28 February 2018

When in Cork

Bookending the visit to the Franciscan Well's Cask Ales & Strange Brews festival, which I covered on Monday, I dropped by a couple of other Cork boozers for a few swift ones.

Coming off the bus before noon I had a hunger that only a Wetherspoon breakfast could fix. The Linen Weaver had a fairly decent selection of cask on and I picked, more or less randomly, Scrum Down by Conwy Brewery, hoping it wouldn't be as poor as seasonal Six Nations tie-in ales from the UK tend to be. It wasn't. It's actually superb, a fresh and spritzy lemon number, served beautifully cool. Invigorating citrus bitters introduce it, and then there's a sweeter, softer, apricot flavour in the middle. It was a perfect post-travel refresher but I could see how, at 4% ABV, it would work brilliantly as a matchtime quaffer. But I didn't have time for that sort of thing.

Around the corner to Rising Sons, for a go of their Old Town altbier. It's getting to be a long time since I last had a genuine alt, but aren't they supposed to be brown? This one is oddly a golden colour. Both flavour and aroma are all perfume and biscuits, only one of which is normal for the style. I got a bathsalts blend of lavender, violet and assorted aromatic herbs, all set on a clean base with grainy oatcake overtones. It's tasty and refreshing, but really not what I was expecting from an altbier.

On the way to the train I dropped by the Abbot's Alehouse to check out its new transformation. The ground floor off licence is gone, now turned into a bar.

From the blackboard I selected Gladiator, a pale ale by White Gypsy. The brewery tends to be known for its aversion to big hop flavours, but this one packs a serious punch. A mix of Citra with Styrian Fox gives it a very real grapefruit taste, sharp and astringent: a proper enamel stripper. It's only 4.5% ABV so I can imagine getting comfortable with it and adjusting to the bitterness, something that would be aided by the soft texture. This is simple fun, but definitely fun nonetheless.

Finally the rare appearance of a new beer by JJ's. Pearl Dubh is a big stout of 7% ABV and has that chocolate breakfast cereal character of processed wheat mixed with sugary cocoa powder. That doesn't sound great but it's pretty decent, the sharp husky edges all smoothed out and the dry and sweet sides balanced harmoniously. It gets filling quite quickly so I was glad to have just a half, as well as a train to run for.

Always a pleasure, Cork.

26 February 2018


Franciscan Well kicked off the 2018 Irish beer events calendar with the Cask Ales & Strange Brews festival at its brewpub. Once again I was dragooned into judging the beers of the festival, sketching notes blindly before finding out later what the beers were. With only a rushed taster sample of each, the results aren't the fullest of assessments, but hopefully they give enough of an impression.

The first was from YellowBelly, their Sweet & Sour Power Shower. It's pretty basic: just 3.4% ABV, and very light and easy drinking. There is some proper sour action going on, and a dry wheaty middle, but it's plain beyond that and does little to hold the drinker's attention. I'm all in favour of a mainstream, accessible and pintable sour beer being available, and perhaps this is what I'm looking for. I guess I need a full pint to be sure, but the competition sample didn't wow me.

Local brewer Cotton Ball's special for the event was the intriguingly titled Sherry TrifALE, though I've been completely unable to find any information about what it is. I do know it's 6.8% ABV and if I were to categorise it I'd probably put it somewhere in the English Strong Ale genre. The texture is heavy while the flavour begins at toffee apple before moving to a kind of acetone solvent vibe, making it one of those beers that tastes like hangovers from the outset. Approach with caution.

Northern brewery Bullhouse made a surprise but welcome appearance in the line-up. Their offering was a New England-style IPA called The Dankness. It's always best to be careful when using flavour descriptors in a beer title in case the product doesn't live up to it, and this one didn't really. It's still a very decent beer, only slightly hazy and lighter in texture than is typical for the style, with only a faint hint of gummy vanilla. There's a dry astringency too, which is a little out of place but also helps balance it away from excess sweetness. The biggest surprise is that there's no big hop flavour hit of any kind. Perhaps that's the deadening effect of cask. There's just a mild gooseberry note and then a citric bitterness in the finish. It's decent, though NEIPA purists may be disappointed.

Rascals' Margarita Soured Not Shaken did a much better job of self-description. Essentially a fruit gose, the salt, lime and sourness are all very present from the beginning. There's also an unexpected kick of ginger. I liked that it never loses sight of its base style and there's a very good classic gose discernible as its foundation, although it is quite thin and undercarbonated, as per its cocktail pretensions. This is a silly beer, but one of the better sort nevertheless.

