31 January 2018

Downmarket upgrade

Tesco's Solas beer brand has been granted a revamp. In 2014 it was just a substandard red and a decent stout; now the line-up has been given a full craftastic overhaul, while still being brewed at Rye River.

Overhaul doesn't necessarily mean modernisation, and the first beer of the new set to cross my path is in a delightfully retro style: Solas Brown Porter. It's a modest 4.5% ABV and a surprisingly pale ruby colour. Expecting sweet and creamy coffee I was disappointed to find it rather dry and acrid, a bitter burnt rasp scouring the palate and scorching the throat. This is accompanied by a jammy blackcurrant Ribena effect, which I'm guessing is the hops (is that you, Bramling Cross?) and this doesn't match well with the dark malt. There's a more pleasant soft and floral hint right at the very end, and more coffee as it warms, but it's too little too late. I found the whole thing harsh and difficult, in a way that porter should never be. But at least it's not bland.

I hoped for better things from Solas Belgian Wit, even if budget witbier is rarely the portal to a flavour wonderland. It's quite soupy looking, without a proper head. The aroma has the appropriate mix of lemon and coriander while its texture is light and effervescent, and properly full, reflecting the 5.2% ABV. Tastewise it's quite decent: maybe a little sweet but all the elements of good witbier are present and correct. I got a strong hit of herbs, and yet none are listed on the ingredients: only the basics of beer plus wheat, and orange peel. Go figure. I can't really fault this at €2.69: crisp witbier, perfectly on point.

The third in the series, Solas Session IPA, wasn't available in the tiny local Tesco opposite my house so I had to schlep all the way around the corner to the big Tesco to find it. We're back at 4.5% ABV, which is fine for the style, and it pours a dark gold colour with some fairly large suspended particles in it. I'm guessing the gritty aroma is not unrelated to that, though there's a decent spark of limey citrus behind it. The flavour is definitely all-hop: fresh cool grapefruit first, and then a spring onion quality, intensifying to a full-on herbal dankness, especially as the beer begins to warm up. When that fades the citrus fruit steps back in to provide a lengthy finish. It's very good, overall, and once again especially at the price point. The thought of it cooking on the ambient shelves of Tesco makes me want to go and save every bottle. Feel free to help me out.

I somehow doubt that these beers, so much braver than a stout and a red, would exist were it not for Dunnes's Grafters and Lidl's Crafty Brewing range, both also produced by Rye River. For the latter, the brewery has created a new American Style Brown Ale, and something about the colour palette of the label suggests that America isn't the country they had in mind branding wise. It's 5% ABV and a dark ruby colour, smelling spicy and herbal with notes of lavender and honeysuckle. It turns highly floral on tasting with an almost rosewater perfume, plus dark chocolate, black cherry and bitter liquorice. The texture is pleasingly chewy which helps boost the complexity, and the long finish blends coffee and greenly acidic hops. They should have stolen Dogfish Head's Indian Brown Ale branding because this is very much along those lines. Great job.

The yang to its yin is Golden Fields Saison, and it's not often you get a half litre bottle of saison, let alone for €2.29 -- only in Ireland? It looked the part: a misty bright gold topped with bright white foam, and bonus points for being just 4.8% ABV. While smelling dry and almost musty when poured fresh from the fridge, a gentler and altogether more enjoyable peach aroma develops. Still dry on tasting, though: corn husk and white pepper. This has all the features of classic saison as it goes, but is just a little too dusty for my taste. I find it impossible to fault it on stylistic grounds, however, and true saison purists ought to love it.

I don't know how the mechanics of these commissions work but at least some credit has to go to the brewery for raising the standard and keeping it high. Which supermarket will have a budget sour beer first?

29 January 2018

Got DOT

Dublin's DOT Brew had a busy 2017, finishing with a rake of new releases. To show how far behind I am in writing about them, the first in today's overdue catch-up post is the Autumn: Seasons of Saison release. This one is 5.8% ABV, making it the lightest of series, and includes rye in the recipe. It's a handsome clear gold colour topped by a fine tight foam. The aroma is fruity but clean. I get white grape in particular. It tastes much more savoury than that: there's a smokiness at the front of the flavour, then sweeter apple and pear behind. I found it a bit harsh overall, and the busy fizz is distracting. The finish is a burnt plastic burr that didn't suit me at all. While its fruity side is tantalising, the rest, too much of it, is interference.

