26 February 2015

Imperial realm

Two imperial stouts from the realm of New Zealand today.

Moa Imperial Stout has some classy presentation, though the black-on-black label is quite difficult to photograph. This is 10.2% ABV and, enticingly, is aged in Pinot Noir barrels. The flavour begins with quite orthodox coffee and sweet caramel -- all very pleasant. But soon afterwards, the barrel drops into the middle of it all, adding a massive, jarring, sap-and-sawdust effect. Behind this lurks the wine, distinctively grapey and adding a sickly sweetness that doesn't fit at all well with the residual sugars from the malt. It's frustrating and tantalising to be able to taste a superb imperial stout utterly ruined by poor secondary brewing techniques.

This bottle of Epic's Epicurean Coffee & Fig Imperial Oatmeal Stout arrived courtesy of Reuben's deep pockets (€25!). A modest 8% ABV and it does pretty much what it would say on the tin, if there was a tin. Figs? Yes, a generous sweet dark fruit element infuses the whole thing. Coffee? Definitely present, though not overpowering -- it's still the dark malts which provide the roastiness and warmth. And oatmeal? That's there too, adding a richness and smoothness. Everything melds together quite beautifully into a gemstone-like perfection. The only thing that's missing is the wow factor. Like other expensive drinks -- wine and whiskey, for instance -- balanced smoothness is where your money is going, not distinctive flavours.

It's clear that a lot of skill, imagination and hard graft went into creating both of these, but tastewise I don't think it pays off in either.

23 February 2015

England streaming

I've no idea why I've been dodging Thornbridge on this blog, but it seems I have. A notebook clear-out revealed a string of their beers that I'd drank on draught in Dublin over the last seven months but never got round to scribbling about. This post is for putting that right.

Puja first, a 6.4% ABV pale ale found on keg at The Black Sheep. The odd ingredient is what attracted me: Puja is a jasmine IPA. It presents as a middling shade of orange, maybe towards red gold, and slightly hazy with it. There's a huge amount of complexity in the flavour but it's also extremely drinkable, given the strength. Its secret, I reckon, is the tannins: a crisp, dry refreshing quality that allows for big quenching gulps. Each gulp brings an explosion of fruitcake fruits: sultana, orange peel, lemon zest. There's a lot of Earl Grey about it as well, plus a more intense frankincense spicing. Overall very balanced but nicely weird as well.

Big things were expected a few weeks later when Twin Peaks showed up in Alfie Byrne's. This one is Thornbridge's collaboration with Sierra Nevada, and I've rarely seen the Californian pioneers collaborate with anybody. It poured a worryingly pale shade of yellow and keeps things light and breezy in the flavour: some lemon sherbet and chew-sweet, plus a bonus burst of mandarin. The finish brings a slightly more assertive pithy bitterness and maybe even some naughty dankness, but not enough to turn it from a casual quaffer to a more serious beery experience. Maybe it's just the mood I was in on the day but I was a bit disappointed with it. It didn't taste like a joint effort of two such high-calibre breweries.

Still, there I was back in Alfie's a little later asking for a glass of Topaz from the beer engine. Another golden one: this time perfectly clear once it had settled. Maybe it's the dispense method smoothing out the complexities, but I found this to be a rather simplistic beer: a light dusting of orange sherbet, rising to a mild and tangy tangerine bitterness with perhaps just a frisson of spicy sulphur. Though strong for an English cask ale there's no malt action and very little weight to it. Enjoyable, sure, but not the sort of beer on which brewery reputations are built.

And if you don't mind I'll just wedge in another English cask while I'm clearing the notebook. This is Loddon's Hullabaloo, served in L. Mulligan Grocer. It was a warm summer's evening so I welcomed the refreshing aroma of pear juice, strange and all that I found it. Underneath that it's a sweet beer with lots of tangy orange candy. There's a little bit of the peary, almost nail-varnish-like, acetyl in the flavour, but it's mostly kept in check. Best of all there's more of those classic English tannins providing a dry finish. Tannin really is the key to drinkability in a bitter, if I'm the one doing the drinking anyway.

Puja excepted, I can kinda see why most of these slipped my attention for so long.

And since this post keeps getting kicked back in the publishing schedule for no good reason, I may as well bring it up-to-date with a couple more English draught beers I've encountered more recently.

Vigilante, from Beerd Brewery in Bristol (seemingly an offshoot of Bath Ales), was a surprise when it showed up on the taps at Bierhaus in Galway last month. It's a pale ale at an approachable 4.5% ABV, coloured a bright and attractive gold. And the flavour is very approachable too, all mandarin sweetness and light, laced with a fresh and zesty bitterness. An unfussy beer, simple, but brimming with understated quality.

More recently I had my first ever beer by Bermondsey's Brew By Numbers, on keg at Alfie Byrne's. 11|07 describes itself as a "session ale" and is 3.9% ABV, which is fair enough. No London murk here, just a scattering of bits floating in a clear gold body, though rather decapitated. The mild aroma of tinned fruit salad did not prepare me for the fresh dank hop hit at the front of the flavour. It's intensely acidic at first, then calms down a little, but only as far as grapefruit and no further. The texture is light, reflecting the ABV, but it's not watery and those hops -- Chinook and Centennial, apparently -- just keep on delivering. I really could drink a lot of this, but the 33cl serving at €5 a glass does not do it any favours. Via Maris, a few taps over, is a much more attractive proposition.

19 February 2015