04 September 2017

Somewhere over the border

September already? Yikes! These notes have been sitting in my drafts since my last trip north in June. I did a swift run around McAnerney's supermarket and The Winestore, Armagh's top two off licences, for anything new from the Northern Ireland breweries. This is what I found.

Glens of Antrim Ales is entirely new to me, though they've been brewing up in Ballycastle since 2014. First from them is Fairhead Gold, a 4.4% ABV lager. To be specific, this is very much the sort of lager made by microbreweries who don't really know how to make lager, or else don't have the equipment for it. It's a cloudy pale yellow and horribly thin and astringent. The flavour is sharp yet watery, like a weak lemon drink, finishing on a rough husky note before curdling in the stomach. It's too harsh to even be refreshing and I refuse to believe it's anyone's idea of a good lager, or that it'll convert many Harp drinkers.

I figured they'd be on firmer ground with Lizzie's Ale, although it's a tricky blonde one rather than safely dark. No wateriness here, thankfully: smooth and full bodied instead. The lemons are back, but they're able to use that big malt base to spread out and provide a gentle citrusy buzz, starting on a sherbet effervescence, the bitterness building gradually to an altogether modern C-hop sharpness in the finish. Where I might expect some estery ripe fruit or spicy yeast flavours there's no further complexity, but these aren't really missed. This is a very capable blonde ale and I think shows that Glens of Antrim do know what they're doing after all and simply shouldn't have attempted a lager.

One of the most exciting of Northern Ireland's new wave breweries is Bullhouse and I've really enjoyed the handful of their beers I've had so far. Two new ones faced me in The Winestore, including the first canned beer I've seen in their line-up: Koko, a coconut porter at 5.5% ABV.

Unfortunately it's not a great coconut porter. The aroma is suitably Bounty-ful but the underlying beer is too thin and everything gets dialled back because of this. I kept expecting a luscious chocolate flavour but instead the dry roasted quality is allowed to dominate. The coconut isn't sufficiently present either, though perhaps I'm a bit greedy when it comes to this ingredient: other people may think there's value in being subtle with it; I don't. A pleasant floral rosewater complexity is another underused asset, one which is really crying out for a denser beer to augment.

A second flavoured porter follows: The Notorious PIG, an ambitiously-titled "maple bacon coffee porter", and yes, all three things are apparently really in there. It's jet black with a tan-coloured head, showing off its substantial 6.7% ABV right from the start. The aroma is smoky, slightly burnt even, and I suspect some good old smoked malt has been included in the grist -- surely that can't be from however they added the bacon? The texture is pleasantly creamy though there's a sharp bitterness in the foretaste which gradually calms down to become a coffee taste. This is very heavily roasted and dominates the whole thing, granted support from the smoke side. No sign of the maple, however, and a little softening sweetness would be good for it. Overall it's decent gut-sticking fare, though a bit more tweaking to bring out the constituent elements better might be beneficial. It's doesn't taste as complex as the label promises.

Mourne Mountains brewery had a Whiskey and Vanilla Barrel-Aged Stout on offer, a big fella at 8.2% ABV. The whiskey element is off the charts here, smelling exactly like a glass of Bushmills and giving a substantial throat-scorch when swallowed. It doesn't taste of pure whiskey because of the other ingredients: lots of very sweet vanilla and a hefty dollop of chocolate sauce. Amazingly these don't turn the beer sticky or cloying, but rather work to offset the more severe booziness. It's all very entertainingly put together, every inch a stout but with elements from delightfully silly chocolate-cream cocktails too. I got to wondering what would happen to it with age, even though it's a beer which is possibly just too much fun to not drink immediately.

There's certainly some interesting stuff coming from the Northern Irish micros. I just wish the shops in Ar