30 June 2017

Away with the gypsies

My final post for Indie Beer Week 2017, as we head into its second weekend and a new run of events, concerns the producers of no fixed abode, honing their skills wherever there's spare capacity: the gypsy brewers. Some of the country's most interesting beer comes from the peripatetic set, and three of them just happened to have new stuff in my field of vision lately.

At the moment, the headliner will always be Whiplash, of course. To paraphrase Frank Zappa, to be considered a proper beer country you must have an arthouse gypsy brewer -- a Mikkeller or at the very least a Stillwater -- and Whiplash is ours. Alex and Alan ran a two-day two-beer parallel launch last week bringing us the latest of Alex's creations.

I didn't like the first one. Body Riddle is a 4.5% ABV pale ale, and murky as all hell. One sip and I was back at The Kernel circa 2012: the hops give it a powerfully pithy lemon character but even their acidic intensity gets covered by the gritty yeast. To me it just tastes unfinished and raw, with too much of the bottle-dregs about it. There must be a sweet spot where it has been allowed drop sufficiently bright but still retains its fresh hops. That's when I want to drink it.

Its companion is the very different Saturate, an 8% ABV double IPA with an eye-watering dry-hop schedule and served in a tall labelled can. Mama We're All Cloudwater Now. Mosaic is the centrepiece hop and it's pleasingly tropical off the back of that: I got passionfruit as the main flavour, followed by just a slight tang of white onion adding acidity to the picture. The fresh juicy hoppiness lasts for ages and ages, buoyed along by the alcohol without ever being subsumed by it. Saturate is a textbook example of why 20g/L of quality hops is well worth your while if you want to make a beer people talk about.

Special thanks to team Whiplash, and everyone at The Taphouse, who staged a magnificent launch event last Thursday evening.

And where Whiplash has been concentrating on the fresh and zingy end of the scene, Dublin's own DOT Brew has been looking more at the funkier, heavier and darker side of the house. It was disappointing when its Dublin birthday party didn't include one from the most recent barrel-aged range, Bourbon Amber to Dark Rum Barrel, but delightful when it popped up on the taps at Bar Rua a few weeks ago. It looked awful and smelled wonky: a murky ochre colour exuding phenols and green sappy wood. The flavour is rum central: bags of molasses, dark and sticky; warm and boozy; yet all done at just 5.4% ABV. It took me a few sips to get into it but when I did I found it highly enjoyable. As well as the pure rum there's a dessertish complexity: the apple, raisin and cinnamon of a Sara Lee pie. And although it's intense, the flavours don't linger and it's very easy to shake off the palate when you're done. This is a strange beer, and slightly silly, but tremendous fun to explore, as Phil, Stephen and I did.

New from DOT last week was the second in the Seasons of Saison project: Summer. This one is 6.6% ABV and aged in a Chardonnay barrel. I found it on tap at 57 The Headline. It's a darkish orange colour, and slightly hazy with that. It opens sharply; primarily herbal with a softer coconut oil. The fruit comes next, mixing mango and apricot. This juiciness is brief, however, as the alcohol heat rises and a crisp spiciness brings the finish. Overall it's very clean, complex and orderly, the different flavour elements well integrated with each other. Of particular note is the way the fruit flavours have been extracted from the wine barrel without any of the wood or booziness. If the ABV were just two percentage points lower it would be a perfect thirst-quencher.

Gypsy number three is Brewtonic, though it's semi-settled at Rascals these days. I dropped into their city centre outlet Wigwam on a recent afternoon to try Easy Rider, their grisette, which I think is Ireland's first. 3.6% ABV makes it very approachable, though I don't think it's unreasonable to have expected the price of my half pint to be less than €3.50. It's a bright yellow colour, infused with just a little haze. The foretaste presents fresh honeydew melon while the finish brings a sharper peppercorn spice. In short it does most of the things that good saison achieves, and without any wateriness from the compromised ABV. The only thing preventing it from being a perfect quaffer is that price.

