La Sirène Florette

FloretteYes, I know it’s been a long time between drinks (bad pun – sadly – intended). Rather than doing more extensive articles here, I’ve been concentrating on Twitter and Instagram. But with a few more irons in the fire now, it’s time to head back to the longer format.

You might have heard of La Sirène. They’re a small brewer located in inner northern Melbourne who’ve made quite a splash in recent times with their highly specialised beers (notably their Praline chocolate ale, which has garnered pretty much universal praise and a top 10 place in the Critics Choice top 100 Aussie beers). Their declared mission is to produce classic Belgian and French Farmhouse styles – pretty left field for an Australian brewer. To that end, all their beers are unfiltered and unpasteurised; with all the bottled beers being refermented and matured in the bottle.

So to Florette (incidentally not available in bottles – yet – but on tap in many craft beer joints), La Sirène’s take on the classic Belgian witbier (think Hoegaarden). It pours a cloudy hay-yellow with a thin white head and barely noticeable carbonation. The aromas, I must admit, were a bit light on the light side (although that might have had something to do with the temperature at which it had been stored). Nonetheless, I could pick up some lemon, flowers and gentle cinnamon and pepper spice. The taste is citrus zest up front; delivering a whole lot more oomph than the nose suggests. Prickly pepper and cut grass emerge in the mid palate with orange and coriander coming through towards the end. Finishes quite cleanly, but leaves a light peppery aftertaste.

In some ways, this beer is a little off kilter in terms of the classic witbier style. It doesn’t quite have the usual creaminess associated with the style; but replaces that with some dialled up citrus notes that I really enjoyed. If you’re looking for a reproduction of Hoegaarden then, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for an interesting, very drinkable and refreshing local beer, you should certainly give this a try.

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Beer of the week – Big Sky IPA

Big_SkySo much good beer is finding its way to these shores from the US, it’s a bit hard to keep track sometimes. Simple proximity means that many of the American beers in your local bottleshop will be from California. The balance are likely to be from larger established brewers like Samuel Adams or Sierra Nevada (and yes, I realise Sierra Nevada is from California). However, who would have thought that a beer from the wilds of Missoula, Montana would find its way to Australia? But that’s exactly what I found recently.

The parochially named Big Sky brewing (Montana is known as “big sky country”), like several other US craft breweries, grew out of the passion of home brewers; in this case founders Neal Leathers, Bjorn Nabozney, and Brad Robinson. From humble beginnings in the early 2000s, Big Sky now claim to be one of the 50 largest brewers in the entire country. The brewery, surrounded by towering mountains, now produces some 11 core beers (predominantly in the English style) and a smaller number of specialty brews. Their names speak to their heritage, with monnikers like Moose Drool (brown ale) and Slow Elk (oatmeal stout).

Crucially, they also can six of their core beers, which makes exporting them a whole lot more feasible. Indeed, while I’ve come across three Big Sky beers locally, they’ve all been in cans.

As with most US beers, Big Sky IPA comes in a 12 fl. oz. can, which is about 345 ml in the “new money”. It pours a clear copper-amber body with a fluffy, lasting white head and pretty lively carbonation. The nose is quite prominent, with strong scents of pine, lemon, crusty bread and flowers. The taste follows the English style, with caramel sweetness up front, before a crisp pine resin and lemon zest bitterness sweeps through the mouth, showcasing the Simcoe hops used generously in the beer. After that, some orange and malty notes emerge towards the end. The finish lingers and delivers a fresh, lemony aftertaste.

This was an unexpectedly great beer, especially if you enjoy English-style IPAs. It’s 6.2% a.b.v. and is available from specialist retailers or online.

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Beer of the week – Weihenstephaner Festbier

FestbierWith Munich’s Oktoberfest already in full swing, and the local Aussie copycat events ready to fire up very shortly, I thought it would be appropriate to check out a topical beer this week.

As students of beer may already know, the Munich Oktoberfest has spawned its own particular style of beer, dubbed variously Festbier, Oktoberfest or Marzen. Basically, the all mean the same thing. The first such beers are credited to a man named Gabriel Sedlmayr, a well-known German brewer who, in the 1820s and ’30s introduced and adapted the the Vienna style beer for the Bavarian market. While Sedlmayr’s style was a dark beer (like a Vienna lager or dunkel) his idea was further developed by Anton Dreher around 1840. He was able to use the then-recently isolated lager yeast to brew a cleaner, crisper and lighter coloured beer, which became associated with Oktoberfest celebrations.

