Wednesday, 5 July 2017

My Amazing Altbier Adventure - Düsseldorf, Germany

When I suggested to my German colleagues that my girlfriend and I might be popping over to Düsseldorf for a spontaneous long weekend, it didn't take long for the topic to turn to beer. I'd been to Berlin not too long before and I had to break it to the Berliners among them that I wasn't impressed with their local brew Berliner Kindl. Seeking their validation that Düsseldorf was a good choice over Frankfurt and other destinations in the same price range, the general consensus was yes. "And they drink Altbier there", one of the Berliners added eagerly.

The prospect of escaping the daily grind for a few days was exciting as it was, but the idea of trying not just a new range of beers but a new beer style altogether suddenly added to the appeal immensely. So when I picked up a tourist map at the hotel I was staying at and noticed that "Brewery-Inns" featured as a distinct category alongside museums, shopping and monuments, and that most of them were within comfortable stumbling distance of the hotel, things got very interesting.

First impressions
A short 7-minute walk towards the town centre brought me to the closest of the five brewpubs, Im Füchschen. I was impressed to see that at around midday the pub was full inside and out with happy Germans sitting and eating pork knuckles on a bench or spilling out onto the pavements to stand beside a Stehtisch despite the temperature hovering between 10 and 12 degrees, practically every one of them holding short cylindrical glasses of a dark copper-coloured beer. 

This scene piqued my curiosity as it defied everything I thought I knew about German beer culture, my mental image of it involving mainly curvaceous half-litre wheat beer glasses or imposing litre-large dimpled tankards holding something light and golden inside. Tempting as it was to dive in right away, I made a mental note to stop by on the way back instead.

As we meandered through Düsseldorf's streets it became clear that the scene at Im Füchschen was no exception. These little half-pint glasses of Altbier were everywhere, not just at pubs but accompanying people consuming sausages and chips or even ice cream outside on terraces. Having been on the go since 5am I put my desperate need for a coffee on hold and decided to join in.

With a cardboard plate of Currywurst and chips we sat outside at a table near the riverbank among the Düsseldorfers enjoying the fresh air under the warming glow of an outdoor heater.

I took the only Altbier on offer at this particular establishment. Family-owned until 2001 and now the biggest Alt producer since being taken over by Ambev, Diebels, a 4.8% beer is brewed in Issum in the west of the region. After my little 200ml Stange (pronounced shtang-uh) glass of Alt was placed in front of me I tentatively went in for a whiff and a sip, getting contrasting but complimenting qualities of bitter and earthy hop flavours with a sweet caramel biscuit finish, smooth yet crisp. Simultaneously refreshing and quenching but complex in character with a smooth malty base, I was experiencing something different yet familiar.

There's a good reason for this: Altbier, (or "old beer") is so named not because it's the manky stale leftovers found lurking at the back of the cellar, but because of the fermentation method used. Rather than being bottom-fermented like most continental-style lagers, Altbier is top-fermented in the same way as British ale, a process that dates back much further. Not that the two words are linguistically linked in any way, but knock off the "t" from Alt and add an "e", and that's practically what you have in an Altbier. 

It's no surprise that my concept of German beer culture had mainly revolved around huge glasses of foaming pilsner style beer being clunked together by people wearing Lederhosen and Dirndls in an enormous tent; when most people think of German beer they think of the scenes at Oktoberfest and all that's on offer there. 
The Lower Rhine area within the state of
North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany.

The truth is, though, that this represents the beer culture specific to the state of Bavaria, and it's one that hasn't just affected the way German beer culture is perceived generally, but even the very beer styles on offer in the rest of the country. When the German states unified to form a single nation in 1871, Bavaria wasn't going to play along unless the rest of Germany adopted the beloved Reinheitsgebot, the so-called "purity law" that allowed only three main ingredients, water, malt and hops (somehow omitting yeast at the time) in the brewing process. This suited Bavaria where the tipple of choice was a refreshing golden lager, but put limits on what the rest of the country could brew, and eventually the golden bottom-fermented stuff was the dominant style. That's not to say that a few local beer styles didn't survive, and Altbier was one of them, remarkably isolated to the lower Rhine region in which Düsseldorf nestles. 
Many of the formerly independently-owned breweries are now in the hands of the big corporate BrewCos, like Diebels, but a few of the Old Town brewpubs are still thriving today as they always have...

