The destination was Hamburg for the 2018-19 New Year's trip, largely because it's close and easy to get to, though I'd been hearing good things about the beer scene there in recent years. I got a modest bit of exploring done over the few days, stymied a little by holiday opening hours and the brewers' own winter breaks. Here's what I did find.
Ratsherrn features pretty big, its beers finding their way into local bars, specialist beer shops, convenience stores and supermarkets alike. They operate from a complex of converted warehouses by Sternschanze station which includes a microbrewery (presumably they do full-scale production elsewhere), a roomy off licence, event space and a bar/restaurant called Altes Mädchen.
I had their Pale Ale before, so we'll start here with Ratsherrn Pilsener, which comes in a green bottle for reasons best known to itself. It's one of those dusty, musty, noble-hopped pilsners, not the sort I like. There's an almost sandy, throat-scorching acridity that severely limits its ability to be refreshing. I get crêpe paper, old furniture and cobwebbed attics, finishing on a bitter kick of green spinach -- the one pleasant note. I'm sure this is stylistically all above board, and I've certainly tasted plenty like it. It's just very much not for me.
Nevertheless, on a visit to Altes Mädchen I decided to chance a flight of their special edition pilsners: the New Era series. They seem quite proud of them.
The one which intrigued me most from the list was Pfeffersack, a pils with ras el hanout spice mix added -- is that even legal in Germany? I hope so because it came out lovely: a lemon zest aroma leading to a flavour which mixes piquant white pepper with a bergamot and lime citrus. Very different and extremely tasty; the sort of beer that brings me back to a time when adding weird ingredients to beer was out of the ordinary and more fun.
The Dry Hopped one mixes German variety Sapphire with Citra and Simcoe resulting in an aroma that's unmistakably citrus fruit, but warm and rounded, not sharp. Like the previous two it's 4.9% ABV but feels somehow stronger with a thick and slightly syrupy texture. The first sip brought an unpleasant twang of washing-up liquid, followed by a serious dose of dank resin, and nothing more subtle going on in between. This is trying too hard to be all cool and American-style, losing the run of itself in the process.
Unsurprisingly, the darkest of the lot is the 7.5% ABV Imperial Pilsener. I've disliked this style intensely enough in the past to swear off choosing it altogether, for the most part. This one was rather good, however. I think that's mainly because they didn't go disproportionately overboard with the noble hops and there's a pleasant black pepper aroma plus a flavour of freshly-baked cookies on a rich and warming malt base. A gentle layer of marmalade is as citrus as this mellow fellow gets.
When I came to the Session Pilsener next I realised I was probably drinking them in reverse order. "But all pilseners are session pilseners!" I hear you squeal. Well this one is 3% ABV so sessionier than most, I suppose. It does just taste like a watered down lager, though. There are some nice grass notes and a dusting of lemon sherbet, but it all fades to nothing indecently quickly. I don't see a use case for this beer.
We return to the standard 4.9% ABV with Nordic Pilsener. I had the same problem with this as with the flagship pils: just too musty, bitter and dry. I was very glad, finishing off, that the others had ventured so much further from the original recipe.
Flipping to the warm-fermented side, Ratsherrn's IPA is called Coast Guard: an old-school dark and bitter lad of 6.3% ABV. The new-world resins are off the charts with this, "balanced" by a deep dark caramel that leans towards roastiness. And yet despite being heavy and filling, it's not sticky or cloying. I'm never not impressed by how German craft brewing instils a cleanness to the most unlikely of beer styles.
Altes Mädchen has an extensive list of guest beers too, local and international. Landgang Brauerei is another Hamburg outfit, and that's their Dunkle Macht rye porter next to the Coast Guard. This is 6.8% ABV and a cola-red colour. I wasn't expecting peat, but peat there is aplenty in the aroma. The flavour is rather more subtle, mixing smoke with chocolate in a way that's (yes this is obvious) sweet yet dry. Again with the cleanness, and no acrid phenols outstaying their welcome. This is peat porter done very well.
The other Landgang beer I got to try was an IPA called Amerikanischer Traum, discovered in an Irish bar which was one of the few neighbourhood options early on New Year's Eve evening. They weren't fussy about glassware and we weren't fussed. The beer itself was lovely: a spicy grapefruit aroma, leading to sour candy and a bath-bomb of mixed herbs, flowers and minerals. It's a little on the sticky side but never becomes overwhelming or difficult.
