31 July 2013

Meanderings

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.

25 July 2013

Unshellfish

Another cringingly titled beer from Flying Dog: Pearl Necklace is a 5.5% ABV stout made with real oysters. More oysters than hops, in fact, if the ingredients listing is in order of quantity.

A thin ivory foam settles over a dark ruby body and gives off a wonderful heady molasses aroma laced with herbs and spices. The texture is soft and round with nary a prickle from the fizz while the flavour provides a run through of what stout does best: dark chocolate, coffee, treacle, and a tangy vegetal finish. No oysters, though. The Porterhouse's Oyster Stout is similarly smooth and chocolatey, but also has a slightly salty character from the oysters. There's none of that here.

Not much to complain about with this, but if you're looking for something out of the ordinary this isn't the one.

22 July 2013

Foam on the range

We all got pieces of crazy in us, some bigger pieces than others is the tagline on To Øl's First Frontier IPA. So I guess crazy is what the massive chunks bobbling around in the bottle are made from. They were the first thing I noticed when I picked it off the shelf in The Bottle Shop, and I was reticent to continue the transaction, but the Danish gypsy brewer has a good reputation so I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

The first problem arose when pouring: lots of head, making it impossible to get it into the glass cleanly in a single pour. I cut my losses rather than risk an overflow, leaving the last three fingers of beer to wallow in the goop at the bottom of the bottle. So far: not impressed.

It's a medium orange colour, and hazy, even without any bits in. The aroma is mostly cat litter funkiness (damn you, Simcoe!) plus a burn from the busy carbonation. Bottle conditioning pale ale in 33cls: don't do it, kids.

Flavourwise it's altogether more fun, however. A jaw-pinching grapefruit and lime bite starts the process, fading to a lighter metallic effect. The bitterness is mouthwatering and moreish, but deftly balanced by a delicate layer of spongecake malt sweetness and just a faint alcoholic warmth. It's 7.1% ABV and they've done a great job using that strength to balance a very generous quantity of hops. Oddly, the fizz which interferes with the pour and aroma doesn't get in the way when tasting: the mouthfeel is full and sticky with hop resins.

So, the moment of truth came when I poured the final gunky quarter of the bottle into the glass. Thankfully, it makes very little difference to the finished product: the same hop smack arrives in all the right places. Brewing a beer with all the hops and all the yeast? It's crazy, but it might just work.

18 July 2013

Rampant rabbit

Bit of a gusher, the Fort Lapin Tripel, bounding out of the bottle to form an ice-white layer of foam over a dark orange body. It smells juicer than your average tripel, with strong notes of jaffa and mandarin. Bunny hops.

It comes on a little hot and heavy on tasting: I detect some aftershave in there, cedar and pine, and a bready weight. Belgian brewers, I'm lead to believe, strive to avoid this kind of density in their beers and it's a principal reason behind their use of sugar. A glance at the label of Fort Lapin confirms that it's all malt -- something I don't think I've encountered in a Belgian tripel before.

Between the ripe fruit aroma and the earthy spice in the flavour I think there's enough going on here to carry the weight of the overall beer. I don't imagine there are too many punters who find most tripels lacking in substance, but if you're one of them, this may be the beer you're looking for.

15 July 2013

The kids in the Hall

Thornbridge abounds! The Black Sheep had their Seaforth on tap a while back, a dark orange IPA named in honour of an early ale-bearing ship plying the East India trade. It's a powerful 5.9% ABV but was being served cold enough to hide that strength and actually make it seem a little watery. First impressions are of mild jaffa orange and a hint of spicy sandalwood. I was expecting more of the malt character to come out as it warms but in fact it's the complex bitter flavours which rise to the surface: some metallic notes and a layer of eucalyptus. Decent but, like with its shipmate Jaipur, I think I'd like a bit more complexity in a beer of this strength.

Meanwhile, off the other end of Capel Street, the Porterhouse had Reverend and the Makers on their gravity cask. This is a 4.8% ABV golden summer seasonal, packed with lots of lemony sunshine. Again, though, I can't help but think they could have achieved the same level of flavour at a lower ABV.

Finally, a bottle I have Steve and Reuben to thank for: Imperial Oatmeal Stout, from the Thornbridge Hall series of extra-expensive beers. It's 11% ABV and this time you can taste every little bit of that strength. It serves up a decent slice of roast, milk and dark chocolate and a strange, but not unpleasant, putty sensation which I assume is contributed by the oatmeal. Heavy and filling, it's one to finish the night, and this blog post, on.

