30 December 2013

Time gentlemen

It's hard to believe we're already on year five of Messrs Mogg and Dredge's annual round-robin beer awards thingy, The Golden Pints. As with all regular awards programmes, it's hard work striking a balance between the same parties getting the nod every year and the pass-the-parcel effect where taking the gold is just a matter of waiting until everyone else has already had it. In past years I've tried to avoid these pitfalls but it has reached the point where it's making the whole thing awkward, so for 2013 I'm paying no attention at all to what has gone before and writing down my gut instinct answers to this year's categories.

To assist me in composing my justifications for each winner I'm joined by a large bottle of Kerkom Winterkoninkske, which has been sitting in my stash for a couple of  years now, awaiting its moment to shine. At 13% ABV it's strictly for the darkest depths of winter, and the stiff rubber cork really makes you work for your beer. When I eventually got it open, what poured out is a flat and slightly syrupy-looking dense black beer, briefly forming a loose head which disappears before I can even raise the glass. There's a savoury, autolytic quality to the aroma: the teriyaki glaze effect familiar to fans of Samuel Adams Triple Bock. It's all about chocolate in the flavour, of the top-notch milk variety, accentuated by the silky smooth texture. There's alcoholic heat and no rough edges at all, just a tiny metallic ping from a molasses taste at the finish. For all its strength and sophisticated presentation it's not actually all that complex, but it's just the liqueur substitute I'm after for some end-of-year musings.

The Golden Pint Awards 2013

Best Irish Cask Beer: Moonbeam.
A tough one to kick off. I loved Hilden Number Four when I found it at the Irish Craft Beer & Cider Festival: it's a beer that showcases the richness and depth of flavour that comes with cask dispense. But then so does Moonbeam, and this dark ale by Metalman does it with hops too. Ordering a repeat pint at the Bull & Castle is a rarity for me, but sinkable Moonbeam made me do it, so is my Irish cask choice for 2013.

Best Irish Keg Beer: Of Foam and Fury
Well duh! Galway Bay's 8.5% ABV hop explosion is the beer everyone's been talking about, because it's the beer everyone's been waiting for. I've just got over the novelty at this stage and am actually able to order other things in Galway Bay pubs, but it was a real desert island job for a while there: all the complex subtlety and all the loud brashness you need from a beer, in a single glass.

Best Irish Bottled or Canned Beer: Amber Ella
This pale ale from Eight Degrees impressed at the ICBCF in September when it made its draught début but I didn't go chasing the bottled version until it popped up on special at 57 The Headline. All that mango and mandarin  freshness is still present in the bottle and makes for a magnificently invigorating zing-filled experience.

Best Overseas Draught Beer: Edelstoff
A big shout-out for Sharp's Panzerfaust here, which quietly appeared at the Franciscan Well Easter Beer Festival but hasn't been seen since, alas. But while that's a fun novelty, my top foreign draught experience this year was an old favourite: the inhaleably smooth Edelstoff at the Augustiner Keller in Munich last March. Great beer enhanced by excellent company in wonderful surrounds.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer: Quetsche
Having missed it at the Zythos beer festival I was overjoyed to find Tilquin's plum lambic afterwards in Moeder Lambic Fontainas. The way it stimulates one's salivary glands to create a genuine taste explosion brought me back to my early lambic experiences and a reminder of why this sort of beer is for me. That it's the dearest beer I've ever had (€30 a 75cl bottle) is neither here or there.

Best Collaboration Brew: Adnams Supremely Self-Conscious
This was also a contender for Best Overseas Draught, though it's hard to do any sort of meaningful comparison between it and Edelstoff. A session-strength dark ale brewed at Adnams in collaboration with Stone and served at JD Wetherspoon in the autumn. Crazily hoppy yet exceptionally drinkable, Moonbeam turned up to 11; a masterpiece.