But that was merely prologue to the grand finale of Seasons of Saison: Winter. The biggest of the lot at 7.2% ABV, obsidian black and aged in both a whiskey and a port barrel. It's dry, but makes you work to find the saison characteristics after that. There's a very stout-like roast, and then a tar-and-tobacco bitterness. I think I get a touch of dark grape from the port pipe, as well as a more saison-specific peppery spice. Although there's plenty of sparkle it's still beautifully smooth, and I think that's what fits it best for winter: the fact that it's comforting and sippable; a saison for a quiet evening in. It's certainly very different from your typical saison, and manages that without doing anything silly, which is commendable. It was a fun series and I look forward to where DOT's saison adventures go next.

My adventures, meanwhile, brought me to Idlewild. The Fade Street cocktail bar had worked with DOT to create a beer that tasted like a cocktail, specifically, an Old Fashioned. Real Friends was the name: 10.7% ABV with rye, a convoluted combination of botanicals, some orange, and aged a whopping 15 months in bourbon barrels. I can't tell you how closely it resembles an Old Fashioned as I've never had one; I can tell you that it tastes nothing like a beer. It arrived flat and headless, a grim murky brown colour, with a thin texture to match. My impression on first tasting was of a Negroni: that dry rasp, accompanied by an explosion of vermouth-like bitters. Oily aniseed is most prominent, evaporating up into the nostrils for a very wintery sort of refreshment. The fruit and the oak vanilla follow afterwards, though the finish is quick. Once you get past the strangeness, it's a very enjoyable beer, and I had a second straight after my first. I'd normally criticise this sort of thing for being unbeerlike, except this is so unbeerlike as to be superb on its own terms. Daring doesn't begin to cover what DOT has assembled here.

Before turning to the bottled line-up, a beer I thought I was going to miss out on as it was created as a bottled special for Blackrock Cellar, an off licence that's just too far out of my way for hunting a single beer. Then lo and behold it arrived on draught at 57 The Headline where I could enjoy a dirty great pint of it. Joel's Barrel Aged Vietnamese Coffee Stout Batch II (I did miss the first batch in 2016) is a blend of a dark ale with an imperial stout. Both components were barrel aged separately, the stout with additional coffee beans and espresso, and the results came out at 6.9% ABV. I was expecting it to go big on coffee but it's actually quite restrained, light bodied and with a pleasingly low carbonation. Milk chocolate and rosewater are the primary flavours, like a Turkish delight from the Milk Tray box. There's a slight whiskey burn in the finish but it's mild, more like the whisky component in Drambuie or Irish Mist than anything neat. It's very sweet, and yet not cloying, presumably because of that lightness of body. I really enjoyed my pint, and came away happily reminded that massively intricate dark beers can be created without resorting to syrupy booze bombs.

Another spirit barrel comes out to play in DOT 013: Belgian Blonde Aged In An Irish Single Malt Ex White Rum Barrel, with its stellar label designed by Aran Brazil. The title preempts anything I have to say before tasting, other than it's 7% ABV and turns out a hazy orange colour with a rather plain oak aroma. The flavour is pithy, with a spritz of orange zest, fading quickly without much behind it. As it warms, more of the oak comes out, as well as savoury yeast and an alcohol burn, and the whole thing is a bit too heavy and serious for my liking. Perhaps this is where a wine barrel would work better than a rum barrel. I'm thinking of recent beers like Eight Degrees's The Oak King, YellowBelly's Kind Of A Big Deal or DOT's own Champagne Beer, where the barrel gave the base Belgian-style beer a fresh and fruity lift. This lacks that, and seems bogged down on the sugar cane plantation. A near miss, then.

A big beast follows next: Barrel Aged Cab Sauv Grain Rye. "But you already had this!" I hear you exclaim, referring back to DOT's first birthday last year. Foolish child, that was the Barrel Aged Cab Sauv Malt Rye. Grain is completely different, and 0.1% ABV stronger, at 9.6%. It's the same dark red-brown, mind, with a nose of toasted malt loaf. It has the same flavour of booze-soaked cherries as the malt one, though seems tarter, almost veering towards vinegar notes. The rye adds a distinct acidic bitterness that I don't care for and the whole thing would benefit from some maturation, or possibly just being served colder. There's a lot going on in it, but no one element takes the reins. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that it's more of an abstract painting than a portrait.

