19 October 2017

An American beer booth in Dublin

It was a very pleasant surprise to learn, in the run up to the 2017 Irish Craft Beer Festival, that the Brewers Association from the US would be taking a stall there. It seems to be a thing they do at festivals around Europe now, promoting their members' beers to the export market. For me, and probably most of the people who bellied up to the bar over the three days, it was an opportunity to try lots of American beers that we don't normally get over here.

The BA's London agent Lotte was pouring, and her first recommendation was Saison aux Baies Amères: Chokecherry from Left Hand. This is 6.8% ABV and a beautiful polished copper shade. It's raspingly dry at first, turning gradually sweeter as notes of honeydew and cantaloupe begin to emerge. There's a seam of summer berries running through it as well, as one might expect, but also a lot of boozy heat, the sort that turns me off high-strength saisons. Dropping the strength a few points would do it the world of good.

Utah's Epic Brewing garnered quite a bit of attention from the standers-by and no beer lit up so many faces as Elder Brett, their 9.4% ABV Bretted saison with elderflower. It's a bright pale yellow colour with a big funky aroma: loud and blousey from the word go. The flavour is sharp at first, with a hot and minerally diesel quality. This calms down after the initial hit, becoming more like a fruity Gewürztraminer or even light fino sherry. A green note of chard or bok choy helps offset the elder sweetness while the Brett funk plays solidly all the way through. It's tough going to drink; definitely a sipper; but absolutely worth it. Even a small taster goes a long way here.

So I expected big things from Hopulent, Epic's IPA. It wasn't my sort of thing, however. 8% ABV and all thickly toffeeish. It's a vernacular I keep thinking has died out in American brewing, and then being surprised to find it's still out there. This one is classically constructed and flawless, I guess, but not for me. Onwards.

New Belgium's Voodoo Ranger IPA is in a similar vein but I enjoyed it more. It's a percentage point lighter, for one thing, and has a bigger fresh hop aroma, even if it does smell more of garlic than citrus fruit. While still thick and heavy, the flavour profile is clean and the malt and hop elements are distinct. There's a old world herbal quality  -- swatches of thyme and mint -- that I found quite charming and which softens what I thought was going to be a much brasher beer. This still isn't the sort of IPA I would go for by choice, but it's well made for what it is.

The inevitable fruit IPA slot goes to Guava Islander by Coronado. Another 7%-er, more allium in the aroma, and more toffee in the flavour as well, which was especially surprising since it's a very pale beer. The brewer's blurb promises an experience "bursting with tropical goodness" but that's not what I found. There's a strange, but not unpleasant, peppery character, but not much else to separate it from the previous heavy malt-laden US IPAs.

Before turning to the dark side, the oddness of Ska Brewing's Pink Vapor Stew. Beetroot, carrot, apple and ginger with Belma and Citra hops on a massively sour base. As one might expect there's only room for some of that to actually come through to the drinker and I found it was the apple and ginger making the most noise. The sourness was almost at vinegar levels too, which turned something that could have been a fun mix of fruit and spices into a much more serious proposal that required careful sipping so as not to strip one's tooth enamel completely. I think I like the idea of the recipe more than I enjoyed the rather extreme beer which resulted.

To the porters and stouts then, and Pay It Forward, a porter with cocoa from West Sixth Brewing in Kentucky. This is an old fashioned dark brown colour with a tall layer of foam on top. There's a gorgeous smell of Fry's Turkish Delight from it, and this complentary combination of rosewater and dark chocolate continues into the flavour. A dry roasted finish helps keep it from becoming too sweet. The cocoa has been applied carefully and judiciously in this one, helping bring out the porter's essentially porteriness instead of trying to add a new dimension and spoiling it. I liked this a lot.

An imperial stout comes next: Wrecking Ball by No-Li Brewhouse up in Washington state. This is a very substantial 9.5% ABV and packs a whole lot of lovely complexity in there: thick ristretto coffee, bitter liquorice, spicy cigars and a sticky liqueur or fortified wine fruitiness. And yet despite this it's worrying light of texture and exceedingly easy to drink. It's just as well there was only a small sample available: that could have got messy.

