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


"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 making me order a half of cider on my way out.

I checked into my hotel then set course for the outskirts where, in an unassuming stone end-of-terrace house, is The Grove, Huddersfield's most famous craft beer pub. It's a small place, squeezed into a couple of rooms and doing brisk trade this Friday evening. There's a dizzying range of beers, cask and keg, all set out on large blackboards. With no regard for the region or its specialities, my first shout was for Adnams Juniper Saison, a clear yellow 4.1%-er. The texture is lovely and soft but the flavour, while interesting, is a little over-sweet: a big honeydew melon character builds as it goes, becoming rather sickly by the end. While flavourful, it could really do with some saison pepper to balance it out.

Something more trad next: Durham Brewery's Lightning Rod, a pale bitter of 3.6% ABV. It's extremely wan and watery looking, but tastes fine: lightly spicy with a touch of lemon zest, finishing on a kind of metallic twang. A beautifully smooth texture makes it better suited to a pinting session than working one's way through a craft blackboard.

6% ABV "ice cream porter" is more like it, however. Thornbridge Lucaria was there on keg and it's wonderfully luxurious. There's a lovely creamy chocolate flavour at the centre which I probably wouldn't have described as ice cream without prompting but it is convincing. Chocolate flavoured milk might be a better approximation but that probably wouldn't sell as well. While sweet, the sweetness doesn't build, so the beer keeps on slipping down; all the strong beer alarm bells have been silenced. Highly enjoyable, but be careful.

I'd never heard of Ghost Brew Co., which is always a good way to get me to try a beer. It's a contract operation working out of Baildon Brewery in West Yorkshire. The clip for Yūrei described it as a lychee black IPA. OK then. Black IPA doesn't normally do subtle but this one does. There's a definite juicy lychee element to it and a refreshing absence of harsh roast or hop bitterness. A building vegetal greenness is how it hops, ending on a gentle coffee note. It's a smooth and mannerly beer, easy drinking without being bland. A real pleasant surprise.

With the evening moving on, I got a Tonka to finish. This 8.5% ABV porter by Hawkshead contains all manner of things but one of them is coconut and that's almost all I could get from it. The smell is sweet desiccated coconut and the flavour is full of a very real greasy coconut flavour. There's chocolate in the beer as well, so a dark Bounty bar is pretty much as complex as this gets. It's enjoyable but rather one-dimensional.

Then off out into the twilight and around the edge of town to The Rat & Ratchet. This large and rambling brewpub is a satellite operation of Ossett Brewery. I didn't see the on-site brewkit but there certainly seemed to be enough space to tuck one away in a corner somewhere.

There's a sizeable range of rat-themed beers on offer and the first I ordered was White Rat, a 4% ABV pale ale which seemed to be the most popular among the clientele. It's pale yellow and opens with a sharp citrus bite before settling back to become another one of those chewy northern bitters, albeit a lighter, smoother and altogether more accessible one.

The house lager is Ratstein at 4.8% ABV. It's sweet and grainy, the way brewpub lagers often are, although the oatmeal treacle cookie vibe is all its own. I had been looking for something smooth and clean but it let me down on that front. Perhaps on another occasion I'd have enjoyed it more.

There's a 6% ABV IPA called Crazy Rat which is particularly sticky and heavy with a slightly cheesy aroma and no more than a touch of hop spice to balance its heavy perfume flavour. Rat Attack was a breath of fresh air after that, just 3.8% ABV with a light chalky mineral edge on softer peach fruit, shading towards bracing grapefruit flesh. It seems that this particular Yorkshire brewer does its best work on the lower end of the ABV scale.

I called it a night there and wobbled back to my lodgings. The Vulcan, just around the corner, was on my list of places to visit but I just didn't make the time for it. The following morning I headed northwards from the town centre to visit Huddersfield's star attraction the Magic Rock Tap.

From the outside it's an unlovely industrial unit but round the back there's a sunny yard with benches and a guest food stall, while inside about a third of the building is given over to a spacious bar incorporating the barrel ageing facility and views into the brewhouse. Head brewer Stu gave me a look around behind the curtain and I was surprised at how small the production side is. Given Magic Rock's influence they seem to be punching well above their weight.

Beerwise I started on Shredder, a 4.5% ABV witbier with added mandarin juice. It's more pithy than juicy, to my surprise, and there's a fun savoury fried onion kick as well. A little odd but nicely refreshing which is all it's really intended to be. I followed that with the provocatively named Inhaler, described as a "hybrid IPA" and abounding in high profile hops: Amarillo, Citra, Equinox, Galaxy, Mosaic and Simcoe. Cor! It's surprisingly red, almost like an amber ale, in fact, and although it's only 4.6% ABV I didn't find it especially inhalable. This is a beer worth taking time over, in fact. The aroma is a lovely blend of fresh jaffa orange and oily dank, and the dankness is the real centre of gravity in its flavour. More a sipper than a quaffer, it's a beaut however you want to take it.

