31 August 2016

Lagered up

It's possible we're in a bit of a golden age (wahey! puns!) for Irish lager. There are a lot of good ones around at the moment and brewers seem less afraid of adding them to the roster. This post is about the most recent ones to cross my path.

The first is by O Brother who so far in their short life have given us a Sinner, a Chancer, a Dreamer and a Fixer. The newest in the sequence of archetype beers is The Wanderer, described on the badge as a dry hopped pilsner at 5% ABV. It's a bright, almost lurid, yellow colour and was served in The Beer Market very cold and with rather low carbonation. I also got a touch of off sourness, though couldn't say whether that was in the beer or the dispense. However, none of this is a problem because the flavour is big and bold enough to distract from any and all flaws.

I had been expecting citrus and whatnot: "dry hopped" tends to mean "we're going for the American IPA angle" around these parts. But nope, it's classic pilsner all the way through. Most of all it's a hugely punchy lemon and waxy bitterness, riding high on the light malt base. A real five-alarm wake-up call for the palate.

Black Donkey's Western Warrior is a rather more understated affair. It made its Dublin début at the brewery's second birthday party in 57 The Headline a couple of weeks ago. This beer is identical to the flagship saison Sheep Stealer, just fermented with a lager yeast rather than a saison one, so the grain bill includes wheat and the hops are an unlagery blend of East Kent Goldings and Styrian Goldings. Rédor, the pils by Dupont was, if not an inspiration certainly an encouragement. The two breweries share a similar water profile, Black Donkey's Richard tells me.

The end result is a pale and slightly hazy chap, rustic and crunchy, a bit like a kellerbier. There's a modest quantity of fruity esters but nothing I'd describe as a lager off-flavour. After one pint I ordered a second, finding it refreshing in its crispness and very gulpable.

Then as if to underline my point about lager variety, last week Against the Grain staged a one-night mini-festival of lagers with over a dozen examples from Irish and international brewers. The two above were on show and I also managed to tick off a further pair of new ones as well.

Metalman's latest is Blaager, its grist including crumbs of Waterford's signature bread roll, the blaa. It's a modest 4.6% ABV and pale yellow, despite what my camera seems to think. Not much aroma but the flavour opens on a beautiful soft fruit note, all peach and white plum. It starts to get drier from then on and has a lovely classically grassy pilsner bite on the end.

Very much hop forward, this beer shows very little sign of the bread, of which a whole 60kg went into the mash. The end result is super clean and immensely thirst quenching, while also offering just the right amount of complexity to stay interesting. They have it in cans now so I hope that means it's becoming a regular.

The other new one has been around a while but I'd never taken the time to try it. This time I had no excuse. It's 1601 from Black's of Kinsale. And I didn't like it. And I can't quite put my finger on why. It's another fruity one, with a tart sort of gooseberry edge, and the core of the beer is clean and simple. But there's a sort of staleness to it, and a metallic pencil-sharpener tang, and a kind of sickly sweetness. I couldn't assign any of the obvious lager flaws to it: no diacetyl, no acetaldehyde, no DMS and I don't think it was oxidised; but nor do I think it was simply that it didn't suit my taste. I wish I had a better technical knowledge to describe what was wrong but you'll just have to take it that I didn't enjoy it and am unlikely to go for it again.

And after that I settled into several pints of Rascals Rain Czech pils, making a very welcome return to the taps. It's a beer to disabuse any Irish lager of getting notions, with its soft texture and massive bursts of Saaz grass-and-pepper. Get it while it's fresh.

29 August 2016

In a barbie world

Now a regular feature on the beer calendar, The Big Grill barbecue festival took over Herbert Park in mid-August once again. And, once again there was a fantastic range of Irish beers available with a lot more new offerings than I was expecting. Nothing for it but to knuckle down and get stuck in.

I made my first port-of-call to the Eight Degrees stand, because they have a new Kölsch-a-like, a 4.5% ABV one called Going Out Out. This is one style where I always end up comparing it to the original archetype in a way I don't with most others. I think it's because of that geographical control on the word Kölsch. I also really like Kölsch done well, of course. This... is not Kölsch done well. It's close, very close, but it lacks the crispness I enjoy in the style. I like a bit of husky rasp. In its place this has fruit esters adding a gentle sweetness and almost a touch of soft banana. The hops are spot on however, and do a bit of drying work as well as adding a very summery hit of freshly mown hay. On the whole it's a lovely thirst-quenching blonde ale and I don't begrudge its lack of lager finesse.

