10 March 2017

Distinguished guests

Concluding this week's run through the beers of Alltech Brews & Food 2017 with the ones from abroad and afar. The centrepiece of the weekend is the Dublin Craft Cup, where a champion beer and cider are crowned following two days of judging by an experienced tasting panel earlier in the week. The winning cider was Rochdale Pear Cider from McCashin's in New Zealand. I had a sample and thought it a bit too syrupy for my taste, but what do I know from cider?

The top beer prize went to Hungarian outfit Horizont and their Saison Witbier. Horizont didn't have beer on sale at the festival but a bottle of this one found its way to the Trouble Brewing bar and thence into my beaker. Thanks guys! It's 6% ABV and a pale opaque orange colour. The aroma deserves an award by itself: a beautifully juicy peach-pineapple combo. On tasting it's more wit than saison, dominated by fresh lemon and smooth fluffy wheat. Only a hint of mild pepper in the finish indicates that there's some saison activity happening in parallel. I liked it; it would make for a fantastic summer refresher even at that sizable strength; but I definitely tasted plenty better than it from the festival bars.

Some leftovers from the competition found their way into the fridge in the media room, and out again, unsurprisingly. One I had was Amor Fati by WhiteFrontier, the Swiss brewery best known in Irish beer circles as the current workplace of Chris Treanor, formerly of Galway Bay. It's a 6.5% ABV IPA, hazy gold in colour and smelling enticingly of watermelon. The flavour is sweeter than I like my IPAs to be, though nicely complex, with notes of honeydew and nectarine. There's bitter kick too, but it feels a little tacked-on; I didn't quite believe it. Much as I wanted to like this, its flavours just didn't gel together well for me.

Also not at the festival in an official capacity was Portrush's Lacada Brewery but thankfully its unofficial brand ambassador Simon was on-hand with a few sample bottles for sharing.

We started on A Portly Stout, a 5.8% ABV limited-edition beer with a frankly worrying sharp acidic aroma. The moment of fear passes with the first sip however, and the underlying beer is smooth and creamy with a clean dark roast almost reminiscent of a Baltic porter.

Also in this series is the Whiskey Barrel Aged Stout, one which received the benefit of 6 months in a cask from local distillery Bushmills. Oak dominates the aroma, freshly sappy with a touch of dry sawdust. The flavour is all about the whiskey, however: warming and honeyish. It's a bit too much about the whiskey really, and I found myself searching for some proper stoutiness, a reasonable expectation for a 7.4% ABV beer. A dollop of roasty coffee or sweet chocolate would really help balance this one better.

And finally Devil's Washtub, amusingly badged as a "North Coast IPA". It's a very dark red colour and has a lovely well-balanced, well-integrated fruit-and-nut flavour. There's just enough of an edge to the blackberry element, peeking over the chocolate, to pass it broadly as a black IPA, but really this is a beer for drinking, not quibbling over styles. It's 5.2% ABV so not rocket fuel, and has a perfect silky texture. I'm reminded a little of Clotworthy Dobbin at the height of its pomp. A small sample of this was nowhere near enough.

But that's all there was, so back down to the floor late on the last day, to catch up with the beers I didn't want to miss. BrewDog's Strawberry Vanilla Blitz had come on, and since Saison Blitz was one of my beery highlights last year I made sure to give this one a go. It's properly tart: the Berliner weisse sourness given an extra acidic kick from the very real strawberry flavour. It certainly doesn't taste pink. The vanilla just got in the way, depositing a greasy dollop of soft-serve ice cream in the middle of a classy sorbet. It doesn't ruin it, but it definitely takes away from the enjoyment.

Barcelona Beer Company has been knocking around the taps of Dublin bars since last year, with their Nicotto Japanese-style pale ale. Japanese-style here means it includes green tea, jasmine, tangerine peel and Sorachi Ace hops, and boy is that a combination that doesn't work. It tastes incredibly harsh, like burnt plastic. I blame the jasmine for that, figuring it's a perfume effect gone way overboard. There are some pleasant tannins in the finish but I found this next to undrinkable.

