18 December 2015

Sibling rivalry

The lovely people who do PR for Aldi invited me to their Christmas drinks preview event thingy last month, which involved showing up to the swish function rooms at Fire on Dawson Street and wandering round with your Tom Doorleys, your John Wilsons and your Ross Golden-Bannons, sampling all the wines (46 of them) they're promoting for the upcoming drinking season. The beer offer was relegated to a side room with the port and dessert wine. Alongside the Irish beers below there was the solid Bateman's Rosey Nosey and the execrable Wychwood Bah Hambug which I swear is even worse now than it used to be.

But what really drew my attention was the two Kings of Tara beers that Aldi has commissioned from Alltech's Station Works brewery in Newry. Station Works has had a few personnel changes since it was bought over, not least the addition of Andrew Jorgenson who previously did some great work at Carrig. (Here he is chatting to Emmet about what he does.) The beers are sold in four-packs of 33cl bottles for a fiver, which I suppose is reasonable but I've never been willing to invest to find out. Now I don't have to.

So, Kings of Tara Lager first. Station Works has had a fairly serious diacetyl problem in the past, and it reared its buttery head on the first sniff of this. Mercifully I couldn't taste it, however. What you get is a pretty decent but unexciting budget lager: there's a firm waxy bitter bite up front and a quick clean finish. It's 4.5% ABV, intended to be served cold and I'm sure would work perfectly well as a party lager.

Its fraternal twin, Kings of Tara Pale Ale, is the same strength and has a similar busy fizz -- something that doesn't warrant comment in a lager but does kind of interfere in this. It opens on a sharply astringent note which mellows slightly into a hop bitterness complicated slightly with a bit of perfume spice. Everything is quite muted, though, and we're looking at something much closer to an English-style bitter than anything more modern, but the high carbonation takes even that credential away from it. There's nothing specifically wrong with it, but I can't see it thrilling experienced pale ale fans or newcomers.

Duty done, I went back to the tokaji -- the one Aldi have in for €25 is superb. But also on the table was the O'Shea's range, produced for Aldi by Carlow Brewing. Meanwhile, O'Hara's Winter Star is Carlow's own winter seasonal, and it returns this year as a 5% ABV "spiced rye ale". A bottle was sent to me by their PR folks, with a press release setting the RRP at €2.99. The O'Shea's beer range retails at €1.89 and for the first time there's now a Spiced Winter Ale. There's not much information on what they've added to it by way of spices, though we do know it's lighter than the O'Hara's at 4.3% ABV. So, if you're in the mood for a spiced winter ale, is it worth trading up? I thought it would be interesting to compare them side-by-side.

The pour revealed both to be copper coloured, though the O'Shea's is a deeper red, while Winter Star is brighter and more polished looking. Neither has much going on in the aroma but a deep inhale gives me a wisp of spices and brown sugar from Winter Star and a warmer caramel malt smell from O'Shea's. Carbonation is quite low in both, with Winter Star being particularly sluggish about forming and keeping a head.

I tasted O'Shea's Spiced Winter Ale first. A big pull immediately hit me with a blast of sweet cinnamon. There's not a whole lot behind this: a slightly harsh bitterness and some dry, shading to burnt, dark grain character. It's also quite thin. But the happy cinnamon keeps on coming and it's quite enjoyable for that. It's not overly sweet or overly spiced, and the light body means it works quite well by the pint. Cheap and cheerful, I guess.

O'Hara's Winter Star makes good use of its extra heft: there's a mature smoothness to the texture that the other lacks. The cinnamon is there again, but it's not as clear as in O'Shea's, competing as it does with quite a heavy and long-lasting grassy bitterness from the rye. We're told there's orange zest in here too, but I think that has been thoroughly drowned out by everything else. A second mouthful and that rye acidity is starting to bug me. I'm surprised to find myself writing this, but I think I'd prefer if the sweet cinnamon were more pronounced.

On balance, I have to award winter's crown to the O'Shea's. Winter Star does give you more things for your extra money, but perhaps this is another one of those trite seasonal lessons about how the simpler things are better.

As a postscript, O'Shea's Spiced Winter Ale appeared simultaneously with O'Shea's Dry Hopped Amber Ale. It's also part of the O'Shea's Seasonal Series but it doesn't say which season, though I guess the fallen leaves depicted on the label are a clue. It's very sweet, with lots of chewy toffee dominating a lightly spicy and spritzy jasmine and satsuma hop character. Sitting in the middle of this is a weird coconut flavour that's bizarrely incongruous. Like the Winter Ale, it's a light 4.3% ABV and suffers from thinness for a beer that should be full and warming. To be honest, I was wishing for a dash of cinnamon all the way through.

Nevertheless, if you're knocking around Aldi looking for beer this Christmas, some Kings of Tara Lager is no shame, but the O'Shea's range is a better buy. I'd probably go for the Stout above any of the rest of them, mind.