30 March 2015

Out for a couple

Wet night. Push the heavy front door of Alfie Byrne's. Across the threshold and down the steps. The back-and-forth buzz of conversation. And ping-pong. The bar glows at the centre of the dim room, beckoning. A new beer from a well-respected English micro was touted earlier on Twitter. There it is, minimalist design on the tap badge. But due diligence first: a glance across the other options, over and then down to... the handpump. Chalked on the blackboard Gate Crasher Bitter by Trouble Brewing. Thought I'd missed it, and certainly didn't think I'd see it on cask. A pint, please.

Settling in the handled jug to a dark amber, though not quite brown. And not quite clear, either. First pull: yeast, gritty and bitter. Behind it, tannins and floral spices. All that jasmine. Classic English bucolics and the potential for greatness, let down by poor handling. For shame.

Still chasing rumours, out into the night again, across St Stephen's Green south, past Sir Benjamin's Palladian mansion and Joyce's alma mater. Skirting by Cuffe Street flats and around the corner to Against the Grain. Busier here. Crowded by the bar. A glance at the taps, a scan of the blackboard, and back to the taps. There. Dortmunder. Galway Bay aren't known for lagers. A brave step. A pint, please.

Husky and hazy. A wan orange hue and orange marmalade-flavoured. Biting bitterness sits atop the full grainy body, its texture the only nod to real Dortmund Export. Debate: does the assertive hopping take away from the style, or an improvement, a stage in its evolution? No matter. Good beer. Enjoyable drinking.

We're a long way from Dortmund. Is that a stout on cask? A pint, please.

28 March 2015

Grand tour

I mentioned the Alltech Dublin Craft Beer Cup in one of the earlier posts this week. Danish brewers Coisbo were outright winners for the second time in a row, with a barrel-aged version of the beer that won them top prize last year. Eleven is a 10% ABV imperial stout matured in sherry casks. It's not a subtle beast, smelling strongly of sweet oak, though dryer on tasting, but still very very woody. I think the barrel-aging may have left it a little overcooked for my liking.

Also waltzing off with a gold medal was the only Belgian beer I had all weekend. Bertinchamps Brune also has the distinction of being packaged in a half-litre bottle, the way Belgian beers generally aren't. And that's not the only unorthodox feature. In with the very typical rich Belgian chocolate flavour there's some lovely fresh roast coffee notes too. If it wasn't for the Belgian yeast esters this would almost be a first-rate porter. It certainly hits a lot of those notes.

Luxembourgian brewery Bofferding had a stand in the trade area just opposite Galway Hooker and Aidan dared me to try their lurid cherry beer Battin Fruitée. It's not all that bad, being one of those super sweet syrup concoctions commonly found in Belgium. It doesn't edge over into saccharine so it gets a pass from me.

There were some decent beers from the Spanish exhibitors Rosita and Lo Gambusi. Both had clean and refreshing blonde ales on offer. Rosita's Carmen has a chalky mineral element for extra quenching power, despite a hefty enough 5% ABV. Gambusi's Riu is simpler again but worked well as a mid-festival palate-cleanser.

The other Rosita beer I tried was a White IPA. The herbs in here gave it a strong sausagey smell, which wasn't at all unpleasant. Juniper has been employed, I'm told, but I didn't get much of that. Everything else from the herb garden is present, however. Lo Gambusi's second tap was pouring an amber ale called Cinteta. I liked this a lot: it's not too sweet though there's a proper dose of light caramel. To balance it there's lots of greasy hop oil and flavours of pine resin and white pepper. At 5.2% ABV it's a very nice complex sessioner.

Progressive Austrian operator Brew Age had some highly impressive offerings including a black IPA called Dunkle Materie, 6.9% ABV and hopped generously with Cascade, Amarillo and Columbus for a massive juicy orange effect plus just a slight echo of roast on the finish. Dangerously quaffable stuff. Their Hopfenauflauf pale ale was less of a powerhouse, but wasn't really trying to be one either. You get a sweet and spicy kick of bath salts and a light front-of-palate bitterness. No big hop impact, just perfect balance at 5.4% ABV.

Cologne's own Freigeist caused a bit of a buzz around the room all weekend. Gose was the name of the game and Geisterzug the beer of the moment, in its rhubarb infused incarnation. Between the yeast and the fruit it delivers two kinds of tartness at once. Coupled with the addition of spruce needles it's a jolting, invigorating beer, but enormous fun to drink. I also had a taste of Abraxxxas, Freigeist's smoked wheat beer with added pears. It really makes full use of every ingredient involved, with a huge smoky fug in the flavour, layered over with a fresh and tangy pear fruitiness. I've never tasted anything like this but amazingly it all works really well.

