28 March 2013

Slap and tickle

In the pubs at the moment Ireland's spring seasonals are starting to poke their heads tentatively out, ahead of the full bloom heralded by the Franciscan Well Easter Beer Festival happening this Saturday and Sunday in Cork. Last week I was in The Black Sheep to catch two early risers.

Equinox is the new one from Metalman Brewing under their experimental Chameleon badge. My pint arrived ice cold, hazy and looking rather sad in the head department, but still a radiant bright yellow, for all that. There was no shortage of fizz, something which bothers me in most beers but this has a full enough body to carry it and the copious bubbles even help lift out the thirst-quenching lemon flavours while complementing the dry graininess.

It's refreshing and very drinkable (I had three pints) but I couldn't help feeling something was missing from it. All the way through I expected a wheat beer flavour spike: some cloves or pepperiness or even a ripe banana, but it never materialised. The brewery is calling it a "wheat lager" so is at least up front about its nature. While nicely bitter it lacks the cleanness of a good pils, and while full and fizzy it doesn't hit the weiss or wit buttons either. It's a challenging beer, but in a very sessionable sort of way.

The headline act on the night was the much-anticipated new IPA from Galway Bay Brewery, Voyager, and brewer Chris was in town especially, to formally introduce it to the drinking public and throw out a few freebies. Voyager is 6% ABV and the Pacifica and Pacific Jade are given centre stage, from first wort hopping, right through to the dry addition at the end, with the finished product left unfiltered and unfined, though pouring a perfectly clear gold.

The first taste delivers a powerful bitter shock: the sort of resinous acridity that scorches the tongue and wafts up the back of the palate, leaving a sticky residue on the lips. It's hard to detect anything else going on at first, but after a while some semblance of balance creeps in from a touch of underlying toffee malt. Then half way through the second glass I managed to pick out a little bit of the blackcurrant flavour I associate with another New Zealand hop, Pacific Gem, though it's very much on the puckering end of the taste spectrum, with none of the lighter, more succulent, tropical fruit.

If you're working towards a lupulin threshold shift, this is one to take you over the line.

Meanwhile, above at the Bull & Castle, the annual Irish Beer & Whiskey Festival is in full swing. The highlight for me so far has been Kinnegar's Rustbucket rye pale ale, served from a polypin. In a turnaround from the overly fizzy Devil's Backbone I tried recently, this is very lightly carbonated, almost to the point of flatness, and this in turn makes it difficult to discern any aroma. Only with my nose deep in the glass was the mild waft of citrus detectable. The murky orange-brown colour doesn't help with the visuals either, but on tasting it's a whole different experience. Very much hop forward, it begins with a burst of soft fruit: melon and pineapple, pursued by slightly more stern mandarin peel and grapefruit. Underneath this sits the dry grassiness of the rye and, not being a fan of rye beers in general, I'm not sure what the point of this is. But it behaves itself here, not interfering with the hop party.

The beer, soon to be available bottled, is 5.1% ABV and I could feel the weight of it building up as my pint warmed, but it's moreish enough that this shouldn't be a problem for too many drinkers.

Previously on the Bull & Castle's taps there was Franciscan Well's new Hopfenweisse. At a mere 5% ABV this is a more modest offering than Schneider's originator of the style and it lacks the flavour integration of the Bavarian. Instead you get two separate but delicious flavour profiles: one is the caramelised banana of good dunkelweisse, and then this smoothness is pricked with sharp and rather vegetal hops, resulting in a strange sort of contrast which works surprisingly well.

And that brings me back to the Franciscan Well and the Easter Festival, much like this Saturday's 11am train out of Heuston.

25 March 2013

Bumper amber nectar

Ever since I met Speakeasy Prohibition, American amber ale has been one of my favourite beer styles. And happily it's a fairly straightforward sort of beer to brew: a generous helping of dark crystal malt and lashings of lovely C-hops for a medium-strength beer that's big on flavour but well balanced too.

So it's always a welcome opportunity to try a new example of the style, as well as variations. Tröegs Nugget Nectar is one of the latter, being an "Imperial Amber": 7.5% ABV and hopped to 93 IBUs with a heady combination of Nugget, Warrior and Tomahawk.

