30 September 2013

Coal porter

I've had a bit of an on-again-off-again relationship with Belgian stout over the years. The much-loved Hercule was tough going for me, while Leroy ranks among the worst beers I've ever had the misfortune to have put in front of me. De La Senne's Stouterik is an excellent exception, but only achieves this by de-Belging itself, being light, simple and clean. So I wasn't sure which way the dice would fall when it came to De Dochter van de Korenaar's Charbon: at 7% ABV, smoked, and including vanilla, clean and simple were definitely not on the agenda.

It pours densely black with a rocky ivory head which dissipates quickly. The first thing that struck me is the intensely creamy texture, full and silky, with barely a prickle from the carbonation. Picking out the separate elements, the smoke is dry and a little burnt tasting. The vanilla is barely discernible, a mild wisp of it which could pass for the effect of understated barrel aging. The overall impression is of a well integrated, approachable extra stout with a spot-on roasty aroma and the appropriate level of vegetal bitterness. The smoky vanilla bells and whistles are near enough an irrelevance.

Not particularly Belgian, but in stout that may be a good thing.

26 September 2013

Pottstown steelers

What really seems to have got people talking about the Sly Fox Helles is its pull-off top, removing the whole top surface, presumably to create a better experience for those who opt to drink straight from the container. I couldn't help but do a bit of sensory testing and took a couple of swigs before I'd poured it all out. While the aroma definitely does manage to get through, the sensation is still an unpleasant one: cold metal and the rough edge of the can lip which itself is awkwardly sunk below the rim. Awkward and uncomfortable. Stick with glasses, kids.

The beer itself is a beautiful clear gold so they must be expecting at least some people to look at it. It's a little hoppier than your typical Bavarian helles, though the hops are definitely of the right genre: mown grass and fresh leafy spinach dominate. The texture is appropriately soft and there's a nice smooth breadiness from the lager malt. Not full marks for accuracy for me, but it's still very tasty.

Pikeland Pils is the same strength: 4.9% ABV, and pretty much the same colour too, though throwing a little bit of a haze. The aroma is fruitier: tart berries and possibly a touch of sherbet. On the first sip the near absence of fizz surprised me, and the flavour beneath is very interesting too: waxy and sharp with a palate-coating resin. Bitter enough to be stimulating and refreshing without becoming harsh. Simple, tasty and I'm rather surprised I like it.

Moving to the warm fermented styles we start with Royal Weisse. It takes a bit of swirling to get the lees out of the can and the end result is an orange glassful with a head which subsides quickly. They've made good use of the weissbier yeast with lots of sumptuous banana esters and some other higher-alcohol by-products: diesel and sulphur. There's a proper wheaty dry grain layer under what the yeast is doing and overall it's a fairly accurate, if workmanlike, recreation of the style.

So let's see how Sly Fox do with styles from closer to home. Phoenix is the pale ale, hefty enough at 5.1% ABV. Light on aroma but I get some bitter jaffa if I get my beak right down into it. There's a lovely buzz from the hops here, an uncompromising metallic clang softened by some cedar spicing and grapefruit spritz. Some higher floral notes and a brown sugar sweetness add some tickle to the slap. It's a beer I could settle into, there's plenty here to keep me entertained, but I have an IPA to finish on.

113 is dense and dark: orange amber and an off-white head. Again they've spared the aroma hops in favour of big bitterness. It reminds me a lot of the lagers: that waxy green acidic quality which shouldn't really be surprising since they wear their use of German hops with pride on the label, the only 7% ABV American IPA that I know of to do that. There's some pleasant toffee but no real US-style fruity high notes, just bitterness all the way. With all due respect to the old world credentials I can't say I'm a fan of this hybrid. What works at 5.1% ABV doesn't necessarily fly at 7%.

A bit of of a mixed bag here, but still it's great to see more American beer arriving in these lightweight, durable, stackable, quick-chilling, easy-open, lightproof containers.

23 September 2013

Scorch and screech

Two from Peterborough's finest today. Oakham Inferno first and, despite the bluster of the name, it pours a sickly pale yellow, looking for all the world like a cheap adjunct lager. The aroma comes quickly to the rescue, however, pushing out a peach and mango scent that beckons the drinker in. The carbonation is a little high and the texture a little thin, even at 4.4% ABV, but the flavour more than makes up for it: a fruit explosion of pineapple and mandarin to begin with, then taking a sharp turn into spiky grapefruit and lemon bitterness. Zing by the bagful. The malt contributes as little to the flavour as it does to the colour, with just a very slight sweetness under the hops, adding a touch of orange barley sweets. Maybe a little bit on the bitter side for me to drink a lot of it but it's a wonderful wake-up call to tired tastebuds.

