30 December 2015

Gold and brown

And just like that the year was over and it was time to hand out the Golden Pint Awards for 2015. This is the seventh year that bloggers have been invited by Andy Mogg (and formerly Mark Dredge) to nominate the best of the year's beers, and beer-related artefacts and activities: if you're interested in what I've had to say in previous years, you can find them here for 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. Andy has expanded out several of the categories this year, and mercifully dropped a couple I never had much of an opinion on, though sitting up here on the first paragraph it remains to be seen whether the re-jig will make things easier or harder.

But before getting stuck in, the customary beer. There's a tenuous connection to the awards as I bought it from the winner of the Best Supermarket category, though longer ago than I realised because it was several weeks out of date when I pulled it from the fridge. Karmaliten Kloster Dunkel is a dark lager from eastern Bavaria, about half way between Munich and České Budějovice, so right in the heart of lager country. It's a pure mahogany brown colour and exudes noble hops on the aroma. Their acidic greenness doesn't go very well with the accompanying dark caramel smell so I was worried it may be a bit gastric on tasting. Thankfully it's not. Crunchy, chocolatey bourbon biscuit is at the centre: sweet, but cleaned up beautifully by lagering so it doesn't linger on the palate. It's also balanced by them hops, adding a healthy burst of celery, still fresh and moist even if the beer is older than it ought to be. The carbonation is little more than a light sparkle and the body is chewy enough to be satisfying drinking without getting difficult. It's a lot easier going than many a Bavarian dunkel I've had, though no less complex for that. Good, accessible quality, which is just what a supermarket beer should offer. And so to business.

The Golden Pint Awards 2015

Best Irish Cask Beer: Giant's Organ
It's always a roll of the dice when an Irish beer shows up on cask, but I'd no such qualms when it came to Lacada's IPA. It was beautifully kept at the Belfast Beer Festival: clean and clear and bursting with sherbet citrus. Honourable mentions go to a similar offering from the very opposite end of the island -- West Cork Brewery's Sherkin Lass -- as well as to Trouble's Centennial SMASH. All three were encountered at festivals. Wouldn't it be nice if pubs got the hang of keeping and serving cask beer reliably too?

Best Irish Keg Beer: Little Fawn
I've taken the decision to award this one to a beer I enjoyed pouring down my neck in quantity this year: it's as good a criterion for greatness as any other. As such, this comes down to a three-way battle between Galway Bay's Heathen sour ale, Rascal's Rain Czech pils and White Hag Little Fawn session IPA. And the fresh hops carry the day. Though I wasn't bowled over when I first had it bottled, the keg version is an absolutely perfect juicy explosion. And at 4.2% ABV you can just keep setting them up and knocking them back.

Best Irish Bottled Beer: Black Lightning
I can't help but feel I'm being a little unfair in this category. There are loads of fantastic Irish beers available in bottle but because I mostly drank them on draught I don't get to include them in the running here. One that I did come back to was 9 White Deer's black IPA, and while it wasn't as amazing as the ultra-fresh keg version at the Franciscan Well Easter Festival, it's still very good indeed.

Best Irish Canned Beer: Kinsale Pale Ale
A handful of Irish micros have cans available now. I have been very remiss so far in not getting hold of the recently-released Rascal's ones. But instead I've enjoyed the casual hoppy goodness of Black's Kinsale Pale Ale, with a bonus thumbs-up for the sub-€2.50 price tag.

Best Overseas Draught: Magma Triple Spiked Brett
Fresh hops and brett: together at last, said nobody ever. But this one pulls it off beautifully. Belgian maestros Troubadour fit the different elements together so well that you don't even notice how wrong it all is. If there were an award for best brand extension, this would also get it.

Best Overseas Bottled Beer: Spontanbasil
It was on my must-drink list for quite a while and it didn't disappoint when I finally got hold of it. I've had a couple of basil beers this year and they were all extremely tasty, but this Lindemans-Mikkeller collaboration takes the prize.

Best Overseas Canned Beer: Bibble
A string of lacklustre beers on a stifling hot summer's day in London was completely offset by a cold tinny of this beaut, swigged on the way along Gray's Inn Road. Shouts-out also to Beavertown Holy Cowbell and Rooster's Fort Smith. The Brits have got this one in the can! *cheesy wink*.

Best Collaboration Brew: Radical Brew
Perhaps I'm taking a bit of a liberty here by not awarding this to a collaboration between breweries. Radical Brew was released by Cork-based gypsy brewer RadikAle with input from Waterford distillery Blackwater. The use of gin botanicals in a big rye ale was inspired and clearly both sides knew exactly what they were doing when they brought their respective halves of the combination to the brew kettle. A close second was Crann, the magnificent bière de garde that Inishmacsaint and Poker Tree put together together.