The finale is the one that nabbed DOT the prestigious Irish Whiskey Society award for best barrel-aged beer in 2017, and it's only 4.6% ABV! Single Grain Cab. Sauv. Session Ale is the name, or 012 if you're keeping count that way. It's a whiskey-ish honey amber colour, topped with a generous pure white head. Wood in the aroma again, this time with grape must and piercing spicy incense. That wine element is a major feature of the flavour, and it surprises me slightly that the whiskey heads would be into it: there's no spirit in the flavour that I can detect. I get smoky malt coupled with juicy white grape and a bitter herbal backing track featuring thyme and desiccated coconut. For all the panoply of flavours it is actually sessionable: nothing tries to dominate the palate or hangs around too long, though the carbonation is a smidge high. Possibly not the amazing finisher I was expecting, but a very good beer to go out on.

I'd hazard a wild guess that there will be more barrelly shenanigans from DOT later in 2018. Stay tuned.

26 January 2018

Peeking over the fence

The great and the good of UK brewing in today's post, collected randomly from all over the place in recent months.

Mobile Speaker came courtesy of BrewDog as part of my Beer Geek Awards prize. It's a collaboration between Cloudwater of Manchester and Dry & Bitter of Gørløse, a double IPA placed in the de rigeur 440ml labelled can one month before I opened it. No mention is made of New England but the inclusion of oats and the JW Lees yeast is a dead giveaway, as is, of course, the orange-tan opaque colour. 30 grammes of hops per litre of beer have gone into the dry hopping, and this huge concentration certainly shows in the aroma: a heady mix of fresh garlic and sweeter mango. The first flavour I get is caraway. Mosaic isn't a headline hop, but it's on the list, so I guess this is its fault. Behind it there's a garlic burn and a substantial booze heat, which is unusual for this sort of beer, even at 8% ABV. The finish is bitter and yeasty but the body is thick enough and smooth enough to avoid it being harsh. It's still not great, however: lacking fun fruity hop character and instead being all serious and savoury. As is so often the case I want to try it after the gunk has been cleared out of it.

Possibly one of my biggest regrets was not drinking Wylam's Jakehead IPA when I was in Newcastle a few years back. I drank other stuff instead, but Jakehead was the one attracting all the buzz a few months later. It's terrible being left out of the conversation. Thankfully, it has now arrived in Ireland in bottled form so I get to have my spake.

It's the medium amber colour that all US IPA used to be. The pour was clear but surprisingly flat, leaving a crescent of impacted yeast on the bottom of the bottle. A head formed but disappeared quickly. The beer itself isn't flat at all, having a pleasingly gentle sparkle. The aroma is quite resinous, almost funky, and certainly not the bright hop colours I had been expecting. Its flavour, meanwhile, is generally bitter, showing aspirin, orange pith and a rough dry sackcloth burr. There's a growing dankness as it warms but it never quite takes over. To me this sits somewhere on the spectrum between English bitter and old-school American IPA. And to be honest I don't see what the fuss is about. England makes much better IPAs than this, across all the sub-genres.

Another Wylam next, but on tap, at Alfie Byrne's. Hickey the Rake is described as a "limonata" pale ale, though I can't find any significance for the word, beyond it being Italian for lemonade. It's certainly lemon-tasting, and pleasingly heavily textured at just 4.2% ABV, so the overall effect I got is of lemon curd. It poured perfectly clearly and was as clean tasting as it looked. When beers attempt lemon flavours, whether derived from hops or by a direct fruit addition, there's always the risk of it coming out like detergent or furniture polish. This manages to avoid all of that, thankfully.

