Beer tasting still a game of hit and miss

Trying different beers can sometimes be a game of hit and miss. It can be easy to spot an off-flavoured beer and you’re within your rights to send it back. But what do you do when you get a beer that’s just plain bad? If the beer’s on draught, you might try before you buy. Sadly, this is not the case with packaged beer. Some staff might try to dissuade you from ordering it in the first place or occasional some might offer to replace it, taking the sales hit in the process.

Beer enthusiasts might check ratebeer.com or untappd for reviews but that’s too much work. Often you just trust the establishment that the beers on offer are good, all the more so when their beer menu is limited and the rest of the drinks menu is carefully selected. This opens the possibility of one being misled as a fair few places show less interest in their beers as they do with wines, whiskeys and other handpicked small batch spirits. This happened to me a few weeks ago in an award-wining restaurant in New York City.

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When you’re away, you want to try as much local beers as possible. I had been drinking my own fair share of Brooklyn Brewery beers and I even eschewed aged-Orval (accidentally, due to the delay in shipping it stateside) on the menu. Instead, I opted for Kuka Coffee & Cream Stout by Andean Brewing Company. The brewery is located a few wiles west of the city on the far side of the Hudson River. It may be pretty local but the Kuka range of beers pride themselves in using Andean ingredients, with maca root (an aphrodisiac, apparently) found in all of their beers.

Kuka Coffee & Cream Stout (6% abv) pours black with a garnet tinge. It has a fairly limp, tan head – not a great advertisement for the powers of the maca root. The beer contains Brazilian coffee and lactose so it comes as no surprise that the nose is of coffee and a dusting of powdered sugar. The sweetness is there at the start. Unfortunately the body is too thin and fails to mellow the roast coffee.

The beer’s far too astringent and quickly overpowers the carbonation and the lactose. The sugars remain on the lips but this beer finishes harshly. I didn’t finish this beer. That says something. In fact, I quickly moved on to the wine. It goes to show that beer tasting is hit and miss. While thankfully it’s more hit than miss, there’s still a few disappointing beers out there. I still can’t get over why fine dining establishments and upscale bars don’t show more respect to the beers they stock.

Time to declare an #irishbeerday or not?

Today one’s beery Twitter feed is more likely than not dominated by Americans celebrating National Beer Day. This has caused confusion amongst non-Americans that today is also their day of celebration and libation. It isn’t. Apparently, International Beer Day is the first Friday in August, which in the case of 2016 it falls on 5th August. This is not to be confused with IPA day, marked during the preceding 24 hours (4th August).

All of these occasions have their roots in the US. Americans have a long tradition of honouring events, people or products by declaring a specific date in their honour. In more recent years, this has spread globally to pretty much everything imaginable. Three such days coming up are: International Safety Pin Day (10th April); Barbershop Quartet Day (11th April); & Look up at the Sky Day (14th April). So why should beer be any different?

Social media and the Internet have played a big role in the proliferation of these “days”. National Beer Day was first “marked” or “observed” via a Facebook page set up by Justin Smith only 7 years ago. The date chosen was to commemorate the day when beer became legal once more after the repeal of prohibition, on that date some 63 years earlier. Except it quite wasn’t. Ratification of the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution occurred 8 months later on 5 December 1933 – also a day marked on the beer social media calendar!

Ireland doesn’t have a “beer” day of its own. Does it matter? Well in the grand scheme of things, not at all. However, for craft brewers who rely on word of mouth rather than paid advertising, any excuse for publicity should be seized upon. Did you know the last Wednesday in May is National Fish & Chips Day? Maybe not, but pay attention to the media I and around that day to see the increased coverage chippers get.

We should have something similar for beer. It should be away from existing festivals so as not to eat into their PR. The press would love it. It’s an excuse to take to social media, whether we need one or not. Imagine a hashtag like #irishbeerday trending. It’s free coverage after all both locally & nationally. It can be used to share positive stories about breweries and their products. Let’s not forget that a certain day in September is no longer marked with a big bang. There’s a gap in the calendar that should be filled. I’ll drink to that.

Promoting the “Irishness” of craft beer

Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, has seriously stepped up its support for Irish craft beer. In the not so distant past, the agency was perceived to be more interested in promoting food rather than drink, save for a few token appearances of the likes of Jameson or Baileys. Of course this ignores the support for the occasional brewer like Carlow Brewing or Galway Hooker accessing export market data, making contacts or attending international events over the years. There has also been research reports and seminars conducted in the past. However, the inclusion of brewers in the Origin Green initiative and the focus in the Food Wise 2025 strategy underpin the renewed emphasis on Ireland’s drinks industry. Let’s not forget that newer breweries are now looking to really develop their export markets as part of their overall business strategy.

