29 June 2016

Taste this

I mentioned in Monday's post how microbreweries don't seem to take their own stands at Taste of Dublin any more. It is, I'm sure, a very expensive event to attend, and while you're likely to reach a crowd of punters who are probably not already familiar with your product, I would question how much repeat trade you're likely to get out of them once the tents are folded and the Iveagh Gardens returned to the citizenry.

Across the park from Diageo's Open Gate Brewery, Alltech had a similar landmark bar for its Station Works and Lexington breweries. From the former there were two new beers, including the latest in the Foxes Rock range, Foxes Rock India Pale Lager. Now, I will admit at the outset that I don't really get this style. There's enough of a hoppy buzz in any properly made pilsner so why go chasing after the IPA crowd with this neither-fish-nor-fowl type of beer? Oh yeah: money. OK then. Would any brewer care to admit to brewing an IPL for the sheer love of it?

Abstract witterings aside, real life FRIPL is 5.2% ABV and a highly attractive deep gold colour. It definitely misses its step on the lager front: the body is too heavy, with very ale-like esters and no crisp lager cleanness. And nor is the flavour a good example of IPA: it's floral-sweet and intensely sharp, like the taste of perfume, and that lasts long into the finish as a cloying, abrasive bitterness. It seems like a beer that doesn't quite know what it's supposed to be but it definitely isn't fun to drink.

The other new Station Works beer is brimming with fun, however. It's brewed, I believe, for the Cremin & Radley distribution company and is marketed under the new Bartleys brand. No prizes for guessing what fruit juice has been added to Strawbeeri, and especially not if you've tasted it. It's very strawberry, and extremely sweet. A soft texture adds to the jammy effect and it reminds me a lot of that Belgian classic Früli. Subtle as a brick through the greenhouse window but it hit my sweet tooth just right.

Molson Coors had also staked out a claim for Franciscan Well where I had just a swift pint of their Summer Saison. This is a modest 5% ABV with an invigorating pear-skin edge and an almost velvety smoothness. Very easy drinking and great for a mid-point palate refresh.

On then to the Dunbrody House complex in the corner of the park. Here the hotel had set up a mini lecture area for Chef Dundon to talk barbecue, the restaurant had the standard three-dish offering that all the other Taste participants had, and down one side Dunbrody's on-site brewery, Arthurstown, was pouring a mix of regulars and specials. Arthurstown American IPA was apparently served at Killarney this year but I missed it. It's a 6% ABV bruiser, quite a hazy pale amber and apparently only uses a little bit of Sorachi Ace, which surprised me because it tastes and smells almost one-dimensionally coconutty to me. Light and clean with it, however, and other people I thrust it at found it dank and complex so it must just be me who got hit with the coconuts. De gustibus non est disputandum. Either way, I enjoyed it, and especially the lightness of touch it showed on quite a big ABV.

The remains of the afternoon played out at the Premier International Beer Heaven stand, a fixture of Taste quite possibly since year one. From a distance I had been wondering which new American brewery was responsible for the distinctive paddle-like tap handles but closer inspection revealed it to be Bavaria's own Maisel, going full yank with its craftish range. Among them: Maisel Pale Ale, simple and fun with the clean bitterness of a real American pale ale but wearing more of a German costume up front in the form of a green celery hop bite; Maisel India Ale raises the ABV from 5.2% to 6.3% but hits pretty much the same flavour points, except more of them. The strength is well hidden, however. And best of the lot was Maisel Choco Porter, a lovely balancing act of sweet milky chocolate and dry roasted malt, rich and full while staying clean and drinkable, and all done without the addition of any non-Reinheitsgebot additives. Impressive, but also lovely to just knock back. Except it's 6.5% ABV.

And because we weren't wobbly enough already, Dean broke out the good stuff before we left, starting with a bomber of Widmer Brothers Brrrbon '12. This 9.4%-er is a mucky orange colour and smells of vanilla and lime, meaning the brewery definitely got its money's worth out of that bourbon barrel. It's smooth at first but a growing sweetness makes it more and more difficult to drink as it goes along. I found myself struggling desperately to appreciate its intensity before realising that I just actually don't like it.

It was followed by Widmer Brothers Raspberry Russian Imperial Stout '12 which was much better. Here the 9.3% ABV is better hidden and the raspberry is used to full effect, in both the aroma and the flavour. You get lots of chocolate and lots of tart juicy fruit in both, while the base beer is dry and remarkably light. The hopping is generous too and this does fight a little with the raspberry acidity but the overall picture holds together coherently: bold, but not overdone.

And speaking of overdone, that's the bit where I nabbed a last glass of Open Gate 1516 pils before the shutters came down there and stumbled out into town and around the corner for a comedown pint of Via Maris at Against the Grain.