Taking a break from the hops next, with Raindrops on Roses, a rose-petal-enhanced witbier by Thornbridge, in collaboration with homebrew competition winner Phil Sisson. Oddly, rose petals aren't listed in the ingredients, nor are any of the fruit or herb additions normally employed in this style. It looks the part, a hazy pale orange topped by handsome pillow of foam. The aroma is a summery jug of fresh lemonade: citrus muddled with sugar. The rose is very apparent on tasting. It actually tastes pink, a mix of strawberry chews, sugar-dusted Turkish delight and retro pink-iced biscuits. At the same time it isn't particularly sweet, in the heavy sugary way of some beers. It has been fermented out properly and there's a dryness to the base beer that really helps to project the floral qualities. First-rate head retention and a cuddly fluffy texture make it a very comfortable beer to sink into and relax with. I'm not saying it's not weird, because it genuinely is, but more than anything it's fun, cheeky, and maybe a little silly, yet fully infused with joy. Well done to all involved.

A swift one at The Black Sheep next: Hard Rollin' by Siren, a lactose-and-oats-infused IPA, created in collaboration, again, with Dry & Bitter. It arrived headless, a bright murky orange colour. Orange in flavour too, with the concentrated orange squash sweetness gently spiced with red cabbage and nutmeg, before gradually giving way to an acidic hop burn in the finish. There's just enough of this bitterness and spice going on in the background to prevent it becoming an all-out candy bomb, though it's still not the way I like my IPAs. While I'm not doubting the sheer quantity of hops employed, I would like them to have provided a greater complexity of flavour.

I chose this over Northern Monk's Knucklepuck, of which I had a taster. It's one of those super-savoury IPAs, loaded with caraway seed. It's clean and clear, which offered a refreshing change, but was ultimately unengaging. The fruit element of Hard Rollin', simple and all that it is, offered a more interesting prospect.

Beavertown had two special editions on tap at Underdog just before Christmas, both at curiosity-dampening prices but I decided I'd give them a punt anyway. Logistical Nightmare was first, a milk stout which didn't taste very much like a milk stout to me. It's crisp, for one thing, with a dry bite that would be better placed in a schwarzbier. There's even a wisp of smoke in the finish which I thought completely misplaced. Beyond the stylistic niggles, it's a perfectly decent glassful, if rather lacking in the complexity one might expect from a special edition beer, especially at 6.3% ABV.

At time of drinking, Beavertown's Sonoma Pride was the most expensive beer yet served at Underdog, asking €9.75 for a 33cl glass. It's a clone recipe of Russian River's Pliny the Elder double IPA, and was created as a fundraiser for fire relief in California. It arrived a luminous gold colour and smelled promisingly of juicy peaches. This flashes only briefly in the flavour, however, before being overtaken by quite a harsh set of bitter flavours including aspirin, wax and overcooked vegetables. It gets danker as it warms, almost developing a cheesy Camembert-rind taste. What it doesn't do, is taste anything like Pliny the Elder. I found it harsh, insipid and generally lacking in pop. It was surprisingly watery for 8.8% ABV too. For the price asked, this beer should have been literally awesome, but it wasn't.

Finally, a can I picked up in the January sale at Stephen Street News: Beavertown and Green Cheek's The You Zoo. The New Englandishness is very apparent here, it being a dense opaque yellow with only the faintest skim of a head. The added ingredients are yuzu fruit and oolong tea. It's a while since I last had a tea-and-yuzu beer. The IPA aspect is very much in control of the picture: a heavy dank and bitter aroma, almost metallic in its intensity, like iron-rich liver. The flavour is similarly heavy and serious: a green onion acidity and lots of yeasty fuzz. I was expecting bright, clean and zingy but it's not that at all. Half way through I was finding it sickly and difficult, this sensation doubtless enhanced by the 7.5% ABV. As it warmed and flattened, more of the citrus juice emerged, but that dirty yeast quality never quite leaves. Presumably a one-off, it's not in need of a re-brew.

Cloudwater, Wylam, Thornbridge, Siren, Northern Monk and Beavertown: that's every brewery that exists in England, right?

24 January 2018

From all directions

This bottle of Meckatzer Weiss-Gold was a surprise arrival, delivered by blog reader Sebastian who picked it up in its native Allgäu in southern Bavaria. It's a pale lager, of course, bright gold in colour though with a slight haze through it. This, coupled with the 33cl bottle and a bit of English on the label, suggests that Brauerei Meckatzer, if not bitten, may have been at least nibbled by the craft fairy. No particular style is given but it's 5.2% ABV so I was thinking broadly helles when I opened it.

