Ölvisholt Brugghús, based in the countryside about 45 miles outside Reykjavik. This was a slightly sweet and very rich and creamy porter, with a slight nutty quality that makes me think it may be made with oats. I came across Ölvisholt again the next day when we took a day-trip to the amazing Sólheimajökull glacier. On the way back we stopped for dinner at Hotel Anna, a lovely restaurant and hotel on a farm in the middle of nowhere. In need of sustenance and warmth after a long day of fresh air and exercise, I had some delicious vegetable soup and a bottle of Lava, Ölvisholt’s smoked imperial stout. I didn’t get a huge amount of smoke from this, and what there was seemed to fade fast as my palate adjusted. Luckily, the stout itself is fantastic – rich, warming, gently roasty and ever-so-slightly acidic, especially recalling red wine in its dry, tannic and tangy finish.

Our final destination before leaving Reykjavik was Skúli, a warm and welcoming bar in the centre of town. This was directly opposite our hotel on a courtyard, though there are no really obvious signs — I didn’t realise it was there until I looked it up on Google maps and found it was 100ft away from where I stood. Micro Bar is just down the street, and Kaldi and Mikkeller are both less than 10 minutes away — Reykjavik is very compact. Five of the taps are dedicated to Icelandic beer, mostly from Borg, with others pouring beers from the likes of Mikkeller, Founders, Stone Berlin and To Øl. To close the trip, I drank Tilraunalögun, Borg’s artic berry saison, which was an absolute treat, deftly balanced between sharp and sweet, recalling Rodenbach’s sensational Caractére Rouge.

Even this isn’t the complete picture — I didn’t have time to visit Bryggjan Brugghús, a brewpub situated near Reykjavik’s marina. That such a tiny city has so much to offer beer-wise is pretty amazing, really, and though it may be hot springs, geysers and glaciers that send you Iceland, looking forward to some great beer in the evening makes any holiday better. Skál!

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Session 120 Round-up

For The Session this month, I asked beer bloggers to write on the deliberately broad topic, 'brown beer'. The idea was to direct attention to a group of beers (brown ale, bitter, mild, dunkel) that are often overlooked and underrated. Thank you to all those who contributed - I'm delighted with both the quality and diversity of the responses.

Alec Latham at Mostly About Beer got the ball rolling with a characteristically philosophical approach to Tring Brewery's wonderful Death or Glory barley wine.

"This is where the beer was conceived and grew up. It isn’t refreshing but nourishing. It makes sense here in the biting jaws of January to help relax, thaw out and loosen sinews. It would make no sense in Sydney or in Palm Beach. It might have been fate that it was originally brewed at the end of October – just as we say goodbye to the sun and beer gardens."

Boak and Bailey took a "stream-of-consciousness" approach, pondering the colour brown, its associations and its meaning in beer.

"Back in the 1990s Sean Franklin of Rosster's ditched brown in favour of pale because he wanted a blank canvas on which hops could shine. If pale is blank, is brown noise? Or texture? Texture can be good. Noise too. There's a reason people put dirty old Polaroid filters on their iPhone photos."

Gareth at Barrel Aged Leeds sampled a couple of forward-thinking modern incarnations of brown ale.

"Instead of digging up the time capsule and finding nothing but a mouldy newspaper and a badly spelled letter, I picked up two bottles I thought would be at distant ends of the modern brown ale scale."

Andreas Krennmair at Daft Eejit Brewing offered up a traditional recipe for a dunkel lager which had me longing for a huge glass of brown beer in a shady beer garden.

"The resulting beer may not be cool, neither in the hip beer scene nor in the conservative Bavarian beer culture, but it's nevertheless a great beer style. If you're too lazy to brew it yours, here's my suggestion for a fantastic example of the style: Augustiner Dunkel. At 5.6% ABV, it is spicy, malty, with hints of chocolate and licorice, but never sweet."

Lisa Grimm's account of her relationship with brown beer acknowledges a British influence on her preferences and palate.

"I discovered that 'the good stuff' was often simply from a local family brewery, and they didn't always make enough to export. But I loved my go-to beers, even if they weren't 'fancy' - a pint of Theakston's Best, Brains Dark, Moorhouse's Black Cat, Lancaster Bomber. I tended to go for beers on a chestnut-to-dark-brown continuum, and while I do go for more variety today, overall, that pattern still seems to hold."

David J Bascombe found himself pining for the simple pleasures of a pint of bitter after moving to the US.

