30 May 2018

Heverlee body

A trip north to see family brought me to the local hotel for some simple-but-decent Saturday evening grub. I was bemused to see here, in a near total deadzone for interesting beer, that the menu had a range of offerings from Station Works brewery and even a simple pairing guide, for matching your choice of food to seven styles of beer, including hefeweizen and brown ale. I wasn't going to get involved in that, so just a Foxes Rock IPA for me, please. "Oh, no, we don't have anything like that" replied the waitress. On asking what beers they did have, I was faced with a choice between Guinness, Smithwick's, Carlsberg, Tennent's, Heverlee and Stella. The Northern Irish draught beer market is largely sewn up between Diageo and C&C, so it shouldn't have been surprising to see here a 50/50 split between the brands the companies distribute. I overcame my disappointment by ordering a pint of the one from that list I'd never tasted before.

Heverlee is rarely seen south of the border. C&C only seems to roll it out in places where they're blocking a range of taps in a bar where they've bought counter space by the metre. It's quite commonplace in Northern Ireland and Scotland, presented as a sophisticated option by dint of being named after a suburb of Leuven, while actually being brewed in Glasgow alongside the Tennent's. The evening's pleasant surprise was that it's actually quite good. I found it very true-to-style for a helles, with that full and almost chewy body and flavours of spongy white bread and celery fresh from the crisper. It achieves this at just 4.8% ABV too. The beer it reminded me most of is Spaten: the same smooth drinkability; easy without being boring. Maybe it just caught me on a good day, but I'd happily have a few more of these, and it's streets ahead of the lagers C&C have been turning out down in Clonmel.

Beer fanatics of Mid-Ulster (hi Steve!) have their work cut out for them, but a readily-available Spaten clone would certainly take the edge off for me.

28 May 2018

May have been drinking

I nearly let May go past without a random Irish beer round-up. And it's not like I haven't been drinking random Irish beers. Let's see what's in the notebooks.

Whiplash made a few waves with its Northern Lights "micro IPA". It's only 2.8% ABV so obviously one would expect thin and watery. It's not though, not at all. The appearance is thickly beige, typical of many a haze-craze DDH DIPA. This continues in the creamy mouthfeel, and a flavour of milkshake-like vanilla, a twang of garlic and some yeast bite. It's not to my taste but I know plenty of people who like this sort of thing and it's very impressive at the strength. On the other hand, a 475ml glass in UnderDog cost €7.95, and that's a lot of money to pay to see a magic trick.

Lacada's new one, Escudos, is also going for a New Englandy vibe, and also at a modest strength: 4.5% ABV. I wasn't a fan of this either, the gritty yeast making it harsh and sharp, with an unpleasant whiff of bleach in the aroma with the stonefruit. There a soft, fruity and quenching beer in here somewhere, but the execution is off. Thanks to Simon for the pre-release preview taster.

Another juicy sessioner? All right then. This is Juice Ball from Black's of Kinsale, on tap at Drop Dead Twice for their Star Wars Day tap takeover. We're up to a dizzying 4.8% ABV here, and finally some clean flavours. Sweet yet pithy mandarin is the centrepiece, with a heavier resinous dank in the background. It's light, and maybe a little watery, but forgivably so; well built for a sunny summer session.

On the May Bank Holiday I took a spin up to Howth to see how the nanobrewery in The Harbour Bar was getting on. There didn't seem to be much action at the brewhouse but there is a house lager: Just Crafty. I was assured it's brewed on a separate pilot kit. Hmm. I was given a beautifully clear golden pint, one with a sweet corny foretaste followed by a drier mineral finish and emerging fruit esters as it warmed. No rough edges; nothing that suggests early-career out-of-town brewpub. A lot that suggests, to me, rebadged Wicklow Wolf Arcadia. Drop me a line if you know the full story, or if I'm being unreasonably suspicious.

Moving on to more transparent brewery/pub tie-ins: two new releases from Galway Bay Brewery. Trusty Chords landed last month, a 5% ABV reddish pale ale. The badge bigged-up its Simcoe usage so I was surprised by the big and juicy pineapple aroma and flavour. Where's the dank?! To be honest I didn't miss it; after the tropical fruit comes a chalky dryness and a tiny whisp of crystal toffee. It reminded me a little of that unfairly unlamented style, American amber ale, with its straightforward, hop-forward simplicity. And it's clear! Hoppy and clear is too rare.

