Friday, 26 February 2010

My Left Hand

I've had a couple of beers from the Left Hand Brewing Company before, most recently at the opening of Beer Temple in Amsterdam, so my mouth was watering when I saw them alongside the Flying Dog beers on Bier Zwerg, the beer shop in Cologne that has suddenly become my favourite. I wonder why!

Juju Ginger, as the name suggests, is brewed with ginger. It's a hazy, orange-tinted amber with a tight head. i only got a hint of ginger in the aroma, so subtle that I wasn't sure if i was making it up because the label told me to expect it. What I did get in the aroma was a cross between caramelised sugar and orange marmalade. First thought on tasting it was 'where's the ginger?' followed by 'Is this a US craft beer? Where are the C hops?'. I don't mean the latter in any serious way, but that caramelised flavour was really to the fore, initially at least, and the hop character felt more English. While big and soft on the tongue, it ends a little thin, although that does allow the ginger to make a gentle showing, perhaps a little late. Overall, it's a decent enough, simple beer, but the ginger component (compared to the Williams Bros. test batch Ginger Beer) seemed to be minimal, and it left me wanting.

So, what better to take away my longing than a homely Milk Stout, pouring a dark, creosote brown with an off-white head. Simple aromas: light coffee and chocolate. It has an interesting flavour combination. Certainly good, well balanced roasted elements -- chicory coffee and a bit of a dark chocolate bite -- but then there's this creaminess suffusing it all, driving right up the middle with a slight vanilla fudge-like sweetness mixed with feels like almost pineapple-like hop influences. The finish is lightly roasted, sweet but not cloying and with a nice, unexpected touch of black pepper. Yeah, that was better.
I'd rather liked the Left Hand Black Jack Porter when I had it previously in Amsterdam, so was looking forward to trying it from the bottle. I have to say, I wasn't getting much in the aroma department, just a light, sweet roastiness, and flavourwise, again, no extremes, which confused me as I recalled much bigger flavours when I had it on tap. But, it has a lovely blend of decent body, caramel, light coffee and an ever so gentle touch of phenols that gives a little edge and keeps you looking deeper. As it warms, it reveals treacle, vanilla and more fudgey caramel goodness. There's a bit of a zing to the finish, perhaps a touch carbonic, but it's long, sweet and with a pleasant cocoa bite. I like this. There's no extremes, but it's satisfying, although I think I got more of a kick from it on draft.

Wandering off looking for kicks brought me to their Imperial Stout. I didn't have to go far: just into the kitchen. I have to admit, my notes are light on this, which is usually a good sign. What I do recall is that this has a dark chocolate, cream toffee, aniseed aroma, suggesting something rich and thick. And you know what? That's what it is. Big vanilla (this seems to be a common theme with their dark beers), espresso, toffee sweetness, anise, a touch boozy with just the right amount of clovey, phenolic character. A grand, slow-sipping nightcap.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Dog has Landed

Don't get me wrong, I love German beer, but now and again I get the craving for those kind of hoppy animals that typify the American craft brewing world. Only thing is, they're practically impossible to get in Germany, and making trips to Brussels or Amsterdam have been the best opportunities for me to get anything like that. Till now.

Thanks to the efforts of Bier & Co, the importer based in the Netherlands and personified by Rick Kempen, I can now get good American craft beer almost at my doorstep. In Cologne, to be exact, via Bier Zwerg, who thankfully deliver. Because Rick is a thoughtful guy, he let me know via Twitter that Bier Zwerg had placed an order with Bier & Co, so I was able to camp, virtually, on their doorstep. And what did I order? Well, 20 mixed bottles from a handful of breweries, but lets start with some of the Flying Dog beers, in drinking order:

