29 November 2014

'Spoons, man

One of the more momentous events of the past year was the arrival of British pub chain JD Wetherspoon to Ireland. The original surprise announcement was made in August 2013 and news came through by the end of the year that the first branch would be in the well-heeled south Dublin suburb of Blackrock. So this wasn't going to be one of those Wild West Wetherspoons, run down and gum-stained, that one occasionally encounters across the water. Though they didn't make it explicit, I suspect the intention was for this to be both pilot fish and flagship all under one enormous roof.

The doors of The Three Tun Tavern opened in early July, by which stage news of the next phase of the expansion was trickling out. More Irish Wetherspoons are expected in Dublin, Cork and further abroad next year, and the second Dublin outlet opens three stops down the DART line in Dún Laoghaire later this month. For the moment, however, The Three Tun Tavern remains one of a kind.

It was August by the time I made it along, late afternoon on a sunny Friday. When it's quiet you really get a feel for the size of the place: a vast wooden floored bearpit with a long bar at the centre and more secluded carpeted areas on different levels off to the sides. I had a slight awww moment when I noticed the silent TV screens were set to RTÉ News Now rather than Sky, as would be normal in the UK. Lots of staff were milling about, far more than there were customers. I guess the rotas were still in the planning phase. A drink, then.

Twelve handpumps makes it easily the caskiest pub in the country, though the everyday selection isn't really up to much: rather mainstream humdrum large-regional British ales, the sort of stuff that the company can pile very high and sell exceedingly cheap. I thought that Adnams Ghost Ship would be a safe bet, having always loved the bottled version but it just felt tired and sickly on cask. Not the refresher I was after that particular afternoon.

Having decided there was nothing on cask I wanted and moving over to the keg taps, the first one to catch my interest was DNA, that oddity from Charles Wells made with a dash of Dogfish Head IPA. My pint arrived a cheery clear copper colour but dear lord it was cold. As the condensation cascaded onto my table that's when I noticed the pub doesn't put beermats out, though they are available. Once it was warm enough for me to taste something I found it quite a subtle and refreshing beer. Its American heritage is there in the sherbety fruit tones, though there's nothing you'd actually call bitter or citrus, and then there's a rising caramel aftermath meaning that it soon starts tasting as brown as it looks. DNA offers a few seconds of enjoyment but just gets boring after that. I understand that the recipe has been revised since the summer so your mileage will obviously vary, if you haven't already been put off it.

I had time for one more pint and opted for Revisionist Lager, holding out possibly naive hopes for Marston's craftified series of beers. This is medium gold and the point-of-sale material promises dry-hopping with Admiral and Boadicea hops. I couldn't wait to get stuck in. Ow my teeth! So very, very cold. I suppose with a lager it's part of the spec, a reasonable demand of the customer base. I cupped my hands around the glass and gingerly took another sip. There's definitely some hop action up front: a sort of chew-sweet artificial fruitiness, but there's not much behind it. No malt, for one thing, which perhaps isn't that surprising at a mere 4% ABV. I kept searching for more taste, letting the beer warm, until notes of butter began creeping in and I knew I was on to a loser. I drained the glass and went on my way.

I wasn't expecting to be back as soon as October, thinking that the chain wouldn't bother with including Ireland in the yearly cycle of special beer festivals. But they did, and on Friday 17th October the first beers from the Wetherspoon International Real-Ale Festival went on sale in Dublin. I really enjoyed my time at this event in Belfast last year so headed straight for Blackrock early in the afternoon of day two.

Just five to pick from, and my first choice was the Hook Norton / Brew Moon Real Antipodean, a 4% ABV golden ale. That's getting into the airy upper reaches for English beer of this style but this was definitely rather thinner than I expected. Still, a lovely spiced orange aroma opened its account and there's a similar sort of fruit flavour, lots of light sherbet and then a cheeky invigorating bitterness right at the end. The hops are Motueka and Wakatu and really didn't have much that was typically New Zealandish about them, but they still worked nicely together. It's another one to finish quickly however: bath salts and orange cordial started to come out as it warmed. Just as well I had more to try.

Meanwhile, the wife opted for the strongest beer on the menu: Freak of Nature double IPA, brewed by Bateman's and based on an original by North Carolina's Wicked Weed brewery. 7.5% ABV and a gorgeous rich gold-amber colour. What could possibly go wrong here? Everything. Aside from the forgiveable powerful alcohol heat there was a massive hit of phenols: pure TCP yuck coating everything. Where it was possible to taste the beer underneath it was all sweet and syrupy. The bottom line is no fresh American hop loveliness, just anguish and despair. Was the problem in the recipe, the brewing or the serving? I don't know. The total trooper I married did manage to get through the entire half pint, however. What a hero.

After that I lost my nerve on risking whole pints and opted for the, admittedly wonderful, three thirds for the price of a pint. We settled in front of the real fire while I set about them.

