Category Archives: Beer Review

Italian Craft Brewery: Toccalmatto

Toccalmatto Brewery near Parma

Come here ’til I tell you something: there’s more to Parma than just the ham and cheese. The whole of Italy is making a bit of a splash lately when it comes to beer. The general direction of contemporary Italian birra seems to be a beautiful mix of the sensibilities of the two greatest brewing nations on Earth, that is the Belgians and the Americans.

Gear

Italy is unburdened with the ball and chain of tradition, instead it has the freedom to experiment. You can find all the fleeting trends that we see in American brewing, wood aged beers, big beers, hoppy beers, sour experiments, and all manner of hybrid styles. Yet at the same time, they take their beer seriously, in a way that reminds me of Belgium. Craft brewing is really young in Italy, but from the outset it seems to have allied itself with excellent food. Probably the best range of beer I saw in Italy was the selection carried by the trendy grocery/lifestyle store Eataly in Bologna, where many Italian beers rubbed shoulders with the best of Belgium, America, Britain and the rest of the world. Perhaps what really made the Belgian connection for me though, was the preponderance of 75cl bottles, they were everywhere.

Line 'em up

Toccalmatto is a small, young brewery – less than two years old – in Fidenza, not far from Parma. They only bottle in large bottles, and I asked Bruno Carilli, the owner/brewer whether it was hard to shift these in bars. “Italy is a wine country” he told me, “so it’s normal to share a bottle. Anyway, I wouldn’t want anyone thinking that my beer just another beer.” Don’t worry, there’s no chance we’ll be confusing this with Peroni or Moretti any time soon.

Well decorated!

It was really refreshing to see Toccalmatto’s brewery. It’s a simple affair, it doesn’t take up much space, it doesn’t have a huge capacity, it is well organised, but overall it’s simple. They bottle by hand with a simple gravity filler, and the beer is bottle conditioned. Good beer doesn’t need to come out of fancy equipment Bruno says. Perhaps there are limits though – he has recently come back from a visit to the Great British Beer Festival, and he visited Kernel brewery in London. “But they are crazy” he tells me. He shows me some pictures he took of their brewery, which I recently visited myself. It is in a tiny space under a railway arch. “But they brew beer right beside these people who are making cheese!” he tells me in disbelief, adding once more that they are crazy. We agree that Kernel make some very nice beer nonetheless.

Obscene dry hopping alert! Probably "Zona Cesarini"

Toccalmatto make quite a few different beers, many of which I was lucky to taste during my visit. First up was their Saison, Sibilla. It was an excellent saison, up with the best of the Belgians. It was very pale, and there was a citrus quality to the hop flavour. Bruno told me that the yeast strain he used also caused that citrus flavour, it was not the Dupont style yeast “because I am not making a version of Dupont”. Fair enough. It had a very dry finish, which did not last. All of the flavour was up front. Bruno seemed happy with this appraisal, telling me that “drinkability” was a key thing that he was trying to achieve, He wanted his beers to leave you wanting more, they should not be heavy, or filling. They should be tasty but easy drinkers. I have read that this is a trait also prized by the Belgians, who use sugar for this same reason – to make beers “digestible”.

Stray Dog Bitter was up next. This one was funny. It features a bulldog on the label, and a green white and red Union Jack. Bruno rather proudly showed me a certificate from the website Ratebeer.com which had it as the top rated bitter, above the British renditions that we all know and love. He seemed quite happy with himself to have upset the apple cart with an Italian version of the quintessentially British beer. As we go to press it has just been pipped by Jolly Pumpkin, for all these things are worth! I found that it had a thinner body than I expected. Styrian Goldings hops were certainly in attendance. It had little caramel, and again the drinkability was key.

