22 September 2017

Taking the Mikkel

I have to admit, I'm surprised that Mikkeller still generates a buzz. The Danish gypsy brewer is a veteran at this stage, and in the highly fickle world of "craft" beer few brands generate enthusiasm for so long. Mikkellermania may have peaked some years ago, but when UnderDog dedicated a swathe of their taps to the beer, excitement ensued.

I stuck my head in on a Friday afternoon to see what was what. Tap 1, and beer of the moment, was SpontanDoubleBlueberry. This is an attempt to recreate the lambic brewing process, with mixed results in this drinker's opinion. It looks dark and tarry in the glass, the deepest of purple with a shock of violet foam on top. The first flavour to come through isn't sourness, nor fruit, but bitterness: the tannic bite of berry skins. A harsh Bretty funk follows, rough and uncouth. I was expecting some fruit flavour but that didn't really emerge until the beer had warmed up a ways, and was heavy and jammy, perhaps reflecting the weighty 7.7% ABV. And sourness? It's buried in there but it's not a central feature. There was the saltpetre spark of proper geuze, doing little other than reminding me I'd rather be drinking a proper geuze. There's certainly a lot going on in this one, but I definitely preferred the lighter and cleaner beers I've had from the Spontan series.

Hallo Ich Bin Berliner Weisse Mango has been around in cans for a while. I just had a quick taster as a contrast with the Spontan. It's a bright pale yellow, thin and clean, and with a sharp, slightly metallic, sour bite. I could barely taste the mango at all: there's certainly no fruit-pulp thickness. It's simple and refreshing fare and for the price usually demanded it ought to be offering more.

It's hops from here on in. I had not realised that the Mikkeller Single Hop Series, which I started drinking in 2008 and last encountered back in 2010, is still running. The beers are all 6.9% ABV and they seem to have acquired double IPA siblings now.

There were two varieties available: Citra and Mosaic in both single and double versions. As a fully-certified Mosaic hound I asked for a taster of the Mikkeller Mosaic IPA first. I was not expecting the aroma of toffee. The hop flavour struggles to come through the heavy malt sweetness, and manages to bring only the savoury side of Mosaic when it does, and none of the fun fruit. I decided not to struggle through a full glass of that.

So instead I surprised myself by opting for Mikkeller Citra IPA instead. Unsurprisingly it's sweet again, though the aroma does include plenty of fresh grapefruit to help cover the caramel. The texture is thick and this helps the hops do their thing: a lovely oily lemon and lime flavour, coating the palate at first, while building to a bitter crescendo. A juicy counter-melody of mandarin adds a tasty extra dimension, though I also detected a burr of yeast bite spoiling things ever so slightly. But overall an excellent performance.

How would that stack up in a double IPA? Remarkably well. Again just a taster, but Mikkeller Citra Double IPA really emphasises the tropicality, piling in mango (more than in the Berliner weisse) and cantaloupe. It doesn't have the whole toffee thing, leaving more room for hop fun, and there's no trace of alcohol heat; an amazing achievement at 8.9% ABV.

With thoughts that I should have given the Mosaic Double IPA a chance too, I headed off. I suppose it should be of comfort that Mikkeller is still doing the Spontans and the single hop IPAs after all these years, and that people are still enjoying them. Perhaps even craft beer radicals settle down at some point.

20 September 2017

In for a Treaty

The Beoir AGM happened in Limerick last month. It's the first year that my attendance was not compulsory, but I had never been to the city, nor experienced its beer scene, so there was no way I was going to miss it. The meeting was kindly hosted by The Wickham Tap, Galway Bay Brewery's new pub and their first outside Galway or Dublin (Kilkenny will follow next month). We also dropped by the handsome Smyth's, the cosy Nancy Blake's and the very handsome Mother Mac's.

The latter three were all pouring The Market Quarter, a new pale lager that was being launched that weekend. In total a group of twelve pubs in that area are carrying it on draught, having commissioned it from local brewery Treaty City to be, according to the Leader, "for traditional drinkers and craft beer enthusiasts alike". I like to think I can speak for both of those demographics and I reckon they've nailed it. It's a light 4.2% ABV and an approachable medium-gold. The flavour bursts with fresh tropical flavours, mango and pineapple in particular, before finishing clean. There's a palate-scrubbing fizz to please the mainstream lager drinkers, but it's not thin or overcarbonated, just great session drinking. I would worry about how well the fruit will hold up if it has to spend more than a short time sitting in the keg, but hopefully that won't be an issue. Well done to all concerned.

