04 June 2018

A very movable feast

The late winter snowstorms damaged the beer garden roof of the Franciscan Well brewpub in Cork. It meant that Ireland's longest-running beer festival got shunted from its normal Easter slot to late in April. As it happened I was down in Cork anyway that weekend, for Reuben's wedding, so was able to drop by for a couple of hours on the Friday night. I'm usually in early and out early at this gig so it was a novel experience to roll up late and be kicked out last.

As with last year there were two long bars facing each other across the beer garden. It was still packed to capacity when I arrived so I took refuge in the pub. There was a new Franciscan Well beer on the bar there: Archway, a 4% ABV yellow lager. The brewery's connection to the owners of Coors Light is pretty obvious here. This one is bland. It's almost literally tasteless, in fact, with just a wisp of soda water minerality. It's not thin or watery, nor overly fizzy, nor could I detect a single off-flavour. I just couldn't really detect any flavour at all. If I hadn't come to it on a clean palate I'd have been doubting myself.

Off out to the festival bars for something more interesting, then. Black Donkey had a new pale ale, with the jolly name of Happy Out. It's a suitably sunny yellow colour and uses Mosaic and Wai-iti hops. The twist is the use of a saison yeast. The result is massively bright and fruity, a Carmen Miranda hat of pineapple, banana, white grape and more. Though only 4.5% ABV it's quite heavily textured; perhaps a little too much so to be refreshing. The counterbalance is the delicious complexity, a late-arriving peppery spice preventing all that fruit from turning it difficult.

Speaking of fruit, JJ's had brought along a Blueberry Pale Ale which was receiving some comments around the yard, very little of it positive. I thought it was OK, though; fun, even. It was 5% ABV and an amber colour. The opening gambit is shockingly bitter, like overcooked green veg. This calms down quickly and the later flavour is gently infused with real blueberries, tasting sweet and slightly concentrated, like a compote. The contrast works well: it is both a hop-forward pale ale and a fruit beer; gimmicky but not too gimmicky. Experiments like these make festival drinking that bit more engaging.

On the plainer side, JJ's also had GarryOwen pale ale, a little lighter in strength at 4.8% ABV, and lighter in colour too: a clear gold. There was a worrying savoury smoke in the aroma which thankfully didn't come through to the flavour. That was quite sweet, beginning on caramelised winter squash, and increasing to apricot. Apart from this mild fruitiness there isn't much else going on. It's decent, thirst-quenching fare, well suited to being a core beer if that's the brewery's intention for it, but exciting it is not. And let's just leave to one side the brewery's claim that it's based on an 18th century recipe.

Next to them, Baltimore brewer West Cork was pouring their latest, Cape Crusader. This is a 3.9% ABV pale ale. It was kegged but had a cask-like feel: a rounded foamy texture, not too cold, and with soft floral flavours: rosewater and lemon sherbet. A very slight dank bitterness creeps in at the end, ensuring it's not completely anodyne. This one would definitely work well as a session beer, much like good British golden bitters do.

We cross to the other side of the yard next, where neighbouring brewery Rising Sons had two new brews available. Ostara is a sour wheat ale of 4.1% ABV, so I guess like a kind of unsmoked grodziskie? There isn't too much sourness, or wheatiness for that matter. There's a gentle lemon flavour, though not enough to propel it into the sour-and-hoppy category that I generally enjoy. A bit like the previous two beers it's refreshing, simple and balanced, if not exactly thrilling.

There was a bit more going on with the next one, Foux du Fafa, badged as a French saison. Lots of spicy white pepper forms the foretaste, backed up by heavier peach esters which become increasingly apparent as it warms. There's a satisfying chewy density, and yet it's only 5.2% ABV and stays drinkable throughout. This was a much-needed reminder that beer can be easy-going and interesting at the same time.

Cork's other other brewpub, Cotton Ball, was pouring The People's Republic of Cork Lágar. This has been available in the city's pubs for a while now, though never anywhere I've been. It's a very pale yellow colour and shows a lot of the traits of poorly-made lager: a harsh acrid metal bitterness, heavy syrup, rough grain husk and headachey esters. While it's just about drinkable, I think I'd want something cleaner and more enjoyable if my home city's name was going on the badge.

For a nightcap there was O Brother Untitled, an imperial stout from their pilot kit which was uncharacteristically without a name of its own. This was brewed with coffee, finishing at 9% ABV. As one might expect it's thick and gloopy, with a certain amount of chocolate sauce sweetness but thoroughly counterbalanced by multiple types of bitterness, including dark-roast espresso and tobacco. This is an absolutely solid example of the style and I hope it makes it into regular production at some stage.

With the staff sweeping up around me, it was time to leave. I'm glad I made it down this year, and happy that not even climate disaster can damage this hardy perennial festival.

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