27 February 2017

Piled high and sold cheap

Three large format bottles of French beer for under a tenner? Yes please! I spotted this lot stacked up by the tills in Lidl and figured they'd be worth a go. Two are badged as coming from "Abbaye de Vauclair" which I'm sure isn't a real thing, and research tells me they're actually brewed at that bastion of cheap French beer Gayant, better known for La Goudale.

Abbaye de Vauclair Bière Blanche is where I started. Appearances are on the money for a standard witbier: 4.5% ABV and a cloudy shade of yellow with just a slight greenish hint to it. The aroma is surprisingly full-on, all fresh citrus peel, green herbs plus a slight lactic sourness. The texture is light and refreshing; effervescent without being fizzy. All the fruit promised by the aroma, and more, is delivered in the flavour. There's a very distinct juiciness giving the drinker lime, lemon and even some more exotic mango or pineapple. This is balanced by a peppery incense spice and given a quick finish. Though far from subtle, this is a superb beer, avoiding the harsh dryness that often plagues cheap witbier without swinging out the other side into cloying sweetness. Though consumed on a dismal February afternoon it sparked happy thoughts of summer.

I followed the blue one with the yellow one: Abbaye de Vauclair Blonde, which bears the unsettling legend "blonde beer with caramel flavouring". It's 6.5% ABV and a deep honey amber colour. A dry husky, musty grain character is all the aroma has to say while the flavour is equally uncomplicated. There's a slight sugary stickiness, though nothing that suggests added caramel to me. I was expecting a whack of butterscotch or something, but it's too clean for that sort of nonsense. A rising waxy bitterness in the finish adds one extra dimension, but beyond that and the basic malt and sugar it's a very plain and uninspiring affair, Belgian-style blonde ale on a by-the-numbers basis. There are certainly none of the distinguishing high notes found in the Blanche.

We move away from the Abbaye desmense for the third beer, the starkly-labelled Duc De Coeur French Strong Pale Ale, a brand that Lidl usually only uses for its ciders. Strong indeed at 7% ABV and the clear amber of rocket-fuel tramps' brew. It smells a bit like sickly super-strong lager as well: there's certainly nothing suggesting pale ale in the aroma. The flavour passes that test but only just. There's a fruit character to it, artificial like chew sweets, and a perfumed resinous bitterness, but it's all very low key. The main feature is a sweet malt stickiness and an unpleasant grain-sack mustiness. You need to be informed in advance and be flexible in your thinking to really appreciate this as a pale ale. Belgian-style blonde or wonky bock are much more what it says to me. Either way, I'm not impressed.

So the Blanche, the cheapest of the set, is the winner of this lot. Stock up!

24 February 2017

Here comes the rain again

We don't see much Cloudwater beer in Dublin. The once-off tap takeover at The Beer Market last summer was pretty much the height of it, until last week when a selection of bottles and cans from the high-profile Manchester brewery appeared in off licences. I doubt they'll be around long.

Item one is Mittelfrüh Lager, an anaemic yellow shade with barely any effort made at forming a head. It's badged as an Autumn/Winter beer and I get a certain autumnal sense from the aroma: damp leaves, root vegetables and firework saltpetre. The flavour is quite sweet, showing honeydew melon and the more artificial fruit quality of white lemonade. A grain-sack mustiness creeps in as it warms, though it retains a pleasantly crisp finish. This isn't what I was expecting from a German-hopped lager. It doesn't taste like any German beer I know. The absence of grassy green flavours aside, at only 4.8% ABV it has the heft of a much stronger, denser beer. While it's certainly not bland, I found it just a little too off-kilter to be properly enjoyable.

We continue light and pale with Session IPA Wai-iti: 4.5% ABV although this time there's a significant haze and quite a lot of gunk in the bottom of the bottle. The aroma is great: lemony Refresher sweets and damp grass promising oodles of hop fun. The flavour doesn't quite deliver, however. There's a harsh savoury twang, a raw hop leaf acidity which I assume is meant to be there but which unbalances the beer badly. It puts an edge on what's otherwise a smooth, easy-going sweetie which reminds me intensely of lemon meringue pie: the squidgey lemon filling and moist biscuity base. There's even a touch of creamy butter in proceedings. But that hard bite keeps coming back and shouting over the top of the nuances. Like the lager, I was never really comfortable with it.

The bottles round off with Fazenda Ouro Verde Porter, the first black Cloudwater beer I've encountered. Fazenda Ouro Verde is not a hop variety I'd heard of, but perusing the label reveals it's actually a type of coffee. Pure dark-roasted coffee is the aroma from this very dark beastie, and coffee is the backbone of the flavour. But there's more to it than that. The texture is gorgeous, like silk, with the gentlest of effervesence instead of fizz, and then there's a creamy dark chocolate truffle quality, making it smooth tasting as well as smooth feeling. Yet despite the big flavour and sizeable 6% ABV it's beautifully clean, slipping off the palate just as effortlessly as it slipped on. If either of the previous two had had the integrated flavours, the sheer poise, of this one I'd have liked them a lot more.