La Niña Barbuda brown ale restored my faith in the brewery straight after. It's a strong one at 7% ABV, but perfectly balanced, and with a beautifully juicy raisin fruit flavour, laced with chocolate and finishing on a dry roasty bite. Some green vegetal hops are thrown in for good measure. I could happily quaff this serially, or sip it seriously: a great all-rounder.

A few punters had been suggesting La Bella Lola blonde ale as the best on the Barcelona bar. I only had a very small taster but it didn't impress me particularly. It's grand, like: there's a fun and easy-going peachiness, achieved by a combination of Mittelfrüh and Citra, but it's a bit thin-bodied at 4% ABV and lacks distinguishing features. A step up from lawnmower beer, for sure, but still something that's going to be of most value when quenching thirst.

Last of this set is the ginger wheat beer Piquenbauer. I wasn't able to identify the ginger in this: it doesn't have that sweet candied effect that ginger in beer usually produces. Instead there's a serious, and very enjoyable, saison-like pepperiness, which allies with a tropical fruit element to make a highly unusual and fun overall flavour profile.

Barcelona Beer's importer, James, sent me away with an armful of the company's other beers so expect reviews of them here in due course.

My last port of call before the lights went up in the hall, and down in my brain, was St. Austell. When I first saw them listed as an exhibitor I began entertaining comforting thoughts of lovely great pints of cask Tribute, but alas the selection was keg only.

I started with Under Dog, a session IPA at a very English 3.5% ABV, and an extremely English ability to brew a beer at that strength with a properly full body. It's very much configured for the sessioning, being dry with a slight mineral or soda complexity. I detected a touch of coconut in it and asked if Sorachi Ace hops had been used, to be told that it's actually Styrian Wolf, which makes me two for two on that particular mistake (see my review of O'Hara's Styrian Wolf single-hopper here). Overall this is a very decent and nicely complex quaffer.

Moving up to the American-style pale ale, the single-hopped Eureka. Though all of 4.9% ABV I thought this had less going on in it than Under Dog, and what was there wasn't great. I got onion, some celery and bitterer spinach, but no real US hop action. The volume could do with being turned up significantly on this one.

St. Austell's flagship stout, Mena Dhu, was next. It's quite sweet but there's more than just simple caramel in the dense depths of this black beastie. There's lots of balancing roast, for one thing, and an old-fashioned liquorice bitterness. I swear I could detect a curl of smoke in it as well. I was impressed, especially since it's only 4.3% ABV. It's one of those beers I really need to go back to and explore properly.

There was more liquorice flavour in Proper Black, a 6% ABV black IPA which St Austell introduced back in 2011 but which had hitherto escaped my notice. The yang to that dark herbal bitterness's yin is a bright effervescent lemonade and sherbet sweetness, plus a typically American pine edge. I hope this one escapes the overall decline of black IPA as it's a lovely example of the fun to be had with the style.

But that was it for another year. Thanks once again to the fantastic Alltech crew who put on such a great show, and to all the brewers who put up with my bothering them and asking silly questions (like this) over the weekend. While it was, of course, over far too soon, part of me (mostly the feet) was glad there was no Sunday session this year. Five posts' worth of beer is enough, as I'm sure you'll agree if you've read this far.


  1. Phew. Relieved you liked Mena Dhu -- our Golden Pints keg beer of 2016. It's not as exciting as its predecessor, 1913 Stout, but it's bloody good as mainstream Guinness usurpers go.

    1. It's quite something to still stand out when served in a tiny measure at the end of a ten-hour drinking day.

  2. "Some leftovers from the competition found their way into the fridge in the media room, and out again, unsurprisingly."

    That must have been some bunfight.

    1. You know those cartoons when pirhana fish skeletonise an animal..?

  3. Thx for review of the St Austell beers. Agree Tribute would have been very comforting but alas not a good fit for the event. We were unsure of bringing Mena Dhu to Dublin, the home of Guinness, but was popular so glad we did. Also thx for the tips on blogging. Not sure if this comment will be as @properjob or @beermarketeer, latter is my personal account, cheers Marc

    1. Thanks Marc! It was great talking to you.