Saisons & Farmhouse Ale


Craft has become a term that is used so much that it is in danger of becoming meaningless.  Recently, I saw a major fast-food outlet (think Golden Arches!) presenting in their ads that they were ‘hand-crafting’ their burgers, and I knew that the members of the marketing of population of Ireland had truly gone over the edge.  Some people have moved to using the word ‘artisan’ instead.

Today’s beer, Surfine – a classic Belgian saison, is from a beer style family that is truly artisan.  The style Saison, or Farmhouse Ale is a style of beer that has grown out of small breweries located in farmhouses in the South and West of Belgium (Walloonia).

Saisons and Farmhouse Ales –

There has been a tradition of brewing ‘farmhouse ales’ in the North of France and the South and West of Belgium (Walloonia).  In France, these beers are known as ‘Bieres de Garde’ and in Belgium, the term ‘saison’ is applied to the style.  In Ireland, we are a little bit more familiar with ‘saison’, having a greater affinity with Belgian beer than with French beer in this country.

Saison is a style family that owes its definition to its place of brewing more than the beers’ characteristics.  This is a slightly obscure way of saying that the saison style family is more defined by where the beer comes from than by the characteristics of the beer.  Like ‘Trappiste’, which is essentially defined by the fact that it has to be brewed within the walls of a Trappiste monastery, and which can envelope sub-styles ranging from standard alcohol ‘patersbier’ to darker and stronger ‘quadrupels’, taking in a variety of styles in between, ‘Saison’ is defined by the fact that it comes from a farmhouse brewery, and can cover a range of sub-style interpretations under this broad style family.

When brewing saisons, farmers would typically use ingredients that they had to hand – their own-grown barley, often malted by the farmers themselves, and sometimes combined with other grains (oats, wheat, spelt).  Typically, saisons are amber in colour, though darker saisons are possible.

Understanding saisons is best achieved by looking at their history and origins.  Brewed as farmhouse ales, these beers were constrained in terms of when they could be brewed.  Through the early 1900’s, farmhouse breweries would brew this style of beer during the time of year when the workload was lower (typically November/December – after harvest – or March – after planting season).  The beers were brewed to be available to slake the thirst of the farm workers during the hot summer / autumn seasons when these workers would be looking for refreshment while engaging in physical labour.  Given the need to store the beer from the time of brewing to the time of drinking, these beers needed to survive for a longer time than many other beers brewed to be drunk soon after they were ready.  The style encompasses beers that use large quantities of hops to make use of the preservative qualities of this ingredient, to beers that have a sour or funky element to them, achieved from a mixed or wild fermentation.  In both cases, the brewer was seeking a character to the beer so that it was still an appealing drink when it came to being drunk by the farmhands in the summertime.  While some saisons were brewed with a residual sweetness in times past, most all saisons currently available are relatively dry as a result of the complexity of the yeast used in the beer’s fermentation.

Surfine –

Beer Style                         –  Belgian Saison

Alcohol by Volume         –  6.5% a.b.v.

Brewed by                        –  Brasserie Duboisson

Brewed in                         –  Pipaix, Belgium

‘Surfine’ is a word in French that means ‘sublime’ or ‘wonderful’ – a great name for this truly delicious Belgian Saison.  As a style, Belgian Saison is quite broad.  Given its origins with farmhouse breweries across Walloonia, and the tendencies of these breweries to brew their beer to their own quirky preferences, a wide range of variation is possible in the style.  However, the essence of the modern saison is that it is typically a pale to amber beer that is complex, drinkable and refreshing, with a dry finish combining layers of flavours derived from Belgian yeasts.  Surfine fits these broad parameters very well.  But more particularly, this is an incredibly sophisticated beer that is very delicately balanced and layered in its character.

The aroma of Surfine combines fruit, spice and barnyard sweetness.  Ripe banana, soft fruit (peach) and citrus combine with black pepper, chilli, coriander and clove and soft, sweet wet hay aromas.  There is a floral honey sweetness that comes through on the aroma as well, and the contribution of complex Belgian yeast to this beer is unmistakeable.  These aromas are layered – for me, the ripe banana came through first, with the other fruit and spice following afterwards; other people that joined me for the tasting found that the spice was up front, and the fruit character developed over time.

In the mouthfeel, Surfine is quite dry (the sweetness in the beer is primarily the suggestion of sweetness from some of the aromas in the beer, with very little residual sugar left in this well-attenuated beer).  Carbonation is relatively high, giving a buzz on the palate.  The dryness and spice in the flavour all combine with the buzz of carbonation to lift this beer in the mouthfeel, making it very bright and refreshing, despite the complexity of flavour.

Clove, chilli and black pepper from the Belgian yeast all develop to provide a certain amount of spice in the flavour, and this combines with ripe, yellow banana and juicy apricot/peach soft, stone fruit flavours.  Coriander comes through as spice combined with bright citrus, and floral honey character combines with white pepper as the beer finishes.

A great saison should have layers of complexity, but above all, should be very well balanced.  Surfine is this – the individual flavours can combine with eachother and not immediately apparent on the first taste.  With each subsequent taste, different layers of flavour are revealed.  Yet with all of this flavour complexity, the dry finish and buzz of carbonation in this (relatively light) 6.5% a.b.v. beer keeps the beer refreshing.  Surfine is a beer that one could spend hours dissecting to identify multiple individual flavours, or can be drunk as a crisp refreshing beer with wonderful flavour, not having to worry about which aspect of that flavour is most appealing at any one time.

Beer Cocktails!


Say the word ‘cocktail’ and people will immediately assume that you are talking about a spirit based drink – often involving fruit juices. Most people drink beers straight without mixing them with anything (the key exception being a shandy – beer and lemonade).

A brewery in Belgium – Duboisson – found that some of their customers experimented with mixing one of their beers with a fruit lambic, with delicious results. To-day, we are tasting the base beer for this ‘beer cocktail’ – Bush Ambree. Our second ‘beer’ for tasting is ‘Peche Mel’ – the name given to a 50/50 blend of Bush Ambree with Timmerman’s Peche.

Beer Cocktails –

This tasting is an opportunity for me to get all geeky about how our brains are processing flavour in beer. However, the first thing about doing something that involves experimenting with mixes of flavours is to enjoy the flavours.

When brewers are designing recipes, a key consideration is how they achieve balance in the beer. Flavours interact, and the way that we perceive flavours depends on the context in which they are presented. Brewers will introduce bitter flavours (through hops and/or through dark malts) to balance sweet flavours (achieved from some types of malt and from flavours developed during fermentation). In some other styles of beers, the balance might be between sourness and fruit or sweet flavours. A one-dimensional beer – that tastes of only one flavour, without this flavour being balanced against anything else – is in danger of being cloying or over-powering. While somebody might enjoy the first sip of a unbalanced beer if they particularly enjoy the flavour that is dominant in it, it is most likely that the person will have enough of that beer very quickly.

