23 January 2017

Start as you mean to go on

Dry January? The chance would be a fine thing. Dublin's pubs have had plenty of new Irish stuff on the go for this supposedly quiet month. Here's what I managed to get hold of.

I paid my first and second visits to Idlewild during the month, a pleasant little bar tucked into George's Market on the Fade Street side. The first time was because they'd just released their first collaboration recipe beer. Strawberry Milkshake IPA was brewed at Rascals in an extremely small pilot batch which sold out entirely on the evening of its release. I'm told it will be back on a more permanent basis in due course. It's 6.3% ABV and takes its name from the use of real strawberries and lactose, alongside oatmeal and Hüll Melon hops. The aroma was worryingly sickly but there's none of this in its flavour as it delivers instead a big hit of tropical fruit: a cocktail of mango, passionfruit and pineapple juices. No strawberry, mind, though the "milkshake" bit is present in the slightly glutinous texture which I think actually enhanced the hop impact. Expecting pure gimmickry, I was pleased to find just a really good fruit beer.

That wasn't the first beer to feature Rascals and Idlewild's signatures; the brewery has been making the bar's house beer since it first opened. A Swingin' Affair is a light pale ale of just 4.1% ABV. Manager Dean told me the intention was for something easy-going and fruity but to my palate this is very dry and savoury, in that way that seems to be so fashionable at the moment. The Hüll Melon is allied with Mosaic hops here and I got crisp onion skin in particular from it, with just a little bit of fruitiness peeping out as it warms. It's refreshing and it is easy-going, but I found that flavour just a little too severe.

What brought me back to Idlewild was the launch of a new pilsner from The White Hag. Róc is intended to replace the brewery's Kölsch-a-like in the permanent line-up, and is a medium-strength 4.5% ABV. Despite this it has quite a substantial body, light in carbonation and a full mouthfeel more typical of helles or even märzen. The bitterness is sharp and green in the north German way, though I found it lacking the fresh punch you find in the likes of Jever. There's a slightly off-putting rubbery note in it as well. It's a decent effort, and the brewery clearly knows that beers of this sort are supposed to have character, which this does. I'm not ready to place it in the pantheon of great Irish lagers yet, however.

While I was in the neighbourhood, I nipped around the corner to Bar Rua where they had YellowBelly's Smoke & Oak on tap, a 5.5% ABV stout with cocoa nibs aged on scotch whisky cask chips. It's pure black in colour with a sappy rubber foretaste and an ashen dryness after. Given a few minutes to warm up, there's a nice and meaty texture, but the flavour just doesn't work for me: it tastes burnt rather than smoked and there's none of the softness I'd have expected from whisky and/or chocolate.

Another German-style lager next, Careen, brewed by Galway Bay as a replacement for their Dortmunder. This one is 4.8% ABV, the purest clear gold, with a pleasantly soft texture. The first sip presents a large perfumed bitterness on the palate, one that takes a bit of getting used to and which hangs around for ages. I like when flavourful lagers party in the mouth quickly and then clear out of the way, cleaning up after themselves. This one is a bit more unruly, and leaves you to deal with that intensely floral aftertaste yourself, grumbling over your resin-coated tongue. Careen is a bold beer, and might even change a few minds about how aggressive this style can be, but for me it's just a bit too busy for enjoyable quaffing.

Recent guest beers at Galway Bay's The Black Sheep have included White Gypsy's The Banker, described as a "rye wheat beer" which I figured would be an interesting combination. It's the ochre colour of many a rye beer but that's where I felt the grain's contribution ended. On tasting it reveals itself to be an absolutely straight-up Bavarian style weissbier. And a good one at that: softly full-bodied despite an ABV of just 5%, and with a gorgeous juicy-fruit bubblegum flavour, one that's lively without being over-sweet. There is a certain peppery spice as well, and that could be the rye, but it could just as easily be a flavour produced by the yeast also. I'm not sure what the point of this experiment was, but I did enjoy the beer, reminding me as it did that weissbier is a much overlooked style and can be very tasty when done well.

Meanwhile another rye beer was pouring on the cask engines: O Brother's Holden, badged as a Belgian-style rye pale ale at 6.3% ABV. It's a murky orange colour but has a fresh and clean mandarin zest aroma. There's a big and sharp rye bitterness at the front, followed by juicy jaffa hops in behind. There's enough time for a full toffee warmth to enter the picture as well, before the bitterness returns, bringing it to a hard, almost acrid finish. It's quite a ride. A few sips in I noticed there's a certain tannic quality too. Coupled with the orangey hops this lends it an English bitter feel which I rather enjoyed. In fact, it tastes far more like a bitter or barley wine than anything Belgian. I liked it a lot, mainly for its complexity. The trademark O Brother bitterness is there, but it's balanced and enhanced by lots of other things.