After pouring, the noble hops sing from the aroma: a hard waxy greenness. Mercifully it's softer to taste, the malt puffing out, by turns candyfloss, honeycomb and spongecake. There's a herbal, medicinal quality to the hop flavour, running in parallel: mint, eucalyptus and fennel. A slightly sharp, almost metallic, tang finishes it off. My guess about the style is borne out by a classic helles smoothness.

It's a jolly nice lager, perfectly balanced between the malt and hops. At the same time I didn't think it's particularly special: I imagine there's a brewery producing gear of this quality in every corner of Bavaria.

Cheers to Sebastian for dropping it over.

22 January 2018

All that I did leave behind

Per last week's posts, I was away for the Christmas and New Year break this year. I made an effort to get my backlog of Irish beer written up, but there were a few that either arrived on the bar too late to make it into that one, or had been acquired for pre-Christmas drinking at home and ended up languishing in the fridge while I was away. This post is dedicated to those 2017 throwbacks.

Last festive season I had completely missed 5 Lamps's Ale Mary Full of Spice, but fortunately it was back for a second coming in 2017, around the corner from the brewery at 57 The Headline. If obvious Christmas spices in your obvious Christmas ales are a problem, this won't be the beer for you. It roars with downright stereotypical cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, with not much else to say. Though an attractive shade of dark red, there's barely any room in the flavour for any malt characteristics. I confess I quite liked it, though partially because we are largely spared this sort of seasonal spice-bomb, so ubiquitous in the UK in particular. While silly, it's hard to be outright angry at it, and it most definitely brings Christmas spirit to the bar counter, as I'm sure was the brewery's intention.

The good people of Honest Brew sent me a couple of bottles last month, largely off the back of the Downstream project, begun by exporter Ireland Craft Beers. Downstream Hybrid IPL is the first in the series and the (possibly) USP here is a QR code which leads to a website offering forensic detail on the brewing and fermentation process. Funnily enough, the avalanche of information doesn't provide the IBU number, though it would be possible to calculate it from what's there. Anyway, it's an India pale lager, 4.5% ABV and brewed at Mourne Mountains Brewery up north. It's a surprisingly dark amber shade, and the back-up information tells me that's likely due to the inclusion of roasted barley, though we're not told how much. The flavour is sharply lemony, invigorating, but with a touch of scented hand-wipe about it. There's a light biscuit crunch behind this, both sides aided by the clean lager framework. A long bitter finish full of raw cabbage and spinach completes the picture. It packs a lot into quite a small package, and gets great use out of the largely-Cascade hop charge. I liked the punchiness here, and it's almost a pity that it's being produced for small-pack only: a pint would go down a treat.

With it arrived Boundary's Of the Hills porter, seemingly another Honest Brew joint venture. Honey and tea have been added to the mix here, and the end result is 4.8% ABV. It poured a muddy brown colour with a head that crackled quickly away to nothing. The honey makes itself felt in the aroma, and it smells delightfully like a Toblerone, mixing different kinds of sweetness, including the honey, chocolate and nuts. It tastes of chocolate, primarily, though is irritatingly thin: the first chocolatey pop should open the way to layers of gooey complexity but instead it stops dead there and then, a watery echo the only finish. It's fine; there are no off flavours, but a recipe this involved ought to produce a more full-flavoured beer, I think.

The next porter comes from Lough Gill, this time with chocolate in the recipe, and an ABV raised to 6%. They've called it Lovers Blend and I think I got a dose of yeast from the can into the glass, coming through in the aroma as gritty, covering up anything more porter-like. That dregginess is present in the flavour too, though it's possible to get past it. There's a gently sweet chocolate taste, not overdone though at the same time perhaps not as pronounced as it ought to be. A milky coffee roast accompanies it, and some stickier chocolate sauce. It's fine but never quite escapes that yeasty home-brewishness. A porter in need of a polish.

A third porter to follow: Coco Joe from Kinnegar, based on their Yannaroddy, with added coconut and coffee. It's still only 4.5% ABV but looks handsome, a dense cola brown, topped with dark beige foam. It's quite dry, and rather plain-tasting with that, the dessicated coconut being about the only point of interest. Some dry and dusty ground coffee emerges as it warms but I think both additions suffer from the lack of body, not given enough of a base beer from which to present themselves to the drinker. Though quite different in ingredients and flavour to the Boundary one, it has a fair bit in common with it, offering a simplistic flavour profile after promising something intriguing and different.