As I ordered that, the manager insisted I have a try of the new session IPA, The Little One. It was good enough for me to order a half pint of it too, to take a proper look. It's another summery golden job, with a resinous dank aroma but a foretaste of pure tropical pineapple. Though only 4.4% ABV the body is full, which is perhaps down to the use of Vermont ale yeast. When the fruit fades, a more serious spinach and cabbage green flavour kicks in and it leaves the palate with a film of pine resin. Neither element is properly bitter per se, being just acidic enough to be interesting. This definitely earns a place on my pinboard of good Irish session IPAs. Get it while it's fresh.

And that's it from me for Indie Beer Week. Don't forget to check the list for events near you.

28 June 2017

Belly accumulator

My sequence of posts in honour of Indie Beer Week continues with a look at just one of the 90-odd (some very odd) breweries currently operating in Ireland. Despite, or perhaps because of, the move to their new home we have had a veritable avalanche of new beers from YellowBelly in recent months. I can't hope to get my hands on all of them but this is what has come my way above in Dublin.

We start at one of my all-too-rare visits to L. Mulligan Grocer, where The Baron was pouring. This is an American-style red, heavily single-hopped with Columbus. It's quite a light-bodied creature, only 4.5% ABV and more orange-amber than actually red. This leaves it somewhat unbalanced, struggling to control the hop onslaught. And a strange onslaught it is too: there's a strong bitter perfume taste that reminds me of citrus-and-herb aperitifs, Campari in particular. The orangeyness fades first but the herbs remain, turning it more towards a Fernet Stock sort of flavour. This is a very weird beer and not at all what I was expecting. It is fun to explore, however: I'll grant it that.

Not far away, Token has opened its doors. This is Dublin's first arcade-bar, with vintage video games, the sort of street-food-inspired menu you would expect to find, and a modest selection of independent beers. On my visit I had some tasty pork sliders, a handsome bowl of short-rib chilli fries and a pint of YellowBelly's Commodore Berry.

It's a blackberry witbier and is an appropriate cloudy pink colour, though the wheat didn't do much of a job keeping the head in place. The berries are not overdone and the basic fresh-lemon witbier flavour is the main act. The blurb promises tartness but you really have to look for that. A low 4.4% ABV keeps it light and refreshing, and there's not much of an aftertaste, just a very slight jaffa bitterness. This is definitely not as much of a novelty as it's made out to be; you can decide whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, but I enjoyed it.

Bar Rua is a good spot for finding new YellowBellies, as well as being a lovely well-run pub in general. Here I found Back to Business, presented as a classic American IPA, 6.4% ABV with a roll-call of rock star hops including Azacca, Simcoe and Lemon Drop. All of which was wasted on me. My notes here are guessing if there's Fuggles in it. The pint I got was full-on murky, and tasted murky too. And by that I mean the murkiness of London pale ales from six or seven years ago, not the modern fluffy milkshakes. There's a serious yeast bite, all rough, dry and earthy. A heavy texture makes it hard work to chomp through. At no point is the experience lightened by any fruit or other fresh hop flavour. Back to Business? Back to the drawing board.

The most talked-about beer of the year so far came from YellowBelly. It hit the spot of having a daring recipe, tied in with a musical act and a festival at which they were appearing, and having a professionally-produced press release probably did no harm either. It's called Commotion Lotion, created in collaboration with Waterford dance act King Kong Company, and is a lager with pineapple, strawberries, raspberries and, as indicated by the name, Buckfast tonic wine.

It has the bright pink glow of freshly polished copper and the fruit is all up in the aroma: ripe and sweet strawberry plus sharply tart raspberry. On tasting, however, I think the wine comes to the fore, bringing a sweet and slightly unctuous plum or damson character, and the bitter tang one gets from their skins. The base beer doesn't have sufficient substance to add anything to that, which means the whole impression is of a fruity alcopop more than a beer. But it's very drinkable nevertheless, not at all sickly, and properly sessionable at just 4.4% ABV. The flavour matches perfectly the spirit of raucous fun in which it was designed.

