30 September 2016

No fear

Today I'm getting back amongst the bottled beers of Wexford Town's YellowBelly Brewery. There's a broadly sour and farmhouse theme to this set which arrived simultaneously a couple of months ago.

A gose first, called Gose To Leipzig. It poured a beautiful gold colour with a very slight haze and a fine head which faded quickly. The biggest surprise is that this one is a stonking 6% ABV, much stronger than gose would typically be -- classic originals Bayerischer Bahnhof and Ritterguts are 4.6% and 4.7% respectively.

The aroma is a sweaty mix of seawater and alcohol with just a very mild herbal component. The texture is thick and kind of greasy, leaving a film in the mouth. As expected it tastes quite boozy, with a similar heat to strong pale lager. Beyond this there's an interesting apple fruit character, a dry wheaty crunch and then a tip-of-the-tongue saltiness which helps clean things up. I'm used to gose as a refreshing quaffer but this one is definitely for sipping, and while it's certainly one of the more flexible styles, that's normally because of the added flavourings brewers insist on putting in. I'm not quite sure what to make of this plain but ramped-up one. I don't think it quite works because of that heavy heat.

And that's a problem I also have with stronger examples of another style: saison. When they're too hot and fruity I find them difficult to drink. Where's Wallonia? is YellowBelly's first bottled saison. Lots of bubbles going on here, and a worrying acetone smell, suggesting an ABV far higher than its 5.6%. Thankfully it's much cleaner on tasting, but not particularly farmhouse-y. I was expecting some crispness and some funk, but really you could pass this off as a pale ale. It might be the added orange peel that gives an impression of fresh hops. There's quite a high level of sweetness as well, a candyfloss middle that dries out towards the end, aided by the fizz.

Overall it's a rather jolly beer, refreshing if a little overcarbonated. A few saison purists might get upset but it does the job for me. Certainly a lot more accessible than the gose.

Last of the set is the lightest: Great for the Town is just 4.5% ABV. It's a non-specified style of sour beer with the inclusion of Wexford's signature crop, strawberries. It presents from the bottle like a bellini: the same shade of orangey-pink. It smells very sweet, more like strawberry syrup than the real thing. The sourness is the main feature of the flavour, but quite subtly done at the same time. After an initial burst of tartness there's a gentle strawberry jam effect for a finish that's sweet, but not sticky. It's all the flavour of real strawberry with none of the sugar.

This really hits the refreshment target that the gose missed: that gum-scrubbing acidity makes for very easy drinking and is a wake-up call to the palate. The strawberries are a little unnecessary but I appreciate they're a big part of what the beer is designed to be. Drink local and all that.

Three fascinating beers here. Great for the Town is probably the best of the bunch but the muscular gose engaged my interest more than the rest. I'm sure it's high time I went looking for the next set of bottles.

28 September 2016

Sweet Georgia without the Brown

US college football came to Dublin a few weeks ago, involving a full calendar of American festivities. Rye River opted to make at least one of the teams feel at home by shipping in a load of beers from the SweetWater Brewing Company in Atlanta. I suppose the visiting Bostonians had to make do with Samuel Adams brewed in Kent. Anyhoo, a couple of days before the game Rye River took over the upstairs of The Mercantile on Dame Street and held a celebration of SweetWater, with games and food and copious quantities of free beer. As part of my duty to you, the reader, I felt obliged to go along.

Four beers were on the go and I started on 420, the brewery's "extra" pale ale, that epithet referring, I assume, to the somewhat overcharged ABV of 5.7%. It's one of those beers that starts wafting hop volatiles at you even when it's still being poured. There's nothing more exciting than Centennial and Cascade in this but it broadcasts a soft peachiness that's very much in line with present-day American hopped pale ales. The flavour is simple and sweet, reminding me of nothing so much as Juicy Fruit chewing gum. The texture is light enough so that the sweetness doesn't build, despite a very low level of hop bitterness. I found it finishes a little bit watery which helps ensure drinkability but I would expect more substance at 5.7% ABV, regardless of how well-hidden that strength is. Overall, though, a very nice hoppy sessioner.

