Blind tasting lager

Commercial lagers lying in the fridge.

A couple of weeks ago, we posted something about the lager spectrum, suggesting that lagers range from nasty (e.g. San Miguel) to good (Estrella Damm) via neutral (Becks).

We had a nagging doubt, however, that there might be some prejudice in our rankings of these various very similar industrial beers. Do we prefer Estrella to San Miguel because it’s imported rather than license brewed in the UK? Did we think of Becks as neutral because the brand suggests ‘german purity’?

So, inspired by Lars Marius Garshol, and by the results of blind tasting for the Champion Beer of Britain at GBBF, we set out to test ourselves.

Bailey served four beers to Boak, who didn’t know which were in the fridge. They were chosen on the basis that none of them was especially highly regarded or characterful (i.e. no Brooklyn Lager or Jever). The serving order was randomised to prevent any temptation on Bailey’s part to save the perceived best for last, or vice versa.

Boak’s notes were as follows.

Beer 1 (San Miguel, UK brewed)
Tastes like generic lager! Good malt profile; a bitter, slightly metallic edge; no hop aroma or flavour. Not much after-taste at first. A bit unpleasant as it warms up. Not unpleasant when cold. Spanish? Is this Estrella Damm?

Beer 2 (Becks)
Good, pungent, hempy aroma, like Jever, which totally fails to deliver on tasting. Disintegrates. Bland. Like drinking spit. German?

Beer 3 (Estrella Damm)
Crisp and refreshing, but tastes of nothing, apart from a little tartness. Fizzy water with a twist of lemon. Spanish?

Beer 4 (Bitburger)
Similar hoppy aroma to number two but flavour persists a bit longer, definitely accentuated towards the hop. Pretty good. German?

At the end, she named San Miguel her favourite because of the solid maltiness, with Bitburger the runner up because of its hoppiness; Estrella Damm was her least favourite. We were both surprised by this, and a little embarrassed.

This was a fun, eye-opening exercise, and (as if it were needed) once again proves the value of blind tasting.

A Study in Wheat

Almost two years ago, in our 2009 wish list, we mentioned that we were interested in trying Estrella Inedit. On our recent holiday, we finally got round to it, picking up a bottle in a wine shop in San Sebastian.

The first thing to note is the amazing aroma — roses and lemons, like a box of Turkish delight. Unfortunately, the flavour doesn’t quite live up to that fanfare. It has a slightly dry, chalky maltiness with hints of sugar and orange. Not, in fact, a super-complex connoisseur’s beer as the packaging and pretentious label would have you believe, but something of a dumbed down Belgian-style wit.

We tried it with and without food to see if it lived up to its claim of being specially formulated to accompany food. The best we could say is that it is suitably unobtrusive, but it certainly didn’t (with apologies to Garrett Oliver) chat up our chorizo and chick pea stew and take it round to the back alley for a knee trembler.

It cost €4.50  for a 750ml bottle, which is fine, but any more than this (i.e. the £10+ prices people are charging in the UK) and you’d feel quite ripped off.  All in all, if you divorce this from the pretentious marketing and packaging (“serve in white wine glasses no more than half full to appreciate the aroma”) it’s an excellent beer by Spanish standards, and we’d be delighted to find it in our local tapas restaurant in London.

Interestingly, Damm have also brought out a cheaper, less highfalutin, German-style weizen, Weiss Damm. It stands up well in comparison to Paulaner Weiss, which is probably the wheat beer most commonly available in Spain.

Revolution in Catalonia

Ok, so there really is a Catalan beer revolution, as evidenced by the existence of B12, a specialist beer bar in Girona, with veggie and vegan food. (Obviously, if everyone else in Spain is drinking crappy lager and eating pork, the contrarian is going to drink craft beer and eat tofu, right?).

There are more than 30 bottled beers from various Catalan microbreweries on offer. As one of the owners told us, there seems to be a new one opening every month.

We were only able to try a few. First up was Lupulus from Montseny, the people who told us about this place.  We’ve read a few reviews of this and people have noted the hops. Well, it’s definitely got more hops than we’re used to in beers from this part of the world, and a nice fruity flavour too, but wasn’t really the hop bomb we were looking forward to, and was a bit off-smelling (green glass?).

Next was Rossa (blonde) from Keks, which tasted like a decent, perhaps slightly sweet, tangerine-like Belgian wheat beer. This was definitely brewed for the climate — we’ve often thought wheat beer is the best way to lure the Spanish into drinking better beer, as it’s cold and refreshing, but generally more complex than, say, San Miguel.

Sticking with beers that suit the climate, we also thought Atletica lager was a hit. This is a pilsen which appears to have been brewed by, or at least for, a football social club. It had a pleasant, slightly floral aroma and was clean without being bland. We could drink a lot if this.

Flama Ale  smelled great — like Goose Island IPA — and almost delivered, with savoury malts and aromatic hops, but was still a little too much like a careless home brew to really make the grade.

Montserrat by Guineu, was absolutely top notch, though, and the standout beer of the night. Billed as an imperial stout, it delivered in body and soul, and singlehandedly reaffirmed our belief in the Catalan brewing revolution.

Full credit to the owners for opening this place and giving these beers a stage. There were loads more beers that we couldn’t try. This place is definitely worth the trip if you’re in Girona, and probably worth factoring into an itinerary if you’re a beer geek passing through Catalonia.

Hoppy beer in Catalonia

Catalonia is becoming a bit of micro-brewing hub, and we were determined to track down a few local beers, albeit without high hopes for the quality based on previous experience.