To finish, a step sideways from the main brewery line and into the world of Otterbank, head brewer Declan's personal side project. The Galway Bay bars had his Salubrious Summer Stout on cask and I caught up with it at The Black Sheep. It's a Bushmills-aged Brett-fermented 10.4% ABV imperial whopper yet manages to retain its composure well, avoiding any real alcohol heat while also getting the honeyish Irish whiskey flavour from the barrel and keeping a smooth silky texture. Unsurprisingly there is a host of other complexities going on, from the coffee aroma to the strange mix of red wine and balsamic vinegar that laces the main stoutiness. I'm not sure why it needed a season appended to it since it would be a great slow sipper at any time of the year.

Shout-out to the YellowBelly crew who, if not hitting the nail on the head every time, are at least keeping things interesting.

26 June 2017

Ireland goes indie

For the first time ever it's Indie Beer Week in Ireland. It has been since Friday but it only occurred to me yesterday to dedicate a week of blog posts to the vibrant independent beer scene in this country. To begin with, a hasty spin around the Republic to look at new releases from various Irish breweries, some of whom are participating in the week's events.

And starting at a brand new brewery very close to home. Priory in Tallaght opened its doors last month. The first beer is a 5.3% ABV IPA called Original Sin. The thick layer of sediment in the bottom of the bottle concerned me a little but I did manage to pour it fairly clearly, giving me a deep orange-amber glassful with a well-retained white head. The aroma is quite muted with just a very faint orange cookie smell. The texture is light and smooth, almost cask-like, which is always pleasing in a bottle-conditioned beer. The flavour, perhaps unsurprisingly from the colour, is quite malt-forward, with a rich and wholesome breadiness and a mostly unobtrusive dash of yeast. Mosaic and Citra are the principal hops and the latter gives it a sharp limey pinch, though this does tend to fade as the beer warms. The hops also get their final say in the long bitter finish which scours the palate pleasingly at the end. Not a bad beer, overall, though very much in the traditional, somewhat English, style of IPA. A bit of a hop boost would do the flavour no harm but maybe they're aiming at accessibility. I look forward to what Priory does next.

One of Dublin's other new breweries for 2017, Third Barrel, is beginning to hit its stride, with a re-release of one Stone Barrel first brewed in its gypsy days. It's an amber ale called Sundown: 4.5% ABV and pretty much down the line for the style. You get a weighty sweet toffee base and a quick burst of citrus spritz. That's about it, but then this style tends to be quite two-dimensional in this way. A hop boost would be of benefit, but it's perfectly fine in its own understated way.

A little further west brings us to Trouble Brewing who had two new ones, both of them similarly amber coloured.

Stagediver is formally badged as an amber ale, though bigger than Sundown at 5.6% ABV. And this delivered what I spoke about above, the smooth caramel malt present but very much in second place to a punchy hop bitterness which settles after a moment and integrates with the malt to form a pleasant red fruit profile, all sweet cherry and raspberry sauce. While I'd have no problem ordering a second Sundown after the first, I might leave this one and come back to it after a more cleansing alternative, if I were the sort of person to drink the same beer twice in one session.

The other was called Tasty McDole Collaboration and is described as a "west coast session IPA", though is a little on the strong side at 5.2% ABV. As I say, it's amber coloured, which is not something I'd associate with the US west coast. And nor is the savoury caraway flavour. The only citrus bitterness present is tiny and at the very end. It's very bland drinking otherwise, certainly not the sort of thing one would expect from a collaboration with a celebrity home brewer.

Galway Bay have managed to pop out two new beers recently and I found Croozer, a session IPA, at The Brew Dock. I've long been a fan of their "table beer", the 3.5% ABV Via Maris, and this had a lot to live up to, being just a bit stronger but considerably more expensive. It arrived an unattractive opaque yellow colour, and I was expecting gritty yeast bitterness, but no! The texture is beautifully creamy and there's a very modern combination of fresh tropical fruit -- pineapple in particular -- and savoury spring onion. There's a touch of oily herb too, and a lacing of coconut to add to the tropicality. It's very nicely done, and ranks with many of the hoppy and murky beers that the UK's most-hyped breweries are producing (it's no coincidence that a sister company of Galway Bay Brewery brings in Cloudwater and Northern Monk), but that €6-a-pint price tag for a beer at 3.9% ABV make it more a sipper than a sessioner.

