31 October 2016

The crawl is on

In late September I headed off on an 18,000km round trip to the United States, taking in three cities, 38 pubs and a fair handful of beers which you're going to hear all about in varying levels of detail on this blog in the coming weeks. But I'll say this at the outset: one of the objects of the exercise was to attempt a benchmarking of American beers, especially the hoppy ones, against what we have closer to home. And while I had a number of utterly sublime beers, my back-of-the-envelope assessment is that the days of the US being on OMG the next level are gone. We get plenty of locally produced beers in Europe these days that can go toe-to-toe with what America does, and I'm including Portland Oregon during fresh hop season in that. What the US did lack, however, is clunkers: infections, oxidation, yeast bite and other technical oopsies that we see too much of here, even from reputable breweries. Beers that come in for criticism in the following pages do so mainly because I didn't like them, not because somebody messed up the brewing. Though cask dispense is a whole other story. Anyway, let's get the first pint in.

The initial, and longest, part of the trip was New York. We stayed in Brooklyn and on the first evening wandered down to Brooklyn Heights, on the shore of the East River overlooking downtown Manhattan. Cliché be damned, we began with a pizza. I ordered a War Flag Pils with mine, War Flag being based up the other end of the borough. It arrived a rather unhealthy yellow colour but redeemed itself with a lovely lemony foretaste. It had quite a lot of the German brewpub pils about it: crunchy rustic grains and a mild yeast burr. Rounded and filling rather than sharp and quenching it was still rather enjoyable and I would happily have quaffed it and ordered another except for the $7 (plus tax and tip) price tag. Beer isn't cheap in the city I came to regard over the following days as less of a New York and more of a Stinky Geneva.

Anyway, back to the present and around the corner to a pleasant looking pub we'd passed previously for a couple of final beers as we fought the jetlag. More pils for me, this time Joe's Pils from Colorado brewery Avery: an old friend I haven't seen in far too many years. My enthusiasm was short lived, however. It's a rather dull, thin, boring lager, making a bit of an effort with some nettley noble hops and adding in an American fruit-chew-sweet overtone, but ending up underwhelming, if inoffensive.

Looking for a smidge more wow I picked Fruit Fly next, from sour enthusiasts New Belgium. This one has added passionfruit and Citra hops and exhibits a powerfully funky farmyard aroma. Citra leads the charge in the taste: a big lemon and lime tartness, followed swiftly by a burst of passionfruit sweet. I wanted it to keep going in this direction but the finish is rapid: dry and chalky. It's nearly superb but I think I'd like the volume turned up a little on it.

Back to New York breweries and on the left of the picture there is amber-coloured Bronx Pale Ale. Ah, now here's the America I expected: resins on the nose, a full jar of toffees in the flavour, turning quickly to burnt caramel. The hops add a lacing of sherbet and then a hard green bitterness. It's a bit of a tough guy, but loveable and cuddly with it.

Day two brought us over to Manhattan, and wandering towards Times Square at roughly beer o'clock I spotted a neon sign flashing BREWERY down the street. Closer inspection revealed it to be a branch of the Heartland brewpub chain. Inside it was pleasantly bright and cheery with a long bar, a full range of beer options and a folksy -- but not too folksy -- theme. Oatmeal stout for me: Farmer Jon's. This is 6% ABV and as full and smooth as you like. Creamy milky chocolate is the centre, edged with the bitterness of darker cocoa and a grainy dryness to keep it from over-sweetness. It really delivers on the promises of the style.

Another 6%-er for the lady: Indiana, Heartland's IPA. Like our friend from the Bronx it's a sticky one, though tasting more of orange boiled sweets than toffee. But while it's most definitely heavy and sweet, there's an acid bitterness in the finish which accumulates sufficiently to provide balance. Overall it's a little too sweet for me, but it does its thing quite well.