Best Overall Beer: Spontanbasil
Quite a variety of types of beer to choose from among those eight finalists, but it the Belgian basil extravaganza is the one I'd trade a case of the others for. Maybe.
Best Branding: Wild Bat
Breweries that eschew the mystical Celtic claptrap that plagues so much Irish beer branding always get a thumbs up from me. I love the cartoonish energy of Oughterard start-up Wild Bat.

Best Pump Clip: Vincent Van Coff
The name was chosen in a public competition and I think the artist excelled himself in graphically interpreting Mountain Man's final choice of moniker for their coffee and vanilla festival special. Subtle? Tasteful? That's not the Mountain Man way. Definitely fun, though.

Best Bottle Label: Torc Smoked German Ale
The polar opposite of the other two graphic design winners, Torc's branding is all clean and understated elegance. The charcoal grey of the Smoked German Ale is my favourite of their range.


Best Irish Brewery: Rascal's
What do we want? Good beer, produced locally, sanely priced with a spritely turnover of new ones and the occasional stand-out stunner. When do we want it? Continuously. With a solid core range, a fascinating World Hops Series and magnificent festival specials including that superb Chardonnay Saison, west Dublin's Rascal's really delivered in 2015. And through no fault of their own, Trouble has to settle for second place again, despite bringing back Graffiti and turning out a highly enjoyable SMASH series, both of which deserve very honourable mentions.

Best Overseas Brewery: Brewski
These Swedes are my standout from Borefts this year and are ones to watch. Berliner weisse with lime, elderflower and basil is just what the world needs right now. Shut up, it does.

Best New Brewery Opening 2015: YellowBelly
I wish I could keep closer track of what the brewery under Simon Lambert & Sons in Wexford Town is pumping up to the bar counter on a regular basis, but I've enjoyed what I've had. Declan and the crew seem to have hit that sweet spot between playful experimentation and knowing exactly the things you have to do to design and brew really good beer.

Pub/Bar of the Year: 57 The Headline
Yes, again. Several great meet-the-brewer nights secured The Headline's place on my list for the third year running, not least the time we had Carlow Brewing and Starr Hill in for a chat. But even when there's no event on, the turnover and range of beers is fantastic. And there's food and seats and windows and all the other secondary things too.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2015: The Beer Market
As with last year we have Galway Bay duking it out with Bodytonic for the best new Dublin pub. This year I'm giving the prize to the Galwegians, though I've certainly enjoyed my visits to Bodytonic's Square Ball. Though The Beer Market's initial plan to be an international-grade rare-beer heaven hasn't quiite worked out, I've enjoyed several of my favourites from 2015 there and the Dublin beer scene is definitely richer for its presence.

Beer Festival of the Year: Borefts
In 2015 I returned to a few festivals I've been away from for a while: Cask & Winter Ales, GBBF, Belfast Beer Festival, and I also attended my first Polish beer festival, but still nothing tops the kid-in-a-sweetshop thrill of De Molen's annual gig in September. Its days as a well-kept secret are pretty much over and the crowds were definitely bigger this year, but it seems perfectly able to handle it and still give the drinkers plenty of comfort. Good beer you don't have to queue for, and somewhere to sit while you drink it, were always available.

Supermarket of the Year: SuperValu
This was the year that quality beer became one of the fronts on which the Irish supermarkets fight their never-ending war with each other. The drinking public has done rather well out of it, and a special commendation goes to Dunnes and Rye River for the extremely good value of the Grafters beers. But SuperValu has also been commissioning exclusives, and getting in a superb selection of Irish and international beers. It's rare that I spot a beer in the supermarket that I haven't already been able to get from an independent off licence, but that's happened about twice in SuperValu this year. Someone in the company's offices somewhere has the word BEER written large on a whiteboard, with a circle around it, and arrows pointing to it.

Independent Retailer of the Year: Redmond's
As usual I've been mostly shopping in DrinkStore, and it meets almost all of my beery take-home needs. But there have been odd occasions when I've been looking for something rare or particularly special and that's where Redmond's bails me out. Not the cheapest off licence in Dublin, but among the most browseable. I passed twenty years as a customer a few months ago. How terrifying is that?

Best Beer Book or Magazine: Around Brussels in 80 Beers by Joe Stange
A complimentary copy of the second edition arrived just before I went to Brussels in October, so I declare this publication fully field-tested and operational.

Best Beer Blog or Website: Our Tasty Travels
I love a grand project, me, and Our Tasty Travels's "New Beer Every Day Beer Diary Challenge" has kept me enthralled since it began in January. I'd say Brett will be very glad to sign off instalment number 365 tomorrow -- a hearty well done to him for keeping it running. The other grand project I enjoyed was Oliver Gray's attempt to publish a serial novel, December, 1919, over the course of the year. Unfortunately it ran aground in May but I'm looking forward to its return. I need to know what happens with Jack and his brewery just as prohibition bites in Philadelphia.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer: @BroadfordBrewer
Without a doubt the runaway champion of this category, David has more Johnsons than he knows what to do with. But it's fully deserving so this year I add my voice to the chorus.

