Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Stone Tap Room, San Diego (not Berlin)

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My annual trip to San Diego had a new target this year, the new Stone Brewing Tap Room on 795 J Street, within spitting distance of Petco Park, and just beyond spitting distance of our hotel. Given that trips out to Escondido have never been on the cards (apart from last year's ill-fated visit), it was great to learn of this new venue close to the heart of San Diego, supporting the Liberty Station venue just to the north of San Diego city proper.

The Tap Room is set off the street, in a recently restored, attractive 1927 Simon Levi Company building, shared with a restaurant on the other side of the foyer. As with all Stone bars and restaurants, there's a slightly industrial feel, which I like. It's classy and understated, seemingly in contrast with their almost Messianic marketing, and the same goes for their two other locations I've visited. With just a few tables, a bar and a wall with merchandise, it's an intimate kind of surrounding, and had a chilled atmosphere.



Our small group arrived shortly after 8pm, with a bit of a hunger and thirst from working at a conference in the SDCC. First a beer! There's quite a choice, many of which are available in bottle form in Europe, so straight into the fray.


At a mere 4.5% ABV, Stone's Go To IPA is almost an oddity compared to the rest of their range. Intended to be a "session IPA" that delivers the hop levels we all know and love from Stone, but at a strength you can have two of. Well, not that strength has ever stopped me having two if I liked it!
Big, clean grapefruit and lemon aroma, backed up with freshly mown grass and herbs. Lovely fruity backbone, with notes of old-fashioned pear drop candy and sorbet kicks. It finishes with an assertive grapefruit sorbet finish, somehow gentle by stone standards, but nicely rounding it off. Certainly a beer one could have more than two of!

Stone Go To IPA
The menu here is thankfully short, looking a tad healthier than what we'd been eating to date in San Diego. Although having said that, the spicy Thai curry chicken flatbread that I ordered , which to my mind was a pizza, was quite large and definitely filled me up, as well as giving me a good sweat. Went well with the Go To too.


While pondering on what to drink next, the right side of the board was a real draw, featuring seasonals and one-off brews that's I'd have been stupid not to try.


The Stone Spotlight Series (auto-corrected on my phone to Schöne Spotlight Series) is a nice idea, allowing the creative juices to flow amongst Stone staff. The first winner and release from this internal competition is Spröcketbier (that's definitely a metal umlaut there), a Black Rye Kölsch-style beer using carafa malt to get the colour and more hops than a true Kölsch has any right to.

At 5.4% and 40 IBUs, it's by no means a monster, and indeed, the auto-correct had it right. Sehr schön. Roasted malt and light coffee aroma, backed with a sweetness suggesting dried fruits, prunes, and a touch of grass. I'm beginning to think Stone should be doing more of these sub-6%, "low" IBU beers, as Spröcket was a revelation of easy drinkability. Creamy, with dark caramel, a light roasty/toasty bite, meshed with a grassiness and a touch of spice that lightens it. It leans towards a porter, really, so I would not have been able to tell if it had been lagered, but whatever it is, it's a fine tasty beer, and another one I'd happily have had several of.

Stone Spröcketbier
Having recently brewed my own Saison for the first time, I had to try Stone's take. The Stone Saison comes in at 6.3%. It's got a light, sweet vinousness nose, reminiscent of a sweet dessert wine, like a Gewürztraminer. With a sweetish lemon and lime overtone, on top of a biscuit and fruity base redolent of lychee, and just a nip of grapefruit. An earthy, yeasty trace runs through all of this, delivering a satisfying, hearty beer. Another like from me.

Stone Saison
The main problem with this place on a week day, is that it closes at 10pm, which put a bit of pressure on the drinking pleasure. So with limited time, and not neing sure if we'd get back again, what with our overly full confernece schedule, it had to be the W00tStout 2.0. Our own Ian Bergin had mentioned this in a tween the week before I left for San Diego, and having looked at the Stone website, it said it would be available soon. That soon was now!

W00tStout 2.0 comes in at 13%. Bound to be a heavy hitter. First thought:  Woah! It exudes masses of dark fruits, molasses and vanilla. "Oily as f***", I wrote. As it goes down, it's like melted dark chocolate, with oak and vanilla. Long roasted bitterness, but predominantly heavy caramel, cut with an alcohol warmth. Really quite wonderful.

W00tStout 2.0
A couple of days after returning to Germany, they finally announced their Berlin location. I'm not sure what to make of it (especially the crowd-sourcing), but the selfish side of me is hopeful for beers like this fresh on my doorstep (or as close as be damned).

