29 September 2014

Woof!

It's the sense of energy that is my lasting impression from visiting the BrewDog brewery: a relentless dynamism and a restless drive towards change and improvement in all things. I'm used to breweries as being cold and quiet spaces but BrewDog is hot and -- with two simultaneous bottling lines running -- very loud. The brewhouse is enormous but densely packed with brewkit, the fermentation vessels spilling beyond the walls and roof into the back yard. The plant runs 24 hours a day, five days a week and even though it's mostly dedicated to the production of a single beer, Punk IPA, there is change everywhere. More tanks are on the way; a corner of the warehouse has been set aside for a still; the endless parade on one Punk bottling line was showing the new pale blue livery, the other the tail end of the classic version. Co-founder Martin Dickie brought our group around and everywhere was action, activity, energy. Employees over 40 are thin on the ground.

Adjoining the brewery is DogTap, a recent addition to the complex which includes a bar, giftshop and even a 1000L pilot brewkit, though the whirlwind of change had yet to blow through here and commission it. For a pub situated in a remote Scottish industrial estate, DogTap was doing quite a bit of trade. Normal people too, not like the group of 17 writers the company had invited to its Aberdeenshire locations for the day. And it was a normal people's beer that was my first choice to drink.

Fake Lager is a mainstay in BrewDog's chain of pubs, designed I suspect for the reluctant member of the party who was dragged in by more enthusiastic friends. I held out a little hope that some of the BrewDog magic had been sprinkled over it, but it's really quite average: golden, a little grainy, showing more than a touch of diacetyl butteriness and without any of the high notes that can make good pilsner really stand out. The name is only half joking, I reckon. And of course no sooner than I'd finished my pint, the beer was retired permanently. I haven't tried its replacement -- This. Is. Lager. -- but it talks a good game.

The other new tick on the DogTap bar which I needed to scratch was Magic Stone Dog, a three-brewery collaboration where San Diego meets Huddersfield in Ellon. It's a bright and happy gold and has an approachable 5% ABV. I did zero research into what sort of a beer it is before lifting the glass and was a little surprised to find the estery aromas of a Belgian blonde ale. They say there's some saison pedigree in here but it was all luscious sweet fruits for me: apricots and honeydew melons in particular, making me think of a junior edition of Flying Dog's magnificent Raging Bitch. Lots of fun and very pintable.

We were summoned from the bar back to the meeting and media room in the administrative wing of BrewDog HQ. Here, James and Martin took us through a selection of their beers, beginning with Punk, of course. The newest addition to the brewery's "Headliners" family is Brixton Porter. It's quite a dry offering, even a little ashen, and would have little difficulty passing for an Irish-style stout. The grain bill includes chocolate, brown and amber malts but I was unable to detect much by way of coffee or chocolate flavours in here. A more severe liquorice sharpness is the only real complexity. It's good that there's a dark malt-forward beer in the core line-up, but why couldn't it have been Zeitgeist? That's the downside of running business in a constant state of renewal: old farts like me want stuff you don't make any more.

Presented, oddly, before Brixton was Black Eyed King Imp, an 11.8% ABV imperial stout which started out as a test batch of Cocoa Psycho before getting two years in two different whisky barrels. It's thick and smooth and luscious, as all the best of this sort are. The aroma strongly suggests that some autolysis has been going on: it's a savoury umami air, with a pinch or two of salt. While not tasting of oak per se, there's a slightly tannic red wine edge to it, but the main act is a huge hit of Irish coffee: extra creamy with lots of brown sugar and a billow of boozy fumes up the back of the nose. It tastes a lot stronger than it is, so very much a sipper. When the tasting broke up I mineswept what was left on the tables and session-sipped my way through as much as I could. The autolytic Bovril quality does build as it goes but it's still a magnificent example of how complex recipes and expensive processes can leave wonderful results.

We reassembled down in Aberdeen itself at BrewDog's city bar, standing room only at 6.30 on a Friday evening. I grabbed a very quick Blitz, one of a series of Berliner weisses with added fruit, this time redcurrant. It's a lot cleaner than any Berliner weisse has a right to be with a clear, sharp, puckering acidity singing out and not a trace of wateryness, despite a piffling 2.6% ABV. The currants are more than an afterthought, adding a very distinct summer fruit flavour to the whole. Beautifully refreshing and I could drink a lot.

