29 May 2014

Thanks, Hank

My goat is one of the easily-got breeds. The beer world and how it's described seems to have an inexhaustable supply of terms and trends to wind me up. Until recently, one of them was the style designation "Belgian Quadrupel", or worse: "Belgian Quad". While Westmalle brought us dubbel and tripel in the 1930s, quadrupel is a Dutch invention: there were no Belgian "Belgian quads". Until, as I say, recently.

De Halve Maan in Bruges were the first ones I noticed to spoil my indignation, with Straffe Hendrik Brugs Quadrupel. It's 11% ABV and the same dark brown-red as any quadrupel, with a thin layer of ivory foam on top. The aroma is an almost salty waft of dried figs and engine grease. Lots of sweetness on tasting: chocolate syrup, juicy prunes and a pleasant burn, like with fortified wine. And yet it's not overly hot or sticky: the flavours present themselves in a mannerly order and leave just when you're done with them.

A highly enjoyable dessert beer, this. Belgian Quadrupel: you are forgiven.

More prosaically, there's a tripel too: Straffe Hendrik Brugs Tripel. A style-compliant 9% ABV and a fairly normal orange-gold colour, with generous quantities of yeasty gobbets in suspension. I get weissbier-ish clove and orange peel from the aroma and bang-on spice, fizz 'n' booze from the flavour. The most amazing thing is that this has been sitting in my fridge for at least two years and still tastes daisy-fresh. Westmalle Tripel does not do that, I can assure you.

I visited Halve Maan back in 2006 and took away a memory of a visitors' centre that brewed two forgettable beers and outsourced their flagship to someone else. Looks like that may have changed.

26 May 2014

Pull the other one

Kirkstall Three Swords
A couple of English beauties from the beer engines of Dublin today. First up, Lord Marples: according to this book, one of the original beers from the ever-evolving Thornbridge brewery. This is their answer to your standard English brown bitter: a perfectly clear red-gold when it arrived from the handpump in Against the Grain, and a modest 4% ABV. The brewery hasn't abandoned the style spec altogether: there are no crazy hop acrobatics being pulled here. Instead there's just the right amount of dry tannic bitterness and a subtle layer of white grape and lychee fruitiness. This is very much a beer for drinking more than one of.

Staying in parts northern, The Porterhouse held its annual spring festival last month and while the emphasis was on Irish beers, Kirkstall's Three Swords somehow managed to inveigle its way in. I wasn't complaining, though. This is proper Yorkshire pale 'n' hoppy: a lurid washing-up-liquid yellow with a beautiful soft soda texture and a lemon drop flavour that's all childlike charm until the finish arrives with a very grown-up bitter bite. At 4.5% ABV it's that little bit stronger than Lord Marples but is every bit as moreish, albeit in a completely different way.

22 May 2014

... and South

More west than south, really. All of today's beers are from Connacht microbreweries. The province's most prolific operation is, of course, Galway Bay. Their latest pilot batch was a Peanut Butter Stout, a hotly anticipated release, at least among those who didn't immediately go "ewww". It was a little bit of a let-down in the end. The name conjures rich, oily savoury peanut flavours but instead what we got was a fairly decent unexciting dry stout at 5.5% ABV. There is some lovely chocolate in the aroma, while the flavour blends dry crunchy roast, sweet caramel and just the faintest hint of savoury peanut. The latter is a little more apparent in the keg version, I thought, though there's not a huge difference between the two dispense methods.

Staying in Galway, and the paradoxically named Dublin Brewer Blonde, produced by Independent Brewing in Carraroe exclusively for The Larder on the capital's Parliament Street. I was bowled over by the Pale Ale from the same range so hopes were high for this. Unfortunately it doesn't come through. It's obviously intended to be inoffensive: beer for those diners who don't really like beer. But instead of crisp and dull, it's a bit bleachy, while the malt and hops provide elements of golden syrup, bubblegum, digestive biscuit and an acrid bitterness right at the end. I don't think I've ever criticised a beer for being too full-flavoured before, and that's not the problem here, but the elements don't sit well together and that swimming pool foretaste just spoils the party for me. Stick to the Pale Ale, folks.

