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.

19 comments:

  1. While you were at the festival, I was down in Woodenbridge, where the Wicklow Brewery taps were a nice surprise. The barmaid warned that the Weiss had a pretty long aftertaste, which was where the bananas and cloves had been hanging out. They weren't unpleasant after one, but their removal should make it perfect for a summer looking over the river.

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  2. Gary Gillman3:31 pm

    Was there ever really an Irish red style? Was any pale ale before George Lett's Ruby Ale, brewed at Enniscorthy, labeled indeed as a red, russet or ruby ale? There are very, very few cases where Michael Jackson imagined a style of beer (he was famously right about Vienna lager being bronze even when latter-day brewers in the city argued with him about it) but on the red ale thing he may have gone a little too far.

    http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-old-british-beer-label-for-lett-cos-ruby-ale-enniscorthy-ireland-24016432.html

    Gary

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    1. Just because a style wasn't identified before 1976 doesn't mean it's not a style. For the Irish drinker it's more useful to separate out Smithwick's, Macardle's and their craft analogues as a separate kind of beer than to say they're simply pale ales.

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    2. Gary Gillman4:23 pm

      I can see that only - but still usefully - in the sense that pale ale including Smithwick's release of that name some years ago now increasingly means the American type of pale ale, so calling a non-U.S. hopped reddish beer "red ale" does distinguish it from that I guess.

      I'm not sure if the style existed before Jackson or not, Lett's Ruby Ale seems a progenitor: it's before Watney's Red or Red Barrel, before keg beer in general (1970's UK version). I guess we don't know if Lett's Ruby was filtered and pasteurized or if it was, whether a draft version offered by the brewery wasn't.

      Maybe in the 70's there was a residual feeling in Ireland that Irish ale was ruby or red and albeit Smithwick's and that type essentially followed (IMO) the Watney Red approach to beer, e.g., touch of roasted barley and other adjunct, filtered and pasteurized on draft, there was a merging of two traditions which Jackson then dubbed red ale.

      Someone should write more about this at length.

      Gary

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    3. As I understand it, the style dates from about 1960 and the reformulation of Smithwick's No. 1. Ron draws a parallel between 1862 Drogheda Ale and Scotch Ale here, and I think this idea of a strong, dark malt-forward beer is where the roots of modern Irish red lie.

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  3. Gary Gillman5:56 pm

    Lett's Ale was called Ruby though, this had to have some impact on the perceptions of Irish ale before Smithwick's No. 1 came out.

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    1. Why so? If ale in Ireland was generally a dark red colour, what's the significance that one of them happened to be called "Ruby"?

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    2. Gary Gillman2:16 pm

      In other words, did they all have a dark red (vs. light to dark amber) colour? How do we know this?

      Gary

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    3. We don't. We're extrapolating from Ron's Scotch/Burton parallel while also assuming that the tendency for 20th century Irish ale to be red had some earlier precedent. Both could, of course, be totally erroneous.

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    4. Gary Gillman4:16 pm

      The Scotch Burton parallel doesn't imply a notable reddish hue for Irish ale. There is a known earlier precedent for red-coloured ale in Ireland: George Lett's Ruby Ale. In the absence of knowing whether it was alone or not, we can speculate either that it stimulated a later development of red ale (i.e., on its own) or only did so a part of a larger group so in a representative way only. We can't say more which is my only point.

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    5. Based on just a word in a name, without knowing the period the name was used? I don't think so. When was it first produced under that name?

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    6. Gary Gillman5:53 pm

      Long time beer writer Bell Yenne states it was brewed from 1864-1956. Images online of beer labels from the brewery stating "Ruby Ale" are clearly from the 50's or 40's.

      Even the last years of brewing precede Smithwick's No. 1 by some years.

      https://books.google.ca/books?id=qfjZAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA16&lpg=PA16&dq=Lett%27s+Ruby+Ale&source=bl&ots=jC9RJ9--F-&sig=TNtWdX985QGzYO6S7wf9yKXHAxY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=cEYUVajhNYi5yQSn-oHwDQ&ved=0CFAQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=Lett's%20Ruby%20Ale&f=false

      Gary

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    7. Lett's Brewery was open from 1864 to 1956. That doesn't mean it brewed the same beer under the same name the whole time. And would you like a list of "long time beer writers" who've published nonsensical ahistorical assumptions about what breweries used to make? It's a big one :D

      And no, the last years don't precede Smithwick's No. 1 by some years. I don't know the dates Smithwick's No. 1 was brewed, I suspect you don't either (but please tell me if you do!), and neither of us know anything about how it evolved up until its death in the 1960s and rebirth as Smithwick's Irish Ale.

      Too many holes for conclusions here, Gary, sadly.

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    8. Gary Gillman3:16 pm

      Smithwick's No. 1 was first issued in the 1930's as a bottle-conditioned ale and became very popular. See the history timeline PDF referenced in the Smithwick's website. Also, Smithwicks had its own maltings - potentially significant if a reddish type of pale malt issued from there - it makes more sense it did from a proprietary maltings, but it isn't proof, of course.

      I'd think at some point bottled No. 1 became a filtered, pasteurized beer after WW II, but if it did, the colour should not have been affected.

      Smithwick Draught comes out in 1966, some years after Guinness bought a majority stake - clearly this was a keg product and probably responsible for the red ale expansion in Ireland - but that doesn't mean it originated it.

      Lett's Ruby Ale labels are easy to find on the web and clearly predate 1966, I'm sure you know the ones I mean, if not I can find a link. They have the graphical look of the the 50's or earlier but also Lett's closed I think in '57 so its Ruby Ale had to be before Smithwick's Draught. We don't know what colour No. 1 was from 30's-'66. Bill Yenne's remarks do not, I agree, suggest that a beer called "Ruby Ale" existed throughout the history of the brewery, but clearly a beer called that existed toward the end of the company's tenure (once again the labels I mention above).

      So whadda we got? Smithwick's No. 1 from the 30's, maybe red from a proprietary malt, but no evidence. Lett's Ruby Ale, reddish and so-named at least in the latter part of the company's era (40's or 50's - a deduction but a reasonable one IMO), clearly came before Smithwick's Draught but not necessarily before the 30's No. 1.

      As to Perry, Cherry, Macardle, we don't know if some of these were red-coloured.

      So that's where I'm at and I think it suggests there may have been a red ale tradition in Ireland before Smithwick's Draught. It seems unlikely to me Lett's Ruby was the only one to have a notable colour (but there is no evidence to be sure). The reason I say that is, in any locality, to this day, beers do tend to resemble others, perhaps because of competition, or the fact that certain suppliers tend to supply the breweries of a particular area, or just out of ... propinquity so to speak

      Anyway all this is a useful discussion, thanks for the time to pitch in as we say.

      Gary

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    9. Hooray! Yes, I think that's my broad impression too: that ale in Ireland was generally red, before it went keg in the '60s and before it got classified as "Irish red ale" in the '70s.

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  4. The Irish Beer Scene is on fire. Wonderful stuff. Don't write off write off Red Ale, though. Would love to taste some on cask.

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    1. They occasionally show up on cask. I can't say I've been too impressed with any.

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    2. Oh, except that one time Franciscan Well did a dry-hopped Rebel Red on cask. That tasted like Harvey's Best. Amazing.

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  5. Now that dry-hopped Rebel Red does sound delicious.

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