Another jolly, and slightly weird, Belgian cartoon on the label of Paljas Blond, from Brouwerij Henricus in Zeebrugge. It's bright and only slightly hazy for a small bottle-conditioned job. The first surprise is its aroma: crisp and slightly sour, with overtones of gueuze about it.
Not so much in the flavour, however. There's a big bitterness from a generous early addition of Magnum, followed by the orange cordial effect of Styrian Goldings. This fades from a thick intense syrupiness to a fresher, lighter juice flavour, enhanced by a certain savoury -- but perfectly clean -- character from the Belgian yeast. The real beauty of the recipe is that the sour aroma never goes away, and the contrast between how it tastes and how it smells is quite special. Not too sweet, not too dry, an interesting take on the style.
Far from boring Leffe clones for people who don't really like beer, the Belgian blonde genre always seems to have something new up its golden sleeve.
Brú has become the latest Irish brewery to begin making an own-brand beer for a large contractor. They've enlisted veteran distributor Cremin & Radley to sell their beers, a deal which gave them instant access to the nationwide chain of SuperValu supermarkets. It was there I found these two, brewed at Brú for C&R.
Hopes were uncharacteristically high for Kenmare Irish Red Ale, given the excellence of Brú's own Rua. This is 4.3% ABV and pours a handsome dark garnet colour, fizzing louchely to form a loose-bubbled off-white head. The aroma is as sweet as one might expect, but lightly spicy too and the texture reflects that low carbonation: wonderfully smooth and sinkable in a way that not enough beers of this strength are. Milk chocolate is the main element of the flavour: not unpleasant but far from typical of the style. There's quite a large discordant metallic tang as well, the occasional downside to using English hops. An almost sour sharp dry roast finishes off proceedings. Much as I love the mouthfeel of this beer, the flavours just don't come together properly. While it's not a run-of-the-mill Irish red and shows real substance and character, it doesn't quite go off in good and interesting directions the way that, for example, Brú Rua and O'Hara's Red do.
To the Kenmare Irish Pale Ale next. The same casky foam piles high above a medium amber body, before gradually collapsing away. Some light orange juiciness presents in the aroma, though I detect a worrying bleachiness as well. The texture is much thinner than the red, but that's not a criticism: the first pull offers instant quenching refreshment and invites a second. The orange theme continues, though it gets sweeter, turning more towards satsuma, or even Capri-Sun artificiality. The malt contributes an unnecessary layer of toffee. And that's your lot: no real bitterness and once the satsuma middle fades there's no real finish. I downed the rest of glass quite quickly, looking for something else going on, but this is very very plain fare. The best I can say is that it's accessible, drinkable and sinkable, though I was surprised to turn the label around and discover it's as strong as 5% ABV.
Several more Kenmare beers are promised. Hopefully they'll build on the good points of these two while fine tuning the flavours a little better.
So this is My Antonia, the legendary collaboration with Dogfish Head brewed at Birra Del Borgo. You need credentials like that to get me to buy something badged as an imperial pilsner, because they're generally awful awful beers.
My Antonia presents as an attractive rich gold colour with just a few skeins of sediment drifting aurora-like through it. The aroma is sharply zesty: a blaring tocsin of lemon rind and grapefruit pith. The texture is heavy and a little syrupy, almost a barley wine consistency which is perhaps not surprising at 7.9% ABV. For all that, it's subtly flavoured: a bucolic perfume of jasmine and honeysuckle underpinned by sharper citrus and pine. Every sip unveils a different combination of fruit and flowers, but always exquisitely balanced, utilising the big strength to push the hop envelope.
My faith in the collaboration was justified and at the same time I have a new standard of how good something badged as an imperial pilsner needs to be.
I felt like apologising to my bottle of Silures as I poured it: eight months in the fridge, six weeks past its best-before. My first Celt Experience experience should have been under more appropriate conditions. What I got was a hazy red-gold pale ale, at a sessionable 4.6% ABV smelling of hard toffee and lavender. The sweetness and old-lady-perfume are there on tasting too, and there's a lasting oily residue deposited on the lips, but it feels like the middle is missing. There's a ghost of citrus fruit and lemon sherbet in the middle, and a lime bite without the lime itself.