A fake Rhineside beer to bring us home. Hoppy Cologne is by Moa in New Zealand and claims Kölsch credentials. One of the other connotations of the word Cologne popped into my head on the first sip: this tastes strongly of perfume. Given a minute it settles out into something less severe, but no more Kölsch-like: you get a spritz of lemon and a faint whiff of cattiness. It's a pretty tasty effort overall and I could easily envisage a session on it.

But, at this stage, a session on anything was furthest from my mind. A big thanks to all the exhibitors and organisers for making Alltech 2015 a fantastic event. Here's to many more years of random beery wonder.

27 March 2015

Hungary for novelty

What got me most excited in the run-up to Alltech Brews & Food 2015 was the large number of Hungarian brewing companies listed to attend. It's far too long since I was last in Hungary so the opportunity to taste my way around its beer scene only a few minutes from my front door was one I relished.

First port of call on arriving into the Convention Centre on the Friday evening was Budapest brewpub Legenda Sörfőzde who brought a very impressive collection of off-kilter beers. Brettania is a 5.3% ABV dark red ale. It claims sourness but isn't really sour, having instead a big bretty funk and the heady sweetness of cherry cough sweets. There's even a slightly unpleasant sugary burn in the finish. An interesting sipper but I couldn't see myself drinking lots of it. Their Bazooka was altogether more integrated. This is a rye smoked dark lager and has the exact meaty aroma of a Bavarian classic. The taste is absolutely clean and balanced with plenty of rich smoky flavours. This guy I could drink in quantity.

There's a similar deft simplicity exhibited in Bunny Hop, a lager which Legenda Sörfőzde brews for Csupor. There's a fantastic ultra-fresh mown grass aroma set atop a silkily sinkable body. Csupor ThermoStout was also excellent: 6.3% ABV, big roasty aromas and a flavour which mixes a little bit of quality chocolate with a generous floral perfume. The shine comes off the partnership a little with Csupor Tántorgó ParIPA, a very minerally IPA with an unshakeable copper tang. The hops bring classic grapefruit and the body is quite light and dry. I think I expected more at 6.5% ABV.

Hello My Name Is Sudan was another Csupor beer but I don't know if Legenda Sörfőzde brewed it. It had its world première at Alltech and is named in honour of a the last male white rhino in Africa. It's an 8.2% ABV double IPA and very easy drinking despite that. Dry sherbet notes are the centrepiece and the body is remarkably light given the strength. No wonder it's endangered.

Legenda Sörfőzde brews for several other brands too, including Zodiak who brought Zodiak Red Rye Pale Ale. Though the colour was spot-on (it's almost pink!) it tasted rather grainy and stale. Along similar lines but much better was Mi újság Wagner úr? brewed for Hara Punk. This one is an amber ale at 6% ABV and with lovely cherry and cake notes, plus a slightly more grown-up funky overtone. Hara Punk also gets beer brewed at Hopfanatic in Kiskunhalas, including their new saison Monkey Funky Yeah, a modest 5% ABV and brewed with added coriander and black pepper. The latter adds a lovely oiliness to the aroma and the beer is very sharp and dry overall, though invigorating with it.

Zip Technologies was at the trade show part of the festival to show off its ultra-shiny brewing kits. But it had a small bar down on the main floor as well and I stopped by to try a couple of their offerings. Neither were much cop. Pineapple Noir is a dark saison of 6.5% ABV, with masses of stouty roast in its aroma and a flavour packed with crunchy burnt grain. There's only a very slight fruit juice element, and nothing I would have identified as pineapple. Without a label I would have taken this for a dry stout, and a very plain one at that.

The black IPA from Zip's is called Hopiverzum and it's 6% ABV but could pass for a lot stronger, with a nose full of spinach and tar, plus the burn of cheap vodka. It's smoother on tasting but loses its complexities along with the weird stuff and I got very little hop character. Another one I'd be marking as a very ordinary porter if I didn't see the style in advance.

Still, mis-steps notwithstanding I was intrigued by what the Hungarians brought to the table. It looks like an exciting place to go beering right now.

One more international round-up to come before we head for the door.

26 March 2015

States of mind

For a festival organised by a US-based company, we weren't exactly drowning in American beer at Alltech Brews & Food 2015. It took a bit of hunting to find what was there. Obviously, Alltech's own beer was front and centre, including the new Kentucky Honey Barrel Ale. This is mahogany red and has a very woody bourbon nose. Vanilla is massively dominant in the flavour and, coupled with a huge sugary sweetness and a high level of carbonation, the overall effect is very like a bourbon and coke. Not something I'm looking for in a beer.

