The Cotton Ball pub sits on a street corner in the sprawling Cork suburb of Mayfield, and has done long before there was any sprawl. The Lynches established it in 1874 and it has remained in family ownership ever since. The large public bar at the front opens out into an even bigger lounge area in an extension to the rear and to the casual observer it looks like any other neighbourhood local. However, last year the owners took the decision to start making their own beers and a room on the lower ground floor has been converted for brewing.
Brewing legend and West Cork resident Brendan Dobbin was called in to set up the kit, the vessels acquired second-hand from the UK. Dobbin was also given the task of designing the recipes for new head brewer Humphrey Lynch, starting with a lager and a stout. The official launch of the brewery was held last Saturday, along with the release of the third beer in the series, a pale ale. I got the heads up from Cork food blogger Billy Lyons and -- brewpubs being my first love when it comes to beer -- I decided to go along for the day.
Mayfield Gold is the name of the lager, though the name is a little euphemistic. It's yellow, a rather unappetising pale yellow, if I'm honest. I wasn't expecting much from it and the enormous volume of fizz feeding the fine mousse head did nothing to help that. There's little in here to scare the drinker of mass produced lagers: it's mostly quite sweet, but just on the finish you get a generous helping of waxy grassy noble hops. Bar manager Kevin, who showed me round the brewery, said this beer gets triple filtered, and I'm a little surprised that the delicate hop flavours survived the process. Overall, Mayfield Gold would make for a good sunny day refresher, if only it wasn't so damn fizzy.
While the lager gets all the filter's attention, Kerry Lane Pale Ale escapes unscathed. This is a murky copper colour and could easily pass for an Irish red on appearances. The aroma sets the record straight: a jolt of citrus, fresh from the hopsack. The murkiness makes its presence felt in the foretaste, where there's a yeasty savoury edge which I don't think helps the hops. They come into their own a second or two later, blending gunpowder spice, dank and pine resin, plus a strawberry and chocolate sweetness as counterbalance. The pine bitterness gets the final word in, coating the palate completely. It's a subtle beer and one that takes a few goes to get into properly, but it was the one I came back to and stuck with for the evening. In its dark resinousness there's a certain resemblance to JW Sweetman Pale Ale, though I think it's a little more full-bodied than that. As a footnote, the menu description hints that this is based on a multi-award-winning Dobbin recipe, though Humphrey wasn't able to tell me which one. I'll add an update here if I find out, Dobbin fans.
The line-up is completed by Lynch's Stout, made from five malts plus roasted barley. That there's chocolate and crystal in the mix is immediately apparent as it's on the sweet side without much by way of dryness or astringency, which I quite liked about it. It's nicely full bodied as well, a contribution which I'm guessing comes from the wheat addition. But the bonus feature is the hopping: some lovely fresh green Goldings complete the picture, adding a vegetal wholesomeness. I don't want to come across as only understanding these Cork beers in terms of Dublin ones, but there's a similarity with Wrassler's XXXX here, though with a lighter touch. Drinkers of Benny McCabe's excellent Mi Daza stout may also find Lynch's somewhat familiar.
If you're in Cork and have the time, it's well worth jumping on the 208 bus to Mayfield and paying The Cotton Ball a visit. It's a reminder that Irish craft beer isn't just for specialist pubs with vast tap arrays: it can appear anywhere that there's a few spare square metres of floorspace and sufficient ambition.
Maybe it's just me, but 8.3% ABV seems a bit strong for a breakfast beer. So it is with Founders Breakfast Stout, however, a viscous affair of the deepest densest black hue. It gloops out of the bottle, gradually forming a chocolate coloured head which fades away leaving just a thin loose layer of bubbles. The coffee used in the brewing process makes its presence felt in the aroma, with a distinct element of brown sugar in among the bitterness and roast. I was surprised by the texture: not as thick as it appears on pouring; surprisingly light and drinkable, in fact; smooth and clean, creamy without being palate-coating. More coffee and dark chocolate in the taste, as well as a mildly metallic hop twang as well. Almost as enjoyable is the lack of any putty flavour which often ruins oatmeal stouts for me. This is an elegant and balanced beer, but I think better suited to after-dinner drinking than pre-lunch.
Keeping the viscosity theme going, Founders also makes Dirty Bastard: an 8.5% ABV Scotch ale utilising smoked malts. Sounds just the sort of thing I like, but the execution is poor: the amount of residual sugar is off the scale, making it cloyingly sweet and sticky. The lovely phenols from the smoke come through as a sort of burnt plastic flavour. Bleurgh.
It's not clear whether Backwoods Bastard is simply a barrel aged version of it, only that I bought it for some reason. 10.2% ABV and a lurid limpid red it emits a powerful waft of boozy wood. The sweet-sour bourbon really dominates the flavour, being resinous and a little bit spicy. My perceptive other half says it tastes of coconut -- dark chocolate Bounty bars in particular -- and it would be remiss and neglectful of me not to pass that on. Either way, there's very little sign of the beer underneath, and merciful as that may be, overall I don't think it really works. I'd place it in the same bracket as the likes of Innis & Gunn and Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale: beers where the concept was given priority over the taste and the finished product suffers as a result. That said, it's far from undrinkable the way some of these beers can be, and there's a pleasant vinous, perhaps even port-like smoothness to the texture. Pair it with a sufficiently powerful cigar and this bastard might just prove enjoyable.
