18 August 2017

The wickedest witch of the west

Hagstravaganza sits like a neutron star in Irish beer discourse this summer, bending all conversations towards it, both before and after the event. To say it made an impression on the Irish beer fans is an understatement. Ostensibly, it was a one-day beer festival at the White Hag brewery in Co. Sligo at the end of July, marking the brewery's third anniversary. It built on last year's gig, expanding the Irish and international beer listing hugely and becoming more like a full-on festival.

Sixty taps were set up along a single long bar in the brewery's open front hall, with an over-arching, if not fully accurate, theme of beers which had never poured in Ireland before. The standard serving measure was a generous 33cl, costing an even more generous €2.50 a throw. Technical problems delayed the kick-off by about half an hour after the advertised start time, but by 2.35pm it was all under way and I had some pretty rapid quaffing to do to get my money's worth before the 6.19 train back to Dublin. I think I managed it.

I had been especially looking forward to trying more beers from White Frontier, the Swiss brewery which poached Galway Bay's former head brewer Chris. My opener was Moroccan Gose, the salty-sour German style, embellished with purée'd mango. At 5.5% ABV it's quite big for the style, though presents cheerily: a bright and welcoming orange colour. Malt and fruit take a backseat against a big and invigorating tartness right from the very outset, and all the way through. The fancy fleur de sel salt also makes a big contribution. And yes, there's mango, but it doesn't interfere with the core gose-ness and it certainly doesn't make the beer sweet. An object lesson in how to do fruited gose well, here.

Freeride World Tour was next, a New England-style pale ale, single-hopped with Citra. I'm sceptical about the use of that hop in low-bitterness styles like this, and here it can't resist pushing out a spiky kick of grapefruit acidity which seems quite out of character. There's lots of custardy vanilla creaminess, however, though almost to the point of sickliness. The Citra is needed to add balance. Overall it's a pretty decent beer, but a far from classic rendering of the New England features.

Last of this lot was Col des Planches, intriguingly described as a "decoction IPA". Super-smooth and ultra-clean, right? Nope. This is a big beast at 6.8% ABV and tastes downright under-attenuated: sticky with stonefruit flavours like apricot and white plum, while the texture makes it hard going. Not a great beer for someone on the clock.

My favourite feature of international festivals like this is the chance to drink beer from breweries I'd never heard of. There was plenty of opportunity to do that at Hagstravaganza though I didn't get to as many as I'd have liked. Basqueland was one such, and I managed a taste of No'wray José, an IPA they brewed with Lervig. In contrast to most collaboration beers it was quite a tame affair: 7.2% ABV, smelling of lime and grapefruit, with savoury caraway notes taking over on tasting. And that's about it. It does well to mask the alcohol with its light and approachable texture, though that's the most interesting thing about it.

Parisian brewpub Paname was another stranger, and they brought Casque d'Or, a saison. It's a perfectly balanced example of the style, lightly funky with a smattering of ripe and luscious apricot on top. Candied ginger is the not-so-secret ingredient, according to the brewery. It seems to have been used sparingly, however, as it's not identifiable and certainly doesn't render the beer sweet.

Another festival benefit is the opportunity to get hold of beer from breweries I have heard of and want to try. I'd say it's only a matter of time before Berlin's BRLO lands its wares on these shores; in the meantime here was BRLO Berliner Weisse to be getting on with. And it's an absolute classic: light without being watery at 4% ABV, and showing the dry and crunchy wheat which I associate with Berliner Kindl's example of the style but which is missing in so many contemporary versions. The sourness is quite subtle, presenting no more than a squeeze of lemon juice, and there's a touch of clove rock spicing. There's no messing about here: just classy and uncomplicated session drinking.

Turning to the stronger imports, I nabbed myself a glass of Beavertown's Heavy Water. This imperial stout has been around for ages in various forms but I'd never taken the time to try it. This one has vanilla, cinnamon and chilli, amongst other things, and gets good use out of it all. Although the aroma is plain and wheaty, there's a multitude of spicy flavours layered on top of each other in the 9.8% ABV black beer. As is the way of these things, cinnamon does dominate a little and it's just as well the base stout is big enough to assert itself against it. It's a bit silly but great fun to drink.

