30 April 2018

Not a Fuggle to be seen

It's assorted hoppy odds and sods from England today, beginning in Yorkshire and another from Vocation. I'd said previously that hops are where the brewery's strength lies, so how about a 3.9% ABV US-hopped pale ale? Bread & Butter poured out fizzily, a riot of busy bubbles capping the custard-like body. There's lovely fresh zest and lighter flowery perfume in the aroma, and the flavour follows through with a gorgeous mandarin juiciness. After a moment some more serious herbal bathsalts creep in, a lemon citrus bitterness and a hint of naughty yeast. The flavour complexity is really helped by the smooth and fluffy body -- no trace of wateriness here, though the finish is a little quicker than I'd like. This is still an absolute belter, and at 4-for-€10 in Stephen Street News, the very essence of session.

I must be getting soft in my old age because there came a moment a few weeks ago where I thought I quite fancied one of those fruit-infused pale ales that were the height of fashion two or three years ago. And then I realised I actually had one in the fridge, namely Field Day by Five Points. It's a meek 4.2% ABV and a lightly hazy pale golden colour. There's a bitter perfume aroma, and I'm guessing the added lemon and grapefruit are at play in this. Even that didn't prepare me for the sharp bite at the very front. Mosaic hops have been employed, but rather than imparting ripe tropical fruit it's an overpowering caraway crispness, with a green leafy edge: part cannabis buds, part freshly-picked rosemary. And that's all it does, the bitterness fading on the watery texture. Where's the fruit? The one time I wanted a pale ale that tastes of fizzy orangeade I get one that tastes of herbs. There's no justice.

We don't see much yet from Land & Labour, the side project of Galway Bay's head brewer Tom. My first is a collaboration he created with Beavertown at their brewery and which found its way onto the taps at The Black Sheep. Be Excellent To Each Other is an IPA fermented with wine yeast, aged in wine barrels and coming out of them at 7% ABV and a clear pale yellow -- my secretary has misplaced the photo I took of it, for which I apologise. The first impression was of something massively tropical, all pineapples and mangoes, all on the funky and over-ripe side. When that settles down I got a herbal complexity, showing basil and sage. Although it's light bodied and gently sparkling, it does suffer a little from the cloying syrupy sweetness that these winey beers sometimes have. A small glass was lovely and refreshing, and I'm sure that's what the brewers intended, but I was very ready to have something else at the end of it.

I got two tickets for the hype train in a single can with Beavertown and Cloudwater's collaboration Do Not Open Until 1985. It's a big-hitting double IPA of 9% ABV, glooping lazily into the glass, looking wan and sickly, an opaque yellowish-orange. A lot of alcohol heat comes from the aroma, veering almost towards marker pens, as well as an intensely savoury hop aroma, all spring onions or even garlic. Yes, it's one of those. The flavour does have some light tropical fruit, and there's none of the booziness indicated by the smell or indeed the label, but the main act is an unpleasant yeast bite alongside sharp green onion. The thick and slick texture adds to the general air of unrefined murk: there's no cleanness or clear-cut hop taste, just unrelenting soup. Consumed seven weeks after canning, I doubt freshness was an issue. Beers like this just don't suit me, and it's important to check in with one now and again, just to remind myself of that.

Two lagers from Cloudwater by themselves next, both found on tap at UnderDog. Cloudwater IPL Vic Secret Ekuanot is a sizeable 6% ABV and a cloudy orange colour. The aroma is powerfully dank and funky, and the hops (12g/L, fact fans) follow through really well in the flavour, showing a spiky bitterness with a green veg acidity. It is a little thin for the strength, and lacks the clean finish of a proper lager because of all the hops, but it was still a highly enjoyable pint.

Its stablemate was Helles Mandarina, and we're on more familiar ground here, with its 4.8% ABV and crystal clear yellow hue. The aroma is all light and crisp biscuit, while the flavour introduces just a mild tang of orange from the hops. I was all pleased about how properly lagerish this one is when I realised I had set it too low a bar. Yes, it meets the requirements of the style but it doesn't do anything much with it. There is better helles out there, and better showcases for the Mandarina Bavaria hop. I got an air of we-have-to-have-something-for-the-unadventurous-lager-drinkers from this.

Staying in UnderDog, a new tranche of FourPure beers landed in a few weeks ago. I took a chance on Thunder Bay, the west-coast-style IPA. At 6.6% ABV it strikes me as a little light for such claims. The glassful I got was a dark orange colour with a worrying greyish hint to it. A wisp of smoke in the otherwise orangey aroma gave no additional comfort. Thankfully the flavour was perfect: pithy and bitter, like an Orangina or Club Orange with all the bits in. After the fruit comes a more serious resinous quality, bringing incense spicing and fresh-mown grass. My worries about the strength were unfounded too as the body is properly big and chewy, giving plenty of cushioning weight for the hops. Overall it's a jolly and tasty beer, one I relaxed into while enjoying everything it offered.