May's release, Vignette, is definitely not clear. This is a pale and murky session IPA at 3.5% ABV. I got pineapple as an opener again, this time becoming bitterer almost immediately, introducing guava and then lime. The carbonation is low, the texture a tad thin, and there's a bit of yeast fuzz in the finish, but none of this spoils it. Up against the ice cream thickness of Northern Lights I'd take this crisp and citrus job for refreshment every time.

Reuben put together a beer with Kildare Brewing for his wedding, playing to the brewery's strengths with a Vienna lager. Pauline & Reuben's Wedding Brew was absolutely bang on style: 4.8% ABV, copper coloured with a very slight murk, which I'm sure had more to do with the drive down to Cork than any flaw in the brewing process. There's lots of cruchy oat cookie in here, a little caramel, and a substantial noble hop bitterness in the finish. Very gulpable, without distracting in any way from the festivities.

Appropriately enough for May, YellowBelly released a Maibock, named Paul's On Holiday since their designer wasn't around to do a label for it. Again this is very much true to type, and unfortunately so for me as I got an instant reminder of why I don't like Maibock. There's a harsh plasticky flavour which I often get from German hops in high doses, going beyond celery and spinach into whiteboard markers and acetone. 6.9% ABV gives it plenty of room for malt character, especially with that amber colouring, and while there's a pleasant marzipan sweetness it's not enough to counter the hop acridity. This is one of the ones I'll have to chalk up as perfectly executed but not at all to my liking.

The new canned special from Wicklow Wolf is, for reasons best known to the brewers, called Agnostic Pucker and is a double IPA. It's... not what I expected. Wicklow Wolf is unashamedly American in its influences, and when you think US DIPA you thick bright and zingy citrus or, if you're more inclined to fashion, vanilla/garlic soupiness. But this amber coloured 8%-er is more serious about its hopping, going for an altogether more English-tasting metals and tannins. There's a mature leathery quality, like you'd find in a barley wine or well matured old ale. It's thick and chewy, warming and boozy, with overtones of ripe strawberry and lime rind. I've opened bottles of long-neglected strong IPAs I've made, and they've tasted a lot like this; the fresh hops faded leaving just the punch behind. I was quite charmed by it, but those expecting double IPA the American Way are in for a let down.

Kinnegar released the second in its Three Bagger trilogy. The original saison was reviewed back in January. Ageing and Brettanomyces has turned it into a 9% ABV tripel, named Phunky Monk. From the 75cl bottle it poured a bright gold colour, clear for the first glass but murkier later on. It hasn't lost its saison qualities and I think calling it a tripel is a bit of a misnomer: there's none of the sugary qualities of tripel, and the spicing is quite different. What's on offer here is a light-bodied Belgian style beer, where the Brett has added a soft peach and raisin fruitiness as well as sparks of incense and sandalwood. A kick of mouthwatering citrus finishes it off. It's a wonderfully clean profile, the flavours polished and distinct. Drinking outside on a warm day I found it actively refreshing, which is not the norm for beer at this strength. Once it had warmed up a little there emerged a small honey note which perhaps could help it pass as a tripel, but I remain dubious. Style quibbles aside it's absolutely beautiful and I'm gagging to find out what the grand finale will be.

While we wait, the latest Kinnegar beer to hit the shelves is Thumper, a double IPA of 7.8% ABV. It's a medium amber colour and smells worryingly oniony: crisp and green and acidic. The flavour is mercifully softer, bringing in ripe tropical fruit -- your mangoes and your pineapples -- while the carbonation is remarkably low: it's not quite flat, but the sparkle is distinctly cask-like. That would be a problem if it were one of those thick and sugary double IPAs, but it's not, staying light and easy-going throughout. "Easy-going" is probably the most apt descriptor here: there are no fireworks, no big American punch, and certainly no *yawn* on-trend New England milkshake creaminess. It's a solid beer though, full of the joy of fresh hops, and only a wee bit onionish. An accessible, every-day sort of double IPA.

Staying in parts west for the next couple, I received this bottle courtesy of a fellow blogger who may wish to remain anonymous. He didn't think much of either the name or the beer inside. I am inclined to agree, on both counts. Dirty Lil' Blonde (ugh) is the first release from Heartland Brewing in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway. In keeping with the title, perhaps, it poured a swampy ochre colour with only token carbonation. There's a distinct twang of swimming-pool phenols in the aroma, though a cheerier jaffa note is just about peeking through behind it. The flavour is swimming pool, however. Really nasty. I did my best to mentally filter that out, and I could detect more pleasant fruit in the background: lychee and white grape in particular. But this is very obviously infected and ought not to be on the market.