Another established beer that I decided to slake my curiosity about while it was going cheap was Stone's Double Bastard. After the meh-fest that was Little Bastard I hadn't exactly been champing at the bit to get hold of it, but here it was and I'm a sucker for completing sets. I made the right choice. While this dark red number smells like any caramelly imperial red or boozy barley wine, there's a fantastic fresh green and bitter hop flavour. This aggressively balances the old-school sticky crystal malt, laid on thick to 11% ABV, and renders the finished product far more drinkable than one might expect. There's a touch of the old exquisitely-balanced Stone magic in this. I had been wondering lately where that had gone.

The Irish guest brewers were afforded one tap apiece. My first Irish beer of the day was Trouble Brewing's grapefruit IPA which has subsequently been formally named The Grapefruit Express. It's an enigmatic dark amber colour. Though over the 5% ABV mark, the texture is a little bit thin, although a certain degree of malt character is evidenced in the biscuity foretaste. The protagonist of the flavour is a big acidic bitterness, though it's something I would attribute far more to the hops than the fruit: this is definitely an IPA first, and there's a resinous dankness which definitely didn't fall off a grapefruit tree. Grapefruit pale ales are everywhere these days but this is the most serious and IPA-like I've encountered, and I think it's a better beer for that.

YellowBelly's contribution was Last Rye'ts, a simple saison, albeit a strong one at 6% ABV, with a perfumed mix of jasmine, honeysuckle and similar garden flowers. It's surprisingly clean and quenching, given that strength.

There was a novelty from Eight Degrees: Elder Veisse, the first Irish beer to be brewed using traditional Norwegian kveik yeast. Unsurprisingly, yeast features big in the resulting flavour profile: savoury to begin, then launching a sharp and bitter bite. The texture is beautiful, though: all soft and fluffy, and I'm guessing that's the yeast's work too. The inclusion of elderflower adds a pleasant balancing sweetness, and there's a proper hop character as well. It's a highly interesting beer, and one I'd like to have had time to explore further. Suffice it to say that the kviek experiment is worth pursuing.

Two Brett beers to round this lot off. Kinnegar had a new iteration of their highly-regarded -bucket series with Phunk Bucket. I assume this is just Rustbucket with the Brett thrown in? Either way it works wonderfully. Despite the name there's very little by way of funk in it. There is, however, a gorgeous soft and mouthwatering melon flavour, fresh and clean, and a long way from the farmyard. It takes a surprise turn at the end, finishing dry, with even a touch of lambic-like nitre. This beer is end-to-end brilliance and I hope there's plenty more of it to go around.

But even it was upstaged by the best beer of the day. Naturally, our hosts had a full selection of their own beers on tap, though there was just one new one: Olcan. This is a barrel-aged Brett-infused IPA of 5.6% ABV. The foretaste is, unusally, coconut, and this is followed by perfume-spiced sandalwood and sharp lemon spritz. There's a bit of funk about it, but it interacts with the other flavours and blends to a complex and harmonious whole. Here too there's the nitre brick sour dryness in the finish, but it's much more part of the flavour than with the Kinnegar one. I'd argue that this is the closest thing to real lambic that any Irish producer has yet released, and even sails close to being a substitute for it. Olcan was created as part of White Hag's barrel ageing programme, which is still in its infancy. On this showing there's very definite promise there.

With the evening upon us I was packing up and getting ready to move out when Paul produced a can of Heady Topper, one of those influential beers it's wise to taste in the event of some passing your way. It looks like a million other New England-style IPAs: a pale hazy yellow with little effort at a head. There's a strongly dank funk for an aroma, while there seems to be a lot of residual sugar left after it fermented to 8% ABV, leaving it thick and surprisingly sweet. The hops eschew fruit flavour for burning alium acidity, like chomping on a freshly peeled clove of garlic. This fades to caraway, though the big mouthfeel means it never quite leaves the palate. It's quite an intense experience, and an enjoyable one too. Like other archetypal beers, thinking of Pliny the Elder in particular, it doesn't taste all that different from the many competent attempts at mimicking it, though the quality and intensity do make clear why other brewers are trying. Cheers Paul!

It'll be interesting to see where Hagstravaganza goes next. I think the guys have hit on a winning formula, and just a few tweaks -- toilets, payments, drinking water -- would perfect it. Or perhaps they'll reformulate the whole thing once again. One thing's for sure: people will be talking about the 2018 event before the buzz about this year's has even faded away.

