31 December 2014

Doubles and quits

It's the last post of 2014, a very busy year for beer and for Irish beer in particular. New breweries popped up all over the place and I paid overdue visits to Carlow Brewing, Porterhouse and Galway Bay. Dublin has been a little slow to catch up with the rest of the country but I'm expecting that to be somewhat rectified by the end of next year. The slew of winter seasonal beers has been bigger than ever and, for the second year in a row, Eight Degrees has released a trilogy of strong brews. One of them is a re-run of last year's Imperial Stout but the others are brand new and I caught up with them when they went on tap in The Norseman.

First up, a 7.2% ABV Belgian Dubbel. It's the appropriate shade of chestnut red and poured quite clear, though not completely. It's big on banana esters and heavy on the caramel too for an unsubtly sweet boozy banoffi effect, the heat rising to a slightly off-putting hint of marker pens at the finish. Thankfully the heat and markers don't build and the end result is a reasonably decent take on the dubbel style. While I got a little bit of a savoury yeast bite in the flavour, I suspect that this would be even more present in the bottled version and would help balance the intense sweetness. It's certainly one that will be interesting after a few years' maturation.

Eight Degrees wowed us in spring with The Full Irish IPA (and not just because of that photo) and have followed it up with a double IPA version named, topically, Double Irish. I didn't get much of an aroma from it, but that could have been the glass: those trumpet-shaped half-pints really should be banished from decent beer bars. Cut grass eventually wafted out of it when I'd drank down far enough. On tasting, the bitterness strikes first and while the flavour is complex, it's not a fruity one. There's everything else, mind: dank oily resins, grassy sharpness and a mouth-watering dry spicing. While carrying the full weight of its 9% ABV it's not at all sugary. It's a little more grown-up and serious than Ireland's other double IPAs and you can decide for yourself whether or not that's a good thing.

And speaking of comparisons, with all of my beer reviews done for the year, that means it's time for:

The Golden Pint Awards 2014

Best Irish Cask Beer: Full Sail
What happens when you take an already strong and hoppy pale ale and then dry hop it as far as physically possible. This is a face melter that goes through hoppy and out the other side. I'm hoping the expanded capacity at Galway Bay will make it a more regular sight.

Best Irish Keg Beer: Black Boar
We’re not worthy. Oh wait, yes we are. Where the hell has this been until now, White Hag? A silky knock-it-back 9% ABV stout that's so easy to drink they had to name it after a dangerous animal to remind us of the risk. At the opposite end of the hydrometer, a major tip of the hat has to go to Trouble Brewing for Graffiti: more of this, and this sort of thing, please.

Best Irish Bottled or Canned Beer: Independent Pale Ale / Dublin Brewer IPA
I first drank this way back in February but have been caning most of it under its Dublin Brewer guise at The Larder. I didn't realise they're the same beer but I have it on good authority that they are. Another big blousey whack of hops: invigorating, refreshing and great with a feed.

Best Overseas Draught Beer: Het Uiltje G&T Radler
Wiper & True's Mosaic pale ale was a major contender in the pupil-dilating stakes this year, but the Dutch contract brewers take the prize for me. All the wonderful things about my two favourite drinks in a single package. It's quite possibly the oddest beer I drank this year, and perhaps that alone deserves recognition.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer: Black Eyed King Imp
The second imperial stout to take a gong, but it couldn't be more different from Black Boar. BrewDog's limited edition special has a convoluted back story but when you meet it it's entirely integrated: one piece of warm, sumptuous liquid comfort.

Best Collaboration Brew: Crushable Saison
There have been lots of great Irish collaborations this year, thinking of Goodbye Blue Monday and Horn8's Nest in particular. But I'm giving this one to the Americo-Belgian saison made by Tired Hands and De La Senne because it best represents what both countries are great at, which is a good thing for collaboration beers to do.