Another first for me is Cloudwater in cans. I started with IPL El Dorado Mosaic, two fine hops, brewed into a handsome clear bright golden lager. El Dorado's Fruit Salad sweets and Mosaic's juicy pineapple are both apparent in the aroma. On tasting the Mosaic elbows its way to the front and lays down a stereotypical blanket of savoury caraway seeds, with the sweet and slightly sticky El Dorado tropical fruit in behind. It's a bit of a good-cop-bad-cop combination but it works quite well, with neither side coming to dominate. There's a pleasing hard bitterness rasping the side of the tongue as it finishes off, leaving lots of lip-smacking piney hop residue behind. The texture is actually quite similar to the porter: big and smooth, tasting every unit of its 6.3% ABV. It's an excellent showcase for these two hops, as well as being a beautiful beer in general. It had been in the can for less than three weeks at time of drinking, and it showed.

IPA Vic Secret Wai-iti was just as fresh, though not as attractive-looking as the IPL, being a murky pale orange when poured. There's a promise of big bitterness in the aroma: that almost liquorice quality I associate with Vic Secret hops. It's definitely herbal on tasting, though not particularly bitter. In fact the foretaste is quite muted and it takes a little time to unfold on the palate, which it does quietly. The liquorice is there; there's a harsher, but not unpleasant, pine resin kick; but it's balanced by a much softer mandarin sweetness which does a great job keeping the sharper flavours at bay. My biggest criticism is the mouthfeel: despite the big column of foam in that photograph, there's a flatness to it which I think is detrimental to the hop flavours as a whole. A bit more condition would lift everything and make it an altogether more engaging beer. It's certainly not the hop celebration that I found in the IPL, but perhaps that's more to do with those specific types of hops than what the brewery decided to do with them.

My opinion of Cloudwater's beer as a mixed bag survives another round of scrutiny. There are a couple of truly great ones here, a couple that are definitely wonky, and an IPA stuck in the middle. If nothing else, at least this brewery gives us something to talk about.

22 February 2017

A sequel to the prequel

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

Monday's post was a sort-of preview of the Alltech Brews & Food Festival which opens tomorrow in Dublin. I finished writing it on Sunday, scheduled it, and then went to the pub. On the taps at 57 The Headline I found two more beers from breweries who will be attending the festival so I felt I had to get them in as well before the doors opened.

I'm not sure if 5 Lamps will have Hoppy Ending available on their bar. This IPA was brewed as a Valentine's special and might have passed its natural lifespan. I wasn't much of a fan of it anyway. It's 4.5% ABV, an attractive clear gold, but rather doused in diacetyl. The hops give it a rough bitterness rather than any fun freshness, while the only fruit character in the flavour is an odd sweet strawberry kick. It's just about clean enough to be drinkable, saved by none of the flavours being too strong: it's a session beer, but not a very good one.

Happier times were had in the company of Lobo, the latest IPA from Wicklow Wolf. Nothing interferes with the hops here, beginning with a bright, spicy and leafy aroma. A serious lemon-skin bitterness opens the flavour and rips right through the palate in a thrilling fashion. It's only 5.2% ABV but it's no lightweight, tasting big in all directions at once. The word "fresh" doesn't quite cover its hop intensity. I'm more inclined to go with "raw". And yet it's not unbalanced: though absolutely and unashamedly a beer that's all about American hops, there's just enough of a malt base to prevent it turning acrid or harsh. I'd be much more keen to have a session on this.

Lobo will be accompanied at the festival by another new Wicklow Wolf IPA, a red SMASH one, called Zoso. If it's as good as Lobo we're in for a treat.

20 February 2017

Look busy!

Alltech Brews & Food is back in Dublin's Convention Centre from Thursday of this week. There will be much new and exciting beer to occupy my time all weekend so I figured I should try and make some advance inroads into the selection. Here are seven beers from six Irish breweries who will be exhibiting, acquired in advance so I can drink other things while I'm there.

Kinnegar will be sharing a stand at the festival with White Hag, launching a collaboration between two of Ireland's first-string breweries. For now, a beer Kinnegar produced with the help of the makers of Dan Kelly's cider, and named after the boss there. Olan's Tart is number six in the Kinnegar Sour Series and uses apple juice from the Dan Kelly's orchards outside Drogheda.