Weirdo of the bunch was Blue, a wheat beer with added blueberries. It's only 4.6% ABV and arrives a clear pale shade of yellow. But what it lacks in blueberry appearance it makes up for in blueberry taste and smell: it's absolutely roaring with the things, smelling like a muffin and tasting like blueberry pop. I was expecting some level of wheatiness but there's really very little else going on: it's another sweet and simple light beer. Fortunately I really like the flavour of blueberries so I got a kick out of its bouncy silliness. Your mileage may vary.

I decided to go for the brown ale next but by the time I got to the bar the supplies had run out. Nothing for it, then, but skip ahead to SweetWater IPA. Feedback around the room on this was quite negative, I found, and I'd set myself up for a disappointment. But there isn't a thing wrong with this beer. I suspect its only failing is that it's not how IPAs tend to be brewed these days, by the fashionista brewers, at least. It's 6.3% ABV and a pale golden colour. The aroma is sharp rather than fruity: a mix of lemon sherbet and a waxy acidity. Zip, zing and zest are all absent from the flavour, replaced by a heavy and serious dank. It's an unctuous and oily hop bomb with a hard and very grown-up bitterness. If all those tropical IPAs have left your lupulin threshold in need of a shift, this is the lad that'll do it.

Does the Irish speciality beer market need another core range from an American craft brewer in it? I dunno. Rye River is certainly having no trouble making hoppy delights with the beatings of any of these. But I'll always vote for something I've never had before and perhaps I'm not alone among Irish drinkers there.

Thanks to Niall, Alan, Alex, Simon and all the Rye River crew for a fun night out. Go sports!

26 September 2016

Scoop creep

Decent dark lager for home drinking can be hard come by in these parts. Dublin's Czech pubs are a handy source of draught Herold Tmavé, which goes a long way towards scratching the itch, but you can end up feeling left out when you feel like staying in. Then I got a recommendation of a cheap-as-chips schwarzbier sold in Lidl so I picked up one of those and noticed a couple of other German offerings alongside and decided I'd make a mini session of it.

I waited for a sunny day before tackling them, mainly because the radler kinda demands it. It was only when I took it out of the fridge that I noticed Landbräu Radler isn't even German: it's Austrian. At 2% ABV and less than €1 I wasn't expecting much beyond refreshment. And I'm not sure it even delivers that. Though authentically cloudy it's extremely sweet, sickly even, and the lemon aspect is more detergent than zest. There's no citrus bite, and that fatally harms its ability to quench thirst. I drank it quickly at fridge temperature and still found it tough going so I dread to think what happens to this once it begins to warm up. Best avoided.

On then to the more serious Festbier, from an unnamed brewery in Baden-Württemberg. It's a delightful auburn colour, darker than I'd expect for a German märzen or festbier and resembling more the heavier American approximation of this style. The head piles up enthusiastically on pouring, then settles to a fine, tight layer of white mousse. An impressive aroma unleashes a heady torrent of green noble hops, luscious and grassy, and screaming to be slurped down. A soft texture helps make that possible: light carbonation lending it a creamy smoothness with no hard fizzy edges. Malt dominates the flavour, the classic moist cakey sweetness of strong German lager, with a richness that almost veers towards milk chocolate. Those hops are reduced to a minor supporting role adding a mild metallic tang to the finish that just about qualifies as balancing. Four mouthfuls cleared the half-litre and much as it hit the spot I'm not sure I'd be on for opening another straight away: it's just a little bit too heavy for session drinking, even though the ABV is a relatively modest 5.5% ABV. It's a very well-made beer, though, no question.

So I was all keyed up for opening the Schwarz Bier, weaker at 4.9% ABV, an opaque cola-brown and not in much of a rush to form a head. The aroma is mild but promising, offering more grassy hops but also a pleasantly bittersweet liquorice twang. As expected, it's another unfizzy beer, which is in its favour, but the flavour is quite muted. Caramelised sugar is at the centre and I was expecting a supporting cast of bitter hop bite and dry roast but they never really materialise. It tastes as though corners have been cut, in a way that the Festbier definitely does not. Thankfully the sweetness doesn't build as it goes, so it remains easy drinking all the way down, but there's very little that's distinctive or interesting about it. Inoffensive, sessionable, but not a great ambassador for the schwarzbier style.
Edited to add: I'd be reasonably confident that outside Oktoberfest season this is also sold as Perlenbacher Schwarzbier.

I guess I lucked out with the Festbier. A good lesson in why it's always a good idea to buy the two beers either side of the one you went in for.