When a beer is well balanced, the drinker gets to enjoy the flavours in the beer without finding that they tire of these flavours. Balanced beers will lean in one direction or another in most instances – they may be particularly malty, fruity, hoppy, sour or have a flavour that is more evident in the beer. However, when the beer is well balanced, there will be other flavours present to ‘round out’ the taste experience. Just like seasoning in cooking, these balancing flavours should not over-power, and should be present to complement and enhance the taste experience.

When blending beers, the blender is faced with a particular challenge. Assuming the beers being blended are already balanced, the blender has to ensure that the combination of the flavours from both beers will still be a balanced affair. Randomly blending beers is by no way guaranteed to result in a better (or even palatable) drink. In a perfect world, the blend of flavours in the ‘beer cocktail’ will complement eachother, or (taking things one step further), the flavours from each of the individual beers will combine and interact resulting in a taste experience that is a result of blending the two beers, but for which some of the flavours come about purely because of the interaction of the flavours in the two beers. Put simply – in a great beer cocktail, you can taste something in the cocktail and possibly find it very difficult to identify which beer has contributed that flavour.

Bush Ambree –

Beer Style – Strong Belgian Amber Ale
Alcohol by Volume – 12.0% a.b.v.
Brewed by – Brasserie Duboisson
Brewed in – Pipaix, Belgium

Let’s just get one thing out of the way to start with. We are talking about a 12.0% a.b.v. beer – significantly above average strength. With ‘standard’ mainstream beers in Ireland typically being around 4% to 4.3% a.b.v., this beer is around three times stronger. We can expect more flavour, and it is inevitable that there will be an amount of character resulting from this high strength – but this, in itself, is an interesting dimension of the flavour of this beer. Brewers’ yeasts will typically find it difficult to ferment a beer above 14% to 17% a.b.v. – the alcohol produced during the fermentation inhibits the yeast from continuing to ferment sugars. So, at 12.0%, this beer requires an alcohol-tolerant yeast to be used, and is coming up on the limit for the alcohol content that is achievable in a ‘normal’ beer. (Freeze distilling allows beers to reach ridiculously high strengths, but this process is changing the character of the beer significantly, and requires a process beyond what is normal in brewing).

Bush Ambree is a strong Belgian Amber. When poured properly, it will have a significant white head of a size associated with Belgian beers. At 12%, the alcohol content of the beer will tend to limit the extent to which this head will sustain on the beer – high alcohol level in beer is detrimental to head retention. The beer itself presents with a luxurious burnished gold colour.

The aromas in this beer are incredible. Ripe banana comes through immediately, with a background of sweet caramel and toffee. For anybody who has tasted Bananas Foster (a dessert consisting of bananas and caramelised sugars), this is for all the world like liquid Bananas Foster in a glass. The taste of the beer combines these two key flavours, but very subtly they are balanced by Belgian spice (a little chilli pepper, black pepper and white pepper from the Belgian yeast fermentation ‘season’ the flavour of the beer), and there is bitterness present sufficient to balance the significant sweetness of the beer. With this bitter/spice balance, the beer is incredibly drinkable. While the caramel and banana flavours should be satiating, the counteracting flavours serve to quicken the finish of the beer. A slight fruit/toffee sweetness lingers delicately in the finish together with a touch of clove, but this is subtle and dissipates to a lower level after swallowing.

The alcohol in the beer gives the impression that one might associate with a flambéed dessert. Alcohol fumes seem to carry the flavour in the mouth, and contribute to both sweetness and body in the beer. This alcohol also slightly accentuates the heat of the spice in the beer. Combining this with the buzz of carbonation in Bush Ambree, the luscious medium bodied texture of the beer is lifted by carbonation and spice making the beer both rich and light at the same time.

Bush Ambree is an incredibly complex beer. Layers of flavour, and superb balance make this an exquisite beer to taste. While the high strength of this beer might be disconcerting to some, I would argue that this beer delivers a level of complexity and flavour that one might associate with a liqueur or whiskey of two to three times the alcohol strength – looked at in this way, sipping this 12% a.b.v. beer is both more responsible, and a delightful taste experience!

Peche Mel –

Beer Style – Beer Cocktail consisting of a 50/50 blend of
Bush Ambree (Strong Belgian Amber Ale) and
Timmerman’s Peche (Fruit Lambic)
Alcohol by Volume – 8.0% a.b.v. (after blending 12.0% and 4.0% a.b.v. beers together)
Brewed by/in – Bush Ambree – Brasserie Duboisson, Pipaix, Belgium
Timmerman’s Peche – Timmerman’s Brewery, Brussels, Belgium

The possibilities for combining Bush Ambree with numerous foods can make for incredible food pairings – whether with lighter meats (chicken, turkey, pork), pasta dishes, or with desserts. Combining Bush Ambree with another beer extends the idea of a beer-food pairing – a beer-beer pairing, if you will.

In Ireland, you will not see a bottle of beer called ‘Peche Mel’. While the brewery has started blending the two beers and bottling the result themselves, at the moment, a Peche Mel can only be achieved in Ireland by blending Bush Ambree and Timmerman’s Peche in a 50/50 blend.

Above, we have talked about the flavours of Bush Ambree by itself. As a fruit lambic, Timmerman’s Peche balances luscious peach fruit flavour with tongue-puckering sourness to give a tart and thirst quenching fruit beer. Blending these two beers together curiously results in a beer that is an easy to enjoy explosion of fruit flavours as well as being an incredibly complex and layered taste experience.

The first aroma that comes through in a Peche Mel is strawberry, and this follows through on the flavour. The sourness of the lambic shifts the balance of the beer, and any bitterness that might have been perceived in the Bush Ambree is relegated to an imperceptible background balancing factor. This sourness enhances the refreshing quality of the beer and lifts the body. While banana is in evidence in the Bush Ambree, this flavour is effectively masked in the combined beers and is virtually imperceptible. Likewise, the alcohol strength of the beer is diminished massively in terms of its flavour contribution – the rich alcohol vapours evident in the Bush Ambree dissipate completely, and the fruity character of the combined beers gives the impression of a beer two thirds or one half the strength of the 8.0% a.b.v. that is present.

Peche Mel is a ‘fruit salad’ of flavours – almost like biting into a mouthful of Opal Fruits, and tasting a number of fruit flavours at the same time. Strawberry comes through, but once one adapts to this, the contribution of peach ot the flavour is more evident. Tropical fruits (lychee, pineapple, melon) and bright citrus fruits (mandarin orange and the suggestion of sweetened lemon) are also perceptible. The lambic sourness subdues the flavour of the spice that was evident in the Bush Ambree, and this spice character is relegated to a suggestion in the finish after the swallow.

