29 November 2014

'Spoons, man

One of the more momentous events of the past year was the arrival of British pub chain JD Wetherspoon to Ireland. The original surprise announcement was made in August 2013 and news came through by the end of the year that the first branch would be in the well-heeled south Dublin suburb of Blackrock. So this wasn't going to be one of those Wild West Wetherspoons, run down and gum-stained, that one occasionally encounters across the water. Though they didn't make it explicit, I suspect the intention was for this to be both pilot fish and flagship all under one enormous roof.

The doors of The Three Tun Tavern opened in early July, by which stage news of the next phase of the expansion was trickling out. More Irish Wetherspoons are expected in Dublin, Cork and further abroad next year, and the second Dublin outlet opens three stops down the DART line in Dún Laoghaire later this month. For the moment, however, The Three Tun Tavern remains one of a kind.

It was August by the time I made it along, late afternoon on a sunny Friday. When it's quiet you really get a feel for the size of the place: a vast wooden floored bearpit with a long bar at the centre and more secluded carpeted areas on different levels off to the sides. I had a slight awww moment when I noticed the silent TV screens were set to RTÉ News Now rather than Sky, as would be normal in the UK. Lots of staff were milling about, far more than there were customers. I guess the rotas were still in the planning phase. A drink, then.

Twelve handpumps makes it easily the caskiest pub in the country, though the everyday selection isn't really up to much: rather mainstream humdrum large-regional British ales, the sort of stuff that the company can pile very high and sell exceedingly cheap. I thought that Adnams Ghost Ship would be a safe bet, having always loved the bottled version but it just felt tired and sickly on cask. Not the refresher I was after that particular afternoon.

Having decided there was nothing on cask I wanted and moving over to the keg taps, the first one to catch my interest was DNA, that oddity from Charles Wells made with a dash of Dogfish Head IPA. My pint arrived a cheery clear copper colour but dear lord it was cold. As the condensation cascaded onto my table that's when I noticed the pub doesn't put beermats out, though they are available. Once it was warm enough for me to taste something I found it quite a subtle and refreshing beer. Its American heritage is there in the sherbety fruit tones, though there's nothing you'd actually call bitter or citrus, and then there's a rising caramel aftermath meaning that it soon starts tasting as brown as it looks. DNA offers a few seconds of enjoyment but just gets boring after that. I understand that the recipe has been revised since the summer so your mileage will obviously vary, if you haven't already been put off it.

I had time for one more pint and opted for Revisionist Lager, holding out possibly naive hopes for Marston's craftified series of beers. This is medium gold and the point-of-sale material promises dry-hopping with Admiral and Boadicea hops. I couldn't wait to get stuck in. Ow my teeth! So very, very cold. I suppose with a lager it's part of the spec, a reasonable demand of the customer base. I cupped my hands around the glass and gingerly took another sip. There's definitely some hop action up front: a sort of chew-sweet artificial fruitiness, but there's not much behind it. No malt, for one thing, which perhaps isn't that surprising at a mere 4% ABV. I kept searching for more taste, letting the beer warm, until notes of butter began creeping in and I knew I was on to a loser. I drained the glass and went on my way.

I wasn't expecting to be back as soon as October, thinking that the chain wouldn't bother with including Ireland in the yearly cycle of special beer festivals. But they did, and on Friday 17th October the first beers from the Wetherspoon International Real-Ale Festival went on sale in Dublin. I really enjoyed my time at this event in Belfast last year so headed straight for Blackrock early in the afternoon of day two.

Just five to pick from, and my first choice was the Hook Norton / Brew Moon Real Antipodean, a 4% ABV golden ale. That's getting into the airy upper reaches for English beer of this style but this was definitely rather thinner than I expected. Still, a lovely spiced orange aroma opened its account and there's a similar sort of fruit flavour, lots of light sherbet and then a cheeky invigorating bitterness right at the end. The hops are Motueka and Wakatu and really didn't have much that was typically New Zealandish about them, but they still worked nicely together. It's another one to finish quickly however: bath salts and orange cordial started to come out as it warmed. Just as well I had more to try.

Meanwhile, the wife opted for the strongest beer on the menu: Freak of Nature double IPA, brewed by Bateman's and based on an original by North Carolina's Wicked Weed brewery. 7.5% ABV and a gorgeous rich gold-amber colour. What could possibly go wrong here? Everything. Aside from the forgiveable powerful alcohol heat there was a massive hit of phenols: pure TCP yuck coating everything. Where it was possible to taste the beer underneath it was all sweet and syrupy. The bottom line is no fresh American hop loveliness, just anguish and despair. Was the problem in the recipe, the brewing or the serving? I don't know. The total trooper I married did manage to get through the entire half pint, however. What a hero.

