30 November 2016

Bang for your buck

Rye River's Crafty Brewing Company American Style Pale Wheat Ale arrived in Lidl to much fanfare (and extensive shortages) in late October. I finally tracked some down in the Terenure branch, handed over my €2, and brought it home.

Back in the old days (around 2007), American Wheat Beer meant a travesty of a style, brewed with a weissbier grist but a neutral ale yeast, resulting in an invariably boring grainy outcome. Nowadays, however, "American Style" anything is the signal to expect hops. This one is still using the neutral yeast, though, which I guess is why it's not badged as a hopfenweisse or white IPA.

It's 5% ABV and the hazy orange colour of many an American pale ale. Cascade and Mosaic are the hops, the label helpfully tells us, and it smells enticingly of fresh mandarin and peach. The texture is a little thin for a wheat beer, but it's still nicely soft. Mosaic dominates the flavour with a major caraway seed savouriness and a touch of garlic behind. A little bit of mandarin juice rounds it off, then a pleasantly acidic hop residue burn remains in the aftertaste. It's certainly boldly  flavoured, intense even, but is ultimately quite simplistic in its bombast.

Overall I found it a little too savoury to be properly refreshing, and it's not the first Mosaic-heavy beer I've had that issue with. But it certainly fits in with the other big-flavoured Crafty Brewing beers, and for the price you definitely get your money's worth of hops.

28 November 2016

A bigger Belly

Wexford's YellowBelly brewery descended on 57 The Headline for a tap takeover in early November, bringing as broad a selection as I've seen from one brewery at one of these events. And all, of course, with their distinctive badge artwork from in-house designer Paul.

Naturally I started at the low end, with Harvest Lager, brewed using their own supply of Tipperary-grown Hersbrucker. The ABV is a concerning 3.9% and it's an extremely pale white-gold colour. And yet the body is surprisingly buoyant with a decent amount of candyfloss malt to get your teeth into. There's a real proper noble hop bitterness and a perfect crisp finish. I'm used to being aww-bless tolerant of Irish-hopped beers but this is just a damn decent lager however you look at it.

A tapping mix-up meant I was given an unexpected glass of the companion piece: Harvest Ale. This one is extremely dry with a strong brown-bread-crust flavour. Not unpleasant, but a little odd. Bramling Cross is the homegrown hop, and I detected a small touch of raisin in lieu of the usual blackcurrant effect. I'd be hard-pressed to stick a style label on it but with all that dry husky grain I'd probably end up describing it as some kind of top-fermented kellerbier. It's that sort of rustic wholesomeness.

But back to the lager. Pink Freud is in the Vienna style, though disappointingly yellow rather than pink. It tastes darker than it looks, however: with appropriate sweet and smooth melanoidins from the Munich and Vienna malts. The hops are rather muted and the finish is abrupt, both of which would be normal for the style, though I'm less sure about the rising alcoholic heat that started to creep in as it warmed. I think this one might still need a little therapy.

The wooden spoon of the evening went to Little Red, a 3.9% ABV red ale. A sharply sweet strawberry flavour opens it, leading on to a harsh bitter roasted twang at the end. It's very thin as well, something which really accentuates the pointy edges and makes it harder to drink. While successfully avoiding the blandness trap, this ended up falling into a different one.

No fancy name on Citra Pale Ale, a 4.8% ABV single-hopper. This is a hazy shade of yellow and has a huge zingy sherbet foretaste and a beautiful lemon rind bitterness for a finish. The middle is a little disappointing: there's a hollowness there, thinner and more watery than the strength would suggest. It does get more complex as it warms a little: the sherbet gets sweeter while the lemons turn dank, but it never manages to shake that thinness. Built for the session, I guess, but I'd like a bit more wallop.

The much-renowned Castaway was on, and I enjoyed a note-free pint of that at the end, pleased to learn it'll be something of a regular. The other sour beer they brought was For Whom The Sour Trolls. Citra again, only 3.7% ABV, and an unattractive turbid brown colour. The flavour is massive: a super-sour mouth watering lemon pith smack up front; a chalky alkaline finish and the savoury yeast grit for balance. It sounds awful, like a bunch of brewing flaws strung together, but it works beautifully, scrubbing the palate clean and awakening the senses. Though missing many of the subtleties, it's the closest thing to jonge lambic I've tasted from an Irish brewery. I'd happily clear a stoneware jugful.

On to the stronger stuff now. G'way IPA was making its début, a 6.7%-er with a big Colombus and Cascade bitterness. I got a seriously oily resinous aroma and a jaw-pinching acid bitterness followed by green cabbage and asparagus flavours. This is seasoned with an earthy, woody note, almost smoky with hints of mushroom and leaf mold. It's a very grown up sort of IPA, and tasty with it.