Peche Mel is a wonderfully fun way to enjoy a beer. The parts that make up the final flavour of the beer can be identified by themselves by tasting the individual beers before blending. After blending, multiple interactions take place, and the flavour experience is quite different from what might expect having tasted the individual beers. Peche Mel can be enjoyed as an explosion of fruit flavours without concerning oneself about where these wonderful flavours are coming from, or can be dissected to try to understand which of the two elements of this beer cocktail are interacting to result in the individual flavours that can be perceived.

Either way, it is delicious!
Perceiving Flavours –

Often, we will describe beers in terms of the individual flavours that make up the beer. Sometimes people listening to these descriptions can pick up these flavours, sometimes they find the descriptions perplexing. When it comes to perceiving flavours, the process is individual, context-specific and complicated. Breaking down flavours into the elements that make up the total flavour experience is an attempt to help people anticipate whether they might like the drink in question. While they might not be able to perceive or dissect the individual flavours, understanding the types of flavours present gives them an opportunity to assess (before tasting the beer) whether they have a chance of liking the beer in question (or a chance to avoid the beer if it does not sound like it would be to their liking).

Our brain processes flavour experiences as ‘flavour objects’. In some cases, the sum total of the flavours will be ‘lumped together’ and the person will make an emotional assessment of the flavour (‘I like it’ or ‘it’s terrible’). Breaking down flavours to their constituent parts can be tricky without training, but if someone does it for you, you might understand better why you like one beer and dislike another. This can be a path to more targeted experimentation with new beers – by focusing on tasting beers that contain the flavours that you liked in another beer, you have a better chance of enjoying new beers.

Our tongues allow us to taste sweet, sour, salt, bitter and savoury flavours. In the case of all of these flavours, we are genetically programmed to detect them, and our reaction to them is also built into our DNA. In general, we are programmed to enjoy sweet and salty flavours – they indicate that the food will give us required calories for nutrition or salts to help achieve electrolytic balance in our body. However, too much of sweet or salt can be over-powering. We are programmed to be cautious about bitter and sour flavours (evolution has trained us to associate these flavours with potential poison or spoiled food respectively). However, both of these flavours can provide a balancing contribution to sweetness reducing the cloy associated with it. With experience, we develop our ability to appreciate bitter and sour to a point where they become flavours that we enjoy and relish. If this sounds odd, think of the reaction of a young child to vinegar (young children will typically be aversive to this flavour) as compared to the reaction of a slightly older child to salt and vinegar crisps.

Our noses provide us with the ability to detect a long list of flavours – including herbal, fruity, spicy, roast and many other flavours. Receptors in our nose are responsible for the tens of thousands of different flavours that we are capable of differentiating beyond the basics of sweet, salt, sour, savoury and bitter. They provide a kaleidoscope of flavour experiences that allow us to enjoy flavour to a level beyond what can be experienced by animals. While many animals are more sensitive to lower levels of flavours, and can respond quickly to small concentrations of flavour or aroma, our larger brains allow us to differentiate between different flavour qualities, and understand the essence of flavour differences in food to a much better extent than animals can.

In our beer cocktail experiment, we can see different interaction effects in flavours. Balancing bitter, spice and sour against fruit and sweet can reduce the cloy that one might associate with these flavours, and make them more palatable. Interactions of flavours can result in different perceptions of flavour – the banana from the Bush Ambree is very much masked when the Timmerman’s Peche is blended with it, and the blend results in a perception of strawberry that is not present to any discernible extent in either of the constituent parts of the blend. This shows us how flavour can be context-specific – something that tastes one way by itself can taste quite different in another context.

All of this makes flavour quite complicated. The ability to break down flavours into their constituent parts requires that our brains have flavour images of the flavour elements, and the ability to dissect the sum total of the flavour being tasted into the individual elements, together with the ability to process and match the individual constituent parts of the flavour with images that we might have coded into our brains through past experience. For some people, the flavour image database that they have in their brain might not be robust enough to allow them to consciously identify the individual flavour elements. This does not preclude these people from having an emotional reaction to the flavour (‘I like it’ or ‘I dont’ like it’) – it might simply make it difficult for them to explain exactly why they like it.

All of this is very geeky – it provides me with hours of entertainment breaking down flavours of beers and understanding the origins or sources of these flavours. Most people prefer just to enjoy their beer. With a little understanding of beer styles, one can appreciate how bundles of flavours are common across beers that belong in a particular style or style family – and this can be an avenue to experimentation that increases the chance that the person will taste a new beer that they like. Tasting beers beyond styles with which one is familiar can be more ‘hit and miss’, and, if you have the chance, asking a person to let you know what you might expect from a new style will increase your ‘hit rate’ in beer experimentation. The person in question might be the server in your local independent off-licence or your local craft beer bar, but it needs to be somebody who knows what they are talking about.

In Ireland, the education on beer flavours has not developed to the same extent as it has in other countries – we have had limited choice in beer up to ten to twenty years ago, so servers have not needed these skills. Thankfully, this situation is changing, and the service that can be achieved when you are buying a craft beer is improving all of the time.

A little understanding of the flavours that are present in a beer can (a) help you anticipate if you are likely to appreciate a new beer, and/or (b) help you understand why you might not have liked a particular beer (or why that beer might not have been appropriate to the occasion on which you tried it). All of this can help our experimentation with new beers result in a better ‘hit rate’ in identifying beers that we like.

However, remember while beer flavour can be complicated, it is also incredibly individual. What you like is what you like, and this is the most important factor.

Above all, enjoy the beer that you are drinking, and (hopefully) experiment to taste some beers that will allow you to enjoy beer all the more.

Saturday AM – India Pales Ales


Introduction –

There are many different styles of craft beer.  Of all of these, the style of craft beer that people are most likely to recognise is India Pale Ale or IPA.  IPA’s are the beer of choice for ‘hopheads’ – craft beer drinkers who love the taste of hops in their beer.  To-day, Beer Sommelier, Dean McGuinness is going to guide us through a tasting of three IPA’s from around the world.

India Pale Ales –

Any time one wants to understand a classic beer style, there are two questions to ask – where has the style come from?    … and where is it now?  Answers to these two questions can allow a person to understand what to expect from a particular style of beer.  Matching the beer (or beer style) that you are asking for to the flavours that you like is the key to enjoying craft beer.

Styles can evolve over time, and sometimes styles can morph and adapt to become something quite different from what they were when they started out.  This can cause confusion sometimes.  Reading a book about what an IPA tasted like in 1850 might not fully help you understand what an IPA is going to taste like today.  Likewise, tasting one IPA today might not let you understand the range of possibilities with IPAs – knowing a little of the history of the style can give the foundations for this fuller picture.