Then over at The Black Sheep they had the new Galway Bay black IPA: Rando Calrissian. As is often the case with this style it's more dark brown than black. The hop fruit is worn at the front: an initial burst of raspberry sherbet, bitter and tangy. After that it takes a turn for the tarry, a rising roast drowning the hops and leaving it rather acrid. It offers the drinker a flash of spritzy fun but takes it away far too quickly. The finish is heavy, funky and serious. The frivolous name belies a far less than frivolous beer.

Staying in Connacht for one more, a swift taster of a new IPA from Carrig Brewing: Afternoon Delight. It's no great shakes, being another one of those beers that does savoury yeasty vegetal flavours where there should be proper hops. There's a harsh pithy bitterness but the flavour is sorely lacking. No delight whatsoever in this.

Heading south and the most recent beer from Eight Degrees is a collaboration with Californian brewery Drake's. It's called Spruce Juice, made with real spruce tips from trees close to the brewery. Stylewise it's another amber ale, and the glass I was served at The Porterhouse was a gorgeous clear mahogany red colour. It's a bit basic after that, the old amber ale problem, I guess. There's a mild hop bitterness, the Nugget in particular giving it a sharp greenness which I'm sure is accentuated by the spruce. There's slight sticky resin finish too, which may be related. In between it's mostly about the simple flat toffee sweetness. Like the Sundown above, it was fine but left me wanting more flavour, more character.

Last time I was at The Beerhouse there was a new addition to Black's of Kinsale's single hop series: El Dorado Oatmeal IPA. It's quite a dry beastie, and pleasantly so, tasting clean with a texture that's light and effervescent. The flavour is perhaps a little one-dimensional, being mostly a refreshing orangeade, though it's a good dimension. I got just a small waft of onion as my glass began to warm. It's an accessible 5% ABV and is definitely the sort of simple, well-made IPA one could slip into for an evening, much like the brewery's flagship, in fact.

Dungarvan's latest limited edition, their third this year, is Turning Tide, a wheat beer with lemon peel. I liked the idea of Hoegaarden with the slice of fruit built in, and that's what I was expecting. There was a lot of yeast in the bottle -- some fairly coagulated gobbets flopped into my glass towards the end, but I figured it was safe enough given the style. I think I was wrong. While there is a very nice zesty lemon aroma, the first flavour is a harsh, concentrated savouriness with a tang of burnt rubber off it. I found it very difficult to get past that. There is a fresh lemon flavour buried deep in it, but I only caught a flash of it in between the acrid opening and the long rough finish. I've little doubt that it's a good recipe but it has been let down by the technicals. My cack-handed pouring should not be enough to ruin the taste of a beer completely.

And a final bottle for dessert, bringing the tour back home to Leinster. Ultimate Revenge is new from Kelly's Mountain in Clane. It's a souped-up version of their ruby porter, the strength increased from 4.5% ABV to 7%. It is still ruby, however: a lustrous dark garnet colour topped by a head of dense foam the colour of old ivory. The flavour delivers a veritable basket of ripe summer fruits, with mushy strawberries to the fore, plus soft cherries and juicy plums. A more autumnal tartness follows next: blackcurrants and damsons. This bitterness keeps rising and is joined by a burnt roastiness, more coal and turf than coffee. It's an intense experience and I think the name was aptly chosen: I don't know where you would go from here. Once you get used to the busy flavours it becomes a smooth and satisfying pintful.

There's a full list of events on the Indie Beer Week website, and more independent Irish beer reviews from me in the next couple of posts.

23 June 2017

Something out of the ordinary

One-offs, oddities and suchlike is the loose theme for this the second blog post from the 2017 Killarney Beer Festival.

A new beer from Kinnegar always gets my attention, and this was their first time at the festival, having picked up the grand prize in the beer competition last year. Making its début this time was Great Arch, which is a blonde beer broadly in the Cologne style but dry-hopped. There's a quite a bitter aroma, acidic and sickish, but that's the only bum note. The flavour is perfectly fresh and clean, showing juicy peach at the front and a more serious oily hop resin rising up behind. It's only 4.9% ABV so gets the job of refreshment done, aided by a light body, soft carbonation and a quick finish on the flavour. Summer is written all over this one.