At dinnertime we found ourselves in Hell's Kitchen, just on the edge of theatreland so understandably well stocked with eating options. We found a pleasant little taco place and resisted the upsold margaritas, opting instead for White Aphro, a wheat beer by Empire Brewing in Syracuse. They didn't warn me that it contains ginger but boy does it: a massive hit of sweet crystallised ginger right at the start, and through the middle as well, with a long tail of throat-scratching ginger ale dryness. I quite like unabashed ginger beers so I was fine with it, even if it was pretty one-dimensional.

So far we were just finding beers on the fly. Time now to start ticking off the must-visits on the list I'd brought with me. Rattle N Hum was nearest to where we happened to be standing so that's where we headed. It seems that The City That Never Sleeps doesn't do quiet Tuesday evenings either, and the long, narrow and dark sports bar was packed. We just managed to get a couple of seats at an unbussed table by the solitary window. Fighting my way to the bar I came back with a Blanc Tarte Barrique for me, an all-over-the-place barrel-aged sour beer from San Diego's Green Flash, swinging wildly between the intense woody sourness of aged gueuze and soft luscious peach fruit. It's an absolute rollercoaster but I rather enjoyed the ride; and for her Glacial Trail IPA: more boiled sweets and lots and lots of heavy cloying crystal malt. She liked it but a sip was plenty for me. Another round seemed like far too much effort so we left it there.

It was down to the East Village the following afternoon, and Fool's Gold, a bayou shack-style bar which probably also gets loud and uncomfortable in the evenings but was very civilised at 2pm. And oh, hello Hill Farmstead on the tap list. Sumner pale ale was the shout: murky, of course, and a little bit rough with it, but also demonstrating a pleasant gentle grapefruit bitterness. Simcoe, Citra and Mosaic are the hops and the latter does impart a little of its signature spring onion as well. Not a stunner, but really not bad either.

Next to it there is Other Half IPA, Other Half being a south Brooklyn brewery of no small repute according to this piece by Mr Urch. We didn't make the time to visit it ourselves, but did sample a few of its wares on the way round. This one is extremely, bizarrely, malt-forward for an IPA, brown in appearance and tasting more of chocolate than of hops. A strange and unsettling introduction to the brewery.

That was followed by a much more orthodox pale ale: Daisy Cutter by Chicago's Half Acre. Funky dank resins pour out of the aroma while the flavour sparks with peach and grapefruit, and yet it never quite tips over into hop-based sensory overload. In fact the bitterness is low enough that it feels like it should be punchier, but as-is, it's bright, fresh and very drinkable, especially at a modest 5.2% ABV.

To finish this post, we stay in the East Village but step away from craft beer and into McSorley's Old Ale House, an Irish-American landmark pub trying so hard to be a blue collar saloon you can see a vein bulging in its forehead. Sawdust covers the floor and surly waiters sling two types of beer at you, two glasses at a time for some reason, both brewed for the house by the ultimate blue collar brewer Pabst. More than anywhere, its darkness, bruskness, and take-it-or-leave-it approach to choice reminded me of U Fleků in Prague.

McSorley's Draft Ale is a pale gold colour with little to say for itself other than an old world hop bitterness which has a touch of white pepper about it, so I'm guessing is made with something German. McSorley's Draft Porter has a definite stout dryness up front, then a middle of caramel and liquorice for a kind of Czech tmavý effect. A nasty saccharine metallic twang creeps in after a while rendering it less enjoyable with each sip towards the end. Were I calling for a third I'd be back on the ale again, but I wasn't. A tiny, exclusive, uber-craft bar had just opened for the day two blocks away and I wanted to get in before the hordes of unspeakable cool people nabbed all the stools.

28 October 2016

Baby got backlog

Before I went on holidays in September I made a concerted effort to clear as much as I could out of my beer fridge. This post represents that hurried few days' swigging -- an express train through some of the bottled Irish beers new to me in autumn 2016.

I started with a refreshing witbier from Wicklow Wolf. Belgian White is a fizzy beast, taking a few goes to pour and resulting in a true-to-style hazy pale orange body topped with a crackling white head. It smells of fizz too: a hard carbonic bite, backed up by coriander herbs. I was expecting a hard prickle in the mouthfeel but the bubbles are surprisingly big and the texture of the beer nicely heavy and rounded, moreso than might be expected at just 5.2% ABV.