On the left of the picture, the first was another down-under collaboration: Two Birds Golden Ale, by the Melbourne brewery of the same name, brewed at Banks's. It's a reddish sort of gold and that's probably its most interesting feature. A bit of golden syrup malt, maybe, but otherwise harmless and bland. Neither bells nor whistles in JW Lees John Willie's 100 (far right) either. This is brown bitter of the very brownest sort, a one dimensional toffee pudding that had nothing wrong with it, but I was glad I only had a small glass to work through all the same. And in the middle Abbaye Blonde brewed at Shepherd Neame with input from Belgium's Val-Dieu brewery. This 6%-er was pretty good, all biscuits and bubblegum, sprinkled with honey and cereal. No Belgian stickiness, just good, clean, drinkable golden ale.

My advice to myself for these Wetherspoon collaboration sets is to look out for the ones brewed at Adnams. They tend to be a cut above the others. There was only one on this list, a collaboration with SixPoint called Bklyn Bitter. The pumpclip was present but flagged as "coming soon" and the helpful barman said he expected it to be pouring later that evening. We were in no rush. A wander up the street brought us to The Dark Horse where Goodbye Blue Monday was pouring on cask, throwing all of the Wetherspoon offerings far into the shade. We returned to The Three Tun Tavern just after six to find the afternoon's families had cleared out and the place was now heaving with determined evening drinkers. 6pm on a Saturday seems to be the time when Blackrock turns up its rugby shirt collar and heads to the pub. We found a space in a corner and I brought us two pints of Bklyn.

It didn't let me down. Maybe a little over-egged at 5.5% ABV while tasting far more safe and sessionable, this is rose gold in colour and smells enticingly of sulphur and black tea. It's tannins a-go-go the way Adnams does best, more a lemon tea effect on tasting, when the hopping kicks in, and hitting the back of the throat and roof of the mouth with a tannic dryness. I'd have been happy if that's all it did but there was also big rich mango juiciness and a dusting of incense spice. Phwoar. This one was well worth waiting for.

So, clearly a mixed bag at The Three Tuns, but hooray for choice. I doubt I'll be making regular forays out to Blackrock, Dún Laoghaire or Swords just to go to Wetherspoon, and even if and when they open in the centre of town I can't see it becoming a destination for a night out. But just a few pints of something of Bklyn's calibre per year will do me. Welcome to Dublin, JD.

(This is my second #beerylongreads post in the current round. For the full list of contributions, see Boak and Bailey's blog here.)

27 November 2014

Brown out

I don't know if it's entirely fair to be including the fourth-biggest brewing multinational in this week's series. C&C recently set up their own brewery at headquarters in Clonmel where they're currently pumping out the rather lacklustre Clonmel 1650 lager. But before that, they took an almost-total stake in the 5 Lamps microbrewery in Dublin, a two-hander run by Brian and William, which appears to have complete freedom to brew what they like.

With the lack of diktats comes a lack of logistical support, I guess, which is why the tap badge in The Norseman for The Tenters Brown Ale, their latest, was a circle of paper sellotaped to the keg font, with the name picked out on a portable label printer. Now that's craft. The Tenters is everything you want from a brown ale: a crisp dry bite of roasty grain husk next to lusciously smooth milk chocolate and slightly salty caramel. Like their Blackpitts Porter, it's a solid, no-frills drinking beer with plenty of flavour.

The Tenters is easily the best of the beers I've reviewed this week and while I think corporate structure rarely if ever correlates to beer quality, the method of production here may just contain a wee clue, a signpost, for any of the other big brewing concerns interested in breaking into this new and possibility lucrative market segment, Beer For People Who Enjoy The Taste Of Beer.

26 November 2014

Barrel of laughs

Quite a convoluted back story comes with the new one from Franciscan Well. The four-pack their PR people sent me was accompanied by a leaflet explaining the concept of the chaser. The beer, Jameson Aged Pale Ale, has not only been aged in whiskey barrels but is also recommended to be served alongside a shot. Creative playfulness or a cynical joint effort by Molson Coors and Pernod Ricard to sell each other's products? Not that it matters.

What matters is the beer: 33cl bottles beautifully presented in Jameson's dark green and gold livery. It pours a flawless pale amber colour and smells rather sticky: Lucozade and hard candy, with maybe a mild whiskeyish air. The texture is very light for a 6% ABV beer with lots of prickle from the carbonation.

It's not very strongly flavoured and anyone looking for a big hit from the Cascade hops will be disappointed, but there's a different sort of complexity at work, mostly malt-related. There's more of that candy, a gorgeous brown bread crusty dryness and then an intense honeyish sweetness with mild wood overtones which I'm guessing is the Irish whiskey at work.

The recommendation, of course, is to drink this with a Jameson. "The biscuit and malt of the pale ale balance perfectly with the vanilla that is peppered with spicy wood and and hints of sweet sherry" it says here. Sadly, my house whiskey is Power's rather than Jameson, but sure it all comes from the same place. And I can't say I'm convinced -- the two flavours just disappear into each other and I can't tell if the honey is coming from the beer or the whiskey. If anything, the subtle complexities in the beer are scorched into oblivion by the hot spirit on my palate next to it.

Franciscan Well Jameson Aged Pale Ale is a nice beer for free and the idea behind it is a fun gimmick. But the ceremony is not to be taken seriously.