I had never encountered beer from St. Louis's O'Fallon Brewery, but was interested in its Smoke Porter when it passed my way. There's too much smoke in it, however. It smells like smoky bacon crisps while it tastes of kippers. At the same time it's also very sweet -- too sweet -- and I ended up with an impression of smoked candyfloss. I don't mind very smoky beers and think subtlety is generally over-rated where they're concerned, but this was just way too full-on and far-out for me.

Lotte didn't want to let me try O'Fallon Pumpkin Beer. Sure nobody really likes pumpkin beer, do they? This one was pretty good, however, offering a range of lovely autumnal flavours like maple, brown sugar and sweet potato, as well as the inevitable cinnamon and nutmeg, but not too much of them. The sweetness here is better suited to the beer. Sneerers gonna sneer, but this did everything I want from a pumpkin beer and I feel not an ounce of shame about it.

Cheers to Lottle and the BA crew, and indeed to Bruce, Carly and all the brewers for yet another entertaining festival. I couldn't stay longer because Beavertown's Extravaganza in London was looming, and I'll get to that shortly.


18 October 2017

The regulars

Continuing this week's posts on the Irish Craft Beer Festival 2017 at the RDS, we come to the usual suspects, the breweries that show up year after year but always bringing new, interesting and experimental beer to liven up the offer.

Perhaps it's a bit cheeky of me to include Urban Brewing among them, since it was technically the first outing for the Docklands brewpub. But it had set up right next to its parent Carlow Brewing so I'm going to treat them as the same stand. Urban Brewing Double IPA was the new offer there. Haziness is still very much the house style at Urban and this 7.4%-er is a deep fuzzy orange. The flavour is a bit fuzzy too, blending marmalade citrus and grassy herbal notes on a big and chewy gut-warming base. Though properly bitter, its flavours don't have the proper distinctness that comes with pouring clean. Like pretty much every Urban Brewing offer so far, more time in the tank would definitely improve it.

There's a more deliberate haze in the new release from Carlow itself: Stormburst. Having received some (unfair) ridicule for invoking New England in the branding of its clear 51st State IPA, the brewery has now decided to get a bit closer to the spec. Stormburst definitely looks the part: a milky orange colour, barely letting light through. And there's the semi-official second signature of NEIPA in a smack of garlic, oddly juxtapositioned against some juicy manadarin. It's maybe a little understated compared to the way breweries with more craft cred and much bigger price tags do this sort of thing, but if you like the style and don't want to shell out the big bucks, this one walks the walk.

Eight Degrees is usually an early port of call for me at the RDS and they had one new seasonal and a festival special one-off on the go. Monsoon is the latest in the wind-themed IPA series and the first with added fruit. Mango and lime are the guilty parties here, though it's only really the latter that adds anything to the flavour: a sharp bitterness up front fading to pithy dryness at the end. It's not all about the acid, with the malt carrying a lime jelly flavoured sweet quality as well. In addition to the absent mango, I couldn't find much sign of the hops either, but despite this I enjoyed the overall quenching spritziness. IPA isn't always about the hops these days it seems.

The brewery acquired a Grainfather homebrew kit recently and used it to kick off what became a Pinot Barrel-Aged Stout. It débuted at ABVFest at the beginning of the month and followed that up with an appearance here. I wasn't wowed by it. It's very sweet, for one thing, packed with chocolate and caramel. There's also a sawdust flavour that I've come to associate with barrel-aged beers where the wood and liquid haven't really melded properly. Offsetting that there's also a rich balsamic edge, which is fun, but the whole picture just didn't hang together properly, I thought. I think I'd have been happier with just a straight stout.

The Boyne Brewhouse specials machine is still chugging away happily. On the roster here was the first Boyne Brewhouse Session IPA, hitting the style markers by being 4% ABV, pale yellow and lightly lemony. It does fall into the thinness trap, however: more bulking out would improve it.

On a less orthodox note there was Cascara Kölsch, which just sounded wrong from the start. Despite this, it once again meets the main style requirement extremely well: it's crisp, it's yellow, and the flavour balances dry grain with a gentle fruitiness. All very classic and refreshing. The coffee element is barely perceptible and I doubt I'd have noticed it if I hadn't been warned in advance. I still think it's probably best not to call something Kölsch if it's been hacked about with. Not hacking about with Kölsch is a fundamental aspect of the style.

