31 March 2010

Róisin; Dubh

The redoubtable Williams Brothers have lots of beers on the market here at the moment, and frankly I'm delighted. I love to see a brewery that isn't afraid to throw something weird into the fermenter and I've been working gradually through the range in recent months.

The bright pink modernist stylings of Róisin stand out from the other side of the off licence. It's made with tayberries and claims on the label to be pink, but in fact pours a dark reddish-gold, permeated by a very fine haze. No sickly fruits or syrups leap out in the aroma, just dry and carbonic notes with an echo of forest fruit, much like those lightly-flavoured mineral waters you get. The texture of the 4.2% ABV beer is light and lagery and the taste is crisp and understated: no hops, nothing identifiable as malt, just a mild raspberry (yeah, tayberry, I know, but I'm trying to be descriptive here) tartness. All-in-all there isn't much going on in this one and I'm not sure I'd buy it again. Though if I did it'd be for drinking al fresco some sunny evening just before dinner: that's its place in the world.

And for a post-prandial: Midnight Sun. At 5.6% ABV this is just inside the digestif category of strong stouts. Actually, it claims to be a porter, but it's very much a stout porter, to be all archaic about nomenclature. It's thick and viscous with a solid head and opaque body. Only a slight promise of roasted grains comes through on the nose, and classic stout dryness is the backbone of the flavour, accentuated by a very mild spice which the label tells me is from the addition of ginger: I doubt I'd have spotted it without knowing. Amongst all this rigid structure there's a soft chocolate heart which keeps the beer all smooth and accessible. The hops make themselves felt at the very end as a faint metallic note -- something I don't care for generally but it doesn't get in the way too much here. All these elements are blended together quite well and the result is a solid heavy stout designed for considered drinking.

Both beers feature in the new lavish breeze-block-sized tome about world beer 1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die, edited by Adrian Tierney-Jones and featuring articles by many of the best beer writers around. Plus a few by me as well.

29 March 2010

Festival season

It's been a busy few days, beerwise, involving some thorough investigations into the new wave of Irish beers on the scene right now. It began with the kick-off of The Porterhouse Independent Irish Beer & Whiskey Festival on Thursday. This year, joyously, the range is too big to squeeze onto one bar so it took trips to both Central and Temple Bar branches to get a taste of all the newcomers.

Pale ales are something of a theme at the moment, and alongside Carlow's heavy O'Hara's IPA, Whitewater have produced Copperhead: a 3.7% ABV sessioner. It's the dark gold shade of Budvar and gives off a peachy fresh-hop aroma. After an initial strong and waxy bitter hit, it provides punchy citric notes, all on a smooth and very easy-to-drink body. I love this beer, and especially the way it crams so much flavour into a low level of alcohol, guaranteeing the first pint is followed by a second, no matter how many new and interesting beers are on the bar next to it.

At the opposite end of the scale there's Golden Otter, a new one from Franciscan Well. A distinctive, vaguely familar, aroma leapt out of the cloudy brown liquid and continued to dominate the flavour on tasting. It took me a few minutes to figure out what it was, but I eventually pinned it down as Marmite: that sharp, almost beefy, yeast flavour that tends to indicate beer which has been left fermenting too long. I couldn't help but think that this is more a beer for spreading on your toast than drinking. Additionally there's a barnyardy funk to the flavour as well, adding up to an ale perhaps most kindly described as "rustic". Not one I'll be ordering again.

White Gypsy have three newbies out and about at the moment. One, Bruinette, is described as an Irish red and as a Scottish export, depending where you read. It's definitely darker than the typical Irish red with next to no carbonation, leaving it feeling a bit thin. Yet the lack of fizz allows lots of malty flavours come through uninterrupted. I got chocolate, raisins, cherries and some dry roastiness too. Bruinette appears simple but actually packs in a lot if you take your time over it.

On the lighter end of the colour spectrum there's White Gypsy Emerald, a cask IPA. The Porterhouse had this on gravity at Temple Bar where it poured really quite lifeless and dull -- perhaps not yet ready for consumption. Across in Galway, however, The Salt House are serving it from their handpump with a super-tight sparkler ensuring the beer comes to life and performs for the drinker as the brewer intended. Its density means a long wait for it to settle, but when it does you're left with a beautifully clear pale amber ale topped by a firm and lasting blanket of foam. The hoppiness is quite subtle: it's bitter but not intensely so; fruity without being zingy per se. In short, Emerald is a solid, enjoyable sup of the sort that wouldn't elicit any special remarks in Northern England but is fantastic to encounter in an Irish pub.

