26 September 2016

Scoop creep

Decent dark lager for home drinking can be hard come by in these parts. Dublin's Czech pubs are a handy source of draught Herold Tmavé, which goes a long way towards scratching the itch, but you can end up feeling left out when you feel like staying in. Then I got a recommendation of a cheap-as-chips schwarzbier sold in Lidl so I picked up one of those and noticed a couple of other German offerings alongside and decided I'd make a mini session of it.

I waited for a sunny day before tackling them, mainly because the radler kinda demands it. It was only when I took it out of the fridge that I noticed Landbräu Radler isn't even German: it's Austrian. At 2% ABV and less than €1 I wasn't expecting much beyond refreshment. And I'm not sure it even delivers that. Though authentically cloudy it's extremely sweet, sickly even, and the lemon aspect is more detergent than zest. There's no citrus bite, and that fatally harms its ability to quench thirst. I drank it quickly at fridge temperature and still found it tough going so I dread to think what happens to this once it begins to warm up. Best avoided.

On then to the more serious Festbier, from an unnamed brewery in Baden-Württemberg. It's a delightful auburn colour, darker than I'd expect for a German märzen or festbier and resembling more the heavier American approximation of this style. The head piles up enthusiastically on pouring, then settles to a fine, tight layer of white mousse. An impressive aroma unleashes a heady torrent of green noble hops, luscious and grassy, and screaming to be slurped down. A soft texture helps make that possible: light carbonation lending it a creamy smoothness with no hard fizzy edges. Malt dominates the flavour, the classic moist cakey sweetness of strong German lager, with a richness that almost veers towards milk chocolate. Those hops are reduced to a minor supporting role adding a mild metallic tang to the finish that just about qualifies as balancing. Four mouthfuls cleared the half-litre and much as it hit the spot I'm not sure I'd be on for opening another straight away: it's just a little bit too heavy for session drinking, even though the ABV is a relatively modest 5.5% ABV. It's a very well-made beer, though, no question.

So I was all keyed up for opening the Schwarz Bier, weaker at 4.9% ABV, an opaque cola-brown and not in much of a rush to form a head. The aroma is mild but promising, offering more grassy hops but also a pleasantly bittersweet liquorice twang. As expected, it's another unfizzy beer, which is in its favour, but the flavour is quite muted. Caramelised sugar is at the centre and I was expecting a supporting cast of bitter hop bite and dry roast but they never really materialise. It tastes as though corners have been cut, in a way that the Festbier definitely does not. Thankfully the sweetness doesn't build as it goes, so it remains easy drinking all the way down, but there's very little that's distinctive or interesting about it. Inoffensive, sessionable, but not a great ambassador for the schwarzbier style.

I guess I lucked out with the Festbier. A good lesson in why it's always a good idea to buy the two beers either side of the one you went in for.

22 September 2016

Ballsbridge and beyond

Wrapping up the reviews of 2016's Irish Craft Beer Festival at the RDS, today it's beers from Connacht and Ulster, as well as blow-ins and break-outs.

I did a short spell tending the pumps at N17 where there were a couple of lovely stouts and N17 Festival Ale, an English-style golden ale at 4.5% ABV. I think it was coming to the end of the cask by then as I got a bit of a murky sample but it was still possible to taste that there's a very good beer in here, classically English with a honey and flower sweetness balanced by gentle lemon from the First Gold dry hopping. Beers like this are far too rare in these parts.

I also did some pint-pulling duty across the hall at N17's host brewery Reel Deel. As it happened Marcus had two unfamiliar beers in his line-up. General Humbert is badged as both an ale and a lager depending on where you look, and is really one of those pseudo-lagers utilising clean-burning ale yeast Danstar Nottingham. It's dry and thirst quenching with just enough noble hop vegetable greenness to keep it interesting. Next to it was Finn's Knowledge, displaced Yorkshireman Marcus's attempt at a Yorkshire bitter. It's an appropriate pale gold and 4.5% ABV. The waxy bitterness which for me is the hallmark of the style is definitely present and it's also rather dry, with a very English metallic hop bite. It's solid and unexciting, not trying too hard to impress, so mission accomplished, I guess.

