30 August 2017

Whup-ah!

O the flurry and the scurry when new Whiplash beer drops. Two more arrived last week and I found myself hassling Carlos, beer guru at Fresh in Smithfield, to get the boxes open and make sure they rang in at the till.

First out was little Suckerpin, a Berliner weisse with Lemondrop hops and a bijou 3.3% ABV. The aroma is fresh and lemony, if a little hand-wipe-esque, while also intimating a sharp sourness lurking beneath the surface. This doesn't really materialise on sipping, however. In classic Berliner style it's smooth and grainy, softly textured with a decent body, and the flavour has a gentle mineral salinity, more like you'd find in a straight gose. There's a background tartness but that seems to be as much from the super-citric hopping as any lactic bacteria culture. Anyone looking for a Púca-like sour kick will be disappointed, but I like the balance, the cleanness, and the emphasis on hops.

Its companion is the third tall can of double IPA from Whiplash, following the excellent Surrender to the Void and the sublime Saturate. This is Drone Logic, 8% ABV, a hazy (but not murky) orange colour, and depending on Simcoe for its hopping. It smells fantastically juicy, like fresh-squeezed jaffas, with maybe a lightly green dankness to the side. Once again the flavour performs a sneaky bit of bait-and-switch, emphasising the resinous bitterness and leaving the juice still present, but relegated. The finish introduces a new savoury character that confused me: part smoke, part eucalyptus. It doesn't really fit with either the bitterness or the juice and really detracts from the whole picture. I found myself trying to cling on to the orange flavour as it passed fleetingly across my palate on every sip. So this is nearly a great beer but in the final assessment just slips into the too-hot-too-harsh bracket, along with most of the world's other DIPAs.

Hop fruit giveth, and hop fruit taketh away. Neither beers were quite what I was expecting but both gave me plenty to think about.

28 August 2017

Liverpool by daylight

I spent a busy couple of days at a work gig in Liverpool last month. Staying in the docks area I just had time to sneak out for a handful of bevvies in the nearby hostelries. I've been to most of the places mentioned here previously, though in several cases not since my first visit back in 2009. However, there was one brand new pub to take a look at.

I suspect that The Dead Crafty Beer Company is a direct result of the BrewDogification of British pubs. It's a small corner bar, high ceilinged and brightly illuminated through tall plate-glass windows. The interior décor runs big on bare brick and stripped wood, for that vaguely shabby Brooklyn speakeasy effect. It all felt very familiar. From a sizeable all-keg offering of beers I'd never heard of there was much to explore.

I began with Berried Alive, from Glen Affric Brewery, just across the Mersey in Birkenhead. I probably should have heeded the warning in the description: "mixed berry lager". There's lots of sticky jam about this, and it really detracts from what I'd say is a perfectly decent 4% ABV pils underneath. It's just about refreshing, but doesn't offer enough to justify the £6/pint (pro rata) asking price.

Just time for one more, so an audition was necessary. How about Tired Eyes by Chapter Brewing? A 5.3% ABV witbier with honey and chamomile sounded intriguing, but a taster revealed it to taste of cinnamon mouthwash. Nope.

So instead I went with Reverberate, by Danish brewer Alefarm, though produced at the Warpigs brewpub in Copenhagen. The beige custard appearance revealed it to be in the New England style, as did the creamy texture. But there's an unpleasant yeast bite in the flavour, coupled with a big alcohol burn (it's only 6.8% ABV) that covers up the good bits of the Citra and Mosaic hops, leaving only the pith. It's a sharp, angular beer that feels rough and unfinished, which this style, despite the emphasis on freshness, should not. There was an extra kick in the teeth when it warmed up a little and began tasting of Camembert as well. I'm no murk-dodger, but this ain't good murk.

Dead Crafty seems to have a fairly high churn on the beer lines, so maybe I just got unlucky with my choices on that particular day. I felt I'd done with the kegged fancy stuff for the evening, however.

Right across the street is the legendary Liverpool boozer The Ship & Mitre, a roomy and busy pub donutted around a central bar bristling with taps of all sorts. The addition of an onsite brewery is new since I was last here, so I needed to try what that had to offer.

To begin, Sublime: a 3.8% ABV golden ale, £1.45 for the half. My pennies counted out and the beer taken back to my seat, I found it a surprisingly heavy offering, a pale gold with the golden syrup weight and sweetness of a medium strong middle-European lager. By way of complexity there's a husky dry sackcloth thing, and some white pepper spice, but it's crying out for some proper hopping. Introduce a wallop of Saaz and it could be a real winner.

