Saturday, February 18, 2012

Beer - Vertical Saisons

Personal vertical tastings at home...I love them. Drinking comparable beers side-by-side with no other influences around you other than your senses is a fantastic way to train your palate and educate yourself on the characteristics of beer styles. Alternatively, through a verticle tasting of vintages you will discover how a beer evolves as it is aged.

I've posted about a couple of personal verticals here already. Last year, in the former Beer Bar Band backyard, I attempted to understand the abundant presence of Dry Lagers with a vertical tasting. Also, on Christmas Day we sampled 3 different vintages of the Red Hill Christmas Ale. The insight provided by a vertical tasting can really help you decipher quality and individuality. (One day I'll finally get around to doing that VB/Melbourne Bitter/Carlton Draught/Crown Lager vertical tasting...)

Recently we lined up some Saisons over dinner on a fine summer's evening, out on our deck at home. Dinner added to the theme of the night. Jenn cooked a Saison fish pie via Paul Mercurio's Cooking With Beer book. I'll leave her to fill you in on the delicious beery watch out for the blog post on Soaked in Beer!

Saison is a beer style that I've become quite fond of over the last year, as I’ve experienced more and more versions. This may actually be perfect timing too. Indications from the local craft brewing industry point to a number of new saisons hitting the beer taps this year. 2011’s trend was clearly Black IPAs. Now, 2012 may just be the year of the Saison for Australian craft beer!

There's already a small but stellar local range of the style - Moo Brew's MONA Saison deMoo, Beard and Brau Bon Chiens Farmhouse ale, the retired Feral Saison and the recently returned Temple Brewing Saison (which should back in bottles soon). Joining the farmhouse fold this year will be Mornington Peninsula Brewery, Mountain Goat and the possible limited return of Matilda Bay Brewey's Barking Duck saison.

These fruity, full bodied (usually) pale ales are a fine juxtaposition of a complex yet simple drinking beer. The style’s origins lie in the refreshing summer ales, often with low-alcohol content, brewed for the French farm labours. These days saisons tend to be much bigger and bolder, with full bodies and an alcohol content of between 6-8% abv, yet they still retain their easy drinking and seasonable character.

For our first little Saison vertical test we selected:

These three saisons all proved to be quite different yet still provided the similar drinking experience of a classic Saison.

None were exactly alike in appearance. La Sirène was light and cloudy with a relatively small head. Its head did have the best retention of the three, but left little lacing. The Bridge Road was clear and bright with a decent head and good lacing. The Saison Dupot was a deep cloudy orange with the biggest head of the three and left much pretty lacing.

The aroma proved to be the most similar characteristic across these three beers - full and dense orangey fruity nose, sweet and spicy notes with the familiar saison yeast element.

Mouthfeel varied across the three from full bodied (Saison Dupont) to medium (Bridge Road) to a little light-on for a saison (La Sirène). Carbonation was highest in the local beers, possible because the Dupont was older from traveling further since it was brewed. Hence, Bridge Road and La Sirène were also the more vibrant beers. The overall balance was best in the Bridge Road and Dupont versions. La Sirène was just a little too thin for me. The complexity and depth of Dupont highlights its internationally renowned status.

La Sirène performed best with its refreshing clean and dry finish that had the nicest little hit of tartness out of the three. Although, it was the Bridge Road and Dupont saisons that I found moreish.

All truly excellent and enjoyable beers in their own right. For me, the Bridge Road Brewers Chevalier Saison hit the spot just right on this occasion and "won" this vertical session.

Ben Kraus of Bridge Road Brewers has a solid history producing excellent saisons with a twist. In the last few years he has produced the Saison le Printemps, brewed with blueberries and elderflower, and the awesome Saison Noir (black saison) that celebrated the brewery's 6th anniversary in 2011. However, his regular Saison from the Bridge Road Chevalier range remains a consistent standout as an Australian interpretation of the style.

A week or so later we went vertical with the latest Ben Kraus Saison-with-a-twist. It was also our first side-by-side test of the same beer that has been brewed in two different locations – the excellent NøgneØ and Bridge Road Brewers collaboration ale, India Saison, a hybrid style mash resulting in a hoppy Saison.

In August last year Ben Kraus travelled to Norway, along with some of his favourite local hop varieties. In collaboration he brewed this beer with Kjetil Jikiun at the NøgneØ brewery, which was then packaged in the standard 500ml NøgneØ bottles and eventually imported into Australia through Phoenix Beers. Back in Australia, Ben also brewed India Saison at his brewery in Beechworth using exactly the same recipe, providing two versions for the market.

