06 February 2017


Franciscan Well's winter festival returned with a bang in late January. Now titled Cask Ales & Strange Brews, the 2017 iteration was bigger than any previous one, almost competing with the Easter festival with several dozen cask beers on offer, plus a handful of kegged specials. I went down as part of the Beoir judging team to help out with the competition on the Saturday.

I started my afternoon with a keg beer, however: Metalman's new Sgt. Pepper sage and pepper saison. It's a cheeringly light 4.8% ABV and presents equally cheerily as a clear dark gold colour. Much as I enjoy sage-infused beers it does have a tendency to dominate flavours but that wasn't the case here. At its core this is a clean, light and refreshing saison in which the herb seasoning is only barely perceptible. I would easily have assigned the pepper to the action of the Belgian yeast while the green wintery notes tasted more like rosemary to me than honkingly oily sage. Either way, it's very nicely balanced and started the day on a positive note. Look out for this fella on draught and in cans for the next while.

Herself picked one of the many YellowBelly beers to begin, their raspberry-flavoured Berliner weisse Raspberry Shower. I say "flavoured", but that's an understatement. From what was served it looks like a mass of pulped raspberries has been shoved into a cask and the beer poured in on top of it to fill the remaining spaces. It's an opaque bright pink with discernible lumps of fruit. And it tastes how it looks: of raspberries and lots of them. Behind that sits a very plain and thin Berliner weisse, mildly sharp and vaguely wheaty, but the flavours of fruit and beer didn't really meld together.

I'm wondering if it was just the bottom of the cask or something, because YellowBelly's Blackcurrant Shower was also on the go and it was very different. It was clear, for one thing: a flawless pinky-purple. Unsurprisingly the flavour was much cleaner too. Though presumably made the same way as the raspberry one, this opened with a classic wholesome grainy taste, imbued with a tangy sharpness. The fruit plays second fiddle to it, not distinctively blackcurranty but more of a generalised summer berry vibe. If guessing I'd actually have suggested there were raspberries in this. It's very refreshing and quaffable: smooth, without being a smoothie.

One more from Metalman before getting to work and that's their Raspberry Saison, from cask. It's another clear golden one with just a very slight haze. Despite the lack of pinkness the fresh raspberries are very apparent, in both the aroma and the flavour. At the slightly warmer-than-keg temperature there's a roundness and fullness to the tangy fruit taste, complemented by signature saison pepperiness. It's not particularly complex but I enjoyed it, though I think its refreshment power would benefit from being served slightly colder.

To the upstairs bar, then, and to the judging table. I was on the dark beers team and all entries were served blind, with Steve organising the operation and John doing runner duty. Like last year, I took my own notes as we worked through the entries and matched them to the names afterwards. The field was solely cask beers, no kegged ones were entered.

Only two were completely new to me, though there was a new barrel-aged version of Brehon's Shanco Dubh porter, which ended up being the whole judging team's pick for best dark beer of the festival. It's out in bottles now and I recommend it highly. Brehon's other entry was Pop Your Cherry (groh!), a cherry-chocolate stout of 5.2% ABV. It's intensely floral, with a sharply pink hibiscus taste. The chocolate, and indeed general stoutiness, is almost mute behind this, offering more by way of texture than flavour. After a couple of sips the flowers build to an almost perfume level of sharp bitterness that sits on the palate a long time. Too long, by my reckoning. With a bit of toning down this could be a great beer but it was just too busy to be enjoyable as is.

At last year's festival I had fun with YellowBelly's 7.5% ABV brown porter. Now it's back, ramped up to 8.1% and given the name Ursa Major. And it's even better than before. Still dangerously easy drinking, with a silky smoothness and a crisp, dry background. But what really makes it interesting is the up-front complexities, and I reckon these were particularly accentuated by the cask dispense. There's this beautifully sweet summer fruit flavour, all succulent cherries and ripe strawberries. They meld sumptuously into the soft milk chocolate in an extremely moreish way. Like its predecessor you really do need to keep an eye on how much you're drinking because this beer screams to be quaffed.

As I mentioned, Shanco Dubh took the top dark beer prize, with the host's Chieftan winning best pale beer, Dungarvan's Dark Mild taking best red/amber and YellowBelly's passionfruit lager winning both best specialty beer and best beer overall. Deservedly so, in my opinion. And back to the festival...

YellowBelly Mosaic IPA does make regular appearances in Dublin bars, though at almost €7 a pint for a 4.8% ABV beer I've so far resisted the temptation. The festival was far more reasonably priced so I took the opportunity to give it a spin, and it's very nice. The Mosaic flavour balances deftly on the line between honeydew melon and raw white onion, the fruit side helped by a distinct juiciness and a substantial amount of peach character. Soft and sessionable, yet complex, it's pretty much exactly what you'd want from an IPA at the strength, and it doesn't suffer in any way from being a single-hopper.

With time running short I only just remembered to try Torc Grodziskie but was very glad I did. This style of pale smoked wheat beer can sometimes be rather harsh and overwrought but this one, at an even 4% ABV, is light and very easy drinking. Which isn't to say it's bland or watery: you get a substantial hit of pure hickory bacon all the way through, but the finish is quick and the body is full enough to make it enjoyable.

Chugged down as my fellow travellers were leaving was The Beacon, a new one from Baltimore's West Cork Brewery whose wares we rarely see in my part of the world. This is an IPA and I didn't realise at the time that there was added grapefruit and orange in it. They got their money's worth out of them anyway, because there's a lot of sharp pithiness in this. The fruit blends seamlessly into what I suspect is a generous quantity of hops, which give it a thick and oily dankness set on a chewy malt base. To my mind it's very much IPA in the English mould, but a particularly aggressively bitter example, more lime and grapefruit marmalade than just orange shred. Not so easy to drink, but fun while you do it. I made my best effort at draining the glass and ran after my companions.

I caught up with them along the quays at The Bierhaus. Among the usual stellar selection they were pouring Cotton Ball Vienna, a Vienna Lager, by Cotton Ball. It's a pretty good example, even if the style is rarely an exciting one. 5% ABV and full-bodied with it, featuring a flavour that's all about the dark crunchy grain husk, finishing on a slightly roasty note. There's the classic lager cleanness which means for all its weight it doesn't get difficult to drink. Just as well, as train time approaches.

To the off licence for some train beers and I continued the lager theme. Among my picks was Švyturys Amber, which I don't recall ever having before. I'd been hoping for something a bit like the Vienna, but this is much thinner, with a light spongecake sweetness and a smooth texture, making it resemble a helles, including its colour: you call that amber? Inoffensive, but not terribly exciting. Perhaps I'd had enough beery excitement for one day.

A big thanks, of course, to the team at Franciscan Well for running another superb festival, and to everyone who pitched in with the competition and/or supplied me with pizza. If you haven't yet made it to one of Franciscan Well's festivals, the Easter gig will be on 15-16 April this year. Mark it!