30 December 2016

Sour '16

The final post of the year brings the Golden Pints, beer blogging's annual personal awards, working to a template devised by Mark Dredge and Andy Mogg. Sour beers have played a major role in my drinking over the last 12 months so I thought I'd accompany my deliberations with one. This bottle of The Purple from Oregon's De Garde brewing was a kind gift from Jeff Alworth back in September. You can read Jeff's profile of the brewery here.

The label describes it as "a wild ale aged in oak wine barrels with black and red raspberries" and it's 7% ABV. It's very purple, pouring scarlet from the bottle, settling to a deep maroon shade and briefly topped by lurid pink foam. It's also very sour: an intense puckering bite that's had none of the edges smoothed out by the oak. Instead, the fruit is on balancing duty, giving it a fresh juicy aroma and adding a jammy sweetness to the flavour. It's nice, but I don't think it quite measures up to the best of Belgian framboise: it's stronger, brasher and generally louder. Americans, eh? Still, enjoyable sipping while I get down to the serious business of...

The Golden Pint Awards 2016

Best Irish Cask Beer: Otterbank Beta Barrel 1
And we're starting sour. I met this mixed fermentation chardonnay-barrel-aged golden ale at the fabulous White Hag birthday party back in August. It's a sessionable 4.5% ABV but immensely complex with it. Tart, juicy, herbal and lots more. With a 13 month lead time I doubt we'll be seeing more of it, but a man can dream.

There was a worthy runner up in the delightfully dark yet refreshing Uncle Columb's Mild by West Kerry Brewery.

Best Irish Keg Beer: Galway Bay 303
The most fun beer of the year was O'Hara's Grapefruit IPA, while Hope Session IPA was the most promising. But Galway Bay's low-strength sour pale ale kept me coming back again and again, for as long as it lasted. I can't see any reason not to bring this one back. Shout-out also to White Hag for their Brett Pale Ale, and of course Little Fawn which was the beer I probably drank most of for the second year running.

Best Irish Bottled Beer: Crafty Brewing Company IPA
Honorable mentions here go to White Hag barrel-aged Black Boar imperial stout and the superb Roadtrip Extra Stout that the McHugh's off licence team produced at Independent. However, I always feel I should favour beers I drank lots of during the year, and the magnificent Aussie-hopped IPA that Rye River brews for Lidl certainly fits that bill.

Best Irish Canned Beer: Whiplash Surrender to the Void
Several Irish craft brewers got busy with the tinnies this year giving us a range of hoppy delights. When I went down the list it was Alex's amazing double IPA that really leapt out at me. Full-on hops but complex and nuanced with it. Beautiful.

Best Overseas Draught: Upright Brewing Four Play
It probably shouldn't be surprising that something from my visit to Portland, Oregon wins this one. Area man Jeff Alworth picks an exceptional beer for his annual Satori Award, named after the Buddhist term for the moment of sudden enlightenment. Well I got a fierce bang of Satori off of this multidimensional soured barrel-aged cherry saison. Worth the 7,500km trip. And along the same lines, BrewDog's Saison Blitz also gets a big-up in this category.

Best Overseas Bottled Beer: Jester King El Cedro
Ugh. I suppose I'll have to put some of that geek-bait Awesome Craft Beer™ into this. The award goes to one kindly supplied by Steve Lamond at the afterparty following the superb BrewCon 2016 back in April. Brett-fermented and cedar-aged for a fantastic combination of fruit and pepper.

Best Overseas Canned Beer: Three Boys Pils
I struggled a bit to come up with a foreign can that really impressed me this year. Then I remembered the train home from Boundary's birthday bash in March and this glorious Kiwi pilsner which makes perfect use of the local hop varieties.

Best Collaboration Brew: YellowBelly-Hope-ShaneSmith Castaway
The review bottle I took home from the Killarney Beer Festival probably didn't do it justice but I've had it a couple of times since and it has always tasted magnificent. I understand YellowBelly is planning to can it next year too. Hopefully there'll be plenty to go round.

Best Overall Beer: 303
Quite a cross section there, I think, but 303 is the only one I became seriously, chronically, addicted to. And that's the best measure of quality there is.

Best Branding: YellowBelly
Nobody else is at the races, really. Illustrator Paul Reck has turned out tap badges, labels, comic books, animations and most recently a computer game featuring the brewery mascot and a host of supporting characters. The visual jokes and references hidden in the detail are worthy of Bosch.

