30 November 2016

Bang for your buck

Rye River's Crafty Brewing Company American Style Pale Wheat Ale arrived in Lidl to much fanfare (and extensive shortages) in late October. I finally tracked some down in the Terenure branch, handed over my €2, and brought it home.

Back in the old days (around 2007), American Wheat Beer meant a travesty of a style, brewed with a weissbier grist but a neutral ale yeast, resulting in an invariably boring grainy outcome. Nowadays, however, "American Style" anything is the signal to expect hops. This one is still using the neutral yeast, though, which I guess is why it's not badged as a hopfenweisse or white IPA.

It's 5% ABV and the hazy orange colour of many an American pale ale. Cascade and Mosaic are the hops, the label helpfully tells us, and it smells enticingly of fresh mandarin and peach. The texture is a little thin for a wheat beer, but it's still nicely soft. Mosaic dominates the flavour with a major caraway seed savouriness and a touch of garlic behind. A little bit of mandarin juice rounds it off, then a pleasantly acidic hop residue burn remains in the aftertaste. It's certainly boldly  flavoured, intense even, but is ultimately quite simplistic in its bombast.

Overall I found it a little too savoury to be properly refreshing, and it's not the first Mosaic-heavy beer I've had that issue with. But it certainly fits in with the other big-flavoured Crafty Brewing beers, and for the price you definitely get your money's worth of hops.

28 November 2016

A bigger Belly

Wexford's YellowBelly brewery descended on 57 The Headline for a tap takeover in early November, bringing as broad a selection as I've seen from one brewery at one of these events. And all, of course, with their distinctive badge artwork from in-house designer Paul.

Naturally I started at the low end, with Harvest Lager, brewed using their own supply of Tipperary-grown Hersbrucker. The ABV is a concerning 3.9% and it's an extremely pale white-gold colour. And yet the body is surprisingly buoyant with a decent amount of candyfloss malt to get your teeth into. There's a real proper noble hop bitterness and a perfect crisp finish. I'm used to being aww-bless tolerant of Irish-hopped beers but this is just a damn decent lager however you look at it.

A tapping mix-up meant I was given an unexpected glass of the companion piece: Harvest Ale. This one is extremely dry with a strong brown-bread-crust flavour. Not unpleasant, but a little odd. Bramling Cross is the homegrown hop, and I detected a small touch of raisin in lieu of the usual blackcurrant effect. I'd be hard-pressed to stick a style label on it but with all that dry husky grain I'd probably end up describing it as some kind of top-fermented kellerbier. It's that sort of rustic wholesomeness.

But back to the lager. Pink Freud is in the Vienna style, though disappointingly yellow rather than pink. It tastes darker than it looks, however: with appropriate sweet and smooth melanoidins from the Munich and Vienna malts. The hops are rather muted and the finish is abrupt, both of which would be normal for the style, though I'm less sure about the rising alcoholic heat that started to creep in as it warmed. I think this one might still need a little therapy.

The wooden spoon of the evening went to Little Red, a 3.9% ABV red ale. A sharply sweet strawberry flavour opens it, leading on to a harsh bitter roasted twang at the end. It's very thin as well, something which really accentuates the pointy edges and makes it harder to drink. While successfully avoiding the blandness trap, this ended up falling into a different one.

No fancy name on Citra Pale Ale, a 4.8% ABV single-hopper. This is a hazy shade of yellow and has a huge zingy sherbet foretaste and a beautiful lemon rind bitterness for a finish. The middle is a little disappointing: there's a hollowness there, thinner and more watery than the strength would suggest. It does get more complex as it warms a little: the sherbet gets sweeter while the lemons turn dank, but it never manages to shake that thinness. Built for the session, I guess, but I'd like a bit more wallop.

The much-renowned Castaway was on, and I enjoyed a note-free pint of that at the end, pleased to learn it'll be something of a regular. The other sour beer they brought was For Whom The Sour Trolls. Citra again, only 3.7% ABV, and an unattractive turbid brown colour. The flavour is massive: a super-sour mouth watering lemon pith smack up front; a chalky alkaline finish and the savoury yeast grit for balance. It sounds awful, like a bunch of brewing flaws strung together, but it works beautifully, scrubbing the palate clean and awakening the senses. Though missing many of the subtleties, it's the closest thing to jonge lambic I've tasted from an Irish brewery. I'd happily clear a stoneware jugful.

On to the stronger stuff now. G'way IPA was making its début, a 6.7%-er with a big Colombus and Cascade bitterness. I got a seriously oily resinous aroma and a jaw-pinching acid bitterness followed by green cabbage and asparagus flavours. This is seasoned with an earthy, woody note, almost smoky with hints of mushroom and leaf mold. It's a very grown up sort of IPA, and tasty with it.

The first draft of Salubrious Stout was also on. The main batch is currently ageing in a whiskey cask but this one was given a dose of whiskey-soaked chips instead. Despite being all of 9% ABV and very dark and dense, the stout character gets a bit lost under the sweet honeyish Irish whiskey and the corky oak flavour. If you prefer vanilla, honey and booze to coffee and chocolate this might suit, but it was out of kilter for my palate.