25 November 2014

Getting a rise

Yesterday's post was about Diageo's attempt to take advantage of Ireland's growing appetite for new beers. It's far from the only major player in the country to do so. In fact, they're all at it. Forever nipping at Diageo's heels is Heineken, and the Dutch behemoth has taken a very different approach with its latest offering.

While the new Guinness porters were released with huge fanfare and saturation marketing, Rising Road Pale Ale is almost a stealth beer. Only for the fact that it seems to mostly show up in bars where Heineken has a foot firmly in the door -- the places that have Tiger and Paulaner on tap already -- there's no way of even beginning to guess where it comes from.

My first impression on ordering a pint is that it's not "pale" by any stretch of the imagination, but is resolutely copper coloured. Tastewise it has a lot in common with its Diageo lookalike Smithwick's: a similar crispness and the slightly metallic tang of English hops. At the centre there are lots of very clean and quenching tannins, and hiding behind this a toffee base that gradually comes out of its shell as the beer warms.

The low-level hopping, and flavour generally, is certain to disappoint those drinkers who have just started associating the phrase "pale ale" with bold citrus bitterness. It certainly disappointed me. That said, it's technically flawless and perfectly potable. Though if it's priced higher than Smithwick's on the same bar, on account of being a pale ale dontcherknow, it's not worth paying the premium.

Edited to add: Rising Road appears to have been subsequently rebranded as "Cute Hoor". The tap badge still doesn't mention Heineken.

24 November 2014

Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

I can't help but feel that Diageo have fashioned a rod for their own backs with The Brewers Project. It's easy to read it as promising things that it was never really intended to deliver, and that's just going to annoy people.

My experience of it began back in early September when the company invited a small group of bloggy types to St. James's Gate to learn about the Project, the first time they have ever done so. As everyone is doubtless aware at this stage the Project has been launched with two new beers: Guinness Dublin Porter and Guinness West Indies Porter. In answer to my obvious  "Why now?" question, Nick the Innovation Marketing Manager, leading the group, said that the rise in diversity on the Irish beer scene had not gone unnoticed at Diageo. They saw it as an opportunity to play a little, to try something that wouldn't have worked before but could be worth a go. Those of us still lamenting the premature death of the St. James's Gate beers know all about Guinness projects that were tragically ahead of their time.

There are two principal features of the new venture, explained to us when we left the plush surrounds of the Director's Dining Room and donned our protective goggles for entering the pilot brewery: one is that the pilot plant itself plays a central role in creating the beers; the second is that the Guinness archive is also pivotal, providing inspiration for the brewers designing the beers. These are the messages we see again and again in the marketing surrounding the new products: brewers given freedom to create, and a taste of authentic history. The problem is that both concepts are paper thin and disintegrate disappointingly after a mere moment's scrutiny.

Let's take the historical side of things first. An archivist was on hand to show us the logs which were directly relevant to the two new beers, or rather, how they're marketed. One log was from 1796, the earliest to show porter being brewed by Guinness. The other was dated 1801, when Guinness began brewing porter for export, a recipe which evolved into today's Foreign Extra Stout. Gearóid, one of the brewers gathered round  with us, pointed to the figures for hopping, saying that they were much higher than you'd have today. I've read enough Ron to know that's par for the course, but also that no 1796 porter would be anywhere near as weak as the 3.8% ABV of the new one. So what gives? It's an influence on the recipes, say the men from Diageo, an inspiration. But where did the basic specs come from, the original gravity and so on? Oh they were just handed down from above, same as every beer. These porters conform rigidly to modern Guinness ingredients and methods.

I'm not having a go at Diageo for not making Pattinsonian clones of beers in their logs. They are entitled to make what they like. I do, however, think presenting them as any way historically associated was a mistake -- something that will mislead most customers and just irritate the ones who look a bit further into it.

It's all neatly illustrated by the posters which began to appear a couple of weeks ago, ahead of the launch of the beers in Ireland. Try Our New Beer From 1796 / 1801 they exclaim. You have to look at your feet to spot the small print:
That's a lot less fun and I wonder what the point of the whole thing is. A beer that sort-of has some influences from an older one isn't a thrilling window into the past, but nor is it an exciting new recipe. It looks like a brewery wanting my attention but offering nothing to hold it.

The 10hL brewhouse
And then there's the pilot brewery itself. You'll have noticed it on your way along James's Street, its delivery shutter two storeys up the wall on the outside. There are a pair of brewhouses inside: a one hectolitre, fanciest-homebrew-kit-you've-ever-seen, and a ten hectolitre kit, originally installed in the late 1990s to brew the "St. James's Gate" range of proto-craft beers but still very shiny and well looked after. It could be the brewery of any small-to-medium microbrewery, except there's a cereal cooker at the start for adjuncts, and a pasteuriser at the end: St. James's Gate is a totally sterile plant, no beer leaves alive, not even the made-for-destruction test batches.

