24 July 2017

Outstanding in their field

12 Acres arrived on the Irish beer scene a couple of years ago with very much a unique selling point: the beer was brewed using base malt solely from the brewer's own farm in Laois, malted separately and given back to them for brewing. Originally they had a pale ale contract brewed, and that's what I reviewed, impressed, here. Since then they have established their own brewery and expanded their range. The core now runs to three beers and I had been meaning to get hold of some when the brewery sent me a set, via the good offices of his holiness the Beer Messiah -- cheers Dean!

To begin, 12 Acres Single Malt Lager: 4.2% ABV, brewed in the Kölsch style and I guess bottle conditioned as a skein of yeast floated down through the dark gold glassful while I poured, though there's no warning of this on the bottle. The aroma is oddly fruity, but enticing: honeydew and cantaloupe. This intensifies on tasting, getting sweeter and quite estery, shading towards marker pen solvents. I begin to worry what kind of nightmare hangover a few of these might induce. But it's a brief worry. It's very easy to settle into drinking this. The hallmark crispness of Kölsch is missing, but it's still pretty clean and the soft fruit is almost an adequate substitute. Lager purists may quibble but it'll likely be grand for those who just want pale, drinkable and local. And there's nothing wrong with any of those things.

Bringing the ABV up to 5.5% ABV is 12 Acres Rye IPA, a warming deep orange colour, and hazy again, of course. The aroma is an invigorating mix of orange pith and grass, which is certainly what I'd expect to result from the formula of rye + IPA. The bitterness is the main feature of the flavour, puckering at the front and burning a little at the back. It's softened somewhat by the fruit candy hops and there's a certain herbal liquorice counterpoint too. Definitely assertive, and a good beer for it, but I think the hop flavour could do with being boosted to balance against the bitterness. That's something that Kinnegar's Rustbucket does well, and the reason it's such a popular option among Irish beer fans. This tastes like a more basic, less nuanced version of that. But it's certainly an IPA and definitely gets the most out of its rye. Low carbonation lends it a sense of English bitter, though particularly the bitter sort of bitter. It's maybe a bit fusty for the modern urban beer elite, but I'd say it has already curled a few toes down Laois way.

And since it's there, a re-run of 12 Acres Pale Ale, now brewed in-house. Curiously for a review bottle supplied by a brewery this was two months past the best before date on the label. It hasn't done it too much harm, however. There's still a very pleasant and clean mandarin flavour, though with a bit of a dry rasp on the finish and a tiny touch of yeast bite. The carbonation is in the Goldilocks zone, tickling the tastebuds and livening the experience without getting too gassy. There's a zing lacking, however, which I seem to remember in the prototype, though that may be just down to the freshness. Always read the label.

So that's where 12 Acres is starting with its own venture, and I wish them luck. They currently have a monopoly on brewing in Laois (Ballykilcavan launched last weekend but is brewing elsewhere for now) and I hope the trade down there can get behind the beers and the project as a whole. There are lessons to be learned from this kind of courageous localism.

21 July 2017

Bog standard

Bog Hopper Brewery of Muff, Co. Donegal has been on the go for a couple of years now but the beers have landed only recently in Dublin and I picked up a set at DrinkStore.

To start, their pilsner Dirty Chick. I got a clean and clear glassful as I began to pour it but this was spoiled just at the end when the bottle-conditioning dregs fell in. It still looked good: a wholesomely hazy orange-gold with a handsome fluffy white head. The aroma is more that of a weissbier than a pils, sweet and fruity. It's quite sweet to taste as well, a fruit salad of banana and pear, plus a spicier smoky incense thing. All of which is the yeast at work, and the resulting esters make it thick and greasy. While quite pleasant to drink, it absolutely does not meet the crisp and hoppy spec of proper pilsner. If given it as homebrew I'd be advising the brewer that their brewing practices just aren't up to doing the style properly. I was immediately on guard for a rough and rustic set of beers.

