17 September 2018

Gan bei!

I have my friend Dave to thank for today's subjects. When he tweeted he was off to China for work I asked if he could help me scratch my most persistent beer itch. Chinese lager Snow is the biggest selling beer in the world and I've never tasted it. Would he be able to bring me a can back? Star that he is, I subsequently took delivery of six cans of unfamiliar beer.

The Snow issue proved more complicated than anticipated. The brand covers a dizzying array of variants, each seeming to have its own multiple packaging designs. After considerable research I'm not even sure that there is even a core Snow beer. Dave's bundle included two Snows.

The one I started with is called Globe Trekker, announcing that vertically on the can in characters bigger than the ones spelling "Snow Beer". And that may be the last time "character" gets mentioned in this post. Globe Trekker is 2.5% ABV and an anaemic yellow colour with a fast-dissipating head. It's as watery as you might expect: extremely thin and not even very fizzy. Still, the brewers seem to know the limits of their brief as it shows none of the flaws often found in this sort: no tinny metal, cheap sweetcorn or stale cookedness. There is a clean malt sweetness at the centre, flashing briefly before fading away completely. It is therefore thirst-quenching and perfectly serviceable as a weak hot-country lager. While not something I'd actively seek out, it is at least inoffensive and well made.

The next Snow is branded "Refreshing" and I don't know if that's a name or a description. Either way, the claim's veracity is thrown into doubt by it being marked as 10° Plato and 3.3% ABV, which suggests under-attenuation to me. It's even flatter than the previous one, looking more like a cider in the glass. Now here we have those classic lager flaws. There's a syrupyness I associate with much stronger, cheaper lagers, and an on-style metallic tinfoil buzz. The stickiness does mean the flavour has more legs than the Globe Trekker, but that's really not a good thing.

We leave the Snow investigations here. I'm still interested in finding out if the One True Snow exists, so if there are any experts in Chinese beer out there, let me know.

The next pair are from AB InBev's brewery in the far north-east of China: Harbin. Harbin 9° gushed forth with an abundance of fizz, but again no head retention. There's a decent substance to this, even if the pale gold colour isn't very striking. There's a wisp  of white pepper in the aroma while a cakey sweetness forms the foretaste. But a foretaste is all there is: no follow-up for good or ill comes after it, just water. Given a decent noble hop pinch, this has the makings of a genuinely good pilsner. As is, it's a much more satisfying glassful than either of the Snows, and again only 3.3% ABV.

That boded well for the bigger sequel: Harbin 10°. It looks identical and tastes very similar, but a little more intense. This time the pepper makes it into the flavour, and the texture is bigger too, almost sticky, despite an ABV of just 3.6%. I got a slight plasticky burr on the very end, something I occasionally find with German hops so I probably can't mark it down as a flaw. A raw sugar sweetness sits at the centre of it all, somewhat balanced by the hop spice but still a little overdone, especially considering the very modest strength. I think I preferred the cleaner profile of the 9° out of this pair.

Two random outliers to take us home. Laoshan Beer, from AB InBev's Tsingtao brewery in Qingdao, is 10° Plato and 4% ABV, which is more like it. There's a proper golden lager colour too, and a rich malt aroma. The flavour is middling: quite dry and minerally, showing an aspirin tang that veers towards metallic sharpness but thankfully stops short. There's also a slight funk — cheese, or possibly phenolic — that adds a mildly unpleasant note to the finish. This is almost a passable lager but just misses the mark.

We come back to the capital to finish, with Yanjing. I reckoned this would be the best for absolutely no other reason than the vaguely German-style blackletter font on the can. It looks like it contains a proper pils. It doesn't really, though. Despite the statement on the side "Quality Grade: Excellent" this is another dull one, pale and watery like Snow. It is clean and flawless in the manner of Globe Trekker, and offers more of a bang at 3.6% ABV. It doesn't have much to say flavourwise at all, however.

It's just as well there's a growing beer scene in China these days. I don't think I'd like to be stuck with just these six as my only options, though I guess I'd make peace with  Harbin 9° if that happened. Cheers Dave!

14 September 2018

The last of them

I've been away for the last couple of weeks, leaving in a rush of hastily-scheduled blog posts. Today's concerns the final few Irish beers I tried before I left.

We begin with Toothless Grizzly, the first brand new beer from Mountain Man in quite a while. They've badged this as a schwarzbier but my pint at the Black Sheep was distinctly amber-coloured, and a bit murky with it. The aroma is a strange mix of sweet dark malt and an out of place sour tang. Thankfully the sourness goes no further. It's properly crisp and lager-like, with a mild orangey citrus in with husky biscuit before finishing on a green and peppery bitter noble hop bite. On the downside, it's over-carbonated: nobody wants a flat lager, but here the jagged fizz is detrimental to the flavour; and, just as the colour is wrong, the distinctive dark lager flavours -- charcoal, liquorice, tar -- are completely missing. The recipe has potential but desperately needs darkening.