17 August 2017

Berlin vs. London

Events Week on The Beer Nut rolls on, and I have two for you today. Both were arranged under the auspices of high-end beer importer Four Corners, a company that enjoys getting Ireland's beer geeks excited about their promotional events.

The first was a visitation from Der Bier-Jesus aus Amerika himself, Greg Koch of Stone Brewing, who arrived into The Porterhouse and preached from a barstool. He didn't say anything you haven't already read on a Stone beer label, however. Two beers from Stone Berlin's pilot series were on tap, as well as a rebrew of the 2002 "Vertical Epic". Amazing to think that the word Epic didn't sound horribly hackneyed back in 2002.

Anyway, that's where I'll start. 02.02.02 was the first in an annual series of Belgian strong ales that Stone brewed up until 2012. It's a clear gold colour and, soon after pouring, quite headless, in a very unBelgian way. The ABV is a modest 7.5%. There's definite Belgian spice to the aroma, however, as well as a wholesome grainy waft. The flavour tips over heavily into weissbier territory: those big esters are the most prominent feature. The spice does come back after a moment, bringing ripe fruit with it, and the overall effect is of something not dissimilar to Duvel or a clean and clear tripel. Perfectly fine drinking, but very unexciting, even for 15 years ago.

First from the pilot series was Stone Pale Ale, a big enough beast at 5.9% ABV. The texture matches that and more, being very dense, the perception heightened by the dark copper colour. Free-wheelin' California-style this ain't. The flavour is also strange and unsettling, starting out on a savoury meaty note and running past marker pens, pears and tea brack. It's not pleasant. The nearest style of beer to this profile is probably twiggy brown bitter, but it tastes far more like homebrew gone wrong.

Last of the new ones to me was Stone Imperial Amber Ale, strongest of the lot at 7.9% ABV. It's another thick one, but handles itself rather better than the Pale Ale. Jam is the principal element in the flavour, and raspberry jam in particular. There's a touch of roast as well, which helps dry it and balance it out, but I was expecting more hops. I was expecting some hops, but they're absent. A touch of autolytic savouriness on the end tilts it out of "only OK" into "needs improvement".

Stone Berlin seems to have got the fundamentals down at this stage -- the complimentary glass of Go To IPA we got on arrival was the best beer of the day -- but that pilot kit needs a firmer hand on the flight controls.

A short few days later the party moved to the Tap House and here the guest was Beavertown. Adam and his crew laid on a fantastic evening's entertainment and it was sometimes hard to prevent the snacks, games and whatnot from distracting my attention away from the beer. I persevered, however. I've had very mixed experiences with small-batch Beavertown beers, but the selection this time was fairly on-point.

To begin, Goslar Dreamin', a gose with added rhubarb. This is as pale and hazy as might be expected, and I wasn't keen on the aroma: a dry and musty crêpe paper thing, smelling like the box where my parents keep their Christmas decorations. It's a lot more fun to drink, however. At 3.5% ABV it's understandably light and thin, but the flavour is light too, and well balanced, with just enough refreshing tartness and no more than a shake of salt. The rhubarb still manages to get somewhat lost in this: some fruit is apparent but I don't think I'd be able to say which one. I suspect the tartness of the rhubarb gets camouflaged by the beer's base acidity. No matter; it's simple and thirst-quenching, well-made and not trying to show off.

I gave the side-eye to the next beer when I saw it on the menu. Moonshiner is a bourbon-aged Berliner weisse, which definitely does not sound like a recipe for success to me. In fact it doesn't really taste like wood, or Berliner weisse, or even beer. My first impression on tasting was of a Jack Daniel's and Coke. There's a definite sweetness next to the limey sour flavour. That lime built quite quickly, so a few sips in I was finding it tasting more like a margarita. The final stop of the cocktail train was when Dave and Manus insisted it tasted like a whisky sour and would brook no dissent, so a whisky sour it is. I really wanted to dislike its complete non-beeriness, but it's absolutely lovely to drink: refreshing, complex and properly balanced. I've certainly never encountered a beer that tastes anything like it.