And the evening's final new beer was Queen Lizzie, officially described as an "Imperial English IPA", 8.3% ABV and served from the handpump as Her Majesty doubtless prefers. It's a clear and innocent gold colour but tastes shockingly hot at first. After a moment the nuances emerge: golden syrup malt and a spinach-like green bitterness. Three sips in I was utterly charmed by the roundness and smoothness, and looking for a fireplace to settle into it by. Yes, it's an English bitter at its core, but there are definite shades of barley wine and tripel around the edges.

Hopefully, with YellowBelly's production moving out of the basement to a big-boy brewery, we'll see beers like this on a more regular basis, not just on special occasions. Props as always to The Headline for making this one possible.

25 November 2016

Of Saints and Rascals

There's much to catch up with as regards new Irish beer in recent months. Going all the way back to early October, St. Mel's were in town, occupying some of the taps in The Beerhouse for an evening. The new kid was St. Mel's IPA, which came with the warning that it's made to be sold in Longford. Which is fine: Longford people need IPA same as the rest of us. It's 5.2% ABV and a dark red colour. There's a wholesome density to it, warming, with an autumnal dark fruit kick on the end plus a touch of tannin. So an IPA in the strong English bitter mould then? Very much so. I happily downed a couple of pints of the kegged version but would love to try it on cask.

The guys had also brought the last of this summer's Beer Garden Wit, a seasonal I completely missed last year. There's elderflower in this and it features in the flavour in a big way. Alongside it there are big and warming Belgian yeast esters which I wouldn't have marked down as particularly summery, but maybe they're less intrusive when the beer is served cooler. It left me looking for the clean refreshing edge that witbier can usually be relied upon for.

From an out-of-season beer to one that was right on time: Rascals Social Hops #1 débuted in The Square Ball the following night. Social Hops is a community-based hop growing project, supported by the Bodytonic pub chain. The harvest was in mid-September and three weeks later there was a 4.5% ABV blonde ale on tap. The hops were all Prima Donna (except for a token bittering addition of something commercial) and the signature soft lemon flavour of this variety really shone, set on a lightly effervescent body and with a dry finish. It's, understandably, a subtle beer, but very drinkable and refreshing with it.

When not putting crowd-sourced hops to good use Rascals has also been continuing the sour beer series it began in September with The Hoppy One. Project Sour No. 2 is subtitled Seriously Saison and is very saison. Peppery vapours drift up from the hazy gold beer, and it tastes very fruity -- I get plum and lychee in particular -- plus a spicy edge in the finish. There's only the briefest pinch of tartness in amongst this before the fruit esters take over the flavour once again. It's a decent saison but I wanted much more from the sourness.

I hoped I'd find that in Project Sour No. 3 aka Forest Fruit Sour, and I sort-of did: there's a big punchy lactic sourness in the flavour of this clear purpley-pink beer. But in front of it there's an unsubtle candy-sweet syrup flavour which brings the blackberry, dark cherry and even blueberry notes into the equation. It really reminded me of the cheapo fruit lambics made by the industrial brewers of Belgium: they were what first interested me in sour beer and I have a soft spot for how they operate, but they're not exactly sophisticated. This beer does deliver what it promises: it is sour and really tastes of forest fruit, but I was looking for something more substantially complex.

More recently, Rascals has also released an updated version of the Mint Chocolate Stout they were pouring at the RDS in September. The specific item of confectionery they're attempting to mimic is signalled by the name: 8:01, and they've raised the ABV and general flavour levels. The end result is 6% ABV and has a lovely oily mint twang. At the launch event in (where else?) The 108, I got to try it nitrokegged side-by-side with the straight-carbonation canned version. And while the nitro one hasn't been stripped of its flavour, the dry roast crispness and fun milk chocolate sweetness are much more apparent in the cans. Like the Ginger Porter on which the brewery was founded, this never loses sight of the classic beer style at its roots, which is very much to its credit.

And a footnote from Rascals: their Aussie-hopped Flamin' Red double IPA from last winter has been tweaked, rebadged and relaunched as Big Red DIPA but is still pretty much the same jammy spicy warmer it was before.

That's it for now, with much more Irish beer to come next week.

23 November 2016

Ghost chilli

The beers of Brasserie Fantôme can be hit-and-miss, to say the least. And yet what often tastes like your mate's dodgy homebrew seems to have garnered a cult following around the beeriverse and I'm not sure why. I doubt it's the branding. Anyway, the missus brought a bottle of Fantôme Chocolat from Belgium a while back and we sat round one evening to give it a go. It's an 8% ABV saison with the addition of chocolate and chilli.

Expecting something vaguely brown, I was surprised to get a bright orange beer out of the 75cl bottle. It poured flat at first, gradually forming a fine off-white head. It smells vaguely of chocolate, in a kind of artificial and sickly sort of way, though there's also a pleasant touch of white-pepper saison spice. The texture is thick and syrupy, not helped at all by the faint level of fizz. There's a certain spice to it but I can't for certain attribute that to the chilli, in fact it seems very typical of this sort of Belgian yeast. A degree of warmth does settle in the belly after a couple of mouthfuls and I'd be reasonably confident that that's where the chilli action happens. It doesn't taste of chocolate at all.

