31 August 2018

Warm welcome, cool fermentation

The ninth Beoir AGM took place in the shiny surrounds of Kildare Brewing Company in Sallins last month -- right in amongst the tanks so we could see what we were fighting for. Our hosts were generous with beer (not to mention food and time) and there were a few new ones to try since my last visit.

Beer of the moment was Summer Light, a pale lager of just 3% ABV. Nothing wan or watery about this one, however: it's amber coloured and very decently full-bodied. Crispness is the watchword here: there's a crunch which has nothing to do with the husky graininess so often found in brewpub lager, but rather a balanced mineral quality to the texture. On top of this there's a lightly refreshing lemon tang leading to a sharper citric finish. This is beautifully constructed and offers next-level sessionability.

That was followed by a small-batch Schwarzbier which managed to hit the style points quite deftly. While there's a distinctly stout-like liquorice bitterness, the base is clean and allows the roasted grains to shine through. It reminded me of how starved of good black lager we are in this country. I wish I could get something like this more regularly.

From that 4.2% ABV we rocket up to the dizzy heights of 4.8% for Kildare IPA. Brendan has been doing limited-release tweaked versions of this with different countries' hops and we had just missed the Australian one. This was just the basic recipe. It's a middling orange colour and a little murky. The foretaste offers juicy mandarins and spicy sherbet, though not for long, with a sudden spike of bitterness finishing it off quickly. While decently punchy it does lack a sense of hop depth that I think this sort of pale ale or IPA ought to have, especially when consumed at the source. Much as other brewpubs create efforty lagers for unadventurous punters, this feels a little like it's there to fill a gap.

The day finished with the 4% ABV Traditional Stout, another one that punched way above its strength category. This has a rich, succulent texture with an almost meaty roasted character enhanced by gunpowder spices and an earthy tang of hops. It does become quite heavy as it goes along, and one pint was plenty, even at that modest strength. It was very easy to imagine it's quite a bit stronger than billed.

Then it was back to Dublin on the train. Huge thanks to all the gang at Lock 13 for the hospitality and some truly excellent beers. It's definitely a place you go for the lagers and stouts rather than the IPAs however. Sure you can get IPA everywhere these days.


29 August 2018

Black Leeds

Dredging through my notes on beers long since consumed, I picked up a thread of stouts from Leeds. We'll start with something easy-going on cask before hitting the silly stuff. Kirkstall's Dexter does have a certain silliness of its own, being a milk stout with coconut. It looked well in the glass at UnderDog: proper black with a rocky creamy head on top. The flavour definitely shows the coconut, but it's not domineering, presenting just a side-show to what's a very decent 4.5% ABV stout. Despite the lactose, it's dry rather than sweet with a roasted finish and almost a wisp of smoke there too. This all makes it very easy to quaff. There's an object lesson here in how to put exotic ingredients in stout. Let's see how the neighbours get on...

The next two cans were sampled back in May, arriving courtesy of Steve. Both are pastrified versions of Northern Monk's Strannik Imperial Stout, a beer of which I have never had the pleasure so I can't tell you how much these have ruined altered it. Both are a percentage point higher than the base beer at 10% ABV.

First up is Pecan Pie Strannik which has a very estery aroma, all banana and toffee: quite off-putting for an imperial stout. The flavour is a little more orthodox, going big on chocolate, set on a thick and warming base. While sweet, it's not gimmicky: I was expecting some dreadful syrupy essence, but if they've added any of that it got lost in this can. While not at all bad, this one did leave me hankering for a properly bitter and roasty imperial stout.

I wasn't going to get that from Campfire Strannik, however. Smoked malt and marshmallows, perhaps obviously, is what they've added here. The end result tastes primarily like cheap diet cola, so that didn't really take. It's off-the-charts sweet with a nasty air of non-specific artificiality. At the very end it got a little more specific, and I could detect the sticky pink marshmallow under the greasy chocolate syrup and ill-advised liqueur, but none of this is in its favour. Yes, it's still an imperial stout, but barely.

