29 September 2017

Well I never!

It started with a tweet from business journo John West: where is local Sapporo lager brewed? I know that Asahi is brewed at Shepherd Neame in Kent; I noted more recently that cans of Kirin Ichiban come from Weihenstephaner in Bavaria, of all places; but Sapporo was not on my radar. And indeed has never featured on this blog. Asking around finally yielded an answer from local distributor David of Noreast: Europe's Sapporo is brewed at the Guinness brewery in Dublin. Cor!

As it happened I had a bottle in the fridge, so took it out to toast my new-found knowledge. Sapporo is a handsome deep gold colour. It smells boringly sweet, like a million other mass-produced ersatz pilsners. But the flavour does have something going for it. There's a classic central-European grassy hop bite, which was a very pleasant surprise. It also has the full and soft texture of a decent helles making it a lot more satisfying to drink than stereotypical dry and gassy mainstream Japanese-style lager. A decent crunch of malt husk finishes it off.

While I'm on the subject of Asian lager, I lunched in Arisu Korean barbecue on Capel Street recently (highly recommended) and was bemused to see they stocked imported Hite lager. I explored the beer of Korea in Seoul a couple of years prior to starting this blog and Hite wasn't a particularly fond memory, though neither were Cass or OB for that matter. Still, here it was: man up and give it a go. Straight from the bottle, of course.

On this occasion it reminded me a lot of Tiger: it has that horribly thick and estery banana flavour I always get from Singapore's flagship beer. It's barely tolerable when ice cold, but any degree of warmth at all turns it sickly and difficult, in a way that this sort of chugging lager shouldn't be. If you can't create the complexity of Sapporo, at least make it dry.

All of these macro meanderings were enough to guilt me into getting some proper Asian craft beer. That involved another tasty lunch, this time at Yamamori's restaurant on Ormond Quay. It has been far too long since I last tried any Kiuchi beers, which the chain imports into Ireland. The Hitachino Nest Lager was entirely new to me and happily fitted the theme of this post.

I was expecting something exceedingly average, but this it an absolute beaut. It's a plain yellow colour topped by a fine white foam, and at 5.5% ABV is a little stronger than the norm, but that's very much in its favour when it comes to accompanying food -- once again the body is wonderfully full and satisfying. The first sip provided a juicy burst of melon rind, turning to bitterer orange pith on the end. I don't know how this was done, but I suspect it may be down to the judicious addition of Sorachi Ace hops: enough to give it a very distinctive taste but without drowning the consumer in coconut oil. Amazingly, this bright and zingy flavour was still present even as my bottle was coming up hard on the stated best-before date. It's a robust little owl.

Given some of the rubbish that gets sold in Asian restaurants around here, and Yamamori's exclusive hold on Kiuchi, it's a shame Sapporo isn't more prevalent. Its weight would make it a much better counterbalance to spicy food, for one thing. I can understand why they don't sell it at Arisu, however, and I still wouldn't swap the Hitachino Lager for it.

27 September 2017

Endangered kiwi

...flavours of citrus, pine & tropical fruit... says the label on Mac's Green Beret, an IPA from a New Zealand brewery that's been off my radar for a while. I picked up the bottle in The Wine Centre on my way home from Kilkenny during the summer.

It's 5.4% ABV and an attractive gold colour. The flavour wasn't doing it for me, which is the point I looked at the best-before and discovered it was over two months past the date.

Tropical fruit? Not so much. The signature Kiwi bitter grassy thing is still there, and there's a solid big malt base, all golden syrup and light toffee. Beyond that, however, this beer is sadly dead. The absence of hop has caused it to fall out of balance. Letting something like this rot on the shelves so far from home does nobody any favours.

I'd have poured one out for it but y'know, I'm writing here.

25 September 2017

UK hun?

British craft beer is unavoidable these days. Most of the handful of talked-about producers have a presence here, though I can't help noticing prices have stayed buoyant as sterling tanks. Anyway, here's a few that I've tried recently.