This is very much a saison through and through, and not a particularly good one, in my opinion, being too hot and heavy. The special ingredients don't do much to steer the experience one way or another. €13 for a bottle of this, in a town where the same amount of Cantillon gueuze costs a fiver? Thanks but no thanks.

21 November 2016

Trans-Shannon exports

On the daytrip to Galway back in July I managed to sneak a look-in at the Fine Wines off licence just down the street from The Salt House. In there I grabbed a handful of local beers I hadn't seen around Dublin to take home with me.

First up is the charmingly named Bogman from Spiddal River Brewery. "Spiddal River Brewery is based in Spiddal, Co. Galway" says the label, and also that the beer is "Designed in Galway... product of Ireland", indicating that Spiddal River isn't a brewery at all. As far as I know the beer comes from Trouble Brewing, closer to home in Kildare. It's 4.9% ABV and an unattractive murky orange-amber colour, putting me immediately in mind of those rough-and-ready brewpub beers you get in central and eastern Europe.

 A slightly short fill on the bottle left it low in carbonation, and pleasantly so, with a nice cask texture. Though self-described as a "US pale ale" it is extremely sweet, showing a big malty Ovaltine flavour at the front and even a kick of milk chocolate. The hop flavours are almost non-existent, so as a pale ale it's nearly a total failure. The label also describes it as "earthy" and although the suspended yeast doesn't really get in the way, I could just about see how you would describe it as earthy. "Rustic" is the word I'd use. It's not a beer designed to impress the cosmopolitan beer enthusiast, that's for sure, but I guess the name makes that clear from the outset.

I follow it with Limerick Lady Irish Pale Ale from Limerick City Brewery, which doesn't exist either. The brewery pictures they've posted online look like the old Brú brewhouse so I'd take a punt on it being produced there, which would make it another Leinster beer in disguise. It's a similar unpleasant murky brown colour though a tiny bit stronger than the last one at 5% ABV and, oh, is that hops I smell? There's quite an English hop aroma -- slightly metallic -- though also a worrying marker-pen note.

It's all bait-and-switch because neither of these elements show up in the flavour. That has a floral sweetness, a savoury yeast bite, and a harsh melted plastic off-flavour. Not a winning combination. This tastes cheaply put-together and rushed out of the brewery: especially strange for a company that's presumably trying to build a reputation for itself as it gets going. At the same time, however, a cursory glance at Untappd yields not a single negative review, proving my theory that it's impossible to go out of business as an Irish brewer by making substandard beer. There's always a market for your product, regardless of how shoddy it is. Which is depressing, but moving on...

Finally a beer whose provenance is in no doubt. Galway Hooker Double IPA was definitely brewed in Galway and commemorates the tenth anniversary of the brewery opening for business. In Roscommon. Er. It's a downright handsome clear dark amber colour with a heavy aroma of big boozy malt pierced through by citric hops. The first sip brings... density. It's a trifling 8.6% ABV but feels a point or two above that. Bigfoot territory. Chewy malt is the main feature, then a supporting cast of harsh metallic bitterness, biting grapefruit acidity and a greener spinach and cabbage vibe. It doesn't sound very new-world at all, but there's a lightness of touch about it, a smoothness and a quickness in the finish that keeps it nicely drinkable while also being an unmistakable high-alcohol powerhouse.

This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a beer for special occasions. Something to be taken out and shared, or reverentially sipped. All of its different flavour elements come through clear and clean, despite the big boozy blanket on top of them. Both of the other beers have a lot to learn from the way Hooker turns out its product.

18 November 2016

Get your shades on

The rise of the craft beer can has provided a big opportunity for graphic designers and the brewers who commission their work. I suspect that this in turn is leading to a bit of a promotional arms race between companies as they battle for the customers' attention from the crowded shelves, a bit like what has happened with keg fonts over the last decade. While perusing the cans in a local off licence recently I couldn't help but be drawn to today's subjects, both garishly illustrated in a way to grab the drinker's attention and not let go. And in this instance it worked. Ring 'em up!

First to be popped open is BrewDog's Neon Overlord with its neon overload imagery. The beer, a 7.3% ABV IPA with added mango, coriander and habanero chilli, is a clear pale yellow and has a pleasant resinous aroma, plus some non-specific tropical fruit and a savoury background. So far so fun but the first sip brings out a hard, powdery, plastic chilli burn. It's disappointing because there really is a decent, well-constructed IPA underneath, one with a lovely peach-skin mix of fruit and bitterness, though maybe laying on the sweet pulpy mango a little too heavily. But that's a minor quibble compared to this idiot chilli pepper dancing in front of it, spoiling the view. I'll grant that it does leave a lovely belly warmth which almost excuses it, but that flavour is like being pepper sprayed in the face with each mouthful. I can't believe anyone would want a beer that does its best to punish them. Weird and utterly discordant, it's IPA childishly ruined.

