29 June 2016

Taste this

I mentioned in Monday's post how microbreweries don't seem to take their own stands at Taste of Dublin any more. It is, I'm sure, a very expensive event to attend, and while you're likely to reach a crowd of punters who are probably not already familiar with your product, I would question how much repeat trade you're likely to get out of them once the tents are folded and the Iveagh Gardens returned to the citizenry.

Across the park from Diageo's Open Gate Brewery, Alltech had a similar landmark bar for its Station Works and Lexington breweries. From the former there were two new beers, including the latest in the Foxes Rock range, Foxes Rock India Pale Lager. Now, I will admit at the outset that I don't really get this style. There's enough of a hoppy buzz in any properly made pilsner so why go chasing after the IPA crowd with this neither-fish-nor-fowl type of beer? Oh yeah: money. OK then. Would any brewer care to admit to brewing an IPL for the sheer love of it?

Abstract witterings aside, real life FRIPL is 5.2% ABV and a highly attractive deep gold colour. It definitely misses its step on the lager front: the body is too heavy, with very ale-like esters and no crisp lager cleanness. And nor is the flavour a good example of IPA: it's floral-sweet and intensely sharp, like the taste of perfume, and that lasts long into the finish as a cloying, abrasive bitterness. It seems like a beer that doesn't quite know what it's supposed to be but it definitely isn't fun to drink.

The other new Station Works beer is brimming with fun, however. It's brewed, I believe, for the Cremin & Radley distribution company and is marketed under the new Bartleys brand. No prizes for guessing what fruit juice has been added to Strawbeeri, and especially not if you've tasted it. It's very strawberry, and extremely sweet. A soft texture adds to the jammy effect and it reminds me a lot of that Belgian classic Früli. Subtle as a brick through the greenhouse window but it hit my sweet tooth just right.

Molson Coors had also staked out a claim for Franciscan Well where I had just a swift pint of their Summer Saison. This is a modest 5% ABV with an invigorating pear-skin edge and an almost velvety smoothness. Very easy drinking and great for a mid-point palate refresh.

On then to the Dunbrody House complex in the corner of the park. Here the hotel had set up a mini lecture area for Chef Dundon to talk barbecue, the restaurant had the standard three-dish offering that all the other Taste participants had, and down one side Dunbrody's on-site brewery, Arthurstown, was pouring a mix of regulars and specials. Arthurstown American IPA was apparently served at Killarney this year but I missed it. It's a 6% ABV bruiser, quite a hazy pale amber and apparently only uses a little bit of Sorachi Ace, which surprised me because it tastes and smells almost one-dimensionally coconutty to me. Light and clean with it, however, and other people I thrust it at found it dank and complex so it must just be me who got hit with the coconuts. De gustibus non est disputandum. Either way, I enjoyed it, and especially the lightness of touch it showed on quite a big ABV.

The remains of the afternoon played out at the Premier International Beer Heaven stand, a fixture of Taste quite possibly since year one. From a distance I had been wondering which new American brewery was responsible for the distinctive paddle-like tap handles but closer inspection revealed it to be Bavaria's own Maisel, going full yank with its craftish range. Among them: Maisel Pale Ale, simple and fun with the clean bitterness of a real American pale ale but wearing more of a German costume up front in the form of a green celery hop bite; Maisel India Ale raises the ABV from 5.2% to 6.3% but hits pretty much the same flavour points, except more of them. The strength is well hidden, however. And best of the lot was Maisel Choco Porter, a lovely balancing act of sweet milky chocolate and dry roasted malt, rich and full while staying clean and drinkable, and all done without the addition of any non-Reinheitsgebot additives. Impressive, but also lovely to just knock back. Except it's 6.5% ABV.

