The Irish beer festival calendar got officially under way at the weekend with the Winter & Cask Ales Festival at Franciscan Well in Cork, now in its 5th year. I travelled down a little earlier than usual to check out the Rising Sons brewpub which opened last summer. The management had kindly laid on some pizza for the visitors, and Shane the brewer brought us around behind the scenes.
It's an impressive set-up, the German-built brewkit gleaming in pride of place over the bar. The customers are so close to the action it must smell amazing on brewing days. The 20hL system makes a range of standard and special beers, now sold in over a dozen pubs around Cork, most of them under the same ownership as the brewery.
Mi Daza stout and Sunbeam pils pre-date the brewery but are now produced on site. My first beer on Saturday afternoon was Grainú Ale and the tap badge is highly uninformative about what this is. Turns out it's a witbier, and a good one too, perfect for clearing the travel dust from my throat. It's an orthodox pale hazy blonde and very much at the dry end of the style, low on fruit but compensating with extra spices and quite an assertive waxy bitterness. Once you get used to that you have an ideal quaffing refresher on your hands.
I followed it with Steeple (formerly known as "Steeple Hemp" but recently re-named due to confusion). I'd say this has knocked a few red ale drinkers off their stools. It's big on hops, starting out with a strange bitter chocolate-orange effect, with a touch of coffee roast as well. It's the sort of thing I would expect to be badged as a US-style amber rather than an Irish red, in this drinker's opinion. While I enjoyed the absence of sticky toffee flavours I think I would have preferred something a little smoother.
The house IPA is a 5%-er called Handsum, employing Columbus, Chinook and Vic Secret hops. Dark gold in colour it's surprisingly English-tasting, I thought, going for a dry, sharp and almost metallic bitter tang as its signature flavour. It's certainly invigorating but a little more fruit would have been nice.
For that sort of flavour profile one has to turn to the special editions and Shane gave everyone a taste of Survivor, a rye pale ale that's still in the conditioning tanks. This one is super-citric, packed full of delicious orange and lemon notes. I asked warily if they filter their beers and the answer is no (apart from the pils), so this hazy orange little stunner should remain stunning once it moves the four or five metres to a tap on the bar (edit: from 5th March. edit edit: Survivor has since been re-named as Dream Catcher.)
Also in the tanks was Divil-a-Bit, a 1.064 blonde ale made using La Chouffe yeast. It's not too hot 'n' heavy and has some wonderful spicy flavours: I picked out cinnamon and aniseed in particular.
For actual spices, the tail end of Rising Sons's Christmas seasonal was on tap. Sleigh'R is 5% ABV and a predictable dark red-brown colour. I don't know exactly what blend went in here, but I got suggestions of clove, ginger and nutmeg: the usual sort of stuff. What sets this one apart, however, is that the body is light, not heavy or sugary, which leaves it easy to drink and really quite refreshing, odd as that may sound. The malt provides a kind of Christmas cookies effect but knows when to stop, which is good.
By the time I'd got through all that it was gone 2pm and time to head for the festival. As it happened there was another Rising Sons beer on the line-up there. Changeling is a name the brewery will be using for a sequence of one-offs: not a very consumer-friendly practice, but there you go. This Changeling was a pale ale, and a very good one at that. Lots of fresh, spicy and dank herbal hops bursting out from a lightly effervescent body, all sherbet and baking soda. The malt didn't have much to say for itself here, but I wasn't really listening.
A couple of new breweries made their festival début at the event. I missed the red ale from West Cork Brewery but did catch the 5 Malt Dark Ale by Torc Brewing out of Killarney. It's 4.5% ABV and poured a hazy shade of ochre. There's a lovely mix of jaffa orange, milk chocolate, a little caramel and a slight metallic bitterness, all set on a light body, though not at all watery. The combination of flavours shouldn't really work and from the description seems like it would end up as an overly sweet mess but it's really rather charming and very drinkable.
Our hosts rolled out a Vanilla & Pistachio Brown Ale, the sort of concoction that would turn Alan's knuckles white, and this time his rage would be justified. It's very sugary: thick and soupy though only 4.8% ABV. There's lots of vanilla and maybe a trace of nuttiness, but mostly wave upon wave of jarring caramel candybars. It had its fans on the day but I was not among them.
I had a much better time with the stouts on offer. White Gypsy's Pearl, which I'm guessing is a close relation of this, is a classic cream-and-chocolate Irish stout. Served on nitro it's smooth, but not bland, and satisfyingly sinkable. From the casks there was Independent Strong Porter, a 7% ABV job, massively roasty, especially in the aroma. The texture is very heavy and I got a slight, but not unpleasant, beefy autolytic tang from it. A lovely warmer in a cold winter's beer garden, this.
Stag Rua by 9 White Deer had hitherto eluded me, but here it was, along with its creator. At a meet-the-brewer event, Gordon explained that its roots lie in stout and a need to create a beer that the stout drinkers of west Cork will convert to in the summer. That certainly explains the refreshing absence of sweet crystal malt flavours here. Instead it's relatively dry with a little bit of roasted grain and some mild strawberry fruit sweetness. Most of all though it's thirst-quenching with lots of lovely English-bitter tannins. We're seeing red ales being taken in all sorts of directions by Irish brewers at the moment, but this is my favourite approach so far.
Brewery-mate of Stag Rua is Mountain Man's Sneaky Owl, an English-style dark ale done using Admiral and Bramling Cross hops. There's certainly that signature blackberry flavour from the latter, adding a mouthwatering tart balance to the silky milk chocolate from the dark malt. It's a light and easy-going beer and I rather enjoyed it, a bit like Hobgoblin on a really good day.
I left the powerhouse beers to the end. First up Hi-Viz from Black's of Kinsale. This 8.5% ABV double IPA reminded me a lot of Beoir#1, the 9% ABV double IPA that Black's brewed a year ago as part of a crowd-funding initiative. It has the same luxurious boozy weight and similar tasty spicy orange notes. Of course it doesn't matter whether or not it's a reboot, but it is great to have another double IPA of this quality knocking around. I hope we'll be seeing more of it.
And speaking of beers crowd-sourced from the drinkers, the festival saw the world premiere of Beoir#2, brewed by Trouble to a recipe put together by Reuben. I even threw a pot of hops into this myself back in January. The end result is 7.8% ABV and a beautiful chestnut red, warming and welcoming the drinker with juicy summer fruit and sharper caramelised onions. It certainly tastes the strength but wears it well, remaining perfectly drinkable throughout. I could have handled more than a half but time was marching on and the train home beckoned.
Cheers to all the team at Rising Sons and Franciscan Well for the day out. I'll be back for the Easter Festival, but before that it's Alltech Brews & Food in less than a fortnight.