Not as fluorescent but still headache-inducing is the can for Lupuloid, a recent addition to Beavertown's line-up. It's big on graphic and low on information so all I know before opening it is it's an IPA and 6.7% ABV. Inside it's an attractive bright pale gold with just a slight haze to it. The aroma is an exotic blend of honeydew, mango and a touch of squeaky green spring onion. This savoury quality absolutely dominates the flavour, turning to caraway seed at the front, and then a leafy cabbagey bitterness in the finish, fading out into a metallic pencil sharperner tang. Juicy it is not. While far from as severe as the Overlord fella I couldn't really get into this. It feels to me like there's a fruit deficit, which amounts to a fun deficit. All the joy appears to be confined to that artwork.

It was the artwork that made me buy them together but these IPAs do have quite a bit in common: their light and breezy appearance, a strength circling 7% ABV, and a great aroma followed by a very disappointing taste. Perhaps this is the fashion now. If so, at least it's clearly signalled on the tin so I can try to avoid it.

16 November 2016

The last brewpubs

As I mentioned on Monday, Washington DC isn't exactly a full-spectrum, multi-faceted beer destination, but it does have beer. I really wasn't expecting much from its brewpubs: the two I visited both seemed to be the sort of flashy urban destinations which are not set up with the beer connoisseur in mind and, one suspects, have brewing kits partly as a novelty and partly as a cheap source of product. But I'm delighted to say I completely misjudged them both.

District Chophouse we came upon after an epic day's trudge around the National Mall, finishing up behind the Capitol Building and heading back to the centre. It's quite a grand affair, with clubby dark wood fittings trimmed with barbershop red and white. The brewkit is tucked neatly away on a gantry above what looks like a cocktail bar more than a beer servery. It's very much a restaurant primarily, but there's a high-seated bar enclosure and, happily, it was Happy Hour.

Lager was needed and lager was ordered: the house pils called Cheque Please. "Ubber hopped" said the menu, whatebber that means. There was a welcoming pillow of foam in the glass, and a bang-on fresh grass aroma. The flavour, however, is a bit of a curate's egg: starting off great with more spicy grass and a balancing sweetness that begins calling Pilsner Urquell to mind, before it banishes such high notions with an acrid plasticky stickiness that's best just quaffed past as quickly as possible. It did the job as a thirst-quencher, even at a substantial 5.4% ABV, but it's not a good pils.

Meanwhile, District Chophouse IPA is also a big guy at 6.8% ABV. It's pale copper and gives out a fun fruit candy aroma. I was expecting sweet 'n' mediocre but this has a cheeky kick of dank resins in the flavour, mixing it with gentle citrus and a spicy seasoning. Basically it touches on all the good points of IPA without going all-out for any of them, and it makes for very pleasant drinking. It's kinda what a house IPA should be.

The District Chophouse Amber Ale is 5.4% ABV and in the "North Western style". No, me neither. I ordered it feeling emboldened by the IPA and what arrived was clear but dark brown, with an oily hop-perfume nose. The flavour is bang-on how I like my American amber ales: a brightly sweet and nutty marzipan combination, with just enough of a bitter edge -- like aspirin, in this case -- to keep the malt from overwhelming it. The light texture helps too. I didn't meet very many amber ales that suited me on the trip so I was very glad to make the acquaintance of this one.

Getting the main points of the style right didn't work so well when it came to District Chophouse Oatmeal Stout. These, in general, have a tendency to taste phenolic to me, with marker pen and putty off flavours spoiling beers that other people seem able to enjoy. And so it was here. Though only 6.6% ABV it tasted far stronger, hot like an immature imperial stout. The texture was appropriately smooth, and the finish nicely quick, but it's definitely not brewed to my taste. Moving on to...

District Chophouse Nut Brown Ale, 5.5% ABV, a chestnut red colour and with a rich milk chocolate flavour which incorporates some drier dark grain husks. There's a lovely comforting, warming creamy texture which came through well despite the very cold temperature at which it was served. A real classic brown ale, as shouldn't be surprising by this point, and strongly reminscent of the excellent one that Messrs Maguire used to brew when Melissa Camire was at the helm.

The DC visit, and indeed the whole holiday, wrapped up at Capitol City Brewing where we stopped for an early lunch between the final museum and the airport taxi. This is an enormous space, with a bar in the round and dining on various tiered levels up from it. It was too packed to drink in when we first visited, and closed for a private party the second time, but at noon on a Tuesday we had it almost to ourselves. Perfect.

Throwing caution to the wind for this last lap I had the rauchbier, Smoketoberfest. It's the beautiful clear gold colour of a classic Märzen and has the same full body and bready background flavour, though the ABV is rather higher than expected at 6.6%. The hops are definitely German too, with that green weedpatch flavour that can be very pleasant in small enough doses. Here it gets counterbalanced by just a whiff of fresh smokiness in the centre, leading to a fun bacon-like finish. They've managed to resist the urge to go all-out with the smoke here and have produced a beer that's a classic lager first and everything else as a bonus. I liked it a lot.

The murky orange yoke next to it is James' Peachy IPA. This smells like one of those fruit-flavour IPA abominations but mercifully doesn't taste like one. It has been quite substantially bittered and the advertised hop is Amarillo, giving it a lovely clean citrus bite. Invigorating stuff, and nicely approachable too at just 5.6% ABV.

