30 January 2014

Cottoning on

The Cotton Ball pub sits on a street corner in the sprawling Cork suburb of Mayfield, and has done long before there was any sprawl. The Lynches established it in 1874 and it has remained in family ownership ever since. The large public bar at the front opens out into an even bigger lounge area in an extension to the rear and to the casual observer it looks like any other neighbourhood local. However, last year the owners took the decision to start making their own beers and a room on the lower ground floor has been converted for brewing.

Brewing legend and West Cork resident Brendan Dobbin was called in to set up the kit, the vessels acquired second-hand from the UK. Dobbin was also given the task of designing the recipes for new head brewer Humphrey Lynch, starting with a lager and a stout. The official launch of the brewery was held last Saturday, along with the release of the third beer in the series, a pale ale. I got the heads up from Cork food blogger Billy Lyons and -- brewpubs being my first love when it comes to beer -- I decided to go along for the day.

Mayfield Gold is the name of the lager, though the name is a little euphemistic. It's yellow, a rather unappetising pale yellow, if I'm honest. I wasn't expecting much from it and the enormous volume of fizz feeding the fine mousse head did nothing to help that. There's little in here to scare the drinker of mass produced lagers: it's mostly quite sweet, but just on the finish you get a generous helping of waxy grassy noble hops. Bar manager Kevin, who showed me round the brewery, said this beer gets triple filtered, and I'm a little surprised that the delicate hop flavours survived the process. Overall, Mayfield Gold would make for a good sunny day refresher, if only it wasn't so damn fizzy.

While the lager gets all the filter's attention, Kerry Lane Pale Ale escapes unscathed. This is a murky copper colour and could easily pass for an Irish red on appearances. The aroma sets the record straight: a jolt of citrus, fresh from the hopsack. The murkiness makes its presence felt in the foretaste, where there's a yeasty savoury edge which I don't think helps the hops. They come into their own a second or two later, blending gunpowder spice, dank and pine resin, plus a strawberry and chocolate sweetness as counterbalance. The pine bitterness gets the final word in, coating the palate completely. It's a subtle beer and one that takes a few goes to get into properly, but it was the one I came back to and stuck with for the evening. In its dark resinousness there's a certain resemblance to JW Sweetman Pale Ale, though I think it's a little more full-bodied than that. As a footnote, the menu description hints that this is based on a multi-award-winning Dobbin recipe, though Humphrey wasn't able to tell me which one. I'll add an update here if I find out, Dobbin fans.

The line-up is completed by Lynch's Stout, made from five malts plus roasted barley. That there's chocolate and crystal in the mix is immediately apparent as it's on the sweet side without much by way of dryness or astringency, which I quite liked about it. It's nicely full bodied as well, a contribution which I'm guessing comes from the wheat addition. But the bonus feature is the hopping: some lovely fresh green Goldings complete the picture, adding a vegetal wholesomeness. I don't want to come across as only understanding these Cork beers in terms of Dublin ones, but there's a similarity with Wrassler's XXXX here, though with a lighter touch. Drinkers of Benny McCabe's excellent Mi Daza stout may also find Lynch's somewhat familiar.

If you're in Cork and have the time, it's well worth jumping on the 208 bus to Mayfield and paying The Cotton Ball a visit. It's a reminder that Irish craft beer isn't just for specialist pubs with vast tap arrays: it can appear anywhere that there's a few spare square metres of floorspace and sufficient ambition.

27 January 2014

Breakfast for bastards

Maybe it's just me, but 8.3% ABV seems a bit strong for a breakfast beer. So it is with Founders Breakfast Stout, however, a viscous affair of the deepest densest black hue. It gloops out of the bottle, gradually forming a chocolate coloured head which fades away leaving just a thin loose layer of bubbles. The coffee used in the brewing process makes its presence felt in the aroma, with a distinct element of brown sugar in among the bitterness and roast. I was surprised by the texture: not as thick as it appears on pouring; surprisingly light and drinkable, in fact; smooth and clean, creamy without being palate-coating. More coffee and dark chocolate in the taste, as well as a mildly metallic hop twang as well. Almost as enjoyable is the lack of any putty flavour which often ruins oatmeal stouts for me. This is an elegant and balanced beer, but I think better suited to after-dinner drinking than pre-lunch.

Keeping the viscosity theme going, Founders also makes Dirty Bastard: an 8.5% ABV Scotch ale utilising smoked malts. Sounds just the sort of thing I like, but the execution is poor: the amount of residual sugar is off the scale, making it cloyingly sweet and sticky. The lovely phenols from the smoke come through as a sort of burnt plastic flavour. Bleurgh.

It's not clear whether Backwoods Bastard is simply a barrel aged version of it, only that I bought it for some reason. 10.2% ABV and a lurid limpid red it emits a powerful waft of boozy wood. The sweet-sour bourbon really dominates the flavour, being resinous and a little bit spicy. My perceptive other half says it tastes of coconut -- dark chocolate Bounty bars in particular -- and it would be remiss and neglectful of me not to pass that on. Either way, there's very little sign of the beer underneath, and merciful as that may be, overall I don't think it really works. I'd place it in the same bracket as the likes of Innis & Gunn and Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale: beers where the concept was given priority over the taste and the finished product suffers as a result. That said, it's far from undrinkable the way some of these beers can be, and there's a pleasant vinous, perhaps even port-like smoothness to the texture. Pair it with a sufficiently powerful cigar and this bastard might just prove enjoyable.