Welcome to the sunny Saison

Saison to be jolly!

Saison to be jolly!

Yay! It’s Thursday evening and the weekend starts here! I’m super-excited as I’ll be spending tomorrow around the fabulous pubs of London town before jetting off to Copenhagen to party with Mikkeller & Co. at the CBC. I have a feeling that my poor old liver might be in for a bit of a workout so tonight I’m being super-healthy! As well as being a beer-geek, I’m also a bit of a juice-monster so tonight I juiced a generous shot of fresh wheatgrass and what better to wash down that wholesome green juice than a delicious organic Saison Dupont Biologique (5.5%ABV) from Brasserie Dupont! Isn’t the label so lovely – you could almost see it on the shelves of a health-food store among the tonics and coconut water. In fact, Saisons were originally brewed by farmers because it was better for their workers to drink than the dirty water which might have made them sick.

Saison is a style I’ve been slightly suspicious of but I’ve been making an effort to try a little more. I just think it smells a bit like a farm yard sometimes. I’m learning to love them for their unusual character and it’s a pretty good thirst-quencher for this warmer weather. This one actually had more of a lager-like aroma when I popped the cork; it took me back to those mornings I spent as a student tipping away dregs from Carling tins as I cleared up from the party the night before. In the glass there’s an additional note of honey rising from the lively carbonation. It’s a pretty beautiful shade of yellow-orange with a generous puffy white head.The flavor is super-crisp with banana and cinnamon and a lot of yeast. There’s a touch of sweet citrus but a lot of bitterness. The wheat and hay combined with the sunshine color and the arid dry finish make me long for a real summer I can spend outdoors.

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Wild thing

The apple of my eye!

The apple of my eye!

As a lover of apples and a hater of cider, I have often wondered why somebody can’t just make an apple beer!? Then I chanced upon Unibroue Ephemere (5.5%ABV), a candy-cane sweet Belgian style apple ale last October and found that I was right – apples can make a good beer! Unfortunately this was over in Vancouver and the brewery is in Quebec so there’s little chance of finding it over in the UK. I’d almost lost hope on another apple ale until I spotted the Wild Beer Co‘s Ninkasi,(9%ABV) a very strange beast named after the ancient Greek goddess of beer. It’s a Belgian-style saison with New Zealand hops, wild yeast and Someset apple juice. If this all sounds rather zingy for you, be warned that champagne yeast is added at secondary fermentation to take the effervescent bubbles up to the next level.

Whilst I love a pretty bottle and noticed this one partly due to it’s striking appearance, I soon realized it may not have been a good idea after all. The regular metal lid was coated in wax which had been elegantly allowed to drip down the sides but there’s just one issue with this. When the wax is solid and the beer inside is potentially pretty lively, wrestling with a tough seal is a fast-track to a very beery kitchen. Eventually we ran a sharp knife around the edge and then held our breaths in anticipation as the OH gallantly prized open the lid. Thankfully disaster had been avoided. Now the main  challenge was in pouring the damned thing using the good old ‘pour half an inch then wait for the head to top the glass then subside’ method. But what a sensational saison. They were right about the bubbles! The rustic aroma has a hint of the apples and the taste is so unbelievably crisp and dry you can almost taste the crunch – there’s definitely a hint of champagne-ness. It doesn’t have the typical flavor one would expect from New Zealand hops; there’s a lot of bitterness and a hint of citrus but the tart apple is the star of the show here. It”s a world away from the candy apple Unibroue Ephemere which makes me wonder where else brewers can go with delicious apples.

And the winner is…

Armed with tasting notes, I get stuck in!