Best Overall Beer: Quetsche
Flavour, aroma and texture are all well and good, but for its sheer physiological impact, my favourite beer of 2013 was Tilquin Quetsche.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label: Otterbank Brewing
I was about to troop after everyone else who nominated Partizan -- their graphics are endlessly entertaining -- but a late Irish entrant shades it for me. This Golden Pint goes to new gypsy brewing operation Otterbank, and their all-business mascot, designed by Twisted Doodles (aka Maria). I wear ties that way too.

Best Irish Brewery: Eight Degrees
Where output, innovation and distribution are concerned, Eight Degrees were first rate this year, and the quality of their products was pretty damn good too. Putting out three simultaneous winter seasonals was a ballsy move, and that deserves credit.

Best Overseas Brewery: The Kernel
2013 was the year I finally "got" hoppy Kernel beer. I don't know if they just happened to be using varieties I like when I drank them, or if it's personal lupulin threshold shift going on, but I really enjoyed the Kernel IPAs I had this year; their dark beers are as consistently brilliant as always; and then there's London Sour.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013: JW Sweetman
Technically I think this was a late 2012 opening, but it was definitely 2013 when Dublin's one and only brewpub made its presence felt. First and foremost, the product quality under brewmaster Rob has been exceptional. In a Dublin pub scene where prices appear to be spiralling insanely upwards it offers easily the best value around. And there's a real sense that the serving staff actually give a shit about the product, which was rarely the case in its previous incarnation. So three cheers for Barry, Dave, Rob and all the team at JWS, and somebody please steal their business model: Dublin needs at least three more of these.

Pub/Bar of the Year: The Bull & Castle
There are many contenders for this, but I can't go past the Bull & Castle. Literally, in fact. The range of Irish beers and the turnover of specials and seasonals has been phenomenal. It remains the best venue to get a handle on what's happening on the national scene.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013: 57 The Headline
And hot on the B&C's heels is Geoff's new venture on Leonard's Corner. A solid core of quality beers plus ample space given over to rotationals, with a suburban local feel which is conveniently in my end of town. Having only opened in October it's still finding its feet so we can expect the offer to improve even further in 2014.

Best City for Beer in Ireland: Kilkenny
Yes, I'm overlooking Dublin, Cork and Belfast -- all of which I enjoyed drinking in this year. But the most fun was a summer weekend in the Marble City, centred on the fabulous Brewery Corner pub.

Beer Festival of the Year: Borefts
BräuKunst Live! in Munich was certainly educational, but my other half didn't attend, which immediately means it wasn't as enjoyable as it could have been. Borefts, then, takes the prize for beer quality, atmosphere and company -- plus a greatly enhanced food offer this year.

Supermarket of the Year: Fresh, Smithfield Square, Dublin 7
They accidentally underpriced a shipment of Moor beers this year, and Alex didn't manage to snaffle all of them before I got in.

Independent Retailer of the Year: DrinkStore
I actually have to make a concerted, conscious effort to go to other off licences now. DrinkStore is there, and has everything. Job done. They're the reason I'm not giving out a Golden Pint for online retailer of the year, and if I were they'd probably get that too.

Best Beer Book or Magazine: None
Books? Sure haven't we the Internet?

Best Beer Blog or Website: Zak Avery.
Because this.

Best Beer App: Janetter
It's just a general-purpose Twitter client, but it has a mute-by-app function which means I can switch off other people's Untappd updates. This has massively enhanced the quality of my Twitter experience.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer: @Thirsty_Pilgrim
So many great Twitterers out there, local and international, but I'm a particular fan of the window on the world of beer revealed by Joe.

Best Brewery Website/Social media: Galway Bay Brewery
A slick new website, and regular Twitter updates from both owner and head brewer. Real engagement too -- not just an endless retweeting of praise. If your business Twitter account is in the habit of retweeting other people saying nice things about you: Fucking. Stop.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year: Bourbon Barrel Ale with Bellingham Blue
The beer's pretty poor and the massive sweet oak totally overpowered the excellent steak it was supposed to be paired with at Alltech's reception launching their festival next February. But the acidity of the cheese really put manners on it.

A big thanks to everyone who nominated me for Golden Pints. There'll be more drinking beers and then writing down what they taste like next year.