It's 5% ABV and pours a wholesome cloudy pale orange, like a proper scrumpy. A white fluffy head puts in a brief appearance before fading away to a mere comb-over of froth on the surface. The texture is surprisingly thick. I'm used to sour beers being on the thinner side but this has a chewy sourness, sort of like salted caramel, reminding me a lot of the heavy gose that YellowBelly released last year. I miss the clean snap I was expecting but which isn't present. It's still plenty sour, a tang slicing backwards across the palate while leaving a juicy residue on the lips, and inside this there's a crunchy Granny Smith apple flesh flavour. An alcoholic heat builds in the belly -- all part of that unorthodox weight which discombobulated me somewhat while I drank it. It's certainly interesting, but I won't be hankering after more of this the way I still do for number four in the series, Sour Grapes.

Clonakilty Brewing will be making their first festival foray. I reviewed their pale ale a few weeks ago here, now it's the turn of their porter. Smuggler is a substantial 6% ABV, immediately inviting comparison to the legendary O'Hara's Leann Folláin, especially since it's bottle conditioned, which Leann Folláin is not. I got a faint hiss when the cap came off, and it was quite lazy about head formation as it poured. The texture is smooth and cask-like, with a pleasant tingling sparkle, though surprisingly light of body given the strength.

It smells, well, stout-like, with a mix of sweet chocolate and dry roast, plus a certain spiciness which I'm guessing is from the yeast. Chocolate dominates the flavour, although there's a slightly unpleasant metallic tang next to it, as well as a touch of gunpowder and a mild Bovril beefiness. There's a certain homebrewish roughness to the whole picture and it's up to the drinker to decide if that's charming or not. It certainly lacks the polish of Leann Folláin. I lashed through my pint of it and would probably have happily followed it with another, finding it pleasingly old-fashioned.

This will also be the first festival for another of 2016's new breweries, Lough Gill. A new sour beer is promised, but before that the brewery staged a tap takeover at 57 The Headline the week before last. This featured a rare appearance by Anderson's, a beer the brewery pitches pretty much exclusively at the local market in Sligo. Broadly a red ale, the pint I got was a muddy-looking brown colour, though I'm told that future batches will be a little paler. There's a decently full body for a session beer at a modest 4% ABV, while the flavour is a wholesome wheaty affair. Mixed in with this is an added chocolate flavour, lending it something of the character of a porter, and then just a tang of mildly metallic English hops in the finish. It's a very decent all-rounder of a beer, and definitely not just another Irish red. If stranded in Sligo with nothing better to drink it wouldn't be too much of a distress purchase.

Anderson's was overshadowed somewhat on the night by Lough Gill's imperial stout. Rebel Stout Series 1 is an "imperial oatmeal coffee cream stout" and as that description makes clear they have gone all-out for texture. That it's 11% ABV probably also makes a major contribution to the silky smooth density, though the lip-smacking unctuousness is clearly the work of the lactose sugar alone. It's hopped with Bramling Cross which adds a forest fruit flavour to the foretaste. This builds on the palate into a tang then a full-on bitter finish. I was expecting more stouty chocolate but that doesn't really materialise, and the coffee flavour is quite subtle as well -- barely enough to identify that the real thing was used. The main malt character I got was a touch of smoke and I've no idea how that arrived there. I've certainly tasted more complex imperial stouts, but few at this strength have been as smooth and easy-drinking.

Trouble Brewing, of course, are old lags at Alltech at this stage. Among their new releases at the festival will be one brewed with the help of Rascals. Expect ginger and lemongrass.

After the marvellous fresh hop explosion of their recent Ambush IPA I was expecting equally great things of Sharpshooter, a pale session IPA. Unfortunately it was not to be. We have here a return to a familiar Trouble Brewing niggle: harsh mucky yeast bite. This isn't helped by the way it's been hopped, which is in a highly bitter way; too bitter for a mere 3.7% ABV. There's some dank resin and a lot of lemon pith but a total absence of soft fruity juiciness, for which I think it's crying out. The result is the sort of palate-scorchingly bitter beer that gives hop-forward recipes a bad reputation. I have, however, no complaints about the aroma, which is all enticing grapefruit flesh, and this returns at the very end in burp form. So, it's got everything in the right place when it comes to vapours, it's just the liquid aspect of this beer that I found problematic.

Also from the high-expectations file, Hope Oatmeal IPA, the fifth in a series of limited editions that has yielded some absolute stunners so far. It's a hazy pale orange colour, topped with a big pillow of white foam. Simcoe and Citra are the hops and they give it a classic American aroma, all tangerine and grapefruit. And there's no mucking about in the flavour: it gets straight down to business with a punchy bitterness at the front, mellowing slightly in the middle with fruity orange flavours, plus a spicy dankness. Strangely for a beer containing oatmeal, and at a substantial 5% ABV, it's a little on the thin side. The hop flavours explode on the first sip, but do fade out a little quicker than I'd like, leaving just watery fizz in the finish. I really thought this beer would have more substance. Still, it does manage to convey the old-school hop bitterness rather better than the Sharpshooter above.