I had never been to Murphy's in Rathmines before, but made a point of stopping by when it became the first Dublin pub to have O'Hara's Hop Adventure Styrian Wolf on tap, the latest in Carlow Brewing's series of 5% ABV single-hop IPAs. A previous version included Sorachi Ace, and I found this to have a lot in common with it. Coconut is the main feature of the flavour, though rather than Sorachi's lemons, there's a softer fruit accompaniment, something like lychee. I see one description of the hop which mentions an elderflower characteristic, and I can understand why. Amongst all the fruit and flowers there is a serious bitterness here too, but it's restrained enough to let the other flavours out to play. Much like Sorachi Ace, I expect this beer will divide opinion but I'm definitely a fan of its up-front boldness.

Finishing up with a couple of trips to 57 The Headline, Trouble Brewing's latest is a "fresh & juicy" pale ale called Ambush. It seems to be pitching a little at the New England segment of the market, with its cloudy yellow stylings. At least some of that must be hop haze because there's a full-on smack of pineapples and weed in the aroma, while the flavour has not a trace of yeast bite. There's a slight savoury greasiness, but no allium or caraway, I'm happy to report. Instead, the first flavour is a spicy peppery resin thing, pure dank, after which comes softer mandarin, pineapple and lemon candy. Fresh, yes, and a little bit juicy, but it's mostly about that weedy, spicy bitterness. Beautiful stuff, and at 5.01% ABV, very sessionable.

Finally, another fast-moving Rascals special. Vacuum Boogie IPA is an award-winning homebrew recipe, scaled up and sent out into the world, starting at The Headline. The Capital Brewers homebrew club had descended en masse to clear the first couple of kegs and I was fortunate to secure one of the final pints. It's another murky one, and once again dankness is the signature move. There's less of a tropical character than in Ambush, instead having a more bitter and spicy grapefruit skin thing going on. A teeny bit of onion starts to develop as it warms, but nothing significant, and not enough to upset the basic delicious spicy premise. There are about 18 kegs of this floating around, I believe. Grab it while it's fresh.

Not a bad start to 2017, all-in-all.

20 January 2017

Grin and bear it

This is the last of my posts on beer in and from Romania, and it's about the mainstream macro brands. I have some experience with these, having tasted a couple of the dark lagers in this post. I was in no rush to try any of them again so stuck to the pale stuff.

Like in most of Europe, Romanian beer shelves are a battleground between a couple of multinationals, waging war with the local brands they have acquired or developed. Here it's Heineken and SABMiller (soon to be AB-InBev, I guess) slugging it out.

Among the most heavily advertised national brands is Ursus, and its flagship is Ursus Premium, a 5% ABV golden lager from the ex-SABMiller stable. And it's fine, veering to good. My can came from an open chiller in a supermarket so was only barely cool, and there were no nasty surprises lurking. It's softly rounded like a decent Munich helles, with a faint nettley noble hop dryness and even a hint of lemon bittering. At €0.55 for the half-litre I have no complaints.

From the same supermarket run came Bucegi, a Heineken effort boasting all-Romanian ingredients. Faith in my tasting ability was restored because this is disgusting with all the cheap-and-nasty lager traits: battery acid, stale grains and water. Woeful.

Heineken's most pervasive local brand is Silva, and standard Silva lager is 5.1% ABV. Despite the strength it's wan coloured and wan tasting, watery as hell and flavoured with only the merest hint of cereal grains. I can just about imagine it being refreshing and thirst-quenching, but that's as far as it goes.

Flipping back to the SABMiller group in hope, next is Timişoreana, an exceedingly pale one, though holding the line at 5% ABV. There's a whack of the cheap acidic bitterness in this but it fades quickly, allowing a pleasantly crunchy dry grain character through plus bonus hints of candied lemon peel. Like the Ursus, the body is full and enjoyably fluffy. I'm able to see past its faults and just drink it, though can't see myself voluntarily choosing it again.

Last of the cans is Ciucaş, from SABMiller again. I like the can design. Just 4.6% ABV and white-gold in colour. It smells like a proper pils: crisp grain with grassy hops behind, and it balances those well in the flavour. There's definitely a solid snap of noble hops here, though fading quickly to let a sugary candyfloss sweetness dominate the middle. And the end. This is one to drink quickly, before the hops fade entirely from view, and thankfully the rounded body and low carbonation allow that.

