25 July 2016

Solo treat

I made it my new year resolution to make more use of Pifko, the Czech pub on Dublin's south quays, a place which has been quietly stocking more interesting Czech beers alongside the Urquell, Herold and Kozel. I recently found myself with a bit of time on my hands and a need for some hearty food so I dropped in for some roast pork on bramboráky and a nosy at the taps.

Three beers were advertised from the "Slaný Brewery" which, following subsequent research, turned out to be Pivovar Antoš, a brewpub in the north-western Czech Republic. It produces a broad range of beers in both Czech and foreign styles.

With my starter I got a mug of Bohemia Pale Ale, a darkish gold and looking for all the world like a classic světlý ležák. And the first taste goes along with this for a moment or two, a rich golden syrup malt character, enough to make me wait for the grassy burst of Saaz hops. But grass came there none and instead the hop contingent is an odd, harshly bitter, lemon rind twang. This becomes unpleasantly metallic as it fades out. But good brewing practice covers its faults: there's a clean finish and a soft texture, both working to make it a drinkable, enjoyable beer overall. I get the impression of a lager brewer trying to be clever and not quite managing to pull it off. But if you want a pale ale whose best bits are like pilsner, this is your man.

My pork arrived, and with it the beer advertised as  "Slaný Amber Ale", a 6%-er which I think is Antošův Amber Ale. Going on the previous I was expecting some sort of hacked polotmavý but it's not that. There's a big Cascade aroma, full of the earthy, spicy pine of that hop, while the flavour is convincingly American. It has that sweet fusion of fudge and marzipan typical of the style, spiced up with citrus trills and dank bass notes. There's definitely no quick finish here: this time the metallic bitterness hangs around on the palate for ages. Overall, it is a little harshly hopped, and rather heavy going to drink, but it's wholesome, filling, and complex, and pairs quite adequately with a big chunk of Czech meat, mushrooms and deliciously over-garlicked potato pancakes.

Dessert was Choo Choo, which I lazily assumed to be some sort of chocolate porter but is in fact a beast of a black IPA. It's 7.8% ABV, black as sin and with a very burnt bitter flavour. There's more than a hint of tmavé about it: it has the same sort of liquorice bitterness you find in many Czech dark lagers, just concentrated intensely. Extra bitterness comes from a quadruple-espresso roast edge. There's no fruit character coming from the hops and the end result is a beer that's very big, grown-up and a little bit of a chore to drink even a small glass of. But if you're looking for a challenge and are bored of a million IBUs of grapefruit, this certainly offers something different.

I look forward to the taps at Pifko rotating around to something else as interesting as this lot. It is very pleasant to get the cutting edge of Czech craft brewing delivered almost to my doorstep.

22 July 2016

How rude!

Three from Colorado's Ska Brewing today.

There's a certain sense of rush-job about the branding on the can of True Blonde, the stark canary yellow makes me feel that the brewers may be slightly ashamed of it; that the 5%-er is a commodity beer, designed for nothing more than to fill a space in the line-up. Which is a shame because it's really rather nice. It's nearly but not quite clear yellow and has a lovely soft easy-going texture. The flavour offers mild lemony bubblegum, a helles-like lagery grain, and a cheeky pinch of spicing right on the end: cedar, sandalwood or something similarly aftershave-ish. If it happens that you are just looking for a commodity quencher then this will fit the bill very nicely indeed, but it rewards more considered drinking as well.

I followed it with Rudie, a session IPA with a very modest 4.5% ABV. I think it suffers a little from the lack of malt gravity: the hops are harsh and grassy and the finish is an abrupt watery stop. The fun features of hops are all present: juicy mango and passionfruit, plus heavy oily dank, but you only get flashes before they're buried under the acidic burn. I appreciate the brewers' efforts at squeezing all the stonking hop flavours of a big IPA into a low-alcohol package, but it hasn't really worked. This needs more malt or a gentler hand on the bitterness dial.

