28 September 2015

On the downlow

Careful what you wish for. I complained about how palate-clogging the beers were at The Irish Craft Beer Festival and then the next two Irish ones to come my way were, well, not exactly flavour powerhouses.

The Thursday after the festival saw the launch of JW Sweetman's latest: Indian Summer. It came with zero explanation of its style or strength, but that's always fun. If I had to guess I'd be calling it an English-style bitter: clear copper in colour, light of texture and of flavour. There's a hint of strawberry, as is often found in decent Irish red, and more English tannins and metallic hop notes. Nothing else really distinguishes it and it ends up rather forgettable. There's nothing wrong with this beer, it just doesn't sit at all comfortably next to Sweetman's excellent Porter and Pale Ale.

This freebie bottle of 9 White Deer's Saor was handed to me by the brewer with a warning that it's not for the likes of me. It's Ireland's first purpose-brewed gluten-free beer and designed to be accessible, for those who just want a beer and not be challenged by it. And non-challenging it is: dry, fizzy, with a Ryvita graininess and just a slight bubblegum fruitiness by way of balance. The haze is probably its most interesting feature. Nothing wrong with it, but not one to choose if your intestinal villi are fully functional.

The Drumlin series by Brehon Brewhouse has been confusing me since it appeared. At first I thought it was a straight re-branding of the red and blonde and left them alone, but the originals haven't gone away and now there's Drumlin Irish Pale Ale which doesn't have a parallel in the main range, as far as I know. This is an approachable 4.6% ABV and a slightly murky pale copper colour. The aroma is interesting: sharp orange zest, leafy green bitterness, but also a worrying stale burr. There's a certain juiciness in the taste, but not a lot, and not enough to cover a stuffy, dry, cotton-wool fuzz from oxidation, and a substantial yeast bite too. There's a good beer in here, but the drinker doesn't get to see it. Brehon has made some excellent strong beers but I don't think they've quite got the quality under control for the session-strength ones.

And finally a look-in for the macros. C&C quietly launched the second beer from their new Clonmel brewery, a red ale called Roundstone. I found it on tap when I visited Bodytonic's new sports and games pub, The Square Ball, on Grand Canal Street where it was the cheapest pint on the blackboard at €4.80 a throw. For some reason I was expecting nitrokeg, but it's served on CO2 and it was immediately obvious from the first look and taste that they're chasing the Smithwick's market here. There's the same slightly sweet red fruit with a mild toastiness, the same thin body and a very similar metallic hop tang in the finish. And, like Smithwick's, it's not really good enough to even be a distress purchase. Oddly enough, the last beer to really remind me of Smithwick's was Heineken's Cute Hoor. It seems very strange that the Big Three are slugging it out on this minority-interest style. And with precisely zero marketing being done for C&C and Heineken's offerings, you have to wonder how they hope to gain any market traction.

Anyway, enough blandness. I'll cover some more interesting Irish beers on Thursday.

24 September 2015

Weird Spain

Or perhaps "Creative Spain" would have been a better title. Two beers from the east of the country today, both making use of out-of-the-ordinary ingredients.

You have to know how most of the world pronounces IPA to get the pun in Espiga's Papr'IPA. It's 7% ABV and I found it on tap in Alfie Byrne's. The colour is a clear red, atypical for an IPA perhaps, but there's no mistaking the paprika in the aroma, all smoky and earthy. And, unsurprisingly, this is very prominent in the flavour. There's a slightly plasticky element to it but it's not artificial, with a genuine green chilli skin character. And eepa? Yes! There's a proper grapefruit bite underneath the pepperiness. It's a fun beer with big flavours and delivers everything it promises.

This bottle of Er Boquerón I've had sitting at the back of the fridge for a long time. I wasn't expecting much of it, which is probably how it got forgotten. The gimmick here is the use of seawater in the brew, for health reasons, apparently, but it turned out to be nothing like the salty beer style of the moment, Leipzig gose. It's more subtle than that, maybe even boring. The salt is little more than a mild spritz in the aroma and a tang at the back of the flavour. Otherwise for the most part it's a simple and refreshing blonde ale, with some slight yeast-derived spices leaning it towards witbier. At 4.8% ABV it's a perfectly decent sunny day thirst-quencher, but no more than that.