More beer
After a day of burning the candles at both ends it was time to put them out at Im Füchschen on the way back to the hotel. We took our places on a bench outside the front of the brewpub and soon after, a worn-out looking waiter holding a tray full of pre-filled glasses laid down two Füchschen coasters and plonked zwei Alt on top of them. Asking us for €3,80, we gave him €4 and he thanked us (claiming the change as his each time). For the rest of the evening we barely had to signal anything more than a quantity and sure enough, two Alt would land beside us. Everyone bypassed the other drinks options on the menu for Füchschen Alt, everyone tipped on every drink, and everyone was merry. 

The atmosphere was no less convivial in the Old Town the following day at Zum Uerige, where the brewpub has resorted to claiming two sides of the street as theirs to provide enough seating space for all their eager punters who, once again, I was astonished to see were all drinking exactly the same brown ale, 4.7% with a biscuit malt base and a clean, hoppy finish. Uerige is so Düsseldorf that even the menu is in the local dialect, along with their slogan Dat Lekkere Dröppke (Das lekkere Tröpfchen) - the lovely drop - and lovely it was.

We didn't manage to visit all the brewpubs (what better reason to go back?) but a few others to look out for are Zum Schlüssel (see below), Kürzer and Schumacher.

Here's a few bottled Altbiers I managed to get my hands on while I was there:

Schlüssel Original went down smoothly with sweet crystal and chocolate malts and a hint of woodland berries.

Frankenheim had bitter, earthy and peppery hop notes and slightly smoky caramel malt flavours with a hint of nuttiness. 

Schlösser Alt was earthy with hints of crystal and chocolate malts along with a nuttiness and hints of candied fruit. This one came home with me, hence the sacrilegious use of a shaker glass.

Over and Alt 
This was an eye-opening experience for this beer-swilling Brit. Not only had I got up close and personal with a new beer style, but experiencing this kind of widespread yet highly localised uniformity of traditional ale-drinking was downright bizarre. Not that it's unusual in parts of the continent to walk into a bar and see everyone drinking the same thing, but if you do it's normally a golden-coloured macro-brew that's probably also available next door, and behind many other doors.

These are both very different pictures from back in the UK where anywhere you can find ale, whether it's a traditional pub or a new micro-brewery, you'll find a range that's desperate to cater to everyone's tastes while reflecting participation in the New World inspired craft beer movement.

Where Brits and other participants in the craft beer revolution are rebelling against a time when they were wooed by poor, mass-market lagers, however, the tradition of Altbier, be it small scale or large scale, never fell out of favour with Düsseldorfers in the first place. That's not to say there aren't plenty of bars where you can neck refreshing bottles of Pisse, but the Old Town brewpubs and their humble produce have continued to flourish regardless and, with nothing to rebel against (apart from possible future acquisitions), Düsseldorfers continue to embrace this beer style en masse. Who can blame them?

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Saturday, 1 July 2017

Irish IPA (6%) - Crafty Brewing Company, Co. Kildare, Ireland

On a weekend food shop at Lidl in Calpe, Spain, there were a number of things on our shopping list that were to sustain us over the couple of days we were there - crisps, milk, bread, ingredients to be placed in amongst the bread - but the search was put on a prolonged hold as soon as I entered the beer aisle. 

Highly prominent among the impressive selection was a range of beers from this Irish brewery, leading me to wonder whether Calpe had a particularly high concentration of Irish expats, but it emerged that the Crafty Brewing Company (AKA Rye River Brewing Co) brew exclusively for Lidl as part of Lidl's craft beer range, the hipsterèsque moustache on the label seemingly hinting at the beer's crafty nature. 

This beaut poured a hazy golden amber topped with a lovely puffy white foam, and I knew straight away things were off to a good start.

Sticking my nose in for a whiff I was greeted by a potent mix of tropical fruits, sweet pine and a slightly herbal quality that all in all makes for a uniquely inviting character that would've had my moustache twitching for more if I had one.

Co. Kildare within Ireland
I wasted no time in diving in for a gulp and out of nowhere this crafty bugger pummelled my mouth with enormous bitter hop flavours, along with a few handfuls of peaches, apricots and mandarin segments.

