• Chilli Basil Ale

    When recent backyard foraging yielded an abundance of basil and chilli peppers, I got thinking about their beer-making potential.  No doubt there are plenty of more orthodox culinary opportunities to consider with these versatile ingredients, but I'm not a Thai chef.

    Unusually, my learned research assistant Mrs Google could offer only scant advice on herbaceous homebrewing techniques, so I was on my own for a beery Masterchef invention test.  I settled on a standard 20L Pale Ale recipe as the base, pimped out with a generous handful of about 25 HOT chilli peppers and a large bowl (~40g) of fresh basil leaves. 

    The chillis went into the boiler for the last 15 minutes, the basil for just the last 5 minutes as my half-arsed research suggested that excess proteins could result if herbs are boiled too long.  Only bittering hops were used (40g of Northdown, 8.5% AA) as I figured the chilli and basil would suffice for flavour and aroma.  Starting gravity was about 1.048 and I used a Whitelabs California Ale Yeast.  Half the brew was kegged in a 9.5L minikeg and I bottled the rest.

    Biased I may be, but in my humble opinion Chilli Basil Ale is quite pleasantly drinkable.  The appearance is maybe a little hazy, but quite respectable looking in the glass.  I've cheerfully drank much mankier looking brews.  Lively carbonation (from the keg at least) keeps a light head afloat with no apparent ill-effects from my backyard adjuncts.  An interesting jaffa-like aroma hints at the warm, mellow herbaceous flavour to follow.  

    The chillis add enough heat to be interesting, but are subtle enough that it remains an easy drinking, summery ale.  On first tasting from the keg I thought I'd probably go a little longer on the chillis next time, but I've found that over several weeks the bottled portion has developed an appreciably stronger chilli profile.  The basil balances nicely with the bittering hops to provide a refreshing counterpoint to the chilli heat.

    Chilli Basil Ale is definitely not an all night session beer, but it's well worth a crack if you're feeling up for something different.  Much better than a Pad Kra Pao.


  • WTF Brew Review - Cantillon 100% Geuze

    This week I reached way down the back corner of my beer fridge and pulled out something a bit special.  A Cantillon Geuze, made from a blend of of wild fermeted, organic Lambic beers.  It had been waiting patiently for so long, almost three years, that I had almost forgotten lovingly transporting it back among socks and undies from a visit to Brussels in Easter 2014.

    Visting the Cantillon bewery is quite an experience.  It's located in a slightly dodgy part of Brussels on the CBD fringe, the sort of place that could just as easily be occupied by an auto mechanic.  Instead it's one of the most famous breweries in Belgium.

    Lambic beers are fermented with just naturally occurring wild yeasts, specific to that damp, drab and polluted corner of the European capital.  Fermentation at the Cantillon brewery takes place in shallow vessels in the building's attic, beneath heavy wooden beams.  Great care is taken not to disturb the delicate environmental balance that sustains these unique wild yeasts.  Even spider webs are left uncleared, in case they play some small role in maintaining this beery ecosystem.  Or maybe they just don't like cleaning.

    This unrelenting comittment to traditional methods yields some incredibly unique and sought after beers, but in only modest volumes.  You're not going to find a Cantillon at the local Liqorland any time soon.

    Just opening a Cantillon is an experience.  How often do you need a corkscrew to crack a stubby?  It comes in a tall slender bottle of thick green glass, with a cracking label of a kid taking a leak while holding a beer. 

    Cantillon Geuze pours easily with ony moderate head, quite unlike the monstrous meringues that top many Belgian beers.  The slow fermenting wild yeats produce only light carbonation, despite up to several years of conditioning for some of the Lambics that are blended to form Geuze.

    The colour is a slightly opaque burnt orange, but it's not until you get a sniff of the powerful aroma that you understand that this is no ordinary beer.  This shit is pungent.  It's like a fermented fruit salad with a side of vegemite and blue cheese left festering in the sun.  Sharp orange and apples with big sweet earthy esthers.  It smells dangerous.

