13 July 2018

Gardening leave

The mid-June weekend saw The Harbour Bar in Bray host its first Brewha Festival, billed as a celebration of Co. Wicklow's rich brewing heritage, though throwing in a couple of Dublin usurpers with tenuous Garden County connections as well. Temporary festival bars were lined up along the beer garden wall and trade was brisk on the Sunday afternoon I was there.

I opened my account at Wicklow Wolf, the brewery still located just around the corner from The Harbour, for the moment anyway. Head brewer Pete was pouring Ranchero, a new limited edition smoked lager they'd made. 40% of the grist was smoked malt, so it's an integral part of this, not just a flavouring. It tastes that way too: lots of strong, concentrated smoke, accentuated in a thick, bock-like, auburn lager. Like good bock too it's sweet but clean, a bigger flavour than one might expect at just 5% ABV. It is a little one-dimensional but still it does what it does very competently. There haven't been many smoked beers from Irish brewers recently, so this was a pleasant change.

Wicklow Brewery drew my attention with a beer named after the event: Brewha Special IPA. This was 6% ABV and a deep orange colour. No details were offered but I think something was off about it. I got a sharply phenolic and astringent blast right from the outset: an infection, or something wrong with the serve. Either way, it didn't taste like an IPA to me. My wife, more charitably, suggested it had a farmhouse feel to it, like a particularly funky saison. Behind all that there's a hint of orange juice and a green apple bite, but even as I tried to analyse the fruit phenomena, each sip brought me back to the cleaning products aisle. Let's hope this was a one-off.

Finally, The Porterhouse (born in Bray though never actually brewing there) had its first New England IPA on offer, brewed in collaboration with Hillstown of Co. Antrim. Trend-chasing hasn't been The Porterhouse's milieu since the nitro red ale craze of the mid-1990s, and to be honest I don't mind that: enough other breweries do it, and not enough of them have four good-quality stouts in their permanent line-ups. That certainly seems to be their strength, more so than NEIPA. Hazy Border is just 4.4% ABV and yes, it is hazy, but it's also a deep, matured, orange colour, instead of showing the bright youthful plumage of a typically fresh New England. It's also strongly bitter, exuding the harsh grassy notes of a beer that has been dry-hopped too much and for too long. This misses the style points by some distance and isn't especially nice to drink, though at the same time is far from the honking disaster of the preceding IPA.

A re-run of Wicklow Brewery's fantastic Chocolate and Coconut Extra Stout finished the visit on a high note for me. Thanks to hosts The Harbour, organiser Mark, and the assorted brewers for putting it all together.

11 July 2018

The Swedish Empire

Funny how Sweden doesn't get associated with strong and dark beers. Baltic porter and imperial stout are the affairs of near neighbours. Sweden not so much.

That's by way of introduction to The Sidamo Dimtu, an imperial coffee stout from Dugges, over on the west coast near Gothenberg. There's a nordic preciseness to this beer. The ABV is exacty 10%; it smells of a perfect balance between strong dark beer and stimulating fresh coffee, and the texture is rounded, warming and built to satisfy without going to extremes.

Its flavour is very complex. The alcohol is pulling its weight and the almost spirituous side to it forms a framework on which all else is hung. Coffee liqueur is the obvious one; hazelnut schnapps follows, and there's a crunch of green veg -- broccoli and asparagus -- if you look for it. Bitter tar finishes it off, and it ends there, leaving you hanging on that sharp, dry roasted vibe.

This beer seems unsure as to whether it's supposed to be a sumptuous gut-lining rich dessert or an angry astringent power-punk thug. There are elements of both. All I'll say is it's very pleasant late night drinking. That's all you need to know.

09 July 2018

Hot balls

An opportunity to expand my horizons with regard to Magic Rock's Cannonball+ series presented itself recently, with the arrival of two unfamiliar iterations to Irish shores.

Neo-Human Cannonball is labelled as a double IPA but at 9.2% ABV is where many breweries begin their triple designation. Obviously  NewEnglandification is afoot here. It's appropriately orange, opaque and bad at keeping a head. The aroma is pleasant and tropical: pineapple, peach, mango and whatnot. The flavour is surprisingly plain: no bright juicy fruits leap out from the get-go. Instead it's sweet like a candy chew sweet, and almost as thick. A custard vanilla note lurks just behind this, then a jolt of fruit syrup, followed swiftly by an afterburn of booze heat. And that's it: all done very quickly leaving me wondering where my €7.35 went. I deem this lacklustre trend-chasing effort the Scrappy-Doo of the series.

