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.

12 February 2018

Emerging complexity

It's hard to escape American beer in this game. It crops up all over the shop. Today's post is a collection of isolated odds and sods from US brewing, from the basics to the mad stuff.

Sweet Water's tenure in Ireland was short but the Atlanta brewery still feels familiar. Hop Hash "easy IPA" was new to me when I spotted it in The Hague just before Christmas. It's 4.2% ABV and a pale gold with a slight haze. There's a serious floral perfume, almost like walking past a branch of Lush. This continues in the flavour: slightly spicy and with little bitterness and almost no aftertaste. This is refreshing without being thin, and easy for sure. But boy it gets boring very quickly. Built for chugging, I guess, which is fair enough.

For a Georgian IPA with a bit more meat on its bones, here's Stay G-O-L-D from Creature Comforts (in collaboration with New York's Interboro), for which I have the fantastic Mr. Fox to thank. It's a 6% ABV job, pouring out a sickly pale yellow, looking like lemon curd in the glass. The aroma is cracking, however, offering pure peach and mango with just a slightly harder garlic burn lurking beneath. Meanwhile, its flavour is all about the fruit: juicy, fleshy, mouthwatering tropical goodness. A piney acidity finishes it off and somehow accentuates that juiciness further. The texture is light without being thin, enough to let the hops shine incandescently yet without risking lack of balance. A rising garlic note as it warms spoils it a little; it was a better beer at the beginning when that was muted. Nevertheless, I immediately wanted another. Textbook stuff.

American icon Founders held a tap takeover in Alfie Byrne's back in the autumn, concentrating on its barrel-aged offerings. For me, it was my first time trying DKML. The "malt liquor" style designation presumably means this is a lager, and definitely means it's pumped full of corn sugar. This, in conjunction with the bourbon barrel maturation, brings the ABV up to a frankly excessive 14.2%. Just a taster for me, please. It's nearly very good but doesn't quite escape its roots. The flavour mixes cream sherry, vanilla and toffee into some sort of weird winter liqueur your aunt drinks. It's certainly smooth, but gets quite cloying quite quickly. While it's certainly distinctive, I doubt that bourbon-aged lager is an idea whose time has come.

Finally, a beer I brought home from New York in 2016 and shared with Reuben and Brian when we did our New Zealand beer tasting last year. Kvasir is one of a series of ancient beer recreations produced by Dogfish Head, aided by renowned beer historian Patrick McGovern. The full background is here, involving chemical analysis of a 3,500‐year‐old Danish drinking vessel. The result is a hazy dark orange ale, 10% ABV, and flavoured with honey and berries. The fruit is a major component of the aroma, buoyed up on strong alcoholic vapours. It doesn't taste as soupy as it smells, thankfully, with intense raisin and redcurrant; clean and tart at first, then getting sweeter and more jam-like in the finish. I thought the malt would have more to say -- I guess the letters "kvas" make me think of beer made from rye bread -- but it's not in that genre at all. Overall a very interesting mélange of flavours: a novelty beer that's not so weird as to be unsettling.

The surprise bonus beer, just when I thought I had finished this post, is another Founder initialism: CBS (Canadian Breakfast Stout), an imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels previously used for maple syrup. There's a Mountie on the label. The hype machine was already cranked up to 11 by the time it hit Ireland so I was expecting big things. It delivers relatively big things, starting with a pure Irish coffee aroma: cream first, then oily beans and brown sugar. The texture is one of pure silk, and I think that's to the flavour's detriment: it glides off the palate a little too quickly. As it slipped past I got more coffee first, and then the vanilla oak from the bourbon, complemented by the different woodiness of the maple. And that's sort-of it: sumptuous but simple, leaving only a boozy buzz in its wake, one which doesn't fully suggest the whopping 11.7% ABV. For something that could easily have been a nasty mix of sugar and heat, it's very pleasantly refined. I really enjoyed the six or seven minutes it took me to gulp it down.

