02 May 2016

Feel the Gs

We don't have celebrity brewers in Ireland, for very good reasons, but if we did, Alex Lawes would be a candidate. From award-winning homebrew before winning awards for homebrew was really a thing, a spell at James's Gate, to Rye River where his tenure as head brewer has seen some of the best hop-forward beers Irish brewing has produced arriving and making waves, both under the brewery's own McGargle's brand, and the two supermarket house labels it produces. So it's entirely unsurprising that there's been a buzz about the first beers under his own solo marque, Whiplash.

"Brewed under contract for Whiplash by Whiplash at Rye River Brewing" explains the copy on the label: the honesty of the text offers refreshment before I've even taken a mouthful. Scaldy Porter is the first one I opened, a 33cl bottle at 5.5% ABV. It's a thick beast, glugging slowly out of the bottle to become a dense black glassful topped by a dark tan head. Roast looms large in the aroma, and that dark -- almost burnt -- character is the centre of the flavour. Around it orbits an array of other tastes, nothing outré, but it's unusual to find so many in a single beer. You get strong espresso, a milky creaminess, bitter dark chocolate and some chewy butterscotch toffee. It's all rather serious and there's an acridity in the finish that doesn't exactly invite the next sip. The label describes it as a "robust" porter; I'd say downright surly. While definitely tasty and well-made, you do need to be in the mood to do battle with this one. Easy drinking it isn't.

A change of format for its fraternal twin: portentiously-titled Surrender to the Void double IPA comes in a shiny monochrome can styled like one of them high-art Danish contract brews. It's 8.5% ABV and beautifully clear, a pale orange-gold. From the get-go it's another complex one. Various hop elements vie for superiority in the aroma, loudest among them the juicy mandarin and viscous pine resin. There's nothing viscous in the texture however. Though the carbonation is low and strength high, it has a fantastic light touch, the warmth only really becoming apparent after a few swallows, and happening in the belly rather than the mouth. Assuming the best-before is a year from canning, mine had spent a mere week in the tin before I drank it, which goes some way to explaining just how banging the hop flavour was. Bitter pine is the first impression, but it steps off after only a second letting sweeter zesty orange oils come through, lightening further to tangerine and mango. This fades quickly leaving a sticky marijuana funk as the finish. The malt base is... there, somewhere, probably, but you don't really get to taste it: Surrender to the Void is a beer with a hop obsession and wants to share it with you, loudly and at length. Alex received big plaudits for McGargle's Francis' Big Bangin' IPA and I hope this one gets equal attention. It's a better beer, in my opinion, and I'm not the sort of beer geek who thinks that you just need to up the ABV and add more hops to achieve that. There's a roundness and a nuance to Surrender that's rare in strong and hoppy Irish beer but which this pulls off neatly. If anyone fancies putting it in a blind taste against Galway Bay's Of Foam & Fury I'd be interested to see the result: I think the contention would be very close.

Alex very kindly gifted me a couple of cans of his third beer, released the week before last. Rollover is a session IPA of just 3.8% ABV. It's a murky little chap, pouring a cloudy pale orange and looking more like a witbier in the glass than anything else. A clever bit of sleight of hand sees the addition of oats to the grist, presumably to help boost the body of what might otherwise have turned out a little thin, and it works too: the texture is convincingly weighty, providing a perfect platform for the hops, though it's rather flatter than I expected. Sweet satsumas are the aroma, laced with some sharper pine, and the flavour performs a similar double act. First it's juicy orange sherbet but that's quickly upstaged by bitingly acidic resins. The pineyness grows as you go along and does bring the cumulative effect a little too close to floor cleaner for comfort -- I think I'd like a touch more fruit softness than this offers. Those after a bitter bang for their buck will definitely get a kick out of it, and there's no question about the freshness, though its sessionability will depend on your tolerance level for explosively flavourful new world hops.

So that's Whiplash: another front on which Irish beer is rendering imports increasingly unnecessary.

28 April 2016

All your birthdays at once

My blog turns 11 today, in this year of anniversaries. We've already had Carlow Brewing's 20th birthday beer, and I'm hoping we'll see one from The Porterhouse later as well. But even little tyke Eight Degrees decided to stick a fistful of candles in a cake and release an IPA to celebrate five years a-brewing (you can see a baby photo here. Aww!) With characteristic modesty it's called Nailed It and the stated aim is to be a straight-up, down-the-line, essence-of-IPA IPA.