I think I prefer my ambers a bit darker than this: it's a beautiful shade of polished copper but could pass as many an English bitter on the visuals. Surprisingly, and a wee bit disappointingly, it's rather a subtle beer: the aroma is fresh and soft, with elements of juicy peach and honeydew and perhaps a slightly more intense jasmine perfume undercurrent. Nothing striking jumps out on tasting -- the palate is served with several sensations at once: there's definitely an astringent, almost metallic, bitterness but it sits next to smooth creamy toffee and fruity mandarin zest. Written down it sounds more full-on than it is, but the flavours all work together creating an experience that isn't really suited to pulling apart into its constituent elements.

It's impossible to argue with the quality of Nugget Nectar, yet it leaves me hankering for something similar but more assertive in one direction or another. Balance isn't everything.

Glass tip to Richard for supplying the bottle.

21 March 2013

Admirable of the fleet

I first encountered Hook Norton's Flagship on keg in Against the Grain and was a little surprised that this oh-so-traditional English brewery would have any truck with such a dispense method. Still, it was highly enjoyable and I was happy when I found a bottle of it in the fridge back home.

Though it's bottle conditioned, pouring carefully gave me a pale orange beer with only a slight haze to it. And that could just as easily be hop-derived. While it looks a bit wan and watery, it has been thoroughly infused with a quite uncompromising bitterness, unfolding into an array of orange and lemon pith, with strong jasmine flower and chamomile. Admiral is the advertised hop variety, but I suspect there's more to this as well.

It's really quite wonderful to encounter an English IPA with all the complex hop wallop of its American counterparts, but without the sticky toffee malt notes and in a neat 5.5% ABV package too. Bengal Lancer has perhaps the edge on it for balance, but if you like that balance tipped in a hoppy direction, this is well worth a look.

18 March 2013

Coming on strong

The Irish Craft Beer Village is still going on at Dublin's IFSC. I was down a few evenings late last week, mainly to see what's new and interesting in the line-up. It's probably not the best environment to get to grips with an unfamiliar beer, what with the persistent chilliness of the liquid, not helped at all by the flimsy plastic receptacles. But howanever: the headliners were two strong beers, both ideal for counteracting the mid-March chill.

First up, Kindred Spirit, a 7% ABV whiskey-aged stout by Eight Degrees. Yes, I know, another whiskey-aged beer. I'm always a bit apprehensive approaching these as it seems to be a very easy style to make a mess of. The lads in Mitchelstown have done a great job, however, combining the best elements of whiskey and stout without any of the unpleasant side effects.

So you get a layer of rich milk chocolate to begin with and this is complemented by a subtle honey flavour, a taste which is the main reason I enjoy Irish whiskey but is so rarely present in beers that are whiskey-aged. There's some lovely vanilla oak as well, but again: just enough to add an extra dimension to the taste. The strength is well hidden with no hot alcohol flavours coming out. All-in-all a welcome addition to the range of stouts produced by Irish brewers.

While stouts may be ten a penny (plus excise and VAT) round these parts, double IPAs are somewhat rarer. The hophead lobby at Beoir has been getting quite vocal on the subject, so Carlow Brewing have stepped in to try and shut them up with O'Hara's Double IPA. For this type of beer, 7.5% ABV seems rather modest and the style Blueshirts at the festival had some forthright opinions on how justified the D-word is here. But none of that bothers me: if Carlow want to call it a Double IPA then that's what it is.

Of much greater importance than the badge is the beer itself. It presents as an enticing dark amber, not at all surprisingly, given the full body and smooth texture. I didn't get much of an aroma from it, less perfume than the brewery's 5.2% ABV pale ale. I don't know if this has been dry-hopped like the pale ale but I wouldn't be surprised if it hadn't. The real action kicks in on tasting. While not extremely bitter and citric like many a DIPA from the US, it makes up for any lack of unsubtle wallop with complexity. There's a sizable amount of orange pith in the mix, as well as some lighter peach and satsuma. The malt element lends a toffee base which harmonises beautifully with the hop fruit and makes for a smooth, dangerously drinkable experience. I don't give out "This Tastes Like Odell IPA" plaudits lightly, but this tastes like Odell IPA.