22 September 2016

Ballsbridge and beyond

Wrapping up the reviews of 2016's Irish Craft Beer Festival at the RDS, today it's beers from Connacht and Ulster, as well as blow-ins and break-outs.

I did a short spell tending the pumps at N17 where there were a couple of lovely stouts and N17 Festival Ale, an English-style golden ale at 4.5% ABV. I think it was coming to the end of the cask by then as I got a bit of a murky sample but it was still possible to taste that there's a very good beer in here, classically English with a honey and flower sweetness balanced by gentle lemon from the First Gold dry hopping. Beers like this are far too rare in these parts.

I also did some pint-pulling duty across the hall at N17's host brewery Reel Deel. As it happened Marcus had two unfamiliar beers in his line-up. General Humbert is badged as both an ale and a lager depending on where you look, and is really one of those pseudo-lagers utilising clean-burning ale yeast Danstar Nottingham. It's dry and thirst quenching with just enough noble hop vegetable greenness to keep it interesting. Next to it was Finn's Knowledge, displaced Yorkshireman Marcus's attempt at a Yorkshire bitter. It's an appropriate pale gold and 4.5% ABV. The waxy bitterness which for me is the hallmark of the style is definitely present and it's also rather dry, with a very English metallic hop bite. It's solid and unexciting, not trying too hard to impress, so mission accomplished, I guess.

To Independent Brewing next, and a Festival IPA they'd brought, a big one at 7.6% ABV. It's fun and sweet, smelling like a fruit chew while tasting unctuous and resiny. That chew sweet thing seems to be a calling card of Vic Secret hops, employed here with Ella and Ahtanum. I'd be interested to try more than a sample of this recipe: it has the makings of something interesting as long as it can avoid the malt building up to the point of getting cloying, and that's something difficult to judge with just one small plastic cupful among many other beers.

Féile Spraoi is the name of Carrig's latest addition, a witbier. I think this may have been so new as to have been a little green as I detected a certain out-of-character sulphurousness about it, the sort of thing I'd expect to mellow out after a couple of weeks. Beyond this it's simple, decent and refreshing, lacking bells and whistles, and indeed clangers and klaxons.

Also from the north-west, Kinnegar had brought One for Ronan, Belgian-style amber ale brewed in tribute to a departed friend. Though a mere 6.5% ABV this could almost pass for a dubbel, being dense and quite hot, loaded with typical esters as well as a bourbon biscuit chocolate quality that grows as it gets warmer. It's smoother than a dubbel, however, and would make for a great winter beer if it lasts that long.

A couple of pockets of foreign beers rounded out the hall. On one side Grand Cru beers was running a Colorado stall for Ska, Left Hand, Oskar Blues and Odell. From the latter of these Wally kindly gave me a sample of Broombere, a gose with blackberries. I'm expecting something sugary and woeful but it really is a proper gose with all the herb and salt flavours that come with. The blackberry provides no more than a lacing to this and helps accentuate the gentle tartness. It's very drinkable and surprisingly subtle.

Meanwhile, down at the end of the hall, there was much interest in Beavertown's outpost. I came to it quite late and managed to snaffle only a quickie taster of Wit or Melon, a witbier using Hüll Melon hops. How do they think up the names? It's super juicy; a real chin dribbler, packed with jaffa and mandarin flavours but also a lovely aftershave spiciness to keep it from getting too sweet. There is a little bit of a yeast bite, but nothing that interferes with the flavour. I drank it on a numb palate on the last evening but it still managed to impress me.

Finally a bit of ambush marketing by Rising Sons. They weren't at the festival but, unbeknownst to me, the Cork-based chain the brewery belongs to also has a footprint in Dublin, not far from the RDS: Arthur Mayne's in Donnybrook. It was here that brewer Shane came to launch his latest on the Friday night: Orange Crush, a Berliner Weisse and this time with real oranges and mandarins included. The ABV is a little on the high side at 4.1% but it's still basically on-style, showing enough tartness to be refreshing without going full-pucker, and with a distinct crunchy grain base, usually the first part of the flavour profile to vanish when something else gets added in. The fruit adds a slight sweetness, tipping the balance away from dry and sour just the right amount to give a beautifully elegant quaffing refresher. On a warm September's night after an evening in a crowded festival hall it was the perfect pick-me-up before I headed home.