History of the India Pale Ale, or “IPA” –

India Pale Ales (IPA’s) first came about as a style in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.  Brewers in England shipped beers to the English colonies in India.  While a wide variety of styles of beer were shipped, brewers came to realise that IPA’s were particularly suited to the long journey – a journey of around 12,000 miles by ship that involved crossing the Equator twice.

IPA’s were pale ales – lighter beers tend to be more refreshing in the hot weather of India.  IPA’s have an above average level of bitterness.  This bitterness in beer balances the sweetness that comes from malted barley making the beer less cloying and more refreshing – again, beer characteristics that work particularly well in a hot climate.

The long voyage to India for these beers was detrimental in two ways.  Firstly beer deteriorates with age, so a long journey would not help.  Secondly, when a beer warms up (as it would as it travels across the Equator – twice), the aging process can accelerate.  Historically, IPA’s had two characteristics that help them in this respect.  With a larger proportion of hops used in the brewing of IPA’s, these beers benefit from the preservative quality that hops can deliver in a beer.  Likewise, IPA’s were usually higher in strength – this alcohol also acted as a preservative.  Putting both of these factors together, IPA’s had a greater likelihood of arriving to India in a ‘palatable’ condition – despite the challenges of the trip, they still tasted wonderful.  No wonder they grey in popularity.

As IPA’s grew in popularity in India, word of their success in the colonies came back to England.  While the beers were more expensive to brew – more hops and more malt meant more cost per beer – the flavour more than compensated for the higher price.  The style grew – with the Bow Brewery in London credited as the first brewer to brew this style of beer, and many other brewers designing their own version of the style.

IPA’s To-day –

The Craft Beer Revolution came about because some beer drinkers became tired of what they perceived to be blandness in the flavour of mainstream beers.  These beer drinkers started seeking beers with more flavour.  As many of the pioneers in craft beer were homebrewers, they decided that they would brew their own beer – and they looked into history to find styles of beer that would deliver more flavour.  If a beer style was popular with the aristocracy in times past, it was more likely that more information would be available about it.  No surprise that beer styles that had been popular some centuries ago with the aristocracy – such as wheat beers in Germany and India Pale Ales in England and the colonies – were chosen as models upon which these home brewers based their recipes.

History showed that India Pale Ales had three basic, common characteristics – they were pale in colour (which could mean anything from golden to dark amber in colour), they were brewed with an above average amount of hops, and they were brewed to an above average strength.  These three characteristics form the foundation for classic IPA’s.

IPA’s grew in popularity within the craft beer movement, and with this popularity, craft brewers started experimenting.  If an IPA of between 5.5% and 7.5% gave a good amount of flavour, then wouldn’t a stronger IPA have more potential for flavour?  What if an IPA was brewed to a lower strength – wouldn’t this allow a person to have a second beer without being concerned about the amount of alcohol that they were drinking?  The “Double” IPA (or Imperial IPA) and the Session IPA was born.  Stretching creativity a little bit beyond the point of common sense, some brewers asked “why does an IPA have to be pale?” (aside, of course from the fact that it is an India PALE Ale).  Undeterred by the contradiction, the Black IPA was born.  Further hybrid styles came about – Red IPA’s and Brown IPA’s – each brewed by changing the balance of malts used in brewing the beer.  And if you can change the mix of malts in the malt bill, why not use other grains.  Rye IPA and White IPA (brewed with wheat) were born.

With all of this morphing of the India Pale Ale style, two things happened within beer culture.

Firstly – a change – brewers recognised that the India Pale Ale style family (all of the different styles that could be grouped together as India Pale Ales) had grown well beyond the parameters of the original classic style.  As a consequence of this, the style’s name was changed to ‘IPA’ – giving a nod to its origins in the classic India Pale Ale, but recognising how the style family had changed from its roots.

Secondly – maintaining some level of consistency – IPA’s as a style became recognised as a style that centred around the use of hops in the recipe.  Brewers varied the types of hops used.  American IPA’s are brewed with American hops.  English IPA’s are brewed with English hops and so on.  Not limiting themselves to this, some brewers brewed IPA’s with a blend of hops from different countries.  Some brewed using just a single hop (Single Hop IPA’s) to explore the range of flavours possible from that hop alone.  Brewers varied the way in which hops were used in the brewing process.  They varied bitterness – a flavour that is achieved from hops – by either increasing bitterness (sometimes beyond the point of common sense), or decreasing it to make the beer more accessible.  They looked for flavour from the essential oils in hops by adding hops late in the boil, or by ‘dry hopping’ – adding hops to the beer after fermentation.  They explored more innovative ways of using hops – such as, for example ‘wet hopping’ (the practise of using hops in brewing that have just been harvested only a few hours before being used in the brew.

Throughout all of this experimentation, most brewers understood that the essence of the IPA was centred on hops.  Understanding the flavours that can be present in beers that result from hops will help somebody understand whether they are likely to enjoy IPA’s, and which IPA’s they are likely to most enjoy.

The three IPA’s that we are tasting to-day come from three different countries – New Zealand, the U.S.A. (Hawaii) and Scotland.  These three beers (almost) all fall into the ‘classic IPA’ range of 5.5% to 7.5% a.b.v. – they are three steps on a ladder at 5.4%, 6.0% and 7.0% respectively.  When it comes to describing IPA’s, ‘American’ refers to the type of hops used in the IPA rather than where the beer is brewed.  Mac’s Green Beret is an IPA brewed in New Zealand – because it is brewed using a blend of hops (from America and New Zealand), it is probably best described as a ‘New World’ IPA.  Kona Castaway IPA is an American IPA brewed with American hops in America (Hawaii).  Brave New World from Tempest is also an American IPA – despite being brewed in Scotland, because it is brewed using American hops, so it qualifies as an American IPA.

Mac’s Green Beret Bottle Size 330ml
Alcohol by Volume 5.4% a.b.v. Retall Price €2.59
Beer Style (New Zealand) IPA Brewed by Mac’s Brewery,

New Zealand

IPA’s can range in alcohol by volume, but the style guidelines range for a ‘classic’ IPA is from 5.0% to 7.5% a.b.v.  The alcohol content of the beer is an indication of the amount of malt that has been used in the beer relative to the water and other ingredients – the higher the a.b.v., the bigger the malt foundation in the beer.  While IPA’s are beers that are balanced towards hops, the malt foundation is important to provide balance in the beer.  In IPA terms, 5.4% a.b.v. is at the lower end of the range for classic IPA’s, so this IPA is a little lighter than many.  Despite this, there is an abundance of hop flavour in this beer.