And finally an excuse to open a beer I've been hoarding since late last year. The presentation of Wicklow Brewery's 12:12:16 is pure classy, as befits what appears to be quite a stately offering: a 7.7% ABV strong ale which has been aged in oak barrels with the addition of raisins and port-soaked cherries. A lot of those elements are new to me. It's a clear dark garnet colour with an even layer of off-white foam and an aroma of cherry liqueur chocolates, suggesting sweetness and booze but also with a hint of sourness. The texture is substantial without being heavy, the carbonation low and the flavour happily lacking any serious alcohol heat. Its main features are succulent black cherry balanced by a drier chocolate cereal quality. There's no real bitterness but I did get a very mild herbal aniseed kick at the very finish as it warmed.

In general I was surprised by how subtle it all is, having expected to be smacked in the face by the various features. In fact they're all laid out in a calm and orderly fashion, resulting in a beer that's as civilised to drink as it appears. I think it will be very interesting to see how this one develops with a few years' ageing. I might try that when 12:12:17 arrives. In the meantime, start soaking your cherries in port, folks.

If you're attending the festival, I hope all of that gives you some inspiration when making your beer choices. The gig opens on Thursday and runs to Saturday. It will be fun. Hard work for us tickers, but fun.

17 February 2017

Ameri-cans

Three beers from the US today, with nothing in common other than their importer and the fact that they're canned.

I'm not entirely sure what the deal is with Sierra Nevada Nooner. The name was previously used for a session IPA (reviewed here) but seems to have been re-applied subsequently to this pilsner, the style being "one of the original session beers" according to the blurb. It's the appropriate clear pale gold colour, though maybe a little bit over the alcohol limit at 5.2% ABV. The head disintegrated quickly but this seems to be a side-effect of a deliciously low carbonation level: enough sparkle to liven it up, but still allowing the flavour to come through fully and help make it properly sessionable. Classic German hops have been used and it has that waxy bitterness, particularly in the finish, that's so characteristic of German pils. Honeyish malt provides some balance, but not too much. I'm willing to put aside my usual distaste for those green weedpatch noble hops. Here they're sharp without being severe, showing just the right level of jagged bitterness. While the authenticity of this American pils is questionable, its quality is definitely beyond doubt.

12th of Never is a pale ale created to commemorate the beginning of canning at Lagunitas. This is another pale one, though with a very slight haze to it. The aroma is a fantastic fresh tropical hit of mango and passionfruit, and the flavour continues that theme, adding a certain dank bitterness plus a tiny whisper of savoury fried onion. All very west-coast. The only downside is an unusual issue for a Lagunitas offering: it's just a bit too thin, especially for an ABV of 5.5%. My normal complaint to Lagunitas is that their beers are too thick and syrupy, but this one could do with a little more substance to help carry those lovely hops. The flavour, while wonderful to begin with, does tail off disappointingly fast, leaving just water behind. That's merely a minor quibble, however: the party starts again with the next mouthful. This is another sessionable beauty, albeit very different from the pils above.

A total change for the last in today's trilogy. Oskar Blues Death By Coconut, described on the can as an "Irish Porter" whatever they mean by that. It's 6.5% ABV and a dense dark brown. It certainly smells like coconut: lightly toasted husky coconut, and nothing else. That's really all the flavour is interested in too. There's a bit of dark chocolate from added cacao essence but it's very much about accentuating the coconut rather than counterbalancing it, and you get a little hint of vanilla complexity as well. I guess the clue is right there in the name: the drinker is warned to expect coconut in quantity, and the beer most certainly delivers that. It may be one-dimensional, but in a fun and tasty way.

How boring to have three jolly decent beers in a row, but that's just the way they fell that afternoon. My critical faculties will just have to wait for the next beer.

15 February 2017

Stay woke

We only get a limited range of Magic Rock beers in Ireland. "Just what the brewery has available" the importer told me once. I was pleased when Common Grounds, the Magic Rock coffee porter, showed up, and I grabbed a can at the first opportunity.

It pours a deep dark brown, the head crackling up before fading away to almost nothing. It smells of... coffee, funnily enough. Freshly brewed dark-roast coffee to be specific, with just a hint of brown sugar on the side. This softens on tasting to more of a mocha effect, with a slightly milky chocolate streak running through the coffee. The desserty fun is spoiled a little by a slightly harsh dry burnt finish, though that's also perfectly in keeping with the style. My favourite feature is the way the coffee oils hang around on the tongue long after swallowing: that's getting value for your beans.

