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?