Around to Trouble Brewing next. The guys had a California common on the go: Sidewalk Surfer, 5% ABV and a clear copper colour. Given my recent yeasty tangles with Trouble's output, clear is good. Expecting a clean and crisp brown lager I was surprised to get a waft of spicy aftershave from the aroma. "'sup with that, Dave?" says I. "Bobek and Cascade" says Dave back to me. Bobek, eh? The aftershave thing comes out in the flavour as sandalwood and clove-studded oranges, with an orange boiled sweet finish. It's very heavy and chewy, the dark malts making their presence felt. An oddity, for sure, but I rather enjoyed it. Exotic and unexpected, it'll be a much better autumn beer than a summer one.

For summer, one only needed have taken a sidestep to find Trouble's Mandarin Crush, a fruit lager. If Tanora has never been part of your life you'll have to imagine what a lurid tangerine-flavour fizzy pop would taste like, but this opens with a big hit of that sweet, concentrated, tangerine flavour. The finish is clean, with just a hint of sharper orange rind on it. So far, so refreshing, but the gimmick Trouble rolled out for this was a slush machine and for no extra cost you could get a dollop of mandarin slush plopped into your beer. Everything that's wrong with the infantilised craft scene right there, yeah? No. It actually works. The basic flavour remains the same but that hard edge on the finish gets smoothed and sweetened to match the rest of the beer. The slush really complements the (admittedly quite silly) base lager.

Trouble are back on form and all it took was one weird trick. And some Bobek.

It was, I think, the first outing for beers brewed at the new Hope Brewery in Donaghmede and they had two new ones. Hope Session IPA is 4.3% ABV, golden, with a slight haze to it. The aroma is a bright, fresh classical grapefruit thing, a smell to bring you back to your first encounter with hop-forward American-style beer. The flavour is... in line with modern sensibilities. If you like an almost burning level of dankness, spiced with a touch of onion, then this is for you. It certainly impressed me. And it passes the wateriness test, being properly full-bodied; almost balanced, even. Not quite a rival for Little Fawn in my book, but the quality is just as high, it's just higher in bitterness and lower in fruit than White Hag's classic. Apparently it's a limited edition but it would be well worth their while keeping it on.

Pouring alongside there was Hope Unfiltered Lager. Despite the name there's hardly any haze at all (that's just a frosty receptacle over there) but there is a lot of hop. Pine and lemons open the flavour and it finishes on an intensely bitter citrus note. It tastes even stronger than its 5% ABV and is using that malt heft to leverage the hops to great effect. And it's more than just a half-arsed lager with bags of hops bunged in: there's a proper cleanness to the profile as well.

Two rounds of applause from me for this lot. Great things are expected from Hope.

Metalman had brought their only slightly tardy Summer beer, daringly an English-style IPA making use of Endeavour and Pilot hops. It's an approachable 4.8% ABV and sharply, greenly bitter all the way through, finishing with a mouthwatering side-of-the-tongue tang. For hoppy fruit, apply elsewhere. Take it down an ABV point, stick it on cask, pop a flatcap on it and you could call it a Yorkshireman.

Inch Spit was the new release from Kinnegar, a red rye ale at 6% ABV. Big hops and big malt are what this one is all about: there's that typical marzipan hop sweetness of American amber, but it's plenty bitter as well, in an old world green sort of way, and then there's all the chewy toffee from the dark malt. But for all that it's not tough drinking: balance is the key, I guess. Probably one to drink as soon as you see it. I suspect it'll begin to fall off kilter as soon as those aromatic hops start to fade.

Brewtonic usually has something interesting for Big Grill and this year it was Solitary Flight, a saison. Lots of lovely honeydew melon in this pale 5%-er, and a pinch of tasty pepper spices. It's pretty much a down-the-line clean and sessionable saison and perfect for al fresco summer drinking.

Brewtonic's host brewery Rascals had two new ones on the go. Chardonnay White Ale was based on their Yankee white IPA and smells of lovely fresh grape and lychee. It's very bitter in the finish, however: I would have liked more of a smoothing effect from the wood. And then another saison: Pacific Secret, at just 4.4% ABV. It's an opaque orange colour and shows the peachiness of Vic Secret hops plus a slightly sharper grape skin note. Maybe it's just that I've never tasted these hops in a saison before but it seemed quite un-saison-like to me: there was no dry or spicy edge. Still a very nice beer though.

