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 Welling