A couple of new beers in new venues to round things off. After years of neglect, the pub on the corner of Kevin Street and Patrick Street re-opened in March, taking the name The Fourth Corner as a knowing nod to the junction's notorious past. It's a dim but spacious bar, with a token selection of independent beers, which is something at least. What got me in the door was the presence of Loudons Pale Ale from a new brewery in Co. Clare. It's the only pub serving it in Dublin, as far as I'm aware, and is doing so for a damned reasonable €5 a pint.

It's 4.2% ABV, a medium gold colour and full of fruit esters to an almost Belgian degree, showing banana, mango and peach. There's no real heat or weight to all this, thankfully, and it remains easy-going, unfussy and decent. I was served it very cold and, counter-intuitively, it lost flavour as it warmed up. This is just complex enough to be interesting but seems very much to be pitched as a by-the-pint sessioner, which is fair enough.

I also paid my first visit to Klaw Pokē on Capel Street, using a bowl of fish and beans as cover for trying the house beers, brewed for them by Hopfully. KIPA is a 5.3% ABV pale ale with a gently peachy aroma and a perfume flavour which begins on juicy mango and melon before going bitterer with apricot skin, all topped by incense and white pepper spicing. The fruit gives it overtones of Little Fawn, but thicker and bitterer. It has enough presence to work well as a food beer, though the perfume does get a little full-on as it warms. Drink it quick.

I followed with Suck 'n' Shuck, a lighter offering at 3.8% ABV. I guess in keeping with the Pacific theme of the joint this is loaded up with Sorachi Ace hops so tastes powerfully of coconut. Too powerfully, I think, and I say that as an unabashed Sorachi fan. There isn't enough substance to carry the hop load and the only other flavour I got was muddy yeast. A bit more malt and some cleaning up would really improve this one, and I think a warning (or advertisement) about the Sorachi might be a good idea.

Klaw also has a house porter, but that'll have to wait until the next time I'm gone fishing.

There's something of a pale and hoppy theme running through this lot. Seasonal appropriateness is all well and good on paper, but I wouldn't mind a stout or two in the mix for summer 2018.

25 May 2018

Lag time

I was in P. Mac's for a different reason entirely when I found a Lagunitas event taking place. It centred around one of only two kegs of Willettized stout in the country. This is Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout aged in rye whisky barrels acquired from the Willett Distillery in Kentucky. That turns the 9.1% ABV imperial stout into a 12.6% ABV beast, but the subtlety it creates is phenomenal. There's no harshness or heat here, and all of the rich coffee flavours from the base beer are still fully present. They're joined by a gorgeous smooth and mature bourbon taste, much lighter on the vanilla than most examples of this kind. This isn't a complex beer, and it lacks any gimmickry; instead it represents a pure simple elegance, a lot like fine whisky itself.

A few short weeks later it was 20th April, bringing a multi-pub launch of their triple IPA The Waldos, and I was back in P. Mac's. Lagunitas tends to go big on the residual sugar so I was terrified of what would happen when the ABV hit 11.7%. Yes, it's thick, but the hop flavours are bright, clean and distinct. There's no sugary syrup and not even any oily resins. The flavour, as one might expect, goes big on bitterness, with classic Californian grapefruit and lime up first, then a softer and more nuanced pineapple behind. I found it remarkably easy to drink, though I'd say a few would sneak up on one very quickly.

Something gentler was required next, and "moderate... slightly alcoholic" read the description of Sumpin' Easy, despite it being a somewhat stonking 5.7% ABV: not exactly where I'd put the moderation marker. It looks light and innocent, a pale and limpid straw colour with just a very slight haze. The aroma is gently tropical: mango, pineapple and papaya, enticing me into a big first gulp. That showed the carbonation to be low, just a pleasant prickle of gas. The flavour is fruit-forward but not the way I expected. Instead of juicy tropical produce, it's sweet and sticky strawberries to the fore. Behind this there's an almost-bitterness which has a little pine but also some offputting plastic and cheap chemical candy. It coats the palate like one of those gummy ice cream IPAs. This isn't the summery refresher I wanted it to be and easy it ain't.

