04 July 2016

Don't mention the war

It's come up before how Irish supermarkets are currently using beer as one of the weapons in their endless struggle for dominance over each other. This is a good thing, in my opinion. Even aside from the well-priced quality beer available, it's also a sign that the average shopper is getting more choosy about their beer. I've long said that beer is following where wine and coffee have already been: from a poorly served commodity to something that requires more than token planning by any retailer intending to sell it, and all driven, shaped, by consumer sentiment.

German rivals Aldi and Lidl both held drinks tasting events for their summer ranges in Dublin. Both leaned heavily on the wine side, of course, but there was beer too, and a chance to get a bit of a snapshot of how they see that market segment.

Aldi's event was in the classy surrounds of the Cliff Townhouse on St. Stephen's Green, the doors of the first floor veranda thrown open to the early summer evening breeze. Aldi has an established working relationship with Carlow Brewing and Station Works and it was more of the fruits of that which were on the table.

"Brown Bear of Connemara" is the rather odd name they've chosen for the latest set of Newry-brewed Station Works beers. Brown Bear of Connemara Brown Ale is 4.5% ABV, a tan amber colour and has quite a pleasant, on-style, toffee aroma. The body is light but the flavour, while complex, just isn't very nice. A sour-ish sweaty tang is the opener, then a kind of HP Sauce savoury thing, with date and tamarind fruit, finishing off with a slightly harsh and acidic hop burn. It is, of course, delightful to have a budget brown ale that isn't a sticky mess of caramel and butterscotch, but this swings just a little too far in the opposite direction.

Brown Bear of Connemara IPA is a deep gold colour, almost amber, and smells autumnally of moist musty apples and dry dusty crepe paper. There's less going on in the flavour, though it's all generally good -- a simple balance between citrus hops and lightly toffeeish crystal malt giving a sort of red ale/pale ale hybrid effect familiar to drinkers of Galway Hooker. Drinkers of IPA will probably bemoan the lack of hops in this one but I was just happy that it's not completely awful, in contrast to what I was expecting.

The O'Shea's range produced for Aldi by Carlow has seen an expansion by two, along with some down-wif-da-kidz new livery. O'Shea's Session Pale Ale has clearly been cut from the same cloth as O'Hara's 'OPsession as it's a similar brownish colour and has a similar rough dryness to the flavour. You get a little hint of grapefruit on the nose and the finish has a fairly harsh acidity that is definitely hop-derived, but just like its twin it fails to deliver what the style is supposed to provide: freshness and brightness.

The other newbie is O'Shea's Wheat Beer, 4.3% ABV and claiming Belgian influence though it's totally clear and I see no mention of any ingredients beyond malt and hops. It does smell spicy, however, which I suspect is the yeast at work, and the same goes for the slightly estery, buttery character as well. On tasting, the wheat cereal grains come forward in a big way leaving you with a mouthful of buttered toast. After this, the flavour just kind of wanders off mumbling to itself: vague herbs, a dry mustiness, a whisper of soft lychee, but nothing that really stands out. Inoffensive but lacking in character is my verdict.

Choice is a good thing, but the O'Shea's range has much better beers in it than either of these.

We'll stick with Carlow Brewing for the moment when we cross over the battle lines to a Lidl tasting event. Their marketeers took the rooftop lounge in the Radisson on Golden Lane and the spread was pleasingly beer-forward. Rather than pushing their own-label stuff, Lidl put the emphasis on more familiar brands that they've started stocking, including a couple of beers each by Rye River, Trouble and Carlow Brewing's own O'Hara's marque.

O'Hara's Irish Lager is a beer I haven't tried since its infancy as O'Hara's Helles back in 2013. I think it has improved since then, still assertively bitter but lighter textured and easier to drink. Only a slight plasticky burr spoils it for me.

The Shepherd Neame range that Lidl has always carried has been expanded, and a new one for me was Burns Ale. Apparently this is in a Scottish style but it tastes like lots and lots of other Shepherd Neame beers, with that stale orange peel effect. Though a mere 3.8% ABV it seems a lot heavier and has a sweaty, musty, burlap-sack flavour, plus a vomity metallic sharpness. Grim stuff, perhaps best suited to the dour presbyterian mindset.

Everything else new to me was Belgian. Lidl has taken on several beers from the Du Bocq brewery, including Corsendonk Pater (under its American name of "Corsendonk Abbey Brown Ale", for some reason) and this Gauloise range.

Gauloise Blonde is a decent go at the style with some light and clean melony fruit esters, a sharp bitter bite at the back of the throat and then a neat quick finish. One could accuse it of being boring but the well-hidden 6.3% ABV is its own sort of entertainment.