Drinking in the RDS on St Patrick's Day is a proud Dublin tradition. Or at least it was until the early 1960s when the spoilsports in government made it legal for pubs to open, removing the necessity to feign interest in the Irish Kennel Club's annual dog show in order to take advantage of its refreshing licensing loophole.
This year the custom returned, in a manner of speaking. After four years in the docklands, the upstart little brother of Ireland's biggest beer festival has moved in next door to its sibling. To a bigger house, too. The 2015 Irish Beer & Whiskey Festival was held in Hall 1 at the RDS, a grand space with plenty of seats and room for the amateur drinkers to stagger safely.
It wasn't quite the extravaganza of limited-run beers that the September festival tends to be, but there was plenty to keep me occupied. Eight Degrees, for instance, was showing off Enigma, a 6% ABV pale ale made with the eponymous hops, a real Australian rarity. It reminded me most of Nelson Sauvin, in its milder, gooseberry manifestation. There's a melon rind quality too, and some red apple: all the dry, tart fruit, in short. It's decent drinking but could stand to be more complex.
The other new one from the Mitchelstown machine was Polar Vortex, a 5.8% ABV pale ale brewed with Cascade, Simcoe and Citra. I got a lot of resinousness from this and it's even a little acidic. Only the big malt body saves it from harshness. Rather than the hop explosions we've become used to from Eight Degrees, this is altogether more rounded and nuanced, something I certainly appreciated about it.
White Hag was present at the festival in a big way, bringing a nice comfy couch for the crew to lounge on behind the bar. It was a long five days of festival, after all. New beers included White Sow, a 5.2% ABV milk chocolate oatmeal stout. It sounds more interesting that it turned out to be. The milk chocolate is right there, smooth and sweet at the centre of the flavour, but that's about the extent of what happens. My attention wandered, even when sipping a sample. They also had a version infused with fresh coffee at the bar and that simply replaced one single-dimension flavour with another.
I was much more intrigued by Searbh Rua, described as an "imperial sour red". Wut? Well, it's 7.9% ABV, and very definitely red. But the first sip reveals it to be massively sweet. It certainly makes up for the stout's shortcomings in its complexity: I got raspberries, cherries and even chocolate in the first few seconds. The sourness arrives late, providing just a little kick of tartness right on the end. The alcohol heat is very present throughout and I'd be placing this on the shelf with the barley wines. It's not a clean and invigorating sour beer; more a warming fireside sipper.
The "OMG When Do You People Sleep?" award for overactive brewing activity went to Trouble who had three brand new beers, plus the regular range and minus one new one they didn't reckon was ready yet. My beer of choice, and beer of the festival, was Centennial SMASH, 4.8% ABV and served on keg and cask, though I only drank the latter. Knock a percentage point off this and we'd have Ireland's Jarl. It's has that dry and ever so slightly soapy floral character of the Scot, but a beautiful smoothness and plenty of bright, zippy citric notes. Insanely drinkable material.
I was less impressed by Wandering Star, a blonde ale with nothing much going on other than some dry grain husk and an unpleasant tang of marker pens. Fallen Idol cheered me right up after that: a murky brown ale smelling edgily of gunpowder and weed and with a powerfully juicy flavour, mostly consisting of abundant, decadent peaches. At 6.3% ABV it demands a bit of respect but is great fun at the same time.
My other festival highlight alongside Fallen Idol was O Brother's Bonita, another dark hop-forward beer. Instead of fruit flavours, however, this is big on piquancy: liquorice and perfumery spices are to the fore, backed by dark chocolate and a lip-smacking dry roast.
Other breweries I just tried one new beer from were Independent, which had a new IPA, a 7% ABV job utilising Citra, Cascade and Summer hops, smelling spicy and tasting very grassy but without being too bitter, balanced by a tasty sweet orange candy character; and Kinnegar, whose Cup & Saucer coffee stout really lays on the thick brown-sugar-laced coffee but there's plenty of roast so while it's certainly heavy, as befits 6.2% ABV, it's not sickly or difficult drinking.
White Gypsy had an Australian Pale Ale, 4.8% ABV, amber coloured, toffee aroma'd and tasting of perfume and caramel with a rather sticky texture. Much better was White Gypsy Helles, a tiny bit of diacetyl but also lots of crisp green celery and a little white pepper too, alongside a golden syrup sweetness. Its best feature is the texture: authentic Bavarian levels of soft smoothness making it very quaffable indeed.
Finally to Station Works. I mentioned in relation to their brown ale the other week that they've been doing local recreations of Cumberland Breweries beers. Two more to report on from this festival: Station Works Irish Stout is nicely dry with a sharp black malt edge but smooth too, making for a plain but easy-drinking pint. Only a slight rubbery waft in the aroma spoils it, and only a little. I liked Station Works Irish Blonde too: no aroma, but cool and crisp like a good lager, and every bit as refreshing. If Station Works has truly set itself a mission to breathe new life into cask beer in Ireland then this is sort of beer that could do it. This and Trouble Centennial SMASH, obviously.