It was just my luck that the third annual British Columbia Beer Awards & The CAMRA Harvest Cask Festival happened to fall on Saturday October 18th my first full day in Vancouver. We were quick enough to purchase a pair of the much sought-after tickets over the marvellous internet (what did we do before it!). Prior to this I had no idea that CAMRA had distant, younger, trendier cousins in such far-flung and exotic locations as British Columbia. Chapel Arts was the venue for this illustrious shindig which had the atmosphere of a lively but very friendly house party. Walking in, we were greeted with the usual beer list, commemorative glass and starter tokens (plus bonus tokens for our food donations for the harvest festival!). However, there wasn’t the usual line-up of pint or half. These glasses were teeny 4oz tasting glasses which were ideal for sampling all the beer one could hope to try without hitting the floor too early. I’ve always been fond of the ‘tiny glass = more beers’ approach to festivals and I was glad that throughout our stay we discovered this was a common feature in craft beer pubs across Vancouver.

The chill-out-and-eat-pulled-pork room

The crowd was a far cry from the stereotypical beer festival crowd one is probably all too familiar with. These were young, fashionable people all interested in beer, discussing home-brew and their favourite pubs in excited tones. It’s the very first beer festival I’ve been to which made me feel slightly old! Rather than the familiar setup of casks all racked together, the BC folk set up a table for each brewery and it was fun to meet some of the brewers who were happy to chat about their creations to anybody who came along. As a young woman who is often patronised at CAMRA festivals (GBBF being one of the worst sadly), it was nice to not have to negotiate with narrow-minded old men to try the beer I like and it was encouraging to see female brewers at some of the stands. In fact, the brewers were really the stars of the show and were recognised in the awards and their names appeared alongside their beers in the tasting notes. No attempt was made to separate cask and keg either – refreshingly both were listed and shown together.  CAMRA had the usual recruitment table and as a special treat for their members they had an exclusive ale for card-carrying members only. Thankfully, they were kind enough to accept my UK CAMRA card so I was allowed to sample a glass of Driftwood’s crisp and refreshing Sartori Harvest IPA and I also managed to blag a sticker and a pin badge for being such a dedicated CAMRA member.

The coveted awards

The awards ceremony was the highlight of the day. Beer-loving star of film and television, Jonathan Lloyd Walker who I believe is best known for his role in sci-fi show Continuum but has also appeared in the film Red and the Flash Gordon TV series amongst others, was a very charming and funny host. A beer awards bash is probably the best event to get in to at the start of a trip to an unfamiliar country. Although I recognised a few of the names from a previous trip to Vancouver, it was a great way to find out about the beers and breweries to watch out for. The judges came from a host of backgrounds, from qualified beer judges to sommeliers to ordinary bloggers and foodies and sat down to the gruelling task of tasting prior to the awards. The sleek tap handle trophies were awarded to the top three beers in 12 distinct categories in addition to the Homebrew award and ‘Best in Show’ which, to my surprise, went to a Pilsner from Steamworks. Of course Steamworks do make fabulous beers. You can see a full list of the winners here.

So what did Bierebelle spend her precious beer tokens on?

Big Ridge Brewing – Tariq’s ESB (5.9%ABV) by Tariq Kahn

Lovely clear amber red with more of an IPA than ESB character. Pink grapefruit citrus thirst-quencher with lots of carbonation. Part of the MJG family of brew pubs along with Flying Beaver, Whistler Brewhouse and Yaletown. Normally only brew for consumption on-premises so nice to see them at a festival!

Dead Frog Brewing – Hop Forward IPA (7%ABV) by Timmy Brown

Big bitter hop assault. The lemon sharpness takes a hold on the taste buds and doesn’t let go through the warmingly alcoholic bitter finish.

Driftwood Brewing – Sartori Harvest IPA (7%ABV) by Jason Meyers

CAMRA Exclusive! Very overtly hopped with a lot of citrus in the aroma. Refreshing, crisp and clean lemony liveliness.

Howe Sound Brewing – Imperial Pumpkin Stout (6.5%ABV) by Franco Corno

Heavy burnt treacle on the nose with almost a hint of tobacco. Really thick mouthfeel with pumpkin pie spices, burnt sugar and rounded out with earthy cacao nibs.

