14 April 2014

An Italian job

The lovely people of Associazione Degustatori Birra (Lazio branch) were kind enough to invite me out to Rome for a few days in mid-March, in exchange for some words on Irish craft beer at their St. Patrick's Day event. My last visit to the Eternal City was just a couple of years too early for the rise of Italian craft beer and it had been on my return-visit list for a while so I leapt at the chance.

An early start had me in downtown Rome by late morning on the 17th and I took advantage of the fine weather to do some exploring of historical sites I missed last time round. Returning to my hotel in the afternoon I called in to Domus Birra, the city's best-known bottle shop. A boggling array of Italian craft beers were on offer so I picked a reasonably priced one more or less at random, and because of the name.

So, Turan's Dry Hard 2 was my first beer of the trip, a 6% ABV IPA. It poured an unpleasantly murky brown amber colour and the dry hopping certainly makes its presence felt in the aroma: a powerful blast of white plum and lychee. The texture is smooth and the flavour begins with a rather harsh bitterness. It tastes as clean as it looks, some lightly spicy orange and grapefruit flavours buzzing about in the background, but nothing distinctive. The aroma keeps on giving, all the way through, but I'd like a bit more zip.

Zip aplenty I found a few hours later down at Il Maltese a fun little craft beer shack on Piazza Epiro which was hosting my talk. Brewfist's Bionic amber ale was on tap. Like the foregoing, and like most Brewfist beers, there's a waxy bitter punch at the start. However what follows is a tour de force of citrus hop flavours: spritzy, juicy and very moreish, shading towards heavier weedy funk at times as well.

From the bottled selection I got to try Cogs coffee porter by Laboratorio, much lauded by my hosts. Unfortunately it was a dud, infected with nasty acetone nail varnish flavours. Underneath this it was just about possible to detect a pleasant mild milky coffee flavour and hints of lavender and chocolate, but nothing earth-shaking. I was more impressed by Urbe from Eternal City, a local contract operation. This cloudy orange number is an approachable 5% ABV and has lots of lovely soft cuddly peach flavours. A beautifully refreshing sessioner.

We were joined briefly by the brewers behind a brand new start-up. I may be among the first anglophones to encounter the brand though was far too polite to point out the inadvertent hilarity of their chosen name: Superbum. Still, quality will carry them a long way and that they have. Blondie is a 5.2% ABV wit-like blonde. The wit spicing is missing but the orange peel is very present, enhanced by the generous addition of orangey Styrian Goldings. What it lacks in veracity to the witbier style it makes up for in refreshment power.

The other one to emerge from Superbum is called Invasion, a pale ale of 5.5% ABV. Not so pale, however, more a dark amber. The aroma is all fresh oily hops and there's no mistaking the heavy use of Sorachi Ace in the flavour: coconut and lemon pith in abundance. It's perhaps a little too intense to consider drinking a second, but nice for one.

Top of my hitlist for day two was the city's best-known beer specialist Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà in Trastevere. The poky two-room pub was in the middle of a German-themed festival and I'll cover the good stuff from that in the next post so the only Italian beer I had there was Lambrate's Robb de Matt. This is a near-perfect recreation of a pale 'n' hoppy English bitter, if a little strong at 5.5% ABV. The aroma is a gentle citrus which translates into a lemon sherbet and peach flavour, with some light herbal notes and just enough bitter punchiness. The cask serve gives it a beautiful soft effervescence.

I trekked deeper into Trastevere next, to eat at Brasserie 4:20, home of the Revelation Cat brewing company. It didn't quite live up to the hype for me. The décor is very high-concept designery, with banks and banks of taps, some suspended overhead at the bar, and cask handpulls aplenty. But the menu is not much more than burgers and crisps. Filling in a slip with your choice of sauce and topping does not a classy dining experience make. From the spendy beer menu I selected Bombay Cat, a double black IPA. Lordy. This is powerful stuff: 9% ABV and jet black. One sip delivers a green blast of fresh crunchy spinach and cabbage, lots of acid and odd herbal bath salts overtones. Behind the hops there's masses of heavy thick chocolate too: all the features of double IPA and imperial stout writ large. I almost felt abused by it, but thrilled as well.