Down to the breweries I only annoyed for one beer now. It was good to see N17 back in the hall, going for a 100% cask offer, and with a new beer too: Nut Brown Ale. The best part of this was the aroma, a beautifully rich warm chocolate effect, almost fattening -- a sensation that may have something to do with the robust 5.6% ABV. The flavour is somewhat plainer but still offers a tasty mix of milky coffee and succulent raisins. Above all it's smooth easy drinking, as a brown ale should be. Very nicely done and I hope to get the chance to drink a whole pint of it at some stage.

I didn't take the time to get the full story behind Killarney Brewing's Lemoncen, only that it's an IPA at 5% ABV and dry hopped. I liked it though; there's a classic blend of juicy mandarin, bitter citrus and a kind of minty herbal quality that intensifies to the point of real dankness at the end. No half measures here.

Trouble Brewing was touting its collaboration beer with Stillwater Artisanal, Killwater. It's a sour ale with hibiscus, so a cheery pink colour and with a pleasant tart aroma. It tastes sharp at first, but turns a bit claggy after that, heavy with syrup. An intense lemon pith bitterness helps cut through this, but it's still not easy drinking, at once pointy and severe while also overly sweet. I was after something mellower and this definitely wasn't it.

My last beer on my way out was The Rainmaker, a new US-style IPA at a full-on 7% ABV and utilising Citra, Mosaic and Galaxy hops. It's a pale and hazy yellow with a flavour -- even after a full evening on the beer -- that's clean and smooth. It does lean a little on the garlic and onion side of the hop profile, but I can forgive it as it's not overly bitter nor any way hot with alcohol. Good stuff.

But that's not the end of my account of the festival. There was one other bar I spent some time at, and it's getting a post of its own next.

17 October 2017

As fresh as they get

The Irish Craft Beer Festival at the RDS in Dublin last month saw the début of a brand new Irish brewery, so new it didn't have a logo on the substantial stand. It's always good to see the product come before the branding, and product it had.

Larkin's Brewing Company is based in Rathcoole, Co. Wicklow, and on this showing seems to have gone for continental lager styles as its speciality: a refreshing change, literally and metaphorically. There was an IPA, however. You have to have an IPA. Larkin's American IPA is a biggie at 6.8% ABV, with a slick greasy body, oozing with lupulous oils from the Simcoe, Citra and Mosaic hops employed. The aroma is funky and dank, almost to the point of being cheesy. A much cleaner flavour follows, however: a crisp and chalky alkaline effect. It's unorthodox for an IPA but bodes well when turning to the lagers.

Larkin's German Lager is where I actually started, and was very impressed. No real complexity or tricks here; no twists or turns, and certainly no off-flavours. This is a straight down the middle quality pils: clear gold, with a beautiful peppery rocket-like noble hop flavour at the centre. Magnificently refreshing and moreish with a flavour which shows enough hop boldness to keep the drinker entertained all the way through. Just 4.7% ABV too so I'd have had another except...

... my head was turned by Larkin's Schwarzbier. It's an extremely rare style in Ireland, for no good reason at all. Of those that make it out of Irish breweries, very few have the dry roasted crispness that I love in classics like Köstritzer. Sadly, the Larkin's version I got is no exception to this rule, although it was the tail end of the keg. I got a murky brown sample, with a flavour leaning heavy on chocolate. The darker, drier elements were in there, but too well hidden. I will be trying this again if it gets a more general release, but for the moment it's a very cautious welcome from me.

Inevitably there was Larkin's Kölsch and this was another elegantly executed version of a classic style. The carbonation was suitably low, and there was a pleasant mineral bite in the flavour, balancing the mild malt sweetness and enhancing the drinkability. A few more hops might improve it, but it delivers on what the style is supposed to offer much better than most imitations, and better even than a couple of Cologne originals too.

I was far from the only punter wowed by the offerings. Oddly, however, the beer that most commentators seemed impressed by was Larkin's Czech Amber. Now, polotmavý has never been my favourite type of beer -- it dilutes the good features of both Czech pale and dark lagers -- and this one was bang on style in that regard. There was nothing at all wrong with it: it's clean, dry, and with a touch of mild celery passing as a hop character, but I couldn't really get much else from it; it just passed over my palate and away without making an impact. Ireland doesn't need amber lager the way it needs schwarzbier, but I'm not going to complain about a well-made one if other folk are happy with it.

