The best beer in Austria... maybe

Friday, February 25, 2011
I am taking a much needed week's break, starting tomorrow, both from blogging and 'proper' daytime, actually-get-paid-for-it, bonafiedy 'work'.

I'll be in Austria all of next week so don't expect any blog posts Dear readers.

I will however regale you with tales of the various delicious artisan Weissbeers and Pilsners I tried whilst taking in the vista of a snow covered peak upon my return...

Or, more likely, tell you about all the half decent mass produced
local lager that I've been gulping down in between days on the mountain.

Either way, I'll be back with some beer based tales in just a weeks time, so wish me luck.
P.S. If you can reccomend any good beers or bars in the Soll area of Austria then send me a Tweet @EisntCNeil

A guide to some of Liverpool's best beer bars

Monday, February 21, 2011
I went on a stag do to Liverpool in January and it was one of the best weekends I’ve had in ages. Nearly all of the usual stag do clichés were avoided and we actually managed to squeeze in some top notch beers in some of Liverpools best bars, in between the San Miguels and terrible dancing that is.

The weekend was made exponentially better by a bit of forward planning, firstly by the best man who organised a couple of decent centrally located apartments for us to stay in, and secondly by having access to some great local knowledge from a Liverpool based friend from University – he knows his beer and recommended us some great bars.

In fact, ‘recommended’, is not credit enough. He typed up and emailed me a list of all the best bars within walking distance of Seel Street near our apartments (an excellent area full of great bars all within stumbling distance of each other). Seems a shame not to share it, so here it is, only slightly edited and added to by me.

I’ll start with a warning my friend gave me as the opening to the guide, because it made me laugh.

“I'd recommend staying clear of the Albert Dock - overpriced, no atmosphere and pretentious. Also, stay clear of concert square. Basically, you can't miss it - Walk-a-bout, Yates, etc. Head here for a fight with a pilled-up skin head, and access to a great selection of STD's.”

Ok, so on to the places worth visiting:

The Philharmonic - A cracking victorian pub that is quite simply stunning. It features an elaborate entrance and great selection of beers and ales on cask and keg. When I visited they had BrewDog’s Alice Porter and 5am Saint on cask as well as plenty of Cains beers. I decided it was a bit too early in the evening for a 6% Porter and opted for a 5am Saint. In great condition and excellently served, a perfect first beer.

Interesting fact #1: The men's toilets are famous for their original, ornate marble urinals, Women are permitted to visit as part of organised tours. The building is a Grade II* listed building. Don't believe me? Check Wikipedia

Fly in the Loaf – This is a great pub with a wide selection of world beers. Six different cask ales available at any time and always a well stocked beer fridge with excellent choices such as Brooklyn Black Chocolate stout and Orval to name but a few international favourites I’ve spotted.

Pogue Mahones – You guessed it, an Irish bar. But don’t be fooled, this one’s a little diamond in the rough. Worth stopping in to have a chat with some of the drunken Irish blokes - had some interesting conversations in here myself.

The Shipping Forecast – An excellent relatively new bar with a great selection of beers. Can highly recommend this one if you fancy somewhere a bit livelier. Keep an ear out for the actual "shipping forecast" playing in the gents loos.

Interesting fact #2: If it looks closed from the front then you may have to go in through the side entrance (a red neon arrow showing the way). They do this because it stops the riff raff from Slater Street/Concert Square from staggering in.

Santa Chupitos – Not really a place for a beer but deserves a mention as my favourite independent cocktail bar anywhere, wipes the floor with some of the tired cocktail holes in Leeds. The Cocktails are really unique and there’s an amazing atmosphere. The Cocktails are between £3-£8 but they are well worth it - truly unique and interesting with great quality ingredients such as freshly squeezed exotic fruits and high quality spirits. Follow them on Twitter.

The Monro – A traditional looking, classy gastropub type place. Good selection of beers and ales and there’s usually a real log fire on the go as well when the weather turns chilly, making it a great winter warmer.

The Pumphouse – One of a limited number of decent pubs near the docks. A great place in the summer because of the outdoor seating area, it’s a safe choice for a relaxing afternoon drink in the sunshine, if summer ever arrives that is.

