03 April 2017

Sticky situation

Perhaps unusually among beer obsessives I have never fantasised about owning my own brewery. But plenty do, and some of them go on to realise that dream, and fair play to them. You do have to feel a pang of sympathy, however, for Don O'Leary, publican and co-founder of 9 White Deer brewery. Not long after production began at his micro in rural Co. Cork he was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance, severely limiting the beers he was able to drink. Of course, he did have a workaround that's not available to most of us, and so a couple of weeks ago 9 White Deer launched a range of five gluten-free beers across the most popular styles. The company very kindly shipped me a set so I could try them out.

They're branded the 9 White Deer "Stag Saor" range, and there already was one beer called Saor in the brewery's line-up, reviewed here. As part of the set, this has now been rebadged as Stag Saor Kölsch Style (with the typo on the label due to be corrected on a later run). Still a darkish gold colour with a slightly sharp waxy edge on a soft honeyish body, it's not as clean as lager, not even a top-fermented one, but for a bitter-ish blonde ale it's not bad. I was on the look-out for telltale signs of thinness, but it's perfectly rounded and filling, with a properly long floral aftertaste.

On to Stag Saor Red, then. I got lots of spume as this poured, giving it a beehive hairdo to start out, gradually collapsing to a firm cream-coloured layer of foam. There's a sweet and fruity aroma and I couldn't put my finger on what it was until I tasted it. Jam. Raspberry, in particular, I think. Though it could be strawberry, and it might even be a lah-di-dah coulis, but it's definitely something in that line. Balancing this is a gunpowderish roasty dryness and in combination they make for pretty much the ideal profile for the style. Red ale isn't exciting and isn't supposed to be, but this one is full-flavoured and easy drinking.

No huge pile of foam on Stag Saor Pale Ale: the head is quite loose-bubbled and casky-looking, in fact, and the carbonation is as low as expected. The label promises "generous late hopping" but it tastes and smells downright parsimonious in that department to me. There's a vaguely sickly tartness in the aroma while the flavour, though not suffering any technical brewing flaws that I can detect, just isn't very hop-forward. In fact the main thing I get from it is more of that berry jam from the Red, though this time without any of the balancing dark roast. Eyes closed it could easily be a red ale. I doubt the lack of gluten is the problem here: it's just not a very good pale ale.

So my hopes were set low when I turned to Stag Saor IPA in which the ABV gets a small boost from the Pale Ale's 4.5% to 5% here. It looks better from the get-go: a wholesome deep orange-amber under a fine white head. There's a definite hum of floral and spicy English hops in the aroma. A green bitterness opens the flavour, followed by lighter orange zest notes. This is a pretty decent interpretation of English IPA: it has all the proper coarse-shred marmalade on thick-sliced whole-grain toast character. A sharp pinch of lime finishes it off. An absolutely rock solid beer, this, and it's good to find that one of them offers proper full-on hopping.

All of which just leaves Stag Saor Stout, the ABV dropping back to 4.2% ABV, but thrown into the random flavour generator is chocolate and vanilla, although neither actually appears on the list of ingredients for some reason. But there's definitely vanilla in here: it tastes overwhelmingly of sweet pipe tobacco, right down to a dry, harsh woody note. The texture is medium-to-full and there's a pleasant sparkle, but that honkingly sweet and artificial taste gets bigger and nastier as the beer goes along, picking up a yucky plastic twang on the finish. I get what they've tried to do here but it's not working: a flavour combination like this, chocolatey sweet and smooth, needs to have everything integrated and harmonious, and this tastes like experimental homebrew that didn't work out.

My main question for this lot was: do they taste compromised from being gluten free? And they don't: they're flavoursome and, best of all, not in any way thin or watery. But that doesn't make them good beers. The IPA and the Red are pretty decent: classic examples of the styles they purport to be, but there's something just off about the others and I don't think it has anything to do with gluten. A bit of fine tuning and this could be a genuine range of options for the gluten-avoiding fan of quality beer.

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