31 December 2014

Doubles and quits

It's the last post of 2014, a very busy year for beer and for Irish beer in particular. New breweries popped up all over the place and I paid overdue visits to Carlow Brewing, Porterhouse and Galway Bay. Dublin has been a little slow to catch up with the rest of the country but I'm expecting that to be somewhat rectified by the end of next year. The slew of winter seasonal beers has been bigger than ever and, for the second year in a row, Eight Degrees has released a trilogy of strong brews. One of them is a re-run of last year's Imperial Stout but the others are brand new and I caught up with them when they went on tap in The Norseman.

First up, a 7.2% ABV Belgian Dubbel. It's the appropriate shade of chestnut red and poured quite clear, though not completely. It's big on banana esters and heavy on the caramel too for an unsubtly sweet boozy banoffi effect, the heat rising to a slightly off-putting hint of marker pens at the finish. Thankfully the heat and markers don't build and the end result is a reasonably decent take on the dubbel style. While I got a little bit of a savoury yeast bite in the flavour, I suspect that this would be even more present in the bottled version and would help balance the intense sweetness. It's certainly one that will be interesting after a few years' maturation.

Eight Degrees wowed us in spring with The Full Irish IPA (and not just because of that photo) and have followed it up with a double IPA version named, topically, Double Irish. I didn't get much of an aroma from it, but that could have been the glass: those trumpet-shaped half-pints really should be banished from decent beer bars. Cut grass eventually wafted out of it when I'd drank down far enough. On tasting, the bitterness strikes first and while the flavour is complex, it's not a fruity one. There's everything else, mind: dank oily resins, grassy sharpness and a mouth-watering dry spicing. While carrying the full weight of its 9% ABV it's not at all sugary. It's a little more grown-up and serious than Ireland's other double IPAs and you can decide for yourself whether or not that's a good thing.

And speaking of comparisons, with all of my beer reviews done for the year, that means it's time for:

The Golden Pint Awards 2014

Best Irish Cask Beer: Full Sail
What happens when you take an already strong and hoppy pale ale and then dry hop it as far as physically possible. This is a face melter that goes through hoppy and out the other side. I'm hoping the expanded capacity at Galway Bay will make it a more regular sight.

Best Irish Keg Beer: Black Boar
We’re not worthy. Oh wait, yes we are. Where the hell has this been until now, White Hag? A silky knock-it-back 9% ABV stout that's so easy to drink they had to name it after a dangerous animal to remind us of the risk. At the opposite end of the hydrometer, a major tip of the hat has to go to Trouble Brewing for Graffiti: more of this, and this sort of thing, please.

Best Irish Bottled or Canned Beer: Independent Pale Ale / Dublin Brewer IPA
I first drank this way back in February but have been caning most of it under its Dublin Brewer guise at The Larder. I didn't realise they're the same beer but I have it on good authority that they are. Another big blousey whack of hops: invigorating, refreshing and great with a feed.

Best Overseas Draught Beer: Het Uiltje G&T Radler
Wiper & True's Mosaic pale ale was a major contender in the pupil-dilating stakes this year, but the Dutch contract brewers take the prize for me. All the wonderful things about my two favourite drinks in a single package. It's quite possibly the oddest beer I drank this year, and perhaps that alone deserves recognition.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer: Black Eyed King Imp
The second imperial stout to take a gong, but it couldn't be more different from Black Boar. BrewDog's limited edition special has a convoluted back story but when you meet it it's entirely integrated: one piece of warm, sumptuous liquid comfort.

Best Collaboration Brew: Crushable Saison
There have been lots of great Irish collaborations this year, thinking of Goodbye Blue Monday and Horn8's Nest in particular. But I'm giving this one to the Americo-Belgian saison made by Tired Hands and De La Senne because it best represents what both countries are great at, which is a good thing for collaboration beers to do.

Best Overall Beer: Het Uiltje G&T Radler
It has to be the weirdo, I'm afraid. That's just how I roll. But you knew that. Seriously, though: drink this beer and tell me it isn't amazing.

Best Branding, Label or Pumpclip: Jack Cody's
Gotta love that goat.

Best Irish Brewery: Eight Degrees
The same winner as last year, with no qualms at all because, while 2013 Eight Degrees was excellent, 2014 Eight Degrees surpassed it with a never ending stream of daring hop-forward beers. As the Irish microbrewing industry expands, the issue of quality -- and whether newcomers are up to scratch -- is raised again and again. Anyone looking for a benchmark on what quality tastes like can grab a handful of whatever the newest Eight Degrees releases are. A very honorable mention goes to Trouble Brewing for excellent beers reasonably priced: everything that's required of a local brewery.