Ciuc is another very ubiquitous brand. It's owned by Heineken and I got one free as part of a meal deal in a restaurant. It looked sad in the glass and tasted sadder: dull, watery with some unpleasant banana candy and tinfoil notes as it warms. Classic Europiss.

We finish in Caru' Cu Bere, a grand Victorian beer hall and restaurant in Old Town Bucharest. SABMiller has the beer contract here so there's Ursus, Pilsner Urquell, plus Ursus Nefiltrată, an unfiltered lager. I didn't think this was as good as Ursus Premium, though it does have a lovely floral complexity in it. It lacks any sort of hop character, unfortunately, allowing a raw graininess to dominate the quite sweet flavour.

There's also a Caru' Cu Bere house beer, which I assume comes from the same brewery. It's sweet again, and a little astringent. Cheap-tasting, and not helped by the warm mug mine was served in while we waited for our table.

And that's all I have to say about Romanian beer: the good, the bad and the ugly of it. Like most places, there's plenty of decent beer to be had, but you need to do your research to find it.

18 January 2017

Middling to fair

Continuing my exploration of Romanian beers, today we move on to the bigger independents and contract brews.

Zăganu is the nearest thing to a mainstream craft brand, popping up in supermarkets and a couple of non-specialist bars. Zăganu Blondă is simple golden lager of 5.3% ABV. The malt base gives it a pleasant pilsner-style golden syrup flavour, there's a lightly spicy hop element plus a touch of Belgian esters in the mix, but that's as complex as it gets. It's pretty unexciting. Next to it there is Zăganu  IPA. This one is copper-coloured, though only slightly darker than the blonde and has a seriously funky hop aroma. On tasting it's spicy and green: part cabbage, part pine floor cleaner. The latter effect is enhanced by the thick unctuous texture. Behind the busy hops there's a huge malt sweetness, with a big hit of caramel and even a saccharine metallic quality. To me it seems like the brewery has tried to balance the big hops with big malt but they've ended up with something that's simultaneously over-bitter and over-sweet instead. This IPA does deliver the requisite hop hit, but does so in an awkward and uncertain package.

Both of these were found in Boulevard Pub, a nice little place in Bucharest Old Town which conveniently opens early in the afternoon, which the other beer specialists don't.

Zăganu Brună I picked up at the supermarket. Roughly a dunkelbock, it's a whopping 7.1% ABV but is another inoffensive one, which is probably a mercy given the potential to oversweeten this kind of beer. There's a smooth and gentle burnt caramel quality and a mild aniseed bitterness which gives it a medicinal tang. The mouthfeel is a bit thin as well. It's not a patch on proper German strong dark lager, but is quite easy-going.

Last of this lot is Zăganu Rosie, which La 100 de Beri was describing as a Belgian red.  It's 7% ABV and a hazy dark copper colour. It smells of strawberries and tastes similarly of summer fruit with a pleasantly dry background. The tangy fruit and toastiness make for a tasty combination, though sweetness does start to build on the palate as it goes along. Enjoyable, but not a beer I could drink more than one of.

Bucharest has a single brewpub, Berestroika, nestled amongst the massive apartment buildings of the south city centre.  It's a multi-room bar and restaurant, reminding me a little of inns in Germany and the Czech Republic. The brewery is in the basement and the friendly hostess gave us a short tour before we started exploring the beers.

I kicked off with Blondie, the 4.5% ABV house lager. Like many a brewpub lager it's hazy and quite fruity, with warm-fermentation esters plus a jaffa and pineapple juiciness which comes from the hops. A wonky sour twang shows up on the finish and I'm guessing is not meant to be there. The weissbier, Whitie, is even more amateur. It's a clear gold colour and absolutely piles on the banana and bubblegum flavours without an ounce of subtlety. It's tough going for such a light beer.

There's a Vienna lager in the range called Rosie, described in the menu as somewhere between 5 and 5.5% ABV. The flavour is a fascinating blend of raisins, chocolate and butterscotch. And it's that diacetyl butterscotch element that dominates the flavour. Thankfully it's offset a little by a sweet grape tang so the finished beer, for all its faults, isn't sickly and remains drinkable. Last of the set is a pitch-black 7%-er called Blackie. It smells estery and tastes of bananas and roast. Very weird and not in a good way.

Berestroika is a nice place to spend an hour or two, but it really could do with improving the way it makes beer.