11 July 2013

Taste the irony

Dark skies, high winds, lashing rain: it was time to break out the summer beers. Widmer's Citra Blonde, a seasonal for balmy days like this, is the purest gold of evening sunbeams and has an odd but not unpleasant savoury herbal aroma, giving me sage, chives and spring onion. The texture is soft, like a fluffy German weissbier, and while I waited for the big Citra punch, none was forthcoming. Instead there's a rather light peach and melon effect, perhaps going as far into the bitterness spectrum as melon rind, but no further. Overall it's a rather light and lagery beer, watery even, but works fine as a quaffer, even when it's raining. That said, putting a named celebrity hop in the title does create an expectation to which this beer did not live up.

Also from Widmer is Hopside Down, the latest in their Rotator series of IPAs. The twist here is that it has been cold-fermented, and I think it benefits from the extra cleanness that the lager yeast gives to the flavour profile. There's a satisfying bitter grapefruit balanced against a light biscuity malt rather than any heavier toffeeish residual sugars -- the downfall of many an American IPA -- and this gives it the airs of something pale 'n' hoppy from Britain, though a darker red gold and with a bit more alcoholic heat to it. Like the Blonde, the aroma is rather understated but there's some piquant lemon and lime zest in there.

A decent pair of workhorses, these, and a welcome distraction from the generally inclement Irish summer.

08 July 2013

Bullet: the bite

New from the Cork Beer Renaissance™ is Green Bullet pale ale, ostensibly by Mountain Man Brewing in the wild west of the rebel county but the eponymous Phil is doing these first batches closer to sea level at Eight Degrees in Mitchelstown.

It's a mere 4% ABV and looks as light as that vital statistic suggests, being a rather wan pale yellow. The aroma is far from understated, however, kicking off with the heady golden syrup waft of a lager twice its strength. But it's the hops which drive the flavour, starting on a zesty citrus rind note and finishing waxy and bitter with a floral sweetness in the middle. The draught version gave me an overall impression of honey and lemon: slightly medicinal but in a very pleasant way. The bottled one provides a fuller bodied and smoother experience, with more of a malt backbone.

I'd place this alongside the other sharply bitter pale Irish ales like Howling Gale and Bo Bristle IPA, but at a percentage point lower than either, Green Bullet gets extra quaffability credit. A 33cl bottle in the garden was an enjoyable summer refresher, but I really hope we'll be seeing more of it by the pint.

05 July 2013

Let the beer do the talking

Session logo
A provocative topic from Justin for this month's Session -- IPA: What's The Big Deal? India Pale Ale a style which I think divides beer fans more than the commentariat like me let on. For a lot of the drinking public, the unsubtle blast of bitter citric hops is not desirable in a beer. Even among the IPA fanboys and girls there are often strict unwritten purity laws to be observed: too much crystal malt, not enough alcohol, too long a gap between brewing and drinking, or any combination thereof, and the beer is an insult to the drinker, the style and its pedigree. As the immortal Calvin once observed: “Ever notice how tense grown-ups get when they're recreating?”

I'm not delving into any of that for this post; instead, I'm going to be exploring IPA via the controlled environment produced by one Scottish brewer every year. BrewDog's IPA Is Dead is now in its third annual iteration. A four pack of IPAs is released, all made to an identical recipe except for the hops, with each beer utilising a single variety, cutting across brewing history and geography. The strength has been lowered for 2013, down to 6.7% ABV from 7.5 and definitely benefiting from the absence of an alcoholic heat which made previous years' editions heavy work. So perhaps that's lesson one when it comes to strong and hoppy: more alcohol isn't always your friend.

The first one served to me, blind, was my least favourite. Not only was there no proper alcoholic welly, it even came across as a little watery. The flavour and aroma are pure funk: the acid sharpness of blue cheese, something I only enjoy in blue cheese itself. The hop used here turned out to be Slovenian variety Dana, and I learned that a bit of mellowness is something to be appreciated in a good IPA and was totally absent here.

Next came the most complex of the set. A dank weedy aroma kicked things off and the flavour profile ran freely through the southern hemisphere hop playbook: medicine cupboard herbs, flint, green apple and even a little squirt of feline urine, but not in a bad way. It was a great beer to explore, to take time over and get lost in. Considered relaxed sipping is definitely an IPA virtue -- it ought not be a style for chugging. The hop here was Waimea, from New Zealand.