The beer was typically brewed in the spring (hence, Marzen, the German word for March), which signalled the end of the traditional brewing season. It was then stored (lagered) in cool caves or cellars during the warmer summer months, ready to be served in the autumn. Some beers brewed specifically for Oktoberfest or other autumn festivals would have a higher a.b.v. than normal (around 5.5% rather than the usual 4 – 4.5%).

In another nod for history buffs, Weihenstephan Brewery is the oldest continually operating brewery in the world; tracing its origins back to the Weihenstephan (St Stephen’s in English) monastery in the Bavarian town of the same name. It’s justly famous for its hefeweizens; but the brewery produces a number of other beers as well, including this seasonal release.

Like most Weihenstephaner beers, this one comes in a handy 500 ml bottle. It pours a perfectly clear straw-gold with a big fluffy head and lively carbonation. On the nose, scents of crusty bread, lemon, cut grass, touch of banana and maybe a hint of a floral note can be detected. In typical Oktoberfest style, the taste is very light, but the distinctive flavour of noble hops is certainly present, along with some sharp lemon and a little hay. It finishes very cleanly with a very light citrus aftertaste; again quite typical for the style.

I’ll admit that Oktoberfest beers aren’t usually my first choice, but when in Rome… as they say. If you’re going to an Oktoberfest style event, or just looking for a decent German lager, this one is one of the better examples of the style. It’s widely available in both the chains and smaller outlets right now, and at around $6 – 7 a bottle, represents excellent value.

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Beer of the week – Boneyard Golden Ale

Boneyard_GoldenRemember the first season of Masterchef Australia? Back when the idea was fresh and new, and the phrase “food dream” wasn’t a cliche? Well, if your memory is that long (it aired in 2009, after all), you might remember two of the contestants – Chris Badenoch (the dude with the pork-pie hat and a hankering for beer) and Julia Jenkins, the bubbly marketer. Well, proving there is life after being eliminated (Julia placed 5th; Chris 3rd) from a reality TV show, the pair went on to bigger and better things. Already an “item” when the show finished (you might also recall the minor media furore that followed), they eventually married. In 2010, they opened Josie Bones, a Melbourne eatery focussing on meat and beer, which went on to garner considerable acclaim.

In 2012, dovetailing their interest in beer, they established Boneyard Brewing; initially a gypsy operation in collaboration with Bridge Road and 3 Ravens. Josie Bones sadly closed its doors earlier this year, but Boneyard has lived on. Badenoch and Jenkins are currently working on their own brewpub – to be known as Boneyard HQ – in North Melbourne. While, at the time of writing, they were still jumping through some regulatory hoops, the new operation should be up and running by the end of the year.

Boneyard Brewing currently produces a core range of three beers – a red ale, grapefruit IPA and this hopped-up version of a golden ale.

First things first – purists will query the phrase “hopped-up golden ale” as a contradiction in terms. Indeed, many beers described as “golden ales” aren’t all that hoppy. This is especially true in North America, where the terms is largely synonymous with what is sometimes called “American standard”. In the British tradition however, the golden ale is a more hop-forward beast; so much so it might be confused with an American pale ale. This is definitely where Boneyard Golden fits into the grand scheme of things. Indeed, it might even go a step further.

The beer pours a lightly hazy golden colour (as you’d expect) with a thin white head and light carbonation. Lemon, peaches, pine and flowers are present in the nose, in keeping with its hoppy credentials. Its taste is more robust than I expected, with a firm grapefruit and lemon zest bitterness dominating; although some lighter fruit flavours of lime and peach are also there. The beer finishes fairly cleanly with a touch of pepper, and a zesty citrus aftertaste.

Boneyard Golden is a surprising and refreshing British-style golden ale, that perhaps might stray into IPA territory. It even makes it into the top 50 golden ales in the world (at a very respectable no. 35) by Ratebeer’s reckoning. Not bad for a couple of Masterchef contestants. It’s available in 330 bottles from many good specialist real-world and online retailers.