Thick and juicy with a dry finish, this fruity blend's flavours linger on for you to enjoy long after you've sipped, along with a lil kick from the 6% ABV. 

Having wondered what qualities an Irish IPA might yield it's clear that this one has opted for the BIG New World character we've all come to love about the style, although taking its hops from Down Under rather than across the pond has brought about an interesting, complex flavour with a difference, and that's to be sure to be sure. 

Appearance 3.5
Aroma 4.5
Flavour 4
Mouthfeel 3.5
Overall 8/10 

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Rye River's website
Rye River on Facebook

Friday, 23 June 2017

The Blonde, The Blanche and The Ambrée: The Grimbergen range.

MURCIA, Spain. Few things bring me more joy than a nice bottle of beer, but if there's one thing that does, it's three bottles:

These bad boys and the chalice they were destined for came into my possession long ago when everyone in the northern hemisphere was in the throes of winter, and yet it's taken me until now to sip my way through the trio, starting with the lightest in a temperate April and ending with the darkest in the unrelenting heat of a Murcian June - perhaps not the most logical sequence as far as matching beer with season goes, although the colours did follow the same pattern as my ever toasting skin. 

Obernai's former region of Alsace
within France. (Part of the new
Grand Est region since 2016)
Grimbergen beer has been going, in one way or another, since the dark Medieval days of 1128 - although since starting its life as a monk-brewed abbey beer in Belgium, the periodic accident and conflict-driven destruction of the abbey followed by several commercial takeovers in more recent times means the beer, now brewed partly in Belgium and partly in France, probably differs somewhat from what the Norbertine monks of Grimbergen used to get sozzled on with their guests. Indeed, the Belgian and French breweries even brew completely separate varieties (those coming from Belgium being mainly Blond, Dubbel and Tripel), meaning that the beers in my box were sure to have come from the Kronenbourg brewery in Obernai, France. Just call me the Beer Detective.

But no beer is complete without a story, and as the monks' use of the phoenix would imply, rebirth is a significant aspect of this beer's identity - so if the legend at the very least has managed to be kept alive over the course of almost a whopping nine centuries, then all the better. 

Onto the beers:

Blonde 6.7%

She pours a perfect golden amber with a dense, bright fluffy head and, as with all of Grimbergen's beers, looks particularly fine in the beer's own purpose-made chalice. 
It had been a long time since I'd tasted the delights of a Belgian-style ale and the distinctly Belgian whiff of spicy clove that wafted up from my chalice's bowl was a stark reminder of where this brew was born. Along with these spicy notes there were plenty of hints of toffee and caramel malt on the nose giving me a clue as to what was to come. 
After a gulp or two, malty depth came through peppered with spicy clove, broken up ever so slightly by a hint of bitter citrus, followed by a floral, soapy aftertaste. 
For its high ABV it goes down nice and easily, and since it's got plenty of depth you can afford to sup on it chilled without fear of compromising on flavour.

Blanche 6%

The Blanche pours an opaque pale straw colour with a small head that fizzled out quicker than I could snap it.
There's plenty going on on the nose with fragrant, perfumey and floral aromas seasoned with herbal notes and spicy clove, overall making for a fresh and complex first impression.
The fresh flavours of zesty citrus fruits and a strong presence of coriander and clove come through after a sip, but it soon becomes clear that where it exceeds in flavour it lacks in body and depth, almost a diluted version of what it could be.
Rather than a sipper to savour I'd call this an introduction to the style to be knocked back.

Double-Ambrée 6.5%

The darkest of the three, this pours a dark mahogany with a thin beige head.
I picked up the aromas of dark stone fruits and berries, even if they were a bit hesitant in coming forward.
The flavour doesn't disappoint, with rich, fruity woodland berries backed by sweet caramel, a hint of treacle and a dash of bitter coffee - a sweet, fruity experience with the welcome addition of an added 6.5% alcoholic warmth. 
As the aroma hadn't been so forthcoming I was pleasantly surprised by the taste. A touch more body could have brought more depth to the flavours, but overall of the three in the set, the double-ambrée is the brew I'm fondest of. Santé!