Cheers to the festival organisers and all the brewers I bothered over the weekend. The September festival is always an enjoyable gig, as much for who you meet as what you get to drink. If you're getting festive in Cork this weekend, have a great one.

21 September 2016

A race to the bottom

I've been taking a vaguely geographical approach to recounting the beers at the 2016 Irish Craft Beer Festival this week. Starting in Dublin on Monday, however, I'd got no further than Wicklow by the end of yesterday. It's time to pick up the pace.

On down to Carlow for the first beer of today, and there was a prodigious range of regulars and specials on the O'Hara's bar, as always. Brand new for the gig was Festhalten, a weissbier. It's one of the lighter examples of the style I've met, just 5% ABV and a little thin, lacking that süffig quality that makes weissbier such a great breakfast beer. You can't argue with its banana qualities, however: that's right on-style. But there's also a fun sulphurous complexity, a kind of gunpowder dryness in both the flavour and the aroma that keeps the sweetness at bay and adds to the refreshment quotient. An interesting Irish take on the classic Bavarian style, though I think I prefer the more clovey versions.

Next to it there was something badged as a Grapefruit IPA. Oh dear. I gave it a go anyway, expecting at best a second-rate pale ale in which the fruit juice all fermented out leaving nothing behind, or else a sticky sickly artificial mess. It is neither. It is amazing. Sure, the IPA side of the equation is rather unbalanced. I couldn't tell you what, if any, hops have been added to this. But the grapefruit more than makes up for it. This is really real grapefruit: spicy more than it is bitter or citric, a sharp, almost peppery quality, with a burn like a squirt of grapefruit juice in the eye. The intense flavour also carries complexities I associate with aquavit or similar Nordic liqueurs: caraway and aniseed in particular. It's also very refreshing, finishing beautifully clean without an ounce more residual sugar than it needs for body. This was my standout beer of the festival and certainly the biggest surprise. I hope we'll be seeing it again soon.

Wexford next, and a raft of new beers from Arthurstown, all in smart new livery. Hook Pilsner was a bit on the sweet side for me, with more butter and brown sugar than I'd normally like in a pale lager, though saved by a crunch of noble hop celery and a pinch of white pepper in the finish. Its companion is Hook Amber, sweeter again with massive amounts of toffee and caramel, though better placed in this red ale. The density brings a degree of alcoholic heat, more than you'd expect at just 5% ABV, The hops aren't totally absent, but this is pretty damn malt-forward, even for an amber ale.

Last of the set is Hook Minch Malt Collab, brewed in association with the local maltings to a recipe including seaweed and honey. Intriguing! It's a medium gold colour with a salty seaside aroma. The flavour is very subtle, showing a light saltiness on a very clean lagery base. There's a tiny bit of sweetness from the honey but it's barely perceptible at all. The carbonation is high so it does give the palate a good scrub. While not the most exciting of beers I'm of the opinion that it makes a better job of being a pilsner than the pilsner does.

The award for bravest beer of the festival goes to Dungarvan Brewing who decided to make one of those joke beers that people invent when they're trying to slag off craft beer. Rood Boy is a Flemish red with added bacon and maple. Actual bacon in your actual beer. How did that go? Not well, if I'm honest. The sourness is without any subtlety at all, strongly acetic, like drinking cold white vinegar. It is possible to taste the crisp and crunchy bacon, and the sweet woody maple, but it's not easy and you have to get past a lot of relentless acid to find them. A nice idea and an interesting novelty, but not something I'd be choosing to drink.

There was a festival special IPA as well: Allez Hop, a big beast at 6.2% ABV, dark gold with a funky and resinous hop aroma. The flavour begins on a lighter, more floral, hop note, set on a cakey malt body, but doesn't really go anywhere from there. I think, for a beer with "hop" in the name, this just needs more hop.

Waterford neighbours Metalman had their autumn seasonal Autumn out bang on time. It's just a straightforward raspberry and chilli ale, utilising basic habanero extract and your standard multi-strain lactobacillus for souring, coming out the uniform pinkish-orange colour at 5.3% ABV. It's not all that sour to taste, just dryly attenuated. The raspberries are the largest element in the flavour and aroma, while the chilli does little more than flick the back of the throat. It does deliver everything it promises but I think I'd just like more of them: I expected drama but didn't get it.

