30 July 2018

Crashing the party

Back in February I booked a one-nighter in Manchester on a whim and a hotel voucher. I didn't realise at the time that the dates in early July would be at the end of 2018's Manchester Beer Week, nor that there would be a summer heatwave, nor that England would be playing in the quarter finals of the World Cup. Suffice it to say, when we rolled into Piccadilly on the Saturday morning, Manchester was in a good mood.

The first stop was back along the tracks a bit, to Beer Nouveau. This railway arch brewery had closed off the laneway outside and invited in a dozen or so guest brewers to pour beer. We were there early enough to have free pick of the offerings and I began by paying my respects to the house, who had deferentially tucked their bar into the far corner of the brewery.

From the blackboard, Ancient Egyptian Ale caught my eye. I'm assuming it's a recreation of what it says, using honey and whatnot, though I don't have any specifics. What I got was 4.1% ABV, the muddy brown colour of the Nile in flood, and tasted... infected. It was a glass of pure dregs: thick and bitty with heavy yeast flavours. There was also a strong phenolic TCP off-flavour and a vinegary twang, a little like in a Flanders Red. I'm guessing hops didn't feature in the recipe. I'm all for experimental brewing and how educational it can be, but sometimes the end result will just taste like a beer that's gone spectacularly off, as this did.

The other indoor bar was serving Origami beers, a client brewer that works on Beer Nouveau's kit. The missus opted for their raspberry wheat beer, Valley Fold, as her opener. This 5.3% ABV brown-red job was served on cask and showed lots of fresh and zingy raspberry in the aroma. The flavour took an artificial turn, coming across with wafts of perfume and ice cream sauce. That's set on a body too thin to counteract it, and I found it became tongue-coatingly cloying after just one sip. She liked it; but I was still searching for a beer I'd like.

Thirst Class Ale had their bar just opposite where we were sitting. I was intrigued by Puff Daddy Mild, a 3.5% ABV dark mild with the addition of... Sugar Puffs. Unsurprisingly, it's sweet, with lots of wholesome chocolate, like you might find in a milk stout. A sharper roast kicks in on the end helping to balance it, but doing nothing to relieve the impression that this is a stout not a mild. While tasty and fun, it misses the easy-going drinkability of proper mild, though that's about the only thing I can criticise it for. Mild is probably best left out of the weird-ingredients trend dominating the speciality beer market at the moment.

Another wheat-based drink for the lady, Thirst Class's Thai Wheat. This was brewed with lemongrass, ginger and coriander and presented a bright hazy yellow. I've never encountered a lemongrass beer that smelled so lemony, with all the wholesome bitterness of homemade old-style lemonade. The flavour focuses more on the ginger, bringing a real heat to the foretaste, plus a serious savoury seasoning from the herbs. The lemon comes back at the end, just as real as in the aroma. This one really delivers on everything promised and is a damn refreshing witbier to boot.

She went to Blackjack's bar after that, for their Dry-Hopped Sour: Amarillo. This was a melancholy yellow with a hint of beige and smelled tropical but with a twang of nasty vinegar. The flavour piles in the tart fruit: grapefruit and lime in particular, and then there's an alkaline sharpness but thankfully no vinegar. At only 4.3% ABV the whole package is a refreshing and invigorating one, with only that slightly off-putting edge on the aroma to complain about.

Co-sponsor of the event was Brooklyn Brewery, which also had a bar, and I felt obliged to try something from them. This took the form of a glass of Scorcher, the summer IPA. 4.5% ABV is light by the American standard for this sort of thing, and I was expecting something zesty and refreshing. Alas what I got was thick and sweet, with a sharp grapefruit foretaste and an earthy Cascade finish set on an almost toffee-ish malt base. I can appreciate its nod towards '90s-vintage US IPA, but it wasn't what I expected or needed at that moment in the afternoon.

A second fruited wheat beer came to the table in the form of Outstanding's Strawberry Wit. This was thick and dark and foamy, though a lightweight at 4.3% ABV. Real strawberries come out in the aroma, ripe to the point of pungency. The flavour is jammy with lots and lots of strawberry but also a slight funky twang on the end. I'm told the brewery were reluctant to sell it, not being entirely happy with how it turned out, but it went down well at our table.