A sticky session IPA next to a clean and dry triple IPA? What have Lagunitas been smoking? Oh. I see.

23 May 2018

Wait, what?

"Oh, Valravn!" I thought, browsing the shelves in Redmond's. "I haven't had that in ages!"

Only when I got the bottle home and did a bit of research did I discover that I'd never had it at all. How did that happen?

This is the souped-up imperial version of Thornbridge's black IPA Wild Raven, though 8.8% ABV against 6.6% isn't exactly a radical transformation. It's an extremely dense black with a handsome off-white head. My bottle was a little on the elderly side but the hops were still getting busy, with Sorachi Ace's coconut elbowing the Nelson, Ella and Centennial out of the way. The thick darkness, in combination with the residual bitterness, give it a major bang of liquorice. A faint roasted element brings the finish, balancing in a way, but this is much more about those hops than the dark malt.

It doesn't taste anything like the strength, though. It's downright sessionable: smooth, tangy and bitter to the extent of mouth-watering, not throat-burning. I'm wondering whether it really needed to be this strong, but hey, I'll take it.

Quality stuff here, as might be expected. I'm just a little sad it took me this long to find it.

21 May 2018

A few thirds

Third Barrel has become one of my go-to local producers of late. The series of one-offs produced by the brewery in west Dublin has largely surpassed the regular beers it makes under its constituent brands, Stone Barrel and Third Circle. New ones have been landing fast enough lately to warrant a post of their own.

Flaschenpost Pils was the second beer from intern Alex, who also brewed their recent Alt (reviewed here). I was hoping for something very classically German when I got my pint, but it was not to be. Coconut! The first mouthful gave me a big hit of oily bittersweet coconut, and that is not part of the pils playbook for me. This taste lasted all the way through, allowing very little past it. I detected a very slight grassiness, some smooth golden syrup, and there's a proper crisp finish -- all things that belong here and I would have enjoyed more if they'd been further to the fore. Why would you spoil it with a big coconutty hop thing? I finished my pint confused.

The first off-trade offering arrived in the form of Third Barrel IPA, a 6.8% ABV US-style job in a 440ml can. It poured a deep and dense orange-amber colour, topped by masses of stiff and thick foam. The aroma offers an enticing mix of dankness and citrus but doesn't even hint at what's to come. This beer is bitter, powerfully and deliciously so, in an old-school west-coast style. It's not harsh, though: the texture is thick, the carbonation at an almost cask-like low level, and there's lots of dry tannin, all of these serving to smooth the edges and round it out. The emerging flavours are green veg acidity, waxy sappy resins, and sparks of instense citrus: grapefruit pith leading to lime essence. All of this hangs together beautifully, integrated and harmonious. No gimmicks, no juice, just plenty of properly-focused IPA hop power.

Back to the pub, and the appearance of Raspberry Stout on cask at The Black Sheep. Fruit and stout isn't always a great combination, with the fruit being lost completely half the time, and ruining the beer with syrupy gloop the rest. This one nailed it, however. The raspberry flavour is huge and real; juicy and jammy with a tart edge. A velvety smooth chocolate complements and contrasts with it. The whole thing slips down easier than one might expect for 6% ABV, and while it might look like a pastry stout on paper it lacks the gloop factor. I could easily have gone for a second pint straight after.

I'll squeeze one new Third Circle beer in here. I missed their tap takeover event at UnderDog but did manage to catch one of the leftovers: Blue Sky, a Brett rye saison. What does that mean? Well, it's 6.5% ABV and a pale orange colour. There's lots of Belgian character apparent from the outset: banana first, then the ripe peach that Brett often brings, without any farmyard funk. And that's pretty much it, other than a dry grain crunch in the finish and a slightly syrupy texture. It's OK, but less than the sum of its parts, perhaps.

To round off, a Third Barrel one-off that appeared just last Friday, pouring simultaneously in UnderDog, 57 The Headline and Brickyard. Summer Simcoe SMASH doesn't leave you guessing as to what it is, though it wasn't as Simcoey as I expected. It's only 4.9% ABV, and I guess it's the summer side of the equation that has left it sweet and fruity instead of bitter and resinous. The aroma is all fruit chews while the flavour is dominated by a ripe tangerine character, only turning any way bitter towards the end. The orangeade feel is accentuated by a slightly syrupy texture, though it's still light enough to be easy drinking. What they've achieved here is one of those juicy pale ales that other brewers make by adding fruit concentrate, except without any additions. I expect we'll be seeing more like this before summer is out.