I have written on Bord Bia and the strategy of the government on various occasions on the blog. It is interesting to watch how craft beer is being promoted alongside our other food and drink offerings. There’s a trend to officially connect craft beer to other products. We have been doing so locally and independently for years but it’s great to see government channels exploiting the “Irishness” of craft beer. They’ve realises that these beers are interesting, new and have stories of their own.

Just a week ago Carlow Brewing, Boyne Brewing, Clever Man, Galway Hooker, The White Hag Brewery and Wicklow Wolf joined other drinks producers at the inaugural “Spirit of Sharing” event in London. The event was hosted in the Irish Embassy, which is a stones-throw from Buckingham Palace. It’s an impressive venue and no doubt would’ve helped attract potential customers the event. It was a somewhat regal trade event. The setting has been used effectively in the past to build export links for other industries so it’s positive that our alcoholic beverage producers can tap the same support. Let’s hope it can be replicated in other countries.

With St. Patrick’s Day upon us, initiatives ranging from greening monuments around the world to the traditional presentation of the bowl of Shamrock to the President of the USA show that we have unprecedented access for a country of our size in a ‘one week only’ sort of way. Bord Bia will of course use official events this week to promote food and drink. However, it went one step further this year by securing agreement to present both President Obama and Vice President Biden hampers fully-loaded with Irish produce. Taking pride of place in each hamper, was a bottle of O’Hara’s barrel-aged Leann Folláin. I’m sure POTUS, as a homebrewer, will appreciate this excellent beer. I have no doubt the VEEP will do so likewise and hopefully he’ll sip whilst reading one of his many collections of Yeats’ work.

Let’s see this trend continue. Enterprise Ireland is also stepping up to the mark by supporting a few craft brewers and having a new team looking at promoting food and drink exports. Even established investment funds are look at beer and whiskey as growth markets. Things are certainly on the up and I’ll drink to that.

 

2015 – that went quick

It’s New Year’s Eve, where did that year go? What a year for beer in Ireland. There’s now 100 breweries dotted across the island. There was a serious increase in the number of beer festivals and competitions. Let’s not forget the Irish brewers who brought home international awards and we must tip our hats to those who opened up new export markets.

Budget 2016 saw no increase in excise or VAT but more importantly, further benefits for microbreweries. The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 was published and two weeks later the European Court of Justice rejected Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) proposed for Scotland. Minister Varadkar stated his determination to push ahead regardless with MUP in Ireland – an election stunt? Surely not but it’s difficult to see how the Irish government can bypass the criteria set down in the ECJ judgement. Let’s hope that a future response is not to bluntly raise excise and blame the ECJ. Too much attention has been placed on MUP and less on the advertising and promotional restrictions (including point of sale), structural separation in retail stores etc.

The bill is poorly drafted, lacking clarity and certainty. Publications can only have 20% advertising for alcohol or related products – this could cause as much problems for Aer Lingus’ Cara magazine as for trade magazines. Breaches of the new legislation could now result in criminal conviction. This is a concern for smaller breweries who weren’t involved with the voluntary codes on advertising. Craft brewers use a lot more imagery in their labels that could run afoul of the legislation if passed. This all depends on the results of the election of course. There’s no time for passage of such a bill ahead of the likely polling day of Friday 26 February 2016. Although the Taoiseach may go to the Park on the first day back, resulting in the election being held on the opening day of the Alltech Craft Brews & Food Festival (5-7 February in the Convention Centre Dublin).

The two largest brewing concerns – AB InBev & SABMiller – merged. They now account for 1 out of every 3 beers sold. A number of high profile breweries lost their “craft” status in 2015. Closer to home, the march of Cute Hoor continues. Guinness launched Hop House 13 and it has become a big success for them. It occupies a similar space to Fuller’s Honey Dew. The St. James’ Gate site has also added a brewery pub to its onsite visitor experiences. However, the Open Gate Brewery is under the creative stewardship of self-thought Jason Carroll. Jason spent a few years with Franciscan Well but far longer brewing up the strangest concoctions possible. Expect great things from him both next year and into the future.

So 2016 is upon us. What will it bring? Will we see a string of 1916 centenary beers? Possibly. The one thing for certain is that it won’t be dull. The quality, range and availability of craft beer in Ireland will only get better.

Depeche Moeder Lambic – a fashionable dispatch from Brussels

The centre of Brussels has been undergoing a fair bit of transformation over the past few years. This is not before time. Parts of the city had become fairly run down and I’m just talking about the tourist spots. This took away from enjoyment of stunningly beautiful areas such as the Grand Place.

Drinking spots haven’t been immune from this push for a facelift. Delirium has expanded from one large basement area to what has been dubbed a village, taking over all the premises along the narrow laneway and even pushing through to the next street over. BrewDog have just opened a bar in this Other bars have been given at least a lick of paint, no doubt driven by the smoking ban taking hold.

