31 October 2011

Dæve's diphthongs

At long last, the third of the Hardknott bottles Dave and Ann gave me while we queued for the Great British Beer Festival last year. I've disposed of the Infra Red and the Granite, which leaves just this bottle of Æther Blæc 2009. I do feel a bit guilty leaving it this long -- the point of brewers giving out freebies is to promote their wares, of course, and this wasn't promoting anything by sitting in my attic for 15 months -- but as I said in relation to the other two: Dave makes a big deal on his labels about how his beers are best left to age so it's really his own fault.

Anyway, Æther Blæc is an 8% ABV stout that's had several months' maturation in a Caol Ila whisky cask. The recommendation (he's big on his recommendations, is Dave) is to serve at room temperature but this came out of my attic on a chilly day so my first sip was quite a cool one. The phenols jumped out a mile, delivering powerful and rather unpleasant disinfectant flavours and little else. Given a while to warm up, however, and it rounds out quite nicely. Yes, there's still a lot of that TCP thing. If you don't like peaty whisky you probably won't like this. But there's also bags of sweet creamy chocolate (Galaxy bars, specifically), some quite dry un-vanilla-ish oak and a proper tang of bitter green hops. The aroma is an enticing peaty one, offering a subtle prelude to the bigger flavours to come.

I can kind of see how this might mellow with even more aging, but it's still perfectly drinkable now. Cheers Dave.

27 October 2011

Curd your enthusiasm

Bord Bia have designated the upcoming long weekend as the Irish Farmhouse Cheese & Craft Beer Weekend. They've helped organise a whole raft of events all around the country over the next few days, celebrating two things we produce in Ireland which are well worth making a fuss about. A full calendar of events is available on the Bord Bia website here.

I've been catching up on the new Irish beers which were launched at the All-Ireland Craft Beerfest in Dublin last month, which I missed. BrewEyed Vanilla Amber Ale, for instance, which went on tap in L. Mulligan. Grocer recently. No surprises here anyway: it's certainly amber, attractively dark and enticing. The aroma is a bit off-putting, however: a sickly waft of strong vanilla essence that leaves you in no doubt that this is not a subtle beer. First taste produces a deafening clash as the sweet vanilla smashes headlong into powerful hop bitterness. It's a mercy it's as bitter as it is, otherwise the vanilla could have taken over completely and turned it into an alcopop. But it's definitely a beer, and designed for grown-ups. The pay off comes at the end: the flavours calm down and there's a long lingering finish of vanilla-infused bitter which works rather well. Overall I think it's probably too weird to enjoy in any great quantities, but hooray for novelty and I'm really looking forward to what BrewEyed come up with next.

Following their Coffee & Oatmeal Stout special, Dungarvan Brewing have gone back to basics for their sixth beer: a straightforward 3.7% ABV bitter called Comeragh Challenger, named after the local mountains and the single hop variety employed, respectively. It was back to Mulligan's once again to give this a spin. On the first sip I did a double-take. On the second, I was still confused. Fortunately, Colin was on hand to answer my question: "Are you sure this isn't Helvick Gold?"

It has the same soft fruit palate and the same invigorating gunpowder finish. The light in Mulligan's isn't great (that's my excuse for these crappy photos) but it certainly looked to be the same shade of yellow. There did seem to be an extra smack of bitterness in the middle, but that could easily have been my imagination. Colin took a sample and assured me that it was the correct beer; that it tastes totally different to Helvick; and that I have the gustatory acuity of a donkey with a headcold. Colin doesn't get these things wrong.

I stand by my initial impression, however. Comeragh Challenger tastes very much like Helvick Gold only a little more bitter. As Helvick is one of my favourite Irish beers, especially from the cask, this is by no means a criticism.

But National Beer & Cheese Weekend isn't just about beer. There is also cheese. So with the long-anticipated arrival of Eight Degrees's new porter I reckoned I needed to introduce it to some cheesey goodness. Or some cheesey randomness at least.

Knockmealdown Porter, like its stablemates, is 5% ABV and deftly performs the Eight Degrees signature move of taking a familiar style and beefing it up slightly. It tastes dry at first, followed by a really interesting mature sourness, riding high on the extra alcohol and doing a surprisingly good impression of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. A dash of chocolate comes right at the end, finishing the whole thing on a smooth and sweet note. I like this a lot. So how does it go with cheese?

My last outing with beer and cheese on this blog concluded, er, inconclusively, with the feeling that beer and cheese matching is a mystery and that the random approach works best. Bord Bia have given us some (PDF) guidelines on what pairs with what, but I still prefer the random approach. This way I get to tick cheeses as well.

The three I picked, pretty much arbitrarily, at the cheese counter were ones I've never had before and know nothing about: Ballintubber, a softish cheddar with chives; Killeen Fenugreek, a goat-milk Gouda clone, seasoned as the name suggests; and Cooleeney, the pungent runny one essential to any cheese session line-up.

Ballintubber was my favourite by itself and faired reasonably well with the porter. The sourness of the beer bounces nicely off the sweetness of the cheese and the chives give it an almost hop-like herbal finish. I really liked the Killeen too because of the domineering fenugreek. It's too domineering for the beer, however and while the taste doesn't get lost completely it's not pulling its weight in the match. The Cooleeny I found tough going: though it has a beautiful socky Camembert finish, the main taste is powerfully acrid and rather off-putting. So I was delighted to find that Knockmealdown Porter puts some manners on it, smoothing the harsh bitter edge with its chocolate while leaving the heady mature cheese vapours to linger at the end. I wouldn't recommend attempting to approach Cooleeny without a bottle of strong porter in your hand.

And at the end of that I wanted to immediately run out and try more cheese with it, explore more taste combinations, but I'll have to leave that to this weekend when hopefully I'll get to visit at least one of the Dublin beer and cheese events. The Bull & Castle's tasting platter looks right up my random-pairing alley. You'll find Eight Degrees at the Ballyhoura Spook mountain biking Halloween party on Sunday while Dungarvan Brewing have organised a beer and cheese pub quiz in The Moorings tonight. There are loads more events going on around the country. As I say, check the website.

In the interests of honesty and transparency I should mention that Bord Bia have paid me absolutely nothing to promote this event on my blog, not so much as a snifter of beer or a sliver of cheese. In fact they didn't even ask. I just think it's incredibly cool for a state agency to be spending my taxes on promoting our breweries and cheesemakers this way, and I'd like to see the event be a roaring success.