Which brings us to Modus Mandarina. I'm on record as being basically against the fruited IPA trend but Ken in DrinkStore asserted that this one is worth trying. The can tells me it uses orange peel rather than the whole fruit or its juice and that's in its favour. It's a beautiful dark copper colour and smells faintly of old-fashioned orangeade, the lurid stuff we drank as children which had never had an orange anywhere near it. The peel really shows itself in the flavour: oily and waxy, but not unpleasant. And that's about all that happens. A burning bitterness finishes it off but there's not much flavour contribution from the Mandarina Bavaria hops. One-dimensional, perhaps, but it is enjoyable to drink. There's an uncomplicated richness to it, a luxurious quality that I found very relaxing. Most importantly it's not trying too hard to be an IPA.

20 July 2016

Colder days

I thought I'd missed out on Jack Cody's last-but-one beer completely for this year. There was none to be had at Bloom in the Park, nor any when I visited the brewery back in the spring. It's a neat little operation on the outskirts of Drogheda -- a 10hL system, doing a double brewday twice a week, employing solely whole leaf hops and shipping about 90% of its output in bottles. Thanks to Geoff for showing us around (and giving us a lift back to town).

The bottle I was looking for was Hibernicus IPA, first released last March and I finally captured one in my local SuperValu last month. 5.2% ABV and dry-hopped, boasts the label. It's kind of a dark orange colour and fairly hazy with it. The head dies down quickly after pouring leaving just a skim of bubbles on the top.

I get a heavy sweetness in the aroma, part of which is the malt, some is the fruity hops, but there's a high alcohol acetone element to it also, which doesn't bode well. The texture is surprisingly light, which is a good thing, but the first flavour to jump out is a rubbery note very similar to the one I found in their latest release, the English-style bitter Worcester Sauce, plus a dry papery oxidation twang. Some part of that production process is not doing what it's supposed to.

Peering around the wonky parts, there is a nice IPA in here: a malt/hop balance of the sort typically found in English versions of the style gives a kind of orangeade effect, and there's a cakey marzipan thing that might be more at home in an American amber ale but is quite welcome here. There's just enough bitterness in the finish to make the mouth water pleasantly.

Cleaned up it would be lovely, and I'd be interested in trying it on draught to see if it's the bottling process that's introducing whatever it is that's not sitting right with me here. Did anyone else taste the same thing I did in this?

18 July 2016

Double bubble

I only went looking for one Kinnegar special but came away with two. Win!

The bonus beer was the last bottle of Bucket & Spade on the shelves in Fresh in Smithfield. This is a session rye IPA, which is a new combo for me, at a bravely low 4% ABV. The appearance wasn't great: murky dark orange is rarely a good look for a beer. Its aroma makes up for it, though, bringing a heady and almost hot ripe mandarin with a touch of peppery spice in behind. Though there was enough of a stable head to lace the glass, the carbonation was low, making it extremely easy quaffing. It successfully avoids the session IPA thinness trap and tastes wonderfully full and rounded. Bitterness levels are also low and after the first mouthful I thought it was a little bland, but give it a moment and the mandarin and mango floods in and hangs around, deliciously unctuously. I got a bit of a yeast bite as the hops faded, but too little and too late to ruin a magnificent sessioner. Half a litre was gone in fifteen minutes and I wished I had another.

I didn't, so on to Sour Grapes, the one I'd been particularly looking forward to. It's another pale one, though clearer than the preceding beer and with a head that crackled itself to death soon after pouring. There's a distinct touch of sparkling wine about the aroma: the toasty richness of champagne and perhaps some sweeter prosecco fruit. That white grape element is very present on tasting as a subtle sort of sweetness. I was surprised to see no grapes listed on the ingredients so the effect is achieved with nothing other than barley, wheat, hops and yeast. The sour quality is secondary and it's little more than you'd find in a young acidic white wine. I've had Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs that were more tart than this. But, like the Bucket & Spade, it is very easy drinking, sharing the smoothness of champagne as well as its lightning-quick finish. With nothing weird or extreme going on, Sour Grapes exudes a genteel sort of class.