At a modest 5.4% ABV it's not a beer that's trying to do too much, jumping around with busy coffee and heavy alcohol. Instead it's a refreshing drinking beer that would work just as well by the pint as the small can.

13 February 2017

None more Belgian

Sorry, that should read "some more Belgians" because this is another cross-section of Belgian beers, as picked by my wife from Brussels off licences.

De Poes has a pretty label, which is presumably why she picked it, but it's very short on information. We know it's 8% ABV and is flavoured with two unnamed sorts of hops and some equally anonymous spices. No style designation is given, but from the strength and the hazy yellow-orange colour I'm calling it a tripel. The aroma is estery but thankfully not overly hot: there's just a little banana and some orange juice as well. The flavour is certainly spicy: I get sparks of pink peppercorn and grains of paradise. Behind this there's jaffa flesh leading to a dry wheaty finish. It's quite decent: Belgian without being too Belgian, if you get me. I'd happily have another.

The cat theme continued with Black {C}, a "craft Belgian stout". 8% ABV says the label but it's hard to believe because this beer is dryyy. It smells like burnt toast, and tastes like very burnt toast. And not much else. I let it warm, sipped carefully, gave it the full sensory, and maybe there's a warmer fruity hint somewhere buried deep. Cream sherry, perhaps, or ruby port. But at every angle the acridity rises anew to rasp on the palate and scorch the throat. It's not a nice beer. Maybe the snarling panther was meant to be indicative.

To follow, Kerst Pater, a "special Christmas beer" from Van Den Bossche. It's 9% ABV and a properly festive mahogany colour. Served cold from the fridge, it took a bit of sitting out for it to start tasting of something. When it did, I got dark chocolate and rum-soaked cherries: all very luxurious. There's a cola sweetness, an effect enhanced by a texture that's surprisingly thin and fizzy for 9% ABV. I liked how it tastes but feel it should have more substance. I doubt I've ever criticised a dark Belgian strong ale for not being hot enough, but this one isn't. Go figure.

Also from the Christmas offerings, and also 9% ABV, is Noël de Silenrieux: chestnut red and rather murky. It was a bad sign when it gushed from the bottle and a worse one when it began smelling of marker pens. But things settled down after that. There's a happy jammy strawberry foretaste, leading seamlessly into a woody balsamic tartness which may not be intentional but left me thinking nice thoughts about Flemish red ale. A sprinkle of peppery cedar finishes it off. I have absolutely no idea what this is meant to be, but I enjoyed its busy complexity, even if it was too fizzy for Christmas.

Next up, the little barley wine that isn't. It's called Ceci N'Est Pas Un Barley Wine and comes from Brasserie Sainte Hélène in Florenville. An ugly beast, it's 10% ABV and a dirty ochre colour. It smells ugly too: powerfully sickly and hot, like emulsion paint. The flavour is a little more charitable, with a wholesome wheat and oatmeal cereal sweetness and juicy raisin and fig fruit, shading towards cola. We're not a million miles from the plum-pudding stylings of dubbel here, but sweeter, boozier, and without the dark malt richness. Balance is not in this beer's remit, though there is a tiny pinch of white pepper piquancy right on the end which helps offset its other excesses, but it's still a challenge to try and enjoy it.

A honey beer next: Zatte Bie ("drunken bee", if my Flemish is correct). It's a dark chestnut-brown colour and, perhaps unsurprsingly for 9% ABV, leans very heavy on the malt. The aroma is wholesome and grainy, turning to light sweet toffee on tasting. There's not much Belgian yeast character and the honey seems to pick up the slack: there's a waxy honeycomb effect which definitely tastes real rather than some sort of honey essence or flavouring. This is not the super sweet novelty beer I was expecting from the comedy label and instead is rather pleasant, balanced and drinkable.

What could be more Belgian than beer, bicycles and bande dessineé? They feature together on the label of De Bie's Vélo, though as far as I can see a style designation does not. It's roughly a tripel, being a murky orange colour, 7.5% ABV and with a complex aroma of herbs, spices and mint. The flavour starts refreshing and juicy but the sweetness level builds and the needle creeps over to tinned pineapple, at which point it becomes tough drinking. The sweet fruit and bitter herbs are quite jarring; too much so for this to be suitable post-cycle refreshment, though in fairness I think it's actually pitched at the spectators.

Another strong winter seasonal to round this post off: Ter Dolen Winter at 9.1% ABV. It's a murky red colour and gives off a heady, and very Belgian, fruity warmth in the aroma. I was somewhat surprised to get a hit of herbal medicinal spices on tasting, and a check of the label says honey and cinnamon are the secret ingredients but I'd never have guessed. It's a strange combination of menthol and pine, fading to leave just a thick brown sugar base. Overall it's not terribly complex, but it does the job of central heating adequately, which I'm sure was the intention.