Lots and lots of beer is definitely my preferred methodology for tackling a food festival.

27 June 2016

Party at Artie's

It's noteworthy, though hardly surprising, that the Taste of Dublin food festival seems to have become largely a preserve of the big bucks brewers. The last time I went, which admittedly was some years ago now, there were at least a handful of micros present in their own right but this year Arthurstown Brewery was the only independent on the list, and I'm sure they're not short of a bob or two.

Diageo was bringing its Open Gate roadshow to the 2016 gig and to mark the occasion, before the festival opened, recruited a few of the food producers also exhibiting into their bar and then unleashed a swarm of hungry media types at them. The highlight for this attendee was Shuck, a London oyster bar soon to be opening in Dublin, which was serving amazing oysters from Harty's of Dungarvan, each the texture -- and damn near the size -- of perfectly rare fillet steak.

There were two new beers on the bar to try and the one they had chosen to pair with the event was Strawberry Porter, a light 4.3% ABV guy with added bonus basil. Cold from the keg, served on straight CO2 rather than nitro, it tastes like a very simple and plain stout. Peter the brewer says a very large amount of strawberries went in, and a nutribullet gave its life for the trial batch alone, but I could barely taste them. There's just a gentle pink oily tang and the ghost of herbal greenness in the finish from the basil. I'm not sure I'd know either was there without being told in advance.

As a parting gift, us freeloaders were given growlers, so I got the chance to try it all over again at the preferred serving temperature of Beer Nut Towers, which is rather higher than at St. James's Gate. There was a lot more strawberry in the aroma this way, and a growing strawberry juice flavour, peaking as it approached room temperature. Under it there's your normal pint-bottle-off-the-shelf Guinness and this provides a decently neutral base. If the recipe ever goes any further, warm, strawberry-infused, pint bottles for the oulfellas would be the way to go.

The second beer was called Tropical IPA and it, pretty consistently, came served with an apology. The Open Gate staffers are aware it's not very tropical and want to point that out before you do. There was, apparently, a decent tropical fruit flavour from the conditioning tanks but it looks like somewhere along the filtering and pasteurising process, that character was lost. Unexpected! But that's the benefit of having an experimental brewery: you can learn how to make your beer better. If you want to.

Anyway, it's a dark copper colour, 5.5% ABV and hopped with a combination of Galaxy and Hüll Melon. The texture is heavy, and even greasier when served slightly warmer from the growler. There's a lot of old-fashioned bitterness, a bite that reminds me of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, but not much complexity beyond this: a burst of pith and some mildly pleasant tannins. Not a bad beer by any means -- sinkable and refreshing when cold -- but failing to excite, whatever the name says.

The next beer made its début at Taste of Dublin itself, for which Diageo kindly stumped up a pair of tickets. Botanical Ale, I suspect, has escaped the filters' attention because the plastic cupful I got was a thoroughly unpleasant-looking murky red-brown colour. The aroma was lovely though: an Italian-smelling blend of pizzaish dried herbs promising a drinking experience beyond the usual.

The base seems to be a pretty straightforward red ale, 5% ABV, dry and slightly roasty. But you don't get much of a look at it before the huge explosion of herbs kicks in. I didn't catch the full list of add-ins but the oily greenness of sage is obvious at the centre while around it I got elements of basil, rosemary and peppercorns, some of which may actually have been used. And while the herb flavours are definitely the main feature, assertive even, they're not overdone nor do they make this a difficult beer. It's fun, balanced and complex, just the way I like my gimmicky beers to be.

More from the rest of Taste 2016 later this week.

24 June 2016

Putting the boot in

One can measure the progress of the Irish beer sector by the commemorative beers it produces for sporting events. For previous football tournaments it's only been one or two: Eight Degrees's Trapattoni Potation for Euro 2012 and JW Sweetman's Brazil 2014 beer Maracanã. Maybe it's the presence of the Republic of Ireland team at Euro 2016, but there are three beers out to mark the occasion: one can, one bottle and one cask. At this late stage in the tournament it's a bit après match but let's take a look anyway.

Claiming the best possible name for an Irish football-themed beer is Danger Here from Western Herd Brewery in Co. Clare, the first of their offerings I've tried. It's a session IPA of 4.8% ABV, pale amber with suspended floaty bits and very little by way of head or carbonation. There's a mild green grassiness on the aroma but the flavour is an absolute freight train of noisy hops, led by screaming Sorachi Ace, if I'm not mistaken. It's harshly bitter first of all, which fades just enough to allow it to be identified as a lemon skin bite, followed by billowing gusts of oily coconut. The finish is dry and sharply waxy, metallic, but even calling it a finish is less than accurate because none of these flavours actually go anywhere, they just squat on your palate, waving their flags while shouting abuse at the encircling riot police. It's a bruiser of a beer and serves as a reminder that "session IPA" is about more than lower ABV. You'll need your shinguards if you want to spend the full 90 minutes tackling a few of these. Danger indeed.