So Scarlet Macaw has a tough act to follow. A smidge more welly at 4.8% ABV and it's darker too: orange, shading to amber. No fireworks in the aroma this time and the flavour is definitely softer and more nuanced, a gentle jaffa orange fruitiness, though once again it gets increasingly pithy after the first few seconds. A base of digestive biscuits hovers in the background and the body is nicely full.

These two aren't actually all that different from each other, and they're both first rate hop-forward session ales. Choosing one over the other is a question of mood: the lively Inferno when you want to quaff something stimulating and the Macaw when you fancy something a bit mellower but still pretty full-on.

20 September 2013

Still got it

The last in my series of posts on the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival, which ran at the RDS in Dublin a couple of weeks ago, moves away from the new young and thrusting breweries of the burgeoning independent Irish beer scene to look at the stalwarts: the veterans of the dark 20th century, all established and churning out safe, approachable, mortgage-paying beers, with one eye on the pension fund.

Are they hell.

Franciscan Well Coffee Porter has been knocking around for a while in a limited bottle run but showed up on cask at the festival. It's 7.5% ABV and they've added just the right amount of coffee, which is to say all the coffee they could possibly stuff in. The aroma delivers the invigorating bang of walking into a roastery and the only beery compromise is the chocolate flavour imparted by the dark malt producing a kind of mocha effect. The rich texture and heavy sweetness add cream and brown sugar to the cup and the end result, in Reuben's words, is "more coffee than beer". Not for everyone, but I loved it. After that, the Franciscan Well IPA was a bit of a let down. 7.5% ABV again and with some nice herbal notes in the aroma but the flavour is mostly smooth sweet toffee with no proper bitterness or fruit, just a mild jasmine spicing from the hops.

The Porterhouse have suddenly decided to make September their IPA themed month, though oddly eschewed Hop Head in favour of a new 4.6% ABV cask ale called Pale Face. There's a nice kick of marmalade in here, and some mild sandalwood, putting it on the same spectrum as good old Harvey's Best. Simple but flavoursome.

Whitewater's new one is Bullrush, a straightforward clean amber lager, dark gold with a fascinating smoky aroma. It's only 4% ABV and represents very light easy drinking. The corny grain character puts me in mind of the cream ale style. One for quaffing, not sitting over, anyway. And they've returned to the log books to resurrect Bee's Endeavour, a honey ale of years gone by. It's a beautiful liquid gold colour with a bohemian golden syrup quality to the taste. The honey hovers subtly in the background.

For a bigger honey kick the one to go for was Belgian Connection, produced at JW Sweetman in collaboration with Carlow Brewing. It's intended as a dubbel and is appropriately dark brown, though is a little light on its feet at 6.3% ABV. The banana esters loom large in the aroma and though the texture is as thin for a dubbel as the ABV might suggest, there's no lacking of complexity or intensity in the flavour: massive honey, for one thing; some incense spicing and a powerful sweetness that triggered pineapple syrup in my flavour analogy bank. Strange and unique, but quite delicious. Carlow also had O'Hara's Barley Wine on the bar, packing a bit more heft at 7.2% ABV. I guess we're spoiled by American barley wines these days because this is a perfectly good beer which left me asking where the hops are. Wheaty grains are the centre of it with a little bit of roast, but otherwise it's simple, malt-forward and warming. Retro barley wine, if you will.

All of which brings us down to the elder statesman in the house: Hilden Brewing. It was great to see Seamus himself at the pumps for a while. New to the range is a keg session stout, well put together with loads of super sweet chocolate and a very slight sour lactic finish. I suspect this may be the final one of the College Green range to be incorporated into the main Hilden brand: a rebadge of Molly's Chocolate Stout. Still, it would be no harm to see it out and about a bit more. Meanwhile on the cask engines, the newbie offered nothing more of a description than Hilden Number 4. It's a dark amber ale of 4.4% ABV and fantastically smooth. There's a big hit of chocolate and lots of sweet nutty marzipan too, combining into a kind of mozartkugel effect. I loved it, its moreish sweet dark malts reminding me of the first time I met Clotworthy Dobbin. Hilden Number 4 takes the prize for my beer of the festival weekend.