Our guide for the day, the redoubtable Cyril, had arranged for us to visit Treaty City Brewing itself, where we got a guided tour by the enthusiastic proprietor Stephen Cuneen. Local, local, local is the mantra. I always feel better about not being able to get my hands on a beer when I learn it's deliberate. I hadn't tasted any of the core beers so happily there was a table of sample bottles. Yes, I brought my bottle opener.

Harris Pale Ale is the one that's been around longest, named after Limerick's most legendary drinker. This is quite a dark amber colour and dry tasting, mixing up metallic aspirin bite with a touch of roasted grain. It's reminiscent of decent dark English bitter and is similarly moreish, despite a sizeable ABV of 5%.

The lightest of the set is Hells Gate Lager at 4.2% ABV. I think there's a sneaky reference to the intended style in the name (don't tell AB-InBev) as it's quite sweet and softly textured, with elements of candyfloss and spongecake. This is balanced with a few sprigs of fresh spinach leaves: no doubt a German noble variety or two at work. It's maybe just a little too sweet for my taste, even for a helles, but it's perfectly well made.

Treaty City hasn't turned out a porter yet so Thomond Red is as dark as it gets. And its pretty dark for a red: a cola brown colour with an almost dunkel-like sticky treacle aroma. The caramel arrives to the party early and I was fully expecting it to talk loudly over the top of the other guests. However it leaves room for some clean, green celery hops, a smattering of ripe summer fruit and a roasty finish that prevents it from getting all sticky in the end. Irish red full house then, pretty much, and probably the most complex offering of the set.

The IPA, Shannon River, was a bit of a let-down after that. They've gone too sweet in this one, resulting in a dark orange colour and buckets of orange candy all through the flavour. There's a certain minerally dry bitterness quality too, but it fights with the sticky malt rather than complementing or balancing it. The whole thing is just discordant, rendered extra loud with the volume turned up to 5.8% ABV.

There's a definite sweet theme running through the range, which is perhaps why the red ale is the best of the lot. This may be to do with local tastes so it's very promising that the newest beer, Market Quarter, doesn't have it. Turn your treacle to tropical fruit, Limerick, and embrace the 21st century.

18 September 2017

Getting Lough'd

I had somewhat lost track of Lough Gill Brewery since the beginning of the year, having last tried a new beer from them just before the Alltech festival in February. So when I made enquiries in DrinkStore I ended up coming away with three cans from the Sligo brewery I'd never tasted before.

First to get opened was the Sour Wheat Ale. I was hoping for something light and refreshing, but the 5.7% ABV suggested otherwise, as did the dark and murky appearance. I had plenty of time to contemplate that as I waited for the foam to subside sufficiently to allow me a sip. It's as heavy as I expected, with a slick and briney salinity. There's a touch of lemon behind this which, combined with a grainy crunch, calls witbier to mind. Overall I'm not keen on it. The sourness is too strongly lactic, more like something gone off than deliberately inoculated, and the grain tastes stale and husky, possibly as a result. It's doesn't compare well with the cleaner and lighter Irish sour beers out there.

Time for a complete contrast: 'Round the Clock is a coffee and oatmeal stout, a path that has been trod by many breweries previously. It's 5.2% ABV and a rich chocolate brown colour. They've gone all-out for the coffee here, and there's a lot of dark roasted, even gritty, espresso in the flavour and aroma. The harsh bitterness isn't helped by the thin texture and if that's all there was I'd be giving it up as a bad job. But! This beer does have a redeeming feature in a floral complexity that runs backwards and forwards through it. It's a meadowy sweetness that doesn't quite take the edge off the sharp roast but does manage to distract my attention from its worst excesses. It's still some fairly tough drinking, lacking smoothness. You'd really want to be into your coffee, or at least your beer that tastes of coffee, to enjoy it fully.

Finally for now, Lough Gill's Irish Sloe Barley Wine, the first in a series of strong beers, and at 9.5% ABV it definitely qualifies. I was struck by the colour of this: after two cans of murk it's a gorgeous crystalline garnet. On sticking the nose in I'm met with typical barley wine characteristics: heavy slabs of alcoholic toffee, but there's a cheeky sour twang suggesting the sloes are mixing right in the middle. And so it proves on tasting: there's a chocolatey syrupy sweet thickness that would be cloying if left to its own devices, and where a classic US barley wine (hi Bigfoot!) would lash in a load of big citric hops, this utilises the fruit to give it a tangy edge that cleans up the malty excesses and renders it drinkable, while also giving it a uniquely complex flavour. It's almost plummy, like you might find in a Belgian dubbel, but lighter, spritzier, and altogether cleaner -- think cranberries. For a high-gravity palate-thumper this has been carefully and subtly put together. It's not often you encounter an Irish beer that isn't just slavish copying the way they do things abroad but this expresses a terroir all its own.

