I had been meaning to go on a trip to Belfast for some time, to check out a couple of new pubs which seem to have brought the city's beer offer to a whole new level. When Matt from Boundary Brewing offered me a train ticket to attend their first birthday party, that was all the excuse I needed to turn vague intentions into solid reality, especially since I had yet to taste any of Boundary's beers.
As it happened, a couple of days before I headed up, north coast blow-in Simon was in Dublin and brought a bottle of Boundary Export Stout along with him. This is a 7% ABV whopper but very highly attenuated, leaving it starkly dry with almost a crunch to its roast. Talking to Matt later he said he wasn't happy with the way that particular batch of the stout had turned out, so I'll reserve judgement. But if you like your big stouts to be almost ashen, this could be the one for you.
Simon was also bearing a bottle of Utopian Stout, the first in the Salamander Series of special editions from Northern Ireland's other co-operative brewery, Lacada. Though only one percentage point stronger than the Boundary one, this presents an altogether richer, more rounded experience. The aroma is a heady mix of sweet, calorific butterscotch and spicy gunpowder excitement. The flavour is more restrained, however: a quality dark chocolate bitterness with some lighter berries and dried fruit. It's all very wholesome and nourishing, as a stout of this strength should be. Cheers for the shares, Simon!
And so to Belfast. Before heading for the Boundary event at BrewBot, I changed trains at Central Station and backtracked to Botanic, for a look at The Woodworkers. I was something of a regular in the Lavery's pub complex in the '90s and was fascinated to hear that they'd recently hived off a part of it to be a craft beer bar. They've done a lovely job too: all bare brick and dark wood with a smoking area on the roof that connects through to the Lavery's pool room. The rotating beer list is well sourced from across the water and south of the border, making great use of Norn Iron's unique position.
I started with a Cloudwater Winter IPA, behind as I am on the Manchester Brewery Everyone Is Talking About™. At 8% ABV it's maybe not the best starter for a day's beering, and it's also quite soupy looking with nothing more involved than mild pine in its aroma. But while there is a very faint savoury tang it wasn't yeast-bitten, only slightly yeast-nibbled, maybe. The flavour is all hop: big and juicy tinned pineapple at the front, bitterer papaya and guava afterwards. I got a fun pinch of white pepper at the very end, but mostly the finish is clean and quick leaving almost no aftertaste. That feature, alongside a medium body and total lack of alcohol heat, makes it dangerously drinkable. The tropical fruit fades a little as it warms, turning to a more serious dank, but it remains a beautifully constructed and enjoyable beer.
Sticking with Cloudwater, my next was Leningrad, 5.2% ABV and described enigmatically as a "tea sour". And it's a strange beast indeed: rough and grainy, like muesli or a cereal bar, the aroma in particular being all oats and nuts. The flavour includes a sugary tea edge on all of this. While complex, it's just not very nice. I began thinking that it might work best as a base for something else: mint, perhaps, or lemons. I don't know what the brewer was intending to achieve with this but it didn't work at all for me.
From Manchester to Liverpool before we leave, and Mad Hatter's Toxteth IPA, a dark orange number at 6.5% ABV. There's a vaguely pithy, spicy jaffa effect in the aroma and a classically grapefruity back-of-the-throat bitterness on tasting. It's a solidly enjoyable IPA but one which provides a very different service to the Cloudwater one we came in on.
And so to the main event. BrewBot on the upper Ormeau Road is a strikingly modern glass-fronted pub. Though the imposing facade makes it look cavernous from the outside, it's more intimate inside: low ceilings, bare wood and leather. A long 20-person table down the middle of the floor is ideal for communal drinking.
For Boundary's birthday a selection of their own and guest beers were available and I started with Boundary's Saison D'être: Deux. At 6.7% ABV it's a strong one, though nowhere near the upper limit for the style. A bright, clear yellow, it's packed with esters, tasting very banana-like and missing the dry crispness that I like most about saison. Matt didn't seem too happy about it either, so back to the drawing board, I guess.
Push & Pull is a series of 5.5% ABV IPAs by Boundary, and I think the version pouring on the day was L.I.C., brewed with a whole mix of new world hops, though the one that dominates the flavour is Japan's Sorachi Ace. The beer is a hazy amber colour with a creamy texture and coconut all the way through the aroma and flavour.
To finish exploring the Boundaries, Big.Ass.Stout, a 9.4% ABV imperial monster, laying on loads of chocolate but balancing it very nicely with a roasted bitterness and a metallic hop tang. Definitely no over-attenuation here: the body is big and chewy, silky and sumptuous, just as you'd expect from something with this name and strength. Not one to drink a lot of, but very nice as it goes.
Just one of the guest beers was new to me, YellowBelly Pale Ale, and brewer Declan was on-hand to assure me that it's not one I'd had before. A hazy pale yellow it's a little more yeasty than I'd like, but still packs a lovely invigorating citric punch alongside wholesome grain. Matt Curtis, also in attendance, said it reminded him of Beavertown's Gamma Ray, which is a pretty big compliment. Would I prefer this one if it were clear? Yes. The raw and hazy thing is fun, but I reckon a gentle polishing would improve those hop notes even further.
BrewBot is conveniently close to top Belfast off licence The Vineyard so I popped in there for some train beers on the way back to the station. A random sweep from the fridges landed me with three from Three Boys Brewery in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Three Boys Pils, from the get-go, delivers everything you could want from a kiwi pilsner. It's pale yellow with a slight haze and a massive tropical fruit aroma: it's amazing to think it lasted so well on the long journey north-west. The flavour is equally bright and fresh and speaks to the origin of the Saaz-derived Riwaka hops which have been used here to great grassy effect. The Green Bullet and Nelson Sauvin are pure New Zealand, however, delivering huge amounts of orange and lemon citrus pith, and all set on a perfect clean lager base. At 5.5% ABV it's perhaps a little overclocked for a pils but it's still a beer that would be worth settling in to for a few.
Sadly, neither of the other two lived up to the promise of the Pils. Three Boys Wheat Beer, hazy yellow again, has lovely piquant and peppery spicing allied with bitter orange peel, but it's just too sharp to be pleasant, lacking the softness I'm looking for in a wheat beer, and also with a nasty soapy twang in the finish. Meanwhile, the Three Boys IPA is a dark amber caramel-smelling job. Starting dryly tannic to the point of astringency, the toffee swings in quickly and builds hotly as it goes down. By way of balance there's some lighter mandarin and satsuma but it never quite gets over its harsh caramel malt heat, despite the seemingly reasonable ABV of 5.5%.
And on that bum note, we hurtle back towards Connolly Station and home. Thanks to Matt and everyone at Boundary and BrewBot for the day's hospitality. There's definitely a good couple of day's beer and food fun to be had in Belfast these days.
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