"I have been in the USA for just over a year now. I have found many good IPAs, and many good stouts. Brown beers, or rather beers resembling the sort of beer I could easily find back home are somewhat harder to come by. This makes me think that brown beer, or rather an English bitter in this case, is something I (and possibly many others) take for granted."

Roger Mueller at Bottled Roger's Beers somehow compares brown beer to Audrey Hepburn's hat. It makes sense in context.

The Beer Nut evangelises the brown malt porter, reviewing an example from Ireland's Galway Bay brewery.

"Among the handful of beer recipes I brew repeatedly at home is a low-gravity job I call a brown porter. It uses brown malt as the primary speciality malt - about 10% or so of the grist - seasoned with just a token bit of roast barley or black patent. I love the moreish mocha flavour that brown malt delivers when used in sufficient quantity, and it's something that one rarely seems to encounter in commercial beers. Until a couple of weeks ago, anyway."

Also in Ireland, Reuben at Tale of Ale praises the humble dark mild, focusing on an example from Dungarvan Brewing.

"The mild is a little thought of style these days and there are very few of them ever released in Ireland. They do make the perfect cask ale though and I find them a little more complex than your average pale ale/bitter but easier to drink than a stout. There's something comforting about a good mild ale. One of my favourite UK commercial examples is Thwaites Nutty Black on cask. It doesn't rate very highly on beer rating websites, but then again, do any milds?

Derick Peterman at Ramblings of a Beer Runner gives his own potted history of brown ale appreciation, from Samuel Smith's to local brews from his native California.

"One could derisively call brown ales the cockroaches of beer, continuing to persist despite commercially eradicative indifference. The thing is about brown ales are, whether in traditional form, modern renditions, or contemporary reworkings, they have their passionate believers."

Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer turns the 'brown beer' topic on its head somewhat.

"I might not be thinking about this in the right way. I understand the definition of "brown ale" and the variants, but I don't think "I'll have a brown beer" when I am considering what to drink next. Whatever brown brings to beer is part of a matrix."

F.D. Hofer at Tempest in a Tankard investigates a fascinating range of brown ales, including some particularly intriguing examples from Austria,

At Tuesday Pints, a personal history of brown ale appreciation, and notably another American blogger to name Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale as an influence.

"I drink more IPAs than anyone really needs to these days - they're inescapable. Much like many relationships, we never had a falling out, but we drifted apart. I'd say hello every now and then but mostly sought out the new and exciting barrel aged sour and didn't have time for this steady ale. I honestly don't remember the last time I brought a bottle home. So, as I write, I am also enjoying a fine pint of Nut Brown."

John Abernathy at The Brew Site also chose to focus on brown ales.

At Deep Beer, a consideration of Dogfish Head's Palo Santo Marron, a strong wood-aged brown ale which sounds very interesting indeed.

"I find this beer fascinating not only as a wonderful drink to enjoy, but also for the effort exerted to bring it into being. The fusion of the the wood and beer, ancient culture and domestication makes me pause as I sip it in - and not only because its 12% ABV. Not all browns are created equal."

And finally, my own contribution - a quick look at Brick Field Brown, a new addition to The Five Points' portfolio.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The Session #120 - The Five Points Brick Field Brown

This is my contribution to The Session #120, hosted by yours truly. A full round up of the posts will follow.

I chose the topic of brown beer for The Session in an attempt to direct attention to some of the beer world’s underappreciated styles. Top of this list for me has always been brown ale, a subject to which I’ve dedicated plenty of words already on this blog. What more can I say on the subject?

Pondering this, I visited The Black Dove in Brighton for a pint of Brick Field Brown, a fairly new beer from The Five Points brewery in Hackney. I was instantly impressed by its hue; a dark, woody colour that would sit perfectly between bitter and stout on a beery colour chart. Taking a first gulp, smooth chocolate flavours were first to register. A very gentle coffee roast follows, a bit like you’d expect from a good dark mild and far subtler than that in a porter or stout. As it warms, that malt character becomes a little sweeter, with a suggestion of dulce de leche. Key for me is the hop profile – a subtle wave of peach and apricot before a bitter finish.

But what’s particularly exciting about Brick Field Brown is that, unlike most modern brown ales from British breweries, it is not a seasonal or one-off brew; it’s a permanent addition to Five Points’ core range. Which makes sense really – Community and Marketing Manager Doreen Joy Barber has described Five Points’ brand as “norm-core”; they’re not firing out limited edition beers or chasing trends, concentrating instead on a small portfolio which is executed to absolute perfection. Like myself, former Lead Assistant Brewer, Vito (now at Meantime) is passionate about brown ale, which Doreen calls “an unsung format”. Brick Field Brown began life as Vito’s Brown on the brewery’s pilot kit in late 2015, appearing for the thirsty public at that year’s London Brewer’s Market before joining the core line-up.