So, one super-impressive beer out of three. Not bad. There'll be more from Lough Gill in my round-up of the Irish Craft Beer Festival in a few weeks.

15 September 2017

Shropshire citrus

A couple of beers from top Shropshire brewers Salopian today, kindly muled over to my parents' house by my sister over the summer.

First to be opened was Lemon Dream, after a long walk on a warm June afternoon. I was so thirsty I almost didn't stop to take notes. It's a 4.5% ABV pale ale and a bright clear lemon-yellow. There are real lemons in it, and they really make their presence felt in the aroma: an oily citrus perfume, akin to air freshener or washing up liquid but with none of the negative connotations. Crisp cookie malt gives this a base and ensures the body is full enough for it to be satisfying to drink. The bitterness is surprisingly low, meaning it's more like a golden ale than any hop-forward style, but it's literally and figuratively refreshing to find that the added fruit hasn't been overdone. So, an excellent subtle twist on quality golden ale, keeping the good bits while banishing boredom.

I followed that with a bottle of Bulletproof, from Salopian's craftish range with the uninformative labels. It's bottle-conditioned, 5.8% ABV and turns out to be an IPA. This is even more citrusy than the beer with actual lemons in it. The aroma promises a sharp bitterness while first sip delivers a huge blast of lime: fresh, bitter and invigorating. That's followed by a softer and juicier passionfruit and mango flavour. A deposit of greasy hop resins on the tongue make the finish very good value for money. On the down side the body is a little thin, especially for the strength, and it risks accusations of unbalance as a result. That doesn't bother me, however, I could frolic in its hoppy wonderland forever.

Boring old regional English beer in half-litre bottles, eh? Not so much with Salopian.

13 September 2017

A drop of the black stuff

I laughed when I saw that Grand Cru Beers had put a stock of Oude Geuze Boon Black Label on the shelf in my local SuperValu. Every week, doing the grocery shopping, I'd pass by it and think "Haha, I mean who's going to buy that in Dublin 12? For €11 a bottle?" It took a couple of months to realise that it was me.

There's a whiff of the US about its English-language label and imperial units. I guess it's intended more for there than Sundrive Road. There's also the claim to be "the driest geuze we make", because those Americans love a superlative. I did precede it with a standard Oude Geuze Boon, for calibration. Any excuse, really. And yes, while the basic one has a lovely stonefruit juiciness, that's missing from this. Instead there's a mouth-puckering edge and a hit of bricky nitre. It's not overdone, however, keeping everything very classy and classic. There's a real invigorating quality, helped by the busy palate-scrubbing fizz.

While highly enjoyable, I do think some of the complexity is missing compared to the standard. It's less rounded, going all-out for big sour. Just as well the Boon blending skill kicks in and insists on still making a superb, properly balanced, geuze. €11 well spent.

With a taste for geuze in my mouth I decided to open the freebie bottle I picked up at the Mort Subite brewery back in May. They've called it Bubbles from Brussels, which is slightly odd as Mort Subite isn't in Brussels: the nearest large town is called Asse. Maybe a rebrand is in order.

I wasn't expecting much from it, but it's not half bad. Not first-tier geueze by any stretch, but neither is it an oversweetened nerve-jangler. Instead it's right in the middle ground: tangy and earthy without going for full-on wince-inducing sourness. There's a waxy bitterness, some citrus peel, and a mild gunpowder spice: the core elements of really good geuze, but dialled back, as though the brewers weren't sure if people would like them. The biggest surprise is that this light-touch lambic is a whopping 7% ABV. It really doesn't taste it. Much like the Mort Subite tour itself, it's far from unmissable but not bad for free.

It must be nearly time to go to Belgium again.

11 September 2017

Flame on

The Big Grill Festival turned four last month, returning to Herbert Park for four more days of barbecue-based entertainment. It was the best year yet for beer, with a second long bar added to the field, lots of new beers, and even one brand new brewer.

But my first port of call was to the standalone tent (hut? lodge?) of Franciscan Well, since they were nice enough to send me the tickets and a few beer vouchers. Their new offer was called Shoot the Breeze and it's a California Common. It's a pretty ugly looking one too: these are supposed to be clear, aren't they? This is a grim murky ochre. There's lots of crunchy roast immediately on tasting and then these strange sweet esters that seem very out of place: it's much too fruity for a style which should by dry and crisp. The hops are decent, bringing a grassy bite late in the flavour that helps reset the balance. The end result is an OK brown beer just misses being a good California Common.