The final Hamburg brewery for today is Buddelship. I didn't get to the place itself but did drop by their pub in the city centre, Oorlam. It's a cosy corner premises with a bit of a '70s living room vibe. The taps pour a mix of Buddelship beers and guests, and genever is another speciality.
Just beer for me, beginning with the silliness of a "New England Pilsner" called Mr W. And they say Germans have no sense of humour. It was only slightly hazy, though definitely had that smooth NEIPA texture, plus a rocky head of foam. Yet from that came not pineapple nor garlic aromas, but a proper north-German pilsner grassiness: heady and resinous. Despite the softness, the flavour is crisp and clean, if not especially bitter. I went in cynical but came away charmed: they really have harnessed the best elements of both styles without any flaws or weirdness. Don't knock this style until you've tried it.
The small glass of dark beer beside it is Smook in de Piep, a smoked porter of a sizeable 9.6% ABV. It smells of all that alcohol and more, intensifying to marker pens and adding hot burning turf. It's less dramatic on tasting, but still shows lots of complexity: dry at first, before opening into coffee, cherries and Jägermeister. The smoke does get a bit lost, but that's probably a mercy. Though its body is lager-light it still works well as a sipper. While a little off-kilter it does the style justice.
We'll be back to Oorlam for guest beers later in the week. Meanwhile, for takeway drinking, The Steelyard is Buddelship's pale ale. It's a sizeable 5.6% ABV. A lime and grapefruit punch starts it off, but it's quickly rendered sweet by the crystal malt base, turning to marmalade or chew sweets rather than pure citrus flesh. The texture is beautifully soft, which adds to the easy-going candy vibe. It might be a little heavy for prolonged drinking, but one was very tasty.
And Buddelship's core IPA is called Great Escape. It's 6.5% ABV, pale and hazy, with lots of sharp grapefruit in its aroma. This time the bitterness gets free rein to dominate the flavour, the only brakes on it being a touch of savoury yeast. It doesn't turn too harsh, however, finishing nicely (and typically) clean, while also benefiting from the same softness found in the previous one. It hides its strength well too. I think I'd like a little more bitter power in this, but it's still tasty as is, and likely much more sessionable than the pale ale.
More of what's brewing in Hamburg next, and we'll even get to see a couple of the places where they do it.
Arriving into rural Shropshire for Christmas, the first port of call was the local, The White Horse. They generally have a Christmas offering of some sort on the wickets, and this time it was Hollybob from Wye Valley, I didn't have much hope for it, and less when it poured brown and seemingly lifeless. It turned out rather decent, however. There's nothing at all Christmassy about it, or nothing obvious anyway: no spicing or fruit gimmickry. Instead it's dry and tannic, like a super-strong cup of very black tea. There's a bit more substance than is usual for this style: a balancing caramel sweetness and a certain creaminess to the texture, which I guess is what fits it for winter, and it does a better job than a packet of dried cinnamon would. This is a very gulpable, refreshing yet characterful dark bitter, one I'd happily be snowed in with.
The other, non-seasonal, bitter on tap was Brew XI from Mitchell's & Butler's, a bit of a throwback in Birmingham brewing, sparking memories in some locals of the years when it was the only cask ale available. From the inauspicious badge I wasn't expecting much from this, and it delivered even less. We're talking the basic level of basic brown bitter. Sweet caramel set on a thick malt base with no balancing hop. The nearest thing to balance it offers is a salty tang, a little like you'd find in cheap milk chocolate. With a dull beer I could have at least relaxed into my surroundings and forgot about what's in front of me; this sugarbomb, however, demanded my attention and was just too much work to down before moving back to the Hollybob.
That's it for pub drinking. A jolly pre-Christmas lunch in The Bottle & Glass in Picklescott and a Boxing Day swifty at The Stiperstones Inn yielded some lovely beers but nothing I haven't written about previously. On to the takeaways, then.
The Shropshire town of Ludlow has developed something of a gastronomic brand for itself. That's the main reason, faced with a supermarket shelf of unfamiliar beers, I opted for three from the Ludlow Brewing Company. They wouldn't be allowed use the name if their beers weren't excellent, right?