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Grimbergen's Website
Grimbergen on Facebook

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Ilúnica Pale Ale (6.1%) - Cervezas Ilúnica, Castile-La Mancha, Spain

The clocks have sprung forward and the sun has started beating down with quite some vigour on my corner of southeast Spain. We all know there's only one way to adequately refresh yourself on such increasingly warm and sunny days, and what perfect timing it was for my local craft beer shop, Beer Shooter Murcia, to host a beer presentation and meet the brewers session on a splendidly sunlit Friday after work.

Hellín's province of Albacete
within Spain
On offer was a pale ale born in December 2016 that goes by the name of Ilúnica, the very first craft beer to hail from the small central Spanish town of Hellín - another little guy rising up in the face of the all-too-common mass-produced tastelessness that surrounds us all, with the mission of bringing character and flavour to people's beer glasses.

The label features a mystical red-haired female adorned with beer ingredients with the backdrop of a moonlit night sky - a nod to the town's ancient history as the Spanish word for "moon" and the town's name both share the same root. How romantic! 

My 2€ golden amber half-pint poured fresh from the barrel immediately showed signs of promise with fragrant, tropical notes on the nose which had my chops watering before the beer came anywhere near them.

Juan Carlos and Armentario started brewing
at home a few years ago before becoming
fully-fledged master brewers 
Using four different hop varieties it imparts juicy, tropical New World flavours of mango and pineapple along with some pine resin and a hint of citrus, complemented by a clean malty base. While it's packed mainly with New World hops it manages to remain easy-going, something that's well suited to the Spanish climate by being clean and refreshing but at the same time brimming with flavour and depth. 
Tapas prepared by David López Carreño
In fact, Ilúnica's quenching but laid-back character make it very drinkable despite its high ABV, which I only realised a number of glasses in when my legs were slightly wobblier than expected. As the brewers themselves noted endearingly on the night, we Brits like to drink a lot of low-strength beer - and fast - but it was hard not to knock these juicy 6.1% cañas back. 

Luckily on hand to soak up some liquid, in true Spanish style, was a selection of gourmet tapas prepared on site which were a source of intrigue in their own right for me: mince and broccoli pâté tartlets, couscous with cream cheese and crushed cashews, and toasted bread topped with salmon tartare and a drizzle of squid ink and mustard mayonnaise. That's how these guys roll.

Ilúnica pale ale is the first and so far only brew of these two Hellineros that's available, but I'm told they have a number of exciting ideas in the pipeline. Watch this space!

Cervezas Ilúnica on Facebook

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Nine Inch Ale (4.25%) - Redrock Brewing, Johannesburg, GT, South Africa

On a muggy and humid Christmas summer's day, a selection of beers was bestowed upon me and my face lit up with glee. If something about muggy, humid and summer doesn't sound right to you, that's because I spent it way down in the southern hemisphere on the green plateaus of Johannesburg, South Africa. 

With only days until my return to Europe and limited baggage allowance I was faced with the unenviable task of devouring as many of my newly-acquired brews as possible, but one that made it the 6,000 miles back with me was this local creation. 
Gauteng province within South Africa

Have a peek at Red Rock's website and you'll notice that crossing the rock-n-roll ram on the label is a pair of drumsticks, and yet mine, curiously, featured nails in their place. Either way, I was eager to tear off the precautionary explosion-preventative sellotape and see what it was about. 

Cracking the cap off the embossed, uniquely shaped bottle revealed a dark brown rusty-nail coloured liquid topped with an off-white head. On the nose I picked up fragrant earthy notes from the Simcoe hops, which, coupled with the sweet rich caramel malt aromas reminded me of an English bitter with a potent New World twist.

One swig later the hops and malts came at my tongue like drumsticks on a snare drum and mingled with each other like a party of rutting rams: juicy pine resin was joined by hints of smooth mango and lychee to the contrasting backdrop of thick treacle and chewy licorice, ending with a faint, lightly dry black tea finish. The ever developing depth of character and complexity had me making sloppy tongue-clicks the whole way through to savour every tang.

Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised by Nine Inch Ale. Rich and unique but very drinkable, it's a lekker dop that'll go a treat with some boerie on the braai.