News of this collaboration was very exciting for me, as a big fan of both breweries. Many of Ben's Bridge Road Brewers beers have provided much "wow" factor in recent times, through his innovative brewing - B2 Bomber, 500 Smokey Breakfast Lager, Galaxy Single Hop IPA, Stellar Single Hop IPA and more! NøgneØ is also a sensation, filling many spots of my all-time list of favourite beers: Imperial Stout, God Jul plus the incredible trilogy of Dark Horizon, Red Horizon and Sweet Horizon.

India Saison is a brilliant beer. Packed with the robust Australian Galaxy and Stella hop varieties, it is a well balanced blend of two interesting beer styles - Saison and IPA. There are many "crazy" inventive craft beers around these days. Whilst innovative, this beer is far from crazy. India Saison is a bold and characterful beer, yet also elegant and easy to drink. The complexity isn't as evident at first as in some other hybrid craft beer styles, but a few mouthfuls in you will discover much to explore in this beer's taste and character.

Clearly the same beer, there were also some strikingly significant differences between the Australian and Norway brewed versions. Firstly, the aroma of both was upfront resiny hoppy yet underneath was a classic spicy Saison nose. However, the hoppy aroma was much bigger and beautiful on the Bridge Road edition. Although, having traveled from the other side of the world, the hops in the NøgneØ bottle may have just died off a little. Understandable.

The biggest difference was in appearance. The NøgneØ brewed addition had a much deeper orange colour with a thicker head, whilst the local Bridge Road brew was a brighter orange with a less dense head.

Both versions were practically identical in mouthfeel, finish and overall drinkability. 

So, why are the two beers so different when both have been brewed with exactly the same recipe?  The simple and short answer, to the best of my basic knowledge, is water and brewhouse plus freshness. Sure, there are a number of other tiny intricacies that will alter the final result in very small ways, but the significant differences will most likely come from:
  • two very different water sources, with large variations in the mineral content and ph levels between the Aussie and Norway water supplies,
  • the larger size and environment of the relatively new NøgneØ brewhouse compared to the smaller Beechworth brewhouse build in an old Coach House,
  • the NøgneØ version has travelled from across the other side of the world, compared to the relatively fresh recently brewed Bridge Road version from only a few hundred kms away. Therefore it is older and has been exposed to more variations in light and temperature.

Again the Bridge Road Brewers beer won this side-by-side taste test, but it had the clear advantage of freshness and therefore offered more vibrancy. Either way, this beer as a whole is a magnificent innovation and a testimony to the art and science of craft brewing plus collaborative spirit of both NøgneØ and Bridge Road Brewers. Yum.

Anyways, despite all my clumbsy words here...every beer mentioned is a delicious drinking experience and highly recommended! Track them down and discover the diversity. Cheers!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Beer - Redoak Christmas Cheer

Redoak beer is a quandary. This small independent craft brewery, with it's Redoak Boutique Beer Café restaurant located in central Sydney, has many highly regarded and interesting beers that (in my experience) seem to rarely perform when purchased in bottles.

Redoak has a plethora of beer awards to its name. They even declare themselves to be "Australia's Most Awarded Brewery" (along with a couple of other breweries who make the same claim, such as Grand Ridge in Victoria). Some people suggest Redoak wins so many awards simply because they enter so many beers into countless competitions. Weight in numbers. Nonetheless, Redoak has scored 3 World Beer Cup Gold Medals and they were they 2008 AIBA Champion Small Brewery, which can't be done without seriously good beer ('d hope).

Beyond the awards, the man behind Redoak, David Hollyoak, seems to divide colleagues and affiliates in the beer industry with his opinions on running a microbrewery business. The outspoken advocate for local, small independent craft beer is also the driving force behind the Australian Real Craft Brewers Association.

Many have also labelled David to be something of a Willy Wonka, eccentric and very secretive about his brewery (very few seem to know the actual location of the Redoak brewery) and his brewing methods. He is a prolific brewer, producing many different styles and speciality beers from a supposedly small brewery, yet it is still capable of supporting natural distribution for several of his beers.

Two Red Oak beers, Organic Hefeweizen and Organic Pale Ale, are distributed nationally through the major chains of Dan Murphys and Vintage Cellars. However, whenever I have bought Redoak beers from Uncle Dan's or VC, the beers have been infected...without fail...every time. When it comes to craft beers purchased from Dan Murphy's, faults don't often surprise me given the amount of time these untreated, preservative and additive free beers spend on warm shelves under bright lights. But with Redoak, it is a common issue that seems to always come up when talking about their beers with other local craft beer lovers.