It's possible to up the ABV without doing anything silly, even at Northern Monk. Here's Death, an imperial stout of 12% ABV, and oooh look at the fancy can, one which set me back a substantial €6. It pours as black as its name, topped by a tan head that vanishes quickly. Cold from the fridge it didn't taste of much so I left it aside for a few minutes at room temperature. Coming back to it I found it still surprisingly light-bodied, having the texture of strong coffee. It doesn't taste of coffee, however. Oddly, the first taste I got was caraway seed, a dry herbal quality. There's an alcohol burn behind this, but that's about it: no chocolate, fruit or any of the other enrichments that make imperial stout worthwhile. I don't get this at all, but I think we can live without Key Lime Pie Death or whatever being introduced to the market.

Cask milk stout wins the format war here.

27 August 2018

The Sierra inversion

Back in January I reviewed a set of Sierra Nevada fresh-hop beers recently arrived in Ireland. The world turns and now the brewery has released a parallel set of southern-hemisphere-hopped beers and, aww bless, they've printed the cans upside down. It took just under two months for them to travel from North Carolina to my patio.

First up is Southern Hemisphere Hoppy Pilsner. The kiwi hop varieties are largely based on noble German greats so I expected something very much true to style here. It's 5.5% ABV and a bright clear gold, smelling fruity more than veggy: guava and mango in particular to the fore. And, strangely, I didn't get much of a hop hit. There's a lovely soft and rounded malt pillow, of the sort you'd find in a good helles. Poking around for something to say about the hops, I found a vague mix of flowers, herbs and slightly more exotic coconut oil, but none of it very pronounced. Screwing my eyes shut and concentrating really hard there's a touch of celery and white pepper discernible, which fits the noble hop brief, but that's it. This was fine; easy going and undemanding. I take exception only to the use of the word "hoppy".

With Southern Hemisphere Session IPA we drop down to 4.6% ABV though stay on the bright gold theme. Now here are the dank grassy aromas I expect from the bottom half of Planet Hop, though tempered with gentler citrus fruit. The flavour is very lager-like, aided by a light and clean body without much malt character. Instead, the flavour pops with those tropical hops: peach, white plum, guava and grapefruit, before finishing on a pleasing dry tannin. It's a quick performance, dancing across the palate and setting up the next sip, so I can well imagine a session on pints of this. No fireworks; nothing that says fresh hops per se, but a damn decent drinking beer brimming with hop fun.

On to the grown-up stuff with Southern Hemisphere IPA, the ABV now at 6.7% ABV and the gleaming bright glassfuls are behind us as things take a turn for the murky. It smells great, though: a heady orange candy backed by savoury rye bread. There's quite an alcohol kick when I take a pull, a long and slow gut-warming burn. The Fanta-like orange element rolls in behind this, making me suspect the presence of Aussie signature Galaxy, and indeed that's what they used, alongside New Zealand's Motueka. While I liked the hop side, the overall beer is a bit too rough; there's a dreggy, unfinished, feel to it. It lacks the polished sparkle of the previous two and does nothing to make up for this shortcoming.

That meant apprehension for Southern Hemisphere Double IPA: how soupy would this be? It was clearer, at least, back to the bright golden amber of the first two. The aroma is hot and fruity: the mangoes are ripe, if not actually on the turn. There's a bit of a booze kick on tasting; a pleasant and clean spirituousness of the sort I've found in IPAs much stronger than the 8% ABV at work here. There's no punch and only a vague waxy bitterness, which puts it outside the bounds of truly great double IPA. That said, it also avoids the pitfalls of extreme booze or hops that are too often their downfall. Instead it's a simple beer, wearing the hefty booze up front while also offering a mildly syrupy fruit salad middle, but no real finish. It's basic stuff, and like the pilsner we came in on, unflawed but quite boring.

I don't think Sierra Nevada is bringing its A-game to these sets. While they have so far all contained perfectly decent beer, none have wowed in the way that Sierra Nevada highlighting hops ought to have wowed.

