31 August 2015

Meet the Hebrews

Tom is a beer geek from Israel, currently seconded to a work project in Dublin. Back in June he offered to bring some beers over from home for a tasting. A group of us got together in the Bull & Castle one quiet Sunday afternoon to get an idea of what's happening in the Israeli craft beer scene.

Under Tom's direction we started, perhaps unusually, with an Oak Porter from Negev brewery. It's only 5% ABV but smells a lot stronger. It doesn't look great in the glass, all murky and opaque. The wood has been laid on very thick with massive amounts of vanillin and a sharper lactic quality too. The heavy-handed ageing means any trace of the porter that used to be here is now gone.  Even drinking a small sample was tough going and I can't say I enjoyed it. Shapiro Oatmeal Stout was a much better proposition. 5.2% ABV and again smelling hot, this time with a kind of acetone quality, it's actually smooth and sweet on tasting with no off-flavours at all. There's lots of lovely chocolate and cream, to match the texture. Alexander Black is a more orthodox (not, not that way) stout: 7% ABV and looking clear, pure, but most definitely black, in the glass. It smells oily, like strong coffee, and has an almost Caribbean brown-sugar sweetness. That's about all it delivers, however.

From stout to black IPA and Ha'Dubim Paradox is next, another nasty-looking murky one. It has the spicy vegetal aroma which I'm coming to regard as one of the hallmarks of the style and makes excellent use of its hops. A beautiful chocolate and fresh mandarin flavour opens it up and there's a sharp biting bitterness in the finish. An absolute classic, this, and packing a lot of complexity into 5.6% ABV.

There were two more from Ha'Dubim ("The Bears") and we followed Paradox with Kodiak, badged as an "IPW", so what generally gets called "white IPA", then. It's yellow and cloudy and the aroma is all over the place: a little bleachy, a lot sugary and with added plasticine notes as well. It gels together a bit better on tasting with the sweetness dominating, creating a strong impression of drinking vanilla ice cream, helped along by the creamy texture. The hops arrive late, adding a pithiness to the finish. It's an odd beer and I'm not sure I'd want to investigate it further.

The inevitable Grizzly is Ha'Dubim's special edition double IPA: 9% ABV yet a rather wan and hazy witbier-yellow colour. The aroma is gorgeous, pelting out bittersweet mandarin spritz. The strength is immediately apparent on the first sip, but it's a clean heat, not heavy or boozy, reminding me a little of Trouble Brewing's Hop Priority triple IPA. But it's not all alcohol; the hops are working very hard in here too with an oily dank base cheered up by bursts of citrus zest. Double IPA wouldn't be my favourite beer style but then not many of them are as well executed as this one.

More IPAs next, starting with Pressure Drop by Ha'Shakhen. This 6%-er claims to be an "Extrememly hoppy craft beer" and I'll grant that hops play a big part in how it tastes. Onions on the aroma; mango, papaya and lime rind in the flavour: that's all hops. But there's a lot of caramel in here also and the whole is just a bit too sweet to be enjoyable. We had it next to one of the original Israeli IPAs and one considered to be among the best still: Srigim Brewery's Ha'Hodit Ha'Mekhoeret, "The Ugly Indian". 6.5% ABV, a brownish-orange colour (murky again) but smelling lovely, simultaneously sweet and spicy with lots of citrus promised. The flavour is very unsubtle, being big on bitterness but there's enough malt body to carry it. The murk lets it down a little however, allowing a savoury yeast coating dull the otherwise bright and fresh flavours. This one could do with a little polishing but is still perfectly enjoyable for what it is.

A couple of odd ones to finish. Dictator Irish Red has, for some reason, been blended with Laphroaig whisky, and plasters this fact across the label in huge letters. It's a pale murky orange and smells massively peaty. Peat is there again on the first sip but goes away quickly leaving a fresh, soft, peachy hop flavour. The old peat 'n' peach one-two is not something I've ever experienced in a beer before and it's not at all unpleasant. Shapiro's Jack's Winter Ale has also been liquored-up, this time with the addition of Jack Daniel's oak chips. They impart lots of oaky vanillins but no real whisky booze effect. Instead, this 8.2% ABV ale is big on warming toffee malt, all smooth and mellow. Even in the eastern Med, they like something for the fireside, it seems.

Overall impressions? Israeli craft beer is a little rough around the edges and not all of its experiments are worthwhile ones from the drinker's point of view, but there's some real talent on display in this lot. The beer fan certainly won't get bored. Thanks to Tom for the insight.