Over to the main bars, then, and this was the first festival outing for Hopfully Brewing of north Dublin. They've launched with three core beers and one special, and some very distinctive artwork. I covered the fabulous beetroot saison here and it's joined in the line-up by a pale ale and an IPA. Lovemaker is the former, a quite dark and spicy number which incorporates rye with its Summit and Cascade hops. It's only 4.8% ABV though big-bodied and surprisingly dry. While it opens with quite a perfumed flavour, the finish is classically bitter. Overall a very grown-up no-nonsense sort of beer, high quality but with no fancy bells or whistles.

The IPA, Graciosa, is bright and pale and boasts a massive tropical aroma of mango and peach. The flavour is dank and dry, yet still fruit-forward, with a perfect clean finish. Citra and Chinook is the power couple that made this possible, and they put in one hell of a performance in a beer that's only 5.3% ABV. I think this one will turn a few heads, especially when the canned version starts getting out and about.

The initial limited-run beer in the Hopfully range is another California Common, but one with a distinct twist. Sakura is absolutely loaded with Sorachi Ace hops and uses that clean crispness I spoke of earlier to launch a massive hit of greasy coconut oils. It's a surprise attack too, because the aroma does not foreshadow it, nonchalantly wafting light coconut but no more. There's quite an intense bitterness too, making for an invigorating and stimulating experience. If you don't like Sorachi Ace, however, this is probably not going to be the beer to cure you of that affliction.

Hopfully's next appearance will be at the Brewtonic Beer Festival in the Bernard Shaw at the end of next week. Rascals will also be there, launching the second edition of their urban crowd-sourced hop beer. At Big Grill it was the turn of a fruited New England-style pale ale, Planet of the Apricots. It's an interesting phenomenon. The fruit seems to latch on to the dense and fluffy beer, intensifying its flavour as a result, meaning this thing really tasted of apricots. There's enough citrus bitterness to twist it towards tropical breakfast juice, which is also how it looks, and there's a memory of peach schnapps and orange from my misspent youth as well. But is it any good? Maybe it was the good weather but I kinda liked it. It doesn't fall into the usual fruit IPA trap of trying to copy the hop flavours: there's a proper contrast here. The end result is a fun, if silly, sunny delight.

Less fun was Park Life (not to be confused with the recent Trouble lager of the same name), a festival special from Brewtonic. This was badged as an American wheat ale and was just too harsh for me, all savoury caraway and a hard bitterness. Moving on...

Hope was next door, with cans of numbers 6 and 7 in its limited edition series. Nut-watchers will of course remember that 1 and 2 were my top picks of last year's festival. They are, respectively, Tropical Sour and Tropical IPA. I think (somebody please correct me if I'm wrong) they're both flavoured the same way, with Citra, Azacca, Mandarina Bavaria and Simcoe hops, plus pineapple, passionfruit, lime and mango.

I started with the IPA and found it surprisingly hop-forward for everything that's in there. There's a serious heavy dank bitterness, roaring with pine, and an accompanying resinous mouthfeel. The fruit barely gets a look-in, cowering behind the hop onslaught.

The sour one also asserts its identity in no uncertain terms, including an eye-wateringly sharp aroma. The flavour is strongly sour too, but still provides a firm base for the various fruits to work out of, a lot like its cousin, YellowBelly's Castaway, though bitterer and more complex. Much like the IPA it's still highly enjoyable for all its seriousness, being properly sour while also properly tropical. What more could you want?

And that was just one bar finished. Thankfully there wasn't so much new stuff over on the remaining side.

As if the phabulous Phunk Bucket wasn't enough, Kinnegar had another new release on their bar: Freak Show. This is a cream ale of 5% ABV with added orange. Cream ale has never been my thing and this is a classic demonstration of why: it has that unpleasant sweetcorn rasp that comes of putting maize at the centre of the recipe. The orange, though very obviously present, does nothing to improve the picture, giving the beer an over-the-top cordial sugariness. I genuinely don't get the point of this beer, or what it's meant to be. It's definitely not up to Kinnegar's usual standard. Momma, don't let your children grow up to brew cream ales.

Obliquity is the portentously-titled new special from Metalman, created in collaboration with Solvay Society brewery of London. It's a pale lager, enhanced with a dose of saison yeast. And it makes good use of both sides. There's a fundamentally solid clean and easy-drinking lager here, very accessible despite a substantial 5.8% ABV. And then there's an extra layer of spicy saison fun: white pepper in particular, and a gentle puff of banana esters. An interesting experiment, and a successful one.