I was back at the house bar to try Victorian Protein Shake, the creation of fellow blogger Katie. This is a tongue-in-cheek Brettanomyces-fermented New England IPA, using heritage Chevallier barley. It's 6.4% ABV and dark brown in colour. The flavour is dry and musty to begin with, like old wood and leather. This is then lightened by a fun peppery spicing, and a mix of black-tea tannins and rich roasted coffee. Whatever New England characteristics it was supposed to have didn't survive the process, but it works great as a funky Orval-like sipping ale. A half was plenty, mind.

With time starting to run short it was Hawkshead next, and Here She Gose. The recipe includes peaches but to me it tasted of watermelon, mixing that lush sweetness with a tang of margarita salt. It does turn a little towards Jolly Ranchers at the end, and I would have liked more of a sour punch, but it's still pretty good as-is.

I fully intended to buy a half of Holt's Sixex Reserva, attracted by the white-label bottle, but they were only giving away samples of it. As expected for a barrel-aged English strong ale it was a beautifully rich and warming beer, full of rasins, dark chocolate and black cherry -- a little like a quadrupel, but cleaner; missing the fruity esters and having a drier tea-like quality. Not a summer festival beer by any means but worth bearing in mind for colder days.

And the grab-and-go beer was Pomona Island's Tropical Sour. There was quite a sulphurous aroma from this one, then a more innocent sweet flavour, with mango, passionfruit and pineapple: properly tropical. That's all the complexity you get, however, and I got bored of it quite quickly. Fruit and sour is a tricky balancing act and this, while clean and drinkable, just didn't have enough of the latter.

With that, it was time to leave the festival and see if any of the other railway arches nearby had anything of note to drink.

27 July 2018

Not just here for the beer

O'Brien's off licence in Blanchardstown held its first ever craft drinks festival one sunny evening at the end of June. 15 suppliers took over the front of the shop, handing out samples and hawking their wares. There were a couple of new beers for me to try, but the event was about far more than that. Three cider producers were in attendance and I got my first try of the lovely new one from Dan Kelly's: Coll's Craft. The Cider Mill had his Cockagee Perry on show, and three new "Revival Series" half-litre bottles: Windvane, Ciderkin and Lamhog, of which the middle one was my favourite. He also brought the news that The Cider Mill has taken on the role of filling the C in new distributor ABCD's portfolio, so expect to see more of his stuff more widely.

I was also very pleased to see Kinsale Mead represented, and with a new mead no less! Their Hazy Summer Mead lacks the bracing cleanness of their straight-up Atlantic Dry, but dodges the worst jammy sweetness of the Wild Red. The use of raspberries and blueberries gives it a sharp tartness I enjoyed, and which allowed enough of the honey flavour through to keep me happy. Mind you, even just having a commercial producer of seasonal meads on this island at long last has been cheering me up no end.

Enough digression; onwards to the beer. Des from Hope sideswiped me early and forced a sample of Limited Edition No. 11 at me. This is formally titled Peach & Passion Fruit Sour and ticks all of those boxes with enthusiasm. The first smack of the flavour is a chalky alkaline sourness, followed quickly by real moist and fleshy passionfruit. The peach adds more of a sugary nectar-from-a-carton quality, and the sum total of fruit would be in danger of turning it sticky if it weren't for the relentless sourness nipping at the edges of your palate the whole time. While only 4.5% ABV it's probably still a bit too busy to be a session beer (though I'm willing to give that a go), but it did make for a superb early-evening livener.

Across the way, Larkin's was débuting its brand new Summer Session Saison, turning its back, briefly, on the cool-fermented styles for which it's better known. Cillian kindly gave me a can to take away after the event. The "session" part is certainly not just a buzz word: this is a proper 4.5% ABV and lightly textured. There's plenty of flavour complexity, however, piling in brightly juicy mango and peach (from Hüll Melon and Mandarina), an apothecary's mix of herbs and flowers, including lavender, jasmine and pepper, and finally a crisp and wholesome cereal base. Saison's headachey esters are absent, and while it's properly dry, it's not harshly so. I think I'd like a bit more spice, but that's just how my tastes run: as fruity saison goes, this is one of the best.

