28 April 2016

All your birthdays at once

My blog turns 11 today, in this year of anniversaries. We've already had Carlow Brewing's 20th birthday beer, and I'm hoping we'll see one from The Porterhouse later as well. But even little tyke Eight Degrees decided to stick a fistful of candles in a cake and release an IPA to celebrate five years a-brewing (you can see a baby photo here. Aww!) With characteristic modesty it's called Nailed It and the stated aim is to be a straight-up, down-the-line, essence-of-IPA IPA.

I'm not used to Eight Degrees beers in bottles so was a little surprised by how hazy it was: that's probably down to clumsy pouring on my part. The aroma is certainly in the Goldilocks zone of IPA perfection, promising messy, juicy mango and passionfruit and spiky pine resin and thick herbal dank. "But where's the grapefruit?" I hear you wail. Fear not, it's right at the front of the flavour, though getting fuzzed a little by the yeast. This acidity and the piney spicing form the centre of the flavour, not leaving much room for the fruit elements, and that pesky yeast adds a harsh savoury tone to the finish that lasts an unpleasantly long time. There's a lovely soft mouthfeel and the strength is a fairly modest 5.8% ABV so really this beer just needs a little cleaning up to be excellent. I'd recommend going for the draught version, if you see it.

I bought my bottle of Nailed It in McHugh's off licence in Kilbarrack, the first time I'd been to either of the highly-rated McHugh's shops. While there I of course took the opportunity to pick up a bottle of their exclusive RoadTrip Extra Stout. This was brewed late last year and is the second in a series which was also prompted by an anniversary: McHugh's 20th. The first was RoadTrip IPA, brewed at Kinnegar, which has found a second life as Kinnegar's own Crossroads IPA. This time around, Independent Brewing of Connemara played host, for a 6.3% ABV stout brewed with a power combo of American hops: Magnum, Chinook and Cascade.

It pours almost imperially thickly and I thought there wasn't going to be any head on it until near the end when I was surprised by a sudden surge of brown foam. This settled back into a luxurious ice cream float of bubbles and a second pour finished the job. The American hops are very obvious from the aroma: a distinct tang of grapefruit skin in with the chocolate and coffee. And this theme continues in the flavour. This time the dark malts are in their rightful place in the stout flavour profile -- high-cocoa dark chocolate is the protagonist: dry, but with a certain oleaginous quality, adding richness -- but it's flanked by spritzy citrus zest, rising from the middle and becoming louder towards the end. Each mouthful starts soft and silky but finishes sharply invigorating. I can imagine some purists having a problem with this brash Americanisation of our national beer style but I've no time for such prescriptivism: this is a magnificent tasting beer showing genuine brewing talent. Not many months after this came out, Independent had a black IPA of roughly the same strength brewed with Wood Key, a gypsy label which includes some of the McHugh's RoadTrippers. I wonder are the recipes related. Either way, I would very much like to see this beer also take a life of its own, as RoadTrip 1 did.

Then, as a surprise birthday bonus, McHugh's sent me a free bottle of the third in the RoadTrip series shortly after it was launched. Staying at Independent, this is RoadTrip Whiskey Barrel Aged Stout. The hop listing is the same as the above and it's only 1% ABV stronger, so I'm guessing it started out as the same beer. But it's been given three months in ex-rum Teeling whiskey casks. Again, the head is slow to form but eventually does so, albeit without so much enthusiasm this time. Chocolate is still the main element of the flavour: darkly bitter and given just a slight spirit and vanilla edge by the whiskey barrel. While the hops aren't as bright and fresh as they are in the other stout they are still present, adding a gently floral rosewater complexity to the centre. After a moment or two the sweetness and fruit fades into the background allowing a more serious dry roasted quality finish things off. While definitely a big beer, it's not so heavy or boozy that it's tough going to drink, and the 500ml serving size is entirely justified. If, like me, you like your barrel-aged beers with just a subtle suggestion of the cask then this is one to add to your want list, though on balance I did prefer RoadTrip 2 with its punchy burst of citrus hops.

And so on to Year 12 and whatever, and wherever, the next beer is.
[swishes cape]
[exits]

25 April 2016

Brother beyond

The beers from Leeds's Northern Monk Brewing Company are imported to Ireland by the owners of Galway Bay Brewery so it's not surprising that they're a fairly regular feature of the guest taps across the brewery's estate. Against the Grain had what amounted to a tap takeover just before Easter with a slew of monkish offerings on the bar.

Taking the opportunity to tick off the ones that were new to me, I began with Black Arches black IPA. It's a strong 'un at 6.7% ABV and packs in huge amounts of everything. Sweet caramel and treacle occupy the centre, flanked by harshly bitter citrus and oily hop resins. The malt comes back in the finish with a dry cocoa powder effect. There's a lot going on but I found it too discordant to be enjoyable: the dark malt and hops fight with each other and the drinker is left to deal with the resulting mess. Black Arches is a tiring beer that needs a time-out.

