28 April 2011

Now we are six

Grab your paper hat and curly squeaker thingy: my blog turns 6 today and I'm throwing a party for it. I need a game suitable for a 6-year-old beer blog's birthday celebration, and luckily BrewDog have obliged with their IPA is Dead fourpack: fun for three players, neatly packaged in a single box.

The beers are all 7.5% ABV IPAs, brewed to 75 IBUs and dry-hopped, but each using a different single hop from a different continent: Bramling Cross, Citra, Sorachi Ace and Nelson Sauvin. Loaded up on cake and with paper hats in position, I sat down with the two Party Guests to go through the four beers blind, picking a favourite and seeing if we could make any stab at guessing which beer was which from what we know of the respective hops' flavour profiles.

The first beer I found to be the dullest: lacking aroma and foretaste, it's quite acrid, creating a burning sort of bitterness. Its redeeming feature is a sort of gunpowder spice, but in a heavily dry-hopped beer I feel entitled to at least some fruit flavours, which this didn't deliver. Not knowing how to classify this I played my wild card, deeming it Sorachi Ace, the only hop of the four I'd never knowingly tasted before. Though there was no cross-consultation (all games at 6th birthday parties should be played in silence), Party Guest 1 agreed with me, reckoning there was something innately Japanese about the taste. We were both wrong. Party Guest 2 hit the nail on the head, spotting the English stylings of Bramling X.

From the start of the second beer I was thinking Citra, though the lemony flavour was rather more muted than I thought it would be. Like the previous beer, it's harshly bitter, if not quite as intense and leaving room for some of the fruit sunshine to come through. I'd nearly call it balanced. After checking along the row for signs of citrus in the others, I deemed this the most lemon-like and therefore Citra. Again, Party Guest 1 thought the same, however Party Guest 2 decided it was Nelson Sauvin. The shoe was on the other foot this time, and the scores levelled thanks to my and PG1's superior Citra-spotting abilities.

I got a real shock from the nose of beer three: an intense hit of tar or burning pitch. Once again the bitterness is stonking, and the first flavour is pure grapefruit skin, but when it faded I thought I could detect a subtle white grape note at the back. Despite that initial unpleasant surprise I kept coming back to this, getting more grape and less acid with each turn. By the end I'd decided it was my favourite of the bunch, though with the Citra not far behind. Guided by the grape flavour, I opted for Nelson Sauvin as my guess. Party Guest 1 detected none of the harshness of the others and decided this well-mannered example had to be Bramling X. Party Guest 2 couldn't get past the grapefruit, which screamed Citra to her. Three different guesses and the points went to me: I was expecting much more light and juicy things from Nelson Sauvin, but that's what it was.

And so we're down to the wire. Beer four was the most gentle, I thought: lots of orange pith and rough, perhaps, but not harsh. I had trouble believing that it was a full 7.5% ABV, and for all these reasons picked it as my nomination for Bramling X. Party Guest 1 described it as extremely wine-like so was in no doubt at all that it was Nelson Sauvin. Party Guest 2 found it an odd mish-mash of citrus and green veg with little by way of aroma so picked Sorachi Ace, and was, of course, correct.

Final scores: me 2 -- PG1 1 -- PG2 2. No-one really covering themselves in hop-related glory there, but at least no-one cried, threw up or had to be sent home to their parents early.

Apart from learning that too much of a hop can kill off a beer's best features, I was very interested in the demonstration of the yawning gap between IBUs and perceived bitterness. Though these were all, on paper, as bitter as each other, the difference in taste between Bramling X and Sorachi Ace was remarkable. Were I asked to guess their IBUs I'd have been saying 90 and 65 respectively. Bittering units aren't a metric I pay much attention to when compiling a beer recipe and I feel somewhat justified now in doing that.