And because we weren't wobbly enough already, Dean broke out the good stuff before we left, starting with a bomber of Widmer Brothers Brrrbon '12. This 9.4%-er is a mucky orange colour and smells of vanilla and lime, meaning the brewery definitely got its money's worth out of that bourbon barrel. It's smooth at first but a growing sweetness makes it more and more difficult to drink as it goes along. I found myself struggling desperately to appreciate its intensity before realising that I just actually don't like it.

It was followed by Widmer Brothers Raspberry Russian Imperial Stout '12 which was much better. Here the 9.3% ABV is better hidden and the raspberry is used to full effect, in both the aroma and the flavour. You get lots of chocolate and lots of tart juicy fruit in both, while the base beer is dry and remarkably light. The hopping is generous too and this does fight a little with the raspberry acidity but the overall picture holds together coherently: bold, but not overdone.

And speaking of overdone, that's the bit where I nabbed a last glass of Open Gate 1516 pils before the shutters came down there and stumbled out into town and around the corner for a comedown pint of Via Maris at Against the Grain.

Lots and lots of beer is definitely my preferred methodology for tackling a food festival.

27 June 2016

Party at Artie's

It's noteworthy, though hardly surprising, that the Taste of Dublin food festival seems to have become largely a preserve of the big bucks brewers. The last time I went, which admittedly was some years ago now, there were at least a handful of micros present in their own right but this year Arthurstown Brewery was the only independent on the list, and I'm sure they're not short of a bob or two.

Diageo was bringing its Open Gate roadshow to the 2016 gig and to mark the occasion, before the festival opened, recruited a few of the food producers also exhibiting into their bar and then unleashed a swarm of hungry media types at them. The highlight for this attendee was Shuck, a London oyster bar soon to be opening in Dublin, which was serving amazing oysters from Harty's of Dungarvan, each the texture -- and damn near the size -- of perfectly rare fillet steak.

There were two new beers on the bar to try and the one they had chosen to pair with the event was Strawberry Porter, a light 4.3% ABV guy with added bonus basil. Cold from the keg, served on straight CO2 rather than nitro, it tastes like a very simple and plain stout. Peter the brewer says a very large amount of strawberries went in, and a nutribullet gave its life for the trial batch alone, but I could barely taste them. There's just a gentle pink oily tang and the ghost of herbal greenness in the finish from the basil. I'm not sure I'd know either was there without being told in advance.

As a parting gift, us freeloaders were given growlers, so I got the chance to try it all over again at the preferred serving temperature of Beer Nut Towers, which is rather higher than at St. James's Gate. There was a lot more strawberry in the aroma this way, and a growing strawberry juice flavour, peaking as it approached room temperature. Under it there's your normal pint-bottle-off-the-shelf Guinness and this provides a decently neutral base. If the recipe ever goes any further, warm, strawberry-infused, pint bottles for the oulfellas would be the way to go.

The second beer was called Tropical IPA and it, pretty consistently, came served with an apology. The Open Gate staffers are aware it's not very tropical and want to point that out before you do. There was, apparently, a decent tropical fruit flavour from the conditioning tanks but it looks like somewhere along the filtering and pasteurising process, that character was lost. Unexpected! But that's the benefit of having an experimental brewery: you can learn how to make your beer better. If you want to.

Anyway, it's a dark copper colour, 5.5% ABV and hopped with a combination of Galaxy and Hüll Melon. The texture is heavy, and even greasier when served slightly warmer from the growler. There's a lot of old-fashioned bitterness, a bite that reminds me of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, but not much complexity beyond this: a burst of pith and some mildly pleasant tannins. Not a bad beer by any means -- sinkable and refreshing when cold -- but failing to excite, whatever the name says.

The next beer made its début at Taste of Dublin itself, for which Diageo kindly stumped up a pair of tickets. Botanical Ale, I suspect, has escaped the filters' attention because the plastic cupful I got was a thoroughly unpleasant-looking murky red-brown colour. The aroma was lovely though: an Italian-smelling blend of pizzaish dried herbs promising a drinking experience beyond the usual.