To Independent Brewing next, and a Festival IPA they'd brought, a big one at 7.6% ABV. It's fun and sweet, smelling like a fruit chew while tasting unctuous and resiny. That chew sweet thing seems to be a calling card of Vic Secret hops, employed here with Ella and Ahtanum. I'd be interested to try more than a sample of this recipe: it has the makings of something interesting as long as it can avoid the malt building up to the point of getting cloying, and that's something difficult to judge with just one small plastic cupful among many other beers.

Féile Spraoi is the name of Carrig's latest addition, a witbier. I think this may have been so new as to have been a little green as I detected a certain out-of-character sulphurousness about it, the sort of thing I'd expect to mellow out after a couple of weeks. Beyond this it's simple, decent and refreshing, lacking bells and whistles, and indeed clangers and klaxons.

Also from the north-west, Kinnegar had brought One for Ronan, Belgian-style amber ale brewed in tribute to a departed friend. Though a mere 6.5% ABV this could almost pass for a dubbel, being dense and quite hot, loaded with typical esters as well as a bourbon biscuit chocolate quality that grows as it gets warmer. It's smoother than a dubbel, however, and would make for a great winter beer if it lasts that long.

A couple of pockets of foreign beers rounded out the hall. On one side Grand Cru beers was running a Colorado stall for Ska, Left Hand, Oskar Blues and Odell. From the latter of these Wally kindly gave me a sample of Broombere, a gose with blackberries. I'm expecting something sugary and woeful but it really is a proper gose with all the herb and salt flavours that come with. The blackberry provides no more than a lacing to this and helps accentuate the gentle tartness. It's very drinkable and surprisingly subtle.

Meanwhile, down at the end of the hall, there was much interest in Beavertown's outpost. I came to it quite late and managed to snaffle only a quickie taster of Wit or Melon, a witbier using Hüll Melon hops. How do they think up the names? It's super juicy; a real chin dribbler, packed with jaffa and mandarin flavours but also a lovely aftershave spiciness to keep it from getting too sweet. There is a little bit of a yeast bite, but nothing that interferes with the flavour. I drank it on a numb palate on the last evening but it still managed to impress me.

Finally a bit of ambush marketing by Rising Sons. They weren't at the festival but, unbeknownst to me, the Cork-based chain the brewery belongs to also has a footprint in Dublin, not far from the RDS: Arthur Mayne's in Donnybrook. It was here that brewer Shane came to launch his latest on the Friday night: Orange Crush, a Berliner Weisse and this time with real oranges and mandarins included. The ABV is a little on the high side at 4.1% but it's still basically on-style, showing enough tartness to be refreshing without going full-pucker, and with a distinct crunchy grain base, usually the first part of the flavour profile to vanish when something else gets added in. The fruit adds a slight sweetness, tipping the balance away from dry and sour just the right amount to give a beautifully elegant quaffing refresher. On a warm September's night after an evening in a crowded festival hall it was the perfect pick-me-up before I headed home.

Cheers to the festival organisers and all the brewers I bothered over the weekend. The September festival is always an enjoyable gig, as much for who you meet as what you get to drink. If you're getting festive in Cork this weekend, have a great one.

21 September 2016

A race to the bottom

I've been taking a vaguely geographical approach to recounting the beers at the 2016 Irish Craft Beer Festival this week. Starting in Dublin on Monday, however, I'd got no further than Wicklow by the end of yesterday. It's time to pick up the pace.

On down to Carlow for the first beer of today, and there was a prodigious range of regulars and specials on the O'Hara's bar, as always. Brand new for the gig was Festhalten, a weissbier. It's one of the lighter examples of the style I've met, just 5% ABV and a little thin, lacking that süffig quality that makes weissbier such a great breakfast beer. You can't argue with its banana qualities, however: that's right on-style. But there's also a fun sulphurous complexity, a kind of gunpowder dryness in both the flavour and the aroma that keeps the sweetness at bay and adds to the refreshment quotient. An interesting Irish take on the classic Bavarian style, though I think I prefer the more clovey versions.