Best Brewery Website/Social media: Eight Degrees
The Eight Degrees website always has the information I need when I go looking: what are the new beers out, what are they made from and what are the vital statistics? It's an essential service when a brewery produces as much new beer as this one does.

And that's your lot. Time to start forming some impressions of beer in 2016 now.

28 December 2015

Next year's beers

Chef Kevin Dundon and Head Brewer Kieran Bird
At the beginning of November I wrote of being charmed by the King's Bay beers from Arthurstown Brewing Company. The brewery's official launch happened a few weeks later with sequential events in Wexford and Dublin hosted by the brewery's co-owner and frontman Kevin Dundon.

I learned that the King's Bay brand was created specifically for SuperValu and represents a slightly toned-down version of the Arthurstown recipes, intended for mass appeal. This was my first time tasting the beers as the brewer intended, alongside a preview of two that are still in development. The event took place in Tap House in Ranelagh, there were canapés, there was an a cappella choir, and there was also:

Dunbrody Red Ale is yet another standard Irish red. It's clear but still manages to look a little dirty and tastes of caramel in the middle, then finishes sharply dry. It's decent, though to be brutally honest I think I preferred the King's Bay Red to it -- they're both the same strength at 4.7% ABV. One for Irish red fans only, I think.

Also at the same strength is Dunbrody Pale Ale and this has a lot more to say for itself. Though the texture is a little thin and watery there's a lovely big hit of hop resins right in your face from the first sip. Not much else, mind, but that doesn't matter: there's just enough of a malt base to counteract any possible harshness and I have no objection to a one-dimensional hoppy beer as long as it tastes good. This does.

Still under starters orders and not yet on general release is Dunbrody IPA. I think the disparaging comments about this from the Arthurstown men were a little unfair. It's maybe a little lighter of body and more attenuated than many like their IPAs to be, but I thought this worked in its favour. It opens with a refreshing lemony spritz which shades a little towards bath-bomb after a few seconds. But the hops keep on rolling, providing a dank buzz which leaves a lingering resinous quality. The ABV is a satisfactory 5.5% and I don't for a second miss the toffee or thickness that it might be tempting to add to the recipe. Maybe a little more malt to bounce the hops off, but please don't ruin the good points, guys.

In my piece about King's Bay, I suggested that the range could do with a strong and dark dessert beer. Dunbrody Stout isn't quite that, but is perhaps the next best thing. While only 5.4% ABV, it's very full-bodied and smoothly textured. The flavours are all luxuriously dark and sweet ones: treacle, molasses and a tang of high-quality high-cocoa dark chocolate. Perhaps the thing I like most about it is how different it is to other Irish stouts. Leann Folláin may be all things to all drinkers, but even it doesn't have the same dessertishness as this. And pleasingly it still works by the pint. Paired with a warm chocolate pudding and some quality vanilla ice cream: mwah!

This preview suggests they know what they're doing beerwise at Dunbrody House, even if they are sticking to safe and accessible styles to begin with. I look forward to seeing what else 2016 brings from them.

24 December 2015

Brace yourself!

Christmas is nearly here and if you haven't already shut yourself in for the festivities to come, there's still time to get some last minute supplies in. If you're seeking beer inspiration, here's a bumper holiday round-up of some recent releases from Ireland's micros.

You'll need to go to the pub for the new one from Rascal's: they've recently launched three of their beers in cans but Flamin' Red double IPA isn't one of them. It's the fifth in their World Hops series and this time we're in Australia, utilising Ella and Vic Secret. Flames are the only part of the spec which don't feature: it is red and at 8.5% ABV it's definitely a double IPA. I was expecting to get a 33cl glass when I ordered it in 57 The Headline so was a little surprised to get just a half pint. But that was plenty: although it's neither sticky nor sweet it is damn heavy, with a big thick and unctuous consistency. The hops bring a mix of chewy resins and a dry Germanic greenness, finishing with an exciting frazzle of gunpowder. It's very much a beer to finish your night on: the dank aftertaste lasts well beyond the end of the glass and I'd imagine it would be very difficult to taste anything else through it. Fit it into your session with care.

Keeping with the Aussie theme, Big River is a recent outing by Eight Degrees which celebrates Tasmanian hop growing and showcases Ella and Enigma. And does so really rather beautifully, in this drinker's opinion. My pint in The Headline arrived an innocent and clear pale yellow colour and had both kinds of IPA aroma: the heavy dank one and the juicy fruit one -- I got honeydew melon in particular. There's a similarly impressive double act happening in the flavour too: a big electric grapefruit-pith bitterness and then softer notes of mango and guava. I get a certain mild spice as well but I'm not sure if that's an effect of the hops or residual yeast; either way it adds an enjoyable extra edge to what's already an absolutely magnificent beer. And all at just 5.3% ABV as well: the only thing stopping it from being wonderfully sessionable was the €6.50 price tag.