Before we leave, just a quick note about Bo Bristle IPA. This was launched at the Irish Craft Beer Festival last September and received a fairly unenthusiastic reception. Heavy, brownish and muted it had nothing wrong with it, but was hard to like. It's a reformulated version on sale at the festival now and it's much improved: crisp, golden and with a striking bitter grapefruit punch to it. A beer that's well worth taking another look at, and at 5% ABV a handy one to trade down to after the big-hitters.

The Irish Craft Beer Village is open today from noon and closes at 10pm this evening for another year.

14 March 2013

Tír Chonaill a-brew

The growth in Ireland's craft brewing scene seems to be concentrating in the north west at the moment: not terribly surprisingly since it's woefully under served with drinkable beer, though it's nice to see that some people at least think there's a market for something different. Tyrone's Red Hand brewery launches its first beer at The Brewer's House this coming weekend, while nearby Poker Tree is expected to be in production later this year, but Donegal has been quietly turning out the ales for a while now.

The label on my bottle of Donegal Blonde claims a foundation date of 2011 though I understand it was late into 2012 before anything was pouring. The brewery is based at Dicey's pub and off licence in Ballyshannon, a long-time supporter of better choice in Irish beer. The bottle styling is simple, though the first note of concern came with the less than generous fill level (left). Sure enough, coaxing a head onto the beer took a bit of splash work and the foam didn't last long. The sparkle is the lightest imaginable, but at least it's not flat, and the colour is more an attractive red-gold than generic blonde.

No qualms whatsoever about the aroma. Expecting something very plain there's actually a gorgeous spring garden floral smell. If washing powder ads had an aroma, it would be this. The flavour doesn't quite live up to it, being watery for the most part, with dry grain hitting the back of the palate and those flowers just gradually infusing the senses at the end. But, surprisingly for a brewery that hasn't mastered the art of filling bottles, there are no off flavours or nasty surprises. The recipe is flawless and I suspect that a bit more fizz would do wonders to lift it. I can easily imagine settling in to a session on this at the source, or at any of the nearby pubs who have the good sense to stock it.

Meanwhile, up the other end of the county, Kinnegar Brewing has been turning out beer on a very small scale for a couple of years now. Distribution down in these parts is sparse to say the least, but Geoff from the Bull & Castle was kind enough to nab me a bottle. There are three in the range and this one is the amber ale: Devil's Backbone. No undercarbonation problems in this bottle conditioned job: it's wild fizzy so it is, hi. (Reuben found the same.) When the foam subsides the 4.9% ABV beer underneath is revealed to be quite a minerally one, reminding me in general of the better sort of English brown bitter, and Adnams's in particular. I was sort-of expecting more of a hop perfume, given that "amber ale" carries particular US connotations and the brewer is himself an American. But the hops here are all about the bitterness, adding an assertive bite to the one already provided by the carbonation. It's very tannic, which I love, with the tea effect turning a little towards earl grey thanks to the subtle hopping.

Wonky carbonation notwithstanding, if these two are anything to go by, the future is very bright for microbrewing in west Ulster. Sadly, neither brewery is represented at the Irish Craft Beer Village which opened yesterday at Dublin's IFSC and runs to Monday, but there's plenty of other good stuff to drink, including a new Eight Degrees stout, a double IPA from Carlow Brewing and a rare opportunity to taste Irish craft cider on draught.

11 March 2013

Ancient beer

Poking around in the back of the fridge turned up this bottle of Gruut Bruin which I'm sure has been there longer than a year at this stage. At least I don't have to worry about the hop character fading as the gimmick here is that none are used, with just "herbs" taking their place on the ingredients list. I've had a few of the others in the range, finding them quite decent.

The Bruin is on the pale side for the style: more of a red colour, and is almost totally flat. But neither of those are the most striking thing about it. It's already quite a sweet style and the lack of hops isn't going to do anything to bitter things up, but this is like getting hit in the face with a candy shop. Toffee in abundance, as well as overtones of Cadbury's Crème Egg interior. The finish is a very Belgian alcohol burn, unsurprising as it's 8% ABV.