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Beer of the week – BrewCult Keep on Truckin’

KOTBeer should be fun, and one Aussie brewer who knows a bit about both beer and fun is BrewCult. The microbrewery from Melbourne is starting to make a name for themselves via a wider distribution network, some clever marketing and a healthy irreverence for tradition. They know a thing or two about beer too.

BrewCult is run by Steve “Hendo” Henderson, one of the rising stars of the beer scene. Previously with Murrays, Southern Bay and Prickly Moses, Hendo is an individualist with a strong sense of where he wants to go. He also doesn’t mind the odd experimental brew. I mean, what else would you expect from a guy who has produced a pepper steak porter and a balsamic Baltic porter?

According to this profile in Crafty Pint, Hendo is a man who likes his hops. It’s no surprise then that many BrewCult beers are hop-forward and will challenge even the most jaded palates. So it is with this beer – part of BrewCult’s Psychedelic Series – which smashes four hop varieties (Magnum, Nelson Sauvin, Motueka and Cascade) straight into the traditionally malt-driven framework of a red ale.

First off – and I know it’s not something that I often comment on – but check out the label on this. It’s enough to get you reaching for your old bell-bottoms and fixing up the Kombi for a road trip.

Anyway, into the beer itself. I picked myself up a 500 ml bottle (a good size that I wish more brewers would use). The ale pours a clear orange-brown with a creamy off-white head that really lasts. Again, it’s a small point, but note the fine carbonation – a sign of attention to detail. The nose is fantastic with pine needles, white wine (that’s the Nelson Sauvin coming through), caramel, pineapple, mango and lemon. The taste starts out with a blend of juicy tropical fruits, before a lemon zest and pine needle bitterness rises in the mid-palate. There’s more soft fruit and some rich sweet caramel (the red ale base showing up) at the end. It also leaves a spicy and fruity aftertaste.

I really enjoyed this beer, as you might have guessed. Thankfully, this should be available in most capital cities in both specialist and many good smaller bottle shops.

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Fruited lambics

Lindemans-FramboiseI don’t know why, but I was a bit wary of fruited beers until recently. Maybe it was the thought that fruit and beer just wouldn’t “go together” – which is weird when you think about all the fruit flavours that are integral to many “regular” beers. A couple of “on a whim” purchases however have opened my eyes to the potential of fruited beers – of which the acme are probably the fruited lambics of Belgium.

OK, first some terminology. Lambic is a spontaneously fermented beer native to the Zenne (or Senne, depending on your pronunciation) Valley in Belgium. In other words, rather than introduce selected yeast strains to the wort (the grain and water blend) to start fermentation, these beers are simply left in the open air to be inoculated by the wild yeasts in the atmosphere. This results in a beer with a sour or tart flavour, often with vinous (winey) or cidery characters. A “pure” (unblended) lambic is a rare beast, even for this uncommon style. Most lambics are blended. A blend of “old” and “young” lambics is known as gueuze; a blend with sugar added is called faro; and then there are the fruited blends.

Traditionally, there were two strains of fruited lambics – kriek (lambic blended with cherries) and framboise (raspberries) – and these still dominate the style, particularly in Belgium. Some more adventurous brewers (mainly in the US but some in Europe too) have begun adding all manner of different fruits, including peach (known as peche); blackberry (cassis), pomegranate, plums, grape, blueberries and even flowers.

So far as Australia is concerned, kriek and framboise are likely to be your only options, unless you have access to a really good bottle shop or a specialist Belgian beer outlet (such as one of the Belgian Beer Cafes in capital cities). The most prominent names you’re likely to come across are Lindemans (not to be confused with the Australian winery) and Timmermans; though you might come across Belle-Vue or – if you’re really lucky – Cantillon or 3 Fonteinen.

Whether it’s a kriek or a framboise, a good fruited lambic should have a deep red-purple colour, usually with a fluffy pink head (see image above). Now this may be a bit off-putting to an Aussie bloke, but if you can get past the beer’s pinkness, you’ll thank yourself (might even be the thing to get the lady in your life into beer). The nose should smell strongly of the fresh fruit (either cherry or raspberry) – if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong. Beneath the fruit, some funky, sour or tart elements should come through. Fruit should similarly dominate the taste. In a kriek, the cherry skins may add an almond or marzipan flavour.