Nevertheless, out of that lot, the winner is the IPA. America, ladies and gentlemen.

09 February 2018

Slav to the rhythm

A swift dash along the taps in Dublin's top Czech pub Pifko today.

Lately the management seem to have hung their hat on the Moravian Pivovar Litovel as the house brand, beyond the usual standard ones. Moravan is the pale lager, one with a slightly buttery aroma starting out. Heh, who do you think you are? Pilsner Urquell? Heh. For better or worse (better, IMO) this doesn't come out in the flavour and instead there's a wonderful unexpected floral taste, all lavender, violet and other breezy bucolic blooms. It's not sweet with it, offering a dry carbonic bite to balance it, and then finishing flawlessly cleanly, disappearing politely off the palate, ready for the next mouthful. This definitely has a character all its own, not just another Czech lager. I was intrigued to find out what happens when the brewery goes dark.

Litovel Dark is, predictably, the result. It's only 4.8% ABV but crams the favour profile of a beer twice its strength into that. From the powerful rubbery aroma, to the thick treacle texture, to the throat-scorching roast, this beer fights any effort to relax into it. As such it's not very enjoyable and almost the opposite of what I want from a Czech tmavý lager. This might suit some weirdo out there looking for a session-strength Baltic porter, but it definitely wasn't for me.

There's a nod to the non-tradtional styles on Pifko's bar, in the form of Flying Cloud IPA from Pivovar Vysoký Chlumec. In the way of eastern European brewers making IPA, they seem to have decided that it should be a huge and sticky maltbomb infused with a powerful floral perfume. The citrus notes that have made American-style IPA a desirable commodity worldwide do not appear to have been part of the plan. An exotic jasmine spiciness helps offset the heavy strawberry syrup sweetness a little, and the base beer is lager-clean, not spending an unwelcome amount of time on the palate. It's still not a great example of an IPA however you slice it, and again tastes much stronger than its actual ABV of 5.5%.

I went to Pifko looking for a good alternative to světlý ležák but the golden lager was the best thing on.

Maybe the Slovaks can help. A few months ago I encountered Zlatý Bažant's Medový Porter. The name means "honey" and while it's sweet, and a strong-ish 6.7% ABV, it's quite a gentle beer, offering comforting chocolate and plum notes with a pinch of light roast. There's a certain liquorice bitterness which calls Baltic porter to mind once more, while the fruit side introduces elements of dark Belgian ales. Nothing fancy and nothing difficult, it's an all round pleasant dark beer. Thanks to Reuben for sending it my way.

07 February 2018

Tea time

Talk about working slowly through a beer range. I enjoyed Digital IPA, brewed at BrewDog for New Zealand's Yeastie Boys, in the first half of 2016. Now I've finally got around to taking a second one for a spin: Gunnamatta, another IPA, this time with added Earl Grey tea. This one is a murky pale orange colour with little more than a desultory effort at a head. It smells like a straightforward American-style pale ale, if perhaps a little old-fashioned, all orange candy on a caramelised malt base. The flavour continues in this fashion: plain drinking, lightly citric, though it does introduce the tea right at the beginning. I had been expecting this to be a bathtime blast of bergamot, but it's much more subtle. The tannins come through pleasingly, adding a classic tea-ness to the whole thing, the bergamot oil arriving right at the end, brushing past the back of the palate on its way out.

Whereas Digital was all about the hop fireworks, this is much more refined: delicate and refreshing like, well, a good cup of Earl Grey. We have to gloss over the unreasonably high ABV of 6.5%. It's good to see a brewer use an extra ingredient to enhance the base product without letting the novelty take over. Another quality effort from Yeastie Boys; give me 18 months more and I'll try the third one.