Rapscallion (L), Faith (R)
No style was advertised for Rapscallion, only that it's 5.3% ABV and based on a recipe from the 17th century. It's bright orange and smells thickly of liquorice. Different herbs fill out the flavour: I detected lavender in particular, but also the cardamom effect found in Hilden's Barney's Brew. It's not unpleasantly herbal, overall, as long as you manage to keep thoughts of bathwater from your mind. Research indicates that the trick was done with nothing more involved than ginger, coupled with orange zest and lots of UK hops. Right at the end I got a sensation of orange pith showing that the zest wasn't completely lost, but really this is all about those olde worlde herbs. Rather enjoyable, if you like such things, as I do.

Faith is one of the brewery's core range: a US-style pale ale at 5.1%. It's fine: looking identical to Rapscallion with a slightly sweaty tone to its aroma. The flavour is sweet and heavy on the jaffa orange, which I found a little surprising given the brewery's assertion that Citra is the main hop. Like I say: passable, but not terribly exciting; you've tasted this style done better.

And having covered Northern Monk's pale ale I wasn't quite sure what True North was meant to be when I saw it on tap at another Galway Bay pub, The Beer Market. It was chalked up as another pale ale, though this time the strength is just 3.7% ABV. It's a clear gold with a sharply bitter waxy flavour and a surprisingly weighty caramel-sweet malt base. It took me a while to get my head around what I had: the small serving measure and keg dispense were distractions from the fact that this is a straight-up, ey-up, northern bitter, and a rather good one at that. Once I'd figured that out, the classic English orange pith and distinctly Yorkshire honey lacing were perceptible. This is not a beer for fancy glassware; this is one to settle into and quaff by the pint. I'm impressed by how close to a cask classic it tastes when served kegged.

Good beer is good beer, regardless of dispense. But you knew that already.

22 April 2016

Meanwhile, down at the pub

The newest trend in Dublin's beer scene is one that's caught me by surprise but is pleasing to see. For the first time, pubs are being acquired by breweries other than the producers who primarily sell via their own outlets. The ball began rolling with Carlow Brewing taking on Brewery Corner in Kilkenny, and Carrig has had The Barrelstore in its native Carrick-on-Shannon for a while, but now Carrig has opened a new location here in the capital.

Bar Rua occupies a grand Tiger-era construction on Clarendon Street: a stack of modest-sized bar rooms mixing quiet corners with open spaces and commanding lovely views of the busy streetscape outside. The selection is varied, including beers from several Irish producers and an international craft selection as well. There's the full Carrig range, of course, and a house beer: Rua IPA.

As befits the name, it's red, and slightly hazy with it. And perhaps unsurprisingly there's a touch of amber ale to the flavour: caramel malt to the fore, contrasting neatly with an assertive citrus bitterness. The body is light, making it an easy-drinking inoffensive offering, as is appropriate for a house beer. While it's refreshing and quaffable, if you want an interesting beer to take time over it'll serve that purpose quite happily as well.

And what makes this a trend rather than an incident is the news that Meath's Brú Brewery will soon be operating Smyth's of Fairview as a tied house. I look forward to seeing how they handle the on-trade. I'm thinking cask, and plenty of it.

Brehon Brewhouse doesn't own a pub as yet but availed of the facilities at 57 The Headline to host a special evening for a special version of its special new beer. Brehon Rising imperial stout (another 1916 beer) was brewed to be mostly sold in 75cl boxed bottles. But, after ageing in whiskey barrels, a few gallons were racked off into an oak cask and that's what was put in the bar a few weeks ago.

The effect was interesting, and unexpected. There was no whiskey character to speak of, and only a small bite of oakiness. The main feature in both the aroma and flavour was sherry. Not the dry white sherry effect of oxidation, but the round, fruity flavour of good Oloroso. There is an Irish coffee warmth to it -- hardly surprising at 10%+ ABV -- and it leaves a sweet brown sugar deposit on the lips. The finish is quick and the texture light, making it a very drinkable sort of monster. It would be very easy to forget it's meant to be a sipper. While enjoyable now, I'd say it's one that will age well in the bottle for a year or two.

That wasn't the only surprise of the evening. There was an unexpected new beer as well: Brehon Pale Ale, an easy-drinking 4.5% ABV golden coloured chap. It shares a jaffa orange character with its big brother Stony Grey: a spicy, oily jasmine perfume kind of vibe, and then a bitterer pith in the finish. The low strength belies a full and almost chewy body, even though it's definitely the hops not the malt to the fore. The bitterness is perhaps a little severe for my taste, but it's a decent, well-balanced and sessionable pint and fills an obvious gap in the Brehon range.

