18 December 2014

Hitting the ground running

Two late-2014 additions to the Irish brewing scene in today's post, both coming out of the traps with a prodigious range of first-run bottled beers.

Co. Monaghan's first brewery (for a while, anyway) opened recently, calling itself Brehon Brewhouse. I was pleasantly surprised to find an early release, their straight-up Irish red, in my local supermarket. Killanny Red Ale is 4.5% ABV and pours a lot darker than one might expect -- almost brown, depending on the light. I'm guessing a generous amount of roasted barley has gone in here as it smells very crisp and grainy, tasting dry to the point of being burnt. Yes there's a little summer berry, but it's a tartness which, combined with the ashen dryness, makes me wonder if something is happening fermentationwise that is not as the brewer intended. I'm not normally the sort to go out of my way to drink Irish red but I'd prefer a bit more fruit and toffee than I'm getting in this.

Keeping to the more timid styles, Brehon Blonde is next, a modest 4.3% ABV. There's an attractive reddish cast to its blondness and the bottle conditioning produces lots of fizz but I poured carefully and a clear glass was my reward. Lots of raisin-rich garibaldi on the nose, though a distinct musty oxidised staleness too. And all of that is there in the flavour too: dry, mouldy sackcloth to begin, a flash of citrus and then more dust and dry rot on the end. A clean, light blonde seems to be a bit beyond the brewing skills of Brehon at this stage.

The range starts to liven up with Stony Grey India Pale Ale. Surprisingly, this is the first beer I can think of named in honour of one of Ireland's many many piss artist poets and is a fitting 6% ABV. A ring of orange rust around the bottleneck was an initial cause for concern but the aroma put me at ease: zesty satsuma and pungent spicy liquorice. There's less punch in the flavour and more of a caramel sweetness, plus a weird savoury meat-like edge. The lightly citric hops arrive late creating an overall sensation of... of... well, of duck à l'orange. This beer tastes of duck à l'orange. That's a first.

Last and darkest and strongest from Brehon is Shanco Dubh, a bruiser of a porter at 7.7% ABV. I came across this at a pre-Christmas tasting hosted by Bord Bia where it was poured by James of the Vanguard Beer Collective. That musty thing is back, but here it works more as a feature than a bug. There's a huge amount of coffee, caramel and dark chocolate behind it and it helps dry them out, while accentuating the roast elements. The end result is highly complex, but balances out on the enjoyable side of odd.

Mullahinsha, Drummeril, Black Shanco-
Wherever I turn I see
In the stony grey soil of Monaghan
Dead loves that were born for me.

Cheery stuff. Let's move on, shall we?

Wicklow Wolf is based in Bray and very soon after opening the doors had five different beers on the market.

Possibly the most intriguing of the range is Locavore Blonde, a 4.8% ABV ale made using only fresh hops from the brewery's own farm. It's at the dark end of the colour scale and while its hop aroma reflects the amount of sunlight and warmth the plants probably got (not much), it's not all golden syrup and cereal: there's a hint of lemons and herbs in there. The lemon element is very pronounced on tasting, even to a puckering extent, with a more serious waxy bitterness behind it and a smattering of spices. Overall this is a pretty decent blonde ale -- it could stand to be smoother, but there's not a thing wrong with it. That it's all done with Irish-grown hops is pretty impressive. Comparisons with the other Irish hop beer, White Gypsy's Emerald, are inevitable but they're very different creatures. Though stronger, Emerald is lighter and zestier, with lots of bittersweet apple in with the lemons. It's refreshing quenching and easy drinking while Locavore is a thinking drinker's blonde. Importantly for the local ingredients movement, both stand on their own as beers, not mere novelties.

In place of a red there's Wicklow Wolf American Amber, discovered on draught at The Norseman last month. Once again I'm out with my colour charts and declaring this more brown than red while also noting a worrying lack of aroma. It's 5% ABV and very thin with it, failing to deliver the rich fruity candy thing that I expect from the style. The hops are all hiding in the flavour, but they present as more of a herbal element, with a powerful bitterness, followed quickly by traditional Irish red notes of crystal malt toffee and dry roast. It's all a bit severe for my taste, especially for a style that should be fun and accessible. I'm not doubting the quality of the hops used, nor their quantity, but this beer just isn't put together the way I like.

On to 57 The Headline to find the next draught one: Wicklow Wolf Kentucky Common. No kvetching about style here as it's the first and only Kentucky Common I've ever met. It's 4.8% ABV and a dark murky brown with red highlights. After a sip I'd place it somewhere on the schwarzbier to brown ale spectrum: it has the gassy dryness and clean lagery finish of the former with the sweeter coffee of the latter. Elements of Bavarian dunkel creep in as it warms: a growing liquorice aroma and a sweet-sour liquorice taste in the finish. It's certainly interesting, but again I found it a little stark and uncompromising for my taste.

The final two I bought in bottled form from DrinkStore. Wicklow Wolf IPA is a hefty beast at 6.3% ABV. Injudicious pouring put an overly large head on my glass, and underneath it a red-amber coloured beer, awash with quite large floaty bits. There's no messing about with the aroma: a big, fresh, lemon-and-lime juice burst, almost enough to make your eyes water. The Simcoe and Cascade combine nicely with the lightly caramelised malt on tasting to create a citric and grassy finish to the flavour profile, but before that reward it's necessary to stand still and let the acrid bitterness slap your palate around a bit. There are some earthy, clangy ferric notes in here as well, but at least the yeast is kept out of the picture. It's intense stuff, the napalm hopping made extra effective by a thick unctuous mouthfeel. Not one for hop lightweights, or those who demand girly tropical fruit flavours or American-style toffee sweetness. Instead, it's a classically no-nonsense grown-up IPA, and I quite enjoyed it for that.

We finish on Black Perle Porter, this one a more modest 4.8% ABV. It looks wholesome as it pours: thick, dark and forming a dense tan head. The nose is full-on espresso, shading towards moccha but the flavour is all cocoa to begin: the bitterness of very dark chocolate and even that faintly powdery feel. The roast comes into play later, turned up to a somewhat charred, black-toast-like degree, but not unpleasantly so. There's no indication on the bottle of where the name comes from, but I'm guessing that Perle hops were involved somewhere along the way, not that there's much of a hop taste in this one. Overall another very good effort, balancing complexity with drinkability rather well.

I guess the lesson from this lot is that dark beers and IPAs are the way to go. Maybe breweries will stop making substandard reds and blondes when people stop buying them. Always drink responsibly.


  1. Had their IPA last night with some (surprise surprise) spicy Indian, and found it to be one of the best Irish IPA offerings available right now. Will look for their blonde, based on your review, it looks like it might be worth a go.

    1. Wicklow Wolf's? Yes, it's certainly more complex than say, Belfast Blonde, which I like but is just a different sort of blonde ale.