There was a new release from Metalman. I guess it's a companion tribute piece to Waterford cuisine, following their blaa-based lager, though Red Lead merely takes the name from the processed meat product and as far as I know doesn't actually incorporate any. The brewery describes it as a red session IPA and it's just 4.1% ABV. It arrived a deep amber colour with very little aroma. The flavour offers tea notes and some light raspberry, but not much else. Easy drinking, overall, though a bit dull too. Another one to blame on the cask, maybe.

I got to try two new offerings from West Cork Brewery. Breakfast in Baltimore has been around since last year, and as the name suggests it's a coffee and oatmeal stout. The best thing about it was the texture: I know oatmeal is all about imparting a rich smoothness, but this one really got the full benefit of the oats, being luscious and thick, like an expensive chocolate sauce. There's lots of sweet chocolate in the flavour, some light coffee, and a comforting and warming alcohol glow, even at just 6.7% ABV. This is lovely winter drinking and very well suited to cask dispense.

I wasn't quite so keen on their newbie Heir Raisin'. This is described as an imperial red ale and is 7% ABV. Instead of merely warming, it's downright hot, with harsh higher alcohols running all through it. It looks soupy and smells of super-sweet toffee. By way of flavour I got overripe fruit in sickly abundance. I don't know if it's the recipe that's flawed, or merely the execution, but this could do with some serious tweaking, including a major clean-up.

Another pair came from White Gypsy. The brewery has been on a multi-year mission to perfect barrel-aged sour stout, and while I don't think the Sour Stout on display here was the finished product, it was very good. I'm not sure the brewery would appreciate the observation, but it tasted like a Guinness hack to me, not sour sour, but with a lactic tang, a seasoning. There's a light roast flavour, lots of umami, and a gentle astringency on the finish. All very balanced and drinkable.

The brewery also brought a Barrel Aged Belgian Wheat which didn't work as well. This deep orange coloured number is thick and cloying, tasting of undiluted orange cordial, plus a pithy bitterness. I find it hard to compare or relate it to any particular beer or style; suffice it to say I didn't enjoy.

West Kerry brewery had a Barrel Aged Winter Ale as their contribution. Though it's all of 6% ABV I found it a little thin. There are some pleasant dessertish qualities -- touches of chocolate and vanilla -- but also a woody sawdust thing which spoils it a little. It's OK but would be better if its various features were bigger and bolder.

The team of experienced judges picked the strongest beer available as the best in show. That was Imperial Stag, described as a Mexican imperial stout by brewer 9 White Deer, and clocking in at 13.5% ABV. The title suggests gimmickry but this is an absolutely rock solid luxury imperial stout from end to end. The flavour is brimming with sumptuous rich dark chocolate, all integrated into the beer, not tacked-on as an afterthought. The chilli is barely noticeable, just catching in the back of the throat as the silky chocolate flows past it. This was a pilot batch but you can expect full production in due course. It will be worth waiting for.

It's always such a relief to get the judging finished and get down to the festival to start drinking proper. Cheers to the Franciscan Well for making the arrangements and providing pizza from the always-excellent Pompeii on site. I managed to squeeze in a handful of other pub visits on my day in Cork, and I'll cover them in the next post.

23 February 2018

Lervig in tha snug

On a dismal Saturday afternoon in late autumn, the Four Corners crew set up a tasting in the cosy surrounds of P. Mac's snug. Their guest for the day was Liam Devlin, who does sales for Norwegian brewer Lervig. Five new-to-me beers were in the line-up, but I also need to give a shout-out to the newly canned version of Perler for Svin IPA, tasting much brighter and cleaner than the mucky bottle I reviewed back here.

Our journey begins, perhaps appropriately, with Check In, another IPA. Cascade and Ahtanum are the hops; "feels like 1996" says the blurb. It's a medium orange colour and smells fresh and pithy. As billed, there's lots of biscuity malt, followed up with a swift smack of bitterness. Unlike many a '90s vintage IPA, however, it's light and spritzy, neither weighed down by crystal sugars nor scorching the palate with hop acids. The balance is excellent and the flavours subtle yet appreciable. Maybe 6% ABV is a bit on the strong side for something this easy going, though that's a minor complaint. A good start.

To follow, the unappetisingly named Mango Squirt. This is a sour ale with the titular fruit, and again with an ABV that's above the call of duty at 7%. It looks the part -- a deep Fanta-orange colour -- but I wasn't able to pick any specific fruit from the flavour, instead getting a kind of artificial fruity meld, like Jolly Rancher sweets. The sourness hits hard and fast, then disappears just as promptly, leaving it dry and crisp, almost like a prosecco, with candy overtones from the mango. It's fine, but underwhelming. I'd like a bigger bang given the strength.