26 December 2013

The Four Pubs and One Offie of Christmas

The 2013 amateur drinking season has been somewhat ameliorated by the arrival of some new seasonal Irish beers. Only one of them has gone all-out Christmassy in its branding, and that's St Cuilan's Christmas Ale by White Gypsy. It is left to the drinker to decide whether this 8% ABV Belgian-style warmer is named after the 7th century founder of Glenkeen monastery, or its brewer the beatific Mr Loughnane. The name is recycled, having previously been used by White Gypsy Ruby at the family pub. Anyway: bananas. Big bananas, ripe bananas, sweet bananas are what characterise this beer. There's no mistaking the strength either: these are warm bananas too. Behind them you'll find some brown sugar and a little manadrin zest. Plain fare, all in all, but clean and not a spiced-up mess.

Recently arrived at JW Sweetman is the 4.6% ABV Sorachi Zuki. Aren't Sorachi Ace hops more of a summer thing? Not really, I was surprised to discover. This is a dark beer, for one thing: almost black. Its aroma is toasty and crisp, like a plain porter or dark ale and the generous addition of coconut means there's a kind of macaroon biscuit opening to the flavour. This is quickly followed by a wall of hops: a wave of pine bitterness first, settling to the signature orange and lemon taste from the Sorachi Ace. As with the St Cuilan, it manages to be festive without any cinnamon sickliness, calling to mind more old fashioned Christmas fare: nuts and satsumas. Err... and coconuts. Anyway, fans of Sorachi Ace will enjoy it; and there's enough other stuff happening for sceptics of the Japanese variety to like it too.

The wintery themes end here, in favour of good quality year-round beer that just happens to have been released recently. Like Farami, a strong coffee and vanilla oatmeal stout produced at the Brú Brewery by Otterbank, a new gypsy brewing operation. I found it on tap at 57 The Headline. The name comes from the type of coffee used, carefully chosen with the assistance of experts at Dublin's top coffee hole 3FE, and it's present in a big way, with the cherry complexity from the coffee actually coming out in the beer. There's even a hint of quality custard from the vanilla as well. 6% ABV and you get the full benefit of that: a massively rich and silky body and beautifully warming. It does a lot of the things that Carlow's excellent Leann Folláin does, but is that bit more complex. A magnificent début.

Sticking with the gypsies, Stone Barrel released their second beer -- the first to be brewed in Ireland -- at WJ Kavanagh's last weekend. C No Evil is a 5% ABV pale ale brewed with Cascade, Centennial and Citra. They had been disappointed with the aroma element in their first beer, but there are no such reservations here: you can smell the pine and eucalyptus from this a mile off. The bitterness is huge and grapefruity, set on a low carbonation for a puckering sherbet effect. Just a tiny hint of digestive biscuit peeks through to make an effort at balance, but really this beer belongs to the American hops and is strictly for their fans.

We finish at home, with a bottle of the new one from The Porterhouse, acquired at DrinkStore. The Devil's Half Acre (a nickname for Dublin Castle) started as an 11% ABV double IPA, boosted by time in a Kilbeggan whiskey barrel to 13.5%, making it possibly the strongest Irish beer in recent years. It pours dark garnet with a healthy ivory head and smells of the world's best cough mixture: bright and sweet, intense unctuous raspberry and cherry. There's a definite wood character in the flavour, dark chocolate, rosewater, and all those cherries again. The ghost bitterness from the double IPA base is still in there in the finish, but the transformation to barrel aged barley wine is pretty much complete. Too hot and heavy to drink in quantity but up there with Thomas Hardy's Ale and Rochefort 10 in the complex strong beer stakes.

Something for everyone in that lot, I think. Unless you like boring beers, obviously.

23 December 2013

Atonement

I swiped these three from Hardknotts Dave and Ann when they were in Dublin last summer and I've been feeling guilty about them ever since. Not because of the theft, but because I haven't taken the time to drink them and they weren't getting any fresher in my fridge. So, by way of absolution...