Next to it there was something badged as a Grapefruit IPA. Oh dear. I gave it a go anyway, expecting at best a second-rate pale ale in which the fruit juice all fermented out leaving nothing behind, or else a sticky sickly artificial mess. It is neither. It is amazing. Sure, the IPA side of the equation is rather unbalanced. I couldn't tell you what, if any, hops have been added to this. But the grapefruit more than makes up for it. This is really real grapefruit: spicy more than it is bitter or citric, a sharp, almost peppery quality, with a burn like a squirt of grapefruit juice in the eye. The intense flavour also carries complexities I associate with aquavit or similar Nordic liqueurs: caraway and aniseed in particular. It's also very refreshing, finishing beautifully clean without an ounce more residual sugar than it needs for body. This was my standout beer of the festival and certainly the biggest surprise. I hope we'll be seeing it again soon.

Wexford next, and a raft of new beers from Arthurstown, all in smart new livery. Hook Pilsner was a bit on the sweet side for me, with more butter and brown sugar than I'd normally like in a pale lager, though saved by a crunch of noble hop celery and a pinch of white pepper in the finish. Its companion is Hook Amber, sweeter again with massive amounts of toffee and caramel, though better placed in this red ale. The density brings a degree of alcoholic heat, more than you'd expect at just 5% ABV, The hops aren't totally absent, but this is pretty damn malt-forward, even for an amber ale.

Last of the set is Hook Minch Malt Collab, brewed in association with the local maltings to a recipe including seaweed and honey. Intriguing! It's a medium gold colour with a salty seaside aroma. The flavour is very subtle, showing a light saltiness on a very clean lagery base. There's a tiny bit of sweetness from the honey but it's barely perceptible at all. The carbonation is high so it does give the palate a good scrub. While not the most exciting of beers I'm of the opinion that it makes a better job of being a pilsner than the pilsner does.

The award for bravest beer of the festival goes to Dungarvan Brewing who decided to make one of those joke beers that people invent when they're trying to slag off craft beer. Rood Boy is a Flemish red with added bacon and maple. Actual bacon in your actual beer. How did that go? Not well, if I'm honest. The sourness is without any subtlety at all, strongly acetic, like drinking cold white vinegar. It is possible to taste the crisp and crunchy bacon, and the sweet woody maple, but it's not easy and you have to get past a lot of relentless acid to find them. A nice idea and an interesting novelty, but not something I'd be choosing to drink.

There was a festival special IPA as well: Allez Hop, a big beast at 6.2% ABV, dark gold with a funky and resinous hop aroma. The flavour begins on a lighter, more floral, hop note, set on a cakey malt body, but doesn't really go anywhere from there. I think, for a beer with "hop" in the name, this just needs more hop.

Waterford neighbours Metalman had their autumn seasonal Autumn out bang on time. It's just a straightforward raspberry and chilli ale, utilising basic habanero extract and your standard multi-strain lactobacillus for souring, coming out the uniform pinkish-orange colour at 5.3% ABV. It's not all that sour to taste, just dryly attenuated. The raspberries are the largest element in the flavour and aroma, while the chilli does little more than flick the back of the throat. It does deliver everything it promises but I think I'd just like more of them: I expected drama but didn't get it.

To Cork at last. Well, sort of. Mountain Man has switched breweries to Brú these days, but Mountain HQ is still in Cork. Raised By Wolves was the festival special, a 5% ABV IPA brewed with old buddies Chinook and Cascade. It's sharply bitter to begin, almost harshly so, before settling to a calmer caramel and sherbet malty middle. A touch more late-hopping would probably give it a better finish but it's decent stuff as-is.

And lastly Eight Degrees. They always seem to have a new double IPA in this room, and this year it was Supernova at 8% ABV. It looks innocent: a calm hazy gold, but the aroma is a blacksploitation soundtrack of heavy, sweaty hop funk, all dank and stank. And then it brightens up on tasting, showing a breezy spiciness with a sharp green punch and only a gentle caress of oily hop resins. While every inch a double IPA it's nicely cool and enjoyably sippable. This is probably my favourite one of these that they've done.

That's enough mileage for now. Tomorrow it's the north, the west, and goings-on beyond the festival walls.

20 September 2016

Wickla!

I left off yesterday's post on the Irish Craft Beer Festival with one from Wicklow Wolf. This post delves deeper into the garden county to find more of what its growing number of brewers are turning out.