But a lot wasn't an option. We were off to the third BrewDog establishment of the day, their restaurant Musa. Here we were treated to a fantastic beer-paired tasting menu of pig's cheek, salmon, grouse and whatnot, again with Martin and James doing the intros and musical-chairing around the tables so everyone got spoken with.

New beers in the line-up included Russian Doll IPA, part of a four-pack of sequential brews using the same ingredients but in different quantities to create four different styles of ascending strength. At 6% ABV the IPA is second from the bottom of the pecking order but still gets full value out of its Simcoe, Citra, Cascade and Centennial, particularly the first two. A big grapefruit bitterness opens its account, followed quickly by a rich and funky dankness. I guess it's supposed to be appreciated next to its dollmates but it works perfectly well by itself.

A baltic porter to finish, the new BrewDog / Victory collaboration U-Boat. This black lager is a massive 8.4% ABV but, like its namesake, is very good at concealing the danger. Baltic porters can be a bit severe with their liquorice bitterness and chewy malts but this is a much lighter and sweeter affair with milk chocolate at its centre, plus bitterer cocoa powder at the edges. It's no Black Eyed King Imp but it is a very nicely nuanced dark beer.

A big thanks to James, Martin and the rest of the crew of the BrewDog mothership for letting us get in their way for a day. And a special thanks to Sarah who put in all the hard work organising and herding a ragtag bunch of misfit beer writers. Thanks also to said ragtag bunch of beer writers for adding to the fun and allowing me to tick off a few more entries in my I-Spy Book of Beer Bloggers.

25 September 2014

On and off the hook

I had to go and look up why Red Hook describes its Audible Ale as "crushable". Seems they mean something like "sessionable": a beer to chug down and move on to another. At 4.7% ABV I can see the sense in that. It pours out a clear Dortmunder gold, and has a similar spiced golden syrup aroma. Malt dominates the flavour, again in quite a lagery way, with lots of crusty white bread and sweeter buttery cookies. But there's also a galvanic orange and grapefruit tangy bitterness to liven it up and stimulate the salivary glands, plus a gentler chew-sweet fruitiness. I casually drained my glass while writing those few sentences so it's safe to say the marketing department's claim of crushability definitely holds up.

I would have quite liked another but all that was left in the fridge was Red Hook ESB, a larger proposition altogether at 5.8% ABV. It's another bright gold lager lookalike and fairly light of body for the strength. Can't say I'm a fan of the flavour, however. A mild waxy bitterness meets a big chewy cereal base without any fun features or high points, just a dull, clanging lump of a beer, all grain husks and metal with a vaguely unpleasant gastric aroma. It took me a while to get through it and I found it gets even sweeter as it warms which doesn't help matters at all, though I generously shared some with the wife who, unprompted, offered "orange squash fermented with mushrooms" as a tasting note. Anyone who thinks English strong ale resembles this needs educated.

Bit of a ying and yang situation going on here, then.

22 September 2014

Job done

I was expecting something hot and heavy from St. Austell's Big Job, imagining it as a kind of tramps' edition of their Proper Job IPA. But it's really quite classy, despite the name. A slight haze is thrown by the bottle-conditioning, around which it's a bright golden orange colour. There's maybe a faint whiff of that Special Brew-ish sickliness in the aroma but mostly it's all about the hops: pithy jaffa and lighter ripe mandarin.

There's a veritable explosion of hoppy fruit on tasting, the combination of Centennial, Citra and Cascade working its magic and pushing out a complex cocktail of lime, honeydew, peach skins and even a dusting of coconut. While I was still boggling at all that, it struck me that there's no trace of heat from the 7.2% ABV -- if anything the texture is a little thin but that does add enormously to its power to refresh.

Even as a long-time flag-waver for the joys of Proper Job (except when on keg) I was surprised by how enjoyable this was.

Top marks, St. Austell.

18 September 2014

Knockabout fun

There's a story being told on the labels of these beers from Scheldebrouwerij but I'm damned if I know what it is. The leaf-clad cavemen look to be up to some sort of crazy scheme, in proper Belgian comicbook style. The brewery is situated in Hoogstraten in the far north of Belgium, hard by the Dutch border.