Simcoe, Amarillo and Nelson Sauvin hops are used in Mac’s Green Beret.  Hops can give two main types of flavour in a beer – hop bitterness (which balances the sweetness in the beer), and ‘hop flavour’ (which can cover a broad range of flavours.  Mac’s Green Beret has a bitterness level of 47 IBU’s – much more bitterness than would be present in a mainstream lager (about twice as much).  Despite this, the perceived bitterness is lower than one would suspect.  Sweetness from malt in the beer provides balance for the beer, and the result is that the bitterness is not perceived to be as strong.  It provides a nice balance to make the beer crisp and refreshing.

Hop flavours that are in evidence in Mac’s Green Beret range from tropical fruit to citrus, with a touch of pine suggested in the background.  Guava, papaya, cantaloupe melon, pineapple are all in evidence in the fruit flavours in this beer.  This hop flavour rests on top of a foundation of caramel and biscuit malt flavours that provide a soft base to the beer.

Kona Castaway IPA Bottle Size 355ml
Alcohol by Volume 6.0% a.b.v. Retall Price €2.99
Beer Style American IPA Brewed by Kona Brewing Company,

Hawaii, U.S.A.

Kona Castaway IPA takes a step up in a.b.v. – 6.0% a.b.v. – putting it in the centre of the range for a classic IPA.  Despite being higher in alcohol than the previous beer, the malts used are lighter, so the foundation is also a touch lighter.  The result of this is that the 50 IBU’s (bitterness units) some through a touch more distinctively.

The light base of this beer is particularly appropriate to the hop fruit character of the beer.  Galaxy, Citra, Simcoe and Millenium hops deliver a bright, juicy array of fruit flavours.  Passion fruit, mango and pineapple come through, and give a particularly refreshing, lively fruit character to the beer.

While the bitterness is more distinctive, this is not the only source of balance in this beer.  Pine character – another classic flavour associated with North American hops – is also in evidence, and provides further balance to the malt and fruit flavours in Castaway.  The bitterness and pine provide a subtle, lingering finish to the beer.

Brave New World (Tempest Brewing Co.) Bottle Size 330ml
Alcohol by Volume 7.0% a.b.v. Retall Price €3.80
Beer Style American IPA Brewed by Tempest Brewing Company,


Pine is immediately evident on the aroma of Brave New World.  Brewed at Tempest Brewing Company – an award winning craft brewery in Scotland – Brave New World is a classic North American IPA.  7.0% a.b.v puts the beer firmly in the alcohol strength range for a classic IPA, and the hop flavour in this beer reinforces its standing as a superb IPA.

Citrus, grapefruit and tropical fruit (papaya, melon) flavours merge with distinct pine flavours.  The malt foundation is biscuit.  As the flavour of the beer develops, the pine flavour develops into a soft spicy finish which provides further balance in the beer – with 60 IBU’s bitterness, and distinct pine flavour and spice balanced against biscuit malt sweetness and fruit hop flavour.

This is a superbly satisfying IPA – full of hop flavour, complex in its flavour and layered in its complexity.    Tempest Brewing Company Brave New World IPA is rated at 98% on consumer rating site Ratebeer, and is winner of a Gold Medal at both the 2015 International Beer Challenge and at the 2016 Scottish Beer Awards.




Sometimes brewers exercise their creativity by using different ingredients.  While malted barley has been the grain of choice for brewers for centuries, it has also been the case that different grains have been used in brewing beer.  Today, we are tasting two beers brewed with Rye used in the grain bill.  Both beers belong to a ‘hybrid’ style – they are a form of speciality IPA called (creatively) ‘Rye IPA’.

Our two beers for today are Tempest Brewing Company’s Marmalade on Rye and 12 Acres Rye IPA.

Ingredients in Brewing –

It is 501 years since the Rheinheitsgebot was enacted in Germany – the ‘German Purity Laws’, or the very first piece of consumer protection legislation.  Ever since, and with many marketing campaigns focused on promoting beers with ‘only four ingredients’, a belief has crept into common knowledge that beer can (or should) only be brewed with four ingredients – Malted Barley, Hops, Yeast and Water.  While so many people accept this as gospel, the reality is slightly different.

The following is an English translation of the ‘German Purity Laws’ of 1516 –

“We hereby proclaim and decree, by Authority of our Province, that henceforth in the Duchy of Bavaria, in the country as well as in the cities and marketplaces, the following rules apply to the sale of beer:

“From Michaelmas [September 29th] to Georgi [April 23rd], the price for one Mass [Bavarian Litre] or one Kopf[(bowl-shaped container for fluids, not quite one Mass] is not to exceed one Pfennig Munich value [currency of the day], and

“From Georgi to Michaelmas, the Mass shall not be sold for more than two Pfennig of the same value, the Kopf not more than three Heller [Heller usually one-half Pfennig].

“If this not be adhered to, the punishment stated below shall be administered.

“Should any person brew, or otherwise have, other beer than March beer [Marzenbier], it is not to be sold any higher than one Pfennig per Mass.

“Furthermore, we wish to emphasize that in the future in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water.  Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance shall be punished by the Court authorities confiscating such barrels of beer without fail.

“Should, however, an innkeeper in the country, city or markets buy two or three pails of beer [containing 60 Mass] and sell it again to the common peasantry, he alone shall be permitted to charge one Heller more for the Mass or the Kopf than mentioned above.  Furthermore, should there arise a scarcity and subsequent price increase of the barley [also considering that the times of harvest differ, due to location], WE, the Bavarian Duchy, shall have the right to order curtailments for the good of all concerned.”

There are a few things to note from the above.

First of all, the ‘German Purity Laws’ actually focused on ingredients almost as a secondary consideration.  In actual fact, most of the legislation focused on the price of beer.  In the above translation it is clear that just one paragraph mentioned ingredients, while the other six were all talking about pricing.  The intent of the prohibition on using other ingredients was to try to make sure that brewers did not try to brew their beer using cheaper ingredients or methods to maximize their profits, and its relevance in the legislation was that, by restricting the upper price of the beer, reducing the cost was the only other way to go to increase profit per barrel.

Secondly, while many people refer to the above as the ‘Reinheitsgebot’, this name was coined much more recently than 1516.  Originally, the restriction on the use of other ingredients was referred to as the ‘Surrogatverbot’ (or ‘Adjunct Prohibition’).  On March 4th 1918, an obscure member of the Bavarian State Parliament – Hans Rauch – coined the term ‘Reinheitsgebot’ for this law.

Thirdly, the above translation only references three ingredients.  In 1516, yeast had not been discovered, though the concept of fermentation and the idea that something was causing it was within the brewers’ awareness.  Only in the late 17th century – after the discovery of microorganisms such as yeast – could this vital ingredient be included as an ‘allowable’ ingredient in the Beer Purity Laws.

