30 July 2015

Firestone Walk With Me

I'm slightly surprised there wasn't more of a fuss made about the arrival of Firestone Walker beer in Ireland a couple of months ago. By all accounts it was quite a coup by Grand Cru beers to get them over this way. But the first ones just quietly started showing up in specialist beer bars and off licences without anyone making too much noise, in my earshot anyway. I probably shouldn't complain. And with the company now part of a large multinational I expect they may start becoming more commonplace in Europe.

Anyway, three from the mid-Californian brewery today, though only two purchased on the white market, and only the one off the shelf of an Irish offy.

This can of Pivo, the brewery's pils, was acquired for me by Chris The Beer Geek, who took pains to ensure I got a fresh one, so the beer was a smidge over three weeks in the tin before I tipped it into a glass. The first surprise was the colour: a very nondescript pale yellow. At 5.3% ABV I thought it would at least look like a quality lager. Any fears over lack of substance are banished by the texture: the malt gives it a beautiful rounded and filling feel, plus that classic Dortmunder breadiness, shading towards the sweeter end of the spectrum with a hint of candyfloss. The promised hops are present but aren't at all overdone. There's the classic waxy, almost plasticky, noble hop bitterness then a mouthwatering cut-grass and pine effect, finishing quickly and cleanly, the way good lager should. I was expecting American hop perfume but that's not what it does at all: this is pure old-world elegance, reminding me a lot of the better, fresher, hoppier pale lagers I've caned in Bavaria. I'd happily see the whole "India Pale Lager" genre replaced with this sort of thing.

The Easy Jack IPA I obtained in DrinkStore so it wasn't quite so fresh, but still less than three months out of the brewery. It's another pale one: a crystalline golden hue. The aroma is rather candystore, all lurid chewsweet and sherbet fruit, plus the promise of plentiful sugar, which is surprising as it's only 4.7% ABV. The first pull reveals it to be pure Lilt, with a huge hit of juicy mango and pineapple. The sugar arrives after it and it's similar to the candyfloss in Pivo, much more than just a malt base. You need to wait around for any kind of bitterness but when it eventually arrives, right on the finish, even it is bringing fruit in tow: limes in particular, and maybe a slight spritz of grapefruit zest. At first I was really impressed by all that juiciness, but the sugary aspect makes each mouthful a little harder than the last. It's unusual to be saying a Californian IPA is unbalanced away from the bitterness side, but I think this is.

Finally, Wookey Jack, an 8.3% ABV rye black IPA I found on tap in BrewDog's Newcastle outlet recently. It's a dense beast, pure opaque black in colour and smelling worryingly of marker pens. The first thing to hit me on tasting was the texture: it's as viscous as it looks, thick and tarry with a slick, palate-coating bitterness but not much by way of hop flavour. Instead it's all roast, the only real hop presence being a certain dankness in the aroma. A disappointing experience, all told. Not what I'm after in a black IPA and completely lacking that dry grassy bite that hops and rye do so well together.

Double Jack has also been sighted on keg around Dublin. I wasn't a fan of this super-sticky double IPA when I first met it a couple of years ago, and recent revisits confirmed it's just not for me. I think perhaps they have too loose a hand at Firestone Walker when it comes to tipping the maltsack.

27 July 2015

Beers without borders

You have to admire the international outlook of Carlow Brewing. Following on from a Japanese-themed Sorachi Ace IPA earlier this summer, two new beers produced in collaboration with brewers from abroad invited to the international crossroads that is Bagenalstown.

I met both beers at an event in 57 The Headline, to celebrate the visit of Virginia's Starr Hill brewery, but before those proceedings commenced I had a pint of Lublin to Dublin Milk Stout, the second in a series with Poland's Browar Pinta. Anyone expecting a janglingly sweet milk stout is in for a surprise. At 6% ABV this is serious business, and while the lactose sugar is certainly present, it combines with the dark malt to create a sumptuously smooth milk chocolate effect yet still maintaining a roast bite on the end. It pulls a surprise special move with the hop additions, bringing at first a floral Turkish-delight element which then builds into a proper hoppy juiciness as it goes down. This is all stout, but I really liked how it touches on a few amber ale buttons too.

At the main event, Wayne "Irish Beer Snob" Dunne hosted a panel discussion between Seamus and Conor from Carlow and Brian and Robbie of Starr Hill, comparing notes on their respective breweries and beer scenes. The visitors had brought a couple of examples of their work to taste, so I got to try Little Red Roostarr, Starr Hill's "coffee cream stout". The coffee isn't mucking about in the aroma here: a massive waft of fresh-brewed hits the nostrils straight away. Underneath, it's a very sweet and creamy beer. There's a proper roasted-grain edge to it but overall I found it just a little too sweet to be enjoyable.

And also floating around there was Starr Hill Reviver, which is a red IPA with a huge grapefruit aroma. The flavour is more malt-driven, with a sweet and almost meaty caramelised crystal malt character, but plenty of citric bitterness as well. Brewer Robbie says that when he brews established beer styles he does it by the book, but I don't know if red IPA is in the book yet. Something a bit like American amber ale, only a little bitterer is possibly how it would be described, and this certainly meets that specification.

The guys also brought along a pitcher of their collaboration brew, then just a couple of days in the fermenter but already showing promise.

A little over a week later the beer was finished, and Carlow Brewing's PR folk kindly sent me a couple of bottles. Foreign Affair is also badged as a red IPA and is a modest 4.8% ABV. It's a perfect clear shade of copper, topped by a loose-bubbled head from what proved to be pleasantly low carbonation. The aroma doesn't exactly leap out, but there's good stuff present: peaches, shading to grapefruit, and just touching on heavier piney dank, all done using the Falconer's Flight hop blend. These are joined by a generous dose of coffee in the flavour, but that's really all the malt does: there's none of the toffee or marzipan one often finds in American-style amber ale and the texture is light. I like it. That dry and citric hop bitterness is complemented nicely by the dry coffee roast, and while it's assertively bitter it remains quite easy and refreshing drinking. One to enjoy young, I'd say: the 14-month best-before date printed on the neck is perhaps ill-advised.

Conor and the guys at Carlow Brewing certainly seem to be on top of their game at the moment. How generous of them to share their acumen with others.