Horny Ram did little to dissuade me of that when it began escaping the bottle as soon as the cap came off. This is a red ale at 4.4% ABV. It's clearer than the pilsner, a handsome strong-tea shade of red brown. It smells of caramel, as one would have every reason to expect of a red ale, and the flavour is all that too: a light burnt sugar sweetness, a trace of smoke, and finishing on a gentle roasted note. What it lacks is any distinguishing features. The better sort of red ale from Ireland's micros tend to put a bit of a twist on the style: extra hops, summer fruit, darker grains. This one doesn't bother with any of that and is quite bland as a result. Its decently full body means it's definitely a step up from any red ale offering from the industrial breweries but there's nothing to mark it out as exceptional or different. Still, providing an alternative for the local Smithwick's and Macardle's drinkers is probably a viable commercial strategy and a noble calling.

You need to try harder with a pale ale, however, and Hairy Bullocks is certainly a bit different. Like with the pilsner, the yeast makes a major contribution to the flavour, its nutmeg and clove combining with a gentle citrus bitterness to create a rather fun spiced cider sort of effect. The bitterness is low and the overall flavour quite dry. I've certainly never encountered an actual American pale ale that tasted like this and it's much more along the lines of an orangey English bitter. While interesting it's not very polished and I detected a slight wet cardboard burr at the very end. This is another one that calls to mind the more homebrewish side of craft brewing, with all the charms and flaws which come with that. Again, it would be fun to have this as your local beer, made by people you know, but at a time when Irish breweries are starting to make a name for themselves on the world stage it's not in the same league.

To finish, Cold Turkey, a collaboration Bog Hopper created with YellowBelly, down in the opposite corner of the country. No style is given on the bomber bottle but it's 6.9% ABV and a dark mahogany red. It smells rich and wholesome, of ripe strawberry and dark chocolate. Savoury yeast is right at the front of the flavour. It seems to be covering up the sweeter malt underneath: milky coffee and floral rosewater. There's the makings of a very nice porter in here but the rawness and the roughness spoils the whole party. Even moreso than Hairy Bullocks this tastes like the sort of bottle-conditioned English beer where the purity of the process is far more important than the purity of the flavour.

Fun, silly, but could benefit from cleaning up their act: as true for Bog Hopper's beers as it is for their branding.

19 July 2017

Were the other boys mean to you?

Who You Callin' Wussie: a name which suggests it's a pilsner for men with self-esteem issues. This has been imported from Stone headquarters in San Diego rather than the local operation in Berlin, and isn't quite street-legal in Europe as there's no metric unit measurements on the can, nor an EU address. Fortunately, nobody bothers enforcing consumer laws in this country so the importer won't get in trouble.

It pours out in proper continental style: that there's only 473ml of it leaves plenty of room for a tower of foam in my mug, over a pale gold body with just a slight haze through it. The aroma is quite sickly, suggesting all of the beer's 5.8% ABV and more, with lots of sweet and meadowy German hops. This is followed by a strange herbal mash-up of a flavour, throwing in medicinal eucalyptus, bitter thyme, pithy citrus and a funk which I can only liken to old stale piss. It's certainly not bland.

My only problem here is that it's an extreme version of the sort of German-hopped beer I've never really got along with, ramped up and intensified in that quintessentially American way. It would probably have been better served properly cold, but even then I don't think its particular flavour combination would have suited me.

I guess I'm a wussie.

17 July 2017

Tyke tins

Following on from the review of Northern Monk's Hop City a few weeks ago, more cans of pale ale in the modern fashion, from Yorkshire.

I started with this one from Magic Rock, called Fantasma. It's 6.5% ABV, and brewed with just Magnum and Citra hops so I was expecting rather more than the previous softy. It gets off to a fruity start, however, wafting out aromas of mango, peach and slightly greener spinach. The bitterness reasserts itself in the flavour, however, with a sharp lime and dry grass kick in the foretaste, fading to reveal dank weedy resins and savoury yeast bite. The intensity is tempered a little by a full and soft texture, one which manages to muffle the screechiest parts of the hop profile rather than spread them into full-on hop napalm as sometimes happens with other big bodied and highly hopped IPAs.

To my mind, Fantasma is a fairly classical expression of the pale and bitter west coast IPA, though I think it would benefit from a little cleaning up. It's perhaps a little harsh for my snowflake of a palate, but in a world where IPA is increasingly retreating into soft and fluffy safe spaces it will definitely find a fanbase among the dedicated hopheads. Oh, it's also gluten free, but doesn't taste any way compromised for that.

