30 November 2015

Two nights at The Headline

Dublin's premier destination for beer Irish beer launches™, 57 The Headline, staged special nights for two breweries on consecutive Thursdays recently. Both involved beers I'd never had before so of course I was in attendance.

The first tap takeover was by Rye River, bringing a bunch of the specials it had at the Irish Craft Beer Festival last August, plus a couple of new regulars. I'd missed the Keeping Ale at the festival and it was presented here in oak-aged form. It's 6.5% ABV and dark red in colour. Strawberry is the main flavour I got from it, then some milk chocolate and a sort of rubberiness which I suspect may be the oak at work. It has a woody, cola-nut aroma and the texture is smooth. I don't think it quite works: the base beer is undoubtedly well made, but rather boring after the first few sips, and the oak ageing hasn't done anything to improve it.

The following week, Trouble Brewing were front and centre, occupying ten taps and launching three new beers. I started on #TeamTrouble, an amber ale designed and assisted by the Ladies Craft Beer Society of Ireland. First impressions are of something very pale for an amber ale, and there's no sign of the rich malt sweetness that I'd regard as its hallmark. What you get instead are fruity front bits -- blackberry in particular -- and then a very sharp waxy finish. It rounds out a little as it warms and there's a pleasant buzz of jasmine spice adding interest, but it never quite loses its harshness. Perhaps you need several pints for your palate to adjust, but of course that wasn't an option when there were more beers to try.

Schwarzbier is one of those styles sorely neglected by Irish brewers so it was exciting to discover Trouble have made one, and at a nicely sessionable 4.5% ABV, by the name of Black Flag. Once again, though, I think the nuances of the style have been missed. It does have a good dark roasted crispness, and a subtle bitterness in a green, celery or courgette, sort of way. But there's a lot of sweetness all through it, a streak of caramel and a dusting of raisins. Not unpleasant in and of themselves but it left me hankering for a drier beer. A schwarzbier, in other words. Consensus among the commentariat was that this is more a Munich dunkel than a schwarzbier but I think it lacked the metallic liquorice bitterness they often have, and similarly with regard to Czech tmavý, before you ask. Black Flag is good clean fun but I'd love to see some of the sugar knocked out of it.

From black lager to black IPA, and Dead Ringer, one of the lightest examples of the style I've met, at just 4.3% ABV, but tasting convincingly stronger. I think it's because of the texture: thick and tarry with a majorly harsh, burnt component in the foretaste. The hops have their say in the aroma more than anywhere: gorgeously fresh honeydew melon, totally out of place in such a severe beer, but also providing a welcome softness. A small peach note appears in the aftertaste as well. It's a funny arrangement but it does work, in its own odd sort of way, though it's not quite in the same league as previous dark 'n' hoppy Trouble ales, Oh Yeah! and Fallen Idol.

The Headline being The Headline, there were other beers from other breweries to try on both nights. The autumn special from Jack Cody's rejoices in the name Curly Hole, a red ale brewed with sour cherries and apricots. I didn't know the fruit was there when I bought my pint and completely failed to identify them. Instead, I found a smooth and toffee-laden dark red ale with a strange sort of corky mustiness, which I'm now guessing may have been down to the cherries. It's little more than a slightly intensified version of plain Irish red ale and rather underwhelming.

Finally, Carrig Brewing's Grand Soft Day pale ale has been around since the summer but it wasn't until I was sitting about waiting for Trouble to take over the taps that I actually got to try it. And it's definitely a suitable summer sessioner (4.2% ABV) but works just as well on a dark November evening. It begins with a tasty spritz of satsuma and then settles back into a more serious resinous bitterness. That's all it does but it's enough to create something quaffable with sufficient complexity to hold the drinker's interest.

Cheers to Máire, Geoff,  all the crew of The Headline and the guys from Trouble and Rye River for two excellent evenings.

26 November 2015

A few days in beertown

I left you last time in Moeder Lambic Fontainas, Brussels's ticker heaven. The other beer I had there before moving on to the cask Cantillon lambic, was L'Amer des Moeders, brewed for the house by Jandrain-Jandrenouille. It's a golden ale of an approachable 5% ABV, pale and slightly hazy with a sugary perfumed nose. This resolves on tasting into a weighty Belgian blonde with spicy jasmine up front and quite a dry finish. It's good, as pretty much everything the brewery produces is, though it's also a little severe, especially if it's intended for repeat purchase.

There's a new geek bar in town next to Centraal station: the first Belgian outpost of the BrewDog chain. It occupies a cavernous space, with oddly less seating than I'd have expected. There are also signs that this is a licensed franchise rather than part of the main operation as the staff don't seem to have the precision customer service expertise that's a hallmark of the UK branches. The menu is a mix of the core BrewDog range and a well chosen selection of mostly unusual Belgian guests. To wit:

Monkey Monk is a new Belgium-based brewing operation founded by Finnish ex-pats. The beer I had was a 6.5% ABV IPA called API and it's all rather simple and tasty, with that orangey hard candy taste common to many Belgian and Belgian-style IPAs, plus a dusting of light spices. Straightforward, no gimmicks; clean and well-made.

I followed it with Mont des Cats, a newish trappist brand, brewed under licence at Chimay. It's 7.6% ABV, a pale orange-brown colour, and smells enticingly of rum, rasins and bananas. The flavour is very much that of a strong dark trappist, with more raisins and a great deal of crusty brown bread, though the texture isn't as heavy despite the substantial strength. I kept expecting some tripel-style spicing, but that doesn't feature. Decent stuff and a pleasant change away from your Chimays and Westmalles while staying broadly within the genre.

That's all there was time for before dinner, hosted by Brussels's most renowned cuisine à la bière establishment, Restobières. Eccentric chef-patron Alain kept thrusting bottles of his house beer at us: ForMi Diable, a blonde ale complete with extensive punning ant cartoons on the label. The use of coriander and orange peel at 6.5% ABV make it something like a souped-up witbier, though the savoury herbal effect is more reminiscent of clean Belgian blondes like Duvel and makes it a better food beer. Which is the point, I guess. Anyway, a nice dinnertime conversation beer, though I'm still none the wiser about why the ants.

Also being passed around was a limited quantity of 2009 De Cam Framboise. I'm new to this gueuze brand, but have always enjoyed it so far. This red one is 6% ABV and very funky: lots of brett, traces of vinegar and just a tiny wisp of residual raspberry fruit. The most distinguishing feature was the sharp acidity, making it pure heartburn in a bottle. Fun to try, but a sip is plenty for my unrefined tastes.

For afters, a trip around the corner to Pin Pon, which I mentioned on Monday. As well as the house beer, I also had a go of St Feuillien Grisette Fruit des Bois, much to the bemusement of my companions. And the bar staff, actually. We're used to grisette as very much a craft style -- so craft that I don't think anyone in Ireland has made one yet -- but I suppose in Belgium this light saison still carries the less romantic associations of its industrial past. And especially when a load of purple syrup is dumped into the vat. The end result is 3.5%, bright pink and very sweet. The flavour is that of a forest fruit yoghurt, all