15 December 2014

The curtain descends

Old Father Time is oiling down his scythe, ready to take a swing at 2014 and bring the year to close. I'm left with a scattering of beer tasting notes gathered over the year that I've yet to commit to this blog and most of which will have to wait until 2015. For this post I'm pulling together an assortment of Irish ones, mostly to give posterity flavour of what was happening at this point in the big bang of modern Irish microbrewing.

Red is something of a theme, and rumours of the death of Irish red ale have been greatly exaggerated. The slightly hoppier amber ale twist is also highly fashionable and Mayo newcomer Reel Deel have launched with an amber ale as their first. Irish Blond is a sort-of in-joke, because it's not blonde, it's red. Ahahahaha. Um. What we have here is a pretty decent fist of an American style amber pouring a lovely shade of chestnut red. The aroma is lightly fruity, combining old school white lemonade and sherbet lemons. There's a lot of quality English bitter about the flavour, a crisp and thirst-quenching tannic element, some spices, but also the rounder exotic fruit of new world hops. It's maybe a bit too dry for first-rate American-style amber ale *cough*Amber-Ella*cough* but it's a very well made beer and one I would happily quaff lots more of.

Dublin's Stone Barrel brewing are coming to the end of their contract brewing phase and are hoping to have their own production brewery in the New Year. Red Mist is their second UK-brewed bottled beer and is an amber ale of a modest and sessionable 4.2% ABV. It packs a lot of complexity in there, being another sherbet-smelling one but showing bags of toffee in the flavour, in keeping with the dark copper body. The sweetness is balanced deftly by pockets of green bitterness, for that hop-studded candy effect I always enjoy in amber ale.

There's less of that sort of thing in Clanconnel McGrath's No. 6 which I chanced upon in The Waterloo in Dublin. Their Saturday night €4 bottle offer is great for some sociable exploring. This is another dark red amber ale but the malt is winning the aroma, showing in a rather musty burlap smell. There's crunchy grain in the flavour as well, though the hops are more assertive here. Rather than American citrus you get a genteel lavender and talcum which adds up to a sweet and slightly twee beer. Think granny's oatmeal cookies. That she eats in the bath.

I'm guessing West Mayo brewery were going for more of a traditional red style with Clew Bay Sunset which I found on tap in The Norseman back in October but this is a weird mutant variant. It's thin enough and fizzy enough, but is over-the-top sweet, with the fake fruit flavour of red lemonade. The aroma is pure butterscotch and the finish saccharine-sweet to the point of tasting metallic. It's the awful candy concoction of an especially vindictive Willy Wonka. Avoid.

More recently (yesterday) in The Norseman they were pouring Yule, a Christmas beer for White Hag's first Christmas. It's 7.2% ABV, mostly headless, and a murky red-amber colour. I'd say it's quite highly attenuated as the texture is thin even though the alcoholic weight is very apparent. There's a powerful red fruit flavour with all the sugar of ripe rasberries and strawberries plus the acidic sharpness of both. I'm definitely not of the opinion that a Christmas beer should taste Christmassy but this one has me wondering why a beer called Yule conjures up strawberries and cream in front of the tennis.

Meanwhile, at the supermarket, Solas is one of the brands Rye River brews for Tesco, the more traditional of the two. Solas Red is a classic dark Irish red: copper shading towards brown. The head is generous to begin with but collapses quickly, while the nose is a charming mix of warmth and red fruit, like fresh cherry pie, including the slight sourness. It's rather plainer to drink: lots of simple dry roast and a highly attenuated thinness. There's no hop character and not much malt either, not even the caramel that any reasonable human might expect from Irish red. It's 4.3% ABV but drinks like a cheapy supermarket own-brand half that strength.

So, apprehension going into Solas Stout. It certainly looks the part, pouring thickly and nearly opaque with a loose-bubbled ivory head. There's a rich and sweet aroma, though it's slightly phenolic, but not in a bad way -- sort of smoky. The flavour is at once classic Irish stout, but also quite unusual: there's lots of dry roast, more than a hint of caramel, burnt edges and a sour tang. It exists somewhere in the middle of a circle marked by bottled Guinness, Knockmealdown and O'Hara's Leann Folláin and is beautifully complex for something that's just 4.5% ABV. I really like it, and it's great to see this sort of interesting full-flavoured Irish stout hitting the mainstream via Tesco.

New lagers are a bit thin on the ground. Who wants to drink lager, after all? Cumberland Breweries from northern England do, and have set up a satellite brewery called Station Works just outside Newry where they're making Finn Irish Craft Lager. It's 4.5% ABV and comes in 33cl bottles decorated in hexagons, because giants and that. It's perfectly clear and very pale, with a suspicious but not unattractive burst of green apples in the aroma. It's very clean to taste, however: lightly carbonated for moussey texture and with light notes of grapefruit and lime balanced against a sweet biscuit graininess. There's a near-sour bite on the end which may be down to a technical flaw but which I rather enjoyed. It's maybe not a session lager, but works well as a refresher or aperitif.

A similar bite is at work in Carden's Wild Ale by White Gypsy, discovered by chance on the beer engine at Alfie Byrne's the other week. The aroma of this red-gold ale is a kind of lemon sourness rather than the full-on acetic of deliberately soured beer. The body is quite thin and the flavour offers a mild combination of pale biscuits, brown sugar and light lemon-and-lime. I'm left a little confused as to what it's supposed to be, and at 5% ABV I expected a lot more of everything.