There's more than a hint of duplicity about this pair of lagers from the Konzum supermarket chain in former Yugoslavia. "EXPORT ONLY", the suspiciously English-language livery proclaims. Reading the small print (helpfully in Serbian, Croatian and... no, actually the Bosnians can share the Croatian bit, and all three can pretend they're really separate countries) it comes from Hungary, from Pécs, just across the Croatian border.
König Beer first: 4.2% and a decent sort of a gold colour. It smells a bit sickly and the first mouthful reveals quite a sweet, corny adjunctish centre to the flavour. I start to run the ingredients through Google Translate. Ah, there it is: kukuruz, corn. Once I know that's there, I find the sweetness building as the beer goes down. Thankfully the carbonation is light, so once cold enough it's easily put away: the one redeeming feature of this waste of baggage allowance.
Similar-but-different Müller Beer is a smidge stronger at 4.6% ABV but paler too. More kukuruz in here but not the same level of sweetness in the aroma and... is that a streak of lemon running through? Probably not. It tastes bland rather than bad. Sweet, but not to the point of being sickly. A few gulps in and there's no further sign of that lemon, or anything else that could be marked down as hops. The nearest thing to flavour is a vague rough cardboardy staleness. I can't even throw in the traditional "watery" criticism because it doesn't even have that. It's a heavily-textured and filling sort of nothing, like a binge on rice cakes.
Balkan supermarket lager: you probably don't need to.
I don't know what the deal is with the rather Van Klompian artwork on Nello's Blond. Neither the boy nor his dog look particularly pleased to have been immortalised in label form. The beer inside is 7% ABV -- definitely at the high end for most blondes but not quite up at the level of the diabolically-themed sub-genre. By way of further complication, it smells boozy enough to pass for a tripel, though the aroma is more about the fruit than the spices, with some enticing pineapple chunks coupled with more prosaic cereal notes. The grain wins over the tropical fruit on tasting, the central flavour element being a bit porridgey -- but in a good way: the crunchier pinhead sort of oatmeal rather than gloop or stodge. It finishes on an upswing of intensely sweet peach nectar with a mild nutmeg spicing too. The balance of dry and sweet factors make it very drinkable and refreshing, aided further by moderate carbonation. But as I only had one bottle, I had to reach for its companion to keep the buzz going.
The happy pair are present and correct again on the label of Patrasche, though the terracotta surround suggests that this will be a dark beer, and so it is. 8% ABV and an opaque brown. Again the carbonation level is low and the texture a little thin for a beer whose colour and strength suggests boozy warming weight. There's a crème caramel character to the flavour at first: sweet vanilla topped by bitterer treacle. As it warms you also get a serving of banoffi pie and sticky toffee pudding from the sweet trolley, with burnt hint of coffee to finish. No boozy digestif to round the meal off, however -- this could easily pass for 5% ABV or less. While I enjoyed its complexity, it did leave me feeling a little shortchanged. Perhaps that's why himself is looking so nonplussed.
Zombier from Fyne Ales is a 6.9% ABV porter based on an award-winning homebrew recipe. It pours a dense, dark, opaque brown-black with just a thin layer of ivory foam on top. Disappointingly for a homebrew recipe, they haven't hopped the shite out of it: homebrewers are usually good for that sort of thing. Instead there's a nicely subtle sticky, smoky dark malt flavour plus sharper edges of liquorice and leather. Despite the high-ish strength it's light enough to be easy drinking, though the carbonation is a little bit overdone. Any heat from the alcohol only makes itself felt when the beer has warmed up and the glass is almost empty.
Not quite the taste explosion I was expecting from Fyne and some talented amateurs, but very good at what it's trying to be.
I should really have covered this Sainsbury's American Pale Ale back when I wrote about its sister IPA in October, but to be honest I didn't notice it was even in the fridge. Once again it's from North American Breweries under the false flag of the Tap Room Brewing Company of Rochester, New York. 5.3% ABV and rather fizzy with it, showing a lovely rose gold colour under the foam. There's a bit of soapiness in the aroma though thankfully it's not found in the flavour. Not much else is, however, just a half hearted squeeze of satsuma and some light toffee. Easy drinking and inoffensive, it's also utterly forgettable.
Thanks again to Thomas for the bottle.
Not a stray beer next, but a stray tasting note. I found this on a piece of paper I'd left on my desk some months ago, though I've no memory of the circumstances in which it was scrawled. It's for Red Hook's Long Hammer IPA, and it seems I quite liked it, finding it possessed of a similar sort of marmalade flavour to good British IPA, though with perhaps a bit of a cheeky lime shred through it. At its core it's quite sweet and biscuity. There you have it; I ought to take my own recommendation and buy it some time. Thanks, past me.
