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 wi