London is the hub of the British new wave and Bermondsey's FourPure is one of the most solidly reliable of the capital's brewers. Its Southern Latitude, which showed up on the taps at 57 The Headline, is in the daring style of New England session IPA. It's 4.4% ABV and a not terribly sessionable €6 for a 400ml glass. It doesn't look very New Englandy either: quite dark and almost completely clear. The flavours are clear too: juicy peach and then a double dryness from high carbonation and a slightly aspirin tang. It's refreshing, though, which does meet the session IPA requirement of the spec. Not FourPure's best work, however.

Derbyshire's Buxton is a rare sighting in this part of the country and we owe the presence of Myrcia IPA to The Headline's management relentlessly pursuing it. This is another session IPA, 4% and claiming to be hop bursted. What's not to like? The aroma starts it off well, bright and lemony, but the flavour is very muted and consists predominantly of yeast. It ends up tasting as mucky and dreggy as it looks. Searching desperately for a lighter point I found a slight lemon buzz but no freshness and no real hop character. I guess the lesson is that you need a clean beer to get the benefit of loading all the hops into the end phase of brewing. As is, this was a huge disappointment.

Scotland is inevitably represented here by BrewDog. Their latest "India Pale Weizen" Nine To Five Wizard warranted a special daytime launch event in UnderDog. That was all quite jolly, and proof that BrewDog can still draw a crowd in this town. The beer itself wasn't all that impressive, offering little more than you'd get from a standard weissbier -- banana, cloves -- just given a little extra poke at 7.5% ABV. The lovely smooth texture is perhaps its best feature, coming with a very mild burn, hops or alcohol, at the end. I'm chalking it up as a definite positive that the extra hopping has not been allowed to interfere with the classic flavours as so often happens in poorly conceived hybrid styles like these.

Seemingly the only Welsh brewery that counts in craft circles these days (where did Otley disappear to?) is Newport's Tiny Rebel. Two of theirs came my way lately. One was a can I drank in Brewery Corner in Kilkenny: Clwb Tropicana. This is a fruited IPA, or "tropical" IPA, as the branding insists. It's pale yellow and smells of Lilt. The texture is sticky; the flavour is sickly, and there's no real beer character going on. I have now witnessed a pub customer working along the fruit IPA selections on a particular bar, so it seems beers like this are answering a market demand. This specific one, however, demonstrates clearly to me what's wrong with the whole segment.

Meanwhile, on draught, over at The Headline was Cali American Pale Ale. It's quite a severe beer: a chalky asparagus bitterness being the main feature, and all at the front. I waited for the middle to happen but it didn't really. It feels like there should be a sudden inrush of tangerine or something, but nope. I couldn't stay cross with it for long, however. That one punchy mineral feature is something I enjoyed coming back to sip after sip. This is a no-nonsense beer, take it or leave it, and I'd happily have another.

Dessert, then, and the dark side begins at Wild Beer's Millionaire stout. "Salted caramel" is your Brucie bonus in this one. And yes, it's a little bit sticky, though not overly so. Really it's just a typical, ungimmicky, sweet-ish stout, tarry of texture but with light easy-going flavours of vanilla and honey, as well as a proper hop bitterness. I was genuinely convinced it was a strong one so was very pleasantly surprised to discover it's only 4.7% ABV. I could have handled a pint of this no problem, though maybe just the one.

My nightcap is Eldon, an oak-aged imperial stout from Thornbridge. A modest one, though, at just 8% ABV. It smells enticingly of rich and thick churro sauce and lays on the cocoa heavily in the flavour too. The oak (chips, I assume) has been used previously for Bourbon but I wouldn't have guessed it: no sickly vanilla or heavy booze, a honeycomb sweetness being the only possible nod to the liquor. There is, however, a dry sawdust taste that doesn't add anything positive. With every sip I get the impression of a very well-made strong stout which would be a better beer with less done to it. It's still pretty good, though, getting rounder and smoother as it warms. Definitely a good one to finish on.

I'll have been in and out of London on a flying visit by the time this gets posted, so expect a report on further British craft experiences in the near future.

22 September 2017

Taking the Mikkel

I have to admit, I'm surprised that Mikkeller still generates a buzz. The Danish gypsy brewer is a veteran at this stage, and in the highly fickle world of "craft" beer few brands generate enthusiasm for so long. Mikkellermania may have peaked some years ago, but when UnderDog dedicated a swathe of their taps to the beer, excitement ensued.