Sometimes there are wonderful things to be found in the bottom of the Brew Dock €4 bargain bucket. Fishing beside me, Richard came up with a bottle of Adnam's Broadside. My own lucky dip yielded Schlappe-Seppel Kellerbier.
At first I was a little suspicious of an expiring German kellerbier: after all, it's a style that isn't meant to travel far from its time or place of origin. About the distance from the barrel room to the table is ideal.
Once poured, I was surprised by its paleness, a vaguely hazy blonde rather than the brownish murk I, perhaps unfairly, associate with the kellerbier designation. And whatever about the visuals, the taste is clean and clear as a bell, starting on a candyfloss malt base complicated by a mix of lively fresh lemon sherbet and lightly green celery notes. That effervescent sherbet texture makes it wonderfully drinkable, which again, is the whole point of kellerbier.
Impressive stuff, and not at all what I was expecting when I pulled it out.
What are those people with the exploding stockpots up to? Why are they so terrified? As usual with Brasserie De La Senne the entertainment starts before the cap comes off. Crushable Saison was brewed in collaboration with Tired Hands brewing of Pennsylvania. It's 5% ABV and certainly looks like a saison: yellowish and hazy to the point of opacity, and it has the massive amounts of fizz you'd expect from the Energizer bunny of beer yeasts. The similarity more or less ends there, however. While there's a hint of wheatiness and barnyard in the aroma the dominant smells are sharp grapefruit and lemon zest. There is less sharpness in the flavour and far more juice: mango, nectarine and peach, with just a rasping dryness on the end as a final reminder of its true nature.
Taking an innocent saison and C-hopping it nine ways from Sunday is probably neither big nor clever but it does make for rather good beer. This is one for drinking hyper-fresh, so you've probably missed the best of it by now, but hopefully there'll be a repeat or a clone. I can see this being a very agreeable younger sister to Taras Boulba.
My wonky palate is no stranger to WTF reactions: beers I like that nobody else does; beers I can't be having but which are lauded far and wide by those in the know. It rarely bothers me, though if the plaudits are loud enough I will go back for second and third helpings of something I didn't enjoy, and sometimes this pays off eventually: Timothy Taylor Landlord is my reference example of a beer that took me ages to "get" but whose attractions I now understand. It's extra pleasing, though rare, to watch a popular beer I don't like gradually fall out of favour with the commentariat. Are your ears burning, Doom Bar?
Why all this concern over the relative merits of beers? It's The Session once again and the theme is Against The Grain: those instances where our tastes vary from the wider drinking community, and the broader question of what makes a beer actually a good beer: what we're tasting, or what everybody else thinks?
I'll admit that when it comes to making recommendations I do distinguish between the ones I like and which lots of other people say they do too ("This is an excellent beer") and the ones where I'm on less sure ground but want to share my experience ("I'm particularly fond of..."). The bottom line, of course, is that taste is subjective, but there's a lot to be said for the consensus. While the front and back ends of the beer rating bell curves are full of herd mentality nonsense, there's lots of very useful information in the middle ground and I believe it is possible to determine the relative value of a middle-range beer from what value the raters and advocates have collectively assigned to it. Cheers to them.
Today's beer hasn't had enough Beer Advocate ratings to warrant a grade, but scores just 14% on RateBeer. Was it the attractive shiny packaging that attracted me to it? The chance to tick a beer from a brewery that no longer exists? Or was it the €1 price tag? Probably a combination of all three is what made me ignore Richard in DrinkStore's warning that Cains Calcutta Pale Ale was no good. In favour of his argument it's a piddling 2.8% ABV, brewed for the tax break and also two days past its best before. But look at the (African?) elephant carrying the hop flower! Awww!
It's a happy darkish amber colour with a thin layer of fine white foam on top. It smells quite minerally with subtle hints of sugar and spice. No wateriness at all about the mouthfeel: it's thick, even a little sticky. Yes, there's not much by way of flavour: mild toffee is the most prominent quiet element, followed by something slightly metallic. Not far off brown bitter territory, really.
This recreates admirably the sensation of drinking real beer and is certainly far better than any alcohol free beer I've tasted. There's little point in me recommending it to you, or lauding it as something to trawl the bargain buckets for, but I consider my euro well spent.
2014's beer reviews begin with an American classic: Hop Rod Rye from Bear Republic in northern California, recently arrived on these shores with its stablemates Racer 5 and Red Rocket. I'm a new covert to hop-forward rye beers, with Kinnegar Rustbucket and Dungarvan's Mahon Falls showing how its done. And now it turns out the Americans are making them as well. Well done them.
Hop Rod Rye is 8% ABV and made with a whole 18% of rye. Fancy! No, I don't know if that's good either. Can't argue with the aroma: super fresh mandarins laced with acidic pine. The flavour blends the elements beautifully: mouthwatering bitterness, the juicy fruitiness -- and the less subtle toffee elements of the amber malts are offset by the grassiness of the rye.
All of these bits, by themselves, can unbalance a beer badly but they really work well together here. It's not an easy drinker, and makes one very aware of everything that's in it, but as heavy hoppy American beers go, it's definitely up there.