The nightcap was Chocolate & Coconut Extra Stout, presumably one of the last beers brewed at Wicklow Brewery by departing head brewer Jason. And it's a hell of a finish. 8.5% ABV and every bit as rich as most imperial stouts, it's jet black and sumptuously smooth, exuding an aroma of iced latte. This turns darker on tasting, all mocha and espresso, with merely a dusting of coconut on top. I got a slight buzz of higher alcohol heat on the finish, but nothing that really throws it off balance. It's very clean and sinkable overall.

And that was my Big Grill for 2017. Thanks again to Franciscan Well for the tickets, and to all the brewers who tolerated my sleeve-tugging: you're always the star of the show, more than the pigeon-butchery classes or any number of flayed goats.


08 September 2017

New in town

The arrival of a new showpiece brewpub to Dublin ought really to be headline news on this blog. Brewpubs are my thang, and for the previous 17 years my hometown city centre has had just the one. I've been to the newcomer, Urban Brewing, twice now, at launch events, but even now I'm not sure if I should be writing about it yet.

There's no doubt that Urban Brewing is spectacular. It occupies a portion of the CHQ Building, originally a wine and tobacco warehouse in the docklands. It was meticulously restored during the boom years but never really took off as a shopping centre as intended. In 2013 the Docklands Development Authority sold the building to businessman Neville Isdell and it now hosts an exhibition, event space and a tech start-up facility. Isdell co-owns Urban Brewing with Ireland's largest microbrewer Carlow Brewing, and though it's not explicitly Carlow-branded, the mother brewery is very definitely present: most of the guest taps pour O'Hara's beer and the head brewer, Mickey Lynch, was seconded from Carlow.

At ground level it's a glass-fronted café bar with a generous west-facing terrace for catching the evening sun. On a gantry above the counter sits the brewhouse and the serving vessels, making it the only brewpub in Ireland where beer is served directly from the tanks rather than kegged. Stairs lead down to the vaults beneath, atmospherically lit and mostly dedicated to dining space, with room for a fully stocked basement bar and the fermenting tanks. The menu is all very high-end and cheffy, with tapas being the centrepiece of the offer.

But what about the beer? Well. That's where the reluctance comes in. I don't think the beer is quite ready. I'm not even sure any of it is fully sale-grade. But the place is open, pints are a reasonable €5.50-€6 and I think I'm within my rights to review them, even though -- disclosure -- I didn't pay for any of these as they were at events.

Back in the middle of August there was a Raspberry Wheat Beer. Its hazy greenish-yellow colour was entirely within the spec of a witbier, and the raspberry aroma was clear, clean and fun. And while it didn't look pink it definitely tasted pink, with lots of sweet raspberry. Except possibly too much: there wasn't a lot going on past the fruit, the base beer seeming very plain and watery. Still, not a bad start.

The other launch beer was an elderflower saison, later titled Forager's Wife. Originally this was a dense eggy yellow (pictured), the image of one of those fancy opaque New England IPAs. Banana esters featured big in the aroma, while the flavour began crisply but quickly turned overly sweet. The elderflower makes it taste of concentrated cordial, and then there's a nasty, but predictable, yeast bite on the finish. "Needs time" say my notes. Two weeks later I was back and it was still on. It had brightened a little, looking less outrageously soupy now, but it still tasted far more like a weissbier than a saison, all butane and bananas. Curiously, what little elderflower flavour there was previously had vanished completely. Maybe more time still is required, but I'm not so sure now. It could be just that the whole brewing system is not yet bedded in.

And that seems to be borne out by the other beers that were pouring at the grand opening last week. One was Urban Wit, a light and clovey offering once again full of esters, this time tasting specifically of green banana. It was perfectly drinkable but I missed the herbal flavours and dryness that witbier ought to have.

The other two were IPAs. Deanli IPA, presumably made wth the titular hop, did have a fun spicy green taste but it was buried under a snow-capped mountain of yeast and fruity esters. The flavour careens through weissbier, witbier and saison without coming anywhere close to American IPA. It was drinkable, but what bugged me about it wasn't the flavour but the wasted potential: I really wanted to taste the IPA underneath, but couldn't because of all that interfering goop in the way.

Its companion was an orange fellow called Paradisi. Cloudy again, but happily this time without the plague of bananas. Instead it's weirdly tangy, with almost a sour tint. There are sparks of orange and grapefruit citrus, but not up to the recommended level for a decent new world IPA. With these two they have attempted beer styles that require a clean flavour profile but have turned out results that very definitely don't have it.

I sincerely hope that there isn't a systemic flaw in the way beer is produced at Urban Brewing, and that once the rush of launch events goes away Mickey can get everything running the way it ought to, turning out beers with somewhat more polish to them. There will most definitely be more to come from Urban Brewing here, but maybe not immediately.