31 July 2013


Top of my to-do list this year was travel to Kilkenny and visit the Smithwick's St. Francis's Abbey Brewery. They've been producing beer here since 1710 but that's about to change as the 1964 takeover of the company by Guinness reaches its conclusion at the end of this year when all production will be moved to the main Diageo facility in Dublin. The historic frontage of the complex will remain as a sterile visitors' centre but the 20th century brewery, just as historic in its own way, is due to be dismantled, demolished and handed over the the city authorities. It's a wonderful tour and I thoroughly recommend giving it a go before the year is out: few multinational breweries permit punters onto the brewing floor, within reach of the hot shiny bits and curious valves and switches, but you can do it at Francis's Abbey.
(Update: the brewery closed its doors to visitors on 30th September 2013. If you haven't been, you missed your chance.)

As if to hammer home the message of where Irish beer is going these days, just across the street from one corner of the complex, Ireland's largest independent brewery has just opened its first pub. Brewery Corner is owned by the Carlow Brewing Company. It's a bright and modern room, stretching from a cosy front area with open fires down to a small beer garden at the rear. There's the full range of O'Hara's beers, of course, plus a rotating selection from other Irish micros, including a rare but welcome sighting of Stonewell cider on tap.

Though I spent quite a lot of the weekend enjoying O'Hara's madly drinkable Double IPA, I couldn't pass up the chance to try the new seasonal O'Hara's Helles under laboratory conditions. Sweet and smooth Bavarian helles is one of my all-time favourite beer styles, and with decent Irish lager something of a rarity, when I heard Carlow had produced a helles I was really looking forward to it. My first pint was the one pictured, in a Dublin pub not known for its beer selection, but there it was and I ordered a pint. And it was pretty poor. I decided I'd try it again somewhere else before committing my opinion to the screen.

So here I was on the brewery's home turf, on a sunny evening in the beer garden and a cool fresh pint of their golden lager. And it's still not right; or at least not for me. The German hops are laid on pretty heavily which gives it an astringent vegetal sharpness of the sort I associate more with a north German pils than an easy-going Bavarian lager. Instead of the light fluffy biscuit sweetness I was expecting, there's a rather sickly bock-like malt character. I have history with the more severe sort of German and German-style lagers; I know there are plenty of drinkers out there who enjoy them but I'm not among them. So I can't really say whether O'Hara's Helles is fatally flawed or merely not for my palate, though I welcome other comments on it.

But that still leaves me with the problem of what to drink this summer. Perhaps it's time to take a step sideways from lager altogether. Earlier in the year, Metalman produced a "wheat lager" called Equinox. More recently, they've followed it with a beer made to the same recipe, except utilising an ale yeast. Solstice wheat ale sounds like it might be a rather insipid American-style wheat beer but it actually makes for a rather pleasant lager substitute. It has a very clean flavour profile, for one thing, even from the cask. The coriander, orange and lemon aren't very discernable, adding just a seasoning of spice, and at its heart there's the full but not cloying golden syrup sensation found in my favourite Czech lagers. Balanced, drinkable and very refreshing.

Meanwhile, the hunt continues for an Irish lager I can call my regular.

29 July 2013

But where's the Italian plumber?

Full marks to Revelation Cat for the label design on these beers, capturing perfectly the style of Nintendo's 8-bit game packaging, to the point of possibly prompting a letter from the lawyers. The brewing company is based in Rome but these were all produced in Kent at the Ramsgate Brewery: information marked clearly on the back label, other gypsy brewers please note.

They came my way via Reuben, coming his way via Steve, so thanks again to them both.

First up, Take My AdWeisse (clunky names not your thing? maybe skip this post). It's a 4.5% ABV weissbier, pouring a very opaque yellow. The aroma is lovely and unusual for the style: fresh and juicy mandarins. It loses its way a bit after that. Only a mild clove spice flavour suggests its true style and while the bitter hop finish is pleasant it's not enough to save the whole from falling a bit flat.

A sessionable pale ale next, the 4.5% ABV Dry Hop Thriller. There's a lovely punchy pith aroma here and the flavour segues nicely from soft peach into sterner grapefruit. The finish is a little on the astringent side, but it kinda works in its favour, adding a moreish puckering dryness.

Turning up the ABV dial to 6%, there's Hopaddendum: similar in colour -- a cloudy pale orange -- it lulls you in with a sweet heady stonefruit aroma but then cruelly smacks you in the face with an unpleasantly sharp flavour. It's not even properly hoppily bitter, just acrid and harsh.

Stronger again is California Moonset, a more typically American style IPA with 7% ABV, showing dark amber in the glass because there's a heavy layer of crystal malt in here. It smells beautiful, with toffee in the ascendant and citrus behind. The flavour balances the best of both, starting sweet with caramel and nectarine building to an almost catty pungency. That gentle upward slope from sweet and fruity to sharp and bitter seems to be something of a pattern with these beers.

That said, F.R.E.S.H. (trust me, you don't want to know what it stands for) does it more or less in reverse. It's the same strength as the foregoing but is made with old world hops, kicking off with a quite harsh grassy herbal vibe but finishing on a mellower orange blossom note. Not very complex beyond that, however.

Perhaps predictably the best is the last one. Hop Animal proclaims itself to be a "double double IPA". 13% ABV and getting full value out of its wine-like strength, it's extremely dense, with bags of thick syrupy toffee. This has been expertly balanced against a prodigious quantity of hop oils, making it two different, and very tasty, kinds of sticky at once. Overall a beautifully warming sundowner: just what you want from this sort of beer.

Part of me is inclined to bitch that more work went into the packaging than the brewing with most of these, but if they were my regular local selection I think I'd be quite happy.