I continued to dare myself to try beers I thought would be terrible, and my last beer in America was a pumpkin porter, aptly named The Cursed Gourd. There's butternut squash in it too, for extra Halloween horror. But, like the smoked lager, this places its classic style ahead of novelty and, though a surprising pale ruby colour, has bags of burnt roasted grain and chewy dark treacle, as you might expect to find in any porter of 6.6% ABV. And yes there's cinnamon and ginger, lots of them, but they don't spoil the base beer, instead succeeding in making it more fun. Take that, pumpkin beer haterz.

And a hop bomb to go out on: Pale Rider, Capitol's 6.3% ABV pale ale. Columbus and Centennial are doing the work here, giving it a heady aroma of orange oil and pith. Plenty of pith in the flavour as well: a classic American grapefruit bitterness right up front, though it does tail off to a little bit of a watery finish, perhaps a consequence of making it all hop and little malt. I still liked it, though: a good example of how to do one-dimensional hop-forward beers well.

And that's your lot from the USA. I hope the last dozen posts have been some way interesting or useful. Normal service will resume at my beer fridge on Friday. Bring snacks.

14 November 2016

Capital scoops

If you can go the whole taxi ride from Ronald Reagan airport to downtown Washington DC without the theme from House of Cards playing in your head you have better self-control than me. The American capital was the third and final stop on my autumn tour of the USA, and it was much more about the museums and monuments than the beer. The sights are conveniently clustered along the National Mall making it very easy to hop from one to the next. The downside is that the planners haven't allowed for the normal functions of a city -- bars, restaurants and whatnot -- in between. So beering in DC tended to be a separate activity at the end of the day, rather than interspersed as I'd prefer.

Our accommodation for the couple of nights was placed in between the touristy and governmental bit in the south of the city and a good eating and drinking quarter further north. My top find was The Logan Tavern, the sort of good quality, good value neighbourhood restaurant that I'd hoped to find a lot of in America but turned out to be in short supply wherever I went. We ate here twice, affording the opportunity to get properly acquainted with its beer list.

The first beer I ordered wasn't a new tick: Northern Lights IPA by Virginia brewery Starr Hill had showed up at the 2010 Great British Beer Festival. It was much better on keg and closer to the source: still pretty full-on with the brassy bitterness but with an added peachy complexity that improves it massively.

DC Brau is a well-established local outfit, and the first of theirs I tasted was called Citizen, a 7% ABV Belgian-style pale ale. It's hazy orange and has a marmalade aroma, mixing bitter jaffa peel with old-world spices. There's a nicely smooth texture and it incorporates lots of very Belgian fruity esters, though does get a little overly sweet and boozy as it goes along. A smidge more balancing hops would be good, I reckon.

I thought I was in for another sticky orange experience with Duckpin Pale Ale. It certainly smelled heavy and cloying, despite being only 5.5% ABV. But the flavour and texture both proved to be a surprise: it's lightly effervescent with a solid hop bitterness behind the citrus high notes. A really well-executed pale ale that lets you think you're drinking something much stronger.

And a weissbier to finish: Feed the Monkey from Jailbreak Brewing, in Maryland. This presents like a witbier, being a hazy pale yellow, and tastes like one too: a sharp squirt of lemon zest that's very out of keeping for a German-style hefeweizen. The other bit of complexity is a waft of diesel which suggests to me beer that's still a bit green. The lack of weissbier smoothness and roundness is probably the biggest let down, especially since it should be plenty strong enough at 5.6% ABV. As a beer it's just about OK but it's strange for a style spec as straightforward as this to be completely missed by the brewer in charge.

Just around the corner from The Logan is Washington's most famous craft beer bar: Church Key. This is a roomy first-floor attic above the Birch & Barley restaurant, owned by the same people and with which it shares its very substantial beer menu.

L: Grapefruit Sculpin; R: Bell's Brett
Trusty old Bell's of Kalamzaoo was the first brewery on the menu to catch my eye and I ordered their Brett Berliner Weisse. It's an ugly beast, arriving murky, headless and flat. The farmyard funk is right up front and sets the tone for the rest of the beer; an acidic tartness reduced to just a quick flash across the palate before it all tails off into watery silence. I've no problem with interesting flavour additions to Berliner weisse but this one just wasn't interesting enough; and may even have been a waste of a decent base beer. Bring back the fruit syrup.

Herself picked Ballast Point's iconic Grapefruit Sculpin. I wasn't a big fan of the original and this isn't much of an improvement. The real grapefruit bitterness does help offset the massive toffee rather better but everything that's wrong with Sculpin is still wrong with this: too sticky, too harsh, too difficult to drink.

DC Brau's On The Wings Of Armageddon, conversely, does hot 'n' hoppy rather better. This double IPA is 9.2% ABV but despite the monstrous name and monstrous strength has a subtle flowery aroma while the flavour offers a big but gentle lemon zest quality, suggesting the use of Sorachi Ace hops. It's properly heavy and sippable, like a double IPA should be, but like the best ones it's not hot or cloying. Others may find it a bit of a lightweight but it sat perfectly with me.

