23 January 2017

Start as you mean to go on

Dry January? The chance would be a fine thing. Dublin's pubs have had plenty of new Irish stuff on the go for this supposedly quiet month. Here's what I managed to get hold of.

I paid my first and second visits to Idlewild during the month, a pleasant little bar tucked into George's Market on the Fade Street side. The first time was because they'd just released their first collaboration recipe beer. Strawberry Milkshake IPA was brewed at Rascals in an extremely small pilot batch which sold out entirely on the evening of its release. I'm told it will be back on a more permanent basis in due course. It's 6.3% ABV and takes its name from the use of real strawberries and lactose, alongside oatmeal and Hüll Melon hops. The aroma was worryingly sickly but there's none of this in its flavour as it delivers instead a big hit of tropical fruit: a cocktail of mango, passionfruit and pineapple juices. No strawberry, mind, though the "milkshake" bit is present in the slightly glutinous texture which I think actually enhanced the hop impact. Expecting pure gimmickry, I was pleased to find just a really good fruit beer.

That wasn't the first beer to feature Rascals and Idlewild's signatures; the brewery has been making the bar's house beer since it first opened. A Swingin' Affair is a light pale ale of just 4.1% ABV. Manager Dean told me the intention was for something easy-going and fruity but to my palate this is very dry and savoury, in that way that seems to be so fashionable at the moment. The Hüll Melon is allied with Mosaic hops here and I got crisp onion skin in particular from it, with just a little bit of fruitiness peeping out as it warms. It's refreshing and it is easy-going, but I found that flavour just a little too severe.

What brought me back to Idlewild was the launch of a new pilsner from The White Hag. Róc is intended to replace the brewery's Kölsch-a-like in the permanent line-up, and is a medium-strength 4.5% ABV. Despite this it has quite a substantial body, light in carbonation and a full mouthfeel more typical of helles or even märzen. The bitterness is sharp and green in the north German way, though I found it lacking the fresh punch you find in the likes of Jever. There's a slightly off-putting rubbery note in it as well. It's a decent effort, and the brewery clearly knows that beers of this sort are supposed to have character, which this does. I'm not ready to place it in the pantheon of great Irish lagers yet, however.

While I was in the neighbourhood, I nipped around the corner to Bar Rua where they had YellowBelly's Smoke & Oak on tap, a 5.5% ABV stout with cocoa nibs aged on scotch whisky cask chips. It's pure black in colour with a sappy rubber foretaste and an ashen dryness after. Given a few minutes to warm up, there's a nice and meaty texture, but the flavour just doesn't work for me: it tastes burnt rather than smoked and there's none of the softness I'd have expected from whisky and/or chocolate.

Another German-style lager next, Careen, brewed by Galway Bay as a replacement for their Dortmunder. This one is 4.8% ABV, the purest clear gold, with a pleasantly soft texture. The first sip presents a large perfumed bitterness on the palate, one that takes a bit of getting used to and which hangs around for ages. I like when flavourful lagers party in the mouth quickly and then clear out of the way, cleaning up after themselves. This one is a bit more unruly, and leaves you to deal with that intensely floral aftertaste yourself, grumbling over your resin-coated tongue. Careen is a bold beer, and might even change a few minds about how aggressive this style can be, but for me it's just a bit too busy for enjoyable quaffing.

Recent guest beers at Galway Bay's The Black Sheep have included White Gypsy's The Banker, described as a "rye wheat beer" which I figured would be an interesting combination. It's the ochre colour of many a rye beer but that's where I felt the grain's contribution ended. On tasting it reveals itself to be an absolutely straight-up Bavarian style weissbier. And a good one at that: softly full-bodied despite an ABV of just 5%, and with a gorgeous juicy-fruit bubblegum flavour, one that's lively without being over-sweet. There is a certain peppery spice as well, and that could be the rye, but it could just as easily be a flavour produced by the yeast also. I'm not sure what the point of this experiment was, but I did enjoy the beer, reminding me as it did that weissbier is a much overlooked style and can be very tasty when done well.

Meanwhile another rye beer was pouring on the cask engines: O Brother's Holden, badged as a Belgian-style rye pale ale at 6.3% ABV. It's a murky orange colour but has a fresh and clean mandarin zest aroma. There's a big and sharp rye bitterness at the front, followed by juicy jaffa hops in behind. There's enough time for a full toffee warmth to enter the picture as well, before the bitterness returns, bringing it to a hard, almost acrid finish. It's quite a ride. A few sips in I noticed there's a certain tannic quality too. Coupled with the orangey hops this lends it an English bitter feel which I rather enjoyed. In fact, it tastes far more like a bitter or barley wine than anything Belgian. I liked it a lot, mainly for its complexity. The trademark O Brother bitterness is there, but it's balanced and enhanced by lots of other things.

I had never been to Murphy's in Rathmines before, but made a point of stopping by when it became the first Dublin pub to have O'Hara's Hop Adventure Styrian Wolf on tap, the latest in Carlow Brewing's series of 5% ABV single-hop IPAs. A previous version included Sorachi Ace, and I found this to have a lot in common with it. Coconut is the main feature of the flavour, though rather than Sorachi's lemons, there's a softer fruit accompaniment, something like lychee. I see one description of the hop which mentions an elderflower characteristic, and I can understand why. Amongst all the fruit and flowers there is a serious bitterness here too, but it's restrained enough to let the other flavours out to play. Much like Sorachi Ace, I expect this beer will divide opinion but I'm definitely a fan of its up-front boldness.

Finishing up with a couple of trips to 57 The Headline, Trouble Brewing's latest is a "fresh & juicy" pale ale called Ambush. It seems to be pitching a little at the New England segment of the market, with its cloudy yellow stylings. At least some of that must be hop haze because there's a full-on smack of pineapples and weed in the aroma, while the flavour has not a trace of yeast bite. There's a slight savoury greasiness, but no allium or caraway, I'm happy to report. Instead, the first flavour is a spicy peppery resin thing, pure dank, after which comes softer mandarin, pineapple and lemon candy. Fresh, yes, and a little bit juicy, but it's mostly about that weedy, spicy bitterness. Beautiful stuff, and at 5.01% ABV, very sessionable.

Finally, another fast-moving Rascals special. Vacuum Boogie IPA is an award-winning homebrew recipe, scaled up and sent out into the world, starting at The Headline. The Capital Brewers homebrew club had descended en masse to clear the first couple of kegs and I was fortunate to secure one of the final pints. It's another murky one, and once again dankness is the signature move. There's less of a tropical character than in Ambush, instead having a more bitter and spicy grapefruit skin thing going on. A teeny bit of onion starts to develop as it warms, but nothing significant, and not enough to upset the basic delicious spicy premise. There are about 18 kegs of this floating around, I believe. Grab it while it's fresh.

Not a bad start to 2017, all-in-all.

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