While FourPure has its fans, it tends not to get placed at the top table of the English breweries who make US-style beers. Vocation certainly doesn't; and yet these two came out well ahead of Cloudwater and Beavertown in this run-through. I'm just saying...

28 April 2018


This blog turns 13 today, and anyone who has been reading it for a while will doubtless have noticed that I write more about Diageo beers than I used to. The reason, of course, is that there are simply more of them these days, since the Open Gate Brewery came on stream. For the record, I have always sought out and written about anything the multinational has released locally: you'll find reviews of The Brewhouse Series from 2005/6, Guinness Black Lager from 2010, Smithwick's Pale Ale from 2011, and so on. Hell, I've even taken notes on Harp. It's easy to think that The Brewers Project and Open Gate represented a turnaround in how the company sees the market, but of course they weren't, merely an extension into another segment of it.

And so it is that the latest Diageo release, Rockshore, is pitched at a whole different audience. It was developed at Open Gate Brewery, just like all Diageo's beers, but it doesn't bear its name, nor even that of Guinness. It's a 4% ABV lager of unspecified style. I haven't yet seen it for individual sale in the off trade -- eight cans or six bottles seem to be the only options. A pint it was, so, at the airport. "Best served ice cold" said the branded glass, and the bar definitely tried to optimise my experience, nearly giving me frostbite in the process. That produced a sensation very similar to the Coors Light experiment I ran a few years back: the beer is thick; syrupy and sweet. The first hit of flavour was ripe red apples, a lot like a sugary alcopoppish cider. That does fade quickly, but there's absolutely nothing behind it, for good or ill.

In its favour, it's not watery, it's not harshly carbonated and it does taste of something. In the minus column what it tastes of is not beer, isn't pleasant, and the thickness strips it of refreshment power, which I'd have thought would be one of the aims.

Two thirds of the way down my pint I discovered I had grown accustomed to the apples, and by the end I could see how someone would be happy to drink another straight afterwards. Not me though. Not when there's Galway Hooker on the bar and 40 minutes before my flight is called.

27 April 2018

Sak it to me

I picked up this pair of Lithuanian beers in Den Haag's Dorst beer shop, both all very modern and craft, in a 2007-vintage sort of way. Sakiškių Alus is the brewery, located not far from Vilnius.

First out is Wit Bier which the label tells us is based on the traditional Belgian style but with added lemon, grapefruit and black pepper along with the orange and coriander. It's 5.2% ABV and a bit heavy with it. Carbonation is low and the texture quite sticky, so not one of the zestier, zippier, refreshing wits. The coriander has also brought a lot of soapy bubblebath with it, which is tough to get past. When you do, though, there's a worthwhile beer here. The black pepper spicing cleans up the worst excesses and there's a fun Lucozade fruit-candy combination. If you like a bigger, chewier sort of witbier, and don't mind the odd medicinal sideroad, this is a decent offering.

Its companion on the journey back to Dublin was the India Pale Ale. A hazy pale orange colour, the foam is less busy but there is a similar herbal-mineral quality in the aroma. Mineral is the cornerstone of the flavour, a flinty dryness. This is complicated with sharp grapefruit skin and hard orange candy: a very old-fashioned sort of citrus. Crystal toffee sweetness provides the counterbalance, but it's light enough to let the hops stay prominent throughout. This is a little basic, but well made, and enjoyable. I particularly liked the dryness, adding to its refreshment abilities.

Verdict on Sakiškių? I approve. These weren't the freshest but still had plenty going on. I'd like to explore the range further.

25 April 2018

Touches of class

Dorothy pretty much insisted I try the Timmermans Oude Kriek from 2013. I didn't take much coercion, having previously enjoyed the aged Lambic and Geuze from the same house, one which is rarely counted among the great lambic producers; a little unfairly, I think. The Kriek did not disappoint. A sharp dry aroma is how it introduces itself, suggesting vinegar for an instant, before allowing mellower mature fruit through. The flavour performs a similar double act, beginning on a throat-scorching, enamel-stripping acidity which is quickly tempered by smoothly tannic cherry skins, creating an effect similar to a super-classy Italian grape ale. This is quite a workout for the senses and might be somewhat divisive, but it comes with my recommendation, as well as Dorothy's.