Just time for one pub on my third and final day in Rome, but I made the most of it. Open Baladin is the local outlet for Piedmont's Baladin brewery, a large and rambling pub-restaurant with a vast tap and bottle selection. Here the food is something to behold, specialising in Piedmontese meats. The steak tartare was spectacular. Open is the name of the house beer, a 7.5% ABV IPA. It's a clear middling orange colour with an clove aroma. The flavour mostly consists of artificial candy fruit, mixed with an unpleasant musty staleness on a heavy body. Not something I'd want as the flagship beer in my pub.

Hoping for something a bit like the previous day's feline black IPA experience, I chose del Borgo's Hoppy Cat Cascadian dark ale. 5.8% ABV and dark garnet in colour, topped by a creamy ivory head. It lures the drinker in with a mild mandarin aroma but there's a sucker punch of bitterness in the first sip, next to a different sort of bitterness from the roast grain. Overall a simple and pleasant brew and very different from Revelation Cat's soundalike.

Sticking with del Borgo, I realised that I've never tasted their original beer ReAle, and since it was here on cask I decided I'd put that right. Another English beer clone, this time a quality brown bitter, it's a clear burnished copper colour with all the proper nutty flavours, waxy bitterness and refreshing tannins. Only the massive 6.4% ABV strength detracts from its balanced sessionable qualities.

On the basis that you should never pass up a beer with your name and ethnicity on it, I went next for Nut Irish Jinn from Black Barrels in Turin. It was listed in the sour section of the menu but I wouldn't like to hazard a guess at the style: there's a lot going on in it, starting with a sweet lactic perfume aroma, a sort of floral balsamic effect. Dry hopping in the barrel has given it a light citrus zest and there's also a savoury ambergris resinousness peppered by sparks of incense, all this set on a clean refreshing sour base. Phew. It's a workout for the palate, and the notebook, but well worth it.

One last glass before running for the airport bus and I wanted to make it count. Say hello, then, to Baladin's Xyauyu barley wine. This 13.5% ABV version has been given time in rum casks and arrives dark brown and completely flat, smelling like all of its strength plus brown sugar and marker pens. The barrel has certainly left its mark as it tastes like nothing so much as aged dark rum: hot and woody. The beeriness is almost lost, with a caramel malt sweetness just peeping through. A tasty drop, but mostly it left me wondering what the unaged version tastes like.

We'll retrace our steps in the next post, looking at the non-Italian beers on offer in Rome.

12 April 2014

No disclaimer large enough

We interrupt our regularly scheduled nothing-at-all to bring news of a new Irish beer which has just started appearing in specialty beer bars around the country. Beoir#1 is the result of a crowd-funding initiative by Black's Brewery in Kinsale. Among the incentives was the opportunity to have a custom batch of beer made, and a group of Beoir members clubbed together to commission that. In the interests of transparency, I was one of the commissioning members, but also in the interests of transparency I had no input into the recipe (other than the occasional vote): all that was left to people much more adept at such things, nor did I attend the brewday, which happened on 8th March last (videos of the day from two of the attendees are here and here).

Back when we were discussing what sort of beer to make, it was mentioned that there was no big and hoppy double IPA being made in Ireland, so we decided to use the opportunity to send out a signal that this is the sort of beer that at least some consumers would like to exist. Of course, in the intervening months the Galway Bay Brewery pre-empted us with their amazing Of Foam & Fury, but we stuck to our guns, opting for a slightly higher strength (9% ABV) and a different hop bill: Citra, Galaxy, Summit and Topaz, for maximum fruit impact.

With all the funders' allocation bottled up last Monday, there was a small amount left over for kegging and distribution. On Thursday night the first of these was tapped at 57 The Headline and yesterday I went in for my first taste.

