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.