Best Overseas Brewery: Siren
There was no particular outstanding beer that won this for the Berkshire brewery, but they kind of insinuated themselves into my drinking this year, in locations as diverse as Rome, Barcelona, Edinburgh, Bristol and my own kitchen: wherever top-notch beer is served, basically. A varied range of styles and all of it very good indeed. Word has it that importation into Ireland is imminent, which is great news.

Best New Brewery Opening 2014: The White Hag
Well duh!

Pub/Bar of the Year: 57 The Headline
The Norseman ran it pretty damn close, both of them having taken the mantle from the Bull & Castle as ground zero for Dublin's beer obsessives. If pushed I'd say The Norseman probably has a better beer offer, but the quiet, comfortable neighbourly feel of The Headline makes it a better pub, which is what this prize is about. My top international finds this year were Open Baladin in Rome and The Bag o' Nails in Bristol, but neither is a 20-minute downhill stroll from my front door, so they lose out there.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2014: Alfie Byrne's
With JD Wetherspoon totally dropping the ball on the cask ale front, there aren't very many candidates. Alfie's opened in February and then we had a long wait for The 108 and The Back Page, which both appeared in late autumn. Alfie's gets a bit of stick because, through no fault of its own, it's a hotel bar. But the staff are great, the draught selection always includes something inspiring, and whereas you might see a lack of "atmosphere", I see a choice of places to sit. Away from you for a start, if you're going to whinge.

Beer and Food Pairing of the Year: Venison & Ale Pie and Leann Folláin
Always a tricky one for me as conscientious beer and food pairing is really not my thing. But down at The Pieman on Crown Alley a while back they had a venison and red ale pie on special, which I ate with a bottle of O'Hara's Leann Folláin, and it was lovely, and amazing value for a tenner. So there's my nomination.

Beer Festival of the Year: Quartiere In Fermento
Borefts was fantastic as always; The RDS September festival was huge and did not have a bad beer at it, that I tasted. Franciscan Well Easter Festival also took things to the next level this year. But the charming random oddness of the Wallace winebar chain's celebration of Italian beer gets my vote for 2014's festival highlight.

Supermarket of the Year: Fresh, Smithfield Square, Dublin 7
As usual I did very little supermarket beer shopping, but I did pick up the odd bottle or two in Fresh. They do seem to keep a good range of locals and quality imports in stock.

Independent Retailer of the Year: Martin's of Fairview
I was wowed on my first visit to this northside offy: a fantastic range, all nicely spread out for ease of browsing. I still buy most of my beer in DrinkStore, but I will be back to Martin's.

Online Retailer of the Year: The Homebrew Company
It doesn't say this category has to be about beer does it? Anyway, I don't buy beer online, and I do like the service from HBC, so they get this Golden Pint.

Best Beer Book or Magazine: Sláinte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer and Cider
This is an actual contest for the first time in Golden Pints history. I love flicking through Ron Pattinson's Homebrewer's Guide to Vintage Beer, while Boak & Bailey's Brew Britannia was the most engrossing read of the year. But a book on the current state of play in Irish beer and cider was badly needed, and Caroline and Kristin have done a marvellous job of documenting it in an accessible and visually appealing way.

Best Beer Blog or Website: The Beer Cast
I am not alone in commending Richard for his forensic unravelling of the bullshit that Scottish brewers Brewmeister cloaked their brand in. The whole saga made for fascinating reading as well as demonstrating the real practical benefit of this blogging lark. Tremble in fear, ye quacks and charlatans. A pat on the back and a jolly-well-done goes to Mr Brissenden for his sweetly crafted observations on the production end of brewing, and to Belgian Smaak which has done fantastic work documenting rural Ireland's new breweries this year.

Best Beer App: BeoirFinder
And while Belgian Smaak has been tearing around the country, I rarely do. However, it's comforting to know that BeoirFinder is there if I end up somewhere unfamiliar and in need of a decent beer.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitter: Chris Hall
We all want witty and informative, and thankfully there's plenty of it out there in the beery tweetosphere. Chris has been on top of it more than anyone in 2014, which is why I invite him to take a bow and receive my Johnson.

Best Brewery Website/Social Media: White Gypsy
Lots of current information on what's available and where to buy it, plus some lovely pictures of the brewery's hop garden, White Gypsy were really making the most of their Twitter account this year.

And that's your lot. Thanks as always to Andy Mogg and Mark Dredge for devising the Golden Pints and to everyone in the beer brewing, selling and commenting industries, especially here in Ireland, for making 2014 the busiest and most interesting year of my drinking career. See you in 2015 for the next round.