30 March 2018

Mes we can

It's over a year since I last reviewed a beer from that little bit of Belgium in Mayo, Mescan Brewery, so I'm devoting this post to a couple of theirs.

Westport Saison is first, coming on the personal recommendation of Jimmy Redmond, who also sold me the bottle. As always with saison I'm obsessing over the strength, and 6.2% ABV seems excessive. I had to pour carefully to keep the foam under control and a clear pale golden glassful was my reward. So far so good. It smells sweet and mineral-like: lemon sherbet, parma violets and bathsalts. It took a while to get a handle on the flavour as the massive carbonation kept getting in the way, punching my palate and distracting it from tasting. It's quite a simple beer behind that, with sweet lemon candy again and then dry straw and rye grass in the finish. All very pleasant in an understated way that few saison brewers seem to bother with these days.

I followed No. 72 with No. 73: Special Reserve. I'm told this is broadly a winter ale, and the dark colour and 8.4% ABV certainly back that up. It smells of coffee mixed with figs and plums, and in marked contrast with the Saison has a beautifully smooth texture. Those dark fruits are at the centre of the flavour and this time the roast is at the edge, joined by a certain dark chocolate bitterness and a gentler waft of exotic rosewater. It doesn't taste its strength, slipping back with a slick and gooey mix of Turkish delight and spiced latte, sweeter than a dubbel or quadrupel but lighter on the headachey esters and much more enjoyable for that. An excellent winter night's drinking, and a recipe I hope they continue.

Quite a contrast between these two, but they demonstrate what a great end-to-end brewer Mescan is. Their beers are easily missed in Dublin but worth seeking out if you've not had the pleasure.

28 March 2018

Wild in the beer aisle

It's one of those situations where I hear lots of people talking about a beer I see every week in the supermarket and haven't tried yet. Admittedly it doesn't happen too often, but it happened with Straffe Hendrik Wild. The concept is simple: standard Staffe Hendrik tripel innoculated with Brettanomyces, the intention being that it will transform and develop with age the way Orval famously does. My 2017 vintage had a best-before of 2022.

When I pulled the cap it didn't gush, but I could tell it was thinking about it. The foam ambled up the neck and the glass was two thirds filled with it when I stopped pouring. There's a seriously funky Brett aroma, mostly farmyard but with hints of that sticky peach and pineapple juice it also offers. The flavour lets more of the tripel come through: honey and spices first, set on a candy sugar base. Very warming, at 9% ABV, and very Belgian. The Brett follows, providing a different sort of Belgian character. The funk doesn't cover up the rest, at least not in the first year, though the elements it brings don't exactly integrate with the tripel, merely accompanying it.

I liked this. It's a fun twist on a very decent tripel. I would, however, be a little apprehensive about ageing it. I'm not sure that letting the voracious wild yeast dry it out over time will improve it any. Though obviously there's a part of me that really wants to try it anyway.

26 March 2018

The Balmacassie shuffle

An assortment of BrewDog beers today, acquired from various sources.

This bottle of Candy Kaiser, BrewDog's winter seasonal, showed up neglected on the shelves of DrinkStore, a month or so past its best-before. It's an Alt, though, and a strong one at 5.2% ABV, so how far wrong could it possibly have gone? It certainly still looked well: a crystalline amber-brown topped by a resilient tight white foam. It's clean and smooth, nowhere near as sweet as the name had me expecting. That classic Alt mix of bourbon biscuit, flaky oats and gently green celery hops is very much still apparent. My fridge is set to cellar temperature but I can imagine this being supremely refreshing when properly cold. It's unfussy, utterly devoid of silly craft twists, and seems to be genuinely channelling the spirit of Düsseldorf.

Slot Machine red rye IPA also came from DrinkStore though was rather fresher, so much so that it did that pleasing IPA thing of delivering a blast of citrus as soon as the tab is pulled. It's barely red and needs to be held up to the light to not appear brown. A proper sniff shows the hop punch to be less assertive, covered up somewhat with the rye's pepper. So it goes in the flavour too: mild grapefruit balanced with jammy malt and seasoned by dry and spicy black peppercorns, lasting long into the finish. It's an enjoyable combination, one I've never tasted as well balanced as this. That does mean it doesn't pop as much as some rye IPAs, but nor is it dull or overly sugary, hitting that sweet spot which covers both interesting and accessible.