Connoisseurs of beery weirdness won't find much to impress them in Er Boquerón, but smoked chilli IPA is something to look out for if the whole concept isn't too scary in the first place.

21 September 2015

Lowering the veil

I've written before about the inscrutable way Diageo conducts its beer business, with particular recent reference to the series of seemingly similar pale beers they've produced separately for different jurisdictions. Well, last week they joined up two of the dots and released Guinness Golden Ale in Ireland, having previously only made it available in the UK. And their PR folk sent me a bottle.

As many have remarked before me, it's not really gold: more a dark copper sort of colour, though perfectly clear, of course. It smells of straw putting me immediately in mind of traditional saison. There's lots of cereal in the flavour, and a richer crusty brown bread effect. Behind this there are some light spices, almost incense-like, and some of the warmth you find in Belgian blonde ale, despite a very modest ABV of 4.5%. What bitterness is present is provided by light tannins but nothing even hints at the use of hops in this flavour. The finish is dry, much like Guinness Stout, especially in its bottled form. And, like bottled Guinness, this beer has some small measure of complexity but is ultimately rather bland.

The Brewers Project has passed its one year anniversary and is still running, though it has yet to turn out any genuinely worthwhile beers. However, two recent Diageo initiatives offer hope that the company is heading in the right direction here, by utilising its 10hL pilot brewkit for actual beer production rather than just testing, the first time they've done this since the late 1990s. First there's the Smithwick's Homebrew Challenge: a competition organised in association with the National Homebrew Club which will see two finalists making small-batch Christmas ales in St. James Gate, to be distributed to pubs for a customer vote on the supreme champion.

And the other is the opening of a working brewpub in St James's Gate, utilising that same pilot plant. We've seen some great small-batch specials from Franciscan Well's Cork brewpub since Molson Coors took over and began producing the core Franciscan Well range in the UK. I'm hopeful that similarly interesting recipes will be produced at Guinness, and don't mind if I actually have to go on-site to drink them. The structural work required by the conversion looks minimal so I doubt it will be long before the new operation is up and running. Watch this space.

18 September 2015

Last round

A final loop around the RDS at the Irish Craft Beer Festival, looking at new, and new-ish, breweries.

Only one brand was completely unknown to me: Hope. A brewery-restaurant is in the planning for north county Dublin but in the meantime the brand is all designed and the first three beers have been produced at Craftworks. They have a saison called Grunt (see website for story; they're big on story) and it's pleasingly light and crisp, and only 4.7% ABV. The IPA, Handsome Jack, is a beast of 7.4% ABV and offers an unusual, but not at all unpleasant, mix of flowers and citrus. At the centre is that off-kilter Japanese hop Sorachi Ace, but not so much of it that the Citra and Cascade flavours don't make a contribution too. And their work-in-progress is a blonde ale called Passifyoucan -- it didn't taste of anything much, but I'm sure that'll change in later versions.

While we're at Craftworks, in-house brand Postcard had a new one out, a "strong IPA" (6.7% ABV) called Silicon Docks - apparently that's a place in Dublin. News to me. Anyway, this is a dark reddish beer with a significant amount of the toasted caramel more typical of an amber ale, alongside the fruit candy hops. There's something quite English about its power and restraint.

Cork-based gypsy brewer Radik Ale, meanwhile, was also pouring a new beer made at Craftworks. Initially badged as "Curious Brew", I understand it has been subsequently been re-named Radical Brew, and the (fairly) radical thing about it is the use of gin botanicals in place of all hop additions after the initial bittering one. The base beer is an amber-coloured rye ale and the herbal blend is apparently exactly the same one used in Blackwater Distillery's fantastic gin. It smells like posh sausages and tastes savoury, not like gin, but the spices and herbs really do leap out of the flavour. I reckon there's a little too much going on to drink lots -- a bit like most neat gins, really -- but a tasty and fascinating experiment in small quantities.

The brewers of County Wicklow were certainly giving the public what they want: pale ales and plenty of them. Wicklow Wolf launched Freeranger at the festival, a 6.3% ABV IPA that takes unmistakable cues from the US, with its heavy and dense fresh-hop bitterness. Falconer's Flight is doing the heavy lifting here, I believe. And for the less hop-inclined there was Elevation (left), a lovely light and zesty thirst-quenching pale ale of 4.8% ABV. O Brother also had a new American-style pale ale, called The Sinner. This leans more towards the tropical fruit end of the fresh hop spectrum and, saving only the late great Bonita, is my favourite of their beers so far. I certainly preferred it to Bonita's new boyfriend, Brutus double IPA: a 9.1% ABV thug, far too thick and boozy for my liking.

