Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Day 159, Beer 159 - Salopian's "Vertigo"

Today's Beer

Name – Vertigo

Brewer – Salopian

Classification – Black IPA

Strength – 7.2% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – The very deepest, darkest brown currently known to humankind. Monumentally appealing.

On the nose – Sweet, razor sharp citrus. Impossible. Delightful.

On the tongue – Off the scale. Every scale, and in every sense.

On the subjectSalopian sent Vertigo over to me with a bonus bottle of their Darwin's Origin, one of the more established beers on their roster but one which I'd also never tried before. Needless to say I have tried it now, and it ranks among the greatest bitters I've tried in a very long time. I figured that was worth mentioning.

On the marketVertigo is hideously rare at this early stage in its existence  If you live near a specialist beer shop you might be in luck – providing you can dodge the long range missiles launched at you almost constantly by jealous folk like me who don't live anywhere near a specialist beer shop. Alternatively, you could avoid harm by going online.

On the

Full Review

I've never sniffed a fluid so much.

There was a peculiar moment early on in this review session when I wondered if it might be better if I didn't transfer any of this beer into my mouth – as the only possible outcome was sure to be a relative reduction in the amount of pleasure the substance was already bringing into my sorry little life. After all, handing over responsibility from one sense organ to the next can so often result in a joy-sapping anti-climax – especially in these days of ever more fevered hop-centric experimentation wherein pungent 'whiffs' can often be followed by oddly lacklustre tastes. (I still don't really understand how high fragrance and low flavour can so easily coincide.)

Anyway, having eventually reminded myself that beer reviews traditionally require at least a rudimentary flavour assessment, I took the plunge and had a sip.

Well, I'm happy to report that the nose-to-mouth progression in Vertigo's case was not at all anti-climactic. Indeed, by some miraculous means, what rapidly became one of the best smelling beers I've ever encountered also turned out to be one of the best tasting. Who'd have thunk!

As you can imagine then, what we're dealing with here is a drink of exemplary all-round quality, but oddly enough that's not the best thing about it.

It's not just a good beer – it's also a useful one.

I think this could be the perfect beverage to bridge the gap between those who are keen to remain within the hallowed walls of Traditional Beersville, and those who have flown that particular nest and feel determined never to return.

Ingeniously, Vertigo sums-up in one delicious glass the last half decade or so of creativity which has all but transformed the beer industry, whilst also being a beer imbued with a super clear sense of tradition. It's unquestionably a 'funky modern', but it's also one of those ever-familiar fine ales we've all grown to love at some point in our beer-supping lives. In effect, this is a brew that drinks like a concise appraisal of beer's entire story, starting right back from ale's humble beginnings, and zooming right the way through to the current outer margins of contemporary ingenuity and innovation.

Very often I find myself thinking how glad I am that I'm a beer drinker at this particular point in time. Lovers of the brewer's art today have such a wealth of options available to them, there are almost no limits to the variety of flavours, textures and aromas, notwithstanding the boundless range of colours, strengths and even recommended serving temperatures to constantly leave us with exciting new territory to explore. And for those not wishing to leap too far from tradition, there are obviously still an abundance of well known, 'classic style' beers being produced and enjoyed. But just to have the option of switching back and forth from our old favourites to the new breed of flavour-forward concoctions makes us a very lucky bunch in my estimation.

And what beers like Vertigo give us – is the chance to do both all at once.

Beers like Vertigo shrink the gap between old and new beer styles with effortless grace, and they are pretty much guaranteed to leave members of all three camps (the trads, the mods and the go-betweens) with nothing but smiles on their satisfied faces.

When I say beers 'like' Vertigo, I don't mean Black IPA's, necessarily. Some of these beers can feel distinctly 'edgy' and contemporary (which is fine by me),whilst others can feel like someone has simply applied 'new funky jargon' onto the label of a watery stout.

Vertigo is an excellent drink in its own right, which happens to wear the Black IPA name (with strong justification), but which takes the concept of 'style fusion' back to its essential roots. Consequently, you have a beer which feels fresh, modern and dynamic, but which is also appropriately aware of the back-story to its own existence.

As I started writing this, I felt that listing the many flavours at work within this beer was much less important than stressing just how enjoyable and how downright 'important' I believe this brew is, as well as how the assembly of Vertigo's flavours is every bit as key as the nature of them. But as I know that such an omission would (rightfully) annoy most of you, I'll now pull out just a few of the major flavour players -

Tropical tree fruit, hedgerow berries, rich molasses, dark roast coffee, star anise, kiwi, gooseberry, burnt toast, licorice, traditional 'fruit salad' chews, black forest gateaux, wild grass, giant lorry loads more.... are you getting the picture?