Some of the barrels in the cellar

We tried a beer called Zona Cesarini, which was a twist on an American styled hoppy beer. Pointedly, non-American hops were forward, including Motueka and Sorachi Ace. The name was polysemic, it refers to Cesarini, a 1930s Italian/Argentinian footballer who had a habit of scoring in the last few minutes of the 90, in what is still called the “Cesarini Zone” by Italians. Furthermore the label features a Japanese Kamikaze pilot, referencing the Japanese (Sorachi) element, and also the “last minute” aspect of the beer: just like Cesarini’s goals, most of the hops don’t go in until towards the end of 90 minutes! For that reason it has very little bitterness, but a huge Motueka Pineapple flavour, Citra’s signature tangerine flavour makes an appearance, and Sorachi Ace are renowned for being lemony hops. All in all it’s a fruity affair; I very much liked it—it reminded me a little of Metalman’s Windjammer.

And the beer kept flowing. Bruno opened a bottle of Surfing Hop, which he described as a “Double IPA with artistic license”. Again there was a little subversion of the normal style. Sure, there were some American hops, but the malt was French, the yeast was Belgian, and it was quite dark. I was impressed by this, because when I brew, I find that the Belgian yeasts that I love can be too dominant to let me achieve the American style of late hop flavour which I also love, but Surfing Hop pulls it off.

At this stage Bruno revealed that he had a cellar. What was in the cellar? Barrels! Now you know I am a fan of barrels, and I was mightily impressed already at the beers that this simple little brewery was producing, but the experimental beers that we tasted then were really special. The first was a really big Barleywine that we sampled straight out of the Caol Ila barrel that it was aging in. Caol Ila is a lovely Islay single malt, a style I am really fond of because of those smoky peaty flavours that are associated with it, and this really didn’t disappoint, it was big and sweet, but it had picked up a really nice peaty flavour from the whiskey barrel.

One that got away: Jadis, a really interesting sounding Wit beer, rested on red grapes. There was no time to try it!

But there was stillmore. An Imperial Stout, which I think was in a calvados barrel. Bruno had whiskey, wine, calvados, a number of barrel types. This was no straightforward barrel-aged imperial stout (how passé) – it had the wild yeast brettanomyces added during aging. For all you myco-geeks, he stressed that this was not brettanomyces clausanus, but rather the kind that is found in gueuze and Flanders red, I presume he meant brettanomyces bruxellensis. In any case, this stout was incredibly complex. The big malty flavour was still there, but there was that wild acidic flavour right in the middle of the taste. My notebook says “v. hard to describe” so I’ll stop there. The barrel projects were both in the development stage, but they seemed pretty promising to me! He confessed that he had consulted his friend Jean Van Roy of Cantillon when he initially planned his barrel project. No better man.

King Hop

We had been there several hours at that stage, so we decided to let Bruno get home, the couple of other brewers he employs had long since left. I picked up a bottle of Re Hop (King Hop) to take back to the hotel with me, since it’s one of their best sellers. I can easily see why. It’s a 5% moderately hopped golden ale, in fact it’s extremely pale. The malt base is Pils, and I would guess not much else. The hopping is a mixture between the signature American Cascade flavour, and some late German Perle addition. It poured with a frothy, lasting head, and it was a little cloudy. It reminded me of some of the modern hoppy Belgian pales that the likes of Senne are producing. It had a very dry finish, due to the minimal crystal character. I found the European/American hop balance very pleasant. The beer wasn’t even cold, but 75cl seemed to disappear quite fast – drinkability topped the agenda once more. It was a lovely way to finish a great day, I really enjoyed meeting Bruno, seeing the gear, the beer, and the barrels. I think they’re doing something really special over there, and I hope they make it up in our direction soon. Importers take note!

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Howling Gale Ale

Eight Degrees Brewing is, I think, the most recent addition to Ireland’s ever growing craft brewing population. Started by an Antipodean duo, bottles of their first beer “Howling Gale Ale” (5% abv) hit the shelves in Dublin last week. They are based in Mitchelstown, County Cork.  Here is my take on their pale ale.

Owwwwww!

As you can see from the picture, it pours nice and clear, despite being unfiltered and bottle conditioned. Having a quick gawk inside I could see that there was very little sediment inside, not even enough to completely coat the base of the bottle. It is a dark yellow/amber colour.  I didn’t get a terribly strong hop aroma from it, rather I got a sort of winey/fruity smell that I associate with something like Kölsch.