Derry's Northbound Brewery made its festival début and definitely got the hang of things straight away by bringing two brand new beers. The IPA was Unnamed, which I find downright weird for a brewery which calls everything it makes by a two-digit number. How hard is it to think of a number? Anyway, it's a balanced and easy-drinking chappie, dry, with a kind of green-bean squeaky vegetable quality. Beside it was 33, a sticke alt, though a light one at just 5.5% ABV. It's appropriately brown and has all the classic bourbon biscuit sweetness of an alt, and a modest nettley noble hop bitterness. An elegantly put-together beer in an effortlessly classy style.

Also on board for the first time was YellowBelly, borrowing a bar from Rye River, and some of their daring as well. There was a Black Tea Porter made using lapsang souchong for a tasty and complex twist on all those other, straighter, smoked porters you've had. And they also did a Pale Stout (left): an attempt to recreate stout flavours in a pale beer. It was fun, and genuinely nice to drink, but ultimately unconvincing: the coffee they've added makes it taste of fresh coffee, not of dark roasted grains. For something a little bit more ordinary, there was the YellowBelly collaboration with Stone Barrel: Stone Belly IPA. It was just 13 days old so rather yeasty but the pale body and soft juicy hops suggest it'll be great when it's dropped a bit. I hope I'll see it again.

By midnight on Saturday my feet were screaming and my palate was crippled, but there was room for just one more beer, though not from a new brewery, nor even an Irish one. Lagunitas Fusion was pouring at Grand Cru's stand, near where I was pulling Northbound beers. Fusion is a juicy beast of a beer, packed with apricot and mango but, crucially, missing the syrupyness that has spoiled several other Lagunitas beers on me. Irish brewers may be making some amazing things at the moment but there's always more to learn.

Thanks as always to the festival organisers, brewers and attendees for what turned out to be a wonderful weekend, at least after I'd had a sit down.

16 September 2015

Quick impressions

I'm finding it tough to impose any sort of order on the wide scattering of new beers I tasted (and occasionally more than tasted) at the Irish Craft Beer Festival at the RDS last month. For this post I'm picking out the beers from mostly the more established companies.

Oldest among them, I think, is White Gypsy and the new one here was a Cream Ale. I'm very much a cream ale sceptic: I don't think I've ever tasted one I liked and the whole style smacks of something made deliberately on the cheap rather than by any brewer's design. But this one was designed, and wears its thick, slightly porridgey, texture and crisp cereal flavours with pride, on a pale body. There's a little bit of red fruit complexity, building to a slight sickliness as it warms, but all perfectly drinkable if not terribly exciting. I'm not ready to start waving the flag for cream ale just yet.

Dungarvan October Ale
Dungarvan Brewing opted to play some loud notes on the stillage, with three big-hitters served from gravity cask. Having worked the bar for a bit I could see they were popular with people who can read high ABVs at a distance. The October Ale was my favourite, lightest of the set at 7% ABV. This had been aged since 2013 but still tasted clean and orangey with a jasmine spice complexity. The colour was a lovely mellow amber too, and it's possible to imagine how this style evolved into IPA. The Imperial Red next to it was heavy and jammy, all sugar and strawberries and tasting every bit of its 7.3% ABV. Too rich for my blood. But even it was no match for the insanity of Dungarvan Strong Ale, also 2013 vintage, 10.4% ABV and black as sin. Rather more prosaically, it tastes of gravy. I guess the autolytic process has been hard at work. I like gravy but, as all the best beer reviewers say, I couldn't drink a pint of it.

Eight Degrees was an early port of call on the Thursday afternoon. They had a sequel to the star of the 2012 show in Ochtoberfest Bock, an amber lager of 6.4% ABV. It opens with lots of melanoidin biscuit flavours -- all the classic richness of those Mitteleuropa malts -- but takes a sudden turn for the hoppy in the finish, ending on a huge vegetal noble hop bitterness. It definitely kicks harder than its Märzen predecessor, but is still very balanced and pintable. Sharing bar space with it was Millennium, a double IPA to celebrate the firm's 1,000th brew. There's lots of pithy zest in here but it's as hot and heavy as you might expect a 10% ABV beer to be. My instinct is to throw it back cold, and let the mandarin and grapefruit finish warm my palate, but I also know I shouldn't.