And after that my liver and my feet took a well-earned break, but normal service will resume here on Monday.

18 September 2013

For a limited time only

As well as meeting new beers and breweries, the other thing the Irish Craft Beer Festival is good for is the festival one-offs. With a captive market of 10,000 people and two of the four days being over 12 hours of pouring (officially -- staff afters ran into the medium-to-large hours a couple of times), it presents the perfect opportunity to throw together a special small-run batch to fill out the taps on your portable bar.

Dungarvan can always be relied upon for this kind of thing, dry-hopping or oaking the standard range and then offering a rotating sequence of one-offs on the other handpumps. You'd need to be some kind of maniac to have been at the festival all four days to catch all six of them. I was told the IPA was a re-run of the excellent one they did last year, so just the five for me.

We'll get the Session DIPA out of the way first. A neat idea: Simon wanted something big and hoppy he could drink all day, so a 3.9% ABV pale ale at 60 IBUs was born. Sadly, the execution didn't live up to the concept: while there's a hint of orange skin bitterness showing what it could have been, the rest is astringent and bleachy. Ah well. That's why the Good Lord made pilot breweries. Dungarvan Saison was my first beer on the first day. It suffered a bit from the warmth of the cask but was otherwise spot-on: nicely spicy with a dash of tangerine and an overarching refreshing tartness. The first argument I've tasted in favour of Dungarvan doing the occasional keg. The Wit IPA -- quite the fashion these days, I believe -- reminded me of the Hopfenweisse genre, and Franciscan Well's example in particular. It's weightily textured with major banana flavours but then jumps unexpectedly sideways to a sudden hop sharpness. A very pleasant glass of misdirection.

There was a lot going on in Dungarvan Amber Ale, especially impressive at just 3.9% ABV. I got spices to the fore, and unctuous oily incense in particular. This is balanced against dry tannins, plus a little diacetyl butteriness. Last year the Rye Pale Ale was developed into Mahon Falls and the Amber Ale would be my candidate recipe for further development this year. The beer I was most looking forward to, though, was Dungarvan Mild. I've never met an Irish mild before and this didn't disappoint: 3.8% ABV with a sizeable chocolate element and finishing on a gently green hop note. Simple, elegant and very drinkable. I don't want this as a festival novelty: I want it in my local every day.

The other brewery that really pushed the boat out (wait, wait: you'll see what I did there) as regards festival specials was White Gypsy. They had a genre-spanning set of four grouped under the heading "A River Runs Through It", each named for a waterway (Aha! See?) appropriate to the style. They even printed an explanatory leaflet. There was a Belgian blonde ale called Semoy: just 4.5% ABV but tasting like much more, with huge heavy banana esters up front and enough carbonation to balance it with a dry carbonic quality. Some light white pepper and hop-induced celery seasons it, and the whole is set on a lightly chalky mineral base. A lot going on considering its modest strength. I left it late to try the Danube Vienna lager, though Aoife told me it was the biggest seller at the bar. It's the appropriate shade of red amber but a little too sweet for my liking: I'd have liked more of a lagery cleanness and maybe a smidge more hopping.

I heard few good words about the English-style bitter Trent, of which Jamie pulled me a half early on Friday afternoon and I tasted on a clean palate, but I really liked it. It poured a hazy gold and smelled sulphourously Burtonish. This sat next to an assertive waxy oily bitterness which coated my palate and left me still tasting it as I wandered around the hall with an empty glass looking for my next drink. The nearest thing to that punchy bitterness I've encountered was in the likes of Timothy Taylor's Landlord. Gota Baltic Porter was the last of the set, billed as a tribute to Carnegie Porter, though even lower of ABV at 4.8%. This comes through in the texture as it's quite light-bodied for the style, though with the appropriate amount of liquorice and coffee. Its dryness lends it an air of schwarzbier, but really it's just a tasty black lager and it's best not to dwell on the specifics of style.

The beer I probably heard most about in dispatches was Eight Degrees's Amber Ella, a warm-fermented successor to last year's show-stopper Ochtoberfest. It's a similarly luxurious dark amber colour and has a heady peach/plum aroma. We swap lager lightness of touch for an aley full body and the flavour is all tangerine tang with a lacing of sharper pine resin. Just like the Ochtoberfest I'd expect this to sell out fast when it appears in bottles.