Brown ale may not excite everybody, but I hope that Five Points’ reputation for consistency and quality will tempt punters to give it a go. I certainly wasn’t expecting a brewery in hip East London to advocate the style, but I’m absolutely delighted they have. Seek it out if you can. 

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Announcing The Session 120: Brown beer

A couple of weeks ago, I made my first contribution to The Session, a beer blogging community event held on the first Friday on the month in which bloggers all post on a selected topic. For February, it's my turn to set the agenda, and I'd like you all the write about brown beer.

The colour brown has certain connotations, some of which I won't dwell on. But used in reference to beer, it can signify a kind of depressing old fashioned-ness - to refer to a traditional bitter as 'brown' seems to suggest it belongs to a bygone corduroy-trousered era. As breweries who pride themselves on their modernity focus on beers that are either decidedly pale or unmistakably black, the unglamorous brown middle ground is consistently neglected.

So for Session 120, let's buck the trend and contemplate brown beer. This might be brown ale, or the aforementioned English bitter; it could be a malty Belgian brune, a dubbel or a tart oud bruin; even a German dunkel might qualify.

The date is Friday 3rd February, so please aim to post on or before then. Once you've contributed, please let me know either by commenting on this post or via Twitter. You can find out more about The Session here. I look forward to your posts!

Monday, 9 January 2017

A brief encounter with the beers of the North East

Between Christmas and New Year, I spent a few days in the North East visiting relatives, giving me a little bit of time to explore the area’s beer offerings. I thought I'd take the opportunity to indulge in the super-basic “I went here and drank this” style of beer blogging, a form I love reading and have only ever applied to trips abroad. So, simply enough, here’s what I found.

Our first stop was The Boat House Inn in Wylam, a beloved real ale-focused pub located right next door to the train station and attracting beer-loving visitors from miles around. As a pub, it’s a slightly odd place – the bar room wasn’t exactly intimidating, but had an oddly still atmosphere, possibly as a result of the lack of music. By early evening, the place was heaving and the atmosphere lively enough that it wasn’t needed, but in the quarter-full pub in the middle of the afternoon, I almost didn’t dare speak out loud. It feels cosy, with an open fire at one end, but in truth was freezing cold, and the lounge next door was even colder and dark, too.

But you come for the beer, of course, and the cellarmanship on show here is second to none. The ambient temperature probably helped, but everything was served beautifully cool, with a picture-perfect sparkled head and gentle tingle of carbonation. I rarely come across poor quality cask ale, but such jaw-droppingly brilliant examples are even rarer. On top of this, The Boat House sells Walkers’ rarely-spotted Pickled Onion flavour crisps which I have previously evangelised here and had to buy, though they clashed horribly with my beer.

Pedants will note that the eponymous Wylam brewery was never actually based in the town, initially brewing in nearby Heddon-on-the-Wall before their move into Newcastle. According to a conversation on the adjacent table on which I was eavesdropping, The Boat House was once a sort of unofficial brewery tap, but this is no longer the case. There’s still a Wylam beer on the bar, though – 004 Palisade, one in a series of single-hop pale ales and showcasing an American variety I’ve never heard of. Pouring an attractive amber, it’s perhaps just a touch too sweet, with a red berry flavour leaning heavily towards strawberries and a building bitterness. 

The pub is now reportedly a flagship for Newcastle’s Hadrian Border Brewery, and their Tyneside Blonde was pouring. Another simple beer, all biscuity Marris Otter with a gentle lemon hop character, livened by an unexpected sulphurous aroma. I’d like to meet this one again. There was also Trade Star from Firebrick in Blaydon, which was billed as an amber ale with New Zealand hops but drank like a slightly metallic English bitter with a very gentle background of tropical fruit. Pleasant enough. Best of all was Fyne Ales’ Jarl, from across the Scottish border – peachy, with a hint of oily, dank hops - simply superb, and far superior to the already very good kegged and bottled versions.

In Durham, we had lunch at the Head of Steam, one of a chain of Belgian-focused beer bars now owned by Hartlepool’s Cameron’s brewery. Stonch recently praised their Sheffield venue as an example of how craft and ‘normal’ beer can co-exist, and the same is true of the Durham branch, which was doing a roaring trade in San Miguel on our visit. The cask offering is top-notch here, too – I went for Reindeer Porter from Leeds Brewery, a relatively straight-up offering despite its festive name. It was delicious, mind – smooth and rich, with a big dollop of sweet caramel, milk chocolate, some mild coffee roast and red berries. And just for fun, I followed it with a St. Bernardus Christmas Ale. Though served too cold from keg, it was lovely, generous helpings of nutmeg and clove lightened by strong banana esters and zingy citrusy lemonade finish.

