27 February 2017

Piled high and sold cheap

Three large format bottles of French beer for under a tenner? Yes please! I spotted this lot stacked up by the tills in Lidl and figured they'd be worth a go. Two are badged as coming from "Abbaye de Vauclair" which I'm sure isn't a real thing, and research tells me they're actually brewed at that bastion of cheap French beer Gayant, better known for La Goudale.

Abbaye de Vauclair Bière Blanche is where I started. Appearances are on the money for a standard witbier: 4.5% ABV and a cloudy shade of yellow with just a slight greenish hint to it. The aroma is surprisingly full-on, all fresh citrus peel, green herbs plus a slight lactic sourness. The texture is light and refreshing; effervescent without being fizzy. All the fruit promised by the aroma, and more, is delivered in the flavour. There's a very distinct juiciness giving the drinker lime, lemon and even some more exotic mango or pineapple. This is balanced by a peppery incense spice and given a quick finish. Though far from subtle, this is a superb beer, avoiding the harsh dryness that often plagues cheap witbier without swinging out the other side into cloying sweetness. Though consumed on a dismal February afternoon it sparked happy thoughts of summer.

I followed the blue one with the yellow one: Abbaye de Vauclair Blonde, which bears the unsettling legend "blonde beer with caramel flavouring". It's 6.5% ABV and a deep honey amber colour. A dry husky, musty grain character is all the aroma has to say while the flavour is equally uncomplicated. There's a slight sugary stickiness, though nothing that suggests added caramel to me. I was expecting a whack of butterscotch or something, but it's too clean for that sort of nonsense. A rising waxy bitterness in the finish adds one extra dimension, but beyond that and the basic malt and sugar it's a very plain and uninspiring affair, Belgian-style blonde ale on a by-the-numbers basis. There are certainly none of the distinguishing high notes found in the Blanche.

We move away from the Abbaye desmense for the third beer, the starkly-labelled Duc De Coeur French Strong Pale Ale, a brand that Lidl usually only uses for its ciders. Strong indeed at 7% ABV and the clear amber of rocket-fuel tramps' brew. It smells a bit like sickly super-strong lager as well: there's certainly nothing suggesting pale ale in the aroma. The flavour passes that test but only just. There's a fruit character to it, artificial like chew sweets, and a perfumed resinous bitterness, but it's all very low key. The main feature is a sweet malt stickiness and an unpleasant grain-sack mustiness. You need to be informed in advance and be flexible in your thinking to really appreciate this as a pale ale. Belgian-style blonde or wonky bock are much more what it says to me. Either way, I'm not impressed.

So the Blanche, the cheapest of the set, is the winner of this lot. Stock up!

24 February 2017

Here comes the rain again

We don't see much Cloudwater beer in Dublin. The once-off tap takeover at The Beer Market last summer was pretty much the height of it, until last week when a selection of bottles and cans from the high-profile Manchester brewery appeared in off licences. I doubt they'll be around long.

Item one is Mittelfrüh Lager, an anaemic yellow shade with barely any effort made at forming a head. It's badged as an Autumn/Winter beer and I get a certain autumnal sense from the aroma: damp leaves, root vegetables and firework saltpetre. The flavour is quite sweet, showing honeydew melon and the more artificial fruit quality of white lemonade. A grain-sack mustiness creeps in as it warms, though it retains a pleasantly crisp finish. This isn't what I was expecting from a German-hopped lager. It doesn't taste like any German beer I know. The absence of grassy green flavours aside, at only 4.8% ABV it has the heft of a much stronger, denser beer. While it's certainly not bland, I found it just a little too off-kilter to be properly enjoyable.

We continue light and pale with Session IPA Wai-iti: 4.5% ABV although this time there's a significant haze and quite a lot of gunk in the bottom of the bottle. The aroma is great: lemony Refresher sweets and damp grass promising oodles of hop fun. The flavour doesn't quite deliver, however. There's a harsh savoury twang, a raw hop leaf acidity which I assume is meant to be there but which unbalances the beer badly. It puts an edge on what's otherwise a smooth, easy-going sweetie which reminds me intensely of lemon meringue pie: the squidgey lemon filling and moist biscuity base. There's even a touch of creamy butter in proceedings. But that hard bite keeps coming back and shouting over the top of the nuances. Like the lager, I was never really comfortable with it.

The bottles round off with Fazenda Ouro Verde Porter, the first black Cloudwater beer I've encountered. Fazenda Ouro Verde is not a hop variety I'd heard of, but perusing the label reveals it's actually a type of coffee. Pure dark-roasted coffee is the aroma from this very dark beastie, and coffee is the backbone of the flavour. But there's more to it than that. The texture is gorgeous, like silk, with the gentlest of effervesence instead of fizz, and then there's a creamy dark chocolate truffle quality, making it smooth tasting as well as smooth feeling. Yet despite the big flavour and sizeable 6% ABV it's beautifully clean, slipping off the palate just as effortlessly as it slipped on. If either of the previous two had had the integrated flavours, the sheer poise, of this one I'd have liked them a lot more.