Thomas Rigby's – A great pub with a cracking selection of beers and ales including decent keg such as Brooklyn Lager and Fruli on tap, and a wide selection of regularly changing cask beers. I’ve had Okells IPA and Rudgate Ruby Mild in here and they were both in tip-top condition, reminds me a little bit of The Grove in Leeds with its traditional multi-room layout.

Ship and Mitre – Offers a quite simply epic selection of 13 real ales, usually from some great microbreweries, as well as international keg beers - definitely worth a visit.

Interesting fact number #3: They only ever buy one barrel of each cask brew meaning the beers are constantly changing and you're almost guaranteed something interesting to try. Be sure to check the chalk board menus rather than walking around the lengthy bar like a lost toddler.

Doctor Duncan's - Great selection of beers and cask ales, and being a brewery pub the full portfolio of Cains can be found on the bar here. That said, the last time I was in here I tried the Cains Christmas beer and it tasted like someone had dropped an Ambi Pur in my pint. No reflection on the pub though, just a shockingly bad beer.

So there we have it, some of what I think are the best boozers in Liverpool, any I forgot? Is there a craft beer mecca I missed? Please let me know in the comments.

NB: The above is a slightly abridged version with only my favourite pubs and beer bars featured, for the full guide of 18 boozers including the ones which aren’t necessarily for beer geeks, click here.

Credits: Google for the photos... I was on a stag do for God’s sake; the photos taken were few and far between and mainly involved humorous stolen hats.

Brewdog 'IPA is Dead' launch at North Bar - Nelson Sauvin, Bramling X, Sorachi Ace and Citra single hop IPA's

Thursday, February 17, 2011
I attended the official launch of Brewdog’s ‘IPA is Dead’ range of four single hop IPA’s last night at the fantastic North Bar in Leeds (@NorthBarDrinks).

The sarcastically titled range features four beers with the same malt base, 7.5% ABV and 75 IBU’s of bitterness but with a massive quantity of one type of hop used in each, including lots of late dry hopping. The four varieties are (from left to right in the photo): Nelson Sauvin, Bramling X, Sorachi Ace and Citra.

To try all four beers on tap at the same time was something which I couldn’t pass up, so I was there at about 5.15pm eagerly ordering my four third of a pint tasting glasses. Below are my typed up tasting notes from last night (typed into my iPhone so I didn’t look like too much of a beer ticker!).

NB - They are obviously all extremely ‘hoppy’, so I’ve tried to drill down into the flavour profiles of the hops rather than just state the obvious ‘It’s really hoppy’. I’ve also reordered these to match the order in photo above, although I actually tasted them in a slightly different order, not that it really matters.

Nelson Sauvin
Smells just like passion fruit, in fact it’s a total Um Bongo of tropical fruit smells, maybe not 9 that I could name... but not far off. Taste is a touch grapefruity to start with, although it’s more the combination of a slightly sweet orange flavour combined with mouth drying citrus that gives this impression. Very dry in the finish with masses of resinous citrus hops. Although a New Zealand hop I couldn’t help but think this had the taste of an English IPA on steroids, everything cranked up to 11, definitely didn’t have an American IPA flavour to me. Bready orange centre comes through a little more after a few minutes of warming in the glass, a definite fruit loaf base, not aged fruit loaf, but those ones you buy for toasting with butter. Probably the best tasting but just extremely fruity overall, it could honestly pass for a top notch fruit beer on a blind tasting.

Bramling X
This one isn’t as citrus fruit smelling as the others, more pear and apple, with a similar flavour profile to the smell, but with notes of almond, and very faintly smokey. The hops in this one actually remind me of Leeds Best. Which makes me wonder whether they use Bramling Cross in that beer, the website just states ‘English Hops’ but would be interesting to find out. I’ll drop them an email and let you know. This one is very rich compared to the others, possibly because the hops aren’t as citrusy to cut through that cakey malt base, making it much deeper and richer tasting. Also a slight sultana flavour which I think comes from the combination of the malt base and English fruit hop flavour. Hops in this one aren’t actually very drying. Very nice and would try again, but wouldn’t choose over the Citra or Nelson.