I started with the lightest of the set: Dulle Griet at a not insubstantial 6.5% ABV. A thick layer of sediment had settled in the bottom of the bottle and was shaken up with the release of pressure, giving me a glassful of reddish-brown lava lamp. The busy bubbles push out a heady aroma of cough mixture, hot chocolate and diesel, suggesting something much, much stronger. It proved to be easier drinking than I expected: light bodied and pleasantly sparkling rather than full-on fizzy. The flavour is every bit as mixed up as the aroma suggested, with black forest gateau and cinnamon tempered by a bitterer liquorice being the main act, while the ghosts of various sticky bottles at the back of the drinks cabinet float on and off stage. A wheaty cereal crispness adds a more restrained note, meanwhile. There's a certain alcohol heat, but it's not overdone. Surprisingly enjoyable, then.

Zeezuiper ("Sea Drunk"?) is a tripel and again there are worrying dark gobbets of dead yeast pouring into the glass along with the golden beer. 8% ABV and with an uncharacteristic dose of coriander it smells of honey and spice and tastes of bath salts. There's not a trace of all that alcohol, and the flavour is very cartoony: bright Jolly Rancher sweetness and floral perfume, shading towards old-lady lavender. The bath salts effect is completed by the gentle effervescence. It slips down very easy and while not delivering the honey-spice-heat effect of grown-up tripel, it's a very enjoyable beer.

Last of the set is 'n Toeback, 9.5% ABV and stylistically described, in both French and Flemish, as a "Quattro". Style trollin'. Colourwise it's not far off the foregoing, though a little more orange than gold, with the by-now customary yeast bits, of course. It's heavily textured, like trying to drink an orange barley travel sweet. There's lots of belly-filling warmth, the flavour all bitter pith, white sugar and... you know that tray of seeds of some Indian restaurants give you with the bill? That.

It's rare to find a Belgian beer that's as much fun to drink as the illustrations on the label, but I think Scheldebrouwerij may be one of those.

15 September 2014

El ratolí que va rugir

#dammisdead squeals the label on the back of my dinky bottle of Revolution IPA, a product of Molta Birra in Girona, on the doorstep of the Catalan brewing giant. It's a 6.5% ABV pale amber beer, one I poured very carefully having noticed the thick gobs of yeast at the bottom of the bottle, all the while worrying about the slightly sour aroma it was giving off. Nothing severe, just... worrying. The yeast hasn't been too busy as it's rather flat. 70 IBUs are claimed, but they must be theoretical, to the point of aspirational. It's quite watery and there's very little sign of the Apollo and Simcoe hops billed on the label. Mildly spicy resins and a light acidic bitterness are your lot, hopwise. Not that it's a sticky malt bomb either, with just a minimal amount of caramel. The wateriness means the finish is quick, and the 200ml serving means I didn't spent much time contemplating its faults. On to the next.

MoltaBirrAS black IPA slips the ABV up a notch to 7.5% and the IBUs to 80. It's also in a more orthodox 330ml bottle, with more enthusiastic carbonation, fizzing up with ivory foam before falling back to a thin blanket of retained head. The aroma is all about the dark grain: burnt toast and coffee with maybe a suggestion of vegetal greenness behind it. The hop combination is a strange one: Vanguard, Amarillo, Citra and Fuggles, and it's the middle two I'd be looking for the action from, but I think the lower alpha varieties are doing the heavy lifting. Tangy rather than bitter, with some cheery soft peach flavours, but none of the big citrus one might expect from the specs. And those hops are very much masked by the malt again: the first sip reveals this to be a smooth and creamy stout, a milky coffee smoothness being its most prominent feature. It's a perfectly decent beer though I wonder if it's what the brewer intended. I imagine it has disappointed a hophead or two in its time.

Both of these bottles were relatively fresh, I should add, consumed less than two months after I bought them at the Alltech festival in February. While I was at the stand I tried Molta Birra's other exhibit L'Arrosa, another beer that promises big (Ahtanum, Simcoe, Citra) and there's also rice, discernible from the turbid milky appearance. I don't know what the rice contributes other than opacity, but the hops are present, giving it a nice light zesty quality. It's an unfussy, fun beer but, like the others, not one to keep the Damm execs from sleeping soundly under their FC Barca duvets.

11 September 2014

Journey's end

From far off Michigan, from Oregon and the eastern plains of Colorado, American draught beer comes to Dublin. It's a bit silly when you think about it: there was beer here already. But it would be churlish not to afford proper hospitality to these bona fide travellers. By drinking them.