Best Overall Beer: Het Uiltje G&T Radler
It has to be the weirdo, I'm afraid. That's just how I roll. But you knew that. Seriously, though: drink this beer and tell me it isn't amazing.

Best Branding, Label or Pumpclip: Jack Cody's
Gotta love that goat.

Best Irish Brewery: Eight Degrees
The same winner as last year, with no qualms at all because, while 2013 Eight Degrees was excellent, 2014 Eight Degrees surpassed it with a never ending stream of daring hop-forward beers. As the Irish microbrewing industry expands, the issue of quality -- and whether newcomers are up to scratch -- is raised again and again. Anyone looking for a benchmark on what quality tastes like can grab a handful of whatever the newest Eight Degrees releases are. A very honorable mention goes to Trouble Brewing for excellent beers reasonably priced: everything that's required of a local brewery.

Best Overseas Brewery: Siren
There was no particular outstanding beer that won this for the Berkshire brewery, but they kind of insinuated themselves into my drinking this year, in locations as diverse as Rome, Barcelona, Edinburgh, Bristol and my own kitchen: wherever top-notch beer is served, basically. A varied range of styles and all of it very good indeed. Word has it that importation into Ireland is imminent, which is great news.

Best New Brewery Opening 2014: The White Hag
Well duh!

Pub/Bar of the Year: 57 The Headline
The Norseman ran it pretty damn close, both of them having taken the mantle from the Bull & Castle as ground zero for Dublin's beer obsessives. If pushed I'd say The Norseman probably has a better beer offer, but the quiet, comfortable neighbourly feel of The Headline makes it a better pub, which is what this prize is about. My top international finds this year were Open Baladin in Rome and The Bag o' Nails in Bristol, but neither is a 20-minute downhill stroll from my front door, so they lose out there.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2014: Alfie Byrne's
With JD Wetherspoon totally dropping the ball on the cask ale front, there aren't very many candidates. Alfie's opened in February and then we had a long wait for The 108 and The Back Page, which both appeared in late autumn. Alfie's gets a bit of stick because, through no fault of its own, it's a hotel bar. But the staff are great, the draught selection always includes something inspiring, and whereas you might see a lack of "atmosphere", I see a choice of places to sit. Away from you for a start, if you're going to whinge.

Beer and Food Pairing of the Year: Venison & Ale Pie and Leann Folláin
Always a tricky one for me as conscientious beer and food pairing is really not my thing. But down at The Pieman on Crown Alley a while back they had a venison and red ale pie on special, which I ate with a bottle of O'Hara's Leann Folláin, and it was lovely, and amazing value for a tenner. So there's my nomination.

Beer Festival of the Year: Quartiere In Fermento
Borefts was fantastic as always; The RDS September festival was huge and did not have a bad beer at it, that I tasted. Franciscan Well Easter Festival also took things to the next level this year. But the charming random oddness of the Wallace winebar chain's celebration of Italian beer gets my vote for 2014's festival highlight.

Supermarket of the Year: Fresh, Smithfield Square, Dublin 7
As usual I did very little supermarket beer shopping, but I did pick up the odd bottle or two in Fresh. They do seem to keep a good range of locals and quality imports in stock.

Independent Retailer of the Year: Martin's of Fairview
I was wowed on my first visit to this northside offy: a fantastic range, all nicely spread out for ease of browsing. I still buy most of my beer in DrinkStore, but I will be back to Martin's.

Online Retailer of the Year: The Homebrew Company
It doesn't say this category has to be about beer does it? Anyway, I don't buy beer online, and I do like the service from HBC, so they get this Golden Pint.

Best Beer Book or Magazine: Sláinte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer and Cider
This is an actual contest for the first time in Golden Pints history. I love flicking through Ron Pattinson's Homebrewer's Guide to Vintage Beer, while Boak & Bailey's Brew Britannia was the most engrossing read of the year. But a book on the current state of play in Irish beer and cider was badly needed, and Caroline and Kristin have done a marvellous job of documenting it in an accessible and visually appealing way.