Larkin's seems to be pushing ahead with more in this vein: a doppelbock is in progress. What happens beyond the festival circuit largely remains to be seen, but I pray there's a market around here for unfussy and well made beer of this nature.

More from the RDS tomorrow...

16 October 2017

Visitors in the hall

As usual, September brought the Irish Craft Beer Festival to the RDS. The proliferation of beer festivals across the country means that this isn't the massive showcase it once was, but even with reduced brewery numbers the team put on a great show over the three days. Enough for me to dedicate this week's posts to it, and I only made it along to one day.

There were a few first-timers, including one brand new brewery launch, which I'll cover in my next entry. Lough Gill arrived in force for their RDS début, with a bunch of specials I'd been trying, and failing, to get my hands on elsewhere in Dublin. Wild Rosé is the second in their "Wild Atlantic" sour series, a wheat beer like the first but this time flavoured with grapes. Very Italian. It's 5.7% ABV and a light orange colour, offering a highly complex mix of light and summery peach fruit with a harder waxy bitterness. The sourness is fairly mild, but not missed with everything else that's going on.

The series continued with Barrel-Aged Flanders Red, a bit of a beast at 6.7% ABV, quite thick with balsamic resins and brimming with rich and ripe tamarind. Its weight means it loses out on the clean tartness I enjoy most about the style -- the chewiness doesn't sit well next to the sourness for me. All in, it's accessible, drinkable, and a decent effort, but I will stick with my Rodenbach thank you.

From sour to strong, Hoppy Scotch is a 9%-er which does exactly what the name suggests. It's brown and tastes of wholesome toffee, but also of fresh and green leafy hops. This makes an almighty riot of noise on the palate, the two sides crashing into each other like a medieval battle, but bizarrely it works and the drinker gets a big, filling, malt-driven beer that also delivers an IPA's worth of hops. Pure alchemy.

Upping the ante further, at least in alcohol terms, was Lough Gill's Imperial Coconut Porter at 10% ABV. There wasn't all that much going on in the flavour, however: caramel, a touch of red fruit. The strength is hidden well, though unfortunately so is the coconut. This one will please those in need of a high-octane easy-drinker, and we've all had days like that.

The usual daring line-up from Lough Gill, then, and a damned passable mead as well. Doubtless bigger things are on the way.

The other western newcomer was Bridewell, toting their second beer Bridewell Red. Though a little high on the alcohol side at 4.8% ABV, it's surprisingly light, with zesty redcurrants where you might expect caramel and strawberry. There's a fun marzipan sweetness as well. Obviously it's designed to be an easy and approachable beer, catering to the masses while Bridewell gradually expands its draught-only reach beyond the immediate locale, but it packs a tidy amount of flavour in there, all of it good.

A little closer to home, Costellos of Kilkenny was showing off its latest extensions to the range. White Rhino is an American-style IPA and very much in the classic mould. 6.5% ABV gives it some serious substance and it uses that to leverage plenty of serious hop action. The aroma is all naughty resinous dank while the flavour punches out wholesome green spinach with an uncompromising grapefruit bitterness on top. This is not a beer for lightness or juicy tropicality; more a joyous throwback to the days when you knew where you stood with an IPA.

Its companion rejoices in the too-clever-by-half name It's Spelt Dinkel. This is a light and pale top-fermented beer of 4.1% ABV, brewed with spelt, aka "dinkel wheat", geddit? Grain is the main feature of the flavour, to the point where it tasted a bit like a low-rent light lager to me. The middle is watery and full of dry corn husk, with only a tiny quiet bitterness in the finish to add character. I don't really get what the spelt adds to the picture and am inclined to chalk this one up as an experiment that doesn't need repeating. Something for the lager drinkers, though, I suppose.

It was great to see all three brewers making it to the festival and expanding their ranges. For the other newcomer it was all up front on day one, and I'll get to him tomorrow.

