20 April 2015

A yard of ale

As usual, Easter Saturday meant the trip to Cork for Franciscan Well's annual beer festival. I arrived in the city a little early so called in to Market Lane on Oliver Plunkett Street for lunch, and to try the beers from the adjoining Elbow Lane brewery. I'd had a couple of these (stout and lager) a few years back, when they were still being contract brewed, but haven't seen much of them since. The brewery has now added a red, a weiss and a pale ale to the line-up. Sadly, only the first of these, Wisdom, was available. And also sadly it was bady infected. There's a rich and wholesome toffee-laden red ale lurking in there somewhere but it's bookended with a phenolic buzz -- hard and jarring at the front and lasting long into the finish too -- making it taste of swimming pools, leaning towards more severe TCP. I'm always amazed when brewers deem beer that tastes so badly off to be fit for sale. Hopefully Elbow Lane will get their act together as Market Lane is a smart little bistro with good food and superb service. It deserves better beer.

A swift pint of Survivor, now re-named "Dream Catcher", in Rising Sons since it was on the way, and then into the back yard of Franciscan Well for the 2pm kick-off.

Even though this isn't Ireland's biggest beer festival any more, it still packs the crowds in and it wasn't long before the place was buzzing. 18 breweries were represented, a mix of regulars and new-comers. My starting beer was Seaweed Saison, brewed by Dungarvan when Kjetil Jikiun from Nøgne Ø came to visit. It's 6.5% ABV and a hazy pale orange colour. Dry saison spices are the main action, given extra impact by an unusually heavy texture. A bunch of us gathered round the glass to see if we could pick out the maritime elements and found a touch of iodine and ozone in the aroma and a mild saltiness in the flavour, especially as it warms. Other than that, it's pretty down-the-line for a novelty beer, which is probably a good thing.

Even though they arrive at a fairly regular clip these days it's always exciting to encounter new breweries and there were two Munster débutantes at the EasterFest. Well, West Cork Brewing has been going since late last year, but I missed their beer at the February Winter Ales Festival and was glad to be able to catch up. Roaring Ruby is the red, arriving murky from the cask and, while it could benefit from being a bit cleaner was perfectly palateable. I got lots of milk chocolate and spiced caramel notes, finishing on a slightly acidic green apple bite which helps make this sweet and filling beer surprisingly refreshing. Its stablemate is a pale ale called Sherkin Lass. This is pure apricot goodness, the light cask carbonation adding a sherbet quality making for a very smooth and quaffable pale bitter. It's the sort of beer I could picture drinking a lot of when visiting the brewery's Baltimore home.

Also making their first appearance at the festival was The Killarney Brewing Company, represented by brewer and co-owner AJ, formerly of Figueroa Brewing in California. He had an odd choice of first-run beers on offer, a helles and a golden ale. A bit similar, no? Anyway, Devil's Helles had few fans around the yard, but I was charmed by it. Yes, there's a bit of butterscotch going on, but it's within the bounds of acceptability. The density and sweetness are spot-on for authentic helles and best of all there's a crunchy green celery bite from the hops that really completes the picture nicely. Golden Spear was the other one: a simple and crisp beer with light honey and floral meadows, building as it goes to a more intense perfume.

But if it was perfume you were after, you'd have to stop by the UCC Microbrewery stand. For a second year in a row they eschewed traditional German styles and had a 5.6% ABV pale ale, named pÚCCa on offer. This was a beautiful clear gold colour but the harsh hop perfume made it tough going for me, not at all helped by a thick, almost greasy, texture, like ambergris or balsam. Too intense to be enjoyable. The students' quadruple, Innocence, was much better: dark copper in colour and smelling quite bitter or tart. The flavour is all moist fruit, however: wet juicy raisins and brown banana for a sumptuous sort of fruitcake effect. A liquorice bitterness finishes it on a flourish and there's no sign at all of the whopping 9.6% ABV.

The headliner for the UCC selection, however, was Keen-Wah‽, a beer brewed (obviously) from quinoa. It's a 100% quinoa grain bill in fact and the producers are keeping schtum about the method used, though boasting that the end result is entirely gluten-free. At only 3.3% ABV, I was expecting some sort of thin watery psuedo-beer but it was actually very impressive. There's a big bubblegum flavour, verging on clove and perhaps banana syrup too, but definitely the kind of thing you find in proper German weissbier. I got a certain lemon tartness too, bringing us closer to Belgian witbier. Either way, this stuff does a very convincing impression of real beer and could be a winner if it were commercially viable. I suspect that the cost of the main ingredient is what has kept the ABV down. If it's merely to be appreciated as an example of the brewer's art then fine: I did that.