Just to fling another beer in the same broad genre in here, I encountered Boon's Lambiek Foeder No. 67 on keg at P. Mac's. Reviews of 97 and 104 in the series can be found here, and I assume this is the same deal: unblended lambic taken from one of the huge numbered oak barrels at the Boon brewery in Lembeek. Research tells me it had been aged just two years, and it was a sufficient 6.5% ABV. It came out completely flat, and had an unusual thickness: none of the usual spritzy zip of young lambic. There's a heavy wax bitterness, balanced by an explosive gunpowder spicing, with just a twist of orange peel on the end. This is fantastically deep and complex, chewy and much less attenuated than normal. Dare I say balanced? Yeah, go on then.

As always, it just takes writing about a couple of classy lambics to make me want more. Still a bit early to be dipping into the current stash, though.

23 April 2018

Bear with me

Aldi Ireland has expanded its range of own-brand Irish beers, and it comes at a time when Station Works, one of the contracting suppliers, has really put its house in order regarding quality. The butterbomb days are hopefully now behind it for good. I purchased the new ones at the earliest opportunity, with few qualms about what I was going to get.

Brown Bear Gluten Free Lager is the lowest-strength of the set at just 4.1% ABV. It looks like a standard golden lager and it tastes like a very basic one. There's a slight bready quality, in keeping with the helles style, and lots of cleansing fizz. There's pretty much zero hop character, however, and nothing to make it stand out, for good or ill. It's proficient, and if you just want a lager dammit then here's one for that. My usual observation that you can get Spaten from a shelf nearby still holds, however.

To inject a bit of fun, and with luck some hops, into proceedings, there's Brown Bear India Pale Lager. Since Camden Town promulgated this style around five years ago there have been few examples that impressed me. I wouldn't say I was wowed by this one either, but it has plenty going for it. At 5.2% ABV it's nicely full, and translates that into a round and satisfying texture. There's a dry mineral base to the flavour, the hops adding a pleasant lemon spritz that could probably do with being more pronounced but does create a worthy complexity. The total package is crisp and refreshing and, when juxtaposed with the previous one, illustrates nicely that supermarket lager doesn't have to be dull and boring.

The brewery did overreach itself a little when it came to Brown Bear Double IPA. For a start this is a risible 6.3% ABV. It looks handsome in the glass: a deep copper shade. It's very hot and estery though, presenting a fruit salad of flavours with banana to the fore, then mango and guava later on. There's no balancing bitterness, and it gets quite headachey before very long. I was glad to be sharing the bottle. The other two may be useful for anyone wanting to explore lagers on a budget, but this has nothing useful to teach about IPA.

There was also a new one to be had in the O'Shea's range, brewed by Carlow Brewing. I've never been much of a fan of Carlow's lagers, but O'Shea's Irish Lager was surprisingly decent. There's a bigger body than one might expect for 4.4% ABV. The flavour starts crisp but intensifies this edge to the point where it becomes quite an assertive bitterness. This takes a turn for the metallic at the end point, and while it's missing the clean hop flavour found in, say, proper pilsner, this does give it a character of its own. When tasted next to the Brown Bear Gulten Free it compares very favourably indeed.

Nothing here really stands out the way the Rye River beers from Lidl stand out, but the lagers are worth picking up and tasting side-by-side. At less than €2 a bottle it's an inexpensive experiment.

20 April 2018

Hi Sierra!

There was a veritable cascade of new Sierra Nevada beers in mid-March. It took me a while to pick my way through.

From the 4-Way IPA pack, we begin with No Middle Ground, claiming to be a fruity-hopped IPA with added cold-brewed coffee. It doesn't look great: a sickly, murky, orange-ochre. The aroma gives a sweaty stale coffee effect plus harsher more acidic hop bittering. Could the flavour save it? A little. The coffee turns fresher and the hops calm down, but neither really excels. That it was a November release suddenly makes sense as it's quite warming, plenty strong at 6.9% ABV, showing a thick toffee malt base, and then with the added creamy, oily coffee. That finishes quickly, however, and there's only a very mild twang of citrus after it. This isn't the crazy brew I expected it to be, but it's not terribly interesting either. I've tasted much more enjoyable coffee IPAs, and they usually throw balance to the wind and pump everything up more powerfully than Sierra Nevada has. Consider it a beginner's version of the style.