Hop Drop Sour was more like it. This had a lovely complex mix of coconut and grapefruit juice, turning to sharper rind on the end. It's all beautifully melded together with the hops and sour components contributing to an overall integrated flavour instead of trying to dominate the picture. Once again, however, it's too strong. I could quaff this by the barrelful, but not at 6.5% ABV.

Something sessionable finally arrived in the form of Socks and Sandals, a pale ale of just 4.5% ABV. The peach skin aroma is promising but the watery texture and lacklustre flavour matches its anaemic yellow appearance. The hops do contribute a bitterness, big and quite harsh, while the central part of the flavour is the yeast: sharp and gritty. While not awful, it is a little dull, and not something I could imagine a session on.

They broke out the big guns to finish: Sippin' into Darkness, a sweet imperial stout brewed in collaboration with Ohio's Hoppin' Frog. The aroma is off the charts: a heady, creamy blast of rich tiramisu. I found the flavour to be a little more severe; unexpectedly so. It's sticky and sweet, and piles in the booze, beyond what might be expected at 12% ABV. A strong note of bitter and roasty espresso goes some way to offset the sugar and makes it an easier drinking experience. This definitely isn't a subtle beer, though I suppose it's not meant to be. There are worse examples of this kind.

It was great meeting Liam; he made an excellent sales pitch for Lervig's local beer festival, coming up in October. And thanks as always to the Four Corners team for another fun event.

21 February 2018

Losing it

Today in your super soaraway Beer Nut, THE BEERS OTHER BEER BLOGS WON'T DARE WRITE ABOUT. Mostly stuff I acquired from places, for reasons, and am now compelled to review.

The run-up to Christmas is notorious for throwing fussy beer drinkers into environments where they can't drink the sort of thing they're used to. And so it was that in December I found myself making the most of a glass of Heineken Light. I had a notebook with me and it was the only thing on the bar I hadn't tasted before. I... wouldn't recommend it. It's not awful, mind. There's actually a decent real hop aroma, and it's a session-friendly 3.3% ABV. Not so session-friendly is the overly sweet taste, like boiled sugar or donuts. I guess that qualifies as character, meaning the beer isn't as bland as one might expect, and it's certainly not thin. But once the surprise novelty that it actually smells and tastes of something wears off, it becomes a very dull experience very quickly. Clearly this one is not intended for any sort of analysis. Moving on...

I have genuinely fond memories of Holsten Pils as a beer I drank at the end of shifts in a job I no longer do, at a hotel since demolished, in a century many years past. I don't know what it was I liked about it, just that it offered more flavour than normal beer, ie Harp and Tennent's. Sadly, this return visit 24 years later didn't offer the same horizon-widening experience. I figured that was more to do with my tastes than with the beer being from England instead of Hamburg, until I noticed the ingredients listing included "glucose syrup". Holsten my love: what have they done to you!? This is sweet and appley; in a blind taste I'd probably claim it's an ersatz cider rather than a beer. Utter sugary nonsense. They should be protesting its existence on the streets of Hamburg.

That arrived to me as a freebie from Aldi, which includes it with several other UK BUL beers in a "world lager" gift pack. Also in there is Kingfisher, a beer I've referenced several times on here but never actually reviewed. Heineken UK brews it. "The finest malted barley & hops" announces the front label in stately capitals; its cheeky little brother round the back adds glucose syrup and caramel colouring to that. I assume the bottle had never been under supermarket lights or left in sunlight, but it was still skunked, the aroma mixing that intense sulphurous grass with a more pleasant honey smell. There was very little head and the carbonation is exceedingly low, which may be deliberate as I remember that being a selling point of its arch-rival Cobra. The flavour is... absent, by and large. Mineral water is about as complex as it gets, with maybe an added sugariness but pretty much nothing else. It's perfectly drinkable, and probably in quantity too, but don't expect even the basics of a beer taste.

