06 October 2014

Last month's news

September was a bit of a busy one for me: three countries, two beer festivals, and lots of new beers. So you'll forgive me, I hope, if this blog is a little bit behind on what's been happening in Irish brewing of late.

The month kicked off with Irish beer's headline event at the RDS in Dublin. 33 Irish beer companies made an appearance, plus foreign beers, cider and spirits. The number of new companies and products were an obvious sign of how vibrant Ireland's microbrewing scene is right now.

Of course, the big news was the festival début of Sligo's White Hag brewery and I haven't heard a bad word said about their beer. So I guess it falls upon me to do so. Their witbier, Fionnabhair, was thin, watery and over-attenuated, like slightly wonky homebrew. Joe the brewer agreed. It was his first ever brew on the new kit, he's not happy with it, knows what went wrong, and it'll be fixed in later batches. The beer's still perfectly drinkable however, so bringing it along was definitely the better option than dumping it. I confess I wasn't a massive fan of the heather ale Beann Gulban, finding it rather hot and heavy with lots of marker-pen phenols, but I only had a sip and it was late so I do definitely need to try this one again on a clean palate.

With Tuireann Bán, White Hag set themselves a tough task to beat Ireland's only other white IPA, Eight Degrees Horn8's Nest, but it stands up well to it. It's the appropriate hazy shade of witbier yellow. The first sip delivers a piquant one-two of white pepper and rocket, with an orange sweetie fruit-flavoured stickiness coming in behind and a bitter sting in the finish. It tastes every bit of its 6.2% ABV but is no less enjoyable for that. Not that this is all about Eight Degrees comparisons, but White Hag had an Oktoberfest beer too, called Samhain. I'm inherently suspicious of the dark orange American-style Oktoberfest, but this one is wonderfully crisp with exactly the right amount of rich breadiness without any nasty gloopy stodge.

And then there's Black Boar. I'm not sure I ever had a glass of this to myself. People kept thrusting it at me. It's a 10.2% ABV imperial stout, very thick and unutterably smooth. It tastes sharply of very fresh ground coffee, blending this with bittersweet treacle and more approachable caramel flavours. It's not all that complex, but it doesn't need to be. I look forward to getting a proper handle on it at a later stage.

My first port of call on day one was Rascal's, to try their new lemon saison, based on an award-winning homebrew recipe and given the serious geopolitical name of Kim Jong Lem-Un. The lemon zest comes through on the finish as a tart squirt of Jif. Before that you get a crisp and wheaty saison, full bodied and loaded with invigorating spices. It manages to refresh in three different ways simultaneously and, at only 4% ABV, wasn't done any justice by the festival's half-pint measures.

My pick of the new saisons, however, was Eight Degrees Nelson Sauvin Saison, a very different beast from Mr Kim at 7.4% ABV (and possibly growing -- one set of bottle labels has already been discarded) and a rather darker orange colour. The aroma is peppery while the dry base beer provides a perfect launch point for all that's wonderful about Nelson Sauvin hops. The flinty grape flavour that gave it its name comes through perfectly clear and, though it gets a little bit catty in the finish, the saison crispness stops that from becoming too much. Here I was very glad of the smaller glass because this stuff is incredibly drinkable.

The other new guy at Eight Degrees was Alba Abú, loosely described as a Scotch ale and brewed with Scots pine and heather. Given to me without any of the background I'd be describing it as an American-style amber: all rich candy-coated dank hops, packed full of juicy ripe fruit and an echo of milk chocolate. Oddly, it's single-hopped with Chinook, so I'm guessing that the marvellous complexity is derived at least in part from the added foraged ingredients. Not that it matters: it's a beautiful beer and a worthy substitute for Amber-Ella that weekend.

As one would expect from the festival's anchor tenant, Carlow Brewing had some very interesting specials. I almost missed Hop Heavy, a beer I'd been looking forward to since tasting it from the conditioning tanks back in July. Despite the name, it's a manageable 5.5% ABV and quite simply constructed from marvellously fresh leafy green hop flavours -- grassy, with just a dusting of citrus -- and then some pleasant balancing dark malt sweetness, leaning a little towards chocolate. Another one I'm hoping to see more of.

I had the O'Hara's Dunkelweizen more out of a sense of completeness than anything else. It's a long time since this style of beer thrilled me, but this one was pretty good: brown bananas to an extent, but with an excellent clean crispness that prevents it being too sweet or too dull, which is normally what goes wrong with these. And O'Hara's Blackberry Lager? Why not? It's a reddish-gold colour and does show a lovely dark fruit tartness in the flavour profile. Blueberries next, please.

The headline act at the Carlow bar was Wild Side: their first sour beer. Well... sour-ish. The base is a dark red barley wine and it has been fermented to 9.6% ABV. From the cask, the grain and chocolate from the residual malt sugars are still definitely present, but the souring effect adds a pleasant cherry and damson quality, plus lots of heavy savoury umami. Broadly speaking this is in the Rodenbach end of the sour spectrum, though less sharp, much weightier and with much more biscuit malt. It'll be interesting to see how it ages, if given the chance.

The sour beer I drank most of at the festival was White Gypsy's Scarlet, and that's only partially down to Jamie letting me mind the bar for a few hours on Sunday. This one started life as a bière de garde and is appropriately mid-amber coloured. There's a huge lactic bite right in the middle of it, all sour milk without the milk. Underneath there's a rich layer of summer fruit flavour for a kind of strawberry smoothie effect. At a modest 5% ABV it's nicely moreish and proved very popular with the punters during my time at the taps. This bodes well for sour times in Ireland.

Scarlet is part of a grand experiment at White Gypsy, as is their hop garden, as is Dubháin, the stout they were serving on cask. This is based on a former recipe of Dwan's brewery where Cuilán had brewed before founding White Gypsy. It's 5.2% ABV and very heavy with an aroma rich in coffee and butter. A dry roast finish keeps it drinkable. When Cuilán's plans come together there'll be an Irish stout made from 100% native ingredients, matured in oak as all stouts once were, and given the right amount of the sourness that was formerly the style's hallmark. It's an audacious plan and I hope I get to taste the result at some stage.

That'll do for a warm-up. More wandering around the RDS with an empty glass and a speculative look next.

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