Trouble was pouring a new IPA more to my taste: Hardwired. 7.4% ABV, a dark orangey-amber, bursting with ultra-fresh pine and pineapple American hops (El Dorado, Simcoe and Citra), and given a gorgeous extra glutinous texture from the inclusion of oatmeal. I never got the point of the oatmeal in Galway Bay's Goodbye Blue Monday (much as I love that beer) but I can see it here. Trouble left space at the edge of their bar for one of their contracting brewers: Two Sisters and their Brigid's Ale. It's a fairly down-the-line Irish red, perhaps a little heavier than most at 5.2% ABV.

It's a while since I've seen something new from Carrig and I grabbed a half of Jammin' from their stall on my way past. This is a 4.4% ABV pale ale, red gold in colour. There's kind of a sweaty malt thing going on and the finish is all metallic, which doesn't work at all well on the thin fizzy body. They already have a couple of beers along these lines: I don't know why they needed another.

Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne had brought two new additions. Blue Rose was available on both keg and cask and is a 5% ABV pale ale, all dry and summery: perfect for a sunny day on the Dingle peninsula (they do happen) and wonderfully thirst quenching, even at the higher than expected ABV. I also loved Black Elder, a 4.2% ABV dark ale they made with added elderflower. It's a combination that probably shouldn't work, but does, rather beautifully. The warming, chocolate and roast flavours contrast with the bucolic springtime flower notes: all the seasons in a single glass.

Two beers from the ugly tree to finish on today. Black's had a Jester-hopped brown ale which I didn't get to try, but I did have the soured version, called simply Black's Sour Brown. It's a murky red-brown and I found it tangy rather than sour, with that tamarind HP Sauce savoury flavour up front and finishing thin and watery. Fine as an experiment, I suppose, but in need of polishing. Brown Paper  Bag Project's Peppercorn Rye Ale looked even worse: a horribly muddy ochre colour, pouring limp and headless from the cask engine. But much like the Summer Ale brewed on the same kit, its homely looks belie a heart of gold. Neither the peppercorn nor the rye are in control and both contribute their own brand of dry spiciness to the finished beer. I only had a sip -- and I'd say it's not a gulping beer -- but I was very impressed with how the recipe achieved its effect.

New breweries and fresh beers are coming up next.

14 September 2015

Relentless

The Irish Craft Beer Festival came and went in late August, and almost ended me. Though the festival was shrunk to two evenings and a day, and I spent a significant amount of time serving beer as well as drinking it, I came away exhausted, physically and gustatorially. The root cause, I think, is that so many of the new and special edition Irish beers are very strongly flavoured. And while that's a bonus when it's one tap out of ten in the pub, serial sips of these beers, one after the other, for three nights running, is probably ill-advised.

And I suspect that's why my standout beer of the festival was Mont Nude Lager: in part because it's a superb helles, with all the gentle softness that goes with, but also because I drank it late on the last evening when it was exactly what I needed.

Similarly Rye River, who stole the show with their specials just like at Alltech last February, managed to squeeze in a Vienna Lager and a Double Decoction Märzen, both of which hit the perfect clean lager profile squarely in the centre with the right amount of malt heft. I've never known of an Irish microbrewery doing decoction mashing, but they were at it again with a Triple Decoction Doppelbock, again right on the stylistic button, all chocolate and caramel. Last of the four Day One lagers was a Baltic Porter which I thought lighter and sweeter than the ones I tasted in Poland in April. 6% ABV is a little low for the style, isn't it?

Rye River Watermelon Wheat
Later, more extreme offerings from Rye River included Sexy Lacto Flanders, a mercilessly sour Flemish-style red that I thought a bit overdone but interesting to see how sour sour can go; Lemondrop Berliner, which tasted greasy, like drinking a scented candle, but in a good way; Hipster-Hopped Azacca which used a brand new US hop variety, but one which tasted very familiarly of grapefruit and peach; and the ironic style of the moment Watermelon Wheat, made with a vast quantity of real watermelons for a concentrated sticky chewing-gum sweetness that really stuck around on the palate longer than was welcome.