It arrived a dark orange colour, topped by the sort of light tan head you only get on the stickiest of strong hop bombs. It's not sticky at all, however: the texture is surprisingly light and masks the alcohol well. The aroma is very different to what I was expecting. Instead of citrus or pine, it smells of boozy warmth and gentle old-fashioned spices: a bit like hippocras, which might possibly be the worst descriptor I've ever used on this blog. And on tasting it's clear that the malts are very much in control. There are lots of dark flavours of biscuit and even chocolate, though that light texture and a strong tannic presence keeps things from getting cloying. And what are the hops up to while all this is going on? Well there's no doubting the bitterness: a sharp bite opens proceedings and it leaves a resinous coating in the mouth afterwards, but of the zingy zesty fruit I had been hoping for there is no sign, unfortunately.

Perhaps it's a good thing that it's so different from Of Foam & Fury, and indeed from O'Hara's Double IPA. Good for diversity in the Irish double IPA market (because that's a thing now), and good that each of these three beers are doing different things within the style instead of treading on each others' toes. If you want to try it next to Galway Bay's DIPA, you can do that today at The Salt House, and probably later in The Oslo. Beoir#1 is also pouring at The Bierhaus in Cork, and is expected at Farrington's in Dublin and the Franciscan Well Easter Festival in due course. We're doing our best to keep track of its whereabouts here.

Thanks, finally, to Nigel who led the recipe development, Andrew and Reuben who did so much in the background to make this happen and especially to long-suffering brewer Sam Black for coming up with this crazy idea and actually seeing it through. We must do it all again some time.

10 April 2014

One of those posts

Time to haul in the net and see what new Irish beers have shown up this last few weeks.

First up, one that made its début, briefly, at the St. Patrick's beer festival in Dublin last month: Carlow Brewing's collaboration with Poland's Pinta brewery, called Lublin to Dublin. It's a 6.5% ABV oatmeal stout and has all the fullness and smoothness you'd expect. In fact, it's all about the texture; the flavour is a sideshow. Not that there's anything wrong with the flavour: mild roast, cocoa, a little putty and some beautiful summer fruit topnotes. It's wonderfully sinkable and so finely balanced you could nearly lose sight of it. I hope they'll be making more.

Meanwhile, The Larder restaurant on Dublin's Parliament Street has teamed up with Galway's Independent Brewing Company to produce a range of house beers under the "Dublin Brewer" brand, cheekily subverting the city crest by swapping one of the castles for a beer mug. First out of the blocks is their Irish Pale Ale at 6.1% ABV. It arrives a hazy dark orange colour, the bottle conditioning leaving a modest skim of yeast on the bottom of the bottle. The aroma is all apricot and mango but the flavour is more intense, with big grapefruit bitterness, spiced up by the use of rye in the grist. Alongside the hops there's a beautiful thirst-quenching tannic quality, resulting in a lemon tea effect in the finish. This is an invigorating pale ale, with a squeaky teeth-cleaning bitter intensity which paired perfectly with The Larder's ribeye steak.

And because one of these posts wouldn't be one of those posts without a Galway Bay beer, presenting Incognita, latest in the brewery's pilot series. It is, as the tap badge helpfully explains, a NZ-hopped saison of a relaxed 4.8% ABV. There's a little bit of a split personality here, as the earthy, gritty dry crispness created by the voracious saison yeast strain battles epically against a strong acid hop bitterness. It's actually not that pleasant a sensation at first but gradually the two elements separate from each other and can be appreciated on their own merits: the refreshing bite of the highly attenuated body and the more subtle mandarin and grape roundness from the hops. No cattiness from these Kiwis either, I am pleased to report. At a fiver for a 2/3 pint it's not the sessionable summer beer I was kinda hoping it might be at that strength, but it's definitely an interesting experience, for hop fans and saison enthusiasts alike.

That's it for the moment. No Mescan, Carrig, Poker Tree, Farmageddon or Munster Brewing? I hear you cry. What kind of half-assed Irish beer blog is this? you wail. In due course, dear reader. Hopefully the upcoming Easter Beer Festival at Franciscan Well and the Craft Beer & Spirit extravaganza which starts today across The Porterhouse estate will plug a few of those gaps.

07 April 2014

Invictus

The sheer dogged resilience of some some beers is staggering. Gold Label (formerly Whitbread Gold Label, before that Tennant's* Gold Label) is a prime example, normally to be found skulking in the corner of the Sainsbury's beer aisle, propping up another haggard old-timer Mackeson Stout, both forced shamefully into garish modern dress for the benefit of a target audience that cares little for them, or anything much else, I imagine. Thomas was kind enough to acquire this can for me: the fact that it comes in four-packs has always put me off, even though it sells for buttons.