It's almost a shame that these two aren't part of the standard Kinnegar line-up. Sour Grapes in particular is the sort of thing we don't have enough of and would go just as well in a 75cl corked bottle as by the pint. But more Kinnegar specials are of course on the way and we must make room.

15 July 2016

Fail ale trail

They brew 'em strong at Nébuleuse in western Switzerland. I had three of their bottles in stock and deciding a drinking order was complicated by all of them claiming some palate-pounding heft. In the end I let hops call the shots so began with their saison.

Namur Express is no lightweight, however. 7% ABV and pouring the dark gold of apple juice. In defiance of the brewery's name, I managed to keep the lees out of the glass so perhaps that's why there wasn't much of a saison character to the aroma, just the hot esters you might find in a super strength tramps' lager. There's not much happening in the flavour either, to be honest. It could be that first impression of the colour, but I get apples again in the taste: grainy red ones. There's a bit of syrupy candy, and a thick texture to go with that, but none of what makes saison a distinctive style. While not flawed in any specific way, if you'd told me this was an industrial Belgian blonde I'd have nodded along and spent the time I was drinking it thinking about what's up next. Not an auspicious start.

What was up next was Shaddock, a "strong bitter". Strong, here, means 6% ABV. While the marketing speaks mostly of its malt pedigree, the hops are Chinook and there's added bonus grapefruit so citrus was expected. It wasn't found in the aroma: it doesn't smell of anything much, in fact. It looks like a brown bitter, though, the dark amber of strong black tea. And again, that appearance is affecting how it tastes, because the first flavour I get is the heavy tannins of over-stewed tea. It's not pleasant. Rather than adding zest, the hops and grapefruit produce an unpleasant soapy effect, so the last thing you need is the dry, stale, sweaty finish that follows it and the growing bilious acidity which creeps in as it warms. This is a disaster of a recipe, like Bombardier's even-more-evil twin.

So high hopes, then, when facing into Embuscade. While the others were reluctant to form a head on pouring there's no such shyness here. An awkward amount of foam had to be dealt with as I poured slowly, trying to keep the yeast dregs out of the glass. "Ambush" is an American-style IPA of 6.5% ABV and a wholesome, clear, west-coast gold. It definitely smells of citrus, which is in its favour, though it's a candy lemon-sherbet effect which suggests the hops are not going to have everything their own way. Sure enough, on tasting, the hops are damn near undetectable. There's a raw sweetness that tastes to me like dry malt extract, followed by an almost smoky savoury quality which could be yeast autolysis but either way is very out of place, accompanied by an unwelcome metallic aspirin tang. An acrid squirt of Jif lemon in the finish is all the hops get to say, and I don't blame them for being angry. I'm angry too.

It may be that Nébuleuse (est. 2014) is on a journey towards making good beer and these are just juvenilia -- baby steps on the way to proper brewing. But I'm slightly amazed that they're letting them out of the brewery. Clearly, the aim is to make beer as good as brewers do it in Belgium, Britain and the US, but on this showing they have a long way to go to get there.

13 July 2016

Wheat punch

Earlier this summer we had the first beer commissioned by one of the big off licence chains from an Irish micro in the form of the Molloy's/Rascal's All Night Long. It was followed closely by the O'Brien's chain releasing its own, via O Brother: an "American wheat IPA" which they've given the rather clumsy name of Who What Wheat Where. These collaborations are a good idea because they encourage people like me into chain stores where I wouldn't normally look for beer, but in this case I didn't have to because O'Brien's shipped me a couple of free bottles.

It's 5.5% ABV and brewed with seven different headliner American hops, including Simcoe, Columbus and Chinook. You can read about its creation on the O'Brien's site here. I was a little apprehensive when I opened the bottle and noticed a lot of dried yeasty gunk gathered about the neck. Thankfully, however, I had left it standing in the fridge for a couple of weeks beforehand, so I don't think this interfered with the end product. It pours a rather unattractive greyish orange with a loose head that subsides a little too quickly.