First up is Rogue Yellow Snow, encountered among the keg fonts in The Black Sheep. I've no intention of looking up precisely how its name was chosen, suffice it to say that it's not very yellow and doesn't taste of piss. More of an orange-amber as far as the first goes, and, well it's definitely very malt-forward for a 6.5% ABV west-coast IPA. It wouldn't be at all surprising that some hop quality was lost on the epic journey from Oregon's far western edge. What's left is a kind of Ready Brek oaty/wheaty thing, with just a few traces of sharp and acrid hopping in the background. Quite dull, overall, and I find it hard to believe it left the brewery like this.

No hop worries when it comes to Founders Rübæus, as consumed at L. Mulligan Grocer. This is the Michigan brewery's raspberry beer, and raspberries it has, in a very big way. It's quite a striking pink, for one thing, and while not a complete candy bomb it is very sweet indeed. The raspberry flavour dominates everything, but at least it does taste like real ripe fruit, not some artificial ice cream sauce. The texture is a lovely soft effervescence. Reuben was in the pub with me and called it exactly: it's a raspberry version of Früli. I don't regard that as an insult, but your mileage may vary.

And finally, back in August, Doug Odell was over on a visit to this side of the Atlantic. From watching various pubs in the UK and Ireland on Twitter it appeared he was being dragged around like an animal in a cage, put on show For a Limited Time Only at each venue. It must have been exhausting. Accompanying him there was a range of draught Odell beers, including one brewed in collaboration with neighbouring New Belgium. In subsequent researches, the only named beer I can find that fits the bill is FOCOllaboration , a 6.75% ABV pale ale. What was on tap at Against the Grain was billed as 9% ABV, so I'm confused. My notes do say that it hides the alcohol very well, so it seems likely to be a simple labelling error. Either way this is a lovely example of the signature Odell style, wafting out peach aromas with more soft stone fruit and mandarin in the flavour, plus a beautiful fresh dankness. The bitterness is present but mild and there are a handful of Belgian-style fruit esters. Superb stuff, overall, and what we've come to expect from Odell, even at this distance.

08 September 2014

A summer's lease

This bottle of Edinburgh brewery Top Out's Staple pale ale arrived via Steve and I opened it at the tail end of a long hot Sunday of back-breaking physical labour.

It's a sober name for a straightforward golden 4%er, pouring clear with a loose white head. Light but not watery, softly carbonated, it smells of golden syrup plus a slightly worrying harsh plastic or rubbery waft. No sign of that in the taste, thankfully. Instead you get lots and lots of hoppy perfume: intense meadowy floral notes, some lighter peach and just enough grassy bitterness to make it refreshing.

A perfect beer garden quencher.

06 September 2014

Ryed off into the sunset

It's Saturday, the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival is on at the RDS, everyone is either anticipating going or trying desperately to forget they were there. The point is this: nobody is reading beer blogs. But I felt I should round off the series of Irish Craft Beer Week posts with a couple of late additions. Both, as it happens, are brewed with grain du jour, rye.

Kinnegar are past masters of putting hops with rye and their Rustbucket IPA is one of the best of its kind. It has been extensively tweaked and starkly re-coloured to make Black Bucket, Ireland's first black rye IPA. This is 6.5% ABV, a strength that's very apparent in the heavy, almost sticky, texture. It shows the same huge grassy flavours as Rustbucket but in a different way. I'm not sure if the dark malts make much of a contribution -- it can be hard to tell because the visual clues are so powerful -- but perhaps there's a light dusting of milk chocolate. Or perhaps there isn't. There's definitely an extra floral intensity, a kind of hop perfume effect which is quite fun. Overall a very drinkable beer at the strength and one which I think meets my gimmicky requirement that black IPAs should taste indistinguishable from their pale equivalents.

Galway Bay Brewery have coupled the grain of the moment with the style of the moment to produce Holocene, a rye saison. A red rye saison, in fact, and a beautiful dark red-amber colour at that. The darker malt most definitely makes its presence felt here with a slightly sickly aroma and lots of smooth candy sweetness up front in the flavour. Fortunately this is quickly countered by the fruity saison tartness for an effect I can best describe as "toffee apple". A smack of dry grass enters the picture in what I thought was the finish of the flavour, but the tartness won't quit and that mouthwatering sharpness is the beer's valediction. No complaints about complexity here: this beer has a lot going on in it, and there's even a touch of that pepperiness so often missing from modern Irish saison. But at the heel of the hunt it left me wanting something simpler and cleaner. The toffee redness just gets in the way a bit, I think.

It'll be a while before I have a chance to compile my notes from this year's festival. But suffice it to say for this week anyway, Irish beer is all go.