I broke myself in gently with a Doggie Style Classic Pale Ale, a clear amber beer with a small, tight head. It gives off a good, solid, earthy orange pith aroma with the support of a decent caramel base. Kinda comforting. My mouth was already watering at this stage, so the first sip was Oh Yeah! Up front there's a load of quite floral, pithy hop flavours, followed by chewy, bready malts all delivered on a soft, fullish body. The finish is relatively dry, leaving a lasting orange sorbet coating on the tongue I got a slight soapiness in the finish, but it didn't detract from an overall solidly brewed, and very drinkable (there's that word again!) 4.7% beer. Yeah, I'd call it a classic too, I suppose.
Moving up the ranks to the Snake Dog IPA, at 7.1% ABV. I've had this before (in Dublin as I recall), but I was keen to revisit. At a quoted 60 IBUs, I knew this was going to be loaded with hops and, sure enough, the aroma is literally like sticking your nose into a bag of fresh hops. Spicy, resinous, delicious. And you know what? That's what it tastes like too. It has a remarkably fresh hop flavour, with loads of pine and citrus sauciness. Oddly, I expected this to be a bitter bomb, but at that ABV clearly a lot of malt went in there, providing a luscious caramel body that holds those hops up wonderfully, and displaying great balance. If you crave hop flavours, but don't like them too bitter, this is for you. The finish is long, continuing that apparently never-ending citrus/resinous hop mix  and it leaves you with a slight sugary stickiness on the lips. Goes down a little too easy though.

I had intended trying the Raging Bitch last, but a tweet from Rick suggested that it might be best before the Double Dog, so I swapped them around. So, a Belgian-style IPA? Taking a sniff I have to admit thinking 'ah, that's what the mean'.The aroma is certainly unique. There are juicy-fruit elements, funky bits, a touch of bile, grapefruit, farmyard, pine nuts... quite hard to pin down, but overall, not unpleasant.

The flavour contains elements of all the above, but subtly. Then there's banana and bubblegum, passion fruit, yeasty, bready flavours and something deep down that reminded me of nothing more than melted cheese on toast. I'm not joking! It's all very strange, but fun and rewarding to explore. The finish is warm -- well, it would be at 8.3% -- with a pine nut hoppiness on rye.

Look, just ignore all the above and go try it yourself.

Last, but by no means last, came Double Dog, a so-called Double Pale Ale from their Canis Major series (Yay! I just realised I have them all!). This beastie weighs in at 11.5% ABV and a weighty 85 IBUs, so yeah, good call to leave it till last.

Compared to what went before, this displayed a surprisingly subtle aroma with classic C-hop orange and grapefruitiness. Sweet candy and toffee-like malts hit the tongue first, but on swallowing, the hops move in, surprisingly gently but taking no shit all the same. Big mandarin orange, pithy, sorbet-like hop flavours slide down the tongue. It's not brash or harsh, but it's certainly big and warm-hearted, gently beating you senseless by wrapping you in a blanket of toffee and grapefruit deliciousness till you drift of into a comfy sleep. Or that could just be the hops talking...

The problem with drinking beers like this is that it means I have to reset my taste buds back to German beer once I run out. Not a bad thing, but sometimes it's hard to go back to subtle, refreshing German beers after those that just made your tongue dance.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Alt versus Kölsch

At the risk of appearing like I'm becoming a beer-war correspondent, it looks like that old rivalry between beer towns Cologne and Düsseldorf is heating up. Beer geeks will no doubt be aware of this competitiveness between the people of these two cities on the Rhine when it comes to loyalty to their city's respective beer, Kölsch or Alt. I even see it in my office when the subject of either type of beer is raised, although the majority seem to prefer Alt, based on the Kölsch blind tasting I ran a while back.

The latest salvo was triggered in response to a series of billboards comissioned by Früh that were displayed all over Düsseldorf, basically showing an empty glass of Kölsch with the words “Before it gets old”, with Alt, of course, being the German for old.

Torsten Heinson, a CEO of communications company Wunderknaben (wonder boys is a rough translation), saw this and decided enough was enough, the Kölners had breached the walls and had to be repulsed. Gathering the collective creativism of fellow Düsseldorfer and Altbier-fan colleagues, art directors, web designers and copywriters came together to create a focal-point, Alt Knallt (more or less Alt Bangs, in the fireworks sense), as a non-commercial initiative to try to mobilse the masses via social media to rescue their beloved Altbier from the encroachments of the pale invader.