I stuck my head in on a Friday afternoon to see what was what. Tap 1, and beer of the moment, was SpontanDoubleBlueberry. This is an attempt to recreate the lambic brewing process, with mixed results in this drinker's opinion. It looks dark and tarry in the glass, the deepest of purple with a shock of violet foam on top. The first flavour to come through isn't sourness, nor fruit, but bitterness: the tannic bite of berry skins. A harsh Bretty funk follows, rough and uncouth. I was expecting some fruit flavour but that didn't really emerge until the beer had warmed up a ways, and was heavy and jammy, perhaps reflecting the weighty 7.7% ABV. And sourness? It's buried in there but it's not a central feature. There was the saltpetre spark of proper geuze, doing little other than reminding me I'd rather be drinking a proper geuze. There's certainly a lot going on in this one, but I definitely preferred the lighter and cleaner beers I've had from the Spontan series.

Hallo Ich Bin Berliner Weisse Mango has been around in cans for a while. I just had a quick taster as a contrast with the Spontan. It's a bright pale yellow, thin and clean, and with a sharp, slightly metallic, sour bite. I could barely taste the mango at all: there's certainly no fruit-pulp thickness. It's simple and refreshing fare and for the price usually demanded it ought to be offering more.

It's hops from here on in. I had not realised that the Mikkeller Single Hop Series, which I started drinking in 2008 and last encountered back in 2010, is still running. The beers are all 6.9% ABV and they seem to have acquired double IPA siblings now.

There were two varieties available: Citra and Mosaic in both single and double versions. As a fully-certified Mosaic hound I asked for a taster of the Mikkeller Mosaic IPA first. I was not expecting the aroma of toffee. The hop flavour struggles to come through the heavy malt sweetness, and manages to bring only the savoury side of Mosaic when it does, and none of the fun fruit. I decided not to struggle through a full glass of that.

So instead I surprised myself by opting for Mikkeller Citra IPA instead. Unsurprisingly it's sweet again, though the aroma does include plenty of fresh grapefruit to help cover the caramel. The texture is thick and this helps the hops do their thing: a lovely oily lemon and lime flavour, coating the palate at first, while building to a bitter crescendo. A juicy counter-melody of mandarin adds a tasty extra dimension, though I also detected a burr of yeast bite spoiling things ever so slightly. But overall an excellent performance.

How would that stack up in a double IPA? Remarkably well. Again just a taster, but Mikkeller Citra Double IPA really emphasises the tropicality, piling in mango (more than in the Berliner weisse) and cantaloupe. It doesn't have the whole toffee thing, leaving more room for hop fun, and there's no trace of alcohol heat; an amazing achievement at 8.9% ABV.

With thoughts that I should have given the Mosaic Double IPA a chance too, I headed off. I suppose it should be of comfort that Mikkeller is still doing the Spontans and the single hop IPAs after all these years, and that people are still enjoying them. Perhaps even craft beer radicals settle down at some point.

20 September 2017

In for a Treaty

The Beoir AGM happened in Limerick last month. It's the first year that my attendance was not compulsory, but I had never been to the city, nor experienced its beer scene, so there was no way I was going to miss it. The meeting was kindly hosted by The Wickham Tap, Galway Bay Brewery's new pub and their first outside Galway or Dublin (Kilkenny will follow next month). We also dropped by the handsome Smyth's, the cosy Nancy Blake's and the very handsome Mother Mac's.

The latter three were all pouring The Market Quarter, a new pale lager that was being launched that weekend. In total a group of twelve pubs in that area are carrying it on draught, having commissioned it from local brewery Treaty City to be, according to the Leader, "for traditional drinkers and craft beer enthusiasts alike". I like to think I can speak for both of those demographics and I reckon they've nailed it. It's a light 4.2% ABV and an approachable medium-gold. The flavour bursts with fresh tropical flavours, mango and pineapple in particular, before finishing clean. There's a palate-scrubbing fizz to please the mainstream lager drinkers, but it's not thin or overcarbonated, just great session drinking. I would worry about how well the fruit will hold up if it has to spend more than a short time sitting in the keg, but hopefully that won't be an issue. Well done to all concerned.