Lastly for this round-up, and with no pub connection other than the fact I drank it in one, Huck, a new saison from O Brother. When Padhraig (one of the titular Brothers) told me that their forthcoming saison was going to be 6.5% ABV I winced a bit. Strong fruity saison rarely does it for me and I much prefer the crisper, lower-strength sort. So I was apprehensive when I got an entire pintful in The Beer Market. And yes, it's big on the esters that can make saisons tough drinking, but there's plenty in this beer's favour that left me smiling at the end. Most of all it's the zest: a biting, witbier-like orangey spritz that helps clean up the worst of the alcohol excess. There's a crunchy dry wheatiness spiced up by a white pepper character which is enough to place it in the saison good books, and a juicy honeydew melon effect which isn't the most difficult of Belgian fruity flavours to deal with. While definitely too heavy to be considered refreshing, it is a rewarding beer to drink and, ABV aside, few hardened saison fans will find much to dislike in it. Huck gets a qualified thumbs-up from me.

20 April 2016

Not on your life

I had no idea what this beer was when I acquired it, only that it's Danish and has a green label. So, hops, right?

Kissmeyer/Ølkollectivet '45/'85 was brewed as a salute to the Danish army's Royal Lifeguards. It's 4.9% ABV and came out the clear coppery gold of a märzen. There was some yeasty gunk in the bottle but it was good enough to stay there. One sniff made it very clear that it wasn't going to wow me with hops. Instead it has a dusty, husky smell: something that could be a German-style lager, or even a softly-spoken saison.

You can add Belgian-style blonde ale into the mix too, I discovered on tasting. Though quite dry, and crackling with fizz, there's a rounder fruit element as well: the apple-and-pear esters that speak of warm Belgian fermentation. And that's really the long and short of it: no real hops to speak of, no spicy complexity and not a peep out of the many Danish delicacies mentioned on the label, not that my ability to identify sorrel, woodruff or beech buds is especially well-honed. It's not even easy to drink: the carbonation is so lively it physically hurt the inside of my mouth, while the finish is like sparkling water in that it's cleansing, but thirst-inducing too.

Should this come your way, unless there's a Danish guardsman to toast, you can go on past it. I'm just glad to have it out of my fridge, which is what One-Shot Wednesdays are for.

18 April 2016

Four of a kind

Multiple, near simultaneous, releases from Galway Bay today. Despite breaking in a new brewer, or perhaps because, they've been hard at it over there.

First to come my way, with no fanfare whatsoever, was Galway Bay Export Stout, badged as a very imperial 10.2% ABV in The Black Sheep, though apparently only around 7.8%, according to the brewer. It doesn't even taste as big as that: the roast is light, the coffee element muted and the alcohol very much behaving itself. This is decent quality drinking for sure, but fans of big stout would likely want more of a bang than it delivers.

Off down the other end of the ABV scale next, and an amber ale called Aikau, at just 4.5% ABV. It's a light and zippy little number, putting fun candy sweetness next to some seriously dense and dank hop resins in a mismatched buddy-cop movie of a beer, and every bit as entertaining. While I do miss the marzipan chewiness that marks out darker and stronger amber ales, I'm also pleased that we're spared the bitter sweaty taste which often comes with. While perhaps not a beer to inspire considered and serious analysis, it's a very nice pint: bringing the session IPA lightness of touch to the amber ale genre. A big shout-out to hop variety Mosaic: the bringer of jollity.

Centrepiece of the busy Galway Bay release schedule was Change of the Guard, a collaboration on a technicality, being jointly brewed by new head brewer Will and his predecessor Chris who has moved on to White Frontier Brewery, high in the Swiss Alps. CotG is badged as a "triple red IPA", the first I've ever met. And yes, it's red in colour -- a hazy pinkish really -- and very high in alcohol at 11.5% ABV. The hops march out in formation right from the start: Simcoe, Chinook and Mosaic again, oozing oily resins with passionfruit juiciness and a volatile note of diesel and onions on the finish. The malt provides a substantial dose of caramel to accompany this, but the beer manages to stay dry and not harsh, hot or sticky. Brewing balance into a beer like this is quite an achievement though I can't help thinking it's sort of its undoing as well. One could level the accusation that it's a bit bland: for all the bigness of the recipe there's nothing that makes it stand out. I've tasted this level of flavour intensity in IPAs half its strength. It's a petty quibble, though: Change of the Guard is quality stuff.

Bringing up the rear is Beneath the Brambles which arrived across the chain late last week. It's a blackberry IPA but there's nothing we can do about that at this late stage. I did my best to hold my scepticism about fruited IPAs in check while I gave it a go in Against the Grain. It's an entertaining orangey-purple colour, thoroughly shot through with haze, resembling pink grapefruit juice more than anything. The blackberries were definitely fresh when they went in as their flavour really dominates the foretaste, sumptuously juicy. It would be lovely if matters ended there, but no, it insists on reminding you that it's an IPA. And it does this with a big, hard and harsh bitterness, metallic tasting and scorching the throat. Every mouthful is a two-act play ending in horrible tragedy. Put on a more neutral base, like a wheat beer or pale lager, this would probably be quite fun. I have no objection to big berry flavours in beer; hell, I'll drink a pint of Früli then order a second, but making fruit fight with hops is just not on. You can get away with it if the base ale is pale and light enough, and the hops and fruit are sufficiently complimentary -- version 1 of BrewDog's Elvis Juice being a good example -- but going in hard and heavy with the hops and then expecting the fruit to enhance this is a mistake, and not an enjoyable mistake.