YellowBelly produced a beer to commemorate 85 years of Molloy's off licences. Covert Operation is described as a juicy pale ale and very much delivers on that promise. A bolt of pineapple strikes the nostrils immediately on opening, and it pours a hazy medium orange. The texture is fluffy, as fashion dictates, and all the fruit is worn up front: ripe mango, passionfruit and tangerine. There's just enough of a citrus punch late on to balance it, as well as a wisp of savoury garlic. It's very similar in style to Trouble's now-legendary Ambush, with the same level of satisfying drinkability. The tall can was emptied in short order.

At Hagstravaganza I missed the third Canvas offering, Double Wingmirror, so I was pleased when it showed up bottled in DrinkStore. The first warning light comes with the label, where "Double IPA" has been unconvincingly blacked out. It fizzed busily on opening, pouring a dark copper colour. There's a homebrewish yeasty spice in the aroma and the flavour mixes Belgian esters with burnt caramel and a touch of phenolic smoke. The marker was right: this isn't anywhere close to being a double IPA. I'm not quite sure what it is instead: though less than six weeks in the bottle it reminds me of long-abandoned home brewed pale ales, their hoppy days long past and the deathless yeast steadily drying them out. My 33cl bottle cost €4: top dollar for a beer that really doesn't warrant it.

Back from my train trip it was straight to The Brew Dock to try the newest from Galway Bay. It's the second sequel to Goodbye Blue Monday, a collaboration with Begyle called Last Goodbye, just a little weaker than the original at 5.8% ABV and utilising Hallertau Blanc, Azacca and Ella. I expected Opal Fruits from that lot but got Fruit Salad chews instead. It's mouthwateringly juicy: an almost sickly blend of pineapples, mangoes and apricots. There's an oddly prominent booze buzz cranking this up unexpectedly, but thankfully also a lime and guava tropical bitterness, shading into garlic as it warms on the palate. It is, above all, a fun beer, much as Goodbye Blue Monday was: a fruity hop celebration, albeit no longer served by the pint. No matter: you probably don't want this getting warm.

Whiplash treated us to two new double IPAs in August. I tried Do You Wanna Touch Me, their collaboration with Wylam, at Alfie Byrne's. The murk level is off the charts here. I mean, it's not even beige, more a bile-coloured grey-brown. It smelled fantastic, though: fresh tropical fruit, with a background hint of custard. 8.3% ABV means you get an alcohol burn as the first flavour. The fruit is in the middle and, unlike so many of these, it actually sticks around for subsequent sips, staying sweet and interesting and fun. The usual hangers-on are present for those that expect them: an oily garlic buzz and some dry gritty yeast and protein bits, but they confine themselves to the finish and the next mouthful tops you up with mango and pineapple again. It's an excellent interpretation of a super-fashionable style that is done too poorly too often.

So what's the point of a simultaneously-released 8% ABV one that's hopped with Citra like the other. Eventually looks a little more appetising but is still a milky opaque colour. I get caraway and poppyseed in the aroma, with a softer but acidic garlic backing track. To taste it's very sweet, with non-specific artificial fruit, like Refreshers or Lucozade, plus a smoothie-like cream texture. It's all softness and fuzz, leaving me wanting more punch and zing. It avoids any boozy heat but only by wrapping it in a lemon-scented fluffy blanket. This is one of those beers which I'm sure has an audience but isn't for me.

Twin releases also came from Stone Barrel. Poppin' Pils is in a tall can and describes itself as a "hopped up lager". It's 4.5% ABV and a slightly hazy golden colour. The aroma is quite sweet, with an air of lemon and lime shandy, plus perhaps a hint of scented detergent. A malt sweetness begins the flavour: brioche and Maltesers. The quite flat texture did nothing to dispel that, then after a second or two there's a sweeping spinach bitterness, fading to candy and bubblegum. It's not the crisp lager I was hoping for. The flavours aren't bad, but they don't gel together well, malt hops clashing where they should complement, resulting something a bit too sweet while also a bit too bitter.