The next beer is also a session IPA, this one from Dublin's own Rascal's, produced exclusively for the Molloy's off licence chain and puntastically named All Night Long. More sessionable promises are made on the label here -- "juicy", "fruity" -- and it's a more sinkable 4.2% ABV. The head didn't stick around much on this either though it is clearer and the aroma is very west coat: all mandarin sherbet spiked with pine. It's a little thin of texture and there's a weird savouriness in the foretaste, possibly a result of one of them oniony hop varieties: is that you misbehaving, Mosaic? A gentle peach and mango fruitiness sits behind it but the flavour really lacks depth and I blame that light body. Yes, it's easy to drink and you could get through a lot of them while engrossed in the game: Molloys is helpfully selling five cans for €10, which should be enough for ninety minutes and possibly even pennos as well, But it's not as juicy or fruity as I was expecting. I should probably face the fact that what I want out of session IPA is Little Fawn and that session IPAs which aren't Little Fawn are guaranteed to let me down. All Night Long is fun and flavourful but just doesn't slot in to my taste preference as I thought it would.

The solitary draught offering is Euro Gold, on the handpump at JW Sweetman. Now this is a beer that would make me sit in the pub and watch football. For one thing, on a humid June afternoon, it was pouring beautifully cold from the cask. There was only a very slight fogging to the otherwise flawless gold, and nothing that interfered with the flavour. Lemons are the star player, not sharp or harsh but soft and sherbety in both flavour and aroma, sitting on an equally soft meringue pie texture. It slips down smoothly and there's a very quick finish setting up the next mouthful. Though I suspect the hops are new world, the overall sensation is of an English golden ale, and a damn good one at that. Yes you can happily chug it down in front of the big screen but it's equally worth taking time over in a quiet corner of the pub, if you can find one. At €4.50 a pint for loyalty card holders it's fantastic value too.

We'll leave it there so.

22 June 2016

Feel the passion

An addendum to Monday's post on the 2016 Killarney Beer Festival. Once the winners were all finalised in the competition, the leftover bottles were farmed out to the judges by able chief steward Kellie. From among them I got a bottle of Castaway, YellowBelly's collaboration with Dublin's Hope Brewing and sour beer aficionado Shane Smith, for it is a sour beer we're dealing with.

I mentioned YellowBelly's superb passionfruit lager on Monday and they must have got a job lot of passionfruit because here's more of it. I found it to be little more than a flash at the beginning, a welcoming smile of friendly fleshy fruit before the daggers come out. For the most part, and increasingly as it warms, this is intensely sour. A sharp rhubarb acidity strips the teeth and pinches the jaw. More problematically, perhaps, it smells old and mouldy, not quite like the clean dry brick cellars of a Belgian gueuze, but earthier. The finish is bracingly quick though I detected a mild waft of phenolic disinfectant.

It's an ambitious beer, I'll give it that. It doesn't want to play around or treat you with kid gloves. Unless you drink it cold it's cruel and uncompromising and you have to be prepared for it. Me, I think it could do with a few of the corners being knocked off it: a bit more nuance and subtlety. Perhaps that will come with time.

As far as Irish sour beers which you can buy in the off licence go, this is up a level from most of what has gone before.

20 June 2016

Kerry gold

Late May saw the second Killarney Beer Festival take place at the Gleneagle Hotel and once again I made the trip down for one of the country's top beer events. I was on judging duty this year but still managed to get a taste of all the unfamiliar beers from the twenty beer stands in the main tent.

The locals were well represented and Killarney Brewing Company, just up the street from the festival, had a new saison called Spailpín. Pretty good it was too: a modest 5.5% ABV with the classic fruit and grain saison aroma and a flavour which stacks bitter orange rind against crisp dry crackers. Classic thirst-quenching stuff and I wasn't even slightly surprised when it was awarded the show's best Belgian-style beer.

Killarney's other brewery, Torc, also took a prize for their salt-and-coriander German-style beer Anything Gose. As the style has become more popular, finding a straight gose has become a little difficult. This one perhaps lacked the cleanness of Leipzig classic Bayerischer Bahnhof, but had oodles of refreshment power. The texture was light and fluffy, there was a generous dose of coriander and yet it avoided tasting any way soapy. Its sourness is a little muted but it does leave that lovely sea-salty residue on the lips. And all at just 4% ABV. It deserves to be quaffed in quantity all summer.