I hoped for better from Un-Human Cannonball, a full-fat triple IPA at 11% ABV, and one that's been around for a good few years now. It doesn't look that different from the previous beer: still opaque orange, though maybe a little darker. There's an unsettling non-hop bitter quality to the aroma, like high-cocoa chocolate or strong coffee. The flavour is definitely beery: doubling down on US IPA's features with concentrated citrus pith and a harsh but pleasing alcohol burn. This is a bad boy with a quiff and a motorbike, and you probably shouldn't go where's he's bringing you, but it's a loud, thrilling and intoxicating ride. It fully meets the requirements of the spec, but I don't know that I actually enjoyed it. I respected it though. You have to.

The punchline: neither of these modern variations impressed me the way plain old Cannonball did when I first tasted it back in 2014. Perhaps those were just happier times.

06 July 2018

Better than expecto'd

Session logo A nice broad topic for the The Session this month, and flagged sufficiently well in advance for me to get my act together for it. Our host is Roger's Beers, and German wheat beer is the theme.

Roger requests a broad brush approach, to learn about all the various styles of weissbier and its variants. The style I've chosen is: cheap.

For less than €2 from German discount supermarket Lidl comes Patronus, sold under the chain's Perlenbacher brand and brewed at the generally-reliable southern regional giant Eichbaum. It's quite a dark colour, showing an almost copper shade at the bulb of the glass. A thick haze and lots of foam are all de rigeur for the style.

It goes big on the banana in the flavour, with a thick texture making it resemble almost a banana milkshake. Happily that's all at the front -- just enough to evoke pleasant childhood memories -- before it fades to clove rock and then a whisper of butane on the end. That gas fuel thing is also the primary component of the aroma, suggesting it's probably full of headache-inducing compounds, despite being only 5.5% ABV. It's probably too heavy to drink more than a couple in one sitting anyway.

Overall, a decent weissbier, well suited to dessert drinking, and showing more individual character than budget versions usually do.

04 July 2018

The sideshow

With the excitement of Indie Beer Week behind us until 2019, I can now bring you a couple of beers from small Irish breweries that don't qualify for inclusion.

The latest bottle release from 5 Lamps, in collaboration with Hellfire Brew Club, is Red Pilsner. Those aren't two words you see together very often: isn't this just an amber lager? Will from Hellfire sent me one to try and the answer is, well, yes and no.

It certainly looks like one: a clear reddish-brown colour, topped with a thick and handsome layer of off-white foam. And there's the dark malt toffee in the foretaste, but that's not the dominant feature. After it comes a strong noble hop bitterness with a powerful green flavour, mixing bell pepper, asparagus and spinach. It's quite assertive and definitely belonging more in a full-on northern-German pils than in red lager. The downside is that the sweet malt character just doesn't complement it as well as clean pale malt does. There's a bit of a struggle between the two sides and the integrity of the beer suffers because of it. It never really settles into one thing or another.

And maybe that's why you don't see many red pilsners around. It's an interesting experiment but it left me wanting something more classically constructed.

The first Eight Degrees release since the brewery was acquired by Pernod Ricard is Hoop Du Jour, a session IPA brewed to promote this year's ABV Fest (Belfast, 31st August to 1st September: job done). It's 4% ABV, hopped with an Australio-American combination of Enigma, Denali and Amarillo, and bulked up with both oats and, weirdly, lactose.

It didn't taste milky to me, however, and that's probably for the best. All the typical C-hop flavours and aromas are here, beginning with a funky and weedy resinousness, brightening up to become lemonpeel: bitter first, then merely tangy. It's strange how the combination works in the reverse order to usual, the taste becoming spritzier as it goes, not heavier and more acidic.

An odd beer, but it's far from unpleasant, and certainly a different take on the session IPA style.

Just because you're owned by a multinational doesn't mean you can't be creative with recipe design.

02 July 2018

Pooch hooch

Hey, remember BrewDog? I found some notes about some of their beers and made a blog post out of them.