13 October 2017

Let loose the moose

Hop City's HopBot IPA has been around on the local scene for some time now, though only recently has my curiosity graduated beyond the "idle" phase and caused me to buy a bottle. Despite the innocent cartoonish stylings of the label it's a very serious 7.1% ABV and pours a stern dark amber colour. Although it comes from Canada (Hop City is an Ontario-based craft spin-off of New Brunswick's Moosehead) this is definitely channelling the United States, and some time in the 1990s. It is, for one thing, resolutely bitter: a scorching green pine foretaste, softening only as far as lemon peel and no further. By way of balance there's a heavy sweet toffee character but this really just adds its own noise to the cacophony, rather than attempting harmonisation.

Initially I was enjoying this: it's a total nostalgia trip back to the days when citric hops and crystal malt were the last word in beery sophistication. But half way through I started to see why it went out of fashion. It's just too harsh, too bitter, and at the same time too sweet. This clunking robot could do with an upgrade.

I had better luck with Barking Squirrel, which is badged simply as a lager but turned out to be the amber sort, 5% ABV and with a lovely copper colour and enticing liquorice aroma. It tastes as wholesome as it smells, heavy on the chewy amber malts, loaded with oatmeal biscuits, treacle spongecake and a faint apothecary bitterness too. The best-before was almost up on the bottle but it still tasted plenty fresh, the clean and crisp finish entirely free from flaws.

This sort of amber, Vienna-ish, lager is not the most exciting of styles, but it's possible to appreciate when it's done well, which is what this is.

And from the Moosehead mothership comes Boundary Ale. This I hadn't seen before and picked it up when I saw it sitting next to HopBot in Redmond's. "Well-Crafted" it says on the cap, in that bum-clenching voice big breweries use when they're frightened of small ones. It's 5.3% ABV and a handsome copper colour, topped by a welcoming pillow of white foam. It smells a little soapy, but not excessively so: no more than you'd find in a brown English bitter, which I guess is the style they're broadly pitching at. It tastes primarily of caramel, feeling like it's going to build to become saccharine sweet but stopping quite quickly. I think that metallic element is from the Fuggles and Goldings hops which are dominant in this. They've used black malt as well, which adds a slight roasted complexity and moves it away from English bitter into Irish red territory.

This is a decent enough beer, if far from exciting and definitely overstating its case with regard to the US hops it touts. In the craft stakes it's not going to be giving the likes of Dieu du Ciel or Unibroue much by way of competition. It shouldn't be surpring that lager is where Moosehead performs best overall.

11 October 2017

Bonus Basque

Well this was a nice surprise: one of the visitors to UnderDog donated a bottle of Basqueland's Imparable IPA to the management, and the management were kind enough to share it round when I was in. Hagstravaganzers may remember Basqueland as one of the guest brewers at this year's festival; that was the first time I'd come across their wares.

This one is a beaut: 6.8% ABV and making great use of that extra strength to pile the hops in. The aroma is seriously dank and weedy so the kicking resinous bitterness that assaults the palate on first tasting comes as no surprise.

It's pale and murky so I suspect that the slick and sweet vanilla element that comes next is connected to the suspended bits. There's a touch of balancing herbs as well, adding a floral element, but that nowhere near takes the edge off the big and fresh west-coast burn which is this beer's signature move.

The pale, hazy and hoppy stylings put me in mind of some of The Kernel's best IPA work. I'm guessing it doesn't travel well, or much, but I'm glad this one got out and about. Cheers Barry!

09 October 2017

Unexpected items

Perusing the selection in Molloy's off licence on Francis Street, my eye was caught by these three from Lithuania's Rinkuškiai brewery.

First up, Alaus Kelias, at 5.5% ABV. It looks like an average lager, a clear golden colour with a full head which vanishes quite quickly. The Lithuanity kicks in from the first taste: a sweet mix of honey and brown sugar, defining characteristics of Lithuania's unique farmhouse beers, yet wonderfully clean and still managing to be refreshing. There's a slightly under-attenuated malt stickiness in the texture, but like the sweetness in the flavour it doesn't build or make the beer difficult to drink. Once you get used to the sweetness -- and I was expecting it so didn't mind -- the whole thing is rather tasty. It's kind of what I expected from a mainstream take on traditional Lithuanian beer so I was interested to find out where they went from here.