After that I lost my nerve on risking whole pints and opted for the, admittedly wonderful, three thirds for the price of a pint. We settled in front of the real fire while I set about them.

On the left of the picture, the first was another down-under collaboration: Two Birds Golden Ale, by the Melbourne brewery of the same name, brewed at Banks's. It's a reddish sort of gold and that's probably its most interesting feature. A bit of golden syrup malt, maybe, but otherwise harmless and bland. Neither bells nor whistles in JW Lees John Willie's 100 (far right) either. This is brown bitter of the very brownest sort, a one dimensional toffee pudding that had nothing wrong with it, but I was glad I only had a small glass to work through all the same. And in the middle Abbaye Blonde brewed at Shepherd Neame with input from Belgium's Val-Dieu brewery. This 6%-er was pretty good, all biscuits and bubblegum, sprinkled with honey and cereal. No Belgian stickiness, just good, clean, drinkable golden ale.

My advice to myself for these Wetherspoon collaboration sets is to look out for the ones brewed at Adnams. They tend to be a cut above the others. There was only one on this list, a collaboration with SixPoint called Bklyn Bitter. The pumpclip was present but flagged as "coming soon" and the helpful barman said he expected it to be pouring later that evening. We were in no rush. A wander up the street brought us to The Dark Horse where Goodbye Blue Monday was pouring on cask, throwing all of the Wetherspoon offerings far into the shade. We returned to The Three Tun Tavern just after six to find the afternoon's families had cleared out and the place was now heaving with determined evening drinkers. 6pm on a Saturday seems to be the time when Blackrock turns up its rugby shirt collar and heads to the pub. We found a space in a corner and I brought us two pints of Bklyn.

It didn't let me down. Maybe a little over-egged at 5.5% ABV while tasting far more safe and sessionable, this is rose gold in colour and smells enticingly of sulphur and black tea. It's tannins a-go-go the way Adnams does best, more a lemon tea effect on tasting, when the hopping kicks in, and hitting the back of the throat and roof of the mouth with a tannic dryness. I'd have been happy if that's all it did but there was also big rich mango juiciness and a dusting of incense spice. Phwoar. This one was well worth waiting for.

So, clearly a mixed bag at The Three Tuns, but hooray for choice. I doubt I'll be making regular forays out to Blackrock, Dún Laoghaire or Swords just to go to Wetherspoon, and even if and when they open in the centre of town I can't see it becoming a destination for a night out. But just a few pints of something of Bklyn's calibre per year will do me. Welcome to Dublin, JD.

(This is my second #beerylongreads post in the current round. For the full list of contributions, see Boak and Bailey's blog here.)

27 November 2014

Brown out

I don't know if it's entirely fair to be including the fourth-biggest brewing multinational in this week's series. C&C recently set up their own brewery at headquarters in Clonmel where they're currently pumping out the rather lacklustre Clonmel 1650 lager. But before that, they took an almost-total stake in the 5 Lamps microbrewery in Dublin, a two-hander run by Brian and William, which appears to have complete freedom to brew what they like.

With the lack of diktats comes a lack of logistical support, I guess, which is why the tap badge in The Norseman for The Tenters Brown Ale, their latest, was a circle of paper sellotaped to the keg font, with the name picked out on a portable label printer. Now that's craft. The Tenters is everything you want from a brown ale: a crisp dry bite of roasty grain husk next to lusciously smooth milk chocolate and slightly salty caramel. Like their Blackpitts Porter, it's a solid, no-frills drinking beer with plenty of flavour.

The Tenters is easily the best of the beers I've reviewed this week and while I think corporate structure rarely if ever correlates to beer quality, the method of production here may just contain a wee clue, a signpost, for any of the other big brewing concerns interested in breaking into this new and possibility lucrative market segment, Beer For People Who Enjoy The Taste Of Beer.

26 November 2014

Barrel of laughs

Quite a convoluted back story comes with the new one from Franciscan Well. The four-pack their PR people sent me was accompanied by a leaflet explaining the concept of the chaser. The beer, Jameson Aged Pale Ale, has not only been aged in whiskey barrels but is also recommended to be served alongside a shot. Creative playfulness or a cynical joint effort by Molson Coors and Pernod Ricard to sell each other's products? Not that it matters.