27 August 2015

Pre-festival festivals

The biggest event in the Irish beer calendar kicks off this evening at the RDS in Dublin. I understand there'll be about 40 Irish breweries at the 2015 Irish Craft Beer Festival and we've been promised lots of new and special editions. And we're more likely to actually find them too, since the event has been sensibly reduced to a three-day run. But it's far from the first beer festival we've seen in these parts this summer. Earlier this month there were a couple of preliminaries.

To the Harbour Bar in sunny Bray, first, which held a two-day event at the beginning of the month, inviting a handful of local breweries (and one cider-maker) to set up stall in the yard. Wicklow Wolf is a mere keg roll from the Harbour so they were present and correct, showing off the new Belgian Brown Ale. I was expecting something sweet and fruity but it's been fermented with a saison yeast so it resembles more an oude bruin: very dry with a tangy tamarind and vinegar foretaste. The dark grain comes out in the finish where there's an almost stout-like roasted quality. The aroma is also very big on coffee notes. It's certainly complex and mixing up some flavours that aren't normally seen together. And at a modest 5.5% ABV it's relatively sessionable too, if the tang is to your taste.

Further along the bar I snagged the first ever pint of Rascal's new pilsner. Rain Czech is number four in the World Hop Series and employs Saaz and Sladek hops, late and in quantity. It's 5% ABV and a hazy gold. The low carbonation gives it a wonderful creamy texture and my first thought on sipping it was of genre leader Keesmann Herren Pils. It's maybe not quite as polished but it does a lot of the same things. The aroma is gently grassy but the flavour is much more assertive, all moist, fresh grass backed by popcorn and candyfloss. The bitterness is maybe a little on the low side for a pils but there is still a proper bite in the finish. The classic Czech diacetyl is missing but certainly wasn't missed by your correspondent. This is one to drink as soon as you see it: I can't imagine those beautiful hop flavours will hang around for ever.

Less than a week later the second Big Grill Festival took over Herbert Park. Irish beer was well represented and, hey, Rascal's were back with new beer already. Chardonnay Saison is and does exactly what it says on the tap badge. It's 6% ABV but the base beer is one of the lighter and cleaner sorts of saison. This provides a perfect platform for the wine to shine. You get beautiful fresh juicy grape notes with a melon-skin effect that's much more reminiscent of a Sauvignon Blanc than Chardonnay. The wood comes through to an extent, but it's very much a subtle dryness, not the big honking oak-and-butter that blighted my Chardonnay years. An absolute stunner of a beer this, and perfect garden drinking. I understand that the last of it will be making an appearance at the RDS this weekend. Do not miss.

Rascal's still provides the brewing facilities for the Brewtonic brand and their new one for Big Grill was a 4.5% ABV wheat beer called Raspberry Beeret. A lot of raspberries went into this, says sometime Rascal's co-conspirator Rossa. But they're doing a great job in there, really imparting a pure essence-of-raspberry flavour, like chewing the seeds. And, of course, turning the beer bright pink. Perhaps surprisingly, it's only lightly tart, and the wheaty base gives it a lovely pillowy softness making for excellent drinkability. Lurid-coloured fruit beers that aren't just in it for the gimmickry are all too rare.

The Porterhouse also brought a new beer to Big Grill. Hopped to F#¢k is the veteran Dublin brewer's first go at a double IPA. I'm generally not a fan of double IPAs at the best of times but this one really reminded me of why that is. While it's a perhaps modest 8% ABV it lays on the malt in a big hot-and-heavy way. While it starts out zesty enough when its cold, the booze warmth increases with the temperature, turning to marmalade and then becoming full-on toffee by the end. There's a powerful hop acidity which I guess is provided for balance but I found it just made the beer harder to drink. Fans of Hophead may enjoy the opportunity to try something bigger but along the same lines, but I'm happier with the less intense option.

Franciscan Well ran a competition a couple of months ago to name their new saison but the barman running their stall (on behalf of parent Molson Coors, I assume) couldn't tell me what the final decision was. Later research revealed that Beast from the Yeast is the name they went for. I rather enjoyed it too: 5% ABV and another light and gently fruity saison, this time it's more of an appley vibe, perhaps sailing a little close to acetone nail varnish remover if it's allowed to get warm. But there's no need to let it warm: there's a wonderful lagerish crispness to it which makes for very easy drinking, and a dry roasted complexity from, I'm guessing, the dark grain which gives it that mahogany red colour. And regardless how long you leave it when wandering around the park blathering to people it never turns completely sickly, which is more than I can say for a lot of modern saisons, so a definite thumbs-up from me.

