30 May 2013

Don't have a cow

After a wait of six months, and plenty of pan-European brewing activity evidenced on Twitter, the second beer from the Brown Paper Bag Project landed last week. Oxman is a 5.8% ABV brown ale and was launched in parallel with a re-brewed, re-designed Dr Rudi, the second batch of which, I think, was brewed at Proef in Belgium.

Actually, they're not great on the whole provenance thing, the Baggers. Not only does Oxman not say where it comes from (Dancing Duck in Derbyshire, I'm told), it doesn't even say where the Project itself is based, which puts it in breach of Irish labelling laws. And while I'm throwing the book at them, the promised best before date wasn't on the shoulder of my bottle either, not that that one matters to me particularly.

It's definitely bottle-conditioned, as a layer of sediment shows clearly at the base of the bottle. That's something that tends to niggle me with medium-strength beers in 33cl bottles but this one is strong enough and dark enough for it not to be a problem. A mahogany coloured body is topped by a thin ivory head from which a wholesome oatmeal and raisin aroma rises. The texture is a beautiful sheer silk, one that bottle conditioned beers so rarely have, and the lead flavours are milk chocolate finishing on a crisp green bitterness fading to slightly metallic tangy notes. What separates it from your run of the mill brown ale is that extra ABV, spreading warmth and good vibes on the palate and down the hatch. There is a school of thought which says this sort of beer is only suited to winter but you won't find me at assembly there.

It's not a knock-you-out-of-your-chair-with-amazement beer. I've yet to find a brown ale that is. But it is a very well-balanced yet assertive, moreish ale. There's a limited supply on cask at WJ Kavanagh's and I strongly recommend taking the opportunity of getting stuck in to a proper pint or two if you can.

27 May 2013

Black marks

I didn't go near the Struise stall at the Zythos Beer Festival this year. A glance at their huge menu board showed lots of beers I'd already tried and none I wanted to run back to. At Borefts they'd been charging multiples of what most other stands did and I wasn't going to bother finding out if they were running the same policy closer to home. So I brought my sour grapes to other stalls instead.

I did have a couple of Struis bottles waiting in the fridge at home, however, both of the dark and strong variety. First out was Black Damnation: Coffee Club: number 4 in the sequence, following "Mocha Bomb" in the weaponised caffeine drinks series. The blurb makes no mention of actual coffee here, only that this 13% ABV imperial stout is based on Struise's Black Albert and has been matured in rum casks, but one sniff demonstrates clearly how it got its name: there's a massive blast of coffee in the aroma, and quite a bit of rum too. Worryingly there's a fair whack of cardboard as well, suggesting that the amateurish label wasn't the only part of the packaging process that wasn't done as carefully as it might have been.

The rum elements in the aroma translate into a strong booze heat in the flavour, with a slight sourness and some lovely porty vinous qualities. The oxidised staleness is thankfully buried deep beneath this and, once you get used to the heat, it's actually quite a nice sipper. Not one of those that sneaks its alcohol on you: you feel every unit going in.

And because you can't have too many strong dark beers, here's Outblack, a milksop of just 10% ABV, brewed in association with Stillwater and boasting a grain bill including barley, wheat, oats and rye. Once again they're not out to be subtle so I can't honestly say what each grain brought to the finished product, but it is pretty damn full-on. Once the over-enthusiastic head subsides there's a hot-and-sour liquorice aroma and a flavour of dark liqueur chocolates. Some sort of brandy liqueurs, if I was guessing, though perhaps shading towards cough mixture.

Despite the best efforts of the busy carbonation to mask them, the flavours just kept on coming and before I was done I had noted menthol as well, plus -- oh no -- more of the wet cardboard I could smell in the Coffee Club. While the other elements kept shifting, that staleness stayed consistent on the end of each mouthful right to the very bottom. A lot going on in this one, but it's still something of a curate's egg, unfortunately.

You can't mark Struise down for being uninteresting or not putting the effort in, but too often the quality of the beers just isn't what it should be for a brewery that garners their level of acclaim.

23 May 2013

Nailed it

I first encountered Whitewater's new beer Hoppelhammer in The Purty Kitchen last month. It made its debut at the Belfast Beer Festival last November but sold out quickly -- draught and bottled --  long before I got to try it. The recently-refurbished and thoroughly craftified Purty was the Monkstown stop on a recent DART-based pub crawl and that's where I spotted the beer on the blackboard. A bottle was kindly donated by the management and shared around. It was tasty enough to warrant a proper review at a later stage.

The opportunity arrived, again unexpectedly, some weeks later on a visit to The Brewer's House in Donaghmore, Co. Tyrone. This village pub has been transformed into a foodie haven while still retaining its essential pubbiness. At the centre of the offer is the beer, and it's likely to stay that way as the on-site pilot brewery is expanded later this year into a full-size kit. There was some remarkably well kept Belfast Ale on cask and surprise Hoppelhammer on keg.

This stuff is 6% ABV and very well balanced between the big malt and big hops. Even from the very start the aroma mixes sweet 'n' sticky with a dusting of citrus and sherbet. Colourwise it's a rich dark Lucozade orange. The hops lay the first punch: bittersweet marmalade, followed quickly by a spreading warmth -- it could definitely pass for stronger than it is. I was expecting a layer of toasty malt, like you often get in English IPAs of a similar strength, but none of that is permitted. The hops continue to throw shapes, running through grassy, to tangy and metallic, and finishing on a mouth-watering bitter bite. For all of its power it's a very drinkable beer and I was well able to throw back two pints as an a