Thursday, March 17, 2005

(Other) Great Beers of Ireland

Ah, the Emerald Isle. Narrow country lanes winding through rolling green hills, ancient stone fences surrounding pastures, tiny villages, churches, pubs. The grandeur of Kilkenny Castle, the sweet melancholy of Galway Bay, the bustle of modern Dublin. The fierce pride of the people.

And the beer. Oh, the beer.

Ireland is of course home to the dry stout, the most famous example of which is Guinness. Guinness is oft-maligned here in the States, not necessarily because it doesn't suit the American beer drinker, but because so few bars in America bother with the work necessary to serve this classic properly. The protein-rich brew has a tendency to gum up the lines, and it takes careful nightly cleaning to prevent the acrid taste that Guinness so easily acquires from improper care.

You can get good Guinness in the US, but you have to look for it. Odds are your neighborhood sports bar and grill isn't going to cut it. The best I've ever had stateside was here. The best I've ever had in Arizona was here.

Sadly, I have yet to find a satisfactory pint in Tucson. And I've been looking for nearly 6 years.

But I didn't really set out to write about Guinness today. Because even though it's great--and still a favorite of the Irish, accounting for nearly one out of every two pints poured there--there are actually several beers from Ireland that deserve some attention.

We'll start with the other big stouts. Murphy's is probably the creamiest and smoothest of the lot. Not as bitter as Guinness, which some folks like. Personally, it's not the one I prefer, though I'm mentioning it because I think it is an ideal introduction to the style for those that think they "don't like dark beer".

Beamish, on the other hand, is my favorite stout, hands down. It has always been the centerpiece of my annual St. Paddy's day festivities. Much more complex than either Murphy's or Guinness. Also much drier. The roasted malt character of the brew really shines through, with undertones of chocolate, coffee, and just a hint of smoke. Bold in flavor, but astonishingly light in body. If you assume that dark = heavy, Beamish will certainly broaden your horizons. If you have the chance to try this on tap, do not pass it up. (Even in the widget cans, it's quite good.)

Caffrey's I've not had in a while. (Rumor has it that it is no longer available in the U.S.--does anyone know if this is still true?) I do remember it being very typical of Irish draught ales, which in contrast to the stouts tend to be very mild in flavor and aroma. I think of this kind of beer as particularly well-suited to sitting outside on a patio on a sunny afternoon, passing the hours away with a few good friends--especially if you don't feel like having a lager. Whereas a good stout will stand up to a hearty, meat and potatoes kind of meal, Caffrey's is best enjoyed on its own or perhaps with a light snack. Light carbonation, virtually no aftertaste--you can drink an awful lot of this beer if you have the time.

Smithwick's, by contrast, has a rich, robust caramel flavor, balanced by a crisp but not overpowering hop finish. This is the beer I fell in love with in Ireland, forgoing the omnipresent Guinness more often than not by the end of my visit. This is a fine ale, and one that you couldn't get in the U.S. until relatively recently. Discovering that it was available in Canada the first time I went there with Marsha was a real treat. It seems to be catching on rather quickly here in Tucson...if you haven't had it yet, you should definitely give it a taste.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Kulmbacher Eisbock

Eisbock is German for "ice bock". OK, actually, it's German for "ice goat", but that makes slightly less sense for the purposes of this conversation. (For a brief history of the bock, go here.)

OK, now that you have some idea of what a bock is, an eisbock is an especially strong doppelbock (that's "double goat"...oh, never mind), weighing in at a hefty 9.2% ABV. Kulmbacher claims to be the originator of the style, dating back to a cask of bock accidentally left out in the winter cold. As ethanol has a lower freezing point than water, freezing concentrated the beer to a rich, potent brew.

The result is a dark mahogany color and an assertive alcohol presence. A faint candy-sugar presence permeates the aroma. The finish is dry but surprisingly mellow. Maybe not a beer for everyone, but for a beer lover, this is a real feast for the senses I'd put up there with a good trapist ale.

That, and it'll kick you in the head. This is my current favorite beer for a nightcap. I sleep like a baby after one of these.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

New Belgium Biere de Mars

I've been wanting to write about this beer, a recent discovery (for me), for over two weeks now. I haven't yet because every time I cracked one open, I was completely distracted by it, and didn't think to write it up until it was already gone. (I always write beer reviews while having the beer I'm writing about...I don't take notes or anything.)

The other reason is that this beer defies classification. I can't really think of any reference points with which to begin describing it, something that is really pretty rare for me. This might be why I find myself so completely captivated by it.

The style is particular to southern Belgium and northern France, and (as those with a bit of French under their belt have already noted) is brewed for the month of March. A beer for both winter and spring.

The beer pours cloudy and orange--imagine a combination of an octoberfest and a hefeweizen--with a quickly dissapating head. The aroma is yeasty and slightly earthy, with citrus overtones. The flavors are ethereal and complex; malt, barley, oats, yeast, lemon, orange, corriander, and spices that I really can't put my finger on all intermingle and combine in strange and unexpected ways. This is likely due to the "unidentified flying yeast" used in the tradition of open fermentation. What's interesting is that for all its complexity, the overall impression of Biere De Mars is remarkably subtle. Much like the month for which it is named, this is a beer of contraditions.

Utterly fascinating.