It's the only pilot brewery in the globe-spanning Diageo empire and it has the job of testing all the ingredients that arrive, be it a new crop of sorghum for use in Nigeria or a fresh batch of foam stabiliser from Kerry. One of the FVs was marked as containing a test run of Tusker, several had the last runs from the former Smithwick's brewery in Kilkenny inside.

The pilot also does recipe development. Every Diageo beer starts life on the small kit, then gets reproduced on the 10hL one. If successful, an Irish recipe graduates to the brand new main brewhouse where Guinness stout comes through 1,000hL at a time, though half-sized batches are often done for other beers and, Gearóid says, they can bring the quantity down to 350hL if they absolutely need to. And the new beers are no exception: both were scaled up through the pilot brewery but the beer you drink came from the industrial-sized facility.

The 1hL brewhouse
I've seen several references to The Brewers Project as "craft beer", or an attempt thereat, by the makers of Guinness. Everyone I met inside St. James's Gate denied that this is what it's supposed to be, and I completely believe them that their intention isn't to fake small-batch, artisan Guinness. But they can't possibly not have noticed that, with all the mention of the pilot kit and the men who work there, and the emphasis on the human input into the product design while totally ignoring the economic aspect, that "craft Guinness" was a perception bound to result. And again that anyone who saw the details of what's actually happening would be disappointed.

Eleven paragraphs on a brewery's marketing is not how I roll normally. But The Brewers Project fascinates me, albeit in a slightly morbid way. That said, the opportunity to look into the Diageo brewing process and see a whole new yet familiar side of brewing is something I'm hugely grateful for -- a big thanks to Julie and Ruth from WHPR for masterminding the event, and the Diageo team for showing us round. I'm hoping it's the beginning of a new era of glasnost initiated by the taciturn Dublin 8 monolith.

We did get a small taster of the two beers when we visited. My first impression of both was that they're very similar to existing Guinness products: Dublin Porter thin and crisp like Guinness Extra Stout while the caramel and mild sourness of West Indies Porter lit up the receptors in my brain which enjoy Guinness Foreign Extra Stout but left them craving the weight and complexity that Foreign Extra delivers at 7.5% ABV which West Indies lacks at a mere 6%. I had to wait until last weekend and the release of the bottles on the Irish market to get my hands on them and do a proper taste test.

Guinness special editions tasting very similar to each other is something I'm used to. Anyone who worked through the Brewhouse Series almost a decade ago may remember. But the brewers I met at St. James's Gate are adamant that all the beers are radically different from each other, even the Brewhouse Series. The amount of aroma Goldings added to West Indies Porter is off the charts for a Guinness beer enthused Gearóid, and again I believe him. I just could not smell that for myself. "Could the common taste be down to the Essence?" I asked, referring to the soured syrup that Diageo produces to give all Guinness worldwide a signature flavour. Gearóid's answer was a phrase I have never heard on a brewery tour before: "We don't talk about that."

And so down to business. A blind triangle tasting of both beers and what I regard as their respective close cousins. Could I tell them apart, and which are better?

The six 100ml glasses of 10°C beer in front of me were a uniform black with barely any difference despite the weakest being half the strength of the strongest. I figured head colour would be a dead giveaway so they were carefully poured with no foam showing. A first go through the set showed clearly which were the strong three and which the weak three, but there was nothing else obvious.

Picking the odd one out from the weaker three was almost impossible: it was just glass after glass of watery fizz. I tried drinking them in different sequences, pausing for water between them, and running through them in quick succession but it was very difficult to spot any distinguishing features. Going past the wateriness, and letting the beer warm and flatten a bit, I started getting hints of chocolate and a green vegetal complexity, just shading towards metal. This was in all three but I half-guessed that I could taste it a tiny bit less in one of the three so I marked that as Guinness Extra Stout and the other two as Dublin Porter, and I was correct.

Interestingly, as I finished off the leftovers once the challenge was over and the beers had been sitting out a while, I found that the Extra Stout got more full-flavoured as it approached room temperature: your classic large-bottle-off-the-shelf. The Dublin Porter did not, however, staying as thin and dull as when first taken from the cooler. So, if faced with a choice of just Dublin Porter and Extra Stout which to pick? I now appreciate that there is a mildly stronger flavour in cool Dublin Porter, but the emphasis is on mild there. But warmer Extra Stout was a revelation: I never would have guessed there would be such an appreciable difference between 3.8% ABV and 4.2% ABV, but that extra 0.4 really does add heft. Room temperature Guinness Extra Stout remains the company's best session-strength option.

The stronger set was easier. One of my glasses contained a hot 'n' heavy sour coffee and caramel madman, the other two a more gently sour, roastier beer with an added metallic edge. It wasn't too much of a reach to guess that the former was Foreign Extra and the latter West Indies Porter. And it's not just the alcohol difference that gave it away. I was on alert for those bonus Goldings that Gearóid had mentioned and though there was no sign at all of them in the aroma (all six smelled of damn all), there was a discernible crunchy green cabbage flavour behind the signature sour Guinnessy tang. I've tasted English hops doing that before, especially when in quantity.