So it's no surprise that YellowBelly wins both...

Best Pump Clip:
Jack Bauer's Power Shower Sour
It's the sheer literalness of it that I like.


Best Bottle Label: Pink Freud
I never actually had the bottled version of this, but it does exist and it's my other favourite YellowBelly design of the year. Shine on, etc.

Best Irish Brewery: Rye River
The Co. Kildare brewery started the new year with a new premises in Celbridge. Though I've enjoyed Cousin Rosie's Pale Ale and even an occasional Francis' Big Bangin' IPA through the year, it's the beers Rye River has produced under other labels that have made it my standout for 2016. Crafty Brewing Company, Whiplash, Grafters: lots of amazing quality beer, and often at very sessionable prices.

Best Overseas Brewery: The Commons
The Portland brewery I enjoyed actually sitting and drinking in the most: a bright open space, a friendly welcome, and first-rate farmhouse style beers. Over on the right-hand coast I stumbled across a couple of very tasty Jolly Pumpkin beers, so that gets an honourable mention in this category.

Best New Brewery Opening 2016: Hope
New brand highlights included Whiplash and DOT, but neither is an actual brewery. So this one goes to north Dublin's Hope which made the leap from contractee to fully-fledged production brewery. The four limited specials devised at the new set-up have ranged from good to brilliant so big things are expected as head brewer Mark develops a new swathe of permanent recipes.

Pub/Bar of the Year: The Sunflower
I hope it's not cheating to award this one to a pub I didn't visit during the year. The Sunflower began 2016 under threat of demolition. It ended it with the news that not only had it been saved but had told the industrial brewers whose wares it reluctantly carried to do one. I think that deserves to be celebrated. Have a Golden Pint on me, Sunflower. An extremely honourable mention goes to 57 The Headline, of course, who've put in another stellar twelve months.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2016: Brickyard
I came back from America in October complaining that beer bars here ought to have up-to-date printed beer menus. Brickyard does! It's situated right on top of Balally Luas stop and seemed a little cold and clinical at first: all stark Scandi angularity. But the atmosphere softens when the lights come on and it starts to feel more homely. The draught selection is sizeable and my visit last month included both White Hag's Little Fawn and O Brother's Bonita. Can't say fairer than.

A bonus shout-out goes to The Woodworkers in Belfast which opened in December last and I visited a couple of times during the year. They're doing a fantastic job of sourcing first-rate British and Irish craft beer.

Beer Festival of the Year: Killarney Beer Festival
My festival attendance was down this year. For shame! No Borefts, no Franciscan Well Easter Festival. Though I really enjoyed both the March and September gigs in the RDS, and spent a wonderfully relaxed three days swanning around Alltech Brews & Food, the most fun was Killarney in May where I got to try my hand at a bit of beer judging as well.

Supermarket of the Year: Fresh, Smithfield Square, Dublin 7
Though my local SuperValu has been continuing to knock it out of the park for a second year, Fresh in Smithfield has come to rival the independents with the wideness and currency of its range. I'm reliably informed that the Grand Canal Square branch across the city does things just as well.

Independent Retailer of the Year: DrinkStore
Back on top again. I am pleased that I finally made it to McHugh's on the northside and The Vineyard in Belfast, both fully deserving of their reputations. But DrinkStore is where I buy my beer.

Online Retailer of the Year: Nope.
In some years I've given this one to sites I've used for reference but I can't be arsed this year, and I still don't buy beer online.

Best Beer Book or Magazine: The Pub by Pete Brown
With all due respect to Pete I didn't encounter many beer books this year. The Pub was the nicest of them, though.

Best Beer Blog or Website: BeerFoodTravel
I've been enjoying the trip down the beer history rabbithole that Liam has been on lately, as well as the beer reviews and travelogues. Shame about that big posting gap in the middle of the year, but it won't happen again, right?

Best Brewery Website/Social media: @PilotBeerUK
For anyone involved in the use of Twitter to market a brewery, or anything really, this is how to do it properly.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer: @ManusCronin
The rest of you go and have a think about what you've done.

And that's it. If you've read this far I hope you found it worthwhile. 2016 is officially a wrap. The Beer Nut 2017 will commence on Monday. Happy New Year!

