13 July 2018

Gardening leave

The mid-June weekend saw The Harbour Bar in Bray host its first Brewha Festival, billed as a celebration of Co. Wicklow's rich brewing heritage, though throwing in a couple of Dublin usurpers with tenuous Garden County connections as well. Temporary festival bars were lined up along the beer garden wall and trade was brisk on the Sunday afternoon I was there.

I opened my account at Wicklow Wolf, the brewery still located just around the corner from The Harbour, for the moment anyway. Head brewer Pete was pouring Ranchero, a new limited edition smoked lager they'd made. 40% of the grist was smoked malt, so it's an integral part of this, not just a flavouring. It tastes that way too: lots of strong, concentrated smoke, accentuated in a thick, bock-like, auburn lager. Like good bock too it's sweet but clean, a bigger flavour than one might expect at just 5% ABV. It is a little one-dimensional but still it does what it does very competently. There haven't been many smoked beers from Irish brewers recently, so this was a pleasant change.

Wicklow Brewery drew my attention with a beer named after the event: Brewha Special IPA. This was 6% ABV and a deep orange colour. No details were offered but I think something was off about it. I got a sharply phenolic and astringent blast right from the outset: an infection, or something wrong with the serve. Either way, it didn't taste like an IPA to me. My wife, more charitably, suggested it had a farmhouse feel to it, like a particularly funky saison. Behind all that there's a hint of orange juice and a green apple bite, but even as I tried to analyse the fruit phenomena, each sip brought me back to the cleaning products aisle. Let's hope this was a one-off.

Finally, The Porterhouse (born in Bray though never actually brewing there) had its first New England IPA on offer, brewed in collaboration with Hillstown of Co. Antrim. Trend-chasing hasn't been The Porterhouse's milieu since the nitro red ale craze of the mid-1990s, and to be honest I don't mind that: enough other breweries do it, and not enough of them have four good-quality stouts in their permanent line-ups. That certainly seems to be their strength, more so than NEIPA. Hazy Border is just 4.4% ABV and yes, it is hazy, but it's also a deep, matured, orange colour, instead of showing the bright youthful plumage of a typically fresh New England. It's also strongly bitter, exuding the harsh grassy notes of a beer that has been dry-hopped too much and for too long. This misses the style points by some distance and isn't especially nice to drink, though at the same time is far from the honking disaster of the preceding IPA.

A re-run of Wicklow Brewery's fantastic Chocolate and Coconut Extra Stout finished the visit on a high note for me. Thanks to hosts The Harbour, organiser Mark, and the assorted brewers for putting it all together.

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