I moved up next to the 4.2% ABV bitter Level. I was not expecting the wholesome oaty biscuit flavour from this dark copper job, but I really enjoyed it. It's not at all bitter, but is instead smooth and relaxing, with no loud noises or sharp edges. I had been eyeing up a mild on the bar for later, but this delivered a lot of what good mild does, right down to a light dusting of chocolate. It was all a little disconcerting to begin with, but very comfortable drinking thereafter.

A stout comes next, middle-of-the-road at 4.5% ABV but Silhouette is very distinctive in its flavour, piling in wintery herbs and liquorice. There's a huge roasted bitterness as well, which combines with the greenness to create a roasted courgette or green pepper flavour. It does begin to unravel later on, when the cleanness gets swamped by a marmite-ish autolytic note, one which leaves a lingering savoury film in the mouth. I don't know if that's deliberate or a brewing flaw, but I could have done without it. Still an impressively complex session stout, and a definite step sideways from the usual.

Top of the line is Radiant, another golden ale, this time at 5% ABV, and here's that quality lager effect. The golden syrup is back, with a floral honey complexity and a proper green blast of noble hops. The density, and even some alcohol heat, does make it less drinkable than I'd ideally like, but it's certainly no boring British attempt at aping continental lager in Real Ale form, as too many golden ales tend to be: this one has real character.

And so back to that mild I mentioned. It's Shefford Plum Mild, from sturdy Bedfordshire ale-maker Banks & Taylor. It's a perfect black colour, just turning to ruby at the edges and topped by a thick tan head. The first sip was a shock, and I thought for a moment it was off or infected, but that's just the strongly tannic bitterness of real plums. Yes, the fruit is part of the design but I felt it spoiled my enjoyment of the classic softly-spoken mild underneath. That level of fruiting requires a much bigger beer to carry it, I think.

Just one quickie from the keg selection before I go: Penny Lane pale ale by Mad Hatter Brewery, situated a few blocks north of the pub. The distance is relevant because there's a lot of fresh hop action going on in this: citrus sherbet in the aroma and a flavour which combines lime, fried onion and a proper resinous dankness. Most amazingly of all, it's achieved at just 3.9% ABV but is still well balanced, the texture big and soft, with a gentle effervescence in place of fizz. This is real assertive refreshment and I wished I had the time for a full pint.

The following afternoon's excursion brought me to the Lady of Mann, its sunny courtyard quiet a few minutes after opening time. I opted first for another 3.9%-er, Exit 33's Hopkiss, on cask. It's a clear and bright golden colour, beginning with a mild sweet floral perfume before turning angrily bitter. The sudden clash only happens when it's cold, however, and the two sides melt into each other as it warms, with more soft lavender infusing the whole, while the bitterness confines itself to giving each mouthful a pleasantly sharp sendoff. It took me a moment to twig that this is a classic Yorkshire bitter, and it makes a lot more sense when thought of this way.

Next to it on keg was Thornbridge Lukas, their much-vaunted helles. Half of that then please. It's a very pale yellow with a very slight misting in the glass. I was taken aback by the amount of fruit character: blackberry in particular, right in the foretaste. It calms down after that, showing a classically clean base with a soft and quenching texture, but I think the sweet and bready malt depth that I like in a helles is absent. The paleness should have been a clue, as should the oddly low ABV of 4.2%. It's a good beer, a very decent lager, but not as good as I had been expecting. That's probably my fault.

My final pub dash was down the riverfront to The Baltic Fleet. I was hoping to catch some of their own brews but production is currently on hiatus. As a next-best-thing they only stock draught beers from local breweries, and that inevitably meant something Beatles-themed. So here's Fab Four by Rock the Boat, a 4.4% ABV golden ale using four different UK hops. It's a bit too sweet for my liking, all fruit chews and bubblegum. Although it's smooth, it's not easy drinking and even before I'd finished a half the sickly flavour had beaten me. I needed something with a bit more zip next.

That came in the form of Big Sur from Neptune Brewery. This is an orange-amber pale ale of 4.5% ABV and once again fruity, but more realistically so, showing fresh and juicy peach with melon. There's a rising dryness as well, bringing a deliciously thirst-killing tannic quality to the finish. This is really good English brown bitter given an attractive New World trim and it all works pleasingly well together.