Let me re-emphasise, though, that this beer is about so much more than taste. It's an education. A comprehensive lesson in beer's history, starting at the very beginning, and showing us all just how far we have come.

A modern beer with a classic soul.

It is simply magnificent.

Find it, buy it, drink it.

Whatever beers you love, you will love this beer.

Monday, 4 March 2013

My 'Top 5' Craft Beers in LA

Over the last twelve months I spent a total of six weeks in and around Los Angeles, sampling contemporary American beer whenever I deemed it appropriate to do so. (Nearly always.)

A beer-loving statistician might argue that this is not possibly enough time to get a full perspective on the US craft beer scene and I'd usually be among the first to agree, but by the end of my most recent trip over there, I reckon I've been sufficiently exposed (and sufficiently well advised before any exposure) to feel confident enough to list the best five brews I have come across on American soil.

As a bottled beer themed website, I wanted to limited the list to those beers which can be bought in bottled form, but some of these are either too new or too 'niche' to have made it onto the bottling line, but assurances were given to me that most of these will be both 'on tap' and 'under cap' within the very near future.

And so, in no particular order...

Avery - 'Maharaja' (Imperial IPA)

The undisputed talk of the town in Hollywood and its near neighbours, I first tried this at the marvellous Stout Burgers & Beer on Cahuenga Boulevard shortly after seeing a burst of frenetic activity behind the bar which (it turned out) had been triggered by a fresh consignment of this beer finally being hooked up to a tap. Moments before this excitement began I'd ordered something else entirely, but the bartender brought me Maharaja instead because "This is something you just have to try..."

She was right. With this beer, Avery have probably elevated the IPA to a point beyond which it will simply have to be called something else. Technically an 'Imperial' IPA, which loosely means it's had a multi-stage ramping up of strength, flavour and general awesomeness, and weighing in at a fairly hospitalising 10.4 ABV, this is quite simply the mothership of all other beers wearing those three ubiquitous capital letters. Of all the double, triple, quadruple or bigger India Pale Ale's in the known universe, there is none better than this masterwork of creativity.

Angel City - 'Angelino IPA'

Just arriving in the bars of Los Angeles, this beer is about as enjoyable a drink as I've tasted in recent times. With shades of Thornbridge's sublime 'Kipling' and BrewDog's 'Punk IPA' this is an exquisitely crafted highly hopped beer which is impossibly easy drinking and comes imbued with a sense of freshness which is peerless in my experience. Without doubt, Angel City will be a dominant craft brewery in two years time. No question.

Dogfish '90 Minute IPA'

This brew is already a big fish having recently been voted Best Craft Beer In America (I forget who by, but whoever they are I can't really argue with them). It's another of those US IPA's that can only really be enjoyed in small amounts due to the crazy levels of alcohol they come armed with, but the bewildering array of flavours at work here make that small amount truly memorable. It's not a one-trick-(hop)-pony like some modern IPA's can justifiably be accused of being - there are dynamic spices, funky herbs and all kinds of malt-derived deeper flavours that add up to a mind-bending showcase of brewing ingenuity.

North Coast 'Old Rasputin' (Imperial Stout)

They might not win as many headlines, but it's worth pointing out that the 'dark' beers in the US craft movement are every bit as impressive as the hop bombs. Some of my most pleasant surprises on the Pacific Coast have been in reaction to stouts and porters, many of which could give anything I've ever tried in Dublin or London a decent run for its money. However, I won't try to pretend might that I paid as close attention to the darks on either recent trip - although this is a state of affairs I intend never to repeat! Of the relatively few 'roasty toasty' brews I sampled Old Rasputin was a stand out, and it had me nodding my head sagaciously right from the off. Everything you'd want from a stout with a whole load of elements you never dreamed you'd want. A very clever beer.

Bear Republic - 'Cafe Racer 15' (Double IPA)

Most often found at The Blue Palms Brewhouse on Hollywood Boulevard, this beer is every bit the challenger for Maharaja's reputation as the best Imperial/Double IPA around. What we have here is essentially the big sister to Racer 5 - the much lauded brew which careered around the globe winning the hearts of relentless hop-fiends everywhere. In short, if you enjoyed Racer 5, imagine a beer that's almost exactly three times as good. Nuff said.

Notable others -

Russian River 'Blind Pig' (IPA)

A lower ABV India Pale Ale which sacrifices little in terms of flavour impact but comes with the advantage of being drinkable in amounts greater than two smallish glasses per evening. (A concept still largely ignored by most US craft breweries, who continue to focus almost entirely on high-alcohol brews!)