Two new beers under Rye River's McGargle's marque also made their début at the stand: Toothless Dec's Brown Ale is a straightforward light, sweet and caramelly brown; while Francis's Big Bangin' IPA really turned a few heads, being a pale coloured, 7.1% ABV west coast-style IPA. I could certainly see the resemblance to beers like BrewDog's Jackhammer, and it was served fantastically fresh, but there was an overlay of savoury onion that spoilt it for me.

So that's two of the fifty or so stalls covered. We'll explore further next time.

10 September 2015

London crawling

The thing about London is I'm almost always in a hurry, going to a particular event and trying to squeeze a few beers in around it. The day after the 2015 Great British Beer Festival was different, however. The flight home didn't leave until quite late in the evening and there was nothing special I wanted to do or see. So I picked a neighbourhood which has a few famous London pubs in it, and spent the day exploring.

Holborn is the centre of the area I chose and that's where we alighted from the tube. A short walk along from the station is The Princess Louise, one of several Samuel Smith pubs in central London. It's not a particularly large premises but is made seem even smaller by its meticulous sub-division into a sequence of little snugs, each one communicating with a short length of the round central bar. The décor is classically Victorian, all coloured tiles and elaborate mirrors. None of this seemed to interest the early afternoon clientèle, all happy to concentrate on their cheap beers. The missus suffered through a ropey half of Old Brewery; a perfectly fine glass of Extra Stout for me. No new beer ticks, but a feeling that we were on our way.

Just a block away, The Holborn Whippet is a horse of a very different colour. From the people who brought us The Euston Tap, this has a fairly similar business model. It's bigger than the 'Tap, though still feels rather cramped, and has a smaller draught selection: half a dozen cask and a round ten keg beers. I decided to take my second punt on something from Manchester's Cloudwater, the Grisette being on offer. This low-ABV saison is 3.7% and a pale hazy yellow. The flavour is a riot of floral and citrus notes and I found lemons, lavender and bergamot in varying intensities as I sipped. The massive zingy refreshment here makes it seem more like an electrified witbier than a toned-down saison and it's all the better for that. Super stuff.

A Siren beer for the lady, Love of Work on cask. This is a golden ale with a very modest 3.6% ABV but nothing at all modest about its flavour: all funky hoppy dank from US hop varieties Amarillo, Citra and Centennial, and a rich tannic quality from the addition of tea to the brew. It's almost too heavy for a low-strength afternoon beer but absolutely fine for a half on the hoof.

Back to the middle of Holborn next, and we struck east towards the City. A little further along we came to the other Samuel Smith pub of the day: The Cittie of Yorke. The interior here is very impressive, with a clubbish carpeted front room and then a quite ecclesiastical hall at the back, housing Cyclopean breweriana (big butts), a long counter and a row of snugs. There's a bit about its history in this recent piece from Des de Moor: don't let the Tudor styling fool you, the building dates from the 1920s. Picking more or less arbitrarily from the bottle fridges, I drank a Samuel Smith Organic Chocolate Stout. It's 5% ABV and a dark reddish-brown colour. The chocolate in the flavour is by no means subtle, and barely tastes like proper chocolate at all. Instead it's the sweet, flaky sort of chocolate taste you get in powdered drinks: very artificial. There's a certain graininess to the base stout but not enough bitterness or dryness to take the edge off all that sugar. A pint was tough going and it's not a beer I'm likely to return to. Onwards!

The previous afternoon, at the festival, I discussed my sketchy plans for today with Mr Cornell who made a few recommendations for detours and one imperative order to have a beer in The Blackfriar. So, crossing into the City of London and skirting around the edge of Clerkenwell, we arrived at the pub which is just next to Blackfriars Bridge and station. The trees were in full leaf so it was hard to see the art nouveau exterior, but inside it's very impressive too: the walls of the L-shaped saloon covered in bas-relief friezes of monks at work.

The Blackfriar is a Nicholson's house so the beer selection was pretty good. Except I'm a total masochist and there was that Robinson's Trooper Iron Maiden novelty bitter which I've never had before. I'll give that a go just so I can say I did. And it's awful. It's not even boring brown bitter; it's harshly acidic sugary brown bitter, all builders' tea and puke. Bleurgh! And I see they've launched a brand extension now too. I'll let you know how that is if I find any.