Best Beer Blog or Website: The Beer Cast
I am not alone in commending Richard for his forensic unravelling of the bullshit that Scottish brewers Brewmeister cloaked their brand in. The whole saga made for fascinating reading as well as demonstrating the real practical benefit of this blogging lark. Tremble in fear, ye quacks and charlatans. A pat on the back and a jolly-well-done goes to Mr Brissenden for his sweetly crafted observations on the production end of brewing, and to Belgian Smaak which has done fantastic work documenting rural Ireland's new breweries this year.

Best Beer App: BeoirFinder
And while Belgian Smaak has been tearing around the country, I rarely do. However, it's comforting to know that BeoirFinder is there if I end up somewhere unfamiliar and in need of a decent beer.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitter: Chris Hall
We all want witty and informative, and thankfully there's plenty of it out there in the beery tweetosphere. Chris has been on top of it more than anyone in 2014, which is why I invite him to take a bow and receive my Johnson.

Best Brewery Website/Social Media: White Gypsy
Lots of current information on what's available and where to buy it, plus some lovely pictures of the brewery's hop garden, White Gypsy were really making the most of their Twitter account this year.

And that's your lot. Thanks as always to Andy Mogg and Mark Dredge for devising the Golden Pints and to everyone in the beer brewing, selling and commenting industries, especially here in Ireland, for making 2014 the busiest and most interesting year of my drinking career. See you in 2015 for the next round.

29 December 2014

Gulpin'

A chance encounter with an American visitor to Dublin (cheers Jason!) left me with this bottle of Sculpin IPA from San Diego's Ballast Point. It's a beer I knew only by reputation and it's always fun to get hold of those.

It's surprisingly pale for an American IPA: I tend to expect them to be more on the orange-amber side, but this is a bright blonde, only tinted slightly with red. The carbonation is high, piling up a stiff meringue of a head on the top. A promise of acidic lemon rind is how the aroma begins, though there's a contrasting hint of sticky toffee behind it. Its texture is very heavy, the gas having to force its way out through the viscous body. At just 7% ABV it could easily pass for higher.

Bitterness is the centrepiece of the taste: quite a metallic brassy tang enhanced by a pure citrus sharpness. The toffee comes later and lasts longer. I guess it's supposed to be there for balance, but putting this sort of weighty malt sugar next to the hop harshness does not make for balance. It's more like the two flavours are competing with each other.

It's certainly an invigorating beer, a real wake-up call to the palate, but it's by turns too bitter and too sickly for it to be one I'd go running back to.

25 December 2014

Christmas with the Belgians

Merry Christmas! I hope Santa brought you everything you wanted. Or at least what you deserved. Some seasonal beers from Belgium today.

First up is Hibernatus, from the makers of Lupulus. No style is offered other than Bière d'Hiver, and at 9% ABV and an opaque black, I'll accept that. There's lots of burnt toast, tart damsons and sticky treacle in the flavour, not the heavy comforting sweetness I had been expecting. It does have a warmth, but it's a bitter sort, not really warming as such. If you want your winter beer to be all spiced and cosy this isn't the one for you. But if you like a bit more edge to proceedings, a spikier sort of Christmas, then Hibernatus is the way to go. I imagine Brouwerij van Klomp makes something similar each year.

And because I don't believe that seasonal beers should be limited to specific seasons, Boskeun, an Easter beer by De Dolle. It took a few goes at pouring: not a gusher but it was very keen to build big pillows of foam over the hazy golden body. There's no mistaking the 10% ABV from its hot honey flavour, given extra welly by a peppery piquancy from the yeast. I get burst of cloves and candy canes as well, so very little would stop them from dressing the bunny on the label as Santa Claus and calling it a Christmas beer. Anyway, Happy Easter!

