06 September 2016

Round Ireland with a thirst, part 2: Belfast

After a bit over six years in office I stepped down as Beoir's treasurer at the beginning of last month. It was pleasing that my valedictory annual general meeting was held in Belfast, a city that's really starting to hit its stride as regards beer and brewing, despite the many political and cultural hurdles that decent drinking faces in Northern Ireland. BrewBot on the Ormeau Road was a great choice of venue -- it's got a big long boardroom table and everything -- but they went above and beyond by having two beers on the menu brewed (or at least badged) especially for the meeting on the automated BrewBot nanobrewery, for which the pub acts as the showroom.

Beoir Red Rye Ale was 6% ABV and hits the flavour targets for the style pretty methodically. Above all there's a kind of hoppy fudge sweetness at the centre, given an extra bitterness by the rye right at the front and tailing off into oily coconut. There was a slight yeast bite but not much, and the hops do a good job of drawing attention away from it. The aroma was probably the weakest point: the hops did not manifest here at all, but otherwise it was invigorating, refreshing, and not too distracting from the matters at hand.

I waited until the conclusion of business before requesting a Beoir Double IPA at 8% ABV. This is a hazy orange colour and entices you in with a sweet orange sherbet aroma. The bitterness is punchy and direct right from the first sip but doesn't really follow through all that well as regards hop flavour, just a very mild and generalised citrus buzz. There's a dry smack at the end and then a warming fuzziness from the booze. It's a beer that's felt more than tasted, and happily didn't destroy my palate before I got to try more from BrewBot's selection.

Turning to the English options, I had two from Manchester's Tickety Brew brewery, beginning with a 3.8% ABV Cherry Berliner Weisse. It's the pale pink of pink grapefruit juice and rather sickly looking. While it does deliver a certain mild cherry aroma, the flavour is a very standard watery and wheaty Berliner weisse flavour. True to style perhaps, but it helps one understand why people first thought the style needs syrup added to it.

You get a bit more for your money out of Tickety Brew's Peach Ice Tea Pale, a hazy yellow 4.6% ABV number which I bought bottled. There's a big yeast bite but plenty of fresh peach as well, and a nice tannic dryness keeping the sweet fruit in check. Overall, despite the flaws, it holds together rather well and makes for fun drinking.

Bullhouse Brewing in Newtownards is one of the province's newest breweries and I got to try a couple of their offerings on the day. At BrewBot it was Uber Tuber, a saison made from potatoes. It sounds gimmicky but from a purely sensory point of view it's not: this presents as a very straightforward, good quality saison, clear gold and cleanly dry with just hints of barnyard straw. Later on, up the back of Bittles Bar, I found Bullhouse's Small Axe, a gorgeously juicy 4.8% ABV pale ale. This offers peach, pineapple and lychee, all in a row, all without any other interference. After a few mouthfuls it settles down but is still nicely sessionable and far from bland.

Also in Bittles I had a bottle of Farmageddon's California Common. It's very sweet for the style and the low 4% ABV hints that it didn't ferment as far out as it should have. I look for a dark bourbon biscuit flavour in this style but this gave me a full-on gooey Galaxy Caramel chocolate bar. Stylistic concerns aside there's nothing wrong with it, but it would probably suit fans of brown ale more than California common.

The day also included an excursion to Belfast's oldest existing brewery Hercules (est. 2014), in the harbour area, out beyond George Best Airport. Though it seemed to come from nowhere with its decent-but-unexciting Yardsman Lager, Hercules was a long time in the making, growing out of established speciality beer importer Phoenix Drinks. The distinctive riveted keg fonts really stand out and they cropped up pretty quickly around the bars of Belfast, all of which is me back-pedalling frantically from my previous belief that it was all fakery. But no, all Hercules beer comes from this cramped little unit, currently on its second brewkit, a Dave Porter job acquired from Brú in Meath. As is the way of these things, a further upgrade is becoming increasingly urgent.

Yardsman Belfast Pale Ale I'd tasted before at last year's CAMRA NI festival, where it was not in good shape, and brewery owner Niall had his own explanation of how that happened. It was much better on keg, however: dry, clean and with a green celery note. I'm a fan of this sort of slightly astringent, mineral-chalky pale ale and would like to see more of them around.

Entirely new to me was Yardsman Double Stout, a 4.3%-er designed to slot in neatly among the mainstream brands, er, brand. I'm sure it gets labelled as a "Dry Irish Stout" in places where such labels are applied, but it's not especially dry, or bitter. Instead there's a very accessible mild chocolate character for something creamy and smooth but with just enough character to avoid being bland. Think Porterhouse Plain or Whitewater Belfast Black and you're in the same general ballpark. If you're wondering about the name, the brewery makes claims that the recipe is influenced by 19th century Belfast stouts (there was an original Hercules Brewery on Royal Avenue around 1850) but trying to flog a 4.3% ABV beer as "double stout" in Victorian Belfast would likely have got you thrown in the Lagan.

I was sent home with a bottle of the last of the current Hercules line-up, Yardsman IPA. At 4.3% ABV next to Belfast Pale Ale's 5.6% it's guaranteed to piss off the prescriptivists, but they made that rod for their own backs. It presents a rather murky orange colour and smells of jaffa zest and oaty biscuits. The flavour is very sweet with lots of fun orange juice, a prickle of sherbet and maybe a hint of marmalade zing. Unsurprisingly, the body is thin, and the carbonation is low because I got a short-fill bottle that wouldn't have been sold anyway. I liked it. The ABV and low bitterness may disappoint a few IPA purists, but it fits happily into my head space among the orangey English IPAs like Fuller's and White Shield.

Back in town, I wound things up at The Woodworkers. There aren't many places in Belfast you'll find a Catalan brown ale on draught: reason enough to order Darro by Balate. It has all the classic chocolatey caramel you'd expect from the style, a certain dry roasted bite for balance, and then a slight sour sharpness on the finish which I'm not sure is supposed to be there but doesn't interfere. Decent stuff, though probably more of a taste sensation down by the Med than up in the Wee Six.

Beer of the moment, however, was Skiffie Worlds, a 5% ABV  all-Equinox IPA brewed by Manchester's Marble for an international boating event that happened on Strangford Lough back in July. My half arrived looking sad and headless but there wasn't anything wrong with the flavour. It's an absolutely banging hop beast, full of spiky oily resins and all the hardman hop flavours like pine, lime and having your tongue burnt off with acid. It should have been far too bitter and unbalanced for me, but it just worked, screaming quality and freshness loud enough to drown out any concerns about nuance or complexity.

Then nothing for it but a carry-out from the offy next door and train-beering it back to Dublin once more. A lot of work went into organising the day out, so big thanks to Reuben, Stephen, Steve and the teams at BrewBot and Hercules. And of course to Dr John, Beoir's new Master of Coin. I'm really enjoying retirement so far.

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