To follow: Seno Rūsio, 5.4% ABV this time, and a slightly dark shade, with a copper tint. Again, head retention is not a strong point. Though just as full-bodied, it's a lot less sweet than the previous beer. The problem is that it doesn't really replace the absent honey with anything. There's just a faint metallic hop bitterness alongside the residual malt, but not enough to balance it. I got a certain Irish red ale vibe from this one, something about the way the heavy sweetness meets tangy hop bitters. If it just veered further in one direction or another it would be a better beer.

Lastly we come to Rinkuškių Drumstas, stronger than the others at 6% ABV, but paler too, and smelling distinctly hoppy: the fresh spinach and cabbage of eastern Europe's varieties. It's light bodied, for a very refreshing change, and the honey malt is reduced to a supporting role in the flavour profile. Again, though, it's diminishing returns where the substitute flavour is concerned: the hops are there, but no more than you'd find in a very mild pilsner. And there's a hollow wateriness too, like you'd find in, well, a poorly-made pilsner. It's perfectly drinkable, and quite refreshing too, given the strength, but lacking in complexity and originality.

As someone who's been blathering on about Lithuanian beer to anyone who'll listen since I got back from Vilnius, I liked the way that these offer an intimation of what the national beer is like in that unique culture. The Alaus Kelias is the closest, however, and it's the one I enjoyed most, perhaps because it tastes that bit different to the lagers of the rest of Europe. The other two seem like standard Euro lager given a Lithuanian twist, which is much less interesting. Nevertheless, it's good that the Irish beer drinker has these beers to help acclimatise before a trip north-east. While they're not exactly full-tilt šviesusis, that's definitely lurking in the background of all three.

06 October 2017

Double dare

Five breweries and three beers in today's post: yes, it's collaboration time! Breweries doing things that they wouldn't normally dream of themselves, but when another boy dares them to, away they go.

Our first test subject was created at the Firestone Walker brewery in California with the assistance of London's Beavertown. The skeltonised heraldic animals on the can are almost too on-the-nose. The name is West Side Beavo, 6.5% ABV and based on Firestone's iconic Pivo pils but combining classic US hops with UK newcomer Jester. It's a crystalline pale gold with surprisingly little aroma. The flavour doesn't hold back though: a huge and spicy pine resin bitterness overlaid with luscious mango and guava. There's a mineral edge too, a touch of hard sulphur that brings a degree of seriousness to the otherwise quite jolly fruit-filled lager. Lots going on here, and all of it good. Well done to everyone concerned.

And obviously with Firestone Walker being very much yesterday's brewery in fashion terms, Beavertown were quick to keep in with the cool set, creating an IPA with the far-too-cool-for-the-likes-of-you New England brewer Trillium. I bought a tin of it in the supermarket.

Beaverillium is the name, giving the old portmanteau thing another try. It's a soupy looking beast, New England IPA meets London murky under a shroud of finest beige. The aroma is fantastic, though: bags of fresh dank, like walking into the hop fridge at a brewery, one of the good ones. Sadly, the fun ends abruptly there. I got a massive whack of sickly green onion right from the get-go, rendered extra severe by a thick and gritty texture which leaves the beer feeling unfinished. It sweetens after a moment in the mouth, the too-real onion turning to the cartoon pickled onions of Monster Munch or Meanies. That's kind of amusing, but it doesn't let the beer off the hook. The finish is a split decision between fried garlic and bitter lime, adding yet more noise and colour to a beer that was already quite loud enough. It's a riot of a thing: mad, brash, and piling on everything that's currently hot in the fast-moving world of ultra-hip beer. It left me wanting to try it again after it spent some time calming down in the bright tank, however.

Finally, it's Fool's Gold, a sour stout co-created by The White Hag and BRLO in Berlin. And yes, that is the dirtiest-looking glass I've ever been served a beer in. For shame, P. Mac's. This ugly dark brown headless yoke is 5% ABV and offers parallel strands of sweet creamy coffee with a neutral sour culture. The two sides don't even acknowledge, let alone complement, each other all the way through. For the most part you get a smooth easy drinking session stout and the cleansing refreshing features of a Berliner weisse, and then they part ways even further at the finish, with the stout turning dry and roasty while there's a tangy lactic finish on the sour side. It really does give the sensation of drinking two, admittedly rather good, beers at once. I think it might help if all the flavours were more pronounced, however. Subtlety is not beneficial in a quirky beer like this. Ramp it up and damn the consequences: that's the collaborative way.

