29 December 2017

Gold stars

As usual, the last post of the year brings the Golden Pint Awards, begun by Andy Mogg and Mark Dredge back in 2009 and celebrating the best of the year's beers and beer-related places and events.

And as usual I'm compiling mine with the aid of a suitable beer. Two, actually, this year: the bottled winter specials from The Porterhouse. I start with Dark Star Ale, a big-hitting 11%-er. It's a deep shade of ruby making me think it's going to be along the lines of a barley wine. And there is a certain vinous quality: ripe fruit and tannins. The wine gets hacked into a vermouth shortly afterwards when a herbal bitterness is introduced. As it warms the drinker is taken on a tour of the luxury goods aisle, passing fine cigars, high-end chocolate and hand-tooled leather. For all that, it's clean and easy drinking; the sweet dark malts don't build on the palate, getting thoroughly scrubbed off by the bitterness on each mouthful. It's a serious beer, but very tasty. It left me very curious about how it would fare after whiskey maturation, and I love that I didn't have to wait to find out.

Now that The Porterhouse has its own distillery in Kerry, the whiskey version is of course called Dingle Dark Star. It picks up an extra ABV point from the process though looks exactly the same. Honeyish Irish whiskey is very present on the nose but the difference is less apparent on tasting. It still has the raisins and the chocolate, it's just now there's an extra honeycomb complexity. Perhaps the biggest change is that it's smoother: all the hard bitter edges have been rounded off, quite pleasingly. The alcohol comes to the fore, and it feels much denser than the unbarrelled version, though also less complex. Anyone who wanted the previous one to be more stout-like will be comforted by this, and while it's lovely I'm personally not sure it's an improvement on the original. Still, it's an enjoyable slow sipper, which is exactly what's required as I face into:

The Golden Pint Awards 2017

Best Irish Cask Beer: Ursa Major
It's been a good year for Irish cask overall, and special mention needs to go to O Brother first of all for their consistent supply of cask beer throughout 2017. My single favourite was the strong brown porter from YellowBelly which I drank at the Franciscan Well cask festival this year. A further commendation goes to Trouble Brewing's Walk On the Mild Side too, even if it was improved by kegging.

Best Irish Keg Beer: The Harvest King
There were a remarkable number of world-class keg beers this year, especially in the sour and Bretted category. The White Hag's Olcan and Kinnegar's Phunk Bucket were both stunning at Hagstravaganza, and both are still around in bottled form -- try them if you see them. However it was YellowBelly (again) who made me put my glass down and say "wow".

Best Irish Bottled Beer: Independent Coconut Porter
Cheating because I drank this (copiously) when it was on draught, and loved it, but it also exists bottled and has just been re-released. Designed for those who don't tolerate half measure when it comes to coconut in beers.

Best Irish Canned Beer: The Fresh Prince of Kildare
Again, I probably had more of this triple IPA on draught than canned, and the canned version was slightly different, though still excellent. Dead Centre's début Marooned was another metal-jacketed delight this year.

Best Overseas Draught: Timmermans Oude Lambiek 2014
This was a surprise tick, presented by Thomas of John Martin's brewery at the EBCU meeting in Brussels back in April. I presume the brewery has vast foeders full of the stuff but have no idea how available it is. Well worth checking out if you see it, however. A special mention goes to Hill Farmstead's Florence.

Best Overseas Bottled Beer: Druif
Another sour one? Yeah, I guess. New Dutch brewer Tommie Sjef was pouring this at Borefts in September. You can't beat a grape lambic(ish) for accessible complexity, or complex accessibility, for that matter. Other bottled eye-openers this year came from Epic with their Elder Brett and the amazing 2008 vintage of Cantillon's Lou Pepe Kriek.

Best Overseas Canned Beer: Pay It Forward
I had never heard of West Sixth Brewing in Kentucky before this cocoa-infused porter of theirs landed at the RDS in September, courtesy of the Brewers Association, and jolly good it was too.

Best Collaboration Brew: Touching the Scald
Perfection in a pint glass at 4% ABV. Props to Galway Bay and Whiplash for making it, and brown malt takes the Golden Pint Award for Best Malt, 200th year running.

Best Overall Beer: Independent Coconut Porter
Drinkability is the deciding criterion here, which means it came down to a straight fight between the Coconut Porter and Touching the Scald. Independent tips it on the complexity, so gets the prize. All great beer, the winner is the consumer, etc etc.

Best Branding: Whiplash
Gorgeous surreal and abstract collage artwork next to clean type on a white background. 2D photos (especially mine) don't do the Whiplash cans justice. A shout out goes to Hopfully, who have an art commissioner on the payroll and some really engaging design as a result.