I understand that the pace of new beers at Galway Bay is set to continue, and that we can expect more fruited IPAs too. Well come on, then. Let's get it over with.

15 April 2016

Belly up

On my way out of the Franciscan Well winter beer festival at the end of January, Declan from YellowBelly gave me four bottles of his beer. It took me a while to get around to them, but here's the skinny.

The first was released under Declan's own Otterbank label. In fact, that's the only label on the thing and I knew only from memory that it's a damson-infused Berliner Weisse which I believe is called Damson In Distress, part of Otterbank's This Is Berlin series. It's the murky orangey-gold colour of a tripel and features a scattering of yeasty gobbets which stuck politely to the bottom of the glass. It smells like a faro: sugar-sweet with a bricky nitric tang. There's almost no foretaste but after a second or two the sourness pinches the side of the tongue while a highly attenuated wheaty dryness sandpapers the back of the palate. The fruit, which I'd be hard pressed to identify as damson, exists more as a vapour, hovering above the busy beery action before disappearing up the back of the nose. This beer is tremendous fun: not too dry and not too sour, but with a lot of the complexity you get in proper aged Belgian gueuze. It's definitely not one of your production-line easy-bake Berliners that are something of a fashion these days: this tastes like work went into it.

Now, damson Berliners are easy enough to identify with minimal research, but what about this dark and oily chap with a YellowBelly label on it? Steve has it entered on RateBeer as YellowBelly Imperial Stout so I'll go with that, though we seem to have suspiciously the only two bottles on record (edit: it was later released under the name "It's Not Vodka"). It smells of molasses and old coffee, with a scarier note of black marker pen. Dark chocolate and bourbon biscuit are the guts of the flavour, set atop heavy leather and cigar smoke, but there's also that somewhat acrid high-alcohol gasoline taste. It's not a beer to drink quickly, even though the texture is quite light for such a boozy beast. I suspect that it's just a bit green and beer like this needs a year or two some place quiet to mellow out.

To the big lads next: the first outings in the brewery's barrel-aged series. YellowBelly Barrel Aged Barley Wine is no. 1 and clocks in at 9.9% ABV. It's a murky chestnut red colour with a stable collar of white foam. My first impression on sipping is of sawdust: the barrel seems to have left behind a very fresh and sappy wood character with a bitter resin quality which I suspect has nothing to do with the English hops. There's a touch of grape fruit (not grapefruit) lacing this, while the beer is more felt than tasted: a soft and warming pillow of malt; a sensation of hard toffee; but no more than that. The sawdust and pine resins sweep back in and dominate the finish as they dominated the start. I won't lie: it's tough drinking, and a 75cl bottle is not to be attempted alone. Another one that's best placed in the stash for ageing, perhaps?

Second in the series is YellowBelly Barrel Aged Brown Ale, at a more modest 7% ABV. There's a fierce crackle as this pours and the big off-white foam subsides to a thin skim. The aroma gives of a sense of the marker pens found in the imperial stout, but also a more pleasant coffee confectionery smell. It tastes dry and lightly fruity. I thought there was no contribution from the Chardonnay barrel but hang on: aren't Chardonnays dry and lightly fruity? Maybe that's what's going on. There's certainly none of the raw wood found in the Barley Wine. The more I ventured into it, the more I found white grape to be the dominant favour in this surprisingly subtle beer, which is a very strange sensation, and especially when you're expecting the usual coffee and chocolate of a brown ale. It has the rounded estery greasiness of the style, but really very little of the flavour, just the lightest dusting of milk chocolate. While not madly complex it does make for enjoyable, relaxing drinking.

Cheers to the Lambert's team for the bottles, and the verdict? Big strong beers and barrel-ageing have their place, but a well made low ABV sour beer offers a quiet excellence that their bluster rarely manages to match. More Berliner weisse, please.

13 April 2016

Like it or not

It's another One-Shot Wednesday: beers that don't really fit into any other theme so get a mid-week post to themselves. The series will continue until my notebook and beer fridge are both cleared.

This one didn't come from the beer fridge but the taps at The Beer Market. To Øl's LikeWeisse is a 3.8% ABV Berliner weisse, but that's one of those catch-all style designations that's beginning to mean almost nothing, so I wasn't sure what to expect. For one thing it's hardly sour at all, going instead for a tropical fruit vibe: mango in particular. There's a pleasant sherbet candy spicing as well, but it's all very understated and the rather watery body doesn't help endear it to me.