So what have we got? 7.5% ABV -- "Strong as a double scotch, less than half the price" ran the strapline: an all-time classic of superliminal advertising -- it's a wholesome dark gold colour. The head doesn't hang around and the body is barely troubled by bubbles. It smells like a fairly typical pale bock: nettles and sugar, though there's also an edge of sherry in there hinting at something more dangerous. And yet it's surprisingly innocuous on tasting. There are no really strong flavours, no tramp-juice sickliness or overdone booze heat. Rather it's smooth, lightly sugary like candyfloss, and with some subtle mango and apple flavours in the background. No, I'm not taking the piss. The alcohol does get more pronounced as it warms, unsurprisingly, and some nasty marker pen and acetone begins to creep in.

Overall, not the disaster I was expecting. I can see how it survived the darker days of 20th century British brewing, offering something with a bit more personality than insipid canned lager or insipid canned bitter. Today it's deserving of some retro cred, I think.

*of Sheffield. Not be confused with Tennent's, of Glasgow. Thanks to Ron and NBW for the comments.

04 April 2014

Here isn't the news

"Beer Journalism" is Heather's choice of topic for this 86th round of The Session, asking us to turn a critical eye on how the media cover the beer industry. Madam, that's the only kind of eye I've got.

Y'see, in Ireland we have a fairly obvious problem, and I'm sure it is by no means unique to us, and it's that beer journalism -- and I mean proper writing or broadcasting by paid journalists for reputable outlets -- falls into one of two unsatisfactory categories.

At one end you've got the Bottle of the Week sidebar, as found in the likes of The Irish Examiner and The Sunday Business Post, where a staff writer has picked something from a more interesting corner of Tesco or O'Brien's and written a hundred words on how malty and hoppy it tastes. It would be very cynical of me to suggest that such pieces are sometimes little more than paraphrasings from the label or brewery website because the writer's critical faculties are not primarily attuned to beer, or they're too busy with their proper journalistic endeavours to spend much time on this, but let's just say that distinctive voices in the Bottle of the Week column are rare. And it's not that such columns are a bad thing: they make it marginally more likely that when Citizen Reader goes into Dunnes or Molloy's he (and let's face it, it's a he) is more likely to pick a bottle from a more interesting corner than the big brand lager he actually went in to buy. Good for awareness, good for diversity, but really the picture of the bottle and the price would be sufficient: the actual journalism tells us little.

At the other extreme you've got The Big Feature. Every paper has been running these for the last four or five years, sometimes with alarming regularity. Three or four pictures of three or four different brewers, holding up a trial jar, stirring a mashtun, standing in front of a shiny stainless FV with arms folded. And the copy... the same copy: "Well, we wanted to increase the choice of beers..." "People kept asking what the local beer was..." "I came back from working abroad and..." "Yes, it's hard graft but when you sit down at the end of the day with your..." It was exciting the first few times, especially when the telly magazine show started doing it too. But now it's so tired. And, like the other extreme, the reader never really finds out anything about beer. Such features are run as human interest stories, or sometimes in the business section, but it's always far more about entrepreneurship than the actual product. Again: a legitimate thing for the media to be covering, but it leaves a gap where the actual beer should be.

To see just how glaring the gap is, you need only turn to the wine page. There it is, in the heart of the Food & Drink section, itself a capstone of the Lifestyle supplement. Sure, there's a bottle (or five) of the week in the sidebar, but what's the headline, the week's theme? There's more to Spain than just Rioja... A plucky foreigner has opened a winery in the heart of Bordeaux country... Chile's Central Valley has a unique climate... There's more to New Zealand than just Sauvignon Blanc... Substance. Broad yet specific facts about wine and viniculture, illustrated with vignettes, observations from the writer's wide-ranging experiences and quotes from knowledgeable insiders who are also personal acquaintances. Like the best journalism in any subject, you get a glance into the topic, and around the topic, from someone who knows the beat and has plenty to teach you, week after week. And that is totally missing from beer journalism in Ireland.

