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.

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