The Irish Beer & Whiskey Village returned to the RDS in mid-March and I went along on St. Patrick's Day for a sedate afternoon's beering. Brewery numbers were slightly down on last year, but the spare space was well used, with extra seating and a barber's shop, though I only made use of one of those facilities.
My first port of call was Trouble Brewing who had two brand new beers on their bar. Big Top is a heavy rye IPA, all of 6.3% ABV and with a lovely rounded texture. The bitterness is low but it doesn't go in for the juicy topnotes either. Instead there's a resinous and oily hop flavour, mellowing to allow a modicum of mango, lychee and white plum. It's not a hop firework display, more a hop log fire: comforting and classy.
The other début was Evil Robot, an amber ale at 5% ABV. It's a style that can go in all sorts of directions; sometimes sweaty funk, sometimes watery acridity, and all in points in between. This one, while having a solidly chewable red malt base, leans heavily on bright and fresh grapefruit for its flavour element. It's balanced, but only just, and works in favour of the hopheads.
The most impressive beer of the gig came from Rascal's Brewing. They had given their Big Hop Red an eight-month sojourn in a French wine barrel, turning it into Rascal's Pinot Noir Red. The grape character that this has imparted is phenomenal, like you'd find in an Italian grape-based ale. There's a significant amount of oak, though as a spritzy sandalwood spicing instead of heavy sweet vanilla. The two coalesce into a long exotically-perfumed finish: Irish ale meets Arabian nights.
And for a palate reset, there was White Hag Festival Lager. Simply constructed at 4% ABV but screaming quality with a clinically precise clean and crisp pils character, complicated by a small waft of sulphur and tiny bit of apple fruitiness.
First time exhibitor at the festival, and indeed any festival, was the Guinness Open Gate Brewery, bringing a selection of their special small-batch beers. Antwerpen Export Stout is a slightly tweaked version of Guinness Special Export Stout. The classic Guinness sour tang is very much in evidence and is the beer's best feature. Beyond that there's a big estery sweetness, more pronounced than I recall in SES, but I could be wrong on that. As usual with these Guinness brand extensions, all it did was leave me hankering for a dry bottle of Foreign Extra.
A couple of decent and unGuinnesslike classics also on the bar were Dubliner Wheat: a bubblegum-heavy pale weissbier with a lovely kick of lightly green noble hops. It tasted like a very authentic recreation of a Munich weiss to me, particularly impressive at just 5% ABV. And Vienna Common, a crisp, dark-brown lager-a-like with more of those lovely celery and white pepper mitteleuropa hops plus a pleasant light roast bite and a perfect clean finish. It's one of those great quaffing beers that are also complex enough to drink slowly, should the need arise.
Toasted Oatmeal Brown Ale With Vanilla was the last recipe put together by former Open Gate brewer Jason Carroll. It pretty much hits every element in that description, point by point: sweet caramel, vanilla candy and a smooth weighty body. While it avoids being unpleasantly sickly, it's still not the sort of beer I'd have more than one of.
Jason's new base of operations, Wicklow Brewery, was also present and I took the opportunity to tick off one of their core range that I'd previously missed. St. Kevin's Red is a hazy and wholesome number, almost a shade of pink rather than red. There's a butterscotch toffee sweetness, but set on a light and dry base so it doesn't build and get cloying. Grain husk and an earthy hop bitterness add a seriousness to the candy sweetness. It's another beer that I probably wouldn't deliberately choose, but down in the brewpub where it's born I could see myself getting through pints of it. Think of it as an Irish kellerbier.
Finally, a quick stop-off at the Station Works bar for a first taste of Foxes Rock Stout. I've been critical of Station Works beer in the past but the only thing wrong with this one is that it's not a stout, not by a long way. It's a red-brown colour and smells enticingly of blackberry jam. This leads on to a flavour that's just as sweet and fruity with a kind of wheaty Ready Brek effect. It could happily pass as a dark bitter or brown ale but you won't find any coffee, chocolate, roasted grains or hop bitterness. I'm no style purist but there is absolutely nothing here that I look for in a stout.
Congrats to Bruce and Carly for another great show, and special thanks to Carlow Brewing for providing a freebie ticket. Bruce's show will be on the road later this year: to Belfast on 21st-23rd April, Doolin on 26th-28th August and Cork in late September, plus of course the year's main event back at the RDS on 8th-10th September. Plenty to put in your diary there.