I stand by my initial impression that West Indies Porter does have much in common with Foreign Extra, but this test proved that it is markedly different from it, though I wouldn't at all say that it's an improvement, apart from the bottle size. The next phase of the test should be to determine whether a half litre serving of West Indies Porter delivers more pleasure than 33cl of Foreign Extra Stout, but I think these beers have already taken up enough of my time and your screen.

All four beers are unmistakably Guinness and I think I'll have to agree to disagree with the Diageo bods on whether this is a strength or a flaw. In the microbrewing sector it's commonplace to hear of a company recruiting a brewer who has Guinness experience. While visiting James's Gate I took the opportunity to ask if the reverse happens: do brewers from Irish micros ever take jobs with them? The answer was no. While there's a certain amount of cross-pollination between the big industrial multinationals, nothing from the craft side. I think the result of this inward-looking philosophy can be tasted in these new beers, and every other Guinness brand extension where the consumer complains that it's not different enough. To the brewers and execs for whom Guinness represents archetypal porter perfection honed over centuries these variations are an audacious victory, instilling the quintessence of the brand in a radically different host body. This stout drinker thinks they should get out more.

(For more longer-than-usual blog posts about beer from a variety of authors, check in with Boak and Bailey this Saturday and follow their #beerylongreads project.)

20 November 2014

Gone wild

Fuller's Wild River was introduced as the brewery's summer seasonal in 2012, pitched at the whitewater rafters of Chiswick. A batch of just-past-date bottles showed up at DrinkStore a while back and as I'd never tasted it before at all I grabbed one for the princely sum of €1.

"Zesty" and "bursting with citrus flavours" promises the label, though the cap sent a more disturbing message: something very unhelpful appears to have been growing under there. Still, nothing off about the aroma, and yes there's citrus even if it's more casually dropping in than bursting -- a mannerly mild lemon and grapefruit pithiness. The hop flavour is a tang rather than anything more involved: gentle citrus sets the mouth watering, there's some rounded orange, and finishing on a slightly off-putting metallic note. Under this there's a lot of sugary malt, putting the whole thing much more in the English golden ale category than US-style pale ale.

And the significantly-less-than-a-million dollar question: worth a quid? Yes, I think so.

17 November 2014

Gearing up

Alltech's beery foody extravaganza is coming back to Convention Centre Dublin for the third time at the end of February. To mark the beginning of the end of the planning phase, the company held a launch event a couple of weeks ago at Sam's Bar on Dawson Street. Two beers from Alltech's Kentucky-based brewing arm were doing the rounds and new to me.

The first was Kentucky Peach Barrel Wheat Ale which has been available since the summer. It's a starkly pale yellow colour and smells very sweet and quite sickly. It's not so bad to drink but it really doesn't taste like beer: there's the intense sugary peach effect of peach schnapps, amplified by a whopping 8% ABV. I almost went looking for some orange juice to add to it. The texture is mercifully light but it's still far more of an alcopop than a proper beer.

Rather better suited to the season was Kentucky Pumpkin Barrel Ale, a 10% ABV monster, orange coloured, and smelling strongly of the oak barrels it has been matured in plus a tiny whiff of autumnal spicing. The roles are reversed in the flavour: all the cinnamon, nutmeg and the like take over with just a trace of sour mash bourbon hovering in the background. There's absolutely no sign of all that alcohol, which is probably a good thing: the vital statistics suggest this could have been a sticky mess with added oak honk, but it's not. If anything it errs on the side of being a little characterless. Pumpkin beer for people who don't really like pumpkin beer, perhaps?

They put on a good show, do Alltech, and if past years are anything to go by Brews and Food 2015 promises to be a great event. Registration for both the exhibition and the Dublin Craft Beer Cup is currently open to breweries worldwide. If you're looking for a bit of international attention for your beer I strongly recommend considering it. It means I may get to have a go at your beer too: win-win.

13 November 2014

New pubs for old

Dublin city centre is hardly saturated with good drinking opportunities though you don't need to look as hard as you once did for something decent on draught. We're not quite at the stage where you can walk in anywhere and find a good beer, but I also don't think we're far off it. Meanwhile, the hoppy fingers of independent brewing are reaching into the suburbs and providing more options to the thirsty people there.

The newest addition to the craft beer scene beyond the canals is The 108 in leafy Rathgar. Once a pleasantly shabby corner bar, this was demolished some years back and rebuilt with apartments on top. The pub returned as The Rathgar and retained its shape though I can't say if the atmosphere came back too as I never visited it in this incarnation. As of the beginning of this month it has been re-re-branded and is called The 108 once more, this time as part of the Galway Bay Brewery chain, the tenth in its estate and the sixth in Dublin.

As it happens the brewery had a brand new beer ready on opening night, an amber lager called Steam Boat. I confess I wasn't expecting a whole lot from it but brewer Chris has definitely worked his magic on it. His magic and a whole heap of Galena, Columbus and Citra. It's a murky red-brown colour showing the rawness that Galway Bay likes to present in its beers: no filter, no fining, no mucking about. The aroma is sharp yet fruity, all peach skins and grapefruit. While properly bitter to taste there's a lovely hop complexity, with mango flesh and a touch of the medicine cabinet -- eucalyptus in particular -- too. Best of all the lager yeast gives it a lovely clean finish, making way for the next mouthful. My only real beef with this beer is that the strength is a little high at 5.4% ABV. I'd prefer something I could tear through at a percentage point or so lower, and Galway Bay lacks anything hoppy in this area. That said it's nice to have something with all the character of the house IPA Full Sail with just a little less alcohol.