Best Pump Clip: Holden
I liked the beer much more than the novel, but this artwork from O Brother captured the essence of the character perfectly, I thought. Whiplash's recent Scaldy Split gets a very honourable mention: I like the literalism of the interpretation.

Best Bottle Label: Marooned
Bottle? The can is the canvas these days. Brightly coloured squiggly artwork, as popularised by the Scandinavian brewers in particular, has become the universal indication that the contents of this tin are worthy of your time. I love how Dead Centre has ignored all of the fashion and gone with a handsome and minimalist monochrome design. The beer is pretty decent too.

Best Irish Brewery: Trouble Brewing
Seems to me the lads in Kill have had a pretty good year (and not just because they finally got rid of that Guilfoyle fella, lol, bantz). 2017 began with the arrival of Ambush which has quickly become a staple wherever good beer is served. The introduction of cans, and the range they selected to put in them, expanded their packaged offer from supermarket standards to fancy-dan craft. And there was the aforementioned cask mild, and Parklife, and Get Schwifty, while the existence of Graffiti, Dark Arts and Vietnow continued unabated. Something sour and hoppy would be appreciated, but they have sufficient bases covered to earn this Golden Pint, I think.

Best Overseas Brewery: Brew By Numbers
They seem to have disappeared from Ireland, unfortunately, but kept popping up on my travels during the year. In 2017 I had the pleasure of various BBNo beers in Holland, Italy, as well as their Bermondsey tap rooms. 05|25 was my standout, redefining murky IPA for me, but they have plenty of other wonderful stuff too.

Best New Brewery Opening 2017: Hopfully
The year of Dublin brewing that I had been predicting since 2015 finally sort-of materialised. I had hopes of two new brewpubs in the city but had to make do with one, in the form of Urban Brewing. Hopfully gets my Golden Pint, however, for nailing it from day one. Chris made some brave choices in the recipes he has launched with, and this beetroot saison drinker is especially happy with them.

Pub/Bar of the Year: The Taphouse
Events, dear boy. The Taphouse celebrates... has been a marvellous feature of the local beer calendar, and the hospitality shown by Adam and his crew has been exceptional. Obvious but completely heartfelt shouts-out go to The Black Sheep and 57 The Headline, both still doing the thing they do brilliantly. And a nod to my international discoveries of the year, DeRat in Utrecht, Zum Franziskaner in Stockholm and LambicZoon in Milan.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2017: UnderDog
Oh you didn't think I'd forgotten it, did you? Even though it only opened in July I've possibly spent more time in UnderDog than any other pub this year. In my first post about it I opined that the real-time online beer list might encourage more beer specialists in Dublin to do the same. Lo and behold, several Galway Bay bars now publish a live list, while other pubs are using Find My Pint to do it. Keep it up, everyone.

Beer Festival of the Year: Toer de Geuze
It's somewhat arguable as to whether this counts as a festival, but the big marquee at Boon certainly felt like one. Also the fact that transport is organised by enthusiasts -- the Lambicstoempers -- really adds to the sense of festive merriment. So it's a festival. And, like the best festivals, affords attendees the opportunity to taste some of the world's truly great beers. I hope to be back in 2019 to finish the venues I missed.

Supermarket of the Year: Fresh, Smithfield
I thought SuperValu on Sundrive Road was going to edge it this time, but they dropped the ball towards the end of the year. They're also fighting a tough battle trying to interest my neighbourhood in better beer. Fresh, meanwhile, has done an amazing job, rivalling many an independent for selection, availability of new releases, and personal service. They've taken this Golden Pint almost every year since 2013 and deserve it now more than ever. A special hat-tip goes to drinks manager Carlos here.

Independent Retailer of the Year: DrinkStore
Same old, same old, though now with a new website and more visible pricing in-store. A place I shouldn't take for granted. I'm not sure whether I'm permitted to offer an honourable mention to Molloy's on Francis Street since it's part of a chain, but I'm going to anyway as I found it particularly good for finding things this year.

Online Retailer of the Year: Martin's of Fairview
More business as usual: I still don't buy beer on the Internet, although somebody recently bought me a six-pack of Little Fawn via Martin's (cheers Will!) and it arrived and was very nice. A Golden Pint for you.

Best Beer Book or Magazine: 20th Century Pub by Boak & Bailey
Another more-or-less default one, I'm afraid. Pocket Beer Book (aka Best Beers in North America) 3rd ed. by Beaumont and Webb was fun for dipping (disclosure: contains stuff by me), however B&B's exhaustively researched and entertainingly written history of the English pub from the Victorian gin palace to the modern craft bar was my favourite. Alas I have not yet got around to Pete Brown's Miracle Brew so it gets precluded from this category through no fault of its own.