The first draft of Salubrious Stout was also on. The main batch is currently ageing in a whiskey cask but this one was given a dose of whiskey-soaked chips instead. Despite being all of 9% ABV and very dark and dense, the stout character gets a bit lost under the sweet honeyish Irish whiskey and the corky oak flavour. If you prefer vanilla, honey and booze to coffee and chocolate this might suit, but it was out of kilter for my palate.

And the evening's final new beer was Queen Lizzie, officially described as an "Imperial English IPA", 8.3% ABV and served from the handpump as Her Majesty doubtless prefers. It's a clear and innocent gold colour but tastes shockingly hot at first. After a moment the nuances emerge: golden syrup malt and a spinach-like green bitterness. Three sips in I was utterly charmed by the roundness and smoothness, and looking for a fireplace to settle into it by. Yes, it's an English bitter at its core, but there are definite shades of barley wine and tripel around the edges.

Hopefully, with YellowBelly's production moving out of the basement to a big-boy brewery, we'll see beers like this on a more regular basis, not just on special occasions. Props as always to The Headline for making this one possible.

25 November 2016

Of Saints and Rascals

There's much to catch up with as regards new Irish beer in recent months. Going all the way back to early October, St. Mel's were in town, occupying some of the taps in The Beerhouse for an evening. The new kid was St. Mel's IPA, which came with the warning that it's made to be sold in Longford. Which is fine: Longford people need IPA same as the rest of us. It's 5.2% ABV and a dark red colour. There's a wholesome density to it, warming, with an autumnal dark fruit kick on the end plus a touch of tannin. So an IPA in the strong English bitter mould then? Very much so. I happily downed a couple of pints of the kegged version but would love to try it on cask.

The guys had also brought the last of this summer's Beer Garden Wit, a seasonal I completely missed last year. There's elderflower in this and it features in the flavour in a big way. Alongside it there are big and warming Belgian yeast esters which I wouldn't have marked down as particularly summery, but maybe they're less intrusive when the beer is served cooler. It left me looking for the clean refreshing edge that witbier can usually be relied upon for.

From an out-of-season beer to one that was right on time: Rascals Social Hops #1 débuted in The Square Ball the following night. Social Hops is a community-based hop growing project, supported by the Bodytonic pub chain. The harvest was in mid-September and three weeks later there was a 4.5% ABV blonde ale on tap. The hops were all Prima Donna (except for a token bittering addition of something commercial) and the signature soft lemon flavour of this variety really shone, set on a lightly effervescent body and with a dry finish. It's, understandably, a subtle beer, but very drinkable and refreshing with it.

When not putting crowd-sourced hops to good use Rascals has also been continuing the sour beer series it began in September with The Hoppy One. Project Sour No. 2 is subtitled Seriously Saison and is very saison. Peppery vapours drift up from the hazy gold beer, and it tastes very fruity -- I get plum and lychee in particular -- plus a spicy edge in the finish. There's only the briefest pinch of tartness in amongst this before the fruit esters take over the flavour once again. It's a decent saison but I wanted much more from the sourness.

I hoped I'd find that in Project Sour No. 3 aka Forest Fruit Sour, and I sort-of did: there's a big punchy lactic sourness in the flavour of this clear purpley-pink beer. But in front of it there's an unsubtle candy-sweet syrup flavour which brings the blackberry, dark cherry and even blueberry notes into the equation. It really reminded me of the cheapo fruit lambics made by the industrial brewers of Belgium: they were what first interested me in sour beer and I have a soft spot for how they operate, but they're not exactly sophisticated. This beer does deliver what it promises: it is sour and really tastes of forest fruit, but I was looking for something more substantially complex.

More recently, Rascals has also released an updated version of the Mint Chocolate Stout they were pouring at the RDS in September. The specific item of confectionery they're attempting to mimic is signalled by the name: 8:01, and they've raised the ABV and general flavour levels. The end result is 6% ABV and has a lovely oily mint twang. At the launch event in (where else?) The 108, I got to try it nitrokegged side-by-side with the straight-carbonation canned version. And while the nitro one hasn't been stripped of its flavour, the dry roast crispness and fun milk chocolate sweetness are much more apparent in the cans. Like the Ginger Porter on which the brewery was founded, this never loses sight of the classic beer style at its roots, which is very much to its credit.

And a footnote from Rascals: their Aussie-hopped Flamin' Red double IPA from last winter has been tweaked, rebadged and relaunched as Big Red DIPA but is still pretty much the same jammy spicy warmer it was before.

That's it for now, with much more Irish beer to come next week.