The next one cost me €1. That's my excuse. I was browsing the off licence, Santa Cruz was in a basket on the floor, and it cost €1 a bottle. I suffer acutely from Fear Of Wondering How Awful Can It Be (FOWHACIB) so I bought a bottle. It's a lager with lemon flavour and declines to state where it comes from. Perhaps we're better not knowing. The ABV is 4.2%, so pitched as a sort of a session-Desperados, I guess. In its favour it has enough of a hop content to be skunked and I was greeted by an unpleasant pissy aroma on pouring. A closer sniff reveals the sweet lemon syrup. I braced myself for a sugar bomb that never detonated. It's actually very plain and inoffensive, with a light lemonade buzz, maybe a little on the washing-up liquid side, but really not severely. I quaffed it back and thought no more of it, either good or ill. I doubt I'll be dropping another euro on any more, though I really feel I dodged a bullet, gracias a Dios.

The conclusion? That you can make crappy lager overly sweet without needing to resort to lemon syrup? I dunno. Who'd be a beer blogger, eh? Mug's game.

19 February 2018

Agile development

A core range seems increasingly to be an optional feature for new breweries. You can argue the merits or otherwise of that amongst yourselves. Today's post concerns two relatively recent additions to the Irish brewing scene, neither particularly pushed about having permanent beers in their respective line-ups.

Third Barrel is that odd betweeny brand produced by Third Circle and Stone Barrel at their shared brewery in Dublin. After several months of silence it was very busy with the new releases at the beginning of 2018, most of them showing up on the handpump at UnderDog.

First out was Plum Mild, enough of a rarity to make the mild-starved beer drinkers of Dublin line up for it, even in the depths of early January. It's 4% ABV and a gorgeous dark ruby colour, its flavour mixing perfectly the milk chocolate and succulent fruit. The latter tastes more of juicy raisins than plum, with an additional sweet blackberry preserve character. A pinch of black pepper at the end of it all finishes it with a flourish. Unlike a lot of milds, there's no roast or bitterness here; nothing to allow any harshness in. While it's predominantly sweet, it remains light and clean enough to avoid getting cloying, as evidenced by the three pints I caned in a row. I hope we'll be seeing more of it.

When that cask emptied it was replaced soon after by Third Barrel's Huell Melon SMASH pale ale. It started out all new-worldy, with a spritzy jaffa flavour, then takes a more waxy turn, finishing on an altogether harsher, but not unpleasant, bitterness. It's nicely big-bodied and the malt (Loughran's pale, SMASH fans) gives it the feel of a wholesome quality lager, those hops very much hanging on to their German passports. At 5% ABV it's maybe a little too strong and heavy for quaffing, but just one pint hit the spot beautifully.

Rumbling out next was dry-hopped Franken Stout. I think I can see where the name comes from as it's a strung-together mélange of contrasting flavours: sweet chocolate bolted onto juicy mandarin with a tighter, more astringent, grapefruit finish, plus lighter meadowy flowers. Though it's the strongest so far at 5.5% ABV, I found it very easy to slam through a pint, the bitterness keeping the chocolate in check. The body is nicely light and the sweetness doesn't build. This sort of multilayered complexity is probably what brewers are trying to get at when they bung extra fruit or flavourings into their casks. It's worth putting the effort in to do it properly from the start, I reckon.

Finally, Third Barrel Red IPA, which I am extracting from my forthcoming round-up of the Franciscan Well's Cask Ales and Strange Brews Festival for reasons of thematic cohesion. I do actually plan these posts, you know. The style is not one that normally does much for me, usually taking the toffee excesses of red ales and adding unnecessary bitter acidity. With this one at 6.8% ABV I feared the worst of all that. But! It's surprisingly light and easy-going, offering zesty sherbet and only light caramel: all very simple and accessible. Dialling down the punch to amber ale levels is definitely the way to go with these. This particular recipe has graduated beyond the Third Barrel pilot phase and has joined the Third Circle range in full production as their Red IPA.

Also keeping me busy with specials and one-offs, in the same pub, around the same time, was Wicklow's Larkin's Brewery. There were three new beers out of four in their January tap takeover and I began with Larkin's American Lager. From the name I was expecting big hops so was disappointed to find it crisp and clean but otherwise uninteresting. There's a slight noble-hop mustiness but it's more sweet than hoppy, reminding me a little of the Vienna style... and then it clicked. They're going for a sort of pre-Prohibition vintage American feel here, and yeah, I guess it does that. My initial sense of underwhelm lingered, however.

Something perkier next: Non-Stop IPA, a pretender to Founders's throne, it seems, though at 5.5% ABV a fair bit heftier than All Day. This is a similar medium-gold colour to the foregoing, this time with a slight haze. A lovely bitter and spicy hit arrives on the first sip, beginning at grapefruit skin, turning to softer apricot, but with just a naughty soapy twang in the finish. The carbonation is also a smidge high. It is possible to look beyond these teeny flaws and accept this as a damn decent zingy IPA. I'm told that the brewery will be launching a core range at Alltech Brews & Food next month. This would be worth including in there.