All these beers at Church Key were really just filling in the time it took me to leaf through the cinderblock of a bottle list. I eventually settled on Stillwater's Cellar Door, a saison with added sage. It's a big 6.6% ABV and a hazy yellow colour. At the core it's a light and breezy lemon-and-straw farmhouse beer with just a mild oily lacing of sage. It offers a pleasant mix of sweet and savoury: on the one hand easy drinking but I couldn't help feeling that each part could do with being turned up a little. Nevertheless it's perfectly enjoyable and neither overly saisonish nor in any way gimmicky.

Also nearby there was a branch of the Whole Foods supermarket chain which became a handy source of supplies for the apartment, including beer. First to pique my interest from the large selection here was Oak-Aged Noble Rot from Dogfish Head: I do like a bit of botrytis now and then. The base beer is a saison though it's a stonking 9% ABV, and I got the dry saison straw in the aroma, alongside the sweet white grapes. The flavours line-up in this fashion too, starting dry and grainy, then with a Shloer-like grape sweetness. Which is fine until the oak kicks in, big and nasty, turning the whole thing into a 1980s Chardonnay experience. As it warms, the alcohol becomes more pronounced and by the end I was tasting Calvados and lamp oil. This beer needs some dialling back: the concept is sound, but there's so much concept going on it interferes with the quality.

I bought a six-pack of Escape to Colorado, an IPA by Epic brewing of Colorado, formerly of Utah, and not to be confused with the New Zealand operation of the same cliché name. It's 6.2% ABV, pale yellow and absolutely roaring with Mosaic. You know when you peel an onion and under the brown papery skin there's a layer of thick leathery green skin? It tastes exactly like that, with maybe a touch of dry and crispy fried onion as well. This is an extremely one-dimensional beer and it's not a good dimension. Bad Mosaic! Naughty Mosaic!

And a Californian to finish: Bear Republic's Apex double IPA. 8.25% ABV and a dense dark orange colour with lots of sediment left behind in the bomber bottle. From the first sip I was wondering how long this had been sitting refrigerated on a shelf in Whole Foods. I felt entitled to at least some hop character but this is all hot toffee and caramel with just a sharp bitter tang on the finish. There's no charm or balance to it, which does not strike me as the usual way things are done at Bear Republic. Them's the $8 breaks, I guess.

That's some good scooping value we got out of two pubs and a supermarket. It's kinda nice not to be doing long pub crawls every evening for a change. On Wednesday I'll take a look at a couple of DC brewpubs.

11 November 2016

Goodbye Portland

There comes a time on every holiday, regardless of where I am, that I decide it's time for a curry. Not every place is accommodating, but Portland, Oregon was. I don't know if it's a coincidence that the restaurant we found in IPAville was called East India Company, but I found it amusing nonetheless.

The beer list was thoroughly uninspiring but it had one thing I didn't recognise and was intrigued enough by to order. Have you ever had Haywards 5000? "World's favourite strong beer" boasts the label, so if you like strong beer you must have heard of it. It's 8% ABV and brewed in Mumbai. And is absolutely terrible. There's tonnes of residual sugar in this, giving it that sticky tramps' brew taste. To make things worse it adds in a plasticky sweetness as well. It's not remotely refreshing or cleansing and as such is not a suitable accompaniment for curry or anything else.

The other Portland restaurant we went to was Little Bird in downtown. It's quite an upmarket place but there's still a decent selection of draught beers. I had Ecliptic's Quasar pale ale with my dinner. It has a huge and gorgeous tropical fruit flavour, bursting with mango, pineapple and guava, while the aroma adds passionfruit to the mix. There's properly bitter edge on the finish which helps balance it. Impressive stuff.

So that's the restaurants. Portland does have a number of independent pubs as well, so you don't have to limit your beering to the breweries. One of the best reputed ones is Bailey's Taproom, also in downtown. We visited briefly one evening on the way back to our hotel. I had Oktoberfresh by Portland's German style specialist Zoiglhaus. It's 5.5% ABV and a pale amber colour. The texture is nicely chewy and although it's a little overly sweet and fruity, it's nicely done. There's a green herbal effect which tastes properly German without reminding me of any particular German beer.

Beside it there is Sin Tax, an imperial milk stout with peanut butter, from Mother Earth Brew Co. in Vista, California. It smells of honeycomb ice cream and only gets sweeter from there. Among the mountains of sticky sugar there's a hint of lavender perfume but any other complexities are drowned out. I found it hard to believe it's only 8.2% ABV: it could pass for double that. Anyway, it's terrible. Like that execrable Omnipollo Yellow Belly peanut butter stout, it's not for people who like the taste of beer.

Across town there's a roomy lounge bar specialising in local beers, called Loyal Legion. Here I found Berliner, a straight Berliner weisse by pFreim in the town of Hood River, east of Portland. It's a harmless little fella, just 3.5% ABV and a clear watery yellow with a very mild sourness and not much else.

Herself went for something rather more ambitious: Fork Lift, a double IPA by Barley Brown's. It's a medium amber colour, 9% ABV and has a massively dank aroma, the weedy hop oils infused with oranges as well. The flavour has a spiky bitterness and while there's a definite warmth, it's not as hot as it could have been. Still too hot for me though: one of those double IPAs I find just too heavy to enjoy.

