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.
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