Finally a beer that intrigued me when I saw it on the listing: Vinification. This is a wheat beer which uses grapey hop varieties Hüll Melon and Nelson Sauvin, plus actual white grape juice. The result is quite a simple beer, and not an especially grape-flavoured one. The fruit presents as more of an orange cordial effect, sitting next to a dry wheaty flavour. Like Shredder it's very quenching and refreshing, though requires an extra note of caution at 6.1% ABV.

By this point I'd been joined by Mr Zak Avery, and Stu sent us on our way with a recommendation to look in at Arcade Beers, not far from Huddersfield station. It's one of those funny off licences with draught lines and a couple of tables and has a superb selection of well-chosen beers.

Picking on name alone I went with Christian Bale Ale, from Dry & Bitter brewing near Copenhagen. A session IPA, it packs a lot into 4.6% ABV: dense and chewy oatmeal biscuits plus a blast of oily hop resins. Zak went for Mixed Berry Sour from English born-again sour devotees Elgood. It's damn good too, an enticing cherryade aroma leads on to a clean sherbet flavour with a refreshing and comfortingly familiar Ribena berry fruit tartness.

Our next destination was Leeds and there wasn't really time for another beer at the packed out Head of Steam bar in the station but we had one anyway: a super swift half of Great Heck's Treasure IPA, served warm and roaring out a poorly integrated mix of sticky sweetness and harsh bitterness. The opposite of refreshment. But no matter. Onwards to Leeds!

22 August 2016

A taste of steel

My annual summer work visit to Britain brought me to Sheffield this year, a city which has recently laid claim to the title of England's Real Ale Capital, nay "World's Best Beer City". (You needn't add a comment on the veracity or otherwise of these declarations, by the way.) Superlatives aside I was expecting to find myself in a place where any random pub would have a high quality offer. And so it more or less proved.

That said, being on a tight schedule, I did choose most of the places I visited based on prior research, since visiting the more famous pubs anywhere is just common sense. But there was one totally personal pick: The Three Tuns, which was the first place I went to. I drank my first ever pint of English beer here, on a bracing April night in the mid-1990s. John Smith's Magnet. A pint of Strongbow followed, to prevent the memory getting too rose-tinted. Anyway, it's a nice pub, long and narrow and built into a steep hill so is split-level. There's a decent, but not excessive, selection including a couple from a local outfit I'd never heard of, Blue Bee.

I started with Amarella Pale, 3.9% ABV and three of your English pounds for one of your imperial pints. It's a lovely shade of dark gold and the hop varieties portmanteau'd in the name absolutely shine out from the first sip, all peaches and mandarin on a bouncey bubblegum base. Behind this sits a harder waxy bitterness which I found irritating until I got used to it. It actually helps the drinkability by providing a cleansing balance to the fruity sweetness. While it did start getting a little metallic towards the end, I would definitely have had another if I had the time, which I didn't.

On down the hill and across the ring road out of the city centre brings one to the Kelham Island district of Sheffield, a sparse patch of mostly waste ground just beginning to get a trendy urban makeover. Its two veteran pubs stand tall and obvious across the flat landscape, with about half a kilometre of empty space between them. The first you come to is the Kelham Island Tavern, imposing from the outside but rather cramped in the front parlour where the bar is. A busy late-afternoon trade added to that. From the compact mix of cask and keg taps I opted first for a third of Abbeydale's Hop Smash, a very pale IPA that belies its whopping 7.4% ABV. It's quite sweet, tasting strongly of grapefruit but without any of the bitterness, reminding me more than anything of that Schöfferhofer grapefruit radler. There's a sizeable alcoholic density as well, meaning it gets quite sickly after a few sips, beginning to resemble super-strength lager beyond the one-sixth of a pint mark. Moving on...

I felt I'd be on safer ground with a bitter, opting for Millstone by 8 Sail in Lincolnshire. It's a pale copper colour, which is a charitable way of saying it's brown, which is also how it tastes. Oatmeal biscuits, smooth sweet caramel, and then a token balancing vegetal bitterness. The absence of drying tannins mean that I should have hated it but it's actually kinda comforting and warming. Maybe I'm finally becoming the old man that old man beers are brewed for.

I very nearly passed by Pictish Brewers Gold, confusing it with the beer of the same name by Crouch Vale. I only gave it a second look because it was far and away the most popular beer on the counter. When I secured a pint for myself I could see why. It has that super simple, super sessionable lemon sherbet zing of modern cask pale ales, with a polite but present bittering zest on the finish. Marks off for being served a teeny bit warm (it was baking hot outside) but apart from that I would make it my regular too.

Around the corner is The Fat Cat, seemingly another relic of a terrace which no longer exists. In 1990 this was home to the Kelham Island Brewery, though that has grown up and moved a little way down the street now. Its beers still feature at the pub, of course, and I settled into the plush lounge to work through what was on.