Sticking with the same brewery, their Oerbier Special Reserva 2010 is one I've been saving for a special occasion. This'll do. It's a murky brown-ish red ale, claiming 13% ABV on the label and quite possibly a bit more after several years of hanging around in my attic. There's a punchy woody Rodenbach-esque sourness from the aroma, with added autolytic umami notes beneath it and a ghost of what used to be sweet summer fruit. It's not quite as complex to taste: sour at the front and then fading away on dark liquorice, roasted grain and a distinct Burgundy vinousness. The light texture is the best bit, keeping this as refreshing as a kir royale. Special indeed.

Something big, dark and strong to finish: Malheur's Novice Black Tripel, though it is the weakest of the set at a mere 8.5% ABV. Held up to the light it's a translucent brown rather than black, though the off-white head could have been transplanted from a daycent pint of stout. And it pulls the very clever trick of the best black IPAs of tasting exactly like the purported style. In this case there's all the heady ecclesiastical spice and smooth honey and candy of quality golden tripel, with maybe just a dash of liquorice or tar as a nod to the colour. Amazingly, despite appearances, it's incredibly clean, each flavour vibrant and distinct. The end result is very drinkable; perhaps even a little too casual for a special winter occasion.

Nevertheless, trooper that I am I'll be keeping the Belgian theme going later with a bottle of Chimay Bleu as usual with my turkey, a 2011 vintage this year. Have a good one and see you next week for, amongst other things, my 2014 Golden Pints. That's when we really find out who's been naughty and nice all year.

22 December 2014

Pack hunting

This bottle of Electric India arrived from BrewDog after I visited the brewery last August. Thanks guys! It's a 6.5% ABV saison, hopped with Nelson Sauvin and Amarillo. First appearances are innocent enough: a pale and perfectly clear pilsnerish yellow and a modest topping of white foam. The aroma is where the magic starts to happen: that very slightly funky saison fruitiness backed by pineapple and passionfruit. Its texture is quite light, with just a hint of slickness indicating that it's not a quaffer. The flavour really turns up the elements previously introduced in the aroma: intensely pithy mango and a dash of mouthwatering lime, neither of which I'd associate particularly with the listed hops but there you go. Some dry gunpowder spicing stops the sweet fruit from completely dominating the taste. I like this, and prefer it to the rather simpler Magic Stone Dog hoppy saison, but 33cls was enough. All those mangoes get to be a bit much after a while.

India Pale Weizen is a newer offering which I found on sale in Martin's of Fairview. This was brewed in association with Weihenstephan so immediately invites comparison with the Schneider/Brooklyn Hopfen-Weisse, an all-time favourite beer of mine. This is lighter at 6.2% ABV and is truer to the wheat beer style than IPA, though perhaps closer to wit than weizen: the yeast character is dry and spicy rather than fruity. There's even an element of orange peel, which I'm guessing is from the American hops, but there are no IPA bells and whistles here. The aroma is more of those gentle spices and there's none of the rounded warming weissbier character that makes the Schneider hoppy weizen so approachable. While perfectly drinkable, India Pale Weizen doesn't really show off the talents of the two breweries that created it. Less than the sum of its partners, you might say.

For the season that's in it, BrewDog has re-released the Christmas seasonals it had out last year. It was one of last year's batch of Santa Paws that I found in the bargain bucket of Brewery Lane in Temple Bar back in October, just before the best-before was up. This is a 4.5% ABV black beer, pouring headless. They've billed it as a Scotch ale but the clean liquorice and molasses combination in the flavour reminds me far more of Czech tmavý. Apparently there's heather honey in here but I couldn't taste it, nor did I miss it. It's mildly sticky but overall very pleasant, simple drinking.