For people moving from the macro fridge to craft, said Carlos. Reviews of Indie Pale Ale that I'd seen were consistently poor, but I never let that sort of thing bother me. BrewDog binned the first version they released and this is the new and improved edition. It's amber coloured, 4.2% ABV, and pours with masses of foam. The aroma has little to say, and the flavour likewise. There's a touch of Smithwick's about the whole picture: crisp malt husk, light caramel, and a wìsp of roast. The hops likewise are vaguely fruity and vaguely metallic: all very old world. It's easy, simple, quenching. But from the people who who made Punk IPA mainstream it's downright confusing. Maybe they're not the same people. Never mind. Down the hatch and on we go.

Trying to make up my mind one evening in The Black Sheep, I chanced a taster of Make Earth Great Again, a then-new saison. It's remarkably pale and clear for the style: a bright straw yellow. Classic white pepper is the flavour's opening salvo, before it follows that up with a quite nasty plastic burr. That settled down quickly but nothing came after it. At 7.5% ABV it ought to show some fruit character, but it's all just dry and spicy, all the way through. Needless to say I didn't opt for a full measure.

A much better time was had with Off-Duty Alien, which I found at BrewDog's lavish bar at the Alltech Brews & Food festival a few weeks ago. It's a rich and almost creamy IPA, 6.5% ABV and a clear orange colour, despite being in the New England style. Melon and mango combine in the foretaste, and there's a gentle apricot skin bitterness in the finish. Although orange and grapefruit are part of the ingredients, I guess it's the New England yeast that removes any sharp edges from them and results in a much softer and happier beer.

I may have mentioned once or twice previously that I won one of BrewDog's Beer Geek Awards last year. That bundle included Coffee & Cigarettes, a smoked imperial stout they created as a collaboration with Beavertown. It's dark and thick, as might be expected at 12.1% ABV, and begins and ends with masses of warming peaty Scotch whisky, complete with all the salt and iodine that goes into that profile. There's a dry and papery finish, with dark chocolate and lots of alcohol heat, but nothing specifically coffeeish. For all the one-dimensionality it's very tasty, though you really need to like peat flavours as this has damn all else to offer. It worked for me.

There were also a couple of Abstrakts in the box, and I began with another barrel-aged stout, AB22, a coffee and chocolate one, aged in Speyside casks and 12.5% ABV. The thickly waxed cap was a pain to get off, but at least came away cleanly. The beer all but walked out of the bottle, a leisurely gloop, like draining motor oil from an engine. Though it looked flat, a very dark brown head did form and bubbles on the side of the glass indicated the presence of some level of carbonation. It didn't smell great, mixing harsh sappy wood with sweet chocolate syrup. The flavour is surprisingly bitter, throwing out black liquorice first, then some lighter summer fruits and flowers: strawberry and rosewater. The texture, unsurprisingly, means it's only possible to sip it, and that allowed plenty of time to appreciate its flavours. Though it's not a subtle beer by any means, there is a light, almost honeyish, single-malt whisky taste, accompanied by a slight burn. A different sort of burn comes from the dark-roast coffee. The liquorice vapours reassert themselves at the end, forming the finish, one which is surprisingly short for a thumping beer like this. On balance I feel it lacked the smoothness and rounded warmth that stouts like this do best. Perhaps I should have aged it longer.

The second one is AB23, a bourbon-aged barley wine. It looks the part: a clear dark garnet shade. Bourbon is at the reins the whole way through, from the oaky vanilla aroma through to the vanilla-oak flavour. It's sweet, and light-bodied, giving it a real bourbon-and-cola feel. Any hopping that went on during the brewing process has been thoroughly buried under the woody whiskey; only a toffee candy remains. This is the nearest thing to an Innis & Gunn beer I've tasted from BrewDog. It has the same level of bold simplicity. I got through my glass no problem, but I was also glad not to have shelled out a chunk of money for something this basic. 23 beers in, I thought the Abstrakt series would be doing something more thrilling.

If there's a pattern it's that BrewDog does accessible medium-strength beer better than the more involved fancy stuff. Something to bear in mind when I'm choosing which ones to go for next.

23 March 2018

Short hop

I finally made it to the Lock 13 Brewpub in Sallins! Admittedly I had to be all but marched there via an invite from the house to come and participate in a beery symposium hosted by head brewer Brendan Murphy. The bar itself is lovely, rangey in that country family pub way, stretching out along the Grand Canal at the eponymous lock. The latest add-on is the Kildare Brewing Company, in production since last summer and, for the moment, supplying beer mainly to the pub and its sister, The Silken Thomas in Kildare Town. It's very handy for Dublin, too: less than half an hour on the commuter train from Heuston.