Pubs are of course the best place to go in search of beer, and I had that lesson very much rammed home by the three I consumed in alternative venues. One was at an otherwise lovely steak restaurant in Albert Dock, a Spanish lager called Palax. It looked innocent enough: a very pale yellow with a slight haze. However there's a downright evil plastic taste, riding around on the nasty cooked-corn flavour I associate most with Cruzcampo. It seems to be some sort of "artisan" effort at making bad holiday lager and they've only succeeded in turning it worse. Hard pass.

When I walked up to my hotel I was greeted by the JW Lees truck and hoped the Manchester brewer was dropping off something nice for me. Inside I was massively disappointed to discover that nitrokegged JW Lees Smooth was the full extent of it. Arse. I didn't mean to drink any of it, but one evening's post-dinner socialising led to an inevitable pint of the gloopy muck. In its favour, there was a slight lemony tang which suggests a hop has been allowed near it, but that could equally have been a carelessly discarded scented hand wipe.

And at the airport, where Heineken UK seems to have most of the taps sewn up, Caledonian Coast to Coast. I should have known better; I really should. This kegged pale ale looks a nice bright orange colour. It tastes, however, of musty dust and damp, sickly butterscotch candy and dry chalk. Despite the cheery modern styling it's every inch a bad trad Caledonian beer, laying on marmaladey UK hops but without an ounce of zing or freshness. A travesty, although a fully expected one, in fairness.

A mixed bag, then. Although the general jolliness of the Liverpool pubs does go some way to mitigate the dodgier beers.

25 August 2017

Real blackcurrants, fake strawberries, and two unexpected pineapples

Time for another random round-up of recent Irish beers, from the usual suspects of hyperactive new releasers, as well as a couple of surprise specials from the quieter ones.

O Brother bopped out another fruit beer as a follow-up to watermelon Walt a few months ago. The Smasher answers the apparent demand for grapefruit pale ales which seems to have almost every brewery making one. And while I stand by my conviction that fruit has no place in a hop-forward beer style, I did rather enjoy this one warm evening in 57 The Headline. More than grapefruit, it tastes like orangeade to begin with: a fizzy and sweet jaffa effect that does wonders to quench a thirst. There's a fairly plain, lightly bittered, pale ale underneath, and then a sharp burn of acidic grapefruit skin in the finish. The hops and fruit don't fight, for a change, though only because the beery element rolls over straightaway. For all that, it's a fun and enjoyable summery sup, if not exactly cerebral or complex.

Also kicking the fruit vibe is Wicklow Wolf Summersalt, a blackcurrant gose. I see what they did with the name there, but don't blackcurrants belong in autumn? (wait, no, that's blackberries. Thanks Simon!) At 5.1% ABV it's a heavy and sweet affair, tasting as jam-filled as the purple colour suggests. There's almost no sourness, and only a vague salinity, meaning it misses on the cleansing, refreshing side of the gose equation. I found it quite sickly, overall, too heavy on the Ribena for my liking.

YellowBelly released a set of classic-horror-themed beers, two of which I tracked down to UnderDog, although the pub's craft-clean styling and lack of tap badges means you don't get the benefit of the usual YellowBelly artwork.

Frankenweisse is 5% ABV, so on the weak side for a weissbier, and the oddness doesn't end there. It looks the part: a hazy yellow with a generous foam topping, but whatever they've hopped it with has produced a crazy combination of sweet apricot and vanilla. The only nod to the classic versions of the style is a pinch of clove; everything else is pure renegade. And it's highly enjoyable for all that: still soft textured, full-bodied and fruity as it should be, just heading off to a different region of flavour country.

The vampiric one of the set was Pale & Interesting, a pale ale which UnderDog was serving on cask. It's excellent too: just 4% ABV and brimming with the complexities that make good English bitter worthwhile. At the centre is juicy peach and apricot, laced around the edges with a floral perfume and finishing with a stern assertive bitterness. It's up to you to decide whether you want to sip and savour it or quaff it down and order another since cask pints are an extremely reasonable €5 in UnderDog.

It just gets pipped at the post where value is concerned by JW Sweetman New England IPA, coming in at €4.90 a throw when you have a JWS Guild Member card. This is may be a little underclocked at only 5.3% ABV but it doesn't suffer in any way from thinness or lack of flavour. On the contrary, behind the yellow murky front there's the classic smooth and creamy NEIPA texture, giving it a rich mouthfeel and superb sinkability. The bitterness is relatively high, the middle flavour full of pith and perfume, but that doesn't last and the finish is delightfully clean without a trace of yeast bite. This beer showed me that this silky style is really well suited to drinking in quantity. If you're sipping tiny tasters or sharing around cans you may be missing the point.

