23 November 2017

Loving a trier

The range from Hillstown Brewery has had a makeover: bright primary-coloured labels, and a couple of beers in cans. I spotted them when perusing the shelves in Redmond's and decided to take a chance, hoping that the new branding was going hand in hand with an improvement in quality.

First up is Henrietta the Hen, described as a west coast IPA though only chalking up 4.7% on the ABV scale. The pour began positively: a clear golden liquid and a strong burst of citrus aroma. Only when the stream turned to brown mud did I stop, so I didn't get a completely clean glassful. A warning about the can-conditioning would be beneficial. I was expecting hops but this is very malt-forward, bearing much more of a resemblance to an English bitter than anything down San Diego way. There's a wholesome and sweet orange spongecake vibe, with the bitterness provided by an aspirin bite rather than hard pine or grapefruit. The carbonation is cask-level low, which adds further to the effect. There are thankfully no properly bad points, no infections or other unpleasant off flavours, but it's not a great beer, and certainly not going to make any west-cost purists happy with its co-option of their badge.

To follow, then, Pamoja, a black IPA with coffee. It took a while to get to this, what with the gigantic pillar of beige foam it produced. The aroma is a heady mix of strong green cabbage -- one of my favourite features of good black IPA -- and fresh coffee. I'm not at all sure that those two things go well together. The first pull brings... coffee, loads of coffee. It's sweet and creamy to begin with, turning dry and roasty at the end, y'know, like coffee does. That bursting green acidity is disappointingly thrown into a supporting role. The texture is surprisingly thin for 5.6% ABV and I can't help thinking it would be more of a multidimensional experience if it were thicker. Nevertheless this is a good, well-balanced beer, even if it really deserves to be called a coffee porter rather than a black IPA.

I still can't shake the feeling that Hillstown are gentleman amateurs rather than proper professional brewers. There's just a lack of finesse to these beers that suggests lack of attention to detail. And as everyone who's friends with a home brewer knows, sometimes that means getting amazing beer, and sometimes not so much.

There's a hint of homebrew from this one, new from Lacada, too. Elephant Rock IPA is an opaque orange-brown colour and smells tangy, the jaffa hops having a metallic edge to them. It tastes cleaner, however, with orange sherbet at the front and a warm marmalade jamminess. The impression of a brewer not fully in control doesn't go away completely, however. For one thing the carbonation is much too high, crackling in the glass and stinging the mouth. There's a definite savoury yeast buzz too, stifling the American hops somewhat. I don't think bottle conditioning has done this one any favours, turning what could have been a bright American style IPA into something much more trad and British, much like the Hillstown IPA above, in fact. It could do with a polish.

I followed it with Shore, a stout brewed with north-coast seaweed delicacy dulse as well as malt smoked in a local smokery. This is 5.8% ABV and a dense and gloopy black, topped by a café crème head. Tasting confirms the thickness, all velvety smooth, while the flavour is a stouter-than-stout mix of liquorice, espresso, dark chocolate, caramel and cabbage. The latter has a salty tang to it which I'm guessing is the seaweed at work. A slight twinge of Laphroaigish phenols indicate that the smoked malt is also present, but it doesn't dominate. There's nothing rough or homebrewish about this one: it's a daring experiment that has produced no gimmicks and one superior stout, each ingredient making a contribution to the overall harmony.

Both Lacadas came courtesy of the brewery's roving ambassador Simon. It's actively seeking a distributor in the south, so if anyone out there is interested it would be worth getting in touch with them. There's some great stuff in their range.

One final Northern Irish bottle to round out this set, the hostage-to-fortune named Galaxy of Hops from Northbound in Derry. It's a 5% session IPA, a pale copper colour with a slight haze. It is not as billed, however. Above all it's dry, highly attenuated with a sharp flinty bitterness. The aroma is spicy red cabbage while the flavour brings grain husk, pear drops and a vague lemon bitterness. It's not homebrew-rough but it is quite dull. The fruit side does grow a little when it warms, but there's also a harsh plasticky off flavour which remains. Other Irish brewers are turning out much better session IPAs than this these days.

This was a random sample of what's coming out of the North's breweries at the moment, though perhaps not a particularly representative one. Nevertheless I was left with the impression that some process improvements are needed in the way they brew up there.

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