Last of the Templemore three is Amber, a simple deep gold lager with the smooth body, bubblegum fruitiness and no-nonsense drinkability of a quality blonde ale. This won the Best Lager category in The Porterhouse's competition, and rightly so. I'm not generally a fan of Ireland's microbrewed pale lagers, but this is one I would keep coming back to. For the record, the bottled version of Porterhouse Oyster won best beer overall: not necessarily my choice, but a very fine beer indeed.

There was just one new black beer in the line-up: O'Hara's Easter Stout. It's not a radical departure from the flavours in O'Hara's usual stout, or their cask Druid's Brew: only the emphasis is different. Easter Stout, perhaps appropriately, is all about the chocolate. It's rich, dense and smooth: like concentrating two pints of regular O'Hara's into a single glass. Yum.

I mentioned above encountering Emerald in The Salt House. This was on Saturday in the run-up to the Irish Blog Awards. The Award Fairy passed me by on the night, but landed in the seat to my right when Nine Bean Row deservedly took the gong for best newcomer. Congratulations to 'Neen, and to the dedicated team of staff writers, photographers, researchers and editors whose tireless work makes her blog the success it is.

Meanwhile, back at the pub, James has dealt more blows to industrial swill since my first visit to The Salt House, ditching the last few bottles of Heineken from the fridge and removing the Carlsberg tap, leaving Guinness as the only remaining factory-produced Irish beer in his bar. For now. In addition to the hand-picked import lagers on draught, there's now Galway Hooker Pils. As it happened, Aidan the brewer was in The Salt House late on Saturday evening, and he said it's not an especially inspiring recipe -- more a workmanlike made-to-order job. I have to say I quite liked it. Its best feature is a lack of fizz which makes it smooth and very easy-going. Nothing in the flavour really jumps out, but one interesting feature is a lemony fruitiness before it fades to a dry grainess, just turning slightly unpleasantly to must at the end. Still, no harsh bitterness and no funk: as a pale lager it does actually work better than most brewed around these parts.

And that's the end of the Irish beer for the moment. Festival season reaches a crescendo next weekend with The Franciscan Well's annual shindig in Cork. This year it's not only debuting new Irish beers, but also two brand spanking new breweries helmed by regular commenters on this blog: Cormac and Co's Dungarvan Brewing, and Thom, Paul and Stephen's Trouble Brewing. I'm so excited I'll hardly be able to demand my free samples.

25 March 2010

Of hops and smoke

As I mentioned last Wednesday, Ireland's breweries have been in overdrive recently, resulting in lots of new beers coming on the market now. Pale ales seem to be particularly popular among the brewers and at the weekend I sampled the second one out of Carlow: O'Hara's Irish Pale Ale. It's a bit of a heavyweight, this. 5.2% ABV with a massively full body that demands your full attention while you get stuck into it. Not that it's a malt bomb or anything: it has been hopped extensively with more of the no-nonsense varieties found in Buckley's. There's a waxy bitterness at the base of the flavour while the high notes are herbal and grassy. Fruit, citrus or otherwise, does not enter the equation. I'm not sure that it's really to my taste, but I'd certainly be willing to give it another go.

It was, of course, at the Bull & Castle that I tried it. They've also taken a big forward step in their promotion of Irish beers on cask with the introduction of polypins from the Hilden brewery now and again. Among the first to be tapped was Gael Rua, a new red ale. It roughly follows the biscuity caramel lines of Irish red with one major diversion: the inclusion of lots of peat-smoked malt. The result isn't going to be to everyone's taste but it hit the spot perfectly for me. The sweet smokiness gives it an aroma akin to incense, and the flavour is all bacon and toffee. If there was a Schlenkerla pale ale, I'd imagine it would be something like this.