The other is Know Good IPA, one which claims no gimmicks or special features, just perfect straightforward US IPA flavours. It's 6.2% ABV, clear pale gold and has a gentle stonefruit aroma, showing apricot and plum. There's a quick bitter kick in the foretaste, chalk and grapefruit, but it fades quickly leaving a candy sweetness behind. Like the previous beer it lacks distinguishing features. Yes, it's balanced, and pleasant, and even moreish, but where is the Sierra Nevada razzle-dazzle, the one that made their Pale Ale so talked-about? I'd definitely swap it for a Torpedo.

Hop Bullet double IPA isn't part of the set, and though there's no packaged-on or best-before date, it's marked as a spring seasonal so I'm guessing it's fresher than the previous two. It pours an innocent clear pale orange and smells sweet and sugary. The flavour continues that theme, but adds a gentle spritz of orange zest too, finishing on a drier lemon bitterness. It's still quite light and plain, which is not what one expects from a Sierra Nevada DIPA, especially one with such an openly aggressive name, and 8% ABV too. It's a bit of a damp squib. Looking for answers on the label, it turns out the science part is the use of lupulin dust. Call me old fashioned but I think I prefer my US IPAs brewed with hops.

We're a long way from the finish and there has been no wow factor as yet, which is frankly astonishing. We move next into a quartet of beers using experimental hops. They don't have names yet, and we're not even given their code numbers. I can't help feeling I'm paying money to do the brewery's and grower's product development for them.

First out is Experimental Hop Pilsner, pale yellow at 5.5% ABV. I'm not at all sure that pilsner, of all styles, lends itself to experimentation. I'm happy with Saaz, thanks. This one smells properly grassy, with a touch of bread or cake, like a classic Czech version. The carbonation is low and the flavour offers that fresh-mown grass accompanied by a lemon-rind sharpness. There's plenty of light lager malt to buoy that up, and it does taste like a proper pils. But there's that lack of oomph again. It's not particularly hop-forward and doesn't offer much of a twist on the basics.

Experimental Hop Session IPA brings the ABV down a notch to 4.6%. It looks similar to the pils: just as pale with a little more haze. The aroma is mild but what's there is worryingly plasticky. The flavour, however, is massive coconut, almost exactly like Sorachi Ace but without the token orange pith. At least this one is easy to describe, and to be honest I'm glad to have something to hang on to. It is a little watery, though, and I'd never have described it as a session IPA without prompting: this hop, like Sorachi, will just make everything taste like itself and nothing else. At least we know that they're not using the same hops all the way through. Time to ramp up the strength.

The IPA was the best of last year's Fresh Hop set, so I was similarly optimistic this time round for Experimental Hop IPA. The aroma is an odd mix of the floral and citrus, like grapefruit handsoap. My optimism wilted a little. The flavour is bolder, but its first offering is a harshly savoury Mosaic-gone-wrong whack of caraway seeds. Behind it is a very strong sweet and oily blend of chocolate and orange oils: experimental in the hallucinogenic sense. There's even a slight curl of sweet and savoury smoke. The thick texture rescues it from too much weirdness, and there's a chompable chewy character, getting full value from its 6.7% ABV. The comedown is a far more normal punchy grapefruit finish. This was definitely the most interesting of the set so far. Would they double down for the double?

Experimental Hop Double IPA is an even 8% ABV and a pale copper colour. I wonder are the hops the same as in the session IPA because there's that coconut again, though sharp and spicy rather than rich and oily. It's properly heavy without turning hot, cementing the hop kick in a solid malt base. That said, I expected more complexity in a beer with this sort of poke. It's all rather one dimensional, bringing us back to the decent-but-unexciting earlier beers in the series.

Obviously nobody wants an experimental beer that tastes terrible. This lot, however, could have done with being a little more out-there.

The special bonus round is Braupakt, not actually a Sierra Nevada beer at all but brewed at their Bavarian collaborators' place in Weihenstephan. Broadly, it's a weissbier, though a big lad at 6% ABV. It's a murky and boorish creature, topped with a thick and awkward pillar of foam, though one which fades quickly. The aroma is a little harsh, blending banana with the strongly artificial citrus of toilet duck. Its flavour is a little cleaner, offering more crusty bread than fruity esters. The hops are mixing it in there, but as a thumping California bitterness rather than any depth of hop flavour. There are echoes of Schneider and Brooklyn's magnificent Hopfen Weisse, but only echoes: it falls a long way short. As a beer, overall, it's only OK, showing the features of its dual aspect but never managing to blend them into a greater whole.

Not much impact in this lot. I can't imagine any of these beers will be cited as life-changing the way Sierra Nevada Pale Ale frequently is. But there was one final shot at redemption, landing just a couple of weeks ago. Hazy Little Thing is Sierra's take on New England IPA, which in and of itself is fascinating. The style gets brickbats for being brewed in a slipshod fashion. How would it fare at the hands of a large brewer as experienced and fastidious as this?