Two dark beers to finish on. Bo Bristle has a new Stout out. Dave seems quite pleased with it. Its ancestry can be traced to the milk chocolate stout the Offaly brewery produced during the winter, though this is a much more modest 4.5% ABV. It retains a bit of lactose sugar which adds a sweet and tangy complexity to an otherwise straightforward dry Irish session stout. There's a sort of raspberry fruit tart too, which is unusual but pleasant.

And my beer of the festival was Black Lightning, a 6.5% ABV black IPA by 9 White Deer. Lots and lots of fresh Simcoe went in to dry hop this admittedly unattractive-looking murky brown beer. That gave it a fantastic zingy orange sherbet aroma. The flavour features that too, with rounded jaffa and mandarin plus bonus lavender and a tiny dry bitter bite on the finish for balance, the only sign in the flavour that this isn't simply a pale ale.

Cheers as always to the brewers and the hosts. There's talk of moving the festival out of the Franciscan Well yard altogether. I hope its unique atmosphere can be retained once the crowding issues are dealt with.



16 April 2015

Hells angles

So slow is my transference of drinking experiences to this blog that it's possible to follow the evolution of individual beers, whole styles even, in single posts. Camden Town's Indian Summer was an exciting prototype on its second annual outing when I found it on tap in The Black Sheep in the middle of last year.

It arrived looking like a kristall weiss, clear gold in a tall Germanic pint glass, topped by a generous head. The aroma was unequivocally that of an IPA, all grapefruit, lime and mandarin. But it tasted like lager: crisp, fresh and with little aftertaste. While it certainly had plenty of hop oils lurking in there, the tropical fruit flavours took primacy over the bitterness just the way I like. The end result was a complex but very refreshing and drinkable beer, expertly hiding its hefty 6.4% ABV.

I looked forward to seeing more of it but it seems Camden Town weren't prepared to leave well enough alone and you can follow the transformation in more detail on Mr Curtis's blog here. Next thing I'm walking out of DrinkStore with a 33cl can of something called India Hells Lager.

Obviously it's almost impossible to compare Indian Summer meaningfully with its successor, a beer that seems to have become the brewery's flagship, or at least the product that gets talked about most. The golden colour and pillow of foam are repeated, though I got more sweet tropical fruit in the aroma: some pineapple in with your grapefruit. I think, however, that the lager element is lost in the flavour. There's a massive fresh cut-grass bitterness, almost peppery, and then the grapefruit, lime and all the rest of that. But this time the alcohol is very apparent, even though it's a smidge lower at 6.2% ABV: the texture is heavy, thick even, very much like a warm-fermented IPA. This isn't a bad thing, and really the residual sugar provides a stage for the big hops to act out their roles expansively. But I miss the clean, crisp quaffability of the original and found the intense lime pith of IHL just a bit too much like hard work to drink.

The lager gods have answered the prayers of hopheads and while I don't want to be one of those irrelevant old fossils bleating on about balance, I do prefer my superhopped bleeding-edge lagers to be a bit more, well, lagery.

13 April 2015

Flight of the wolf

The Wicklow Wolf Brewing Company was kind enough to invite a Beoir delegation down to its headquarters in Bray for a look round and a run through the range. Established in 2014 by ex-home brewers inspired by the Colorado way of life, the compact ex-bakery near the station is now turning out 1,650 litres of beer at a time, 12 times a month, supplying 50 pubs and 200 off licences (yes, I took notes) with a range of four core beers and varying specials, all delivered unfined and unfiltered.

The brewery has been kitted out well for its new use, and particularly impressive is the tasting bar at the front: the sort of thing you'd be more likely to see in the US or London than Wicklow. Sadly it's not open for general public use. Stupid licensing laws.

I had been hoping to get a taste of the latest Wicklow Wolf seasonal, Falconer's Flight Blonde, but Quincey informed me that it had all left the brewery at that stage. Luckily, I happened across a bottle in DrinkStore a few days later and snapped that up. I still had a bottle of their last seasonal Blonde, Locavore, knocking around so I decided to open them side-by-side for comparison.