05 September 2014

Smaak in the head

I was a little apprehensive when I first saw Breandán's choice of topic show up on Jay's list of once and future Sessions. "My First Belgian". What was my first Belgian? There has to have been one, and it's not like it would have been all that long ago. I first drank beer in Belgium in 2002. Belgian beer was new and exciting to me when Dublin's branch of Belgo opened in 2000. A big bucket of Hoegaarden was my drink of choice in Aberdeen's The College in 1999. But I'm sure I'd had it or a Duvel or a Chimay at some point before that. It's annoying to have no memory of drinking any of these for the first time. (I do recall my girlfriend daring me to drink lambic in Belgo and me being instantly hooked, much to her chagrin. She's much better disposed to the sour stuff these days, but marriage will do that, eh, eh?)

Anyway, Breandán has mercifully offered a much wider scope for this round than the title suggests, and since I'm more a forward-looking sort of drinker I thought I'd bring in a Belgian beer I'd never had before. There's a strong chance that something from Chimay -- Rouge more than likely -- was the first Belgian ale I encountered so it seemed like a good idea to return to Scourmont for a more recent offering.

Chimay Dorée is the monks' table beer, only relatively recently released to the public outside of the monastery. It's an opaque cloudy orange and busily fizzy, smelling vaguely spicy, like a watered-down tripel. There's a lovely full and cakey texture: nutritious, which I guess is part of the point of the style. The flavour profile is very much that of your typical Belgian blonde, with earthy spices -- chicory in particular; a bit of poppyseed too -- and some lighter honey complexity. I'm reminded a lot of the aforementioned Duvel, but at a fraction over half the ABV this does a fantastic job of showing similar complexity without even a trace of wateriness.

Pure solid quality, which is no big surprise from Chimay -- a brewery which has done so much for the international reputation of Belgian beer.

The great thing about Belgium is that it's still exciting. The consistent quality of many long-established brewers sits next to the amazing living fossil guezeries and a host of new-wave upstarts, influenced by foreign styles and doing their own thing as well. We still use "Belgian" as a specific descriptor for beer. We should probably stop.

04 September 2014

Taking justice on the chin

Two more brand new bottled brands to finish off this week's epic crawl of Irish beers.

Another new brewery has opened in the Dublin hinterland in the form of Kelly's Mountain in Clane, Co. Kildare and they've called their first beer Justice. Though described on the label as a pale ale, the potential drinker is also helpfully informed that it's a mere 20 IBUs suggesting in advance that it's not going to be a palate-burner. And so it proves. Pouring a flawless rose-gold and topped by a generous pillow of off-white foam it smells quite husky: porridge and brown sugar with just a hint of sweetshop fruitiness in the background. The malt is unashamedly at the reins on tasting, the flavour profile much closer to an Irish red than most any Irish pale ale with lots of bourbon biscuit, some dry tannins and just a mild metallic tang from the hops. English-style bitter might be a better way to think of it, and I'm reminded of London Pride in particular. The texture is beautifully smooth, creamy even, and the strength a sessionable 4.5% ABV so it's by no means a chore to get through.

Jack Cody's is based in Drogheda and their first release is an amber ale called Smiggy. I love the artwork on this. The beer itself pours a murky brown with low carbonation resulting in a loose-bubbled caskish head. It smells spicy: enticing prickly barbs of raw hop, promising a workout to come. It's quite balanced however, perhaps disappointingly so. The bitterness is the first thing to jump out, fading quickly to allow warming toffee and milk chocolate malts into the picture too. These are complemented by zesty orange and mango juiciness in the finish and the end result is that bitter-sweet fruit-chocolate combination that amber ale does so perfectly. On the one hand, I think a bit more hop welly would do it no harm, but on the other we have here an amazingly complex beer at an extremely modest 4.8% ABV. There's also a Jack Cody's pilsner which I've not tasted yet but it has its work cut out to match this one.

The Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival, opening in the RDS at 5pm today, promises to be the biggest gathering of Irish beers ever seen under one roof. The last four days of posts on this blog are just a taster of the sort of thing to come this weekend.

03 September 2014

Hitting the bottle

That's enough bothering the bar staff for now. Irish Craft Beer Week continues with some new bottled beer brands.

Cloughmore is a label owned by Noreast, a veteran importer of fancy foreign beers, more recently turned to distributing the bottled output of Galway Bay Brewery and now with a marque of their own, brewed in Co. Down by Whitewater.

