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 the flavour, at least at first. There's a warmer, rounder red fruit character at the centre, a soft chewy core that makes the whole thing much more accessible, and then just when you think you've tamed it, a sharp waxy bite finishes it off. I tend to prefer this style to be sweeter but fans of the harsher red IPA style that seems to be en vogue at the moment will enjoy this.

Renegade's stablemate is an IPA called Mutiny: 6.2% ABV and quite weighty with it, showing a kind of bready or even spongecake-like sweetness. The hops, again, are mostly sharp and bitter, with a fun squeaky greenness and just a suggestion of juicier mandarins. It's another one I'd probably tweak to soften the hop flavours a bit but it's definitely a well-made beer.

I took the opportunity to try three new ones from Buxton while I was hovering around the stall. One was Ring Your Mother, a nineteenth century mild (not my first), so golden coloured and strong as hell: 9.5% ABV in this case. Richard, in passing, described it as "the best bad beer I've ever had". I'm not sure I'd be so charitable. There's a fierce bang of acetone in the aroma and it tastes very hot, with additional banana esters. It's just about drinkable, but not something I'd go for by choice. A novelty, but not an especially fun one.

For fun, there's Gooseberry Cove, a sour pale ale. This 4.7%-er has a lovely gose-like tartness, rounded out and balanced by sweet fruit. There's a very slightly harsh plasticky burr on the end but that could have been down to the beaker I was drinking it from. This sort of medium-strength slightly tangy pale ale is becoming a bit of a favourite with me. Fruit optional.

Finally a beer I'd been looking forward to trying since I missed it at Borefts last year: the Buxton/Omnipollo Yellow Belly "peanut butter biscuit" imperial stout. What's not to like, even if it does contain neither peanuts nor butter nor biscuits? I poured the bottle and took the contents to a quiet corner, joined by Brian and Nigel. Brian filmed our gibberings for the Irish Craft Beer Show so they may show up there in full technicolour.

Even on the way from the bar, with no more than a gill in my cup, I could tell what sort of beer this was. It smells like diabetes: shudderingly, gaggingly sweet. The texture is extremely thick and unctuous, not surprising at 11% ABV, but the vast quantities of residual sugar make it seem even denser. The flavour isn't particularly complex: if you've hoovered all the Crunchie bars from your sisters' selection boxes, or maybe had one too many of your mother-in-law's caramel squares, you'll be familiar with what it does: milk chocolate, caramel and honey. All the sticky. A tang of molasses is the nearest it offers by way of balance, but even that is more sticky sweetness. There's just not enough beer character here for it to be enjoyable. It's silly and fun, perhaps, but €10 a bottle in the off licence drains the joy out of that. I'm glad I've tasted it but I won't be springing for any of the variants.

And with my palate suitably overwhelmed, that's where we leave the festival for this year. Special thanks to Maeve, Tracey, Aoife and the whole Alltech team for looking after all of us valuable influencers, and of course to the brewers who brought such varied and interesting beers. Same time next year?


22 February 2016

The circus comes to town

There's a jubilation that comes with the Alltech Craft Brews & Food Fair that other Dublin beer festivals don't seem to share. Maybe it's the surroundings: the warm, enclosure of the Convention Centre rather than the chilly halls of the RDS. Maybe it's just that the north inner city doesn't attract the same undesirable element you find in Ballsbridge, I dunno, but it's always a happy gig. Rearrangements meant that the trade element of the show was all but dispensed with, the brewers concentrated in one place in the main hall, and their stands were scattered about more pleasingly, rather than arranged in the long corridors of previous years. More pleasingly for me at least; I'd say there were a few blind corners getting less footfall than they deserved.

Anyway, my first stop on the Friday evening was 5 Lamps, just by the entrance. Sarah Finney was pouring a double IPA she'd made for them, called Make It A Double. Yes, mum, I started on an 8% ABV beer. It's a wholesome clear amber colour, dense of texture and smelling a little scarily hot, the sort of thing that tends to put me off the style. But it tastes a lot cleaner: dry, spicy and with a long orange pith finish. Great value on a sip-by-sip basis but there were too many other beers to take it slowly.

My other must-drink was the new one from White Hag, so that was the second stop. Head brewer Joe had a Brett Pale Ale on the go, explaining that it's based on the (magnificent) Mosaic-laden session IPA Little Fawn but fermented entirely with Brettanomyces Bruxellensis 3, in a wine barrel. As far as I recall I don't think I've ever had a 100% Brett beer before. I was presented with a pale yellow sample and raised it to my face, expecting the big farmyard funk that is Brett's signature move. And nope, none of that. It smells and tastes of tinned peaches: an intense sweet fruitiness, juicy and completely clean. I guess the hops and the yeast are making their own contributions to the fruit flavour but together it's a great combination. Definitely a worthwhile experiment.