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA

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I don't exactly know how long I've had this bottle, but I'm pretty sure my mate Rüdiger brought it back from the US while I was still living in Münster, as I seem to recall it living in the cellar there for a while. That''d put it at over 4 years. At something like 18% ABV, I always left it to one side, thinking to have it for a special occasion. You know, the special occasion that never comes up, so the bottle gathers dust at the back of a cellar shelf.

At the prompting of TheBeerNut ("get it down ye", which I'd not heard in some time), I threw caution to the wind and popped it during my week of "holiday".


Despite it's age, hop aromas exuded as soon as the cap was popped. It poured a clear, deep garnet, with a thick tan foam, and exuded rich, fruity aromas, suggesting mango sorbet, candied pineapple and hot caramel sauce, dark touches of plum mousse and hints of ginger spice.

Every sip revealed something new. While it started off sweet and fruity, it gradually yielded spicy elements, a ginger warmth, a cinnamon sweetness, then red wine tannic notes with autumn apples starting to decay on the ground. Then the heat comes. More spice, peppery and alcohol warmth. There's a bitterness, like warmed up grapefruit juice, but tempered by a sticky sweetness. Or perhaps it was the other way around. The finish is long and sticky, as expected, like having Seville orange marmalade on buttered toast with a cup of milky tea beside a pine-log fire.

I'm really curious what this is like fresh, but I'm just as happy having tried this with a bit of age. Sumptuous and very enjoyable.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Not out of the woods yet

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As a short appendix to my BrauKunst Live 2014 posts, there were a couple of beers that didn't fit into that series, being foreign and somewhat random, but worthy of mention. Kiesbye's, from Austria, had a booth doing a steady trade, with a rather interesting blackboard of beers on offer. I'd already read about them regarding the annual Waldbier (Woods beer) they brewed using Tanne (fir) in 2011, Zirbe (Swiss pine) in 2012 and Lärche (larch) in 2013. I went with the latter.


Kiesbye’s Waldbier 2013 (Lärche) has a soft, spicy aroma, (a mild curry came to mind!) with an underlying fruitiness that I found hard to define (honey melon?), with highlights of green apple skin and a gentle citrus element. While I'd been expecting something very resinous, it was instead a soft, cosy, pillowy kind of experience, with soft pine-ish warmth (I can't say I know what larch tastes like). A mild bite at the finish wraps it up nicely. An interesting beer, so much so, that I'm now looking for larch trees in my area to brew one of my own!


Over at the BrewFist booth, they had a beer that was probably my favourite beer name of the festival: Czech Norris Pils. At 6.7%, a bit more than a Pils, but what kind of punch did it pack? With a surprisingly delicate nose, suggesting lemon meringue and spices, not the tough guy beer you might expect, following that with a lovely, creamy mouthfeel, nutty, toasted bread, and summer fruit flavours, it's rather nice and well made, I thought.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Braufactum Progusta Harvest Edition 2012

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When it comes to Braufactum, the craft beer branch of Radeberger Group, I am more than aware that I sometimes seem to have something against them. I don't like the "gourmet" pricing, yet I love the branding. I don't like that the backing of the company is not so transparent, but I guess I like that they can brew their beers in all sorts of places now owned by Radeberger (even if they don't always say where). But, credit where credit is due, they do some pretty mean beers. Case in point, the Braufactum Progusta Harvest Edition 2012, which I had last weekend, a beer brewed with green hops, within a couple of days of the harvest.


An inviting-looking, reddish amber with a rocky, off-white foam, probably helped along by the glugging induced by the long neck on that 750ml bottle. Although the aroma was not jumping out as much as I expected, perhaps due to the fact it had been in my cellar for about a year, is was deep and rich, with warm spices, earthy, tangerine all on a caramel digestive biscuit base. First impressions on tasting is the creamy mouthfeel. A really superb body. Front-loaded with dried apricots, creamy vanilla fudge and hints of marzipan that lead to  a lemon and mango sorbet finish, prickling on the tongue. There's a lasting bitterness, reminiscent of Seville orange marmalade and just a twist of pine resin to spice it up. A really lovely, luscious beer. I polished the bottle off easily, and would gladly have had another in the same sitting.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Reinheitsgebot AND Organic? Must be good!