It is quite lightly carbonated. There is quite a strong roof-of-the-mouth bitterness, but happily I found that this was followed by a reasonable amount or sugar sweetness, more straightforward sugar than caramel. I don’t get an awful lot of late hopping, but my guess is that there is some Chinook in this since the hops have a certain spicy flavour to them. Because of the sugar perhaps, I find this has quite a juicy finish, and dare I say it, (perhaps also due to the low carbonation) I find it quite “more-ish”. Gah. I said it. I feel dirty.

It’s a bit hoppier than other Irish beers in its class, as far as straightforward bittering goes. Pale ale is a broad church and there’s room for this sort of thing. Metalman’s “Windjammer” was hoppy too, but it was all up front, so it’s a different story. All in all, I think “Howling Gale” is a good solid debut. They have a red ale in the pipeline, and I’m really interested to see what they do with it. I often find reds more than a little dull. Watch this space!

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Session #52 “Beer Collectibles”

Note: “The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic”. Read more here.

A modest post from me; I have never contributed to “the session” before, but I love the idea. This month it’s “Beer Collectibles and Breweriana”. I pick up trinkets and bits and bobs, I keep labels I like and beermats, but I wouldn’t call it a collection, and I doubt I have anything that anyone is not familiar with, who knows, maybe someday it will be interesting enough to make it out in to the wider world.

Instead for my first session I’m simply going to show you two of my favourite beer related items. One is very old, and one is very new. These items, for your delectation Ladies and Gentlemen are: A bottle opener from the famous old Burton Brewery Allsopp, and a frisbee (yes that’s right) from the very new Irish brewery Metalman.

We have ways of making you say "Allsopp"

Allsopp were a major brewery in Burton upon Trent along with the likes of Bass, and one of the largest in England at one time. They were in the news again recently when a bottle of their 12% “Arctic Ale”, brewed for Sir Edward Belcher’s voyage to the Northwest Passage was sold on Ebay for over $500,000. It was

Very Old, Very Cold.

unopened, waxed and corked, from 1852.

Allsopp merged with Ind Coope in 1935, and the name was no longer used by 1959, so my little opener must be that old at least. I found it in my Grandmother’s house, and as you can see, it is in the shape of their trademark, a hand, and engraved on it is simply “Say Allsopp”, one of those charmingly simple old slogans. Despite my best scrubbing efforts it’s still quite tarnished, but I find it a very pleasing little opener and I use it more than any other.

Hi there!

My second item for ‘show and tell’ is a frisbee. I got it from one of Ireland’s newest breweries, Metalman. Grainne and Tim first put Metalman Pale Ale in Irish pubs early this year, and it was followed by ‘Windjammer’, a pale amber beer with buckets of New Zealand hops. It smells like a tropical fruit basket, it’s fruity, smooth and easygoing, and it’s going down a storm in pubs and at festivals, such as the Bloom festival in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, where I had some yesterday. Metalman are based in Waterford, but they are borrowing a brewery in Tipperary at the moment while they set their kit up. If you make it to Ireland check them out, and maybe they’ll even make it to you, wherever you are, someday. I think their logo is fantastic, I don’t blame them for wanting to stick it on a frisbee.

Our summer is scheduled to take place here in Ireland this weekend, next week we’re back to frost I am told. I’m going to make use of this frisbee. I hear that if you flip it over it doubles as a beer tray!

Metal Man, Plastic Frisbee.

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Hoptimum (tasting notes)

Hoptimum

Hoptimum has not (officially) hit Europe yet as far as I know, though maybe it has just got to Britain, my local awesome beer shop owner assures me he’s going to have some soon. In the meantime though, I sent a friend of mine who was just trying to have a quiet San Franciscan holiday halfway across the town so he could bring me back a bottle, which he did God bless him, so here I am, ahead of the game. Feels odd. Since this was a special occasion I sat down and took some notes.