A big thanks to all who arranged and participated in the gig. Here's hoping for a re-run some sunny day in 2019. And if you're around the west end of Blanch, do check out the offer in that generously stocked O'Brien's.

25 July 2018

Exotic species

Well this was odd. Taking a shortcut through a central Dublin Spar, I glanced at the beer selection and spotted two unfamiliar stubbies. On stopping to inspect, they turned out to be from Finnish contractor Hartwall, under its Polar Monkeys brand, brewed in Denmark at Albani Bryggerierne in Odense, a subsidiary of industrial brewer Royal Unibrew. They were presumably acquired as a job lot since they were nearing the expiry and being sold off for €2.50 a bottle. Deal!

The first I opened was Blue Collar amber lager. It proved paler than expected, but also more delicious. There's a gently sweet melanoidin malt base which is then layered up with lemon sherbet, white pepper and orange peel. Though a full 5% ABV, cold from the fridge I found it suberbly refreshing, yet complex, mixing up new and old world flavours on a tightly-constructed base with no room for flaws. That it was past its point of optimal freshness is bizarre because it tasted bang on. Had I started with a fresh one I can't imagine how it could have been better.

White Collar professes to be a golden ale, though looked more amber to me. This one is even sweeter than the lager, billowing with soft toffee. The hopping is tokenistic, serving a mild metallic twang but not much else, and even that blends into a kind of burnt caramel note that all but neutralises it. While not actively offensive, it's heavy and hard work, devoid of refreshment and quite sickly.

It's rare to get two beers from similar-looking bottles that are so different in character. Danish macros do lager, I guess. Perhaps it's a mistake to try and teach them other tricks.

23 July 2018

Mass market Mikke

I've never been a fan Keith Shore's artwork for Mikkeller. I'm not a fan of that naïve-art look generally and I've always thought it cheapened a brand that did so much to build a reputation beforehand. But. Mikkeller has just embarked on a new departure with permanent core beers which they're calling the Mikkeller Year Round series. The cans feature the familiar Shore style, but they've been cleaned up, rounded out, and look altogether more professional. It's not for me to say if the change in production and design is a sign of Mikkeller growing up a little, nor if that would be a good thing or a bad thing if true. What I do know is I have three cans to review.

Wood Will Fall Down is a passionfruit Berliner weisse, and by golly you have to be brave or stupid, putting one of those on the Irish market in the proximity of YellowBelly's sublime Castaway. This one doesn't quite measure up, though it's not far off. It's a very pale yellow with a slight haze. The passionfruit is present and distinct, and it's properly tart. There's an alkaline edge to it, however: a chalky limestone scratch that's too loud and adds a sharpness which is a little too intense for the beer, reducing its accessibility. It's certainly punchy, but I think for once the fruit should have been allowed a bit more elbow room over the soured side.

Onto more orthodox things now, and a pale ale called Stick A Finger In The Soil. It's a deep orange colour and slightly hazy. The aroma is all but absent, just vaguely orangey. The flavour is similarly understated: it's that savoury caraway seed hop effect but not intensively. The mild citrus sits behind this but doesn't really do anything, gradually fading to nothing, and you're done. This is very plain fare indeed and, to be honest, not the sort of thing I expect from Mikkeller. If they've changed it's not for the better. One more beer for possible redemption...

An IPA: Hair in the Mailbox, 6.3% ABV and a clear pale gold. This is another savoury one, at least to begin with: the aroma giving up baba ganoush and fried onions. The flavour is sweeter and I got a strong lime rind flavour but without the bitterness, as well as bigger kick from the residual yeast in the glass than I was expecting. It's quite thick, to the point of sticky, yet the malt flavour is lacking. To me this suggests a recipe that didn't quite work out as planned -- there's certainly none of the big bold flavour on which Mikkeller made its name.

I'm all for a year-round decent sour beer, though I've tasted better than this one. But the pale ale efforts are distinctly lacklustre and, if they're not once-offs, run the risk of devaluing the Mikkeller brand into just another average contract brewer. It would be a shame to see that happen. Mikkeller should definitely be making better beers than these two.