Interestingly, no breweries are yet involved, and Wunderknaben are taking this on board as an internal project for the love of the beer and as a social experiment in trying to rally the troops while having a bit of fun.

So far it seems like early days. There are Facebook, Twitter and other social networking accounts ready to go, and the Alt Knallt site itself has a forum and an area where supporters can upload their own billboard designs as a counter-attack to insidious Kölsch invasion.

If I had to take sides, I think it's clear where my loyalties would lie, so here's my English-language contribution to the efforts. I know it just doesn't translate into German, but you get the meaning, right?

Thursday, 18 February 2010

So, looks like it IS a competition after all.

I was either wrong all along about this being a one-sided, made-up competition between BrewDog and Schorschbräu that was just a part of the BrewDog marketing machine, or I was right when I said that this would become a self-fulfilling prophesy as it got hyped up. Either way, I get the impression both sides are taking it personally (although thankfully BrewDog removed the personal jabs against the Franken brewer from the promo move). Why do I think it's gonna become self-fulfilling and just reach new heights? I just came across a piece on about Schorschbräu losing the record. A rough translation below.

With an alcohol content of 41%, the strong beer brewed by BrewDog has more alcohol than that brewed by the Franconian Brewery Schorschbräu in Gunzenhausen, British media reported on Tuesday. The 330-milliliter bottle is under the name "Sink the Bismarck" (The last voyage order the Bismarck) is available for 40 pounds (46 euros) over the Internet. The beer is named after a war film in which the British Navy hunt for the German battleship Bismarck. The brewer of the Franconian Brewery Schorschbräu, George Tscheuschner, however, expressed doubts about the alleged new record.

He has supposed that the Scots would have kept the beer in whiskey barrels and it was therefore also included whiskey alcohol, he told the Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa in Nuremberg. He was just about to prove it. "I wish there to be fair competition," said Tscheuschner. He himself would soon bring out a beer with 45% by volume of alcohol. The high alcohol content is achieved by the so-called Eisbockverfahren, where the beer freezes and separates the ice crystals. The remaining liquid, the alcohol and sugar concentration is then even higher. Schorschbräu in Franconia Gunzenhausen specializes in strong beers.

Tscheuschner said he was producing limited editions of no more than 1,000 bottles a year. Of the 40-percent "Record beer," the Schorschbock that he had previously produced 95 bottles. The bottle costs 99 euros. This pipeline is clearly a specialty for collectors and enthusiasts.

So, yeah, he thought they might be cheating, and of course now he's gonna come out with another volley. I guess competition is healthy, and a race for a record like this, while perhaps silly, is kinda fun too. As long as it's a clean fight with respect on both sides, I say let them at it!

But, won't somebody think of the children!?


BBC Radio 5 had both James and Georg on for an interview in the early hours of February 19th. Nothing about accusations of cheating was brought up, and Georg, although saying that as a German he couldn't play the "war card", said he thought the video was very funny. For his part, James said that they had wanted to make a beer that hit the strength of whisky for some time, and it was simply a case of timing that led to the name and this new competition between the two breweries. Georg basically said that it's to everybody's advantage, and one of his drivers was to introduce new, challenging tastes to German drinkers who are normally used to the usual Helles, Dunkles, Pils and Weissbier offerings from German breweries (he's right too). He said they're planning another one. So, all in all, pretty civilised, and it would have been nice to hear the two brewers talk directly to each other with out a presenter in between. Of course the radio presenter couldn't help but throw in phrases like "the Bunker" and "Blitzkrieg". No wonder the Germans just shrug it off...

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Gessner Original Festbier

Gessner Original Festbier is the second beer from Privatbrauerei Gessner that I've tried. The first was their Premium Pils, which was ok compared to some seriously bland pils coming from that part of Germany. As usual with a Festbier, it's a touch stronger than the regulation issue, being 5.6% rather than about 4.9. This one pours a bright amber and delivers a sweet caramel-malt aroma with an apple-like background and a hint of lemon.