The brewers' description says it's designed to be a mild, easy-drinking Berliner weisse but I can't help thinking this intention has brought the resulting beer close to the point of being boring. It's certainly much too basic to be charging €5 for a small glass of it. Galway Bay's own Heathen and 303 both succeed better at what this guy is trying to do, and at a much more sessionable price point. I'll take a pint of either, and the change from my fiver.

11 April 2016

Beers in spaaace!

The Irish Beer & Whiskey Village returned to the RDS in mid-March and I went along on St. Patrick's Day for a sedate afternoon's beering. Brewery numbers were slightly down on last year, but the spare space was well used, with extra seating and a barber's shop, though I only made use of one of those facilities.

My first port of call was Trouble Brewing who had two brand new beers on their bar. Big Top is a heavy rye IPA, all of 6.3% ABV and with a lovely rounded texture. The bitterness is low but it doesn't go in for the juicy topnotes either. Instead there's a resinous and oily hop flavour, mellowing to allow a modicum of mango, lychee and white plum. It's not a hop firework display, more a hop log fire: comforting and classy.

The other début was Evil Robot, an amber ale at 5% ABV. It's a style that can go in all sorts of directions; sometimes sweaty funk, sometimes watery acridity, and all in points in between. This one, while having a solidly chewable red malt base, leans heavily on bright and fresh grapefruit for its flavour element. It's balanced, but only just, and works in favour of the hopheads.

The most impressive beer of the gig came from Rascal's Brewing. They had given their Big Hop Red an eight-month sojourn in a French wine barrel, turning it into Rascal's Pinot Noir Red. The grape character that this has imparted is phenomenal, like you'd find in an Italian grape-based ale. There's a significant amount of oak, though as a spritzy sandalwood spicing instead of heavy sweet vanilla. The two coalesce into a long exotically-perfumed finish: Irish ale meets Arabian nights.

And for a palate reset, there was White Hag Festival Lager. Simply constructed at 4% ABV but screaming quality with a clinically precise clean and crisp pils character, complicated by a small waft of sulphur and tiny bit of apple fruitiness.

First time exhibitor at the festival, and indeed any festival, was the Guinness Open Gate Brewery, bringing a selection of their special small-batch beers. Antwerpen Export Stout is a slightly tweaked version of Guinness Special Export Stout. The classic Guinness sour tang is very much in evidence and is the beer's best feature. Beyond that there's a big estery sweetness, more pronounced than I recall in SES, but I could be wrong on that. As usual with these Guinness brand extensions, all it did was leave me hankering for a dry bottle of Foreign Extra.

A couple of decent and unGuinnesslike classics also on the bar were Dubliner Wheat: a bubblegum-heavy pale weissbier with a lovely kick of lightly green noble hops. It tasted like a very authentic recreation of a Munich weiss to me, particularly impressive at just 5% ABV. And Vienna Common, a crisp, dark-brown lager-a-like with more of those lovely celery and white pepper mitteleuropa hops plus a pleasant light roast bite and a perfect clean finish. It's one of those great quaffing beers that are also complex enough to drink slowly, should the need arise.

Toasted Oatmeal Brown Ale With Vanilla was the last recipe put together by former Open Gate brewer Jason Carroll. It pretty much hits every element in that description, point by point: sweet caramel, vanilla candy and a smooth weighty body. While it avoids being unpleasantly sickly, it's still not the sort of beer I'd have more than one of.

Jason's new base of operations, Wicklow Brewery, was also present and I took the opportunity to tick off one of their core range that I'd previously missed. St. Kevin's Red is a hazy and wholesome number, almost a shade of pink rather than red. There's a butterscotch toffee sweetness, but set on a light and dry base so it doesn't build and get cloying. Grain husk and an earthy hop bitterness add a seriousness to the candy sweetness. It's another beer that I probably wouldn't deliberately choose, but down in the brewpub where it's born I could see myself getting through pints of it. Think of it as an Irish kellerbier.

Finally, a quick stop-off at the Station Works bar for a first taste of Foxes Rock Stout. I've been critical of Station Works beer in the past but the only thing wrong with this one is that it's not a stout, not by a long way. It's a red-brown colour and smells enticingly of blackberry jam. This leads on to a flavour that's just as sweet and fruity with a kind of wheaty Ready Brek effect. It could happily pass as a dark bitter or brown ale but you won't find any coffee, chocolate, roasted grains or hop bitterness. I'm no style purist but there is absolutely nothing here that I look for in a stout.

Congrats to Bruce and Carly for another great show, and special thanks to Carlow Brewing for providing a freebie ticket. Bruce's show will be on the road later this year: to Belfast on 21st-23rd April, Doolin on 26th-28th August and Cork in late September, plus of course the year's main event back at the RDS on 8th-10th September. Plenty to put in your diary there.