Moving over to Leeds next, and Piñata, a mango and guava pale ale by North Brewing. It's a strikingly opaque orange colour with a pleasant fresh fruit aroma which could easily be all hop. The flavour continues in that vein, bright and juicy with the mango particularly prominent, but also with a bitterer green edge, very similar to the spinach element I found in the Fantasma. It definitely integrates the added fruit well into the flavour, avoiding the tangy clangy syrupy thing I often find in this sort.

Where it falls down a little is in the body, which is unreasonably thin, despite the addition of oats to the grist. Those lovely hop flavours aren't given enough of a stage to perform on and after the initial bright flash they fade out much too quickly leaving a watery wake. Yes the beer is refreshing and complex, but I definitely think that giving it a bit more heft and raising the ABV above 4.5% would improve it hugely.

And finally back to Northern Monk, and a surprise can of fruited IPA that passed my way at a Social Hops meet-up in The Bernard Shaw a while back. This is 4.02 and is part of the brewery's Patrons Project, a 7.4% ABV IPA with added pineapple and grapefruit. It doesn't look strong: a wan lemon yellow, and hazy, of course. There's a spritzy, zesty aroma: all the Z's are in here. The texture is pleasantly smooth, almost creamy, and there's an oiliness that creeps into the flavour adding a degree of coconut to the citrus. Pithy bitterness is the centrepiece, however, as well as a mild resinous dankness. I wasn't hugely impressed by this: it's decently put together but there's nothing amazing about it. There are lots of IPAs just as good without the fancy artwork or high price tag. Not that I paid for this one: cheers Conor!

Doubtless there's plenty more to come from all three of these breweries, for as long as there are hops to play with.

14 July 2017

Et tu, Sierra?

Since time immemorial, or at least some point in the late 1980s, which is the same thing in craft beer terms, Sierra Nevada has been a by-word for hop-forward beers. For beer fanatics of my vintage, if you wanted reliably hoppy in a west coast way, Sierra Nevada was the old reliable. It was very much a brewery to be followed, not a follower, and you wouldn't expect them to go chasing bandwagons.

All of which is a long-winded way of expressing how disappointed I was when I found them making fruited IPAs. Fruited IPAs are for when your hops aren't flavoursome enough, and that has pointedly never been a problem for Sierra Nevada. Anyway. Calm... deep breaths... and let's drink the beers.

The sequence began with Sierra Nevada Peach IPA, on tap at 57 The Headline. And it's not bad, actually. The flavour I got was more like apricot than peach, and the fruit flavour is convincingly hop-like, raising the question of what the point was. After a long phase of smooth and juicy stonefruit it turns very slightly bitter on the end. Though only 5.8% ABV it is a little heavy and risks sickliness, particularly as it warms. It's thankfully not overwhelming with novelty but it's also not very exciting at the same time.

The same weekend that the Peach IPA arrived on tap, a pair of bottled Sierra fruit beers also appeared. I figured I may as well complete the set.

First up was Sidecar, a pale ale with orange peel. Like with the foregoing beer, the base is rather nondescript: a 5.3% ABV medium-bodied pale ale with just a mild bitterness but no stand-out hop character. The added orange doesn't exactly lend dimensions of extra flavour to it -- in fact I'd be hard pressed to identify it if given the beer blind -- but it does add a certain spice: the concentrated zestiness that you get from sniffing the outside of an actual citrus fruit. There's a concentrated oily orangeness in the middle with sweeter fizzy orangeade notes in both the aroma and the finish.

Overall it's a simple and decent beer, quaffable and refreshing, though it would definitely be improved with proper hopping in place of the peel.

Upping the ante next, to Tropical Torpedo IPA. I honestly don't know why anyone thought beery perfection like Torpedo needed tweaked but here we are. It's a clear bright gold colour and smells mildly dank. Bitterness is very low and once again I can't pick out the fruit. The label says I should be expecting mango, papaya and passionfruit but while there's a vague tropicality there's nothing specifically fruity, and certainly no big hop character. At 6.7% ABV it's quite a bit stronger than the others but it's a lot less full and flavoursome than the Sidecar.

I'll call it then: Sierra Nevada would be better sticking to humulus lupulus as the centre of their pale ales. Nobody will remember these beers when the fruit IPA craze has come to a merciful conclusion.