I'm not used to Eight Degrees beers in bottles so was a little surprised by how hazy it was: that's probably down to clumsy pouring on my part. The aroma is certainly in the Goldilocks zone of IPA perfection, promising messy, juicy mango and passionfruit and spiky pine resin and thick herbal dank. "But where's the grapefruit?" I hear you wail. Fear not, it's right at the front of the flavour, though getting fuzzed a little by the yeast. This acidity and the piney spicing form the centre of the flavour, not leaving much room for the fruit elements, and that pesky yeast adds a harsh savoury tone to the finish that lasts an unpleasantly long time. There's a lovely soft mouthfeel and the strength is a fairly modest 5.8% ABV so really this beer just needs a little cleaning up to be excellent. I'd recommend going for the draught version, if you see it.

I bought my bottle of Nailed It in McHugh's off licence in Kilbarrack, the first time I'd been to either of the highly-rated McHugh's shops. While there I of course took the opportunity to pick up a bottle of their exclusive RoadTrip Extra Stout. This was brewed late last year and is the second in a series which was also prompted by an anniversary: McHugh's 20th. The first was RoadTrip IPA, brewed at Kinnegar, which has found a second life as Kinnegar's own Crossroads IPA. This time around, Independent Brewing of Connemara played host, for a 6.3% ABV stout brewed with a power combo of American hops: Magnum, Chinook and Cascade.

It pours almost imperially thickly and I thought there wasn't going to be any head on it until near the end when I was surprised by a sudden surge of brown foam. This settled back into a luxurious ice cream float of bubbles and a second pour finished the job. The American hops are very obvious from the aroma: a distinct tang of grapefruit skin in with the chocolate and coffee. And this theme continues in the flavour. This time the dark malts are in their rightful place in the stout flavour profile -- high-cocoa dark chocolate is the protagonist: dry, but with a certain oleaginous quality, adding richness -- but it's flanked by spritzy citrus zest, rising from the middle and becoming louder towards the end. Each mouthful starts soft and silky but finishes sharply invigorating. I can imagine some purists having a problem with this brash Americanisation of our national beer style but I've no time for such prescriptivism: this is a magnificent tasting beer showing genuine brewing talent. Not many months after this came out, Independent had a black IPA of roughly the same strength brewed with Wood Key, a gypsy label which includes some of the McHugh's RoadTrippers. I wonder are the recipes related. Either way, I would very much like to see this beer also take a life of its own, as RoadTrip 1 did.

Then, as a surprise birthday bonus, McHugh's sent me a free bottle of the third in the RoadTrip series shortly after it was launched. Staying at Independent, this is RoadTrip Whiskey Barrel Aged Stout. The hop listing is the same as the above and it's only 1% ABV stronger, so I'm guessing it started out as the same beer. But it's been given three months in ex-rum Teeling whiskey casks. Again, the head is slow to form but eventually does so, albeit without so much enthusiasm this time. Chocolate is still the main element of the flavour: darkly bitter and given just a slight spirit and vanilla edge by the whiskey barrel. While the hops aren't as bright and fresh as they are in the other stout they are still present, adding a gently floral rosewater complexity to the centre. After a moment or two the sweetness and fruit fades into the background allowing a more serious dry roasted quality finish things off. While definitely a big beer, it's not so heavy or boozy that it's tough going to drink, and the 500ml serving size is entirely justified. If, like me, you like your barrel-aged beers with just a subtle suggestion of the cask then this is one to add to your want list, though on balance I did prefer RoadTrip 2 with its punchy burst of citrus hops.

And so on to Year 12 and whatever, and wherever, the next beer is.
[swishes cape]
[exits]

25 April 2016

Brother beyond

The beers from Leeds's Northern Monk Brewing Company are imported to Ireland by the owners of Galway Bay Brewery so it's not surprising that they're a fairly regular feature of the guest taps across the brewery's estate. Against the Grain had what amounted to a tap takeover just before Easter with a slew of monkish offerings on the bar.

Taking the opportunity to tick off the ones that were new to me, I began with Black Arches black IPA. It's a strong 'un at 6.7% ABV and packs in huge amounts of everything. Sweet caramel and treacle occupy the centre, flanked by harshly bitter citrus and oily hop resins. The malt comes back in the finish with a dry cocoa powder effect. There's a lot going on but I found it too discordant to be enjoyable: the dark malt and hops fight with each other and the drinker is left to deal with the resulting mess. Black Arches is a tiring beer that needs a time-out.