First up, Granite Lager. At 4.5%, this is suspiciously the same ABV as Whitewater's own Belfast Lager making me wonder if it's a straight re-badge. It's a while since I've tasted any Belfast Lager, never being much of a fan of it. Granite looks gorgeous, arriving  a perfect clear pale gold with fine bubbles forming an ice cream float of stiff foam on top. Both the aroma and flavour blend together the golden syrup of lager malt with the stern dry cut grass and crunchy celery of German hops, with the former taking the lead in the taste and the latter in the aroma. If this is Belfast Lager under a new name then I'm ready to take a second look because it's very well put together. I find it hard to believe anyone would put the effort in for a made-to-order commodity lager, but that's clearly what's happened here. It's smooth enough to throw down as a sunny day quaffer but also complex enough to take time over if you're a fan of full-flavoured pale lager.
[Edited to add: Whitewater has confirmed that Cloughmore beers are all different recipes to their own-brand beers]

Dark Water  is the Cloughmore stout and it got off to a bad start: a thin-looking red-brown with insane amounts of foam resulting in a glass that looked like an unholy hybrid of Don King and Marge Simpson. Again it shares an ABV with Whitewater's own Belfast Black stout. It has the crisp and dry aroma of German schwarzbier, or a bag of black patent malt, and this is the main feature of the flavour as well, rendered even drier by a big carbonic bite. There's more than a hint of dusty, husky malt floor sweepings about it, almost burning the back of the throat with its arid sandpaper quality. There's maybe a flash of milk chocolate or cappuccino in the centre, but blink and you'll miss it. If you value dry Irish stout for its dryness you'll get your money's worth here. Personally I found the time and effort of getting it poured with all that head not worth the return on investment.

I bought those two really for the sake of completeness. It's the third one in the series that really piqued my interest. No arty name here, it says what it is: Heather IPA. And a perfect pour too, a hazy amber with a modest respectable head. It smells only slightly herby but there's lots more action on tasting. What fascinates me is the concept: heather beer, typified by Fraoch, is generally hop-free. IPA, on the other hand, isn't. This mixes it all up, bringing in the herbal complexity of the heather and setting it on a toffee malt base that fits with a certain sort of IPA and adding a metallic bitter tang from some quite assertive hops. It's not quite as much fun as I expected, needing a bit more heather weirdness for that. But it is a pretty decent heavyish bitter-sweet amberish ale. Nothing fussy, just quality.

From the picturesque Mourne coast to the picturesque west Cork coast and Munster Brewery in Youghal. Bravely, perhaps, they've opted to launch with two lagers, both at 4.2% ABV. Blackguard is billed as golden but looks more of a kellerbier hazy orange. It smells wholesome, all rich maltsack and mild jaffa fruit, and that German microbrewery character continues on tasting: a smooth bready malt base barely troubled by the nettles and rocket of the hops. Yes it's odd drinking something that tastes like it came from a central Berlin brewpub but really just zipped up the M9.

The other one is Fir Bolg, billed as an amber lager and "hop strong" to boot. It's definitely bitterer than Blackguard, with a long tangy finish. Again it features a rich and rustic cereal quality, tasting as cloudy as it looks. In the midst of the malt biscuit there's more of the gentle orangey fruit, and then that tang on the end.

Munster Brewery have made an unusual decision with these two and I'm not sure that rustic German beer is something the Irish market has been crying out for. Me, I'm just glad to have the variety.

Two more new bottling breweries to bring us up to the festival tomorrow.

02 September 2014

More pours

Day two of catching up on Ireland's recent new and special release beers in honour of Irish Craft Beer Week 2014.

Usually ahead of the game for such things, The Norseman in Dublin was an early adopter of Smokey Bacon, a new special edition strong ale from Bo Bristle. This arrived a murky brown-amber colour and exhibits lots of Belgian-esque alcoholic warmth from its 6.8% ABV. The smoke makes its presence felt right from the start: a harsh and heavy acridity. Lots of caramel malt comes in behind it and the two elements battle it out for control of the palate, well into the long finish. While I'm sure it'll have its fans, it just didn't work for me, lacking in the balance and cleanness I enjoy in German rauchmalz-based lagers and also in the fun flavours found in peated dark beers. Reddish ales with a minority percentage of smoked malt just don't float my boat.