My first experience with a Redoak beer was the glorious Christmas Cheer, a complex dark spiced Belgian ale that reminds you of Christmas pudding. I picked it up along with several other Christmas themed ales from a specialty beer shop not long before Christmas 2008, early in my craft beer journey. On that occasion it was a joy to drink, for my young palate. However, I had not seen it in a shop since.

Hence, it was to my surprise to spot a single bottle of Christmas Cheer in the fridge at Mayerling Cellars (a Duncan's branded drive-thru bottleshop) in Ferntree Gully. I had no idea how long it had been there (especially since I don't ever recall seeing it on previous visits) but I bought it without hesitation in hope of being reminded how good this beer was. I was also thinking..."surely such a small batch seasonal release such as this would not suffer the same infection issues."

Well...the Christmas Cheer looked fantastic when poured, with a brilliant dark red hue and creamy tan head, but as soon as the bottle was opened I could tell this beer was infected. Damn.

I'm not sure if it was Brettanomyces, which can actually be quite favourable these days given our recent dalliance with lambics. This infection was more of a pungent sour green apple aroma. It really destroyed the beer, which did not display the full body I recall when tasted in 2008.

Who knows where the problem lies, but the consistency of the occurrence seems to indicate that there's a problem with bottled Redoak beers that are shipped south to Victoria.

And so my aversion to Redoak continues. I'm not one to readily diss any beer these days without good reason, but the continued disappointment has made this issue worthy of a blog post. Maybe readers will set the record straight for me and share their experiences on the contrary...?

The problem is that I've never had a Redoak beer on tap...and maybe that is where they perform best? I hope that some day not too far away I will have the opportunity to visit the Redoak Boutique Beer Café in Sydney and taste these beers fresh from the "source". Traveling to the beer's home, where it will always be treated and served as the brewer intended, may be the only way to discover how good the Redoak brews actually are. It's the best way to enjoy any craft beer! Until then, I may be giving bottled Redoak a miss.

I'd love to know if anyone outside of NSW has had a good Redoak beer in the bottle?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Band - Whitley Reunion Show at Northcote Social Club

Gig: Whitley Reunion Show
Support: Lester The Fierce
Venue: Northcote Social Club, tix $25 (all proceeds to charity)
Date: Wednesday 4th January, 2012

Like many of the bands I blog about here, Lawrence Greenwood’s band project – Whitley – was first experience as a support act. The impressive tunes of the then unknown artist lead us to buy the Whitley albums and become fans of the always entertaining his gigs. Although Whitley implies a band and a music concept, Lawrence Greenwood himself was really always Whitley. He is the constant and creative owner-driver behind the name and often performed solo as Whitley.

Whitley released two eloquent and expressive albums, The Submarine and Go Forth, Find Mammoth, which were very well received but many critics. Both albums remain on high rotation across my personal playlist.

The last Whitley gig we witnessed was an excellent night of dense sound at The Corner Hotel in November 2009 for the Go Forth Find Mammoth tour (which Whitley later shitcanned due to a seemingly unresponsive crowd of hipster wankers...more on that later...). In early 2010 Greenwood announced that he would end the Whitley name/concept with one final national tour, which we missed in favour of running away to get married in Far-North Queensland.

So, Greenwood took his leave from the Australian music scene and hightailed to Europe. He left in search of lyrics plus a new sound and experience through which he would create a fresh solo release under his own name. Unsatisfied with the result, he had returned to Australia for Christmas and reset his course for creating a new album in Peru during 2012. The return home provided Lawrence with an opportunity to reform the original Whitley crew and play the old songs to their Melbourne friends and fans one more time, with all proceeds from the gig donated to charity to help underprivileged children in Peru.

Like many others, we snapped up tickets for this reunion show at the Northcote Social Club, where I’ve never seen a bad gig. And despite Greenwood's flustering after a year of not playing live, this gig was no exception.

First to grace the stage on this sold-out night was brand new band Lester The Fierce. Similar to the Whitley concept, this recently formed foursome supports the lyrics and music of their driving force, the brooding vocalist Anita Lester. With dark poetic lyrics scored by their soft alt-rock sound, Anita’s quality voice and musical mindset has clearly been shaped by that of Kate Bush, Florence Welch and maybe even Katie Noonan.