Rapscallion (L), Faith (R)
No style was advertised for Rapscallion, only that it's 5.3% ABV and based on a recipe from the 17th century. It's bright orange and smells thickly of liquorice. Different herbs fill out the flavour: I detected lavender in particular, but also the cardamom effect found in Hilden's Barney's Brew. It's not unpleasantly herbal, overall, as long as you manage to keep thoughts of bathwater from your mind. Research indicates that the trick was done with nothing more involved than ginger, coupled with orange zest and lots of UK hops. Right at the end I got a sensation of orange pith showing that the zest wasn't completely lost, but really this is all about those olde worlde herbs. Rather enjoyable, if you like such things, as I do.

Faith is one of the brewery's core range: a US-style pale ale at 5.1%. It's fine: looking identical to Rapscallion with a slightly sweaty tone to its aroma. The flavour is sweet and heavy on the jaffa orange, which I found a little surprising given the brewery's assertion that Citra is the main hop. Like I say: passable, but not terribly exciting; you've tasted this style done better.

And having covered Northern Monk's pale ale I wasn't quite sure what True North was meant to be when I saw it on tap at another Galway Bay pub, The Beer Market. It was chalked up as another pale ale, though this time the strength is just 3.7% ABV. It's a clear gold with a sharply bitter waxy flavour and a surprisingly weighty caramel-sweet malt base. It took me a while to get my head around what I had: the small serving measure and keg dispense were distractions from the fact that this is a straight-up, ey-up, northern bitter, and a rather good one at that. Once I'd figured that out, the classic English orange pith and distinctly Yorkshire honey lacing were perceptible. This is not a beer for fancy glassware; this is one to settle into and quaff by the pint. I'm impressed by how close to a cask classic it tastes when served kegged.

Good beer is good beer, regardless of dispense. But you knew that already.

22 April 2016

Meanwhile, down at the pub

The newest trend in Dublin's beer scene is one that's caught me by surprise but is pleasing to see. For the first time, pubs are being acquired by breweries other than the producers who primarily sell via their own outlets. The ball began rolling with Carlow Brewing taking on Brewery Corner in Kilkenny, and Carrig has had The Barrelstore in its native Carrick-on-Shannon for a while, but now Carrig has opened a new location here in the capital.

Bar Rua occupies a grand Tiger-era construction on Clarendon Street: a stack of modest-sized bar rooms mixing quiet corners with open spaces and commanding lovely views of the busy streetscape outside. The selection is varied, including beers from several Irish producers and an international craft selection as well. There's the full Carrig range, of course, and a house beer: Rua IPA.

As befits the name, it's red, and slightly hazy with it. And perhaps unsurprisingly there's a touch of amber ale to the flavour: caramel malt to the fore, contrasting neatly with an assertive citrus bitterness. The body is light, making it an easy-drinking inoffensive offering, as is appropriate for a house beer. While it's refreshing and quaffable, if you want an interesting beer to take time over it'll serve that purpose quite happily as well.

And what makes this a trend rather than an incident is the news that Meath's Brú Brewery will soon be operating Smyth's of Fairview as a tied house. I look forward to seeing how they handle the on-trade. I'm thinking cask, and plenty of it.

Brehon Brewhouse doesn't own a pub as yet but availed of the facilities at 57 The Headline to host a special evening for a special version of its special new beer. Brehon Rising imperial stout (another 1916 beer) was brewed to be mostly sold in 75cl boxed bottles. But, after ageing in whiskey barrels, a few gallons were racked off into an oak cask and that's what was put in the bar a few weeks ago.

The effect was interesting, and unexpected. There was no whiskey character to speak of, and only a small bite of oakiness. The main feature in both the aroma and flavour was sherry. Not the dry white sherry effect of oxidation, but the round, fruity flavour of good Oloroso. There is an Irish coffee warmth to it -- hardly surprising at 10%+ ABV -- and it leaves a sweet brown sugar deposit on the lips. The finish is quick and the texture light, making it a very drinkable sort of monster. It would be very easy to forget it's meant to be a sipper. While enjoyable now, I'd say it's one that will age well in the bottle for a year or two.

That wasn't the only surprise of the evening. There was an unexpected new beer as well: Brehon Pale Ale, an easy-drinking 4.5% ABV golden coloured chap. It shares a jaffa orange character with its big brother Stony Grey: a spicy, oily jasmine perfume kind of vibe, and then a bitterer pith in the finish. The low strength belies a full and almost chewy body, even though it's definitely the hops not the malt to the fore. The bitterness is perhaps a little severe for my taste, but it's a decent, well-balanced and sessionable pint and fills an obvious gap in the Brehon range.