Collaborations may not always result in the best quality beer, but they rarely make for boring drinking.

04 October 2017

Brrrrr-ooklyn

I'm stealing a march on the encroaching winter with a couple of seasonal beers from Brooklyn Brewing, designed for the darker end of the year. Both are from last year's crop, found in the bargain bin at the supermarket back in the spring and consumed at the height of summer. It would have been a bit weird to publish this post then, however.

First out is Insulated, a dark lager. It's certainly dark: only when held up to the light does it turn out to be a very deep, clear garnet rather than black. The head on top is creamy and almost stoutlike, and there's a roasted bitter quality to the aroma that adds to that impression. The flavour is quite plain, lager-clean, I guess. There's a touch of autumnal fruit, blackberry in particular, a herbal liquorice bitterness, and then that dry roasted bite to finish. This one is more about the feel than the flavour: it's big-bodied, satisfying and filling, engineered to be comforting without boosting the ABV to an unreasonable, unsessionable, level. At 5.6% it's just big enough to add a little warmth to the drinker's life. Plain and honest dark lagers are too thin on the ground around here so it's great to have this one.

Next it's the inevitable pumpkin beer, the butt of many a beer joke but presumably still the backbone of lots of American breweries' seasonal ranges. Brooklyn's, which has been around for quite a while now, is called Post Road, presumably after the colonial-era highway that ran between New York and Boston.

Top marks, once again, for appearances: it's a perfect crystalline orange-amber shade, looking like a liquid pumpkin in my rounded glass. Pumpkins don't really taste of anything so I can't say there's much of a pumpkin element; the main feature is the nutmeg: front and centre in both the flavour and aroma. Behind this is a suitably autumnal crust of brown sugar, and there may even have been some hops, but they have since gone away. Surprisingly for this sort of seasonal there's very little malt character, giving it a thin and watery finish. The basic requirements of pumpkin ale are met, and I'm sure it does well for the brewery commercially, but it's really not a very interesting beer, nor satisfying to drink.

Dark lager is superior to pumpkin beer: you heard it here first, folks.

02 October 2017

On the path to greatness

A new event for my 2017 calendar was The Great Irish Beer Festival in Cork, now in its second year. It's organised by Franciscan Well but unlike their other events happens in the salubrious surrounds of City Hall. The name overstates the case a little bit: only 15 breweries were pouring beer at the gig, spread across two halls, so there was a manageable number of new beers for me to try, most of them local.

We set up camp opposite Rising Sons, who coincidentally had the most beers on my hitlist. To begin, a half each of two beers brewed to celebrate the visit of the International Space University to Cork Institute of Technology over the summer. Small Step is a session-strength pale ale. It's a hazy pale yellow colour and has a fun peachy aroma. The flavour is harsher, however: a hard green bitterness, like celery stalks. The soft fruit returns in the finish but not soon enough to redeem the beer for me. It's just the wrong kind of bitter.

You know what's coming next, of course: Giant Leap, which is a black IPA. 5.1% ABV and a murky dark brown colour, it goes in for coffee in a big way, especially in the aroma. The flavour mixes it pleasantly with sherbet fruit, the end result being spicy rather than bitter, and the best feature is the smooth effervescent texture making it nicely easy drinking. It's very much on the porter side of the black IPA equation, however.

Mayhem is a recent addition to the Rising Sons line-up, described as a hoppy saison, and it really draws the juiciness out of both those words. There's a deliciously fresh cantaloupe flavour, beautifully thirst-quenching. A sprinkling of white pepper finishes it off. It could stand to be crisper; there's a slight dry bite in the finish but not as much as saison typically shows. What it lacks in crispness it makes up for in lusciousness.

Last one before moving on was Rising Sons Nitro Extra Stout. I wasn't expecting much but this is beautiful: massively bitter with bags of healthy green veg in the flavour and all coated with a luxurious layer of high-cocoa dark chocolate. Like the benchmark Wrasslers XXXX it manages to punch through the suffocating effect of nitro on taste. There was a nitro pale ale as well but I decided not to push my luck too far.

