09 March 2017

In the mix

Today it's the last of the Irish beers I tried during the Alltech Brews & Food festival in Dublin a couple of weeks ago. There really was something for everyone in the range presented.

Witbier fans were well served by the new one from Clonakilty Brewing, their third. They've called it Inchydoney Blond but, while it does have a touch of the phenols you find in Belgian blonde ale, it's only 4.5% ABV and has a lovely refreshing lemon edge, some herbal complexity and a touch of soft peach. It's easy-drinking and very refreshing with it.

For the next-level witbier enthusiast there was Something Witty, a collaboration between Rascals Brewing and Trouble. They've added ginger, lemongrass, black lime and pear into the recipe, and seemed to have got the full benefit of all of them. The aroma was a little off-putting: harshly woody, like the rough skin of a ginger root. Thankfully that doesn't follow through to the flavour which begins with a bright, sharp citrus note but then settles down to a gently exotic citrus perfume. There's a pleasant crunchy grain base as well, to remind you that despite all the decoration there's still a very decent well-made wheat beer under it all. You won't find much by way of ginger heat, however. I think I'd have liked more of that.

Trouble's other strange concoction was called Hard Candy. This time the base beer is a cream ale, which is not a style we see much of brewed in Ireland. In an attempt to make it taste like rhubarb-and-custard sweets, they've added rhubarb, vanilla and lactose. It doesn't really work. Yes, it's sweet, but it tastes more like a blancmange to me, all pink and gooey. If the rhubarb was supposed to add a balancing tartness it's definitely slacking on the job. The vanilla is very busy, however, giving it a strong candied popcorn aroma. Though only 4.88% ABV this beer is hard work to drink. Obviously it's designed as a fun novelty for festivals rather than an every-day beer, and I'm sure it will have its fans, perhaps among those who get dragged to beer festivals and are trying to make the best of it, but it wasn't for me.

The palate-cleanser after that was Foxes Rock Gluten Free Lager, which came my way via a media tasting hosted by Alltech's chief beer guy Gearóid Cahill. I was poised ready for the diacetyl onslaught that seems to have become the Station Works signature style, but it didn't arrive. The lager still isn't great — there's a bit of a farty aroma and a harshly metallic bitterness — but it's definitely not a total disaster. Hooray! I was chatting to one of the guys working at the Station Works R&D division and he said that, as well as some interesting experiments they're doing at the moment, the quality of their core beers has improved as well. I might even go back to drinking them voluntarily now.

Back down to the festival floor, and the unofficial centrepiece of the event was the long bar shared by north-western brewers The White Hag and Kinnegar. Naturally they had a collaboration beer on, a coffee, whiskey and oatmeal stout called The Hare and the Hag, and there was a real buzz around the room about it. Rightly so, in this punter's opinion. I was sceptical about the nitro dipense but it manages to harness all of the textural advantages of the gas while still holding on to masses of flavour. It's smooth and warming, with the coffee and whiskey notes clearly and distinctly pronounced. It's pretty sweet, though: the aroma has a whack of almost sickly banoffi and the whole thing is quite heavy going: it tastes and feels much stronger than 6.5% ABV. It's out now in 33cl bottles and I think that's about the right amount for an after-dinner snifter.

White Hag's other collaboration was a strange coupage they've produced in association with Armagh cider-maker MacIvor's. The story goes that a batch of MacIvor's cider became inadvertently infected with Brettanomyces rendering it unfit for use under the mainstream label, but also very interesting. White Hag stepped in with a simple golden ale brewed with its house souring culture and the two were combined in a 45%-55% ratio to create a 4.5% ABV "apple sour" called Silver Branch. The Brett makes its presence felt most in the aroma: it's all heavy farmyard funk and I braced myself for more of the same on tasting. But no! The tartness pulls a major switcheroo and takes over the flavour entirely, producing a sharply acidic kick at the front of the mouth and then an almost smooth clean quick finish. I think I'd like a bit more apple flavour, but it's very refreshing, and offers a distinctly different sour beer experience. A few months in a white wine barrel would do it the power of good.

A plethora of new beers were pouring at Independent's bar, not least among them Independent Coconut Porter, which was my pick of the whole festival. I drank a fair bit of it and was never not amazed that it's only 3.9% ABV. It has a gorgeously full body, supremely smooth and packed with rich dark chocolate flavours. Over the top of these, however, it simply roars coconut in all its unctuous greasy glory. It is not a subtle beer by any means but it really delivers what it says, and doesn't slam your blood alcohol level while it does it.

On a more restrained note, there was also Connemara Bock at Independent's stand. This one is 6.2% ABV and a clear dark copper colour. It's a particularly heavy example of the style, sticky of texture and full of apple, raisin and toffee notes, building to a kind of burnt brown sugar finish. I think you'd want to be a real bock purist to enjoy this one. It's very proficiently brewed, but just not for me.

Much more in my line was Currach Dubh, an oatmeal stout Independent made in collaboration with Italian brewery Opperbacco. It's 7.5% ABV and full of very old-fashioned stout flavours: a lot of bitter dry roast, rendered extra bitter by a green cabbagey hop hit. The oatmeal smooths everything out and it doesn't taste as strong as it is. Highly enjoyable, in a very serious and grown-up way.

The evening wears on and a festival-goer starts looking speculatively at the double-digit ABV tap badges. One of my closers was The Irish Giant, a barley wine by Black's of Kinsale which has been out for a while now but had escaped my notice. This was the barrel-aged version: the same strength as the original at 11% ABV but given time in white wine casks. I can't say I noticed much of a wine or oak character in the flavour, but it is delightfully smooth and rich. The aroma is a calorific mix of warm toffee and milk chocolate, and this comes through in the flavour as well, accompanied by a subtle hint of summer fruit and raisins. It manages that rare trick of being heavy and warming without getting cloying or boozy. Just the thing before heading out into a February night.

Tomorrow it's the last post of the festival, and I'll be looking at the foreign beers, plus those that arrived by less conventional means.

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