M&S get real

norfolk_bitter.jpgIn 2006, we wrote to British supermarket chain Marks and Spencers to tell them how impressed we were that they’d started stocking some decent beer, namely their OK IPA and excellent Irish Stout.

But we also had some suggestions:

1. Real ale bores, just like serious foodies, like to know who is making their beer. The standard M&S practice of concealing their suppliers didn’t enhance the appeal of the product but rather seriously reduced it. Couldn’t they tell us who was making their booze for them, as ASDA, Sainsburys and others do?

2. Given that everything else in their range is supposedly of the finest quality, why weren’t these beers bottle conditioned? It seemed odd to us that they would sell hand-reared, free-range, 21-day aged beef next to pasteurised, filtered beer.

I’m delighted to see (in the latest issue of What’s Brewing) that CAMRA were also pursuing the same line of enquiry — as I’m sure were many other individual consumers — and that it’s paid off. M&S are now to stock four new bottle-conditioned beers from around the UK, each attributed very clearly to its home brewery (Woodforde’s, Vale, Cropton and Black Hills).

Last night, I tried their Norfolk Bitter (Woodforde’s) and was very impressed. Tons of citrusy hop flavour and aroma, and a lovely thick, persistent head

Nice one, M&S, and nice one CAMRA! Now to get that fantastic Irish Stout bottle conditioned too…

Basque beer – two offerings from Pagoa

San Sebastian is considered to be a bit of a foodie paradise, with lots of local wines, ciders and spirits to match. I hadn’t been expecting to find any basque beer, but I was on the lookout, and I struck gold early on with a couple of offerings from Euskal Garagardoa S.A. in their “Pagoa” range – Orhi, a pilsner and Gorri, a “Red Ale”. I gather from various internet searches that there is (or was) also a stout (Zunbeltz) available but I’ve not been able to find it.

The beers are described as “traditional Basque beers” and the ingredients are just barley, hops, water and yeast. Both are 4.9%. There’s no other information on the bottle.

These beers got a bit of a slating on Ratebeer but I have to say I really enjoyed them. Possibly in contrast to the standard Spanish fizz and the disappointing offers from the various French microbrewers that we tried in the last couple of weeks (possibly more to come on that, but I don’t want to slag off microbrewers who are trying their best).

The Orhi in particular was very pleasant. I was reminded more of a koelsch than a pilsner (malty, fruity flavour, low carbonation, medium body, long finish) but it was great to have a beer where you could taste the malt and the hops. It also went very well with the spicy chorizo stew I was eating.

The red ale reminded me of an Alt, with a toasty malt taste, and again quite fruity and not particularly carbonated.

Definitely worth seeking out if you’re in Spain.

Boak

PS Sorry about the lack of photo – I have one, but no way of transferring it onto this computer at the moment.

Damm good beer (ooh… bad pun)

akdamm.jpg In both France and Spain, the label “beer from Alsace” or “Alsatian beer” is used to imply that the stuff in the bottle will be a bit more strongly flavoured, better crafted and purer. In short, it will be almost as good as German beer.

In practice, there’s very rarely any real difference in style or quality. One Spanish brewery that justifiably trumpets its Alsatian roots, however, is Barcelona’s Damm, whose beers are a cut above those of many of their competitors.

Their well-known Estrella Damm is a fairly typical bland Spanish lager, but unlike similar efforts from Mahou, San Miguel and Cruzcampo, it’s actually pleasant tasting. Of all the commonly found Spanish lagers, it has the most body and the strongest malt flavour. The one to go for if you’ve got a choice in a Spanish bar.

volldam.jpgTheir flagship beer is the Germanically named Voll-Damm. It’s a dark golden, full-bodied 7.2% (DN) German-style special beer whose label makes some bold claims: “The Genuine Beer Character”; “Das Originale Maerzen Bier”. Hmmmm. First brewed in the 1950s, it might struggle to convince a court of the truth of that last claim. Nonetheless, it is a fantastic beer, by any standards. We had one shortly after a bottle of Salvator, and the taste was remarkably similar, even if the colour was not. The nicest tasting Spanish beer we’ve found, if not one to knock back lots of in the blazing sun. Spanish residents can even join a Voll-Damm fan club and declare themselves Volldammistas.