We conclude this tour at the Trouble Brewing stand. The headline here was Ormeau Dark, third in a sequence of homebrew competition winners scaled up to commercial level. Technically it's an oatmeal stout: a style I've never been much of a cheerleader for but this captures all the smoothness of oatmeal with none of the putty flavour I tend to dislike. The hopping is very generous giving it an air of urinal cake on the nose but transforming into a gorgeous combination of dark fruit, marzipan and rosewater on tasting, plus some lovely creamy chocolate. The other headline was a collaboration Trouble did with Galway Hooker. Sadly they couldn't find a better name for the result than Troubled Hooker. It's a 6.3% ABV pale ale and a deep orange in colour. Bitterness is relatively low and instead the hops contribute a sweet and perfumey character. Combined with the heavy texture it narrowly avoids soupiness. Interesting as a festival one-off experiment but nobody's go-to beer. Lastly there was Kill Lager: not strictly speaking a Trouble beer as it's brewed for, and by, Dublin's Dice Bar on the Trouble kit and normally badged as "Sparta Pils". It's pale gold and lacks much by way of malt or hops, dominated instead by a major apple flavour. Acetaldehyde? Maybe, but I wouldn't count it as an off-flavour: it's actually quite refreshing in this.

That's it for this round of the festival floor, but if you fancy making a bit of cash while helping the Trouble guys make more beer, you can do that here.

16 September 2013

Start-ups and upstarts

Once more, early September brought the biggest showcase of Irish craft beer and cider to Dublin, with the third annual festival at the RDS. For 2013 the gig expanded to four days and incorporated a number of new arrivals and returnees to the main floor.

One brewery was making its official début: Brú, from Trim in Co. Meath. So new are they that their lager recipe is still in development so instead of an officially badged version, they had two "experiments". Experiment X is the result of a cooling failure on a conditioning vessel. The end result isn't the clean crisp lager they wanted but, in true homebrew style, they reckoned there might be a market for it so slapped a badge on the tap and brought it along, with its superhero like origin story. They were right to do so by the sounds of things as it was quite popular among those who care little for brewing technicalities. Massive butterscotch flavours, of course, but the hop bite isn't completely lost and peeps out pleasantly from behind. Not the sort of 4% ABV lager you'd scull pints of, but far from undrinkable by the half pint.  Experiment Y, also 4% ABV is much more on the money: a big grassy aroma balanced by some properly Teutonic bready flavours and a decently full texture. It's unchallenging but balanced and quite drinkable.

From the more conventionally warm-fermented side of the house there was Brú Stout (later renamed "Dubh"), a sweet and creamy 4.2% ABV sessioner that's bigger on the chocolate than most Irish stouts, but the star of the show was Brú Rua: an evolved Irish red. It looks like a normal enough Irish red, and the nitro serve does little to dispel this, but while the backbone is conventional caramel and red berry it's overlaid with some much more progressive new world hop flavours: juicy peach and tangerine. In fact, if this was being passed off as an American-style amber ale I wouldn't have blinked. That this is being passed off as Irish red delights me. Please let it me the next phase of development for this tired style. Might be an idea to drop the nitro though, eh?

The second-youngest brand at the festival was Black's, still with just the Kinsale Pale Ale I mentioned the other week. To keep things interesting, the brewery had set up a randall and was getting through several different hop varieties each day. I stopped by when it was Galaxy's turn and found it added a lovely fruit softness to the aroma, though leaving the flavour largely as-was. Randalls look set to be the Next Big Thing in Irish beer, having been acquired by a number of specialist beer pubs. I can't help but feel that running already-hoppy beers through them is missing the point. Kinsale Pale Ale is not the sort of beer that needs punching-up. Attach it to the Smithwick's tap and we might be on to something.

Eight Degrees stablemate (for now) Mountain Man was using the festival to launch its second beer: a 4.5% ABV IPA called Hairy Goat. I liked it a lot, but that's largely because I found it incredibly similar to their first beer, Green Bullet. It has the same dry spiciness and the same light and sessionable lawnmower beer texture. To be honest I'm not sure whether this counts as a criticism or not.

Also launching its second permanent beer was Offaly's Bo Bristle brewery. Bo Bristle Amber Ale is 4.5% ABV and served bottled. It pours a lurid Lucozade orange and presents candy sugar up front followed by some strange spicy-sweetness complexities, like old fashioned confectionery: humbugs, clove rock and popping candy. I was quite taken with it and will be on the lookout to try this again. Bo Bristle's third beer was a festival special, dubbed an American Brown Ale by the pretty improvised signage. This is 6.2% ABV and starts with a brown-porter-like coffee effect. So far so brown, but then there's a sudden grapefruit pithyness showing off its American style credentials. I don't think it offers full value for the high strength but enjoyable nonetheless.