The newest is in the west of the county and goes by the name of Beaky Dargus. It's a crew of home brewers of Polish extraction, turned semi-pro, and launching at the RDS with a good-sized range of quite daring beers. Mostly quite strong ones too. At the bottom of the scale was I Am Single, a Cascade-hopped pale ale. It's light and offers a decent, straightforward hop bite, though does finish a little soapy for some reason. Their stout is called Black Beak Juggler and is a substantial 5.5% ABV. It doesn't taste it, though, being lightly textured, quite dry and with a touch of putty flavour. I suspect that this more mainstream end of brewing is not enjoyed by the team as much as the more outré side.

And that begins with Golden Melody, a golden ale at 7.5% ABV. Among the complex elements here are a similar soap to the pale ale, but also light toffee, a subtle melon juiciness and a smooth mineral soda finish. It's far more thirst quenching than it ought to be, and shows a nuance in its strength that reminded me of the way Belgians handle this kind of stuff. But then the brewers decided to pop it into a Scottish whisky barrel for a while, producing something they've called Turf Cutter, and with good reason. The base beer is almost totally lost under a massively phenolic peated-whisky flavour and aroma, with a dose of corky oak to go along with that. Subtle it ain't, but if smoke is your thing this'll get those endorphins flowing. And biggest of the lot is One Man Orchestra, described as a "whiskey barrel aged imperial Irish coffee milk stout" and there's really not much for me to add because it does all those things. I was expecting it to be hot and dense at 10% ABV, and bursting with vanilla too, but it's not. Instead there's a gentle but pronounced coffee flavour, a lacing of creamy lactose sugar and just a small measure of whiskey for effect. It's a mannerly beer, its flavours all very well integrated and beautifully smooth drinking. With this ability to do big, strong and barrel-aged well, could we have Ireland's De Molen on our hands? Time will tell.

Much fuss was deservedly being made about the long anticipated return of O Brother's magnificent black IPA, Bonita, but they also had another more toned-down new beer to offer at the festival. The Preacher is a session IPA at 4.6% ABV and based on their previous release, Max. Sensibly they've lowered the bitterness somewhat and this lets a lovely lemon citrus flavour shine through in it. A chalky mineral quality opens it before the hops start to build, the lemon turning to sharp and invigorating rind by the end. It still takes a moment or two for the palate to adjust to the bitterness, but the beer becomes very nicely gulpable once it does.

The county's eponymous Wicklow Brewery had Gingerknut on tap when I rolled up to their bar. This is one of their regulars but it had so far eluded me in Dublin. It's a simple little chap, a hazy orange pale ale at 4.4% ABV in which the ginger flavours are used to great effect, bringing a gentle old-fashioned spiciness, like ginger biscuits, without any of the extreme heat or dryness found in beers with more aggressive levels of ginger. Nicely accessible, this.

The management are particularly pleased with how Black 16 stout turned out. This is an oatmeal stout of 4.9% ABV with added coffee and vanilla. For me, the latter of these additions was far too dominant: a super sickly blast of vanilla that absolutely drowns everything else out, almost completely. I reckon there's a good stout, even a good coffee stout, under here, but it turns out I have a vanilla sensitivity. Your mileage may vary.

Finally for now, there was a gose on the go at Wicklow as well: Pineapple Head, brewed with pineapple, of course, but also with raspberries, and clocking in at a tiddly 3.6% ABV. As if to compensate for not appearing in the title, the raspberries make it their business to take over the beer, starting with a sharp pink twitch in the nose. I didn't get much of a pineapple flavour, though the raspberries are there, as well as a sort of general perfumey fruit sweetness. This is balanced nicely by the savoury effect of the salt and coriander. While it's a sweet fruit beer at heart -- reminding me more than anything of the sweetened fruit lambics of Belgium -- it manages to avoid getting cloying by still being a gose, employing all the refreshing edges that brings.

Our virtual tour continues tomorrow to points further south.

19 September 2016

Get into the party mood

There's a new festival on the beer calendar this week. Franciscan Well has appropriated the moniker "The Great Irish Beer Festival" (last seen here) and is using it for a new gig taking place in Cork City Hall, starting Thursday. I won't be there, unfortunately, but since the event is so close to the Irish Craft Beer Festival which happened at the RDS a bit over a week ago, and since several of the same beers and brewers will be there, I thought I would dedicate the days running up to it to the beers I tried at the RDS.

Exhibitor numbers were down this year, but there was, as always, plenty of interest over the three days. I'm kicking off this series of posts with the breweries around Dublin's periphery.

