22 February 2017

A sequel to the prequel

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

Monday's post was a sort-of preview of the Alltech Brews & Food Festival which opens tomorrow in Dublin. I finished writing it on Sunday, scheduled it, and then went to the pub. On the taps at 57 The Headline I found two more beers from breweries who will be attending the festival so I felt I had to get them in as well before the doors opened.

I'm not sure if 5 Lamps will have Hoppy Ending available on their bar. This IPA was brewed as a Valentine's special and might have passed its natural lifespan. I wasn't much of a fan of it anyway. It's 4.5% ABV, an attractive clear gold, but rather doused in diacetyl. The hops give it a rough bitterness rather than any fun freshness, while the only fruit character in the flavour is an odd sweet strawberry kick. It's just about clean enough to be drinkable, saved by none of the flavours being too strong: it's a session beer, but not a very good one.

Happier times were had in the company of Lobo, the latest IPA from Wicklow Wolf. Nothing interferes with the hops here, beginning with a bright, spicy and leafy aroma. A serious lemon-skin bitterness opens the flavour and rips right through the palate in a thrilling fashion. It's only 5.2% ABV but it's no lightweight, tasting big in all directions at once. The word "fresh" doesn't quite cover its hop intensity. I'm more inclined to go with "raw". And yet it's not unbalanced: though absolutely and unashamedly a beer that's all about American hops, there's just enough of a malt base to prevent it turning acrid or harsh. I'd be much more keen to have a session on this.

Lobo will be accompanied at the festival by another new Wicklow Wolf IPA, a red SMASH one, called Zoso. If it's as good as Lobo we're in for a treat.

20 February 2017

Look busy!

Alltech Brews & Food is back in Dublin's Convention Centre from Thursday of this week. There will be much new and exciting beer to occupy my time all weekend so I figured I should try and make some advance inroads into the selection. Here are seven beers from six Irish breweries who will be exhibiting, acquired in advance so I can drink other things while I'm there.

Kinnegar will be sharing a stand at the festival with White Hag, launching a collaboration between two of Ireland's first-string breweries. For now, a beer Kinnegar produced with the help of the makers of Dan Kelly's cider, and named after the boss there. Olan's Tart is number six in the Kinnegar Sour Series and uses apple juice from the Dan Kelly's orchards outside Drogheda.

It's 5% ABV and pours a wholesome cloudy pale orange, like a proper scrumpy. A white fluffy head puts in a brief appearance before fading away to a mere comb-over of froth on the surface. The texture is surprisingly thick. I'm used to sour beers being on the thinner side but this has a chewy sourness, sort of like salted caramel, reminding me a lot of the heavy gose that YellowBelly released last year. I miss the clean snap I was expecting but which isn't present. It's still plenty sour, a tang slicing backwards across the palate while leaving a juicy residue on the lips, and inside this there's a crunchy Granny Smith apple flesh flavour. An alcoholic heat builds in the belly -- all part of that unorthodox weight which discombobulated me somewhat while I drank it. It's certainly interesting, but I won't be hankering after more of this the way I still do for number four in the series, Sour Grapes.

Clonakilty Brewing will be making their first festival foray. I reviewed their pale ale a few weeks ago here, now it's the turn of their porter. Smuggler is a substantial 6% ABV, immediately inviting comparison to the legendary O'Hara's Leann Folláin, especially since it's bottle conditioned, which Leann Folláin is not. I got a faint hiss when the cap came off, and it was quite lazy about head formation as it poured. The texture is smooth and cask-like, with a pleasant tingling sparkle, though surprisingly light of body given the strength.

It smells, well, stout-like, with a mix of sweet chocolate and dry roast, plus a certain spiciness which I'm guessing is from the yeast. Chocolate dominates the flavour, although there's a slightly unpleasant metallic tang next to it, as well as a touch of gunpowder and a mild Bovril beefiness. There's a certain homebrewish roughness to the whole picture and it's up to the drinker to decide if that's charming or not. It certainly lacks the polish of Leann Folláin. I lashed through my pint of it and would probably have happily followed it with another, finding it pleasingly old-fashioned.