08 April 2016

Dog's life

Four recent releases from BrewDog up for scrutiny today.

A black IPA to begin. Possibly, in fact, the first BrewDog black IPA I've met. Arcade Nation is a pintable 5.2% ABV and a clear cola red colour topped by an old-ivory head. The aroma is impressive from the get-go: not massively in one's face but a very nice blend of spicy vegetal greenness, citrus zest and darker tar. The latter of these -- a burnt bitumen element -- drives the flavour with a tart lime bitterness doing little more than shouting from the back seat. It calms down after a second or two and a soft raisin and plum character is how it finishes. The glimpse behind the scenes afforded by BrewDog's recipe archive shows us that Carafa Special I with Simcoe, Citra and Amarillo is how the trick was done. This is a bold beer, in both senses of the word. Its big flavour gives your palate a firm kicking and then tries to pretend nothing happened. More cheeky than charming and not one I'd be running back to.

Ramping up the ABV to 7.4%, we have another IPA variant: Albino Squid Assassin, brewed with 8% rye and dark garnet in colour. It smells red too: I get sweet red cherries and a summery raspberry tartness. The texture is surprisingly light given the strength though there's a definite oily, possibly even syrupy, consistency. Still, it passes efficiently over the palate and doesn't get sticky or hot. And that's kind of it. There's not much hop flavour from the Chinook and Citra, but a pleasant jammy sweetness from the malt, though with little by way of rye's signature grassiness. It's a little inoffensive and boring, in fact, the aroma being far and away its best feature, and the can artwork the most exciting part. Perfectly drinkable, though, which isn't always the case with beers of this stripe. The forthcoming barrel-aged version should be more interesting.

Returning to the dark side next, it's Jet Black Heart, an oatmeal milk stout. I found it hard to believe this is a mere 4.7% ABV, pouring thickly as it does, and forming a deep beige head of the colour normally only found on much stronger, denser beers. The aroma is a warming, comforting mug of sweet hot chocolate. I can even smell the marshmallow thoughtfully put on the side. As one might expect, the texture is fantastically smooth, making me wonder why the brewery has chosen to make the draught version of this nitrokeg. But then I wonder why anyone would do something as damaging to a beer's flavour as put it on nitrokeg. The flavour does have that tasty chocolate, and a surprisingly assertive bitter finish, from the hops, I assume: Magnum and a very quiet Sorachi Ace. But the centre ground belongs to the lactose sugar and it's jarringly sweet. The sickly effect starts in the centre of the palate and then drops down the back of the throat, fighting the hops on the way. Maybe nitro can smooth this out, but the bottle is a beer which is almost brilliant but ruined by one unfortunate misstep.

A no-nonsense IPA to bring redemption in the final round: Ace of Simcoe. What used to bother me about BrewDog's IPA is Dead single-hop series was their heat and strength: I felt it didn't really allow the hops to shine through well. Ace of Simcoe is the first in a series of more modest single-hoppers pitched at 4.5% ABV. It's a lovely clear gold colour: no hop haze, or any other kind, here. The aroma is an enticing perfume, spicy and floral with a hint of rich golden syrup beneath. Tastewise it's mostly all juice: largely tangerine, with a hint of lemon and watermelon, plus an odd spark of mint right on the end. I was expecting a stronger bitterness but there's little more than a zesty buzz, and I enjoyed that about it. While certainly extremely gulpable, aided by a lovely soft carbonation, it is a little watery and though the hop finish lasts long, a bit more body would make it even better. Still, it's a very promising approach to single hopping and I look forward to seeing how Chinook, Citra and Equinox react to this bare-bones treatment.

If it's big and bold flavours you're after, the darker pair are where it's at, but in all honesty I prefer the subtler stylings of the the paler ones.

06 April 2016

Get up!

Beers from Crew Republic have come and gone from Irish shelves over the years and I've never taken the time to get to know any of them. They're a self-consciously "craft" label from Munich, their bottles 33cl and their styles largely American. This bottle of 7:45 Escalation double IPA was one of the leftovers from Alltech's  2016 Dublin Craft Beer Cup, at which it secured one of the rare gold medals.

8.3% is the ABV, so it's a bit of a whopper, pouring a dense dark orange, almost brown, and quite murky. The glass was sitting across the table from me while I wrote the opening paragraph of this post and, even from a metre away, I could smell its tantalising tangerine vapours beckoning, siren-like. The aroma is gorgeously juicy with only the faintest trace of sticky malt beneath. Surprisingly, however, the malt takes the lead on tasting with an almost porridgey cereal foretaste. The texture is thick but there's no booze heat: it's all very clean and the flavours neat and precise. The hops need a moment to assert themselves but gradually take over the palate, spreading sweet marmalade, spicy jasmine and more of those juicy tangerines. Too heavy to drink at speed, it rewards slow mellow sipping and never gets difficult, or even particularly bitter, which I like.