Lighthouse Brewing Company – Belgian Quice IPA (8%ABV) by Dean Mcleod

All I knew about quinces before is that posh TV chefs like to put them in jelly but it turns out over in British Columbia they have an even more totally righteous use for them! This easily won the People’s Choice award of the festival. A sharp candy aroma intensified by a fistful of hops, this pale and cloudy wonder had a remarkable combination of cranberry and rhubarb yumminess with a long bitter finish.

Parallel 49 – Chocolate Pumpkin Porter (6.5%ABV) by Graham With

Interestingly slightly sharp dark malt aroma. Very dark opaque brown with quite a bit of carbonation. Really bitter dark chocolate and a little touch of the vegetable,.

R&B Brewing – Cucumber Mint IPA (6.5%ABV) by Todd Graham

Imagine Thornbridge Wye, but add a trace of subtle mint and a more sturdy, robust citrus hoppiness. It’s a very cloudy yellow amber which is almost like a saison in appearance. The initial feeling is a big juicy bite of beery cucumber with a tingly mintiness at the end, exaggerated if you stick your tongue out (which was pretty fun). This was probably second only to the Quince IPA in my view.

R&B Brewing – Seasonal Squash Ale (5%ABV) by Todd Graham

Another cloudy one but a beautiful dark tan colour. I found this one rather zingy for a squash ale and not much spice was evident but there was still a lovely earthiness imparted by the squash. Interestingly it also shared characteristics with a cream ale.

Steamworks – Espresso Stout (9%ABV) by Tak Guenette

Mmmm… a real espresso stout with bitter coffee and a lactose sweetness at the end, although interestingly the OH was not too fond of the high acidity in the flavour. I thought it reminded me a lot of Titanic or Dark Star.

Storm Brewing – Imperial Sour Cherry Stout (11%ABV) by James Walton

I loved Storm and especially this one – they excel at pushing sour beyond the brink. James is pretty much the rock star of the BC brewing scene with crazy bleached spikes and awesome punky style. The aroma on this one was almost eye-wateringly sour cherry and citrus and the flavour was unbelievably sharp with a candy aftertaste that leaves your mouth feeling like you’ve been eating sour laces.

Townsite Brewing – Porter (5.5%ABV) by Cedric Dauchot

Wow this took me back to Ireland! Very carbonated with a massive head and properly bitter.

Tree Brewing – Jumping Jack Pumpkin Ale (6.4%ABV) – Stephan Buhl

This very dark golden amber ale was initially slightly disappointing with not much aroma but it was definitely a grower. More heavily hopped than others of this style, initially there was not much spice but this developed further down the glass and complimented the delicate pumpkin flavours.

The beautiful beer-loving crowd

Somebody had to…

Conrad Gmoser of Steamworks

Every beer festival needs pulled pork sandwiches

Hello Catso!

It’s Friday! The weekend starts here and of course it’s time to crack open a beer. This is a very exciting weekend for the Bierebelle as I’ll be heading off to Swinley Forest tomorrow for a weekend of mountain biking mayhem so tonight I’ve gone for one of the lighter bottles in my modest collection. Light should not by any means equate to boring though! Tonight I’ve picked out a rather special beer from those amazing Belgian masters, De Struise Brouwers, Catso (5%ABV). The Sturdy Brewers sturdy cat is quite the joyful departure from the dark styles with the moody labels I’ve had from Struise in the past.