My first ever 500ml BrewDog can was Eight-Bit, an 8% ABV eight-brewery collaboration New England IPA. It's on the money for the style, pouring a murky orange-yellow and packing the flavour with smooth and sweet peach and apricot. No bitterness, no onions or garlic and no yeast bite either: this is straight-up juicy, and rather pleasant with it, if not exactly complex. There's a bit of a burn from the alcohol in the finish, and a slight solvent quality to the aroma, but other than that it hides the booze well. With collaborations there's always the fear that the breweries have done something stupid, something none of them would stand over alone. This is solidly put together, however. Hooray for committee thinking.

Back to the wee cans, then, and Clockwork Tangerine is next, a "citrus session IPA", so Elvis Juice Lite? It's 4.5% ABV and a deep orange-amber colour. This is barely beer, all malt and hops thoroughly covered over by sticky orangeade and artificial spices. As syrup-driven summer fruit beer goes it's fine; I'd go so far as to say it's actively refreshing, yet at the same same time it's everything that's wrong with today's unbeery beers. If you enjoyed this then my next recommendation is an Aperol or Campari and soda.

Something more down-the-line to follow. Native Son, promises straight-up west coast hop flavours and pitches up at 8.5% ABV. The booze is very apparent from the first sip: instead of sharp and clean fizzy bitterness it shows a syrupy heat with solvent notes, the hop flavour definitely coming in second behind the alcohol. That flavour itself is sweet and sticky: jaffa oranges, marmalade and a stronger, bitterer, lime side. There's very little room for compromise, the bitters and esters relentlessly piling in. I would have liked this cleaner, clearer and sharper, instead of the hot messy booze-bomb I got.

A dark one to go out on: Kamikaze Knitting Club, one of the stars of the BrewDog bar at Alltech 2018 back in the spring. It's a maple stout of 7.5% ABV and smells immediately sweet and heavy as soon as the tab is pulled. This offers a lovely mix of sweet stout flavours: chocolate, coconut, molasses and even a naughty pinch of whisky. Funnily enough, I didn't pick the maple out, and maybe I attributed the woody bark side to something else. It's definitely a lovely beer, though: a strong sweet stout that doesn't go overboard, doesn't play on gimmicks and stays smooth, drinkable and integrated. More of this kind of thing, please, BrewDog.

The brewery's Irish arm is throwing a shindig in Dublin(ish) this weekend, with their own beer and cider plus high-calibre Irish guest brewers. Details here.

29 June 2018

Late to the party

This is day eight of Indie Beer Week 2018 and I'm rounding off my series of posts with the beers I discovered during the week itself.

I'm picking things up where I left them yesterday with Praetorian, new from YellowBelly and as far as I know exclusive to its beer club subscribers. "Polaris hopped blueberry weizen" is the unlikely style statement, and it's 5% ABV. It looks like a smoothie, pouring a murky dark purple hue, without a proper weissbier head. There's not much aroma, while the flavour is odd and perfumed: a mix of miscellaneous spices and non-specific fruit. There's a sharpness which could be attributed to the berries, but nothing that really says blueberry flavour. On the other side it's a weissbier by texture for sure, but that's it. I get the Polaris, though: a sharp herbal mint. So one out of three. For all the wowee craft innovation it's quite a plain beer, a lot less interesting than any standard weizen you care to name.

That backed up my notion that weissbier isn't one of the traditional styles amenable to craft hacking, a prejudice which was further confirmed by Lemondrop, just released by Carrig Brewing. The hacking is apparently no more than dry hopping with the titular hop and Denali, but my pint arrived clear and gold in a straight-sided glass, the attempt at a big weiss head making it look like an underfilled pint of lager. The mere 4.6% ABV is further evidence of inauthenticity, but it really kicks in from the aroma: sweet and sticky like a lemon meringue pie. The flavour is pretty much the same, adding a touch of banana foam sweets. The whole thing is weird and artificial. Contrived; and bound to upset any Germans who come to Bar Rua looking for a weissbier. This experiment didn't work out.

Staying in that pub, owner Carrig's other new guy was Basil Blast, a gold-coloured Centennial and Simcoe pale ale of 5.5% ABV, with a purported large helping of basil in the whirlpool. There's definitely something other than the usual in here, but I'd swear it was ginger: that slightly woody, chewy, spice you tend to get from real fresh ginger. It certainly shouts over the hopping, and I am assured that no ginger was involved in the recipe. There is a slight herbal tang on the tail, but it's not the oily green richness of real basil. A dry and tannic finish complements the spicing. This is definitely a refreshing beer, and was much appreciated on a warm sunny afternoon; it's just a little confusing.

