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.

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