05 September 2016

Round Ireland with a thirst, part 1: Sligo

It's been a busy summer of beery events, one which has brought me out of my usual haunts in the capital on several occasions. The first trip was in late July, to The White Hag Brewery.

I don't think I'm being too controversial when I describe White Hag as one of the leading lights of Ireland's beer scene. So when they announced they were having a big party at the brewery to celebrate their second birthday I was definitely in (that they kindly stumped up for my train fare sweetened the deal). I'd also never travelled on the Sligo line outside of metropolitan Dublin so there was an extra nerdy thrill of railway exploration, something that's hard come by with a network as limited as Ireland's.

Nearly three hours from Dublin Connolly we arrived at Ballymote, a cutesy rural station that's conveniently next to the industrial park where White Hag has made its home. Brewer Joe mentioned on our subsequent tour that the water profile hereabouts was a major influence on that: it's remarkably soft for Ireland, apparently. The brewery is in a vast former car dealership and has plenty of expansion room, as well as party space. A bar had been set up and guest brewers invited, but first a look at the new one from our hosts that was pouring.

Niamh Chinn Oir (who?) is billed as a Belgian pale ale and is bright gold in colour -- hardly hazy at all. It makes good use of its 6.8% ABV to drive the flavour and aroma, the latter being a rich and funky ripe mango thing, the former mixing up old-world green bitterness with a juicy peach-skin tropical note, set against a background of crunchy grain. It's heady stuff, and while not as polished as, say, Flying Dog's Raging Bitch, it has a lot going on to enjoy.

YellowBelly's delegation brought an American-style red ale with oats, called (inevitably) The Red Oats Are Comin'. It's a murky amber colour and pretty dense, which I guess is unsurprising at 6% ABV. You get a lot of the very typical hoppy red flavours in this; marzipan is how they often taste to me, and this is no exception: a heavy mix of nuts, oils and fruits. Even cold from the keg it's very filling. I don't think I could drink a lot of it, but it certainly delivers on the promise of strong American-style amber ale. No surprises here.

The cuckoo in YellowBelly's nest, Otterbank, brought Beta Barrel 1 - Golden Sour Chardonnay, a Belgian-style golden ale given the mixed fermentation treatment and then aged 13 months in a white wine cask. The result resembles lemon barley water and tastes much more subtle than most examples of nouveau sour. There's a highy-attenuated wheaty cereal base, a citrus tartness, an oily herbal bitterness and in the middle a succulent juicy grape character. While great fun to analyse and explore it's also a 4.5% ABV session beer. A growler of this saw me back to Dublin later on.

Kinnegar's latest sour offering was also pouring. Walla Walla is another hazy pale yellow job and is a bit stronger at 5.5% ABV. Ginger and rhubarb have been employed and the latter really shines through strongly, accentuating the underlying tartness of the base beer. The ginger is a little understated but still very distinct and helps lift the flavour profile, much like spices do in any fruit pie. A squeaky-clean finish brings it all to an end. I really liked the way each individual part of the beer could be tasted separately, something rare enough in spiced and/or fruited beers.

Two guests were over from London for the day: Beavertown and Redchurch. I concentrated on the wheat beers from the former, for better or worse. Worse mostly. Peacher Man "peach cobbler wit" is a murky orange colour and had lots of savoury biscuit, which I'm guessing is the toasted oats working overtime. There's a little peach flavour, but nothing one could describe as sweet or juicy; it's barely fruity. Load of cobblers, more like.

The titular fruit was even more lacking in the accompanying Berliner weisse, Pineapple Phantom. There's a wheat overload in this pale, hazy and headless number, which smells dry, musty and stale. You don't get any mouthwatering tartness either, just a slightly harsh acidic burn in the finish. Ghastly, more like.

Right, over to Redchurch before we hit the rails. There was no messing about with fruit in their Dry Hopped Sour and the resulting beer was a loud, brash, edgy cacophony of bretty funk and lactic sharpness. Unsubtle, uncomplicated, but riotously fun.

I was immediately impressed by the aroma of Hoxton Stout: a banging fresh red-cabbage greenness with thick caramel rearing up behind it. The fresh hops are there in the middle of the flavour but are bookended by less attractive stout characteristics, like the intense dry burnt foretaste and the acrid acidic finish. It packs a lot into its 6% ABV -- I've tasted full-on imperial stouts with less happening -- but this time all the energetic activity just gets in the way of the mellow hoppy stout I'd like it to be.

And last down the hatch for me was Great Eastern India Pale Ale, surprisingly pale for something as strong as 7.5% ABV. The aroma suggests nothing more complex than marmalade but on tasting this folds out into spicy lime and other citus pith resins. I sipped merrily on my half pint, though noticed that the alcohol does catch up with it gradually and it does start to feel thicker and hotter as it begins to warm up. Served cold, however, it's a great super-charged take on hop-forward English IPA.

It wasn't just the IPA that the alcohol was catching up on. The last train back to Dublin left at 6.20 and I was glad to be on that, vegetating with my growler, as the rest of the party moved on towards Sligo town and the early hours of Sunday. You can follow the debauchery on Joe's video here.

Huge thanks to everyone who made the day happen, especially the White Hag team. What they've achieved in two short years is nothing short of inspirational.

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