Sorachi Ace
The smell and taste has a definite whisky quality, slight orange peel but herbal, lemony and medicinal. In fact, it’s Cointreau Liqueur that is the overriding flavour I’m getting. Definitely herbal, maybe Lemon Thyme? Medicinal, and not really in a pleasant way. Maybe this is just psychological but it does have an Oriental herb or lemongrass flavour, but it’s nothing I could pin down. It is bitter and dry like this style of IPA should be, but it’s an orange pith taste which isn’t really very appealing, and a lightly ashy dryness which is a little musty, a bit damp-burnt-cardboard. Wouldn't drink another of this but glad I tried, not entirely pleasant - An interesting experiment but for me doesn’t quite work. My least favourite of the four by some way. (NB – The very knowledgeable barman at North Bar said he liked this one best, so maybe it’s horses for course. What did you think of it?)

May sound a little obvious, but wow, citrus! Very, very lemony with a dry aftertaste. Smells of pine with a little pink grapefruit. Alcohol seems slightly more noticeable than the others somehow but in a good way. It took me absolutely ages to put my finger on this, but it also smells really strongly of peach schnapps. Most aggressive hop ‘bite’ of the four. Just creeps in as my favourite but the nelson is a close second. This is ruinously drinkable for 7.5%, extremely moreish. A truly amazing modern IPA. Think I’ve wrote the least notes on this one because I just couldn’t stop drinking it!

These notes were made on the four tasters, which for a beer this strength were easily big enough to get a good grasp of all the different flavours and smells within the beer. However, at the end of the tasting I ordered a half pint of the Nelson, then a half pint of the Citra, and it was at this point the Citra really got it’s head in front as the clear winner. It is just so hugely drinkable, with a dryness that makes you want to take another drink, and another and another. The Nelson was by far the fruitiest and probably had the most complex, interesting and wholly pleasant flavours of the four. But it was just too fruity to drink any amount of. It’s the moreishness of the Citra that sets it apart, and I hate to admit it but I can see why this Hop is getting plaudits from the blogosphere, particularly when showcased on its own like this, it’s an absolute belter.

The Stew & Oyster - a beer lovers valentine destination

Tuesday, February 15, 2011
I talked about The Stew & Oyster (AKA ‘Calls Landing’) in my round up of some good places for food and beer in Leeds, but after a fantastic Valentines dinner there last night with the better half I think it deserves a post of its own. Essentially, they’ve upped their game.

One of my niggles previously was that the cask beer was often served way too cold. However, this wasn’t a problem last night with my first pint being at perfect cellar temp and in great condition. I opted for a pint of Deuchars IPA to begin with, and at a session strength 3.8%, it was a perfect first beer. Not too heavy, floral, lightly hoppy and bitter in that classically balanced British Bitter kind of way, but with a nice soft underlying malt and slightly creamy mouthfeel. It was a great thirst quencher.

The one thing that was a little disappointing was that the three cask ales were very similar; Theakstons Best Bitter (the house ale), Black Sheep Best Bitter, and of course the Deuchars I opted for, all tipping the ABV at a quaffable 3.8%. Whilst all three are perfectly decent session bitters, it meant that by my second drink I was hankering for something with a bit more depth.

The recently developed Calls Landing website has a new menu which includes a few well chosen additions such as ‘twice cooked chips’ which I did fancy trying, unfortunately I was told on arrival the new websites menu hasn’t launched yet. No matter, what they do currently offer, they do extremely well and the chalk board stew menu yesterday evening certainly didn’t disappoint.

Rich and robust chilli con carne with mixed peppers and smoky bacon.
Aparagus with mixed green beans and white wine pesto cream.
Rich shepherds stew (beef) with garden peas and broad beans.

The website also states “Our stews are homemade using the most seasonal and freshest ingredients. They are all the same price and are served with crusty bread, toasted seeds, cheese, greek yogurt and wild rocket.” Which I couldn’t say better myself.

They offer two types of oysters now, both very reasonable and always super fresh. I’ve eaten Oysters in lots of places and the ones from here are as good as any, and for this price, they are untouchable. It’s £7 for half a dozen of the small Irish Oysters but we opted for a full dozen, which came on two separate serving plates bedded with ice and studded with lemon, an attractive and practical way of serving as the ice not only keeps the oysters cool but also ensures they stay upright with all their fresh juice and flavour contained within the shell.

