30 March 2016

Trojan work

I found these three Raudonų Plytų beers in the shop at Vilnius airport on my way home from Lithuania last year. The name means "Red Brick" and it's a sub-brand of local giant Švyturys, itself a subsidiary of globe-spanning Carlsberg.

Ryklio Kavinukas ("Shark's Coffee Pot") is a coffee milk stout at 4.5% ABV. It looks typically stouty, though perhaps a little more brown than proper black. I think I was expecting something of a confection: sweet and highly coffee'd, but it's not. Instead, this is a very straightforward medium strength stout, not that different to any mainstream bottled Irish one. There's a light roast and a mild sweet-sour tang which I'm guessing is the lactose at work but neither comes on particularly strongly. A low carbonation level makes it nicely drinkable which means I made short work of the bottle. In a different mood I might feel gypped by its lack of bells and whistles, but I enjoyed its simplicity. Inoffensive doesn't have to mean bad.

A dubbel to follow, though a light one at just 6% ABV. Nežinomas Krantas ("Unknown Shore") is a chestnut maroon colour with a short-lived ivory head. It smells rich and estery with a touch of dark rum about it. It is light of texture and the finish is quick so falls short of the dubbel spec there, but it is tasty. A luxurious plum pudding and port booziness, rum and raisin ice cream, almost but not quite tipping over into marker pen and model glue, probably from an unnecessary addition of oak chips. It's perhaps not as refined as the typical Belgian dubbel, at least partly down to a lack of yeast in the bottle I reckon. But like the stout it's solidly enjoyable.

My last is Bocmano Ūsai ("Bosun's Moustache"), an American-style IPA at 6% ABV again. IPA is where the faking-it industrial brewers always mess up, right? Even when hop celebrities like Citra, Chinook and Centennial are name-checked on the label. It's a deep orange-amber colour and wasn't in much of a rush to form a head as it poured, the carbonation little more than a prickle. The aroma suggests citrus zest, but not very much of it, though this has been sitting at the back of my fridge for over five months so maybe that can be excused. But the flavour is quite understated as well: a generous dose of crystal malt provides a toffee base, and then there are sparks of grapefruit pith, a smoother jaffa and peach juiciness, and then a parting shot of wax bitterness. This is very similar in character to the stout in that it hits the stylistic flavour points in a clean and methodical way but doesn't really offer anything to excite, something I regard as less excusable in a US-style IPA than a session stout. While there's absolutely nothing wrong with this beer it does get quite boring quite quickly.

You can see Raudonų Plytų's sizeable range of beers on their swish website. It's good that Švyturys is making this kind of stuff instead of yet another variation on its so-so pale lager. The usual argument that it'll draw new punters into exploring the beer world further applies. They do seem to lack a certain soul, however. Both the branding and the taste are perhaps a little too clean.

28 March 2016

Summoned to the flag

Several years ago I was browsing through the trademarks directory of the Irish Patents Office and noticed that the Dingle Brewing Company, of Tom Crean's Lager fame, had trademarked "1916 Centenary Beer" back in 2010. "That's a good idea," I thought, "thinking ahead." Almost six years later, however, Dingle Brewing has yet to produce a second beer but three other breweries have leapt on the marketing opportunity so thoughtfully provided by the lads in the GPO almost a century ago.

Brehon Brewhouse's barrel-aged special has only just been released, but you can get an impression of it in this video from the brewery. The first to actually come my way was Children of the Revolution, an IPA by Wicklow Wolf. With appropriate reverence, they've assembled an elite hop line-up, gallant allies including Amarillo, Simcoe and Columbus, all packed into a dark gold beer of 5.7% ABV. The aroma suggests that maybe they've overdone the balance a little with this: there's a lot of biscuit coming through with the zesty citrus. The first sip brings a kind of oily grapefruit essence, easing itself over the palate, aided by quite a weighty texture. From this rise piney fumes and a little bit of sweeter citrus fruit flesh, before it lapses back to a long tangily bitter finish. It's a bit of a workout to drink but I found its assertiveness quite refreshing. You deal with this beer on its own terms, and I respect that.

Before starting in on the second beer I have to say thanks to Arthurstown Brewing Company: I was having trouble locating a bottle of their Proclamation Porter and they met my request for a list of stockists with a freebie bottle. Much appreciated. I'd been especially looking forward to it because their stout was the highlight of the range they previewed late last year. I was hoping this would have something in common with that unctuous beauty. It certainly seems dense when held up to the light: barely a trace of any colour other than black. The aroma is a blend of flowers and chocolate -- think Fry's Turkish Delight -- but on tasting all is changed, changed utterly. There's a raw, old fashioned hop bitterness right at the front, reminding me a little of another patriot-inspired dark beer, Wrassler's XXXX. You get a flash of milk chocolate in the middle, but then it's back to bitterness in the finish: both the hop kind and black roast kind as well. And the texture? Surprisingly light, actually. It's probably for the best as well, good that the acid bitterness scrubs the palate and leaves quickly instead of hanging around. In fact I'm a little surprised that the ABV is as high as 5%: what it does could probably be achieved lower down the scale. All in all, a nicely complex beer and one that does take its callback to early 20th century Irish brewing seriously.