Our guide for the day, the redoubtable Cyril, had arranged for us to visit Treaty City Brewing itself, where we got a guided tour by the enthusiastic proprietor Stephen Cuneen. Local, local, local is the mantra. I always feel better about not being able to get my hands on a beer when I learn it's deliberate. I hadn't tasted any of the core beers so happily there was a table of sample bottles. Yes, I brought my bottle opener.

Harris Pale Ale is the one that's been around longest, named after Limerick's most legendary drinker. This is quite a dark amber colour and dry tasting, mixing up metallic aspirin bite with a touch of roasted grain. It's reminiscent of decent dark English bitter and is similarly moreish, despite a sizeable ABV of 5%.

The lightest of the set is Hells Gate Lager at 4.2% ABV. I think there's a sneaky reference to the intended style in the name (don't tell AB-InBev) as it's quite sweet and softly textured, with elements of candyfloss and spongecake. This is balanced with a few sprigs of fresh spinach leaves: no doubt a German noble variety or two at work. It's maybe just a little too sweet for my taste, even for a helles, but it's perfectly well made.

Treaty City hasn't turned out a porter yet so Thomond Red is as dark as it gets. And its pretty dark for a red: a cola brown colour with an almost dunkel-like sticky treacle aroma. The caramel arrives to the party early and I was fully expecting it to talk loudly over the top of the other guests. However it leaves room for some clean, green celery hops, a smattering of ripe summer fruit and a roasty finish that prevents it from getting all sticky in the end. Irish red full house then, pretty much, and probably the most complex offering of the set.

The IPA, Shannon River, was a bit of a let-down after that. They've gone too sweet in this one, resulting in a dark orange colour and buckets of orange candy all through the flavour. There's a certain minerally dry bitterness quality too, but it fights with the sticky malt rather than complementing or balancing it. The whole thing is just discordant, rendered extra loud with the volume turned up to 5.8% ABV.

There's a definite sweet theme running through the range, which is perhaps why the red ale is the best of the lot. This may be to do with local tastes so it's very promising that the newest beer, Market Quarter, doesn't have it. Turn your treacle to tropical fruit, Limerick, and embrace the 21st century.

18 September 2017

Getting Lough'd

I had somewhat lost track of Lough Gill Brewery since the beginning of the year, having last tried a new beer from them just before the Alltech festival in February. So when I made enquiries in DrinkStore I ended up coming away with three cans from the Sligo brewery I'd never tasted before.

First to get opened was the Sour Wheat Ale. I was hoping for something light and refreshing, but the 5.7% ABV suggested otherwise, as did the dark and murky appearance. I had plenty of time to contemplate that as I waited for the foam to subside sufficiently to allow me a sip. It's as heavy as I expected, with a slick and briney salinity. There's a touch of lemon behind this which, combined with a grainy crunch, calls witbier to mind. Overall I'm not keen on it. The sourness is too strongly lactic, more like something gone off than deliberately inoculated, and the grain tastes stale and husky, possibly as a result. It's doesn't compare well with the cleaner and lighter Irish sour beers out there.

Time for a complete contrast: 'Round the Clock is a coffee and oatmeal stout, a path that has been trod by many breweries previously. It's 5.2% ABV and a rich chocolate brown colour. They've gone all-out for the coffee here, and there's a lot of dark roasted, even gritty, espresso in the flavour and aroma. The harsh bitterness isn't helped by the thin texture and if that's all there was I'd be giving it up as a bad job. But! This beer does have a redeeming feature in a floral complexity that runs backwards and forwards through it. It's a meadowy sweetness that doesn't quite take the edge off the sharp roast but does manage to distract my attention from its worst excesses. It's still some fairly tough drinking, lacking smoothness. You'd really want to be into your coffee, or at least your beer that tastes of coffee, to enjoy it fully.