Kinnegar's other release in late 2017 was the first in a trilogy. Three Bagger - 1st Base is a saison brewed in collaboration with Belgium's Siphon Brewing. The next two in the sequence, all from the same batch, are currently barrel ageing in Letterkenny. The first glass out of the large bottle was clear amber colour, exuding an intriguing mix of white grape and white pepper. It's sweeter to taste: Ovaltine malt and very typically Belgian candy sugar. Perhaps because of my deft pouring there's no gritty yeast quality, just a dusting of clove and cedar. I don't miss the grit. Overall it's a clean and enjoyable beer, sufficiently chewy and warming, tasting all of its 8% ABV while remaining well balanced. It will make a good neutral base for the next two editions, I think.

Also arriving in a festive 75cl bottle was Arthurstown King's Bay Coffee IPA. It's a foamy beast, an unattractive murky amber colour underneath. There has been no skimping on the coffee (provided by Waterford roastery Coffee House Lane) here: it smells of raw coffee husk, slightly dry and papery, with no sign of any hops. The flavour is a lot less scary, even if it's not much closer to an IPA. The coffee isn't roasty the way it comes across in darker styles, but fruity and floral, with sumptuous maraschino cherry, rosewater and milk chocolate. The hops almost escaped my notice, but there's a bitter green bite riding the coffee's coattails into the finish. It's a really brave and interesting recipe, a little gimmicky perhaps, but very well put together, making good use of all the ingredients.

The next two beers are draught specials I just kept missing when they were first doing the rounds of the usual venues. I was delighted to catch both unexpectedly in recent weeks.

Trouble Brewing's Rum & Raisins is a dubbel. Though bang in the middle of the accepted ABV range at 7.5%, Alfie Byrne's was still happy to throw it into a pint glass. Maybe it was an illusion caused by the look of the thing, but it didn't seem heavy like a dubbel usually is, going easy on the caramel and banana, deriving a spicy gunpowder note from (I'm guessing) black malt, rather than the Belgian yeast. It's light, drinkable, but rather plain fare even for an ordinary dubbel, let alone one with additional flavourings.

Also going for a Belgian theme, but missing the mark, I think, was O Brother with The Puppetmaster. It's described as a Belgian pale ale, is 5.8% ABV and was on cask in The Black Sheep as part of their tap takeover there last Thursday. It was poured beautifully cool and perfectly clear: a bright golden hue. Despite the strength the texture is light without being thin. The flavour, meanwhile, is an absolute riot of flowers and spices, presenting jasmine, juniper, incense and cedar. A herbal undercurrent gives almost an impression of vermouth. I'm guessing some alchemical combination of the yeast and hops caused this, but it's amazing and distinctive, if a little severe, and not like anything Belgian I can think of. Thankfully a dry chalk mineral finish bookends it neatly and prevents the madness from taking over completely. This was a reminder, if one be needed, that cask beer is not all smooth malty blandness. Look out for the punch in this one.

Lastly, Sullivan's Barley Wine is the second of the style from the Kilkenny brewer, produced on its pilot kit with the help of Stuart Clarke of Ireland's perennial culture bible Hot Press. The brewery's PR folk kindly sent me a bottle. Though a mere 7% ABV it's pretty dense looking, a stoutish black with a creamy head. The effect is largely dispelled by an aroma of ripe black grapes: Málaga wine or Pedro Ximinez sherry, though there's a lacing of toasted grains there too. It tastes quite savoury, to begin, the fruit taking a while to assert itself on the palate. The fortified wine effect continues and increases in intensity, turning to tawny port and even reminding me of some Spanish dark brandies I've tried. To say it's warming is an understatement, so I guess that's mission accomplished. It's not overwrought, however, and the alcohol heat is at an acceptable level: a benefit of that modest ABV I'm sure. I drank mine fairly cold and was just beginning to experience some extra complexities -- liquorice, dark chocolate, eucalyptus -- when I finished the glass. If, like me, you only have one bottle, take your time with it.

I'm told by those in the know that 2018 won't be quite as full-on as 2017 was, with regard to Irish new release beers. If so, I look forward to spending some quality time away from this keyboard.