Though quite different from each other, both do have a bold, possibly even rebellious, streak to them. Brewing the marketing gimmick into the liquid is an impressive feat.

25 March 2016

Cheap ticks

The Three Tun Tavern in Blackrock really pulled it out of the bag for the most recent JD Wetherspoon Real Ale Festival. Eleven beers, almost the full compliment of handpumps, were pouring when I called in on a quiet Sunday afternoon, the first of the festival. I had cycled there with my fingers metaphorically crossed for Pacific, brewed by Melbourne's Thunder Road at Adnams. And sure enough, there it was. It's a pale gold colour and the flavour is a complex mix of sweet orange candy and exotic jasmine perfume. The texture is all light and fluffy sherbet and it was just the fruity refresher I was looking for at the end of my half-hour bike ride. It does run the risk of getting overly sweet as it warms, but that was not going to happen.

It was on to the thirds after that. Titanic Plum Porter is even plummy in colour, a purpleish tint to its dark brown. The two elements fight it out for dominance in the flavour: a jammy plum sweetness and a bitter dark chocolate malt. The jam wins, with the malt having to content itself with being just a flourish in the finish. I don't normally have a problem with sweet fruit beers but I think I might struggle through  a pint of this.

Next to it, Bravo Four Point by Devils Backbone. The branding and presentation say pale, hop-forward: all great, and brewed at... oh. Caledonian. Usually the booby prize at the Wetherspoon festivals. And so it is here: an acrid, fusty burlap taste on a heavy body, managing to be chokingly dry and cloyingly sweet at the same time. And just when you think it can't get any worse, there's a horrible bathsoap twang on the finish. "Hoppy with citrus notes" says the pumpclip. It lies, reader. It. Lies.

I promised you last summer that I'd try the second beer in the Robinson's Iron Maiden series if and when I saw it. And here it was: Trooper 666, a dark gold strong ale at 6.6% ABV. It's rather dull. There's kind of an appley buzz, a sort of damp woody autumnal log pile thing. Not unpleasant, but not especially interesting either. I suppose if you just want something to get you to Stagger Town in short order, the smooth bland stylings of this one will do the job, especially at €2.50 a pint.

I was smiled upon by the bar gods, if not the road safety ones, for round two, when I ordered three more thirds but got given three halves. First up, Acorn Barnsley Bitter: nice brown booze. There's a lot of caramel in this, pretty much at Irish red sweetness levels. The hop contribution is limited to a tiny tinny metallic tang on the end and the only other complexity is a fun and farty sulphurous aroma. I'm sure it's doing everything it's supposed to, but it's just too sugary for my liking.

A totally random pick next: the enigmatic-sounding Bruges best bitter by Hydes, part of its Provenance series of geographically-inspired beers. This is gold coloured and at first tasted like one of the musty Caledonian beers, but there's something else going on too. Described as "spicy" on the badge it's a weird sort of incense or aftershave note. Where must meets musk. That little bit of interest aside, it's not much of a beer: thin and one-dimensional, and another bitter that isn't bitter but sweet. Bah!

Last of this set was one of the more intriguing options. Yes it's from the Marstons hit-and-miss Revisionist range, but Irish Peated Ale? Wut? "Sumptuous smoke entwines with roast malts and caramel tones." Entwines! What this really is is a half-pint of bog water. Massively peaty, yes, but with nothing backing it up. The body is thin and the dark malt that gives it its garnet colour has very little to say for itself. This is a novelty beer, but only just. I hope the brewer enjoyed the result of the experiment because I doubt many drinkers will.

And on that bitchy note, off to Dún Laoghaire, more out of force of habit than anything else. The Forty Foot was buzzing, the kitchen was backed up and the tiny range of festival beers restored my faith in the general haplessness of Irish Wetherspoons. Everards Yakima was pouring, however, so I cleared some dirty glasses from a spare table and sat down to try it. It's OK: a warming and toasty red ale with a little bit of hoppy resin but not really enough. It ends up tasting like a watery shop-brand floor cleaner, inoffensive but not really getting the job done. The raspberry ruffle fudge thing is the reason I normally give hoppy reds the swerve. This one confirms my prejudice.