12 July 2017

Down under the limit

3.5% is an impressively tiddly ABV for a session IPA, but that's the number on Throwback, brewed by Pirate Life of South Australia and underground-railroaded to me by Mr Aran Brazil.

It looks pretty solid: a hazy dark orange with an aroma of oranges too. The texture, however, is that of a 3.5% ABV beer, or less. It's strikingly thin, though does take steps to mitigate this. For one thing the flavour is quite good, at least in the foretaste. That's nicely spicy with a waft of oily dank: the rich hop flavours of much denser beer. But it vanishes very quickly leaving only the faintest of residue. The low carbonation helps too, much like it does in low-gravity British beer: no interference from busy fizz.

None of these tricks are truly convincing, however. Even as a quaffing beer it's quite unsatisfying to drink: that cliff-edge that the flavour seems to jump off when it's only half way through really spoils its good side. I guess it needs shoring up with some extra malt and, dare I say, a slightly higher ABV?

10 July 2017

Move over Mozart

I almost deleted the email. Stiegl isn't exactly one of the world's most inspiring beer brands -- Austria's mainstream beers don't command the same sort of reverence that those of neighbouring Bavaria or the Czech Republic do. I was about to consign the message to the same place as the ones I get about Peroni and Tennents when I noticed it came from the Carlow Brewing team. OK then. The event was to mark the beginning of Carlow's tenure as Stiegl's Irish distributor, it was happening upstairs in Café en Seine and, crucially for the purposes of this here blog, it mentioned that there'd be a few more out-of-the-ordinary beers on show, beyond plain old Stiegl lager.

It was a rather jolly event, as it transpired. A slew of bloggers and other commentariat, plus Michael, Stiegl's export director. There was even a surprise to start with, in the form of Stiegl Weisse. Though only 5.1% ABV this is much more substantial than a typical weizen, full of heavy melanoidin biscuit flavours and a large dollop of toffee with the banana. I was a little concerned that it might get a bit difficult to chomp through after a while, but having subsequently taken a full half-litre for a spin I can confirm that it's smooth enough with sufficient crispness to be easy-going. It's not a world-changing weissbier, but is a rather decent one.

To follow, a taster of Stiegl Goldbräu, the flagship lager and the beer responsible for my dim outlook on the brand. It still tastes quite nasty, in the very typical cheap-lager way. There's a sharp metallic bite, an off-putting sour tang and an unpleasant graininess. Herr Direktor told us that this 4.9%-er is in the Märzen style, and far be it from me to argue the technicalities of that. But it really doesn't taste like Märzen to me, and is far too thin to feel like one. Nope. Pass. Next.

A palate-cleansing Stiegl Radler was next. Apparently this is particularly popular in the US where it goes toe-to-toe with Schöfferhofer's, both being grapefruit-based. It tasted more of lemon to me, though still an invigorating citrus flavour which I found extremely refreshing. At just 2% ABV it delivers exactly what one wants from a radler, and it's not so sweet that it can only be consumed in small quantities. We're painfully short of radler in this country and those of us who can't be bothered putting the work in to formulate our own would appreciate this one. I hope Carlow will consider adding it to the line-up.

Stolid old Stiegl, churning out beer to the burghers of Salzburg since 1492 has not been immune to the gnawing insistence of craft beer. The brewery has both a small-batch experimental operation, and a yoof-oriented modern-labelled sub-range. We got to try a selection of what these were offering.

To start, the grandiloquent Sonnen König III, a  plum brandy barrel-aged double chocolate oatmeal porter, because why not put all your craft beer ideas into one bottle? That's Austrian efficiency, that is. It's 12% ABV and a pale muddy brown colour. The aroma is unappetising, a funk that's as dirty as the beer looks. The fruit comes to the rescue in the flavour, however, and there's a cheery plum and raisin foretaste, boozy and dessertish. The sweeter chocolate and oatmeal cereal swing in behind this and don't really help out, adding what they probably think is complexity but just turns the whole concoction into a busy mess. I would hypothesis that a couple of years of maturation would help integrate the flavours rather better. I'm not sure I'd take the risk of buying one just to find out, however.