28 December 2016

Pulling the wool

I was very surprised when, among the beers my wife recently brought back from Brussels, was one bearing the mark of an Italian maker. It's still a little bit unusual to find non-Belgian beer in Belgium outside of the most cosmopolitan of beer outlets. This one certainly looked like it was made for Belgium, in its Duvelish beehive bottle and frankly crap label artwork. And it transpires that while it was produced for the White Pony "Pub and Microbrewery" in Padua it was indeed actually brewed at Flemish brewery Het Nest. Shout-out, as always, to RateBeer, 'cos White Pony certainly don't mention this on their own website.

Anyway, Black Sheep Imperial Stout is what we have before us, a massively dense black beastie of 10.1% ABV. The aroma gives out twin blasts of heat and dryness, smelling both of boozy raisin and burnt toast. That story continues in the flavour, the beer's estery Belgian roots very apparent, with the US-influenced powerhouse stout tacked crudely on to this. There's a bitter black treacle flavour in the middle followed by an acrid finish.

While rather loud and busy at the moment, I reckon this may be one to hang on to for a few years and allow to mellow out. Unless something went badly wrong in the bottling process I can't see it getting any worse with time.

26 December 2016

Highs and lows

I've been a big big fan of BrewDog's Aces series so far. Huge. So when the third in the set came my way I grabbed it without a second thought. This time it's posterboy Citra in the driving seat, and the specs are otherwise the same: a medium-gold, vaguely misty, 4.5% ABV pale ale. I was expecting big bitterness from Ace of Citra but oooh that aroma: soft mandarin and honeydew, a little bit of spicy marmalade and a cheeky pinch of oily dank. One is left wanting for little, smellwise. A gulp and, aha, there's a fault: it's a touch thin and overcarbonated. I'm wondering if there's supposed to be more of a hop punch up front and whether I've let that escape by waiting an inappropriate couple of months before opening it. Everything's in order in the middle, however: the dankness takes the reins, delivering a friendly hop-oil burn, fading to a pithy finish. The flavour isn't as complex as the aroma but it's still very nice. A pint would be just the thing.

I bought the bottle of Mr President prior to the American election when the world was brighter in general. Now its 9.2% ABV seems comforting. I read that this double IPA is a straight rebadge of BrewDog's classic Hardcore, but it's over eight years since I reviewed that so maybe a reappraisal is worthwhile. It's certainly darker than the 2008 edition: a deep orange-amber. Warmth and spice are the hallmarks of the aroma, with marmalade, pomegranate and a harsher metallic buzz. A surprising liquorice bitterness opens the flavour but it struggles to make an impact under sheer density of the body. It's like drinking syrup. The carbonation gets buried under this suffocating blanket so palate-cleansing is not a feature. I get a diesel fuel sharpness and then a faint citrus pithiness right on the end, but very little and very late. This thick and heavy beast is one of those beers that makes me think I don't like double IPAs. Can't fault it for trueness to style, I guess.

Big hops: there's a right way and a wrong way.

23 December 2016

Last dash

Time for my final round-up of miscellaneous Irish beer for 2016, all the stuff I found in the pubs and off licences of Dublin as the festive season started to bite.

Galway Bay had been especially busy, knocking out a couple of winter specials for starters. First to appear was Banished Sun, an 8% ABV "imperial porter". Yes I'm putting scare quotes on that. It's dark brown in colour and the main feature of the flavour is a flaky ashen dryness lightened only slightly by some warm-fermentation fruit esters. The alcohol is very apparent, making it taste hot, and there's a big bruising bitterness as well. Overall it's a mean and harsh drinking experience, one not to be entered into lightly. I'd guess that time will soften this beer a little but whether it's enough to make it enjoyable remains to be seen.

The companion piece is called Black Forest. Trouble Brewing denied us its cherry chocolate stout this year so I was pleased when Galway Bay decided to pick up the slack. The base beer here is another dry and bitter porter but this time there's a decent layer of smooth chocolate and then a very real-tasting dark cherry acidity. In combination, the base beer and flavourings create an effect like fruit jelly spread on well-done toast. I would definitely have preferred it to be sweeter and heavier -- it's all of 6.2% ABV, after all. The name implies cake and the taste doesn't quite deliver it.

Switching styles completely, Galway Bay's second double IPA since brewer Will took the reins is Hexed. A pale one, it matches Of Foam & Fury's ABV of 8.5% and opens with a stunning fresh mandarin aroma. This was the first part of the flavour I noticed, but behind the juice you'll also find some sweet onion and then a very slight yeasty fuzz which I think actually helps soften the beer. It needs softening because it's very thick and greasy, with an unctuous napalm heat. I didn't take long over it but I suspect that it's best consumed cold when the hop flavours are brightest. This is a real west-coast powerhouse, but a balanced one too.

