18 July 2018

The big 3

I was not aware that ubiquitous French beer 3 Monts was one of a series, but it turns out there are loads of them, including 3 Monts Grande Réserve.

For some reason I was expecting this to be dark, perhaps because of a subliminal association with Chimay Grande Réserve, or maybe just because of the stonking 9.5% ABV. So I was surprised to see it pour a pale copper colour.

It smells sweet and calorific, like oaty biscuits laden with honey or treacle. The flavour piles in the alcohol: pear drops, primarily, but other hard sweets too, like aniseed balls, rhubarb-and-custards and chunks of clove rock. I'm guessing it's a lager, as it's remarkably clean for all the boozy heat. Unfortunately that also means it lacks complexity. Once you've got your paper bag of sweets the game is over.

I bravely soldiered through the entire 75cl bottle by myself, which you're probably not meant to do. It got a bit sickly in the second half, so I recommend both sharing it, and having some hearty food alongside: strong cheese or game won't trouble a beer as robust and unsubtle as this. Add a shot of cognac afterwards for the full French farmhouse experience.

16 July 2018

Summer specials

Time for another round-up of random Irish beers that came my way in recent weeks.

Lough Gill joined the line-up in Aldi with Native IPA, brewed to celebrate the Lakota heritage of head brewer Tony. The label advertises that it's quite a dark affair, and indeed it is: a murky garnet colour, topped with an old-ivory head. This isn't one of your hop-driven IPAs, or at least not flavourwise: it is plenty bitter, though, in a sharply metallic way. That, coupled with a chocolate orange sweetness, low carbonation and a tannic twang, lend it the feel of an English bitter: ironic since it was also brewed to mark the 4th of July. It's not quite as clean as it should be, and I think I may have poured some ill-advised dreggy gunk from the can into the glass. I get a sharp sourness on the finish, almost like a Flanders red, that's quite out of keeping for an IPA and doesn't improve the package any. But it doesn't ruin it either. Anyone expecting a classic US IPA, of any stripe, will be disappointed. I quite liked its old-fashioned stylings, however.

It's all-out for modernity at Galway Bay, with Juice Division, a pineapple and passionfruit IPA of 7.5% ABV. It's a bright opaque orange colour and smells of mixed tropical fruit juice, with the passionfruit taking the lead in that way it generally does. I shouldn't have been surprised to find it so sweet, but sweet it was, and thick too, just like the juice it's aping. For bitterness you need to wait until the very end where there's a bitter tang. There's nothing I could pick out as a specific hop flavour: any that are there are fully camouflaged by the fruit. I came away with the impression that I'd just paid €6.50 for a glass of juice. Mmmpf.

I expected something a little more trad from the follow-up: Polyrhythm, an unadorned IPA of 7.2% ABV brewed in collaboration with little-known east London operator Beavertown. It certainly smells trad: an invigorating waft of pure grapefruit coming from the pale yellow liquid, liquid which is damn near clear too. The flavour then wrongfooted me completely, turning very tropical, with pineapple to the fore. This turns bitter quite quickly, throwing out lime and touch of fried onion. Idaho 7 is the signature hop, one I'm not familiar with, but I can see what the Azacca and Simcoe are doing. The New England influence was hard to spot, but there is a tiny hint of creamy vanilla on the end; not enough to interfere with the punchy hops however. It's a lovely beer: not hot or harsh, nor riddled with yeasty off-flavours. Clean New England IPA is a sub-sub-style I whole-heartedly endorse.

Beers three and four from Dublin client brewer Crafty Bear landed in UnderDog a couple of weeks ago, both IPAs and both 6% ABV. My pint of Gummy arrived a dark hazy orange colour and tasted bready, to begin with: a wholesome crusty chewiness putting me in mind of trad English bitter. There followed a slight tangerine tang; a touch of Fanta sweetness, and then a lightly tannic finish bringing a balancing dryness. I liked its plain unfussiness, a refreshing change from the usual crashing and banging of new Irish IPAs.

Its twin is called Hop Me Baby One More Time. There don't seem to be any details on either of the beers online so I can't tell you what the technical differences are, but this one, while also murky and orange, came across as sweeter, with brighter, fresher citrus fruit. The texture is dense and the sweetness builds as it goes, from real jaffa oranges into jam, jelly and spongecake, and still with that vaguely Kentish vibe. It's fine, but I preferred the gentler tones of the previous one.

These two formed part of UnderDog's first birthday celebrations, as did two new ones from DOT. Pint Please continues the brand's foray into pale and unaged beers, this one finishing at a very modest 3.1% ABV. The opaque milky orange colour and mix of sharp savoury yeast with bright and pithy hops would lead me to describe it as a table beer -- it certainly reminds me of offerings in that style from other brewers. The upshot is a refreshing quaffer with not much up front but a satisfyingly long bitter and tangy finish. Great hot-day refreshment, even in the dim coolness of a windowless basement.

More typically DOT was Brown Coffee Cognac (right of picture), a beer with all the clues in the name, and 7.2% ABV. There's a huge rich and creamy coffee aroma, and that silky sumptuousness continues in the texture and flavour as well. Irish coffee was my first reaction to the taste, before adjusting that, appropriately, to French coffee. The only thing close to a sharp edge in this is a tiny roasted espresso bite in amongst all the mocha in the very finish. This is a fine and complex beer for toffs and dandies.

Rounding out the UnderDog specials, on the left of the shot, a Bourbon Imperial Coffee Stout by Rascals. I presume this is an enhanced version of the imperial stout they had at the Taphouse back in March, though it doesn't seem to have picked up any extra ABV points, still being 9%. There's a bit of a solvent twang to the aroma which wasn't there before, and a sharply bitter flavour of high-cocoa chocolate and strong black coffee. The bourbon booziness is obvious too, with an added oily coconut complexity. It tastes far more than the stated strength and really throws all subtlety and nuance to the wind. This is a real live wire of an imperial stout and would suit some bottled maturation time, though I don't know if the brewery has thoughts in that direction.

Finally for today, my most anticipated beer of the year: Underworld by Black Donkey. This is the end result of a long-drawn-out experiment to harvest wild yeast from a cave near the brewery and turn it into beer. What would the end result of that taste like? Well, like a saison, really. It's 5.6% ABV, a pale copper colour, and mixes classic saison flavours of straw, white pepper, banana and a touch of green apple. There's nothing sour about it, and nothing that really says "wild" to me, which was a little disappointing but that's nature for you. Still another very decent farmhouse-style beer from Black Donkey, though. It's good that not everything is an IPA or barrel-aged beast, at least yet.

On a boring houekeeping note, I'm going to make an effort to make these athematic round-ups shorter and more frequent. No promises though.

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.