Last of the summer pale ales came from The Porterhouse, the veteran Dublin brewer going for a whole new angle with Grand Day. It's canned, for one thing, and for another there's a prestige combo of hops billed on the label, including Citra, Amarillo, Calypso, Belma and Bravo. Wot no Galena? Though only 4.2% ABV it's a beautiful flawless deep gold colour and smells of strawberries, which the blurb tells me is the Belma at work. Very summery anyway. That's still present on tasting, but there's a more serious lime bitterness backing it up, and also a sizeable dose of biscuit malt and a grainy dryness. While impressive to begin with, once it settles onto the palate it gets a little one-dimensional. Perhaps that's part of the design, however: it's a summer beer being sold at 4-for-€10 and meant for refreshment, not sipping. The little citric jolt it carries in its back pocket certainly helps achieve that.

From session to not-so-session and Yankee Doodle, a new special from Rascals. The story here is that the brewery didn't have enough Amarillo for a the regular run of their white IPA Yankee so used up their last 10 kilos on a double version. It's 7.5% ABV and looks just like Yankee: the same milky colour. The flavour is amazingly clean and well balanced with no sign of the extra strength. In fact, it's not strikingly different from regular Yankee, maybe laying on the orange pith a little more strongly -- that'll be the Amarillo -- but the herbal, floral side is much the same, which isn't a complaint. This is dangerously drinkable and maybe my not-so-session judgement was premature. Approach with caution.

It took me a bit of searching to track down the latest single hopper from Eight Degrees: Denali IPA, the sixth in the series and steadfastly sticking to the fixed ABV of 5.7%. I don't think I've ever had a beer using Denali, a new high-alpha American variety with lots of Nugget in its ancestry. Expecting big bitterness I was surprised by quite a sugary foretaste, syrupy yet tropical, like tinned pineapple. There's a very mild weedy dankness and then the sweetness returns as a kind of lavender floral quality which lingers long into the finish. Rather like its immediate predecessor, the Lemon Drop IPA, it's quite lacklustre, and really missing the big hop punch of the early beers in the series. I'm happy to see the sequence continuing, but I'd like to have the hop volume returned to the higher settings like before.

The Taphouse, meanwhile, has commissioned an exclusive house lager from Trouble Brewing and I nipped over one Saturday evening to give it a try. Situated in leafy Ranelagh, the Taphouse rips through quite a bit of Heineken, I'd say. Parklife is an attempt to give the collars-up brigade an alternative. Manager Adam says the spec was influenced by Weihenstephaner Helles, which is ambitious to say the least, especially given the low 4.2% ABV strength. It does a great job, however, coming out crisp and clean, wearing fresh spinach leaves up front and finishing with sweeter brioche, all on a bigger body than the ABV suggests, with a sessionably low level of carbonation. The price is pretty sessionable too at €5.40 a pint. I'm sceptical of its ability to displace the macro brands but I'm certainly glad that there's a decent quality good value lager available.

I visited Limerick for the first time last weekend, taking in the Treaty City brewery and many fine drinking establishments. There'll be more on what I found there in a future post. But I couldn't resist giving the new outreach beer from Guinness a go: Open Gate Citra IPA. Entirely as expected and in keeping with most of the IPAs they've brewed, this is a greasy beast, thickly textured and resinous. I'm sure that goes some way to explain why the hop flavour is lacking: there's no bite or bitterness, just a vague sense of orange oil at the beginning and no follow-through at all. It's inoffensive, I guess, but I can't see it pleasing the fans of the Citra hop.

Brand spanking new from Galway Bay is Baby Legs, a cryo-hopped IPA with Vermont yeast. I had thought, from my previous cryo experience with Black's Marching Powder, that cryo was a low-bitterness strategy, and Vermont yeast certainly usually is. But this guy goes big on bitter. From the pale and murky pint I got a seriously dank aroma, brimming with weedy resinous funk. The first sip underlines that with a heavy and oily herb flavour full of garlic, thyme and fennel. It's like a Sunday roast without the meat, two veg and gravy. The taste is set on a palate-stripping acidity that ignites the tastebuds in a gloriously fun way. This is how to do savoury hopping properly, with no mild caraway, just a big burning punch in the gob. Towards the end, after it had warmed a little, I thought I detected a smidge of pineapple juice lurking in the background, but if so it was slight and fleeting. Baby Legs is definitely one for the old school west coast IPA fans, in spite of the high-tech hops and on-trend yeast, and it's a better beer for that.