The label description mentions bananas and I get that estery fruit thing running right through the beer from foretaste to finish. There's a substantial higher-alcohol heat as well, bringing a certain element of acetone to the taste. A lacing of juicy citrus and a dry wheaty finish do a good job of providing balance and keep the whole thing from getting too hot and heavy. You'd probably need to drink it colder than I did to get any real refreshment from this guy, but as a weighty and complex take on wit it works quite well.

Red ale with Sorachi Ace hops is a new one on me, I think, but that's what Wicklow Wolf's Sorachi Red is. It's a clear dark copper colour, almost more brown than red, and topped by a stiff off-white head. The two sides of the equation are present right from the aroma, showing lots of toffee but also the distinctive lemon rind and powdered coconut of Sorachi Ace. There's a very Irish red sort of burnt roast in the flavour, something that successfully pushes against both the crystal malt sweetness and the obstreperous hops.

It's almost classically traditional, if a little strong at 5.1% ABV, and only at the finish is there that cheeky pinch of lemon. Definitely not a mad banging craft beer oddity, but rather a fun modern twist on a quite old fashioned style. Grandad's bought a fixie. Good for him.

Combining witbier with the east-Asian theme brings us to Thai Wit, new from Dungarvan Brewing. It's a whopping 6.4% ABV and rather dark for the style, a kind of amber brown. There's a lovely sweet Thai perfume, the lemongrass particularly prominent. It's rather more style-typical on tasting, the coriander coming through loud and clear on top of a dry wheatiness with lots of fizz. I'd swear I can taste the orange peel but no orange is listed on the ingredients. Perhaps it's the kaffir lime leaf giving it that citrus quality. The herbal finish lasts long, an oily coriander residue left on the lips.

It's a fun and interesting version of the style, not startlingly different but ramping up the flavours and offering a few extra bells and whistles. I didn't have any Thai food to hand but I reckon it would work very well as an accompaniment.

I'm writing this in the aftermath of the 2016 Irish Craft Beer Festival at the RDS and one of the stars of that show was Western Herd on their first visit to a Dublin festival. Apparently, anyway. I didn't get around to actually visiting their stand -- more fool me. I do have a couple of their bottles in the backlog, however, and I'm starting with yet another witbier: Back Beat.

This is a more orthodox orange colour. I had the option of leaving the yeast out but thought to hell with it and dumped the lees in as well, so you can add hazy to the appearance description. The fruit is off the charts in the aroma: bananas at first, then jaffa and mandarin, like a fruit salad (the dessert, not the chewy sweet). It's rather drier on tasting, with a sulphurous note I tend to associate with immature wheat beers. The coriander brings soap, the yeast an earthy grit, and all the lovely soft fruit from the aroma has evaporated. In the end it's a rather harsh beer, perhaps needing to be served very cold to smooth it out. It's complex, sure, but not in the right ways.

The other one of theirs I picked up in DrinkStore is Blue Jumper IPA. At 6.2% ABV a bit of poke was expected and it delivers in the aroma all right, a smack of fresh grapefruit with a definite heavy crystal malt toffee sweetness behind it: American-style IPA the way your momma used to make it.

It's extremely thick, to the point of being almost difficult to pull from the glass. At first there's a harsh and raw vegetal flavour but this opens out shortly after into zestier orange sherbet before settling back into the earthy tones of Cascade, with a more grapefruit and a metallic edge to remind you that this hop is descended from Fuggles.

Poke? Yes, it has that. This beer is extremely hoppy, in way that went out of fashion a couple of years ago but is genuinely fun to drink, as a 33cl serve anyway. The pencil sharpener finish is a bit much, but that gooey orange-toffee centre more than makes up for it.

Some more IPA to go on top of that? Sure why not. Amarillo is number four in Eight Degrees's series of 5.7% ABV single hoppers, each of which has gone all out to show the hops at their banging and bitterest best. This guy is no exception. I had a bit of a cold when I got to it so I think the full effect of the aroma was a little bit lost on me. It didn't smell of all that much anyway, just a faint candy-citrus that could be any hop.

