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.