According to Mark last weekend there are still a few beers from the latest JD Wetherspoon International Real Ale Festival knocking around, even though the two-week gig ended on 1st November. So it's possible that someone out there might benefit from my experiences a few Saturdays ago when I saddled up and wheeled out to the coast to visit the south County Dublin branches.
Only three specials were on at The Three Tun Tavern in Blackrock, and my eye was drawn first to Yakima Sun by Fat Head of Portland, Oregon, brewed at Hook Norton. One of the stronger offerings at 5% ABV, it's golden coloured and mixes honey, spices and husky grain in a very classical English bitter sort of way, building to an invigorating metallic bitterness. A slight grassiness in the finish hints at resinous US hops but there's no way you'd guess any American pedigree. A solidly enjoyable pint, though, and a great start to the day.
On to thirds to complete the set, and next was Flying Dutchman, brewed at Caledonian though I didn't recognise the name of the guest brewer: Henk Oexman. It turns out he runs the pilot plant at Caledonian's mothership, the giant Heineken factory in the Netherlands. This is badged as a "spiced ale" and the brochure elaborates that it includes coriander, cardamom, lemongrass and liquorice. It's 4.4% ABV and dark gold with a very slight haze, capped by a tight layer of foam. The aroma is aftershave-like, but in a pleasant way, and it wears those spices right up front: pine and pith, Christmas trees and mince pies. There's next to nothing behind this, no malt substance or body, but I liked its simplicity and I think the thinness actually helped keep the spices from making the beer hard to drink. I certainly could have managed more than a third.
An Australian collaboration next: Young Henrys Real Ale, Young Henrys being in Newtown, New South Wales and the beer was brewed at Bateman's. It's a similar red-gold to the previous beer and 4% ABV. There's a charming mix of wax and sherbet, bitter first with a gentler tangy middle. Like the Yakima Sun it's very English tasting, in a good way. The body is full without being heavy and serves to balance the hop bitterness nicely. A slightly sweet mild toffee comes in late, but the last word belongs to the assertive acidic hops. This is a top-notch English bitter of the sort we just don't get in this country normally.
And so to Dún Laoghaire, where The Forty Foot has had a pretty poor track record on festival beers in its ten months of life. But they certainly had their act together this time because I found a very decent selection on the taps, including the one I had been really hoping to try. Minagof is a 5.5% ABV smoked porter brewed at Wadworth by Toshi Ishii. A little dark chocolate in the aroma is its only nod to traditional porter, then on tasting it explodes with burnt smoky phenols right from the start: ash dry, with a generous layer of peaty TCP. Only the light texture saves it from being undrinkable and I found that the long phenolic finish was the only bit I didn't enjoy. The rest is bold, flavourful, and if smoke is your bag then this beer delivers.
Moving from the international selection to the UK breweries' own efforts, Oakleaf 10 Little Acorns was next. I was attracted by its description as a mild but disappointed to discover it's a pale amber-coloured one. It's very plain, to the point of being insipid, tasting of toffee, oaty biscuits and acrid vegetal hops. You could describe it as wholesome; I wouldn't.
With trepidation I approached the second Caledonian beer to cross my path: Rare Red Rye. A perfect clear dark copper colour, it offered an odd mix of malts: creamy barley and spicy rye. Unfortunately there's an iron or zinc twang that spoils it, and I think that's the hop contribution. Not what I was expecting from the promised Cascade and Columbus. It's not a bad beer -- I could get used to Caledonian beers that aren't lousy with diacetyl -- and I forgive its thinness since it's a mere 3.9% ABV, but the recipe isn't quite right for me. Bring the grains out a little more and it could be a winner.
Tap & Go is an IPA brewed for the Rugby World Cup by reliable Norfolk brewery Woodforde's. It's 5% ABV and copper coloured, promising in the festival programme an Anglo-American blend of Cascade and Challenger hops. I couldn't detect any aroma but hops are there in the flavour, albeit in an understated way. There's a fresh lemon rind bitterness set against warmer caramel malts but it's neither harsh nor sticky, making this one of the more sessionable beers of the day.
South to Newcastle, next, and Mordue Admiral. There's a selection of English hops in here with the titular variety and it's a dark shade of red. The first taste gave me a very autumnal mix of burnt caramel and dark forest fruits, followed later by a spicy saltpetre effect from burnt malt husks. The big warming texture belies a mere 4.8% ABV and the overall effect is of a charming fireside sipper.
And since I was in Wetherspoon I couldn't resist a go of Wadworth's "Irish style" stout Corvus. It's the proper dark ruby with a bone-white head. Milk chocolate is the main part of the flavour with some sweet, lightly buttery toffee and a slightly acrid hop bitterness. It's good stuff and a deal more complex than the mainstream nitrokeg stouts it's trying to substitute for.
But back to the cask ales: while there was no stand-out stunner in the ones I drank, I did have quite a bit of well-made, well-kept, well-priced decent British-style beer. It's a poorly-served niche and, much as I would like to have local breweries and pubs filling it alongside everything else they do, I'm really happy that JD Wetherspoon is there for now.
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