What the centre of this European capital lacks is plenty of options for al fresco drinking. I’m certainly not talking about overpriced bars and restaurants in the Grand Place. Day-trippers to Brussels for EU-related business often find themselves sequestered in featureless and too frequently window-less meeting rooms for hours on end. The thought of a nice beer before heading to the airport is much desired.

The European Quarter is unimaginative when it comes to beer offerings
The European Quarter is unimaginative when it comes to beer offerings

The bars of the European Quarter are relatively unimaginative in terms of the beers they carry. Sure there are a few decent ones available in bottles but most are more than familiar to what you can get at home. Some local bars off the beaten path are marginally better but you have to seek these out and time may not be on your hands.

The safest bet is to head into town on the Metro but to where? One area that has come on in the past few years is Place Fontainas. This is located between Rue du Midi down from the Bourse and a couple of blocks below the Mannequin Pis. One bar in particular needs to be visited – Moeder Lambic Fontainas.

Opened in 2009, this is the sister pub to the original bar located in the suburbs of Saint-Gilles. The original is a classic should be a must on any beery bucket-list. However, it’s trickier to get too and sadly not convenient when a decent after work beer is in order, especially if you’ve a flight to catch.

The pub is modern, long, narrow and post-industrialist. Booths are available on both sides with seating at the bar too. However, it can get fairly busy with people ordering, asking questions and those taking snaps of their beer (me included) so a bar stool may not necessarily grant you any desired solitude. The bar has great wifi too. There’s a big terrace out front so it’s a great place to have a drink on warmer evenings but will still be a place for smokers come wintertime.

The beer list is substantive, with local specialities on draught. There’s 40 taps with some international offering as well. Of course there’s cask lambics on offer. The bottle list is selective and of high quality. On my last few visits, however, I’ve tended to stick with beers from local Brussels brewery, Brasserie de la Senne.

Band of Brothers by Brasserie de la Senne exclusively for Moeder Lambic
Band of Brothers by Brasserie de la Senne exclusively for Moeder Lambic

Band of Brothers by Brasserie de la Senne exclusively for Moeder Lambic
Band of Brothers by Brasserie de la Senne exclusively for Moeder Lambic
First up is Band of Brothers that is produced exclusively for the bar. It’s eye opening at only 3.5% ABV in a town known for stronger beers. Suspicions that even the tap water comes in at a higher ABV. Joking aside, Belgium like elsewhere is seeing a growing thirst for lower strength but not necessarily poorer quality beers. This beer is case and point.

It arrives with a sense that it’s going to be refreshing, which is just perfect for a hot and humid day in Brussels. It’s almost cloudy pineapple juice with a thick frothy head. There’s pineapple and hints of mango on the nose. It’s creamy on first taste before the fresh tropical fruit bitterness takes over. It’s clean drinking. It may appear a little thin but again, it’s only 3.5% abv. Refreshment is its game. You have to take this in the same vein as enjoying the last few spoonfuls of a citrus sorbet that has become somewhat diluted from the melted ice – it’s still bitter and still hits the spot.

While sessionable as a pint, it’s always nice to have Tara’s Boulba in a 33cl pour
While sessionable as a pint, it’s always nice to have Tara’s Boulba in a 33cl pour
Next up has to be Tara’s Boulba from the same brewery and is its best known beer. The brewery has developed a remarkable reputation in a short-space of time for producing session-friendly and hop-forward beers. Taras Boulba weighs in at 4.5% ABV. Yes, it’s perfect for consuming by the pint (or half-litre, it is Belgium after-all) but there’s something pleasurable by having it in a smaller pour and in a far cooler glass.

While sessionable as a pint, it's always nice to have Tara's Boulba in a 33cl pour
While sessionable as a pint, it’s always nice to have Tara’s Boulba in a 33cl pour

Taras Boulba pours a cloudy yellow gold with hints of citrus fruit and banana on the nose. It comes across a little spicy also. It’s topped by a thick dollop of foam. Effervescent with a growing citrus bitterness. It finishes dry and spicy, although you never escape the citrus fruit bitterness. Yeast notes are detectable throughout. If this was released by an American brewery, it might have been called a session White IPA, which shows the blurred or more likely imaginary lines with the style.

So two fantastic beers to set you up for the night or in my case for the trip back to the airport. However, the bar and beers make the short 10 minute walk back uphill to Gare Central pleasantly passable. You may even have the opportunity to smile sarcastically at those who opted just to have a can of Jupiler or Maes on the rain to the airport. As for beers at Brussels Zaventem, you can forget about it. They’re simply not worth the money.