Moving further afield to Dingle, West Kerry Brewery had two that were new to me, both dark. The Festive IBA only passed my way fleetingly but I got a strong impression of its smooth, rich and roasty character, livened with sparks of citrus zest. There's warming dark fruit deep down in the flavour -- blackberries in particular -- and a spike of roasted dryness. Balanced, complex and interesting, this one.

Its companion had the folksy name of Uncle Columb's Mild and it's another smooth and roasty one, this time a bright shade of garnet. It's full bodied for just 3.5% ABV with a wholesome cakey sweetness and more of those lightly tart blackberries. Poured cool from the cask it was surprisingly quenching on a sunny afternoon. I'd really love to see more of this kind of beer out in the real world. Properly looked after, of course.

Kerry-based contractors Crafty Divils had their second beer on the go: a 4.3% ABV amber ale called Iron Bridge. The style designation is somewhat notional and it's really much closer to Irish red or English bitter, toffee and tannins being the main feature. But it's not especially sweet and certainly not sticky, the clean simple flavour making it an enjoyable sessionable pub beer. Nice label too.

Side-stepping to Cork, 9 White Deer was pouring Fia, a crisp and lightly fruity Kölsch-a-like that's bang on the style, while Mountain Man had a new IPA: Banjo'd, brewed at the brand's third host brewery Brú. It's 5% ABV with a sharp citrus aroma and notes of peach plus an earthier red apple effect and even a touch of pear. Overall, clean and refreshing, and very enjoyable to drink.

The Dew Drop Inn in Co. Kildare had a stand with its two house beers, which the guys have produced at their neighbouring brewery, Trouble. '96 is an oatmeal pale ale, the standard hazy orange colour and quite harshly bitter. It's big on pine and lemon rind, with that scrubbed-toilet effect I've come to associate with Citra hops, though Target and Ella are the advertised varieties. Some oily dank helps round it out and while it's not easy drinking it is good. Its companion is a white IPA called Forbidden Fruit. This is a good example of the style -- light and accessible, soft of texture with gentle orange and lemon flavours. I was surprised it's as strong as 5.5% ABV.

Carlow Brewing has gone all-in with its own white IPA, Freebird, though it's a little lower in ABV at 5%. Rakau and Amarillo are the hops but the flavour is dominated by massive coriander and orange peel. While looking an innocent clear yellow, this is a loud and brash beer and while definitely not lacking in flavour I imagine it won't be to everyone's taste.

We finish with the two breweries representing Wexford, both of which brought a sizeable range of specials and one-offs to attract the tickers. Arthurstown Pils is a beer the brewery makes presumably for use at its home hotel Dunbrody House. It's not a great example of the style, being a bit too hot 'n' heavy, with greasy banana esters and some woody phenols. There's a light hoppy sharpness in the foretaste, but not enough to carry the off-flavours away. Amber IPA is a new style on me but I don't think Arthurstown's did it justice. The aroma is sickly and the texture heavy with sugar. It tastes of boiled sweets and a lot of buttery diacetyl. The only relief comes from a light pepper spicing but again one good feature does not suffice to make it a decent beer.

Similarly sickly smelling was Arthurstown's Rum & Oak Porter, but it's sufficiently attenuated that the aroma is where it stops. It's dry and quite light bodied for 5.7% ABV and of course there's a fair whack of vanilla to it. Fun and complex, but maybe just for the one. And the joker in their pack was Oak-A-Cola, a 4.7% ABV red ale, wood-aged and infused with cola essence. It sounds awful but it works extremely well. The cola dominates both the aroma and the flavour, herbal and sweet with the same sort of dry carbonic twang, but there's just enough malt character left, especially in the texture, to remind you that you're really drinking a beer. A gimmicky novelty, sure, but tremendous fun.

That just leaves Wexford Town's YellowBelly. Night Porter has been on the brewing roster there for a while now, I think, but I hadn't encountered it before. This is a whopping 7.2% ABV and smells weird: tangy and twangy, and somewhat autolytic. It gels together on tasting, however, all smooth and smoky with rich dark chocolate, a heavy bitterness, hot alcohol and woody burnt cork. Insanely complex, it tastes incredibly old-fashioned and makes for really interesting drinking.

Zë Germans is a pale ale which owes its name to the use of Hüll Melon hops. It's balanced rounded and fruity, showing juicy notes of peach and nectarine as well as honeydew. That's your lot though: I guess this is designed as a refreshing quencher, a task it performs well.

Last tick of the festival is The Passion, Ireland's second passionfruit lager in recent months, and ever. I much preferred this to Trouble Brewing's Last Crash. Here the lager character has been dialled all the way back to provide a clean base, 4.4% ABV, maybe a touch of grain flavour and nothing more. The fruit, meanwhile, is fresh and sinfully juicy -- sweet without being sickly and adding a bitter complexity to the pinkness. It's still a very silly beer, of course, but seriously well made and, like the Oak-A-Cola, great fun to drink.