The flavour also delivers light caramel with a surprisingly clean -- almost verging on sour apple -- splash, or zing, through the middle. I often think festbier is going to be thick and over-sweet, but this, although you know it's stronger than normal, is quite light in the mouthfeel department. The flavours deepen with a slight spiciness and the hops make their presence felt with a light hay and slightly woody bitterness to the finish. As it warms it does feel a bit thicker, but it's a lot better than I expected it to be. Tasty.

These notes are from last August, in case you were wondering why there's no snow in the photo.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Bergbräu Altstadt Dunkel

Bergbräu Altstadt Dunkel, from Privatbrauerei Haffner, pours a reddish brown, clear, with little head. It has a subtle aroma, with dried fruit and a little nutty element.

It has lovely, juicy malts, toffee, raisins and an ever so slight toasted edge. The hops come to the fore with an apple-like touch and provide a lingering spiciness, leaning towards ginger. Later, a slight metallic edge creeps in, and I felt it was let down a bit with a resinous note to the finish, but that's just my personal dislike for resinous flavours coming through.

Overall, really quite nice. I'd gladly have another.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Astra Rotlicht

Just for Cookie, as he asked today about what vagrants in Germany would be drinking. I suggested that, around here at least, Hansa Pils is popular, judging by the bottles left around the station, and Oettinger rates high in most peoples views of beer drunk by tramps (I like their schwarzbier). I reckon Astra Rotlicht, brewed by the Bavaria-St.Pauli brewery (correction: brewed at the Holston brewery, although the brand is still under Bavaria-St. Pauli), would be a good choice though, as it's cheap and stronger than the average Pils at 6%.

I've a good few of these in the cellar as my neighbour seems to buy it now and again. From a glass, it's got a soft mouthfeel with an apparently low carbonation. It gives a bready sweetness, a touch of cardboard (Hah! and that was before I took that photo!), a bit of apple, but overall thin and with a bit of a metallic finish. A bit of an acrid taste creeps up the more you drink too. Having said all that, it's not as crap as I thought it'd be, but a bit meh.
Drinking it from the bottle as I type though, it seems better than when I last had one a few weeks ago. Then again, I do have a cold. I might have another, just to be sure, like.

If I've not bored you enough, you can explore the Astra world, or make your own mind up about the nature of their posters here. That last one with the bearded guy (left) is creeping me out a bit.

Oh, I reckon Lübzer Urkraft would make a damn good ditch dweller beer too.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Return to Copenhagen, Day 2: Nørrebro at last!

Day two of my recent trip to Copenhagen was the highlight, business-wise, as I was there to attend a meeting in the city centre. Again, I'd planned to meet a colleague in the evening, but he couldn't make it so, again, I was left to my own devices and, as I had missed Nørrebro last time, I was determined to make it over there, with a stop off at Plan B for one of their apparently famous sandwiches as well as the beer selection. It wasn't too far from the hotel, despite the snowy pavements, and Plan B looked busy and inviting. It's a kinda kooky place, with a big portrait of what might well be the owner on the wall, naked, with part of his face covered by what looked like a 70's porn mag and wearing a pith helmet. Thankfully his pertinent bits are just out of frame, but only just!

It does have a relaxing feel to it though, with sofas, mismatched tables and chairs and a DJ who set some chill-out sounds going before disappearing. I went up to order a big ham and cheese sandwich, and while looking at the taps the barman whipped out a glass and literally slammed a sample of something at me. Turned out to be a Mikkeller Big Worse Barley Wine. This exploded in my mouth but I'm not going to try to describe it based on a couple of mouthfuls while trying to order a sandwich and a beer. And although I was tempted, I decided against it because the bar man said it was 17% -- now that I looked it up apparently it's only 12% -- so I reckoned I'd like to start a little lower so I'd make it over to Nørrebro and maybe pop in on the way back. But he wasn't done. Just before ordering he then lashed bit of Paradox Isle of Arran from the tap.