From his homebrew days, Brendan has been known as a wizard with lager, and so it was with Kildare Brewing Co. Lager that I started my journey through the range. In keeping with the general theme of the beers, it's sessionable and accessible, 4.2% ABV and sparkling clean in a way that brewpub lagers rarely are. Despite the modest strength it's not thin, displaying a solid malt base with even a slightly sticky golden syrup or marmalade quality. A fun spicy bitterness is the hops' contribution, a subtle addition to the otherwise malt forward beer. It's perhaps not as smooth as the classic examples of the helles style, but it's still perfectly serviceable.

Hoppy Lager was previous called Pilsner but the brewery found customers weren't getting it. I'm not sure I'm getting it either as it's still a beer which leans heavily on the malt component, ramping up the ABV to 4.6%. It's drier and altogether plainer than the previous beer, and while yes it is noticeably bitterer I didn't get any extra hop flavour, which was disappointing. While this is unquestionably another well-made pale lager, I'm not sure I see the rationale of having two beers so similar on tap together.

The top-fermented sequence begins with the Weiss, a deliberately light version of the style at just 4% ABV and looking quite pale on it: a wan hazy yellow. The flavours are down-the-line classic: some bubblegum, turning a little to butane, a dusting of clove and a touch of noble-hop celery greenness. I do miss the chewy, fluffy candyfloss body of a bigger weissbier, however. Maybe because it was a cold day in February I missed out on its more summery refreshing side, or maybe I just prefer weissbier with a little more meat on its bones.

Better get through the Red next. This one is weaker still, only 3.8% ABV, so I really wasn't expecting much from it, but it genuinely impressed me. It's remarkably dark, for a start, appearing a ruby-garnet colour in the glass. The flavour is packed with dry roasted notes and dark chocolate, giving it the air of a porter more than a red, or possibly even a mild. There's a very English-ale metallic hop bite in the finish too. You might be disappointed if you were looking for caramel or toffee, but I really liked this roasty twist on a normally uninspiring style. Remember that lovely Irish Red that Aldi used to sell? Yeah, that.

According to Brendan, the Pale Ale on tap was the same as the "English Pale Ale" served on cask at JW Sweetman last year. The barman disagreed, telling me the hopping was different and insisting on giving me a taste. Now maybe it's the dispense, but it tasted different to to me, showing bright and fresh new world resins, rather than the other's heavier wax and honey. I think I still preferred the soft, full richness of the cask one, regardless of whether it's the same beer or not.

Rounding off my draught meanderings was Kildare Extra Stout, a relative thumper of 5.5% ABV. And it genuinely lived up to its billing, opening and then following through on a huge treacle and burnt caramel flavour. This flavour suggests that it ought to be sticky and difficult, but it isn't, slipping back smoothly and finishing clean and dry. The burntness does build as it goes, but thankfully there's enough sweet malt substance to prevent it from turning the taste acrid.

Our talking done, the beer world set to rights, and the importance of sustainability and local ingredients duly emphasised, we were just on the way out the door when Brendan broke out his celebratory Beetroot Ale -- made with Kildare-grown beetroot, of course.

The fresh version is as one might expect when the base style is nothing fancy: no saison yeast or herbal seasonings here, just a big chewy body and a very earthy root-veg flavour. Surprisingly it's only 4.2% ABV: it feels a lot stronger. The real fireworks came with the two-year aged version, where the ABV was pushed up to a massive 9%. It's a clear and bright pink colour and smells delightfully of cherry or raspberry soda pop. The kiddie joy continues in the taste, with more raspberryade and sparkling sherbet. I'd never have guessed from this that beetroot was involved, with all the dry earth cleared neatly away.

There are, of course, expansion plans at Kildare Brewing, but they are modest. More kegs will allow them to distribute a little more widely, though a mass takeover of the Dublin beer trade is not likely to be on the cards. I'm all in favour of keeping it local, and hope to be making more trips out to Lock 13 in the future. Thanks to Brendan, Barry, Orla and all the team at the brewpub, and of course Kellie who definitely doesn't work there but it can be hard to tell that sometimes.

21 March 2018

Time for cask

Spoonsfest fairly sneaks up on you. It seems like no time since the autumn one. My excuse for not braving the northside this time was the weather: Beast From The East 2 was still blowing up a storm on Monday last, so it was Dún Laoghaire and no further.