Moska is based in Girona, and we managed to track down their beer in bottles, hidden away in Cafe Babel on Carrer de Anselm Clave.

The Negra (4.4%) is an interesting thirst quencher. It doesn’t taste particularly malty or dark except for a slight burnt aftertaste, but there was a great big hop aroma which we weren’t expecting to find in a Spanish beer. Too bad it didn’t carry through into the flavour.

The “torrada” (toasted) is amberish and stronger at 6%, but tasted pretty thin for something of that strength. The aroma was like that of an IPA but it was, sadly, much too watery to be a knockout.

The Blonde (4.8%, “Rossa”) was our favourite, with grapefruit, slightly acid flavours, and very refreshing. Did we like it more than, say, Estrella Damm? Probably not, much as we really wanted to.

Now that's a good pint of beer

During two weeks in France and Spain, we drank lots of boring lager; some Basque cider; some wine; quite a few interesting beers; and a couple of downright nasty ones.

But, this afternoon, fresh off Eurostar, and having got rid of the accursed rucksacks, we popped to the local and had a couple of pints of Maldon Gold and Nethergate Sarah’s Ruby Mild, which tasted delicious, complex and exciting beyond belief.

It’s almost good to be back.

Defying the English weather

As everyone knows, the weather in England is rubbish. Even when it’s sunny, you can be fairly sure there will be a shower just as you’ve set up your picnic.

In May, we were faced with a long bank holiday weekend where the rain didn’t stop in London, but we decided to ignore it and go on another tapeo (tapas crawl). Sod the rain. We were going to pretend we were in Spain.

If you treat a crappy Greene King pub like you would a Spanish bar, it’s not half bad. The tourists just added to the atmosphere, and our two halves of cold Kronenbourg didn’t taste any worse than Mahou does in Madrid. And they had some decent olives to nibble on. Result.

Next up, the Queen’s Head and Artichoke. As a pub, it probably wouldn’t be our cup of tea, but as a tapas bar, it was great. They let us sit at the bar to drink our Bitburger and had a proper, convincing tapas menu, which we ordered bits and pieces from over the course of an hour or so.

Finally, we headed for the Norfolk Arms. It’s more of a restaurant than a bar despite being (we think) somehow related to the previous place. They were a bit sniffy because we didn’t want a table and a full meal but they put up with it. We put away some serrano ham, a few Estrella Damms and, finally, a couple of glasses of sherry.

When we left, it was still raining, but we’d very successfully banished the bank holiday blues.

Craft-brewed beer from Toledo

Domus 'artesanal' beer from Toledo

Spanish version here.

Domus is an ‘artesanal’ beer from Cerveza Regia, Toledo. It’s bottle-conditioned, top fermented and available in various trendy bars in its home city. The marketing and packaging are fabulous, just screaming quality.

Unfortunately, the beer itself is a lot like one of our less successful homebrews: too fizzy, too thin and a little grassy. As it warms up, the toasted flavours come through a bit and it’s nice to have something with veritable hops, but unfortunately they have a way to go before we’d choose this over a glass of bland but pleasant fizzy Spanish lager.

Is it a step forward that something like this even exists in Spain? Our fear is that if someone does stray from a fizzy lager to try this they will simply be  put off craft beers and ales forever.

It doesn’t help that the bar staff have no idea how to handle it, shaking up the yeast and expecting us to drink it from the bottle which is (of course) the cool thing to do with ‘premium’ beers in Spain.

Cerveza artesanal de Toledo

Domus 'artesanal' beer from Toledo

English version here.

Domus es una cerveza artesanal de alta fermentación, elaborizada por Cerveza Regia, Toledo. Se la puede encontrar en muchos bares modernos en la ciudad. La comercialización y etiqueta son maravillosas – eso, y el hecho de que sea refermentada en la botella implica que es una cerveza de calidad.

Desafortunadamente, la cerveza en sí era como una de nuestras homebrews de menos éxito: gaseosa, espesa y sabía a hierba. Cuando se caliente, los sabores tostados aparecen un poco, pero tiene que mejorar considerablamente antes de que la elijamos en vez de una caña de lager refrescante / insípida.

¿Es bueno que esta cerveza existe en España? Lo que mas nos preocupa es esto; si alguien la pide, para probar una cerveza artesanal por primera vez, le desanima tanto que no quiere probar otras cervezas artesanales y ales.

No sirve que los barmanes no tengan ni idea de cómo servirla. Nuestro barman agitó la botella (y la levadura) y no nos dio un vaso – por supuesto, teníamos que beberla directo desde la botella, como con otras cervezas de “premium”.

Revisiting old haunts

Unfiltered lager at Naturbier in Madrid

When I went on my travels a couple of years ago around Spain and France, I didn’t have a huge number of amazing beer experiences to report.  Nonetheless, there were a couple of interesting places  to which I was keen to take Baileythis time round.

The first was Naturbier in Madrid,  a friendly brewpub in the heart of the city. I was interested to see if Bailey would agree with my positive opinions and he did, although we both agreed that this time the “rubio” (blonde/pale) beer was better — almost as good as some unfiltered lagers we’d had in Germany.

The second was the Frog & Rosbif (Paris St Denis branch) which seems to have quite a bad reputation as an expat dive.  I loved it last time and was almost a bit nervous to take Bailey there… Would it be as good?

Yes and no.  The wheat beer and lager were a bit odd tasting, and the waitress warned us off the stout (“It’s not so good today.  Why not try something something else?”).  But the two ales were fresh and the atmosphere and service were great.  What’s interesting about this place is how it manages to be so popular with the locals: we didn’t spot any obvious ex-pats. It’s certainly not because it’s cheap…