The novelty of having a JD Wetherspoon 45 minutes away still hasn't worn off, though it's a benefit I only really feel during their biannual beer festivals. So, at the start of the most recent one, back in late March, I trooped out to Blackrock early on a Sunday afternoon to see what was on.
With lunch, to begin, Fort English-style IPA which was brewed by Shepherd Neame and poured an attractive bright copper colour. Its historically-accurate 5.8% ABV can really be felt from the first pull: rich and warming, like being hugged by freshly-baked cookies. The hops add an old-fashioned green veg bitterness, tangy at first, then leaving a long brassy finish. You can almost taste the flat cap here, but it's not twiggy or flabby. A charming old geezer of a bitter.
Because I'm a good and dutiful husband I offered up the California Breakfast Ale to the missus, against my JDW festival rule of Always Have The Adnams One. 4.8% ABV, golden, California, Adnams: on paper it looked the pick of the bunch. But the reality was a little disappointing. There was a slight haze to the blonde pint and I'm positive it wasn't the hops what did it. The aroma is all grainsack and it tastes of dry gunpowder spices but there's not even a suggestion of any citrus or the like. As a thirst-quencher it did the job, but no more than that. Only afterwards did I read there was coffee in the recipe: neither of us could taste any.
And so to thirds. Elgoods Spring Challenge first. 3.7% ABV and a perfect limpid gold topped by a fine white mousse. Rather toffeeish to taste: burnt caramel butterscotch popcorn, followed by a dishwater tang that adds nothing helpful. I'd been hoping for refreshment but I didn't find it here. Next!
One glass to the left on the paddle, Ye Olde Admiral by Wadworth: a 5% ABV amber ale. Rather pale for the style, it's very bitter too. There's just a hint of sweet caramel wafers and then lots of harshly metallic notes, nodding towards gastric. Squint and there's a trace of bitter herbs -- fennel or marjoram -- but blink and you'll miss it. This beer nearly works, but doesn't.
I almost skipped Barley Brown's ESA after a disastrous black IPA in Aberdeen airport Wetherspoon last year. But this one's from a more trustworthy source: Marston's. And here's the snatch! Big spa-town sulphur is the centrepiece; mineral, shading to swimming pool. There's a little caramel, but not too much, and almost zero hop character. But the body is light for 5.1% ABV and it's actually quite refreshing and cleansing. I left Blackrock with my palate sparkling.
A quick skip down the coast to Dún Laoghaire's Forty Foot revealed Shipwreck IPA from Wychwood, in collaboration with Canadian brewery Lighthouse. Dark gold in colour and 6.5% ABV it does a great job of showcasing English hops, in all their marmalade and bubblegum glory. The texture is pretty dense but it's not hard work to drink, even at cellar temperature. A spike of waxy resin on the finish prevents it from getting cloying. Not something I'd have a second pint of, but a nice one on which to finish the excursion.
Across the table it was Hightail brewed at Hook Norton with Australian brewery Mountain Goat. It's a dark mahogany colour with lots of roast and a lovely dry tannic finish. There are elements of great old-fashioned stout in here, a solid bitterness with an edge of burnt toast. Only as it warmed did a little unwelcome caramel note start to creep in, but at 4.5% ABV it's not one to sit over.
And that was my lot from this festival. Even though it ran for another fortnight, a chance visit to The Forty Foot a week later turned up no cask ale whatsoever. It seems that the chain's teething troubles in Ireland are still being worked through. Hopefully they'll be fixed by the time this year's autumn festival rolls around, by which stage the number of branches in the country will have more than doubled.
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