That should be the end of the Belgian winter beers for this season. I'm hoping for something a little sunnier next time out.

10 February 2017

The loneliness of the long distance ligger

I was invited along to the launch of the revamped Milano restaurant on Haddington Road the other week. I went because, hey, free pizza, but I wasn't expecting to get any blog content out of it. Chain pizza restaurants (UK readers will know Milano as Pizza Express) are not known for their diverse beer offerings, at least in these parts. I had a look at the uninspiring beer menu in advance and realised that I had never committed a review of Italian staple Peroni Nastro Azzurro to this blog. So here goes...

I've drank it a few times over the years and my abiding memory of it is as extremely watery, but from the fridge in Milano it was a little bit warmer than expected and I think that helped give at least a token bit of substance. Malt flavour? No... not really, just a kind of vague wheaty grain. Poking around for hops I found a sort of rough cabbage-water flavour, one which I'm sure disappears completely when the beer is chilled all the way down. So cellar-temperature Peroni is still pretty damn bland, but at least it's not watery, so that's a win.

For dessert I took a punt on Peroni Gran Riserva which, from the name, I assume is drawn from the casks cellared deep beneath Signor Peroni's castello. It's very much in the German pale bock style, 6.6% ABV, a lurid orange colour and brimming with sticky golden syrup flavours. A real bock would throw in some weedpatch noble hops but this doesn't really bother, showing just a very short-lived green bitterness in the middle. It's not unpleasantly sugary, however, settling down after a few mouthfuls to be merely bland rather than cloying. The only off-putting part is that its density leaves one expecting a big flavour, for better or worse, but none is forthcoming. I found myself actually missing the harsh nettles and spinach of bock.

Aaanyway, the pizza was nice, the service was good, and I had Reuben and his other half for company. And I got a blog post out of it. I'm chalking this up as a win. And as soon as Milano starts stocking LoverBeer, I'll be straight back.

08 February 2017

Black mystery

An addendum to Monday's post about the recent Cask Ales & Strange Brews festival at Franciscan Well. Three beers from Black's of Kinsale had been kept back in growlers for the competition judging, presumably having been on the bar earlier in the festival. I could find almost no mention of them anywhere online but felt I needed to throw in a description of them anyway. This blog is nothing if not completist. Edit: thanks to IrishCraftCaps for subsequently providing the details I missed.

The one I think I have a proper name for is Don't Beet Around the Bush, though it was labelled simply as a beetroot and chocolate stout. It's pretty good too: a silky sweetish stout with a waft of Turkish delight rosewater wrapped in smooth milk chocolate and then just a mild earthiness provided, I assume, by the beetroot. That makes it sound a bit more complex than it actually is: the various flavours meld together into a delicious harmonious single entity.

There was a Cherry Chocolate Stout (official name: Faraoise Dubh) too but it wasn't as much fun as the beetroot one. I think the chocolate was a bit overdone and the end result wound up tasting like cheap drinking chocolate: far too sweet, for one thing. There's a light touch on the fruit, which I wouldn't have been able to identify as cherry. This one needs its stoutiness turned up a notch or two.

Finally, a Lime Leaf and Pineapple Saison (official name: Tropical Farm), the first time I've encountered that particular combination, I think. It sounds a lot more exciting than the reality, which is like watered-down Diet Lilt sprinkled with white pepper. There's a vague herbal character which adds the flavour of an elderly medicine cabinet. None of this is helped by a dull flat finish either.

Experiments are fun and it's great that breweries like Black's are using occasions like this festival to put some of their more daring ones in front of the drinking public. What have we learned? That Ireland needs more beetroot beers, for one thing.

06 February 2017

Caskstravaganza!

Franciscan Well's winter festival returned with a bang in late January. Now titled Cask Ales & Strange Brews, the 2017 iteration was bigger than any previous one, almost competing with the Easter festival with several dozen cask beers on offer, plus a handful of kegged specials. I went down as part of the Beoir judging team to help out with the competition on the Saturday.

I started my afternoon with a keg beer, however: Metalman's new Sgt. Pepper sage and pepper saison. It's a cheeringly light 4.8% ABV and presents equally cheerily as a clear dark gold colour. Much as I enjoy sage-infused beers it does have a tendency to dominate flavours but that wasn't the case here. At its core this is a clean, light and refreshing saison in which the herb seasoning is only barely perceptible. I would easily have assigned the pepper to the action of the Belgian yeast while the green wintery notes tasted more like rosemary to me than honkingly oily sage. Either way, it's very nicely balanced and started the day on a positive note. Look out for this fella on draught and in cans for the next while.