It's certainly not as murky as a typical NEIPA, cloudy and translucent rather than soupy opaque. There's plenty of juice in the aroma: sweet cantaloupe and mango, with an underlying grassy spice. The texture is remarkably light for 6.7% ABV, with none of the milkshake gumminess I associate with the style, and don't miss in the slightest. The spicy bitterness is to the fore of the flavour, as well as a zesty citrus. There's not so much room for the juice here, the finish offering little more than a sharp metallic tang. It's still very tasty, and very easy to drink: I polished my can off in short order and was ready for another straight afterwards. This won't replace the murkbomb du jour in any haze-chaser's affection, but it's a damn fine beer and that's all that matters.

18 April 2018

Doing the rounds

Seems I now have two kinds of Irish beer round-ups to do every few weeks: the regular one and the Dublin brewpubs dispatch. We'll start this one at Open Gate.

I've said multiple times that lager is the Diageo microbrewery's principal strong point and I'm always pleased to see a new one. Open Gate Vienna Lager came my way on a visit to the bar last month. And it's absolutely proper in every respect: clear copper coloured, with a sweet-yet-crisp dark biscuit grain character, overlaid with green celery noble hop flavours which build pleasingly to a grassy bite in the finish. The carbonation level is quite high but the body is so clean that it gets away with it, scrubbing the palate without scouring it. At 5.5% ABV it's maybe a bit too full-on to be a true session lager, but a couple of pints is just the ticket.

Open Gate IPAs I have been less on board with. I missed the prequel to today's one, No Limits. This is called Double the Limits, 7.2% ABV, and in a New England kind of style. For all that, it's a clear lager-yellow colour. The texture is properly thick, however, and this helps feed a strong resinous hop character, leafy at first, before easing off to gentler lemon and lime notes. There's a certain cheesy funk in the aroma, and this side gives a mildly sour edge to the flavour which is quite out of keeping with the rest. Overall it's not bad; the flavour does manage to hang together coherently, the mouthfeel is lovely and fluffy and the big strength is well hidden. It's still not a great IPA though, whether double, New England, or however else you slice it.

Eastbound and down, to Urban Brewing. Last month I mentioned that JT from Gipsy Hill had done a collaboration beer here, and lo it arrived on the taps, the cheerily-titled Spring Break, a sour saison of 5.3% ABV with peach and apricot. It's a sunny shade of pale yellow and smells like a fruit sponge. The peach juice leaps out of the flavour first thing, and just when I thought it was going to build to a cloying sugariness, the tartness sweeps in and cuts it off deftly. The finish is merely mildly fruity, showing the melon rinds often found in unadorned saisons, plus a satisfying spark of jasmine perfume. The fruit element does come on a little strong in it, though is entirely in keeping with the beer's mission to be fun and carefree. I liked that it was tempered with the more serious soured and saison sides and would perhaps have preferred more from this. As is, though, it's a great offering.

Irish Altbier seems to be having something of a moment right now, and here was Alt Bier by Urban Brewing. There wasn't much going on in this, which I guess is perfectly on-point for the style, especially the more industrial big-name variants. It's the appropriate rusty colour and tastes dry and crisp. It took me a while to find anything else. A late-rising bitterness was the first distinguishing feature, followed by softer toffee malt as it warmed. Both of these are slight and not terribly distinguished. I was underwhelmed but unoffended by the whole thing.

Not long after, the venue played host to the National Homebrew Club's national championship. I took a quick break from judging there to sample a new offering just arrived on tap: Pan Am, an IPA with added grapefruit and yerba mate. It's a murky red-brown colour and, presumably because of the mate, is absolutely roaring with phenolic smokiness, tasting very similar to a strong cup of lapsang souchong. A tiny spark of citrus begins it, but followed swiftly by a long blast of stale smoke and old rubber, finishing dry and harsh. A noble experiment perhaps, but one that very much didn't suit me. I wouldn't be able to swear that the taste wasn't down to an infection of some sort.

I couldn't leave this post on that bum note, so thankfully was rescued by the next release: Bière de Table. This is broadly a saison, though is stronger than a typical bière de table at 4.9% ABV. It has the proper look, however: a pale and hazy yellow. And it definitely has the flavour, presenting beautiful perfume and spices right from the start. I got jasmine, lavender and incense all the way through, adding a slightly sticky peach nectar to the picture late on, before the long herbal finish. Its farmhouse credentials are present and correct and all the features gel together well. I genuinely got a vibe of Bermondsey from this; the nearest you'll fin