Fourthly, the law in question has undergone many adaptations over time. When one reads the above translation of the German text, a further translation of the English text is required – hence the square bracket asides above to explain what a ‘Mass’, ‘Kopf’, ‘Pfennig’, ‘Heller’ were as well as what ‘Georgi’ and ‘Michaelmas’ mean.  Much of what was relevant to the 1516 law is no longer relevant today, and so the legislation has changed over time to maintain its relevance.

It is perhaps much underappreciated fact that there are really two Purity Laws today – the Bavarian and the German.  While the Bavarian version still restricts the use of anything but barley malt, hops, water and yeast for all bottom fermented beer (lagers), it allows for the additional use of malted wheat and malted rye, for instance, in the brewing of top-fermented beers (ales) only.  The German version, on the other hand, is more lenient with lagers for example.  In 1516, the country of Germany as it exists today did not exist, so references to the ‘German Purity Laws of 1516’ are just a little inaccurate.

All of the above to point out that we should not look askew when we see brewers using ingredients like Rye in brewing beer.  In point of fact, one of the other ingredients mentioned in the 1516 law – hops – has only been used in brewing in about the last 1,000 years, so for almost five times this length of time (we are brewing for around 6,000 years), hops did not even exist as an ingredient in beer, and alternatives (like herbs and spices) were used to add flavour to beer.  But that is a story for another day!

Rye IPA –

When brewing beer, malted barley is typically the grain of choice.  Because malted barley has a husk, it makes it a better grain to use in brewing – the husk becomes an integral part of the brewing process, acting as a filter bed during the ‘lautering’ stage of brewing.  In a similar way, wheat is particularly suited to making bread.  However, the basic elements contained in different grains are essentially the same, with variations in other features of the grain.  Starches and proteins are present in different types of grains in the same way that humans and animals can share the same building blocks in their bodies while being quite different in the way that these building blocks are put together.

Just as rye can be used to make bread – rye-bread (or ‘Ryvita’ as many people would know it using the brand name for a common form of rye bread) – so too can rye be used in brewing beer.  Where different grains are used in brewing beer, these different grains are sometimes called ‘adjuncts’.  Often adjuncts are blended into the grain bill used in brewing a particular type of beer – a certain proportion of malted barley would still form the foundation of the beer, and (often a smaller) percentage of adjunct would be included.

When used in brewing, rye increases the complexity of beer flavour.  It can give a spicy quality and can lend a smooth mouthfeel.  Rye sometimes adds a reddish tinge to beers in which it is used.  Malted rye is usually only used in small amounts – a common proportion would be about 10% to 20% of the grain bill.  One style of beer that is defined by the use of rye in brewing is the german ‘Roggenbier’ (or ‘Rye Beer’), and in this beer, the proportion of rye used in usually higher – often 30% or more.

Hybrid beer styles involve combining the essential elements of two beer styles.  India Pale Ales (commonly abbreviated to ‘IPA’s’ nowadays) are one of the most common styles of beers in the craft beer movement.  Given that this movement is based around creativity and differentiation, it is no surprise that innovative brewers have sought to vary IPA’s.  The family of styles known as ‘Speciality IPA’s’ often involve hybrid styles between the IPA style and another style of beer.  So, you can have ‘Red IPA’s’ (a hybrid between Red Ale and IPA), ‘White IPA’s’ (a hybrid between Witbier – or ‘white beer’ – and IPA) and many other variants.  Rye IPA is quite simply a hybrid style between a rye beer and an IPA.

Marmalade on Rye –

Beer Style                         –  Rye Double IPA (Imperial India Pale Ale)

Alcohol by Volume         –  9.0% a.b.v.

Brewed by                        –  Tempest Brewing Company

Brewed in                         –  Tweedbank (Scottish Borders), Scotland

There is something strangely straightforward and satisfying when a brewer proclaims in simple terms the vision for the beer that they have brewed, and then delivers on that promise with the flavour in the beer.  Tempest’s Marmalade on Rye is a beer that literally ‘does exactly what it says on the tin (or bottle!)’

Marmalade on Rye is a Rye IPA brewed with a few additional ingredients – some ginger and a significant amount of orange zest.  Rye provides a complex flavour that integrates a distinctly wholesome grain flavour (thing Ryevita) and a characteristic spiciness.  American IPA’s can deliver distinctly citrusy flavours – given the use of the appropriate hops – and this can come through as distinctly orange character.  Marmalade – particularly thick cut marmalade – usually include orange rind, the skin of the orange that can be a combination of zesty citric acidity and slightly bitter fruit flavour.

By calling this beer ‘Marmalade on Rye’, Tempest has set expectations in clear and simple terms.  The presentation of the beer is the distinctly reddish colour that one associates with many rye beers.  Spice, rye and citrus aromas come through on the aroma.  By using ginger as an ingredient in the beer, this spice is further supplemented, and the initial flavours of the beer combine malt, rye, spice and warmth (from the 9% alcohol) in a luscious and soft base foundation of beer) with a lively spicy ginger and chilli pepper that adds to the warmth and lifts the mouthfeel and texture of the beer.  Fruit flavours develop as the complexity of the beer reveals itself.  At cooler temperatures, the beer comes through with the distinct flavour of orange that one might associate with thick-cut marmalade.  At warmer temperatures, this fruit flavour combines with the honey sweetness of the malt character in the beer, and the fruit flavours develop into stone fruit – a distinctly luscious and velvety peach flavour inevidence contrasting with the heat and liveliness of the spice.

Marmalade on Rye is a distinctly complex beer.  Each mouthful reveals a further dimension of flavour, but all of this is based around the simple idea of Marmalade on Rye.  ‘Liquid rye bread with marmalade on it’ is something that might be slightly discordant in our brains – the brittle, crispy texture of rye bread is a key characteristic of its flavour, and this might not fit with the idea of a beer in our minds.  However, the softness of juicy marmalade is very much fitting with the full body and luscious character of this beer, and the spice of rye bread is very much in evidence in this beer.

12 Acres Rye IPA –

Beer Style                         –  Rye IPA

Alcohol by Volume         –  5.5% a.b.v.

Brewed by                        –  12 Acres Brewing Company

Brewed in                         –  Killeshin, County Laois, Ireland

12 Acres Brewing Company are distinctive (and, I believe in Ireland, unique) in their approach to brewing.  ‘From our ground to your glass’ is the tagline that they use, and while this might sound like a marketing slogan, it sums up in simple terms their approach to brewing.  Based on a farm in Killeshin, County Laois, the team behind 12 Acres grow their own barley, and then have this barley malted as a separate traceable batch for themselves – following on by using this malted barley in their beer.  They have had great success with their Pale Ale, and have recently added to their range with a single malt lager and this Rye IPA.