The second in the set is a black IPA. Remember them? It gives the game away right on the tin, with the name Dark, Dank, Pineapple? though perhaps it's not sure of itself. Poured, it just about passes the blackness test, showing brown to red at the edges. The head dissipates disappointingly quickly but there's still a lovely aroma, full of herbs, spices and fruit of all sorts. For a tiddling 4.3% ABV it's a thick lad, slick and tarry. The flavour presents spiced red cabbage, a classic component of good black IPA, then a harder dark roasted bitterness and a long lemon rind finish. It's another one where the carbonation is too low and the sensation is a little watery as a result. It's still a decently complex black IPA. The clashing smashing flavours work so much better in this style than in a pils.

That's it for today. It's nearly time to go home and find out what the Irish brewing scene has been up to in my absence.

12 September 2018

Once more round the park

The other row of festival bars at Big Grill 2018, you'll be pleased to hear, was smaller than the one I wrote about on Monday. It still had its highlights, though.

I began at the north end with DOT, which had a rapidly rotating selection of barrely specials. Early doors on day one it was Double Down, a 9.5% ABV double IPA given time in a single malt whiskey barrel, from Teeling's, one assumes. I was amazed how the fresh and fruity hop flavour was preserved even when exposed to wood and liquor: it still has a bright lime and apple character, with a touch of herbal coconut, in with the dry oak and slick vanilla. I was also amazed how easy drinking it was, given the strength and complexity. If you saw me wandering around the field looking dazed at any point, the flavour of this beer was definitely the reason.

Returning to DOT the following day, I found it had been replaced by Dainty Wood, a very different proposition at 4.2% ABV, though still barrel aged. The base here is a tart pale ale, spicy and fruity, showing bags of juicy white grape and oily black pepper, with a puckering pinch of sourness and a mild oaky twang on the end. Phew. Quite a workout for session-strength drinking, but definitely my kind of beer.

Moving right we come to Five Lamps and their barbecue special, a crystal wheat beer called Meat Our Wheat. I didn't like this guy at all. The title implied something easy and clean, and the 5.5% ABV isn't excessive. Then it began with a funky aroma, which turned sweaty on tasting, at least at first. This grew in intensity as it went, getting sharper, saltier and nastier until it resembled a flinty Italian cheese. I like flinty Italian cheese but I do not want to drink one. I could do without seeing this beer outside of the festival grounds.

Boyne Brewhouse was turning heads with its Raspberry Sour, revised since this year's Alltech festival, and now even more flamboyantly coloured and flavoured. New for me was another Pilot Series offering, the Belgian Blonde. This is a middle-of-the-road 6.5% ABV, and gently hazy blonde, of course, and serves up all the flavours one would expect from the real thing. Warming fruit esters are a big part of it, though they're balanced by clean and dry vegetal notes: celery and courgette. It's very smooth and easy-going, one for swirling in a balloon glass and taking time over.

There was gold at the Sullivan's stand too: Irish Gold to be precise. This new 4%-er was badged as part of the Kilkenny brewery's taproom series, though was actually brewed in a bigger batch in Boyne, where the red ale is produced too. I wasn't expecting a lot from it, but it was genuinely nice: denser than it looked, bringing in sweet notes of honey and golden syrup. You'd be a long time looking for hop fireworks in here, but it's a flawless version of a clean yet weighty golden ale, and very satisfying to drink.

The Porterhouse marks the end of the line this time, and their latest is Early Ryzer, a rye pale ale at 4.6% ABV. It's no Rustbucket, that's for sure. While there's a touch of fun grassy bitterness, it's mostly quite harsh, the acridity enhanced by a cloying buttery quality. I found even a small sample to be hard going.

Those were all the new beers I could find in the main drinks tents. As always there were a couple of standalone satellite bars as well. At the top of the field, an incognito Heineken pavilion was serving their new "wild lager" H32, made with yeast they found lying around in the Himalayas somewhere. It's 5.1% ABV and has the same estery buzz as its Patagonian predecessor, but with a worty sugary quality that reminds me more of an alcohol-free beer than a proper medium-strong lager. A clean and crisp finish redeems it somewhat, but I think I'd find it just too heavy for drinking much of.

Away at the far corner of the festival, Founders and Lagunitas were standing shoulder to shoulder under the banner of their common distributor Grand Cru. It was the first Irish appearance of Founders Honey Wheat, a beer I expected to taste of honey and wheat, but which includes noisy coriander in the recipe. This really dominates the taste, almost turning it soapy but instead giving it an invigorating bathbomb quality with a refreshing ginger-like spice. At 5.5% ABV it's substantial, yet still deliciously gluggable: well suited to one of the rare days on which it's legal to drink in a sunny Dublin park.

And with that I'll wander off into the sunset after another Big Grill. This used to be the opening act of a late summer double-header which included the Irish Craft Beer Festival at the RDS. I'm glad one of them is still standing, giving us an excuse for a day out. Or two.


