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.