What matters is the beer: 33cl bottles beautifully presented in Jameson's dark green and gold livery. It pours a flawless pale amber colour and smells rather sticky: Lucozade and hard candy, with maybe a mild whiskeyish air. The texture is very light for a 6% ABV beer with lots of prickle from the carbonation.

It's not very strongly flavoured and anyone looking for a big hit from the Cascade hops will be disappointed, but there's a different sort of complexity at work, mostly malt-related. There's more of that candy, a gorgeous brown bread crusty dryness and then an intense honeyish sweetness with mild wood overtones which I'm guessing is the Irish whiskey at work.

The recommendation, of course, is to drink this with a Jameson. "The biscuit and malt of the pale ale balance perfectly with the vanilla that is peppered with spicy wood and and hints of sweet sherry" it says here. Sadly, my house whiskey is Power's rather than Jameson, but sure it all comes from the same place. And I can't say I'm convinced -- the two flavours just disappear into each other and I can't tell if the honey is coming from the beer or the whiskey. If anything, the subtle complexities in the beer are scorched into oblivion by the hot spirit on my palate next to it.

Franciscan Well Jameson Aged Pale Ale is a nice beer for free and the idea behind it is a fun gimmick. But the ceremony is not to be taken seriously.

25 November 2014

Getting a rise

Yesterday's post was about Diageo's attempt to take advantage of Ireland's growing appetite for new beers. It's far from the only major player in the country to do so. In fact, they're all at it. Forever nipping at Diageo's heels is Heineken, and the Dutch behemoth has taken a very different approach with its latest offering.

While the new Guinness porters were released with huge fanfare and saturation marketing, Rising Road Pale Ale is almost a stealth beer. Only for the fact that it seems to mostly show up in bars where Heineken has a foot firmly in the door -- the places that have Tiger and Paulaner on tap already -- there's no way of even beginning to guess where it comes from.

My first impression on ordering a pint is that it's not "pale" by any stretch of the imagination, but is resolutely copper coloured. Tastewise it has a lot in common with its Diageo lookalike Smithwick's: a similar crispness and the slightly metallic tang of English hops. At the centre there are lots of very clean and quenching tannins, and hiding behind this a toffee base that gradually comes out of its shell as the beer warms.

The low-level hopping, and flavour generally, is certain to disappoint those drinkers who have just started associating the phrase "pale ale" with bold citrus bitterness. It certainly disappointed me. That said, it's technically flawless and perfectly potable. Though if it's priced higher than Smithwick's on the same bar, on account of being a pale ale dontcherknow, it's not worth paying the premium.

Edited to add: Rising Road appears to have been subsequently rebranded as "Cute Hoor". The tap badge still doesn't mention Heineken.

24 November 2014

Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

I can't help but feel that Diageo have fashioned a rod for their own backs with The Brewers Project. It's easy to read it as promising things that it was never really intended to deliver, and that's just going to annoy people.

My experience of it began back in early September when the company invited a small group of bloggy types to St. James's Gate to learn about the Project, the first time they have ever done so. As everyone is doubtless aware at this stage the Project has been launched with two new beers: Guinness Dublin Porter and Guinness West Indies Porter. In answer to my obvious  "Why now?" question, Nick the Innovation Marketing Manager, leading the group, said that the rise in diversity on the Irish beer scene had not gone unnoticed at Diageo. They saw it as an opportunity to play a little, to try something that wouldn't have worked before but could be worth a go. Those of us still lamenting the premature death of the St. James's Gate beers know all about Guinness projects that were tragically ahead of their time.

There are two principal features of the new venture, explained to us when we left the plush surrounds of the Director's Dining Room and donned our protective goggles for entering the pilot brewery: one is that the pilot plant itself plays a central role in creating the beers; the second is that the Guinness archive is also pivotal, providing inspiration for the brewers designing the beers. These are the messages we see again and again in the marketing surrounding the new products: brewers given freedom to create, and a taste of authentic history. The problem is that both concepts are paper thin and disintegrate disappointingly after a mere moment's scrutiny.