And finally to Kinnegar, which has released a gooseberry-flavoured sour beer called, obviously, Geuzberry. It's soured in the kettle with a yoghurt strain rather than wild yeasts so it's all quite subtle, a bit like a Berliner wiesse, though rather stronger at 5.2% ABV. At its heart it's a very simple and grainy wheat beer: clean, fizzy and refreshing. The sour tang is understated but it's definitely present and is essentially the same lactic flavour you'll find much more loudly in good Belgian lambic, without any of the vinegary qualities you sometimes get. As such, it may well be an ideal sour beer starter for a newcomer to this end of the beer world. I noted a white grape tannin effect on the finish and it's just occurred to me that that may be the gooseberries at work: I'm used to wine tasting of gooseberries but this may be the first time gooseberries have made me think of wine flavours. Anyway, this is a lovely beer and tremendous fun to drink.

That wraps it up for this pair of bijou beer festivals. The real action starts at 5.

24 August 2015

Mersey treat

I was given a hotel voucher for Christmas and, after performing full due diligence on the opportunities it offered, decided that one night in Liverpool was the most economical way to make use of it. So on a sunny Saturday morning in late July, myself and herself hopped over the Irish Sea, arriving in Albert Dock in time for coffee at the Tate and a cheery stroll around the International Museum of Slavery.

A beer was in order next and we went the long way about it, taking the Mersey Ferries cruise (surprisingly good) over and around to Birkenhead, where Gallagher's Pub and Barber's is a short walk uphill from the dock. The name isn't just a gimmick either: there is a real working barbershop at the back, just beyond the bar. The pub itself is smartly maintained, perhaps unsurprising when there's a broad military theme to the décor.

Two beers from local brewery Brimstage were on, including its flagship bitter Trapper's Hat. This is leaning towards brown but still safely amber, I guess, and has an approachable 3.8% ABV. And it's properly bitter too, pushing out cleanly acidic lime marmalade notes and balancing them with crunchy wholewheat biscuit. Simple, but nicely done and I'd happily have this as my local beer. The other Brimstage offering was Oyster Catcher, a 4.4% ABV stout. It's big on coffee aroma and the texture is light, so I was expecting something quite simple here. But there are complexities lurking in the darkness. Behind the strong roasted element there's a sharper forest fruit tartness adding a beautiful extra dimension to the flavour. Again, not a multi-layered taste experience, but a damn decent drinking beer.

Just one more before we move on: Stateside Pale Ale, a 5%-er by Sheffield brewer Exit 33. And they've definitely gone for the stereotypes here: a big biting grapefruit pith and zest. One of those beers that reminds you of what actual grapefruit tastes like, not just grapefruity hops. Refreshing and dangerously drinkable at such a stonking strength. I'd better move on before things get messy.

Old Garde
Back in Liverpool, high on my list of drinking venues was The Clove Hitch, a relatively new addition to the city's entertainment district. The basement bar was full but that didn't matter as the restaurant has plenty of beer choice and we were hungry. With my scallop and chorizo starter I had a BrauKunstKeller Laguna. I'd had this IPA before, closer to its home, and wasn't impressed, but the super-heavy bitter resins worked better here as an accompaniment to meaty food than during a festival session. I also got the chance to try my first beer from Manchester's much-lauded Cloudwater Brewery. Well, sort of: Old Garde is a collaboration with south-coasters Burning Sky. It's a bière de garde, pale amber in colour and highly attenuated. And while I'm positive it tasted as the brewers intended, it just wasn't pleasant drinking, tasting off in two different ways simultaneously: a jangling tangy sourness and then the dull buzz of oxidation. Your clothes are ready now, Emperor.

For dessert, Hop Damn, a chilli black IPA by Alphabet Brewing, also based in Manchester. It's 6.1% ABV and arrived properly black with a thin head. Nothing clumsy about the aroma, just a subtle dusting of fresh green hops. On tasting there's a light vegetal bitterness as the centrepiece of the flavour, backed by smooth stouty vanilla and an increasing burnt quality as it warms. There's a beautiful sherbet effervescence to the texture as well. And the chilli? Just a very gradual peppery catch, but no silly tricks. Very well put-together, I thought.

We ended the evening in The Belvedere, a poky little joint that came recommended by ex-Brimstage brewer Mike McGuigan. At 10pm on a Saturday it was packed and a little rowdy but we managed to squeeze into a corner. Just one tickable option for me, one with a Pumpclip Parade-able tap badge: Summer Blaze by Cornish brewery Coastal. It was actually a decent beer: pale gold, a lagerish malt base and then floral, lightly perfumed, hops. Straight-forward, easy-going, inoffensive perhaps, but well-made. As the pub got increasingly chocker, its drinkability became a major plus point. Down the hatch and out we go.