From this set, Third Barrel certainly can't be accused of being conservative in the styles it picks to brew. I'm a big fan of the scattergun approach to recipe design and am already looking forward to what pops up next.

18 May 2018

A load of ballasts

With much fanfare, a range of beers from San Diego's iconic Ballast Point brewery landed in Ireland recently, brought by importer FourCorners. I first encountered them at the official launch event in UnderDog.

My starting point here was Sour Wench, a sour beer with added blackberries. It's a big-hitter at 7% ABV, and is a full-on dense-looking shade of purple. The flavour is extremely jam-like: excessively sweet and missing any real sourness. Mercifully it doesn't cloy, and the finish is neatly clean, but I couldn't shake a feeling that I was drinking the topping from a cheap supermarket cheesecake. I prefer my wenches with more class than this.

Sculpin I've had in the past, and didn't particularly enjoy, and the same went for Grapefruit Sculpin when that came my way a couple of years ago. I still gave Unfiltered Sculpin a go while it was there, and was glad I did. This just seems better balanced than the others; its flavours more integrated and harmonious. A bright jaffa aroma starts it off, and the flavour blends sweet sherbet and orangeade with a stimulating kick of bitter hops. It's altogether smoother and more drinkable than the filtered one. Sculpin as it should be.

I picked up others in the range for drinking at home. Both cans and bottles are available.

Mango Even Keel is a rare beast indeed: an imported American IPA with an ABV under 4%. It's only 3.8% but doesn't look at all understated, being a handsome rich copper colour. It smells quite sugary, like sweet candy or... syrup, which I guess it actually contains. The flavour is powerfully sweet, an overwhelming blast of perfumed candy, lurid artificial treats from the impulse section of the corner shop. Whatever the opposite of wholesome is, it's that. The fake-fruit and perfume effect clings to the back of the tongue and sits there, unwelcome, long after swallowing. There's still a hollow dry fizz behind it, probably where the balancing malt ought to be. I refuse to believe any grown adult actually wants their beer to taste like this. I expected mango, I expected juicy, and I expected some hops. What I got was an off-brand pop from Uzbekistan's cheapest discount supermarket.

I needed something straighter to fix my palate after that, and relied on Fathom IPA to do the job. It looks pretty straightforward, being 6% ABV and unembellished. It's a perfect red-gold colour too, though I didn't get much of an aroma from it, just a mild dankness.The flavour is... understated. There's a pleasant sticky and bitter resin thing, and a dusting of light citrus: jaffa and mandarin. Though the body is as big as the ABV suggests, the finish is quick. While undoubtedly plain, it's good quality and well suited to drinking more than one.

Last of this takehome set is Victory at Sea, described as an imperial porter with added coffee and vanilla, about which I was intensely sceptical. It looked nice, though, pouring a smooth and flawless black topped by loose ivory bubbles. As anticipated it's intensely sweet, with an aroma of ersatz milk chocolate and a flavour adding gooey sugary fondant to that. Cadbury's Creme Egg as a beer? Pretty much. There is something resembling a bitter tang in the finish, but it's artificial and metallic, not tasting like it comes from hops or dark grains. There may well be a decent beer underneath the syrupy gloop, but they've buried it deep.

It's hard to believe they thought this unbeery mess needed further "enhancement", but back in UnderDog there was a hacked version: Coconut Victory at Sea. The hacking is done pretty crudely and it tastes and smells like a generous dollop of coconut sun lotion has been dumped into the glass. It does at least cover up the problems with the above beer, but it does so by adding its own brand of artificial syrupyness, and though the coconut mellows as it goes (or maybe I just got used to it) I really don't see the point of this.

Switching pubs, finally, for the double IPA Manta Ray which P. Mac's had on tap. Far from cheap at €9 for 33cl. And for all that it's rather plain: clear gold in the glass, thick and resinous but with no more than a light zest for flavour. It's fine: understated double IPAs are probably better than the ones that come on too strong, but it left me feeling that I got a very poor return on my investment, tastewise.

I went into this as a Ballast Point doubter, and have come out with that confirmed. Unfiltered Sculpin is a rare highlight, but the rest taste either sticky and fake, or just plain dull.