Their songs were constant and tight, presenting their own unique musical flavour and presence that also felt somewhat nostalgic. I enjoyed Lester The Fierce, they were something new without trying to be anything other than a band playing their songs.

Their last song was their first single, “Holland”, which provided the best example of the Lester The Fierce ethos. With lyrics that cry to be heard, it featured Flo-like harp strings and a sweet and slow building bombastic drums driven by a simple acoustic guitar riff.

Anita Lester will be one to keep and ear out for. Her band has a unique sound but it still needs to develop along with their stage presence. All up, they played a solid set and proved to be a quality lead-in for Whitley.

Lawrence Greenwood and his Whitley crew spared no time reclaiming their welcome place on Melbourne’s live music stage, launching into the lush and loud “Killer” from Go Forth Find Mammoth. A sigh of relief came as the awesome sound told us that this gig was that real deal, not just some random afterthought.

The set continued with the hits and favourites from the second album, including “Bright White Lights”, “I” and “Poison In Our Pocket”. The band apologised for being under-rehearsed. Rehearsals, they declared, had involved more food and beer and actual refreshing. Thankfully, there was no need for the apologies! The talented band played as though they had never stopped touring together and playing live. The vibe of the gig was positive and friendly. If there was a stuff up, it was barely noticeable and/or no one cared. The crowd had no great expectations. We all just happy to be seeing Whitley play live again.

Greenwood has stacked on the kilos during his sojourn, of which he was happy to make light. He declared himself to be not match-fit for a live gig. Refreshingly, he seemed brighter and more at ease with his allotment in life than the former Whitley. I suspect this has been from the perspective provided through seeing more of the big bad world...and it has served him well. Most of all, his voice was unchanged. Vocally, Whitley remained perfectly in-check, a powerful demonstration of a quality voice.

Muddled and surrounded by a stage full of lyric sheets (from which he could never find the song he was looking for) Greenwood was nonetheless in fine form. He played every song in his entirety without any fault that I could detect.  The sound had some raw moments, but the mix was great and the music did not disappoint.

A call to the audience for requests during a bracket of three solo songs lead him to signing a new song. Once again Greenwood became flustered at the requirement to recall the chords and lyrics, yet when he started there was no reason for any concern. With his eyes closed, the quiet song came to life beautifully.

The diverse crowd, probably of the older and “plainer” leaning for a Northcote gig, was chipper and appreciative. Loving random heckles gave Greenwood plenty of opportunity to show-off his quick sense of humour that could match a seasoned stand-up comedian. Having been away from the stage for a year, tonight he seemed a little less ready to react at first, but he soon found his voice and remained as entertaining as ever. He was definitely less bullish than in the past, which I suspect is a consequence of some calming and maturing travels.

Greenwood is well known for his jocular attempts at controversial shit-stirring during gigs. He has often made absurd attempts to alienate someone in the crowd for no good reason other than sly entertainment. Back at that Corner Hotel gig in 2009 is was something about mums and kittens. This time, in the heart of hipster central Northcote, highlighting his enjoyment of the night's audience atmosphere, it was the perfect poison arrow line of: "I’m so glad you’re not all hipster cunts. We have an enemy and we know now who it is.” It clearly struck a chord with several in the crowd, whilst most had a good laugh or a little cheer.

Moving on...with the full band back on stage, “Head, First, Down” had the audience in full voice, as the band continued to demonstrated their natural ability to play together tightly, rehearsals or not.

Older songs dominated the second half of the gig. “All Is Whole” from The Submarine was given new life with an impressive jazz-like drum solo. It was a special moment in the gig as drummer Andy Reed took free reign to craft a relaxed yet rudimentary, crescendoing snare driven solo. It has been far too long since I’ve witnessed a fine long drum solo at any small live music gig! MORE, I call for!

“Lost In Time” had everyone lost in the Whitley timeline. The track was played as though it had just been released, taking us back to Whitley’s beginnings. The song would have been a very appropriate finale, but there was room for one more…an encore without the charade of the encore. Greenwood remained on stage, rightly deciphering that the context of this gig did not need him to depart-and-return at our educated begging.

The gig was closed with the opening track from Whitley’s debut album and fan favourite, “Cheap Clothes”. It provided a warm and fuzzy ending, leaving us satisfied and grateful that we had experienced what was not due to be experienced. This one-of gig was entertaining, fun and musically excellent. And it was all for charity.