This will also be the first festival for another of 2016's new breweries, Lough Gill. A new sour beer is promised, but before that the brewery staged a tap takeover at 57 The Headline the week before last. This featured a rare appearance by Anderson's, a beer the brewery pitches pretty much exclusively at the local market in Sligo. Broadly a red ale, the pint I got was a muddy-looking brown colour, though I'm told that future batches will be a little paler. There's a decently full body for a session beer at a modest 4% ABV, while the flavour is a wholesome wheaty affair. Mixed in with this is an added chocolate flavour, lending it something of the character of a porter, and then just a tang of mildly metallic English hops in the finish. It's a very decent all-rounder of a beer, and definitely not just another Irish red. If stranded in Sligo with nothing better to drink it wouldn't be too much of a distress purchase.

Anderson's was overshadowed somewhat on the night by Lough Gill's imperial stout. Rebel Stout Series 1 is an "imperial oatmeal coffee cream stout" and as that description makes clear they have gone all-out for texture. That it's 11% ABV probably also makes a major contribution to the silky smooth density, though the lip-smacking unctuousness is clearly the work of the lactose sugar alone. It's hopped with Bramling Cross which adds a forest fruit flavour to the foretaste. This builds on the palate into a tang then a full-on bitter finish. I was expecting more stouty chocolate but that doesn't really materialise, and the coffee flavour is quite subtle as well -- barely enough to identify that the real thing was used. The main malt character I got was a touch of smoke and I've no idea how that arrived there. I've certainly tasted more complex imperial stouts, but few at this strength have been as smooth and easy-drinking.

Trouble Brewing, of course, are old lags at Alltech at this stage. Among their new releases at the festival will be one brewed with the help of Rascals. Expect ginger and lemongrass.

After the marvellous fresh hop explosion of their recent Ambush IPA I was expecting equally great things of Sharpshooter, a pale session IPA. Unfortunately it was not to be. We have here a return to a familiar Trouble Brewing niggle: harsh mucky yeast bite. This isn't helped by the way it's been hopped, which is in a highly bitter way; too bitter for a mere 3.7% ABV. There's some dank resin and a lot of lemon pith but a total absence of soft fruity juiciness, for which I think it's crying out. The result is the sort of palate-scorchingly bitter beer that gives hop-forward recipes a bad reputation. I have, however, no complaints about the aroma, which is all enticing grapefruit flesh, and this returns at the very end in burp form. So, it's got everything in the right place when it comes to vapours, it's just the liquid aspect of this beer that I found problematic.

Also from the high-expectations file, Hope Oatmeal IPA, the fifth in a series of limited editions that has yielded some absolute stunners so far. It's a hazy pale orange colour, topped with a big pillow of white foam. Simcoe and Citra are the hops and they give it a classic American aroma, all tangerine and grapefruit. And there's no mucking about in the flavour: it gets straight down to business with a punchy bitterness at the front, mellowing slightly in the middle with fruity orange flavours, plus a spicy dankness. Strangely for a beer containing oatmeal, and at a substantial 5% ABV, it's a little on the thin side. The hop flavours explode on the first sip, but do fade out a little quicker than I'd like, leaving just watery fizz in the finish. I really thought this beer would have more substance. Still, it does manage to convey the old-school hop bitterness rather better than the Sharpshooter above.

And finally an excuse to open a beer I've been hoarding since late last year. The presentation of Wicklow Brewery's 12:12:16 is pure classy, as befits what appears to be quite a stately offering: a 7.7% ABV strong ale which has been aged in oak barrels with the addition of raisins and port-soaked cherries. A lot of those elements are new to me. It's a clear dark garnet colour with an even layer of off-white foam and an aroma of cherry liqueur chocolates, suggesting sweetness and booze but also with a hint of sourness. The texture is substantial without being heavy, the carbonation low and the flavour happily lacking any serious alcohol heat. Its main features are succulent black cherry balanced by a drier chocolate cereal quality. There's no real bitterness but I did get a very mild herbal aniseed kick at the very finish as it warmed.