Too much pondering meant I missed the next beer altogether, the 20L keg having kicked by the time I ordered it. Mercifully, Dorothy came to my rescue and I got a taste of her glass of Wit or Wheatout You. Witbier isn't usually a style to excite, but with this one Beavertown has stripped it down to its essence and rebuilt it using superior parts. The coriander seeds are toasted, the lemon zest is hand-picked Sicilian, and in keeping with the style's origins, a degree of lacto sourness has been introduced. All the effort has been rewarded and the end result is immensely complex: dry yet fruity like a quality Sauvignon Blanc; bitter like grapefruit yet sweet and juicy like pineapple. Pure quality all the way through. At 5.6% ABV it's a little overclocked for a wit, but I'd still like to drink more of it.

Dessert was Gondoila, a chocolate and raspberry imperial stout. It's a pretty straightforward rendering of these elements, with a big and creamy body supporting cakey chocolate flavours and a tart jammy raspberry bite. I got a real feel of liquid Black Forest gateau from it. There aren't any imperial stout tricks or complexities, which would be reasonable to expect at 11% ABV: everything it does happens at the first sip. I'm not complaining, though. It made an excellent finisher for the night.

A special shout-out to the Four Corners crew for arranging both events. They don't have to do this sort of thing but it makes the beer experience much more interesting.

16 August 2017

The Kilkenny Strategem

Early July saw the third iteration of the Kilkenny Craft Beer Festival, spread across five days and multiple sub-events during the week. It's the brainchild of Kilkenny brewer Ger Costello and serves a higher purpose than simply creating an occasion for lots more beers than usual to be available to the drinking public. Threaded through the schedule and forming the backbone of the whole thing is the Kilkenny Ale Trail. Here, a number of pubs and restaurants in the city -- ones that so far haven't been too concerned with the independent brewers' wares -- have been paired with a Leinster brewery which doesn't routinely distribute locally. A leaflet allows locals and visitors to follow the trail throughout the week, bringing footfall to pubs that wouldn't otherwise get it, and additional share-of-throat for the brewers. It's a clever and noble idea, and Ger very much intends it to act as the thin end of a beery wedge, aiming to make the local outlets think more about the beers they're offering and perhaps making the arrangement permanent. In that sense, it's perhaps more appropriate to think of Kilkenny Craft Beer Festival as "Kilkenny Craft Beer Week", and there's a good model there, if any other towns would care to adopt it.

There was a festival in the traditional sense in the line-up, held in the spacious and comfortable beer garden of Billy Byrne's pub on the Saturday afternoon. Ger very kindly invited me to come along for a looksee. All of the participating Ale Trail brewers had beers on offer: Trouble, Rascals, Stone Barrel, O Brother and Hope. Costellos had a couple of taps on the board as well, of course, and with a brand new brewkit to play with, had even produced a special for the occasion.

Costellos Coconut IPA was the offering in question. It's not a style one sees a lot of, to say the least, so I was sceptical. It's not quite a brand new recipe either, having been constructed from Costellos' Beyond A Pale IPA with added toasted coconut, and then blended back with more of the beer until the desired level of coconuttiness was achieved. It looks like the base beer, being a bright and hazy orange colour. And it still smells like a hoppy pale ale. The coconut aroma sits comfortably beside the beer one, neither integrating nor interfering with it. The extra addition really makes itself felt on tasting, giving so much of the classic oily sweet Bounty-bar flavour that I'd probably have mistaken this for a dark beer if I hadn't seen it already. It does largely drown out the hop flavour, which is unfortunate, leaving just a pithy bitterness in the finish. For all that, I enjoyed the beer. It's certainly novel, and I can tolerate the gimmickry when the end result is perfectly pleasant to drink, like this was.

A big congratulations to Ger and the team. The Ale Trail is still up on the website, if you want to call in to the participants and see if they're still stocking the independents.

15 August 2017

The Third space

Day two of Events Week and we go all the way back to early July when 57 The Headline hosted the sort-of launch for a sort-of new brewery. Stone Barrel and Third Circle have both been on the Irish scene for a couple of years as client brewers. Early in 2017 production began at their jointly owned standalone brewery which they've named Third Barrel. The Headline had beers from both, but also a selection of tiny-batch collaborations released under the Third Barrel brand, something they say they're going to continue. There's a tendency in collaborative brewing to realise way-out recipes that neither partner would do by themselves. One might have thought that this would be toned down when the other brewer is under the same roof and you see them every day but, well, see below.

