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.

16 March 2018

A Suir thing

Reuben's stag weekend brought a small and very well-behaved group of beer fans to Waterford for a couple of days' civilised tippling.

Action centred on two of the city's pubs in particular, beginning at the new Metalman bar, following a visit to the brewery. It's a neat little place, in a former biker bar on the quayside. Obviously the Metalman range is the main stock in trade, but the guest list is interesting too, with ever-rotating guest beers on tap.

I started on one from Dublin to ease myself in before trying anything too exotic. Carnavale is your standard guava and coconut wheat ale, brewed by Hopfully and obviously channelling the brewery's Brazilian roots, with collaborative input from Brewtonic. It looks like coconut milk: an opaque greenish off-white. The guava really comes out in the flavour, producing a full-on tropical fruit effect which all but obscures the beer qualities. I didn't really get the coconut, which hovers in the background, more a seasoning than a main flavour. Though brewed for the pre-Lent festivities, this would work well as a summer refresher as it's only 4.3% ABV and slips back very easily indeed. It might be too sweet for more than a pint or two, however.

Not to be outdone, Metalman also had a wheaty fruit beer on offer: Jungle Boogie, based on their wheat lager Equinox, with added raspberry, grapefruit and orange juice. I'm no tropical botanist but I don't think any of those are native to the jungle. Anyway, it's a very modest 3.7% ABV and even sweeter than Carnavale. It's pretty simple too, with the raspberry the most prominent flavour but even it doesn't hang around long and the whole thing finishes quickly. This is a quirky novelty, but no more than that.

Closer to the centre of town is Tully's Bar. This well-worn traditional pub feels like it's been around forever but it's only been Tully's since late 2015. Like its twin in Carlow town, the beer offer is taken seriously, with the mainstream industrials on tap at one end of the bar and a range of independent offerings up front.

Another Dublin beer is how I opened my account here. I hadn't seen Hope New England IPA on sale anywhere at home, which is a pity because it's beautiful. I'll get to why in a minute, but significantly, unlike the vast majority of New England-style beers coming out of Dublin breweries these days, it displays the features which I regard as the essentials of the style. It's properly hazy for a start, and pleasingly orange rather than beige. The body is big and smooth while the flavour is primarily juicy and sweet, all jaffa and mandarin, with overtones of Fanta. A very mild dankness follows but it never goes as far as onion or garlic. It's only 5% ABV too, which makes it very pintable: a mature New England IPA for the more considered drinker. That will do me nicely.

Something from a little closer to the bar next: Black's of Kinsale's Pale Face Killer, an India pale lager. It arrived a hazy amber colour and tasted surprisingly sweet. The hops give it a kind of fruit-chew effect, or maybe lemon sherbet. We're definitely at the sweet counter either way. That's fine as a flavour profile, but where this guy really falls down is the texture. Presumably going for clean, it ends up thin and watery, causing those perfectly good candy hops to fade off the palate far too quickly leaving nothing behind. I would have thought 4.8% ABV was enough to give this proper heft, but it wasn't to be, unfortunately.

Many other beers were had, and Waterford is shaping up to be quite a decent little beer destination, drawing in products from the many breweries around the south and east of the country. The imminent arrival of a YellowBelly bar will improve it further. It just needs a beer festival now...

14 March 2018

Gone native

With Stone Brewing's Berlin plant in full swing now, they've not only adopted the local beer style, in White Ghost Berliner weisse, they've adopted German labelling habits, putting important information like the name of the beer and its alcoholic strength in the tiniest possible writing. Still, a Berliner weisse that they didn't try and be clever with is to be welcomed, even if it is a bit strong at 4.7% ABV.

It pours a beautiful white-gold colour, though doesn't seem particularly interested in forming a head. The fizz level is correspondingly low. I love the aroma of lemon zest and spicy saltpetre, almost reminiscent of a mature geuze. They've hit the classic (or at least last-weisse-standing Berliner Kindl) flavour points by giving it a mild but present sourness and then dry husky wheat behind it. The slightly sweaty tone in the very finish is all part of that. Overall it's beautifully refreshing and quaffable. And yes, you can add a dash of woodruff syrup if you wish.

The bold text at the top says "True Authentic Berliner Weisse" and for once with Stone, that's not just bluster.

12 March 2018

The London invasion

I've long since lost track of what's happening on London's beer scene. It was so much easier in 2007. The occasional headline occurrence passes my way in the general discourse, but I know that there's plenty chugging away in the background that I'm not aware of. And nor should I be, really: I live far away from London. In recent weeks, two unfamiliar London brewers have come to me, via new export arrangements and launch events.

Five Points I had at least heard of, and even tried their flagship Railway Porter some years back. A selection of their core range is now being imported to Ireland via FourCorners, and a launch event was held at UnderDog so punters like me could try them out.

I began with Five Points Pils. They've adopted the old Camden Town system for this, brewing some in-house and contracting out the rest to a brewer in Belgium. Though unlike Camden Town in its indie days, they don't deign to tell us which Belgian it is. (edit: Matt reports in the comments that all Pils production is now in-house.) The beer is 4.8% ABV and a bright gold colour with a handsome dollop of shaving foam on top. I got a fun combination of lemon sherbet and grassy Saaz hops to begin, backed by a classic Czech-style golden syrup malt flavour. It was all going well until the finish which was just a bit too harshly bitter for my liking, turning waxy and vegetal. It's certainly bold and interesting; my taste runs to something smoother, however, even in pilsner.

The evening's special beer, not part of the range being imported on a regular basis, was De-Railed, a barrel-aged version of Railway Porter. I don't think the barrels have improved it any. The result is very woody, all dry and stale-tasting. The sour funky aroma doesn't help ameliorate the sense of a beer gone a bit rancid. Some of the coffee survives from the base beer, and there's a certain pleasing vinousness, but it's all too severe for me. A taster was plenty, thanks.

