20 April 2015

A yard of ale

As usual, Easter Saturday meant the trip to Cork for Franciscan Well's annual beer festival. I arrived in the city a little early so called in to Market Lane on Oliver Plunkett Street for lunch, and to try the beers from the adjoining Elbow Lane brewery. I'd had a couple of these (stout and lager) a few years back, when they were still being contract brewed, but haven't seen much of them since. The brewery has now added a red, a weiss and a pale ale to the line-up. Sadly, only the first of these, Wisdom, was available. And also sadly it was bady infected. There's a rich and wholesome toffee-laden red ale lurking in there somewhere but it's bookended with a phenolic buzz -- hard and jarring at the front and lasting long into the finish too -- making it taste of swimming pools, leaning towards more severe TCP. I'm always amazed when brewers deem beer that tastes so badly off to be fit for sale. Hopefully Elbow Lane will get their act together as Market Lane is a smart little bistro with good food and superb service. It deserves better beer.

A swift pint of Survivor, now re-named "Dreamcatcher", in Rising Sons since it was on the way, and then into the back yard of Franciscan Well for the 2pm kick-off.

Even though this isn't Ireland's biggest beer festival any more, it still packs the crowds in and it wasn't long before the place was buzzing. 18 breweries were represented, a mix of regulars and new-comers. My starting beer was Seaweed Saison, brewed by Dungarvan when Kjetil Jikiun from Nøgne Ø came to visit. It's 6.5% ABV and a hazy pale orange colour. Dry saison spices are the main action, given extra impact by an unusually heavy texture. A bunch of us gathered round the glass to see if we could pick out the maritime elements and found a touch of iodine and ozone in the aroma and a mild saltiness in the flavour, especially as it warms. Other than that, it's pretty down-the-line for a novelty beer, which is probably a good thing.

Even though they arrive at a fairly regular clip these days it's always exciting to encounter new breweries and there were two Munster débutantes at the EasterFest. Well, West Cork Brewing has been going since late last year, but I missed their beer at the February Winter Ales Festival and was glad to be able to catch up. Roaring Ruby is the red, arriving murky from the cask and, while it could benefit from being a bit cleaner was perfectly palateable. I got lots of milk chocolate and spiced caramel notes, finishing on a slightly acidic green apple bite which helps make this sweet and filling beer surprisingly refreshing. Its stablemate is a pale ale called Sherkin Lass. This is pure apricot goodness, the light cask carbonation adding a sherbet quality making for a very smooth and quaffable pale bitter. It's the sort of beer I could picture drinking a lot of when visiting the brewery's Baltimore home.

Also making their first appearance at the festival was The Killarney Brewing Company, represented by brewer and co-owner AJ, formerly of Figueroa Brewing in California. He had an odd choice of first-run beers on offer, a helles and a golden ale. A bit similar, no? Anyway, Devil's Helles had few fans around the yard, but I was charmed by it. Yes, there's a bit of butterscotch going on, but it's within the bounds of acceptability. The density and sweetness are spot-on for authentic helles and best of all there's a crunchy green celery bite from the hops that really completes the picture nicely. Golden Spear was the other one: a simple and crisp beer with light honey and floral meadows, building as it goes to a more intense perfume.

But if it was perfume you were after, you'd have to stop by the UCC Microbrewery stand. For a second year in a row they eschewed traditional German styles and had a 5.6% ABV pale ale, named pÚCCa on offer. This was a beautiful clear gold colour but the harsh hop perfume made it tough going for me, not at all helped by a thick, almost greasy, texture, like ambergris or balsam. Too intense to be enjoyable. The students' quadruple, Innocence, was much better: dark copper in colour and smelling quite bitter or tart. The flavour is all moist fruit, however: wet juicy raisins and brown banana for a sumptuous sort of fruitcake effect. A liquorice bitterness finishes it on a flourish and there's no sign at all of the whopping 9.6% ABV.

The headliner for the UCC selection, however, was Keen-Wah‽, a beer brewed (obviously) from quinoa. It's a 100% quinoa grain bill in fact and the producers are keeping schtum about the method used, though boasting that the end result is entirely gluten-free. At only 3.3% ABV, I was expecting some sort of thin watery psuedo-beer but it was actually very impressive. There's a big bubblegum flavour, verging on clove and perhaps banana syrup too, but definitely the kind of thing you find in proper German weissbier. I got a certain lemon tartness too, bringing us closer to Belgian witbier. Either way, this stuff does a very convincing impression of real beer and could be a winner if it were commercially viable. I suspect that the cost of the main ingredient is what has kept the ABV down. If it's merely to be appreciated as an example of the brewer's art then fine: I did that.

Two dark beers to finish on. Bo Bristle has a new Stout out. Dave seems quite pleased with it. Its ancestry can be traced to the milk chocolate stout the Offaly brewery produced during the winter, though this is a much more modest 4.5% ABV. It retains a bit of lactose sugar which adds a sweet and tangy complexity to an otherwise straightforward dry Irish session stout. There's a sort of raspberry fruit tart too, which is unusual but pleasant.

And my beer of the festival was Black Lightning, a 6.5% ABV black IPA by 9 White Deer. Lots and lots of fresh Simcoe went in to dry hop this admittedly unattractive-looking murky brown beer. That gave it a fantastic zingy orange sherbet aroma. The flavour features that too, with rounded jaffa and mandarin plus bonus lavender and a tiny dry bitter bite on the finish for balance, the only sign in the flavour that this isn't simply a pale ale.

Cheers as always to the brewers and the hosts. There's talk of moving the festival out of the Franciscan Well yard altogether. I hope its unique atmosphere can be retained once the crowding issues are dealt with.


  1. Good stuff. I wasn't that impressed by either the Killarney or White Gypsy Helles, despite being a devotee of the style. Maybe I've just been spoiled by the super-clean Germans. Black Lightning was great too, and would have been up there for me if it wasn't for Model T.

    1. Mmmm, Model T: the tragedy of tickerdom... And it looks like I'm the only friend Killarney Brewing has in the world.

  2. "the producers are keeping schtum about the method used, though boasting that the end result is entirely gluten-free"

    Quinoa malt is available, it would be nice if they when with that rather than recombination enzyme