Further out east, one comes to The Horse Brass. Established in 1976, this English theme pub was instrumental in the formation of Portland as a beer destination, supporting the local microbreweries as they were beginning to find their feet, and acting as a focal point for fans of imported and craft beer back when these were very specialised interests. It looks quite unassuming from the outside and inside is all dark wooden beams, cluttered with memorabilia.

The beer list is pretty decent and I went for RPM, the flagship IPA from Bend icons Boneyard. They've deliberately dialled the bitterness way back in this 6.6%-er, and you just get a hint of mandarin rind in with lots of juicy flesh. It's very smooth and sinkable, the alcohol very well hidden. Beautiful, classic, stuff.

Unsurprisingly I did almost no hotel room drinking in Portland, except for one evening when I arrived back with a bottle of Hopworks IPA, Hopworks being one of the many Portland breweries I didn't have time to visit. It's a bitter beast, searingly strong with jaffa overtones. By way of balance there's a candy-sweet base making it a little sticky. And yet it's rather enjoyable in its own raw and slightly crude way. Maybe I was just in a good mood. Portland's like that.

But all good things must come to an end. I left off yesterday's post with Jeff driving us from Ex Novo brewery to Widmer, not far away. Despite being part of the furniture in Portland's brewing scene, Widmer still commands respect. The production brewery is on one side of the street while across from it there's a brewpub and restaurant, one which does rather good steaks too.

Crystal Gayle Goschie
Though we get a decent selection of Widmer beers in Ireland (presumably from the parent company's facility in New Hampshire rather than Portland) there were plenty of offerings here I'd never heard of. One such was Crystal Gayle Goschie, a clear gold weissbier using Crystal hops for a very north-western resinous hop aroma and bright fresh citrus in the flavour, sitting happily alongside the wheat beer smoothness.

It's The New Style is a pale ale which caught my eye in the menu as it's brewed using Irish pale malt and Lemondrop hops. The name turned out to be quite ironic as it's very old-fashioned: amber in colour with a toffee and lemon flavour profile.

And my very last beer in Portland was Hawaii 3-0, a fruit-infused IPA which is not something I normally have much time for but this one is great. There's a no-nonsense aroma of ripe cantaloupe to signal just the sort of Carmen-Miranda's-hat experience you're about to have. The flavour is pure fruit cocktail, with pineapple and pear being the most distinctive elements to me. It's not overdone, the hops are on the down-low so don't interfere, and it's all very drinkable and easy-going.

Portland is a really wonderful place to spend time, and not just for the beers. There's a generally upbeat attitude, a sense that the inhabitants know they have a good thing going and take responsibility for maintaining that, whether that's with food, or the environment, or indeed beer. Everyone should go to Portland at least once. It'll make you a happier person. A special thanks to Jeff Alworth for generously giving of his time and transport to improve my visit.

It was back to the east coast for me, and a city rather less idyllic and upbeat than Portland.

10 November 2016

Points north

I mentioned in Tuesday's post the single Portland brewery that was on Jeff's must-see list. There was only one on mine too: Upright Brewing. This was partly because I'd read good things about it, though also because its opening times meant there was only a small window of opportunity to visit. It's in a north-eastern neighbourhood of the city and we were able to take in a couple of nearby breweries as part of the excursion.

First call, then, was Culmination. This place only opened last year but has already made an impact on Portland and picked up a few awards. I met their marketing guy Steven at the Mt Tabor event and he suggested I drop by: how's that for direct marketing? It's based in a small business centre with several other craftsy start-ups. The bar is quite small but there's a lovely sunny terrace. Let's get the IPAs in.

I opened with their flagship, Phaedrus, a 6.7% ABV number mixing up classical tropical fruit with a bit of a savoury turn and some oily pine resins: all of the new world IPA food groups in a single nutritious serving. As it settles on the palate the peach flavour comes to the fore, while there's a brief flash of bitterness on the end before it all finishes quickly and neatly. Very easy drinking, overall, and pleasant with it.

My wife opted for Translator IPA, brewed by Ruse, a client brewer which uses the Culmination kit to create beers for the local art community and its events. How very Portland. This one is 6.6% ABV and a slightly darker orange than Phaedrus. I got a bit of worrying stickiness on the nose, but thankfully that ended right there. There's a touch of aspirin dryness and it's spicy rather than fruity: a mild sweetness present but under control. This is another decent, easy going IPA, though rather less complex than its cousin.

For the next round I couldn't resist the beer called Sour Flower Power Hour: not an easy phrase with my accent but I did manage to get served. It arrived a clear and pale yellow, tasting of lemon sherbet with just a very light tartness and no weight from its substantial 5.5% ABV. I was reminded a little of White Hag's The Púca, though it's not quite as full-on. The finish is dry and chalky, and haunted by a slightly out of place acrid sharpness which I suspect might be oxidation, but there wasn't enough of it to be sure. The beer still works as a refreshing thirst-quencher.