Best Beer Blog or Website: The Beer Monopoly
The aforementioned Dr. Webb put me on to this site back in the spring. It offers a very handy monthly summation of the global goings-on in beer, particularly among the brewing giants. I make extensive use of it when compiling the EBCU news page, if you'd prefer a more subscribable news source.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer: BreitTank
It's gone a little quiet lately, but this account has definitely been the beer commentary for the times we live in during 2017.

Best Brewery Website/Social media: Eight Degrees
Of the Irish breweries knocking out specials and one-offs on the regular, Eight Degrees appears to be the only one consistently publishing descriptions and vital statistics of each and every one. Yes it's the exact same reason I gave them this award in 2015, but it's still as important now. Everyone else, please try harder for the beer-buying nerds.

And on that begging note, thanks for reading throughout 2017 and have a happy New Year.

28 December 2017

Dash away all

I didn't really set out to do a full week of Irish beer reviews, but it looks to be turning out that way. Strap in. I'm trying to clear my backlog of 2017 releases ahead of my final decisions for this year's Golden Pints Awards, published here tomorrow. Today's post concerns the beers I found on the last dash around Dublin, getting Christmas sorted before I left the country for the holiday.

To begin, a not-so-seasonal raspberry blonde ale. Fruitopia Rising is from Kelly's Mountain brewery, created in collaboration with the Hellfire Brew Club, a group who proved themselves champions of fruit beer in Ireland with their kiwi and lime pale ale at Sullivan's earlier in the year. It crackled out of the glass, not gushing per se, but creating an inconvenient quantity of stiff white foam over the hazy orange-pink body. The aroma is superbly real: fresh and ripe raspberries, all of the juice with none of the tartness. It unravels rather on tasting. The raspberry is present, but I got a major smoky twang, suggesting an infection. That would also explain the fizz. It's a shame because it's obvious that there's a well-designed recipe behind this: using a simple 4.8% ABV blonde as a launchpad for luscious fruit. That flashes on the palate briefly before the acrid ashen off-flavour takes over. Maybe I just got unlucky with the bottle that Hellfire Will gave me; it would still be worth taking a chance on if you see it.

And on the theme of what-you-could-have-won, Will also gave me a bottle of a raspberry saison, a prototype of the recipe that they decided not to scale up. I can see why they went with the blonde. The drier saison sucks more of the juice out of the raspberries while the additional hot esters add a conflicting flavour. It's still pretty good, and I wouldn't swerve off raspberry saisons based on it, but blonde ale was the right choice.

Also being brave with fruit this winter was James Brown Brews, launching an Orange & Juniper IPA, in collaboration with host brewery Reel Deel. This is a whopping 6.5% ABV, though quite insubstantial for all that: thin of body with little malt character. Orange is what the flavour is all about, starting on a note of candied orange peel before turning bitterer with a kind of rock shandy effect, though dosed with aspirin. It's clean and refreshing for sure, but ultimately not terribly interesting, lacking any IPA features for one thing, and juniper for another. It could do with beefing up on all fronts, except maybe the strength.

Back to the raspberries, then, and a Raspberry Hibiscus Saison launched in a very limited edition by Rascals, with most of the batch destined for wine barrel ageing. This one is sweet and jammy, with the hibiscus adding a cherry note to the already-strong raspberry. There's a slightly dry and funky farmyard base but it doesn't play a major part, at least not yet. The addition of Brettanomyces and some Sangiovese oak exposure is bound to make it seriously interesting.

This was at UnderDog, where I also got the scrapings of the mini oak cask of Bourbon Milkshake Stout that was set up on the bar, which is what's in the other glass there. This still has all the sweet milk chocolate flavour of the original (reviewed last month here) but there's loads of sour and woody bourbon too. It's interesting, but I don't know if it's necessarily better. A more mature canned version will be out in January.

For more immediate maturity, presenting Harmonic Convergence, new out from Galway Bay (in association with Boundary) but having spent the last year in bourbon barrels. It's a barley wine and was an acceptable, if unattractive, murky brown-red when I met it on draught at The Black Sheep. Even ice cold I got a proper gobful of the rich oaky Rioja effect the barrel has given it. It tastes every point of its 12% ABV yet is so supremely smooth there's no boozy harshness. When it warmed up enough for an aroma to form it smelled like a bourbon and Coke: that mix of sugar, herbs and real whisky. The flavour, meanwhile, developed subtle liquorice, raisin and old wood in dark cellars. I'm sorry that you've missed your chance to get a bottle of this in for Christmas Day (and well done if you did), but I honestly think it's worth drinking young. I find it hard to believe that further maturation will improve it. Perhaps I'm wrong. Buy a few and find out.