23 November 2016

Ghost chilli

The beers of Brasserie Fantôme can be hit-and-miss, to say the least. And yet what often tastes like your mate's dodgy homebrew seems to have garnered a cult following around the beeriverse and I'm not sure why. I doubt it's the branding. Anyway, the missus brought a bottle of Fantôme Chocolat from Belgium a while back and we sat round one evening to give it a go. It's an 8% ABV saison with the addition of chocolate and chilli.

Expecting something vaguely brown, I was surprised to get a bright orange beer out of the 75cl bottle. It poured flat at first, gradually forming a fine off-white head. It smells vaguely of chocolate, in a kind of artificial and sickly sort of way, though there's also a pleasant touch of white-pepper saison spice. The texture is thick and syrupy, not helped at all by the faint level of fizz. There's a certain spice to it but I can't for certain attribute that to the chilli, in fact it seems very typical of this sort of Belgian yeast. A degree of warmth does settle in the belly after a couple of mouthfuls and I'd be reasonably confident that that's where the chilli action happens. It doesn't taste of chocolate at all.

This is very much a saison through and through, and not a particularly good one, in my opinion, being too hot and heavy. The special ingredients don't do much to steer the experience one way or another. €13 for a bottle of this, in a town where the same amount of Cantillon gueuze costs a fiver? Thanks but no thanks.

21 November 2016

Trans-Shannon exports

On the daytrip to Galway back in July I managed to sneak a look-in at the Fine Wines off licence just down the street from The Salt House. In there I grabbed a handful of local beers I hadn't seen around Dublin to take home with me.

First up is the charmingly named Bogman from Spiddal River Brewery. "Spiddal River Brewery is based in Spiddal, Co. Galway" says the label, and also that the beer is "Designed in Galway... product of Ireland", indicating that Spiddal River isn't a brewery at all. As far as I know the beer comes from Trouble Brewing, closer to home in Kildare. It's 4.9% ABV and an unattractive murky orange-amber colour, putting me immediately in mind of those rough-and-ready brewpub beers you get in central and eastern Europe.

 A slightly short fill on the bottle left it low in carbonation, and pleasantly so, with a nice cask texture. Though self-described as a "US pale ale" it is extremely sweet, showing a big malty Ovaltine flavour at the front and even a kick of milk chocolate. The hop flavours are almost non-existent, so as a pale ale it's nearly a total failure. The label also describes it as "earthy" and although the suspended yeast doesn't really get in the way, I could just about see how you would describe it as earthy. "Rustic" is the word I'd use. It's not a beer designed to impress the cosmopolitan beer enthusiast, that's for sure, but I guess the name makes that clear from the outset.

I follow it with Limerick Lady Irish Pale Ale from Limerick City Brewery, which doesn't exist either. The brewery pictures they've posted online look like the old Brú brewhouse so I'd take a punt on it being produced there, which would make it another Leinster beer in disguise. It's a similar unpleasant murky brown colour though a tiny bit stronger than the last one at 5% ABV and, oh, is that hops I smell? There's quite an English hop aroma -- slightly metallic -- though also a worrying marker-pen note.

It's all bait-and-switch because neither of these elements show up in the flavour. That has a floral sweetness, a savoury yeast bite, and a harsh melted plastic off-flavour. Not a winning combination. This tastes cheaply put-together and rushed out of the brewery: especially strange for a company that's presumably trying to build a reputation for itself as it gets going. At the same time, however, a cursory glance at Untappd yields not a single negative review, proving my theory that it's impossible to go out of business as an Irish brewer by making substandard beer. There's always a market for your product, regardless of how shoddy it is. Which is depressing, but moving on...

Finally a beer whose provenance is in no doubt. Galway Hooker Double IPA was definitely brewed in Galway and commemorates the tenth anniversary of the brewery opening for business. In Roscommon. Er. It's a downright handsome clear dark amber colour with a heavy aroma of big boozy malt pierced through by citric hops. The first sip brings... density. It's a trifling 8.6% ABV but feels a point or two above that. Bigfoot territory. Chewy malt is the main feature, then a supporting cast of harsh metallic bitterness, biting grapefruit acidity and a greener spinach and cabbage vibe. It doesn't sound very new-world at all, but there's a lightness of touch about it, a smoothness and a quickness in the finish that keeps it nicely drinkable while also being an unmistakable high-alcohol powerhouse.

This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a beer for special occasions. Something to be taken out and shared, or reverentially sipped. All of its different flavour elements come through clear and clean, despite the big boozy blanket on top of them. Both of the other beers have a lot to learn from the way Hooker turns out its product.

18 November 2016

Get your shades on

The rise of the craft beer can has provided a big opportunity for graphic designers and the brewers who commission their work. I suspect that this in turn is leading to a bit of a promotional arms race between companies as they battle for the customers' attention from the crowded shelves, a bit like what has happened with keg fonts over the last decade. While perusing the cans in a local off licence recently I couldn't help but be drawn to today's subjects, both garishly illustrated in a way to grab the drinker's attention and not let go. And in this instance it worked. Ring 'em up!

