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.