And finally to Leitrim and the companion beer to the Pipers Pale Ale I reviewed a couple of weeks ago: Brazen Amber Ale. It's available on draught but I've yet to cross paths with it at a convenient time so this review is based on the bottled version which is 4.2% ABV. It pours a beautiful clear dark amber, though rather headless after the first fizz subsides and it smells grainy, something which follows through in the flavour. There's almost a porterish dark grain quality coupled with a Lucozade-like artificial fruit. The dry grain is firmly ascendant over the hops, putting it somewhere below the bar for amber ale, though in the happy place for Irish red. It's a perfectly decent drinkable beer, but if American amber ale is in your head when you pop the cap it's time to recalibrate.

Not the greatest of ambassadors for the Irish brewing scene, these, but the wonderful thing about beer is you never have to wait long for the next one.

Footnote from Munster: The new version of Hurricane IPA from Eight Degrees is an absolute belter. See, I knew it wouldn't be long.

19 May 2014

North...

The Giro d'Italia came to Northern Ireland for a few days recently and I ventured up see the family and some shaven-legged men on bicycles. It was also an opportunity to try some of the newer beers to arrive on Ulster's burgeoning craft beer scene. As events transpired I didn't get to taste as many as I'd hoped, and I have the redoubtable Steve to thank for sorting me out with most of what follows.

But I'll start with one from a stalwart of Northern brewing, Hilden, and their commemorative Giro IPA Dunlop & Hume. We found this on cask in The Sunflower, a new star of Belfast's improving pub scene, and word from the brewery is it's the latest in a set of trial beers which will eventually culminate in a new permanent IPA recipe. This iteration is a pleasantly soft-textured pale gold beer which, while definitely hop forward, is not harsh or punchy. Peaches are to the fore, and the bitterness builds gradually turning towards spritzy lime by the finish. A rather jolly easy-drinker, all in all.

I expected more of an attitude from Co. Down's Farmageddon brewing collective, when Steve and I shared a bottle of their India Export Porter. This is 5.2% ABV and pours unctuously from the bottle, slowly forming a tan coloured head. It's not actually all that heavy, however. While the flavour suggests thickness -- all tarry and coffee sludge -- there's a roast barley or black malt element which adds a thinning dryness. It's no fault of the beer's, but the name puts me in mind of The Kernel's Export India Porter which has a marvellous fruit complexity that this lacks, so while it's a decently made beer and perfectly gluggable, I couldn't help but think that something was missing from it. Unfair of me, I know.

The second and final call on this dwarf pub crawl was The Hudson for a catch-up with Alex of Belfast Brewing. New to the line-up here was Yardsman, the first beer from East Belfast's Hercules Brewing Company. Nothing to scare the horses here: it's a golden lager, and rather a plain one. I had to work hard to find any distinguishing features among the fizz, which I suppose is considered a successful achievement in this style of beer. There's maybe a trace of some fruity esters in the aroma, and there's a little bit of grainy crispness on the palate, but that's pretty much all it has going for it. I guess I should count my blessings that it isn't a diacetyl bomb like so many first-time lagers.

Three northern bottles came back down the M1 with me, these ones from the western side of the province, where decent beer has always been even harder to find than it is in Belfast. I was particularly excited to get my hands on one from Poker Tree, a microbrewery based in my mother's home town of Carrickmore, Co. Tyrone. The brewery name -- from a tree under which the Devil plays cards on certain nights -- is a spot-on evocation of the local tales of the supernatural with which I grew up.