Nice kitty

Almost as a sunny counterpart to the dark Black Damnation series, this is the second of a twelve beer ‘Cartoon Series’ illustrated by Arne Frantzell (illustrator for Trouble Brewing) which will all have a blond base. The sunny yellow label depicts a comically obese mog with the caption ‘Maybe double black isn’t a good cat food substitute after all;’ perhaps they could wean it off with this light-hearted saison. Out of the bottle, it’s like a hazy sunset on a warm evening. There’s a rustic hoppy aroma with a touch of golden hay and honey sweetness. The flavour is a laid-back hop with a soft citrus sourness with a little dryness at the back and the citrus dances gently on the tongue to finish. I imagine Catso likes to spend lazy summer evenings languishing on the porch of the Struise farmhouse. Certainly a beer to keep in for when the sun finally puts in an appearance. Sadly this was from Brussels – where do I get more!?

Happy birthday to Brew (Dog)

Brewdog Camden celebrates!

Bierebelle does not feel too good. What happened yesterday? Ah yes that would be the illustrious Brewdog’s fifth birthday party at their Camden bar where they had a total tap takeover featuring over 19 of their beers! I can’t even remember how many of those I tried but I think by the state of my wallet it was quite a few. We started the day with good intentions and I even kept notes on the first few drinks but with so much choice including some incredibly rare and never-before-seen beers it was never going to end well. The first drink was a very easy decision. I was very very excited to see Tokyo (18.2%ABV) on the taps – I’ve been putting off buying it for a while because of the price tag but this was the perfect opportunity to try. It’s an astonishingly beautiful porter ‘brewed with jasmine and cranberries, dry-hopped then aged on oak chips.’ This is one of my fantasy beers I’ve daydreamed about making in my imaginary brewery I sometimes think I’ll have one day, but Brewdog have gone and beaten me to it! Although the jasmine is quite subtle, the aroma is a generous big summer picnic of cherry jam  on brown bread. A real femme-fatale, the taste is wicked dark chocolate with dried cranberries and cherries and it feels like a mouthfull of velvet.It’s a luxurious deep  brown and so thick it leaves little legs when you swirl it around the glass.You wouldn’t leave Tokyo alone with your boyfriend.

No birthday is complete without cake (and 'IPA Is Dead' Motueka)

Moving on from the sophistocated elegance of Tokyo, I set my sights on a real bad boy for my next drink, Libertine Porter (5.9%), an ‘an irreverent, devil may care rollercoaster of a porter.’ What a rollercoaster ride indeed. Just about as inky black as a porter can be, it’s rammed with hops which dance and shout for attention but once they calm down, there’s a flash of blackcurrant and liquorice. It smells like it’s been painting the town black then crashed for the night in a hedgerow of hops and brambles. This is some bad-ass refreshment but the super-dry finish means it goes down rather quickly. Wiki says a Libertine is somebody ‘devoid of moral restraints.’ This Libertine is devoid of any restraints at all and today he had brought his crazed hound, Dog A. Oh yes, the Alpha dog was in the bar and I was faced with a dilemma – would I splash out or live to regret it? I thought about this as I shared a bottle of Lost Abbey Red Barn Ale (6.7%ABV) with my two companions which was a rather pleasant change of pace. A traditional, farmhouse-style Saison with an aroma rather like hay which made a wholesome and sunny interlude but there was a dog still jumping around, wagging it’s tail to catch my eye.

Who let the dog out of the box?!

Dog A (15.1%) is a rare beast. Everyone wants a puppy when they’re 5 and Brew Dog went ahead and got one, albeit a crazed, slightly vicious but utterly beautiful one. This Imperial Stout originally appeared as the legendary AB:04 but has made a much anticipated return for the aniversary celebrations. It contains ‘copious amounts of dark malts, pure cacao, coffee and subtle naga chilli’ so pretty much all the best things you could put into a beer. Presented in a beautifully sinister black box, you know this is gonna be pretty special. The aroma is incredible; you get so much of the chocolate and naga it reminds me of my home-made chocolate chilli but with shed-loads more awesomeness. The flavour is warming, full of dark malts with a real bitter-sweet kick of the blackest chocolate and followed with a subtle after-burn. Exceptionally silky with a tiny hint of smoke. Without a doubt the best beer of the day which is just as well since my note-taking stopped here (possibly rendered speechless by the majesty of the Dog A). Thanks for letting us come to your party Brewdog – it rocked!