Hoptimum clocks in at 10.4% abv. It’s clearly trying to get in on the hop-head-and-proud trend that seems prevalent in the US. Essentially this is unashamed ‘geek-beer’, of the geeks, by the geeks, for the geeks. It comes out of  Sierra Nevada’s Geek Beer Camp, and as their blurb says,

A group of hop-heads and publicans challenged our Beer Camp brewers to push the extremes of whole-cone hop brewing. The result is this: a 100 IBU, whole-cone hurricane of flavor. Simply put —Hoptimum: the biggest whole-cone IPA we have ever produced. Aggressively hopped, dry-hopped, AND torpedoed with our exclusive new hop varieties for ultra-intense flavors and aromas.

I had seen this before tasting it and I was expecting something like a beefeed up Torpedo, but that’s not what this is. I didn’t find it nearly as aggressive (despite the spiel) as I expected. What I had expected was a big aroma to greet me out of the glass, but no, I struggled to get that familiar SN waft. Instead the body was to the fore. The colour was unremarkable, it was indistinguishable from Torpedo or the like. As I said, there was a big body, similar perhaps to SN Bigfoot, certainly the extra alcohol was noticeable; SN are right that this is their biggest IPA. In many ways the body was something bock-ish, with a saccharine character, and little of the caramel toffee flavour possessed by many American IPAs that I have become obsessed by lately. But what about the hops? A very resiny hop character dominates the middle taste, I guessed something like Simcoe, which was subsequently confirmed by the website, Simcoe features as an aroma and a dry hop, along with a “new proprietary variety” whatever that is. There was little of the citrus I had expected. The real bittering came with the aftertaste. I wondered was Magnum (hop) playing any role here, and frankly I wasn’t sure what to make of the beer, so in the interests of having something to compare it to I opened a Torpedo

My initial thoughts about the aroma made a lot more sense after that. Torpedo has quite a rough aroma. Swirl the glass and it jumps out at your face. That just wasn’t happening with Hoptimum. But there was something going on I though, it was a faint delicate but quite pleasant tangerine aroma, nowhere near as intense as Torpedo. This was strange, because as I found out later they both use SN’s torpedo device, whereby the finished beer is pumped through a cannister containing whole cone hops. repeatedly, untill all the flavour has been stripped. Both use the new hop ‘Citra’ for this process, but Torpedo pairs it with magnum, while Hoptimum couples it with Chinook. Who knows what accounts for the aroma difference, it could be the differing bodies, of the companion hop, or the level of hopping. The comparison also shed light on the body, Hoptimum is very sweet, the extra 3.2% makes a big difference, when you drink them side by side Hoptimum makes Torpedo seem dull and thin. Hoptimum coats the tongue, leaving an almost spicy hop flavour which is entirely missing in Torpedo.

Geekery aside, I think this is a lovely beer, though I think for true hop-heads 10.4% might be pushing abv a little too high. I think beers with the body that goes with the sort of 7.5% range showcase hop character better as fas as I can see than something this strong, the bock-like body just takes over. These geeks need some more moderation to ranch them in a little it seems. It’s probably like letting a bunch of six-year-olds take over a sweet factory.

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A Serpent and a Cigar Box

I don’t normally write beer reviews, but I felt I had to give a short write up to two fancy American beers that I pulled from my stash the other day. I finally got Peter, my American beer-mule over for dinner the other night which meant that I got to open some of the large bottles he has been bringing me home from America this last while. I felt that with some of the fancier elements of my stash (such as these), I couldn’t really go and quaff them on my own, but how I wanted to!

Lost Abbey Serpent Stout

The first up was a brewery that I had heard of, but never encountered, The Lost Abbey from San Marcos, California. These are supposed to be Belgian inspired beers, and the bottle is a classic large Belgian beer bottle, with a cork. The beer, which is an 11% imperial stout co-opts the story of Eve’s temptation by the snake, and buoyed by the downfall of that pair, the snake goes on to tempt the rest of humanity with Serpent’s Stout.

That is all very well, but the thing that struck me before I even opened the bottle was how amateurish the whole thing was. The labels look like they’re printed at home on an inkjet, they’re lacking that professional sharpness, and there are typo’s on the back, in the first line no less.