My last two, from opposite ends of the tent, were Black's Simcoe IPA, a dark red affair with a big toffee base in which the hops get somewhat lost; and Porterhouse F#¢k Witte, another light and spicy summer beer, not especially complex and maybe a tad over-strong at 5% ABV, but refreshing nonetheless.

And that was me done for the evening. In several ways. Congrats to the organisers on another successful event, and special thanks for providing such a great platform for Irish brewers to show their wares outside the craft beer bubble.

25 August 2016

Simply the dogs

We're not quite done with my trip to northern England last month. I also got to tick off three of BrewDog's pubs, in Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester, and I thought they would fit together more thematically in an awesomely iconoclastically awesome post of their own. But before I even get to that, a prelude pup I happened across before I left Dublin.

Against the Grain hosted a BrewDog tap-takeover earlier in the summer. I wasn't able to attend, but did make it in a few days later to scoop what was left. Slim pickings, unsurprisingly, and my only new tick was BrewDog Prototype Red. It's 4.5% ABV and smells of sweet summer fruit -- I picked up the green and the pink aromas of raspberry leaves in particular. The texture is appropriately light and easy-going, but the flavour is a bigger, more serious, heavy dank hit, quite similar to the brewery's core amber ale, 5am Saint. As such, I don't really see how this would fit into the range beside it, but if it were introduced as a lighter substitute I don't think I'd be complaining.

To Sheffield, then, where the BrewDog bar is comfortably middle-sized and there was plenty on the marquee board of interest. I started on Saison Blitz, a Berliner weisse that thinks it's a saison; 3.2% ABV with added coriander, peppercorn and lemon peel. It's properly sour with the clean sharpness of good Berliner weisse ensuring it takes its thirst-quenching role seriously. But there's also a lovely juicy middle, running with pear juice and honeydew melon. The spices don't really stick out but the beer is absolutely inhalable. I loved it.

Next up, another BrewDog attempt at pale lager. Their fifth? They're getting better, though, and I liked the last one. They've followed it with Kingpin, another 4.7% ABV job; bright, clear, and as yellow as you might expect. And it's rather nicely done, all told. You get a touch of classic pilsner grass in the flavour, but its best feature is the texture: a soft roundness, like a decent Munich helles. Once again, this is a good house lager for them as want such things, and while not a world-shaker there's not a damn thing wrong with it. I think BrewDog can stop fiddling with their lager now.

Over to the guest side of the board, and a couple of Californians. Aftermath is a 5.8% ABV pale ale by Black Market Brewing, half way between LA and San Diego. As the strength suggests, it's a lumbering beast, hazy deep orange and with a heavy texture and a thick jasmine perfume spice. It's interesting, but not terribly refreshing, certainly compared to the two beers I had before it.

Velvet Merlin (fka Velvet Merkin) by Firestone Walker has been on my want-to-try list for a while so I wasn't going to leave without giving that a spin. It's an oatmeal stout at a very reasonable 5.5% ABV, opaque black with a head that dissipates quickly after pouring. There's a big coffee aroma and a lot of fresh coffee roast in the flavour, plus a milky middling sweetness. It's a lovely beer, being perfectly smooth and nicely balanced. Good old Leann Folláin hits a lot of the same spots, a comparison by which both beers should be flattered.

The original Leeds BrewDog bar is one of the smallest in the chain, comparable to Camden in the way it has been squashed vertically into the space. And the beer selection matches the pub's footprint with nothing new for me from the BrewDog range. There was, however, Clean Water Lager, contract brewed by BrewDog for the Brewgooder charitable foundation. This is 4.5% ABV and, to be honest, I was expecting something rather plain and commodity-like. Nope: Sorachi Ace. Loads of it. Apparently there's Saaz in here as well but the Japanese hop flavour utterly dominates, as it tends to do, so if you don't like your lager tasting of coconut, give this one a swerve. The texture is full to the point of stickiness, so it's certainly interesting, but I think it needs something to balance that coconut hit. It's just too weird and unsettling to enjoy.

So finally to Manchester, a biggish BrewDog bar, just next door to Albert Schloss (see previous post for details). And hey, I thought I told you to stop fiddling with your lager? Here was Prototype Pils, slightly stronger than Kingpin at 4.9% ABV and frankly rather crap: dull and grainy, cheap-tasting with an unpleasant metallic aspirin thing. Zero redeeming features here, and I hope it goes no further.