Lots more new Irish beer to come. I'm in Galway next week for the Irish Blog Awards and hope to squeeze a return visit to The Salt House in there. The following weekend it's off to Cork for The Franciscan Well's Easter Beer Festival incorporating the Irish Craft Brewer Beer of the Year Awards. With the diversity currently in evidence in Irish beer it's going to be a particularly interesting gig, I reckon. And don't forget The Porterhouse's annual Independent Irish Beer & Whiskey Festival starts today across their estate in Dublin, Bray and London. Once again they're running a competition among the beers on offer -- beers from themselves, White Gypsy, Hilden, Whitewater, Galway Hooker, Carlow and Franciscan Well. As with last year, when Cuilan's MM Bock took the grand prize, Laura and Séan are on the judging panel. Stay tuned for more from this event too. Interesting times all over...

22 March 2010

Time on your hands

I can only assume that Nøgne Ø, Stone and Jolly Pumpkin named their collaboration Special Holiday Ale because you need a whole day off to pour it. It comes out thick with lots of bubbles and a head that keeps on rising. When it eventually calms down you're left with a hefty layer of ivory foam over a murky dark-brown body. The recipe is a bit of a mad concoction, incorporating white sage, carraway, juniper and chestnuts. I couldn't really pick out any of these, though. Instead, the over-riding flavour for me is cloves, and a bit of cinnamon for the full Christmas cake effect. There's a sizeable note of mentholyptus as well, plus a bitterness at the base which I'm guessing derives from some fairly generous hopping. More than anything it reminds me of Phúca, the spiced ale Franciscan Well released a couple of Christmases back, though Phúca did balance its spices with a lovely sweet stratum of gooey maple syrup.

Overall, the involved recipe balances out into a smooth, softly carbonated and enjoyable winter ale. At 8.5% ABV it's warming without being particularly heady, or in any way difficult to drink. Perfect for that cosy buzz by the fireside. Not that I'm ready for any firesides for the next few months.

Thanks to Knut Albert for the bottle: both are great ambassadors for Norwegian beer.

19 March 2010

Going mainstream

It looks like the puritans at Shepherd Neame have taken their hatred of beer to a new level. Time was, their crazy clear-glass bottles were shipped in a box, so there was an outside chance you could dig into a fresh one and get a beer that hadn't been lightstruck. Lidl occasionally get Shepherd Neame beers in on special and I've noticed with the last few that they've been stacked on cardboard trays, wrapped in clear plastic, letting the light have its evil way with the hop flavours through two layers of packaging. That's devotion to the cause of ruining beer, Shepherd Neame. I salute you.

Latest in the pile-'em-high, skunk-'em-fast series is Early Bird, a very pale and watery-looking ale of 4.5% ABV. The label makes great claims of hoppiness, and while hops are definitely present, they're not the dominant feature. Above all, to me, this beer is carbonic. The nose is a blend of noxious CO2 and pungent lightstruck hops. It's a bit calmer on the palate, tasting primarily of fizzy mineral water infused with a stinging acid bitterness, plus just a smidge of toffee malt somewhere in the middle. This is no way to put a beer together: little more than fizz and skunk. My guess is that Shepherd Neame are not, in fact, sending teams of tasters around to supermarkets to assess the quality of their finished product. If it involved drinking beers like this it probably counts as an unsafe working environment.

Sticking with supermarkets, I gave another one of the new Marks & Spencer range a whirl recently. After a yucky experience with the Cropton's Yorkshire Bitter I had passed over the Lincolnshire Best Bitter, until I noticed that it's brewed by Bateman's. I don't think I've ever had a Bateman's beer I didn't enjoy. This one is lighter than 4.9% ABV would suggest and, despite the lovely caskalike loose-bubbled head, is actually quite gassy. I had to walk around the earthy flavour a couple of times before I got what it was: this beer is very similar to the excellent Bateman's XXXB, only lighter of body. There's some sweet caramel at the front, but the funky depth is what really stood out for me. The problem, then, was I wanted it to be fuller and stronger; to be, in short, XXXB. However pleasant a beer may be, it's never a good thing when it reminds you how much you'd prefer to be drinking a different one.

Still, it's good to see that M&S are heeding my continued wheedling and putting the English ales from their new range out on the shelves of Irish shops. I mean, it's only a matter of time now until we get the Cornish IPA, right?

17 March 2010

Buckle up!