Gold is your basic golden ale (I think: there's almost no information about it on the label) and pours thinly with a desultory short-lived head. It smells... beery, of bitterly metallic English hops and honey-sweet malt: not an unpleasant smell at all. That's more-or-less what you get for a flavour too, the honey dialled up at the front; the tinny tang providing a finish. I'm honestly not sure whether to admire the crisp and light refreshing texture, or bemoan its thinness: both are valid positions. Overall, it's fine. Classically English, devoid of flaws and I am certain it works better served cool from a cask.
Middle of the set is The Boiling Well, and "premium ale" is as detailed as the description gets. Head retention is an issue again. It's dark red and, as expected, a fairly average caramel-forward ale; a brown bitter, I suppose, but sharing a lot of features with mid-range Irish red ale. There's a growing banana ester as it warms, some gunpowder spice and a mineral tang. Not enough to make it genuinely interesting, though.
Last of the set is Stairway, I guess a pale bitter or even an IPA, at 5% ABV. The head sticks around a bit longer on this one and there's an enticing citric aroma. It tastes clean and sharp, like posh lemonade with a waxy bitter finish. There's virtually no aftertaste, just a gentle lemony buzz. This is the best of the three, showing great character while still being easy-going and refreshing. Like the blonde, it instils a curiosity about the cask version, a format to which it too seems better suited.
From over the border in Llandudno comes Great Orme's Brewdolph winter warmer. 5% ABV and a dark garnet shade, topped with a lovely creamy layer of snow-white foam. The flavour is a Victorian Christmas riot of plums, figs, liquorice and fruitcake with a dry and bitterly roasted finish, somewhere between a dubbel and a stout. No fruit or spice additions went into this so all the winter-wonderland effect is down to the brewer's art and nothing else. It's complex, tasty, warming and filling -- absolutely ideal winter fare.
Closer to base, there's Hobsons, who celebrated 25 years in business during 2018 with Amber Journey Ale. Surprisingly, it's more a golden colour than amber, but doubles back with a flavour of toffee and biscuit that's much more typical of an amber ale. An American one specifically, as the malt is studded with lightly citric and mildly dank hops, leading to a peppery finish. It's only 4.4% ABV and gently carbonated, which makes for very easy drinking and excellent refreshment qualities. It might be a little too sweet for several at once, but the single I had went down lovely.
Postman's Knock ruby porter is one I was sure I'd had before, but research indicates it was just the barrel-aged version, two Christmases ago. It's ruby indeed, a translucent garnet colour, and the carbonation is once again low and cask-like. Milk chocolate is the predominant flavour and there's a slightly acrid boiled-veg acidity in the finish. Though I'm sure it's exactly as the brewer intended, I wasn't as fond of this as I usually am of Hobsons beers. The dark malt is too sweet and the hops too bitter, resulting in unbalanced extremes in both directions. I can see why they thought putting it in a whisky barrel was a good idea.
From Wychwood comes Arrowaine, a 3.6% ABV dark ale. So... a mild, then? Perhaps the m-word is insufficiently cool for the all-important brand style. It's pleasingly black, with a stable pillar of off-white foam and quite fruity to taste, bringing plum and raisin. There's a backing of dark chocolate and some slightly hot marker pen. It's surprising how big it feels and tastes, doing a convincing impression of a much stronger beer. Classic mild it ain't, but it's very decent, balanced, and largely lacking in flaws. Wychwood at its best.
The national brands selection in a major supermarket turned up Montana Red Rye Ale from Fuller's. It's a fairly straight-up American-style amber ale, mixing toffee with citric hops, and I guess you get a little more bitterness than usual from the inclusion of the rye. It's only 4.5% ABV, and a little thin on it, but there are also more complex sparks of gunpowder and a dry roasted crunch. Yes the branding is a little dad-dancey, but the beer inside is a rock-solid example of the style, hitting all the right marks.
And from the same place, a token (possibly) American. I don't know where the UK supply of Goose Island beer is brewed these days. Midway is a session IPA of 4.6% ABV. I got a sense of the zingy Goose Island IPA of old from the dark gold appearance. There's a bit of it in the aroma too: grapefruit and biscuit in perfect harmony. The flavour is quite plain, bringing light stonefruit and a gentle caraway. While there is a bitter grapefruit tang and spice in the finish, it's all quite muted, tasting washed-out and industrial. I guess this is fine for a mass-market supermarket beer, but it tastes a bit cheap and lowest-common-denominator.
From most of the above, it seems that traditional British ale continues to thrive. There certainly doesn't seem to be any shortage of it.