Sadly, I had time for just one stop in Newcastle, which was Wylam’s majestic brewery tap in Exhibition Park. The fifteen minute walk from the town centre was simple enough, but it was dark, and the council might consider installing some lamposts before the inevitable consequence of placing a drinking establishment on the edge of a poorly-lit duck pond occurs. Anyway, it’s a beautiful building and an amazing space inside, close to what I imagine the larger US brewery taps to be like – spacious, with drinking areas stretching over multiple rooms, and with a separate event space as well as the brewery itself. Even arriving three minutes after opening, we were far from the first customers, and it was heaving by the time we left, with a diverse crowd – a couple of young lads glued to iPads at one end, and my 87 year old grandma keeping it real for the older crowd. She loved her half-pint of Galatia. Most importantly, the brewery tap showcases the Wylam beers at their absolute best, which ought to be integral to a tap room’s purpose but isn’t always the reality.

I was desperately thirsty when I arrived, so opted for Solar Terminator, an unfiltered and dry-hopped pilsner. It has a beautiful tropical aroma, all mandarin and melon, and the flavour is clean as you like, allowing those fruity hops to shine. It’s also hugely bitter, which I may not have enjoyed if I’d had it in isolation, but led me into my next selection nicely. Nomi Sorachi is probably the best use of Sorachi Ace I’ve yet encountered. It’s very pale, minimising interference from the malt, and utilises all the tropical fruit flavours the hop can bring – tons of clementine, toasted coconut and lemon drops – whilst largely avoiding the savoury, herbal edge.

Almost everyone seemed to be drinking Jakehead, the brewery’s flagship IPA. I’ve tried this before, leaving a positive write-up as I checked it into Untappd, but had somehow misremembered it as overly sweet in the meantime. I figured it would taste best directly from the source, so ordered it anyway, and it turns out I was quite wrong. There’s a little residual fruit-chew sweetness, but it’s certainly not overbearing, and doesn’t prevent a big whack of pine and lemon zest from registering, with a little mint in the finish. Although it’s obviously far less intense, there’s a juiciness about it that reminds me of some of the Cloudwater DIPA series – high praise indeed. Finally, 3000 Gyles from Home, a cream porter. Some fun cocoa, caramel and chocolate milk flavours here, but the finish is a little metallic and the body a touch thin.

I'm well aware that Newcastle deserves at least an entire dedicated day of beering, but it wasn't an option. Next time, I hope, because it seems like a great city for drinking as well as being a great city for just about everything else. And in general, the North East seems to be in fine fettle for beer - besides the likes of Wylam making a name for themselves on a national scale, there's a healthy population of small local breweries, and not one but two relatives told me about the new micropubs in their towns. You can keep your Newcastle Brown Ale.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Wholly smoke

This post is a contribution to The Session #119, hosted by Alec at Mostly About Beer. The topic is 'Discomfort beer' - "which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to."

I’m not just saying this to brag about the supremacy of my palate – I’ve rarely felt out of my comfort zone with beer, and hardly ever have to work hard to enjoy it. I’ve always enjoyed the taste – as a youngster, my grandpa would occasionally slip me a tiny portion from his stubby green lager bottles, and besides the ego boost that came from swapping Ribena for a grown-up’s drink, it was always delicious to me. Bitterness was probably the main appeal – my other favourite thirst quencher as a child was straight tonic water, which makes a lot of adults wince.

There are styles that test your perception of what beer is – acidic and sour flavours in beer took some getting used to, for example. But there is only one traumatic incident that really sticks out in my mind, and it’s the closest I’ve ever come to spitting out a mouthful of beer.

The brew in question was Flue Faker, a smoked lager from Camden Town, sampled at The Craft Beer Co. in Brighton some years ago – thank God I asked for a taster first. I don’t remember it tasting of bacon, the common descriptor for the niche lager sub-genre known as rauchbier. I just remember it tasting disgusting and wrong. “Urgh! No!” I exclaimed to the blank-faced barman, unable to disguise my horror.