First up is the capital's own Rascals who brought some of their signature wine barrel magic in the form of Pinot Noir Brett Ale. The non-bretted version of this beer, which started life as their red ale Big Hop Red, was one of the highlights of the March festival at the RDS. Now they've taken the lees from a Belgian beer and popped them into the barrel to see what that does. The end result is a beautiful amalgam of the red grape flavour with classic farmyard brett as well as a balsamic sharpness and a flawless quick finish. Immensely complex yet dangerously easy to drink.

At the other end of the bar was Project Sour #1, a 4.5%-er hopped with Amarillo, Citra and the hop blend TNT. It's a pale orange colour and smells of juicy oranges too. That turns more towards peach on tasting and the sourness, while present, definitely takes a back seat to the hops. While lightly tart it's also quite dry, leaving it very refreshing and extremely sessionable. A perfect warm-weather drinking beer: sour and hoppy wins again.

There was just a single corny of Rascals Mint Chocolate Stout, a style I've attempted, and failed, to get right in the past. But while my mint all dissipated somewhere during the fermenting process, this one is quite thoroughly minted, with a piercing toothpaste effect right at the centre. There's some very light roast but the complexity is rather offset by the dulling effect of nitrogenation, while the chocolate is barely perceptible and there's no real sweetness. Fun, in a kind of silly way, and it would be interesting to try a carbonated version.

Rascals were far from the only brewery taking its first steps into sourness. Trouble Brewing had one on offer too: Weisse City, a 3.8% ABV Berliner weisse. The story goes that they had intended to hack this with a fruit addition of some sort but when it came out of the fermenter they changed their minds, deciding it was too good to mess with. I can totally see why: there's all sorts of complexity here, for a style that's usually quite simple. The aroma offers funky pineapple while it tastes sharply fruity, like rhubarb mixed with green apple skin. It never loses sight of its wheatiness either, with a pleasant grainy crunch and a beautiful soft pillowy texture. It's another one of those light tart beers I could drink rather a lot of.

I wasn't so keen on the other two new ones at the bar: Crosswalk and Gunslinger, respectively an east coast and west coast style IPA, Expecting big murk from 5.8% ABV Crosswalk, I found it merely hazy. The big surprise was how malt-forward it was: toffee on the nose and in the taste. The hops eventually come through as a crude grass-stalk bitterness, leaving a resinous burn in the finish, along with a big dollop of savoury yeast. It all tasted a bit rough and raw for my liking. Gunslinger is an ABV point higher, murky brown and funky smelling, musty like old crepe paper. The flavour goes lots of different ways at once: napalm hops, weedy dank, and the metallic grassiness of beer that's been dry-hopped for too long. It's hoppy, I'll give it that, and I did kind of get used to it as I sipped, but it needs a bit of tweaking to become an accomplished US-style IPA, in this drinker's opinion.

Trouble is also still brewing for its neighbouring pub, The Dew Drop in Kill. They had a separate stall for their own-label beers, as they did at Killarney, this time including a rooibos-infused job called Bushwhacked. It's a red ale at heart, one with a nicely crisp roasted character. The special addition brings a gentle floral hibiscus element to this, not dominating or showing off, just an extra calm complexity. Nicely done.

And the last call for now is Wicklow Wolf with a bunch of new releases, but I was especially keen on trying the new session IPA Easy Lover, with its daring ABV of just 3.8%. It only misses the mark on a couple of minor points -- a slight yeast bite and a bit of a watery finish -- but looking past these there's a beautifully breezy floral aroma and a flavour which pulls out some serious hop oil density before reverting to meadowy flowers again in the finish. It's probably not designed to be taken apart like this and works perfectly well as a down-the-hatch low-alcohol refresher. Such beers are always welcome in the midst of a three-day all-out beery shindig.

We'll move further afield tomorrow, and meet a brand new brewery too.

16 September 2016

Exotic tastes

A couple of random Irish IPAs today, from different corners of the island.

"a refreshing Pinacolada beer" is the promise Farmageddon makes on the label of its Gorse India Pale Ale, an effect achieved by the late addition of a "massive" quantity of gorse flowers, imparting natural coconut and pineapple flavours, plus Sorachi Ace and Mosaic hops. I don't know that I would use Sorachi if I were hoping to get a coconut effect from another ingredient, but what do I know about brewing?

