11 November 2013

Let this be a lesson to you

Back in the old days, Irish beer consisted of lager, stout and red ale. In the early days of Irish microbrewing you might have got a wheat beer instead of a lager in there, for those who had travelled to exotic places where beer was cloudy, and besides: lager is difficult. We were so hopeful when pale ale came along and suddenly there was a heretical alternative to the Holy Trinity. Praise be! Alas it seems to have been a bit of a false dawn and all that's happening with many new Irish breweries is the replacing of the lager/wheat beer with pale ale. The Holy Trinity becomes the Hoppy Trinity and we all line up as before (I should add this isn't true for all Irish breweries by any means, but it's a worrying trend for the newest ones who have things much easier in terms their market's willingness to try unusual things).

The thing is, these aren't necessarily bad styles by any means. I thought it would be fun to present an alternative rendering of them, from a real actual brewery somewhere else. And as it turned out, a recent set of releases from Sierra Nevada provided just the perspective I was after.

The stout first, and this is Narwhal: 10.2% ABV so not exactly one for a session of pints. But although it's unctuously thick it's no palate pounder. The aroma is a mild tarriness overlaid with a pinch of alcoholic heat, and that booze is the first thing to leap out of the flavour, and burn down the throat in fact, so forget about chugging it. After this there's a velvety dark chocolate smoothness and a certain woody spiritousness -- whiskey or brandy -- though there's nothing to indicate it's barrel aged. The hops finish the performance with a vegetal, shading to metallic, tang on the end. Not by any means the most deeply complex imperial stout I've ever met, but a damn fine one.

To the red next: Flipside, a modest 6.2% ABV and badged as a "red IPA". It pours out a clear shade of cherrywood and smells a little cheesy, like elderly hops. The texture is light and breezy with an assertive prickly fizz and the flavour is hop dominated but they're far from cheesy here: bitter lime and grapefruit for starters, settling to an earthy orange pith and a bit of weedy dank. I'd like some lighter fruit notes, but I'm not complaining. Above all the hops here taste fresh, in a way that beers that come to us over a fraction of the distance rarely seem to. What's with that? It's not a pale ale in disguise, incidentally: the dark malts add a richness and some very light toast. So proper red ale. The day something like this comes out of the tap as a new Irish red I will be very happy.

We finish with the pale ale, called simply Beer Camp IPA, produced as part of the brewery's annual experimental set of beers. It's a bright gold colour with just a very slight haze. The strength is a smidge higher than Flipside at 6.9% ABV. Another slightly elderly hop smell from this: a bit stale or oxidised. There's an interesting interaction in the flavour: although the hops are Cascade and Centennial they impart a very old world waxiness at the start then disappear to be replaced by the malt sweetness, and biscuits and hard candy. The two interact to make a kind of heavy perfume effect that I'm not a fan of. We get better pale ales than this from our local breweries.

So the IPA was a washout, and they're all a good bit stronger than normal for Irish beers, something I don't suggest changing, but the depth and richness of the stout and the banging fresh hops in the red are things that any brewer would do well to analyse with a view to ripping them off. In the interests of the customer. Me.

4 comments:

  1. I'd heard about the Narwhal being less than palate-wrecking, but I still can't wait to try it. The Flipside was the only Sierra Nevada I had to leave out on my last beer run, with those Beer Camps (not to mention the Narwhal) really making a hefty bill...

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    1. The other Beer Camps just didn't appeal so I decided to leave them, for now at least.

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  2. Random observation about strengths: I wonder if part of the difference between the US on one hand and Ireland & Britain on the other is down to "serving size", as they say in the catering industry. The default US definition of "a beer" seems to be a 12 US ounce bottle (355 ml) rather than an imperial pint glass (568 ml). If the amount of alcohol people want to get from "one beer" were constant (which is a big if, admittedly), then the 12-oz-bottle equivalent of a 4% pint wouldn't be 4%, it'd be 6.3%. And so on up and down - 'session strength' would be 5.5%, not 3.5%; 'strong' would be 9%, not 6%; 'loopy juice, approach with caution' would be 12%, not 8%... Course, some US craft brewers then go and spoil it all by putting their rocket fuel in bombers (bigger than a pint) and growlers (bigger than anyone could realistically want), but that just shows that craft brewers are crazy.

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    1. Possibly. Though I'm sure the way at least some states don't tie taxation to ABV has something to do with it as well.

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