You'll only find one entry on RateBeer for my home town of Armagh. Hardly surprising as whatever the opposite of a beer Mecca is, Armagh is one. There isn't even a brewery in the county, though quite rightly its cider industry appears to be thriving and on my last trip I was very pleased to see MacIvor's making great in-roads to the on-trade.
That solitary beacon of hope on RateBeer is The Wine Store, an off licence attached to the sprawling Emerson's supermarket. I rarely get a chance to drop in but did so on my last visit, grabbing everything I'd never had before from the considerable selection of Northern Irish beers.
I opened the Hopburst IPA from Farmageddon almost immediately. This is 6.2% ABV and a nice clear dark orange, despite the cheeky advice on the label that "it may be cloudy - harden up - it's craft beer." There's a certain tart sourness in the aroma, redolent of lime marmalade. Malt drives the flavour but there's more of that lime too, all sharp and rather oily. I guess it's really a classic English-style IPA at heart, reminding me of the marmalade-on-wholegrain-toast effect I always enjoy in White Shield, but it's been given just an extra citrus twist in line with modern tastes and it all works rather well. The last Farmageddon beer I encountered was undrinkable so Hopburst has gone a long way to restore my faith in the brewery.
Next up, Crann, the first in a collaboration series between west Ulster breweries Poker Tree and Inishmacsaint with the former doing the brewing while the latter handled the bottling process. It's a 6.6% ABV bière de garde, pouring a gorgeous clear honey colour and smelling crisp, sherbety, and with maybe just a mild sourness too. A look at the label tells me that cranberries, raisins and spruce tips have been added to the recipe, and it's the first of these which really shines out: that refreshing tartness combined with sweet juicy fruit is a winning combination. There's a slightly harsh and vegetal bitterness in the finish, which could be either the hops or the spruce, or a combination of both, but it doesn't interfere with the main act. They've marketed this as a winter beer, but I found it worked just as well on a warm day. It's a wonderful accomplishment and I look forward to many more daring collaborations like it.
Hillstown is a brand new brewery to me, based on a farm in Co. Antrim. First up, a red ale with the suitably farm-y name of Massey Red. The label makes claims of sessionability but at 5.2% ABV we're dealing with a bit more booze than is usual for the style. It's a relatively clear copper colour, which is a pleasant surprise, and the texture is light and the carbonation low. Flavourwise I get a generous dose of milk chocolate, a decent amount of roast cereal, and then lots and lots of balsamic strawberries. Strawberry isn't unknown in the Irish red flavour profile, but the balsamic bit suggests to me that this hasn't turned out quite as the brewer intended. The acid sourness is very apparent in the aroma too, adding an unpleasant gastric tang. Homebrewish and all that it is, it's still drinkable. I doubt I'd be on for a session, however, especially not if letting it get any way warm is on the cards.
We move to smaller bottles for the next ones. Horny Bull stout is 7% ABV and looks handsome in a half pint glass, topped by a rock-steady tan-coloured head. There's more of that balsamic in the aroma plus the promise of lots of dark malt. There's a lot of vinegar in the flavour. "Fruity hops," says the label, "chocolate and coffee": no, not really. There's a strong Flemish Oud Bruin vibe, the heavier sort with those HP Sauce molasses and tamarind qualities. It's tough going to drink and again I don't think this is how it's meant to taste. These two bottles suggest to me that the brewery doesn't have its hygiene protocols nailed down. So how about a third, then?
Last up from Hillstown is The Goat's Butt, a wheat beer with added rye. It's certainly carbonated in keeping with the style spec, ie up the wazoo. The first pour gave me a lightly hazy pale yellow glassful, made only slightly more opaque when I topped it off after the foam subsided. There's a farty sulphurous aroma which I've encountered in microbrewed wheat beers before, generally when they're very young and I suspect that's the case with this one. It's not off-putting, though. Beneath it there's a rather crisp and plain witbier, the light texture hiding 5.3% ABV very well indeed. I get a touch of juicy jaffa, though from the hops I assume, as no orange is listed in the ingredients. This is simple, refreshing and, gloriously, not infected.
Hillstown's heart seems to be in the right place with these recipes but the execution needs a bit of polishing. Mind you, the same could once be said of every other brewery featured here so there's good reason to be hopeful.
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