Ireland got a major new addition to its beer calendar this month with the first Killarney Beerfest, staged by the experienced events organisers of the Irish National Entertainment Centre at the Gleneagle Hotel. The sun mostly shone, trade was quite brisk among the tents and the live entertainment was excellent. Saturday saw an all-star team of international judges put 81 of Ireland's microbrewed beers through a rigorous judging process, with young James Brown taking the grand prize for his Chocolate Orange Stout. But I did a bit of unofficial judging myself too...
First and foremost, Black Donkey's Buck-It comes off the naughty step. This beer really rubbed me up the wrong way back in February, but a switch from a neutral American yeast to something a little more estery has taken those pointy, musty edges off it and given it a smooth rounded fruity character. Well worth a re-visit if you were similarly unimpressed previously. The Roscommon brewery was also pouring a new one: Scythe, a 4.6% ABV... er... well I'm not sure what style category it belongs in. I suppose pale ale is a start: it's a murky orange colour and the aroma is pure peach flesh. That fresh and zippy New World hop thing extends to the flavour but it's joined there by a very Belgian yeast spice. If I recall correctly, this uses the same yeast as Black Donkey's Sheep Stealer saison so possibly could count as the same style. Either way, it's a very fine hoppy sessioner.
Sticking with them peaches for a moment, Black's of Kinsale had a new Pils on tap: slightly hazy but still properly clean-tasting and with a subtle sprinkling of peach and mandarin flavours. It's done with US hops but really put me in mind of those mouthwatering Australian varieties they have now. Overall this is a decent, but not shocking, re-imagining of quaffing lager.
From lager to stout and a second beer from County Limerick's only brewery, JJ's. Abbey Stout is a roasty one, vaguely sweet but pouring on more of the dry notes. There's not much other complexity but then at 4.2% ABV I guess there's not supposed to be.
Jack Doyle's beer is rarely seen outside its native Wexford so I was delighted to find it at the festival. Jack Doyle's Premium Stout is another straightforward one: 4.2% ABV and served on nitro. Its special move is a lovely whack of chocolate and cocoa right in the heart of the soft, smooth texture. This is plainly designed to take the big boys on and I'd certainly pick it when faced with that choice. I'm a little less convinced by Proper Order, a pale ale at the same strength. Like the stout, it's simple and drinkable with no brewing flaws, but it's much more of an Irish red than a hop-forward pale ale. Sure, it's a pale amber colour rather than red, but the light body, the toffee, and the low-impact hops all say something other than pale ale to me. But again, in a pub with nothing better, I'd be content.
Local boys Killarney Brewing also malted up their Scarlet Pimpernel IPA. It's very nearly red and decidedly sweet, justified by a pleasant buzz of orange sherbet though let down in the finish by a harsher medicinal note. Some sort of phenolic invader, perhaps? Nothing like that in the stout though. Casey Brothers is yet another easy-going nitro job, though it does make good use of its extra strength at 5% ABV: there's a creamy richness plus a mild hint of blackcurrant right on the finish.
Neighbours Torc Brewing have been a little more adventurous with their newest offerings. Torc Wheat Beer doesn't sound that off-the-wall, especially at just 4.2% ABV, but they've used Cascade and Centennial hops to add a juicy citrus bang without losing the classic bubblegum sweetness. There's a decently full body for the lower strength too. Torc Amber Ale is a tiny bit stronger but less hoppy too. If Proper Order and Scarlet Pimpernel had Irish Red qualities, this tips over into that style fully. There's a dusting of red fruit, more than a hint of toffee, and a clean mineral quality that stops it from getting too sweet. But disappointingly little by way of hops.
Two pale ales to go out on. The first is The Dreamer, a summer seasonal from O Brother and based on their regular The Fixer, with the ABV dialled down a notch to 4.3%. It's pale and hazy, the Willamette hops imparting bright floral flavours but with a more punchy playful bitterness on the end. There is a bit of a bleachy bum note spoiling things a little: I guess something this light leaves no place for such off-flavours to hide, but at least the beer's merits aren't obscured by this flaw.
My beer of the weekend, however, was the new Eight Degrees summer seasonal Grand Stretch. Created with the needs of the brewery workers in mind, this is just (again!) 4.2% ABV but jam-packed with Vic Secret hops. A grassy, resinous spice bumps up against classic New World mango and nectarine leaving no doubt that this beer is all about the delicious, refreshing, fresh hops. Yet it's not overly bitter and nor is it thin: the body is full enough to carry everything that's happening. Complex hop-forward session beers of this quality are all too rare in Ireland. It's great to meet another one.
Killarney may not be the biggest or geekiest of beer festivals in Ireland but it's one of the most enjoyable I've ever attended (living on-site for the duration may have something to do with that) and the setting amid the majestic Kerry scenery really adds spectacle to it. Keep and eye out for the announcement of next year's dates.
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