02 October 2017

On the path to greatness

A new event for my 2017 calendar was The Great Irish Beer Festival in Cork, now in its second year. It's organised by Franciscan Well but unlike their other events happens in the salubrious surrounds of City Hall. The name overstates the case a little bit: only 15 breweries were pouring beer at the gig, spread across two halls, so there was a manageable number of new beers for me to try, most of them local.

We set up camp opposite Rising Sons, who coincidentally had the most beers on my hitlist. To begin, a half each of two beers brewed to celebrate the visit of the International Space University to Cork Institute of Technology over the summer. Small Step is a session-strength pale ale. It's a hazy pale yellow colour and has a fun peachy aroma. The flavour is harsher, however: a hard green bitterness, like celery stalks. The soft fruit returns in the finish but not soon enough to redeem the beer for me. It's just the wrong kind of bitter.

You know what's coming next, of course: Giant Leap, which is a black IPA. 5.1% ABV and a murky dark brown colour, it goes in for coffee in a big way, especially in the aroma. The flavour mixes it pleasantly with sherbet fruit, the end result being spicy rather than bitter, and the best feature is the smooth effervescent texture making it nicely easy drinking. It's very much on the porter side of the black IPA equation, however.

Mayhem is a recent addition to the Rising Sons line-up, described as a hoppy saison, and it really draws the juiciness out of both those words. There's a deliciously fresh cantaloupe flavour, beautifully thirst-quenching. A sprinkling of white pepper finishes it off. It could stand to be crisper; there's a slight dry bite in the finish but not as much as saison typically shows. What it lacks in crispness it makes up for in lusciousness.

Last one before moving on was Rising Sons Nitro Extra Stout. I wasn't expecting much but this is beautiful: massively bitter with bags of healthy green veg in the flavour and all coated with a luxurious layer of high-cocoa dark chocolate. Like the benchmark Wrasslers XXXX it manages to punch through the suffocating effect of nitro on taste. There was a nitro pale ale as well but I decided not to push my luck too far.

The next bar over was Torc, featuring the experimental Extra Pale Ale. "Extra-Pale" is to be taken as a single element, explained proprietor John: the idea was to make it as pale as possible. But there's lots more extraness about it. For one thing the ABV is a substantial 6%. And for another the hopping level, mostly Citra, is absolutely off the charts. It's intensely bitter: a concentrated spinach and vine leaves taste, and the closest thing I've drank to biting a hop pellet. Despite the imbalance it's perfectly clean tasting and hides its strength very well. I don't know how much of it I could drink but it was certainly an interesting experience.

Amazingly I could still taste other things after that. It was into the main hall next, to try the new rye beer from West Cork: The Rapids. This is pretty typical of the style, a murky shade of orange with a sharp grassy bitterness and touches of thick-shred marmalade. The texture is big and weighty, surprisingly so for just 5.3% ABV, and the overall feel is of something wholesome and unprocessed. Solid stuff.

There were a couple of new ones from YellowBelly, including another saison, Periodic. There's a heady aroma from this one, all pears and booze, despite the ABV being just 5.1%. It tastes very sweet, with more squashy ripe pear in the flavour and some white plum as well. Later a herbal element creeps in too: vanilla pods and cardamom, making it taste like a middle eastern dessert. This is just too heavy and too cloying for my liking. Lack of crispness is a real problem this time.

And there was also Mind Reader, the lager that gets transformed into Commotion Lotion by the addition of Buckfast. And much like Commotion Lotion it's a fun and clean fruit salad of a beer, getting full value out of its strawberries, raspberries and pineapple. It's very nearly too sweet but the clean lager base pulls it back from the brink in time.

By this time we had been joined by regular visitor Sid Boggle and decided to skip out early to pay a visit to The Abbot's Alehouse. I was hoping to try the new sour cherry beer from YellowBelly but it wasn't on. I made do with their Red Noir instead. It's 4.4% ABV so I expected a typical Irish red, and while this does have a to-style profile, there's a lot more flavour than you'll find in most Irish red ales. It's thick and smooth, full textured and jammy, the flavour packed with summer fruits. Not a subtle beer, nor especially complex, but very satisfying to sink a pint of.

The other attraction at The Abbot's was available: Buxton Rain Shadow imperial stout. 10% ABV on the nose, it's dark and foreboding in the glass. An aroma of liquorice, coffee and alcohol sends an early signal that it's one to be careful with. The flavour is much cleaner than the smell suggests, with no real alcohol heat despite a very dense texture. The liquorice is there in spades, as well as an acidic bitterness, turning almost metallic, and tasting like boiled green cabbage. It's a beast of a beer and utterly uncompromising in its taste. But if you go along with what it's trying to do it's a very enjoyable experience. Just the ticket to finish the night on (trainbeers excepted).

One beer that did make it off the train and home was Sullivan's Kiwi Lime Pale Ale, donated by Alan Smithwick who was looking after the Sullivan's bar. This was brewed on the pilot kit in Kilkenny and is a collaboration with Dublin's Hellfire Brew Club. It's bottle-conditioned so poured a little murky despite my steady hand, and featured a tall bouffant of white foam. The lime zest was added late, with the dry hops, and the fresh lime really comes out well in the aroma, enticing like a lime sorbet if you're posh, or a HB Loop-The-Loop ice lolly if you're not.

The texture is light, with less body than might be expected at 4.7% ABV. But that's not a problem, because the end result is insanely refreshing. Both of the fruits jump right out in the flavour, and because their green bitterness is entirely complementary to the Cascade and Perle hops, this one can't be accused of being alcopopish or otherwise unbeery. Real kiwi flesh dominates the foretaste, then the oily lime swings in behind, adding a lasting bitterness that coats the palate. The earthy hit from the Cascade is secondary and almost unnecessary: all the required citrus is already there. The sorbet effect never quite goes away, hitting just the perfect level of bitterness allowing all the fruit flavour to come through undisturbed. This is a total triumph, an ideal summer quencher, and very deserving of scaling up into full production, whenever that's an option at Sullivan's.

And on that high note, a big cheers to Shane from Franciscan Well who very kindly comped our tickets, and to all the brewers I hassled through the afternoon. GIBF is another feather in Cork's already-bristling beer festival cap.