Cheers to all the breweries who made the effort to set up stall in Killarney, and congratulations to all who won prizes in the competition. Until 2017, then.

17 June 2016

Total glam

The good people of Glamorgan Brewing Company (or their representatives) kindly shipped me over some of their bottles to try. They're not available in Ireland as far as I know, but sure Glamorgan is only across the way. Those more familiar than me with the brewing scene in Wales may remember their previous incarnation as Kite Brewery.

First to be opened was Cwrw Gorslas, which appears to be the flagship bitter, at 4.3% ABV. It's a clear copper colour with a classic nose of jaffa and biscuits. It tastes dry and fairly tannic, though what the tannins pull out of your mouth, the lightly juicy orange notes put straight back. There's a definite malt sweetness in the middle but it doesn't dominate, leaving the hops to play their thing. The label says Goldings, Challenger and Cascade are the varieties used, and they work well together, with just enough playful American citrus but also a more serious British metallic bitterness too. All-in-all a balanced and elegant beer, one that speaks of sunny afternoons in quiet pubs. Nicely done.

Beer 2 is the beautifully golden Welsh Pale, at the same strength. We trade up from Cascade to Columbus so I was expecting a bigger hop bang, but not really. There's a vague citric acidity in the aroma, but nothing really to pique one's interest. The flavour is light and clean; slightly spritzy with a tart lemon finish and some finely-spun candyfloss malt, but it lacks the substance of the previous beer. The brewer seems less comfortable in a new world vernacular and the beer lacks complexity as a result. It's a perfectly fine refreshing beer: one to drink cold and it'll hit the same places that a good lager does, but it's not an American pale ale, nor really a British bitter. Golden ale is more the sort of territory we're in here, with maybe some extra bonus bittering. Stylistic quibbles aside, I made short work of the bottle: it's certainly easy drinking.

With the Welsh Pale put away I don't know what the reasoning is behind the next beer: Craft Welsh Pale. I deliberately set them up side-by-side to see if I can taste what "craft" adds. Or takes away, indeed, since we're down to a 33cl bottle. It's another pale gold one, but at the upper limit of the set's strength range at all of 4.5% ABV. Sherbet lemons are the aroma, sliding delicately towards washing up liquid. There's definitely more of a hop flavour than the previous, though possibly not as much as would be suggested by a list containing Simcoe, Citra and Chinook. The official tasting note suggests lime, and I do get that tight green sharpness, plus a chalky mineral alkalinity, but there's also enough balancing candy malt to remind us we're just outside Swansea, not San Diego. It's fun to see a traditional British brewery take on a brash Californian hopping style, and the end result is clean and tasty, but it does seem a little gimmicky and I think I prefer the non-craft beers in their bigger bottles.

We'll keep the buzz going next with Thunderbird, another 4.5%-er, but this time an award-winning IPA. It's darker, and smells less citric than the last one. The hop combo is the same as in Cwrw Gorslas, so I guess I'm expecting something much more similar to that than to any of the more new worldy efforts. And yes, it tastes sweet and biscuity with some lovely golden syrup and honey notes. The hop flavour is muted until the finish where it flourishes outward in a burst of green bitterness. Probably the best feature is the full smoothness which makes it very easy to suck back and I'm actually a little disappointed they didn't decide to put it in a half litre bottle too: it deserves one. Aroma? Yes, there is an aroma and I found it unpleasantly cheesey, but thankfully it's easily ignored. Just focus on the mouthfeel.

Last of the lot is Jemima's Pitchfork, the only one to have a bit of a haze to it. It's a 4.4% ABV golden ale so I was expecting something safe here but they've gone all-in with the hops: Citra, Eldorado, Cascade and Bramling Cross. None of them really shines, though. I get the lime thing again, from the Citra presumably, and possibly a teeny tiny hint of Eldorado melon or mango, but the signature tastes of the others are absent without leave. It's barely bitter and, for a golden ale, the malt is really not pulling its weight as texture or flavour. Like the Welsh Pale, this is a beer with no flaws, but not a lot of distinguishing features in its favour either.

On this showing, Glamorgan appears to be a traditional British brewery with pretensions of American-style flavours. They don't quite make it, but the hybrid space they've fallen into is actually quite an enjoyable place to sink a few pints.

15 June 2016

Touching the sides

Two Sides is the name of Dublin's newest gypsy brewer. The first couple of beers have come from Craftworks though the plan is to roam further afield for future batches. I met both in 57 The Headline in recent weeks.