Also in a large-format bottle is Gipfelstürmer, a wheat beer which uses spelt instead of barley. I'm not sure why. But no matter, because the recipe works really well. It smells like a typical weissbier but the flavour has this fantastic white grape flavour, like a blonde ale gently flavoured with the best bits of Nelson Sauvin hops. It's lovely fresh and summery drinking and packs a decent amount of complexity into 5.2% ABV.

The inevitable American-style pale ale is inevitably called Columbus 1492. I don't think they've quite got a grasp on what the style is meant to be as it's not very bitter and has a sizeable dose of hazy naturtrüb yeast included with every pour. There is a citrus flavour -- a clean, bright and refreshing one, full of lemon zest -- but that makes the end product seem far more like a Belgian witbier than a pale ale. It's tasty, but if you're after a proper new-world hop bang you may look elsewhere.

And then there is an actual factual witbier, called Max Glaner's Wit. I don't know who Max Glaner is but he seems to be the face of Stiegl's outreach programme to the cool people. He has an IPA as well. His 5% ABV wit isn't up to much, and tastes less witty to me than the pale ale. Instead of those zippy lemons it's quite herbal and savoury. The texture is light and the flavour thoroughly uncomplicated.

That was it for the afternoon session and we were sent off with our goody bags. In there was a Stiegl Freibier, the non-alcoholic in the range. It's plainly unfiltered and presents as a pale cloudy yellow with a handsome tight foam. There's the very typical sweet and worty flavour of an alcohol-free beer. Typical, but not very pleasant, invoking childhood memories of Sugar Puffs cereal. A big fluffy texture adds to the puffed wheat effect. There's a real and appetising green noble hop aroma, but otherwise it's unconvincing as a beer. Like some other brands from the region it's presented as an isotonic sports drink and sure, it's probably better than something thin and full of sugar, but I'd still rather have a beer.

Of that lot, the Weisse and the Freibier will be finding their way onto shelves and the Goldbräu onto bar taps. For the rest... well... I hear Salzburg is lovely for a visit. A big thanks to the Carlow team for the opportunity to try them  all.

07 July 2017

Cruiskeen Lawn

A balmy afternoon of dodging the showers in Phoenix Park was had on the June Bank Holiday Sunday when the Bloom garden festival rolled back into town. Organisers Bord Bia kindly sent me a ticket and, with one brand new beer making an appearance in the drinks tent, I had all the motivation I needed.

The format is pretty familiar by now: everything a gardener could wish for with regard to supplies and inspiration, and a major food and drink element too, showcasing independent Irish producers of pretty much everything consumable. Beer, cider and spirits get their own roomy tent, called The Bloom Inn. And new to the line-up was Costello's which, after several years as a client brewer, now runs Kilkenny's only full-production brewery and has finally expanded the range beyond its flagship red ale.

The new one is, perhaps inevitably, a pale ale. Beyond a Pale is 4.9% ABV and a dark orange colour. It's no middle-of-the-road milksop, however, and comes out fighting with a pithy, punchy bitterness. There's a gentler juicy orange middle, and a nod to modern tastes with a caraway savouriness. Overall it's nicely balanced, packed with flavour yet very accessible. With Kilkenny pretty much sorted for red ale brands these days, this will be like a breath of fresh air in its pubs.

(And speaking which, the Costello's-organised Kilkenny Craft Beer Festival is on this week, with various events around the Marble City. I'll be down tomorrow for Craft on Draught at Billy Byrne's.)

With the roster of new beers completed I dawdled around the other stands, enjoyed a couple of different Stonewell ciders, and dropped by the Hope stand to say hello. The guys had brought their prototype dry-hopped lager and, unsurprisingly for Bloom, it had run out. So it had been replaced incognito with their new dry-hopped lager ahead of its official release the following week.

It's called Underdog (not to be confused with the new Dublin pub of the same name) and is a bright golden colour with just a very fine haze in it. New World hops are very much the modus operandi here, but presented cleanly, simply and with the lighter flavours forward. So you get a spicy, spritzy, citrus-skin aroma, followed by a zesty mandarin punch that's just bitter enough to balance the sweeter peach element that follows. A sprinkle of heavier dank and a tiny white pepper complexity finish it off. It's very tasty and easy to drink. A criticism, you say? Well... one thing that bothered me is that it's not very lagery. It could quite happily pass as a pale ale, if a particularly light-bodied and crisp one. I drank it and enjoyed it but I was secretly thinking of Saaz the whole time. It's a difficult beer to be angry with, however.