And, just like in the last few years, Eight Degrees has released a set of three new beers for the festive season. I caught up with them at a tap takeover event in Blackbird a couple of weeks ago, starting on Signal, a Belgian-style stout. I had a difference of opinion with Mike the brewer over this one: he reckons it's a bit too Belgiany but it wasn't Belgian enough for me, with Ellezelloise Hercule Stout as my benchmark. It's a mere 6% ABV for one thing and leans heavily on the roast, starting with an aroma of stewed coffee before moving on to a flavour full of smoky tar and a very Irish dryness. Belgian fruit esters are present, but hidden in the corners where they're hard to find. Rather than a booze-bomb or candied chew-sweet, this is a serious and grown-up stout, hitting several of the points that stronger imperial varieties do though at a lower ABV, obviously. The texture is pleasantly light and the carbonation pleasantly low. Never mind the Belgian; feel the balance.

The new one in Eight Degrees's unofficial Wind Series, following Howling Gale, Hurricane, Cyclone and Polar Vortex, is Snow Eater, named after the Chinook, which is also the name of a hop, which is the hop it mostly uses. Layers! It's a 6.2% ABV red IPA with a pillow of off-white foam above the clear dark-red body. It's fantastically smooth and pours out tropical juice flavours from the hops, complicated by that classic Chinook spiciness. Though the aroma is all citrus and dank its bitterness level is surprisingly low, and though it doesn't provide any toffee or caramel, I still think its simplicity makes it more a red than an IPA. Not by any means the most intense hop experience this brewery has created, but a lovely casually warming beer for the hophead in winter.

But for real central heating there's Mór, a barley wine, or "barleywine" as they have Americanly badged it, despite the fact that when the head settles it totally looks like wine: a still, deep dark red. This one shows off every unit of its 10.2% ABV and packs a lot of complexity into that: dark chocolate, strawberries, quinine and a streak of boozy calvados for good measure. The hops -- Centennial and Cascade -- add a bit of spicing but aren't really the main feature. Though the heat called Eight Degrees Millennium double IPA to mind, it also confirmed for me that barley wine is a much more preferable style of strong beer. Balance wins again.

Metalman, meanwhile, has produced a black beer with added Italian orange peel. Sun-dried, it's apparently important to note. Orange is the New Black is the name and I got it from an unmarked can at the Bite Festival in the RDS last month (thanks Gráinne!) The orange is present but understated, adding a mild tartness to what's otherwise a decently crisp, dry, dark session beer. A light bit of roast sits next to some mild chocolate and the whole is simple and enjoyable.

Staying on the dark-and-flavoured theme, A Beer Called Rwanda is a brown ale with coffee from Wicklow Wolf. Personally I prefer getting my brown beer coffee effect from brown malt, but let's give this a go. Well, for a start it's not really brown: that's a proper opaque black with just a light skim of crema on top. There's all sorts of things going on in the aroma: an almost vegetal burnt coffee acidity, with tannic cherry skins thrown in for good measure. The label copy makes a big fuss over the Rwandan coffee they've flavoured this with so I guess this is where they've got the value out of it. Flavourwise it's a bit simpler: thin for 5.1% ABV and fizzy with it with a lightly chewy caramel centre but not much coffee complexity, just that crisp burntness on the end. A decent winter beer, even if it's not the most exciting one. After spending half the glass writing about it I really enjoyed relaxing over the second half before moving on to...

Gallows Hill is the first new bottled seasonal from Dungarvan Brewing in a while. It's 8.5% ABV but was still spendy enough at €5.20 for the half litre bottle. It pours out a cheery dark amber, though not even slightly see-throughable, even with a careful tipping. It smells very heavy: green apple skin and whiteboard marker. A blast of intense sweetness comes with the first sip, turning swiftly to powerfully hot alcohol. And... that's all really. No malt flavour, no hops, just front-to-back booze. I could feel the hangover kicking in before I finished it. I don't use the term "homebrewish" much on this blog, but this really tasted like something done for maximum strength without consideration for taste.

Also failing to impress in this round was The Foxes Rock IPA, new from Alltech's Station Works brewery in Newry. It's cheap and it comes in a nice glass, and it's also clear and clean to begin with, but also rather dull. There's a biscuity English-bitter effect and a light tang from the hops, but nothing distinct enough to pick out individual flavours. The house diacetyl is present, quietly at first, but growing gradually to an unpleasant level so it's best to get through this as quickly as possible. While it was pleasing to be paying just a fiver a pint in The Headline -- and I definitely have time for cheap and undemanding session beers -- in this case I think it's always going to be worth chipping an extra 50 or 70 cent in to trade up to something more interesting, and which doesn't turn into a butter bomb half way through.