Beoir's 2014 AGM happened in Kilkenny a month ago and coincided with the first appearances of a new local beer brand, Costellos. Mr Costello himself invited us along to Billy Byrne's pub after the meeting to try it out. Diageo recently closed the landmark Smithwick's brewery in the city and this is an attempt to bring the local element back into Kilkenny beer, though for the moment it's brewed two counties over at Trouble. Still, a 3.8% ABV red ale can't but attract parallels with Smithwick's, and it does combine several of that beer's better elements, showing lots of lemon-tea-like tannins for superior thirst-quenching power. As it warms there's a sizeable amount of buttery diacetyl added to the mix, which wasn't to everyone's taste but which I thought sat quite comfortably with the cleaner parts of the flavour.

Thanks to Gerald and the team at Costello's for the hospitality, and check out Billy Byrne's if you're in Kilkenny: the Bula Bus kitchen parked out back does excellent street food.

"No new Galway Bay beer yet?" I hear you cry. Of course there is. Before the brewery packed up and shipped itself across town to a new standalone facility it produced a 6.6% ABV IPA called Goodbye Blue Monday, in collaboration with Begyle Brewing of Chicago. It's got oatmeal in it. I don't know why and I couldn't detect any effect it had, but I thought I should mention that it's in there. It is thickly textured, but so are lots of non-oatmeal IPAs so I doubt that's oatmeal alone. The colour is a bright copper and its flavour is immensely complex from just the hops: spicy and greenly bitter; weedy and dank, but also zesty and juicy. Basically it's a walking tour of new world hop flavours. Malt? Keep walking, stranger. If you want something with a bit more impact than Full Sail but smaller than Of Foam & Fury, here it is. But otherwise I don't really see the point of trading up or down from either of those perfectly enjoyable beers.

Last month there was much fooferaw around the launch plans of Sligo's first brewery, The White Hag, at the Fleadh Cheoil. What got lost in the kerfuffle about licensing and strongarm tactics and whether craft beer is a fad was any mention of the beer. White Hag's first release was a special edition created specifically for the event: Fleadh Ale. Fortunately a stray keg managed to roll as far as L. Mulligan Grocer where I got to try it. I'll admit I'm a little prejudiced when it comes to the beer from new rural Irish breweries. "Safe" is a word I may throw out from time to time, and no criticism is implied in it. But Fleadh Ale is not safe. Quite the opposite, I think. It's the clear dark red of an amber ale and starts with an innocent aroma of toffee and oranges. Mandarins flash past on the first sip, then stronger hop resins and incense spicing leading to thumping great dank earthy pine flavours set on a thick toffee stickiness. That hop-blasted chewiness is an effect I associate most with big US double IPAs and I'm not sure I entirely believe the Hag's claim that this is a mere 6.8% ABV. It is a stunning beer and though brewed for a summer music festival it would make a magnificent winter warmer. I hope we'll see it again.

A second new Connacht brewery to finish on: Black Donkey from Roscommon. They've daringly opted for a saison as the first release and the official east-coast launch took place in 57 The Headline recently. Sheep Stealer is the latest of a growing sub-genre of quite sweet Irish saisons, packed to the gills with mouth-watering orangey fruit. There's some level of dryness and spicing in here too, in both flavour and aroma, but they're more akin to the kind of thing you'd find in a witbier rather than a continental saison. I get a definite poke of coriander in the aroma especially, though as far as I know, no spices have been used in the recipe. The lack of sharp edges makes Sheep Stealer an insanely drinkable beer, as witnessed by the first keg being drained on the night in about 40 minutes.

Another round of new Irish beers tomorrow? Ah go on then...

01 September 2014

No rest for the ticker

Irish Craft Beer Week is upon us once more as the nation girds its collective loins for the craftquake that is the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival, now in its fourth year at the RDS Industries Hall, from Thursday.

To whet your appetite for that I thought I'd run through a few of the recent releases from Irish breweries. Bear with me: this may take a while.

The Porterhouse's Pale Ale Festival ended in late July but nobody seems to have told Eight Degrees who had yet another beautiful hop monster on tap at the Temple Bar branch -- and several other pubs besides -- shortly afterwards. Simcoe Rye Ale is the latest in their single-hop series, 6% ABV once again. It's a hazy dark amber colour and the aroma offers a heady cocktail of grassy rye and weedy, spicy hops for the overall effect of a summer meadow on steroids, or getting your head stuck in a pile of damp lawn cuttings. First in the queue on tasting is a dry and punchy bitterness, sharp at the front and then with a longer resin finish, plus just a modest burst of juicy mandarins coming into it as it warms slightly. Behind these is a dense crystal malt base, though the caramel sweetness is felt more than tasted, if that makes any sense. It's a sort of heavy smoothness and brings balance and drinkability to what's an unmistakeably intense hop-forward beer.