Fruited lambics are some of the absolute best beers to have with a cheese platter, since their bright fruit flavours cut through the richness of the cheese. They’re also fantastic with rich desserts and just on their own chilled for a hot summer’s day. They might not be exactly plentiful at your local, but for something completely different, they’re worth seeking out.

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Beer of the week – Red Hill Weizenbock

Red Hill Brewery - WeizenbockBrewing tradition in Australia has tended, at least in the past, to have generally aligned to the British tradition. Since World War II, we (probably due in no small part to our climate) embraced the then-global trend towards lighter lager styles; so much so that by the early 1990s, you would have been hard-pressed to buy anything else (there’s more to that story of course, but beyond the scope of this article). Slowly however the rise of craft beer has brought with it a willingness to delve into other styles from different traditions.

Of course, the Germans have a rich brewing history and that country remains one of the mainstays of the global beer business. The influence of German beers (lagers aside) has been creeping into both the Australian consciousness and the production schedules of many smaller brewers. It’s hardly unusual now to see a hefeweizen of some description on the slate of many a craft brewer, for example. Weizenbock however is a slightly different proposition.

For the uninitiated, weizenbock is also a wheat beer (that’s the “weizen” part) but a dark, strong one (that’s the “bock”). Typically a weizenbock will be dark ruby red to a deep brown colour. They also generally have both a higher ester profile and higher alcohol content than your average hefeweizen. The style is thought to have originated in the town of Einbeck in Saxony, but was later adopted by Bavarian brewers (the story goes that they mispronounced the town’s name as “ein bock”). The exemplar of the style is probably Schneider Aventinus, which you can probably find in most capital cities with a little effort. Another great example is Weihenstephaner Vitus, which is a bit more widely available.

Victoria’s Red Hill Brewery is one of the relatively few Aussie craft brewers seriously taking on the style. Their version is an annual autumn/winter release, so there should be some available right now.

It comes, as all Red Hill beers, in a 330 ml bottle. The beer itself pours a mostly clear mahogany brown with a sudsy beige head that soon collapses to a thin cap. Aromas of cinnamon, caramel, banana, toast, hay, tobacco and a whiff of alcohol waft up from the glass. The taste begins with sweet malt, followed up by cinnamon and nutmeg spice along with some banana, dark caramel, stewed fruit and a little warming alcohol (though at 5.9% this is hardly the heaviest weizenbock out there). It delivers a creamy mouthfeel and a long, fruity finish.

This is another fine beer from Red Hill, who are winning plenty of admirers with their carefully crafted brews. As mentioned, this is in good beer stores right now, and shouldn’t be too hard to find.

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Beer of the week – Buxton High Tor

High_TorIn the myriad of beer styles currently available, the venerable red (or amber) ale sometimes gets a bit of a bum rap. Unfairly dismissed as an unexciting or even dull style, it can struggle to get attention beside more “now” styles like Imperial IPAs. It might be because red ales have traditionally been a malt-forward style, something that doesn’t sit all that comfortably with today’s obsession with hops.

Still, things are changing as niche producers start re-discovering and reinventing red ales for a more contemporary customer base; and one of those producers is the UK’s Buxton Brewery. Located in the town of Buxton, south-east of Manchester, Buxton Brewery is one of the new breed of British brewers, keen adapt to a changing market without losing the essence of traditional styles. They currently brew no less than 17 individual beers in their core range, as well as several one-offs. Their range includes double IPAs, Russian imperial stouts, American pale ales and black IPAs, alongside traditional stouts, British pales and IPAs.

High Tor (a tor is a rocky hill, referring to Buxton’s location in the Derbyshire Peak District) is described as an “India red ale”; so basically a hoppier take on the traditional malt-driven red.

I scored a 330 ml bottle of this, and the beer poured a clear red-brown with a fluffy cream-coloured head that laced well. The aromas are quite prominent, and I could pick up scents of caramel, oranges, pine needles, raisins and a touch of cocoa. The taste starts out like a classic red ale, with malt and sweet biscuits at first. They give way however to a moderately firm burnt caramel and orange zest bitterness; which in turn subsides to light fruit and pine needles at the end. As you might expect, it’s medium-bodied; and leaves a zesty aftertaste.