Lastly for this round-up, and with no pub connection other than the fact I drank it in one, Huck, a new saison from O Brother. When Padhraig (one of the titular Brothers) told me that their forthcoming saison was going to be 6.5% ABV I winced a bit. Strong fruity saison rarely does it for me and I much prefer the crisper, lower-strength sort. So I was apprehensive when I got an entire pintful in The Beer Market. And yes, it's big on the esters that can make saisons tough drinking, but there's plenty in this beer's favour that left me smiling at the end. Most of all it's the zest: a biting, witbier-like orangey spritz that helps clean up the worst of the alcohol excess. There's a crunchy dry wheatiness spiced up by a white pepper character which is enough to place it in the saison good books, and a juicy honeydew melon effect which isn't the most difficult of Belgian fruity flavours to deal with. While definitely too heavy to be considered refreshing, it is a rewarding beer to drink and, ABV aside, few hardened saison fans will find much to dislike in it. Huck gets a qualified thumbs-up from me.

20 April 2016

Not on your life

I had no idea what this beer was when I acquired it, only that it's Danish and has a green label. So, hops, right?

Kissmeyer/Ølkollectivet '45/'85 was brewed as a salute to the Danish army's Royal Lifeguards. It's 4.9% ABV and came out the clear coppery gold of a märzen. There was some yeasty gunk in the bottle but it was good enough to stay there. One sniff made it very clear that it wasn't going to wow me with hops. Instead it has a dusty, husky smell: something that could be a German-style lager, or even a softly-spoken saison.

You can add Belgian-style blonde ale into the mix too, I discovered on tasting. Though quite dry, and crackling with fizz, there's a rounder fruit element as well: the apple-and-pear esters that speak of warm Belgian fermentation. And that's really the long and short of it: no real hops to speak of, no spicy complexity and not a peep out of the many Danish delicacies mentioned on the label, not that my ability to identify sorrel, woodruff or beech buds is especially well-honed. It's not even easy to drink: the carbonation is so lively it physically hurt the inside of my mouth, while the finish is like sparkling water in that it's cleansing, but thirst-inducing too.

Should this come your way, unless there's a Danish guardsman to toast, you can go on past it. I'm just glad to have it out of my fridge, which is what One-Shot Wednesdays are for.

18 April 2016

Four of a kind

Multiple, near simultaneous, releases from Galway Bay today. Despite breaking in a new brewer, or perhaps because, they've been hard at it over there.

First to come my way, with no fanfare whatsoever, was Galway Bay Export Stout, badged as a very imperial 10.2% ABV in The Black Sheep, though apparently only around 7.8%, according to the brewer. It doesn't even taste as big as that: the roast is light, the coffee element muted and the alcohol very much behaving itself. This is decent quality drinking for sure, but fans of big stout would likely want more of a bang than it delivers.

Off down the other end of the ABV scale next, and an amber ale called Aikau, at just 4.5% ABV. It's a light and zippy little number, putting fun candy sweetness next to some seriously dense and dank hop resins in a mismatched buddy-cop movie of a beer, and every bit as entertaining. While I do miss the marzipan chewiness that marks out darker and stronger amber ales, I'm also pleased that we're spared the bitter sweaty taste which often comes with. While perhaps not a beer to inspire considered and serious analysis, it's a very nice pint: bringing the session IPA lightness of touch to the amber ale genre. A big shout-out to hop variety Mosaic: the bringer of jollity.

Centrepiece of the busy Galway Bay release schedule was Change of the Guard, a collaboration on a technicality, being jointly brewed by new head brewer Will and his predecessor Chris who has moved on to White Frontier Brewery, high in the Swiss Alps. CotG is badged as a "triple red IPA", the first I've ever met. And yes, it's red in colour -- a hazy pinkish really -- and very high in alcohol at 11.5% ABV. The hops march out in formation right from the start: Simcoe, Chinook and Mosaic again, oozing oily resins with passionfruit juiciness and a volatile note of diesel and onions on the finish. The malt provides a substantial dose of caramel to accompany this, but the beer manages to stay dry and not harsh, hot or sticky. Brewing balance into a beer like this is quite an achievement though I can't help thinking it's sort of its undoing as well. One could level the accusation that it's a bit bland: for all the bigness of the recipe there's nothing that makes it stand out. I've tasted this level of flavour intensity in IPAs half its strength. It's a petty quibble, though: Change of the Guard is quality stuff.