That wrapped up Bloom for another year. As always with these events I hope that a few punters who were new to small-producer drinks took some new-found preferences home with them...

05 July 2017

Marks for Spencer

The United States has just one Trappist brewery, at St Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. In keeping with the Belgian convention of naming the beers after the abbey's location rather than its name, the range has the somewhat unmonastic-sounding moniker "Spencer", and I was able to find the one badged as Spencer Trappist Ale in the Mace on the South Circular Road.

At 6.5% ABV this is modestly strong for this kind of beer, though I guess there are kudos to be granted for not trying to simply slavishly clone what they make at Chimay or Westmalle. It's a hazy pale orange colour and smells of toffee mostly, with a little Belgian banana ester too. Sweetness is definitely the watchword when we move into the taste area: as well as runny caramel I get some fun pineapple and mango up front, with the warmer and rounder banana and warm cookies coming in behind, finishing with a light dusting of butterscotch and strong tea. It feels like it should be hot — there's a definite sense of dubbel's rich and boozy flavour profile — but it doesn't go all the way there. The result is something with all the elements of big Belgian-style ale but much more quaffable. A midweek sort of Trappist.

I hope we'll be seeing more of their beers in due course. Who could resist the lure of a Trappist IPA, lager or imperial stout?

03 July 2017

Cross roads

Diageo's new collaborative tendency seems to have raised a few hackles on the Irish beer scene. But before the Creature Comforts joint venture at Open Gate came to light, there was one with Two Roads, a brewery in Connecticut, not far from Diageo's US headquarters. It was a two-ended operation, with two different dark saisons collaboratively brewed, one per continent, both incorporating local botanicals. There followed a highly surreal simultaneous launch at the two breweries, Skyped from a laptop onto the big screen at Open Gate, where I'd been invited along.

A Song of the Open Road is the perfectly serviceable title for the Irish-brewed beer. It's 5% ABV and used Irish gorse and mint in the brew. Both additions sound like they'd be perfectly at home in a clean and dry saison, maybe with a slight peppery bite from the yeast and a roast grain enhancement to the dryness. Yum. Unfortunately what was served wasn't the beer I had in my head. I hate when that happens. For a start the botanicals were AWOL, and for another it tasted nothing like a saison. I double-checked with Peter from Open Gate who confirmed that it was a French saison yeast they used, which offers no explanation as to why it tastes like a dunkelweizen. Not a bad dunkelweizen, mind: a proper thick foamy head, a lovely balance between the banana and the warm roastiness, some bonus summer fruit complexity and a well-rounded body. But a saison? Not so much. I wonder if they turned out something truer to style over in Connecticut.

Anyway, moving along to the regular new additions to the Open Gate line-up on the night, of which there were two. I had had a pre-release taster of Dark Double IPA a couple of weeks previously and was not a fan, finding it too harsh and funky. The flavour had coalesced quite nicely in the intervening fortnight, though it's still something of a beast. It's 8.5% ABV and a muddy red-brown colour. There's a massively heavy green dankness in the flavour with a resinous hop burn rendered extra-napalmish by a barely-there carbonation. "Balance" isn't really an appropriate word for this beer, so let's say the hop intensity is offset somewhat by an assertive dark grain element, adding a sweeter Turkish coffee effect. Subtle it ain't, but it's not unpleasant either. It's the sort of experimental beer that one hopes the brewers have learned from and can put the lessons to use designing more accessible recipes.

Finally a new addition to the series of sour fruit beers: Deep Purple. And, once again, "sour" needs a big comforting pair of inverted commas around it. This is sticky and cordial-like, tasting intensely of blackcurrant jam. Somebody suggested Ribena but it's a realer fruit flavour than that to me. It reminded me of the super-sweet Fruit des Bois grisette that St Feuillien makes, but while that gets its sticky business done at 3.5% ABV, this one goes for the full five. It's fun and silly and I merrily horked back a pint of it, but I'd like to see Open Gate taking the training wheels off when it comes to sour. Somebody around there must know a thing or two about lactic.

And no sooner have I that committed to the blog than the Meatopia festival rocks into the yard last weekend. More from James's Gate soon.