We're travelling the country but mostly staying in for this new Irish beer round-up. Galway Bay are, of course, an exception, with their Chinook Pale Ale arriving on keg in the tied pubs. From the swift half I had one idle half hour in Against the Grain, this -- the second runnings from Of Foam and Fury -- appears to be a bit of a rush job. It's disturbingly opaque, for one thing, and lacks any kind of subtlety or finesse. The harshly spicy Chinook is laid on thick and is big on hard acidic bitterness. The finish is quick, hastened by a lack of body or malt character. Like Full Sail and Voyager, it's refreshing in its own slightly watery way, but otherwise unremarkable.
I had high hopes for Trouble Brewing's new Galaxy Pale Ale which appeared on cask in The Brew Dock last week. Now it wasn't by any means my first beer of the evening so I may not be giving it a fair shake but I was underwhelmed. Another cloudy one, it lacked the punch I enjoy from Galaxy hops. It's smooth, there's some light orange notes, but not much else. I should probably come back to it on a clean palate.
I paid my first visit to The Beerhouse in Dublin recently, which is situated on a corner-of-death by Bolton Street College. I hope the current incarnation does better than the predecessors as it has quite a fun bohemian vibe, with a decent beer selection at reasonable prices.
The attraction was Blackpitts Porter, the first dark beer from C&C-owned Five Lamps Brewery in Dublin 8. A big yay for the lack of nitro in this, though it is somewhat overgassed and it took me a while to punch through the ivory afro to the beer beneath. The dryness from all that fizz actually performs a useful task in counteracting some uncompromising chocolate and treacle notes, backed up by a vaguely lactic tang. More than anything it reminded me of Czech dark lager, balancing the sweet molasses against a bitter bite. I liked it, though I can't imagine drinking a lot without bloating up.
We continue the Five Lamping at home with Honor Bright, a red ale. More garnet than red, if you ask me, not that that's any sort of real criticism. There's an attractive candy-caramel aroma with enticing fruit chew hops in the background. And it's that candystore sweetness that is the centre of the flavour, a combination of mildly citric hops and crystal malt, plus an odd sort of acidic apple tang. Interesting hops notwithstanding, it was quite true to its stylistic roots by being a little watery and somewhat overcarbonated -- forgiveable in the likes of Smithwick's at 3.8% ABV but not what I'd expect at the full 5% ABV we have here. The story behind the name, incidentally, can be read here.
Kinnegar Brewing have eschewed their usual bright and cheery branding for this intriguing special edition: Long Tongue. It's a pumpkin and ginger rye ale: don't they know pumpkins are exclusively an October ingredient? Cuh! It's an appropriately autumnal dark amber but smells much more Christmassy: figs and plums; cinnamon and clove. It's the sort of thing that could easily be a spicy mess but is actually beautifully smooth while getting full value out of the ginger and allowing the dry rasp of the rye do its thing too. 5.3% ABV gives it enough of a fullness to be warming and satisfying to drink but without any trace of overdone heat or stickiness: a refreshingly balanced winter warmer.
Its companion beer is called Yannaroddy and is a coconut porter. It pours an opaque dark brown and smells crisp and roasty: the dry crunch of raw black malt. Dryness is the main feature of the flavour too, making it a simple, straightforward example of a porter. Only at the very end is there a hint of unctuous coconut flesh. If it's unorthodox flavours you're after it's probably best to stick with the Long Tongue.
And while that's what's on offer from breweries in Connacht, Leinster and Ulster, we have to move to Munster, the crucible of Irish microbrewing, to find a brewery that's really pulled the stops out this season.
Eight Degrees has had a winter seasonal for the last two years, but it didn't come back for 2013, replaced instead by three winter seasonals grouped under the "Back to Black" series.
The first is Zeus Black IPA. It's a black IPA, hopped with Zeus and seems to have skipped past the Imaginative Naming Department at the brewery. It took a bit of coaxing to get a head on this, pouring flat black and just foaming desultorily at the end. The aroma is fresh, but hard and bitter, like a noseful of raw hop pellets giving an intense mown grass smell. The low fizz translates into a beautiful smoothness in the mouth, and there's plenty of opportunity to enjoy the texture as there's very little by way of forward flavour, just a light kind of spiciness. That grassy character from the aroma looms large in the finish, blooming dramatically in the mouth and producing a bitterness that's powerful without being acrid or harsh. On fading there's a little hint of treacle as the sole nod to the dark malt. Very drinkable, despite the 7% ABV. This is worth the price of admission for the nose, but could stand to be more complex flavourwise in the bottle. Just a taste of the draught version showed it to be a much better beer, with all the resinous dank that's missing from the bottle present in full force.
Aztec Stout is the second in the series, another reluctant head, and one which sank without trace almost instantly. The spec makes big promises: 5.5% ABV and brewed with chilli and cocoa nibs. And vanilla. And cinnamon. The aroma has a latent spice in with the roast that I recognise from my own chilli stout experiments which is rather enticing, but it falls a bit flat after that. Literally flat, for one thing: barely a pulse of gas about it, and rather thin of texture. There's a mild tingle from the chillis, and a nice back-of-the-throat dryness. I get a bit of powdery cocoa, but not full-on chocolate, while the vanilla and cinnamon completely passed me by. I'm not complaining that the chilli is the most noticeable of the special effects in here, and the base oatmeal stout is pretty decent, but I think it's another underperformer, certainly compared to the last two years' Eight Degrees Winter's Ales it has displaced.
Last of the set is their Russian Imperial Stout, a style that's known to improve with age so I may not have done this one any favours by drinking it after just two days in the bottle. The aroma is powerful, with an alcoholic heat suggesting all of its 9% ABV and more plus a distinct smell of winegums. This artificial fruitiness leads the flavour, and is followed quickly by a putty taste I associate most with oatmeal in stout (though it's absent from the Aztec) and together they add up to an odd but not unpleasant medicinal flavour. There's a more typical imperial stout finish: mocha, treacle and a little honey too. On the whole it's an odd sort of a beast: bitter hoppy imperial stouts are something I'm well used to, but one that's seemingly late hopped with fruit-forward antipodean varieties is an entirely new experience. While it's probably best consumed young I'll be interested to find out what happens to it after a year or two of cellaring.
We nip back to the pub -- Farrington's this time -- for one last pint: the first beer from the newly-formed Rascal's Brewing Company, a Ginger Porter brewed at Brú in Meath. It pours out very dark and thick, with a thin tan-coloured head. The ginger leaps out immediately on tasting but it's not at all overdone: there's just enough spice to lend a Christmassy feel to the beer but behind there's a very solid unfussy porter, heavy and smooth with some old-fashioned, slightly metallic, molasses flavour and the accompanying stickiness. My biggest criticism is that it was served far too cold in Farrington's, so I'd recommend sitting over it a while and letting it warm up to get the full benefit.
It looks like we're well sorted for dark and spicy warmers in Ireland this winter.