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Last year, my wife and her mother paid a visit to Abtei Neuburg (also called Stift Neuburg, or Neuburg Abbey), just outside Heidelberg, and being the decent human beings that they are, brought back a selection of beers from Brauerei zum Klosterhof, within the Abbey complex

Brauerei zum Klosterhof brew organic beers, identifiable by the Bio badges on the neck labels. I've had both good and bad experiences with organic beers in the past, and firmly believe that organic, or the Reinheitsgebot for that matter, is no guarantee of a good, tasty beer, as even the best of ingredients can be used badly. But I'm always happy to try anything new!

Greenish-gold, with a slight haze and thick, frothy head, Klosterhof Heidelberg Pils has a somewhat yeasty/bready aroma, spliced with a cut of sulphur and lemon. Lightly grainy, with an underlying lemon and lime flavour, with green apples, that might start looking good on paper, however, it is predominantly sweet, with cabbagey undertones, rendering it soft and dull, if unoffensive.


Klosterhof Heidelberg Helles has a sourish, sweet almond aroma, and a flavour that suggests amaretto diluted with 7-Up and boiled cauliflower. Overly sweet and unpleasant, I have to admit that it went down the drain after half of it was consumed.

Klosterhof Heidelberg Weizen starts promising, with nice cloves and the classic banana aroma. Oddly, not much of that comes through in the flavour, which is thin, despite a pleasing creamy texture. Lightly metallic, with a cardboardy underbelly, another dull, unpleasant experience.


Klosterhof Heidelberg Bernsteinweizen was a little darker than the standard offering, and not quite as dark as a regular Dunkel Weizen. Quite nice fudge aromas show up, with a warming clove element, as one would expect. Also a tad thin, lie its sister, but with an interesting acidic edge that freshens things up. Caramel malts, sweet apple, soft cloves. The best of the lot.


And finally, the Klosterhof Heidelberg Dunkles. I have a soft spot for Dunkel beers, so hopes were high on this one. With light, fruity nose, suggesting summer berries, it gets off to a lovely start, but on swallowing, it suggests nothing more than thin Ribena that has been infused with old cornflakes boxes. Poor.


I feel it's only fair to state that at the time of writing these notes, all of these beers were just after their best before date. But would that render them so bad? My experience tells me not, unless their bottling plant is sub-par. I should also point out I've had multiple bottles of some of these (Dunkles, Helles, Pils), when fresh, and frankly, I had the similar thoughts then. I feel a bit bad about slating these so completely, and I see from their website that they are also seasonally brewing IPAs and other ales. Cashing in on the latest trends? Perhaps, but I've no problem with that, and would love to try them.

In short, the lesson to be learned is that organic ingredients do not translate to better beer, any more than a Reinheitsgebot or craft label does. It's the ingredients combined with the brewer's skills with the art and science of brewing that makes good beer. But I guess most readers here already know that.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

BKL2014 - The Nøgne Ø Session

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As with the previous two years, BrauKunst Live featured a full programme of masterclasses and talks. I hadn't planned to attend any of the paid ones, but was talked into the Nøgne Ø session by Gerrit, and yeah, it was worth the extra fiver. Not just for the drinks, but to hear Kjetil Jikiun speak for a while about the principles on which Nøgne Ø was built.

Now, I have to admit, this was nearing the end of the evening, and there were seven drinks served in rapid succession, with Kjetil talking the whole time, so my notes are patchy, as it was hard enough multitasking to drink and listen attentively!

For a beer tasting, I was surprised we were to start with a Sake, I think the  Nøgne Ø Sake Yamahai Motoshibori. Apparently they got it into their heads to just try making it, then couldn't sell it locally, as it was so unlike the usual bland Sake that people were getting in restaurants. Craft Sake? I guess so! I'm not an expert, but I liked it. Tart, with tinned pears, almonds, gooseberries. Quite unlike any Sake I've had, though in fairness, that's not saying much.

The Sake
Nøgne Ø Pale Ale brought us gently into the beer round. With Northern Brewer for bittering and Centennial for the rest, it was a good opener. Nutty, creamy, orange pith and grapefuit bitterness. Fairly straightforward.

Nøgne Ø Two Captains Double IPA originally stemmed from a homebrewing competition winner, in fact, a former Scandinavian Airlines friend of Kjetil, so when it was brewed at Nøgne Ø, it was called Two Captains. Did I mention, Kjetil was an airline pilot and homebrewer, who used to bring back 25kg sacks of malt in his suitcase, because he couldn't get the supplies he wanted in Norway? Apparently, and I'm not sure this should be put in writing, but Two Captains was originally homebrewed as a Pliny the Elder clone. Piney, with masses of orange pith on a creamy caramel base, it's chewy and bitter, and rather delicious.