The next beer isn't a new one but it's important to me. I have been searching for Black Donkey's Arigna dark saison for ages but it always eluded me. Fortunately my puppy-dog eyes worked on brewer Richard at Big Grill last Friday and he kindly gave me a bottle of the 2016 vintage. It's rather good too. Lovely and smooth, with light banana esters, a sprinkle of white pepper, some juicy peach and a rich chocolate undercoat. All very jolly, so what's the ABV? Holy shit! 8.3%! This is a monster! In a very convincing disguise. There's a lot of good quality dunkelweisse in the taste, and the feel of one too. Where one might expect the hard alcohol there's just a leisurely herbal aniseed taste. It's a fascinating beer: a sideways twist on saison in several directions at once, but all integrated, with the flavours naturally complementing each other. I would say this, but it deserves to be more available.

To conclude, the first beer from the Carlingford Brewing Company to grace this blog. I've tasted trial versions of various batches over the last year or so but I was never sure if they were the finished product. But this Barrel Aged Red Ale is, because I bought it in DrinkStore. It's based on their Taaffe's red ale, boosted to 7.5% ABV by an ex-bourbon Irish whiskey cask. It's a hazy brownish red colour and smells of oak. The texture is smooth but far from flat, livened by a gentle sparkle. In the flavour the classic summer berry flavours of Irish red ale meld with the boozy oak, though nothing in it suggests whiskey to me. The body is as big as the number suggests, chewy in the mouth and warming in the belly. Not the most complex of whiskey-aged beers, and it never quite escapes its Irish red nature, but it all works rather well.

That's it for now. Tomorrow I'm off to The Great Irish Beer Festival in Cork for the first time and hoping to tick off a few more there.

23 August 2017

Hoop for us all

While casually browsing the selection in an Utrecht off licence last March I was suddenly taken aback by a couple of bottles from a seemingly local brewery called Hoop. The branding, though not the beers themselves, was identical to that of Dublin's own Hope brewery, right up to the H-O anchor motif on the cap. It subsequently transpired that the two breweries are cousins and share a co-owner in common, as well as collaborating on recipe design and, obviously, branding. It's all perfectly innocent, though it was a shock to see them without warning. Anyway, I bought the two that were there and eventually got around to opening them. "Hoop" is the Dutch word for hope, and is pronounced exactly the same way, in case you were wondering and/or sniggering.

The first one I opened was 1862, a dry-hopped pilsner. To give it a proper Dutch pils head I made only a slightly vigorous pour but ended up with a glass of 80% foam. Still, waiting for that to subside gave me plenty of time to compose an introduction about how I found it. Ahem.

It's surprisingly hazy, giving it a deep orange hue. It smells mildly of peach and plum though I'd guess it's maybe not fresh enough to deliver the full benefit, even if the best before is November. After all the foam it's a little bit flat and lifeless. I don't want an overly fizzy pilsner but this one just flops dead on the tongue from the first mouthful. There is a nice crisp grain element, and a round orange juice flavour, but they're both a little too faint to be properly interesting. There's the making of a very good beer in here, but on this showing it's just a bit off in several directions and only really good for thirst-slaking.

A saison follows, called Water Wolf, at a proper low-countries strength of 5.5% ABV. This was surprisingly clear as it poured, though that was just because the sediment had settled to the bottom of the bottle. By the time I finished and left it a minute, that had spread an even golden haze through the glass. No shortage of carbonation here: there's an audible prickle as it sits waiting for the first sip. That turns up spritzy notes of cloudy lemonade and freshly chopped herbs. It took me a couple of minutes to figure out why it tasted familiar, and it's because it tastes far more like a witbier than a saison. It's sweet, not dry, and there's an almost creamy quality to the texture. I do get the earthy spices typical of saison in the aroma but there's no crispness, funk, farmyard or gunpowder in the flavour. It's enjoyable and quite jolly, if a little overcarbed, but once I got Hoegaarden into my head that's all I could think of.

As it happens our local Hope brews both a dry-hopped lager and a saison, and to be honest I think we get the better deal in Dublin.