16 February 2015

Let's get this party started

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 & P