28 April 2017

The year DOT

My blog is 12 years old today. I'm using the opportunity to catch up with a local brewer whose beers I've been gathering notes on for months and am overdue actually doing a post about. The brewer is DOT, a Dublin-based outfit. I last met its proprietor Shane at an event in Teeling's Distillery back before Christmas. I tasted a few of his then-new releases, and bought a few more to take home and intend to drink for ages but not get around to.

DOT Amber Ale was the first I tried on the day. The accent is very definitely more on the hops than the malt in this one. It's relatively pale, for one thing, only 4.5% ABV, and places a bright and fresh citrus juiciness at the heart of the flavour. Though there's none of the toffee often found in the style, a certain creamy texture starts to emerge when it warms a little, with a touch of coconut about it, but it stays clean and keeps pushing the American hop flavours. Lovely.

I wasn't so keen on DOT American Stout. Despite the name, this uses New Zealand hops and there's a strong hit of the medicinal eucalyptus flavour some of them give. The intense dryness doesn't help this at all either.

On, then, to the set of bottles I brought home and finally opened a couple of weeks ago.

01: The Origin is a red ale Shane has used as the base for a trilogy of experiments. I could have bought the three-pack of all of them, but I'm annoying like that. It's big for the style at 5.6% ABV and poured a dull ochre colour with little by way of head. The aroma suits a heavy red, being toffee and red liquorice, while the flavour is dry and grainy to begin with, before opening out into summer fruit, meadow perfume and finishing on a strongly assertive bitterness. Despite the complexity it never loses sight of its roots, still a soft, easy-going down-to-earth sort of beer. I nearly regret not paying in to find out where the story went from here, but the other beers available were far too distracting.

So next up is DOT's Barrel Aged Roasted Oat Stout, a 6.5% ABV job in a classy paper sleeve. There's a bit of a homebrew twang off this one: a touch of meaty savouriness and a fruity side that speaks of temperature control which is not what it should be. The dryness I was expecting is quite low and there's surprisingly little roast. It does have the soft smoothness of oatmeal as well as the slight putty tang I often find in beers that use it. While a certain vanilla element from the barrel is present, it's not overdone. Redcurrant jelly is the flavour analogue it keeps bringing to mind: it has that same sort of dense homogeneous texture, as well as the sweet tart fruit. On balance I'm not sure I like it: while it's certainly complex, the flavours I enjoy in stout are absent, and I miss the extra spirity booze that tends to come with barrel-aged stouts, if the barrel did something fun before the beer went it. This one is just a bit too serious and plain.

The last of the set is one I'd had back in Teeling's originally and was impressed enough to make sure I brought a bottle home. It's DOT's Champagne Beer, using three yeast strains and aged in Chardonnay casks, and it does an amazing job of picking up the champagne qualities into what must have been a perfect base blonde beer. The fruit level is off the scale with succulent white grape, soft juicy melon and the green edge of kiwifruit. The back label mentions pineapple and yes, I get that as well. All the soft sweet and juicy notes are here and it's very difficult to believe we're facing 8.3% ABV when it's so lightly textured and easy drinking. I thought so when I first tasted it -- and stand by my view four months later -- that this is one of the best Irish beers ever made: massively complex yet exquisitely balanced, it verges on perfection.

Bringing us (I think) right up to date is DOT Spring Saison, the first of a promised sequence of seasonal saisons. A hazy deep orange colour, it's a substantial 5.9% ABV, but plays things light and breezy with a soft, juicy and above all fresh peach and melon flavour. A dry sharpness builds gradually as it goes -- and it goes quickly -- giving it the classical saison pepper. It's complex enough to be interesting but also works as a beautiful thirst-quenching refresher, albeit one which could do with a point or so knocked off the strength. Maybe the summer edition will do that.

DOT celebrated its own first birthday last night in Idlewild with a swathe of brand new beers. Look out for reviews of them in a post here soon. A couple gave that champagne beer a run for its money in the phwoar stakes.