Let's take the historical side of things first. An archivist was on hand to show us the logs which were directly relevant to the two new beers, or rather, how they're marketed. One log was from 1796, the earliest to show porter being brewed by Guinness. The other was dated 1801, when Guinness began brewing porter for export, a recipe which evolved into today's Foreign Extra Stout. Gearóid, one of the brewers gathered round  with us, pointed to the figures for hopping, saying that they were much higher than you'd have today. I've read enough Ron to know that's par for the course, but also that no 1796 porter would be anywhere near as weak as the 3.8% ABV of the new one. So what gives? It's an influence on the recipes, say the men from Diageo, an inspiration. But where did the basic specs come from, the original gravity and so on? Oh they were just handed down from above, same as every beer. These porters conform rigidly to modern Guinness ingredients and methods.

I'm not having a go at Diageo for not making Pattinsonian clones of beers in their logs. They are entitled to make what they like. I do, however, think presenting them as any way historically associated was a mistake -- something that will mislead most customers and just irritate the ones who look a bit further into it.

It's all neatly illustrated by the posters which began to appear a couple of weeks ago, ahead of the launch of the beers in Ireland. Try Our New Beer From 1796 / 1801 they exclaim. You have to look at your feet to spot the small print:
That's a lot less fun and I wonder what the point of the whole thing is. A beer that sort-of has some influences from an older one isn't a thrilling window into the past, but nor is it an exciting new recipe. It looks like a brewery wanting my attention but offering nothing to hold it.

The 10hL brewhouse
And then there's the pilot brewery itself. You'll have noticed it on your way along James's Street, its delivery shutter two storeys up the wall on the outside. There are a pair of brewhouses inside: a one hectolitre, fanciest-homebrew-kit-you've-ever-seen, and a ten hectolitre kit, originally installed in the late 1990s to brew the "St. James's Gate" range of proto-craft beers but still very shiny and well looked after. It could be the brewery of any small-to-medium microbrewery, except there's a cereal cooker at the start for adjuncts, and a pasteuriser at the end: St. James's Gate is a totally sterile plant, no beer leaves alive, not even the made-for-destruction test batches.

It's the only pilot brewery in the globe-spanning Diageo empire and it has the job of testing all the ingredients that arrive, be it a new crop of sorghum for use in Nigeria or a fresh batch of foam stabiliser from Kerry. One of the FVs was marked as containing a test run of Tusker, several had the last runs from the former Smithwick's brewery in Kilkenny inside.

The pilot also does recipe development. Every Diageo beer starts life on the small kit, then gets reproduced on the 10hL one. If successful, an Irish recipe graduates to the brand new main brewhouse where Guinness stout comes through 1,000hL at a time, though half-sized batches are often done for other beers and, Gearóid says, they can bring the quantity down to 350hL if they absolutely need to. And the new beers are no exception: both were scaled up through the pilot brewery but the beer you drink came from the industrial-sized facility.

The 1hL brewhouse
I've seen several references to The Brewers Project as "craft beer", or an attempt thereat, by the makers of Guinness. Everyone I met inside St. James's Gate denied that this is what it's supposed to be, and I completely believe them that their intention isn't to fake small-batch, artisan Guinness. But they can't possibly not have noticed that, with all the mention of the pilot kit and the men who work there, and the emphasis on the human input into the product design while totally ignoring the economic aspect, that "craft Guinness" was a perception bound to result. And again that anyone who saw the details of what's actually happening would be disappointed.

Eleven paragraphs on a brewery's marketing is not how I roll normally. But The Brewers Project fascinates me, albeit in a slightly morbid way. That said, the opportunity to look into the Diageo brewing process and see a whole new yet familiar side of brewing is something I'm hugely grateful for -- a big thanks to Julie and Ruth from WHPR for masterminding the event, and the Diageo team for showing us round. I'm hoping it's the beginning of a new era of glasnost initiated by the taciturn Dublin 8 monolith.

We did get a small taster of the two beers when we visited. My first impression of both was that they're very similar to existing Guinness products: Dublin Porter thin and crisp like Guinness Extra Stout while the caramel and mild sourness of West Indies Porter lit up the receptors in my brain which enjoy Guinness Foreign Extra Stout but left them craving the weight and complexity that Foreign Extra delivers at 7.5% ABV which West Indies lacks at a mere 6%. I had to wait until last weekend and the release of the bottles on the Irish market to get my hands on them and do a proper taste test.