At 5.5%, this Rye IPA is just at the ‘entry point’ for classic or Speciality IPA’s.  Typically Speciality IPA’s are in the range 5.0% to 7.5% – with Rye IPA’s, style guidelines stretch this to 5.5% to 8.0% based on what is more normal with beers out there.  At this alcohol level, 12 Acres Rye IPA is incredibly sessionable, but it in no way compromises on flavour.

Presenting with a burnished gold / red-gold colour, the aromas on 12 Acres Rye IPA showcase classic North American hop flavour – grapefruit and citrusy fruit flavour with a touch of pine.  Distinct spicy rye character is evident in the first sip, and this combines with the hop fruit flavour in the beer.  The mouthfeel gives a medium body lusciousness to it, which supports the spice of the malted rye in teh beer.  Very well balanced, spice, malt sweetness, fruit and body all integrate superbly well and deliver all of the complexity that one would hope for from a Rye IPA with the drinkability of a beer at 5.5%.

Incredibly satisfying to see an Irish craft brewery taking on two challenges – the challenge of ensuring that their own Irish ingredients are used in their own beer, and brewing of a distinctive speciality beer style – and showing that it can be done as well as any brewery in the world.  Bravo!!

Alcohol Strength in Beer!


ALCOHOL STRENGTH IN BEER – By Dean McGuinness @beermessiah

Some things make me grind my teeth, and to-day is a chance for a rant about one of them!!

There is an unspoken agreement among many people who work in marketing in the beer industry that they don’t talk about alcohol in alcoholic drinks.  “The Industry” seems to think that ‘Alcohol’ is a bad word when it comes to public discussions about drinking – you can almost hear them whispering in dark smoky rooms –“It’s okay to talk about people drinking beer, just don’t mention that there is alcohol in it!!”.  In Ireland, we are not as bad as in America, where they take this attitude beyond the point of common sense.

So to-day, we are looking at two beers that are above average strength, and also talking about alcohol in beer specifically.  Our two beers are Widmer Brothers Reserve Old Embalmer and Urthel Samaranth.

Alcohol in Beer –

Let’s get the first (and most important) point out of the way first.  Drinking too much alcohol is bad for you.  Binge drinking is bad for you.  There is scientific evidence for this – the medical community are all in agreement about this, and the alcohol industry accepts this as fact.  I’d even go so far as to say that Donald Trump’s government – that has denied global warming and that the Russians attempted to manipulate the 2016 U.S. election, despite overwhelming proof to the contrary – would accept that drinking too much alcohol is NOT a good thing.

So by talking about alcohol in beer, I am not encouraging anybody to drink too much alcohol – quite the opposite.

However, there are some other things that the ‘anti-alcohol’ lobby sometimes neglect to acknowledge.  The first one is that drinking alcohol in moderation is good for you.  There can be health risks associated with drinking alcohol to excess – this is acknowledged above.  However, using the most simple measure possible – people who drink alcohol moderately live longer than people who completely abstain from alcohol.  The medical community have tacitly acknowledged that arguing for total abstention from alcohol is neither likely to work, nor is it necessarily the correct argument.

So, the refrain is ‘Drink less, Drink better’ – i.e. enjoy your beer because it is a better quality beer, and drink this beer in moderation.

The good news on this count is that if you are looking for flavour in beer, increased alcohol often means more flavour.  It is a simple fact that when you are consuming a highly flavourful product, you are more likely to be satiated (satisfied, or ‘full’) quicker.  In Ireland, drinking culture sometimes rallies against this idea.  Often, I would see somebody drinking a high flavour beer, and their comment might be – “That beer is absolutely delicious, but I couldn’t drink 12 pints of it”, as if a beer only “qualifies” if it can be drunk in quantity.  Where this attitude is prevalent, we need to change our attitude and approach.  More on this later, when we talk about glasses for serving higher strength beers.

The second piece of good news is that beer is arguably the best drink containing alcohol to select if you are looking to drink in moderation.  ‘Normal’ (or ‘average’) strength beer is half to one third the strength of ‘normal’ or ‘average’ strength wine, and around one eighth the strength of the typical spirit.  Even when a beer is ‘high strength’, it normally just reaches up to the lower level of wine, and rarely does so without a significant amount more flavour (which, as mentioned above, acts as a counteracting factor to over-consumption) coming in the beer.

When it comes to public policy on alcohol, Ireland has a reasonably intelligent approach – whether this is because it was designed this way on purpose – i.e. because policy makers applied great intelligence to the problem – or because policy makers are primarily concerned with the amount of money that they get out of beer tax, is not clear.

Firstly, when it comes to beer, excise (tax) is based on both the volume of beer in the container and the strength of the beer.  This explains why higher strength beers in Ireland are priced at a higher level than lower strength beers – more tax because of more alcohol pushes up the price, and coupled with this, higher strength beers (in Ireland) are pretty much without exception higher quality beers, so the price is pushed up because of higher costs of ingredients, and higher costs in brewing.  Nobody wants to pay more for any product, but the simple fact is that beer is an ‘affordable luxury’ – affordably because in the scheme of things, even the most expensive beers are not out of the bounds of most people’s pockets, and a luxury because it should not be something that you drink like water.  Any economist will tell you that pushing up the price of something will encourage somebody to purchase less of it – so high strength beers have a ‘self correcting’ mechanism built in because of our alcohol tax policy.

If you are drinking in moderation, then it cannot happen that a bottle of beer that is costing €4 in an off-licence or €8 in a pub is going to cost you €80 for your personal night’s beer consumption.  This has happened not because the beer costs €4 or €8, it has happened because you have drunk 10 or 20 bottles of it. DON’T DO THIS!!  Again, we are back to “Drink less, drink better”.

Secondly, when it comes to how brewers are forced by legislation to communicate the alcohol strength in a beer, Ireland comes up trumps (no pun intended) especially when you compare our system to that in the U.S.  Beers must display the alcohol strength (within, by consumer protection legislation, a tolerance of +/- 0.5% a.b.v. accuracy) on the container in which the beer is sold.

In the U.S., they have taken a slightly contrarian approach to this – some states in the U.S. state in their legislation that brewers CANNOT display the alcohol content on the container.  The logic that they apply is that if a bottle shows that a beer contains more alcohol, that this would incentivise the purchaser to buy that beer just so that they can get more alcohol into their system.  What it fails to consider is that the person that does not want a higher strength beer does not have access the information to be able to make an informed decision.  A person, wanting a normal strength beer could find themselves drinking an Imperial Stout, Barley Wine, Double IPA or Bockbier.  Such a person could find themselves with a beer that has twice (or more) the alcohol content that they were hoping for, simply because they didn’t have their ‘secret de-coder ring’ to decipher what the beer style is telling them.

