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.