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.

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