Despite the finer points of this beer having departed, it's still pretty enjoyable. That acid bitterness contrasted with sticky malt actually works quite well and is especially surprising given the modest ABV. At the back there are tannins and butterscotch, so maybe the hops were in the way all along.
No, I doubt that too. Sorry, Celt Experience: I'll make sure the next one of yours I try is fresh.
Time was, a new Irish beer review was a special effort I put in for St Patrick's Day. These days it's hard to keep up. So here's a round-up of my last few weeks of Irish beer exploring, for the day that's in it.
Meath newcomers Brú quietly released their first IPA last month, called Rí. Well, it seemed quiet to me: first I saw of it was when it became the début cask beer served from 57 The Headline's new beer engine. It's 5.5% ABV and, thanks to the chilly weather, arrived in my glass beautifully cool. All the right notes are there for a refreshing English-style pale ale: the juicy peach and mandarin without any of the harsher bitterness of the less-genteel IPA-brewing nations. But it's no lightweight, the alcohol content lending it a decent heft. Sip or slurp: your choice. I will say I don't think I got the best of it as the barrel was rushed from brewery to bar on the day so there was a bit of a yeasty, bready burr to it. I noticed the bottled version in the shops lately and would be hoping for a cleaner experience from that. If it can retain the hop complexity of the cask edition it will be a real treat.
Continuing the hop theme, Franciscan Well Double IPA was a nice surprise when it showed up on tap far from home in Against the Grain. It's a perfectly clear glassful, somewhere between dark orange and pale amber and smells worryingly of toffee more than hops. It's better on tasting, however: pithy, in an old world IPA sort of way. Do I detect the orangey overtones of Styrians, perhaps? Either way I get a distinct echo back to former Franciscan Well classic Alpha Dawg. The crystal malt sweetness becomes more apparent as it warms rounding it off rather nicely. Like Rí it's a well-mannered and approachable hop-forward beer.
The award for having fun with hops goes to Carlow Brewing and their new, ambitious, O'Hara's Amber Adventure, making its first appearance the week before last as part of a tap-takeover at Farrington's. The plan is a rolling programme of amber ales under the same name, representing a world tour of hop growing regions. We start the quest in New Zealand, the first iteration being a showcase for Pacific Gem and Motueka. An effort has been made at keeping things light and sessionable, so it's only 4.1% ABV and rather pale for the style. But it's far from insipid: the drinking experience is bookended by a big bitter hit at the start and a lingering acidity at the finish. The wonderful hop complexity forms the meat in this hop sandwich: all funky, weedy, resinous dank which is lightened, though not balanced, by mild candy caramel malt. As the colour previously suggested, the malt element is very much understated compared to other amber ales, and while it's good that the hops are pushed to the front, it does mean the end result is a little on the watery side. That said, no other Irish beer offers so much hoppy impact in such a sessionable package, and that makes it a very welcome addition.
Moving on from the hops... Wait, no, that's not how we roll in Ireland these days. Sticking with hops to the very last, a new seasonal from JW Sweetman: Intergalactic, a 6.8% ABV amber ale. My apologies for the utterly abysmal photo which makes it look like an opaque soupy mess, it's really quite see-through, though is a dark amber colour. One sniff delivers a blast of satsuma zest, in case it wasn't clear enough from the name that Aussie hop Galaxy is in the house. Tasting gives you a rapid flash of orange segment quickly followed by a sterner bitterness. There's a similar resinousness to that found in the house Pale Ale. The malt sits on the sidelines providing a modest amount of balance -- no toffee or caramel interfering here. Overall, an interesting side-step from the Pale Ale, but I was still glad to get back to a proper pint of the latter afterwards.