Looking at these purely as beers-to-drink, I didn't enjoy them as much as the Mikkeller single-hop series. If BrewDog are planning a second set of these, or if any other brewery is contemplating it (it's a great way to get drinkers actively thinking about beer and what goes into it), I'd advise toning the hop levels down a little to let those distinctive flavours speak more clearly. Yes, that's my excuse for scoring so poorly...

25 April 2011

All 'Well and good

Easter weekend once again brings the centrepiece of the Irish beer calendar at the Franciscan Well in Cork. This year, the Easter Festival featured 13 guest breweries from around Ireland, including newcomers 8 Degrees, based in nearby Mitchelstown.

The company is the result of a trans-Tasman détente between Aussie Cam (right) and Kiwi Scott, playfully branded and with big plans for its entry into the market proper. The primary product will be 33cl bottles of three different beers, most likely sold by the six-pack. It's not a standard method of beer delivery for Ireland and it'll be interesting to see how it pans out. There will also be draught, and the first to arrive on tap is Howling Gale, a blonde ale hopped up on Chinook, Centennial and Amarillo. Aren't there a bazillion craft beers like this in Ireland already? Well, yes and no. At 5% ABV, Howling Gale is weightier than most, with a full wheaty body, despite the absence of wheat. It's arguable how well it'll work as a sessioner, given those extra few strength points above most by-the-pint beers, but I can see it performing in the 33cls as long as they get the pricing right. Its other distinguishing feature is the lack of filtering. Only the finest of haze is visible and it more than pays its way with the extra citrus flavours being delivered. Howling Gale is a promising start for the new brewery, and its unusual vital statistics could well be the beginning of a new spin on the craft beer revolution in these parts.

While I'm banging on about filtering, a word on Galaxy Pale Ale, brewed by Trouble as the grand prize in their Trouble Maker competition last year, the winning recipe provided by Rossa O'Neill. You can read his account of his day at the brewery here. I liked the finished product, honest I did: a gorgeous shade of garnet, super-light cask-like carbonation, a firm bitterness and a subtle biscuity follow-up. But I couldn't help feeling there should be more to it, that a fruit and citrus contribution from the hops should be at the centre of the flavour but has been stripped out by the evil filter. No amount of limpid sparkling beauty can make up for a beer that has been gutted like this. If the flavour is bold enough to cover any yeasty tang -- as is the case with most any of these US-style Irish pale ales -- I don't see why the beer can't be cloudy. Rant over; comments welcome.

A smooth and calming glass of stout next, and my first try of Dungarvan's special edition Coffee and Oatmeal Stout. Cormac tells me the recipe is very different from Black Rock, but I couldn't help but notice the similarities, a function of cask's tendency to smooth out distinctive flavours, I reckon. Anyway, it's a rock-solid stout, well-balanced between roasted dryness and plummy fruit esters. I couldn't say I was able to pick out the coffee, but I'm guessing the dry aspects of it were down to this in some measure.

I had a good natter with Seamus and Liam from the ever-expanding Carlow Brewing Company. Liam has begun a series of smoked beers in half-batch runs, and the first example was on their bar at the weekend. O'Hara's Smoked Ale No. 1 is a reddish-brown bitter, with chocolate malt in the ascendant plus hints of raisins. The smoke infuses this with a subtle kippery tang. A few fellow-drinkers were hard pressed to identify this as smoke but it was familiar to me from my own experiments with rauchmalz. Liam was a little disappointed that it didn't come out smokier, expecting more of a bang for the substantial bucks the brewery spent on the speciality grain. The frustration looks like it may well lead to some messing about with peated malt later in the series: then we'll be talking serious smoke. Can't wait.

After many years of sharing a bar, Messrs Maguire were totally separate from former host White Gypsy at this year's festival, serving two beers that Melissa brewed in Dublin herself, plus the sublime leftovers of Barrelhead's Franciscan Well-brewed Pale Ale: eight months old and tasting fabulous, like Harvey's Best on steroids. Meanwhile, White Gypsy was twinned with its new protégé Metalman, making their first appearance at the Easter Festival with their second beer: