24 December 2015

Brace yourself!

Christmas is nearly here and if you haven't already shut yourself in for the festivities to come, there's still time to get some last minute supplies in. If you're seeking beer inspiration, here's a bumper holiday round-up of some recent releases from Ireland's micros.

You'll need to go to the pub for the new one from Rascal's: they've recently launched three of their beers in cans but Flamin' Red double IPA isn't one of them. It's the fifth in their World Hops series and this time we're in Australia, utilising Ella and Vic Secret. Flames are the only part of the spec which don't feature: it is red and at 8.5% ABV it's definitely a double IPA. I was expecting to get a 33cl glass when I ordered it in 57 The Headline so was a little surprised to get just a half pint. But that was plenty: although it's neither sticky nor sweet it is damn heavy, with a big thick and unctuous consistency. The hops bring a mix of chewy resins and a dry Germanic greenness, finishing with an exciting frazzle of gunpowder. It's very much a beer to finish your night on: the dank aftertaste lasts well beyond the end of the glass and I'd imagine it would be very difficult to taste anything else through it. Fit it into your session with care.

Keeping with the Aussie theme, Big River is a recent outing by Eight Degrees which celebrates Tasmanian hop growing and showcases Ella and Enigma. And does so really rather beautifully, in this drinker's opinion. My pint in The Headline arrived an innocent and clear pale yellow colour and had both kinds of IPA aroma: the heavy dank one and the juicy fruit one -- I got honeydew melon in particular. There's a similarly impressive double act happening in the flavour too: a big electric grapefruit-pith bitterness and then softer notes of mango and guava. I get a certain mild spice as well but I'm not sure if that's an effect of the hops or residual yeast; either way it adds an enjoyable extra edge to what's already an absolutely magnificent beer. And all at just 5.3% ABV as well: the only thing stopping it from being wonderfully sessionable was the €6.50 price tag.

And, just like in the last few years, Eight Degrees has released a set of three new beers for the festive season. I caught up with them at a tap takeover event in Blackbird a couple of weeks ago, starting on Signal, a Belgian-style stout. I had a difference of opinion with Mike the brewer over this one: he reckons it's a bit too Belgiany but it wasn't Belgian enough for me, with Ellezelloise Hercule Stout as my benchmark. It's a mere 6% ABV for one thing and leans heavily on the roast, starting with an aroma of stewed coffee before moving on to a flavour full of smoky tar and a very Irish dryness. Belgian fruit esters are present, but hidden in the corners where they're hard to find. Rather than a booze-bomb or candied chew-sweet, this is a serious and grown-up stout, hitting several of the points that stronger imperial varieties do though at a lower ABV, obviously. The texture is pleasantly light and the carbonation pleasantly low. Never mind the Belgian; feel the balance.

The new one in Eight Degrees's unofficial Wind Series, following Howling Gale, Hurricane, Cyclone and Polar Vortex, is Snow Eater, named after the Chinook, which is also the name of a hop, which is the hop it mostly uses. Layers! It's a 6.2% ABV red IPA with a pillow of off-white foam above the clear dark-red body. It's fantastically smooth and pours out tropical juice flavours from the hops, complicated by that classic Chinook spiciness. Though the aroma is all citrus and dank its bitterness level is surprisingly low, and though it doesn't provide any toffee or caramel, I still think its simplicity makes it more a red than an IPA. Not by any means the most intense hop experience this brewery has created, but a lovely casually warming beer for the hophead in winter.

But for real central heating there's Mór, a barley wine, or "barleywine" as they have Americanly badged it, despite the fact that when the head settles it totally looks like wine: a still, deep dark red. This one shows off every unit of its 10.2% ABV and packs a lot of complexity into that: dark chocolate, strawberries, quinine and a streak of boozy calvados for good measure. The hops -- Centennial and Cascade -- add a bit of spicing but aren't really the main feature. Though the heat called Eight Degrees Millennium double IPA to mind, it also confirmed for me that barley wine is a much more preferable style of strong beer. Balance wins again.

Metalman, meanwhile, has produced a black beer with added Italian orange peel. Sun-dried, it's apparently important to note. Orange is the New Black is the name and I got it from an unmarked can at the Bite Festival in the RDS last month (thanks Gráinne!) The orange is present but understated, adding a mild tartness to what's otherwise a decently crisp, dry, dark session beer. A light bit of roast sits next to some mild chocolate and the whole is simple and enjoyable.

Staying on the dark-and-flavoured theme, A Beer Called Rwanda is a brown ale with coffee from Wicklow Wolf. Personally I prefer getting my brown beer coffee effect from brown malt, but let's give this a go. Well, for a start it's not really brown: that's a proper opaque black with just a light skim of crema on top. There's all sorts of things going on in the aroma: an almost vegetal burnt coffee acidity, with tannic cherry skins thrown in for good measure. The label copy makes a big fuss over the Rwandan coffee they've flavoured this with so I guess this is where they've got the value out of it. Flavourwise it's a bit simpler: thin for 5.1% ABV and fizzy with it with a lightly chewy caramel centre but not much coffee complexity, just that crisp burntness on the end. A decent winter beer, even if it's not the most exciting one. After spending half the glass writing about it I really enjoyed relaxing over the second half before moving on to...

Gallows Hill is the first new bottled seasonal from Dungarvan Brewing in a while. It's 8.5% ABV but was still spendy enough at €5.20 for the half litre bottle. It pours out a cheery dark amber, though not even slightly see-throughable, even with a careful tipping. It smells very heavy: green apple skin and whiteboard marker. A blast of intense sweetness comes with the first sip, turning swiftly to powerfully hot alcohol. And... that's all really. No malt flavour, no hops, just front-to-back booze. I could feel the hangover kicking in before I finished it. I don't use the term "homebrewish" much on this blog, but this really tasted like something done for maximum strength without consideration for taste.

Also failing to impress in this round was The Foxes Rock IPA, new from Alltech's Station Works brewery in Newry. It's cheap and it comes in a nice glass, and it's also clear and clean to begin with, but also rather dull. There's a biscuity English-bitter effect and a light tang from the hops, but nothing distinct enough to pick out individual flavours. The house diacetyl is present, quietly at first, but growing gradually to an unpleasant level so it's best to get through this as quickly as possible. While it was pleasing to be paying just a fiver a pint in The Headline -- and I definitely have time for cheap and undemanding session beers -- in this case I think it's always going to be worth chipping an extra 50 or 70 cent in to trade up to something more interesting, and which doesn't turn into a butter bomb half way through.

I had much better luck with Connemara Cascade, a new pale ale by Independent Brewing. There's a lovely dry and leafy hop flavour in this, so fresh as to conjure raw pellets, but it's balanced by soft bubblegum and sherbet in the middle before the hops reassert themselves as a grassy nip on the finish. It's a little bit old-fashioned, by which I mean it reminds me of drinking American-hopped beers seven or eight years ago, but it's no less enjoyable for that, and at 5.2% ABV works well as a sessioner. I hope it's going to be a permanent fixture in the line-up.

I first tasted Connemara Cascade in Alfie Byrne's, on the night that Sarah from N17 brought a test batch of N17 Chilli Porter along for evaluation. It was brewed with Irish grown chillis, including Peruvian variety Aji Limon, famed for its citrus flavours. But before you get anywhere near the heat you have to wade through a thick layer of milk chocolate. The chilli kicks in late and delivers a playful scorch to the mouth followed by a pleasantly gradual warmth in the belly. Can't say I detected any lemons, however. The recipe has a lot of promise, though even a 6% ABV dark beer does need to be left to settle properly when served on cask: a savoury yeast fuzz interfered with the intended taste. Look out for a full-sized commercial version from N17 next year.

I had it in my head that Mescan Extra was going to be something like Westmalle Extra, as in a lighter-than-usual everyday beer. It was in the glass before I looked at the label to discover that this golden ale is a whopping 9.3% ABV. So... like a souped-up Duvel, then? As if that's a beer that needs souping up. Expecting a blast of heat on raising it to my nose I was delighted to find instead the fresh and gentle smell of juicy pineapples. There's more of a grain character on tasting but the tropical fruit is still there to an extent, plus a little bit of typically Belgian tripelesque incense spices. It hides its strength very well, though I did find it a little bit over fizzed and heartburnish. But then, it's not really made for drinking quickly. It does lose a bit of its juiciness as it warms, so don't leave it too long.

Finally, Mescan's formal Christmas beer Beoir na Nollag. It pours a murky brown shade and smells boozy and spicy with medicinal overtones: wintergreen and clove. The spicing leaps out on the first sip, blazing with the orange and coconut I associate in particular with Sorachi Ace hops. There's a savoury burr behind this from the Belgian yeast, and then a warming flame from the 7.2% ABV. It's heavy and a little hot but the fruit flavour shines candle-bright in the middle of it. Barrel ageing is claimed on the label but I detect no spirits or wood in the taste, and I think that's in the beer's favour. I've never tasted anything like this. It's certainly a distance from typical Christmas beer. A festive seasonal for people who had it with gimmicks and clichés and just want something decent to get through the holiday. I'll drink to that.

Merry Christmas!