Another first for me is Cloudwater in cans. I started with IPL El Dorado Mosaic, two fine hops, brewed into a handsome clear bright golden lager. El Dorado's Fruit Salad sweets and Mosaic's juicy pineapple are both apparent in the aroma. On tasting the Mosaic elbows its way to the front and lays down a stereotypical blanket of savoury caraway seeds, with the sweet and slightly sticky El Dorado tropical fruit in behind. It's a bit of a good-cop-bad-cop combination but it works quite well, with neither side coming to dominate. There's a pleasing hard bitterness rasping the side of the tongue as it finishes off, leaving lots of lip-smacking piney hop residue behind. The texture is actually quite similar to the porter: big and smooth, tasting every unit of its 6.3% ABV. It's an excellent showcase for these two hops, as well as being a beautiful beer in general. It had been in the can for less than three weeks at time of drinking, and it showed.

IPA Vic Secret Wai-iti was just as fresh, though not as attractive-looking as the IPL, being a murky pale orange when poured. There's a promise of big bitterness in the aroma: that almost liquorice quality I associate with Vic Secret hops. It's definitely herbal on tasting, though not particularly bitter. In fact the foretaste is quite muted and it takes a little time to unfold on the palate, which it does quietly. The liquorice is there; there's a harsher, but not unpleasant, pine resin kick; but it's balanced by a much softer mandarin sweetness which does a great job keeping the sharper flavours at bay. My biggest criticism is the mouthfeel: despite the big column of foam in that photograph, there's a flatness to it which I think is detrimental to the hop flavours as a whole. A bit more condition would lift everything and make it an altogether more engaging beer. It's certainly not the hop celebration that I found in the IPL, but perhaps that's more to do with those specific types of hops than what the brewery decided to do with them.

My opinion of Cloudwater's beer as a mixed bag survives another round of scrutiny. There are a couple of truly great ones here, a couple that are definitely wonky, and an IPA stuck in the middle. If nothing else, at least this brewery gives us something to talk about.

22 February 2017

A sequel to the prequel

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

Monday's post was a sort-of preview of the Alltech Brews & Food Festival which opens tomorrow in Dublin. I finished writing it on Sunday, scheduled it, and then went to the pub. On the taps at 57 The Headline I found two more beers from breweries who will be attending the festival so I felt I had to get them in as well before the doors opened.

I'm not sure if 5 Lamps will have Hoppy Ending available on their bar. This IPA was brewed as a Valentine's special and might have passed its natural lifespan. I wasn't much of a fan of it anyway. It's 4.5% ABV, an attractive clear gold, but rather doused in diacetyl. The hops give it a rough bitterness rather than any fun freshness, while the only fruit character in the flavour is an odd sweet strawberry kick. It's just about clean enough to be drinkable, saved by none of the flavours being too strong: it's a session beer, but not a very good one.

Happier times were had in the company of Lobo, the latest IPA from Wicklow Wolf. Nothing interferes with the hops here, beginning with a bright, spicy and leafy aroma. A serious lemon-skin bitterness opens the flavour and rips right through the palate in a thrilling fashion. It's only 5.2% ABV but it's no lightweight, tasting big in all directions at once. The word "fresh" doesn't quite cover its hop intensity. I'm more inclined to go with "raw". And yet it's not unbalanced: though absolutely and unashamedly a beer that's all about American hops, there's just enough of a malt base to prevent it turning acrid or harsh. I'd be much more keen to have a session on this.

Lobo will be accompanied at the festival by another new Wicklow Wolf IPA, a red SMASH one, called Zoso. If it's as good as Lobo we're in for a treat.

20 February 2017

Look busy!

Alltech Brews & Food is back in Dublin's Convention Centre from Thursday of this week. There will be much new and exciting beer to occupy my time all weekend so I figured I should try and make some advance inroads into the selection. Here are seven beers from six Irish breweries who will be exhibiting, acquired in advance so I can drink other things while I'm there.

Kinnegar will be sharing a stand at the festival with White Hag, launching a collaboration between two of Ireland's first-string breweries. For now, a beer Kinnegar produced with the help of the makers of Dan Kelly's cider, and named after the boss there. Olan's Tart is number six in the Kinnegar Sour Series and uses apple juice from the Dan Kelly's orchards outside Drogheda.