I'd have happily continued like this, pretending not to be able to decide, but I went for a Mikkeller Cascade Single Hop IPA. This gives off that classic cascadey orange/grapefruit aroma in buckets, and it delivers on its promise in the mouth. It's big flavoured, but more rounded than its centennial sister I had the evening before. Sure, it's loaded with hops, and the finish is definitely heavily pithed in the bitterness stakes, but right in the middle it gives a nice sweetly soft, full-bodied caramel flavour which supports the hops wonderfully. Yep, definitely more to my taste than the Centennial one, but then I wasn't as knackered.

I finished my humongous sandwich and braved the cold again to cross over the Peblinge Sø -- which was completely iced over, so I was tempted to cross over that way -- to get to Nørrebro. It's a bit out of the way, but walking in it had a nice welcoming buzz about it. It's very open, and you have the choice of going up some steps to what i assume id the more restauranty part, or down to the very Scandic-looking bar. You know the type: lots of pale wood, laminates and a couple of white leather sofas to lie in. Of course I made a bee-line for the sofas! At one end is the bar and at the other the brewery, or perhaps part of it.

The  very friendly and helpful bar staff led me to try the Nørrebro Robust Porter. With a nice, rich, roasty aroma, the taste went Pow! It's sweet, roasty, slightly fruity and smokey with a good dose of bitterness, like bitter almonds. There a slight orange thing going on, and it's sticky on the lips. At 7% it also happened to  be perfect for warming up after my short walk.

I then went for the Nørrebro Globe Ale, which is billed on the signs outside as a CO2-neutral-produced beer, in the mold of an English bitter. It's fruity, with a juicy-fruit-like quality, and has quite a yeasty feel to it as well as some marzipan. The finish shows a gentle floral and grassy hop character. Nice and simple, and definitely with low carbonation

The barman had warned me about Pillage and Burn, their smoked porter, telling me it wasn't to everyone's taste. Well, Jesus, what else could I do in the face of such temptation? Like the Robust Porter, this weighs in at 7%, but smells and tastes a lot more fruity than it, or than I expected. It's got pronounced cherry and raisin notes, some roastiness and a light, sweetish smoked flavour. I expected more, especially with a name like that, but overall it was sweet, subtle and highly drinkable. Actually, I really liked it, and in hindsight I wish I'd stayed for one more. As it was, time was marching on, and I wanted to make a couple of stops on the way back.

Unfortunately, Plan B was closed, so there went my Mikkeller Big Worse idea. I shouldered my bag and trudged on to find Charlie's Bar, which had been recommended by a fellow twitterer. This is a kind of bar that goes against my principles when visiting a city, in that it's famous for its British cask beers, and not local fodder. But, it was on the way back, and as I seldom get to try cask beer, I felt it worth a go. I then realised it's not my usual kind of place as it was full of ex-pats and some suits (who were clearly just visiting). There's qiute an array of pumps, but I just blurted out the first one I saw, being Hook Norton Hooky Gold, probably due to the subliminal messages over on Real Ale Reviews. I sat in the corner, half reading a book, half listening to the conversation between the Irish and English guy. That conversation that I must have had a hundred times myself. They were clearly all mates along the tight-packed bar, and it had a nice feel to it. At one point the whole bar went deadly silent apart from one of the suited visitors screeching something at the barman about thousands of millions of Kroner, at which point he stopped, apologised and chatter resumed. The Hooky Gold? Ehh, yeah, it was nice!

I was fading a little, what with my stuffed up head, persistent cough and a few beers inside me, so I finished my pint and trundled off, sad that I wasn't staying another night, but happy to be returning to the family on the morning, complete with more Lego. For my son!