From the beginning of time, it was so decreed, “From the this Tree of Knowledge, you shall not eat this fruit.”

It’s a small thing, but basically I have made better labels myself. It just ends up looking amateur. No matter, on to the beer! As you would expect, it poured black as the satanic serpent himself, with a nice tan head, that lasted long enough but not longer than half a glass. What struck me when I tasted it it was that there must be a lot of black malt, and I was immediately put in mind of our very own Diogenes, so I cracked open a bottle for comparison. It hit me then that this beer was too carbonated, and it took away from the flavour. Diogenes was perhaps undercarbonated, but this was off the wrong end. However perhaps they were going for the Belgian feel, their strong beers are highly carbonated. However there was nothing else Belgian here, this was a straight, Roasty, Blackmalt Imperial Stout, the yeast was straight. Comparing this to Diogenes really showed me what the whiskey barrel did, Serpent reminded me of what Diogenes was like before the Barrel. It was a very enjoyable and well made Imperial Stout however, quibbles about the image aside.

Cigar City Humidor IPA

My second conquest was another brewery I had heard of on the Hop-bine, Cigar City Brewing, from Tampa, home of the Buccaneers that Manchester Utd. fans hear so much about. It is part of their “Humidor Series”, which finds their standard beer aged on cedar wood, the traditional cigar case, or humidor wood. Each year they do a different one, and this one was their IPA, normally available as Jai Alai IPA. It was a beautiful specimen, it poured crystal clear, and a lovely amber with lovely light ruby tones. I could have looked at it all day if I had not smelled it. Amarillo late hops I am guessing, and dry hopped with Simcoe I am almost sure, by smell. The first sip got me with a lovely toffee sweetness, stronger than I have encountered before, but the signature of many american IPAs, and that lovely toffee caramel balances the big hops very well. Overall, this beer was heavier on late hops than bittering, and so the balance between the caramel and the orangey hops left quite a sweet taste. I got a little bit of the peppery spice you would associate with cedar, but not much. The only other cedar aged beer I have had was an Ale from Hitachino Nest Beer from Japan, and it was much more prominent there. And in case you’re wondering, this label was very professional. Sipping this made me keen to emulate it, and I have never achieved that toffee/caramel taste so strong in a brew. I may try to get it by using a technique whereby you boil a couple of litres of wort really hard in a pan, so it reduces and caramelises. Both of these beers, but especially the Cigar City beer left me wishing we got more American beer here than we do, but at least it seems to be steadily increasing.

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Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA

What a Beast

 

It’s my birthday, and I’m going to party like it’s my birthday. Furthermore, my plan was to drink Bacardi like it’s my birthday, but Bacardi isn’t very nice. I have a much better thing than that. As far as beer goes, it’s not terribly far from something like brandy or rum, there are definitely strong rummy fruity notes, Sam Calagione says it gains ‘marmalade’ as it ages, and I can definitely taste that.

Delaware’s Dogfish Head is the flagship for “extreme brewing”, that is anything out of the ordinary, because of either weird ingredients (tropical woods, chicory, juniper branches), or very high abv. 120 minute falls into the second category, it clocks in around 18%, it’s a bottle for sharing.

It is continuously hopped, that is, the hops are added gradually throughout the brew, a technique developed for their more standard 60 minute IPA, and also used with their 90 minutes. The minutes are the time that the wort is boiled for, and the hops added.

My bottle is about 13 months old. I was expecting more hops, but it stands to reason that the hops will fade over time. Extreme rummy notes, and orangey marmalade on the other hand seem to dominate now. This is a sweet beer, it reminds me of brandy, with a little heat. The marmalade in particular is like bitter Seville orange, even a little like orange rind.  There are still hops in the background, and the hop/marmalade fusion is actually delicious. This is one of the most enjoyable beers I’ve ever had, and worth waiting a year for. It’s not available here, nor in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland including the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, as far as I know, so People! Cultivate your american friends! (Here’s to you, Peter!)