On Sunday it rained, but I'd planned for that and wasn't intending to move very far during the day, though that wasn't going to prevent a decent crawl of pubs. The Philharmonic was just down the street from the hotel, so it would have been rude not to drop in for a swift pint. Liverpool Organic's 24 Carat Gold was on the pumps, and I've always enjoyed their beers in the past. This one is golden and brewed with 100% Brewer's Gold hops, so full marks on the naming there. The bitterness is very low and instead the hops impart a gentle meadowy effect, with elderflower to the fore in particular. The malt keeps its head down. For all its understatedness, I rather liked it, but then it was the day's first beer.

Down the street next to The Fly In The Loaf, a highlight of my last trip to Liverpool, though that was on a busy Friday evening. It's very different on a rainy Sunday afternoon, feeling every bit as cavernous and empty as it looks. Still, the staff were attentive and there was plenty of beer to choose from. It shares a corporate parent with Okell's, so the Manx brewery featured large. Out of sheer curiosity I took a pint of Manx Pale Ale, the lightest in the range, at 3.6% ABV. It's a weak yellow colour and has a waxy lemon flavour which I associate with northern bitters, and Marble's Manchester Bitter in particular. The citrus aroma matches this nicely and there's a crisp cereal finish. I was all excited for the first few mouthfuls but it gets boring very quickly, turning rather watery. Still, it's not really designed for considered analysis and stands up well as a session bitter.

My other half went all craft, choosing a two-thirds of Northern Monk's mocha porter, Northern Star. There's a big coffee aroma in this 5.9% ABV beer, with an added undercurrent of blackberries and damsons. It tastes very sweet, like the coffee creams which inevitably get left behind in chocolate boxes. I could tell there's a proper porter underneath it, but the coffee effect is just laid on too thickly. Two thirds would be too much for me.

Continuing down the hill and just around the corner to The Roscoe Head. This tiny traditional pub manages to squeeze three saloons into its miniscule footprint, each little bigger than a couple of phoneboxes. Trade was brisk but we found a banquette to perch on. The pub's claim to fame is as one of the Magnificent Seven: a rather grand title for the handful of premises which have featured in every edition of CAMRA's Good Beer Guide. My pint of Backyard Brewhouse Centennial IPA was well-kept, though could probably have stood to be served cooler. It's 5% ABV, dark gold and tastes warmingly spicy and rather green, in a good way. There's little by way of citrus, just a slight lime jelly bitterness, but more than anything the flavour put me in mind of gunpowder tea. Not what I was expecting from Centennial hops, but tasty all the same.

Journey's end was a short hop from The Roscoe at a place that's unlikely to catch up with its GBG record: BrewDog Liverpool. This is the biggest of the six BrewDog bars I've been too, and all the more comfortable for the ample seating. Just released a day or two earlier was Elvis Juice, an IPA laced with juices of non-Elvis origin. Orange and grapefruit, I think. It smells like a stiff and resinous IPA and tastes properly bitter: spiky, spicy and dank. The citrus adds a sweet fruit lacing to this, a complexity that doesn't feel tacked-on or out of place. Its mouth-watering acidity is preserved and it's all rather enjoyable, though at 6.7% ABV more of a serious beer than the name and ingredients might suggest.

Also new to the BrewDog line-up is Mashtag 2015, billed as a 10% ABV black barley wine. It's very black, and smells stouty -- dry and roasty, plus a big hit of vanilla from the added oak and, er, vanilla. As you might expect it's very boozy, but smooth and warming with that. The finish has a peppery piquancy and then the bitterness of high quality dark chocolate. For a recipe compiled by a public vote it all holds together very well indeed.

To finish, before a quick dinner and a sprint to the airport, Westbrook Gose, one of those beers I keep seeing pictures of on other people's Twitter but had never seen in real life. I decided to make this the day it stops bothering me. Beer ticking is really just a form of exorcism. So, 4% ABV, hailing from South Carolina, presenting just on the pale side of amber, with skeins of yeast floating through it when poured. It smells how seawater tastes: pungent yet refreshing, and the flavour blends the salt and sour elements really well. Coriander does seem to be the poor relation in modern gose. If I'd poured more carefully I might have got less of a yeast bite, but even that didn't prevent this from being beautifully invigorating and energising which, after this busy couple of days, was exactly what I needed.