One of my festival highlights was catching up with Rick from Kinnegar Brewing. I had been following with great interest his brewery's expansion and am looking forward to seeing a lot more of it out on the market. The move from essentially commercial homebrewing to a near national brand in the space of a few years is nothing short of inspirational. I was long overdue a taste of his 4.7% ABV pale ale Lime Burner. Despite the style designation there are some serious German credentials here, the beer having been brewed with Hallertauer Mittelfrüh hops and fermented by a Kölsch yeast strain. It came from the tap a cloudy shade of blonde with a slight sourness on the nose and a touch of smoky phenols. The hops give it a mildly vegetal celery note. Above all, though, it's light simple and refreshing. It's bigger brother is Scraggy Bay IPA: 5.3% ABV and with much more front. Orange candy and sherbet start it off sweet but there's a significant bitter kick on the end, that greenness showing itself again, only more so.

Those were the brand new brewers. Next we'll take a look at some of the special beers produced for the festival.

12 September 2013

Et tuatara?

Beer from New Zealand today, a country I visited back in 2006, narrowly missing the craft beer boom it has experienced in more recent years. These three are from Tuatara, a brewery not far from Wellington, named after New Zealand's indigenous, and rather fascinating, throwback reptile species.

First up is Aotearoa Pale Ale and yes I see what they've done there -- the same way our local brewers put "Irish Pale Ale" on labels because of the initials. Mind you, the description makes it clear that Aotearoa is where it's at with hops these days so there's no reason to suppose this is second rate. It's a bright Lucozade orange with a gorgeous grass and candy nose. The flavour is a little muted, suggesting it may be past its best, but what's there is good: a satisfyingly astringent bitterness, unfolding into grapefruit, pine and lemon pith set against just the right amount of light toffee. I'd like a bit more at 5.8% ABV, but this still works.

Tuatara London Porter proudly proclaims it is "brewed locally" which is a bit daft. What beer isn't? Lots of foam on pouring, and a stiff ice cream float head. CO2 is the main feature, bouncing about the palate with its dry metallic edge. Looking closer there's some lovely complexities: turkish delight and milk chocolate, but also a saccharine tang that spoils it a little. Even with the fizz mostly let out the finish is still dry, though mostly from the dark roasted grain this time. This hits a lot of the fruit and chocolate points of first rate porter but the fizz is unforgivable. You have to make an effort to like it.

And it's once more unto the hops for Tuatara IPA, dark orange and brewed apparently in the English style. Quite a bit of toffee on the nose, suggesting points significantly west of GB. A touch of orange sherbet and more of that bitter metal. I can sort of see how they're approaching English IPA, but it's nothing like one, lacking the lightness of touch and overdoing the sharp bitterness. The toffee actually saves this, turning it into something resembling a half decent American-style amber ale.

A fairly solid set, overall, though no surprises that the kiwis work best when they work with hops in quantity.

09 September 2013

Crowd sauce

The Brown Paper Bag Project went viral with the launch of their new beer a couple of weeks ago, releasing it anonymously and under wraps ahead of a simultaneous Twitter-based blind tasting. This is the third from the Dublin-based gypsy brewing operation, following the Belgian-style dark ale and the English brown ale, both, putting a unique spin on their respective genres. The only clue on picking up the bottle was the dense cloudiness of the beer apparent through the glass. My first thought was that we're most likely back in Belgium again.

Tasting day rolled around and the Belgian theory held up well when the beer was poured: masses of foam over a hazy orange body and an intense fizz from the bottle conditioning. The aroma is very yeast-driven, offering the signature spice and funk of a Belgian blonde or pale ale, with exciting lime marmalade and ripe peach overtones from the hops.

Unfortunately the hops go a bit AWOL on tasting. For one thing it takes a lot of work to get past the intense prickly fizz. Some vigorous swirling was required to knock the gas out and offset some of the extreme dryness that is the beer's opening gambit. Behind this there's definitely still a strong citrus presence but also a beautiful dose of tannins, the sort you get in quality English bitter, enhanced by a big chewy mouthfeel. After swallowing there's a delicious lingering orange oil flavour.