For what were billed as ‘small’ oysters they were actually pretty big. With the meat being large for the shell, something which I’ve been told is a good sign, meaning they were very healthy and fresh. Absolutely delicious. For anyone who hasn’t tried oysters yet, particularly if you are a fan of seafood such as mussels, you are missing out. Just don’t listen to any tosh about swallowing them in one go, it’s a load of rubbish. Chew them and swallow them exactly the same as you would any other seafood to get the full flavour and surprisingly soft, creamy texture.

By the time we’d finished the oysters my Deuchars had slipped down nicely, it’s delicate bittersweet flavour matching really well with the salty oysters. I decided I fancied something a bit more complex next and after weighing up the rather samey handpumps, and not fancying a keg lager, opted for a chilled bottle of Duvel from the fridge. A stonewall classic for a reason and always a safe bet.

For main course I ordered the Chilli and Colette went for the Shepards stew (both should be £6.50 but with a Taste Card we got them buy one get one free) after being told at the bar it was actually lamb and not the beef that was stated on the board. My stew was really deep and rich with tomato, paprika, chilli, cumin and I think fennel seeds, plus the smoky chunks of bacon lardon, chopped dried red chilli, sweet mixed peppers and long slow cooking really added to the depth of the stew. The meat was really high quality coarsely ground butchers mince and wonderfully ‘beefy’ in flavour.

Colette chose the Shepards stew, which if I’m honest I was a little unsure about when I read it on the menu. The description leaning towards a Shepards Pie, but how would that work as a stew?
My concerns were unfounded, as it really was fantastic. One of the best stews I’ve tried from here, and something that I can’t believe i’ve never thought of trying myself. It was essentially a deconstructed Shepards Pie with peas and broad beans. The lamb having been slowly cooked with what I think must have been a little wine and stock as well as onions, carrots, garlic, thyme and rosemary, studded with potatoes, peas and broadbeans. It felt like Sunday lunch in a bowl and I half wished I’d opted for it myself.

It’s also a really nice touch that the stews come with (on this occasion a measly amount of) rocket, a sprinkling of toasted seeds for texture, and a little greek yoghurt and grated cheese if appropriate (the Sheperds stew didn’t have it but my chilli did). You also get two huge slices of thick cut bread and good room temperature butter. A filling and delicious combo.

I’m not going to bore you with a description of the Duvel because if you are reading this then you probably know how good it is, but all i’ll say is it actually paired with the chilli really well in the same way that a lager or hoppy IPA would. The other half was drinking Pinot Grigio Rose, and let’s be honest who wants to read about that?
In conclusion, if you’re in Leeds then definitely give this place a go. It’s unlike any other place i’ve ever been, and let’s be honest who doesn’t like a good stew and a pint of ale?

Is Britain ready for the Hop invasion? Do we even like them!?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011
Something happened last night while I was at The Adelphi in Leeds having a farewell drink with an old friend that's moving down to London (isn't everybody?). It got me thinking about the popularity of big hop flavours and aromas in beer, namely beers with big bitterness and a pronounced pithy hop profile.

Just to set the scene this a traditional looking pub but one that has a lot of good world beers, decent real ales, and a few well known American Craft beers. It's popular with a few older "Real Ale Regulars" who mix happily amongst what I'll call the "Premium Lager Twentysomethings". I like the pub, and in fact gave it an "honourable mention" not long ago in a blog about good places for food and beer in Leeds.

I'd had a pint of the ever reliable Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and was at the bar looking what to have for my second - my mate was staying on the Sierra but I fancied a change. On one of the guest cask handpulls I spotted Worthington White Shield IPA. It's a beer that I've had many times in bottle form but had never seen on cask before, a must try in my book. So then the following conversation played out between myself and the barman:

"Could I have a pint of the White Shield please mate?"
"Have you had it before?"
"Erm yeah, but only in bottles, why?"
"We've had a few people complain about it. Do you want to try it first?"

At this point I'm thinking the conditionings off or it was just a bad batch but thought I'd give it a try. I know better than to go ahead and order a pint after being asked if I'd like to try it first. So the barman pulled me a small measure and passed it over.