    Despite a grain bill of 2/3 malted barley to 1/3 wheat, upon first tasting Cantillon Geuze you'd swear you were drinking a cider.  A very good, complex cider with no cloying sweetness, as the extended conditoning completely eliminates any residual sugars.  Surprisingly crisp, refreshing and quaffable for such an unusual and textured beer, it's just as well the alcohol content is a modest (by Belgian standards) 5.0% ABV.

    My Cantillon Geuze seemd completely unaffected by its journey around the planet followed by three years in the back recesses of a beer fridge.  It was still completely fresh and untainted (if you can call "untainted" a beer that smells like a homeless man eating garlic in a sauna).  The label claims that in the right cellaring conditions it can be kept until 2030, impressive given the relative lack of preserving alcohol.

    You'll probably struggle to get hold a Cantillon Geuze unless you happen to be dropping through Brussels.  But if you get the chance, grab a couple of bottles and expand your beer horizons.


  • The Shit Beer Review Part II: VB

    Other than XXXX, VB is perhaps Australia's most maligned mass market beer.  It's also one of it's oldest and possibly most iconic, so what better occasion than the Australia Day long weekend to take another one for the team, by tasting whether VB is really that shit.

    First things first.  Victoria Bitter is not a bitter, it's a bloody lager.  Very annoying.  You wouldn't call a sprite a coke, you wouldn't call a riesling a shiraz, so why is it ok to call a lager an ale?  Come on people.

    Ok, so rant over, CUB does have some extenuating circumstances for the shameless mislabelling of their flagship product.  Firstly, it's been brewed since 1854 and would undoubtedly have started life as an ale, because refrigeration didn't make it to Australia until the 1880s, making lager brewing possible.

    Secondly, interestingly VB is fermented at a very warm 18 degrees, almost ale yeast temperature.  Presumably this is mostly about speeding up fermentation to make more faster and cheaper.  It's for the flavour, says the VB website.  Yeah right.  This is the brand that famously pissed off their customers royally a few years back, by watering down the recipe to save a few dollars of excise tax.  Sales tanked and CUB soon made an about face.  VB now weighs in at a respectable 4.9% ABV.

    Thirdly, less convincingly, CUB claims they "only use bittering hops, not flavour or aroma hops".  Seriously?  You deliberately set out to brew a beer sans flavour or aroma?  That's just weird.  I have no idea why CUB's marketeers think that no flavour or aroma hops is something to boast about.  It's like a chef bragging he doesn't season his food.  Maybe they're trying to say that VB's a tough guy beer and flavour's for pussies.  Who knows?

    Anyway, time to taste this bitter / lager Frankenbeer.  A few weeks ago XXXX Gold exceeded my admittedly minimal expectations.  Can VB do the same?

    My VB pours well enough, a fine creamy white head builds quickly on the orange-gold beer.  However, from the can there is apparently only mild carbonation and so the head soon dissipates disappointly.   A deep inhale yields a slightly fruity aroma, suggesting perhaps at least some late hop additions, or maybe esters from the relatively warm fermentation.

    The slight fruitiness carries through to the flavour profile.  It's quite sweet, despite the 4.9% alcohol there's clearly plenty of unfermented sugars present.  The finish is not especially dry, particularly considering the big talk about bitterness.  The overall impression is more cloying than cleansing.

    VB is not light and crisp like a good lager should be, but as the name suggests, perhaps that's not what they're aiming for.  It's more like a bad ale.  I now get why CUB's marketing is so insistent that VB is best consumed ice cold; it's so you don't have to taste it.

    So is VB really that shit?  Yep.

  • An Unexpected Brewtopia

    Holidaying in New Zealand recently, I came across an unexpected brewtopia in the far aisles of a Queenstown supermarket.  A full length refrigerated supermarket aisle with nothing but beer!  At least two thirds was devoted to a huge selection of craft beers, mostly from local NZ microbreweries, but with a smattering of quality internationals for good measure (think Chimay, Sierra Nevada, Franziskaner).