The base seems to be a pretty straightforward red ale, 5% ABV, dry and slightly roasty. But you don't get much of a look at it before the huge explosion of herbs kicks in. I didn't catch the full list of add-ins but the oily greenness of sage is obvious at the centre while around it I got elements of basil, rosemary and peppercorns, some of which may actually have been used. And while the herb flavours are definitely the main feature, assertive even, they're not overdone nor do they make this a difficult beer. It's fun, balanced and complex, just the way I like my gimmicky beers to be.

More from the rest of Taste 2016 later this week.

24 June 2016

Putting the boot in

One can measure the progress of the Irish beer sector by the commemorative beers it produces for sporting events. For previous football tournaments it's only been one or two: Eight Degrees's Trapattoni Potation for Euro 2012 and JW Sweetman's Brazil 2014 beer Maracanã. Maybe it's the presence of the Republic of Ireland team at Euro 2016, but there are three beers out to mark the occasion: one can, one bottle and one cask. At this late stage in the tournament it's a bit après match but let's take a look anyway.

Claiming the best possible name for an Irish football-themed beer is Danger Here from Western Herd Brewery in Co. Clare, the first of their offerings I've tried. It's a session IPA of 4.8% ABV, pale amber with suspended floaty bits and very little by way of head or carbonation. There's a mild green grassiness on the aroma but the flavour is an absolute freight train of noisy hops, led by screaming Sorachi Ace, if I'm not mistaken. It's harshly bitter first of all, which fades just enough to allow it to be identified as a lemon skin bite, followed by billowing gusts of oily coconut. The finish is dry and sharply waxy, metallic, but even calling it a finish is less than accurate because none of these flavours actually go anywhere, they just squat on your palate, waving their flags while shouting abuse at the encircling riot police. It's a bruiser of a beer and serves as a reminder that "session IPA" is about more than lower ABV. You'll need your shinguards if you want to spend the full 90 minutes tackling a few of these. Danger indeed.

The next beer is also a session IPA, this one from Dublin's own Rascal's, produced exclusively for the Molloy's off licence chain and puntastically named All Night Long. More sessionable promises are made on the label here -- "juicy", "fruity" -- and it's a more sinkable 4.2% ABV. The head didn't stick around much on this either though it is clearer and the aroma is very west coat: all mandarin sherbet spiked with pine. It's a little thin of texture and there's a weird savouriness in the foretaste, possibly a result of one of them oniony hop varieties: is that you misbehaving, Mosaic? A gentle peach and mango fruitiness sits behind it but the flavour really lacks depth and I blame that light body. Yes, it's easy to drink and you could get through a lot of them while engrossed in the game: Molloys is helpfully selling five cans for €10, which should be enough for ninety minutes and possibly even pennos as well, But it's not as juicy or fruity as I was expecting. I should probably face the fact that what I want out of session IPA is Little Fawn and that session IPAs which aren't Little Fawn are guaranteed to let me down. All Night Long is fun and flavourful but just doesn't slot in to my taste preference as I thought it would.

The solitary draught offering is Euro Gold, on the handpump at JW Sweetman. Now this is a beer that would make me sit in the pub and watch football. For one thing, on a humid June afternoon, it was pouring beautifully cold from the cask. There was only a very slight fogging to the otherwise flawless gold, and nothing that interfered with the flavour. Lemons are the star player, not sharp or harsh but soft and sherbety in both flavour and aroma, sitting on an equally soft meringue pie texture. It slips down smoothly and there's a very quick finish setting up the next mouthful. Though I suspect the hops are new world, the overall sensation is of an English golden ale, and a damn good one at that. Yes you can happily chug it down in front of the big screen but it's equally worth taking time over in a quiet corner of the pub, if you can find one. At €4.50 a pint for loyalty card holders it's fantastic value too.

We'll leave it there so.