In general I was surprised by how subtle it all is, having expected to be smacked in the face by the various features. In fact they're all laid out in a calm and orderly fashion, resulting in a beer that's as civilised to drink as it appears. I think it will be very interesting to see how this one develops with a few years' ageing. I might try that when 12:12:17 arrives. In the meantime, start soaking your cherries in port, folks.

If you're attending the festival, I hope all of that gives you some inspiration when making your beer choices. The gig opens on Thursday and runs to Saturday. It will be fun. Hard work for us tickers, but fun.

17 February 2017


Three beers from the US today, with nothing in common other than their importer and the fact that they're canned.

I'm not entirely sure what the deal is with Sierra Nevada Nooner. The name was previously used for a session IPA (reviewed here) but seems to have been re-applied subsequently to this pilsner, the style being "one of the original session beers" according to the blurb. It's the appropriate clear pale gold colour, though maybe a little bit over the alcohol limit at 5.2% ABV. The head disintegrated quickly but this seems to be a side-effect of a deliciously low carbonation level: enough sparkle to liven it up, but still allowing the flavour to come through fully and help make it properly sessionable. Classic German hops have been used and it has that waxy bitterness, particularly in the finish, that's so characteristic of German pils. Honeyish malt provides some balance, but not too much. I'm willing to put aside my usual distaste for those green weedpatch noble hops. Here they're sharp without being severe, showing just the right level of jagged bitterness. While the authenticity of this American pils is questionable, its quality is definitely beyond doubt.

12th of Never is a pale ale created to commemorate the beginning of canning at Lagunitas. This is another pale one, though with a very slight haze to it. The aroma is a fantastic fresh tropical hit of mango and passionfruit, and the flavour continues that theme, adding a certain dank bitterness plus a tiny whisper of savoury fried onion. All very west-coast. The only downside is an unusual issue for a Lagunitas offering: it's just a bit too thin, especially for an ABV of 5.5%. My normal complaint to Lagunitas is that their beers are too thick and syrupy, but this one could do with a little more substance to help carry those lovely hops. The flavour, while wonderful to begin with, does tail off disappointingly fast, leaving just water behind. That's merely a minor quibble, however: the party starts again with the next mouthful. This is another sessionable beauty, albeit very different from the pils above.

A total change for the last in today's trilogy. Oskar Blues Death By Coconut, described on the can as an "Irish Porter" whatever they mean by that. It's 6.5% ABV and a dense dark brown. It certainly smells like coconut: lightly toasted husky coconut, and nothing else. That's really all the flavour is interested in too. There's a bit of dark chocolate from added cacao essence but it's very much about accentuating the coconut rather than counterbalancing it, and you get a little hint of vanilla complexity as well. I guess the clue is right there in the name: the drinker is warned to expect coconut in quantity, and the beer most certainly delivers that. It may be one-dimensional, but in a fun and tasty way.

How boring to have three jolly decent beers in a row, but that's just the way they fell that afternoon. My critical faculties will just have to wait for the next beer.

15 February 2017

Stay woke

We only get a limited range of Magic Rock beers in Ireland. "Just what the brewery has available" the importer told me once. I was pleased when Common Grounds, the Magic Rock coffee porter, showed up, and I grabbed a can at the first opportunity.

It pours a deep dark brown, the head crackling up before fading away to almost nothing. It smells of... coffee, funnily enough. Freshly brewed dark-roast coffee to be specific, with just a hint of brown sugar on the side. This softens on tasting to more of a mocha effect, with a slightly milky chocolate streak running through the coffee. The desserty fun is spoiled a little by a slightly harsh dry burnt finish, though that's also perfectly in keeping with the style. My favourite feature is the way the coffee oils hang around on the tongue long after swallowing: that's getting value for your beans.

At a modest 5.4% ABV it's not a beer that's trying to do too much, jumping around with busy coffee and heavy alcohol. Instead it's a refreshing drinking beer that would work just as well by the pint as the small can.

13 February 2017

None more Belgian

Sorry, that should read "some more Belgians" because this is another cross-section of Belgian beers, as picked by my wife from Brussels off licences.