Back to the Old Town next, and we paid a brief visit to Nenea-Iancu, the pub arm of a local beer importer. It has a couple of house beers which the company commissioned a brewery in Germany to make.

Nenea-Iancu Blondă Specială is a 4.9% ABV helles. It's properly smooth and gluggable, though it's sweeter than one would normally expect, tasting to me of cupcakes and candyfloss. This is despite a lovely mineral and grass aroma. The hops are well hidden in the flavour, present as only the merest tang underneath the malt.

Its companion is a weissbier called Nenea-Iancu Albă Nefiltrată. The presentation was a bit poor here, the beer missing the big fluffy white head it should have. There's a true-to-style banana and bubblegum aroma with lots of clove in the foretaste, turning candy-sweet later. As expected the carbonation is low and that does allow the sweetness to grow, getting a bit cloying by the end. It's another beer where one would be plenty.

The company also commissions Oppler Pilsner from a Czech brewery. It's only 4.1% ABV and does all the things you expect from good pils -- golden syrup and grass -- but dialled down very low and set on a thin watery body. Served ice cold it's as refreshing as water and pretty much as tasty.

Finally, from the bottle fridge at La 100 de Beri, I picked Ursa Amar@, brewed for a Cluj-based client brewer by Hungary's Kolumbusz brewery. I wasn't sure what to expect from something badged as a "special bitter ale". It's 6.5% ABV and a chestnut brown colour. The aroma is all raisins and booze, putting me in mind of a hot quadrupel. Its flavour offers a fun spicy mix of mince pies, liquorice, dark roasted grain and fresh green cabbage: a strange combination but it does work surprisingly well. There's all the complexity you'd find in a thick dark Belgian ale, and more, but in a lighter package. I enjoyed it a lot.

That's it for the craft offerings. Stand by for the next post, delving into the dangerous world of Romanian macro lagers.

16 January 2017

Bucharest and relaxation

I spent a week over New Year in Romania, exploring what the capital has to offer. I think I managed to put a decent dent in the local beer offerings, which I'll be recounting over the next few posts. The independent beer action mostly happens across a handful of pubs in Bucharest Old Town, though I'm sure there's more for the proper adventurer to discover further afield. And I got the impression of a scene very much on the grow: where this lot came from, much more will follow.

There are two branches of the Beer O'Clock pub in the city, only a few streets away from each other. One is a poky upstairs-downstairs arrangement, about the size and shape of Gollem in Amsterdam; the other brighter and roomier, with a bank of bottle fridges behind the bar meaning you don't have to rely on the not-very-reliable menu. There's a very decent selection of international beers, including Thornbridge, Oakham and Andechs on draught, though most of the taps in both places are given over to local microbrewery Hop Hooligans.

Hop Hooligans appears to have just set up in the last couple of months, and if so has definitely hit the ground running, to say the least. The first from them I tried was Crowd Control — getting the last bottle in the pub since the draught had already kicked. It's an IPA of 6% ABV, unfiltered yet a perfect clear gold when poured from the half-litre bottle. The aroma is real Here-Be-Hops stuff: dank resins, a touch of savoury herbs and a light citrus buzz. On tasting it bursts forth with a fresh and juicy mandarin flavour, finishing on a sherbet tang, with a tiny soapiness on the very finish the only thing close to a bum note in the whole symphony. It tastes stronger than it's marked, with a big full body that might get a little syrupy if drinking more than a couple in sequence, but it's still a very impressive beer and definitely the place to start when exploring what Romania is brewing.

The dark beer next to it is a draught pint of Chupacabra, the brewery's spiced imperial stout, though only lightly imperialistic, at just 7.5% ABV. It arrived a little cold and flat but the flavour was there in spades: rich cocoa with a bitterness more akin to good dark chocolate than hoppy beer, and then just a gently warming pinch of chilli seasoning at the end. Far from a powerhouse stout, but tasty and well-made nonetheless.

L: Summer Punch, R: Shock Therapy
In the hope of more hop heaven I picked Summer Punch for round two, a 5% ABV golden pale ale. It was the second headless pint in a row. The aroma here is sweet and peachy, with an edge of sulphur. A sip brought a fun blend of tropical and citrus fruit, pineapple harmonising with grapefruit, and the whole thing putting me very much in mind of BrewDog's Punk IPA, if a good bit thinner of body. That thinness started to bug me more and more as I went along, bringing with it a watery finish that does no justice to the fresh hop flavours. You need to concentrate on the foretaste to really get into this one.