This isn't a hard-rocking, rip-your-face-off, adolescent double IPA. It's pure balanced, nuanced, quality. Crafted, you might say.

04 April 2016

The new order

I had been meaning to go on a trip to Belfast for some time, to check out a couple of new pubs which seem to have brought the city's beer offer to a whole new level. When Matt from Boundary Brewing offered me a train ticket to attend their first birthday party, that was all the excuse I needed to turn vague intentions into solid reality, especially since I had yet to taste any of Boundary's beers.

As it happened, a couple of days before I headed up, north coast blow-in Simon was in Dublin and brought a bottle of Boundary Export Stout along with him. This is a 7% ABV whopper but very highly attenuated, leaving it starkly dry with almost a crunch to its roast. Talking to Matt later he said he wasn't happy with the way that particular batch of the stout had turned out, so I'll reserve judgement. But if you like your big stouts to be almost ashen, this could be the one for you.

Simon  was also bearing a bottle of Utopian Stout, the first in the Salamander Series of special editions from Northern Ireland's other co-operative brewery, Lacada. Though only one percentage point stronger than the Boundary one, this presents an altogether richer, more rounded experience. The aroma is a heady mix of sweet, calorific butterscotch and spicy gunpowder excitement. The flavour is more restrained, however: a quality dark chocolate bitterness with some lighter berries and dried fruit. It's all very wholesome and nourishing, as a stout of this strength should be. Cheers for the shares, Simon!

And so to Belfast. Before heading for the Boundary event at BrewBot, I changed trains at Central Station and backtracked to Botanic, for a look at The Woodworkers. I was something of a regular in the Lavery's pub complex in the '90s and was fascinated to hear that they'd recently hived off a part of it to be a craft beer bar. They've done a lovely job too: all bare brick and dark wood with a smoking area on the roof that connects through to the Lavery's pool room. The rotating beer list is well sourced from across the water and south of the border, making great use of Norn Iron's unique position.

I started with a Cloudwater Winter IPA, behind as I am on the Manchester Brewery Everyone Is Talking About™. At 8% ABV it's maybe not the best starter for a day's beering, and it's also quite soupy looking with nothing more involved than mild pine in its aroma. But while there is a very faint savoury tang it wasn't yeast-bitten, only slightly yeast-nibbled, maybe. The flavour is all hop: big and juicy tinned pineapple at the front, bitterer papaya and guava afterwards. I got a fun pinch of white pepper at the very end, but mostly the finish is clean and quick leaving almost no aftertaste. That feature, alongside a medium body and total lack of alcohol heat, makes it dangerously drinkable. The tropical fruit fades a little as it warms, turning to a more serious dank, but it remains a beautifully constructed and enjoyable beer.

Sticking with Cloudwater, my next was Leningrad, 5.2% ABV and described enigmatically as a "tea sour". And it's a strange beast indeed: rough and grainy, like muesli or a cereal bar, the aroma in particular being all oats and nuts. The flavour includes a sugary tea edge on all of this. While complex, it's just not very nice. I began thinking that it might work best as a base for something else: mint, perhaps, or lemons. I don't know what the brewer was intending to achieve with this but it didn't work at all for me.

From Manchester to Liverpool before we leave, and Mad Hatter's Toxteth IPA, a dark orange number at 6.5% ABV. There's a vaguely pithy, spicy jaffa effect in the aroma and a classically grapefruity back-of-the-throat bitterness on tasting. It's a solidly enjoyable IPA but one which provides a very different service to the Cloudwater one we came in on.

And so to the main event. BrewBot on the upper Ormeau Road is a strikingly modern glass-fronted pub. Though the imposing facade makes it look cavernous from the outside, it's more intimate inside: low ceilings, bare wood and leather. A long 20-person table down the middle of the floor is ideal for communal drinking.

For Boundary's birthday a selection of their own and guest beers were available and I started with Boundary's Saison D'être: Deux. At 6.7% ABV it's a strong one, though nowhere near the upper limit for the style. A bright, clear yellow, it's packed with esters, tasting very banana-like and missing the dry crispness that I like most about saison. Matt didn't seem too happy about it either, so back to the drawing board, I guess.

Push & Pull is a series of 5.5% ABV IPAs by Boundary, and I think the version pouring on the day was L.I.C., brewed with a whole mix of new world hops, though the one that dominates the flavour is Japan's Sorachi Ace. The beer is a hazy amber colour with a creamy texture and coconut all the way through the aroma and flavour.

To finish exploring the Boundaries, Big.Ass.Stout, a 9.4% ABV imperial monster, laying on loads of chocolate but balancing it very nicely with a roasted bitterness and a metallic hop tang. Definitely no over-attenuation here: the body is big and chewy, silky and sumptuous, just as you'd expect from something with this name and strength. Not one to drink a lot of, but very nice as it goes.