I had much better luck with Connemara Cascade, a new pale ale by Independent Brewing. There's a lovely dry and leafy hop flavour in this, so fresh as to conjure raw pellets, but it's balanced by soft bubblegum and sherbet in the middle before the hops reassert themselves as a grassy nip on the finish. It's a little bit old-fashioned, by which I mean it reminds me of drinking American-hopped beers seven or eight years ago, but it's no less enjoyable for that, and at 5.2% ABV works well as a sessioner. I hope it's going to be a permanent fixture in the line-up.

I first tasted Connemara Cascade in Alfie Byrne's, on the night that Sarah from N17 brought a test batch of N17 Chilli Porter along for evaluation. It was brewed with Irish grown chillis, including Peruvian variety Aji Limon, famed for its citrus flavours. But before you get anywhere near the heat you have to wade through a thick layer of milk chocolate. The chilli kicks in late and delivers a playful scorch to the mouth followed by a pleasantly gradual warmth in the belly. Can't say I detected any lemons, however. The recipe has a lot of promise, though even a 6% ABV dark beer does need to be left to settle properly when served on cask: a savoury yeast fuzz interfered with the intended taste. Look out for a full-sized commercial version from N17 next year.

I had it in my head that Mescan Extra was going to be something like Westmalle Extra, as in a lighter-than-usual everyday beer. It was in the glass before I looked at the label to discover that this golden ale is a whopping 9.3% ABV. So... like a souped-up Duvel, then? As if that's a beer that needs souping up. Expecting a blast of heat on raising it to my nose I was delighted to find instead the fresh and gentle smell of juicy pineapples. There's more of a grain character on tasting but the tropical fruit is still there to an extent, plus a little bit of typically Belgian tripelesque incense spices. It hides its strength very well, though I did find it a little bit over fizzed and heartburnish. But then, it's not really made for drinking quickly. It does lose a bit of its juiciness as it warms, so don't leave it too long.

Finally, Mescan's formal Christmas beer Beoir na Nollag. It pours a murky brown shade and smells boozy and spicy with medicinal overtones: wintergreen and clove. The spicing leaps out on the first sip, blazing with the orange and coconut I associate in particular with Sorachi Ace hops. There's a savoury burr behind this from the Belgian yeast, and then a warming flame from the 7.2% ABV. It's heavy and a little hot but the fruit flavour shines candle-bright in the middle of it. Barrel ageing is claimed on the label but I detect no spirits or wood in the taste, and I think that's in the beer's favour. I've never tasted anything like this. It's certainly a distance from typical Christmas beer. A festive seasonal for people who had it with gimmicks and clichés and just want something decent to get through the holiday. I'll drink to that.

Merry Christmas!

21 December 2015

Tiny rebels

Work threw up a quick day's work in Cork last month and, emerging into the twilight afterwards, my first stop was at the Rising Sons brewpub to see if they had anything new for me. Turns out they did. In fairness it had been a whole half year since my last visit, though I wasn't quite expecting to see two summer seasonals still on tap.

I salute the bravery that went into the decision to make one of them a stout. A Shot in the Dark was brewed with coffee and strikes a wonderful balance between the two flavour sets. It opens as a creamy and warming Irish coffee substitute and finishes properly dry and roasty. In the middle there's a touch of red berries which I suspect is also the coffee at work. My only criticism is that it was served far too cold to get a proper chance at appreciating it by the half pint, but then at a highly impressive 3.7% ABV it's not really meant for half measures.

There was a more traditionally summer vibe to On the Razz, a wheat beer with, obviously, raspberries in it. Real raspberries too, brewer Shane assured me, which explains why it's not especially sweet and certainly not syrupy. There is plenty of proper raspberry flavour, though, making great use of the permissive wheat beer base. Not a subtle beer, but still fun and refreshing, even on a dark winter's evening.

Two more recent offerings had to be tried as well. Nightshift is a porter, one of the fruitier sort, with that lovely lavender and rosewater effect that I always associate with The Kernel but I've met in plenty of other breweries' dark beers since. But once that taste faded there really wasn't much behind it, just a plain and lightly chocolatey porter that comes across a little too heavy for a mere 4.8% ABV. On any other day I'd be happy with it, but it pales, figuratively speaking, next to the stout.

The newest addition to the line-up was Redemption, a red ale that presented on the pale side: more a rose-gold than actually red. It's possibly the closest thing to mass-market Irish red I've tasted from a micro, having that crisp lageryness about it. There is a proper hop bite at the front but one snap and it's gone. Every new Irish red has me expecting it'll be the one to revolutionise the style and convince me that it's worthwhile. Despite the name, Redemption isn't that beer.