 

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Guinness Aged in Wood! **TOP SECRET**

Oh No! We Forgot the Distilled Leprechaun Essence!

Cask Conditioned Stout from Guinness Pilot Brewery

Guinness is a brewery shrouded in mystery. The brewery tour doesn’t bring you through the actual brewery, rather taking you through a visitor centre, full of plasma screens, multimedia displays, faux-grain sacks and escalators, culminating in the magnificent view of Dublin from the flying-saucer-like Gravity Bar. But what could they be hiding? Some have conjectured that the real brewery is run by clones of St. Arthur Guinness himself, aided by an army of dark coloured Smurfs with creamy hats, little pint-size homunculi, making Dublin’s famous stout in their own image.

However, thanks to my network of spies, I can reveal that the truth is far more shocking! If you hold these little fellas up to the light it turns out they are not black but in fact very very very dark red. Furthermore it seems that the goings on at St. James’ Gate are not the only thing Guinness are hiding. It turns out they have a secret lair deep within the Sugarloaf mountain (or some other sort of Pilot Brewery somewhere) working on interesting little numbers like the following “Cask Aged Stout” that a Counterintelligence Agent (friend) of mine managed to get his hands on.

“Now hold on!” many of you you might rightly exclaim, aren’t you three ‘ne’er-do-wells’ also brewing a barrel aged stout? to which I can only reply, yes we are, and we’re as shocked as you are, is it a coincidence, or might  it bethat this blog isn’t the only organisation with a secret spy-ring? Realistically though, who can blame Guinness for perceiving us as a threat?  I’m running a check to see if any of my visitors came from a certain St. James’ Gate ISP!

Can't Read My, No He Can't Read My Pixelface

In any case, as a precaution I have pixelated the image to hide our identities, even drinking this top secret beverage could put all of our brewing careers in jeopardy. Enough of this banter however, how was this secret brew?

The Back Label

Well as you can see from the picture of the back label, it is a ‘cask-conditioned’ stout, aged in a ‘Genuine Irish whiskey barrel’, it doesn’t say for how long. On the front it says it is 8.5%. The Hops cited on the back are Tettnanger, Samargd and Herkules. It says that both cones and pellets are used “throughout the various stages of the brewing and fermenting process” which suggests rather coyly that it might be dry-hopped. I have never heard of Samargd, I’m guessing it’s some sort of Czech hop. Herkules is a high-alpha German hop, and Tettnanger is a classic German noble hop, much used as an aroma addition in continental beers. Despite the label however, I would be very surprised if this stout is in fact dry hopped, since none of us got any hop aroma off it at all. There was very little on the nose in general, except I got quite a sugary, almost treacly caramel smell, which was matched by the flavour. Sugar was the overwhelming falvour here, dark, treacly sugar. The head looked very similar to the pale, fluffy head that bottled Guinness produces. The beer didn’t at all taste boozy or hot, and the body was light, which would be in keeping with a high sugar addition if that is in fact the case. Furthermore, when held up to the light the beer was not very dark at all, it was quite clearly ruby coloured. Couple this with the lack of any roast or burnt character, and I would bet that some sort of brewers caramel or dark sugar has been used to darken this beer rather than very much highly roasted malt. Also missing was the characteristic chocolate or coffee often found in a strong stout. There was a pronounced and quite pleasant smokey flavour, and I think this could have been the barrel’s contribution, perhaps the char gave it some smoke . There was not much whiskey flavour detectable,  perhaps it was overpowered by the sugar.

An elegant tasting glass.

I would have liked something bigger, bolder, certainly roastier, but I suppose that’s why we’re brewing the Barrel Stout. This beer is not as nice as the Foreign Extra Stout, in my opinion, which is weaker, but manages a much fuller body and feel. It woul surprise me if this ever saw the light of day given that the Foreign Extra is so popular, However, any interesting addition to the Guinness range is welcome, but in summing up, it would be nice if this had a real hop character, a bit more malt, and a more pronounced contribution from the barrel.

My disguise for going on the run

Now I’m off to get my disguise and go into hiding. You Ain’t seen me.

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