20 July 2018

Drygate gate

I will freely admit that the packaging is what sold me on these two Drygate beers. Specifically, how breathtakingly similar their design is to that of Beavertown. Well, it's nice to have an angle for these posts. Drygate is the joint brewing operation of C&C Scotland (the Tennent's people) and Williams Brothers. You'd think that avoiding the charge of stealing craft beer's clothes would be high on their agenda but there you are. Mind you, events since this post was first drafted mean they're pretty much as independently craft as Beavertown now.

The lesser offender is Chimera, an India pale lager. Williams already has a decent one of these in its portfolio, Caesar Augustus, so they know their way around the style. This one's high ABV of 5.9% is very apparent in the thick texture. It's soupy looking as well as tasting, so a clean hoppy lager is not what's on offer. Instead it's a gritty and pithy affair, full of oily orange and herbal bathsalts. There's nothing lagery at all about the downright greasy texture, but as an IPA it's not bad. I enjoyed the chewiness of it, while the flavour is big and punchy, layering on the fruit then finishing sharp. It took a bit of time to get used to but I was on board by the end.

Disco Fork Lift Truck mango pale ale is the one whose can looks like a direct rip-off of Neck Oil. It's clearer than the lager but still orange, and lighter at 5.1% ABV. There's a syrupy artificiality right from the get-go: a sharp sugary hit of fake fruit. Behind this there's a medium-bodied, low bittered, plain pale ale, almost touching on the cereal blandness of twiggy brown bitter. The mango gunk has very obviously been wheeled out front and centre to be the beer's headline quality, but it's just not good enough. It's trying to be fun and down-with-the-kids, but you need hops for that: syrup doesn't cut it.

Branding aside, these are largely what I expected from the Drygate project: passable supermarket beers, taking cues from smaller independents but not really executing them with the same panache. There's an argument here that such things are gateways (no pun intended) to better beer, but I think they're at least as likely to prevent the curious beer drinker from looking further afield than Sainsbury's.

18 July 2018

The big 3

I was not aware that ubiquitous French beer 3 Monts was one of a series, but it turns out there are loads of them, including 3 Monts Grande Réserve.

For some reason I was expecting this to be dark, perhaps because of a subliminal association with Chimay Grande Réserve, or maybe just because of the stonking 9.5% ABV. So I was surprised to see it pour a pale copper colour.

It smells sweet and calorific, like oaty biscuits laden with honey or treacle. The flavour piles in the alcohol: pear drops, primarily, but other hard sweets too, like aniseed balls, rhubarb-and-custards and chunks of clove rock. I'm guessing it's a lager, as it's remarkably clean for all the boozy heat. Unfortunately that also means it lacks complexity. Once you've got your paper bag of sweets the game is over.

I bravely soldiered through the entire 75cl bottle by myself, which you're probably not meant to do. It got a bit sickly in the second half, so I recommend both sharing it, and having some hearty food alongside: strong cheese or game won't trouble a beer as robust and unsubtle as this. Add a shot of cognac afterwards for the full French farmhouse experience.

16 July 2018

Summer specials

Time for another round-up of random Irish beers that came my way in recent weeks.

Lough Gill joined the line-up in Aldi with Native IPA, brewed to celebrate the Lakota heritage of head brewer Tony. The label advertises that it's quite a dark affair, and indeed it is: a murky garnet colour, topped with an old-ivory head. This isn't one of your hop-driven IPAs, or at least not flavourwise: it is plenty bitter, though, in a sharply metallic way. That, coupled with a chocolate orange sweetness, low carbonation and a tannic twang, lend it the feel of an English bitter: ironic since it was also brewed to mark the 4th of July. It's not quite as clean as it should be, and I think I may have poured some ill-advised dreggy gunk from the can into the glass. I get a sharp sourness on the finish, almost like a Flanders red, that's quite out of keeping for an IPA and doesn't improve the package any. But it doesn't ruin it either. Anyone expecting a classic US IPA, of any stripe, will be disappointed. I quite liked its old-fashioned stylings, however.

It's all-out for modernity at Galway Bay, with Juice Division, a pineapple and passionfruit IPA of 7.5% ABV. It's a bright opaque orange colour and smells of mixed tropical fruit juice, with the passionfruit taking the lead in that way it generally does. I shouldn't have been surprised to find it so sweet, but sweet it was, and thick too, just like the juice it's aping. For bitterness you need to wait until the very end where there's a bitter tang. There's nothing I could pick out as a specific hop flavour: any that are there are fully camouflaged by the fruit. I came away with the impression that I'd just paid €6.50 for a glass of juice. Mmmpf.

