27 March 2017

One of these things is not like the others

Last year I promised myself that for the next Wetherspoon Real Ale Festival I'd go and explore the newer northern branches of the chain in Dublin. Sadly, time constraints last weekend meant that plan had to go on the long finger so, on a beautiful clear cool Saturday morning I set off, as usual, for Dún Laoghaire.

Word on the street was that Mild the Gap was the beer to look out for, brewed at Hook Norton by Italian brewery MC-77. Happily it was on the bar when I rocked up to The Forty Foot. It arrived looking unattractively half-headed, though pleasingly jet-black underneath. The ABV is on the high side for mild at 4.5%, but otherwise it's a very very good interpretation of the style. The texture is light, without being thin, with a delicate creaminess precision-engineered for premium drinkability. It took genuine effort to drink slowly enough to get an impression of the flavour. This is a gentle coffee character -- a light dry roast up front, fading to a faint back of the throat bitterness. There's a very slight forest-fruit tang to this as well, but it's not in any way sharp, with everything softened by that mellow cream. One pint screamed out for another but as a disciplined scooper I was deaf to its cries.

Moving to thirds, then, and a California-themed pale ale from Hilden. Pale Oat Ale is 4.8% ABV and employs a power combo of American hops: Chinook, Citra, Columbus and Mount Hood. It certainly looks west-coast: properly bright and golden. I was expecting citrus but the flavour is a strangely sweet coconut vibe instead. There's a leafy herbal bitterness behind this, and it's set on quite a heavy, almost syrupy, body. It's a strange one but actually highly enjoyable. Complex and off-kilter, yet a pint or two would be no hardship at all. Bet it goes great with curry too.

Next, the dad-dancey new one from Yorkshire's Black Sheep: Pathmaker. Some branding consultant told them that a lumbersexual with a hop beard on the clip would bring the kids in. Urgh. But... this is another rather good beer even if, again, it's very definitely British in its sensibilities. Though the hop is Chinook all the way through, there's a soft bubblegum flavour which is much more at home in summery English blonde than any US pale ale. Just a twang of herbal bitterness enters the picture on the end, incorporating Chinook's signature spice, while underneath the hop special effects is a solid biscuit malt base. The green hop oils linger long on the palate, probably reducing its value as a session beer, despite a modest ABV of just 4%. After only a third I was worried about being able to taste the next beer properly.

The next beer was another international collaboration: Brazilian Burton, brewed at Banks's in Wolvo. 5% ABV is a bit light for a Burton by my reckoning, though the rich dark copper colour is spot-on. The flavour seems to be an attempt at presenting an illusion of strength, showing marker-pen phenols up front and then rich caramel and cocoa behind. It doesn't really work for me: hot without being actually warming. The hop quotient definitely needs a boost.

Before making tracks for Blackrock, I noticed a new addition to the keg line-up on the bar. Wetherspoon Ireland now sells Bud Light, a beer I had never tasted, despite its brief period in production by Diageo. I'm guessing the version served here is brewed by A-B InBev in the UK. Interestingly, it was being sold even cheaper than the cask beers at The Forty Foot: just €2.45 a pint. That it's only 3.5% ABV probably has something to do with that: the locally-brewed version was never that weak, as far as I recall. And in marked contrast to the low-ABV British brewing tradition, it's incredibly watery and it takes work to detect anything other than fizz in the flavour. Given a moment or two to warm up there's a harsh wax bitterness and warm-fermentation fruit esters, both flaring for a second before fading to a metallic jag in the finish. It's hard to be offended by something so anodyne, but I definitely can't think of a use-case for this beer: there is no circumstance under which something a little more flavourful would not be more appropriate.

It had turned 3pm and the queue was five-deep at the bar. Time to pack up and head for the more refined surroundings of the Three Tun Tavern in Blackrock.

I was pleased to see an Oakham beer on here, one I wasn't familiar with. Enough Rope is another American-hopped job, dark gold and 4.3% ABV. It's nearly very good: the hopping is exceedingly generous and it's assertively bitter, in a way Oakham have made their own with beers like Citra and Green Devil. But this particular half had a problematic rubbery overtone which I'm not sure is part of the spec. Every mouthful starts with a horrible astringency which then calms down and becomes merely a sharp citric kick. On balance it's not very enjoyable. There's a frustratingly good beer underneath, but spoiled by that wonky foretaste.

Yet more American hops to follow: Midland Red by Everards is brewed with Amarillo, Columbus and Willamette. It's a properly autumnal red colour and even tastes autumnal: I get woody maple, strong comforting tea and distant smoke. After the jangling loudness of the previous beer it's all wonderfully calming. The flavour is aided by a beautifully rounded mouthfeel, the sort of texture that British cask ale brewers can turn out at 4.5% ABV which everyone else needs to go past the 6% mark to achieve. This was one of those beers that makes the twice-yearly Wetherspoon excursion worthwhile.

The final pair of halves were not on the festival roster, but since they're there... Farmer's Branch first, a blonde ale from Dukeries in Nottinghamshire. It's very husky: dry dusty grain, with overtones of white vinegar. I suspect this had been on a while and was definitely past its best. Unusual for a Wetherspoon, that, even in Ireland.

That had me worried about the last of the day's halves, Mahseer IPA from Suffolk's Green Jack brewery. It's 5.8% ABV and an attractive amber colour. The flavour is odd. I don't think it's expired or infected, but there's a strange acetone quality to it: pear drops more than nail varnish remover, but in that zone. It's not harsh, though, having an endearing soft fruity quality, but it's also nothing like an IPA -- even an English one -- the bitterness level being pretty much zero. It's pleasant drinking and doesn't taste as strong as it is, but I reckon there's something in there that would make it feel like a bruiser the morning after a few pints of it.

The mild and the red are my top picks for this round, with honourable mentions to Hilden and Black Sheep. The festival runs all this week until Sunday. The beer costs next to nothing.

7 comments:

  1. I thought the Hilden beer somewhat strange, but still oddly compelling. I was unsure about the Burton Ale bug agree with your overall assessment.

    The Enough Rope on the other hand was one with little to complain about at all. Didnt get the same rubberiness fortunately. Just a lovely clean and hoppy beer.

    Not had the others you mention yet.

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    1. Guess I'll have to chalk that one up to wonky handling too then.

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  2. Enjoying Mild the Gap now. Only £1 with a CAMRA voucher. At least Dick Turpin wore a mask, snarf!

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    1. Split it with Bud Light for a delicious mild shandy.

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    2. I didn't have the heart to ask for a sample of Bud Light. Seems to be a good flow on the tap though.

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  3. Did you see the festival list and tasting notes?

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  4. Yes, I had a printed copy to hand while drinking them.

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