Meanwhile, at the Grand Cru stand, they had tapped up Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout. The coffee flavour isn't too overdone here and at its heart it's a simple middle-of-the-road dry stout. Lagunitas DayTime was much more fun, all bright sherbet lemons and more serious heavy resins finishing perfectly cleanly for bonus drinkability. And all at 4.6% ABV, making it a session IPA truly worthy of the style.

DayTime, like the remaining American beers in this post, came from the Dublin Cup bar, where leftover beers from the international competition go to be disposed of. It's a wonderful idea and I took full advantage. Where else would you get to try Schlafly Oatmeal Stout, a marvellously smooth and sweet number, using its 5.7% ABV to give it extra welly but staying soft and approachable at the same time. The same can't be said for New Holland's Dragon's Milk, a 10% ABV imperial stout given far too long in bourbon barrels coming out the other side dripping with vanillins and only a late rush of milk chocolate offering any kind of complexity.

Back to simple and subtle again, and Major Tom's Pomegranate Wheat by Fort Collins brewery is light on fruit but makes good use of the dry flavour from the pomegranate for a very refreshing end result. Dark Horse's Crooked Tree IPA is also nicely refreshing, though perhaps darker and a little sweeter than many of its contemporaries. There's a lovely hard orange candy flavour but nothing blaringly bitter or citric. It's one that's worth taking time over, not that I did.

Two rather plain sweet dark ales to finish on. I've been very impressed with Great Lakes beers in the past but Conway's Irish Ale didn't do it for me. It offers only a few crumbs of biscuit and a dry mineral edge but otherwise failed to hold my attention. Similarly, Smuttynose Old Brown Dog is dark red and mostly tastes of caramel. This time the extra dimension comes from a few wisps of roasted grain but there's not really enough to make it interesting.

Some quality beers here, but nothing too daring or different in this selection. I've saved the more thrilling beers for the last couple of posts.

25 March 2015

What else you got?

Several established Irish breweries brought beers I'd never had before to the 2015 Alltech festival at the Convention Centre. Galway Hooker, for instance, has just launched a new bottled IPA called 60 Knots. It's a serious dark gold colour and is all about the classic grapefruit aromas. As my first beer on the second day of proceedings it seemed sharply acidic to begin, and a little brassy. But there are mellower elements in the flavour too: a touch of that signature Hooker biscuit and a more fun gunpowder spicing. You know you're getting a full-on 6.5% ABV and 60 IBUs here. This is one for the Hooker Pale Ale fans who've spent the last nine years craving something bigger.

Hilden is also at the ABV-raising game. Their new one is a double IPA called Buck's Head and is dark gold once again. While the hops definitely make their presence felt -- bitter and waxy -- the malt is a major contributor to the overall flavour. You get a warming cake-and-caramel weightiness with this one. It's perhaps a little old-fashioned compared to the zingier sort of US-style DIPA, but it works perfectly well as a beer in its own right.

If it was zing you were after, Kinnegar was the bar to go to. The Donegal brewery has jumped on the white IPA (ish) bandwagon with one called White Rabbit, hopped entirely with Vic Secret and while allegedly brewed with the customary wheat, there's very little sign of it or any other malt in here. Bask instead in the glory of grapefruit and the roar of the resins. The rabbit beer from the rabbit (ish) brewery is unapologetically hoppy.

IPA fail of the weekend was a non-exhibit, but a bottle of Farmageddon Wet Hop IPA smuggled into the press room by Nigel. I can only assume a saboteur filled two thirds of this with TCP as it reeked and tasted of raw disinfectant and absolutely nothing else.

From ale to lager, briefly, and Remix India Pale Lager from the increasingly hyperactivie Trouble Brewing. It's 5% IPA and very dank, tasting akin to the air just outside the front door of Amsterdam Centraal. There's a fun peppery piquancy and a quick, clean exit from the palate like a proper lager ought to have. Big and complex while also being simple and quaffable. A taster really didn't do this justice.

Two more new Irish saisons made an appearace. Carlow's latest seasonal Spring Saison is the plainer of the two, No fruit, no esters, just very dry -- stale, even -- dusty burlap and grain sweepings. Wicklow Wolf, meanwhile, had the shortest-pitched seasonal I've ever encountered: Solar Eclipse was topical for about five minutes last Friday morning. It's a lovely dark copper colour and rather strong at 6.5% ABV. While it leans towards the fruit-forward type of saison -- green banana and lychee coming through in a big way for me -- it's all very deftly balanced with peppercorn and similar dry spices. There's great refreshment power here despite the strength.