Continuum is a 4% ABV session pale ale so immediately invites comparison with our native hoppy 4%er Green Bullet. This is a darker, heavier offering, and while Green Bullet is all pointy, spiky refreshment, this is mellower, with a bigger mouthfeel, lower carbonation (despite appearances) and a sweet juicy mandarin flavour at its core. There's a little bit of brown sugar and some slight pine resin at the finish. Only the limited complexity suggests the low strength: everything else you get in a stronger pale IPA is pretty much here. I didn't feel shortchanged by the 33cl bottle but would very happily sink a few pints of this.

Azimuth IPA is almost half as strong again but shows a wonderful lightness of touch. The aroma is all summer meadow grass and clover, and I detect an antipodean influence in the flavour: pineapple, mango and the like, with a waxy finish dragging us back to the old world. The drinkability is improved by a very slight sourness and some saisonesque pepperiness. Nothing heavy or sticky here, meaning it's possibly a bit dangerous in quantity. Overall a nicely zesty IPA and a great example of how British breweries are tinkering with the style.

The big guns come out last: Queboid at 8% ABV. While the previous two are on the fizzy side, this poured almost flat, the token foam dissipating quickly. My soupiness alarm began beeping. It's a dark shade of orange and smells of concentrated boiled sweets: an intense sugariness and just a hint of spices behind it. While it's certainly heavy and sweet it's not sticky, hot or especially difficult drinking. The texture is smooth and slick and I don't miss the carbonation at all. If anything it's a little understated for such a big beer: the hops provide only a hint of orange and there's none of the promised Belgian fruitiness; nor does the spice re-materialise. It's the first beer I've encountered that might be improved by a bit more heat or toffee.

The common factor with all these three is their approachability: they're simple beers but brewed from exceptional ingredients put together in interesting ways. It's a refreshing mid-point between tradition-following British beer and simply aping the Americans.

19 December 2013

Rule Bretagne

I've not had the best of luck with Breton beers, and the cartoony packaging of this mixed sixpack from La Coreffe in Carhaix had me expecting more murky crap. Best to get it over with.

I started with Coreff Blonde: very pale for the style, and quite weak too at just 4.2% ABV. There was a healthy layer of bright white foam on top as it poured, and quite a sweet perfume aroma but it's not at all a heavy beer. There's a light lageryness, with mild effervescence rather than proper fizz. Alongside the crispness sits a breezy violets-and-clover meadow quality. Not the sticky mess I anticipated and actually quite deftly put together.

La Blanche adds a touch of apprehension to this philosophy of cleanness, pouring a perfectly limpid yellow with masses of gas. While the fizz provides a certain dryness, this is much sweeter than the blonde and the floral flavour shades towards sickly. A mild pepperiness in the aroma is the only real nod towards witbier. It's not often that the ideal aperitif in a French line-up is the blonde, but that appears to be the case with Coreff.

Lastly, Coreff Ambrée pours quite flat and is a dark honey colour. The aroma is caramel and chocolate and it tastes like a good Irish red: toasted grain, brown sugar and a touch of treacle bitterness. Some nice milk chocolate starts to come through as it warms. Another one that there's nothing wrong with, but something a bit more interesting would be appreciated.

These are accomplished, experienced beers, showing a competence and confidence unusual in French artisan beer. I wouldn't object to them as my local fare.

Thanks to Pádraig for the bottles.

16 December 2013

Horses for courses

The Alltech beer and whiskey extravaganza will be returning to the Convention Centre in Dublin this February. The American multinational specialises in animal nutrition but runs a brewery and bourbon distillery on the side as pet projects of the owner Dr Lyons.

I wasn't much of a fan of the flagship bourbon barrel aged ale when I first encountered it last year: there's more than a hint of Innis & Gunn sickliness about it, so I was apprehensive when approaching its stablemates. Kentucky IPA is 6.5% ABV and a very slightly hazy orange-gold. The aroma is pithy with a hint of boiled sweets and the carbonation light and prickly. That candysugar flashes briefly at the start but an assertive bitterness swings in quickly behind it, sharp and mouthwatering, if a little metallic. There are notes of beeswax which make it seem more English than American, despite the strength, and while it lacks fruity freshness or hop complexity, I rather liked its straightforward, plain speaking bitter bite.