And lastly Choco Mountain Stout. The name had me expecting a major sugar rush from this 5.8%-er, but that's not what happened. Instead, the aroma opens on a huge kick of dryly roasted grains. The texture is appropriately smooth and creamy while coffee is at the centre of the flavour, though milk chocolate puts in an understated cameo appearance. A slightly severe burnt edge on the finish prevents it from getting sweet and cloying. This is all rather classic and elegant, and not the breakfast cereal disaster implied by its name.

It was a solid half-hour walk to Upright from here. The brewery is notoriously hard to find, buried deep in the bowels of the nondescript Leftbank Project building, another artsy business hub. Down the twisty stairs and winding corridors one eventually arrives in a starkly lit concrete bunker with a handful of folding tables scattered around the tanks and an array of taps bolted to the coldroom wall.

A flight for starters. Beginning on the left of the picture below, that's Four, a 4.5% ABV saison which looks a lot like a witbier to me, and has a very similar gentle orange and dry wheat flavour profile. Stylistic qualms aside, it's a simple quaffable session beer, not about to set the world alight, but not meant to either.

Beside it is Five, another saison, up an ABV notch to 5.5% and this time a clear dark gold colour. This time the style it reminded me of was German bock: that mix of heavy grain and green bitterness. There's also a Belgian estery quality on the periphery of the flavour and just enough saison pepper to be on style. This is another decent but unexciting beer.

Next along is Green Hour, a fresh hop saison at 6.1% ABV. Fuggles from day one of the harvest went into the boil and a month later -- two weeks before drinking -- it was dry hopped with the last of the year's Liberty. It's heavily textured and quite flat. The union of fresh hop fruitiness with saison ester fruitiness gives it an appley quality, a cider tang which felt a little out of place but tasted gorgeous: proper wholesome autumnal refreshment. I've no idea if that was the intention but it worked.

And on the end there is Donuts, based on a recipe from Oedipus Brewery in Amsterdam and intended to taste like donuts. It doesn't. This 4.9% ABV is extremely dry and has a major musty husky cereal component in the taste, a cobwebby burlap staleness. There's just a hint of candied orange sweetness, but it's really quite harsh and difficult beyond that. Certainly a long way from any circular cakey treats.

Moving on to pints, a barrel-aged mixed-fermentation cherry-infused special version of Four, called Four Play. It's a masterpiece of balance, holding all of the many competing elements in check while exploiting them to the full, for the drinker's benefit. There's a bricky nitre dryness that's different to the sort you get in quality Belgian kriek, but just as enjoyable. The dark cherry adds a gentle Black Forest sweetness while the oak gives it a classy smoothness of the sort you normally find in old vintage wines. The combination of sharp, smooth and sweet, seasoned with a dusting of Brettanomyces funk, is absolutely sublime. And all at just 5% ABV. I could have drunk a lot of this guy, always finding something new in it.

Supercool IPA looks remarkably similar to it, but is a very different beer. The aim here is to produce a classic American IPA flavour profile except, in keeping with the house predilections, using a saison yeast. I didn't see which hops were used but I got a major central European vibe off it: lots of sharply bitter damp grass, in  both the aroma and flavour. Saison + IPA = Pilsner? Appropriately for the 6.5% ABV, it's thickly textured, with a kind of oily, greasy feel for which I don't know whether the yeast or hops were responsible. The white pepper bite it delivers is very much saison thing, I'd say. Once you get used to the odd texture and flavours it's quite a decent beer: smooth and well-integrated. The guy who only drinks IPA and picked this as a distress purchase will get a shock, but maybe that's no harm.

Alongside The Commons (mentioned yesterday), Upright is definitely on my top recommendations list for visitors to Portland. Both are having tremendous fun with the highly-attentuated family of Belgian styles, and the ones that don't taste great are at least interesting.

The final brewery for this trek was just a couple of blocks further north: Ex Novo. The company started in 2014 and, uniquely, funnels 100% of its profits to good causes. It was getting late and this place -- another one of those ex garage/workshop spaces -- was already busy but we got a table outside.

I opted for Cactus Wins The Lottery, a prickly pear flavoured Berliner weisse which, understandably, bears a significant resemblance to Sierra Nevada's Otra Vez gose. It has that same slightly sticky pink cactus fruit flavour but nicely balanced by a crisp and sharp tartness. After these two elements spark off each other on the palate it settles back into plain wheat, much like standard unadorned Berliner weisse tends to. It's fun, but doesn't offer much different to a million other flavoured versions of the style.

The session IPA is a 4.5% ABV one called Casual Ex. I got a big hit of caramel from the aroma here, and then wrong-footed completely by a flavour full of watermelons. There's a proper bitterness and a nicely full body, so while it's not the hop rocket I was expecting it is a fun few minutes of drinking.

And there was a rauchbier too: Rauch Paper Scissors, a 5.3% ABV dark lager which would not be at all out of place in Bamberg. It hits the sweet spot of rich hammy smoke against a sparkling clean lager base absolutely perfectly, for properly satisfying down-the-hatch quaffing.

At this point, coming to the end of our last evening in Portland, Jeff had joined us again. And there was another brewery, not far away, he thought we should see.