The début beer was 620, an American-style pale ale with a modest 4.8% ABV. There's a slight haze to it but no interfering yeast bite: it's all hops. The aroma is probably its best feature, on balance: freshly zesty and enticing. I thought the texture was a little thin, given that it's not a super low ABV job, but thankfully there's enough body to prevent the hop flavours becoming harsh. Bitterness does open the proceedings on tasting: punchy lemon zest and pine, followed by a more mellow jaffa orange juice middle before the rising rind finishes it on an oily acidic punch. It perhaps lacks a bit of subtlety, and it's certainly not one of those oh-so-fashionable juicy numbers, but if you want bitter and sessionable, this is your guy.

620's sole sibling for the moment is called Funny Bone because it's an Irish wit. Arf! It's rather clearer than witbier normally is, and though only 5% ABV has a big, soft, fluffy texture, like drinking the towels of a five-star hotel. I assume that the de rigueur coriander and orange peel have been employed but there's not really much sign of them in the flavour: instead I just get grainy wheat laced with a sweet apple tang and just a little bit of banana as it starts to get warmer. The whole combination just about manages to stay on the good side of refreshing and I'm sure it'll quench many a summer thirst. It's no great shakes in the complex flavour stakes, however.

The official launch of both beers takes place from 5pm this evening in T.O. Brennan's pub on Dublin's northside, with pints, pizzas and prizes promised.

13 June 2016

San Fran cans panned

My first, and only, bottle of Anchor Liberty Ale came from The Vintry in Rathgar in 2007 where it had been sitting in a south-facing window for an indefinite period of time. Over the years I've felt the occasional twang of guilt about the review I wrote at the time, in which I described it as somewhere between a weissbier and a tripel, utterly ignorant that it's actually an IPA, the first of the wave of craft IPAs which arrived in the late 20th century and went on to have a huge impact on beer enthusiasts worldwide. So, I've been meaning to get hold of a better-kept bottle of Liberty and give it a re-run, with the benefit of an extra nine years' beer writing. And now it comes in cans! Even better! So I nabbed one in DrinkStore and here it is.

And it still tastes like a cross between a weissbier and a tripel: I totally get where that guy was coming from in 2007. Banana fruit esters are the first thing I can distinguish in the subtle but complex flavour, and when combined with the soft texture it's weissbier all the way. Behind this is a very dry and tannic brown bitter effect and while the hops are present in this, it's not the pine or citrus typical of modern American IPA: it's far more restrained and pleasantly peppery, which is where my tripel analogy comes in. That dry English bitterness is how the beer finishes. It's pleasant, but not especially impressive. While I like that beers like Liberty still exist to show where pale ale brewing has come from in quite a short time, and I'd happily drink this in the proper context, I don't think it deserves classic status for taste alone.

With that kicking delivered to an innocent old beer, I turn to a younger sibling. Brotherhood Steam has been brewed for the band Chris Robinson Brotherhood, is a similar strength to Liberty at 5.6% ABV, and a very similar orange-amber colour. This has, however, been dry-hopped, with Citra and Nelson Sauvin, no less. And yet it's rather a plain deal, led by toffee malt but with a quick lager finish, befitting its status as a steam beer. The commercial copy tells me to look for citrus and mint in the aroma but you'd need a lot of imagination to pick those out. I do get a pleasant citrus hop kick right in the centre of the flavour but it's smothered quickly by the malt.

This beer is neither here nor there. You could pass it off as a slightly wonky version of any number of styles: märzen, bitter, amber ale, zwickel, but it wouldn't satisfy an enthusiast of any of these. There's nothing wrong per se, but there's nothing to latch on to; nothing that makes it stand out. For that reason I don't think it quite works, struggling for even one-dimensionality.

Sorry, San Francisco. I'm just not feeling the love today.

10 June 2016

Nordie boys

These two are the last of the haul from my most recent trip to Belfast, acquired in the excellent but poky Vineyard off licence on the Ormeau Road.

My first impressions of Hillstown's beers are here, and The Spitting Llama was missing from the set I bought last year. It picked up an award at the 2015 Killarney Beer Festival so I was particularly keen to give it a go. The style is billed as Belgian golden ale, though a little weaker than your Duvel or the like, at just 7% ABV. It's also, like Wednesday's beer, not golden at all, arriving a murky red-brown and looking tired and undercarbonated. No marks for presentation, then. The aroma is a powerful solvent buzz -- whiteboard markers and paint-thinner -- which doesn't bode well, though suggests at least that it's as strong as the label claims.

Its flavour is more nuanced though still doesn't deliver anything like a Belgian golden ale. The headache-inducing solvent is still there but it softens into pear and lychee fruit while a balancing dry cereal husk adds a rustic quality. It's still pretty tough drinking, however: half a litre was a lot to get through and there was no escaping its homebrewish qualities. I don't think it's infected as such, but this isn't a well-made beer and despite some farmhouse charm I can't bring myself to say I enjoyed it. I'd love to see what the jury of experts at Killarney wrote about it.