However, there was nothing wrong with my flavour sensing apparatus: one sip brings a dense orangey oiliness, the exact same sort of hop density and intensity found in the beer's companions. Where you'd normally expect the malt to sweep in and spread the load, it doesn't. Instead there's a dry and quite tannic bitter finish, bringing Harvey's Sussex Best Bitter incongruously, but pleasingly, to mind. An acidic greenness hangs around on the palate afterwards, waiting to be swept away, temporarily, by another gush of citrus. Like the Galaxy and Mandarina Bavaria versions before it, it's a bit strange to have hops normally associated with juiciness bringing such a hard bitter edge to a beer, but also like those two, it's wonderfully invigorating and at the end of the bottle I was wishing I'd had a pint.

And finally, with the bags packed and the taxi booked, DOT's Sour Cherry Apricot Ale. It's a muddy brown colour with an odd sort of aroma: over-ripe squashy summer fruit and an enticing Orvalesque funk. Though it looks weighty it's only 4.5% ABV, with a corresponding lightness of texture. The flavour is quite light too and I sat perplexed at the keyboard for the first few mouthfuls, trying to find something to grab on to. The apricot is certainly there, as a sort of candied fruit flavour, then there's a kind of cherry skin bitterness and behind it the melanoidin biscuit flavour of the Belgian malt, and also a quite Belgian gritty yeast flavour. It all tails off quickly, leaving just a faint trace of that cherry bite.

It's definitely a disconcerting beer. Unsettling, even. Part of me wanted the flavours to be bigger and bolder, but I also wouldn't want it to be a hot sugary yeasty mess, which I'm sure would be all too easy to do. At the other end it has too much going on to be a refreshing quaffer, nor is it clean enough. So no constructive criticism from me, but I do think the recipe, while promising, needs work.

26 October 2016

Sour Brits

The fashion for sour beers continues apace, and is mostly to the good, in my opinion. Today I'm looking at one each from two English breweries who have produced some of my favourite British beers of recent years. Big things are expected.

I had gone into L. Mulligan Grocer looking for something else but when it wasn't available I picked Buxton's Trolltunga instead. They've brewed this in collaboration with Norwegian brewers Lervig and have badged it as a sour IPA, with added gooseberries for good measure and a powerful 6.3% ABV. That all sounds very complex but the reality was rather simpler. It's very pale, for starters: the wan yellow of a Berliner weisse rather than an IPA. The sourness is right up front as a lovely tangy bite with just a hint of sweeter gooseberry candy. The hops are the element which lose out in the combination, and I definitely wouldn't have described this as an IPA. Just right on the finish there's a slightly spicy lemon curd flavour and I'm wondering if that might be the hops at work. They're not grafting very hard if so.

I really enjoyed this. Above all it's clean and assertively sour with enough complexity to keep it interesting but not distract from its essential nature. It tastes nothing like as strong as it is so perhaps a note of caution should be sounded there.

The other beer is even more convoluted. Siren's Tschüss is a Berliner weisse but they've added lime, orange, blueberries and mint: not a combination I've met before. Located on tap in Alfie Byrne's, it's 5% ABV and a dark orange-amber colour. Blueberries can have a tendency to hide in a flavour profile but this wears them right up front in the aroma for a beer that smells incredibly tempting, like a moist blueberry muffin. In the flavour it's the mint that takes over: an eye-watering menthol sharpness plus a kind of pea-skin greenness. Once again something has to give and this time it's the orange and lime which seem to have disappeared completely, and the sourness is quite muted as well. It is still quite refreshing, however. The Berliner bugs have chomped through the malt nicely and left next to no residual sugars.

Tschüss is an interesting experiment. I wouldn't say the different elements gel together particularly well, but they work as individuals creating something that definitely holds the drinker's attention. A bit more sourness would have been nice, however.

And my expectations? Yes, they've been met. I'm looking forward to more sour oddities from both of these breweries.