The first beer to catch my eye was War Lord, a red IPA from the normally-reliable Purity. It arrived a slightly murky copper colour, smelling like a basket of ripe summer fruits. This is no sugar bomb, however. It's nice and dry with plenty of refreshing tannins. At 5% ABV there's enough substance to keep it from being thin or harsh, and while the billed Chinook, Galaxy and Simcoe hops don't seem to have been used to any great effect, there's a pleasant background fruitiness, if nothing you'd actually describe as bittering. Overall a good opening pint, and just the refresher I needed after the headwind and sea spray.

Greene King's Heritage Pale Ale had been attracting a bit of publicity in the UK, over whether it did or didn't show off the characteristics of the Chevallier barley it's brewed with. I can't speak to that but I do know that my third arrived an attractive golden amber topped by a steady foam. A creamy texture leads on to a flavour that's also creamy... no wait... buttery. Once you notice the diacetyl it's hard to think of anything else. There's a tiny bitter pinch from the noble hops but no other flavours to speak of. Definitely nothing that makes it taste other than a mediocre brown bitter.

I had higher hopes for the Oakham beer, Attila. This is the token strong beer of the festival: 7.5% ABV and given six months ageing in the cask. It looks innocent, a clear gold, but has a sticky, syrupy feel with plenty of alcohol heat, like a super-strength lager. There's lots of warming fruit in the flavour. The notes say elderflower and I concur fully. I'd also add pale sherry, red apples and crunchy oat cookies. While fun for the first sips it gets very cloying after a few mouthfuls. I was very glad to only have a third of it.

Number three in this set wasn't part of the festival line-up, being a leftover from the just-finished Six Nations. It's a brown bitter from JW Lees called Game On. My lack of faith in rugby-specials, shaken by Conwy here, is restored. This is terrible, all thin and soapy. A hint of sticky caramel is the only other nod towards proper beer flavour. It was easier to knock back than the Oakham one, but that's about all that can be said in its favour.

Bookending this visit is another copper-coloured one, Dakota Red by Welsh brewery VOG. I'm not sure quite what to make of this. The first impression is harshly stale and grainy: on a third I'd probably have written it off there. But that's hiding a strong hop bitterness, an old-fashioned, old-world, metallic punch, by which I'm kind-of charmed. As it warms, the hard edges smooth out and the hop flavour comes more to the fore. It's still a little severe, acidic to the point of vomity, but not a total wash-out. One pint was still plenty, mind.

To the Three Tun in Blackrock, then, for the altogether calmer atmos and whatever else is available. Salopian's Bertza stout was the sole other representative of the festival. They claim chocolate and mocha for this 5.5%-er, and that's arguably present, though leaning heavily on the bitterly dark coffee roast. Unfortunately it's overlaid with a rubbery savoury putty thing that ruined the party for me. I like the texture, and I get what it's trying to be, but this instance just isn't clean enough to get a pass.

It wouldn't be a Wetherspoon festival trip without me having a go at a Caledonian beer. The festival one wasn't on at the Three Tun, but there was Edinburgh Castle, a 4.1% ABV red ale. It smells hot and buttery and stale, so typical Caledonian. The flavour presents acrid vinegar in front of that, then husky oatmeal and cloying golden syrup. I will accept that this particular cask may have expired, but I firmly believe there was no decent beer to begin with. Classic Caledonian.

As usual for the Wetherspoon festival, there's a small amount of gold in the dreck. At least it doesn't cost much to find it.

19 March 2018

One night in Drumcondra

I decided, a few years ago, that bottle shares aren't for me. It's not a format in which I really enjoy drinking beer so I mostly leave it to other people. Occasionally, very occasionally, however, an invitation lands that I can't resist. Simon waved a can of Focal Banger at me and off I went, through the January drizzle, to the northside.

It was a bigger occasion than I was expecting: ten beers and four punters to drink them. We began with Weird Weather Lactose, an achingly hip double IPA from Mikkeller. The aroma is promising, all fresh and zesty, but it falls apart on tasting. A horribly thick soupy texture is the first transgression, followed by cloying, juddering sweetness. Lemon curd is the only flavour I picked up, and that's not enough for any beer at 8.3% ABV. I'm sure it's just how the kids like their DIPA these days, and that it's exactly as the brewer intended, but it just didn't hit the proper flavour beats to get a pass from me.

Headline act Alchemist Focal Banger came next, an IPA of 7% ABV. An ugly beast, there were huge bits floating around in it; the otherwise clear yellow beer visible between the clumps. While not as sickly as the previous beer, there is a major gumminess. Clinging on to that I found a harsh onion flavour and a stern pine bitterness. The green onion lasts long into the finish, and neither it nor anything that came before it, suggested to me that this beer deserves its high standing. Maybe it originated IPA that tastes like onion, but there's loads of them now. It's really nothing special; let the hype train move along.