Just one of the guest beers was new to me, YellowBelly Pale Ale, and brewer Declan was on-hand to assure me that it's not one I'd had before. A hazy pale yellow it's a little more yeasty than I'd like, but still packs a lovely invigorating citric punch alongside wholesome grain. Matt Curtis, also in attendance, said it reminded him of Beavertown's Gamma Ray, which is a pretty big compliment. Would I prefer this one if it were clear? Yes. The raw and hazy thing is fun, but I reckon a gentle polishing would improve those hop notes even further.

BrewBot is conveniently close to top Belfast off licence The Vineyard so I popped in there for some train beers on the way back to the station. A random sweep from the fridges landed me with three from Three Boys Brewery in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Three Boys Pils, from the get-go, delivers everything you could want from a kiwi pilsner. It's pale yellow with a slight haze and a massive tropical fruit aroma: it's amazing to think it lasted so well on the long journey north-west. The flavour is equally bright and fresh and speaks to the origin of the Saaz-derived Riwaka hops which have been used here to great grassy effect. The Green Bullet and Nelson Sauvin are pure New Zealand, however, delivering huge amounts of orange and lemon citrus pith, and all set on a perfect clean lager base. At 5.5% ABV it's perhaps a little overclocked for a pils but it's still a beer that would be worth settling in to for a few.


Sadly, neither of the other two lived up to the promise of the Pils. Three Boys Wheat Beer, hazy yellow again, has lovely piquant and peppery spicing allied with bitter orange peel, but it's just too sharp to be pleasant, lacking the softness I'm looking for in a wheat beer, and also with a nasty soapy twang in the finish. Meanwhile, the Three Boys IPA is a dark amber caramel-smelling job. Starting dryly tannic to the point of astringency, the toffee swings in quickly and builds hotly as it goes down. By way of balance there's some lighter mandarin and satsuma but it never quite gets over its harsh caramel malt heat, despite the seemingly reasonable ABV of 5.5%.

And on that bum note, we hurtle back towards Connolly Station and home. Thanks to Matt and everyone at Boundary and BrewBot for the day's hospitality. There's definitely a good couple of day's beer and food fun to be had in Belfast these days.

01 April 2016

The wire service

Session logoSean from Beer Search Party is at the helm for this month's Session and has centred the topic around Twitter. I'm a big fan of the microblogging platform and it has certainly had a huge impact on the beer scene, even though a lot of that is to the detriment of blogs. I do miss the more long-form beer analysis which has taken a bit of a pasting in the Twitter era, though there are plenty of good writers still out there blogging about beers on a regular basis. And there was beer hype before Twitter -- certain new releases and new breweries generated reactions and buzz among the bloggerati, a prime example being BrewDog's arrival in 2007.

But Twitter has intensified the whole thing; streamlined it, I guess. One side effect I've noticed is a reduction in the breadth of breweries getting attention from the hype machine, at least among UK Twitterers. It seems to be the same five or six British breweries being mentioned over and over again (BrewDog, of course, still mixing it in there). I know from drinking in Britain that this is not representative of national brewing, nor even of the "craft" sub-sector that gets most of the attention. Maybe I just need to recalibrate my follows a bit better, but I would like to see a wider picture on UK beer Twitter.

New additions to the mini-pantheon are rare but one such is Manchester's Cloudwater Brew Co., and with good reason as their beers are generally very good. A particular twitbuzz appeared to surround their double IPA so when I happened across a bottle of Cloudwater DIPA v2 in Belfast's The Vineyard off licence a few weeks ago, I snapped it up.

"Gyle no. 131" says the helpfully informative label, 9.6% ABV and hopped with Pilgrim, Citra and Chinook: 99kg, 2015 harvest. That's a lot of detail to take in. "Drink fresh" it also says, and my bottle was just five weeks from filling at time of opening, though The Vineyard had not deigned to keep this delicate specimen in its fridges. It poured fairly clear for a naturally conditioned job, the pale orange hue only slightly misted. The aroma is very juice-forward, all sweet pineapple and mango with just a slight lacing of spicy pine in behind. Any alcoholic vapours are keeping their volatile heads well down at this stage.

It's not hot to taste either but the mouthfeel does serve as an indicator of the strength, being quite thick. As with the aroma, tropical fruit is the centrepiece of the flavour: ripe mandarin and gooey peach. An acidic resinous bitterness builds quickly behind it and I thought that was going to be the finisher, but the hop fruit bounces back right at the end leaving you with a mouthful of tasty nectarine flesh and maybe just a slight harder diesel edge.

This is a beer of tremendous nuance and restraint. It takes very little effort to drink and I had to keep reminding myself to slow down and enjoy it. I deem it an object lesson for any brewery attempting the double IPA style and very much a case where the Twitter hype is justified. I just wonder who else is making beer this good that I don't know about.

There'll be more from Cloudwater in next Monday's post, perhaps inevitably.