10 September 2018

Taking sides

Two evenings at the 2018 Big Grill Festival was enough time to get round to all the beers I wanted to try. As usual the beer and cider offer was prodigious so I'm going to have to split the review into two posts, arbitrarily on geographic lines. We begin at the bars on the west side of Herbert Park.

Rascals, at one end of the row, had brought a new spiced milk stout called Chai So Serious? It's a sort-of answer to calls for them to bring back their original ginger porter. There is, apparently, a complex mix of flavourings added to this, but for me it was all about the ginger. That was present as flavour rather than heat, as you'd find in a ginger cake or biscuit, with plenty of it in the aroma too. The base beer is balanced and creamy, with enough of a roast bite to prevent it getting overly sweet, and a modest ABV of 4.8%. Although this was a small limited batch, it is due to be scaled up and tweaked to bring out more of the spices.

Brewtonic had one of the sensations of the festival: Passion Wagon, a sour ale with passionfruit. It's a light and refreshing 3.8% ABV, not overly complex but great at what it does. The sourness is merely a dry chalky tang instead of full-on tartness as found in, say, YellowBelly's Castaway, while the texture is smooth and effervescent rather than fizzy. There's loads of real passionfruit flavour as well, but like the milk stout above it's not too sweet.

Next door to them, Rye River was showcasing the third in its limited edition series. After a big stout and a big IPA, part three is a summer lager called Ól. They've added orange zest to this, as well as a cocktail of orangey hops. I expected zingy and clean but that's not quite what I got. The flavour is certainly fun, sweet and juicy first, then with a more savoury spice, as found in orange skin. All of this lasts long into the finish and I think that's my problem with it: it lacks the cleanness and crispness of a good lager. Enjoyable, but not quite what I was looking for.

From an unmarked tap, Simon was offering sneaky tastes of Rye River's new smoked stout, Big Smoke, and this was much more my sort of thing. The almost meaty aroma from this paired well with the enticing smoky smells coming from the festival's barbecue pits. The mouthfeel is big and satisfying, suggesting more than its 5.7% ABV, and then there's an unexpected but pleasing spicy bite in the finish. I don't know what the availability of this is, but it's worth keeping an eye out for.

Next along was Metalman who had brought a new pale ale, badged here as The Pitmaster, though also known as Waterford Walls and other things, apparently. It's 4.2% ABV, yellow-amber in colour and with a charming lemon tea aroma. That develops on tasting into a dry white wine, Pouilly-Fumé in particular, with a similar kind of smoky edge. That's a lot of complexity for such a light ale, yet it's all well-integrated and not busy.

On day two, they tapped up Calypso which, in defiance of the New England trend, they've badged as a "South-Eastern" IPA. It's pale yellow and slightly hazy with a full body and sweet core flavour. So far, so New England. Lemon-flavoured chews was the main impression I got on tasting: zingy, with just a small bitter tang on the end for balance. That's pretty much it. It's simple and tasty, if maybe a little overclocked at 5.6% ABV. It will enhance your lazy summer evenings, if you can still squeeze a couple of those out of the next few weeks.

The first stretch of bars ended at Eight Degrees, offering MAD as their new one. This 4.5% ABV IPA gets it name from the use of Mosaic, Amarillo and Denali hops. I think I just plain don't like Denali, and nothing here convinced me otherwise. It tasted sweaty: a bitter staleness with an added sour fruit tang and vanilla sweetness. Nothing about it suggested Mosaic or Amarillo to me, so I'm laying the blame squarely on the Denali. Your mileage may vary with this one; in fact I hope it does.

We turn the corner, literally and metaphorically, by moving on to the perpendicular row of bars, and O Brother. Their new one was called The 1%er, and yes that's the ABV. It's an IPA too. Brave. And yet there's a proper depth to this. It's the hazy yellow of a table beer, and has a similar kind of yeasty buzz, but there's no unpleasant thinness. There is a proper IPA bitterness, and even a mild dankness, while it avoids being harsh or acidic -- another pitfall that often besets these. The flavour is smooth and orangey, and while the finish is quick, there are plenty of IPAs at five times the strength which do the same. I hope there's a market out there for a beer like this as I think there are plenty of occasions for it.

Kinnegar was next along. There was a bit of a buzz about Phunk Noir, the Brett-aged version of their Yannaroddy coconut porter. Maybe I'd built it up too much by the time I got to it but I was underwhelmed. It tasted like sour chocolate: two things that are fine when separate but just don't meld together well for me. Add in a thin texture and a heavy dollop of dark soy sauce and I was done. It's distinctive and complex all right, just not very nice.