For herself I suggested Lambton's by Maxim Brewery, solely because it mentions Citra on the badge. The urinal cake aroma also says Citra, and not in a good way. But the flavour is more gently herbal, simple and quaffable though finishing a little bit soapier than is pleasant. For a 3.8% ABV golden ale it's perhaps more flavourful than most, but it could do with some extra complexity added.

On the way back north again we cross Fleet Street where the Punch Tavern is. Martyn had mentioned that this is the motherhouse of big bad pubco Punch Taverns so, given its symbolic place in English pub industry debate, we stopped in. The exterior is very grand indeed, a tiled entryway leading to a far plainer interior.

There was a meagre selection of beers on the small bar, from which we got a half each of Marston's EPA. Marston subsidiary Brakspear used to have a beer called EPA. Is this related? Anyway, you know that whole thing about cask beer in London being terrible? This was a poster child for that. It looked awful in the glass, a murky orange, and the yeast off-flavour almost completely drowned everything else in the light 3.6% ABV bitter. Enough pithy hop zing survives to make it palateable but it's very obviously not how the brewer intended this beer to be served. Boak and Bailey had better luck when they beat me to The Punch several weeks earlier. Our halves may have been from the bottom of the same cask they got. So there wasn't much to keep us here.

The next landmark pub is down an alley off Hatton Garden. Þe Olde Mitre looks like it's been left standing while modern London washed around it, perhaps more akin to something you'd find in Brussels. There's a small poky public bar at the front, a larger saloon to the rear, and an endless stream of tourists. Including me, obviously. These days Fuller's is running the show and they have a new beer out, a 3.8% ABV golden ale called Oliver's Island. I wasn't impressed; it's a dull mix of marmalade and biscuits, very plain fare indeed. The mediocrity was thrown into sharp relief by sublime Oakham Citra on the next tap over.

Our exit point, King's Cross station, was in sight and after the last two wonky beers I felt sorely in need of a hoppy lift. As it happened we were passing BottleDog. A can of something for the road? Standing in front of the fridge I vacilitated between a few of the canned options and eventually settled on Wild Beer's Bibble, a 4.2% ABV pale ale with American hops. And even swigging from the can this has a fantastic impact. It's quite dry and the hops are super fresh and leafy. It's not juicy as such, but properly seriously bitter: green papaya and sterner pine. I've no notes on the appearance for obvious reasons but it tasted pale: the malt wasn't saying much here. If it's this good walking up Gray's Inn Road I bet it's fabulous sitting down with a pint.

Palate newly awakened it was on to the last stop of the day before Heathrow: The Queen's Head. I had tried to get in here on a solo pub crawl a couple of years ago but it had closed early for Christmas. Today, the doors were wide open to let a cooling summer breeze flood the open and airy single barroom. The draw here is that it has its own brewery, somewhere: it's not on display that I could see. Two beers from onsite were available so we got a half of each.

Her Majesty is a pale ale and the sort that gives London Murky a bad name. Opaque orange is par for the course but this also features an acrid bitterness that coats the mouth and possesses the senses. There's a kind of mouldy fruit bowl flavour which builds until it feels like you're drinking from the back of a bin lorry. Set it aside, as I did (and I never do), and it still won't leave you alone: there's a residual taste of concentrated chemical furniture wax. This is a pale ale straight from a horror movie, mocking and torturing the palate, and never quite staying dead.

"So how's yours?" I asked. My wife was drinking Lady In Red, which was brown and disgustingly soupy looking. The nose has a playful Laphroaigish quality but one sip opens that out into a honkingly awful phenolic infection made worse by a slick greasy texture. The bitter yeast bite which would destroy any other beer provides relief in this one. "The trick is not to breathe and suppress your gag reflex," she answered.

I'm guessing everyone knows that you just don't drink the house beers at The Queen's Head. And you don't have to either because the guest line-up is excellent. We couldn't leave London on the worst beers of the trip, so two safeish bets to go out on. Another Cloudwater beer for her, their Summer IPA on keg: a big-hitter at 6.8% ABV. It doesn't taste its strength, however, being light and spritzy: all bitter jaffa in the aroma turning to fresh coconut in the flavour. I took the soft option of Redemption Trinity. This is a golden cask ale at just 3% ABV so I'd say a tough style to brew and keep. Mine had some pleasant gunpowder spicing, but also a wet cardboard oxidation tang that took a bit of the shine off. The haze probably also had something to do with it not being as good as I've been told it normally is. The Curse of the London Cask strikes again.