During the too-short lead-in to Christmas 2018 I dropped up to the Open Gate Brewery on my way home one evening, to check in with the final releases of the year. The venue is in something of a wind-down, planning to close for a major refurbishment during the month of February. As such, there were only three new beers for me to try.
Hoppy Return Lager made certain promises with its name that the beer failed to live up to. Though a full 5% ABV, it arrived looking a very pale white-gold colour with no head. It is full-bodied, so no criticisms there, but the flavour was all wrong. For one thing there wasn't very much of it, coming across plain and grainy. There's a strange touch of banana as well. It took me a while to notice that flatness was also an issue, making the dead taste seem even more lifeless. I had it side-by-side with the mass-produced Open Gate Pilsner, and it's nowhere near as hoppy or characterful as that one. It's inoffensive, and has apparently been quite popular. Just goes to show.
I wasn't sure what I was getting when I moved on to the Winter Pale Ale. This was also 5% ABV, and a dark gold colour, heading for pale amber. Though brewed with American hops it did a wonderful impression of English bitter, being dry and tannic. There was a spicy floral-herbal seasoning which reminded me of beers that make strong use of Challenger hops, in particular. The hopping is raw, fresh and cold, the beer smelling like walking into a brewery's hop fridge. Yummy. It's light, clean and refreshing, something I'd very happily have sat over a pint or two of if I hadn't been rushing around.
That just leaves the 10% ABV madman, Spiced Barleywine. This had an even stronger herbal aroma, of real herbs this time, rather than hop-derived analogues. Sweet ginger biscuit is what the flavour offers, with the spicing warming the back of the throat pleasingly. Oddly, ginger isn't mentioned as a feature on the official description, just cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom. The texture is remarkably thin for the strength, and it doesn't really match the style. There's a certain richness to it, a long and Christmassy satsuma and ginger finish. But it's also dry and quite astringent. I got a tiny twang of marker-pen phenols as it warms, but thankfully that's mostly masked by the spicing. In conclusion: jolly.
And with that we head into the teeth of my Christmas and New Year tasting notes, starting in England on Friday.
Two late-2018 canned releases from YellowBelly today, both featuring a ticker-tape parade motif on the label. In the first, YellowBelly is teamed up with Shane from Rising Sons brewery in Cork, for 'tis a collaboration between the two. Grand Parade is a session IPA, 4.3% ABV and utilising Citra, Simcoe, Mosaic and Azacca hops. As it poured I thought I was going to end up with something completely opaque but there's a certain pale translucency in the glass. The texture is light, but before the flavour tails off into a fizzy orangeade thinness it offers a tasty mix of mango, pineapple and mandarin, leading to a more assertive grapefruit and lime bitterness. It's fun to encounter the Big Citric Hops and the Big Tropical Hops working so well in tandem. The end result is quenching, quaffable, and despite that tiny watery bite, well-engineered for the session.
Next up is The Wolf of Malt Street. This time it's a collaboration with Wicklow Wolf, described as a Black Forest stout, with oats and cherries but relying on the malt for chocolate flavouring (though not using chocolate malt). It's 6.2% ABV, but so rich it could pass for a full-blown pastry monster. Cherry syrup dominates the taste: sticky and purple. There is a decent stout underneath, one which might have been better off without the embellishment. I could detect its molasses and caramel sweetness and would liked to have been given more of this, but the busy cherry chases it away quickly. It's fine, and there are no surprises or flaws here. It's just a little too dessertish for my out-of-step tastes.
I'm sure it won't be long before the parade of 2019 YellowBelly releases hoves into view.
Clearing out the lager stash today: a few beers that have probably spent a bit too long on the fridge awaiting the opportune moment. No time like the present.
A couple of pale ones from Czech brewer Bernard first. Bezlepkový Ležák is, as the name states, the gluten-free lager. It's 4.9% ABV and a deep, almost reddish, gold colour. It's fairly sweet but not overly so, the grassy metallic hops confined to the very finish. The texture is nicely weighty, making it a good lager for colder evenings, but while it has the soft golden syrup mouthfeel typical of Czech lager it's missing the related malt flavour. This is perfectly drinkable but forgettable too.
I wasn't sure what to expect different from Bernard Celebration, it being a whole 0.1% ABV stronger, though the masses of froth was a surprise. It looks a little brighter, perhaps, but still that coppery tone. The thick mouthfeel is back and it's carrying more flavour here: liquorice, toffee, and yes proper Saaz-y cut grass. The finish is properly lager-clean, departing the palate with a wisp of herbal anise. Once again this is pleasant drinking but far from the best that big Czech lager has to offer.