Six months on from brewing, Locavore has calmed down a little. The bitter lemon-and-wax effect I perceived when I first drank it has mellowed and there's more of a gentle sweetness going on. The new kid, however, has all of that wax in spades. Though the same colour and a tiny bit stronger, Falconer's Flight Blonde is assertively bitter, almost heading for a metallic tang. I noticed the fill level on the bottle was lower than on the Locavore and I'm putting the lighter carbonation down to that. After a moment or two at room temperature the malt starts to make its presence felt, adding an insistent honey and bubblegum complexity. The end result is something that tastes very much like a northern English golden bitter. Maybe not quite Boltmaker, but close your eyes and wish and you're nearly in the zone. The Falconer's Flight hop blend may be classically American, but this beer is a long way from Colorado.

Cheers to Quincey, Simon and the team for entertaining us. Wicklow Wolf has already expanded since our visit, with new tanks installed a few weeks ago. Though space is tight I completely agree with the management that there's a tangible benefit to being part of the neighbourhood rather than  occupying just another anonymous industrial unit.



09 April 2015

Geeks bearing gifts

A couple of north American beers today, shared by generous fellow beer nerds.

Nigel produced this bottle of Crooked Coast by Driftwood of British Columbia on a cross-country rail trip a few months back. The brewery has designated it as an altbier, and while I can see that -- it has the right sort of wholemeal biscuit malt base -- it's much bitterer than typical alt, with an unpleasant English-style waxy hit right at the front. That makes it much more like a brown bitter or a second-rate amber ale than an alt, and just not a great beer whichever way you slice it.

Meanwhile, this bomber of Stone Enjoy By 02.14.15 came via Steve and, for the record, was enjoyed just two days past the recommended date so shouldn't be too far from the brewer's intention. Besides which, it's 9.4% ABV: that seems like a stabilising strength to me, enough to carry a beer that was bottled on 9th January. It pours a clear gold and is hot and thick at first, greasy with hop oils and burning its way onto the palate with high-acid grapefruit. But a few sips in and it starts to balance out and make more sense. The heat and acidity die down a little and you're left with a mellow but spicy sipping beer. This is another one of those softly-spoken high-quality Stone beers that makes me wonder why they bother with all the bluster and machismo in their branding. "Devastatingly desireable"? I'm charmed, but I'm not devastated.

06 April 2015

Funny place to bring a dog

Drinking in the RDS on St Patrick's Day is a proud Dublin tradition. Or at least it was until the early 1960s when the spoilsports in government made it legal for pubs to open, removing the necessity to feign interest in the Irish Kennel Club's annual dog show in order to take advantage of its refreshing licensing loophole.

This year the custom returned, in a manner of speaking. After four years in the docklands, the upstart little brother of Ireland's biggest beer festival has moved in next door to its sibling. To a bigger house, too. The 2015 Irish Beer & Whiskey Festival was held in Hall 1 at the RDS, a grand space with plenty of seats and room for the amateur drinkers to stagger safely.

It wasn't quite the extravaganza of limited-run beers that the September festival tends to be, but there was plenty to keep me occupied. Eight Degrees, for instance, was showing off Enigma, a 6% ABV pale ale made with the eponymous hops, a real Australian rarity. It reminded me most of Nelson Sauvin, in its milder, gooseberry manifestation. There's a melon rind quality too, and some red apple: all the dry, tart fruit, in short. It's decent drinking but could stand to be more complex.

The other new one from the Mitchelstown machine was Polar Vortex, a 5.8% ABV pale ale brewed with Cascade, Simcoe and Citra. I got a lot of resinousness from this and it's even a little acidic. Only the big malt body saves it from harshness. Rather than the hop explosions we've become used to from Eight Degrees, this is altogether more rounded and nuanced, something I certainly appreciated about it.

White Hag was present at the festival in a big way, bringing a nice comfy couch for the crew to lounge on behind the bar. It was a long five days of festival, after all. New beers included White Sow, a 5.2% ABV milk chocolate oatmeal stout. It sounds more interesting that it turned out to be. The milk chocolate is right there, smooth and sweet at the centre of the flavour, but that's about the extent of what happens. My attention wandered, even when sipping a sample. They also had a version infused with fresh coffee at the bar and that simply replaced one single-dimension flavour with another.

I was much more intrigued by Searbh Rua, described as an "imperial sour red". Wut? Well, it's 7.9% ABV, and very definitely red. But the first sip reveals it to be massively sweet. It certainly makes up for the stout's shortcomings in its complexity: I got raspberries, cherries and even chocolate in the first few seconds. The sourness arrives late, providing just a little kick of tartness right on the end. The alcohol heat is very present throughout and I'd be placing this on the shelf with the barley wines. It's not a clean and invigorating sour beer; more a warming fireside sipper.