Herself picked one of the many YellowBelly beers to begin, their raspberry-flavoured Berliner weisse Raspberry Shower. I say "flavoured", but that's an understatement. From what was served it looks like a mass of pulped raspberries has been shoved into a cask and the beer poured in on top of it to fill the remaining spaces. It's an opaque bright pink with discernible lumps of fruit. And it tastes how it looks: of raspberries and lots of them. Behind that sits a very plain and thin Berliner weisse, mildly sharp and vaguely wheaty, but the flavours of fruit and beer didn't really meld together.

I'm wondering if it was just the bottom of the cask or something, because YellowBelly's Blackcurrant Shower was also on the go and it was very different. It was clear, for one thing: a flawless pinky-purple. Unsurprisingly the flavour was much cleaner too. Though presumably made the same way as the raspberry one, this opened with a classic wholesome grainy taste, imbued with a tangy sharpness. The fruit plays second fiddle to it, not distinctively blackcurranty but more of a generalised summer berry vibe. If guessing I'd actually have suggested there were raspberries in this. It's very refreshing and quaffable: smooth, without being a smoothie.

One more from Metalman before getting to work and that's their Raspberry Saison, from cask. It's another clear golden one with just a very slight haze. Despite the lack of pinkness the fresh raspberries are very apparent, in both the aroma and the flavour. At the slightly warmer-than-keg temperature there's a roundness and fullness to the tangy fruit taste, complemented by signature saison pepperiness. It's not particularly complex but I enjoyed it, though I think its refreshment power would benefit from being served slightly colder.

To the upstairs bar, then, and to the judging table. I was on the dark beers team and all entries were served blind, with Steve organising the operation and John doing runner duty. Like last year, I took my own notes as we worked through the entries and matched them to the names afterwards. The field was solely cask beers, no kegged ones were entered.

Only two were completely new to me, though there was a new barrel-aged version of Brehon's Shanco Dubh porter, which ended up being the whole judging team's pick for best dark beer of the festival. It's out in bottles now and I recommend it highly. Brehon's other entry was Pop Your Cherry (groh!), a cherry-chocolate stout of 5.2% ABV. It's intensely floral, with a sharply pink hibiscus taste. The chocolate, and indeed general stoutiness, is almost mute behind this, offering more by way of texture than flavour. After a couple of sips the flowers build to an almost perfume level of sharp bitterness that sits on the palate a long time. Too long, by my reckoning. With a bit of toning down this could be a great beer but it was just too busy to be enjoyable as is.

At last year's festival I had fun with YellowBelly's 7.5% ABV brown porter. Now it's back, ramped up to 8.1% and given the name Ursa Major. And it's even better than before. Still dangerously easy drinking, with a silky smoothness and a crisp, dry background. But what really makes it interesting is the up-front complexities, and I reckon these were particularly accentuated by the cask dispense. There's this beautifully sweet summer fruit flavour, all succulent cherries and ripe strawberries. They meld sumptuously into the soft milk chocolate in an extremely moreish way. Like its predecessor you really do need to keep an eye on how much you're drinking because this beer screams to be quaffed.

As I mentioned, Shanco Dubh took the top dark beer prize, with the host's Chieftan winning best pale beer, Dungarvan's Dark Mild taking best red/amber and YellowBelly's passionfruit lager winning both best specialty beer and best beer overall. Deservedly so, in my opinion. And back to the festival...

YellowBelly Mosaic IPA does make regular appearances in Dublin bars, though at almost €7 a pint for a 4.8% ABV beer I've so far resisted the temptation. The festival was far more reasonably priced so I took the opportunity to give it a spin, and it's very nice. The Mosaic flavour balances deftly on the line between honeydew melon and raw white onion, the fruit side helped by a distinct juiciness and a substantial amount of peach character. Soft and sessionable, yet complex, it's pretty much exactly what you'd want from an IPA at the strength, and it doesn't suffer in any way from being a single-hopper.

With time running short I only just remembered to try Torc Grodziskie but was very glad I did. This style of pale smoked wheat beer can sometimes be rather harsh and overwrought but this one, at an even 4% ABV, is light and very easy drinking. Which isn't to say it's bland or watery: you get a substantial hit of pure hickory bacon all the way through, but the finish is quick and the body is full enough to make it enjoyable.

Chugged down as my fellow travellers were leaving was The Beacon, a new one from Baltimore's West Cork Brewery whose wares we rarely see in my part of the world. This is an IPA and I didn't realise at the time that there was added grapefruit and orange in it. They got their money's worth out of them anyway, because there's a lot of sharp pithiness in this. The fruit blends seamlessly into what I suspect is a generous quantity of hops, which give it a thick and oily dankness set on a chewy malt base. To my mind it's very much IPA in the English mould, but a particularly aggressively bitter example, more lime and grapefruit marmalade than just orange shred. Not so easy to drink, but fun while you do it. I made my best effort at draining the glass and ran after my companions.