Neither of these was as good as I was hoping for. I bought them along with an old favourite, Bernard Dark, and that one is still absolutely excellent. Overall, though, Bernard remains in the lower league of Bohemian breweries.
I do my best to get a good mix of the world's beers onto this blog, something that can be tough in Dublin where the speciality beer market is small and tends to be dominated by the micro-giants of the British and American craft scenes. I'll pick up an oddity or an outlier any time I see one, and today's post concerns six of such, from countries where beer isn't the most famous export.
From Redmond's I took home this handsome 600ml bottle of Nigerian lager. Star is premium quality, cold filtered, and finest lager beer. It's 5.1% ABV, a perfect limpid golden colour, and the main fermentable, according to the ingredients, is sorghum. It tastes, bizarrely, like a non-alcoholic beer. It has that porridgey sweet character, all wheat and honey. I can't imagine anyone would find it refreshing. No hops, no crispness, nothing that makes lager worthwhile. Doubtless this is a lifesaver in its home market: the beer you drink when goddammit you just need a beer. The large format is efficient, but I can't see it appealing to anyone but the ticker in Ranelagh, looking for something different before Redmond's closes. Bintang is from Indonesia and a 620ml bottle cost me a princely €3.55 at Asia Market on Drury Street. It's 4.7% ABV and counts sugar among its listed ingredients. Despite the green glass it wasn't skunked, which immediately put it on my good side. As did the foretaste: sweet, but in a proper bready helles way. It thins out quickly, alas, introducing a cidery tang with a slight plastic burr and a spark of metallic zinc. Nevertheless you have to work to find these off-flavours. If you were just drinking it like a normal person and not trying to describe it, I reckon you'd be happy. Especially if you'd paid Indonesian prices for it. Despite the relatively minor flaws, this is a good example of mass-market Asian lager.
From the same shop came Pearl River, a Chinese lager, the bottle 600ml this time, and the ABV 4.9%. I've never seen this in the wild and could tell immediately why the discerning restaurant trade prefers to stock Tsingtao. It's very sweet right from the outset, bringing fruity notes of red apple and quince, fading to an exotic floral quality: lotus and hibiscus. None of this is unpleasant per se, but there's none of the crisp bitterness I look for in a pilsner, while it's also not weighty enough to fit as a more malt-forward style. Falling between the two poles and tasting weirdly fruity gets it a thumbs-down from me.
I came across Mozambique's 2M quite unexpectedly in a delightful little Portuguese bistro on Mary Street called Nando's. The Dali-esque pour gave me a coating of bubbles on the inside of the glass but absolutely none on top -- not a good sign. The colour looks fine but the texture is very thin and the flavour isn't up to much either. Like many a crappy hot-country lager there's a tinny bitterness which has nothing to do with real hops, and lots of green apple. The only nod towards proper beer here is a sharp malt-husk note that pokes through briefly towards the end before being smothered by the long appley finish. It is, in short, terrible.
We round things up at the Pho Viet restaurant on Dublin's Parnell Street. I had never seen Vietnamese beer in these parts before, and Pho Viet has two of them. I began with Saigon Export. Though only 4.9% ABV there's a lovely weighty softness to the texture here, a little like a proper Bavarian helles. That comes with a sizeable, though not out-of-control malt sweetness: spongecake, leading on to candyfloss. That meant it had enough substance to still taste of something when served freezing cold and consumed along with a bowl of sharply spicy broth. It's easy-going, moreish, and completely flawless. I would drink this even if I didn't have to.
What were the chances of my luck holding out for the second Vietnamese beer, Hanoi? The first sip proved that to be zero. This one was much more what I was expecting: thinner, paler, with a half-hearted head and a sugary twang. That begins as no more than a blip but rises gradually, and eventually takes over the whole show. My hat comes off to the brewer who managed to achieve a recipe which is both watery and syrupy at the same time. A wholly-anticipated tinny finish brings us in. On the universal quality scale, this fits in beside your mate's dodgy kit-brewed lager: drinkable, but not something of which anyone involved should be proud.
It's a dismal and uncaring world out there. Those of us who are fussy about our beer should take the occasional moment to reflect on how good we have things.