05 February 2018

This lot

Protect Ya Neck is a lactose and vanilla IPA, a style description that gives me the absolute fear. It looks like a real IPA all right: an only slightly cloudy medium amber colour. The aroma is unpleasantly sweet, that on-trend lurid-yellow vanilla ice cream thing that has very little to do with real vanilla. And that's the long and the short of the flavour: big sticky melty ice cream with just a half-hearted grassy burr on the end which does not complement the rest of it. The smooth texture is pleasant, though probably contributes even more to the general sickliness. I'm certain this is technically perfect and exactly what the brewer meant it to be, but it is not the sort of beer I enjoy. It needs more hops and, to put not too fine a point on it, to be Ambush.

To the brewpubs next, and JW Sweetman, host of Barrelhead, was pouring the cuckoo's latest creation East Coast IPA, on cask, no less. I was given a cloudy pint, which is par for the course given the name, though was surprised when that turned out to be just the effect of the sparkler and it settled to a fairly clear medium amber. Simcoe, Citra and Mosaic are the hops and they give it a big hit of tropicality right up front, though more like Skittles or Starburst than the real thing. This tails off quickly leaving a pleasant bitterness, one which unfolds to completely take over the palate before the pint is half way finished. I've been noticing this pattern with New England-style IPAs generally: amazing fruit juice on the first mouthful but none beyond that. Usually it's garlic that gets in the way; this time it's pine. I enjoyed this one overall though, the only other thing I noted being its surprisingly thin texture at 5.2% ABV. A kegged version is due to follow.

As it happened, the neighbours were also playing with this on-trend style. Urban Brewing New England IPA is lighter again at 4.9% ABV, and also darker and clearer than one might expect. The characteristic hop freshness isn't in any doubt, with an almost tangible thick and funky resinous aroma. Rather than fruit in the first sip, there's creamy sweet vanilla. That's where the New-Englandishness stops, however. Next there's a sharp bitterness and a dry bite from the excessive carbonation. This beer only brought me half way to New England: very much a mid-Atlantic sort of IPA. After all my kvetching over the murkiness of the brewery's beers I probably deserved getting one that isn't murky enough.

I was treated much better by Urban Brewing Earl Grey IPA. It didn't look great: a muddy foxy shade. A surprisingly fabulous fresh and juicy strawberry flavour opens it up, and I immediately thought I might have been given the Strawberries & Cream beer (reviewed here) by mistake. A taster of that proved that no, this was its own thing. When you get past the red-berry sweetness there's a delightful citrus spritz: unbitter, like a quality lemonade. It did leave me wondering where the tea was in all this, and I think maybe a dry tannic note in the finish shows that at work, but it's quite faint, sitting next to a gentle clove spicing. Overall this is a beautifully light and refreshing summery IPA, and definitely my favourite that the brewery has produced so far.

There's another brewery in Dublin's class of 2017 that I haven't written about yet. Four Provinces launched in 2014 as a client brewer and last year graduated to a standalone brewery, one which is roughly 600 metres from my front door. I should pop round. The first beer fully created on the new kit is Torc Fiáin, a double IPA. I caught up with it at The 108 a couple of weeks ago. Oranges and pine is the executive summary. A surprisingly tart orange zest kicks it off: sharp enough to make me wonder if it was infected. It wasn't, though, it's just a lot drier than a typical DIPA, with an almost spirituous alcohol burn, despite the modest ABV of 7.5%. As it warms it stays clean but gets more complex, showing orange blossom, savoury biscuit and then a big pine bitterness. A sticky cordial note was beginning to creep in as I finished it, but not enough to disturb my enjoyment. Welcome to the neighbourhood.

Carrig's Hop Bomb came recommended by Reuben, on tap at the brewery's Bar Rua. The name promises much from what turned out to be a wan-looking 5.5% ABV IPA. It backs it up, though, beginning with an enticing mix of fresh peach and caraway in the aroma. The flavour, appropriately, explodes onto the tongue with a huge lemon bitterness from the outset. The caraway is present but muted, and while the texture is a little watery, the pithy buzz lasts long enough to be truly satisfying. I'd take this citric Semtex over any number of sticky custard IPAs.