It's 5% ABV and pours a wholesome cloudy pale orange, like a proper scrumpy. A white fluffy head puts in a brief appearance before fading away to a mere comb-over of froth on the surface. The texture is surprisingly thick. I'm used to sour beers being on the thinner side but this has a chewy sourness, sort of like salted caramel, reminding me a lot of the heavy gose that YellowBelly released last year. I miss the clean snap I was expecting but which isn't present. It's still plenty sour, a tang slicing backwards across the palate while leaving a juicy residue on the lips, and inside this there's a crunchy Granny Smith apple flesh flavour. An alcoholic heat builds in the belly -- all part of that unorthodox weight which discombobulated me somewhat while I drank it. It's certainly interesting, but I won't be hankering after more of this the way I still do for number four in the series, Sour Grapes.

Clonakilty Brewing will be making their first festival foray. I reviewed their pale ale a few weeks ago here, now it's the turn of their porter. Smuggler is a substantial 6% ABV, immediately inviting comparison to the legendary O'Hara's Leann Folláin, especially since it's bottle conditioned, which Leann Folláin is not. I got a faint hiss when the cap came off, and it was quite lazy about head formation as it poured. The texture is smooth and cask-like, with a pleasant tingling sparkle, though surprisingly light of body given the strength.

It smells, well, stout-like, with a mix of sweet chocolate and dry roast, plus a certain spiciness which I'm guessing is from the yeast. Chocolate dominates the flavour, although there's a slightly unpleasant metallic tang next to it, as well as a touch of gunpowder and a mild Bovril beefiness. There's a certain homebrewish roughness to the whole picture and it's up to the drinker to decide if that's charming or not. It certainly lacks the polish of Leann Folláin. I lashed through my pint of it and would probably have happily followed it with another, finding it pleasingly old-fashioned.

This will also be the first festival for another of 2016's new breweries, Lough Gill. A new sour beer is promised, but before that the brewery staged a tap takeover at 57 The Headline the week before last. This featured a rare appearance by Anderson's, a beer the brewery pitches pretty much exclusively at the local market in Sligo. Broadly a red ale, the pint I got was a muddy-looking brown colour, though I'm told that future batches will be a little paler. There's a decently full body for a session beer at a modest 4% ABV, while the flavour is a wholesome wheaty affair. Mixed in with this is an added chocolate flavour, lending it something of the character of a porter, and then just a tang of mildly metallic English hops in the finish. It's a very decent all-rounder of a beer, and definitely not just another Irish red. If stranded in Sligo with nothing better to drink it wouldn't be too much of a distress purchase.

Anderson's was overshadowed somewhat on the night by Lough Gill's imperial stout. Rebel Stout Series 1 is an "imperial oatmeal coffee cream stout" and as that description makes clear they have gone all-out for texture. That it's 11% ABV probably also makes a major contribution to the silky smooth density, though the lip-smacking unctuousness is clearly the work of the lactose sugar alone. It's hopped with Bramling Cross which adds a forest fruit flavour to the foretaste. This builds on the palate into a tang then a full-on bitter finish. I was expecting more stouty chocolate but that doesn't really materialise, and the coffee flavour is quite subtle as well -- barely enough to identify that the real thing was used. The main malt character I got was a touch of smoke and I've no idea how that arrived there. I've certainly tasted more complex imperial stouts, but few at this strength have been as smooth and easy-drinking.

Trouble Brewing, of course, are old lags at Alltech at this stage. Among their new releases at the festival will be one brewed with the help of Rascals. Expect ginger and lemongrass.

After the marvellous fresh hop explosion of their recent Ambush IPA I was expecting equally great things of Sharpshooter, a pale session IPA. Unfortunately it was not to be. We have here a return to a familiar Trouble Brewing niggle: harsh mucky yeast bite. This isn't helped by the way it's been hopped, which is in a highly bitter way; too bitter for a mere 3.7% ABV. There's some dank resin and a lot of lemon pith but a total absence of soft fruity juiciness, for which I think it's crying out. The result is the sort of palate-scorchingly bitter beer that gives hop-forward recipes a bad reputation. I have, however, no complaints about the aroma, which is all enticing grapefruit flesh, and this returns at the very end in burp form. So, it's got everything in the right place when it comes to vapours, it's just the liquid aspect of this beer that I found problematic.

Also from the high-expectations file, Hope Oatmeal IPA, the fifth in a series of limited editions that has yielded some absolute stunners so far. It's a hazy pale orange colour, topped with a big pillow of white foam. Simcoe and Citra are the hops and they give it a classic American aroma, all tangerine and grapefruit. And there's no mucking about in the flavour: it gets straight down to business with a punchy bitterness at the front, mellowing slightly in the middle with fruity orange flavours, plus a spicy dankness. Strangely for a beer containing oatmeal, and at a substantial 5% ABV, it's a little on the thin side. The hop flavours explode on the first sip, but do fade out a little quicker than I'd like, leaving just watery fizz in the finish. I really thought this beer would have more substance. Still, it does manage to convey the old-school hop bitterness rather better than the Sharpshooter above.