The companion beer to Santa Paws is Hoppy Christmas and this showed up at a tasting in Probus Wines last month, organised by BrewDog's local importer Four Corners. It's a 7.2% ABV IPA, single-hopped with Simcoe and pale orange in colour. This is definitely one to drink fresh, the aroma a massive wave of funky dank. Rather than big bitterness it's juicy and zesty, bursting with all sorts of citrus. In classic American style there's no heat generated by the alcohol but there's definitely an oilyness from all the lovely hops. Gorgeous now, but it won't be quite such a bargain in ten months' time.

Last beer for this round-up is another that came directly as a freebie from the brewery. My only previous experience of BrewDog's Abstrakt series was no. 3 back in 2011. We're up to AB:16 now, a quadrupel at 10.6% ABV with added coffee beans. I thought there was a touch of Flemish red in the aroma, a gentle woody sourness amongst the dark fruit. It's much more of a quadrupel on tasting, however: damsons and plump juicy raisins, plus a bit of treacle and brown sugar for sweetness. The coffee is a mere ghost of a flavour, flitting past and barely discernible, though adding a sweet cappuccino complexity to the whole. Like the Electric India we kicked off on, this is light and drinkable despite the high strength and full flavour. I'd sort of intended it as a fireside sipper to bring this blog into Christmas proper but I'm not sure it really works for that. While I should never complain about a beer that leaves room for another one after it, there's something not quite right about super-premium session quadrupel.

18 December 2014

Hitting the ground running

Two late-2014 additions to the Irish brewing scene in today's post, both coming out of the traps with a prodigious range of first-run bottled beers.

Co. Monaghan's first brewery (for a while, anyway) opened recently, calling itself Brehon Brewhouse. I was pleasantly surprised to find an early release, their straight-up Irish red, in my local supermarket. Killanny Red Ale is 4.5% ABV and pours a lot darker than one might expect -- almost brown, depending on the light. I'm guessing a generous amount of roasted barley has gone in here as it smells very crisp and grainy, tasting dry to the point of being burnt. Yes there's a little summer berry, but it's a tartness which, combined with the ashen dryness, makes me wonder if something is happening fermentationwise that is not as the brewer intended. I'm not normally the sort to go out of my way to drink Irish red but I'd prefer a bit more fruit and toffee than I'm getting in this.

Keeping to the more timid styles, Brehon Blonde is next, a modest 4.3% ABV. There's an attractive reddish cast to its blondness and the bottle conditioning produces lots of fizz but I poured carefully and a clear glass was my reward. Lots of raisin-rich garibaldi on the nose, though a distinct musty oxidised staleness too. And all of that is there in the flavour too: dry, mouldy sackcloth to begin, a flash of citrus and then more dust and dry rot on the end. A clean, light blonde seems to be a bit beyond the brewing skills of Brehon at this stage.

The range starts to liven up with Stony Grey India Pale Ale. Surprisingly, this is the first beer I can think of named in honour of one of Ireland's many many piss artist poets and is a fitting 6% ABV. A ring of orange rust around the bottleneck was an initial cause for concern but the aroma put me at ease: zesty satsuma and pungent spicy liquorice. There's less punch in the flavour and more of a caramel sweetness, plus a weird savoury meat-like edge. The lightly citric hops arrive late creating an overall sensation of... of... well, of duck à l'orange. This beer tastes of duck à l'orange. That's a first.

Last and darkest and strongest from Brehon is Shanco Dubh, a bruiser of a porter at 7.7% ABV. I came across this at a pre-Christmas tasting hosted by Bord Bia where it was poured by James of the Vanguard Beer Collective. That musty thing is back, but here it works more as a feature than a bug. There's a huge amount of coffee, caramel and dark chocolate behind it and it helps dry them out, while accentuating the roast elements. The end result is highly complex, but balances out on the enjoyable side of odd.

Mullahinsha, Drummeril, Black Shanco-
Wherever I turn I see
In the stony grey soil of Monaghan
Dead loves that were born for me.

Cheery stuff. Let's move on, shall we?

Wicklow Wolf is based in Bray and very soon after opening the doors had five different beers on the market.