First up, Pale Rider: pale indeed, looking like cheap thin lager though packing heft at 5.2% ABV. I wasn't a fan, finding it dull and heavy, the familiar waxy bitterness of Yorkshire bitter ramped up to an unpleasant degree with nothing to counteract it. Kelham Best Bitter was much better, a deep rose gold colour and, while there was the wax again, this time there was a light and thirst-quenching dryness. Designed for drinking in quantity and succeeding admirably at it. And one for the road: 45 RPM, another pale ale, this time just 4.5% ABV. It has a sharp and buzzing green bitterness and a lovely lemons-and-honey complexity. Very enjoyable, though another beer which fell foul of the summer temperatures on the day.

My next excursion was to the opposite end of the city centre and The Rutland Arms, at first glance your classic Queen-Vic style corner pub, but it looks like it's gradually being taken over by undergraduate art students, some of the fittings being more suited to an Amsterdam squat than a Yorkshire boozer. Anyway, more Blue Bee from the handpumps, and this time it's a yellow 4%-er called Reet Pale. It has a simple lemon-peel flavour and a light and sinkable texture plus just a cheeky nip of acid bitterness on the finish to keep things interesting. Another understated classic quaffer.

Closer to the city centre sits one of the more enigmatic pubs of the whole trip: Brewhouse. I had it on my list because it's home to the Aardvark Brewery. Inside it's a smart and modern craft beer bar: white subway tiles; high tables and stools; a few handpumps; keg taps on the underback; and in an adjoining room an impressive wood-clad brewkit sitting behind plate glass. And then I noticed that about half the taps were from the AB-InBev stable, mainly the craft end, including Goose Island, Camden Town and Blue Point. And then, not seeing any on the badges, I asked if there was any house-brewed beer. There wasn't, said my friendly barman, explaining that the entire neighbourhood was under threat of demolition and as a result the brand new brewkit had never been used, the brewers apparently not wishing to make a start if there was a risk of having to move out in a hurry. A bizarre and rather sad situation.

So instead I picked a new beer from an unfamiliar brewery: Bess of Hardwick by Dukeries Brewery in Nottinghamshire. No problems with the cellar cooling system here: the bright gold pale ale poured lovely and cold from the cask, which I guess was one of the things that helped mask its 5.7% ABV. A delicious refreshing mandarin zip opens its account, followed by a deeper spicy marmalade. This gets increasingly acidic as it goes along, shading towards harsh by the end. Enjoyable, but strictly a half-pinter, I reckon.

Looking for something a bit more cleansing to follow, I found kegged Thornbridge Burgen in the menu. It's a kind of Flemish red style, 5.6% ABV, brewed in collaboration with Viennese gypsy outfit Collabs. It smells very vinegarish, with an added sweet and savoury mix of cola and brown sauce. Yum. The flavour has a major acetic component too, but it's not like just drinking vinegar, more like the sensation of good malt vinegar on hot chips, or a splash of red wine vinegar on an Italian salad. After a couple of mouthfuls I got used to it and actually found it quite refreshing and thirst-quenching. It's certainly different.

There was another Thornbridge beer, on cask, in the bar of my hotel. Something about the name Brother Rabbit had me imagining it was a brown beer so I was delighted, on a beautiful sunny evening, to be taking a bright golden pint out with me to the hotel terrace. It's a corker too: a cask ale that hits the exact spot pale lager aims for. The mouthfeel is a little thick, perhaps, but it's still crisp, clean and laugh-out-loud refreshing. Its bitterness is low and a touch of fruit chew is the flavour's only nod towards ale. An elegant, balanced beer, built for sinking.

To finish, a couple of visits to the pub that really put Sheffield on the beer map, for the craftophiles at least: The Sheffield Tap. Normally one thinks of railway station bars as fairly compact spaces but this is an entire wing of the station, with a long bar just off the platform, multiple wood-panelled rooms, a vast terrace and even its own brewery, Tapped. Despite the selection, only one house beer was pouring: Liberty Treacle Stout. It wasn't very nice either, with an unsettling woody/corky foretaste, followed by a thick black treacle sweetness and a dry, acrid burntness on the finish. It's a Victorian children's horror story of a beer.

My second and final visit to The Sheffield Tap was after I'd packed up and was getting ready to leave Sheffield. As it happened my train left from the platform just outside the door and I got a seat in view of the departures board: perfect. Among the casks was one from a brewery I remembered from last year's trip to Newcastle, North Riding's Motueka. It's only 4% ABV, pale gold, and a little watery. Where I was expecting a full-on herbal assault there's just a light grassy spicing to it. It's pleasant and easy-going, though possibly the least-exciting single NZ-hopped beer I've ever tasted.

Allendale next, and their Pennine Pale Ale, from the keg. This is dark gold and tastes very odd. I got a sort of artificial fruit candy sweetness to begin, then spicy jasmine and a touch of soap on the finish. The texture is thick and for all the complexity it still has a slightly blunt dullness about it. I wasn't sure what to make of this, only that I needed something else before leaving.

Just time, then, to swig down a half of Marble's Built To Fall, a 5.6% ABV pale ale. Lots