Sunday, May 20, 2012

the Perfect Pint-by-Number

We are celebrating! My parents have traveled all the way to Ireland from the arid biome of southern New Mexico. This marks their first visit to the Emerald Isle and their first time in Europe! As such, we are celebrating. We are also restricted to a very brief beer-post because we are busily chasing those desert-dwellers from glen to glade! Though we do try to give them head starts.

However, a beer-post there must be because what better way to welcome my folks than with a fine pint from a local brewer? "With sunshine might be nice," the folks murmur in opposition.

We looked for just the right snug around 7 p.m. knowing the Irish summer sun would continue its dozy gazing until well after 9. "Sure bet those clouds enjoy getting a tan," bemoan the less-pale desert dwellers. Plenty of time to enjoy a round or two! Our dogs were barking after hiking Dublin city's hinterlands. (Actually, the dogs here are remarkably silent; maybe our foxes were keening?) We had traveled out to see the splendors of St. Patrick's Cathedral only to step into a choral rehearsal, courtesy of the Indiana University Chamber Choir. It was a dazzling experience to hear the voices soaring into the stone-carved vaulted rafters, where they mixed with the rainbow-splicing light of the stained glass windows. After that we ascended to the summit of the Guinness Storehouse where my parents pulled their own pints. We enjoyed views of the city and its surrounding hillsides from the 360-degree bar before making our way to the Temple Bar district.

Knowing Dublin as we do, Zach and I decided not to settle down in any pub in Temple Bar. No offense to the district, which is lovely and always so full of life, but it is touristy and consequently plays host to the usual big-brand taps that tourists expect. So, we navigated over to the Liffey and made ourselves at home among the cushy nooks of Messrs Maguire, craft brewers since at least the 1830s. On their regular rosters, they list a Haus Lager, a Rusty Red Ale, and a Bock.

I ordered the Haus. Zach got the new Golden Ale (celebrating the Olympics). And my Mom joined in the fun and ordered a half-pint of the Rusty. I guess we all balked at the Bock. Knowing Zach will jump in anywhere he likes to talk about the Golden Ale, I'll just start Mom's Rusty--respect fer'yer elders and all that fal-dee-rall.

Messrs say of the Rusty that it is a fruity auburn red ale, mixing malty caramel with citrus. And their assessment is not wrong. To Mom, it tasted "warm" even though the beer and its vessel were chilled. When I sipped the Rusty, I knew what she meant. It was not so much "warm" as "warming." My tongue warmed in response to the spice. It's like breathing in the aroma of cloves or eucalyptus. Sometimes, there's a physiological response to certain scents and flavors. Cells expand. Capillaries fill up. Who knows? Regardless of chemistry, this beer is a warming beer.

As Mom enjoyed her Rusty half-pint, I turned to my own Haus, which was in perfect order. This pilsner-style beer tasted...well, like a pilsner-style beer ought to taste. Nothing exotic. Nothing shocking. Nothing out of place. It was no less delicious or refreshing; no less crisp or subtly nutty. It was a paint-by-the-number pint, but I can hardly fault it for that. How many times have I tried a lurid, experimental brew only to be disappointed? Some brewers get bedazzled by the limitless combinations of hops, malts, roasts, quick or slow fermentation. They play with flavors and splice styles until their beers are like Sid's toys in Toy Story. (Misunderstood, yet willing to help a fellow misfit escape certain exploding doom? Oh, right...)

That said, my Golden Ale might not have been a mutant toy, but it kicked like a Mutant Ninja Turtle. It was darn good; I feared that the Golden, like so many beers of the name, would be too honey-sweet and lacking in the more bitter and bready tastes that I prefer to sweetness in a brew. My fears were far from realized. In fact, the beer was complex, and as diverse as the Olympic opening ceremonies. I honestly could never put my finger on the flavors: they were spicy, but not autumnal; they were full without being overly hoppy; they were tingly without being fizzy. The opening salvo was different than the rich finish, and the relationship between the two was one of the more balanced I can recall tasting in Ireland. Too bad this is a seasonal (and perhaps only a quadrennial!) offering.

Now, back to how Maguire avoids beers-like-mutant-toys brewing fiascos:

Messrs just don't mess with beer that way. If you order their pilsner, it will taste like a pilsner. Order a bock and it will not mock. You, dear thirsty wander, can drink easy here. Order what tickles your taste-buds because the beers will be guaranteed not to sneak up on you like some eyeless-baby-doll-head-with-Erector-set-crab-body. Though that would make for a pretty bitchin' beer bottle label.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Too Smooth with a Galway Hooker

We have loads of good Irish beers to write about (more than you could shake a shillelaugh at) -- but rather than start at the beginning (of our time in Ireland, that is), let's flash back all the way to last weekend. Jenny and I spent it in and around Galway (ostensibly for the launch of my program's anthology), but of course we sampled a couple new brews while we were there.

In all honesty, we were too busy flying hawks and leaning over cliffs to spend much time in the pub our first three days in the west. However, after a harrowing day of driving Mario-Kart style (invincibility star full insurance), Thursday evening called for a pre-dinner relaxation. We popped into Richardson's on the north-east corner of Eyre Square, and I ordered a beer I'd never heard of before -- a Caledonia Smooth.

I asked the bartender if it was a local brew, and he had no idea. One of the fellers (let's just call them regular they could help themselves to drinks and crisps) at the bar sounded off pretty quickly that it must be Scottish because of the name, but no one (granted, there were all of six people in the building, and two of them were us) knew much of anything about the beer. It came in a handsome enough glass, one side lightly etched and the other side with a touch of gold leaf, and the clear ale certainly had a pleasing mellow tan look to it (the kind of tan women long for in a new pair of springtime loafers).