24 October 2016

Just super

The SuperValu supermarket around the corner from me has featured in a few posts this year, including the one about them setting up their own growler station (no, I haven't seen anyone actually use it since then). Their bottled beer offer continues to improve and today's post is about three that I found on the shelves there that I'd not seen in the independent off licences where I normally buy my beers.

In the interests of blogger ethics I should point out that I've done a couple of recent paid gigs for SuperValu's parent company, but I think it's indicative of how serious they're taking their beer offer that they're willing to commission content from a communicator as talented, handsome and modest as myself.

To the beers, then. The first is Kelly's Mountain Lager. This Kildare microbrewery is better known (to me anyway) for its safe and mostly quite dark beers. I'll admit I was sceptical of their lagering abilities, and the wonky label didn't exactly inspire confidence. I put this to the full sensory test for lager, ie consuming it cold from the fridge on a sunny evening after I put manners on my lawn. It's only 4.2% ABV but it has the dark gold colouring of a bock, or even a märzen. And the flavour is along those lines: heavy with a golden syrup sweetness, accentuated by the low carbonation. There's no discernible hop character and only a couple of very minor technical imperfections -- I get a bit of green apple and some greasy esters -- but the finish is clean and it's properly crisp and quenching. Not the world's greatest pale lager but it does the job that the style is best at doing.

The Kenmare brand is exclusive to SuperValu and its sister companies, I think, with the beer brewed at Brú in Meath. Kenmare India Pale Ale talks a big game for a supermarket beer: "Extra Hopped IPA" says the front label, with "a blast of citrus" promised on the back. Well! It's dark orange with a slight haze and the aroma is quite sweet, with a sort of chocolate and caramel effect that isn't very IPAish at all. There's a definite fun spiciness in the flavour, even a touch of herbal dank, but that heavy residual sugar is there too, and it's the sugar that builds on the palate as you drink, to the point that it becomes cloying, more cloying than you'd expect at a modest 5.1% ABV. I think this may be one of those beers where the label copy was written before the hot liquor tank was plugged in, and describes what it's supposed to be, rather than what the contract brewery delivered. It's not a bad beer but it doesn't really let the hops shine the way they want to: the balance tilted just a little too far towards the malt.

Last up is Garage Days from Corrib Brewing under their Wild Bat label, a pale ale at a full 5% ABV. I got huge fizz from this, though at least some of that was down to the glass I chose. Beneath the foam it's a rich amber colour with a slightly funky orange smell once you get past the gassy CO2. It's another malt-heavy one, but not as sweet as the Kenmare, more rounded and balanced. The hops bring a decent amount of fruit and spice but it's all very old world: jaffa, cloves and pepper. There's also a slightly hard metallic edge and some headachey hot alcohol. The label refers to how the recipe started life as a homebrew favourite and I get a definite homebrewish feel from it. It's enjoyable to drink but doesn't seem as polished as most commercial pale ales.

OK, so SuperValu has a good selection of new stuff but they all seem to lack a wow factor. Nobody goes to the big multiples to be wowed, I guess.

21 October 2016

The cask task

JD Wetherspoon Real Ale Festival: are any words more stirring to the human soul?  Late October means it's time for my annual ritual of cycling out to the South County coast and seeing what's on the pumps in my two locals. I usually stop in Blackrock first but decided to start in Dún Laoghaire this year, to catch the cavernous Forty Foot before it got loud and crowded. As in recent years, English hops was the theme, with every one of the 30 festival beers using nothing but.

An awkward five new ones were on the wickets and I began with three thirds. Banks's Gold Ingot certainly looks the part: a perfect blingy gold colour. Spicy and citrus is promised on the clip but that's a bit of an exaggeration. It is plenty bitter though, the grass and metal of down-home English hops, with East Kent Goldings, First Gold and Flyer being the varieties billed in the programme. A light biscuit malt sits behind this but that's about your lot. The galvanic pencil sharpener metal is the last bit to fade from the palate. It's certainly punchy and invigorating, but very much in an English way, a flavour which precludes modern fripperies like citrus.