Stone Barrel only had a couple from their core range on offer but Third Circle had a brand new Coffee Rye Stout. Three words, three elements, and each of them meticulously and unambiguously delivered to the palate. At 5.5% ABV it's within the normal bounds of Irish stout, and it's appropriately dry and roasty -- there's no mistaking the style. But there's an extra green bitterness which I'm taking for the rye, an outlying and complementary flavour next to the base beer. Meanwhile all of this is enveloped in an oily blanket of fresh coffee which again manages to taste separate from the other parts. I've no idea how this sort of multi-layered complexity is achieved, but I approve.

To the Third Barrel specials, then. As Yet Untitled was the natural starting point, a strawberry and black pepper grisette of 4.2% ABV. Expecting pink I got a surprisingly golden glassful, though there was no mistaking the strawberries in the aroma. There isn't much beyond that, unfortunately: a nondescript yoghurt sweetness, the tiniest pinch of pepper oils, but very little by way of real fruit flavour and absolutely no Belgian-style saison characteristics. Watery, inoffensive, and not really making good use of its constituent parts.

The other OTT novelty was called Drop It Like It's Hot, described as a bourbon, chilli and vanilla porter. I think something genuinely went wrong here because it was completely uncarbonated, like it had just come from the fermenter. There's an overpowering sickly sweetness, the vanilla dominating the whole thing and burying the other flavours. I can't say if this was a good idea to start with, but the finished beer was definitely not a success.

It's also pleasing when a guest brewer sets up a cask engine on the bar at 57 and Third Barrel had brought Gordon to run through it, an English-style bitter at 4.4% ABV. They seem to have opted for a northern angle with this, given that it's pale yellow and centres around a lemony flavour. It veers a little bit too close to washing up liquid for complete comfort, though there's enough quality old-fashioned lemonade in there to keep it in my good books. For all the flat-cap traditionalism, the hops are a strangely mongrel mix of East Kent Goldings, Willamette and Mandarina Bavaria. Not a combination that usually springs to mind when formulating a cask bitter.

The promised double IPA didn't make it as far as a tap so the "German/American wheat beer" Ich Bin Ein HOPaddict was as hoppy as it got. This is 5.7% ABV and presents like a very modern hazy IPA. The texture and flavour match that too: a creamy milkshake mouthfeel and softly luscious pineapple in the flavour. But there's an old-school bitter streak in here too, hiding at first, but building gradually until it transforms the beer into something much more grown up. A fascinating process to watch, and a way to experience the benefits of both schools of IPA thought without having to go back to the bar.

I'm finishing on a stout, Third Barrel's Black Bretty. Funny how I'd automatically expect a Bretted stout to be strong, but this is only 4.8% ABV. It damn well doesn't taste it, though: it tastes huge. I don't think I'd guess there was Brett in it: there's none of the typical funk or ripe fruit or the rest of the Brett portfolio. Instead there's a massive dark chocolate bitterness and heavy-roasted coffee. Fortunately a lighter, floral, lavender and violet complexity helps soften it and keep any harshness at bay. The bigness is achieved, I'm told, by a high starting gravity with a high finishing gravity, ending on 1.019 to give that imperial stout sensation. For me, this beer expresses the very essence of stout; it's the stoutiest stout I have ever encountered, and if you'd told it was an historical recreation of something from early 19th century London I'd have well believed it.

Aside from everything else that evening, I got an interesting cross-sectional look at experimental small-batch brewing. The good stuff definitely outweighs the poor and mediocre in this lot, and perhaps some of it will be put to good use in regular production beers. I'll definitely be front and centre the next time a Third Barrel joint effort is on offer. More stout please.

14 August 2017

How's it hanging?

Meat! That was the theme of the Meatopia event which set up at Open Gate in early July; meat and smoke -- I came home reeking of both. The event has been running for some years now, in New York and then London, and this was its first time in Dublin, invited by Diageo to take over the yard outside their experimental brewery and brewpub for two days.

The format involved six barbecue stalls, managed by people whose names may or may not be recognisable to those who move in foodie circles, each with a single signature dish and a matched sample of beer. Admission (Diageo's PR folk kindly comped mine) got you one of each pairing, plus a bonus pint from the bars: as well as the Open Gate's current selection, The Porterhouse, 5 Lamps, DOT and London's 40FT were also pouring.