We wrap up with Larkin's Irish Stout which looked, frankly, gross: thin-looking murky bogwater with no head at all. It proved to be not at all the bland watery effluent I expected, starting with a rich and delicious chocolate fudge and toffee flavour, as sweet and filling as any milk stout. By way of balance there's an assertively dry coffee roast in the finish, rounding it out very nicely. It just goes to show that one should always, always, take the first sip with the mouth and not the eyes, because that pair are idiots who know nothing about good beer.

It's pretty rare for one of my blog posts to cover an assortment of Irish beers like this and the quality of them to be so good overall. Keep 'em coming, Third Barrel and Larkin's.

16 February 2018

Trilogy part two

I wrote about my first three Vocation beers early last year, all with affirming names, beginning "Heart", "Pride" and "Life". Three more came my way recently, via Dublin off licence Stephen Street News. "Cloak", "Naughty" and "Smash" suggested I was in for an altogether darker experience.

Cloak & Dagger, an oatmeal stout, resisted my efforts to photograph it with a decent head, the bubbles fading away to nothing with each top-up before I could grab my camera. "Rich & Creamy" goes the strapline, as oatmeal stout is supposed to be. But this isn't. I was quite shocked by how thin it is, even at 5.9% ABV. There's an overactive sparkle creating a carbonic dryness, and then a hard metallic bitterness, presumably from English hops. The hopping is a bigger part of it than any more typical stout aspects: there's a little burnt toast and some espresso, but that's as far as it goes. It is quite tasty, free of flaws and with a character all its own. The unmet expectation created by the brewery's description did spoil my enjoyment a little, however.

They can't possibly have made the same mistake with Naughty & Nice, a chocolate stout at 7.5% ABV, can they? It's just as tragically headless, with a strangely sour aroma. The chocolate flavour is sweet and artificial, reminding me of ersatz-chocolate sweets from my childhood. It does have a nice texture, full and smooth, but the flavour is not right. It's by turns too sweet, unexpectedly sour and with a similar metallic twang as found in the previous one. Maybe a change of style will help.

Last of the set is a double IPA: Smash & Grab. It smelled fantastic, all bright and fresh apricot, though is murky and I could tell the last of the pour was pure dreggy gunk. A warning about that on the can would help. Nevertheless it tastes gorgeous. There's the slick vanilla and burning garlic that so many brewers try to jam into their IPAs these days, but balanced perfectly between them and properly bitter too. The very apparent 8.5% ABV supercharges the lot without adding any unpleasant heat. Of yeast and dregs there is no trace, buried under the hop fireworks. This is genuinely a cut above most of what gets badged as New England IPA these days, and that includes the style archetypes which don't use those particular words.

And then a beer arrived which sidestepped Vocation's usual three-colour branding but was explicitly badged as a New England IPA. Blueprint is a collaboration with Atom Beers of Hull. It's not all that murky, as these things go, but plods through the style points in a workmanlike way. Vanilla first, garlic after, yet without the punch the good ones, like Smash & Grab above, offer. Claggy yeast takes over after a moment, and the finish is harsh and plasticky. This is a New England-style IPA for those who want their prejudices against them confirmed, which I'm sure was not the breweries' intent.

Quite a contrast here. In general, I think pale 'n' hoppy is where Vocation's strength lies.

14 February 2018

Dinky Binkie

Herself acquired a bottle of Binkie Claws barley wine on our recent trip to the Netherlands. Though De Molen badged and packaged, this claims to be based on Hair of the Dog's Doggie Claws, though what was brewed where is unclear. They've done a few versions of this and the 2017 one is 14.4% ABV and was given 27 months' maturation in bourbon casks. After that it was freshness all the way: cracking the wax seal after less than a month in the bottle.

It's a very dark red-brown colour and smells more like Madeira wine than beer or bourbon: that juicy ripe grape thing, shading almost towards brandy. The flavour continues the grapeish character, turning to prunes, and adding a tincture of autolytic chocolate, but there's amazingly no rough alcohol heat. I guess that's what the extended barrel time does, knocking all the rough edges off and leaving a beautifully smooth and classy sipper. A light sparkle reminds you that it's still a beer not a liqueur, as does a gentle herbal bitterness.

This is a really good late-night sipper and the effort that went into it pays off wonderfully. 27 months folks: that's the magic number.