Between this lot, and Monday's spotty offerings in the north-east of the city, I came away with the impression that we're not actually doing too bad in Dublin. I think your chances of getting something enjoyable when picking randomly is rather better in Dublin's beer specialists than in London's. Perhaps I should have just gone to The Royal Oak and The Harp and left it at that. Certainly, departing England for the third time in five weeks, it seems very clear that northern England leaves London, and Dublin, standing when it comes to beer quality, variety and price.

09 September 2015

Olympia and beyond!

In yesterday's post from the 2015 Great British Beer Festival I mentioned my short must-drink list. In fact there was only one other item on it: Harvey's Sussex Dark Mild, a beer I have inexplicably failed to encounter on previous visits to The Royal Oak and, er, Sussex. But seeking out hard-to-find British beers is a big part of what the festival is about and, conveniently, Harvey's had a standalone corporate bar on the main festival floor. A half of mild, please. Although it's only 3% ABV and a dark cherry-red rather than full-on black, it's absolutely packed with flavour, nearly to the point where it misses the quaffability factor essential to the mild spec. There's a tart, acidic aroma and this brings an autumnal blackberry effect to the flavour. Tannins loom large, adding a dry, burnt tea taste, and then a quintessentially English metallic hop tang right on the finish. I was expecting more roast or coffee notes but there aren't really any: this mild is all about the fruit. I can't imagine caning pints of it, but it's a very enjoyable sipper.

Another brewery staking a claim on a bar of their own was local crew Fuller's, who had a 170th Anniversary Ale on the pumps. It's very marmalade: thick and orangey, with lots of wholegrain toast from the malt. At 7% ABV it's strong, but so smooth and warming that it could even pass for bigger. I enjoyed it. Marmalade is also a theme in Portobello VPA (Very Pale Ale), a 4%-er from one of the new-wave London microbreweries. Obviously it's much lighter, watery even, but still has the citrus peel tang. I think it may have been let down by the serve, however: mine was hazy and headless. A fairly inoffensive beer, this, if a little on the thin and insipid side.

My last British beer of the festival was the best one. I'd heard of Durham White Stout when it first came out a few years ago but had never seen it in real life until I happened to be passing the relevant bar in Olympia. The name is clearly intended to attract novelty-seekers and it certainly drew me in. What I got in my glass was a clear golden ale, stonkingly stout at 7.2% ABV. The high hopping with, I assume, English varieties gives it a fantastic green leafy spiciness, set on a rich honey-sweet lager-like base and livened further with sparks of black and white pepper. It's absolutely beautifully done and, while it may have nothing at all in common with modern dark stout, it's golden ale perfection.

I tried just a handful of continental beers. Keesmann Herren Pils, obviously, because it's not one to ever pass by, and the other German was Colonia, a red ale from Braustelle. It's 6% ABV and an orange-brown colour. And it's very sweet -- too sweet really -- with a big whack of coconut in the middle of the flavour. De Molen also had a heavy coconutty number: the barrel aged Licht & Lustig, adding lavender and hard candy to fresh hop dank and woody sap. It's a very odd combination and I don't think it quite works.

Two Czech ales before we leave. The dependable Kocour had a light amber ale called Catfish, a murky orange colour, full of spicy hop resins and tasting heavier than its mere 4.1% ABV, balancing the hops with smooth caramel. Permon is a new Czech brewery on me, and I tried P.A.P.A. (Permon American Pale Ale). 5% ABV, hazy orange, no head and a big resinous piney aroma. The flavour itself is big on grain, with a grassy, pithy bitter finish. It's all rather dour and serious and needs more of a citrus burst to be properly US-style.

Eight hours after the first beer, we deemed the 2015 Great British Beer Festival to be done and made our farewells. Thanks to Neil and all the CAMRA team and volunteers who made it possible.

Time for dinner and we took the easy option of the generic curry house next to our hotel in Shepherd's Bush. Generic curry house lager was absolutely fine with me and I ordered a bottle of Mongoose. Inspecting the label revealed that this is quite a clever and cheeky joke. The brewer, Charles Wells, brewed Cobra until 2011 when the brand owners moved to a new arrangement with  Molson Coors. What's a snubbed contractor to do but start making its own brand of Cobra-killer? Bam! Mongoose. It's a convincing knock-off, too: crisp and corny. Not as entertaining as the label, however.