Appearance 3/5
Aroma 4/5
Mouthfeel 4.5/5
Flavour 4/5
Overall rating 8/10

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Yankee (4.3%) - Rooster's Brewing, North Yorkshire, England

After my first review of 2017, a Yankee pale ale from North Carolina, I bring you an English pale ale called Yankee from North Yorkshire.

In the glass Yankee is a hazy, pale straw colour topped with a lively, bubbly white head that dissipates slowly, like an excitable chicken settling down on a bale of hay for a much needed roost... or a whisked egg white on a bed of yolks... okay, enough chicken analogies; the last one was a bit fowl. 

North Yorkshire within England
It has a gentle but fresh hop aroma with grassy and floral notes, and if you poke your beak about for long enough a faint, sweet whiff of honey adds a nice extra smidgen of depth. 

The floral character is as alive and well in the mouth as it is up the nostrils, along with fruity hints of white grapes and lychees. These delightful, understated hop flavours come together effortlessly, seasoned with some peppery notes, and end with a sweet, toasted biscuit malt finish that lingers around for you to carry on enjoying even once your glass is empty. 

A gentle carbonation leads to a smooth, juicy mouthfeel culminating in a medium-dry finish. Its balanced flavour and sessionable ABV make it highly quaffable, demanding masses of self-restraint, especially if it's to last long enough to take notes on.

All I want in a pale ale is something with character that's easy-drinking, and Yankee exceeded my expectations on both counts. It offers depth, complexity and harmony and yet remains laid-back and understated. Not only could I drink it all day, it left me clucking for more.

Appearance 3.5/5
Aroma 4.5/5
Flavour 4.5/5
Mouthfeel 4.5/5
Overall rating 8.5/10

Rooster's website
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Sunday, 22 January 2017

Dale's Pale Ale (6.5%) - Oskar Blues Brewery, North Carolina, USA

Hoppy New Year! And a hoppy first review of 2017 as I turn to this huge voluminously hopped mutha of a pale ale as it's modestly described on the can.

Yet again because the people around me know exactly what makes me happy, I've developed an almighty stash of craft beers following the Christmas period, hailing from the likes of Scotland to Belgium to South Africa to this one from the US which shot its way out of a Beer Hawk Beer Bullet and right into my sexy new Teku glass. 
North Carolina within the USA

Dale's Pale Ale pours a gorgeous orange-amber with a surging, bubbly off-white head that develops rusty hues on each swirl the likes of which I'd never witnessed before.

I found it surprisingly tame on the nose with nothing more than some citrus and earthy hop notes surfacing gently, which seemed all too Old World for something from the western side of The Pond. I put this down to the beer being excessively cold, having only just removed it from my fridge which on the very same day had managed to turn a pot of hummus into a chickpea ice cream that even the toughest pieces of carrot couldn't penetrate. Sure enough, as the brew warmed up some tropical mango and piney aromas came forward.

If there had been any doubt about the presence of hops, these were decisively quashed on my first sip when my tongue was overrun with zesty, citrus grapefruit and orange peel bitterness, with only a vague hint of the sweeter, tropical hops. The bitter hop flavours linger on the back of the tongue along with an alcoholic warmth and lead to a dry finish. The hops aren't the only star of the show as you might be led to expect, though, with a robust toasted biscuit caramel malt backing pushing through for some balance along the way.

This beer had struck me as a popular choice after seeing it pop up occasionally on my Instagram feed, so I was drawn to BeerAdvocate to see what the rest of the Beer World thought and it turns out that I'm massively at odds with most others on this one. 

For a moment I wondered whether 18 months of heavily limited access to top-fermented beers and their many new experimental varieties on account of my moving to Spain had deadened my taste buds so much that the exotic nature of Dale's Pale Ale had become too much to handle. 

In truth, though, I'm no stranger to brash, hop-forward American Pale Ales. Something about the combination of bitter citrus hops, the high ABV and used-teabag dryness just didn't make it the easy-drinker that I'd hoped for. An alright sipper that I'd gladly revisit, but I'm puzzled by the hype.

Appearance 4/5
Aroma 3.5/5
Flavour 3/5
Mouthfeel 2.5/5
Overall 6.5/10

What do YOU think of Dale's Pale Ale? Comment below, on Facebook or Instagram.