I expected something a little more trad from the follow-up: Polyrhythm, an unadorned IPA of 7.2% ABV brewed in collaboration with little-known east London operator Beavertown. It certainly smells trad: an invigorating waft of pure grapefruit coming from the pale yellow liquid, liquid which is damn near clear too. The flavour then wrongfooted me completely, turning very tropical, with pineapple to the fore. This turns bitter quite quickly, throwing out lime and touch of fried onion. Idaho 7 is the signature hop, one I'm not familiar with, but I can see what the Azacca and Simcoe are doing. The New England influence was hard to spot, but there is a tiny hint of creamy vanilla on the end; not enough to interfere with the punchy hops however. It's a lovely beer: not hot or harsh, nor riddled with yeasty off-flavours. Clean New England IPA is a sub-sub-style I whole-heartedly endorse.

Beers three and four from Dublin client brewer Crafty Bear landed in UnderDog a couple of weeks ago, both IPAs and both 6% ABV. My pint of Gummy arrived a dark hazy orange colour and tasted bready, to begin with: a wholesome crusty chewiness putting me in mind of trad English bitter. There followed a slight tangerine tang; a touch of Fanta sweetness, and then a lightly tannic finish bringing a balancing dryness. I liked its plain unfussiness, a refreshing change from the usual crashing and banging of new Irish IPAs.

Its twin is called Hop Me Baby One More Time. There don't seem to be any details on either of the beers online so I can't tell you what the technical differences are, but this one, while also murky and orange, came across as sweeter, with brighter, fresher citrus fruit. The texture is dense and the sweetness builds as it goes, from real jaffa oranges into jam, jelly and spongecake, and still with that vaguely Kentish vibe. It's fine, but I preferred the gentler tones of the previous one.

These two formed part of UnderDog's first birthday celebrations, as did two new ones from DOT. Pint Please continues the brand's foray into pale and unaged beers, this one finishing at a very modest 3.1% ABV. The opaque milky orange colour and mix of sharp savoury yeast with bright and pithy hops would lead me to describe it as a table beer -- it certainly reminds me of offerings in that style from other brewers. The upshot is a refreshing quaffer with not much up front but a satisfyingly long bitter and tangy finish. Great hot-day refreshment, even in the dim coolness of a windowless basement.

More typically DOT was Brown Coffee Cognac (right of picture), a beer with all the clues in the name, and 7.2% ABV. There's a huge rich and creamy coffee aroma, and that silky sumptuousness continues in the texture and flavour as well. Irish coffee was my first reaction to the taste, before adjusting that, appropriately, to French coffee. The only thing close to a sharp edge in this is a tiny roasted espresso bite in amongst all the mocha in the very finish. This is a fine and complex beer for toffs and dandies.

Rounding out the UnderDog specials, on the left of the shot, a Bourbon Imperial Coffee Stout by Rascals. I presume this is an enhanced version of the imperial stout they had at the Taphouse back in March, though it doesn't seem to have picked up any extra ABV points, still being 9%. There's a bit of a solvent twang to the aroma which wasn't there before, and a sharply bitter flavour of high-cocoa chocolate and strong black coffee. The bourbon booziness is obvious too, with an added oily coconut complexity. It tastes far more than the stated strength and really throws all subtlety and nuance to the wind. This is a real live wire of an imperial stout and would suit some bottled maturation time, though I don't know if the brewery has thoughts in that direction.

Finally for today, my most anticipated beer of the year: Underworld by Black Donkey. This is the end result of a long-drawn-out experiment to harvest wild yeast from a cave near the brewery and turn it into beer. What would the end result of that taste like? Well, like a saison, really. It's 5.6% ABV, a pale copper colour, and mixes classic saison flavours of straw, white pepper, banana and a touch of green apple. There's nothing sour about it, and nothing that really says "wild" to me, which was a little disappointing but that's nature for you. Still another very decent farmhouse-style beer from Black Donkey, though. It's good that not everything is an IPA or barrel-aged beast, at least yet.

On a boring houekeeping note, I'm going to make an effort to make these athematic round-ups shorter and more frequent. No promises though.