After those few I nipped around the corner to Bradley's in search of a couple of train beers. I was particularly intrigued to learn that the off licence had its name on a new beer, brewed by and in collaboration with Cork's brewery-restaurant Elbow Lane. It's called Meeting House and is a Vienna lager, confident in itself at 5.4% ABV. Poured into the glass it looks like a wholesome cup of carrot juice and smells, as one might expect, like kellerbier: that blend of yeasty spice, warm bread and a lightly green, white-cabbage-and-celery, German hop vibe. For flavour it's more of the same: there's probably a solid and gently caramelled Vienna lager in here, but the murk is calling all the shots: an acrid edge on an otherwise fluffy malt-forward medium-dark lager. I was sceptical about the idea of this as a winter seasonal, but it does have a more comforting heft than many a weaker, darker winter beer so it gets a pass from me.

We move out of the Rebel County, but only just, to finish: the Smoked German Ale by Killarney's Torc Brewing. Experiments with smoked malt have never been my favourite aspect of Ireland's new beer diversity, but I'm always willing to give something new a go, especially if it's claiming proper German credentials. This is 6% ABV and is as black as, well, any black beer style you care to name. It smells smoky, but in a pleasant smoky way with a touch of roast which had me immediately whispering the hopeful word: porter? The texture is certainly appropriately smooth and there's plenty of comforting milk chocolate backed up by a light green bitterness. The smoke is little more than an afterthought and I think that's very much in this beer's favour: it has the smoke-as-seasoning quality you get from beers that aren't trying to be gimmicky and certainly don't think they can take on the rauchmeisters of Franconia at doing clean smokiness well. Considered on its own merits it's a sumptuous, silky, flavoursome dark beer and among the best winter seasonals Ireland has to offer. If you're looking for something to serve with the Christmas pudding, this could be your guy.

And there's more wintery Irish beer to come later in the week.

18 December 2015

Sibling rivalry

The lovely people who do PR for Aldi invited me to their Christmas drinks preview event thingy last month, which involved showing up to the swish function rooms at Fire on Dawson Street and wandering round with your Tom Doorleys, your John Wilsons and your Ross Golden-Bannons, sampling all the wines (46 of them) they're promoting for the upcoming drinking season. The beer offer was relegated to a side room with the port and dessert wine. Alongside the Irish beers below there was the solid Bateman's Rosey Nosey and the execrable Wychwood Bah Hambug which I swear is even worse now than it used to be.

But what really drew my attention was the two Kings of Tara beers that Aldi has commissioned from Alltech's Station Works brewery in Newry. Station Works has had a few personnel changes since it was bought over, not least the addition of Andrew Jorgenson who previously did some great work at Carrig. (Here he is chatting to Emmet about what he does.) The beers are sold in four-packs of 33cl bottles for a fiver, which I suppose is reasonable but I've never been willing to invest to find out. Now I don't have to.

So, Kings of Tara Lager first. Station Works has had a fairly serious diacetyl problem in the past, and it reared its buttery head on the first sniff of this. Mercifully I couldn't taste it, however. What you get is a pretty decent but unexciting budget lager: there's a firm waxy bitter bite up front and a quick clean finish. It's 4.5% ABV, intended to be served cold and I'm sure would work perfectly well as a party lager.

Its fraternal twin, Kings of Tara Pale Ale, is the same strength and has a similar busy fizz -- something that doesn't warrant comment in a lager but does kind of interfere in this. It opens on a sharply astringent note which mellows slightly into a hop bitterness complicated slightly with a bit of perfume spice. Everything is quite muted, though, and we're looking at something much closer to an English-style bitter than anything more modern, but the high carbonation takes even that credential away from it. There's nothing specifically wrong with it, but I can't see it thrilling experienced pale ale fans or newcomers.

Duty done, I went back to the tokaji -- the one Aldi have in for €25 is superb. But also on the table was the O'Shea's range, produced for Aldi by Carlow Brewing. Meanwhile, O'Hara's Winter Star is Carlow's own winter seasonal, and it returns this year as a 5% ABV "spiced rye ale". A bottle was sent to me by their PR folks, with a press release setting the RRP at €2.99. The O'Shea's beer range retails at €1.89 and for the first time there's now a Spiced Winter Ale. There's not much information on what they've added to it by way of spices, though we do know it's lighter than the O'Hara's at 4.3% ABV. So, if you're in the mood for a spiced winter ale, is it worth trading up? I thought it would be interesting to compare them side-by-side.

The pour revealed both to be copper coloured, though the O'Shea's is a deeper red, while Winter Star is brighter and more polished looking. Neither has much going on in the aroma but a deep inhale gives me a wisp of spices and brown sugar from Winter Star and a warmer caramel malt smell from O'Shea's. Carbonation is quite low in both, with Winter Star being particularly sluggish about forming and keeping a head.

I tasted O'Shea's Spiced Winter Ale first. A big pull immediately hit me with a blast of sweet cinnamon. There's not a whole lot behind this: a slightly harsh bitterness and some dry, shading to burnt, dark grain character. It's also quite thin. But the happy cinnamon keeps on coming and it's quite enjoyable for that. It's not overly sweet or overly spiced, and the light body means it works quite well by the pint. Cheap and cheerful, I guess.