26 April 2017

The naughty step

For over a year now The Fine Ale Countdown podcast has been assessing the relative merits of the world's beers, one at a time. Each beer gets a numerical score, resulting in a league table, and attention tends to be paid more to the upper end of it, especially the hallowed top five. But every league table has to have an arse end and I don't know exactly what's in the lower reaches of this one (update: now I do), although two beers do get mentioned regularly as being especially unpleasant, and they're two I had never tasted until I went out and made a point of finding them.

One is Wolf Rock, from Molson Coors's craftish sub-brand Sharp's, which the guys reviewed back in their first ever episode. It's a red IPA and widely available in supermarkets, which is where I found mine. "Sharp's, Rock, Cornwall" says the label, along with an explanation of where in Cornwall Wolf Rock is, and the small print that says it's actually brewed up north in Cheshire. I'm not predisposed to liking red IPAs and that bit of flim-flam didn't help.

It's a dark mahogany colour, the head not sticking around for long and giving off a harshly metallic aroma, like aspirin. Again: not looking good. But the flavour isn't as bad as expected. The texture helps enormously: it's full and smooth and round, helping it slip down your gullet before your brain has registered what's happening. What's happening is a toffee sweetness rubbing indecently up against a tart fruit flavour, a bit like a toffee apple, but with the elements more blended into each other. That metallic aspirin twang is still there, and there's a raspberryade artificial fruit sweetness. All of this should be clanging together madly but it just about manages to harmonise. It's still not pleasant, though, There's a total lack of distinct hop freshness which means the letters "IPA" no more belong on the label than the word "Cornwall". The FAC guys were more than fair in their slating of this.

The other whipping boy is Siren's Pompelmocello, and I was a little surprised that this didn't go down well as the brewery generally turns out great beers. It's a bit of a confection, being a soured, fruited IPA with added lactose. I made a special trip to Alfie Byrne's to give it a go.

For some reason I was expecting it to be cloudy but it's actually a clear and innocent orange-gold colour. There's a lightly funky aroma and on tasting the sourness is definitely understated. Instead of being the main event, the acidic tartness helps accentuate the juiciness of the fruit, and I got fresh ripe mandarin flesh as the centrepiece. Behind this is a veritable fruit salad with sweet pineapple and white grape, plus a certain syrupyiness which I'm guessing is the lactose at work, and it does start to get a little sticky as it warms up. Overall, though, I absolutely loved it: it's a very good example of the sort of clean and hoppy sour beer I like. That the podcast team do not was made apparent in their round-up of the Alltech Brews festival where Eight Degrees's sublime Wayfarer sour IPA came in for a bit of stick. Each to his own, I guess.

As it happened, while I was in Alfie's they had another Siren fruit IPA on: VIPA. This one is not soured but oaked, fermented with a Belgian yeast and with added blackcurrant, raspberry and hibiscus. All that for just €6.30 a glass. None of the elements really jump out from it. It smells like a forest fruit yoghurt and the flavour has a harsh and sticky jammy quality, with a bitter metallic edge on it. There's no proper beer character anywhere, which is especially surprising given the use of Belgian yeast and the distinctive flavours that that tends to bring. Some cleaning sourness would really improve this picture, I reckon.

It turns out, then, that Siren is quite capable of taking mis-steps. Pompelmocello is definitely not one of them, however. Don't believe everything you hear on the Internet.

24 April 2017

Belgian purge

All going well I should be just back from Belgium when this gets posted. It'll take a while to process through what I found to drink there so while I'm stringing those words together I thought I'd clear the Belgian beers that had been hanging around the house before I left. I'd built up quite a backlog of them, thanks to the good offices of my other half.