So Red Earl is one of a series of three so far, and is a red ale of 5.5% ABV -- a fair bit stronger than the norm for this style. I suspected something was amiss when I got the merest pfft of released pressure as I took the cap off. I courageously attempted to raise a head by pouring vigorously, and while that got me a few bubbles it also deposited a large amount of yeast into the glass. Unfortunately this is not a beer that bears yeast flavours well. It is nicely dark -- nothing wan or watery here -- and there's a surprising but pleasant coffee quality to the aroma. But it's difficult to tell what it's actually supposed to taste like. I get a wholesome cereal flavour, but without any crystal malt sweetness or hop bitterness or hop flavours. The yeast provides a savoury tang which rudely infuses the whole thing and the soupy effect is not at all helped by the near-total flatness. I really wanted to like this but I think there's serious work to be done. Bottle conditioning may not be the best way to go for this, for one thing.

I was much more careful when pouring Inishmacsaint Fermanagh Beer, though I nearly didn't have to: this bottle conditioned ale seemed quite willing to crawl out of the bottle all by itself. The resulting foam-topped glassful is a pleasant shade of pale amber and almost completely clear. The aroma is muted: mostly about the biscuity malts, and the flavour isn't exactly piled on either. Concentrating, I get a little bit of orange citrus and a lacing of cinnamon spicing on top of a rather plain baked graininess. It's highly inoffensive stuff and reminds me of some homemade English style bitters I've done which didn't turn out quite as planned. A bit of dry hopping would do this blank canvas the power of good.

Returning to more conventional styles, Inishmacsaint also brews Lough Erne Brown Porter. Another busy fizzer this, and slightly weaker than the previous beer, at 4.2% ABV. The label says it includes oats, which is always a bit of a gamble for me. This doesn't have the silky smoothness that oats are supposed to impart, but it doesn't have the nasty putty flavours which sometimes go along with it, thankfully. In fact, much like the Fermanagh Beer, it's a beer of very slight flavours, offering mild coffee and chocolate notes overlaid with a very dry burnt-toast crunch. No nasty off flavours jump out but my overall impression was of workmanlike homebrew rather than something commercial and artisan.

On this evidence the new wave of Northern Irish brewing still has a bit of work to do if it wants to make an impact beyond the local beer scene.

15 May 2014

Mixing it up

Shane Long talks to the Dublin Ladies Craft Beer Society
A footnote to Monday's post on the Franciscan Well Easter Beer Festival today. Founder Shane was keen to show off the new education centre that they've put into the upstairs bar, the walls decorated with flavour wheels, brewing diagrams and tutored tasting instructions.

Last year the bar was dedicated to some special cask beers from Molson Coors stablemate Sharp's, and it was the same this time, only with a bigger range and shinier handpumps. With all the Irish beer available downstairs I had only one small taste of one of them: Six Hop, a 3.8% ABV bitter which tasted terribly dull and biscuity for something that uses the H-word in its name. How big a batch did they put the six hop cones into?

The 'Well itself had a couple of new releases downstairs. One is called Eggenstien and is a 5.5% ABV pale brown German bock. It tastes quite inoffensive, striking the right balance between rounded grain flavours and the grassy tang of noble hops, but the smell of it really got to me. I struggle with German noble hops at the best of times and this beer just reeked of the green nettle acridity that turns my stomach. I'm sure it will have its fans among the bock-drinking community but it was just too full-on for me.

I try to avoid writing about beers that are simply blends of other beers. Some of the more geek-focused continental breweries are a little too fond of doing this and I don't feel obliged to provide space for their mixes. However, I'm making an exception for Franciscan Well's Spring Fusion, also available at the Easter Festival. This is a straight saison blended with the brewery's longtime flagship Rebel Red. The result is a fascinating combination of crisp tartness next to totally incongruous red ale toffee and caramel. It shouldn't work, but it does: at once palate cleansing, thirst quenching and comfortingly warm.

Of course, The Franciscan Well are not merely confined to Cork these days. The long reach of Molson Coors and their PR team brought beers and brewer to Dublin last month for an evening's ligging in the opulent surrounds of House bar and restaurant on Leeson Street. After a 4km walk in the warm Spring sunshine, the free Blue Moon on arrival was the nicest Blue Moon I've ever tasted. Mind you, sucking the orange slice was even better than the beer. We also got a try of the new seasonal Summer Honey Wheat. It's pretty poor, as it goes, much like the other Blue Moon seasonals: an aroma consisting of no more than a trace of sugar, and a flavour to match. Some minor honey stickiness is just about detectable on the finish but very little else is going on. I'd swap back to regular Blue Moon in an instant.