O'Hara's Winter Star makes good use of its extra heft: there's a mature smoothness to the texture that the other lacks. The cinnamon is there again, but it's not as clear as in O'Shea's, competing as it does with quite a heavy and long-lasting grassy bitterness from the rye. We're told there's orange zest in here too, but I think that has been thoroughly drowned out by everything else. A second mouthful and that rye acidity is starting to bug me. I'm surprised to find myself writing this, but I think I'd prefer if the sweet cinnamon were more pronounced.

On balance, I have to award winter's crown to the O'Shea's. Winter Star does give you more things for your extra money, but perhaps this is another one of those trite seasonal lessons about how the simpler things are better.

As a postscript, O'Shea's Spiced Winter Ale appeared simultaneously with O'Shea's Dry Hopped Amber Ale. It's also part of the O'Shea's Seasonal Series but it doesn't say which season, though I guess the fallen leaves depicted on the label are a clue. It's very sweet, with lots of chewy toffee dominating a lightly spicy and spritzy jasmine and satsuma hop character. Sitting in the middle of this is a weird coconut flavour that's bizarrely incongruous. Like the Winter Ale, it's a light 4.3% ABV and suffers from thinness for a beer that should be full and warming. To be honest, I was wishing for a dash of cinnamon all the way through.

Nevertheless, if you're knocking around Aldi looking for beer this Christmas, some Kings of Tara Lager is no shame, but the O'Shea's range is a better buy. I'd probably go for the Stout above any of the rest of them, mind.

16 December 2015

Festival leftovers

A postscript to the 2015 Belfast Beer Festival to mention, to begin with, a couple of English beers I tried in what was otherwise an all-Norn Iron session for me.

Hawkshead Windermere Pale Ale impressed, even on an overwrought palate late in the day. Quite a feat, considering it's a light 3.5% ABV. It doesn't try to pack too much into this, but what's there is good: a gentle lemon spritz on smooth biscuity malt with a light and thoroughly quaffable texture. A simple pleasure, but no less a pleasure for that.

And on the way out the door, Hopback Citra. I found this surprisingly malt-driven: if you stick the name of a hop on the badge -- and especially a high-octane one like Citra -- you really are obliged to make your beer taste of it. What hop character there is is severely bitter and ends abruptly leaving nothing in its wake. It's the sort of beer I might quite enjoy a pint of in an English pub, but I wasn't in the mood to deal with it at this point of my day out.

And so back to Central Station and the early evening train home. Richard had been busy before the festival, dropping up to The Vineyard for takeaways, and he was kind enough to share a few tinnies with Andrew and me on the trundle back to Dublin.

The first open was Madness by Wild Beer Co. I was gung-ho for this IPA, following a delightful experience with its stablemate Bibble during the summer. This one didn't do so much to impress. I mean, it's very nice and all that -- lots of bitter pith, a sizeable chewy dank element, and balanced on a filling toffee base -- but I couldn't help feeling I'd tasted it before. Maybe if I'm this bored with quality IPAs, the problem is with me not them, though I did also think that 6.8% ABV is a little excessive for what it delivers.

That was followed by a lighter beer: Eternal session IPA from Northern Monk. There's an intense dryness here, a chalky mineral quality and a slightly harsh acridity from the hops which are at the centre. Did I detect a bit of cardboard-pulp oxidation too? My notes say I might have, but judging from the state of this guy's handwriting I don't think I'd trust him. A nice clean finish ends it and the sum is a beer that's a bit more serious and severe than is warranted in a 4.1% ABV session ale.

And one token American to bring us home: Mountain Livin' by Crazy Mountain in (where else?) Colorado. It's fine: rich warming malt at the front, a pinch of bitter hops at the end. 6% ABV, but could probably pass for more, and perhaps a little too strong and heavy for the outdoor refreshment purpose the brewer has in mind.

We rolled into Connolly then rolled across to the street to The Brew Dock, the traditional finishing point for any international beer adventure worth its salt. It was a fun day out, but it also served to remind me that I really should set aside some time in 2016 to visit the new craft beer pubs in Belfast. Fingers crossed for a crash in the value of sterling.

14 December 2015

A coastal tour

It's been a few years since I was last at the Belfast Beer Festival run by CAMRA, but the recent accelerated growth of the Northern Irish brewing scene was enough for me to book the Friday off work this year and head north. The Ulster Hall was already buzzing when Andrew and I arrived a few minutes after opening. Conveniently, the local beers were all gathered down at one end of the square bar and stillage, though a couple crept around the corner onto a second a side for want of space. It would be a fun way of tracking the expansion of local beer in Northern Ireland by how far along it gets. We can declare victory once it's all the way round.