Switching continents, dropping the alcohol further, but keeping it savoury, The Kernel was next, with Pale Ale Nelson Sauvin. There was surprisingly little aroma, and while the caraway occupied the middle ground of the flavour, some much more pleasant peach and melon notes gradually emerged later. I think I'm too used to treating Kernel beers reverentially, because it took me a while to twig that this 5%-er is meant as easy-going refreshment, and I'm sure it performs that role masterfully. It's easy to miss these associations when sharing tiny measures.

My contribution to the line-up came from the late lamented Commons Brewery, and was the last of the bottles I brought home from the US in 2016. Petit Classique is (was) a 4.1% ABV saison with added pink peppercorns. I was seriously worried about what might have happened after two winters and a summer in my uninsulated attic. I needn't have been: it was gorgeous, and tasted as fresh as the day it was bottled. There was a massive peach aroma to begin, and that carried through into the flavour: juicy and fleshy, accompanied by a white-tea dryness and a little plummy tartness. The pepper is barely noticeable, and the base is a lightly-browned toast malt, similar to champagne. It's a fantastically elegant beer, complex and flavourful without anything out of place or unpleasantly loud. That its makers couldn't survive in business merely indicates that the beer market is the wrong shape.

To Canada next, and Molson Coors-owned Trou Du Diable in Quebéc. La Pitoune claims to be a pilsner, and is indeed yellow. It smells worryingly fruity, however, and there's an annoying amount of fizz. I got a huge malt extract flavour, like it's somehow unfinished, and this makes it cloying and difficult and a long way from what pilsner is supposed to be. A fun incense spicing is the only redeeming feature in what's an otherwise difficult and confusing beer.

Its sibling was Le Sang D'Encre, a stout at 5.5% ABV. This was a marked improvement, though isn't exactly subtle. It roars with milk chocolate and sweet wheaty cereal, and seemed quite raw and homebrew-ish to me. I got a hint of herbal mint at the end, and a smooth warming coffee taste, like Tia Maria. It's not at all bad, once you get used to that kiddies' breakfast sugar rush.

A colourful can next: Prairie Flair from Prairie Artisan Ales in Oklahoma. It self-describes as an orange and coriander gose and is 5.4% ABV. The aroma is very promising, offering a spicy gunpowder minerality. Fruit takes over in the flavour, specifically notes of fresh ripe apricot, followed by a saline rush sweeping it away as quickly as it arrived. A middling sourness is left behind as the finish; clean but not sharp or puckering. The salt wash means it just misses out on being properly refreshing, and I'd have enjoyed it more if that had been dialled back a little, but for a flavoured gose it hits a lot of the classic style points.

It's always a pleasure to catch up with beer from Burning Sky, one of the most interesting English breweries. Last Voyage was in the line-up here, a murky yellow IPA that showed the first two beers how it's supposed to be done. There's a yeast element to the aroma, but spicy, not gritty, and there's a certain vanilla character in the flavour, but not overly sweet. Balancing it is an orange and clove taste that really brings the collaborating brewery to mind, adding as it does a lacing of Harvey's Sussex Best Bitter, one of the world's truly great beers. Like Sussex Best there's a sublime accessible complexity, and it's very easy to forget it's a thumping 6.7% ABV. Deliberately cloudy IPAs have a history (albeit a short one) of using English ale yeasts; I think we may have a winning strain here.

More in the same vein from Wylam next, with The Man Behind The Door. 7.2% ABV this time, and the aroma is a fun mix of alium and spices. I got nutmeg in particular, and in the flavour that's joined by clove as well, plus a sizeable vanilla sweetness. It's very much in that modern style, but is another one that pulls it off neatly, holding my attention after the second mouthful while not pushing any one element of the profile to the extreme.

We finished the session where we started it, on a pale yellow double IPA from a tall can: Wylam's 45:33. There's more spice in the aroma here, but also a more traditional citric buzz, all orange and lemon rinds. Then it's back to business as usual: vanilla flavour, plus concentrated garlic, with a sticky consistency. Nevertheless it manages to do all that well, mostly by going shamelessly all-out on everything, and making full use of its 8.4% ABV. Somehow it manages to avoid turning hot, though I did get a slight plastic buzz, which sometimes clings to the end of intense vanilla. I'm still giving it a nod of approval, before I head for the door.

Cheers to Steph, Simon and Richard for helping fill out another one of these interminable blog posts.