Stone 'Ruination' (IPA)

A beer which emphasises my previous point rather beautifully!

Famously powerful, and supposedly every bit as rare. Nonsense! It's available in singles or in four packs in Los Angeles if you take a while to find the right supermarket.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Day 158, Beer 158 - Titanic's "Plum Porter"

Today's Beer

Name – Plum Porter

Brewer – Titanic

Classification – Porter. With plums. Naturally.

Strength – 4.9% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Rosewood tinged translucent black. Alarmingly attractive.

On the nose – A certain tree fruit dominates the aromas. You'll never guess which.

On the tongue – A novel, but by no means a 'novelty' beer. Rich, fruity, beautifully engineered and impossible to drink without smiling. (See below.)

On the subject – Sinking sea vessels aside, it's taken me far too long to get around to Titanic. Appropriately, this Stoke-based brewery has an increasingly 'big' reputation among ale aficionados (beer geeks), and although it may not the most ubiquitous brand on a national level, it's certainly among the fastest growing.

On the market – You might not find this particular beer in supermarkets, but many of Titanic's core beers are popping up more and more frequently these days. Otherwise, try a specialist retailer to sample some of their more avant-garde products such as today's. I got this one from Newark's Real Ale Store.

On the

Full Review

Rarely has the first sip of a beer produced such a wide and enduring smile.

I should quickly add that around fifty percent of that grin was induced by a profound sense of relief, as I'd fully convinced myself there was little or no chance of me genuinely enjoying this brew.

That prior fear, based on years of crushing disappointment, is a sensation I experience whenever I crack the lid on a drink which claims to be an established beer style (a porter, in today's case) that has been somehow 'enhanced' with use of an extra, supposedly 'bonus' ingredient. In these days of evermore feverish innovation this additional item could be anything from chocolate or ginger, vanilla, horseradish, caramelised church bench, or the ground bones of the head-brewer's former boss.

(Those latter two may be fictional at the time of writing, but it's surely now only a matter of months...)

Plum, then, could actually be regarded as a reassuringly conservative choice, and in many ways its easy to imagine why the rich, deep roasted character of a stout or porter might benefit from the sweet, tangy sharpness of any number of dark skinned tree or hedge fruits.

My problem is that these 'special' beers can all too often wind up tasting like the kind of tinned confectionery we only ever receive from that elderly lady across the street at Christmas.

Basically, they have a tendency to taste exactly like what the breweries will never admit they actually are. Public relations tools. Firms feel obligated to churn these 'creations' out every once in a while to remind the world that their businesses are populated by warm blooded human beings as well as dispassionate machines, and to remind their rivals that they can be every bit as innovative (bonkers) as they can. It can often feel like companies brew the occasional quirky beer purely to demonstrate that they can, not because they particularly should.

Personally, I don't drink beers in order to marvel that they're possible, I usually just drink them because they're nice.

However, very occasionally, these brewery muscle-flexing sessions will result in something which is not only ground breaking, unique and hugely painstaking to achieve (blah blah blah), but which also happens to be genuinely delicious.

Mercifully, Plum Porter is very much among these beautiful anomalies.

Sumptuous swirling suggestions of liquorice, smoked bacon, cocoa, fresh picked herbs and soft spice – all very much in the porter tradition – combine wonderfully with the guest star of the show, the unmistakable presence of that ultra-juicy, perfectly ripened plum, which imposes itself determinedly upon the overall flavour without ever overstepping that fine line and heading off toward brutal domination. It does get close to that line at times, but if anything that adds a welcome 'tension' to the experience which might otherwise be perfectly pleasant but much less dynamic. There's also a lovely little cameo performance from rhubarb which, in my estimation at least, comes dangerously close to stealing the show at various stages during a full glass.

The body has substance, but there's also an agreeable lightness to it, making the instinct to pour an immediate second glass pretty darned compelling, and the complex aromas have that 'please let me have just one more sniff' quality which is all but guaranteed to earn you a police caution.

There's little doubt that this an extremely successful foray into the potentially hazardous realms of recipe experimentation, and I really needn't have wasted any time at all worrying about it.

Sometimes, 'funking' a beer up can prove to be nothing less than a typo.

With this though, Titanic have brewed a very classy porter and given it a distinctive edge with restrained use of creative ingenuity.

In truth, I image that's what all breweries are really aiming for whenever they have a go at a 'special'.

Few ever get it as right as this.