I’m not sure how I went from this unpleasant experience to continually pestering my girlfriend about visiting Bamberg, home of the rauchbier style.  I’d read about the beer in books by Michael Jackson and Mark Dredge in the meantime, putting it in some context, which probably encouraged me to persevere and learn to like it. In fact, rauchbier is probably the ultimate discomfort beer. In Jeff Alworth’s The Beer Bible, Schlenkerla boss Matthias Trum says;

“At the first sip, the smoke flavour is extremely dominant on your palate. If you’re new to this taste, you will notice nothing but the smoked flavour. Only as you go through your first two or three pints does the smokiness step back in perception and then the malty notes come out, the bitterness, the smoothness.”

On my visit to the Schlenkerla pub, I do remember remarking that their famous marzen was a brilliant lager underneath the smoke, and this aspect is probably worthy of further contemplation. However, I love that smoky flavour – that’s the appeal of the beer, not a challenge to be overcome. As such, it’s rare that I’ll ever drink more than one rauchbier on the trot. So, I decided to do just that, and procured three bottles of Schlenkerla marzen.

Even on the first mouthful of the first glass, I realised that the intensity of the smoke didn’t hit me in the way it used to. I’ve heard of a ‘lupulin threshold shift’, the idea that we build up a ‘tolerance’ to hop bitterness, and perhaps there’s something similar going on here with smoked malt. I think I’ve drunk this beer often enough that I’m just used to it, which slightly undermines the idea behind this ‘experiment’. Not to say it isn’t smoky – it certainly is. I’d say it tastes like bacon, but as I haven’t eaten bacon in over a decade, I’ll say it tastes like bacon flavoured WheatCrunchies. The bitterness is notable from the outset, something like the slightly acrid malt-derived bitterness you sometimes get in stouts and porters.

Around a quarter of the way into the second glass, the smoke flavour has really faded. It registers mainly as a background savoury flavour, with occasional bursts of bonfire and meat on the palate. I’m starting to notice a bready malt quality too, which in combination with the bitterness suggests slightly burnt wholemeal toast. As interesting as it is to draw out the backgrounds elements of the bee, for me the most exciting moments are still those flashes of smoke.

By the final glass, the prickly carbonation is starting to irritate, putting an obstacle in the way of the smoothness Matthias Trum suggests is waiting beneath the smoke. It feels like it should be silky, but that fizz jabs at my tongue. I’ve never had a problem with the carbonation in bottles before, but the accumulative effect is distracting. The traditional gravity-tapped serving method would solve this problem, of course. Towards the end, I’m beginning to notice a woody, tannic element. Further complexity clearly awaits, and I’d probably have opened a fourth bottle if I’d had one. Who knew that a beer style I first found so challenging would prove so sessionable?

The interesting thing about all this is that, now that I’m past the discomfort stage, I miss it. It’s like watching a difficult film for the second or third time – I’m always jealous of those experiencing it fresh. Those who are new to rauchbier shouldn’t hold their nose and joylessly gulp down the first few pints, waiting for the smoke to fade – they should revel in the discomfort and enjoy the challenge.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Twelve - Burning Sky Saison Anniversaire

Day Twelve - Burning Sky Saison Anniversaire (UK, 6.2%)

I'm a day late again, either because I spent New Year's Eve partying wildly, or because I fell into bed, full of pizza, at 10:30. One or the other. I did manage to fit in a beer, though, and I thought it would be fitting to see off 2016 with something from Burning Sky. I named them as best UK brewery in my recent Golden Pints round-up, and Saison Anniversaire seemed a fitting example of what they do so well.

There's a powerful white wine aroma upon pouring, a product of the Chardonnay barrels used to age the beer - all white grapes, black pepper and passion fruit, and hugely inviting. The white wine note carries into the flavour, along with some lemon. There's also a burst of herbal flavour - the label tells us the beer is "lightly spiced", but doesn't tell us what with. My guess is chamomile, a flavour I could only recognise from other beers that have used it. There may also be some pepper in there, or maybe this is just an element of the chamomile flavour, but it works beautifully, accentuating the dry finish expected of the style. That finish is very tannic, too - a little woody, perhaps some grape skin, with a touch of quinine bitterness recalling tonic water. Although subtle here, I'm starting to think of this as a house character common across many Burning Sky beers. It's fantastic.

Billed as "a celebration of everything we love about saisons", its probably their most conventional example of the style to date - dry and peppery, well-carbonated for refreshment value - but at the same time has wonderful depths and complexities. A fine way to close the year, and a good reason to be excited for what 2017 will bring.

The start of the new year also marks this blog's second birthday, so I'd like to take this chance to thank everyone reading it. I'm still having a blast writing it, and doing so have definitely made me more curious, has developed my palate, and has put me in touch with some great people. My new year's resolution is to get out and meet more of them. Happy new year, everybody.