The session-strength single-hop Aces series continues with Ace of Chinook, another roaringly loud look at a specific variety in action. Chinook tends to be all about the spices and that's definitely the case here, backed by lots of dank and oily cannabinoid resins. The oils actually create a convincing illusion of alcohol heat and this certainly tastes stronger than a mere 4.5% ABV. It's a beautiful beer and one I'd happily allow my palate to get accustomed to over a few glassfuls. "Bitter beers for happy people" indeed.

Ship Wreck, brewed in collaboration with Ballast Point, has been fascinating me since it was launched back in the spring. It's 13.8% ABV, very expensive in Ireland, and has garnered some absolutely dreadful reviews. I saw the opportunity to get a freebie taster and reader, I took it. And I really liked the beer. It has the bold peat 'n' heat of many a malt whisky and shows a similar smooth maturity. The use of tequila barrels lends it a green and oily booziness which adds to the complexity. Overall it's quite balanced and well-integrated. But it just wasn't the sort of beer I wanted early on a solo afternoon pub crawl.

While I was taking advantage of the barstaff's better nature they did try to sell me on CrewBrew, described as a "Kiwi hopped imperial red" and created by the company's non-brewing staff. It was 8.5% ABV so once again a sale was not on the cards, and while the aroma had a lovely fresh damp grassiness, the flavour is rather dull, the hops getting buried under the smooth and warming dark malt. The end result is boozy and muted, one for smelling and sampling only, perhaps.

I'd just missed a tap-takeover by Crafty Devil of Cardiff so there was a range of their beers on the guest taps. I picked You Love Us IPA to go out on. Gotta love a Manics reference. This is 6.5% ABV, thickly textured and super sweet. There's a bit of a yeast bite but the centre of the flavour is a surprise blast of summer strawberry. Overall it's a little rough around the edges but still makes for fun drinking.

A Welsh beer in a Scottish brewery's English pub seems like a fitting way to round out my account of this trip to Britain. My usual attempts to keep up with Irish beer will resume next week.

24 August 2016

The last crawls

Sadly, when we arrived in from Huddersfield, Zak had better things to be doing than showing me around the pubs of Leeds and left me with just a slew of recommendations. I began with a detour to a run-down industrial quarter where Northern Monk Brewing Company is forming the nucleation point of revitalisation by placing its Refectory right in the middle. The brewery is on the ground floor of the refurbished building with the bar above it. A roomy beer garden is out front and punters were making the most of that when I arrived. I had the main bar almost to myself.

With the entirety of Leeds to cover in a single evening, I just had the one: New World, an IPA from their core range. It's 6.2% ABV and unsurprisingly chewy but with a light and juicy middle section and lots of fun fruit flavours. There was a definite haze which manifested as a yeasty burr in the taste which did spoil my enjoyment a little: cleaned up this would be a corker.

Back to the town centre and a couple of pints in Tapped Leeds, a sister brewpub to the one in Sheffield station that I mentioned on Monday. They don't seem to be any better at brewing here, unfortunately. Mojo is a pale gold bitter at 3.6% ABV with an unpleasantly weird sackcloth and nettles flavour. The slightly darker, slightly stronger Rodeo had a similar mustiness but is saved by a sweet biscuit flavour rendering it drinkable but only just. Neither beer tasted especially fresh which, when drinking at source, is pretty much unforgivable. Tapped does have nice pizzas, though. I'm sure the guest beers go great with that.

Around the corner is Friends of Ham, a pigmeat-themed restauranty pub. I sat at the bar and ordered the house beer, Pig's Ear. It's another big and heavy one, 6.7% ABV and designed for food, I guess, which is fair enough. I got a feel of bock lager from it: that sort of chewiness, plus a raspberry and redcurrant flavour in the middle and a touch of lactic sharpness on the finish. Definitely not one for session drinking.

I thought I was stepping away from the craft when I went to Whitelock's, Leeds's oldest pub, situated down an alley off the main drag, but they had a beer from Roosters, collaborating with Odell, on the bar, so I had a go of that. It's called The Accomplice and is 5.7% ABV. Marmalade coloured, it has a spicy marmalade citrus bite which fades to become a sweet fruit-chew candy flavour. Although I was in the mood for something lighter, this hit the spot nicely, though is probably better suited to a quiet afternoon in the Victorian splendour of Whitelock's rather than a slightly raucous Saturday night.

I got what I was looking for a little further on at North Bar, the pub which put Leeds on the modern beer map and staks a claim at being Britain's first "craft beer" bar. It runs a brewery elsewhere in Leeds which is where they produce the pale ale Sputnik. This offers an array of hoppy delights including lip-smacking piney resins and luscious pineapple and mango. It absolutely screams freshness, and manages all these fireworks at a very sessionable 5% ABV. I'm glad I got to it last as I'd have been tempted to stay on it all night if I'd found it sooner.