Dublin-based cuckoo brewery Wood Key has produced a Black IPA as a collaboration with its current host brewery Independent. There was a launch in 57 The Headline a few weeks back which was so successful that the beer had sold out before I got there. But their joint stand at the festival had it pouring so that's where I got to try it at last. And it's a good 'un: plenty of poke at 6.5% ABV, but nicely smooth and balanced, showing a classic green cabbage bitterness with an added peppery bite: Citra, Cascade and Ella are doing the heavy lifting. Then behind them there's a lovely dark treacly roast, enough to keep any stout fan happy. This ranks alongside 9 White Deer's Black Lightning as a great Irish example of the style.

Another catch-up beer was the Autumn IPA from St. Mel's. This is a dark red affair and really does taste autumnal: all sticky, jammy, forest fruits on a warming malt biscuit base. Quite a simple flavour profile, but it works well.

Pulling all the stops out as regards new beer was Kinnegar, with three recent releases. The first I tasted was Flying Saucer, a 7% ABV stout and another quite simple but classy beer. It's beautifully smooth with a soft milk chocolate heart and some lovely light floral topnotes. The other two new ones, pouring on draught, were sour. Browneknowe is brown, of course, and has been aged in a sherry cask. I found it a bit too sweet with lots of sugary candy before it finishes quickly and tartly. There's a crumb of chocolate in the flavour, and a touch of HP Sauce dark fruit. I found it a little sickly and the sourness doesn't really balance the sweetness as well as it might. High Glen was much more my sort of thing: a pale guy with lots of Vic Secret hops. There's a distinct lactic yoghurt tang and then a dank and juicy hop-filled centre. The whole is mouthwatering, refreshing and extremely drinkable despite a burly 6.3% ABV.

There was a handful of new lagers around. I took a bottle of White Hag's Kölsch away with me and I'll get to that in due course, but there was also Wild Bat Sonic, the final form of Corrib Brewing's California common which has previously been knocking around as a series of pilot brews. This has the classic medium-dark lager profile of wholesome grain husk and a grassy hop finish though with a charming chocolatey bourbon biscuit effect as well. Rye River Unfiltered Lager was similarly classical, though more in the pale pilsner style. Here the grass is damp and freshly cut, simultaneously crisp and softly succulent.

Both Trouble and Whitewater had new dark beers on offer, the former's a session-strength black IPA with added blood orange, brewed in collaboration with O Brother Brewing and, naturally enough, named Blood Brother. It started promisingly enough, with two kinds of zestiness and a chew-sweet candy fruit flavour. But it all kind of tails off after this, turning bland with an unpleasant plasticky residue. Maybe I need to try it again on a cleaner palate, but this didn't do it for me. I quite liked Whitewater's Fiach Dubh, though. It's a straight-up, no-nonsense creamy Irish stout with just the right balance of chocolate and dry roast. Gets the job done.

Two pale ales to finish on for now. I enjoyed Wicklow Brewery's HopKnut, at least in part because it didn't taste like a pale ale. Dortmund-native Mathis has produced something decidedly pilsner-like: crisply dry with a sharp green edge and very sinkable indeed. King Puck by Crafty Divils of Kerry, though brewed at Kelly's Mountain in Kildare, is much more ale-y: full bodied with a heavy citrus hop character; orange cordial sweetness, urinal cake bitterness and a light sherbety texture. Good stuff and apparently selling well in Killorglin.

Another Alltech Brews & Food post coming up next, but without all that tiresome wandering between stalls. Meanwhile, for a more immersive experience, you can watch me interrogating some of the brewers in this episode of the Irish Craft Beer Show.

18 February 2016

Unsaisonable

Two Belgian saisons today, one traditional with a twist, the other from one of the country's new wave brewers.

Saison Cazeau is first, from Cazeau Brewery, which is in Cazeau, in case you were wondering. At 5% ABV it is what I've increasingly come to regard as Proper Saison Strength and the unusual feature is the addition of elderflower into the mix. It's the limpid pale gold of a pilsner and smells vaguely floral but with a good dose of saison spices too. Vagueness is quite a feature, actually. I was braced for a big syrupy blast of all-conquering elder but it has been used very sparingly; almost too sparingly for my taste actually, presenting nothing more than a suggestion in the finish. The core of the taste is fizzy dryness without so much of the fun saison flavours and crying out for the balance that sweet elderflower could have provided if it had been added more liberally. I get a staleness too, which I don't think has anything to do with the fact that the bottle is a few weeks past its best-before. This beer lacks character, and there's no excuse for that when you're bunging in strange ingredients.

De la Senne won't let me down. De la Senne never rarely lets me down. Their Crushable Saison is one of my all-time favourites of the style so I had high hopes for Saison du Meyboom: extra super crushable at just 4.2% ABV. This is paler still and the column of foam that formed as I poured created the distinct impression of serving champagne. The aroma is bitter lemon and a slightly unpleasant herbal urinal cake whiff. Its texture is thin and the flavour very lemony, resembling a witbier more than a saison. And not a good witbier either. There's no saison spicing, though the dryness is there and a massive amount of gas. The yeast fuzz does help to soften the sharp edges a little, but between the carbonic bite and the citrus peel there are a lot of sharp edges in this beer. Apparently it sold out incredibly fast, and the chap in the Senne taproom was reluctant to let me take it away. I would like to put in on record, therefore, that I don't see what the fuss is about. Bring back Crushable.