Luckily they had a handy counterbalance available in the form of Inquisitive Hare, a lager which is usually only available at Tigh Neachtain in Galway. "Hoppy" is how the brewery describes it, and it is that: almost greasy with resins. A sticky sweet-apricot aroma wafts from it, while the flavour mixes refreshing herbal notes with a bitter and zesty lemon bite. The combination, akin to some sort of fancy cloudy lemonade with green sprigs and twigs, is lovely and refreshing in spite of the full body and 5% ABV.

Wicklow Wolf's new draught special is called No CAN Do, in part because it's draught only, but it's also another hop-acronym, representing Citra, Azacca and Nelson. All of them were added late to the pale ale which is a mere 4% ABV. It's a slightly hazy golden colour and offers an enticing aroma which is dank and tropical in equal parts. I was surprised by its density: this is a thick beast. A hard lime-skin bitterness kicks it off, bringing in a wisp of friend onion on the end, and a tiny vanilla aftermath. While not complex, it has a lovely punchy hop character, very much in the Wicklow Wolf style.

My standout beer of the whole gig came from the last bar on the row. It's not the first time that a Hope limited edition has been the highlight of Big Grill: beers 1 and 2 in the sequence caught my particular attention way back in '16. Number 12 is the latest: Hop Hash Double IPA. I understand this is the first Irish beer to use hop hash, a miracle ingredient which is essentially a by-product of the pelletising process. It's sold as being capable of concentrating the hop impact, and the Centennial and Amarillo varieties used here certainly did that. A very large basket of tropical fruits is on offer here. I'm not going to list them, but it's all the ones you'd expect. Now maybe the bitterness is lower than it should be, and at just 8% the ABV is too. But this is the DIPA's DIPA: clean, bright, fresh and simply booming with new world hop goodness. If you see it, get it.

Only twelve beers in and I've run out of bars. Guess I'll have to start again over on the other side of the park. Sit tight...

07 September 2018

Still dropping

Trying to keep up with the output at Urban Brewing has been exhausting. After a year of following closely, I'm starting to let some releases go by. I never thought I'd say this, but there's only so much I can drink and write about. Anyway, here's my latest from Urban, even if it's not the latest.

I was surprised to find I hadn't already had a beer called Urban Brewing Saison, but they've all had proper names before -- this is the first totally straight one. It's 4.6% ABV and an orange-amber colour, served very cold and topped by a luxurious thick head. Cool banana and dry straw are equally matched in the foretaste, set on a softly effervescent base with a tang of zinc on the periphery. A juicier melon note emerges as it rises above ice temperature, completing the saison picture. This is a very good interpretation of the style, refreshing, quenching and unfussy. I would like a pinch of pepper for seasoning, but that's just a minor personal preference. I doubt Urban has any plans for a core range, but this would be deserving of a place in one.

Reluctantly I ordered the Nitro Pale Ale. I haven't seen one of these in quite a while, and y'know I haven't missed them. The blackboard told me it was the seventh iteration of the recipe, but it was my first. Until the barman struggled to get it to pour properly, it didn't occur to me how odd it was that this existed. Urban serves all of its house beers directly from their bright tanks: how does nitrogenation work there? Not very well, if the pouring drama was any indicator.

It arrived, eventually, a burnished copper colour and smelling of coffee and toffee. There's a distinct caramel foretaste leading to a metallic bitterness in the finish. I'd describe this as a red ale more readily than a pale ale, but it's not a bad effort. Where these are often gloopy and gummy, this has a black-tea dryness holding that back: while it may not be hoppy it's at least clean. Throw it on cask instead and you'd have a quality bitter.

I almost always feel like the only beer geek who drinks in Urban. I guess it's largely a function of its location in the financial district that it doesn't get my sort in much. That gave me a perspective on the next beer, chalked up as DIPA: DDH Citra. I know what that means, or at least what it stands for, but how many other Urban customers would? A venue like this could do with paring back the jargon a little; they don't need to impress the Cloudwater-or-GTFO hazebros. That said, I've always found the barstaff very helpful and forthcoming.

From the name, then, I was expecting something of connoisseur quality from this 8.4% ABV beast. The muddy brown colour and floaty yeast gobbets did not inspire confidence, nor the immediate hot banana esters, but that wasn't the worst of it. It tasted like bleach. I tried desperately to fit this into a Citra-shaped hole: that piney floor-cleaner effect you sometimes get? But I don't think that's it, and either way it's not good. I can't see this one appealing to either geeks or norms.

You take what you get at Urban: that's part of the charm. I'm looking forward to a fresh board of new additions next time I'm in.

05 September 2018