It's not a million miles from other strong sweet brown Belgians, and Kwak in particular. But the absence of hops really helps raise the sugar factor, and not in a good way.

07 March 2013

Crosstown traffic

A couple of new American double IPAs took me on a bit of a tour of the Cottage Group's Dublin pubs recently.

Starting at Against the Grain on the southside there was Anderson Valley Imperial IPA, an 8.7% ABV affair which claims 100 IBUs. The aroma is its strongest feature, full of gorgeous sandalwood and booze notes, almost reminiscent of a fine cognac. Tasting opens up a candystore of sherbet and toffee, as well as some very adult supervision from the alcohol burn. The hops don't really sing, however. There's kind of a heavy and muffled orange cordial flavour, but neither zip, zing nor zest. Still thoroughly enjoyable all the same.

We cross the Liffey and head for the far end of Capel Street next, to The Black Sheep. This is the Group's cask specialist but that didn't stop them having Flying Dog's Single Hop Citra Imperial IPA on keg. This is all of 10% ABV but more than makes up for the extra malt with a very generous dose of hops. It presents a hazy pale orange shade and is surprisingly light on aroma, giving just a tease of orange sherbet. There's no shortage of flavour, however. It's nowhere near as sharp as I was expecting, with the Citra citrus mellowed by the heavy biscuit base and alcoholic warmth. Fresh grapefruit notes give way to a final pepperiness while the weight allows it to coat the palate leaving a long-lasting aftertaste. Despite the gung-ho branding and vital statistics this is an artfully assembled beer.

I thought I was done when word came through that its brother Single Hop Nelson Sauvin Imperial IPA had been tapped up over at The Brew Dock, so I headed off across town in a different direction. Odd that this beer looks darker, since the specs are the same, but when it comes to the aroma there's no mistaking the Nelson: mee-ow! But beneath the serious bang of cat pee there's a nicely assertive bitterness to make the mouth water, overlaid with with some lovely succulent nectarine notes, a flavour I've never never noticed from Nelson Sauvin before. Unfortunately, the pissyness is just inescapable and undid a lot of the beer's good points for me.

One thing that struck me about all three keg beers is that they were served California-cold, and yet didn't suffer a lack of flavour because of it. Low temperature and high hops seem to have worked together to allow these strong IPAs stay properly refreshing.

What's that? The Single Hop Chinook has been tapped back at The Black Sheep? Some other time, maybe...

04 March 2013

Too much too soon

International craft brewing's current affinity for saison shows no sign of slowing down so I guess we'll just have to weather it out. I didn't realise I was a saison hater until recently: I've enjoyed lots of them, back when they were a Belgian thing. The only one I know ever to have been brewed commercially in Ireland was lovely, and Oblivious has given me some fantastic homemade ones. But elsewhere it's not been so much fun.

In my amateur opinion, saison is a style that's all about nuance and subtlety, and the likes of Wild Beer Co.'s Epic Saison and Freigest's Sauer Power ignored that and went for bombastic, all-guns-blazing, barnstormers. Sadly this criticism can also, to an extent, be levelled at the latest one to cross my path: Wallonia by Thornbridge, recently on keg in Against the Grain. We are spared any of the more extreme burnt plastic of the other two I've mentioned, but there's also none of that mild pepperiness which good saison always has. Instead the hazy orange beer exhibits something of an aftershave spice, putting me more in mind of a heavy clovey weissbier than anything else. It's quite a decent sipper, but the dry fruit and spice flavours become a little overwhelming as it goes down.

How about keeping it simple, saison brewers? That might work.

01 March 2013

Counting them in

Session logoI have far too much beer. Belgian beer, mostly, due to the good offices of my wife who travels there a lot. It gathers in my attic and my beer fridge and I just don't seem to get through it as quick as I should. Freshness isn't so much of an issue with strong, dark, yeast-centric beers, but I've already missed the best of one Belgian IPA through my slow drinking habits. What's required is a constant audit of what's old, and what needs to be consumed sooner rather than later.

And it so happens that beer auditing is the topic for this month's Session, hosted by Adam at