Herself, meanwhile, had picked the other Hop Hooligans IPA, by the name of Shock Therapy. It looks the same as the beer next to it, except for that handsome mane of pure white foam. It doesn't smell fruity, though; it smells funky: part dank, part old socks. That's how it tastes too, with a kind of cheesiness that I don't think is caused by old hops. When I look up the varieties I discover that Waimea and Rakau are the guilty parties, and I'm not surprised. I've picked up an unpleasant funk from those high-end Kiwi hops before. As a saving grace there's just a slight citrus spritz in the background, but otherwise this beer just didn't suit either of us.

When we moved to Beer O'Clock 2 a couple of days later I got to clear off a few more of the Hop Hooligans set. Royal Execution is badged as an ESB and is the right shade of amber, though rather murky. It's a substantial 6.5% ABV and smells pleasantly of orange chocolate biscuits. This intensifies to bitterer jaffa pith and sweeter toffee on tasting, with strange rubbery overtones. I was expecting it to be too hot and too sweet — beers that describe themselves as ESB but aren't actually Fullers ESB usually are — but here it's that rubber off-note that is the kicker.

I rounded out my Hooligans with Cannon Fire, a 5.7% ABV coconut stout. It's pure black in colour and tastes exactly like a Bounty bar, with all the sweet and oily goodness of moist coconut flesh coated in smooth milk chocolate. The texture is so silky that I was most of the way down the pint before I went looking for any nuances, but when I did I found a certain pleasant alcohol heat — Malibu, maybe — a touch of dry coconut husk and some sweeter vanilla. So, yeah, it rewards careful sipping but all I wanted to do was slug it back and giggle. This is a very silly beer and I absolutely loved it.

Not quite 100% perfection from Hop Hooligans, but they clearly know how to make beer and have some absolute triumphs in their range.

Our next venue isn't a pub, and it's hard to describe exactly what it is without being scornful. The Urbanist is roughly a cafë, though also sells skater-chic clothes and accessories. Its menu describes it as a "contemporary lifestyle hub" but it's probably best to skip past that to the bottle fridge.

Here I found another of Romania's leading lights of beer, Ground Zero. I was looking for their seemingly iconic but poorly-named Imperial Fuck, but had to settle for a Morning Glory IPA. No hardship either. This is another 6%-er, though darker than our friend Crowd Control above. There's a spicy orange hop aroma, separating out into resinous peppery herbs and mandarin juice on tasting. It's a little on the sweet side though very much in a juicy way, with no sticky malt interfering. The bitterness is present but understated giving it just the right amount of balance. Overall, though, this is a beer that just begs to be consumed, not analysed. I'd have happily chugged another straight after.

It was back at Beer O'Clock that I found another Ground Zero effort, the amber ale Amber Guerre. This one isn't quite as stellar but is perfectly palatable. You get a dry and crisp roastiness on the front and then pithy citrus hops behind, finishing sharply bitter, with a wisp of sulphur in the tail. I found myself wishing for a bit more weight to carry those hops along, but really it's fine as-is. It departs from the palate with a fun lemonade aftertaste which is probably its best feature.

I only tried one beer from Bucharest's Perfektum, based not far from Hop Hooligans but inside the city limits. Perfektum Pale Ale is in a half litre bottle, 5% ABV and hazy orange with a promising pineapple aroma. It unravels a little when tasted, clanging out saccharine metal and sharply dirty yeast. There's a bit of a fresh hop character underneath but at the same time it's harsh and acrid with only the faintest trace of citrus fruit flavour. Turns out the aroma is far and away the beer's best feature. I wasn't in a mad rush to try the rest of Perfektum's range.

The final brewer in this set is Sikaru, and for this we turn to the last of the notable beer bars of Bucharest I visited: La 100 de Beri. I didn't count if they really had 100 beri, but there's a damn decent selection in stock, including a couple of English beers on cask, a good range of Belgian classics, as well as a solid mix of German beers from both the traditional and new-wave sides of the house. But it was the Romanian beer I was after, beginning with the aforementioned Sikaru. I've no idea where it's brewed.

Sikaru Stout is 5.5% ABV, opening with an intensely dry, burnt-toast aroma, and keeps that theme going in the flavour. Or at least at first: a couple of sips in I started to get hints of chocolate and a little rosewater too. But despite these minor sparks of fun it's mostly a serious charcoal affair, although one which I found myself warming to by half way through. It's a little homebrewish, perhaps, but there's a rough charm to it.