For '80s kids everywhere, Eight Degrees presents Bandit, a smoked brown ale, which I found on the bar at Alfie Byrne's a few weeks ago. My half pint of this 6%-er looked a bit sad in the glass, arriving without a proper head on it. It's a clear dark red-brown colour with amber highlights around the edges. Despite the strength it's surprisingly thin of body. I expected that to change as it warmed but it didn't. The smoke is dominant, though not overdone, blending peaty phenols with a meaty smoked sausage flavour. It's fun at first but starts to get acrid a few mouthfuls in. What it's crying out for is more of a brown ale base, a bit of that caramel sweetness and definitely more substance to the texture. There's the makings of something very good here but I couldn't quite get into it as-is.

Leaving aside this year's winter trilogy which I'll get to in the new year when the third one is released, the next one from Eight Degrees was Wayfarer, badged as a "sour IPA" (more scarequotes) and a mere 4% ABV. I was looking for something sessionable at the Beoir Christmas party in The Beerhouse, and this fitted the bill perfectly. Pouring a weak-looking hazy yellow colour it's quite a straightforward beer. It's not especially sour, with a dry and chalky background to the tartness. The hops aren't exactly full-on either, giving it just a light and spritzy lemon bitterness. It's flavourful enough to be interesting but most importantly it's extremely drinkable and very refreshing. That they chose to release it in the middle of winter is perhaps the oddest thing as it would make an ideal summer beer, but you won't find me complaining.

The latest seasonal release from JW Sweetman coincided with the launch of a bit of a rebrand for the brewpub's wares. The beer is a Dunkelweisse, which I'll admit at the start is not a style which normally does much for me. This one's not bad at all, though. It's thickly textured and nicely smooth making it filling and warming, almost like a dark weizenbock. There's a light banana flavour keeping it in touch with its weissbier roots, and a mild smokiness. I detected a touch of sulphur as well, for a bit of bonus complexity. Overall a very decent effort at an unexciting style.

To 57 the Headline next, and a couple more dark and wintery beers. Le Rubis is the latest from Two Sides, once again utilising the facilities and expertise of the Five Lamps Brewery. There's a very strange mix of flavours in this and I don't think it quite works. The first thing I got was an enormous wave of dark malt elements: toffee and a rich cocoa sweetness. Hot on its heels there's an intense acidic bitterness which feels like it belongs in a different beer, one that's unwelcome in my glass. It ends up as a very busy effort that's simultaneously too sweet and too bitter.

Moving on to Trouble's remake of last year's red ale, Ripcord. Ripcord 2.0 drops the ABV a little, from 4.7% to 4.1. It's still dark red, though, and still not much more than a straight down-the-line Irish red ale. The texture is probably its best feature, lovely and round and filling, almost like it's nitrogenated. The muted flavours of red summer fruit come through clearly, free of yeasty interference I'm happy to say, but it's all very brief and there's nothing much else going on. As in the first version, the name suggests a level of excitement that's entirely inappropriate for the finished beer.

If it's excitement you want, Kelly's Mountain released a double IPA earlier in the year, though quite a light one at just 7% ABV. It's called Reality Bytes and is a pale shade of copper, smelling quite sweet, of marmalade shred and toffee. And while it is pretty thick, sticky almost, the hops balance it rather nicely. There's more of that bitter orangey tang and some harsher aspirin metallic notes but it's all good clean fun: the heat levels are low and the toffee malt, while present, isn't overdone. You wouldn't mistake it for a San Diego hop bomb (for one thing it doesn't taste of onions) but it's a jolly nice straightforward sort of IPA. I don't know if Kelly's Mountain intends to make it permanent but no harm if they do.

A new swathe of Whiplash beers began with True Love Waits, a pils. I was surprised to find it's quite dark in colour, the dull brownish colour of earwax. Lovely aroma, though: all light and peachy with added watermelon and white plum. The first flavour to emerge is a malt sweetness, an almost candyfloss effect, familiar from many German and Czech lagers. Behind this a sting of bitter noble hops and then the oily vapours of something American. A glance at the brewer's description tells me that the first bit was Hersbrucker and the latter Columbus. The malt and hop elements are nicely balanced. I do get a creeping pine toilet-cleaner note, but the clean finish prevents it from getting too prominent. My biggest criticism is that it's a touch watery: the sweet malt doesn't seem to add the sort of body you'd find in the central European equivalent, especially at all of 5% ABV. I'm not sure if the brewer intended this as one to smash back when thirsty, but I've a feeling that's how it will work best.