To accompany the barrel-aged ale, there's a Bourbon Barrel Stout too, also 8% ABV but this time the beer is robust enough to stand up to the spirit. Not that the two complement each other, just that the beer isn't ruined: what you get is a sticky sweet stout with lots of caramel plus a background buzz of woody bourbon and a pleasant alcoholic heat. I'm reminded a lot of the Innis & Gunn stout, one of the very few palateable beers they've made. This too is palateable but not a patch on the kind of barrel aged stouts produced by breweries of De Molen's calibre, for instance.

By way of disclaimer, both these beers were freebies at the July Alltech event and there was more corporate hospitality at the launch last week of the February event. Thanks once again to the Alltech crew for their generosity.

12 December 2013

The wild geese

As the Irish beer market continues to grow, it's inevitable that contract brewing forms a big part of it. Of the Irish breweries who facilitate other brands, Eight Degrees in Co. Cork and Hilden in Co. Antrim are probably the most prolific. A few brands have opted to look outside Ireland altogether, either for reasons of cost and convenience or to avail of the expertise abroad. I'm looking at two of those today.

Brown Paper Bag Project have been going a couple of years now and Trinity is their fourth beer, and the third to be brewed in Belgium. The 75cl bottle badges it a tripel, and it's appropriately strong and golden, though rather brighter and clearer than most tripels I've met, with lower carbonation: all points in its favour. The aroma is more about fresh tropical fruits than yeasty spices and it tastes distinctly of pineapple juice. There's almost none of the complex earthy murk one often finds in tripels, nor the alcoholic heat, nor the golden syrup sweetness. Only a hint of cereals, hop bitterness and a very light spiciness in the finish hints at the style. As a frivolous, fun, cartoon version of a tripel I loved it. It's the sort of thing that would set Brouwer Van Klomp's teeth on edge, however.

One of the newest brands around is Stone Barrel, based in Dublin though the first batch of the first beer was brewed in the UK. It's called Boom and is badged as a "session IPA". It's not just the modest 5% ABV which backs up this designation: the carbonation is low, adding to the drinkability, and the flavours are a little muted too. The brewers were somewhat disappointed in how it came out, wanting more late-hop impact from the Simcoe, but it's perfectly decent as-is: there's a kind of herbal green flavour in the middle, backed by light biscuit malt. On the Irish hoppy beer scale it falls somewhere north of Galway Hooker but beneath O'Hara's IPA. It's a good first effort and I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with next. Anything that gets more hops onto the Irish beer market is all right by me.

09 December 2013

Ten beers and four provinces

We're travelling the country but mostly staying in for this new Irish beer round-up. Galway Bay are, of course, an exception, with their Chinook Pale Ale arriving on keg in the tied pubs. From the swift half I had one idle half hour in Against the Grain, this -- the second runnings from Of Foam and Fury -- appears to be a bit of a rush job. It's disturbingly opaque, for one thing, and lacks any kind of subtlety or finesse. The harshly spicy Chinook is laid on thick and is big on hard acidic bitterness. The finish is quick, hastened by a lack of body or malt character. Like Full Sail and Voyager, it's refreshing in its own slightly watery way, but otherwise unremarkable.

I had high hopes for Trouble Brewing's new Galaxy Pale Ale which appeared on cask in The Brew Dock last week. Now it wasn't by any means my first beer of the evening so I may not be giving it a fair shake but I was underwhelmed. Another cloudy one, it lacked the punch I enjoy from Galaxy hops. It's smooth, there's some light orange notes, but not much else. I should probably come back to it on a clean palate.

I paid my first visit to The Beerhouse in Dublin recently, which is situated on a corner-of-death by Bolton Street College. I hope the current incarnation does better than the predecessors as it has quite a fun bohemian vibe, with a decent beer selection at reasonable prices.

The attraction was Blackpitts Porter, the first dark beer from C&C-owned Five L