The third in the series was another dud. It started in a promising way with a lovely orange blossom nose but there was no sign of any orchard freshness when I tasted it. Instead there's just a sharp metallic clang over a musty staleness. I was in no doubt that this was Goldings, though a particularly poor example of it in action -- this English hop can be a stunner when on form. Ingredients which are true to the style's roots are no guarantee of quality, it seems.

The last was my favourite. Nowhere near as complex as the Waimea, but it did one thing and did it well. The aroma is understated, showing just a little grassiness but the flavour explodes in a mouth-watering burst of orange sherbet followed up with a lasting juicy peach sweetness. American C-hops are at work here, and the specific variety is a relatively new one: El Dorado. It will go far.

What have we learned? The massively predictable lesson is that US hops make for damn fine IPAs; only marginally less obvious is the fun that can be had with New Zealand hops, that you need to know precisely what you're doing when it comes to English varieties, and that there's some pretty weird stuff being grown in continental Europe. But the big lesson is one which can be applied to beer more generally, and that's the flexibility of IPA: even if only one ingredient is changed, IPA can offer a broad range of experiences. In a style that can vary from 3.6% ABV to 8% and beyond; from pale gold to dark copper, there is a lot to explore. To generalise about IPA is perhaps unwise.

03 July 2013

Steamin'

I hoped that this Belgian blonde wasn't the worse for wear after a protracted spell in my oubliette. I only missed the best-before by a week so reckoned I'd probably get away with it -- it's 8% ABV after all. Vapeur en Folie from Brasserie à Vapeur is a darker gold than your typical blonde and smells more than anything like a run-of-the-mill extra-strength pale lager: grainy, with a slightly biscuit sweetness. Certainly no sign of the fruit and spice one expects from this genre.

On tasting it's a bit more true to form, with a bubblegum element added in, though the lagery biscuit is still present. The most interesting element, however, is a kind of white wine vinousness. Not good white wine, mind: more the slightly heavy fuselish sort served at a million 1970s tupperware parties. There's an almost sour, bitter tang to it and it curdles in the stomach somewhat.

I was faintly disgusted by this beer, yet kept being drawn back for more, out of fascination. I've no idea if the taste is intentional or a result of shoddy or brewing or my shoddy cellaring. But if you've had it with the second-rate Duvel clones normally churned out in this bracket, here's one to make you reconsider what can be done within the specification.

01 July 2013

Moorish conquest

They're spendy buggers, the Moor bombers, and I'm not sure why. The brewery is very well reputed and the labels talk a great game, but every time I get near, the price tags tend to drive me away. I've had to resort to cheating to get a look-in at any of the range.

The first I inveigled my way into was Revival, a supermarket pricing error let me pick it up for just €3, though I think I missed the pick of that particular crop to more rapacious gleaners (I'm looking at you, Alex). I'd tasted the beer before, at the 2009 Great British Beer Festival, and wasn't particularly impressed by the cask version. But from a bottle on a clean palate it was rather more enjoyable.

It poured a clear dark gold and offered up just a gentle sparkle by way of carbonation. The aroma is pithy, almost to the point of sourness. At 4% ABV it's plainly designed as a thirst-quencher and the flavour really does a great job here, providing a mouthwatering sherbet effect, leaning towards more serious grapefruit, but never turning harsh or acrid. The malt stands on the sidelines, adding a spongecake sweetness to the jaffacake marmalade. Bitter enough to be interesting and light enough to be sinkable, the contents weren't long in disappearing. €3 well spent, I thought.

Moving up in the strength stakes there's Nor'Hop at 4.3% ABV. This was provided by Richard and shared at Reuben's place between a few of us, so I just got a cloudy orange taster. More of the sherbet effect, this time of the lemon variety with more than a hint of urinal cake in the aroma. They've really upped the bitterness here, which  I think throws the beer somewhat off balance, and there's that slightly unpleasant chemical citrus taste. Not hugely to my taste and definitely not a patch on Revival.

Lastly, Richard also brought a bottle of Hoppiness. This is a bigger contender altogether at 6.7% ABV and a dark shade of amber. It shares the citric sharpness of the other too but here it's balanced out by an extra layer of toffee which makes the whole experience much more rounded. This is one for considered sipping rather than a hasty hop hit.

There's plenty to admire in here, especially if you're a hop head, and I'm intrigued to try more from the range. I just need to figure out a way of cheating some other suckers out of them.