Also on the preview list for the evening was Chieftan, an IPA which looks to be joining the permanent draught line-up. It's 5.5% ABV and is another one of those dark oily pale ales, like Porterhouse Hop Head or JW Sweetman Pale Ale. This is, of course, a good thing. The hop combination is Tettnanger, Magnum and Citra, though it hides this at first, presenting burnt caramel and toffee in the aroma to begin with. This dark malt theme continues in the first sip, some almost coffeeish notes come into play, quickly followed by a dank green funk of the sort found in many an amber ale, and bringing to mind BrewDog's 5AM Saint in particular. Rather than bitterness, there's a sharp citric piquancy, followed by a long resinous, palate-coating finish. Those who prefer their IPAs to have a bit more fresh zing to them might rather think of this as an amber, but either way it's a good beer and a welcome addition.

On the above evidence, Molson Coors Ireland seems to be strongly outperforming its American and British brethern.

12 May 2014

That's grand

One thousand posts! And to celebrate I'm bringing you all to a beer festival! A beer festival where you can't drink any of the beer because it happened nearly a month ago. Real-time beer notes? What do you think this is, Untappd?

Easter weekend saw the 16th annual festival of Irish beer at the Franciscan Well in Cork. I've only been to seven of them, but even in that time it has changed significantly. The growing crowd of punters necessitated removing some of the outdoor seating, while the growing crowd of brewers meant individual stalls were abandoned in favour of one long L-shaped bar to squeeze the pitches together.

A few regulars were absent: no Hilden, no Hooker, but there were a handful of new brands. JJ's is a recent start-up, based near Charleville on the Limerick-Cork border. Hugo's Pils is the first beer out, and rather good it is too. They haven't bothered with filtration, meaning it retains a healthy wholesome graininess, coupled with a soft soda water texture and a cheeky bite of citrus pith. I'm reminded a lot of the sort of unfiltered pils you get in German brewpubs, though on the good side of that often-wonky quality spectrum.

Staying in the rebel county, 9 White Deer also brought its first beer to market -- Stag Bán. I mention it just for the record as I'd like to allow a bit more time before publishing a review. I don't think I was tasting quite what the brewer intended from this blonde ale.

Cork's other brewpub, Cotton Ball, was present and correct. Already there was a new seasonal, called Indian Summer. I love it when hops present juicy peach flavours and this had that in spades. The texture is all wheaty fluffiness. It'll be a great summer at the Cotton Ball if this beer lasts long enough.

After missing the 2013 festival, UCC Pilot brewery were back and -- shock, horror -- didn't have German style beers on the bar. Instead we were given Specific Pale, a 5.5% ABV pale ale, arriving the purest shade of limpid gold. A sherbet aroma gives way to bright citric zing that could teach many a pale ale just what is meant by cleanness of flavour, and why it's a very good thing. Accompanying it was Bitter Brown Brew: not the most attractive-sounding offering. It has the milky chocolate sweetness one might expect, to begin with, but veers abruptly into a sharp acidic hop finish. It's not an unpleasant arrangement, just a little... unsettling.

The downside of a six-hour stint at an ever-expanding festival is the lack of time I have to enjoy some of the favourite seasonals and hacked specials from breweries I know and like. So no new Dungarvan Mahon Falls for me, and no 2014 Metalman Windjammer. From the former I did get to taste their new Wheat Beer, a super-refreshing 4.9% ABV number: light, pale, and loaded with juicy jaffa flavours. Metalman had their iteration of Unite, a 4% ABV pale ale brewed for International Women's Day back in March. There's a deft bit of balance in this, linking caramel malt flavours with the playful punchiness of Cascade and Simcoe hops for an end result that is simultaneously crisp and sweet.