Possibly the most intriguing of the range is Locavore Blonde, a 4.8% ABV ale made using only fresh hops from the brewery's own farm. It's at the dark end of the colour scale and while its hop aroma reflects the amount of sunlight and warmth the plants probably got (not much), it's not all golden syrup and cereal: there's a hint of lemons and herbs in there. The lemon element is very pronounced on tasting, even to a puckering extent, with a more serious waxy bitterness behind it and a smattering of spices. Overall this is a pretty decent blonde ale -- it could stand to be smoother, but there's not a thing wrong with it. That it's all done with Irish-grown hops is pretty impressive. Comparisons with the other Irish hop beer, White Gypsy's Emerald, are inevitable but they're very different creatures. Though stronger, Emerald is lighter and zestier, with lots of bittersweet apple in with the lemons. It's refreshing quenching and easy drinking while Locavore is a thinking drinker's blonde. Importantly for the local ingredients movement, both stand on their own as beers, not mere novelties.

In place of a red there's Wicklow Wolf American Amber, discovered on draught at The Norseman last month. Once again I'm out with my colour charts and declaring this more brown than red while also noting a worrying lack of aroma. It's 5% ABV and very thin with it, failing to deliver the rich fruity candy thing that I expect from the style. The hops are all hiding in the flavour, but they present as more of a herbal element, with a powerful bitterness, followed quickly by traditional Irish red notes of crystal malt toffee and dry roast. It's all a bit severe for my taste, especially for a style that should be fun and accessible. I'm not doubting the quality of the hops used, nor their quantity, but this beer just isn't put together the way I like.

On to 57 The Headline to find the next draught one: Wicklow Wolf Kentucky Common. No kvetching about style here as it's the first and only Kentucky Common I've ever met. It's 4.8% ABV and a dark murky brown with red highlights. After a sip I'd place it somewhere on the schwarzbier to brown ale spectrum: it has the gassy dryness and clean lagery finish of the former with the sweeter coffee of the latter. Elements of Bavarian dunkel creep in as it warms: a growing liquorice aroma and a sweet-sour liquorice taste in the finish. It's certainly interesting, but again I found it a little stark and uncompromising for my taste.

The final two I bought in bottled form from DrinkStore. Wicklow Wolf IPA is a hefty beast at 6.3% ABV. Injudicious pouring put an overly large head on my glass, and underneath it a red-amber coloured beer, awash with quite large floaty bits. There's no messing about with the aroma: a big, fresh, lemon-and-lime juice burst, almost enough to make your eyes water. The Simcoe and Cascade combine nicely with the lightly caramelised malt on tasting to create a citric and grassy finish to the flavour profile, but before that reward it's necessary to stand still and let the acrid bitterness slap your palate around a bit. There are some earthy, clangy ferric notes in here as well, but at least the yeast is kept out of the picture. It's intense stuff, the napalm hopping made extra effective by a thick unctuous mouthfeel. Not one for hop lightweights, or those who demand girly tropical fruit flavours or American-style toffee sweetness. Instead, it's a classically no-nonsense grown-up IPA, and I quite enjoyed it for that.

We finish on Black Perle Porter, this one a more modest 4.8% ABV. It looks wholesome as it pours: thick, dark and forming a dense tan head. The nose is full-on espresso, shading towards moccha but the flavour is all cocoa to begin: the bitterness of very dark chocolate and even that faintly powdery feel. The roast comes into play later, turned up to a somewhat charred, black-toast-like degree, but not unpleasantly so. There's no indication on the bottle of where the name comes from, but I'm guessing that Perle hops were involved somewhere along the way, not that there's much of a hop taste in this one. Overall another very good effort, balancing complexity with drinkability rather well.

I guess the lesson from this lot is that dark beers and IPAs are the way to go. Maybe breweries will stop making substandard reds and blondes when people stop buying them. Always drink responsibly.