For the next one, I wrote down India Saison, which must mean it was the Nøgne Ø / Bridge Road India Saison, as I also noted it was brewed with Australian hops and Belgian yeast. And very nice it is too. Snappy, fruity, with hints of tropical fruits and citric leanings, just a little funkiness and a mild, nutmeg-like spiciness to keep it interesting. I like Saison, and I like IPAs, and this blends the two rather well together.

Moving into more experimental territory, was Nøgne Ø Tindved, They don't do things in half measures at Nøgne Ø. This experiment was an 18.000 litre one, where they added lots of juice from pressed sea-buckthorn berries, thinking it woulfd ferment out and give them a sour edge. As it turns out, it did not ferment out, so they had somehting a lot sweeter than planned. So what did they do? They added Brett, as that'll eat anything. Sure enough, it dried it up, resulting in quite a tart beer, with red currants, just-about-ripe strawberries, and a definite horsey layer, nicely showing off the Brett action.

The beer I noted as being" the one with the Eskimo with shades on the label", turned out to be Nøgne Ø Sunturnbrew. At least I knew it was a smoked barley wine! Butterscotch, sweet, light phenols, suggesting pipe tobacco, lovely oily texture melding that with a thick caramel base, and a reasonable bitterness. 

The final beer was the Nøgne Ø Imperial Stout, which Kjetil said was probably their most famous beer. My notes just say "Mmmm...". Enough said.

Looks like somebody asked a stupid question.
It's nice to get a concentrated look at beers from a brewery, and even better when they are hand selected by the brewer. One of their core values is that they want that when a person finishes a bottle of their beer, that they'd like another. I think they're succeeding on that count.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

BKL2014 - Kunst oder Künstlich? Should we really care?

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The craft versus crafty debate (or in my poor German, above, art or artificial), and the ensuing attempts to define craft, also washed over Germany recently. Or at least for a period. Don't worry, I'm not going to enter that debate now, but what did interest me is how some of the biggest, and indeed some of the more modest sized, private regional brewers, are adapting to the apparent change in tastes amongst a small part of the German beer drinking population. At a time when the number of breweries seems to be increasing, while beer sales are falling, I've noticed in the past few years an increase in the so-called Gourmet beer segment, which to my jaded eye seems like a desperate attempt to get more cash for less product, trying to catch those with more money than sense. Thankfully, most of the smaller brewers producing interesting beers are doing so at reasonable prices, even compared to the wonderfully low prices of perfectly decent table beer in German, which still has me cackling to myself with glee, when I consider beer prices in my native Ireland.

Braufactum at BKL2014.
Braukunst Live! 2014 gave me an opportunity to sample from the craft-styled offerings of one of Germany's biggest brewing concerns, as well as some surprise brews from a relatively local, medium-sized brewer.

Bitburger (3.86 million hectolitres in 2008) is one of those breweries I have mixed opinions on. Well, kind of. If it wasn't for them, Köstritzer might have disappeared, but I'm not a big fan of Bit as a beer, and can't say I approve of the price fixing news from a couple of months ago. Last year, they launched a new range of beers under the Craftwerk brand, which is based out of their pilot brewery. Given the name, it is almost certainly cashing in on the craft beer trends in Germany, but from what I understand, the brewer here has pretty much complete control over what is brewed, but who can say what the Bitburger marketing machine does after that? But the thing that I have respect for here, is that they are not touting Craftwerk as something completely separate, as it's very clear on all the printed material and labels that it is a part of Bitburger. Compare that, for example, to Braufactum, owned by the Radeberger Group, which in turn is owned by the behemoth Dr. Oetker. There is zero mention if its provenance anywhere obvious. The only giveaway on their website is if you look up the business address, which is shared by Radeberger. That's not to say that Braufactum don't do very tasty, interesting beers, but the lack of transparency is something that, as a beer consumer, I don't like so much. Well, that and the "gourmet" pricing, though one has to say, the marketing and presentation is really beautiful, and why wouldn't it be?

But back to Craftwerk, and their three offerings. Craftwerk Tangarine Dream is a single hop IPA using Mandarina Bavaria, and bears all the hallmarks of that on the nose (does what it says on the tin). Slightly buttery, with light orange (so tempted to say tangarine) and salty caramel, it's got quite a tart hop bite, verging on aggressive, not helped by a thin, biscuity base. It's fine and fruity, but could benefit from a bit more body to round it out.



