It's been a few years since I was last at the Belfast Beer Festival run by CAMRA, but the recent accelerated growth of the Northern Irish brewing scene was enough for me to book the Friday off work this year and head north. The Ulster Hall was already buzzing when Andrew and I arrived a few minutes after opening. Conveniently, the local beers were all gathered down at one end of the square bar and stillage, though a couple crept around the corner onto a second a side for want of space. It would be a fun way of tracking the expansion of local beer in Northern Ireland by how far along it gets. We can declare victory once it's all the way round.
To business, then. Top priority was a brand new co-operative outfit in the Antrim seaside resort of Portrush: Lacada. They have three beers and, since they're a new microbrewery, I was a little surprised that they brew for traditional cask dispense, in contrast to Belfast's bleeding edge co-operative brewery Boundary. It made more sense when I discovered that sometime chairman of CAMRA NI, Philip Hernberg, is on Lacada's board. I started with the IPA, Giant's Organ, which was served a perfect clear gold colour and centres around a bright, fresh and clean lemon sherbet flavour, the hops balanced by a dry grainy finish. At only 4.5% ABV this is a highly enjoyable sessioner and, for a first effort, frankly stunning.
My honeymoon in Portrush didn't last long, however. Sorley Boy's Stash was next: Lacada's golden ale. Except it's only barely golden, heading more towards amber, and with a heaviness that I wasn't expecting at all. The malt is viscous and cloying toffee while the hops are harsh and vegetal. I found it very tough going and it reminded me a lot of one of my least favourite beer styles, pale German bock. Philip did admit the recipe needs work, so look out for an improved version in the future.
For now, that left just one more chance for redemption: a porter called Stranded Bunny. And redemption is delivered! This isn't one of your complex dissecting porters, it's simple and classical with a creamy body, a smooth chocolate centre and just the right amount of roast bite to aid drinkability. Again it's just 4.5% ABV, so very much the sort of beer you could stick with over an evening. It deserves a wide audience.
From the Causeway Coast we come all the way around to south-eastern corner of the province, where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea and you can't move these days for marauding Westerosi hordes. Mourne Mountains brewery launched back in September with three beers and I got to try two of them at the festival. Mourne Gold is a fairly typical golden ale with a fun sweet bubblegum flavour, though a less pleasant soapy character as well. It's certainly not bland, though it is quite heavy, reflecting the 5% ABV. Perhaps it's one that works better served cold from the bottle rather than on cask.
Next to it was Red Trail, a 5.5% ABV red IPA. It starts with a beautiful spicy, grassy aroma and the same thing comes through in the flavour, which is nicely dry with thankfully no sticky crystal malt. And that's pretty much all it does: it's a beer of few moving parts, but no less enjoyable because of that.
So much for the newcomers, next it's over to some of the festival regulars, starting with Mourne's neighbour Whitewater. Maggie's Leap is a new IPA. It's a very dark gold colour with a strange artificial fruit sweet aroma alongside a whiff of raw cereal. A dryly tannic smack accompanies the first sip, with the sweet fruit rolling in behind it. It's a charming beer and elegantly balanced, though a definite sideways step from any orthodox notions of IPA.
Hen, Cock and Pigeon Rock (it's a place in the Mournes) arrived around the same time as Maggie's Leap and is an amber ale, and a bit of a murky one, on the evidence presented in Belfast. It smells great, all plummy dark fruit and the dry roast found in the better Irish reds, but it's badly let down by a thin texture and it ends up tasting rather flat and worty. There are good principles in here, but the execution needs work, I think.
Last of the new Whitewaters is Ewe Rebel, a powerful 7% ABV IPA. I got a hint of phenols about the nose and this followed through to a slightly medicinal quality in the flavour. But that's almost lost with everything else that's going on. This is thick and laden with melanoidins but also packing a lot of tannin as well. Any subtlety gets kind of lost under the malt weight, and a light spiced orange note is all the hops manage to make heard. It's all a bit much. You can get away with this sort of thing if you make it smooth and warming, but this is just too jarring for even that.
We travel back up along the Co. Down coast and drop in at Ards, a brewery whose beers I only ever seem to find at this festival and at Bittle's Bar in Belfast. The new one was called Hip Hop and it's as dad-dancey as the name suggests. Though badged as a pale ale and claiming inclusion of very hip hops Citra and Nelson Sauvin, this tasted much more like a golden ale. There's a similar light bubblegum to that found in Mourne Gold and lots of grain and golden syrup of the kind I associate with quality pale lager. Proficiently made, then, but hoppy it ain't.
Just one very quick stop in Belfast city for a drop of Yardsman Belfast Pale Ale from the Hercules Brewery, the first beer of theirs I've tasted since the lager they launched with early last year. It's woeful: infected so badly it tastes of blue cheese. I almost threw up, and was very glad I followed the recommendations from several corners to have a taster rather than just ordering it. Hercules is definitely on my Exercise Caution list as regards their ales.
I'll finish on a brewery located about half way between the previous two: Comber's Farmageddon. I just had time for one and decided to take a chance on Farmageddon White IPA. This style is always a roll of the dice, this one doubly so because they've brewed it to a highly unorthodox 3.5% ABV. It's lovely, though. There's a surprisingly big body, allowing the spices to cover the tongue. You get peachy hops, floral lavender and a bitter pinch of bergamot. It's complex, yet refreshing and lots of fun. They've done an amazing job, considering the strength of this.
That's the locals taken care of. But I used my last couple of tokens to try a few of the English beers and I'll cover them, and the train beers on the journey home, in the next post. For now, cheers to CAMRA Northern Ireland and the local breweries they put on show for us. Here's to many more in the coming years.
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