De Poes has a pretty label, which is presumably why she picked it, but it's very short on information. We know it's 8% ABV and is flavoured with two unnamed sorts of hops and some equally anonymous spices. No style designation is given, but from the strength and the hazy yellow-orange colour I'm calling it a tripel. The aroma is estery but thankfully not overly hot: there's just a little banana and some orange juice as well. The flavour is certainly spicy: I get sparks of pink peppercorn and grains of paradise. Behind this there's jaffa flesh leading to a dry wheaty finish. It's quite decent: Belgian without being too Belgian, if you get me. I'd happily have another.

The cat theme continued with Black {C}, a "craft Belgian stout". 8% ABV says the label but it's hard to believe because this beer is dryyy. It smells like burnt toast, and tastes like very burnt toast. And not much else. I let it warm, sipped carefully, gave it the full sensory, and maybe there's a warmer fruity hint somewhere buried deep. Cream sherry, perhaps, or ruby port. But at every angle the acridity rises anew to rasp on the palate and scorch the throat. It's not a nice beer. Maybe the snarling panther was meant to be indicative.

To follow, Kerst Pater, a "special Christmas beer" from Van Den Bossche. It's 9% ABV and a properly festive mahogany colour. Served cold from the fridge, it took a bit of sitting out for it to start tasting of something. When it did, I got dark chocolate and rum-soaked cherries: all very luxurious. There's a cola sweetness, an effect enhanced by a texture that's surprisingly thin and fizzy for 9% ABV. I liked how it tastes but feel it should have more substance. I doubt I've ever criticised a dark Belgian strong ale for not being hot enough, but this one isn't. Go figure.

Also from the Christmas offerings, and also 9% ABV, is Noël de Silenrieux: chestnut red and rather murky. It was a bad sign when it gushed from the bottle and a worse one when it began smelling of marker pens. But things settled down after that. There's a happy jammy strawberry foretaste, leading seamlessly into a woody balsamic tartness which may not be intentional but left me thinking nice thoughts about Flemish red ale. A sprinkle of peppery cedar finishes it off. I have absolutely no idea what this is meant to be, but I enjoyed its busy complexity, even if it was too fizzy for Christmas.

Next up, the little barley wine that isn't. It's called Ceci N'Est Pas Un Barley Wine and comes from Brasserie Sainte Hélène in Florenville. An ugly beast, it's 10% ABV and a dirty ochre colour. It smells ugly too: powerfully sickly and hot, like emulsion paint. The flavour is a little more charitable, with a wholesome wheat and oatmeal cereal sweetness and juicy raisin and fig fruit, shading towards cola. We're not a million miles from the plum-pudding stylings of dubbel here, but sweeter, boozier, and without the dark malt richness. Balance is not in this beer's remit, though there is a tiny pinch of white pepper piquancy right on the end which helps offset its other excesses, but it's still a challenge to try and enjoy it.

A honey beer next: Zatte Bie ("drunken bee", if my Flemish is correct). It's a dark chestnut-brown colour and, perhaps unsurprsingly for 9% ABV, leans very heavy on the malt. The aroma is wholesome and grainy, turning to light sweet toffee on tasting. There's not much Belgian yeast character and the honey seems to pick up the slack: there's a waxy honeycomb effect which definitely tastes real rather than some sort of honey essence or flavouring. This is not the super sweet novelty beer I was expecting from the comedy label and instead is rather pleasant, balanced and drinkable.

What could be more Belgian than beer, bicycles and bande dessineé? They feature together on the label of De Bie's Vélo, though as far as I can see a style designation does not. It's roughly a tripel, being a murky orange colour, 7.5% ABV and with a complex aroma of herbs, spices and mint. The flavour starts refreshing and juicy but the sweetness level builds and the needle creeps over to tinned pineapple, at which point it becomes tough drinking. The sweet fruit and bitter herbs are quite jarring; too much so for this to be suitable post-cycle refreshment, though in fairness I think it's actually pitched at the spectators.