22 June 2016

Feel the passion

An addendum to Monday's post on the 2016 Killarney Beer Festival. Once the winners were all finalised in the competition, the leftover bottles were farmed out to the judges by able chief steward Kellie. From among them I got a bottle of Castaway, YellowBelly's collaboration with Dublin's Hope Brewing and sour beer aficionado Shane Smith, for it is a sour beer we're dealing with.

I mentioned YellowBelly's superb passionfruit lager on Monday and they must have got a job lot of passionfruit because here's more of it. I found it to be little more than a flash at the beginning, a welcoming smile of friendly fleshy fruit before the daggers come out. For the most part, and increasingly as it warms, this is intensely sour. A sharp rhubarb acidity strips the teeth and pinches the jaw. More problematically, perhaps, it smells old and mouldy, not quite like the clean dry brick cellars of a Belgian gueuze, but earthier. The finish is bracingly quick though I detected a mild waft of phenolic disinfectant.

It's an ambitious beer, I'll give it that. It doesn't want to play around or treat you with kid gloves. Unless you drink it cold it's cruel and uncompromising and you have to be prepared for it. Me, I think it could do with a few of the corners being knocked off it: a bit more nuance and subtlety. Perhaps that will come with time.

As far as Irish sour beers which you can buy in the off licence go, this is up a level from most of what has gone before.

20 June 2016

Kerry gold

Late May saw the second Killarney Beer Festival take place at the Gleneagle Hotel and once again I made the trip down for one of the country's top beer events. I was on judging duty this year but still managed to get a taste of all the unfamiliar beers from the twenty beer stands in the main tent.

The locals were well represented and Killarney Brewing Company, just up the street from the festival, had a new saison called Spailpín. Pretty good it was too: a modest 5.5% ABV with the classic fruit and grain saison aroma and a flavour which stacks bitter orange rind against crisp dry crackers. Classic thirst-quenching stuff and I wasn't even slightly surprised when it was awarded the show's best Belgian-style beer.

Killarney's other brewery, Torc, also took a prize for their salt-and-coriander German-style beer Anything Gose. As the style has become more popular, finding a straight gose has become a little difficult. This one perhaps lacked the cleanness of Leipzig classic Bayerischer Bahnhof, but had oodles of refreshment power. The texture was light and fluffy, there was a generous dose of coriander and yet it avoided tasting any way soapy. Its sourness is a little muted but it does leave that lovely sea-salty residue on the lips. And all at just 4% ABV. It deserves to be quaffed in quantity all summer.

Moving further afield to Dingle, West Kerry Brewery had two that were new to me, both dark. The Festive IBA only passed my way fleetingly but I got a strong impression of its smooth, rich and roasty character, livened with sparks of citrus zest. There's warming dark fruit deep down in the flavour -- blackberries in particular -- and a spike of roasted dryness. Balanced, complex and interesting, this one.

Its companion had the folksy name of Uncle Columb's Mild and it's another smooth and roasty one, this time a bright shade of garnet. It's full bodied for just 3.5% ABV with a wholesome cakey sweetness and more of those lightly tart blackberries. Poured cool from the cask it was surprisingly quenching on a sunny afternoon. I'd really love to see more of this kind of beer out in the real world. Properly looked after, of course.

Kerry-based contractors Crafty Divils had their second beer on the go: a 4.3% ABV amber ale called Iron Bridge. The style designation is somewhat notional and it's really much closer to Irish red or English bitter, toffee and tannins being the main feature. But it's not especially sweet and certainly not sticky, the clean simple flavour making it an enjoyable sessionable pub beer. Nice label too.

Side-stepping to Cork, 9 White Deer was pouring Fia, a crisp and lightly fruity Kölsch-a-like that's bang on the style, while Mountain Man had a new IPA: Banjo'd, brewed at the brand's third host brewery Brú. It's 5% ABV with a sharp citrus aroma and notes of peach plus an earthier red apple effect and even a touch of pear. Overall, clean and refreshing, and very enjoyable to drink.

