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. 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.


  1. Have Camden ever revealed the brewery they work with in Belgium? I can only find references to 'a family owned brewery'. Assumed it might be De Brabandere.

    1. My memory from early 2015 is that Camden said they used Haacht, but I can't find any reference to that now.