The aroma was much more encouraging: a fresh hit of classically American grapefruit and pine. On tasting the bitterness dominates, as I often find with O Brother's beers, and in this one you need to deal with a green leafy edge before you get to the fun stuff, an element which suggests it might have been dry-hopped for a little too long. There's a pleasant juiciness at the centre, a sunny tangerine quality that uses the wheaty body to emphasise itself and sit on the palate for longer than expected. I'd have liked more of this and less of the sharp bitterness.

Overall not a bad effort. It deftly avoids the soapiness that white IPAs of this sort often exhibit. With a little fine tuning it could be superb though I don't know if there are plans to brew it again.

11 July 2016

Left in the dark

Trying to keep up with what Ireland's breweries are turning out has become exhausting. Poor me, etc. I did a bit of a fridge clear-out at the weekend, getting to grips with some of the dark beers that had accumulated in there.

First up, Fierce Mild, a mild (obviously) from YellowBelly and with an impressively low ABV of 3.1%. It poured out disappointingly flat with only the thinnest layer of bubbles forming, temporarily, on the cola-brown body. And sure enough there's barely a whisper of condition to it. Nobody wants their mild to be a fizzbomb, least of all me, but this has unfortunately veered much too far the other way. It's doubly a shame because the beer tastes great: a rich and smooth chocolate flavour is the centrepiece with a black cherry fruit complexity and an edge of gentle roast. While light and very easy drinking it's also decently full bodied without a trace of wateriness. But it's just not enjoyable because it's flat. I feel gypped.

Onwards anyway, and Kangaroo Jack is YellowBelly's foreign extra stout, though a modest one at just 6.5% ABV. I thought I was on for another carbonation disaster as it poured out thickly and flat, but a stable head did form and there's an appropriate prickly fizz. One sip is enough to serve as reminder that stout, traditionally, was a very heavily hopped beer, and export stout even moreso. This, presumably as a nod to its Australian collaborators Woolshed Brewery, uses Southern Cross hops which give it a big, greenly bitter, flavour, mostly grass and crunchy fresh cabbage, though laced with pithy grapefruit as well. Looking past this there's a chewy caramel sweetness at the centre, the malt delivering a massively full texture as well as the flavour, and then there's just a mild dryness creeping in at the finish. But really this beer is all about the hops, and gloriously so.

I was given a health warning about The Wexican by Richard in DrinkStore. The chilli levels were too high for him; no such thing for me: bring it on. It's another dense one, pouring inky black and again no head and only tokenistic carbonation. It has the dry acidic bitterness of super high cocoa dark chocolate and a savoury Bovril note that suggests the possibility of autolysis. The chilli, frankly, is barely there: just a light scorch on the palate and a warmth in the belly, but disappointingly no chilli flavour. This is a rather severe beer. Though 7.5% ABV it lacks the comforting depth and roundness of Kangaroo Jack while retaining a gut-coating stickiness. It's a hard one to love.

We'll stay in Wexford and switch breweries for the last beer: Ejector Seat a "turf smoked stout" from the Clever Man range by Drew Fox Brewing, and the first of their beers I've tried. It's an approachable 4.5% ABV, though appears quite dense: an opaque black with a beige head. The label promises the full-on effect of a turf fire, but I don't think I'd go that far, there's just a gentle peaty greasiness in both the aroma and the flavour. The stout behind it is a pretty basic one with a middling amount of roast, some cocoa, and higher than average bitterness for a pleasing old-fashioned effect. The smoke seasoning adds even further to its quaint charm, as does the thick, slick mouthfeel. Not a world-beater but a solid and interesting beer.

Three dark and heavy beers in a row meant that I needed to pull a palate-cleanser from the fridge next, but that'll have to wait for another post.