Green Griffin is the Sikaru IPA, a slightly worrying brown-red colour and medium-strong at 5.8% ABV. The texture is big bodied and smooth, which is how it looks, but the aroma is remarkably bright and fresh with happy doses of invigorating hop spice. There's zing aplenty in the flavour, mixing up spritzy lemon sherbet with green vegetal bitterness and, best of all, absolutely no sticky malt, despite appearances. A long acidic hop bite is the beer's parting shot. It may look ugly as hell but this is a very decent new-world style IPA.

There's more in the Sikaru range but the only other one I got to was Summer Tide which they brew for Sunstone Alehouse across the border in Moldova. It's described as an American-style pale ale and is 5.2% ABV. The aroma starts off on the wrong foot immediately, smelling musty, rusty and rotten. That staleness comes through in the flavour as well: a grain-husk staleness overlaid with cloyingly sweet orange cordial. Carefree summer drinking this definitely isn't. The inevitable metallic twang is the final grim flourish. I got through it but it wasn't an enjoyable experience and I know the brewery is capable of much better.

But it's all downhill from here. The above is the best I found Romania had to offer. There'll be more cross-border contract brewing and independent breweries in the next post, but the quality quotient will be taking a bit of a dip overall.

13 January 2017

Cheeky cans

Today I'm looking at the initial three packaged beers sent to me by one of Ireland's newest breweries, Lough Gill Brewing, in Sligo town. It's the creation of entrepreneur James Ward, who previously set up the neighbouring White Hag Brewery before leaving the company and, like White Hag, there's a definite eye towards the US market with these. Unusually he has chosen 440ml packaging, with the observation that it's fast becoming America's favourite can size. These ones aren't quite legal in Europe as they only display the capacity in US imperial units: 14.9 fl. oz.

I started with the brown ale, Mac Nutty, which is 5.5% ABV and flavoured with macadamia nuts. It looks the part: a rich chocolate brown colour with a generous topping of café crème foam. The aroma is similarly attractive -- caramel, raisins and hazelnuts -- while the flavour raises milk chocolate notes and just a very slight bittering edge for balance, no more than you'd find in a decent piece of dark chocolate, with an added subtle tang of blackcurrant. The best feature is the texture which is luxuriously smooth. This, combined with a sweetness level that doesn't build or cloy, makes it slip down indecently fast. Brown ales are too much of a rarity in Ireland but this one serves as a fine example of how to do them well.

Given the massively asymmetrical nature of Irish brewing it's perhaps surprising that there isn't more macro-bashing going on. There was, of course, The Porterhouse's infamous initial releases of "WeiserBuddy" and "Probably Lager" but not much since. Lough Gill seem to have decided to take no prisoners with their naming, and so the pale ale is called Thieving Bastards, in part, perhaps, as a nod to a certain Heineken-owned pseudocider, but making reference also to the provenance controversy which raged last summer and hasn't gone away you know.

It's almost as dark as the brown ale, pouring a deep garnet colour with a beige head. A long way from pale. I don't get much of an aroma and the flavour is surprisingly dry, with a substantial portion of roast. In fact it tastes far more like a porter than a pale ale, with maybe just enough light summer fruit and toffee to tip it into the Irish red ale category, albeit a strong one at 5% ABV. And like most Irish reds, it's pretty inoffensive: the deviance from style is about the only thing I can criticise it for. Perhaps I was too ready to read "American" in front of the words "Pale Ale", where "English, circa 1970" is more appropriate. I queried this with James who confirmed that "ESB" is the style they were shooting for. That makes sense, though it would have been a good idea to mention it on the label.

And finally the totally legit and trademarked Heinoweiser: an IPA of 5.5% ABV. We're staying on the dark side, though this is merely amber coloured. Malt is ahead in the aroma, toffee mostly. The flavour is predominantly sweet too, combining the milk chocolate from the brown ale with the grainy roast of the pale ale. I can barely make out any hop notes at all, which is a bit of a mortal sin in an IPA these days -- there's just a very vague tinny bitterness. The overall impression is of an IPA that's been aged past its best but I know that can't be the case.

My overall impression is that Lough Gill has got the hang of malt all right but definitely needs to put a bit more work in on hops.

11 January 2017

Christmas leftovers

The last couple of beers from my Christmas gift stash today, starting with Hobsons Chase "whisky beer", resplendent in the usual smart Hobsons livery. The label explains that the brewery makes the wash for a local distillery. The distillers have given back some of the finished whisky and it's been blended with the brewery's ruby porter Postman's Knock.