The "OMG When Do You People Sleep?" award for overactive brewing activity went to Trouble who had three brand new beers, plus the regular range and minus one new one they didn't reckon was ready yet. My beer of choice, and beer of the festival, was Centennial SMASH, 4.8% ABV and served on keg and cask, though I only drank the latter. Knock a percentage point off this and we'd have Ireland's Jarl. It's has that dry and ever so slightly soapy floral character of the Scot, but a beautiful smoothness and plenty of bright, zippy citric notes. Insanely drinkable material.

I was less impressed by Wandering Star, a blonde ale with nothing much going on other than some dry grain husk and an unpleasant tang of marker pens. Fallen Idol cheered me right up after that: a murky brown ale smelling edgily of gunpowder and weed and with a powerfully juicy flavour, mostly consisting of abundant, decadent peaches. At 6.3% ABV it demands a bit of respect but is great fun at the same time.

My other festival highlight alongside Fallen Idol was O Brother's Bonita, another dark hop-forward beer. Instead of fruit flavours, however, this is big on piquancy: liquorice and perfumery spices are to the fore, backed by dark chocolate and a lip-smacking dry roast.

Other breweries I just tried one new beer from were Independent, which had a new IPA, a 7% ABV job utilising Citra, Cascade and Summer hops, smelling spicy and tasting very grassy but without being too bitter, balanced by a tasty sweet orange candy character; and Kinnegar, whose Cup & Saucer coffee stout really lays on the thick brown-sugar-laced coffee but there's plenty of roast so while it's certainly heavy, as befits 6.2% ABV, it's not sickly or difficult drinking.

White Gypsy had an Australian Pale Ale, 4.8% ABV, amber coloured, toffee aroma'd and tasting of perfume and caramel with a rather sticky texture. Much better was White Gypsy Helles, a tiny bit of diacetyl but also lots of crisp green celery and a little white pepper too, alongside a golden syrup sweetness. Its best feature is the texture: authentic Bavarian levels of soft smoothness making it very quaffable indeed.

Finally to Station Works. I mentioned in relation to their brown ale the other week that they've been doing local recreations of Cumberland Breweries beers. Two more to report on from this festival: Station Works Irish Stout is nicely dry with a sharp black malt edge but smooth too, making for a plain but easy-drinking pint. Only a slight rubbery waft in the aroma spoils it, and only a little. I liked Station Works Irish Blonde too: no aroma, but cool and crisp like a good lager, and every bit as refreshing. If Station Works has truly set itself a mission to breathe new life into cask beer in Ireland then this is sort of beer that could do it. This and Trouble Centennial SMASH, obviously.


03 April 2015

Good things in small packages?

I had an interesting conversation with a brewer at a recent beer festival about bottle sizes. He pointed out that in the UK there's a tendency for breweries to use bottle size as an indicator of which side of the craft divide they sit. I can't say I'd noticed, but having run a few examples in my head, I now see what he means: 330ml shows you're young and hip and craft, whereas a half litre leaves you open to the accusation of being a fuddy-duddy family-owned provider of boring brown bitter. As a home drinker and a pint man, I'm very glad that this worrying trend hasn't really caught on here. But today I'm exploring some British beer from very much the "craft" side of the house, all sold 330ml at a time. As it happens, it's also Session day and our subject is Cans or Bottles, so I'm including both formats and may even throw in the odd observation on their respective merits. But back to craft beer as applies to British brewing...

The archetypal self-declared UK craft brewery is BrewDog and they had embraced the 330 even when they were still brewing cask ale and writing their best-befores in biro. Nowadays they're big enough to send random bloggers free beer, like this here bottle of Bourbon Baby which arrived in the post a while back. As the name suggests, it's barrel aged but of a modest strength: just 5.9% ABV. Cola-coloured with a cream-toned head, it does have the spicy vanilla scent of bourbon, but enticingly so, and not overpowering. The base beer is a sweet and toffeeish scotch ale and that's still just about detectable in the taste, but the woody whisky dominates the flavour completely. I'm used to the roundness you get in stronger, darker bourbon-aged beers and this is showing me why they're made that way: there's a thinness at this beer's core which doesn't do it any favours. If you love the taste of bourbon in beers, and don't mind it being there for its own sake, then this is for you. Seekers of a more integrated beer experience need not apply, however.