Even at Proper Saison Strength, and regardless of the age or acumen of the brewery, saison still offers more of a Russian roulette experience than other beer styles. I've just taken two to the head.

15 February 2016

Passing sweeps

Dropping into bars and offies on spec in search of beers new and interesting is a fairly regular part of my drinking life, particularly when left to my own devices.

One such wandering into the beer section of SuperValu recently turned up a bottle of Redemption IPA, the first of the style from the generally quite safe Kildare-based brewery Kelly's Mountain. The ABV is certainly safe, a very approachable 4.8%. It poured beautiful: the flawless clear gold of fine Czech lager with a pure white head whose loose bubbles showed that the carbonation was at just the low level I like. Sure enough there's a lively sparkle to it but no more fizz than it strictly needs. According to the label it's dry-hopped with Chinook and Admiral, promising "magnificent hop aromas balanced with a high bitterness" but it had already started to unravel even before I looked for the brewer's description. The aroma is all malt and sweet almost to the point of sickliness, a golden syrup note bringing thoughts of pilsner to mind again. But definitely no hops to speak of. And it's sweet again to taste: cloying brown sugar and a dirty great smear of diacetyl, though finishing quickly and leaving just a lightly acidic bitterness in the back of the palate. Doubtless the brewer had good intentions but something has let them down: the kit, the recipe, the method. It's not a bad beer; it will have fans, but it doesn't deliver on the promise of the label. Redemption is very much pending.

Work sent me on a rare foray into the south-eastern quarter of Dublin recently and I stuck my head into The Square Ball on the way home. Brewtonic's new porter was on: 13 Seconds, another one brewed at Rascal's to Rossa's recipe and commemorating a recent victory of Dublin's top kicky-punchy man Conor McGregor. It's 5% ABV and foamed a lot as it poured, staying fizzy as I drank my pint, though that didn't take long. The first impression on tasting is a slightly ashen roasted grain quality, followed quickly by a balancing velvety milk chocolate effect and seasoned with gunpowder spices of the sort I normally find adding complexity to dark beers on cask, so it was nice to find them in this cold fizzy keg. Last week's Alltech beer festival, of which more anon, provided the opportunity to try the cask version and it's as sumptuously smooth and creamy as I was expecting. But back to the keg, which finishes dry with a more serious metallic hop edge. It doesn't taste 5% and is very sessionable. I'd have happily stayed for another but there was another pub I wanted to drop by.

It was a specific beer that lured me to Alfie Byrne's, having already drawn a blank at its big baby sister The Gasworks. Kompass is described by Galway Bay Brewery as a "hopfendunkel" -- the first I've come across. It's 8.2% ABV and colourwise is, well, purple when put in front of a candle, the pub's main and rather inadequate source of light. I assume it's a dark red colour where it's bright enough to see. A haze was visible too, which is fair enough because the aroma leaves no doubt that we're in weizen territory: there's a massive hit of boozy bananas in the aroma, like Aventinus with the volume up. The texture is appropriately smooth and there's lots more luxury bananas and a darkly decadent rum baba flavour with lighter notes of vanilla ice cream. But then the special effects kick in: a sharply acidic, palate-scrubbing, green hop bitterness that's completely out of place. On each mouthful it's not noticeable at first but then jumps in, loudly and unbidden. The end result is a beer which tastes like an ill-advised blend of a weizenbock and a harsh IPA. I'd like to try this dunkel without so much hopfen, thank you.

That was only a couple of weeks ago but the Kompass sign was already coming down from the blackboard in The Beer Market when I called in last Thursday, to be replaced by yet another new Galway Bay beer: 303. There's lots to conjure with in the description: a "tart pale ale with Azacca hops", but it's really quite a simple affair. It's pitched at a sessionable strength and sessionable price: 3.5% ABV and €4.50 a pint respectively, presenting a murky orange but happily not yeast-bitten (a second pint, in Alfie's on Saturday, was perfectly clear). There's not much by way of aroma: a lightly sour acidity and no more than a suggestion of hops, but the hops are front and centre in the flavour. It tastes bright and fresh with a gorgeous rounded, juicy tangerine foretaste, then a slightly sharper pineapple note in behind, but tropical through and through. While a salty sour tang is certainly present, it's not a defining feature and serves only to aid drinkability. Those who are "into sours" probably won't find much to engage them here. On the downside I think I got a flash of stale oxidation on the very edge of the flavour and, unsurprisingly, the texture is rather watery which starts to get a bit irritating towards the end, but these are teeny tiny quibbles. 303 is a nice sidestep from both Heathen and Via Maris, and like both of them it's a beer I will happily drink, in quantity, until it runs out. I hope it lasts long enough for al fresco consumption.