Thanks to some enterprising importers, this isn’t too hard to find in the major cities if you know where to look. Specialist bottleshops are the best place to start, but if you can’t find it, or you’re in a regional area, you might have to check out a reliable online retailer.

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Beer of the week – Birra del Borgo ReAle

ReAleItalian brewer Birra del Borgo has featured in these pages before with their Duchessa saison; but their star continues to rise in Australia, thanks in no small part to their (or their local representative’s) shrewd move to have their products stocked by both the Dan Murphy’s barns and in many BWS stores (both, of course, owned by Woolworths). As a result, Birra del Borgo has gone from being an elusive import to something in easy reach of most Australians.

While the company seems to have a liking for saisons (they have no less than 3 saison style offerings available in this country alone), ReAle is an American pale ale (not to be confused with its big brother, ReAle Extra; which is an IPA). Indeed, this was one of BDB’s first offerings when they launched in 2005.

One great thing about Birra del Borgo is that many of their beers come in larger sizes. This one is available in 750 ml bottles, a size favoured by many an aficionado.

The beer pours a clear brick red/amber with a one-finger, slightly off-white, head that laces well. The carbonation is very fine – another plus.

I was able to extract aromas of lemon, pine needles, flowers, light caramel and a touch of pepper from very prominent nose (that’s the beer’s nose; not mine). The taste starts out with some biscuity malt but that quickly gives way to a firm lemon zest bitterness with pine overtones. That soon slips away to a slightly sweet finish with a really interesting peppery aftertaste.

As mentioned above, ReAle is perhaps surprisingly widely available; both at the big barns and at smaller bottleshops. You should expect to pay around $13 – $16 for a 750 ml bottle currently; which is pretty good value really.

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Beer of the week – Yeastie Boys Pot Kettle Black

PKBAs the weather cools and the days shorten, the beer lover’s thoughts turn to the dark side. Cool days and nippy evenings are perfect for rich, dark beers like stouts, porters and their kin.

That’s even more so across the Ditch, where our near neighbours in New Zealand settle down for frosty weather, snowfalls and rugby test matches. Dark beers are therefore a natural fit for NZ brewers, and Wellington’s Yeastie Boys are not exception.

Yeastie Boys are NZ’s self-proclaimed “leftfield” brewers; a beer production house that’s not afraid of taking risks and challenging customers with their diverse and distinctive array of beers. They’re also becoming a welcome addition to the beer scene on this side of the Tasman, with their products a feature in many good beer houses.

It’s fair to say that the IPA is probably the Yeasties’ strong point. Their range includes two “straight” IPAs (Gunnamatta and Digital), but they also make a hoppy amber (sometimes known as “red IPA”) and Pot Kettle Black, described as a “black IPA”.

For the technically minded, the beer is strictly speaking an American-style porter; but given its assertive properties, “black IPA” is probably a better description for the general market. Indeed, it pours a deep solid black; much more like a stout than a traditional porter. The company’s website gives the colour as 31 SRM, which puts it squarely in stout / Baltic porter territory. That’s topped off by a coffee-coloured head.

The nose on this is a treat, with a cavalcade of aromas expressing themselves. I got black coffee, cocoa, smoke, light pine and dried fruit (sultanas and raisins). The taste starts out with an assertive though not aggressive pine resin bitterness, reflecting the fact that it’s hopped with Nelson Sauvin, Styrian Goldings and NZ Cascade hops. That bitterness ebbs away to more familiar stout characters dark roast malt, more black coffee and rich dark chocolate. The whole thing softens at the end to a fruity finish (probably from the Nelson Sauvin) with just a hint of minerality. There’s a soft, lingering finish with a coffee aftertaste.

This is not a beer for the uninitiated or lager fans. There are plenty of really big flavours going on here that will challenge many palates. Even some stout drinkers may be put off by its robust hop characters. Personally, I like this a lot. It’s available from many, if not most good beer outlets, both in the real world and online; though you may struggle to find it in barn stores.

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