First to be popped open is BrewDog's Neon Overlord with its neon overload imagery. The beer, a 7.3% ABV IPA with added mango, coriander and habanero chilli, is a clear pale yellow and has a pleasant resinous aroma, plus some non-specific tropical fruit and a savoury background. So far so fun but the first sip brings out a hard, powdery, plastic chilli burn. It's disappointing because there really is a decent, well-constructed IPA underneath, one with a lovely peach-skin mix of fruit and bitterness, though maybe laying on the sweet pulpy mango a little too heavily. But that's a minor quibble compared to this idiot chilli pepper dancing in front of it, spoiling the view. I'll grant that it does leave a lovely belly warmth which almost excuses it, but that flavour is like being pepper sprayed in the face with each mouthful. I can't believe anyone would want a beer that does its best to punish them. Weird and utterly discordant, it's IPA childishly ruined.

Not as fluorescent but still headache-inducing is the can for Lupuloid, a recent addition to Beavertown's line-up. It's big on graphic and low on information so all I know before opening it is it's an IPA and 6.7% ABV. Inside it's an attractive bright pale gold with just a slight haze to it. The aroma is an exotic blend of honeydew, mango and a touch of squeaky green spring onion. This savoury quality absolutely dominates the flavour, turning to caraway seed at the front, and then a leafy cabbagey bitterness in the finish, fading out into a metallic pencil sharperner tang. Juicy it is not. While far from as severe as the Overlord fella I couldn't really get into this. It feels to me like there's a fruit deficit, which amounts to a fun deficit. All the joy appears to be confined to that artwork.

It was the artwork that made me buy them together but these IPAs do have quite a bit in common: their light and breezy appearance, a strength circling 7% ABV, and a great aroma followed by a very disappointing taste. Perhaps this is the fashion now. If so, at least it's clearly signalled on the tin so I can try to avoid it.

16 November 2016

The last brewpubs

As I mentioned on Monday, Washington DC isn't exactly a full-spectrum, multi-faceted beer destination, but it does have beer. I really wasn't expecting much from its brewpubs: the two I visited both seemed to be the sort of flashy urban destinations which are not set up with the beer connoisseur in mind and, one suspects, have brewing kits partly as a novelty and partly as a cheap source of product. But I'm delighted to say I completely misjudged them both.

District Chophouse we came upon after an epic day's trudge around the National Mall, finishing up behind the Capitol Building and heading back to the centre. It's quite a grand affair, with clubby dark wood fittings trimmed with barbershop red and white. The brewkit is tucked neatly away on a gantry above what looks like a cocktail bar more than a beer servery. It's very much a restaurant primarily, but there's a high-seated bar enclosure and, happily, it was Happy Hour.

Lager was needed and lager was ordered: the house pils called Cheque Please. "Ubber hopped" said the menu, whatebber that means. There was a welcoming pillow of foam in the glass, and a bang-on fresh grass aroma. The flavour, however, is a bit of a curate's egg: starting off great with more spicy grass and a balancing sweetness that begins calling Pilsner Urquell to mind, before it banishes such high notions with an acrid plasticky stickiness that's best just quaffed past as quickly as possible. It did the job as a thirst-quencher, even at a substantial 5.4% ABV, but it's not a good pils.

Meanwhile, District Chophouse IPA is also a big guy at 6.8% ABV. It's pale copper and gives out a fun fruit candy aroma. I was expecting sweet 'n' mediocre but this has a cheeky kick of dank resins in the flavour, mixing it with gentle citrus and a spicy seasoning. Basically it touches on all the good points of IPA without going all-out for any of them, and it makes for very pleasant drinking. It's kinda what a house IPA should be.

The District Chophouse Amber Ale is 5.4% ABV and in the "North Western style". No, me neither. I ordered it feeling emboldened by the IPA and what arrived was clear but dark brown, with an oily hop-perfume nose. The flavour is bang-on how I like my American amber ales: a brightly sweet and nutty marzipan combination, with just enough of a bitter edge -- like aspirin, in this case -- to keep the malt from overwhelming it. The light texture helps too. I didn't meet very many amber ales that suited me on the trip so I was very glad to make the acquaintance of this one.

Getting the main points of the style right didn't work so well when it came to District Chophouse Oatmeal Stout. These, in general, have a tendency to taste phenolic to me, with marker pen and putty off flavours spoiling beers that other people seem able to enjoy. And so it was here. Though only 6.6% ABV it tasted far stronger, hot like an immature imperial stout. The texture was appropriately smooth, and the finish nicely quick, but it's definitely not brewed to my taste. Moving on to...