Around the corner, last Friday, Stephen Street News hosted the third beer release from Liam, aka Dead Centre Brewing: Seeking Sunshine IPA. He kindly donated a can for me to bring home where I drank it in the last rays of Sunday's sun. It's 5% ABV and brewed with Citra and Amarillo, pouring a pale yellow shade with little head. The aroma is quite dank and funky, though with a little bit of juice thrown in. Its flavour, then, is disappointingly savoury, piling in the caraway taste I associate most with Mosaic-gone-awry. There is a faint juiciness as well on the very end, a tantalising echo of mandarin, hinting at what this could have been without all the honking caraway. The texture is nicely full thanks to the oats in the grist, and the carbonation is low enough to make it easy drinking. It's still a passable IPA, but in need of punching up, I think.

I covered Third Barrel's goings-on on Tuesday. Their last-minute contribution to the week, in UnderDog yesterday, was Juice Bigalow. And yes: juice. Big juice. Mega juice. It opens on a giant bag of mandarins, rendered extra juicy by an effervescent sherbet quality. There's bitter kick on the end, a growing dankness, a metallic tang and... waaaait a minute: this bears a striking resemblance to Tuesday's sensation Two Yards, from the same brewery for someone else. Is it wrong of me to suspect this is a very small variation on it? Very small? It doesn't matter either way to me: I get great beer regardless. Pleasingly full-bodied at a super-sessionable 4.1% ABV, it's properly complex and juicy as all hell. You can call it what you like, sure. (And I am completely wrong to be suspicious; see comments).

Fresh from Whiplash is Shades of Marble double IPA, at the standard Whiplash ABV of 8%, hopped with Galaxy, Vic Secret and Lemondrop, and both looking and smelling like pineapple juice. There's a bit of yeast grit in with the tropical fruit, though that doesn't come through in the flavour. It's still pretty soupy-tasting, however: glutinous floury protein blocking any hop brightness. There's a green veg foretaste, then the bitter liquorice of Vic Secret, and a buzz of alcohol. It's all a bit harsh and unfinished-tasting for my liking, and yes I know that's the style. Clean this one up and it would be very decent.

I finally got to tick off the last of the Hopfully trilogy brewed for the Klaw restaurants (you can find the other two here). Auntie Arthur's is a porter, modestly strong at 4.8% ABV. The presentation was poor: a dirty glass leading to dodgy head retention, but that didn't interfere with the flavour. There's a light and easy-going chocolate foretaste, followed by medium roast and a slightly metallic tang on the end. A long aftertaste brings endless cups of strong filter coffee. This is dry rather than creamy, yet still full-bodied. Solid; by-the-numbers. It went very well with my sweet and spicy prawn poke.

Hopfully also released a new seasonal, described as a "white India Pale Lager" and named California Uncommon. This has the pale and hazy appearance of a witbier but puts delicious fresh and juicy peaches at the front of the flavour. The expected herbal spicing comes after, a little jarring at first but settling out to rosemary and lemon zest, like a slightly adventurous stuffing. While not particularly lager-like with all this going on, it is at least clean and devoid of unpleasant yeast interference. You could just consider it a decent pale ale and be happy with that.

Rascals came out with a sequel to last year's Strawberry Vanilla Shake IPA in the form of Raspberry Sundae IPA. While the former did manage to preserve a considerable proportion of its IPA character, this one throws it all up in the air and runs away giggling. It tastes exactly like raspberry ripple ice cream, warming to lean more towards a jam-and-cream spongecake. There's a certain beery bitterness buried right at the back, and a touch of actual hop flavour on the reflux, but otherwise this is all dessert. It's clean and drinkable despite this: fun, silly and hard to dislike.

A late-evening call to The Hill in Ranelagh yielded a pint of Dolmen. This whiskey-barrel stout is from Western Herd, a Clare brewery whose wares are rarely seen in these parts. It's 7.6% ABV and sweet without tasting hot. Black cherry is at the centre, laced with coconut cream around the edges and given a dusting of cocoa. But there was something else, something not part of the confection construction, and it took me a while to figure it out. Autolysis. A jarring meaty flavour -- Bovril or gravy -- that hovers in the background and comes to the fore at the very end. It's too late to spoil anything, but it does take the shine off an otherwise calm and balanced beer.

Here endeth the week's festivities, for this blog at least. Got your plan ready for the closing weekend of IBW18? Good.