I had been meaning to drop over to The Merry Cobbler in Sandymount for ages. It's the Dublin branch of the more famous Merry's Gastropub in Dungarvan and I stumbled across it in the company of the Fine Ale Coundown team as it's the nearest pub to where they record. There's a modest draught selection, including Rascals, Brú, and a house pale ale called Merry Brew, from Dungarvan Brewing, of course. 4.5% ABV and a pale yellow colour, it smelled a bit musty at first. The flavour is fine, though, if not quite exciting. There's a soda-water minerality with a squeeze of lemon juice for bitterness, finishing dry. I needed a second pint to fully get the measure of it, but the truth is it's designed more for drinking than measuring. Which is absolutely fair enough for a house beer.

We finish with the YellowBelly inevitabilities, starting at the taps at UnderDog. First up is Weisse Versa, a dunkelweisse. While it is the appropriate dark brown colour, the head is a bit lacking, and weissbier never looks the part in a stubby pint glass. Milk chocolate is the main feature, backed by a certain yeast-derived spice. Obviously banana, clove and the like were expected, but never showed up to the party, and the beer gets a black mark in the style column for that. It pretty much tastes how it looks: like a decent fizzy porter, getting better and smoothing out as the carbonation dissipates.

De-Vine Intervention is described as a wet-hopped sour ale, and as such should have been right up my street. It's only 3.7% ABV, however, and I think that really made it pull its punches. A bright hazy gold in appearance, the flavour is at least complex, mixing cantaloupe juiciness with savoury sea salt as well as hints of smoke and farmyard funk. All of these things can be found in great beers of this sort, but here they were just too muted, and once my palate had adjusted, two mouthfuls in, it became almost bland, leaving me reaching to find any flavour at all. I'm definitely not an extremist when it comes to hoppy or sour or funky so this isn't a do you even lacto bro? situation. The recipe really could use some punching up on all sides.

And finally this just in: Electric Dreams, a Simcoe-Amarillo pale ale. A murky yoke, it smells of raw hops: bitter, spicy and vegetal. The texture is thin, and that doesn't do anything to offset the onslaught of big hops. Lemon skin and lime pith start it off, after which the yeast swings in, by turns fun and spicy, then serious and savoury. At the end, the hops fade, leaving the drinker and the yeast in embarrassed silence, trying to think of something to say to each other. Overall, I'm not a fan. It's just too mucky, and the freshness of the hops offer insufficient compensation. I can see how it's sessionable, though: no part of it is going to clog up anyone's palate. It would just be nicer if it showed a bit more polish.

Here endeth the round-up. Still not bad for a quiet January.

02 February 2018

Gate and switch

An icy gale was whipping the flurries of snow down James's Street and barely a sinner was out in it, except for the trickle of Ireland's beer commentariat filing through the entrance to Open Gate Brewery. The bar was almost eerily quiet this Tuesday night: closed to the regular revellers, and with all the taps blank and the blackboards clean. We had been invited along to taste the latest Guinness beer, without any clue as to what it was. My rumour that a mixed fermentation barrel-aged version of Satzenbrau was in the offing had failed to gain traction.

Out came the tasting trays of the new beer, introduced by brewer John Casey. It's a lager, he told us. While it looked like one, of the clear golden sort anyway, it didn't feel like one. The body was quite heavy, gummy almost, and I suspected that, as with Hop House 13, it was fermented with an ale yeast. There's a somewhat wort-like sweetness up front, but followed and almost fully offset by soft stonefruit hop flavours: mango and peach in particular. Topaz, Galaxy and Mosaic are the hops: the same combination used in HH13, and the main reason for its similarity. The twist is that the new beer, Pure Brew, is alcohol-free, or near-as at 0.5% ABV. Although I spotted the malt-extract sweetness which so often marks these, the hopping was sufficient to completely prevent me making the association. The technicals of it, explained next, are quite interesting. Here comes the science part: concentrate.