We'll begin with the beer created especially for the event: Open Gate's own Meatopia Smoked Lager, a 6% ABV pale bock, created with the assistance of Melissa Cole, who also ably MC'd the beery-talky bit of the event. This is yet another classically-styled down-the-line lager from Open Gate. It shows absolutely the right balance between golden syrup sweetness and a green celery bite, set on a body that's chewy and substantial without being thick. The smoke is deliberately (sez Melissa) subtle: just a small phenolic burr at the back. I don't know that it contributed a great deal to the picture, but it does no harm either. I'm not the person to ask about the beer's suitability for pairing with barbecued meat, but I have no complaints in that department. The greasy lens through which the subsequent photos were taken is a testament to my not letting the beer get in the way of the grub.

And there was a new bonus Open Gate lager pouring inside: Helles Yeah. The 5.8% ABV gave me momentary pause: that's a bit more welly than helles is supposed to have. However, it seems that they've used this additional heft to ramp up the other elements too: it still has the smoothness and cleanness that make helles such a great beer. The grassy noble hops are fresh-tasting and even a little spicy, and then there's a crunch of dry grain as well. It does lack the quaffability of good helles -- one pint was plenty -- but here again I can't argue with the taste.

Finally from the house, Open Gate's West Coast IPA. Unlike lager, the brewery's record with IPA has been pretty poor. I blame the yeast: there's a tendency to use the Guinness strain, and the esters it produces just aren't compatible with clean-and-hoppy. So sticking the words "west coast" in there is just asking for trouble. And yet... It is only 5.2% ABV, which means points off for style accuracy, but it is properly pale and clear. And the opening sip delivered a bright and ringing hit of bitter grapefruit. That the first beer to spring to mind was the style-defining west-coaster Ballast Point Sculpin speaks in its favour; that I've never really liked Sculpin probably doesn't. There isn't much behind that initial blast of citrus. While the body is indeed heavy, it's not as greasy as the other Open Gate IPAs and I did begin to enjoy it once I got used to the bitterness. More importantly, perhaps, the brewery is starting to get the hang of IPA. I won't be as apprehensive about the next one.

40FT Brewery of Dalston had been guests at James's Gate before but this was the first time trying their beers for me. I started with Street Weiss, a densely opaque and luridly orange weissbier. It's nerve-janglingly sweet, tasting almost as much like a smoothie as it looks. The flavour shows more summer fruit -- strawberry and raspberry -- than standard weizen banana. By way of balance there's a harsh plasticky bitterness in the finish which is completely out of place for the profile, as well as being unpleasant in itself. Maybe they're trying to be creative with a staid old German style, but it really hasn't worked.

On my way out I nabbed a quickie pint of 40FT's Hoppy Pale Ale. On a different day, I'd have been quite happy with this. It's fairly inoffensive; 4.1% ABV with a flavour profile that leans more towards the savoury than the fruity, again with the sharp bitter kick in the finish. But after a couple of decent lagers and a super-citric IPA, it just felt like a regression, like this brewery didn't have their recipe game quite as together as the Open Gate did. Maybe there's an observation to be made about the relative merits of craft vs. macro brewing, I dunno. But on the day it was a second thumbs-down for 40FT from me.

Meatopia was a hugely fun event. When in non-ticking mode I got reacquainted with DOT's delicious summer saison and applauded the first time I've seen Porterhouse Wrassler's out at an event. The food was great and, unlike several other food festivals, you got a very solid feed from the admission tokens alone. The theatricality of the cooking and the serving added to the joyous caveman feel of the whole gig. And it was particularly good to see the space outside Open Gate, narrow as it is, made use of this way.

Cheers to the organisers and promoters, and congratulations on a job well done.

11 August 2017

The Brussels Brewing Projects

The missus is moving jobs, which seems likely to bring an end to the regular supply of odd beers from the off licences of Brussels. Today's post concerns the final three, all from companies based within the city itself, where brewing is very gradually starting to become a local industry again.