It's a modest 5.5% ABV and a dark mahogany red. The aroma is that of a sweet and slightly fruity porter, with black cherry, dark chocolate and a whiff of pipe tobacco. The texture is beautifully smooth but I had to let it warm up quite a way before I was able to get a handle on the flavour. It's mostly quite a simple, light and dry porter, with no more than hints of chocolate and no real roast or bitterness qualities. The whisky element is equally subtle, and easily missed, I'd say, if it weren't flagged on the label. Just a touch of vanilla oakiness and certainly no alcohol heat. I seem to be describing this beer mostly by how it doesn't taste. It is pleasant, balanced, drinkable, but at the same time not very exciting.

To follow, the slightly enigmatic Empress Ale, brewed for Empress Ale Ltd at the Langton Brewery in Leicestershire. The blurb on the label says this golden ale is specifically engineered to complement spiced foods, so I guess the commissioning company is intending to tout it around Indian restaurants. As it happened, I opened it just as my Saturday vindaloo arrived so I got to put it to the test properly. The first, pre-curry, taste showed it as a nicely full bodied beer with some fun sparks of sulphur and gunpowder through it. Those subtleties disappeared once the chillis and grease got involved but the beer still held its own, with the malt weight helping to quench the heat, though sacrificing the flavour in the process. An ale like this certainly works better as an accompaniment to hot curry than a thin lager does, but I knew that already. As a standalone there's not really much going on. If you're into appreciating beers more for their texture than their flavour you might like it, you weirdo.

Two beers that are definitely more about the feels than anything else, there. Hope it's not a trend.

And just to absolutely round things out for the season, I was passing the Three Tun Tavern in Blackrock on Sunday and popped in for a quick one. They were selling off the remains of Wetherspoons's Christmas specials at €1.80 a pint and I decided to give Orkney's Clootie Dumpling a go. It's 4.3% ABV, and medium-pale orange colour. A bit like the Box Steam Bauble I mentioned on Monday, it's quite thin, and that's not usually a good thing where there are spices involved. But this one just manages to pull it off I think: there's a lot of clove and cinnamon involved right through the flavour, and they're connected to a decent sized orangey bitterness that holds them in balance and prevents them from being too jarring or busy. It's quite an easy-drinker for a spiced Christmas ale, in fact. One could argue that something bigger and heavier, leaving out the spices, would be a better way to mark midwinter, but there's nothing wrong with a bit of fun once a year either.

Right, time to put the decorations back in the attic beside the homebrew gear.

09 January 2017

Craft stops here

The Christmas break, for the second year running, was spent in rural Shropshire, not far from Shrewsbury. As someone who mostly experiences England's beer scene via the many fine blogs on the subject it offered an interesting, and slightly jarring, perspective in one respect at least. Much and more has been written on the rise of "craft beer" in Britain, by which I mean Boak & Bailey's definition 2: kegs, foreign styles and non-traditional ingredients. Earlier this decade there was a commonly-expressed view that craft was something for the urbanistas of London, Manchester and the like, and was unlikely to catch on outside these metropolitan bubbles -- see the fourth paragraph of this Tandleman post for an idea of what I mean. But over the last two or three years there seems to have been a shift as, up and down the country, more breweries are getting with the craft vibe, and craft-centric pubs are opening all over the place. When the JD Wetherspoon chain went after a slice of the craft action it was a clear sign that a wider move was taking place. Craft beer was suddenly everywhere.

Well not in Shropshire. Shrewsbury is not a small town: at 72,000 people it's nearly the size of Galway City, but modern British craft beer seems to have all but passed it by. The town and its hinterland has many charming pubs, but the accent in all of them is on traditional British cask beer, as I'm sure it has been for decades. In the off licences, premium bottled ales -- your brown bitters and golden ales by the half-litre -- rule supreme. One gourmet grocer carries a handful of Wild Beer Co. offerings, as well as some of the more inventive Salopian Brewery beers, and you can get Punk IPA in Tesco, but otherwise craft doesn't happen. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, and I certainly wasn't wanting for a drink at any point, but I just thought it was interesting, given the thousands of words about British craft beer that I read every week. I wonder what the largest town in Britain without a specialist craft beer pub and off licence is?