Meanwhile on the northside the former Red Windmill pub on Phibsborough Road has been acquired by the Bodytonic group, best known for the likes of The Twisted Pepper and Bernard Shaw. The new sign over the door proclaims it to be The Back Page and it is that rarity: a craft beer sports pub. The refurbishment has been done sympathetically and the front bar retains its cosy pubby feel while the bright back room is where the big screen action takes place. There's even a games room upstairs for those more interested in participating than spectating.

Bodytonic's brewing arm has a new beer out to mark the opening, created at Rascal's Brewery with recipe design by homebrew virtuoso Rossa O'Neill. It's badged as a dark mild, is 4.5% ABV and goes by the name Whopper. It's a simple but high quality beer with lots of silky milk chocolate at the centre of the flavour and some chalky mineral dryness around the edges. Maybe it's just because they've decided to call it a mild instead of a brown ale but I couldn't help wondering if there might be more complexity in a cask version of it. Certainly the coldness and fizzyness of keg dispense did it few favours on a rainy November evening.

It's great to see both the Galway Bay and Bodytonic empires expanding, and bringing damn good beer with them as they do. The revolution will not be centralised.

10 November 2014

Dark days

Winter is nearly upon us, so time to look at a few of the recent additions to the Irish beer scene, released to tide us over until the brightness returns.

Brú are newcomers to the seasonal circuit and I was pleased to find their Autumn Ale on cask in The Brew Dock last month. It's a dark red-brown colour and is all about the seasonal spices. Well, not all about them: at its heart this is a solid dark malt-forward ale, full-bodied with warming elements of toffee and caramel. The spicing is at level where it's still the main act, but not overdone. Nutmeg would be my best guess for the principal one, but it could easily be cinnamon, cloves or any combination thereof. You get the picture. It's heartening to see both a brewery resisting the urge to throw the whole spice rack at a beer, and a Dublin pub getting cask dispense absolutely spot-on -- the prickly fizz in this really livened it up in a way that's not often enough the case with this sort of dark heavy beer.

The latest in Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne's range of seasonals is Riasc Black, a 6.1% ABV dark ale with added blackberries. It pours densely black, topped by a thick layer of head, the colour of old ivory. Though no official style is given, the smell reminds me of porter: lightly chocolatey with traces of plummy dark fruit. The texture is one of its best features, being full and creamy with only a subtle effervescence. Flavourwise it has a lot in common with Irish dry stout. There's some roast and hints of mocha, but also a fascinating mild sourness which I'm guessing is the blackberries at work. It doesn't taste at all like a fruit beer, or at least it's a long way from the sticky syrupy nightmares they can sometimes be. Instead here is a beautiful balanced and subtly complex full-bodied dark beer. Perfect winter fare.

I don't know if it actually counts as a seasonal, but Carrig Brewing launched a new black IPA at the end of October: 5.5% ABV and named Coalface. My half pint at the Bull & Castle arrived looking very stoutish: proper black with a creamy white head on top. It smelled quite stouty too, having a lot of the vegetal bitter tang that makes Porterhouse Wrassler's such a classic. I was braced for another bitter Irish stout so was quite shocked to get a hit of sweet sherbet lemons on the first sip. The zingy hop fruit is matched with a smooth dry cocoa flavour and I'm really not sure whether this should be classed in the "hoppy porter" sub-sub-genre of black IPA, or as a proper "IPA-in-all-but-colour". The lasting bitterness on which the flavour finishes could be at home in either, but that juicy lemony centre is the sort of thing only really found in the new wave of American and American-style pale ales. Concerns about taxonomy aside, Coalface is a gorgeous smooth and quaffable beer, not massively full-flavoured, but it does what it does in a really interesting way.

Looks like we're all sorted for the winter then.

07 November 2014

A salutary lesson

It's one of my hobby-horse topics on The Session this month: beer travel. But Brian isn't letting us just drone on about where we went on our holidays, and there's certainly been enough of that on this blog lately. No, we're asked specifically to consider the beer pilgrimage, the brewery visit, the drinking-at-source. Do we do it to enhance our sensory experience by seeking the optimum condition for our beer, or is it more of an abstract thing -- a quest for understanding? I'm pretty much in the latter camp: I like drinking in breweries more to see the context and culture that gave rise to the beer than to try and get the best version of it. I wouldn't be entirely sure that the quality thing always stands up, as neatly illustrated by the last brewery I visited: De Prael in Amsterdam.

I've been before, several times, but it had been a while and options for early Sunday drinking in the city centre are a little on the thin side. It was all go in the roomy bar behind the brewery when we got in -- an energetic jazz band was playing up a storm to a crowd of early Sunday-lunchers. From the bar, three unfamiliar beers. Well, the wife and I got grown-up beers; our companion Zak opted for a flight.

