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

Bungfight

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.