I started with Sheldebrouwerij's Hop Ruiter. It's a few years since I last had anything from them. This one is described as an "IPA tripel" and they're far from the first brewery to have elided those two styles -- I believe that honour belongs to La Chouffe. Appearance-wise, this could pass as either, being a hazy orange-ochre colour. 8% ABV and an aroma full of bright incense spices definitely say "tripel" to me. The flavours tilt the balance back again with mouth-watering honeydew and nectarine, fresh and juicy as you like. The quintessential spicy Belgian yeast is still there in the background, and builds towards the finish, but it definitely does a complementary job rather than conflicting. There's no real hop bitterness, nor big alcohol heat, making for a smooth and well-integrated experience. My balanced assessment is that it's a tripel wearing an IPA hat for marketing purposes, but that's allowed when it's this tasty.

Moving on to a set from Brussels Beer Project, another operation I haven't written about in a while. First up is Black Bird, a "black rye saison" brewed in collaboration with London's Ansbach & Hobday. I wasn't sure what to expect with this and, after the first sip, I wasn't sure what I'd got. It's 6.1% ABV and as well as the rye, Carafa Special I and II and other malts, it has a suite of big-hitting US hops including Chinook, Centennial and Colombus. The aroma is a bittersweet mix of forest fruits and the flavour starts rather plainly with a porter-like creaminess, then dries off the palate very suddenly before the arrival of jammy strawberry and a green rye-grass rasp. The complexity is a little like that found in O Brother's amazing black IPA Bonita, though much toned-down by comparison. I had to work to find the various flavours and if I were drinking it without paying close attention it would probably end up seeming quite dull. Though there are of course elements of saison and rye ale and black IPA and porter in there, it doesn't really make much use of any of them.

The next beer is a double IPA though I'm immediately questioning its credentials at only 7.7% ABV. The name is I Like It Bitter and it backs that up with a claim of one hundred IBUs. This is the "Mosaic & Equinox Edition", which implies that there are or will be others. It seemed a bit flat on pouring, while also looking pleasingly gloopy. There's bit of a mouthfeel all right, though it avoids being unpleasantly hot and heavy: just filling enough. Both the aroma and the flavour tantalise more than they satisfy. The former has a mandarin flesh juiciness and gunpowder spice buried deep within, and I found myself inhaling great draughts of it to try and get the full effect, to no avail. Savoury yeast burr fuzzes out a lot of the same fresh orange-tropical notes in the flavour, and there's a sickly tramps'-beer sweetness that slows down the appreciation of it. I can sense those top-notch hops at work, but big, strong and yeasty is not an environment that suits them. Were White Hag ever tempted to make an imperial Little Fawn, this beer is a clear indication of why that's a bad idea. You want a clean light base for your spritzy tropical hops. This tries to supercharge them with malt and fails miserably. It's not even especially bitter.

I did a bit of a double take when I read the details on the back of Stereo Lips. On the front they call it a "hot rye IPA" and turning the bottle around this is unpacked, revealing rye, smoked malt, smoked chilli, vanilla and a combination of Cascade, Chinook and Sorachi Ace hops. That's a daunting line-up of potential flavours, though in a Twitter poll, 52% of you deemed it "not scary". It looks innocent enough, a deep orange colour with lots of fine fizz and a big fluffy head. Sorachi wins the aroma, pumping out its signature oily citrus peel vapours. This is a major component in the flavour, but it's matched by a hard plasticky taste which I think may be down to the chilli: I've encountered it in badly-made chilli beers before, though this time there's not even any heat. The smoked malt, rye and vanilla are AWOL as well. When the bitterness subsides there is a soft grape and elderflower fruitiness which is the saving of the beer. It's not bad, overall, but I think it could have been achieved with a much simpler recipe. That it's a three-way collaboration is possibly not unrelated to this.

With my appetite for smoke unsated, I looked forward to something more forthcoming from Smokey Li, brewed by Préaris and using Lapsang Souchong tea instead of your actual smoked malt. It's pretty convincing too, golden and sweet with a distinct and fresh tang of smoke. I'm reminded a lot of the classic clean stylings of Bamberg's finest. Rather than smoked ham it tastes of very crisp bacon, the flavour tailing off with a pleasing dryness. The amazing bit is that it's a gigantic 8% ABV and there's not an ounce of heat or malt weight to it. I could drink this all day, but that's probably not a good idea.

