15 August 2017

The Third space

Day two of Events Week and we go all the way back to early July when 57 The Headline hosted the sort-of launch for a sort-of new brewery. Stone Barrel and Third Circle have both been on the Irish scene for a couple of years as client brewers. Early in 2017 production began at their jointly owned standalone brewery which they've named Third Barrel. The Headline had beers from both, but also a selection of tiny-batch collaborations released under the Third Barrel brand, something they say they're going to continue. There's a tendency in collaborative brewing to realise way-out recipes that neither partner would do by themselves. One might have thought that this would be toned down when the other brewer is under the same roof and you see them every day but, well, see below.

Stone Barrel only had a couple from their core range on offer but Third Circle had a brand new Coffee Rye Stout. Three words, three elements, and each of them meticulously and unambiguously delivered to the palate. At 5.5% ABV it's within the normal bounds of Irish stout, and it's appropriately dry and roasty -- there's no mistaking the style. But there's an extra green bitterness which I'm taking for the rye, an outlying and complementary flavour next to the base beer. Meanwhile all of this is enveloped in an oily blanket of fresh coffee which again manages to taste separate from the other parts. I've no idea how this sort of multi-layered complexity is achieved, but I approve.

To the Third Barrel specials, then. As Yet Untitled was the natural starting point, a strawberry and black pepper grisette of 4.2% ABV. Expecting pink I got a surprisingly golden glassful, though there was no mistaking the strawberries in the aroma. There isn't much beyond that, unfortunately: a nondescript yoghurt sweetness, the tiniest pinch of pepper oils, but very little by way of real fruit flavour and absolutely no Belgian-style saison characteristics. Watery, inoffensive, and not really making good use of its constituent parts.

The other OTT novelty was called Drop It Like It's Hot, described as a bourbon, chilli and vanilla porter. I think something genuinely went wrong here because it was completely uncarbonated, like it had just come from the fermenter. There's an overpowering sickly sweetness, the vanilla dominating the whole thing and burying the other flavours. I can't say if this was a good idea to start with, but the finished beer was definitely not a success.

It's also pleasing when a guest brewer sets up a cask engine on the bar at 57 and Third Barrel had brought Gordon to run through it, an English-style bitter at 4.4% ABV. They seem to have opted for a northern angle with this, given that it's pale yellow and centres around a lemony flavour. It veers a little bit too close to washing up liquid for complete comfort, though there's enough quality old-fashioned lemonade in there to keep it in my good books. For all the flat-cap traditionalism, the hops are a strangely mongrel mix of East Kent Goldings, Willamette and Mandarina Bavaria. Not a combination that usually springs to mind when formulating a cask bitter.

The promised double IPA didn't make it as far as a tap so the "German/American wheat beer" Ich Bin Ein HOPaddict was as hoppy as it got. This is 5.7% ABV and presents like a very modern hazy IPA. The texture and flavour match that too: a creamy milkshake mouthfeel and softly luscious pineapple in the flavour. But there's an old-school bitter streak in here too, hiding at first, but building gradually until it transforms the beer into something much more grown up. A fascinating process to watch, and a way to experience the benefits of both schools of IPA thought without having to go back to the bar.

I'm finishing on a stout, Third Barrel's Black Bretty. Funny how I'd automatically expect a Bretted stout to be strong, but this is only 4.8% ABV. It damn well doesn't taste it, though: it tastes huge. I don't think I'd guess there was Brett in it: there's none of the typical funk or ripe fruit or the rest of the Brett portfolio. Instead there's a massive dark chocolate bitterness and heavy-roasted coffee. Fortunately a lighter, floral, lavender and violet complexity helps soften it and keep any harshness at bay. The bigness is achieved, I'm told, by a high starting gravity with a high finishing gravity, ending on 1.019 to give that imperial stout sensation. For me, this beer expresses the very essence of stout; it's the stoutiest stout I have ever encountered, and if you'd told it was an historical recreation of something from early 19th century London I'd have well believed it.

Aside from everything else that evening, I got an interesting cross-sectional look at experimental small-batch brewing. The good stuff definitely outweighs the poor and mediocre in this lot, and perhaps some of it will be put to good use in regular production beers. I'll definitely be front and centre the next time a Third Barrel joint effort is on offer. More stout please.

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