After a bad run-in with an infected Farmageddon IPA early last year I have been cautiously finding my way back to the County Down co-operative brewery. My last couple of experiences with their beers were positive so I didn't think picking up the Citra IPA was that much of a gamble, even with that hefty £4 price tag.

First impression was of a very clean beer: a pure pale gold with a flavour that's all hop and no interference. That said, it is Citra, which gives it a bit of a lemon washing-up liquid effect, and the taste is a little one-dimensional this way, as single-hopped beers sometimes are. The body is full, though I was surprised to discover that the ABV is 6.7% as there's no heat or heaviness: any difficulty in drinking this guy comes from those lemony hops alone. But it's not difficult to drink, it's just a little dull, wanting for the spicy piquancy I know Citra can deliver. Is it fair to criticise an all-Citra beer for tasting like Citra and nothing else? The beer that kept popping into my head was Fyne Ales Jarl, another super-pale Citra vehicle that somehow manages to deliver a lot more complexity at a smaller ABV.

All told, not a great showing from the Ulstermen there. Hillstown still needs to work on the technical side of its process and I think Farmageddon could do with making a few tweaks as well.

08 June 2016

A question of etiquette

What is the correct occasion for a bottle of Green's Golden Ale, left to you by a visitor and rotting in the back of the fridge for the previous eight months? I went for early on a Friday evening, when all I really wanted was a beer. Could this Belgian gluten-free delight live up to even that low expectation?

Not really. For a start, it's not golden, pouring out more of a coppery colour. The head is enthusiastic at first but shies away quickly. Is gluten a factor in head retention? The aroma is... let's say, basic. It has grain of the lightly roasted sort, a fair portion of syrupy sugar and just a whisper of pilsy hops: not exactly promising, but far from offensive.

On to the flavour, so, and finding it was a bit of a chore as there's a lot of fizz to push past, and even then a carbonic bite remains. Pleasingly, the hops are a big part of how it tastes: old-world green hops making it taste beery and grown-up. Unfortunately this is quickly spoiled by a sickly twang: that syrupy malt I detected in the aroma. This hangs around, sharply saccharine, as the aftertaste.

A beer this thin at just 4.8% ABV should be chuggable and refreshing, but it's not. And I think there's a sad irony in something with the gluten taken out tasting sticky. Not that I'm blaming the no-gluten compromise: this is just a poorly put-together effort all round.

06 June 2016

Planting the seeds

"I don't normally drink beer" is nearly the slogan of the Bloom Inn. You hear it a lot at the beer bars. The drinks tent at Bord Bia's annual garden festival in Phoenix Park is therefore probably a good place for brewers looking to expose their wares to a new audience. That said, the beer offer seemed down this year when I went along on Saturday afternoon. Only The Porterhouse, Rye River, Jack Cody's and Boyne Brewhouse were representing for 2016, plus a guest tap of Stone Barrel Boom IPA on the Rye River stand. The rest of the space was amply occupied by the spirits and cider folk and everyone seemed to be doing great business.

But why wouldn't they be? It was a glorious afternoon, sunny and warm, with literally acres of drinking space. Dublin's annoying prohibition on public outdoor drinking means that Bloom is one of the very few opportunities we citizens get to sit out on the grass of a summer's day and have a picnic with beers. Anecdotal evidence seemed to suggest the punters weren't being especially adventurous with regard to their beer choices -- Paddy from Boyne Brewhouse told me their lager was the soaraway success of the day. For my part there were two beers I'd never tasted before so that's where I started.

Worcester Sauce is the name Jack Cody's has chosen for their new English-style bitter. It's 4.2% ABV and poured from the bottle a perfect clear amber colour. The appearance is about the best thing it has going for it, however. At the core of the flavour is a wheaty, dusty taste, reminding me of Ready Brek or similar processed cereal. Behind this sits a sour twang and then an unpleasant rubbery aftertaste. Something seems to have gone wrong here though I couldn't tell whether that's in the recipe design or the production process. I finished my pint, but this isn't the beer for me.

To follow, a beer I only recently realised I'd never had before: Rye River's Fancy Frank's Lager, part of their McGargle's series, a replacement for that dreadful pilsner I can't even bring myself to name. Frank's is another one where the visuals are impressive: a paler yellow than most microbrewed lagers. The flavour is rather lacking, however. Sweetness dominates -- chewy grain and an almost syrupy quality. I guess the low level of hopping fits its niche as a commodity lager like the macros make, and it was certainly popular on the day, but to me it just felt like a beer with a hole in it. For comparison I followed it straight away with Boyne Brewhouse's Long Arm which is far from a hop bomb but is dimensions more interesting.

With the hard work done it was on to the €5 pints of Francis' Big Bangin' IPA followed by the wobble home.