It's a gassy beast, with the foam running completely out of control as I poured. Under the head it's a clear pale yellow, innocent-looking despite a whopping 6.3% ABV. Coconut and lemons in the aroma? Check. Though surprisingly, and pleasingly, the lemons are the loudest part of the combination. And it's coconut again in the flavour, with more Sorachi citrus pithiness. And not a whole lot beyond this: there's a savoury finish which I'm guessing is attributable to the allium effect of Mosaic, plus a certain crisp green vegetable note which may be the prickly gorse in action. Overall it's a simple and decent Sorachi Ace IPA, easy drinking but with a nicely full body. Warming and hearty, it looks like a summer beer but drinks more like a winter one. Ideal for the change of the seasons, then.

Galway Bay Brewery provided the next one: Phaethon, their first collaboration with Florida's Cigar City brewery. The cards are right on the table with their description of this as a "tropical IPA" and the ABV is a substantial 6.5%. Well it certainly looks like fruit juice: an almost opaque bright orange colour. And I've no quibble about the aroma which was sending out peach and mango signals even before May pushed the pint over The Black Sheep's bar towards me.

I got a surprise on the first sip: a bitter smack of piney resins that definitely belongs in latitudes further north than the tropics. This was followed by a slight, but detectable, yeast bite and then a short burst of the promised juicy tropical fruit. Not enough of it, however. After a mere second or two the hop bitterness reasserts itself and that hard acidity has the finish all to itself.

This is a decent beer, no question, but I don't think it delivers on its promise of tropicality. Fans of high hop bitterness will likely enjoy the mix; but it left me hankering for something cleaner and, well, juicier.

The next Galway Bay / Cigar City collaboration will be around next week, though of course there has been no shortage of other new Irish IPAs in between. It's back to the tasting mines for this writer.

14 September 2016

Meine kleine Steine

Stone Brewing Company's outpost in Germany has generated a lot more hot air and newsprint than actual beer since it was announced in 2014. The brewery's first releases arrived in Ireland earlier this year -- the flagship IPA and strong ale Arrogant Bastard. Reviews were mixed and, more importantly, I've tasted both already, so I left them on shelf. Wave two appeared more recently and featured Ruination plus two brand new ones for me, which is enough for me to go and satisfy my curiosity how the baby Stone of Mariendorf is getting on.

Go To IPA was the first I opened, a session IPA at 4.7% ABV, which is on the high side for the style but perfectly acceptable. It's a very pale yellow, which I take as a good sign: none of your sticky malts thank you. The aroma is very impressive -- extremely tropical, bulging with sweet mango and pineapple to begin, though developing more serious dank grass and spring onion after a minute or two in the glass. Still, I was intrigued. And it's the spring onion that dominates the foretaste, turning to full-on garlic. There are nine different hop varieties in here but it seems to be Mosaic at the controls. Searching for more complexity I get a little bit of peach in the middle, before it all kind of tails off into a hard bitterness and a watery finish. This one doesn't quite live up to the promise of that aroma but it's still a damn tasty beer and demonstrates clearly to my satisfaction that Stone's German satellite is perfectly capable of producing the same elegantly balanced beers as the mothership.

We change tack somewhat for the next one: Cali-Belgique, one of those hybrid Americo-Belgian IPAs of which I hold up Flying Dog's immortal Raging Bitch as the highest example. It looks plain enough: a clear pale orange, the froth quickly fizzing away to almost nothing. There's a heat to the Belgianness in its aroma; an acetone and phenols buzz that makes me think of dark and strong beers rather than pale and merely 6.9% ABV. The flavour is calmer, thankfully, but it's still all about the Belgian effect: big esters throwing out banana, pear and a little bit of lychee. The hops are comprehensively drowned out, to the point where I really could have been drinking any average strong Belgian blonde ale rather than the pinnacle of Californian and Teutonic brewing capability. There's nothing wrong with it per se, but it gets a resounding meh from me. It's really nothing special, and I demand special from Stone, in one direction or another.

Overall, these aren't the wonky beers I had been half-expecting them to be. I think the system in Berlin is working the way it ought to, contrary to what I'd been told. I'm well up for whatever it produces next.