We sat in our little nook and I eagerly sipped the beer (I opted for a hot whiskey hoping to raise my temperature and lower my blood pressure). The beer was, as advertised, smooth... too smooth. (You mean like a baby's bottom or a bald guy's forehead?) The posters around the pub which advertised this particular brew pitched it as "triple hopped," and there may well be three kinds of hops in this beer. There's just not any significant amount of any of them. I'm no hophead (isn't that what they all say?), but I appreciate the snap that they add to the back end of a good beer. The flavor on the front of the tongue was crisp and hinted at warmth (much like a date with a bank teller), but the taste going down was flat, watery, and disappointing (yeah, that's what she said). My particular glass was cool, and I wondered if the taste might grow richer as the ale warmed -- after all, most ales aren't meant to be chilled. Yet we sat there for an hour, and the beer hardly raised a temperature. I almost wonder if the glass was made to hold the cold. I'll be fair -- the flavors became slightly more noticeable as my tongue acclimated to the liquid (kinda like insisting on holding your tongue to the prongs of a 9-volt battery), so that the swallow was not quite so bland. But it was still nothing remarkable. I suspected at the time that maybe this was a beer made to appeal to the masses: enough flavor to be different from the usual Irish offerings, but weak enough to be inoffensive to most (Oh, like the Labor Party, says our Irish friend Katie).

My post-trip research proved that I wasn't wrong. The beer was made to seem craft-brewed (a disturbing if not at all shocking trend in brewing -- the big boys pretending to be craft is happening all over the place), but is really made by the same folks who produce Bulmer's, the ubiquitous cider. That is to say, it's not exactly made by two people risking their day-jobs to follow their passion. (It's what I'm labeling a "glamour-craft." A crummy beer disguised as craft, but made and distributed by a multi-million dollar company to trick the craft beer lovers and supporters.)

Caledonia is currently only available in Ireland (and only since about March of this year), though it is made in Glasgow (guess that barfly did know something after all--besides where the crisps were stashed). It's brewed to appeal to the 28-44 age group who want a better session beer -- and based on the language from Bulmer's Director of Marketing, this beer was indeed made to be middle-of-the-road: not too gassy or too flat, not too bitter or too sweet. They were actually looking to brew a beer "somewhere in the middle" -- which to me means it may not be anyone's favorite, but it certainly won't be anyone's least favorite (Oh, like Ron Paul?).

Now that I read that again, this beer sounds like many politicians (he says before I've snarked this post--amazing!). And it may work well for marketing (or running for Congress! Vote Caledonia 2013) -- just like so many politicians manage to get elected -- but it's not what I want in a beer (yes, but would you have a beer with...oh...hey, wait a sec...).

Saturday evening after our book launch proved to be at least a bit more interesting. To celebrate, my lovely Jenny decided to treat me to a Hooker of my very own (I'm a firm believer in positive reinforcement!). I think everyone else in the group was averse to trying a Hooker (in their defense, they are grad students), but I'm learning that most people are pretty bland in their tastes and their experiences, unwilling to branch out into the unfamiliar (again, in their defense: grad students). Why give up what's comfy and familiar for a Hooker that might not go down so well (or more than once)? Whereas my attitude is that you don't know how a Hooker'll work for you until you try one (or four).

In Galway, Hookers always stand out -- they're so much taller than all the other options, top-heavy and nicely tapered. I don't remember the name of the place where we all went after dinner (not the alcohol's fault -- I never knew the name) , but the band was playing decent covers of John Cougar Mellencamp and we were all cozy in one dark-wooden corner near the stage and no one seemed bothered by my enjoying the Hooker. There's not many feelings quite like celebrating on an evening out, one arm around your lady and your lips to a Hooker. When I finished, I saw that everyone else was still enjoying themselves, so I got greedy and opted for a second Hooker -- Jenny didn't treat me this time, it was all up to me (like I said, positive reinforcement). Unfortunately, by the time I returned, I realized that everyone else had moved on to their glasses of water and were preparing to pack it in before heading to some other part of town. So I had to rush -- and the slow pleasure was ruined by having to pound my second Hooker so quickly.

Okay, I've had my fun -- Galway Hooker seems to be one of the better-known craft breweries in Ireland, though we were disappointed to find that it's actually brewed in Roscommon, not Galway, so we weren't able to visit the brewery itself on this trip. It's named for a famous type of ship that traditionally sailed out of Galway, not for nightwalkers at all (though the brewers certainly have fun with the name, too). And... I have to be honest, the Hooker isn't for me. It's better than a lot of the usual options in an Irish bar, if only because it's made locally, freshly, and doesn't have all the chemicals and preservatives. But think about it: it's a Pale Ale served in a Hefeweizen-style glass (what's that, like Brittney Spears in a chautauqua show?)... and that's sort of the combination of the taste, too. It tends to carry a nice, frothy (if not too thick) head, and has a good range of flavors to look for. But the particular combination of hoppy-and-fruity just doesn't quite cut it for me. (Jenny's had bad after-the-fact luck with this beer, too, though my system didn't seem to have trouble with it that night or the next morning.) (He's being polite, but I'd pull out my soapbox on this issue in a heartbeat! Not enough talk or time or effort goes into the serious prevention of bad-beer farts. Note where that hyphen is, people. Bad beers cause bad-beer farts, and well, friends don't let friends suffer the Dutch-oven rumblers! And another thing -- oh, Zach's telling me I have to put my soapbox away now...sigh.) 

Boy, does it feel good to be posting about beer again. We'll have to do a post soon on our favorite Dublin brewpub... but gee, to refresh my memory on all nine or ten of their beers, we might have to conduct some refreshing refresher research...