The next bar over was Torc, featuring the experimental Extra Pale Ale. "Extra-Pale" is to be taken as a single element, explained proprietor John: the idea was to make it as pale as possible. But there's lots more extraness about it. For one thing the ABV is a substantial 6%. And for another the hopping level, mostly Citra, is absolutely off the charts. It's intensely bitter: a concentrated spinach and vine leaves taste, and the closest thing I've drank to biting a hop pellet. Despite the imbalance it's perfectly clean tasting and hides its strength very well. I don't know how much of it I could drink but it was certainly an interesting experience.

Amazingly I could still taste other things after that. It was into the main hall next, to try the new rye beer from West Cork: The Rapids. This is pretty typical of the style, a murky shade of orange with a sharp grassy bitterness and touches of thick-shred marmalade. The texture is big and weighty, surprisingly so for just 5.3% ABV, and the overall feel is of something wholesome and unprocessed. Solid stuff.

There were a couple of new ones from YellowBelly, including another saison, Periodic. There's a heady aroma from this one, all pears and booze, despite the ABV being just 5.1%. It tastes very sweet, with more squashy ripe pear in the flavour and some white plum as well. Later a herbal element creeps in too: vanilla pods and cardamom, making it taste like a middle eastern dessert. This is just too heavy and too cloying for my liking. Lack of crispness is a real problem this time.

And there was also Mind Reader, the lager that gets transformed into Commotion Lotion by the addition of Buckfast. And much like Commotion Lotion it's a fun and clean fruit salad of a beer, getting full value out of its strawberries, raspberries and pineapple. It's very nearly too sweet but the clean lager base pulls it back from the brink in time.

By this time we had been joined by regular visitor Sid Boggle and decided to skip out early to pay a visit to The Abbot's Alehouse. I was hoping to try the new sour cherry beer from YellowBelly but it wasn't on. I made do with their Red Noir instead. It's 4.4% ABV so I expected a typical Irish red, and while this does have a to-style profile, there's a lot more flavour than you'll find in most Irish red ales. It's thick and smooth, full textured and jammy, the flavour packed with summer fruits. Not a subtle beer, nor especially complex, but very satisfying to sink a pint of.

The other attraction at The Abbot's was available: Buxton Rain Shadow imperial stout. 10% ABV on the nose, it's dark and foreboding in the glass. An aroma of liquorice, coffee and alcohol sends an early signal that it's one to be careful with. The flavour is much cleaner than the smell suggests, with no real alcohol heat despite a very dense texture. The liquorice is there in spades, as well as an acidic bitterness, turning almost metallic, and tasting like boiled green cabbage. It's a beast of a beer and utterly uncompromising in its taste. But if you go along with what it's trying to do it's a very enjoyable experience. Just the ticket to finish the night on (trainbeers excepted).

One beer that did make it off the train and home was Sullivan's Kiwi Lime Pale Ale, donated by Alan Smithwick who was looking after the Sullivan's bar. This was brewed on the pilot kit in Kilkenny and is a collaboration with Dublin's Hellfire Brew Club. It's bottle-conditioned so poured a little murky despite my steady hand, and featured a tall bouffant of white foam. The lime zest was added late, with the dry hops, and the fresh lime really comes out well in the aroma, enticing like a lime sorbet if you're posh, or a HB Loop-The-Loop ice lolly if you're not.

The texture is light, with less body than might be expected at 4.7% ABV. But that's not a problem, because the end result is insanely refreshing. Both of the fruits jump right out in the flavour, and because their green bitterness is entirely complementary to the Cascade and Perle hops, this one can't be accused of being alcopopish or otherwise unbeery. Real kiwi flesh dominates the foretaste, then the oily lime swings in behind, adding a lasting bitterness that coats the palate. The earthy hit from the Cascade is secondary and almost unnecessary: all the required citrus is already there. The sorbet effect never quite goes away, hitting just the perfect level of bitterness allowing all the fruit flavour to come through undisturbed. This is a total triumph, an ideal summer quencher, and very deserving of scaling up into full production, whenever that's an option at Sullivan's.

And on that high note, a big cheers to Shane from Franciscan Well who very kindly comped our tickets, and to all the brewers I hassled through the afternoon. GIBF is another feather in Cork's already-bristling beer festival cap.