26 May 2017

What's brewing?

The National Homebrew Club's annual conference returned to Smock Alley Theatre in April. As usual there was a stellar line-up of home-brewing royalty, both local and international, sharing their wisdom through the course of the day. Not with me, though: I was only there for the after-party, by kind invitation of the (very) outgoing president -- cheers Thomas!

For the ensuing bottle share I brought a bomber I took home from Portland last year, Culmination's 4 & 20 imperial black IPA, a 9.5% ABV monster. I figured that seven months' maturation wouldn't have done much for the aroma but it still smelled bright and fresh, of damp grass in particular. The texture is beautifully smooth and there's mercifully no high alcohol heat, but the flavour is the weak point. Not that there's anything wrong exactly, but it lacks any distinctive features: there's no punch from the hops, nor any tar or liquorice or spice or other complexities that one might expect to find in a black IPA of this calibre. The bottle did get finished, though. Eventually. So what did everyone else bring?

Steve opened with a bottle of Shepherd Neame's Mashtun No. 1, a strong ale the iconic Kent brewery produced in 2014 to celebrate said mashtun's centenary. I don't know whether it's the age or something in the base beer, but this was absolutely disgusting. "Mmm... funky..." was my first thought, followed by "Arrgh! Too much funk!" It's sharply rubbery at first, swerving into less offensive but quite cloying HP Sauce dark fruit and spice, before finishing with a long, long twang of dry rot and corked Burgundy. This is easily the worst beer I've tasted this year; I think it's the persistence of that rank aftertaste that makes it so offensive. What else is there?

Thankfully there was a very good palate-cleanser on tap courtesy of Wicklow Wolf. Their Born In Bray was (I'm told) a commission from their neighbours at The Harbour Bar for a light session beer. The result is a 4.2% ABV pale ale, single-hopped with Mandarina Bavaria. It's certainly light and sessionable, served on the cold side there wasn't much malt in evidence in the flavour but the texture was far from thin or watery. The hops give it an odd combination of flavours -- I got hints of coconut and a touch of onion in amongst the jaffa and satsuma zest -- and the whole thing is just complex enough for interesting drinking, while also perfectly capable of being knocked back to slake a thirst. Recommended if you're heading Bray way some sunny day soon.

Back to Steve's stash, then. Telegraph Brewing of California is next, and Buellton Silent Partner, a saison. It's one of the strong ones at 7.4% ABV and suffers a little from alcoholic overheating. Unfortunately the alcohol doesn't carry a whole lot of flavour with it: there's just some light white pepper and a whiff of peach in the aroma. Beyond that it's quite plain and inoffensive.

The Bruery's Humulus Terreux is another Californian take on a broadly Belgian profile, giving all of the fermentation work over to Brettanomyces yeast. Guess what? It tastes and smells like Brettanomyces yeast. The aroma is a heady, musky funk, with just a little lacing of honeydew melon for complexity. The flavour is pure farmyard, however. If you're still at the phase where Bretty funk impresses you by itself then here's a beer that will knock your socks off. I got bored of it fairly quickly.

Third time's the charm: Lectio Divina is a Trappist-inspired amber ale by Saint Somewhere Brewing in Florida. The label says 8% ABV but it tastes much stronger than that, heavy and cakey in the middle with a building peach fruit. However there's also a much less enjoyable -- and questionably deliberate -- TCP and vinegar. The aroma isn't much fun, smelling of soda bread and yeast. It's a bit of a mess, really. Not a total disaster but I doubt it would pass any Trappist's quality control.

Back across the Atlantic and a crowler of Weird Beard's Mesca Ulad whiskey-aged porter which Steve acquired at The Errigle in Belfast. This is a multi-brewer collaboration on the theme of Ulster and the flavour has been designed around the Veda malt loaf. My first impression on sniffing it was of banana bread rather than Veda: it's sweet and unctuous, smelling every bit of its 8.4% ABV. The misdirection continues on tasting and I got more banana, vanilla and buttered fruitcake. I would need to be prompted to spot the Veda. Overall it's lovely and warming, a great fireside sipper. Though thick and sweet it doesn't get cloying: the flavours are clean and distinct and don't hang around on the palate longer than they're welcome.

Last of this lot is Green Walnut by lambic producer Oud Beersel. This is made with the addition of your actual green walnuts where cherries or raspberries would normally go. I can't say I got anything particularly walnutty from it but it is an excellent gueuze, roaring with dry nitre and saltpetre; sharply sour yet finishing elegantly smooth. It's a class act. Cheers to Steve for all the beers he brought along.

One of the conference speakers also took some beers from home, namely Brandon Jones, brewer at Yazoo Brewery in Nashville.

The first he opened was Maracuyá y Tradicional, a Brett-fermented golden ale of 9.9% ABV aged in tequila barrels. It smells almost oppressively fruity, like one of those lurid mixed breakfast juices. That's a big part of the flavour too, spiced up with some heady spirituous booze and a smooth mature wood seasoning. Odd, but very drinkable for the strength and wonderfully complex in unusual ways.

The next one was brewed especially for the brewery's local gas station and bears its name: Belle Meade Express High Octane. It's a dark red colour and is broadly in the Flemish red style, though 10% ABV, with that classic sweet-savoury balsamic sourness but also a touch of balancing chocolate. The acetic quality builds quite quickly, outstripping any sweetness and starting to scorch the palate. While that's happening an oily herbal myrrh flavour begins to creep in as well. It's an intense experience, but a very tasty one too. It does that classic American thing of taking the flavour profile of a European beer style and cranking everything up on it. It's brash, but fun.

After those two big-hitters we finish on the much more modest Yazoo Grisette, a pale yellow 4.6% ABV example of the light saison-like style. It's surprisingly tart, though this is softened by pineapple fruit flavours and a savoury yeast bite. It could perhaps do with a little bit of a polish, but it's fine if not very exciting as-is. A big thanks to Brandon for bringing his wares over to share.

Thanks also, of course, to the tireless team of organisers from the National Homebrew Club who put BrewCon together, and to all the attendees who brought their own beers for sampling. You can meet a few of them all this weekend at the Killarney Beer Festival at the INEC. Which reminds me, I have a train to catch...

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