¡Déu N'Hi Do! is a hell of a name for a beer, and I'll leave it up to you to pronounce. It's a collaboration between Brussels Beer Project and La Pirata in Barcelona, a 5.6% ABV brown ale with added cascara, the cherry from the coffee plant. It's a pleasant dark red colour,  though rather light of body. I found it to be far more like a red ale than a brown one, being malt-sweet with a lacing of strawberry. After a second there's coffee and a drier roast, but that all ends very quickly without any of the characteristics making much of an impact. Red ale blandness rules and it really doesn't make the best use of its ingredients.

Next up on the collaboration roster is Churchill's Delusion, brewed with Weird Beard of London and described as a "cigar mild ale". A glance at the back of the bottle reveals that, yes, they've used actual cigars, as well as smoked malt. It's a dark garnet colour and muddy with haze, smelling of sticky liquorice and coffee. The flavour is very sweet, that liquorice turning to red liquorice rope, and adding a few toffees from the next jar along the candystore shelf. I don't get any smoke flavour as such, just a hard acrid bitterness, which I guess is the smoke and tobacco's contribution. This harsh and sticky offering really didn't sit well with me. It's certainly not what I look for in a mild, or a smoked beer.

Finally to Beerstorming, which as far as I'm aware is the newest brewery in Brussels. It's a sort of a white label affair, a tiny operation designed to give small groups of outsiders free rein to make whatever kind of beer they want. That's certainly the spiel on the website so I guess the beers released under their own name are kind of adverts for the service. There are over 100 of them now but the one that crossed my path recently was number BS #0028 - GMGK, dating back to January of last year. Interestingly it wasn't even brewed at Beerstorming but at Brassserie Deseveaux in western Wallonia. It's a blonde ale of 6% ABV and includes tea, lemon peel and kaffir lime leaf. Sounds interesting but the taste says otherwise. It's very sweet with a granular sugar edge like, well, sweetened tea. The citrus doesn't put in much of an appearance and it all slinks off the palate shamefully quickly. This beer definitely promises more excitement than it's able to deliver.

Perhaps it's just as well that there won't be any more selections like this overly sweet trilogy for a while. This experimental and collaborative side of Belgian craft brewing would do well to go back to basics.

09 August 2017

Achill: sound?

A little background before I start in on today's reviews. There has been a brewery on Achill Island in Co. Mayo since last year. Its beers don't get very far from it so I hadn't had a chance to try them when one showed up on The Fine Ale Countdown podcast recently. The guys didn't log a formal review because the bottles they had were considerably less than fresh, but they were not fans of what they found, to say the least. For my part, I doubt that a good beer will magically transform into a bad one in a matter of months: it should still be possible to discern its original nature regardless, so I did not have high expectations for Achill Brewery's work after listening.

And then came the Killarney Beer Festival in May. Achill had entered two beers and collected a medal for both of them. Medals are not given out like sweeties in Killarney so both must have been beers of real merit. My curiosity piqued, I secured a bottle of each from the competition leftovers (cheers Kellie!). Unlabelled, of course, which is why my pictures today don't have bottles in them.

To begin, after all that, Achill Sláinte, 4.4% ABV and described by the brewery as a lagered ale. It's a medium gold colour with just a very slight haze. The crackling white head doesn't remain in place for very long. Its aroma is sweet and quite fruity, which doesn't bode well, though there are no real off flavours on tasting. The problem is there isn't much else, however. It's crisp and grainy, with maybe a tiny hint of bubblegum in the background and minimal green noble hop bitterness. There's a lot of the feel of German brewpub lager about it: it has that raw and rustic simplicity. It's inoffensive, though. Like with German brewpub lager, I would happily drink it if it's the beer available in the place where I'm drinking. And I think that's the point of Achill beer.

Second of the pair is Achill Dearg, a red ale at a very traditional 4% ABV, though in a not-so-traditional 33cl bottle. It's a handsome clear dark copper colour, the head generous to begin with but fading fast. Given the ABV I guess I shouldn't be suprised by the thin mouthfeel, but there's also a sourness to this that suggests all is not as it should be. That turns the red ale fruit, usually all summer strawberry, into a tart brambley mix of blackberry and redcurrant. This recedes a little as it warms, and a more typical roasted grain flavour emerges from the background, but Dearg isn't a good example of an Irish red ale. It needs more body, and dare I say more sweetness.

While better than expected, and relatively technically proficient, neither of these would be on my awards platform when put next to other Irish beers. There are definitely much better lagers and even reds out there.