    For unknown reasons, perusing local supermarket aisles rates surprisingly high on my lovely wife's list of quality overseas holiday activities, so I soon found that this was no rare beer gem we'd discovered.  In fact it appears the average NZ supermarket has a superior beer selection on offer than most Australian bottle shops.  Especially those poxy wee ones that Coles and Woolies stick beside their stores, presumably to get around more restictive Australian licensing laws.  In these places you're lucky to find anything more adventurous than a faux-micro Fat Yak from CUB.  

    The NZ supermarkets I saw had diverse selections of well curated beers from genuine little guy brewers like Emersons, Brew Moon and ParrotDog.  Not just Pale Ales either, the range extended deep into each brewery's repertoire with barrel-aged Imperial Stouts alongside Weizenbocks and local interpretations of Belgian Lambics.

    Even the variety of beer packaging was impressive.  Under and oversize bottles and cans, plastic "riggers" with sizes ranging from big to huge, even some nice glass growlers.  A new one for me was the growler's little bro, the smaller "squealer" holding just under a litre in a heavy brown glass screwtop.  Perfect for homebrew if you could collect a set (now there's a happy challenge).

    Local brewers say the willingness of NZ supermarkets to take a punt on local craft beers is a major factor in giving new microbreweries a toehold in the market.  It could be why NZ's modest population supports nearly 90 craft breweries - 2.0 per 100,000 people, compared to around 1.25 per 100,000 here in Australia.  Or maybe NZ just has 75% more pissheads.

    Come on Coles and Woolies.  Forget $1 per litre milk and shitty reward cards, just give us beer!

  • XXXX Gold - Is it really that Shit?

    This week I'm taking one for the team.  I'm going to sniff, taste, swallow and savour (maybe) a beer I've previously avoided on reputation alone.

    Despite it's generally shithouse reputation with discerning beer drinkers, XXXX Gold is apparently Australia's largest selling beer with around 1/8th of the market.  Sure there are a lot of bogans and Queenslanders out there, but with that level of popular demand can it really be that shit?

    First, a few fun facts about XXXX.  It's been brewed continuously at the same site in Milton, Brisbane since 1878, although only 3 "X"s were used until 1924.  Changing tastes, changing technologies and changing ownership saw XXX Sparkling Ale emerge into the mid strength lager XXXX Gold that is the brewery's flagship beer today.  Ironically given today's 3.5% ABV offering, the "X"s were supposedly indicative of strength.

    XXXX Gold pours nicely, a fine even head supported by effervescent carbonation.  It lives up to its name in colour at least, with a light golden hue.  The pale colour provides some forewarning that the "full flavoured" claim of Castlemaine's marketing may perhaps be stretching it.

    The lack of any discernible aroma is also less than promising.  Even with nose poking deep into the head, snorting like Keith Richards on his last line of the '70s, only a faint hint of mildly biscuity malt aroma can be detected.

    Nonetheless, my first mouthfuls of XXXX Gold are quite satisfying.  Restrained use of malts and hops balance well with the modest alcohol content.  Gentle upfront buttery sweetness is accentuated by the generous carbonation and eases into a slightly dry finish that quenches and refreshes.

    You have to go hunting to detect any real hop character.  If you concentrate hard and squint there's perhaps a tiny bit of grassiness, but XXXX Gold just ain't about the hops and that's ok - it's not trying to be.

    So the verdict?  XXXX Gold is certainly not a challenging beer or even that interesting, but neither is it seriously flawed.  It's a beer for drinking cold on hot days and at 3.5% ABV it won't bring you undone unless you've necked serious quantities, which perhaps explains enduring popularity in Queensland.  

    I won't be rushing out to stock my beer fridge with it anytime soon - but it's not that shit.

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