I have to fit a couple of token stouts into these Irish posts, and Jack Cody's fits the bill first with their Paddy's Day seasonal Hail Glorious Saint Patrick. It's 5.4% ABV and absolutely bang-on for a slightly-bigger-than-usual Irish stout: chocolate looms large in the aroma and the flavour profile floats nicely between sweet dark malts and drier roasted elements. They've cheekily badged it as an imperial stout and I can kind-of see the basis for the claim -- it's pretty full-flavoured after all -- but it lacks the warmth to really pull off the illusion.

I finally got to catch up with the two 12th Abbey beers I hadn't tried, and to hear about the highly ambitious brewery development plans under way. In the meantime, Raven Stout is a very simple and straightforward Irish dry stout, throwing a bit of caramel into the mix as it warms, though also featuring a strange aspirin acidity. 12th Abbey Pale Ale also has this. Jaffa orange is the sum total of the hop fruit flavour, but it's more sharp than anything else. Like the Amber ale, all of these recipes could do with tweaking to smooth out their rougher edges.

Our last port of call before we head abroad is Station Works, up there by Newry railway station. They had a new pale ale on the go called The Foxes Rock. It doesn't really work, being all buttery diacetyl and nasty chalky mineral dryness. One of those beers that leaves you boggling at what the brewer could possibly have intended. Station Works also has grand plans to revitalise cask beer in Ireland and has been busily cloning the beers from its sister operation Cumberland Breweries. Station Works No. 1 was the first fruits of this, a 4.7% ABV cask brown ale. While there's more butter here, it works far better in this sort of beer. The overall effect is of milky coffee or chocolate ice cream. I'd love to say it hits the mild style spots but it's just too heavy and not refreshing enough for that. Still a decent beer: a regular sweet brown ale on cask could well be a winner.

That's the UK and Ireland covered. Where to next?

24 March 2015

And not an Irish red to be seen

The arrival of new Irish breweries is always exciting, so I made sure to stop by the Wicklow Brewery stand at Alltech Brews & Food. I say "new": the brewpub on the caravan site in Redcross has been in production since last summer, but so far hasn't got much beyond its very local market. Not that it has to, of course.

My grin of delight became a little fixed when I noticed that Wicklow Brewery Helles was front and centre. New Irish pale lagers can be something of a gamble. All doubt was swept away with the first taste. Yes, it's a bit hazy, and there's maybe rather more sulphur on the nose than you'd expect for this style of beer, but it has just the right amount of bready weight in the body and some lovely light green vegetal hop notes: celery and raw spinach. It's very drinkable and I wasn't remotely surprised to learn that Mathis the brewer is German born and trained.

There's a Weiss in the line-up too, a spicy one, with more of that crisp celery backed by fruity candy and a slight edge of pear. Again a very easy drinker and very much on the cleaner and drier side of the genre -- no big bananas or clove notes here.

The outlier of the range is WB-40, a 6.6% ABV amber ale. It's mostly quite bitter, turning a little metallic in the finish, but the malt adds a raisin and fruitcake complexity, as well as a generous helping of caramel. So, nearly an Irish red then, but with enough other stuff going on to differentiate it.

Rye River really pulled out the stops to impress, with a vast high-tech festival bar and a sequence of one-off geek-bait beers. Saison? Obviously. This one was an approachable 4.9% ABV, golden in colour with a heady nose of honey and meadows. A dry crispness is the centrepiece of the flavour, almost like burnt popcorn, with just a wisp of peach esters alongside. A simple refresher, and further evidence for me that lower strength is better where saison is concerned.

There was a very porterish Brown Ale, more roast and toast than caramel and toffee, and all the better for it; and a Double IPA. The latter was textbook stuff: peach and pineapple aromatics; a thick, almost greasy texture, and an explosively tangy flavour consisting mainly of mandarins but with a darker edge of dank. Very, very nicely done.

And last of the Rye River specials was their Berliner Weisse, claiming to be brewed to just 1.3% ABV. It hits all the usual style points within that, however: a grainy wheat quality, a crisp finish, and of course an electric buzz of super-refreshing lactic sourness.

Another German-style Wicklow beer to end on: Distinction Lager is from the newly-established Manor Brewing Company in Blessington. This trial batch is an all-Saaz job, 5.1% ABV and beautifully clean, allowing the hops to shine out. It was one of only two Irish gold medal winners in Alltech's Dublin Craft Cup (the other being barrel-aged Leann Folláin) and it was a deserving winner, I think. Hopefully nothing will change between now and full-scale production.

That's the new and surprising Irish stuff at the festival. More from the local breweries next.