Thanks to Bord Bia for the tickets. Today is the last day of Bloom 2016 and it closes at 6pm. It also has gardens.

03 June 2016

Can do attitudes

Session logoCarla aka The Beer Babe is hosting The Session for June and the topic is a bit of an awkward one, being concerned with the secondary beer trade: the farmers, the marketers, the bottle-opener-makers. None of which is stuff I'm usually concerned with on this deliberately beer-centric beer blog. I will say, however, that the recent growth of the Irish malting industry to include the needs of microbrewers is very heartening to see. While I doubt we'll ever have commercial hop farmers again, more's the pity, knowing that the backbone of our beer is at least in part local is pleasing.

But for this post I'm going to jump off the other end of the brewing process and I've grabbed three imported beers, one each from what I regard as the three top importers of beer to this country. They're presented in the order I drank them, and no ranking is to be inferred. Wonderful and all as the Irish brewing renaissance is, this blog and this drinker have always depended on imports, for education as much as for refreshment. So, just this once, let's hear it for the goods-inwards brigade.

First up it's Four Corners, and from their portfolio I've chosen Summer Love, a blonde ale by Victory Brewing in Pennsylvania. The use of noble hops is unmistakeable here as it tastes like a classic pilsner, with that assertive green edge: crisp spinach and aspargus to begin, finishing on heady damp mown grass. It really helps that the rest of the beer is lager-clean with just enough sponge-cake soft malt to give it a satisfying ale body and a reasonable 5.2% ABV. I doubt I'd pass any remarks if you gave me this and told me it was a Märzen or Dortmunder. You probably could knock it back cold and enjoy its invigorating bitterness, but it rewards calm sipping at a more mature serving temperature too. You don't even need to be outside on a glorious sunny afternoon, but it sure helps.

Second shout-out goes to relative newcomers Pro Addition, an offshoot of Galway Bay Brewery, and their Fourpure Oatmeal Stout, from That London. There's definitely no shortage of body here: it pours thickly from the can, forming a lazy beige head. I've never been particularly concerned with the appearance of very dark beers but this one is discernibly murky: where you often observe a ruby edge on a glass of stout, this one shows a hazy cola-brown colour. Heavy treacle and molasses is the main element of the flavour, and a jangling saccharine sweetness that I found a little hard to take. There's an almost aggressive burnt, even smoky, character as well. The extra bulk of the oatmeal is not something this beer really needed and its intense bitter-sweetness offsets the smooth easy-going quality that oats tend to impart.

Maybe it's the black can but the beer this reminds me most of is twangy old Mackeson's Milk Stout, and that's probably not a comparison that is likely to go down well among the cool kids of Bermondsey. This stout is trying to do too many different things and doesn't work for me at all.

The last beer comes via Grand Cru, veterans with a particular penchant for beer from brewing hotbeds California and Colorado. G'Knight is an "imperial red IPA" by Oskar Blues, based in the latter of those states. It's a deep and rich mahogany colour and smells as enticing as it looks: ripe cherries and juicy peach. The flavour is understated: I got nothing for the first few seconds but then there's a waft of menthol across the palate and some light fleshy tropical fruits -- satsuma and mango -- but it's fleeting. Despite the 8.7% ABV this is not a big-flavoured beer. The bitterness is low-key and while it's definitely heavy it's not sweet. You need to take a big cloying mouthful to get much of a bitterness hit. At close to six months since it popped off the canning line, perhaps I'm not getting this beer as the brewer intended. It's enjoyable, sure, but lacks the oomph I was expecting. That it's not a sticky toffee bomb is perhaps praise enough. I commend it to you on that basis alone.

Mixed bag? Yeah, well that's the world of beer for you. There'll always be something else on the next shipment.

01 June 2016

Essex boy disappoints

In my experience, bottle-conditioned beers are far more likely to be over-carbonated than under. So I was surprised and quite dismayed when my bottle of Martyr IPA from Bishop Nick brewery in Braintree poured out like it was straight from the fermenter -- limp and lifeless, with just a desultory skim of bubbles on top.

Willamette and Simcoe are the hops in this 5%-er but it tastes convincingly English, all tangy marmalade rather than citric or piney. I will admit I had been hoarding it for longer than I should have, and that much of its hop effects probably died of neglect some months back, but at the same time they weren't exactly going to be exploding out of the glass when the beer is as flat as this.

Any advance on marmalade? Only other bits of the orangey English bitter profile: wholegrain toast, some sandalwood spicing and a metallic boiled-cabbage bitterness. It's not unpleasant, it just a little bit tough going, and the flatness removes any possibility of the bitterness being invigorating or refreshing.

I can imagine this being much more fun as a well-kept cask ale, though I'd question how "American" it's ever going to taste.