The Dew Drop Inn in Co. Kildare had a stand with its two house beers, which the guys have produced at their neighbouring brewery, Trouble. '96 is an oatmeal pale ale, the standard hazy orange colour and quite harshly bitter. It's big on pine and lemon rind, with that scrubbed-toilet effect I've come to associate with Citra hops, though Target and Ella are the advertised varieties. Some oily dank helps round it out and while it's not easy drinking it is good. Its companion is a white IPA called Forbidden Fruit. This is a good example of the style -- light and accessible, soft of texture with gentle orange and lemon flavours. I was surprised it's as strong as 5.5% ABV.

Carlow Brewing has gone all-in with its own white IPA, Freebird, though it's a little lower in ABV at 5%. Rakau and Amarillo are the hops but the flavour is dominated by massive coriander and orange peel. While looking an innocent clear yellow, this is a loud and brash beer and while definitely not lacking in flavour I imagine it won't be to everyone's taste.

We finish with the two breweries representing Wexford, both of which brought a sizeable range of specials and one-offs to attract the tickers. Arthurstown Pils is a beer the brewery makes presumably for use at its home hotel Dunbrody House. It's not a great example of the style, being a bit too hot 'n' heavy, with greasy banana esters and some woody phenols. There's a light hoppy sharpness in the foretaste, but not enough to carry the off-flavours away. Amber IPA is a new style on me but I don't think Arthurstown's did it justice. The aroma is sickly and the texture heavy with sugar. It tastes of boiled sweets and a lot of buttery diacetyl. The only relief comes from a light pepper spicing but again one good feature does not suffice to make it a decent beer.

Similarly sickly smelling was Arthurstown's Rum & Oak Porter, but it's sufficiently attenuated that the aroma is where it stops. It's dry and quite light bodied for 5.7% ABV and of course there's a fair whack of vanilla to it. Fun and complex, but maybe just for the one. And the joker in their pack was Oak-A-Cola, a 4.7% ABV red ale, wood-aged and infused with cola essence. It sounds awful but it works extremely well. The cola dominates both the aroma and the flavour, herbal and sweet with the same sort of dry carbonic twang, but there's just enough malt character left, especially in the texture, to remind you that you're really drinking a beer. A gimmicky novelty, sure, but tremendous fun.

That just leaves Wexford Town's YellowBelly. Night Porter has been on the brewing roster there for a while now, I think, but I hadn't encountered it before. This is a whopping 7.2% ABV and smells weird: tangy and twangy, and somewhat autolytic. It gels together on tasting, however, all smooth and smoky with rich dark chocolate, a heavy bitterness, hot alcohol and woody burnt cork. Insanely complex, it tastes incredibly old-fashioned and makes for really interesting drinking.

Zë Germans is a pale ale which owes its name to the use of Hüll Melon hops. It's balanced rounded and fruity, showing juicy notes of peach and nectarine as well as honeydew. That's your lot though: I guess this is designed as a refreshing quencher, a task it performs well.

Last tick of the festival is The Passion, Ireland's second passionfruit lager in recent months, and ever. I much preferred this to Trouble Brewing's Last Crash. Here the lager character has been dialled all the way back to provide a clean base, 4.4% ABV, maybe a touch of grain flavour and nothing more. The fruit, meanwhile, is fresh and sinfully juicy -- sweet without being sickly and adding a bitter complexity to the pinkness. It's still a very silly beer, of course, but seriously well made and, like the Oak-A-Cola, great fun to drink.

Cheers to all the breweries who made the effort to set up stall in Killarney, and congratulations to all who won prizes in the competition. Until 2017, then.

17 June 2016

Total glam

The good people of Glamorgan Brewing Company (or their representatives) kindly shipped me over some of their bottles to try. They're not available in Ireland as far as I know, but sure Glamorgan is only across the way. Those more familiar than me with the brewing scene in Wa