I'd recommend Liverpool to anyone looking for an easy, short city break, though if you're coming from these parts it's probably best to wait until the exchange rate recovers. I really picked the wrong summer to make three beery trips to England...

20 August 2015

Out of the darkness

Rooting around at the back of the beer fridge turned up this pair. I don't know how long they've been sitting there but a couple of years at least. Both are tripels from the Westoek brewery in Flanders, though they're quite different from each other.

Westoek X was just over a year past its best-before and took revenge on my neglect by spewing violently as soon as the cap came off. What was left was a largely headless pale gold tripel, liberally infused with yeasty bits. It's fairly inoffensive stuff, the grainy flavour more that of a Belgian blonde than a tripel, which matches its 6% ABV. The aroma has a bit more life to it: ripe pineapples, intensifying to whiteboard markers. It risks getting hot and heavy but the finish is quick and the texture light and breezy. Putting a bit of tripel character into a standard blonde is an interesting idea but this beer suffers a little from being neither one thing nor the other. And from being an antique too, of course.

After the pyrotechnics of the first one, I sneaked out under cover of darkness to open the Westoek XX in controlled conditions. Thankfully it behaved itself. At 8% it's only just within the bounds of tripeldom, and it's darker than most, more of an amber colour than gold. It smells darker too, almost roasted, but definitely bringing in some of the figs and plums you find in dubbel. I get lots of sweet sherry on tasting, but I think that's built-in rather than oxidation since this bottle is still over a year in date. Although there's a brown sugar sweetness, it's not heavy, and actually quite highly attenuated. In short, this beer is all over the place and not very enjoyable as a result. I'd give the previous one some benefit of the doubt given its old age, but no excuses here.

These two aren't great ambassadors for Belgian beer, though both are unmistakably Belgian.

17 August 2015

Three letters that mean nothing

IPA, eh? What's that all about? I'm sure I'm not the only one to have noticed that this so-called beer style has come to be less and less specific over the last ten years if, indeed, it ever really meant anything at all. I'm a seasoned scoffer at the "3.6% ABV? That's not an IPA" brigade, while also holding that the term still has something to offer to the beer drinker trying to pick out hoppy beer from less-hoppy beer. As if to throw the issue into even sharper relief, Californian-Carolinan brewery Sierra Nevada, which stopped making a beer called simply "IPA" about seven years ago, has dropped three new beers into my line of sight recently, all using those particular letters.

First up is Golden IPA, the baby of the bunch at just 55 IBUs and 5.9% ABV. I imagine the true-believers squinting their eyes and reluctantly granting it a pass. Yes, it's golden, and frothy too, with a fine haze spread through it. It smells of grapefruit bubblegum and tastes spicy: that bitter herbal green hop effect is to the fore, done with classic Cascade, says the label. There's a rich golden-syrup malt sweetness acting as the perfect counterweight to the hop edge and the body is smooth, making for lovely sessionability. I can imagine drinking several in succession, with the Cascade kick reminding me on each sip that there's something here worth paying attention to.

In the middle of the trilogy, the real chest-thumping IPA: Hop Hunter, the one which almost resulted in a legal dispute with another brewery over the use of those three capitals. Distilled hop oils are what it's all about here, according to the label. Cor! Futuristic! Turns out that this is even golder than the Golden, 6.2% ABV and 60 IBUs. The aroma is sharp, grassy and dank, smelling of real hops, not a processed by-product. And while the flavour hits a lot of the same notes, it's not bombastic or exciting, adding a red onion edge to the citrus and resins but otherwise being quite calm and drinkable. Hop Hunter is another one which I think would work well by the six-pack (not that I ever buy the same beer six bottles at a time) but I reckon I'd enjoy working through a half-dozen of Golden more than this.

A twist into the dark side next, and Blindfold, a black IPA bringing us up to 6.8% ABV and 70 IBUs. And yet all I got from the first sniff-and-sip was roasted grain. It's very stouty: think molasses and liquorice and that kind of unctuous bitterness rather than any real hop action. It's easy drinking too, slipping down smoothly. But I don't get any IPA sense from it at all. It may, in fact, be one of the least IPA-ish black IPAs I've ever met. It's a pretty decent porter, though.

I wasn't sure how this was going to pan out when I started drinking the set, but I think it's come out clearly that it's time to give up on "IPA" as anything but the bluntest of blunt instruments when it comes to describing beer to your customers. Breweries will need to work harder on descriptions and drinkers will need to pay more attention if we're to communicate what to expect from a new beer successfully. And the "not an IPA" brigade can just keep digging themselves into ever-deeper holes. Everything's an IPA, if you want it to be.