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.

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