And finally an excuse to open a beer I've been hoarding since late last year. The presentation of Wicklow Brewery's 12:12:16 is pure classy, as befits what appears to be quite a stately offering: a 7.7% ABV strong ale which has been aged in oak barrels with the addition of raisins and port-soaked cherries. A lot of those elements are new to me. It's a clear dark garnet colour with an even layer of off-white foam and an aroma of cherry liqueur chocolates, suggesting sweetness and booze but also with a hint of sourness. The texture is substantial without being heavy, the carbonation low and the flavour happily lacking any serious alcohol heat. Its main features are succulent black cherry balanced by a drier chocolate cereal quality. There's no real bitterness but I did get a very mild herbal aniseed kick at the very finish as it warmed.

In general I was surprised by how subtle it all is, having expected to be smacked in the face by the various features. In fact they're all laid out in a calm and orderly fashion, resulting in a beer that's as civilised to drink as it appears. I think it will be very interesting to see how this one develops with a few years' ageing. I might try that when 12:12:17 arrives. In the meantime, start soaking your cherries in port, folks.

If you're attending the festival, I hope all of that gives you some inspiration when making your beer choices. The gig opens on Thursday and runs to Saturday. It will be fun. Hard work for us tickers, but fun.

17 February 2017

Ameri-cans

Three beers from the US today, with nothing in common other than their importer and the fact that they're canned.

I'm not entirely sure what the deal is with Sierra Nevada Nooner. The name was previously used for a session IPA (reviewed here) but seems to have been re-applied subsequently to this pilsner, the style being "one of the original session beers" according to the blurb. It's the appropriate clear pale gold colour, though maybe a little bit over the alcohol limit at 5.2% ABV. The head disintegrated quickly but this seems to be a side-effect of a deliciously low carbonation level: enough sparkle to liven it up, but still allowing the flavour to come through fully and help make it properly sessionable. Classic German hops have been used and it has that waxy bitterness, particularly in the finish, that's so characteristic of German pils. Honeyish malt provides some balance, but not too much. I'm willing to put aside my usual distaste for those green weedpatch noble hops. Here they're sharp without being severe, showing just the right level of jagged bitterness. While the authenticity of this American pils is questionable, its quality is definitely beyond doubt.

12th of Never is a pale ale created to commemorate the beginning of canning at Lagunitas. This is another pale one, though with a very slight haze to it. The aroma is a fantastic fresh tropical hit of mango and passionfruit, and the flavour continues that theme, adding a certain dank bitterness plus a tiny whisper of savoury fried onion. All very west-coast. The only downside is an unusual issue for a Lagunitas offering: it's just a bit too thin, especially for an ABV of 5.5%. My normal complaint to Lagunitas is that their beers are too thick and syrupy, but this one could do with a little more substance to help carry those lovely hops. The flavour, while wonderful to begin with, does tail off disappointingly fast, leaving just water behind. That's merely a minor quibble, however: the party starts again with the next mouthful. This is another sessionable beauty, albeit very different from the pils above.

A total change for the last in today's trilogy. Oskar Blues Death By Coconut, described on the can as an "Irish Porter" whatever they mean by that. It's 6.5% ABV and a dense dark brown. It certainly smells like coconut: lightly toasted husky coconut, and nothing else. That's really all the flavour is interested in too. There's a bit of dark chocolate from added cacao essence but it's very much about accentuating the coconut rather than counterbalancing it, and you get a little hint of vanilla complexity as well. I guess the clue is right there in the name: the drinker is warned to expect coconut in quantity, and the beer most certainly delivers that. It may be one-dimensional, but in a fun and tasty way.

How boring to have three jolly decent beers in a row, but that's just the way they fell that afternoon. My critical faculties will just have to wait for the next beer.

15 February 2017

Stay woke

We only get a limited range of Magic Rock beers in Ireland. "Just what the brewery has available" the importer told me once. I was pleased when Common Grounds, the Magic Rock coffee porter, showed up, and I grabbed a can at the first opportunity.

It pours a deep dark brown, the head crackling up before fading away to almost nothing. It smells of... coffee, funnily enough. Freshly brewed dark-roast coffee to be specific, with just a hint of brown sugar on the side. This softens on tasting to more of a mocha effect, with a slightly milky chocolate streak running through the coffee. The desserty fun is spoiled a little by a slightly harsh dry burnt finish, though that's also perfectly in keeping with the style. My favourite feature is the way the coffee oils hang around on the tongue long after swallowing: that's getting value for your beans.

At a modest 5.4% ABV it's not a beer that's trying to do too much, jumping around with busy coffee and heavy alcohol. Instead it's a refreshing drinking beer that would work just as well by the pint as the small can.

13 February 2017