The brewers gradually disclosed the details of its production: pale malt, Vienna and wheat in the grain bill; hopped with Magnum and Amarillo to 38 IBUs plus Cascade dry; and the big shock for me is that a neutral American ale yeast was used. It is unmistakably Belgian, something I had always marked down 100% down to the yeast used. Brewer Brian explained that it's standard practice in Belgium -- where this was indeed brewed -- to condition bottled beer in a "warme kamer" at 25°C, to bring out that fruity funk. You live and learn.

And finally the big reveal, introducing Doxie to the world. A trifling 5.4% ABV but tasting much stronger to me. It's also badged as a "Blonde Wheat Ale" which isn't terribly informative and does nothing to express the complexity of what's inside the bottle. It's also a bit of a stretch to call it a blonde. "Belgian Pale Ale" would be my recommended designation, not a million miles from the likes of De Ranke XX Bitter, as observed by Richard on the night.

This is the first time I've said I think a Brown Paper Bag Project product needed more hops but I would really like to see the lighter fruit notes brought out more in this. Perhaps the draught version carries it off better. Still, a damn interesting beer, as we've come to expect from the brand.

06 September 2013

Picking sides

Last week I wrote about the Alltech Gathering held in Dublin in July, mentioning some of the internationally sourced beers they had available. I'm bringing us back to the press room for this month's Session which is hosted by Ding and is on the subject of USA vs. Old World beer culture.

There was a handful of American beers knocking around, and quite a few British ones as well. So I thought why not use them as a cross section of their respective brewing cultures and see how they measure up against each other?

Two particular American heavyweights came out of the fridge early -- an unspoken agreement among the assembled leeches and liggers that these ones weren't going to last long anyway. One was Stone's Old Guardian, an 11.6% ABV barley wine which shows the perfect balance-in-extremis that the San Diego brewery pulls off so effortlessly. Yes there's a certain sherryish heat to it, but not too much, and the heavy toffee tones remain smooth, soft and welcoming, not sticky. In amongst the cuddlesome malt there's a gorgeous herbal honey hop character, rising to an assertive, but exquisitely balanced bitterness. A class act from start to finish. Next to it, an IPA from Indiana legends Three Floyds. Blackbeard is created in the English style, they say, then oaked. I can just about detect the orange marmalade of pithy British hops but it's buried under a horrible plasticky sap flavour from the wood. It doesn't cohere as a recipe, isn't nice to drink and is a long way from tasting like any English IPA I've met.

We have to go downstairs to find what the Brits were up to with their pale malt and hops, and one that really impressed me was Sambrooks Pale Ale. I had previously associated this London brewery with reliable but not very exciting English styles, but this 4.5% ABV pale ale is bursting with sweet juicy mandarin and denser bitter jaffa notes. The complexity is topped by effervescent sherbet and spices, and all this through the application of local hops such as Admiral and First Gold. It takes a lot to impress an Irish beer geek with a 4.x% kegged pale ale -- we're swimming in the stuff over here -- but this multifaceted sessioner definitely stood out for me. I was less sure about Great Heck's Yakima IPA. This is 7.4% ABV but hides it well. It's one of those beers I had to take a walk around before knowing what to make of it. On first approach it smacked me with a sharp, funky and slightly musty flavour that took quite a bit of getting used too. I was most of the way through my half before my palate adjusted to it properly and after that it became more enjoyable. At the end I was still left with that mustiness, unsure whether to count it as a bug or a feature. I don't think I'd be running to this one again.

Back in the American camp, another strength-hiding IPA was Boulder's Mojo. 7.2% ABV this time, with quite an understated flavour, compared to the Great Heck beer anyway. There's the right amount of bitter kick and some beautiful smooth fresh peach flavours playing the good cop. The lack of heavy toffee in an American IPA is both literally and figuratively refreshing. A different kind of refreshing was offered by Abita's Purple Haze: a thin pinkish lager with a pleasant raspberry bite, but not a whole lot else to say for itself.

It still had the beatings of the UK's representative lager, though. Windsor & Eton Republika has won a number of plaudits lately but it just didn't work for me on the day, being heavy and sticky with a candy-sweet aroma followed by bananas in the flavour. Cleanness just doesn't feature.