And never to be outdone when Irish micros are throwing hops around, Galway Bay Brewery have another one from their pilot series which has been around a while but I only just caught up with it last weekend. It's billed as a Cascadian Dark Ale, 6.8% ABV and served exclusively on cask. The aroma from the opaque dark brown beer is an innocent and inviting sherbet citrus smell, but its true colours are revealed on tasting as a much more harsh, rather waxy, bitterness. The dark malts play good cop to this, adding a cakey sweetness and a comforting creamy texture. Complex and thought-provoking: just what you want from a one-off small-batch brew.
So that's what's going on here. Meanwhile I'm off to Italy this morning, to spread the good news from Ireland to the Romans, like St Patrick in reverse.
There's a lovely bit of Breughel on the label of these two, illustrations from his Flemish Proverbs series. "Pillar-biter" is, apparently, an old Flemish expression meaning hypocrite and here we see one such, literally chomping on a post.
Pilaarbijter Blond is already not doing what it said it would, being much more of a red-gold than a blonde. Even pouring 33cl into a roomy Duvel glass took three attempts, so busy is the fizz here. Though bottle conditioned, a year or so of refrigeration left me with a perfectly haze-free bowl. There's nothing too exciting about the aroma: lots of heavy bread and a touch of spicing. The texture is thick and warming, unusual for an 8.5% ABV Belgian blonde: they tend to wear their strength quite lightly. The flavour professes lemon, cinnamon and dark honey. It's a long time since I last ate a Locket throat sweet but I seem to remember them tasting something like this. The unctuous throat-coating quality enhances the effect. I rather like this. Just when I thought the floral hop-forward Belgian blondes were the best sort, something like this comes along.
There's a similar amount of fizz in Pilaarbijter Bruin, though the bubbles are finer, sitting off-white atop a chestnut-red body. This is a mere 6.5% ABV but first impressions are that it's very similar to the blonde, showing the same sort of spiced grain aroma. It's a lesser beer on tasting, however. Rather thinly textured and though there's the caramel and light chocolate that any fan of a Belgian brown would be seeking, it lacks complexity. So low-key is the spicing that it could even pass for something dark and Bavarian; a clean dunkel lager or similar. Not exactly a damning indictment of any beer, that, but if you're looking for Belgian warmth it's best to apply to the blonde.
Both beers, incidentally, are from the Bravik brewery in West Flanders: the opposite side from Breughel country, but we won't point fingers.
The label of Left Hand's amber ale, Sawtooth, is a burst of colour but the excitement pretty much ends there. It presents as more of a dark gold colour than properly amber, though pleasingly clear. The aroma is all about the crystal malt with barely a trace of any hops, and it's a similar story on tasting: I get some pleasant marzipan and biscuit elements which, coupled with the cleanness, make it seem more like a Vienna lager than an American amber ale. Searching hard for the hops there is perhaps a tiny hint of peach, and a slight metallic hit on the end but otherwise this is all about the malt.
It's not a bad beer: one of those that is technically proficient and workmanlike and will certainly have its fans. Its job is as a local session beer close to its place of origin, however. As an intercontinental speciality it doesn't really stand up.
Why do you drink? asks Douglas, host of this month's session. For me, there are as many answers to that as there are beers, but the one I'm singling out for this post relates to one of the few things I enjoy more than drinking new beers and that's travel.
If I had my druthers I'd spend my life hopping from place to place, ticking off cities and countries as readily as I tick off their beers. But that's not an option. And if I can't go to the beer, the next best thing is for the beer to come to me. I do my level best to mix up the nationalities of the beers written about on this blog and include as many as possible from outside the usual Irish-British-American-Belgian quadrilateral. For all that international craft beer seems to have developed a common language -- a pale ale from New Zealand is often very like one from the US -- there's a lot to learn from the little differences. It's especially interesting to try a beer from a country where the market hasn't yet stabilised into the standard styles.
So it is with this specimen. Ba Ba Boom! is very new, though comes from the venerable Frog & Rosbif brewery, best known for its chain of brewpubs in Paris and beyond. A bottle arrived courtesy of Declan, whom Dublin beer fans may remember from the Bull & Castle and Against the Grain and who now manages the Frog & Rosbif. This is the first in a planned series of limited edition IPAs, and from the outside it looks very attractive: a quirky medicinal bottle shape and the promise of Pacifica hops jazzed up with orange zest.
