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.

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