Despite the bright-sounding name, A New Dawn from St Mel's is anything but. This is a new black IPA, modestly strong at 5.5% ABV, and properly black too. It hits the style points incredibly well, with a heady red cabbage spice in the aroma and then a flavour which blends citrus zest and dark roast. This is another beer which clears off the palate quickly and cleanly, though it rounds out nicely as it warms, showing more of its porter characteristics. A bit more hoppy punchiness would be nice, but it works very well as-is.

Late last year James Brown Brews produced Wayward Sun rye pale ale as an exclusive for the Carry Out off licence chain. I don't have one anywhere near me so missed it, but was glad to see it on his bar at Killarney. It's 4.5% ABV and a striking pinkish colour. Thanks to the rye it's mostly quite dry, with a particularly acidic burn in the finish and an aspirin tang in the aroma. But this is balanced by ripe tangerine notes, rounding off the edges and aiding its drinkability. It's a simple and unfussy beer, complex without demanding too much from the drinker.

I wish I could say the same for Arthurstown Grapefruit Pale Ale: it also goes for that sharply acidic angle. It doesn't balance it properly, however, and the result is astringent, overly bitter and just difficult to drink. They can't be blamed for skimping on the grapefruit juice: that's present, front and centre, loud and clear, but the rest of the package isn't up to the job of taming it, unfortunately.

Last of the new Irish was Wild Bat Hefeweisen [sic] from Corrib Brewing, the latest in their series of specials I last met back at Alltech in February. I was a little suspicious of the low 4.5% ABV but it makes good use of what it has, aiming for light and crisp instead of heavy and fruity. There is a major banana element to the profile, but it's not overly sweet or cloying. This isn't a style we see a lot of among Irish brewers so it's refreshing to see one turned out in solid workmanlike fashion.

For a footnote, Steve was sharing bottles from his stash again. This time it was 2014 Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien, a mixed-fermentation barrel-aged bière de garde, though tasting far more like a Flemish red, by Swiss brewery BFM. "Bon-Chien" was the name of the brewery's cat. This probably passes as next-level humour in Switzerland.

Perhaps there's something to be said for leaving this sort of thing to the Belgians because this really wasn't good. It looked fine: a pinkish-red shade, and the aroma starts out OK with an earthy funky waft. It all goes a bit opening-the-Ark-of-the-Covenant after that, the vapours suddenly turning powerfully acidic, though merely burning the nose hairs rather than melting one's face off. The flavour is extremely balsamic, all resins and retsina, given extra concentrated power at 11% ABV. That's at the front of the palate anyway; at the back of the throat it's just pure acrid burning with no complexity, certainly no subtlety, and frankly not an ounce of fun. Cheers for the experience, Steve, but I think I might give the other vintages a swerve.

Just as well there were plenty of palate cleansers out on the festival floor. Particular shout-out to the long-awaited return of YellowBelly Summer Ale, twisting classic English hops into a new-world-style pale ale. Perfect refreshment as the sun sets on Killarney for another year.

21 June 2017

Bring in the new

As in previous years, twenty Irish breweries took stands at the Killarney Beer Festival. This year, unfortunately for my ticking predilection, the line-up veered a little away from the local breweries -- no West Kerry, no Eight Degrees, no Black's of Kinsale -- and in favour of breweries I meet all the time in Dublin: Wicklow Wolf, Boyne Brewhouse and The Porterhouse were among the first-timers for 2017.

Anyway, there was still enough to keep me occupied for the weekend. Of particular interest was a slew of new specials from Manor Brewing but before that, a bit of pre-festival research revealed that I'd never written about their flagship lager Mont, even though I've always enjoyed it. It's not a beer of bells and whistles, just a superbly produced pilsner, well balanced between the light (yet not thin) malt body and a waxy kick of classic noble hops. The carbonation is low enough for easy quaffing too. An all-round class act, basically. So what about the newbies?