What comes out is a translucent pale amber beer with a distinct orangeyness in the aroma: mildly sherbety and sweet. It unravels a bit on tasting with a hulking great mass of diacetyl sitting greasily in the middle, exuding butterscotch and toffee and refusing to let the hop flavours past. It's not by any means unpleasant, but for a beer that strongly implies it's a hop bomb it doesn't seem to be what the brewer intended. A barely noticeable pithiness hangs around in the finish, a ghost of what could have been.
Worth travelling to Paris for? No, but there's a city whose beer scene seems to be exploding at the moment. I'm looking forward to the next in the Frog Hero Hops series, regardless of where I end up drinking it.
Bateman's Mocha isn't weak: 6% ABV, in fact, and very proud of itself. The chocolate is Belgian, we're told; the coffee arabica. It's pale for all that, an off-white head rather than beige, over a body that shines red at the edges.
It smells, unsubtly, of cheap chocolate and cheap coffee, as though the flavourings are an afterthought instead of the main event. The texture is is light, with high carbonation dominating any sugary weight. But sugar there is, in a big way: a sweet chocolate milkshake alcopop with an oily coffeebean finish. I'm looking for dark malt or roasted grain but they're not there. Overall, it's a bit of a one-dimensional experience.
Bateman's rarely put a foot wrong in in my book, but this is one of those.
It's hard to keep up with the busy little gypsies of the Brown Paper Bag Project. No fewer than three beers have come out since the beginning of 2014, with another currently in preparation in the Czech Republic. For now, a pair of Belgians and a Dane.
First up, a porter. Not the most wowtastic of styles and the name, Pleasant, continues the modest theme. Only the ABV hints at something more going on: 6.6% ABV, so I expected a bit of a kick. From the 33cl bottle it pours out a wholesome dark brown, topped by a tight off-white head the colour of a winking pint on a Gilroy poster. There's a mild fruit and chocolate aroma, but nothing particularly striking. Pleasant, you might say. The taste is a rich blend of dry roast, milky coffee, sour damsons and a lighter floral breeziness, with a slight metallic tang on the end. There's no sign of the extra alcohol but I'd be confident that it makes a contribution to the depth of flavour. I could drink a lot of this. Somebody needs to teach them Belgians the joy of pint bottles.
Released at the same time was Big Red. This, as the name implies, is a strong lad (8% ABV), and a bright garnet colour. It took a bit of work to get it all into my teku, what with the masses of foam. The result was a clear body with an ivory head, smelling vaguely of hoppy spicing but not much else. The taste is caramel first, then a rather harsh waxy flavour. But no fruit, no spice: just blunt bitterness. It looks fun, but this is really quite a serious beer and not very enjoyable. Shame.
The third beer in the series was presented under plain wrappers as a Twitter-based blind tasting last month. It was an especially good choice of candidate for a slow tutored tour as it does different things at different points of the sensory whatnot. The first thing it did was explode all over the table -- and from watching Twitter I wasn't the only one to find this -- the head subsiding away, leaving a hazy pale orange beer with a scattering of brown crumbs in it. The aroma is nectarine and soft sweet plums, with (as his eminence The Gargler pointed out) a hint of tinned mandarin. But a little dry sourness lurks at the back, and on tasting the two elements swap places. The sourness comes rushing to the fore while the fruit takes a back seat. Underlying the acid there's a berliner weisse wheatiness, but it's cleaner than any of those I've tasted and more complex because of the hopping.
The big reveal showed it to be a gose, brewed in collaboration with Denmark's Fanø Bryghus and titled Gøse. Of the characteristic coriander I could taste no trace, but the salt is there, providing an invigorating seaspray after-effect. As it warmed, some honey notes started to come out, but it didn't interfere with what's otherwise a beautifully complex sparkly refresher.
About the only thing these three have in common is how different they are from each other. After all, there's no point travelling around Europe and brewing the same beer over and over.