Independent Brewing had its full range on offer, including a new Independent Stout. For a brewery that has no qualms about ramping up the strength of its beers it's a little surprising that this is only 4.5% ABV, and even moreso when you taste it. The body is fantastically full, helped no doubt by the inclusion of some lactose sugar. A small amount of vanilla pod also went into the mix, though gets a bit lost and the dose is likely to be doubled next time out. Even without that, this is a very distinctive new Irish stout and presents a treat for those who like theirs with a bit of a chocolate and treacle quality.

With my sweet tooth firmly in place it was on to White Gypsy's Brown American Ale. This is the first recipe from new recruit Declan and is a pretty complex offering. It seems to be all about the chocolate at first: milky silky Galaxy bars aided by the smooth rich body. A stouty dryness arrives in shortly after and just when you think you have the measure of it, the hops begin to build, starting as just a complementary fruitiness but by the end of my half there was a definite sharp oily resinousness built up. Who knows where a full pint would lead?

Trouble Brewing had been  suspiciously quiet of late as regards new beers, but all that changed as soon as the Franciscan Well opened for business on Easter Saturday, with no fewer than four previously unseen ales making their début. Whistle Blower IPA was my least favourite: 7.6% ABV and a little hot with it, full of caramel and banana esters while the hoppiness sits apart as a rather harsh bitterness with no real nuance of flavour. Much better nuance can be found in Big Brown Bear, Trouble's 6% ABV brown ale. It's another super-smooth brown, full of chocolate but with a bonus of turkish delight rosewater floralness.

Paul and Declan, enjoying the festival banter
Agent Provocateur Rye Red does the hop thing much better. In fact I'd go so far as to say the "red" designation is a bit misleading and this should really be classed as a pale ale, given its dark gold colour. The rye brings the typical squeaky grassy sharpness and this combines neatly with the big mandarin and orange blossom from the Amarillo hops. Lazy Sunday is a saison, and quite an interesting one. There's lots of hoppy pith but a considerable dose of rustic barnyard too. I think I may have become accustomed to cleanness in my saisons so there's nothing wrong with an occasional reminder that they're not all like that.

Acclaim for the beer of the festival was pretty universal, from what I heard. I didn't get to it until quite late, but still agreed that Eight Degrees's The Full Irish was deserving of the accolade. A new silo at the brewery means that they can bulk order grain from an Irish maltster, and this 6%-er is made with 100% Irish malt. Hopwise it's all-American, and shows the same flair for hopping as the World Beer Cup prize-winning Amber-Ella: basically a peach and grapefruit tour de force.

Irish craft brewing may well have outgrown the confines of one pub beer garden some years ago, but The Franciscan Well Easter Festival remains an enjoyable cross-section of what's going on, especially now that County Cork has become the microbrewery centre of the country. Seven years and a multinational takeover notwithstanding, I still highly recommend it.

08 May 2014

God no

I don't know where Thomas picked me up this bottle of Nils Oscar God Lager, but somewhere in the UK. The back label is particularly interesting, where it describes itself as an "ultra premium craft" beer -- in for a penny, eh? -- and makes clear to the punters that the contents will deliver the "big flavours of a real ale", though there's a somewhat cavalier approach to German styles in these Danes' Swedes' description of their product as a "Dortmunder/Helles Pilsner". Why not throw in Spezial, Kellerbier and see if you can complete the set?

The three dense paragraphs had talked up a good game before I raised the glass. The smell is definitely on the Dortmunder spectrum: a sweet bready aroma, like cornbread, with a flash of metallic hops behind it. No fireworks on tasting, however. Though it's within its expiry date and has been looked after since I got it, there's a distinct staleness: a harsh not-quite-right roughness to a malt flavour that should shimmy charmingly past the palate and down the throat like good Dortmunder Export does. The bready sweetness is too sugary and the hops are nowhere to be found. And while I'm throwing the book at it, I detect a nasty gastric acidic note in the finish too.

I probably wouldn't have been so harsh on this if it had just presented itself as a plain old Danish Swedish craft lager, but by invoking German lager and British ale on the packaging Nils Oscar wrote me a cheque that their beer simply couldn't cash. The lesson for me, then, is never read the label first.