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?