Finally, there’s the fancily packaged A.K. Damm, which is named after the brewery’s founder, August Kuenstmann Damm, an emigree from Alsace. It’s not strong (4.8%), but it does have a (just about) discernible hop character and a really solid malt base. There’s also something fruity in the yeast — we were reminded of one of the more ale-like Koelschs. It’s worth noting, too, that when we had two bottles brewed six months apart, the newer bottle was much better.

The one that got away — the Damm beer we have yet to try — is Bock-Damm. It’s not a Bock, but a dark Munich style lager.

It’s good to see a Spanish brewery taking the trouble to produce a range of different styles, even if all of them are pasteurised and filtered half to death.

Rosita — Catalan real ale

rosita.jpg

We spent yesterday in Tarragona — now a fairly sleepy Spanish city by the sea, but once one of the biggest in the Roman Empire.

Imagine our excitement when, as we were on our way out of town, we saw an advert in a shop window for “Rosita — cervesa artesanal de Tarragona”. That translates, more-or-less, as “Rosita — the craft beer from the Tarragon region”.

We bought two bottles, and asked the helpful shopkeeper where we could try it in a local bar. He sent us to the town square down the street, and before 10 minutes had passed, we were cracking open two cold bottles.

BAILEY: “It’ll be a boring fizzy lager.”

BOAK: “Hmm. Maybe not. I don’t speak Catalan, but I think this says that it’s ‘refermented in the bottle’.”

BAILEY: “It’s bottle-conditioned!?”

BOAK: “It’s also top-fermented!”

And, sure enough, Rosita is a pale, citrusy, slightly cloudy and very hoppy pale ale. It was also only lightly carbonated, and not like fizzy pop. We were impressed. This is a great beer, by any standards, but tasted all the better amidst a sea of bland so-called ‘pilsners’.

We were even more impressed when we tried it with seafood later that evening. The citrus flavours leapt out, and it seemed wonderfully refreshing, without being overpowering.

We’ve often said that we can understand why there’s only boring lager in Spain — the locals wouldn’t go for anything else in that heat — but this wonderful beer shows how to do it.

Rosita’s ingredients are listed as malt, hops, yeast and sugar. Our guess is that there are some American hops, and possibly some English ones too. There’s more info (in Catalan only) on their website.

PS – Tarragona’s worth a stop for the Roman ruins and medieval old town, and also seems to be quite a gastronomical sort of place. We had lunch in a restaurant called (we think) “Cervesera La Nau” on Carrer de la Nau, which had a quite extensive beer list. Tarragona is about an hour away from Barcelona by train.

El Legado de Yuste – Spanish abbey beer

yuste.jpgBoak is on tour in France and Spain.

A few years back Heineken España brought out El Legado de Yuste, “the first spanish abbey beer”, apparently brewed in the tradition of the master brewers of Flanders. I picked some up yesterday to give it a go.

It has a nice aroma – possibly slightly Belgian, definitely very malty. Initially a very good malt flavour but this quickly fades. It has an extremely weak body and quite a watery aftertaste. Some bitterness but no hop aroma or flavour. It´s too carbonated for a Belgian abbey ale. My initial reaction was that it was a watered-down Salvator (as in the Paulaner dopplebock – not that inconceivable – they are all part of the Heineken conglomerate). Because of its wateriness, it might be quite refreshing on a hot Spanish day – except for the fact that at 6.5%, you´re not going to drink many in the sun before the “heatstroke” sets in.

Ron Pattinson has listed it in his European beer guide and says that he´s not sure if it´s top or bottom fermented. I´m none the wiser from the bottle, it just says it´s made with “exclusive” yeasts (and vienna malt and specially selected hops) . It strikes me more as an amber lager effort than a belgian ale, whatever they use.

There is a website in Spanish devoted to this product, if you´re really interested. Lots of “history” of the product, suggestions on how to serve it (with game, apparently) and even a comprehensive guide to different types of beer. So I­t´s obviously targeted at the would-be connoisseur. But it doesn´t do anything for this amateur. I´ll stick with Salvator – maybe over ice?

Boak