Until quite recently, it was forgiveable. The Irish beer scene was hardly buzzing with potential new stories, and nobody wants to read an abstract piece about unattainable foreign beers. But that has changed. The local scene is thriving, not only in the number of operators, but how regularly they're putting new and seasonal products out and, most interestingly, what they're putting out.

Cask left; keg right
I've two newsworthy examples to back up my observation. The first is Yerba, a collaboration between Metalman and Hardknott (newsworthy enough in itself, as I think it's a first). The beer is a 6.2% ABV dark ale, which Metalman at least are reluctantly calling a porter (there's a whole paragraph right there) and it's brewed with orange mate tea (cue digression on the place of mate in South American culture) sourced from Kingfisher in Enniscorthy. Dispense in the Bull & Castle was offered in both cask and keg formats (save that discussion for a future article?). It tastes powerfully, palate-cloggingly herbal: wintergreen and eucalpytus with loads of orange zest. I racked my brains trying to work out what it reminded me of, eventually settling on Campari: it has the same sort of intense bitter stickyness. I get a little coconut as well which had me wondering if some Sorachi Ace hops had sneaked in somewhere, but no, it's Pacific Jade and Bramling Cross, neither bringing much of their soft fruit credentials to the party. Mere traces of portery treacle cower in the background, behind the orangey herbal onslaught.

So, Yerba didn't really work for me. It's a fun novelty for one pint, and to that end I preferred the cask to the keg as the craziness was more pronounced in the former, but one pint was plenty and I wanted something that tastes more like beer after it. But hey, full marks for bravery.

Mere days after encountering Yerba, Irish brewing landed another oddly-constructed beer on me in the form of Franciscan Well Clementine & Rosemary Ale, on tap at The Beerhouse on Capel Street. This was presented as a lightly hazy gold colour and was a real jolt of summer on a rainy late-March day. A saison yeast did the heavy lifting here but it's not as bone dry as some saisons can be. There's a very weissbierish clove complexity and some mouthwatering orange spritz from the clementines, a world away from the hard orangeyness found in Yerba. The rosemary almost spoils the party: it's not the lightly-seasoned-lamb infusion I was expecting but more the harsh resinousness of chewing raw leaves. Thankfully it doesn't get too much in the way. Overall a superb refresher just perhaps a couple of months premature.

However you slice it, these are two utterly fascinating beers, reflecting a vibrant, diverse and mature brewing (and cider-making) scene. Not that you'd know anything about it from picking up the paper.

02 April 2014

Something in the water

A couple of pubs have had it, but I stumbled upon this glass of Victory Headwaters Pale Ale in Farrington's a few weeks ago. Apparently, the beer celebrates the Pennsylvania brewery's water supply, though I think they've thrown a hop or two in as well. The aroma, for one thing, is strikingly sharp -- an invigorating zap of lemon rind and sherbet. It's a little calmer on tasting, not exactly jumping with hops but with a pleasant blend of grapefruit and blood orange flavours, fully realised in the manner of the posher brands of breakfast juices.

Above all, this 5.1%-er is simple fun, even though plenty of Irish breweries have shown themselves capable of making beer of this quality at more sessionable strengths. Few offer as much detail on the creation of their products as this, however.

31 March 2014

Taking down the clown

Another jolly, and slightly weird, Belgian cartoon on the label of Paljas Blond, from Brouwerij Henricus in Zeebrugge. It's bright and only slightly hazy for a small bottle-conditioned job. The first surprise is its aroma: crisp and slightly sour, with overtones of gueuze about it.

 Not so much in the flavour, however. There's a big bitterness from a generous early addition of Magnum, followed by the orange cordial effect of Styrian Goldings. This fades from a thick intense syrupiness to a fresher, lighter juice flavour, enhanced by a certain savoury -- but perfectly clean -- character from the Belgian yeast. The real beauty of the recipe is that the sour aroma never goes away, and the contrast between how it tastes and how it smells is quite special. Not too sweet, not too dry, an interesting take on the style.

Far from boring Leffe clones for people who don't really like beer, the Belgian blonde genre always seems to have something new up its golden sleeve.