The festival finishes up this Sunday though you may still find some of the special beers on for a while afterwards. I expect all the Pacific will be gone, though, if the regulars have any sense.

23 March 2016

A question of latitude

Yet another IPA by Sierra Nevada today, this one a spring seasonal from their Beer Camp project. It seems very on-trend, named as it is Tropical IPA and promising mango and papaya fruit flavours. Sierra Nevada built its empire on hoppy bitterness so I was a little sceptical about this newcomer's ability to take on the tropical-and-juicy sub-genre.

The beer certainly smells the part: strong and concentrated cantaloupe and kiwi fruit, almost verging on sickly and definitely showing its big 6.7% ABV. The flavour is less convincing. I mean, it's nice, but the dominant characteristic is a spiky pine bitterness and only after that has made itself at home on your palate are the assorted fruits allowed sidle in after it, quietly. The papaya is probably the most pronounced of them, adding a green bitterness of its own rather than mouthwatering juices.

Fans of the Sierra Nevada way of doing things will find lots to like here: it's only a small sideways twist on the sort of experience you get from beers like Hop Hunter and Torpedo. If anything, the fruit effort is a bit of a gimmicky distraction from a straight-up quality US IPA. No pleasing some people.

21 March 2016

Pocket change

Ten euro and one cent is what this lot set me back. Five beers from Rye River Brewing released under Lidl's cringeworthily named own brand: two of them new, three previously available as four-packs of 33cl bottles but now reformatted to half litres. And all of them a first try for me.

First over the jumps was the 4.1% ABV Crafty Brewing Company Irish Red Ale which looks quite black in that picture but is more a mahogany red-brown in real life. Mild toffee and lightly metallic English hops are the aroma: invitingly, old-fashionedly, beery. I was surprised how sweet it was: a big, gooey, candybar hit of caramel makes the first impact, growing to the point of sickliness. Thankfully it fades quickly. The bitterness kicks in to replace it, but it's unpleasantly acrid: part liquorice rope, part metal pencil sharpener. This tastes like a thrown-together budget red. It's not boring by any means, but I don't think the recipe has been assembled well.

Onwards and upwards, to Crafty Brewing Company Irish Stout. 4.5% ABV and looking every inch the part: black in the middle, garnet round the edges and topped by a pillow of off-white foam. The carbonation is lower than I'd expect for a bottled stout, perhaps trying for some sort of nitro effect, though missing the mark. And once again the flavours don't quite gel together. While not as sweet as the red, there's still a brown sugar or molasses taste -- mild but enough to make my palate recoil slightly. A classy crisp roasted dryness is the other side of the seesaw but it fails to balance the beer properly. Like the red, it's worth paying a little more and trade up to a better example of the style.

I can't remember the last time I had a 50cl bottle of a new pale lager in front of me, and Irish lager has been on a bit of a roll lately -- including the excellent unfiltered pils Rye River had at Alltech last month. So it was with a mix of excitement and tredidation that I came to Crafty Brewing Company Irish Lager. The tiny badge on the label that says it won a Great Taste Award in 2015 provided some reassurance, as did the appearance: the pure pale gold of Helles. One glance and you're in Munich. Late hopping is promised on the bottle and yep, I get that: a slightly oily celery and white pepper flavour right in the centre. But while I would like that to be floating on a billowing soft malt base, there's instead a honking musty off-flavour: dry, acrid and sharply metallic. This is nearly a superb beer but as-is it's one I'd have to drink very cold and very quick. Up against Aldi's Spaten at the same price it doesn't compete.

That concludes round one and, to be honest, I wasn't really expecting to enjoy any of those. What actually got me through the door of Lidl were the newcomers. Rye River does hoppy exceedingly well, from the much-lauded Francis' Big Bangin' IPA to the hugely under-rated Cousin Rosie to its other budget supermarket own-brand Grafters. Simon had already given the thumbs-up to Crafty Brewing Company Irish Pale Ale so I was expecting a next-level experience, even at just 4.5% ABV.

It poured a dark copper colour and shows a mildly zesty citrus aroma. It tastes... decent. There's a firm malt base and although Ella is mentioned on the label, I detect the down-to-earth citric bitterness of Cascade in here. It's definitely on the old world side of new world, reminding me of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in particular, a flavour profile harking back to its roots in English bitter. Worth €1.89? Sure. But it's another beer that I think is worth trading up from.