Good man Zak.

First the positive news: Rubberen Robbie is a 6.7% ABV smoked porter brewed at De Prael in collaboration with under-construction Amsterdam brewery Oedipus. It gets just the right balance of strong flavours, matching the heavy chocolate from the base beer with big meaty smoked bacon notes. Some fruity pipesmoke provides complexity and there's a surprise pleasing bitter finish. Nicely done and hats off to both brewers.

Staying on the malty side of the house, Doemaar is a scotch ale, laying on the alcohol at 7.7% ABV and ending up incredibly hot which doesn't help the intense sugary sweetness. This is further topped by lots of brown banana esters for a gloopy, burny, teeth-rotting, heart-palpitating mess of a beer. But even it tasted like Pliny the bleedin' Elder compared to...

Nick & Simon. A 6.5% ABV IPA, arriving hazy and pale yellow, like a witbier, but that's rarely any harm. I didn't get it at first, finding it a simple if rather waxy beer, but both my drinking companions looked like they were being asphyxiated after one sip of it so I took my time to try and find what they were tasting. Oh, there it is now, just as the beer starts to warm. And it gets bigger. And it doesn't stop. Arrgh! Diacetyl is the first deadly sin: big butterscotch on an otherwise quite light texture is horrible. Then there's a nasty sourness, in both the aroma and flavour: lactic, turning towards... cheese. The stinky feety cheesy guff of hops that were not fit for use in beer (isovaleric acid, if I'm not mistaken, chemistry fans). The whole is a bit of a perfect storm of off flavours and is one of the worst beers I've had the misfortune to taste. I drank it less than 10 metres from where it was produced and it should never have got even that far.

I like to think that, out in the wild, any sensible speciality beer bar manager would not have deemed Nick & Simon fit for sale and sent it straight back. But maybe that isn't an option at the brewery bar. Whether it be group-think, palate acclimatisation, economic concerns or fear of the owner's wrath, it's conceivably more likely that you'll get bad pints, wonky batches, at the source than out where the product is subject to beer peer review.

For me, having the experience trumps any individual bad beer episode. Visiting a brewery is always, foremost, an opportunity for learning, not a quest for objective beery perfection. The city which is home to Prael and Bierfabriek teaches us that better than most.

05 November 2014

Sunday stroll

This blog left the Borefts beer festival in Bodegraven last week, though there was one other beer I drank there which wasn't part of the line-up. Mirjam Red Ale is brewed at De Molen however, and Mirjam herself was presenting it to festival-goers, on behalf of her and the husband's Bier de Rie operation. She describes it as a beer "for beer geeks to drink when they're not rating": high quality, but not overly complex, by design. And so it is. A mix of Mosaic, Amarillo and Simcoe hops create a beer with just enough bitterness to be properly interesting, but also smooth and juicy too. My only quibble is that 6.2% ABV is a little on the high side to be properly downable.

As always, the Sunday after Borefts meant a morning of beering around Amsterdam before the evening flight home. This year the wife and I were joined by beer writer, seller and opinion-holder Zak Avery who also had nothing better to do. First stop was Gollem, one of the earliest good beer bars to open its doors on a Sunday, and it doesn't hurt that it's one of the nicest too.

Round one featured a new house beer: Gollem's Precious, a pretty full-on IPA from those geniuses The Musketeers, best known for the Troubadour series. It's only 5.9% ABV but could pass for more, its heavy and slightly sticky body supporting a sprawling edifice of hop complexity: pithy bitterness, grassy weed, herbs, resin and spritzy orange, all packaged under a heady perfume aroma yet somehow staying beautifully drinkable. Local brewing company Oedipus's Thai Thai Tripel was also included. I'd been expecting an exotic oriental twist on standard tripel but this dark orange affair is fairly down-the-line for the style, with maybe just a little bit of extra ginger spicing amongst the hot and heavy Christmassy citrus. It's a nicely sippable tripel but no more or less than that.

Another round? Oh go on then. First up, a new one from Belgian artistes De Dochter van de Korenaar, an "internationally-styled wheat IPA" (huh?) called Crime Passionnel. This is 7.5% ABV and a hazy amber colour. The dominant flavour is a strange mix of dry tart fruits: cranberry, pomegranate and passionfruit. It took me a while to dredge what it reminded me of from the depths of my subconscious but I eventually arrived at Campari. If you've been looking for a beer that tastes of Campari, here it is.

't IJ's Session IPA was sadly out of stock, but two more new ones were available. 't IJ Barleywine is an especially heavy and warming example of the style, in a good way, showing dubbelish notes of prune and fig on a chewy bourbon biscuit base. Meanwhile 't IJ Motueka does quite a decent job with what isn't a favourite hop of mine. It's a 5.6% ABV pale ale, a brownish-orange colour, starting with a fresh honeydew melon aroma and incorporating a mix of fruit juices in the flavour. Simple but tasty.

