29 February 2016

Critical conditioning

Just like on the last leap day, I'm in northern England for today's beers, both of which arrived via the kind offices of Myles. I've enjoyed the small number of Durham Brewery beers I've had in the past so was excited to get to these ones, though not so excited that I didn't leave them sitting in the back of the fridge for about six months after Myles handed them over.

Temptation is the first out, a 10% ABV "Russian stout". You can keep your imperial, it seems. As expected it gloops out of the bottle, gradually forming a deep café crème head on the dense black body. The aroma is beautiful: sweet and flowery, all honeysuckle and rosewater, with only a hint of light creamy milk chocolate as a reminder that this is a powerhouse stout. Surprisingly, the flavour is a little underwhelming. It's beautifully smooth, and there's a definite danger-here warmth at the centre, but not a huge amount around that. Subtle malt sweetness, yeast esters and hop bitterness mingle in a complex and nuanced way, but there's no bang, no distinguishing features, no USP. In particular I miss the coffee-ish roasty kick that beers of this stripe usually have. Temptation is a fine sipper and would make an excellent end-of-evening warmer before heading out into a blustery Wearside evening, but I was expecting more bells and whistles.

And so to the IPA. I don't know what makes Bombay 106 an "original" India pale, but it is very foamy. Maybe it's because bottles of early IPA were extra-shaken on the sea voyage east, resulting in that Marge Simpson head. It's a medium orange colour under the froth and I did my best to pour carefully to keep the yeast dregs out, but it's a tough job. Aromawise, it smells cheerily pithy with a warm richness which displays that 7% ABV from the outset. Big, big bitterness kicks off the flavour, and no small amount of yeast bite adding a gritty, savoury tang. The fun hop notes are juust about visible behind this: satsuma and even a New World mango thrill, but their presence is brief and the harsh, acrid yeast makes short work of covering it up. A soda-water softness helps take the edge off, but doesn't restore the hop fruit. I often complain about hop-forward bottle-conditioned beers in 33cl bottles where it's hard to keep the interfering yeast out of your glass, but this guy is even worse than any of them. Perhaps it's because the hops are English and need a clear clean run to do what they do well. There's a lovely beer underneath here, but bottle conditioning has all but destroyed it.

I've long held the belief that bottle conditioning enhances the strong dark beers while risking ruining pale hop-forward ones. I didn't expect to have my prejudices confirmed quite so neatly by these two beers, but there we have it.

26 February 2016

Festival periphery

We're out of the Convention Centre at last, but the gravitational pull of the Alltech Craft Brews & Food Fair drew in a couple of other beer events in 57 the Headline either side of it. The day before, as I mentioned in passing on Monday, Wood Key and Independent Brewing took over a swathe of the taps to launch their collaborative Black IPA.

But also pouring was one from Wood Key that I'd never tasted before: The Ravens, a coppery-red rye ale at 5.2% ABV. Recent rye experiences have helped me get over my previous difficulty with the grain so I ordered a pint straight off the bat. And then got a sudden reminder of why rye was a problem before. This is very rye: crunchy and dry to the point of being astringent, with a lot of that ascetic crusty brown bread favoured in eastern Europe. I like the bread, but I don't want to drink a pint of it, and this left me hankering after more of a hop character to balance it, or at least add a different kind of sharpness. But if rye's something you like, here's all the rye that can possibly be fitted into a pint glass.

As it happened, that same night, there was also the first beer I'd seen from the elusive Ó Cléirigh Brewing in Co. Cavan. Ojustuff is in the Kölsch style but enigmatically "French hopped". Ooh là là. I didn't know what to expect. And after the first sip I didn't know what I'd got either. It's a strange beer: there's the crisp huskiness of Kölsch, even if it's a little overclocked at 5.1% ABV, and it's hazy yellow, but that's where the normality ends. The hop character bounces about all over the place, with bitter-sweet mandarin pith intensifying to the point of becoming resinous musky aftershave and then settling back to juicy tropical mango. This disquieting sensation is similar to the one you get with Sorachi Ace hops, though tasting of completely different things. The initial hit of hop acidity makes it just a bit too severe to be properly enjoyable. I'll chalk this one up as "interesting" and, perhaps, "brave". I'd definitely drink it again though, for the thrill.

A week later, with the festival receding into the distance, Tim from Waterford's Metalman Brewing was in town to launch the brewery's latest. Metalman made its name on a light and zesty pale ale but here was its first foray into proper IPA: Ironmonger. A no-nonsense 6.5% ABV, it's a serious dark amber colour. The malt is in charge of the flavour too and I heard some describing it as being in an English style. To me, however, it had a lot more in common with American amber and its brasher cousin red IPA: there's that rich and sweet marzipan centre but the hops are new-world assertive, led by cantankerous old-timer Nugget, followed by Willamette and Simcoe, some (imperceptible) Sorachi Ace and dry-hopped with Cascade. There's lots of green, and I get squeaky haricot vert and spinach in particular, but the bitterness is kept well in check by that aforementioned malt, making it nicely suppable, which is why I suppose that keg didn't make it to the weekend.

A varied bunch there, and proof that daring recipes don't necessarily have to involve adding fruits or sweets or lactic cultures.

24 February 2016

Soul glow

We're back at the 2016 Alltech Brews & Food Fair today. Probably the most interesting stand for the hardened beer geeks was that of Soulwater, an offshoot of the Clada Group, a Galway-based distributor which had already made a name for itself as the gatekeeper of exciting imports like Buxton, Wild Beer, Lervig and Green Flash. Now they've expanded into production and Shane O'Beirne, formerly head brewer at the Beerd craft wing of Bath Ales, was there to introduce his latest creations, both brewed at JJ's in Co. Limerick.

Soulwater Renegade is an American-style amber ale, only 5.3% ABV but squeezing a lot into that. The aroma is dank and acidic, and the slightly severe bitterness carries through into t