But it was bedtime for me, if not for Leeds, which was still partying at 6am judging from the sounds outside my hotel window. I was up and out early for the final city of the trip, arriving in Manchester on Sunday afternoon just as the pubs opened.

Along the concourse running up to Manchester Piccadilly station is The Piccadilly Tap, an odd sort of arrangement, with the stand-up bar space in an otherwise empty room on the ground floor and then a handful of tables upstairs. I guess it's designed as a gulp-and-go joint for the commuters.

My breakfast was Summerwine Resistance, a mild. It's a damn near perfect interpretation of the style in my estimation: you get your coffee roast backed by a light milk chocolate sweetness and then a touch of dark forest fruit in the centre. Absolutely magnificent wholesome drinking.

I stuck my head in at Albert Schloss when I was passing, and suspended ticking activities momentarily to quaff a pint of Pilsner Urquell from the tanks. But mostly what I was drinking in was the surroundings. It's a huge place, expansively and expensively decorated as a grand central European dining hall, with stained glass, monumental fireplaces and chandeliers. Worth a visit for the grandeur alone.

Further wandering brought me to The Brink, a recently-opened miniature pub in a hard-to-find basement. It's lovely, though: bright and simply furnished with a wide range of beers. My first was a bit of a dud, however: Pop, a "citrus IPA" by local outfit First Chop. I guess they were relying on the added orange to substitute for hops but it hasn't really worked and it ends up quite dull and husky with a dose of honey which is totally out of place for something promising citrus.

My  next picks were better, however: two single-hopped sour beers from Chorlton Brewing. Amarillo Sour is a deep orange colour and despite a hefty enough 5.4% ABV tastes like a very straightforward Berliner weisse: lightly sour, lightly textured, but with a bonus hit of Amarillo's signature jaffa orange once the tartness fades. It is supremely refreshing and insanely easy to drink. But instead of ordering another straight after, I switched to the Citra Sour which does do a lot of the same things in its flavour but swaps the oranges for a light lemony taste. Both are perfect summer's day drinking.

Next on the list was Café Beermoth which I had imagined as a quiet, intimate sort of place, so I was surprised to discover it's a rather cavernous bar in a modern glass-fronted building. The beer that really jumped out at me from the draught selection was Frankenstout, a collaboration between Copenhagen's Warpigs brewery (itself a collaboration between Mikkeller and 3 Floyds) and yeastmaker White Labs. Apparently, 96 different yeast strains went into this. No, I don't know either. The end result is a rather decent but unexciting imperial stout at 8.9% ABV. It's classically dry with a touch of peat and some pleasant red raspberry fruit. The yeasts can't have been particularly hungry as they've left a thick and sticky texture, accentuating a molasses bittersweet flavour. It's still quite drinkable, however, which is always a bonus with out-there experiments from achingly hip brewers.

Time was marching on, so I was as well. I couldn't beer my way around Manchester without finally dropping by Port Street Beer House in the Northern Quarter. It's quite a traditional pub, for all its craft cred, and even early on a Sunday evening was hopping with drinkers. And obviously I couldn't leave Manchester without a token Cloudwater beer under my belt. Port Street was pouring the White IPA: Comet, so that's what I went for. It's a big 'un at 6.5% ABV, thickly textured and quite hard to drink. White IPAs tend to have a soapy quality for me and this had it in spades, by turns medicinal as well, with an aspirin metallic edge and heavy brown sugar. As a white IPA it's an ideal version of the style; as a beer it definitely wasn't for me.

A bit of a bum note to go out on, but that's random beer ticking for you. Nothing for it but the train to the airport and the flight home. But... you may have noticed a very obvious absence in this week's posts. I'll be addressing that tomorrow.

23 August 2016

"Huddersfield?"

"Where are you going after here?" my fellow conference attendees in Sheffield would ask, always followed by "Huddersfield? Why Huddersfield?" Beer was, of course, the answer.

The large town near Leeds in West Yorkshire is home to a couple of England's most renowned beer venues, and I had some additional ones on my map that I wanted to take a look at. It was drizzling when I stepped out of the station into the impressive Victorian plaza at the centre of town, its buildings resplendent in the local honey-coloured sandstone. I was bursting for a piss so went straight to Wetherspoon's, decency maki