I don't know how often this happens with non-alcoholic beer, but it's not brewed to strength and then de-alcoholised. They start with a wort of around 1.030 and pitch a special variety of yeast which brings it down no further than about 1.025 before finishing of its own accord. The quirk of this process that really interested me is that this is one of the very few Guinness beers you'll find out and about that's produced at sale strength rather than brewed and fermented at high gravity and watered down before packaging. Though it bears the name of the Open Gate Brewery like every new release lately, there is a pleasing piece of extra transparency on the back label "Dreamed up at the Open Gate Brewery. Brewed next door in St James's Gate", as are all the Open Gate branded beers that are distributed beyond the taproom itself. A thumbs up for this, and I'll happily overlook the slight topographical inaccuracy.

Pure Brew works well as a non-alcoholic offering. Yes it's a bit sweet and heavy, but that hop profile, if it survives out on the dusty floor-level shelves where pubs keep these products, is enough of a redeeming feature to give it the beatings of its German rivals.

L: Plum Pudding Porter ; R: Olde English Ale
Duty to the new guy done, there was time for some swift catching-up on Open Gate's winter offerings. First out was Plum Pudding Porter. I was imagining a sticky confection, especially given the downright imperialist ABV of 7.2%, but it's pleasingly dry right from the very first sip. The pastry element is present but understated: raisin and prune, lightly spiced with cinnamon. It's a proper winter beer, not gimmicky, and with the fruit and spice additions well integrated into the flavour, not squirted in as an afterthought which seems to be too often the case with this lot.

Olde English Ale is apparently a staff favourite. It's another dark and strong one, 7.5% ABV this time, given 11 months of maturation before serving. It's also quite dry, with a bit of Foreign Extra Stout's bitter bite balanced by toffee in the tail end. While clean and straightforward, I thought it lacked something with regard to complexity: it feels like it should have more interesting mature beer flavours, some coffee or cocoa; even a cheeky savoury edge of autolytic umami, but everything it does arrives in one go and leaves the palate just as promptly.

A total change of tack for the evening's finisher, and a perfect contrast to the heavy stuff. Goodbye Gose is that rare bird: a gose that hasn't been hacked around with in the mistaken belief that the style needs syrupy enhancements. This is absolutely straight up, 5% ABV, offering a refreshing briney salt foretaste countered by tart lemon and all set on a gently effervescent body. You may not think you need cleansing refreshment on a snowy night in January, but this delivers it anyway, and I felt the better for it. It could probably stand to be a little sourer for my taste, but worked absolutely perfectly as-is.

Once again Open Gate excels at a German beer style. Sure you'd wonder why they bother with the dark stuff at all.

 A little over a week later I was back in for something else and two new additions had gone on the bar. Winter Sunshine is another pale ale, 5% ABV, and suffering from the thick syrupyness that seems to beset most Open Gate attempts at doing properly hop-forward beers. It's not unpleasant, having a kind of bittersweet marmalade orange taste, as well as a fun peppery spice. It completely fails to be refreshing, however, coming through heavy and a little cloying. The refreshment quotient is disappointingly low.

The other new one was a complete contrast: Dunkel Hefeweizen, obviously a wheat beer but arriving looking like a stout: black with a beige head. The term "hybrid" gets thrown around to an inappropriate extent in modern beer, but this really did taste and smell like an amalgam of two very distinct styles. There's the rich and sweet brown-banana of a particularly warm-fermented weizen, sitting next to the dry burnt-toast flavour of a particularly roasty stout. A curious mix, and one that shouldn't work, but I quite liked its oddness. The blandness that often besets dunkelweisse is mercifully absent. On the down side it is a bit thin, with a low energy ABV of 4.6%. The fun flavour blend does go a long way to make up for that, however.

That's it from Open Gate for now. I've an appointment there in early March and will be hoping to meet the spring collection then.