When it comes to beer culture in Ireland, we are world famous for our attitude to alcohol, and not in a positive way.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in our attitude to serving size and glasses appropriate for beer.  In Ireland, a beer is a volume measurement.  We have a ‘pint’ – even when a pint is not the appropriate amount of beer to consume.  In one instance, I watched a man ordering an 8% a.b.v. beer on draught at an event.  Even after it had been explained that he was not going to be served a pint because the beer was 8% a.b.v., and that it was only served in half pint glasses, he could not get his mind around this concept.  “Give me two half pints, so” was his solution.

In Belgium, each beer has its own glass, and this glass is of a size appropriate to the strength of the beer being served.  Never would one consider it ‘not masculine’ (an idea that drives some female craft beer drinkers bonkers, and rightly so!) to order anything less than a pint of the beer that one is looking for.  330ml, 274ml, 250ml or even 200ml serves are not unusual, particularly where the strength of beer suggests that this is what is appropriate.

In the U.S., the better craft beer bars also understand the appropriateness of glassware.  For high strength beers, a ‘snifter’ glass (a glass similar to a brandy glass) is often the glass of choice.  Such a glass allows the person to drink a measured quantity of a high strength beer, and also communicates that this is a drink to be sipped and enjoyed rather than ‘chugged back’.  Using the right glass for the beer being served is not a matter of snobbery or elitism – it is a matter of common sense, and also the best way to enhance and present the beer for best enjoyment.










Widmer Brothers Reserve Old Embalmer –

Beer Style                         –  Barley Wine

Alcohol by Volume         –  10.2% a.b.v.

Brewed by                        –  Widmer Brothers Brewery

Brewed in                         –  Portland, Oregon

A ‘Barleywine’ is an old English style that denotes that the beer is going to be above average alcohol strength.  The expectation when someone hears the word ‘wine’ is that the alcohol content in the drink is likely to be somewhere between 9% and 15% a.b.v.  Typically a barleywine is in the range of 8.0% to 12.0% a.b.v.

Barleywines can be ‘English’ or ‘American’ – the qualification relating to the style rather than where the beer is brewed.  So, Old Embalmer – just to be confusing – is an English barleywine that is brewed in America.  The term ‘English’ or ‘American’ is typically a reference to the origin of the hops that are used in brewing the beer.  American barleywines have American hops in them – which can be ‘brighter’ in flavour, with citrus, tropical fruit and/or pine flavours being the most common flavours associated.  English barleywines are brewed with English hops, and the result can be hop flavours that might be described as ‘earthy’, ‘mineral’ or ‘floral’.

To achieve a higher strength in the beer, it is necessary to use more barley in the recipe relative to the amount of beer that is brewed.  A higher ratio of barley to water means that more sugar is present in the unfermented beer.  It is this sugar that ferments into alcohol – so more barley is required to achieve more sugar which can be fermented into a higher alcohol strength beer.  Higher alcohol strength beers can be achieved in one of two ways – fermenting out most or all of the sugar, and leaving none behind (which can result in a thin beer, where the alcohol character is aggressive, and the balance of the beer is not appropriate), or by having even more sugar present in the beer to allow for residual sugar to provide body and substance to support the alcohol on top of the fermentable sugar that provides the alcohol.  Alcohol itself can deliver a perception of sweetness in a beer – coupling this with higher body and residual sugar, this can cause the beer to be quite sweet.  This sweetness needs to be balanced out in some way – in the case of Old Embalmer, it is balanced out with a hefty degree of bitterness, with 75 I.B.U.’s being present, but in no way assertive in the beer.

Toasty, biscuity, sweet caramel and boozy molasses combine with rich dark fruits (figs) and a hint of vanilla on the aroma.  This beer is distinctly luscious, with a full and velvety body on the mouthfeel achieved by both the residual sugar in the beer and the alcohol content (which can also contribute to perception of body).  The sweetness in the beer is complex – toffee/caramel, and rich malt character combines with fruit flavours (figs in particular, but also soft fruits – tangerine or mango –  behind this) and marshmallow in the finish.  Madeira alcohol character is in evidence – soft and appealing, but the alcohol content is very much in evidence in the warming as the beer is swallowed.  Old Embalmer is perfectly balanced – initially with a hefty degree of bitterness (75 I.B.U.’s which one would be forgiven to mistake for much less), with sweetness further balanced by peppery spice and earthy, floral hop flavours.

Old Embalmer is a beer that can be vintage.  The beer that we are drinking today is already three to four years old – brewed in 2013.  When it comes to vintaging beers, English Barleywines vintage much better than their American counterparts – the bright American hop flavours tend to diminish more quickly when vintaging a beer, and the balance remains more steadfast over time when English hops are providing the backbone of bitterness.

Urthel Samaranth –

Beer Style                         –  ‘Quadrium’ Ale (a variation on a Belgian Quadrupel)

Alcohol by Volume         –  11.5% a.b.v.

Brewed by                        –  Palm Breweries as a gypsy brew for brewer Hildagard Van Ostaden

Brewed in                         –  Steenhuffel, Belgium

Whatever about a barleywine where there is a reasonable clue in the beer style name even if you are not fully familiar with beer styles, I pity the American that purchases a ‘Quadrium Ale’ from Urthel in a state where legislation does not allow for the alcohol content to be displayed on the label.  ‘Quadrium’ is not a recognised style – rather an attempt to communicate that this is a variation on the Belgian Quadrupel style.  Translating the style description into an alcohol content would require not only a James Bond decoder ring, the decoder ring would have to come with Q’s special ‘obscure beer styles software upgrade’ to allow a person not familiar with this beer to translate ‘Quadrium’ into an alcohol content of 11.5% a.b.v.

This beer is designed by Hildagard Van Ostaden – a female brewer reknowned in Flanders, Belgium for brewing innovative beer styles packed with wonderful flavours.  The fact that this well above average strength beer is designed by a woman puts paid to the chauvinistic attitude that fuller strength beers are only for men – such beers should be drunk to be enjoyed, not in quantity, and the idea that only men can drink enough of a strong beer to make themselves incapacitated is probably a reflection of the intelligence (or lack thereof) of the man that might think this than any inherent logic in the argument.

Urthel Samaranth is a distinctly sweet beer that disguises its alcohol strength, but delivers enough flavour that one would naturally sip and enjoy this beer rather than drink it is quantity.  Aromas of toasty malt with burnt brown sugar and chocolate come through.  Again, the sweetness is complex, and with this beer the balance is very much allowing the sweetness to pre-dominate – there is much less bitterness to balance, and spice from the Belgian ale yeast provides the counterpoint in the flavour.  Brown sugar, candy floss, caramel, burnt sugar, raisins and molasses provide the layers of sweetness in this beer, and the spice balance is in the form of subtle chilli heat together with cinnamon and nutmeg.


Beer & Food – Less Intense Flavours