Siren is a brewery whose beers I've only ever encountered on draught before, so this bottle of Undercurrent oatmeal pale ale is the first I've ever had in the house. I'm a frequent ranter against the bottle conditioning of small-pack hoppy beers and this is a definite offender: murky orange to begin with and then a surprise extra swish of yeasty goo going in accidentally at the end. Arrgh! At 4.5% ABV that's bound to have detrimental effect on the hops. But I don't think it did. Undercurrent has a simple but lovely aroma of oranges and grapefruit while the flavour screams freshness: piney resins, juicy mandarins, sweet tinned peaches and a pinch of gunpowder spicing. It's a session-strength hop tour-de-force (though quite possibly a waste of oatmeal) but I'd still like a pint of it. At a recent focus group for a new Irish beer brand I said some very rude things about the test version of their pale ale. Standard-setting beers like Undercurrent are the reason why.

So I was totally stoked facing into Broken Dream "breakfast stout". It's not so spectacular, however, being a damn decent but rather plain thick, strong stout of 6.5% ABV. There's lots of roast, or possibly even generous amounts of burnt; dry overall with a streak of very dark chocolate to lighten the mood. Usually, breweries of Siren's calibre toss in a dash of fruit or flowers, but that's all absent here, more's the pity. I'll need to look elsewhere for that sort of action.

And here it is, in the aluminium overcoat of Beavertown's Holy Cowbell stout. Once again the yeast gets the better of me as overenthusiastic pouring dumps some beige lumps from the bottom of the can into my otherwise flawless black beer. But yet again the beer gods smile down upon me because there's nothing that can interfere with this beer's greatness. The exotic fruit aromas entice, Bisto-style, from three rooms away and the flavour is a punchy mix of bitter veg leaves, fleshy tropical fruit and invigorating bath salts. Whereas something this strong and dark normally departs from the palate on its bitterer aspects, it's the sumptuous juicy fruit that's the parting shot here which makes the beer very moreish indeed. It's only slightly weaker than the first beer of this post but packs so much more in.

Is it the packaging format that makes Holy Cowbell so amazing? No, I don't think so. It's spectacular on draught too, for one thing. I'll admit I like the practicalities of canned beer: the robustness and stackability, and the speed at which they chill. But I also respect the opinion of those fusty half-litre merchants at Thornbridge when they say the case for quality is unproven. For the moment I'm not fussed what a brewery puts its beer in, as long as what comes out is the grade of Undercurrent and Holy Cowbell.

01 April 2015

Crap, three ways

This trilogy of beers from Poland's Łomża brewery presents an interesting case study for students of lager (sure weren't we all, nudge nudge). The three are all the same style and 5.7% ABV strength, but made with slightly different production methods, for comparison.

The starter, or possibly the culmination since it's had most done to it, is Łomża Export. I don't know if the brewery is making a serious claim to the formal Dortmunder style, but it is strong enough and is the appropriate shade of rich dark gold. That's where the similarity ends, however. The flavour is crisp and husky with a touch of corniness in there, though the ingredients list admits no adjuncts. There's also a bitter, slightly unpleasantly gastric bite, especially in the aroma, along with sulphurous rubber and metallic aspirin.

It's not a great start, but the less processed ones are bound to be better, right?

We get an upgrade to brown glass for Łomża Export Non-Pasteurised. It looks identical, but I suppose that's hardly surprising. And it tastes less awful too: rounded, more integrated and with none of the nasty pointy edges. It's not a great beer by any standards, but it's clean and there are some tasty red berry notes and some proper Dortmunder breadiness, though that grain husk lingers on too. Does pasteurisation really cause all those acidic flaws? I'm sceptical, but that appears to be what the evidence suggests.

And to conclude, Łomża Unfiltered. A predictable layer of sediment on the bottom of the bottle but careful pouring yielded a clear glass, dark gold again. The dry grain husks start early but there's not really much else going on: it lacks the pleasant complexities of the unpasteurised one, and also the nasty ones of the original, with a dull watery core in the middle. It livens up a little with the lees poured in, the crisp cereal becoming a softer, sweeter biscuit, so it's got that going for it, but still far from being a flagship example of the joys of unfiltered lager.

I'd recommend the non-pasteurised one if you absolutely have to choose, but your mileage may vary and in all honesty I'd suggest driving a different vehicle altogether.