I caught up with them along the quays at The Bierhaus. Among the usual stellar selection they were pouring Cotton Ball Vienna, a Vienna Lager, by Cotton Ball. It's a pretty good example, even if the style is rarely an exciting one. 5% ABV and full-bodied with it, featuring a flavour that's all about the dark crunchy grain husk, finishing on a slightly roasty note. There's the classic lager cleanness which means for all its weight it doesn't get difficult to drink. Just as well, as train time approaches.

To the off licence for some train beers and I continued the lager theme. Among my picks was Švyturys Amber, which I don't recall ever having before. I'd been hoping for something a bit like the Vienna, but this is much thinner, with a light spongecake sweetness and a smooth texture, making it resemble a helles, including its colour: you call that amber? Inoffensive, but not terribly exciting. Perhaps I'd had enough beery excitement for one day.

A big thanks, of course, to the team at Franciscan Well for running another superb festival, and to everyone who pitched in with the competition and/or supplied me with pizza. If you haven't yet made it to one of Franciscan Well's festivals, the Easter gig will be on 15-16 April this year. Mark it!


03 February 2017

Once you go brown

Session logoThe announcement of the topic for this month's Session came just a day after one of the most sublime experiences of my year in beer so far. Our host is Joe at The Fatal Glass of Beer, and his topic is "Brown beer" signifying, as indeed it does, old-fashioned beer from "a bygone corduroy-trousered era". Well there's nothing wrong with corduroy beer and I'm here to tell you why.

Among the handful of beer recipes I brew repeatedly at home is a low-gravity job I call a brown porter. It uses brown malt as the primary speciality malt -- about 10% or so of the grist -- seasoned with just a token bit of roast barley or black patent. I love the moreish mocha flavour that brown malt delivers when used in sufficient quantity, and it's something that one rarely seems to encounter in commercial beers. Until a couple of weeks ago, anyway.

The gloriously named Touching the Scald was brewed by Galway Bay Brewery in collaboration with the author of Scaldy Porter, Whiplash. It's 4% ABV, badged as a brown porter, and tastes extremely similar to the sort I make myself, though haven't done so in quite some time.

The visuals aren't great, possibly in keeping with the name: it's a muddy dun colour with a rubbish head that disintegrates soon after pouring. There's a flinty aroma of burnt grain husks coupled with very dark-roasted coffee beans. I was expecting something quite harsh, but no. The first impression on tasting is creaminess: a sweet and frothy cappuccino effect, with a Galaxy chocolate bar on the side. But despite the latte smoothness, it's lightly textured with a busy sparkle and a dry finish which makes it supremely thirst-quenching and refreshing. It was an absolute joy on a winter's evening but I think it would really come into its own in the summer.

As it happened, head brewer Will from Galway Bay was in Against the Grain as I was drinking it, and when I quizzed him for details he mentioned that the brown malt was difficult to work with, requiring some very delicate temperature controls in the mash. That's not a problem in my brewing because I just steep the stuff, but maybe there's a reason that brown malt, and therefore supremely delicious brown beers, aren't so commonplace.

I don't know how long this one will be around for, so grab it if you see it. It may just change your perceptions of boring brown beer.

01 February 2017

Monkey shines

The newest (I think) addition to the busy brewery scene in Co. Cork is Clonakilty Brewing Company. I hadn't expected to see their beers up here so soon but they landed recently in Drinkstore and the shop was kind enough to donate one of the samples left by the rep to this blog.

Tojo is an American-style pale ale, named in honour of the monkey that US airmen brought to Clonakilty during The Emergency. Its ABV is on the money for the real thing at 5.5% ABV, which is slightly above where Irish examples usually clock in. It's a murky orange colour, aided in no small part by the bottle conditioning and my sloppy pouring. The aroma is promising: a mix of sweet mandarin and bitterer orange pith, a little like the better sort of English bitter. Could this be Ireland's answer to Harvey's Sussex Best? Not quite.

The flavour doesn't unfold in quite the right way, being watery to begin with, and the first thing to loom out of the depths is a savoury yeast note. Behind this there is a pleasant waft of sherbet orange and lemonade, sweetly effervescent with a hint of Burtonish sulphur. But that fades quickly, replaced by more gritty yeast. At the strength I'd expect something of a rounded marmalade-on-toast effect from this hop-malt combination.

The base recipe here is absolutely sound, even excellent, but the execution needs a bit of work. I'm not sure that bottle conditioning really suits a beer with such a delicate hop profile, or at least not the way they've done it here. Well-kept on cask, however, this would be a stunner. But the chances of that showing up anywhere are probably slimmer than a monkey landing in Clonakilty.