Across from the restaurant is BrewDog's local outlet and there wasn't anything I wanted on the night after the festival but we were in the previous evening after our excursion to Hackney Wick. My first was Lizard Bride, the latest in a series of fruit-infused BrewDog IPAs. This one is purple with an unsurprising oddness in its mix of forest fruit tartness and tropical fruit hops, apricot and mango in particular. A sugary residue lingers long on the lips but it's not a heavy beer, despite the substantial 5.7% ABV. Fun and interesting for one but I imagine the novelty would wear off quite quickly.

I'd never had BrewDog's gluten-free ale, Vagabond, before, so I bought a half on draught. It's a mere 4.5% ABV but the BrewDog magic is still at work: a dank hop heaviness lightened by spritzy bitter grapefruit on a crisp malt base. No compromise here, just another tasty busily-hopped BrewDog pale ale.

Just one from the guest side of the menu board: London Beer City 2015 a special, if unimaginatively named, release from Bermondsey's Fourpure. It's a wheat beer of 4.3% ABV, presenting a pale and hazy yellow with a mild herbal funk for an aroma. The flavour is all bitter and perfumeish ambergris with lots of heavy resins. Tough going, especially considering the strength, and all a bit too serious for something that's supposed to be marking a celebration.

And just because it was there, we had a post-festival nightcap in The Sindercombe Social, a rangy upmarket pub across Goldhawk Road from BrewDog. Herself opted for Meantime Amarillo on keg. This is barely amber at all and while it has a fun fresh hop aroma, green and grassy, it tastes very harsh and waxy and too sharply dry. I noticed bottles of Tiny Rebel's Dirty Stop Out and, since the Welsh brewery had just claimed Champion Beer of Britain for another of their line, I felt it was appropriate to join the celebrations with this. It's an oak smoked stout of 5% ABV, properly black with just tints of red at the edges. Dry roasted cereal is the first impression it gives with a big lacing of fresh vegetal hops then sweeter tobacco and liquorice with the smoke providing a long finish. Luxurious drinking and, as the name suggests, great for a nightcap.

With the hard work done there was just one casual day's drinking in London to go...

08 September 2015

Firkin Americans

It had been five years since I last graced the Great British Beer Festival, back when it was still in the hangar-like space of Earls Court. It has returned to the more modest venue of Olympia now and, while it's not exactly what you'd call cosy, the glass-and-ironwork vaults do make it a more pleasant space in which to spend a day drinking beer. And spend the day we did: getting in at noon just as the volunteers took their places behind the bars, and staying to around 8pm. For most of the day I was camped by the American bar, sampling what they had to offer.

One of the few beers on my must-drink hitlist for the day was Black Butte from Oregon's Deschutes. It's 5.2% ABV and an opaque black, showing just brownish at the edges. The flavour is pretty straightforward, I was a little surprised to find: mostly chocolate, though also some subtle spices and flowers, particularly as it warms. It's enjoyable drinking but I think for some reason I was expecting something more special. But that's my fault, not the beer's.

And since they're only £4 a bottle, I may as well follow that with Obsidian, the Deschutes stout. It's not that much of a trade-up, at 6.4% ABV, and it hits a lot of the same flavour points as its sibling. The chocolate becomes a stronger, bitterer, cocoa and there's a hopped-up addition of liquorice and green leafy vegetables, sending it in the direction of export-style stout but not quite making it all the way there. This is another quality beer but not really one to cross an ocean and a continent for.

We'll stick with Deschutes, however, as we move on to the cask American IPAs. Pine Drops was the one they had, a 6.5%-er. It's paler than most, and arrived slightly hazy, though not so much that it affected the taste. The aroma is mildly resinous and the flavour pushes a light and spritzy pine spice without any weight or oiliness. It's a lovely beer and fun to drink, but terrible value for the strength: knock two or three per cent off and we'll talk.

Presence IPA
And this turned into a bit of a theme with this set. Presence IPA (left) by Martha's Exchange in New Hampshire, for example, had this fantastic fresh-squeezed orange juice thing going on. Yes, there was a little too much toffee, and the citrus juuust tipped over into acid bur