25 June 2018

Look around you

Indie Beer Week is upon us! Events kicked off on Friday and run through next weekend too. Have a look at the calendar to see what's happening in your part of the country. I did my bit locally on Saturday by visiting the new Porterhouse brewery, and all week I'll be blogging about Irish beer, starting with this rag-tag assortment of random samples.

The second in Rye River's Limited Edition Series was Miami J, a New England IPA. At the launch event in 57 The Headline, head brewer Bill talked us through the process, one involving Citra, Galaxy, Mosaic, Lemondrop and Amarillo, with all the bitterness derived from the whirlpool. It's up to you to actually find the bitterness, of course: the first flavour I got was a huge and juicy pineapple. There's a slightly slick and gummy vanilla note after this, which is also the dominant characteristic of the aroma, and is possibly the beer's weakest aspect but entirely in keeping with the style. The finish is grassy and just a little hot, reflecting honestly the 6.5% ABV. Overall it's spot-on for the style and largely lacking in flaws and imbalances. If you like your IPAs sweet and juicy get some of this, and soon.

Staying canned and juicy, the newest one from Whiplash at time of writing is called Clap Hands. It describes itself as an American wheat beer, a style that used to mean something quite specific: wheat-based beer fermented out with neutral ale yeast. That has all but been abandoned by the brewing industry now, Carlow Brewing's Curim being the only extant example I can think of. "American" now means highly hopped, and this employs a tropical supergroup of Mosaic, El Dorado and Lemondrop. It pours a milky opaque orange colour with only a short-lived head. The aroma is fabulously juicy from the get-go, however: an enticing swirl of mango and passionfruit with just a cheeky seasoning of garlic. The flavour continues largely along those lines, emphasising the savoury side a little more as the yeast bite kicks in, but but placing the hops front and centre, displaying fresh and zingy juice alongside a sharper herbal bitterness. This is all done at only 5.2% ABV, which means it's expensive at over €5 a can, but if you have the money, buy a couple and drink them side-by-side. More from Whiplash later in the week.

Along still similar lines is Five, the lowest alcohol offering in Rascals's 759 series. This popped up at the spritz festival organised by Wallace Winebars in the Millennium Walkway last month. It's a pleasant balanced chappie, covering what's expected from the flavour profile, with a garlicky hop burn contrasting with softer vanilla. I thought it had a lot in common with Trouble Brewing's excellent Ambush pale ale, though it's perhaps a touch punchier and less fruity. Very decent, though. Bring on the Nine!

Then I was completely wrong-footed by the second beer from Martin's Off Licence's 40th anniversary series. The Portrait Project Juicy IPA was brewed at Hope with collaborative input from DOT, and the name implied it would be hazy. But no! It poured from the can a clear dark gold. The aroma isn't exactly juicy: there's the invigorating sharpness of fresh American C-hops. The flavour is in the middle. It's dank and resinous: herbal, finishing bitter; but there's a New England thickness to it, and a layer of milkshake vanilla and spun sugar. I don't think "juicy" is the appropriate word. "Sweet" would probably do. Overall it's OK: nothing is really distinctive about it and it falls into line with a hundred other modern IPAs. In its favour it's only 5% ABV, so no nasty hotness. An ah-yeah-grand sort of juicy IPA.

But if you really want to go trend-chasing, how about Ireland's first brut IPA? I had genuinely never heard of this sub-style before Black's of Kinsale made one, and I still couldn't tell you the name of the archetype. What I do know is that Black's SuperDry is 6.5% ABV and showed up on tap in 57 The Headline on June bank holiday weekend. The hazy pale orange colour was normal enough, but the taste is weird. Yeasty grit was the first thing to come out, then a loud spicy and floral jasmine or hibiscus thing. After a moment that settled into a genuine Champagne flavour: white grape and toast, building gradually in sweetness until it's more like a Muscat. Once I'd had a good walk around that, turned it over and kicked it a bit, I decided it wasn't really for me. There's not enough proper hopping to it, and despite the complexity, that basic yeast dirt never really goes away. Still, I guess I'd better brace myself for more of these.

Belgian IPA, another twist on that genre, is a tricky style. The Americans tend to do it well; the Belgians struggle a bit. How would the Irish get on? This is Immram from The White Hag, a touch light on the style spec at 6.8%. It smells plenty full, though: a powerfully sweet peach and mango effect. Caraway creeps in in the flavour, as well as a severe plasticky bitterness. The Belgian esters are just about apparent but aren't the dominant feature, yet neither is there the fresh bright zing of the American hops. My biggest gripe is the carbonation: it's rather flat, which contributes to the overall sticky and sickly cloying effect. I can see the beer this is meant to be but it has come out a bit too rough and unready for my liking. Raging Bitch has nothing to worry about.

My one nod to the north comes in the form of Hillstown's The Crazy Horse double IPA, opened and shared round by Sean at UnderDog one evening. This leaves no one in any doubt about its 8.5% ABV: it's hot and heavy. From the dark ochre body arises a soupy yeast aroma infused with high-octane sherry and marker pens. The flavour adds an unsubtle metallic bitterness to this, though there is some token gentility in the hints of coconut. Overall, though, it's round, unfinished and quite amateur tasting. Definitely not in the same league as most Irish double IPAs these days.