Friday, 5 February 2010

Return to Copenhagen, Day 1

It was almost exactly a year ago that I last visited Copenhagen, and I was happy to be sent over for another visit, despite the snow that seemed to be getting heavier as I travelled. I had a couple of meetings arranged over the next couple of days, but the schedule was fairly relaxed, which was good as I'd been stuffed up and tired with a lousy cold that just wouldn't shift. I arrived on Tuesday about 5pm, and went straight to my hotel, the Kong Frederik. It's nice enough, and although my room was tiny and a little worn, it was comfy and a fine place to lay my head at night. That and it had free wireless Internet access, although the free mini bar consisted of a bottle of coke, a bottle of diet coke and a bottle of Carlsberg. I drank all the coke both nights. The hotel is located close to the main train station and is just around the corner from BrewPub København, where I had planned to meet with a colleague. As it turns out, he was delayed on the way back from Jutland because of the snow, so I was left to my own devices. I'd visited the previous year and really enjoyed the beers I'd had then, so was eager for more, and some food.

Straight in the door, and without delay, I ordered an Armstrong IPA and the BrewPub Burger. The IPA has a firm, hoppy aroma, faintly grapefruity, but leaning more towards earthy handfuls of fresh hops. They're certainly forward in the flavour stakes, with definite orange pith and mandarin-like flavours. It's a touch watery, and the malts just about make a showing as a slightly biscuity sweetness. The finish leaves you with more pith, increasing grapefruit tones and a white-pepper spiciness. Overall quite nice.

The Burger, by the way, was also quite nice, except for the fact that the centre of it was quite raw. The thick-cut chips were delicious with a lemon mayonnaise. Damn, I'm getting hungry typing this...

A group of English-speakers arrived in and were ordering lots of the Red Xmas, which is described in the menu as an Extra Special Bitter. It looks the part, being a rich, ruby-tinted dark amber, or at least it looked good in the candlelight. The aroma is mild and slightly fruity. To be honest it felt very cold, so not much was escaping the glass. As it happens, the flavour is also kind of nondescript. Nothing really stands out, although that fruitiness is there, like dried apricots, with a touch of toffee and gentle, grassy hops. As it warms it deepens a little and the finish begins to reveal that kind of East Kent Goldings floral character, but gently. It's no ESB in the Fuller's sense, but a pleasent enough 4.8% beer all the same.

At this stage I was quite happy with my own company, reading a book and sipping away, but I wanted to move on to another spot. Well, after one more. Although I was tempted to try their Coletrane Stout again, I opted for the Schlager, a dark Dansk Lager, a crisply malty lager with light toffee and toasted notes. Hops are to the fore, bringing a nice balance with a slightly floral spiciness and adding a defnite drying bitterness to the finish. This is complimented by more of that roasted malt and toast. As it warms it does sweeten, but in a fuller malty way. No extremes, no big wowsers, just a nice simple dark beer.

I quite like Brewpub København for it's relaxed atmosphere, and I think the beers are quite well crafted. I wasn't as impressed as the first time, but still, I enjoyed them all. Time to spread my affections though.

I had been advised to try The Lord Nelson, which wasn't too far away, although I did walk past it on the other side of the street as it's down a set of steps. For your convenience, the photo to the left shows what it looks like in the daylight. This felt like quite a different place. Dark, with a small bar, four customers, two at the bar, two at a tall table close by, and the English bar woman, or girl, whichever is most PC. One of the chaps at the bar was a musician, and he was begging the girl behind the bar to play one of his songs. Kinda Dylan-ish, and some interesting lyrics like “I'll take a shower for you... I'll brush my teeth for you so you don't have to learn what it's like to kiss a pig”. Inspired!

While I listened to them chat and argue about who should choose the next set of songs, I got a Mikkeller Single Hop Centennial IPA, quite a heavy hitter. It tastes fruity, yeasty and hoppy in that sorbet with orange-pith supreme. A medium body supports tis, but to be honest, I felt I was being a bit bludgeoned. I love really hoppy beers, but I was struggling with this. I blame my cold and full belly.

I chatted with the musician a bit, but after his companion left, the remaining patrons and the bar girl (whose boyfriend was one of those at the tall table) coalesced into a little group, and it really felt like I was intruding. I had a smoke, finished my beer and headed to bed, tired and happy.

I still get shocked when I think of the price of beer in Copenhagen. Bloody hell!