Two weddings and a festival

So the Bierebelle has been back up north again and therefore drinking enormous amounts of beer rather than posting blogs. Hope you didn’t miss me! Seriously my liver (and waist) are grateful that I am safely back in the town where a decent pub is a rarity and breweries are few. The journey started in York where two very dear friends of mine tied the knot. We then ventured to Sheffield where we had an amazing night at Corporation for Resistanz festival and were shown the many, many beery sights by the sister and brother-in-law. Then it was back to York for the wedding of my awesome mother and new step-daddy (ok maybe I’m too old to say that).

Although our week of drinkingness began in York, the beeryness didn’t really begin until the day we left for Sheffield. We arrived on the Friday but were whisked away for a family barbeque, then Saturday was the wedding, although we did sneak a little drop of beer at the infamous House of Trembling Madness on the way to the church. However, whilst the half-pint of Kwak I enjoyed would normally be savoured with glee, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed, for I was on a mission. Earlier that week, it had come to my attention that Rudgate Brewery were launching a York Chocolate Stout to coincide with the York Chocolate Festival. Having been raised in York by parents who worked for two of the city’s major confectioners (Nestle Rowntree & Cravens), growing up with the sweet chocolatey aromas combined with the sugar beet processed at the factory next to my school, a love for chocolate is in my blood. It is therefore a fundamental right that I should expect to try this York Chocolate Stout. Rather surprisingly, nobody had mentioned this to Trembling Madness who had failed to save even one drop from the launch the night before. I was so upset I had to console myself with cheese instead. At least they hadn’t run out of that. My goodness, they do a cracking Yorkshire Rarebit with the most delicious mustard. I was so upset about the stout I also shared a cheese board with the OH which included a delicious Newcastle Brown Ale cheese. I could just about forgive them, even if I did leave York that weekend without having sampled the longed-for stout.

Drowning my sorrows

Fighting back the tears and trying to enjoy the Kwak & cheese

So the day after the wedding, we were due to board a train to Sheffield, but it is pretty much impossible to get through York station without calling in at the York Tap. Combining the elegance of a Grade II listed former tea room with the convenience of being in a train station, it just lures you in with its’ mind-blowing selection of 32 taps and astoundingly well-stocked fridges. There was a remarkable chap in there who was celebrating the 800th birthday of York by making it his mission to try 800 beers throughout 2012. I believe he was in the right place.

We were especially lucky that Sunday for we had the opportunity to try both of the rather special Ilkley Brewey Origins beers. As a girl with an almost unhealthy obsession with rhubarb (I eat it raw with no sugar and even stick it in my juicer) I immediately went for the astonishing Siberia (5.9% ABV). Brewed with one of my new favorite beer writers Melissa Cole (read her blog where she takes the ‘beard out of beer’), it’s a saison made with Yorkshire forced rhubarb, vanilla, grains of paradise and orange peel. In the glass, it looks typically saison-ish – it’s a delightful hazy golden color. However, stick your nose in and you get a lovely delicate whiff of rhubarb and vanilla. The taste is amazingly lively with the tang of rhubarb and the vanilla almost gives you a nostalgic impression of rhubarb & custard which stays with you for a long finish. There’s a little spice and a lot of sour which makes your tongue feel a little perculiar as you get to the end.

The OH had a half of the other Ilkley Origins saison, Medina (6% ABV), brewed with another notable beer writer Pete Brown. Much darker than the Siberia but just as hazy, this is a spicy Moroccan-style saison, the likes of which I have never tasted but I would very much like to track down again as it was pretty delicious. However, Sheffield was waiting and we had a train to catch! So I bid York farewell, knowing that the next weekend I would be back. Would my mission turn out to be a success? Would I find that elusive Chocolate Stout…? Find out soon…