Ok so, hmm, Smells ok? Give it a taste and... wow. It had everything that I'd enjoyed about the bottled White Shield, and more. The very fine almost champagne like mouthfeel and carbonation of the bottled brew had been smoothed out with cask conditioning, and was absolutely spot on, not as lively as the bottle, but for me personally was perfectly carbonated. The dense, slightly sweet malt base was bigger, more enhanced, sharper, clearer. Again, perfect. Then the next part was something I didn't expect from a cask IPA, the hops were much more pronounced than in the bottled version. They were huge, bitter, juicy and aromatic. It was absolutely stunning. So somewhat bemused I handed the little taster tumbler (do they have a proper name?) back to the barman and our exchange continued.

"It tastes absolutely fine to me mate. To be honest, it's spot on, it tastes better than the bottles I've had. I'll have a pint."
"Ok no problem. Only reason I asked if you wanted to try it is we've had a few of the regulars complaining that it's too bitter. I mean it's quite tart if you haven't had it before."

We carried on chatting for a minute or so as he pulled the pints and I paid. Essentially the aforementioned Real Ale Regulars had ordered a few pints and complained it was "off" and tasted "sour", and a few of the younger lads had diverted from a pint of Peroni and given it a go but thought it tasted "weird". NB: I might not have the most experienced palate in the world but I know what White Shield tastes like, I know what a bad cask tastes like, and I know that this beer was spot on.

It was simply the big hop profile that was putting off the local drinkers. This beer tasted exactly as an IPA should do but both the Premium Lager Twentysomethings and the Real Ale Regulars hated it - and it got me thinking... Do British drinkers actually like hoppy beers? Are they ready for an invasion of big IPA's? Or is it just us beer geeks who are into it?

I've heard people say on the beer blogosphere that heavy hopped IPA's are becoming so popular they will soon penetrate the mainstream market and become as commonplace as Pilsners. I never quite believed this, but last night really brought my thoughts in to focus on the matter. The most popular mainstream beers don't have big hop profiles, and from this experience it seems that these Real Ale Regulars weren't fans either. I'd sort of assumed that "cask drinkers" would be getting into bigger hopped beers and American IPA's like the rest of us, but are they?

I'd love to know everyones thoughts on this one.

Is Brewdog Punk IPA really the first canned "Craft beer" in the UK?

Monday, February 07, 2011
The subject of dispense is one that gets a massive amount of coverage in the beer blogosphere, never more so than last week when the friday blog "Session" was pointedly requesting those in the know to flex their literary muscles and wax lyrical about can vs bottle vs cask vs keg.

So it seems fitting that Brewdog would announce on their blog the following day that Punk IPA (the new 5.6% version) would be available in cans from the 10th of February.

Let's get this out of the way nice and early. I'm all for Brewdog being available in cans, I'm all for any craft beer being made available in cans provided the flavour isn't effected. It's environmentally friendly, economically sensible, and well lets face it, they fit in the fridge better (just a light 45-60 minute chill in there mind you).

We all know that the Americans love craft in a can, infact for a lot of companies over there it is seen as the standard way to contain beer - with glass bottles becoming less used every year. Mark Dredge has openly promoted it, and Melissa of 'Taking the Beard out of Beer' is also a big fan. So what's the problem?

Unfortunetly I think this side of the pond is going to take some convincing. Generally speaking it's just the macro lagers and smooth bitters that get a canning in the UK. I'd go so far as to say the fact that decent beer generally comes in a 500ml bottle over here (Brewdog again always have to be different don't they) is important to many craft beer drinkers, it keeps things simple - tat in cans, quality in bottles, easy!

I think this is why so many people are worried about cans. They are worried the beer will change for the worse. The Beer will move to meet the can, rather than the vessle being designed to accomodate the beer.

Brewdog have, as usual, done it differently. They've used the same light filtration as they did for their bottles, and have kept the beer unpasteurised. This is hugely important, and is made 100% clear by them on their blog:

"We will be sending the beer down all ready to package, to the same very lightly filtered specification we use on our bottled and kegged beers. We will also be bypassing the pasturization part of the process meaning the beer in the can will be not pasteurized and only very lightly filtered leaving all the amazing hoppy flavour to explode out of the can at you when your crack it open!"

