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.
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