To business, then. Top priority was a brand new co-operative outfit in the Antrim seaside resort of Portrush: Lacada. They have three beers and, since they're a new microbrewery, I was a little surprised that they brew for traditional cask dispense, in contrast to Belfast's bleeding edge co-operative brewery Boundary. It made more sense when I discovered that sometime chairman of CAMRA NI, Philip Hernberg, is on Lacada's board. I started with the IPA, Giant's Organ, which was served a perfect clear gold colour and centres around a bright, fresh and clean lemon sherbet flavour, the hops balanced by a dry grainy finish. At only 4.5% ABV this is a highly enjoyable sessioner and, for a first effort, frankly stunning.

My honeymoon in Portrush didn't last long, however. Sorley Boy's Stash was next: Lacada's golden ale. Except it's only barely golden, heading more towards amber, and with a heaviness that I wasn't expecting at all. The malt is viscous and cloying toffee while the hops are harsh and vegetal. I found it very tough going and it reminded me a lot of one of my least favourite beer styles, pale German bock. Philip did admit the recipe needs work, so look out for an improved version in the future.

For now, that left just one more chance for redemption: a porter called Stranded Bunny. And redemption is delivered! This isn't one of your complex dissecting porters, it's simple and classical with a creamy body, a smooth chocolate centre and just the right amount of roast bite to aid drinkability. Again it's just 4.5% ABV, so very much the sort of beer you could stick with over an evening. It deserves a wide audience.

From the Causeway Coast we come all the way around to south-eastern corner of the province, where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea and you can't move these days for marauding Westerosi hordes. Mourne Mountains brewery launched back in September with three beers and I got to try two of them at the festival. Mourne Gold is a fairly typical golden ale with a fun sweet bubblegum flavour, though a less pleasant soapy character as well. It's certainly not bland, though it is quite heavy, reflecting the 5% ABV. Perhaps it's one that works better served cold from the bottle rather than on cask.

Next to it was Red Trail, a 5.5% ABV red IPA. It starts with a beautiful spicy, grassy aroma and the same thing comes through in the flavour, which is nicely dry with thankfully no sticky crystal malt. And that's pretty much all it does: it's a beer of few moving parts, but no less enjoyable because of that.

So much for the newcomers, next it's over to some of the festival regulars, starting with Mourne's neighbour Whitewater. Maggie's Leap is a new IPA. It's a very dark gold colour with a strange artificial fruit sweet aroma alongside a whiff of raw cereal. A dryly tannic smack accompanies the first sip, with the sweet fruit rolling in behind it. It's a charming beer and elegantly balanced, though a definite sideways step from any orthodox notions of IPA.

Hen, Cock and Pigeon Rock (it's a place in the Mournes) arrived around the same time as Maggie's Leap and is an amber ale, and a bit of a murky one, on the evidence presented in Belfast. It smells great, all plummy dark fruit and the dry roast found in the better Irish reds, but it's badly let down by a thin texture and it ends up tasting rather flat and worty. There are good principles in here, but the execution needs work, I think.

Last of the new Whitewaters is Ewe Rebel, a powerful 7% ABV IPA. I got a hint of phenols about the nose and this followed through to a slightly medicinal quality in the flavour. But that's almost lost with everything else that's going on. This is thick and laden with melanoidins but also packing a lot of tannin as well. Any subtlety gets kind of lost under the malt weight, and a light spiced orange note is all the hops manage to make heard. It's all a bit much. You can get away with this sort of thing if you make it smooth and warming, but this is just too jarring for even that.

We travel back up along the Co. Down coast and drop in at Ards, a brewery whose beers I only ever seem to find at this festival and at Bittle's Bar in Belfast. The new one was called Hip Hop and it's as dad-dancey as the name suggests. Though badged as a pale ale and claiming inclusion of very hip hops Citra and Nelson Sauvin, this tasted much more like a golden ale. There's a similar light bubblegum to that found in Mourne Gold and lots of grain and golden syrup of the kind I associate with quality pale lager. Proficiently made, then, but hoppy it ain't.

Just one very quick stop in Belfast city for a drop of Yardsman Belfast Pale Ale from the Hercules Brewery, the first beer of theirs I've tasted since the lager they launched with early last year. It's woeful: infected so badly it tastes of blue cheese. I almost threw up, and was very glad I followed the recommendations from several corners to have a taster rather than just ordering it. Hercules is definitely on my Exercise Caution list as regards their ales.

I'll finish on a brewery located about half way between the previous two: Comber's Farmageddon. I just had time for one and decided to take a chance on Farmageddon White IPA. This style is always a roll of the dice, this one doubly so because they've brewed it to a highly unorthodox 3.5% ABV. It's lovely, though. There's a surprisingly big body, allowing the spices to cover the tongue. You get peachy hops, floral lavender and a bitter pinch of bergamot. It's complex, yet refreshing and lots of fun. They've done an amazing job, considering the strength of this.

That's the locals taken care of. But I used my last couple of tokens to try a few of the English beers and I'll cover them, and the train beers on the journey home, in the next post. For now, cheers to CAMRA Northern Ireland and the local breweries they put on show for us. Here's to many more in the coming years.