To Cork at last. Well, sort of. Mountain Man has switched breweries to Brú these days, but Mountain HQ is still in Cork. Raised By Wolves was the festival special, a 5% ABV IPA brewed with old buddies Chinook and Cascade. It's sharply bitter to begin, almost harshly so, before settling to a calmer caramel and sherbet malty middle. A touch more late-hopping would probably give it a better finish but it's decent stuff as-is.

And lastly Eight Degrees. They always seem to have a new double IPA in this room, and this year it was Supernova at 8% ABV. It looks innocent: a calm hazy gold, but the aroma is a blacksploitation soundtrack of heavy, sweaty hop funk, all dank and stank. And then it brightens up on tasting, showing a breezy spiciness with a sharp green punch and only a gentle caress of oily hop resins. While every inch a double IPA it's nicely cool and enjoyably sippable. This is probably my favourite one of these that they've done.

That's enough mileage for now. Tomorrow it's the north, the west, and goings-on beyond the festival walls.

20 September 2016

Wickla!

I left off yesterday's post on the Irish Craft Beer Festival with one from Wicklow Wolf. This post delves deeper into the garden county to find more of what its growing number of brewers are turning out.

The newest is in the west of the county and goes by the name of Beaky Dargus. It's a crew of home brewers of Polish extraction, turned semi-pro, and launching at the RDS with a good-sized range of quite daring beers. Mostly quite strong ones too. At the bottom of the scale was I Am Single, a Cascade-hopped pale ale. It's light and offers a decent, straightforward hop bite, though does finish a little soapy for some reason. Their stout is called Black Beak Juggler and is a substantial 5.5% ABV. It doesn't taste it, though, being lightly textured, quite dry and with a touch of putty flavour. I suspect that this more mainstream end of brewing is not enjoyed by the team as much as the more outré side.

And that begins with Golden Melody, a golden ale at 7.5% ABV. Among the complex elements here are a similar soap to the pale ale, but also light toffee, a subtle melon juiciness and a smooth mineral soda finish. It's far more thirst quenching than it ought to be, and shows a nuance in its strength that reminded me of the way Belgians handle this kind of stuff. But then the brewers decided to pop it into a Scottish whisky barrel for a while, producing something they've called Turf Cutter, and with good reason. The base beer is almost totally lost under a massively phenolic peated-whisky flavour and aroma, with a dose of corky oak to go along with that. Subtle it ain't, but if smoke is your thing this'll get those endorphins flowing. And biggest of the lot is One Man Orchestra, described as a "whiskey barrel aged imperial Irish coffee milk stout" and there's really not much for me to add because it does all those things. I was expecting it to be hot and dense at 10% ABV, and bursting with vanilla too, but it's not. Instead there's a gentle but pronounced coffee flavour, a lacing of creamy lactose sugar and just a small measure of whiskey for effect. It's a mannerly beer, its flavours all very well integrated and beautifully smooth drinking. With this ability to do big, strong and barrel-aged well, could we have Ireland's De Molen on our hands? Time will tell.

Much fuss was deservedly being made about the long anticipated return of O Brother's magnificent black IPA, Bonita, but they also had another more toned-down new beer to offer at the festival. The Preacher is a session IPA at 4.6% ABV and based on their previous release, Max. Sensibly they've lowered the bitterness somewhat and this lets a lovely lemon citrus flavour shine through in it. A chalky mineral quality opens it before the hops start to build, the lemon turning to sharp and invigorating rind by the end. It still takes a moment or two for the palate to adjust to the bitterness, but the beer becomes very nicely gulpable once it does.

The county's eponymous Wicklow Brewery had Gingerknut on tap when I rolled up to their bar. This is one of their regulars but it had so far eluded me in Dublin. It's a simple little chap, a hazy orange pale ale at 4.4% ABV in which the ginger flavours are used to great effect, bringing a gentle old-fashioned spiciness, like ginger biscuits, without any of the extreme heat or dryness found in beers with more aggressive levels of ginger. Nicely accessible, this.

The management are particularly pleased with how Black 16 stout turned out. This is an oatmeal stout of 4.9% ABV with added coffee and vanilla. For me, the latter of these additions was far too dominant: a super sickly blast of vanilla that absolutely drowns everything else out, almost completely. I reckon there's a good stout, even a good coffee stout, under here, but it turns out I have a vanilla sensitivity.