Monday, 20 June 2016

Drunken sailor

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was recently in Barcelona for the Primavera Sound festival. Though I've never considered myself a nautical type, we ended up staying on a (moored) boat because it was cheap and extremely convenient for the festival. The purpose of the trip wasn't beer, and it wasn't a wander by day, booze by night holiday either. Still, I did get a chance to stock up at BeerStore, a bottle shop I'd highly recommend - its well stocked in general, but heavily promotes local beer. Each evening, I sat on the deck with a couple of bottles, enjoying the last of the sun before heading out to the festival and its plastic cups of rancid Heineken. Here's what I thought of those beers.

Guineu - IPA Amarillo
On a previous trip to Spain, I was really impressed by a double IPA Guineu brewed in collaboration with the Bavarian BrauKunstKeller. On the strength of that, I opted for two of their IPAs from the bulging Beer Store shelves. This one is resolutely old school in approach – British IPAs seem to have become paler and paler over the past few years, but this pours an attractive hazy red-gold, with a thick, tight white head. Peach and orange aromas jump out immediately, with lots of peach carrying into the flavour along with apricot and some grapefruit. There’s a savoury element to the beer which almost recalls tomato (possibly a characteristic of some of the darker malts? I often get the same thing in red ales) which sounds weird but does kind of work, and the finish is notably bitter but not excessively so. It reminds me of the IPAs doing the rounds when I first fell in love the style – not-so-pale, not afraid to bump up the IBUs – and it definitely still hits the spot.

I was hoping for something like a white IPA, my current favourite pseudo-style, from this, but it doesn’t have any of the estery or phenolic flavours of either a Belgian wit or a German weisse beer, seemingly brewed with a standard ale yeast with wheat mainly contributing some extra body.  There’s a sweet-ish candy sugar thing going on which, along with the hops, presents as a summery stone fruit character before a long, bitter finish. It’s kind of non-descript and a little disappointing given the label’s reference to dry-hopping – it doesn’t have that juicy, amped up hop flavour and aroma you’d expect, possibly because the malty sweetness refuses to let the hops sing.

The motivation stated on this beer’s label is refreshment in sticky Barcelona weather, and in that respect, Apassionada absolutely knocks it out of the park. A passion fruit beer in the generic ‘sour’ category, its flavour is incredibly vibrant and has all of the freshness and complexity of the fruit itself. A restrained honey sweetness, a floral note, rich tropical juiciness and a light tart finish. It’s deftly managed - any sweeter and you could almost believe you were drinking a can of Rio rather than a beer, any more acidic and it would become hard work – and extremely accomplished.

How could I resist that branding? And the BrewDog-aping isn’t the only British influence on this beer. Described as an English-style bitter on the back of the label and table beer on the front, it has a super-pale malt base (100% Marris Otter) and a big, juicy hop character in an otherwise relatively small beer. I could be wrong, but I’d wager that this is modelled on The Kernel’s majestic Table Beer. The aroma is beautiful, a big burst of sherbet, and in the mouth there are tangerines and grapefruits and something almost herbal or botanical which recalls gin. For one of the lowest-ABV beers on the shelf, this is packing a huge amount of hop flavour and was undoubtedly the best beer of the whole trip.

One of a healthy number of brown ales on offer, La Nina Barbuda pours a translucent cola-brown with a tight off-white head. There’s wholemeal bread and boozy Christmas pudding on the nose, and the flavour is exactly what I want from a modern brown ale – cola, cereal, savoury cereals and the peach and clementine flavours characteristic of a meeting between New World hops and darker malts. Its drawback is its pointlessly high 7% ABV – some mouthfuls have a kind of boozy spikiness which just clashes with the otherwise smooth flavours. Knock this down to 5% and you’d have an excellent brown ale.

I was drawn in by the beautiful label on this beer – not the best way to choose, but faced with hundreds of bottles from unfamiliar breweries, what else do you have to go on? This is just one of the reasons why beer branding is important. This is far, far darker than I’d like an IPA, veering towards amber ale territory. The malt brings a kind of caramel and candy floss foundation for a smooth mango hop character before a slightly spicy and bitter finish. There’s great promise here -that tropical hop flavour is gorgeous, but I’d suggest lighter malt character would accentuate it a little further.

Having recently re-read this old post from Mark Dredge on the 'pale and hoppy' cask ale, a style that's remained prominent in the UK, I started to ponder my reservations with the malt character of a couple of these beers. Many modern British breweries favour a very pale malt base, at least in beers which prominently showcase American and Southern Hemisphere hops - consider the Juicy Banger and the latest breed of  IPAs favouring ever-later hop additions and geared towards massive, booming hop aroma and flavour (the Cloudwater DIPA and BrewDog Born to Die series spring to mind here). It's telling that the beer I most enjoyed was the BeerCat, which acknowledges a British influence - I like beers like this, and they're also what I've become used to drinking. I hope this doesn't come across as a suggestion that this is what beer should be like - I'm just stating a preference.

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