What Else Is New? is probably the question most frequently asked of Whiplash, and also the title of their first quadrupel, brewed in association with Sweden's Beerbliotek. They've included figs in the recipe, which seems strange as fig is a flavour I associate with quadrupel anyway. Why add more? Anyway, the beer is 9% ABV and a handsome clear mahogany colour. It seems a bit strange pouring an established continental style from a trendy 440ml can, but that's where we are now. The aroma is autumnal: all treacle and bonfires. You can add maple syrup and toffee apples when factoring the flavour in. For all that, it's not thick or sweet: there's a sharp cleansing greenness which I'm guessing is the rye at work, and the texture is remarkably light. I found myself yearning for something bigger, rounder and, well, hotter. This is an angular Scandi-chic version of the style; impeccably designed but not as comfortable as an original, I think. So what else is new?

Well, Scaldy Split is the newest Whiplash to come my way so far. It's badged as an "ice cream IPA", which gave me pause but I needn't have worried. While it's as murky as might be expected, the lactose and vanilla contribute next to nothing to the flavour, and I don't think the orange zest is pulling its weight either. This novelty IPA actually tastes like an IPA, dominated by bitter lime and savoury garlic. The hops do fade quite quickly, leaving the finish sweet, and maybe there's a hint of that missing zest, but this too disappears cleanly and neatly without gumming up the palate. Gimmick-chasers may be disappointed; I really enjoyed it for a mostly no-nonsense hopped-up American-style IPA.

Before that landed there was Fatal Deviation, an imperial stout which pays tribute to Ireland's best-known B-movie. It's a straightforward 10% ABV, single-hopped with Columbus and featuring my good friend brown malt alongside pilsner, aromatic and chocolate varieties. So, yes, it's sweet, but it's no sticky sugar-bomb. The hops give it an edgy jasmine and eucalyptus perfume, and that sits next to a decadent mix of espresso and gallic cigarettes. Beyond that there's not much happening, which felt disappointing for a second but maybe I've been too conditioned by the De Molen flavourbombs which make up most of my imperial stout drinking. There's not a damn thing wrong with this one: properly complex with no gimmicks or unbalancing noises. Bualadh bos.

That left me in a mood for further big and dark so I opened Lough Gill's Imperial Chocolate Cherry Porter next, no. 3 of its big and dark series. Neither chocolate nor cherries appear on the list of ingredients, which at first I took as a typographical oversight, but then neither made any real impact in the taste either. Instead there's a dirty, gritty savoury yeast twang that was immediately off-putting. The beer was almost at room temperature by the time I came back to it and now I could taste cherries, but in a harshly sour form. This is set against sweet and syrupy malt and the whole thing is jarring and awkward, not the sumptuous and silky delight that a 10% ABV porter ought to be. In fact this is downright rough. Lough Gill's Rebel Stout Series could do with backing up a little.

I regroup with a lager, Kinnegar's second: Noch Eins helles. It's always a crisis pouring Irish-craft-brewed pale lagers, trying to keep the sediment out of the glass. That doesn't tend to be an issue with the German ones. Anyway, I made a mess of it and got a murky glassful for my trouble, the foam crackling away to nothing quite quickly. Few marks for appearances, then. It smells proper, however, with the style's correct mix of biscuit malt spiced with thirst-inducing herb aromas. The herbs dominate the flavour, giving it an out-of-sorts medicinal edge, though finishing on a cleaner grassy note. It lacks the cakey malt character of good helles and is disappointingly thin. The medicine begins turning to full-on TCP as it goes and the whole thing started to bug me when I was two-thirds of the way down. Looking back, I had similar qualms about Kinnegar's first lager too. Stop bottle-conditioning them would be my recommendation, but what do I know?

A neglected bottle of White Gypsy Harvest Ale followed that. The brewery has got out of the hop farming business but has brewed this as a tribute to the growers who make beer possible, selecting malt and hops each from a single farm. The hops for this first edition (I assume there'll be others) are from Žalec in Slovenia and are a mix of Gold, Bobek, Fox and Cardinal. Bobek is the only variety I'd heard of. Anyway, another messy pour by me, I'm afraid, resulting in sludgy orangey-brown effort. The aroma is a strange mix of fruit and funk, like a greengrocer's on the turn. It's not unpleasant though. The flavour is strange to say the least: a complex mix of rye bread crusts, grapefruit segments, chalk, black tea and animal hide. Each element is distinct and clean. It's almost too weird to be enjoyable but I got a thrill out of it. Evidently these Slovenian hops provide flavours to which my delicate western palate is unaccustomed. I definitely want more, though. The plain rustic branding here hides a much more exciting beer behind it. Enter with an open mind.

The same goes for my 2017 Golden Pints awards, by the way, which will follow presently. Try not to get too excited.