Another strong winter seasonal to round this post off: Ter Dolen Winter at 9.1% ABV. It's a murky red colour and gives off a heady, and very Belgian, fruity warmth in the aroma. I was somewhat surprised to get a hit of herbal medicinal spices on tasting, and a check of the label says honey and cinnamon are the secret ingredients but I'd never have guessed. It's a strange combination of menthol and pine, fading to leave just a thick brown sugar base. Overall it's not terribly complex, but it does the job of central heating adequately, which I'm sure was the intention.

That should be the end of the Belgian winter beers for this season. I'm hoping for something a little sunnier next time out.

10 February 2017

The loneliness of the long distance ligger

I was invited along to the launch of the revamped Milano restaurant on Haddington Road the other week. I went because, hey, free pizza, but I wasn't expecting to get any blog content out of it. Chain pizza restaurants (UK readers will know Milano as Pizza Express) are not known for their diverse beer offerings, at least in these parts. I had a look at the uninspiring beer menu in advance and realised that I had never committed a review of Italian staple Peroni Nastro Azzurro to this blog. So here goes...

I've drank it a few times over the years and my abiding memory of it is as extremely watery, but from the fridge in Milano it was a little bit warmer than expected and I think that helped give at least a token bit of substance. Malt flavour? No... not really, just a kind of vague wheaty grain. Poking around for hops I found a sort of rough cabbage-water flavour, one which I'm sure disappears completely when the beer is chilled all the way down. So cellar-temperature Peroni is still pretty damn bland, but at least it's not watery, so that's a win.

For dessert I took a punt on Peroni Gran Riserva which, from the name, I assume is drawn from the casks cellared deep beneath Signor Peroni's castello. It's very much in the German pale bock style, 6.6% ABV, a lurid orange colour and brimming with sticky golden syrup flavours. A real bock would throw in some weedpatch noble hops but this doesn't really bother, showing just a very short-lived green bitterness in the middle. It's not unpleasantly sugary, however, settling down after a few mouthfuls to be merely bland rather than cloying. The only off-putting part is that its density leaves one expecting a big flavour, for better or worse, but none is forthcoming. I found myself actually missing the harsh nettles and spinach of bock.

Aaanyway, the pizza was nice, the service was good, and I had Reuben and his other half for company. And I got a blog post out of it. I'm chalking this up as a win. And as soon as Milano starts stocking LoverBeer, I'll be straight back.

08 February 2017

Black mystery

An addendum to Monday's post about the recent Cask Ales & Strange Brews festival at Franciscan Well. Three beers from Black's of Kinsale had been kept back in growlers for the competition judging, presumably having been on the bar earlier in the festival. I could find almost no mention of them anywhere online but felt I needed to throw in a description of them anyway. This blog is nothing if not completist. Edit: thanks to IrishCraftCaps for subsequently providing the details I missed.

The one I think I have a proper name for is Don't Beet Around the Bush, though it was labelled simply as a beetroot and chocolate stout. It's pretty good too: a silky sweetish stout with a waft of Turkish delight rosewater wrapped in smooth milk chocolate and then just a mild earthiness provided, I assume, by the beetroot. That makes it sound a bit more complex than it actually is: the various flavours meld together into a delicious harmonious single entity.

There was a Cherry Chocolate Stout (official name: Faraoise Dubh) too but it wasn't as much fun as the beetroot one. I think the chocolate was a bit overdone and the end result wound up tasting like cheap drinking chocolate: far too sweet, for one thing. There's a light touch on the fruit, which I wouldn't have been able to identify as cherry. This one needs its stoutiness turned up a notch or two.

Finally, a Lime Leaf and Pineapple Saison (official name: Tropical Farm), the first time I've encountered that particular combination, I think. It sounds a lot more exciting than the reality, which is like watered-down Diet Lilt sprinkled with white pepper. There's a vague herbal character which adds the flavour of an elderly medicine cabinet. None of this is helped by a dull flat finish either.

Experiments are fun and it's great that breweries like Black's are using occasions like this festival to put some of their more daring ones in front of the drinking public. What have we learned? That Ireland needs more beetroot beers, for one thing.