I only managed to catch one of White Gypsy's pair of draught winter specials, namely A Winter's Ale, a title seemingly abandoned by Eight Degrees now after a couple of years of disuse. This "German Pale Ale" promises an intriguing mix of Belgian yeast and ultra-hip German hop varieties Polaris and Mandarina Bavaria. Conveniently for me, The 108 in Rathgar had it on tap so I nipped over one quiet Sunday afternoon to give it a go. It's another odd beast, pouring a perfect clear garnet colour with an aroma very typical of Belgian dubbel, despite a mere 5.7% ABV. There's a double impact on tasting: the heavy brown-banana esters of the yeast and then a sharp, medicinal, mentholyptus effect from the Polaris. I'd been hoping for some rounded fruit tones from the Mandarina but I'm guessing the yeast esters have buried all that. A long menthol burn finishes it off gradually. It's a strange beer: invigorating and like nothing I've ever tasted before. But it's just a little too hot and sharp to be friendly.

Just one token IPA for this post. It's hard to believe people are still drinking this quaint and outmoded style. Bran & Sceolan is one of the White Hag range that I missed at the RDS back in September but seems to be part of the small core range the brewery is selling in Ireland. There's something classically American about the amber colour, the 7.2% ABV and the big hit of mango and peach in the flavour. There's a certain amount of residual crystal malt sweetness, but not so much that the hops suffer; if anything the tropical fruit notes are emphasised by the extra sugar. It's nicely balanced, clean flavoured and very drinkable showing very little sign of how strong it is. The hop acidity lasts well into the finish, coating the tongue, so I suspect it may be a bit of a palate killer, but what a way to go! Another bravo performance from the Sligo lads.

And a handful of dark beers to finish on: St. Mel's first seasonal is Raisin & Oatmeal Stout which showed up in bottles at 57 The Headline. Sharp, dry, crisp roast rules supreme in this 4.5%-er. The label employs the words "vinous" and "port" but you need either a finely-tuned palate or an active imagination to spot them. There isn't even the smoothness that I understand is part of the package with oatmeal, whether that's down to the low ABV or the bottle-conditioned high fizz. Towards the end I got a tiny hint of dark fruit, but not enough to really mark this out as anything other than a decently put-together dry Irish session stout.

Trouble made a much better fist of fruited Christmas stout. Dash Away was on cask for one thing: no upsetting fizz, just luscious smoothness, helped no doubt by 5.7% ABV. Chocolate and cherries are the added ingredients, the former making a huge contribution to the flavour, the latter just a small smattering of the glacé variety. Amongst the warming sweetness there's a mildly spicy edge as well, generated by the roasted grains and yeast, I'd guess. The finish is quick, making it nicely glugable, setting up the next pint. The keg version is simpler and less rich but does preserve a lot of the black forest gateaux complexity.

I found a very similar flavour profile in Carrig Winter Ale, part of an excellent seasonal line-up in The Bull & Castle at the moment. It's dark and dense, and slightly stronger at 6.5% ABV. Chocolate features in a big way, sweet and creamy, while behind it there's a confection of mild winter spices: could be cinnamon, could be nutmeg, but nothing particularly assertive or distinctive. This mince pie effect is even more noticeable in the aroma. As a filling winter warming it's absolutely spot on though the weight and sweetness do mean a pint is a little like consuming an entire selection box in one go. Not a session beer, then.

Time for a palate cleanser. Fortunately JW Sweetman had tapped a cask (possibly the first) of Barrelhead Dry Stout. I suspect that this is a very simply made version of the style: it has the same sort of crisp roast and creaminess of any Irish dry stout. But the natural conditioning adds dimensions to the flavour, with notes of sandalwood and cranberry sneaking in. It's a little watery at heart, reflecting perhaps the sub-4% ABV, but overall a damn decent beer and a great example of how cask conditioning can benefit a stout. Cheers to Steve for the heads-up on this one.

Lastly the second beer from the Blackstairs brand: Dark Fiery Porter. It's 5% ABV and brewed with oatmeal, ginger and jalapeños. What's not to like in that? There's a density to the appearance, jet black with a tan coloured head. For all that, it's a lightly textured beer, low on fizz and smooth without being thick. The spicing is gentle and mannerly with the ginger present more in a candied way, as a sweetness. There's very little sign of the peppers, maybe just a slight fruity pop in the aroma. The end result is a nicely complex warming winter beer, proof that you can get great results with wacky ingredients without the beer itself turning out wacky.

Phew. Bit of a scattergun, that. But it reflects how trying to keep up with Irish beer feels these days. I've deliberately left out several groups of beers and I'll get to those before the clock strikes midnight on the 31st.


  1. As someone living in mayo, I feel I need to comment on your reviews. I agree in everything you said above, except the "Avoid" for the west mayo sunset gold. I had the same reaction as you when I tasted it first. I was hoping for something a bit more 'White Hag' as my local brew, but I was more surprised by how popular their beers are here with Mayo locals. They love them here!! It's more like West Mayo brewery are making beers locally that the locals want rather than 'craft beers' for craft aficionados!

    1. Clew Bay Sunset. Are we talking about the same beer? That's great that people are enjoying it, but until the brewery gets a handle on the attenuation and diacetyl levels, my recommendation remains to steer clear.

  2. Sorry clew bay sunset my mistake. I'm not disagreeing with what your saying about it, like I said I had the same reaction when I tasted it too. It's just that it's really popular in mayo pubs with the non craft beer drinking locals. Something that took me by surprise.