The next beer is tantalisingly one of a set. There's a tripel and a blond which I don't have, but this is La Corne du Bois des Pendus Black: 8% ABV and declining to give itself a style, other than, well, "black". It's not even black, either, more a reddish brown. The topping is a steady mousse, not dissimilar to the head on a stout, and it has the same sort of dense creaminess. The flavour is in that direction too, though very much on the sweet side, with milk chocolate and rosewater, building to a heavy perfume that sits uncomfortably on the palate. The sweetness increases as the beer goes, turning to saccharine, aftershave and some half-memory of lurid milkshakes from my childhood, made from chemicals that are doubtless illegal now. Anyway, it's not great. More than anything, I kept thinking it's unBelgian: this is not how Belgians normally make beer.

Moving on to a handful of beers from Caulier, a Wallonese client brewer which confusingly shares its name with an unrelated Wallonese brewery. I hadn't encountered many of their beers before and they only came to my attention now when they opened what is apparently a rather grand bar in Brussels Central Station. Hopefully by the time you read this I'll have been in for a gander myself, but I directed the missus to it a while back and she picked these up for me therein.

Caulier Brune makes much of its "low carb" credentials, which is a bit worrying as Belgian brune is supposed to be heavy and sweet, isn't it? This one is a rather pale red-amber, though smells fun: all wintery roast chestnuts, sweetmeat and treacle. It's not as busy on tasty but is perfectly palateable, and not far from an Irish red ale really: lots of fizz, some candy sugar, summer fruit and woody maple syrup. I was happily slurping it back and letting it quench my thirst when I noticed it was 6.8% ABV. Yikes! It doesn't taste anything like that powerful. I suppose this one should also get a ding for lacking Belgian yeast esters, but to be honest I really didn't miss them and was happy for the bonus cleanness instead.

The brewery's "premium" range all have a big 28 on the label. 28 Imperial Stout was next, an even bigger hitter at 12% ABV. It even smells heavy, a frightening mix of burnt toast, molasses, rubber and tar. Like the beer that preceded it, it's calmer when tasted. Not sweetness-and-light by any means but a more integrated blend of plums, tawny port, treacle and pipe smoke (Latakia, specifically, pipe fans). According to the label this was all achieved with nothing more than water, malt, hops and yeast, but the Caulier website says that this one also includes chilli and coffee: naughty to not say so on the bottle. Though I don't detect coffee notes beyond what's normal in a big imperial stout, there's is a growing heat in the pit of my stomach suggesting the warming caress of the chilli pepper. It's perhaps a little over-boozed but is great as a slow sipper. Pair with a decent cigar.

You didn't think this post was going to end, did you? I certainly had my doubts. But here's the last beer for today: 28 Brett, the 2013 edition, if that's relevant. It's 7.5% ABV and, when I finally wrenched the cork out, an ochre red-brown. The Brettanomyces yeast hasn't been too overworked in there over the last four years as it's still very sweet, tasting of hard orange candy and fruitcake in particular, with a pinch of oily coconut as well. The earthy funk is more present in the aroma than the flavour and from the initial sniff I thought I was in for something very like Orval, but that resemblance goes no further than the vapours. There is a faint Brett tang in the finish but it's more sour than farmyard, giving the beer a Flemish-red edge. Overall it's a bit of a bruiser: the substantial quantity of residual sugar means it's another one to take time over and share. On balance, though, I think I'd like my Brett beer to be Brettier than this.

That concludes the Belgian beers for now. There's plenty more where they came from, however. There always is.