International booze behemoth C&C invited me to the launch of their first Irish beer, Clonmel 1650, brewed at the plant best known for turning out the world's supply of Magners. They rented the entirety of swish Dublin superpub The Church and packed it to capacity, adding insanely loud music for extra atmosphere. Still, two free pints is two free pints. First impression of the first pint was of a very dry lager, the flavour evolving into an earthy, mushroomy, dusty, musty unpleasantness. I guess that's why they gave us two. The second was better, with more of a fruity estery vibe, though still pretty dry. Already in C&C's portfolio there's Tennents, Staropramen, Heverlee, Stella Artois and Beck's Vier. Regular drinkers of any of those will find little to surprise them here.

Clonmel 1650 will not be available at the RDS this weekend.

Before the 1650 gig I dropped into the nearby Twisted Pepper to try a new house beer in their Brewtonic series. I missed the first one, brewed last year at 5 Lamps, and this new one came from Rascal's (here's the official making-of blog post). It's a golden ale utilising Magnum, Summit and Cascade, and they've called it Relax the Cacks, for summer and that. It arrived very cold, which I was glad of that particular July evening, showing a slight craft haze in the gold. There's a sweet nectarine aroma, powerful enough to almost pass for Belgian. You get a massive whack of tropical fruit on tasting: peaches mostly, some pineapple, a bit of mandarin. The body is full enough and there's sufficient alcohol heat to keep the Belgian thing in mind, with definite elements of the first-rate sort of Belgian blonde ales. I got the impression it might start to get a little sticky if allowed to warm but there was little chance of that on this occasion.

The Brewtonic guys also had a bar at the first Big Grill barbecue festival which happened in Herbert Park a couple of weeks ago. As well as imported beers, it was serving some welcome leftovers of another one-off that Rascal's did for them, for a different event earlier this summer. Brewtonic Belgian Wit, said Rascal Emma, is a close relation of their own Wit Woo but utilises a little extra Munich malt. Wit Woo is fairly big on the citrus orange notes and while there are definite echoes of that here, this one drops the bitterness levels and adds in masses of extra soft and fleshy tropical fruit, mangoes in particular. There's a small burn of sulphur and the coriander spice levels are low, but they're really not missed with all the juice action going on. An ideal outdoor summer beer, this, and the festival wasn't long in being cleaned out of it. Brewtonic's boss says they're planning a brown ale next. It has a tough act to follow.

Rascal's doesn't have the monopoly on house beers for yoof-oriented Dublin pub chains. The Cassidy's/P. Mac's/Blackbird group have commissioned their own from Trouble Brewing, a 5.5% ABV pale ale called Vietnow. I explored it sitting among the junkshop furniture on Blackbird's terrace. This hazy dark orange beer smells very dank with heavy sandalwood notes as well. Expecting a dense resinous affair I was very pleasantly surprised to get a burst of mandarin on the first pull followed by a dankness that only comes from fresh hops in quantity. There's a thick mouthfeel and lots of that incense-like spicing. While a certain amount of resin lingers late, most of its hop action happens right up front. It was created as a cheaper alternative to Punk IPA, though at €5.40 a pint in Rathmines it's not exactly going for a song. Much as I enjoyed it, I felt my fiver in the Twisted Pepper above was better spent.

Meanwhile, under their own brand, Trouble have released Oh Yeah!, badged as an "American Black Ale". It's an inky black-brown colour with a fairly sedate aroma of spiced oranges and crunchy green veg. It's lightly textured with lots of prickly fizz, something that complements the spicy bitterness which is the centrepiece of the flavour. There's little by way of fruit complexity, in marked contrast to Eight Degrees's recent Vic Secret, instead it's veg and spice all the way. The dark malt contributes a little bit of chocolate and a little bit of roast, but not huge amounts (in the keg version at least; on cask it's understandably smoother and richer). At 5.8% ABV my liver felt somewhat cheated by the lack of complexity, but it's still a very tasty beer, and at just €5.10 in Against the Grain, my wallet was of the opinion that my liver could shut the hell up.

More pint action tomorrow, including a couple of brand new breweries.