23 October 2017

Hypetrain USA

I left off on Thursday talking about the special exclusive American beers that the Brewers Association brought to the Irish Craft Beer Festival last month. The following day I was away to London for Beavertown's Extravaganza and, unsurprisingly, American beer featured heavily in my day there too.

The festival itself was held in the gargantuan industrial space of The Printworks in Rotherhithe, spread over three-and-bit halls with a host of breweries from the USA, UK and elsewhere, each pouring two beers at a time in dinky 100ml serves. The unusual feature was that the beer was all-inclusive, so no messing around with tokens or cash. The system worked quite well, I thought. The heavily hyped breweries had large queues, but there was no obligation to drink those, and the lines did move fast in any case. Kick-off was at 3pm and it was only around 7 that I started seeing some mild staggering, smashed glasses and collapsing benches. The crowd began to thin out shortly afterwards as the bars started running out of beer, and the party had reached its natural conclusion by the 10pm closing. I had some 30 new beers and ciders under my belt at this stage and felt I'd achieved my money's worth.

I wasn't looking closely, but I suspect the consistently longest queue of the day was at Trillium. I figured it was worth a go, and got in line early, first arming myself with sustenance for the journey. That was in the form of Dragon Mask, a 12% ABV imperial stout from San Diego's Modern Times. And jolly nice it was too: a suptuous mix of chocolate and coconut, warming all the way down like a mug of mocha on a cold day.

At the top of the queue they were pouring Trillium's Port Point Pale Ale. It ticks a lot of the New England boxes in a fairly perfunctory way: the milky yellow colour, a background vanilla sweetness and then lots of garlic bouncing around up front. All very familiar and not particularly special. The ABV is up at 6.6% ABV though the texture is unforgivably watery for that. It was fine but I wasn't getting back in line for another.

Other Half also attracted queues, though a fair bit shorter than Trillium's. Mylar Bags was much more to my taste despite being a double IPA. It really helped that it didn't taste anything like its 8.8% ABV, but also that the garlicky hops blend with a cleaner and lighter minty herbal kick. The base is candy-sweet but the hopping is well able to balance it and gives it a superbly long finish. Yes it's another one of those murky yellow American savoury IPAs, and a little one-dimensional with it, but it does what it sets out to do quite beautifully.

And amazingly there was an even better double IPA than that: Ca$h Only from San Francisco's Cellarmaker. The ABV goes up to 9.1% and there's a luxurious smoothness to the whole thing, loads of dank oils but no heat, no acid: none of the things that generally turn me off the style. Despite the name it's pure understated class. I've no idea how they achieved it.

It was funny to see the US breweries who would have had serious geeks queuing around the block five or ten years ago twidding their thumbs while waiting for customers. Maybe I just caught Three Floyds in a quiet moment. Their Battle of Charro II imperial IPA with Brettanomyces and cherries was a bit of a disaster. 10.8% ABV and heavily sweet with a cloying perfume quality, it began tasting of throat lozenges and eventually turned to cough medicine. Everything on this would need to be dialled way back to make it drinkable, but maybe the lesson is not to mess about with IPA as if it's a stout.

Lost Abbey was playing the Brett game rather better. Genesis of Shame (what?) was the one I opted for. It's just 6.5% ABV and is a golden ale at its base, blended with a barrel aged version plus peaches and more Brett. The fruit sits at the centre of it all, the sweet juice contrasting with an unctuous umami smack. There's a bitter edge of peach skin and then a complementary waft of farmyard funk in the finish. It's one of those orderly beers, where the tastes line up and deliver themselves onto the palate politely and respectfully. A masterpiece of balance and complexity.

Next door, Lost Abbey's former parent brewery Pizza Port had The Jetty IPA on offer. This one is as west coast as they come: pale yellow, 7.3% and massively bitter. There's really not much else happening other than bitterness but it's bitter in so many ways: citric, vegetal and waxy all at once. It wasn't to my taste though I'm sure it was exactly as the brewer intended.

Oregon's Boneyard had something similar but different going on with Enzymatic, dropping the ABV down slightly to 7.1%. The flavour is calmer, allowing subtleties to come out, with a light and zesty lemon and lime being the main feature. It's surprisingly quenching despite the substantial strength and there's even a detrimental thinness to the body. It's pleasant, though: a lovely expression of classic west coast IPA without going too extreme. Good old dependable Boneyard.

On then to the wild side of the house. Crooked Stave's Petite Sour Raspberry is a beer I had before in Dublin, courtesy of the lovely Padraig. And then I shamefully lost my note on it, but here was a chance at redemption! At no extra cost! It's a handsome, dark, purpleish-pink colour, and very big on the zingy sherbet fruit. The sourness is almost an afterthought, and there's a subtle lacing of barnyard funk through it as well. Gentle, balanced and quite tasty, even if it's missing the wow factor.

I'm searching my notes for wow factor now. Ah yes: Guava in Berlin, a super fruity sour beer by Green Cheek Beer Company in California. It looks like coconut milk and tastes of breakfast juice but is also amazingly clean and refreshing, the lactic acid doing just enough to tidy up any sweet excesses and balancing it all beautifully. It's less of a novelty gimmick than the name might suggest.

Less spectacular was Arizona Wilderness Bush & Vine. This is concocted from grape and blackberry and given the mixed-culture fermentation treatment. It's 6.4% ABV and has lots of sweet grape character but not much else. Easy going and pleasant, I guess, but we're back to American sour beers that fail to do anything especially interesting.

But even they were streets ahead of Saison du Fermier 3 from Side Project Brewing in St. Louis. The brewery appears to specialise in this sort of thing so I'm surprised this one went so far wrong. Over-ambition, perhaps, because while it starts off with pleasant melon and pepper, there's suddenly a blast of strong acetic sourness which just ruins it. There's endless debate as to the precise nature of saison but I've never seen any claim that it's supposed to burn your nose hairs. This one does. It's just too severe: an experiment by a bored brewer that did not work out and we the drinkers have to live with the consequences.

Time for some dessert. With Hair of the Dog in the room some chewy strong ale was called for. Here was Fred, a beer that exists in many aged editions but I don't think I'd ever seen it in its classic form. Very nice it is too. A heavy candy malt base overlaid with a concentrated Liquorice Allsorts herbal flavour. Despite the golden amber colour it tastes dark, though not hot. Perfect digestif material.

It would have been very wrong to leave without stopping by the Bell's stand, and that was one of my last calls. Expedition Stout was on the deck, shamefully left over when most other beers had run out. 10.5% ABV and silky smooth. In proper, and all too rare, imperial style it's powerfully bitter. There's a raw coffee grounds effect which sounds wrong but works really well. A savoury grain effect rounds it off and helps further stamp the no-nonsense credentials onto it.

Scouring the rooms full of sold-out bars towards the end I was surprised to see Dogfish Head still in business and wobbled over. Ah. Punkin. Well that might explain it. Go on then. It's a fairly inoffensive clear amber offering, lightly textured and lightly flavoured at an unreasonably strong 7% ABV. Yes there's nutmeg and cinnamon: you know the drill. Even as a pumpkin beer agnostic I was underwhelmed by this one.

If I'd written these in strict chronological order, that would be me staggering off into the east London night, but no! Through the miracle of thematic posts we get to reset and start again with the non-American beers next. Stay tuned!


  1. I have been lurking on your blog for a while, and have been meaning to post a comment of appreciation!

    Your commitment to your journalistic-craft is to be admired. You seem to drink even craft beer more than I do, and yet you manage to record coherent thoughts for our pleasure!

    Keep up the good work.....

    1. Kind of you to say so, thanks! Lots more to come...