So is Brewdog Punk IPA the first craft beer in a can available in the UK? Zak Avery wrote a blog post ages ago (yes Zak i've been reading your musings for some time now) saying that Badger were going to put their 'craft beer' in cans. This has now happened, I've seen the cans of tanglefoot myself in Morrisons. But is it craft? Or is it just beer in a can? Is there a difference? Badger make some nice beers, and tanglefoot in a can is a decent drop. But for me it's a different beast to Punk in cans. I can't quite bring myself to call Hobgoblin, Pedigree, London Pride or Tanglefoot, which are all available canned, Craft canned beer. Even though they are all perfectly decent beers, it just doesn't feel right.

For me it comes down to the filtration and pasteurisation in the first instance, but also the quality of the beers ingredients and production methods. The high amounts of hops, high quality ingredients, minimal filtration and lack of pasteurisation all come together to make beer that is fresh tasting and full of vibrant, multi-layered flavour. Ironically, the same reasons that mean when done well cask is hard to beat.

So the question is, if they've got it to this stage at such high quality why would they risk putting it in a container which would harm the flavour? The answer is that they wouldn't. There's nothing wrong with craft in a can provided the beer hasn't been changed to suit the container, and the can itself is properly lined (which they all are anyway nowadays). Brewdog have built a following thanks to some *cough* imaginitive marketing, and most importantly some amazing tasting beers that are completely different to those brewded by other UK brewers. So provided the beer remains awesome, who cares if it's canned?

Long live craft in cans!

Anyway, that's my two-pence worth. Please feel free to comment, and tell me how wrong I am.

Beer Review: Meantime London Porter (M&S)

Thursday, February 03, 2011

This is a beer I've bean meaning to review for some time now after it was recommended to me by a beer geek friend. I must admit I was a bit reluctant to trust Marks and Spencers with a Porter, I mean, what do they know? But then a quick Google search landed me with a piece of information that came like ruby red light at the end of a deeply dark tunnel; it's brewed by Meantime.

Based in Greenwich, (get it?) Meantime have built a solid reputation for producing high quality craft beers, and a flare for truly authentic traditional British styles. In other words, they are the perfect brewery to brew this Porter for M&S.

Personally I've had mixed experiences with Meantime beers. For example, I absolutely loved their Meantime London Stout on tap. I spent a good few hours, and a fair few quid, eating fantastic seafood and drinking stout at the unmatchable Wright Brothers Oyster & Porter House next to Borough Market. It was perfectly carbonated, smooth and rich with flavours of chocolate, light smoke, coffee and herbal hops - and utterly fantastic pint after pint.

On the other side of the spectrum, I found their Meantime Coffee Beer almost undrinkable. A mess of bitter, washed out filter coffee flavour fighting against a flat and slightly stale tasting body. Whether I got a bad batch I don't know, but from what I tasted it seems fitting that the beer no longer features on the brewery's homepage. That said, the eminently reliable Roger Protz didn't mind the beer when he reviewed it here, although I can detect in his tone a few extra points given for effort rather than achievement.

So on to the matter at hand. Well first of all it has to be said that this is a great looking bottle of beer. I think the meantime designers must have had a hand in the label design for M&S, because compared to their other offerings (Bull silhouettes on the Spanish Lager and a White Rose for the Yorkshire bitter) it's a bloody work of art.

The beer pours with a small bubbly head that quickly dissipates to a thing ring that leaves a small amount of lacing but never quite disappears, spot on for the style I'd say.

It has a crystal black colour that has edges tinged with ruby, almost raspberry red when held to the light, and equally the body actually looks more of a dark mahogany brown when light comes through.

There's a strong roasted smell when you first give it a sniff, but also strong, good milk chocolate and smoked malt come through, along with a very faint whiff of hops, but not strong enough to pin down further than that.

The beer starts very similar to the smell, with a big roasted malt flavour upfront. But then a big hop bitterness comes in and completely lifts the beer before it turns slightly sweet with milk chocolate and malt, then becomes slightly dry and smoky in the finish. It's very complex, and one of those beers which has a very clearly defined begin middle and end.

The mouthfeel is very smooth and rich, but also surprisingly light with a chewy character that manages to never become cloying. It's extremely refreshing for a beer with such strong flavours, and hides it's 5.5% extremely well. For me a porter should be drinkable and refreshing, with a strong hop profile to keep the roasted, malty, chocolatey flavours in check. This porter absolutely achieves that. It's one of the most true to style porters I've ever tasted; and excellent stuff from a great brewery.