I'll save what happened next for Friday's post, but it was inevitable that we would end up sitting outside Arendsnest. It wasn't too busy either. A diversionary beer festival was happening down in Rotterdam so I'd say a lot of the usual post-Borefts nest-hoggers were at that.

With Uiltje being my Big Discovery of Borefts 2014, I was immediately drawn to one of theirs on the tap list, Black & Tan. It's actually a blend of an Uiltje IPA with a porter by Hague brewers Kompaan. The end result is chestnut red and smells beautifully of oranges and pine. The hops weigh heavily on the flavour too, all resinous and oily. Diluting it with porter turns it into something resembling an amber ale, but with extra chocolate and a good dose of roast too. Only 7% ABV, but with a rather vinous finish it's another one that tastes like it could be more.

And sitting to the left of it there is Eem Bockbier, a fruitier sort of dark Dutch bock, oily chocolate oranges, a waft of autumnal bonfire and a sharp dry finish where you might normally expect sticky caramel. I'd be tempted to ding it stylistically if it wasn't so much better than most bocks.

One thing I love about Arendsnest is the plethora of Dutch beer companies I've never heard of, available on tap. One such was Reuzenbieren, and I tried their Reuz CIPA: an 8.5% ABV US-style double IPA. Spiced mandarins are the hallmark left by plenty of Amarillo here, to the point that the beer offers very little else, other than increasing weight as it warms up. It's a simple profile for the style and strength, but no less enjoyable for that.

And a token dark beer to finish off: Leckere Schwarz, with its stylish art deco logo. It's a nicely clean black lager with some sour liquorice notes thrown in. A bit more crisp roastness might be nice but I don't object at all to the heavier porterish weight it delivers instead.

It's The Session on Friday and the questions on the table are:
Why is it important for us to visit the place the where our beers are made? Why does drinking from source always seem like a better and more valuable experience? Is it simply a matter of getting the beer at it’s freshest or is it more akin to pilgrimage to pay respect and understand the circumstances of the beer better?
I'll be retracing our steps and looking for some specifically Amsterdammish answers.

03 November 2014

Tottenham hops

These five beers from north London's Beavertown brewery have been around in Ireland for a few months now, causing a bit of a stir with their distinctive branding and bold flavours.

Neck Oil is a pale ale and shouldn't be confused with the much more famous Neck Oil bitter by The Whalebone brewpub in Hull. It presents as a rather sickly yellow colour, topped by a huge pillow of white foam. The aroma is quite severe: mostly pine and grapefruit though there's also the promise of some softer fruit behind it. The flavour is odd. First impression is very watery and metallic, like those low-ABV table beers that are all the rage these days, even though it's a full 4.3%. The malt is almost silent and the hops are of the intensely acidic sort, showing lots of dark green spinach and nettle. Searching hard for some lighter notes I got maybe a quiet kiss of peach or perhaps mango, but overall this is one for the IBU-chasers rather than the Lilt junkies. Sadly.

So I was apprehensive facing into Gamma Ray, another pale ale, this one slightly stronger at 5.4% ABV, with yet more busy foam wasting my time as I tried to get the bastard into a glass. It's a hazy orange colour and again smells bitter, though there's a richer dank quality to it. The flavour here is a powerful mix of spices and orange: clovey and pithy. It's better and more rounded than Neck Oil but I still get that harsh metallic edge spoiling my fun.

Pulling the tab on 8 Ball gave me a sudden blast of sweet meadow grass and flowers. It's a rye IPA and its texture is nicely full despite a mere 6.2%, with lots of wholesome haze and a respectable head over a garnet-coloured body. The hops are very much here for flavour rather than bitterness and there's a surprising amount of milk chocolate in with the caramel malt. On top of that you get sweet satsuma, floral orange blossom, and a greener weed and herb taste: fennel, eucalpytus. The balance here makes it much more to my taste than the previous two pale ales. Perhaps it's the darker beers where Beavertown really excels. Let's find out.

The inevitable black IPA is called Black Betty and I really should have learned my lesson by the time I got to it. A pyramid of ivory foam in my teku was my reward for pouring it at what I consider a normal pace. Still, the aroma went a long way to kiss and make up, being all luscious rosewater and a cheekier fresh cut-grass sharpness. Smooth milk chocolate is the centrepiece of the flavour, livened by bowers of flowers and then squirted liberally with grapefruit and lime juice. There's an odd savoury finish, a brief flash of soy sauce or shiitake. It's a fun experience, by turns soothing and invigorating. There's very little sign of the whopping 7.4% ABV and if it wasn't for the time it takes to pour I'd have been well up for another.

We finish with Smog Rocket, Beavertown's 5.4% ABV smoked porter. Nothing metallic in this black beastie. It smells of cocoa and iodine and is fabulously smooth textured. Lots of chocolate in its flavour, complemented by a powerful, but not overpowering, luxurious layer of smoke, like the pall in a Mayfair gentlemen's club. The taste isn't totally refined: there are a few bitter edges, but next to Neck Oil and Gamma Ray it's like drinking silk.

I'm surprised to find the darker, sweeter beers are my favourite out of this lot but at the same time I'm quite happy with my lupulin threshold where it is.