Finally for now, Lough Gill's Irish Sloe Barley Wine, the first in a series of strong beers, and at 9.5% ABV it definitely qualifies. I was struck by the colour of this: after two cans of murk it's a gorgeous crystalline garnet. On sticking the nose in I'm met with typical barley wine characteristics: heavy slabs of alcoholic toffee, but there's a cheeky sour twang suggesting the sloes are mixing right in the middle. And so it proves on tasting: there's a chocolatey syrupy sweet thickness that would be cloying if left to its own devices, and where a classic US barley wine (hi Bigfoot!) would lash in a load of big citric hops, this utilises the fruit to give it a tangy edge that cleans up the malty excesses and renders it drinkable, while also giving it a uniquely complex flavour. It's almost plummy, like you might find in a Belgian dubbel, but lighter, spritzier, and altogether cleaner -- think cranberries. For a high-gravity palate-thumper this has been carefully and subtly put together. It's not often you encounter an Irish beer that isn't just slavish copying the way they do things abroad but this expresses a terroir all its own.

So, one super-impressive beer out of three. Not bad. There'll be more from Lough Gill in my round-up of the Irish Craft Beer Festival in a few weeks.

15 September 2017

Shropshire citrus

A couple of beers from top Shropshire brewers Salopian today, kindly muled over to my parents' house by my sister over the summer.

First to be opened was Lemon Dream, after a long walk on a warm June afternoon. I was so thirsty I almost didn't stop to take notes. It's a 4.5% ABV pale ale and a bright clear lemon-yellow. There are real lemons in it, and they really make their presence felt in the aroma: an oily citrus perfume, akin to air freshener or washing up liquid but with none of the negative connotations. Crisp cookie malt gives this a base and ensures the body is full enough for it to be satisfying to drink. The bitterness is surprisingly low, meaning it's more like a golden ale than any hop-forward style, but it's literally and figuratively refreshing to find that the added fruit hasn't been overdone. So, an excellent subtle twist on quality golden ale, keeping the good bits while banishing boredom.

I followed that with a bottle of Bulletproof, from Salopian's craftish range with the uninformative labels. It's bottle-conditioned, 5.8% ABV and turns out to be an IPA. This is even more citrusy than the beer with actual lemons in it. The aroma promises a sharp bitterness while first sip delivers a huge blast of lime: fresh, bitter and invigorating. That's followed by a softer and juicier passionfruit and mango flavour. A deposit of greasy hop resins on the tongue make the finish very good value for money. On the down side the body is a little thin, especially for the strength, and it risks accusations of unbalance as a result. That doesn't bother me, however, I could frolic in its hoppy wonderland forever.

Boring old regional English beer in half-litre bottles, eh? Not so much with Salopian.

13 September 2017

A drop of the black stuff

I laughed when I saw that Grand Cru Beers had put a stock of Oude Geuze Boon Black Label on the shelf in my local SuperValu. Every week, doing the grocery shopping, I'd pass by it and think "Haha, I mean who's going to buy that in Dublin 12? For €11 a bottle?" It took a couple of months to realise that it was me.

There's a whiff of the US about its English-language label and imperial units. I guess it's intended more for there than Sundrive Road. There's also the claim to be "the driest geuze we make", because those Americans love a superlative. I did precede it with a standard Oude Geuze Boon, for calibration. Any excuse, really. And yes, while the basic one has a lovely stonefruit juiciness, that's missing from this. Instead there's a mouth-puckering edge and a hit of bricky nitre. It's not overdone, however, keeping everything very classy and classic. There's a real invigorating quality, helped by the busy palate-scrubbing fizz.

While highly enjoyable, I do think some of the complexity is missing compared to the standard. It's less rounded, going all-out for big sour. Just as well the Boon blending skill kicks in and insists on still making a superb, properly balanced, geuze. €11 well spent.

With a taste for geuze in my mouth I decided to open the freebie bottle I picked up at the Mort Subite brewery back in May. They've called it Bubbles from Brussels, which is slightly odd as Mort Subite isn't in Brussels: the nearest large town is called Asse. Maybe a rebrand is in order.

I wasn't expecting much from it, but it's not half bad. Not first-tier geueze by any stretch, but neither is it an oversweetened nerve-jangler. Instead it's right in the middle ground: tangy and earthy without going for full-on wince-inducing sourness. There's a waxy bitterness, some citrus peel, and a mild gunpowder spice: the core elements of really good geuze, but dialled back, as though the brewers weren't sure if people would like them. The biggest surprise is that this light-touch lambic is a whopping 7% ABV. It really doesn't taste it. Much like the Mort Subite tour itself, it's far from unmissable but not bad for free.

It must be nearly time to go to Belgium again.