What the heck is this? Copper Moose by Lough Gill, "Raspberry Vanilla Lactose Sour"? I was apprehensive. It's a hazy orangey pink and does smell like a proper framboise, fruity and tart with no sugary additions but a classy touch of mature oak on the end. It's a little sweeter to taste, yet not excessive: the raspberries taste real while the lactose, and the vanilla in particular, balance the sourness. To adapt a sour beer cliché, it cleans the teeth without stripping the enamel completely off. It's light too, only gently fizzy, and I was pleased to see the ABV matching that with 4.7%. The whole thing glides gently off the palate leaving a faint mouth-watering juiciness behind. Overall it's a pretty decent, balanced, and largely gimmick-free offering.

And speaking of gimmicks, here's a ginger beer as the Porterhouse's first summer special release. Bobblehead is all of 5.5% ABV so I don't get why it's so thin and insipid. It might have got away with the lack of substance if it had piled in the spices, but it hasn't, resulting in a soapy and watery effort. More of anything would have improved this, and kept it from tasting like nothing very much at all.

But back to fruit and sourness for a moment, and Dead Flag Blues, one with blueberries from Galway Bay Brewery. The odd twist here is the use of wine yeast, which lends it a lager-like cleanness and none of the stickiness you often get from mixing berries and malt. There's a crisp Champagne sparkle, though it is a little thin, even for the modest 4% ABV. It really is a beer that's more about the feels than the flavour, though it definitely does have one: tangy blueberry juice and drier skin tannins. It's simple and refreshing, reminding me a little of Prosecco with a raspberry dropped in it. It might be an interesting one to hack with barrels and Brett and whatnot.

From sour to saison, and and the fancy-canned No. 40 by White Hag, brewed in collaboration with Brew By Numbers and no friend to the exciseman at just 2.6% ABV -- making it the first Irish beer to take advantage of the double 50% tax break for low-alcohol microbrews. They've designated it a "table saison" and it looks like a witbier, a thin watery yellow colour with a head that crackles out of existence in short order. The aroma is a mix of lemons and yeast, smelling a bit like cold Lemsip or rustic lemonade gone wrong. The lemonade vibe is to the fore on tasting: sharp and tangy, but not severe. There's a chalky alkaline grit and then a funky phenol finish, a mild melding of barnyard and disinfectant. The lightness is apparent throughout -- with a low level of fizz it's easy to throw back, and it has much in common with a radler, minus the nerve-jangling sugar rush. That farmhouse funk is something I could do without: this is three quarters of a really good table beer, spoiled for me just at the very end.

There's a tendency among IPA-namers these days to highlight the on-trend juiciness of their product in the title. The reciprocal appears to be in effect with the double IPA Galway Bay released last week: Sans Juice. I guess "You Can Shove Your Super Split Up Your Hole" wouldn't fit on the badge. This is a full 9% ABV with an equally full body and a strong west coast vibe from the aroma: piney Pliny sprung immediately to mind. There's barely a wisp of haze in the pale amber body. The flavour? Yes, it's bitter: powerful and resinous with volatile herbal notes: spearmint and eucalyptus, befitting the use of Simcoe and Chinook. But it also has a fruity side, Amarillo bringing intensely sweet Seville orange, the vapours from which outlast the punchiness in the aftertaste. It's a fun beer, brightly flavoured and a great contrast to what double IPA has mostly become. Maybe it'll start a trend.

Also writing a big cheque with its name is Hop Central, created by Carlow Brewing for Tesco and billed as a dry hopped lager. It's a rather wan looking pale orange though with a proper craft haze, suggesting it hasn't been processed to within an inch of its life. No sign of dry hopping in the aroma while the flavour is dominated by savoury caraway with a dash of red onion. Yes, those hops. No zing, no juice and not really a proper bitterness. This does at least have character, and more than might be expected at 4% ABV. It lacks the power to refresh, however: a basic requirement of this sort of light lager.

Dublin's second-oldest microbrewery, JW Sweetman, has a new lager out for the World Cup in Russia. Bear Beer is billed as an amber lager but my pint was distinctly golden-looking. The accompanying copy mentions that the recipe is a nod to the reigning champions Germany, and that's certainly apparent from the aroma: a subtle waft of peppery green veg. On first taste I thought it a little characterless, expecting a dark malt richness that never arrives. I was a third of the way down before I figured out what was going on. It's smooth and clean, like a helles, and with that sort of subtle spun-sugar full-bodied sweetness. Those peppery hops lend it a late-arriving balancing piquancy. As a match-fit quaffing lager, this is ideal: easy drinking, unchallenging and avoiding the wateriness that the big brewers tend to feature in theirs. But there's something here too for the fussy lager bore: an authentic-tasting German helles. Leave the word "amber" to one side and enjoy it for what it is.

An amber ale to take us out: Showdown, which is new from Carrig. 5.5% ABV again, but this time properly chewy, the medium-dark malts bringing gentle toffee and tannins. Like the best amber ales, this is then livened up by the hops, here bringing herbal resins and juicy jaffa oranges. There's an air of good English bitter about it, and also a distinctly American zing too. It's refreshing and very moreish. If the brewery is planning a revamp of its slightly tired bottled line-up, this would fit well in it. As would most of their recent offerings really.

A closer look at what some other brewers have been up to in the next few posts.

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