08 February 2016

Blind justice

And so, before January had even slinked away, the 2016 beer festival calendar got under way at Franciscan Well in Cork. Irish cask beer has been central to this bijou affair in the brewpub yard since its inception in 2011 but this year the service was 100% cask, which was fun. Beoir, with the organisers' co-operation, took the opportunity to hold a competition to judge and declare Ireland's best cask beer. I had intended to do no more than heckle the tasting panel while I worked along the taps but ended up roped into a bit of judging as well. This did mean that I got to taste several new beers blind, which is of course how beer ought to be evaluated. I took my own notes as I went and matched them to their names at the end. My team, also including future pro-brewers Barry and Brendan, was allocated dark beers for the most part.

Black's World's End
World's End imperial stout by Black's of Kinsale was not part of our line-up for some reason, but I snaffled some from the other end of the table when I heard loud disagreements about it. It ended up taking second prize overall so consensus was that it was great. I was one of the dissenters, however. The first sip is unquestionably beautiful: thick and strong and luscious with a silky, warming hot chocolate effect. But within seconds it turns and finishes stale, reminding me very specifically of that awful brown substance which passes for chocolate in the USA. Nobody wants to drink a Hershey bar. I never cease to be amazed that anyone wants to eat one either, mind. Perhaps the dispense is to blame and the sample I got was oxidised -- I'd certainly be happy to try it again bottled. But on the day it just rubbed my palate up the wrong way.

In general, I'm a fan of stout on cask. I imagine they're difficult to mess up and the smoothness and complexity that cask lends really suits the style. So I was surprised by how poor I found most of the regular-strength stouts. 9 White Deer's Lón Dubh, for instance, tasted powerfully of caramel wafer biscuits, while also being unforgiveably thin. The cask-exclusive West Cork Brewery -- who ended up taking the top prize for their Roaring Ruby red ale -- also had Stout x Stout West in contention. There's cinnamon and chocolate in this, but not enough of one and too much of the other. The cinnamon is overpowering and it ends up tasting sweetly medicinal: mouthwash to me; syrup-of-figs to Brendan. A dash of molasses and a hint of chocolate do nothing to balance the mess.

Torc Kingdom Porter
Things get a little better when the sweetness is dialled back. Torc's Kingdom Porter, tasted later once judging had ended, goes all-out for dryness with a big black-malt roast kick and finishes on a scouring sharp grain husk. It's pretty severe, though the cask texture does help round it a little. I don't think they've got the recipe wrong, but you need to like your porters ashen to enjoy this.

Late last year O Brother had a popular coffee stout doing the rounds. I didn't get to try it, but I'm assuming that No Joe at this event was a coffeeless version of the same. A vanilla and chocolate aroma opens it but it switches unexpectedly on tasting to quite a green bitterness. A little harsh, perhaps, but still pleasant for sipping.

For reasons known only to head steward Kellie, we got one ale in our set, which turned out to be Winter Solstice by Killarney Brewing. It proved a rather dull red-brown job, low on both aroma and flavour though harshly yeast-bitten and with an unpleasant alcoholic heat. I could see what the brewers were going for within the coppery winter warmer genre, but this didn't work for me.

Best of the bunch was Dungarvan's Coffee & Oatmeal Stout, but of the new beers YellowBelly's Rosehip Schwarzbier impressed me most. In no way does it resemble a schwarzbier, however, so it was deducted a token couple of points on stylistic grounds, though that didn't prevent it from going on and taking the best lager award. It smells simply of bananas and is light bodied, fitting the modest 4.5% ABV. And it tastes pink: a strongly floral perfume melding with dark chocolate, coming out like those old-fashioned raspberry ruffle sweets, but with a tart edge to aid drinkability. Silly, but fun.

We'll stay with YellowBelly as we move out to more beers I didn't get served blind. YellowBelly Brown Porter was a late addition to the line-up on Saturday afternoon, when it looked like supplies were in danger of running out. This is also very tasty, but doesn't really match the style accorded to it. There's a lovely sweet and spicy pipe tobacco flavour with smooth fruit sherbet and then a cheeky smack of lime on the finish. Great drinking, but you need to watch out for the stealth 7.5% ABV.

Also brewed at YellowBelly, but under head brewer Declan's own marque, was Otterbank Pine Needle Berliner (aka The Vikings Are Coming). There's barely any sour tang in this murky orange 4.9%-er, nor anything I'd pick out as pine needle, but there is a huge expanse of tropical fruit juice. It's a bit one-dimensional that way, though refreshing when cold. I probably shouldn't have sat over it so long since an unpleasant chlorophenol note is your reward for letting it get any way warm.

Metalman fulfilled the "strange brews" part of the festival brief thanks to an accident in their brewery involving their Equinox wheat lager. The result is Spring, with added lemon peel, thyme and pink peppercorn, and still a lager despite what the pumpclip says. It's another light and refreshing quencher, the peppercorns giving it a subtle aftershave spice while the citrus adds a kind of lemon-and-lime 7-Up shandy effect. This manages to deliver all the fun of odd fruits and spices without them dominating the underlying beer. Perhaps more summer than spring, but I could definitely quaff a lot of it.

And finally for this year, Torc India Pale Ale No. 1, a belter at 7.2% ABV but very drinkable with the soft and cool cask texture. And tasting clean, before you ask, despite that haze. The styling seems very English to me, in the best possible sense: all spicy orange marmalade spread thick on wholegrain toast. You don't get many beers of this sort produced in Ireland, it has the makings of a future classic and I'm not sure the series needs any revised sequels.

There was time for a couple of swift ones on the way back to the train so I dropped in to The Bierhaus, knowing they were serving Wired from Trouble Brewing. This 5.9% ABV oatmeal IPA is a scaled-down version of last year's Hardwired double IPA. It's an attractive red-gold and tastes like another Trouble classic: big grapefruit and seriously resinous weedy hops, though I guess some of that full mouthfeel is provided by the oatmeal. It's a welcome bigger brother to Graffiti and I'd be happy if it became a regular feature, especially now that Galway Bay is halting production of its own oatmeal IPA.

I followed it, perhaps inadvisedly, with another IPA. Cork city's own Cotton Ball has brewed one with blood orange and called it Another Bloody IPA. I found it heavy and quite malt forward from the bottle, but that could have been down to my wired palate. There is a citrus element to the taste but it's muted: more sherbet than pith. It's decent, but not terribly exciting and doesn't really stack up against the like of Beavertown's Bloody Ell.

With that, it was time to grab some train beers and head back to Dublin. Well done to all the competition winners and congratulations to Franciscan Well for another great festival. I'm still slightly spooked that Ireland seems to produce better pale beers on cask than dark, but I'll just have to live with that.

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