Guinness special editions tasting very similar to each other is something I'm used to. Anyone who worked through the Brewhouse Series almost a decade ago may remember. But the brewers I met at St. James's Gate are adamant that all the beers are radically different from each other, even the Brewhouse Series. The amount of aroma Goldings added to West Indies Porter is off the charts for a Guinness beer enthused Gearóid, and again I believe him. I just could not smell that for myself. "Could the common taste be down to the Essence?" I asked, referring to the soured syrup that Diageo produces to give all Guinness worldwide a signature flavour. Gearóid's answer was a phrase I have never heard on a brewery tour before: "We don't talk about that."

And so down to business. A blind triangle tasting of both beers and what I regard as their respective close cousins. Could I tell them apart, and which are better?

The six 100ml glasses of 10°C beer in front of me were a uniform black with barely any difference despite the weakest being half the strength of the strongest. I figured head colour would be a dead giveaway so they were carefully poured with no foam showing. A first go through the set showed clearly which were the strong three and which the weak three, but there was nothing else obvious.

Picking the odd one out from the weaker three was almost impossible: it was just glass after glass of watery fizz. I tried drinking them in different sequences, pausing for water between them, and running through them in quick succession but it was very difficult to spot any distinguishing features. Going past the wateriness, and letting the beer warm and flatten a bit, I started getting hints of chocolate and a green vegetal complexity, just shading towards metal. This was in all three but I half-guessed that I could taste it a tiny bit less in one of the three so I marked that as Guinness Extra Stout and the other two as Dublin Porter, and I was correct.

Interestingly, as I finished off the leftovers once the challenge was over and the beers had been sitting out a while, I found that the Extra Stout got more full-flavoured as it approached room temperature: your classic large-bottle-off-the-shelf. The Dublin Porter did not, however, staying as thin and dull as when first taken from the cooler. So, if faced with a choice of just Dublin Porter and Extra Stout which to pick? I now appreciate that there is a mildly stronger flavour in cool Dublin Porter, but the emphasis is on mild there. But warmer Extra Stout was a revelation: I never would have guessed there would be such an appreciable difference between 3.8% ABV and 4.2% ABV, but that extra 0.4 really does add heft. Room temperature Guinness Extra Stout remains the company's best session-strength option.

The stronger set was easier. One of my glasses contained a hot 'n' heavy sour coffee and caramel madman, the other two a more gently sour, roastier beer with an added metallic edge. It wasn't too much of a reach to guess that the former was Foreign Extra and the latter West Indies Porter. And it's not just the alcohol difference that gave it away. I was on alert for those bonus Goldings that Gearóid had mentioned and though there was no sign at all of them in the aroma (all six smelled of damn all), there was a discernible crunchy green cabbage flavour behind the signature sour Guinnessy tang. I've tasted English hops doing that before, especially when in quantity.

I stand by my initial impression that West Indies Porter does have much in common with Foreign Extra, but this test proved that it is markedly different from it, though I wouldn't at all say that it's an improvement, apart from the bottle size. The next phase of the test should be to determine whether a half litre serving of West Indies Porter delivers more pleasure than 33cl of Foreign Extra Stout, but I think these beers have already taken up enough of my time and your screen.

All four beers are unmistakably Guinness and I think I'll have to agree to disagree with the Diageo bods on whether this is a strength or a flaw. In the microbrewing sector it's commonplace to hear of a company recruiting a brewer who has Guinness experience. While visiting James's Gate I took the opportunity to ask if the reverse happens: do brewers from Irish micros ever take jobs with them? The answer was no. While there's a certain amount of cross-pollination between the big industrial multinationals, nothing from the craft side. I think the result of this inward-looking philosophy can be tasted in these new beers, and every other Guinness brand extension where the consumer complains that it's not different enough. To the brewers and execs for whom Guinness represents archetypal porter perfection honed over centuries these variations are an audacious victory, instilling the quintessence of the brand in a radically different host body. This stout drinker thinks they should get out more.

(For more longer-than-usual blog posts about beer from a variety of authors, check in with Boak and Bailey this Saturday and follow their #beerylongreads project.)

20 November 2014

Gone wild

Fuller's Wild River was introduced as the brewery's summer seasonal in 2012, pitched at the whitewater rafters of Chiswick. A batch of just-past-date bottles showed up at DrinkStore a while back and as I'd never tasted it before at all I grabbed one for the princely sum of €1.

"Zesty" and "bursting with citrus flavours" promises the label, though the cap sent a more disturbing message: something very unhelpful appears to have been growing under there. Still, nothing off about the aroma, and yes there's citrus even if it's more casually dropping in than bursting -- a mannerly mild lemon and grapefruit pithine