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.
Westvleteren 12 - *Origin: Belgium | Date: 2012 | ABV: 10.2% | On The Beer Nut: December 2007* This bottle of Westvleteren 12 was not captured in the wild, acquired instead ...
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