Bigger things were expected from the first of the international collaborations, Hop Session, brewed at Everards with Afro-Caribbean Brewing of Cape Town. It's a slightly darker gold than the previous one, though the same 4.3% ABV. There's a little bit of a tropical buzz here, achieved with Bramling Cross, Challenger and Cascade. Not quite pineapple and passionfruit, but definitely something approaching a mango, set against harder grapefruit and spinach. The malt is an afterthought but there's just enough of it to keep the hops buoyant and, if not in balance, at least not harsh. While almost passing for a new world beer, its roots show at the end, however, with an earthy metallic twang.

And thirdly of the thirds, Theakston Vanilla Stout, ratcheting up that ABV to a hulking 4.5%. It tastes like more, though: thick and rich and sweet. A bitter treacle overtone shows the hops working in the background while the main action is a dialectic struggle between sticky vanilla and dry roast. While I enjoyed it, a third was plenty.

The last two weren't actually part of the festival line-up, but that's no reason not to tick the buggers. Next is Blondie by Nottinghamshire's Grafton Brewery. Closer to copper than blonde, by the looks of it. It's sweet and tart, like sour candy with a hint of strawberry shortcake. Summer fruit is definitely what I found in the aroma when I'd sipped down far enough to smell it. An out-of-keeping putty bitterness is where the flavour ends. Not a bad beer overall, and rather more interesting than I was expecting.

We stay in the Midlands for the last round: Sadler's Peaky Blinder black IPA, brewed with today's craft-beer-inclined Brummie gangster in mind. It's fully black and smells powerfully of cabbagewater, molasses and sherbet: a combination which promises complexity, if not actually a good time. And so it is in the flavour. It has a soft effervescence and strong herbal-floral taste that probably looked lovely on paper but ends up tasting like old bathwater. There's an intensity which I'm sure comes from the hops but which doesn't deliver proper hop-like flavours. It's extremely rare for me to be saying that a black IPA needs extra bitterness but I think this one does. I love black IPAs that are sweet and tropical and also enjoy the extremely green and vegetal ones. This takes a third path and I don't really want to follow it.

Time to turn the ship around and make for Blackrock. The Three Tun Tavern had its new Cask Marque cert propped on the bar. Well done to them and, with the system seemingly live in Ireland, I hope some of the non-Wetherspoon cask-serving pubs will take advantage of it.

Another round of thirds, starting with Tring's Warrior Queen, a 4.6% ABV pale ale. Not much of an aroma from this but the flavour is a weird squeaky green bean thing, all sharply tangy with a chalky mineral backdrop. It's very odd. The literature tells me that Fusion is the hop what done it. Use with caution, I guess.

Next it's Epic Brew from Wadworth, a golden ale brewed with Epic hops. It's only 4.5% ABV but very thick and sweet with a floral sort of spice. After a few minutes of trying to place what it reminded me of I came up with honey: it's that specific mix of summer meadow pollen and sticky sugar with an edge of waxy bitterness. It finishes quickly, adding a lager feel. Epic is an overstatement but it's decent stuff, for one at least.

Old Crafty Hen is next, a Greene King brand extension I've seen many times in clear glass bottles and would normally have passed over except the programme mentioned it includes Greene King's near-mythical 5X strong ale in the blend. I'm in. This occupies the madman slot in the Wetherspoon festival line-up: there's always at least one big strong beer, though at just 6.5% ABV OCH is lighter than usual. It's lovely, though: a big juicy tannic raisin thing, soft and sumptuous. I expected building sweetness but it doesn't do that, staying dry and clean all the way down. I'm really surprised at how much I enjoyed it, but the chances of me buying it in a clear bottle are still basically nil.

Right, next set of thirds. Evan Evans Autumn Frenzy. Copper-coloured, with a maple syrup sort of sweetness. The watery finish has this weird savoury mushroom quality making me wonder if they're going for a full-on forest floor leafmold thing. So, OK, it's autumnal, but nobody wants to drink a third