21 April 2017

Well again

After a year's absence, I returned to Cork for the Easter Beer Festival at Franciscan Well last Saturday. I got an early bus down so had time to pop by Rising Sons to see if there was anything new on the taps. Of course there was; it's an essential part of the deal with brewpubs.

I began on Dark Matter, which must be about the sixth beer I've encountered using that name, and the second Irish one in 2017 alone. This is a porter of 4.3% ABV and, in defiance of its name, is not very dark at all, more a garnet red colour. It's quite thin and sharply fizzy and the flavour veers between super-sweet caramel and drily bitter roasted grain. I could detect a certain element of smooth chocolate buried deep within, but it never really gets the chance to shine, battered down by the overactive carbonation. I think this beer needs to be bulked up and calmed down.

On the opposite bank of taps was Rising Sons's Vienna lager Pull Like A Dog (which was also pouring at the festival under the less topical name of "For Vienna"). It's 5% ABV and a hazy dark gold colour. The body is full and the texture smooth, entirely in keeping with the Vienna style, but the flavour is something else entirely. There's a lovely sweet orangey fruit punch which turns oily and spicy towards the end, bringing in elements of incense or sandalwood. It's perhaps not as elegantly simple as one might expect a Vienna lager to be, but it's a lovely beer however you look at it.

On then to the festival for opening time at 1pm. A major revision of the layout has helped get rid of the crampedness and dead corners of previous years. Now there were two bars, facing each other across the yard. I began with the beers on offer on the left, and stayed on my lager buzz.

First call was Port Lager by Metalman, made for their local market in Waterford and using one of the best multilingual puns I've seen in a while. It's a light 4.1% ABV but is no lowest-common-denominator basic commodity lager. This is a proper big-bodied helles with as assertive noble hop green-celery bite. The balance between the two is bang on and the result is extremely drinkable. I'd love to have something like this as the local beer in my town.

White Gypsy had a new (to me) lager as well: Viktor. It's even softer than Port Lager, placing to the fore the Bavarian malt which the brewery swears by, giving it a pillowy candyfloss softness. The hops are relegated far to the back, bringing only a very mild bitterness, and there's also a whisper of sulphur in the mix as well. Really, though, it's not a beer for standing around sipping and writing notes about. Great draughts are encouraged, nay required, by that texture and cleanness.

The day's first IPA was the new one from 9 White Deer: 5 Stags, here making its first outing on cask. The festival being of the plug-and-play variety, the beer wasn't quite presented the way it deserved, showing up murky and thick with a substantial yeast bite overriding the flavour. But what's beneath that is excellent. The hops are all American classics: Cascade, Centennial, Willamette, and Chinook for dry hopping. They start by giving it a soft and peachy fruit flavour which builds gradually as it goes along into a sharper lime bitterness. It'll be interesting to compare the more processed bottled version, but I'd really love to try a cask of it that's been let settle out properly.

Another IPA to follow: Lost Weekend is a rye and wheat one, brewed by Kinnegar as a collaboration with their distributor Grand Cru Beers. It's another dark and murky ochre-coloured beastie and this time the hops include Columbus, Amarillo and Vic Secret. 6.5% ABV gives it a very chewy texture and there's a lot of savoury yeast covering up where the hop brightness ought to be. The spice from the rye comes through well, as does the heavier, danker side of the hop equation. But I missed the sharper, bitterer notes that I think ought to be on show if, once again, the beer was given the time to drop brighter. Without cleaning up it's a bit of a chore to get through.

As always, UCC Pilot Brewery had brought a few beers to show, staying in the vein of way-out recipes that they've been pursuing in recent years. Two lagers and a wheat beer show that they're still in touch with their German roots, if not the actual Reinheitsgebot.

The first lager is called Basil Instinct, and though basil features in the recipe, the name, and on that distinctly undergraduate tap badge, it's the other ingredient that defines the flavour profile of this beer: juniper. It's a peppery spice that calls good gin to mind, without tasting directly like it. The basil is mild and imparts a general sort of herbiness rather than fresh green basil in particular, reminding me of the old-fashioned medicine cabinet flavours you get in root beer and Euthymol toothpaste. I don't think anyone else in the place liked it but I thought it was great fun, compromised only by an almost total lack of carbonation.