Anyway, that's veering far too close to industry analysis for my liking, so let's get to the beers. With the full extended family descending on Pulverbatch village, I took up lodgings at the local inn, a charming little Betjeman-ready country pub called The White Horse. There are three handpumps on the short bar, one of which tends to be Hobsons Twisted Spire, a perfectly decent light golden ale. The alternative when I arrived was Slumbering Monk from local brewer Joule's. It's 4.5% ABV and as twiggy as they come: a deep red brown colour with rich and sweet milk chocolate to the fore, lent a modicum of balance by drier background tannins. It's inoffensive stuff, the sort of beer that would fail to impress at home but seems entirely appropriate under the exposed beams by the fireplace. It's not always about what's in the glass.

Handpump three on the night before Christmas Eve was pouring Bauble from Box Steam Brewery in faraway Wiltshire. This is a pale reddish amber and rather thin and insipid. It might be a passable light quaffer if it wasn't for the decision to add Christmas spices to it. Cinnamon and water: it's not a great combination. Bauble is a miserly sort of Christmas beer, trying hard to appear jolly but lacking the substance to be convincing.

A brief foray into Shrewsbury led to The Armoury, an upmarket riverside dining pub with which I had a bit of a run-in on my last visit. No surly service this time, but the beer wasn't great. I picked Sabut Jung, a 6.8% ABV IPA from another local operator, Battlefield. It's a cheery bright orange and there's a fun zesty sherbet foretaste, but that gets squashed quite suddenly and unceremoniously by a hot syrupy quality, rendered especially antisocial by an inappropriately high serving temperature. Properly kept I'd say this is a fairly decent sup, but warmth is not good for it.

On another evening we dropped by the Mytton Arms in nearby Habberley. It's a cosy little community pub with four beers on cask including two from Hobsons. I remember enjoying Hobsons Mild so I started with one of those. I hadn't realised it was almost a dozen years since I last tasted it. It's a beautiful beer, so light and easy-going with just a gentle hint of cocoa sweetness. After that I switched to Hobsons Best, quite a plain golden bitter with a lightly honeyish waxy bitterness and soft honeydew melon fruit. Uncomplicated but very well suited to caning back in quantity.

Meanwhile, Santa's sack had a range of premium bottled goodies in it for me. First out was Adnams Triple Knot, an intriguing fellow in a 33cl flip top, 10% ABV, infused with lavender, jasmine and orange blossom and aged six months before bottling. "Pear" is among the descriptors on the label and I can see that: there's a distinct acetone element to the foretaste. It's not overpoweringly hot, however, aided by a big spiced malt substance giving it a kind of Christmas pudding character, all sultanas and figs. The low fizz and light spices make it untypical of Belgian tripel but I don't know if there's a better style category for it. Overall this is a lovely warming winter sipper with plenty going on without being busy or unbalanced.

Next up a pale ale from Bath Ales called Wild Hare. I was wary because Bath's signature move is big butterscotch, and I couldn't see that working well in something this light-coloured. And indeed it doesn't. There's a biting waxy bitterness and a touch of lychee and apple fruit, but lots and lots of sickly buttery toffee too. Altogether it makes for some tough drinking, lacking the bright and clean flavours the style demands.

Greene King's Suffolk Springer is next, a dark brown ale of 6% ABV, smelling a bit skunky as it poured from the clear glass bottle. No sign of that on tasting; in fact there's very little sign of any hops at all. It's a huge and lumbering maltbeast, full of treacle, syrup, chocolate sauce and raisins. And it's not bad: nicely warming if not particularly complex. I lived the beer-writing cliché of actually drinking this by the fireside and it worked. Fair play.

Something a bit more micro next: Jimmy's Flying Pig, a bottle-conditioned bitter from Shalford Brewery, branded to tie-in with the Jimmy's Farm TV series and restaurant. It's a deep gold colour and I managed to get it into the glass without any sediment. There's an unfortunate agricultural foretaste: sharply acidic like vomit with an added manure funk. Behind this there's a dry homebrewish graininess, finishing on a note of rubber. It's truly awful amateur-grade stuff, with absolutely none of bitter's redeeming features.

And so to Yorkshire, and the Black Sheep Brewery. For the season, they had a 4% ABV dark red ale called Blitzen out. I was surprised by how bitter it was: a medicinal acridity putting me in mind of Fisherman's Friend sweets in particular. Wintery, perhaps, but not very Christmassy, and certainly not cheery or festive. I thought I might get used to it but each sip was as shocking and jarring as the last. I'm sure the brewers meant it to taste like this but it's not for me.

And that was the sum total of my Christmas beer ticking. Wisely I'd brought a stash of hoppy Irish IPA over with me, and was very glad of the balance it provided to this lot. I also took a couple of UK beers I didn't have time to drink back with me and will cover those off on Wednesday.