Aha! So the UK is falling down on the refreshment front? Not so. We roll out the quenching big guns with Origin, a saison brewed as part of a side project at Stewart Brewing in Edinburgh. Masses of the exotic spicy mandarin notes I love in pretty much any beer (Galaxy, you beauty), but coupled with the light tartness and tickly prickle of a saison. I only had a taste but I could have handled a lot more.

Oh but America can do saisons too, albeit with a Belgian-owned brewery flying the flag: Ommegang and their Hennepin. It has a couple of ABV points on the Origin, at 7.7% ABV, pouring a wan cloudy yellow. The refreshing crispness I look for in this style is totally absent and instead there's lots of weissbierish banana fruit and a very obvious heat from the alcohol. We can safely award the saison contest to the Scots.

But we stay with Ommegang while we turn the lights down for the dark beers. Three Philosophers is a 9.7% ABV quadrupel, dark red and every bit as fruitsome and boozy as you might expect: plum, fig, some chocolate, but nothing that really struck me as different or interesting for this kind of strong Belgian-style ale. Founder's Porter was another that didn't exactly rock the style but it was highly enjoyable, laying on heavy liquorice and molasses to begin with, but finishing lighter and not sticky. That full-but-drinkable is always worth a few points when it's pulled off well.

Britain's sole contribution to the dark styles was Thornbridge's Wild Raven: a black IPA aged on brett. Yawn -- pointlessly piling hipster affectation on hipster affectation, with no real benefit to the drinker, right? Wrong! It hangs together beautifully, to the point where the brett funk is barely noticeable ('cos it's not there -- see comments), allowing the hops free rein. The aroma is a blast of fresh mown grass; the flavour a biting pithy bitterness. All this happens on a gorgeous creamy stoutlike texture. Textbook complexity, exquisite balance. I found the bottled form to be tough drinking bottled, but much easier on keg.

Despite the weight of numbers being against it, I think the UK wins out on this showing, but only by outdoing the New World on things that the New World is known for: big flavours, odd concoctions and non-traditional dispense methods. When the Americans tried to ape and improve upon native European styles, like saison or bitter, they just didn't achieve the right sort of effect, barley wine being a notable exception, of course.

Props go out to the US for encouraging more radical thinking when it comes to beer, but this random sample showed the British being better at putting it into practice.

Thanks once again to the Alltech team for assembling such a diverse selection and providing the opportunity to taste them.

04 September 2013

The local news

Irish Craft Beer Week rumbles onwards, leading us to the final destination of the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival, kicking off in the RDS tomorrow afternoon and running through to Sunday. The beer list is exciting and intriguing in equal measure, with lots of new beers to tick so I've been doing my very best to get to as many as possible beforehand.

As usual, the Bull & Castle has been doing sterling work in this department of late and is still my routine destination for new stuff from Irish micros. Although that said it seems like a lot -- a hell of a lot -- of new Irish beer is coming from the one plant: 8 Degrees in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork. So with great fanfare last month we had the Dublin launch of Kinsale Pale Ale. Sam Black is in the process of setting up his own operation, with premises acquired and building under way. If you fancy getting involved in his project you can join in with his crowd funding effort on IndieGoGo. Meanwhile, he's brewing at 8 Degrees, though very much his own recipe.

It's safe to say Sam is comfortable around hops. Kinsale Pale Ale is a 5% ABV symphony in Citra. I wasn't all that impressed with the bottled version when I tried it at the Alltech Gathering -- and that's a bit of a theme with 8 Degrees beers for me: the bottles are very often duller versions of the draught, sometimes downright wonky -- but on keg it was powerfully flavoured, perhaps even a little too much for my taste. Masses of pine resin and freshly chopped mixed herbs form the vanguard; a little bit of the medicine cupboard and a little of the urinal cake. Once my palate adjusted -- which is why it really deserves to be served by the pint rather than the 33cl bottle -- it opened out into a more nuanced peach and pineapple experience, much more my sort of thing. I'm sure it'll change once production moves to Kinsale, but this first effort show that Sam knows what he's about and wants to keep the hopheads happy.

The Dublin-based 8 Degrees contractee is Five Lamps, who came out of the traps last year with a fairly plain but acceptable golden lager. The boat remains unrocked by their follow-up, Liberties Ale. In stark contrast to the super-sweet Sweetman's red reviewed on Monday, this is very dry, with an almost stoutlike roastiness going on. It reminded me quite a bit of the excellent Traditional Irish Red that Carlow brewing used to make for Aldi, though I've yet to find anyone who agrees with me on that observation. This swings a bit too far in the oppo