The next hazy yellow lager was called Noot Noot and is a single-hop Polaris job. This one is very herbal indeed, to the point of getting difficult to drink. While there is a decent clean graininess underneath, it mostly tasted like I'd imagine a shot of neat pine floor cleaner would. Polaris is supposed to provide a mint flavour, but I think it only does if used at low enough levels, and possibly at lower strengths than this one's substantial 5.4% ABV.

Finally from UCC was Crimson Cassis, a wheat beer with added blackcurrants. They really went overboard with the fruit here, maybe to achieve that handsome bright purple colouring, but rather than any kind of beer it tastes like the sort of super-cheap rustic red wine you accidentally order on holidays. It has that harsh grapeskin bitterness, the dry tannins and the sickly residual sugar. Hooray for experimentation and all that, but this didn't work.

That finished off the first bar for me and I took a quick break inside the pub before starting the second half. Here they were pouring a brand new Franciscan Well beer: Crafty Cuckoo, a 4.5% ABV blonde ale. It's super pale, a flawless crystalline yellow. The flavour, such as there is, is crisp with grain husk and a touch of some very light nonspecific fruit sweetness, a part that grows in prominence as the beer warms but never really goes anywhere. It's inoffensive but I really don't see the point of it as a limited edition. The brewery already has a blonde ale and this one is not exactly pushing boundaries.

Back out to the yard and at the top of bar 2 there was Black's of Kinsale's inevitable New England-style IPA, Ace of Haze. It's hazy, but far from opaque, and dark orange in colour like Carlow Brewing's 51st State which I reviewed back here. There's a fun spiciness to it but it's not terribly complex and certainly isn't laden down with hops the way these often are. It also hasn't quite mastered the fluffiness that's part of the spec. But these are just stylistic quibbles, not really material to anything. It's a jolly nice US-style IPA at a reasonable 5.1% ABV and very nice to drink it is too.

Cotton Ball's latest celebrates 45 years of Cascade hops with a single-hop pale ale called, funnily enough, Cascade 45 yrs. They've really done it justice too: this has all of the light and spicy Cascade fruit quality and there's plenty of body for a beer of just 3.8% ABV. It's simple, in the way single-hop ones tend to be, but still has plenty of flavour.

JJ's was next in line. I'd been seeing a few of their beers in bottles in supermarkets but hadn't taken the time to try them. First up was Balbec, an IPA. It's strong and sweet, 6% ABV and tasting of orange cordial first, before a slightly harsh aspirin metallic bitterness comes in behind. It's quite old-fashioned in its way, eschewing the clean and bright stylings of modern IPA in favour of a heavy earthy funk. As a result it's tough going to drink.

Next to it was Bill's Red Ale and this was much better. Maybe I'm getting old but I'm finding Irish reds much more palatable these days. This one is immensely complex, having the summer fruit and dry roast that are the basics for doing the style well, but also adds an exotic lightly spicy perfume of rosewater and cedarwood. It's all of 5% ABV so there's plenty of heft to the body as well. I imagine it would really come into its own at wintertime.

Down in the far corner, opposite where I started, was Black Donkey Brewery, who had their first IPA on tap. It's called TKO and, like Balbec, is another heavy earthy beast, sacrificing citrus zing for an almost savoury, meaty flavour. The bitterness provided by the American hops is dry and calm but it's hard to pick out any specific flavours; everything is kind of blended together. If "Farmhouse IPA" were a thing, I think it would taste like this.

The new beers complete I spent my last few tokens on some cider and a couple of old favourites, before starting the trek back home. It's great to see how this festival has continued to evolve yet still retains its essential intimate atmosphere. Thanks to the management, staff and guest brewers who make that possible.