The ale sequence begins with Five Points Pale Ale, 4.4% ABV and a murky orange colour. I got a whole candystore full of sherbet from the first sip, zipping and popping with oranges and lemons, set against a heavier marmalade background. A bitter jolt of lime is the finishing flourish. This is a tremendously fun beer, absolutely packed with 360° hop flavour and a triumph for that modest strength. The light texture also adds to its drinkability.

XPA was an altogether calmer affair, served on cask for the evening. Despite the name, this is lower-strength than the pale ale, at 4% ABV. It offers a very simple and dignified blend of sharply citric fresh grapefruit segments and wholesome all-grain toast malt. Again it's one that drinks very easily, but offers plenty to keep the palate occupied while it does so. I think I preferred the sparks found in the kegged pale ale, however.

Completing this subset is Five Points IPA, a big-hitter, US style, at 7% ABV. It's a beautiful medium-gold colour and quite dry, surprisingly so, in fact. I guess they're pitching for that Sculpin-like, almost astringent, west coast thing. A little bit of light dankness in the finish helps add a touch more substance to it, but I felt there should be more going on. It's fine, and totally without flaws, but just isn't as interesting as the preceding two pale 'n' hoppy fellas.

I'll admit to not expecting much from Hook Island Red. The 6% ABV was sending me warning signals about cloying toffee and caramel flavours. Thankfully I was completely wrong in my prejudices. While it does have a significant toffee component, it's balanced by and blended with big fresh and resinous hops. The inclusion of rye adds a spicy complexity before a smooth fruity finish packed with ripe strawberries. It can be difficult to impress with a malt-heavy red ale, but this one gets excellent use out of all its ingredients.

And lastly, from the bottle, comes Brickfield Brown Ale, a very welcome addition in these brown-ale-starved parts. I like the masses of chocolate in this but did not appreciate the carbonation. It was far too fizzy and that created a dryness which tragically almost cancels out the sweeter features. Here's one that would definitely benefit from cask dispense. As-is, I don't really feel I got to taste it properly.

A huge thanks to Francesca from Five Points and everyone who put the night together.

A short while later, it was the turn of Gipsy Hill Brewery, newly brought to Dublin under the auspices of the Carlow Brewing Company. They occupied a few of the taps at L. Mulligan Grocer to introduce themselves.

We began with Beatnik, a pale ale at just 3.8% ABV. It doesn't seem like a lightweight, however, beginning with the alluring grapefruit-and-weed aroma. The flavour goes big on hops too, reminding me a little of that other low-octane, high-impact beaut Fyne Ales's Jarl. On draught I found it a bit thin, the hops turning harsh and acidic without enough body to support them. That was less of an issue with a slightly warmer can later on: here there was an almost sticky layer of malt candy and plenty of substance. In both, the finish is quick, setting up the next mouthful. Overall a very decent hoppy banger and well suited to sessioning.

The middle child is Southpaw, an amber ale. There was something slightly off-putting about the aroma here, a certain plasticky quality. That translates to a harsh unsubtle bitterness in the foretaste, one which only gets a little balance from the toffee malt. The underlying issue may be that it's a mere 4.2% ABV, which doesn't provide enough gravity to carry the substantial hop charge. It feels a little watery in the middle, and then the finish is a rough acidic burn. This seems to be an amber ale afraid of its true nature and unwilling to turn up the crystal malt. It would be a better beer if it did.

Last of the core beers on offer was Hepcat session IPA, strongest so far at a whopping 4.6% ABV. No qualms about the body here: it's lovely and big and fluffy, bringing some seriously herbal grassy dankness and savoury caraway seed with it. Just before it goes completely serious there's a delightful burst of fresh mango and pineapple, lightening everything up, before it's back to the grass for the bitter finish. While it has some features in common with Beatnik there's more going on, as I guess befits the higher strength. It's still easy drinking and wonderfully refreshing, fulfilling the session role perfectly.

Two tall-can specials were also on the go, beginning with Simcoe, another low-strength pale ale, this time only 3.6% ABV. It has amazing body for all that, plenty to carry all of the hop. And there's a lot of hop, beginning with a gorgeous stonefruit aroma, all peaches and apricot. My first impression on tasting was of a smooth and dry beer, with a strong mineral component. The hops emerge here first as fruity chew sweets, then gradually turning bitterer, providing a lovely kick for a finish. Simcoe is not usually my favourite hop, but whatever they've done here to tame it really calms down its harsher tendencies.

Doyen is a collaboration with Fuller's. This IPA is another dry one, with a kind of celery cooked-veg flavour at first. The middle brings a bigger hit of marmalade, something I very much associate with Fuller's, particularly in beers like Bengal Lancer and Oliver's Island. It doesn't have a whole lot to say beyond that, which would normally be fine except that it's 6.5% ABV, a point where I think it's fair to expect greater complexity, or at least a bigger flavour. It's quite an anodyne beer, overall, and not as special as I'd hoped for.

The following day I trekked over to Urban Brewing where Gipsy Hill's JT was doing a collaboration brew. On bar was Haymaker, a pilsner. They've used German hops in this, but the more modern fruit-forward ones, and the result is enormously fruity. Juicy peach and summer strawberries are the main act, while there's almost zero bitterness. I felt aggrieved that it didn't taste like a proper pils for almost a minute, before I settled into it and began to really enjoy the pint in front of me. The beautiful soft texture makes it extremely quaffable and I can imagine it as a perfect outdoorsy summer beer.

Thanks this time to the O'Hara's, Gipsy Hill and Mulligan's folks. Plenty of really solid ungimmicky drinking here. I'd love if Dublin's brewers were able to return the favour in London.