Pretty clear where this came from.
Craftwerk Hop Head IPA⁷  has quite a list of hops going into the brew. Herkules, Magnum, Taurus, Cascade, Centennial, Chinook and Simcoe. Quite a few of my favourites in there, so looking good on paper. Served on tap, Hop Head is a hazy gold with a pleasing aroma, rich with melon, honey, lime and fresh-cut grass. Fruity and fudgey, with a creamy mouthfeel, it strikes a nice balance , while a warming, spicy hop hit brings up the rear. Long-lingering peppery heat and a pithy bitterness left me thinking they might be on to something good here.

And the last of the three, Craftwerk Holy Cowl, listed as a Belgian-style tripel (but brewed after the Reinheitsgebot, so none of those evil sugars here). The nose is spicy with cloves, fruity with hints of banana and dried apricots, and a tad yeasty. Most of this comes across in the flavour too, with an added dose of earthy hops. It's very spicy, with a gum-tingling carbonic bite, or perhaps it was an edge of sourness, but it's certainly well-carbonated. I got the impression of it being more like a Weizen Doppelbock, with added zest and spice, not that that's a bad thing!


Overall, not bad efforts, and certainly packing a lot more flavour in than a Bitburger Premium Pils, and at prices like €2.35 for a bottle of the Hop Head IPA, well, more than double the price of a regular beer here, but definitely not breaking the bank.

Having completed that bit of research, it was around to visit Distelhäuser (ca. 190.000 Hectoliters per annum). I'm on the record of having said I was never a fan of Distelhäuser Pils, but quite like their Export, and have always thought of them being fairly traditional. That was until I came across their Blonde and Special in my local, tiny drink store, and came away with two six-packs filled with surprises. I'd also seen they had some porters and IPAs at the Grünen Woche up in Berlin, so my curiosity was killing me, what with them only being a 50km drive from where I live.

Distelhäuser Lucky Hop was served from the tap, a 7.7%, 77 IBU concoction with 5 hop varieties. Dark amber, unfiltered, with a pretty stable foam crowning it. Soft caramel, mandarin, strawberries. Big, hop-forward bitterness, but tempered by a fruity sweetness and soft, creamy carbonation. Quite a good effort!
Distelhäuser Lucky Hop IPA
Distelhäuser  Loch Ness Stout weighed in at 4.7%. Completely opaque, black as night. On the nose, it's chocolaty, yeasty, toasted rye bread and a suggestion of wood, while on the tongue, it's creamy, fruity with blackberries, a touch of vanilla and wood, with a dark chocolate bitterness rounding it off. I have to admit, it was a lot more than I expected. My views of Distelhäuser were continuing to sway.
Distelhäuser Loch Ness Stout. I think.
And finally, Distelhäuser Black Pearl Porter,  a slightly heavier 5.6% with 28 IBUs. This was a surprising fruit bomb. Big berries, and fruity as hell, with vanilla, and a deft touch of sourness cutting a soft toffee maltiness. I've had some god-awful German porters in the past (Lausitzer, anyone?), and a few really excellent examples, and while this might not check all the BJCP style guide boxes (did I really just type that?), I really enjoyed the surprise of it all, and would happily drink a pint.

I don't know if these Distelhäuser beers are going to be hitting the stores around my area, or if they are just experiments shown at festivals, but I do rather like that they haven't tried to market these under any other label than Distelhäuser or the diminutive Distel. No mention of the C word anywhere, they're just trying stuff out, which I can certainly respect, as in a medium size brewery, that could be seen as a bit risky in some circles (till now, they've brewed local beers for local people, nothing for you here!). I had a nice chat with the manager/brewer, and hope to visit sometime later this year for a closer look, but I certainly hope that I see beers like this in my local drink store.

So, that's a small look at a huge and a medium-sized brewer, doing stuff in my playground. Is it crafty, in the sense the Brewers Association described? On reflection, I'd have to say no, or at least not in these cases. Despite calls for some sort of global definition of what craft is, I think the benchmark varies so widely from country to country, that it's simply not possible, or at least not in any meaningful way. Even the BA seems to be in the habit of changing their own definition to suit their members. In Beoir, we set Irish Craft Beer as something very easily defined, based on volume, place of production and ownership. No mention of passion as an ingredient whatsoever, but then drive is a given with the Irish craft brewers. While Craftwerk might be playing the craft card, at least it completely transparent where the beer is coming from, and as a beer consumer, that's something that I can use to make the right choices for myself.

Next up... hmmm, maybe the Nøgne Ø tasting.