Bringing up the rear is Beneath the Brambles which arrived across the chain late last week. It's a blackberry IPA but there's nothing we can do about that at this late stage. I did my best to hold my scepticism about fruited IPAs in check while I gave it a go in Against the Grain. It's an entertaining orangey-purple colour, thoroughly shot through with haze, resembling pink grapefruit juice more than anything. The blackberries were definitely fresh when they went in as their flavour really dominates the foretaste, sumptuously juicy. It would be lovely if matters ended there, but no, it insists on reminding you that it's an IPA. And it does this with a big, hard and harsh bitterness, metallic tasting and scorching the throat. Every mouthful is a two-act play ending in horrible tragedy. Put on a more neutral base, like a wheat beer or pale lager, this would probably be quite fun. I have no objection to big berry flavours in beer; hell, I'll drink a pint of Früli then order a second, but making fruit fight with hops is just not on. You can get away with it if the base ale is pale and light enough, and the hops and fruit are sufficiently complimentary -- version 1 of BrewDog's Elvis Juice being a good example -- but going in hard and heavy with the hops and then expecting the fruit to enhance this is a mistake, and not an enjoyable mistake.

I understand that the pace of new beers at Galway Bay is set to continue, and that we can expect more fruited IPAs too. Well come on, then. Let's get it over with.

15 April 2016

Belly up

On my way out of the Franciscan Well winter beer festival at the end of January, Declan from Yellow Belly gave me four bottles of his beer. It took me a while to get around to them, but here's the skinny.

The first was released under Declan's own Otterbank label. In fact, that's the only label on the thing and I knew only from memory that it's a damson-infused Berliner Weisse which I believe is called Damson In Distress, part of Otterbank's This Is Berlin series. It's the murky orangey-gold colour of a tripel and features a scattering of yeasty gobbets which stuck politely to the bottom of the glass. It smells like a faro: sugar-sweet with a bricky nitric tang. There's almost no foretaste but after a second or two the sourness pinches the side of the tongue while a highly attenuated wheaty dryness sandpapers the back of the palate. The fruit, which I'd be hard pressed to identify as damson, exists more as a vapour, hovering above the busy beery action before disappearing up the back of the nose. This beer is tremendous fun: not too dry and not too sour, but with a lot of the complexity you get in proper aged Belgian gueuze. It's definitely not one of your production-line easy-bake Berliners that are something of a fashion these days: this tastes like work went into it.

Now, damson Berliners are easy enough to identify with minimal research, but what about this dark and oily chap with a Yellow Belly label on it? Steve has it entered on RateBeer as Yellow Belly Imperial Stout so I'll go with that, though we seem to have suspiciously the only two bottles on record. It smells of molasses and old coffee, with a scarier note of black marker pen. Dark chocolate and bourbon biscuit are the guts of the flavour, set atop heavy leather and cigar smoke, but there's also that somewhat acrid high-alcohol gasoline taste. It's not a beer to drink quickly, even though the texture is quite light for such a boozy beast. I suspect that it's just a bit green and beer like this needs a year or two some place quiet to mellow out.

To the big lads next: the first outings in the brewery's barrel-aged series. Yellow Belly Barrel Aged Barley Wine is no. 1 and clocks in at 9.9% ABV. It's a murky chestnut red colour with a stable collar of white foam. My first impression on sipping is of sawdust: the barrel seems to have left behind a very fresh and sappy wood character with a bitter resin quality which I suspect has nothing to do with the English hops. There's a touch of grape fruit (not grapefruit) lacing this, while the beer is more felt than tasted: a soft and warming pillow of malt; a sensation of hard toffee; but no more than that. The sawdust and pine resins sweep back in and dominate the finish as they dominated the start. I won't lie: it's tough drinking, and a 75cl bottle is not to be attempted alone. Another one that's best placed in the stash for ageing, perhaps?

Second in the series is Yellow Belly Barrel Aged Brown Ale, at a more modest 7% ABV. There's a fierce crackle as this pours and the big off-white foam subsides to a thin skim. The aroma gives of a sense of the marker pens found in the imperial stout, but also a more pleasant coffee confectionery smell. It tastes dry and lightly fruity. I thought there was no contribution from the Chardonnay barrel but hang on: aren't Chardonnays dry and lightly fruity? Maybe that's what's going on. There's certainly none of the raw wood found in the Barley Wine. The more I ventured into it, the more I found white grape to be the dominant favour in this surprisingly subtle beer, which is a very strange sensation, and especially when you're expecting the usual coffee and chocolate of a brown ale. It has the rounded estery greasiness of the style, but really very little of the flavour, just the lightest dusting of milk chocolate. While not madly complex it does make for enjoyable, relaxing drinking.

Cheers to the Lambert's team for the bottles, and the verdict? Big strong beers and barrel-ageing have their place, but a well made low ABV sour beer offers a quiet excellence that their bluster rarely manages to match. More Berliner weisse, please.