Also new from Mr Whiplash is a rebrew of 2013 Otterbank classic Farami coffee stout and a second double IPA, called Since I've Been Loving You. It also sees the operation moving out of its usual home at Rye River, with Farami brewed at Rising Sons and this one on the fancypants Kaspar Schulz kit at Boyne Brewhouse. It's 8.2% ABV and the pale amber colour of a lovely cup of tea. Expecting heat I was surprised to find the nose is subtly fruity with light grapefruit and tangerine. It's not madly hoppy to taste, nor hot and heavy. In fact, the tea analogy continues, with a pleasant tannic dryness being the main feature. The hops are mouthwateringly orangey while the soft malt base makes it taste like chewy orange flavoured candy. Despite over 100 IBUs of American hops this is gentle and balanced: in the Goldilocks zone of double IPAs of not too sweet, not too bitter and not too heavy. Those who prefer the more extreme sort of double IPA may be disappointed but I really enjoyed it.

Dessert is from Mescan, in the form of their Westport Kriek, which has been out a while but has hitherto escaped my notice. It looks the part all right, pouring pink but a beautifully rich maroon colour in the glass. The jammy aroma suggests that they've bypassed any souring part of the process. I was expecting it to taste horribly sweet but there is a sour tang there which I'm guessing is down to the cherry alone: it's a very real flavour, the sort of tartness you get when you bite into a ripe black cherry. There's a heavy and rustic wheat beer behind this, a husky cereal quality, but really the cherries are doing all the heavy lifting. What I miss is the high attenuation you get in Belgian lambic-based kriek: this, at 5.4% ABV, is heavy and chewy, which isn't ideal. It's a good use of cherries and really shows off their character well but I don't know that "kriek" is the best word for it.

And before we batten down the hatches and make final preparations for the big day, one last seasonal. Fairy Ale of New York is the second special commission that Rascals has made for the Molloy's off licence chain and is a hop-bursted IPA of 5% ABV. Dark gold in colour the aroma is surprisingly muted, giving off a lightly lemony buzz. The flavour is a little bit on the down-low as well, with a waxy sort of bitterness balanced by nicely toasty malt, but not much actual hop flavour. The best feature is the aftertaste, where the lemon element hangs around at the back of the palate for ages. It's not the most exciting of IPAs but perfectly serviceable, and at four cans for a tenner would do well as an accessible party beer.

I'll sign off here and wish you all a very happy Christmas. See you next week for Twixtmas ramblings and my 2016 Golden Pints awards.

All together now: It was Christmas Eve, babe, iiiin the drunk tank...

21 December 2016

Czech detective

A fairly regular chore on this blog -- which is essentially an index of beers -- is to try and figure out which beer I've actually just had, following a bar's creative efforts to call it something other than its common or brewery-assigned name. And it seems to be a phenomenon to which Czech beers are particularly susceptible, both at home and over here. Maybe it's that particular character of Czech beer culture, that the stuff is made for enjoying in hearty quantities, which leads to the idea that the drinker doesn't really need to know what's in the glass or how it relates to anything else: the colour and gravity are all the information you require.

This came to mind after my most recent lunchtime excursion to Pifko on Usher's Quay. And to be honest my first beer wasn't a problem. Though absent from the brewery website, it's right there on RateBeer: Slavkovský Titanic, a 4.5% ABV pale lager. Mine arrived looking everso handsome in its brewery-branded mug, darker than usual for a světlý ležák, almost amber in colour. It's thickly textured and has an added perfume to the classic pilsner grass flavour. The finish is long and bitter, stretching those hop oils all the way across the palate for ages. It's not a subtle beer, but it is cleanly flavoured and has the right amount of substance to balance those big hops. Lip-smacking if not gob-smacking, and I'd happily have had another, except I wanted to try...

"Slavkovský Bohemian Lager". It's 5% ABV and there are no likely candidates on the RateBeer listings. The brewery's website does mention a Slavkovská Dvanáctka ("Slavkov 12", if you like) at the right strength so that's my best guess for what this is. Does it need to be this hard? Anyway, the beer is another dark honey-gold one and has a very similar perfume quality to the Titanic, though this time the bitterness is far more restrained. The main stretch of the flavour is candy-swe