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.
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