And speaking of trading up, Crafty Brewing Company Irish IPA, at 6% ABV, is priced a little higher at €2.45. West-coast gold and smelling dankly bittersweet with a bit of liquorice and a bit of guava, achieved with Vic Secret hops, the label helpfully tells us. The texture is surprisingly light, lighter than the Pale Ale. In fact the whole thing is a much more polished experience than any of the others. That darkly bitter liquorice effect is at the centre which means this could easily be classed as the first pale black IPA. There's a gorgeous fresh resinous hop buzz, a dash of tropical passionfruit and maybe an edge of red onion, much like Francis' has when I drink it. There's no sign at all of that strength and its paleness, lightness and low bitterness conspire to make it exceedingly drinkable. This is a superb beer, especially at the price. I don't expect availability to be particularly high once drinkers get wind of it. Be nice and don't hoard.

And if the low prices of these beers leave you feeling a pang of guilt, Rye River's Kickstarter campaign begins today.

17 March 2016

Green and black

Always one for smashing national stereotypes, I'm writing about Irish stouts this St. Patrick's Day.

As it happens, there's a plethora of them about. When I started planning Monday's general Irish beer round-up I noticed the black seam running through it and decided to separate it out. And here we are.

For two of them I didn't have to even move barstools in The Black Sheep. A pair of their cask beer engines were dedicated to stouts, one of them an intriguing collaboration between our own Trouble Brewing and prize-winning Danish brewers Coisbo. Coalition, apparently, is mainly destined for Denmark and is a milk stout with added vanilla, at 5.6% ABV. It goes for chocolate in a big way, bearing a strong resemblance to the excellent Porterhouse Chocolate Truffle Stout which itself has just made its annual return to the taps across the Porterhouse estate. Coalition adds in a full-fat milky wholesomeness, in texture as well as flavour. It's a long time since I last came face to face with a bowl of Coco Pops, but this beer really went Proustian on me. Searching for the vanilla turns up a custardy crème brûlée lacing running through it. There's a deft bit of balancing going on here, between the childishly fun dessert effects and an elegant, silky-smooth drinking stout. I thoroughly enjoyed all of its aspects.

One pump to the right there was Ulster Black, a new oatmeal stout from Monaghan's Brehon brewery which also turns out the excellent Shanco Dubh porter. The aroma had me expecting another chocolate bomb: a huge sweet and creamy hit from the get-go. But, bizarrely, there's none of that on tasting. Instead it wrong-foots the drinker into a serious burnt -- almost carbonised -- bitterness, tasting purest black with notes of tar and coal dust. Once I was over the initial shock I found a warm blanket of oatmeal in behind, offering a kind of porridge or Ovaltine winter's day comfort. Nobody will mistake this for a kiddie's breakfast cereal: its pleasures are very much grown-up ones.

JW Sweetman, meanwhile, has been tearing through a batch of cask Stout lately on its shiny new beer engines. The sparkler is optional (I went without) and the beer is pretty much much bang-on for an Irish session stout. A tweaked version of the Barrelhead Dry Stout first produced in 2014, this retains a dry, crisp, dark roast smacking the back of the palate, but up front there's an altogether more cuddly chocolate and coffee flavour. And then a surprise pinch of light sourness which I can only (but shouldn't) describe as Guinnessy. While deliciously complex it is, gloriously, not a sip-and-consider beer but one to be poured into the face in quantity, as our grandaddies intended, post-1961 anyway.

And finally, the coup de grâce and pièce de résistance: O'Hara's Imperial Stout, brewed to celebrate the company's twentieth birthday. I'm sure you all remember my post about their tenth anniversary stout exactly, err, eight years ago today. I never thought that there'd be an event for the twentieth, and certainly not that I'd be speaking at it. But so it was on Tuesday evening, in the venerable surrounds of Neary's, a panel discussion on stout in general and O'Hara's in particular, ably hosted by Wayne and including founder Seamus and head brewer Conor. We got the first taste of the beer, so fresh that the bottles weren't quite ready for uncorking so emergency large bottles from the brewery were substituted in. At its heart, O'Hara's Imperial is a typical Irish stout: there's the classic coffee-like roasted dryness right in the centre. Its prodigious 10% ABV is noticeable most in the warming vapours of its aroma. And the hops have plainly been piled in as a green, slightly metallic, tang finishes the flavour off. However the different flavour elements don't quite gel together, or at least not yet. I think this will age nicely and should be in fine form by the time we celebrate ten years since the tenth anniversary beer was released. A cask of this is due to be tapped up tomorrow evening at the Irish Beer & Whiskey Village in the RDS. The blending effect of cask serve on the flavours will have a positive effect, I reckon, so give it a go if you see it.

For my part, I'll be at the festival this afternoon, just as soon as I've shovelled an enormous fried breakfast into myself. All in the spirit of the day, of course.

14 March 2016

What's new with you?

St. Patrick's week is upon us, the next Beer & Whiskey Festival is opening at the RDS on Wednesday, so time to catch up on some of the new Irish beers I've found around the place lately. Well, when I say "around the place" I mostly mean in 57 The Headline.