I had hoped I'd get a sneaky taste of the long-awaited new edition of Porterhouse Celebration stout in time for St. Patrick's Day, but it looks like I'll have to wait until next week for that. I'm told Carlow have a new stout brewed for Easter and of course there's White Gypsy Vintage almost ready for release, so there's lots on the horizon for the coming weeks, but sadly I've no new Irish stout to offer you on this our national day.

There is one new native beer, though. The Bull & Castle commissioned Carlow Brewing to come up with an exclusive pale session ale for them, and Buckley's -- on sale since the weekend -- is the result. It's a clear amber gold with a surprisingly full body for only 3.9% ABV. It's nice to know Irish breweries can do keg ales at this strength without them coming out watery.

Hoppiness was part of the spec, and the brewer seems to have opted for the earthy British variety rather than the fruity American sort which, I suppose, would have made the end product too similar to Galway Hooker. So you get the aroma of a hoppy English pale ale and a sharp bitter bite at the front of the palate before this fades to a dry and grainy -- almost lagery -- crisp finish.

My only criticism is that it's a bit gassy for my liking. In fairness, my first one was quaffed swiftly so I probably felt it more than if I'd taken my time over it, but I still think that this sort of session beer should be very easy to drink, and that includes lightness on the fizz front. I'll be very interested to try it on cask, should that ever be rolled out in my vicinity.

It's quite an exciting time for Irish brewing at the moment. In addition to Buckley's, Carlow have a new IPA in the pipeline, and Franciscan Well's new pale ale is apparently on its way to Dublin. Meanwhile, Clanconnel has completed its move to a new purpose-built brewery and will shortly be expanding its portfolio, while down Waterford way Dungarvan Brewing is under starter's orders, with its first three beers due for release in the next couple of weeks. Hopefully Kildare's Trouble Brewing won't be far behind. For some background on how far we've come in recent years, have a look at my guest post on Irish brewing at The Brew Club today.

Happy St. Patrick's Day from Dublin. Don't forget to punch your local Diageo rep.

15 March 2010

The demons' share

The bottle of Stone Smoked Porter I bought at Utobeer brought out the inner Meldrew in me. While I occasionally kick myself for not checking the dates on bottles, I don't really think I should be expected to examine the liquid levels. Still, caveat emptor and all that. I was left with most of a bottle of this well-known Californian beer.

Despite a fairly hefty 5.9% ABV and a thick body to go with that, there's quite a light, dry portery character to it overall. While the body is pretty much opaque, the head is a light tan shade rather the inky brown more usual in high-gravity black beer. Much like its northerly compatriot Alaskan Smoked Porter, its smoke credentials are understated, and balanced well against the roasted grains. The flavour they impart is very slightly phenolic, like a well-diluted peaty scotch. In the background there's some dark fruit and more than a hint of chocolate too.

This isn't an extreme beer in any way. Rather it's balanced, drinkable and much more of a solid friend than a muscley demonic freak. I'm always wrong-footed by how nice Stone beers are. They should have painted a pussycat on the bottles. In fact, it's only their bottling line that's properly evil.

11 March 2010

Supermarket kriek

Nearly a fortnight of blue skies has given the impression that spring might be here at last, sub-zero temperatures notwithstanding. The change of the seasons requires some silly al fresco beer to mark it. I opted for the Liefmans knock-off they sell in Sainsbury's which I assume* is an own-brand since I've never seen it anywhere else.

Bacchus Kriek is a promising dark red colour. I was afraid it might come out the lurid red of syrupy fake kriek, but it looks good and the aroma offers delicate, and real, cherry notes. The taste is rather less delicate, seeming stronger than 5.8% ABV would suggest and full of sweet cherries with virtually no underlying sourness, unfortunately. For all its big-bodied weight, it manages to avoid being syrupy or artificial, but there's no getting away from all that boozy fruit. On a good day you might say it tastes of cherry liqueur; on a bad one, cough mixture.

It's not a classic by any manner of means, but I quite enjoyed it. If I had regular access to it I'd probably buy it again, though the nearly-£3 price tag is a tad hefty for Sainsbury's, given the great stuff they usually have for under £2. It's not that much of a novelty to justify being priced as one.

*[Wrongly -- see comments -- thanks Michael!]