24 August 2018

The fillums

Three movie-themed offerings from YellowBelly today, all variations on IPA.

Underdog was pouring the draught-only special Hazing Saddles: a take on the New England style, of course. It's an orangey beige colour and stars a pineapple sweetness as the lead performer, supported by a cast of yeast-derived spices, including white pepper, nutmeg and paprika. That sharpness comes to dominate the fruit by the end of the show. It's not the most thrilling of IPAs, and should probably have more going on to justify the 6.8% ABV, but it gets the basics broadly right.

Appropriating Will Ferrell's comedy stylings, Tin Can of Emotion is a copper-coloured double IPA of 10.1% ABV, hopped with six American hop varieties plus Hüll Melon. It smells heady, all ripe summer berries and warm caramel. While it's thick, to the point of creamy, the flavour isn't primarily sweet. Instead there's a serious kick of savoury, salty, sweaty bitterness: a metallic twang finishing on intense green spinach and cabbage. The smooth texture prevents this from getting difficult while the big blousy malt is held in check too. The lack of punchy citrus lends it a barley wine feel, which isn't a criticism, just something that marks it out from most new-released double IPAs. It's classy and retro, which fits the brand quite unironically.

For subscribers to the brewery's beer club they brewed another modern hazy one called Everlasting Hopstopper which I got to try at the club barbecue a couple of weeks ago. The unconventional thing here is that even though it's going for a New England style, with lots of late hops, they also barrel aged it, but only for a couple of weeks. I was left confused by the result. It's sweet and creamy with a whack of garlic but also a large portion of vanilla. That's par for the course with NE IPA, though brewer Declan claims that the vanilla isn't because of the suspended bits, but from the barrel. I'm not in a position to argue, but still: hmmmm. Overall this is a little heavy, despite the very modest 4.6% ABV, but enjoyable drinking. The barrel got completely emptied so I doubt anyone there on the day had much of a problem with it.

No surprise from these that the throwback one is my preference. The old films are the best.

There was another new beer on the go at the barbecue. It's not specifically cinematic though Yellow Belly has the look of a baddie from Big Trouble in Little China on the badge. High Voltage is described as an "extra strong bitter" and is 6.7% ABV. The dark amber colour goes hand-in-hand with a heavy texture and caramel malt base. On top of this is a thick seam of somewhat astringent tannic bitterness and then some lighter and sweeter coconut, leading to an authentically English metallic tang on the end. It's fun and complex, though I'm not sure I'd have got the same value from more than a half pint at a time.

Thanks to all the YellowBelly crew for a great day out at the brewery, and for keeping this blog in content for one more day.

22 August 2018

The beers less travelled

Part two of my run through Hagstravaganza 2018 concerns itself with the Irish brewers who were there. The hosts, White Hag, had a couple of collaborative beers brewed abroad in the line-up. One was Bretty Fool, made at Schneeeule with additional input from fellow Berliners BRLO. It's an unattractive muddy brown and headless with a strong dirty funk aroma. The texture is a bit thin and watery while the flavour is a game of two halves: a lovely roast that complements the horsey funk, but a sharp plastic bite as well which lets it down. An interesting beer overall, a nice twist on your standard Orval-alike, but not brilliant all the same.

The other collaboration was Watershed, a session-strength New England IPA brewed at Big Smoke in Surrey. At 4.2% ABV it's light and refreshing without being thin. It's properly bitter too, which is always pleasing in these sorts, showing a very real, sharp note of grapefruit pith as the central feature.

Entirely off their own bat, White Hag was offering Hagstravaganza #4 as the headline beer of the event, a version of their Black Boar imperial stout, aged in bourbon barrels with added raspberries. It arrived jet black with no foam on top and its flavour brings an equal mix of tarry stout, fresh raspberries and boozy bourbon vanilla. They contrast with each other nicely, providing three top-notch flavour experiences from a single glass.

I got my first opportunity to try beers from Tipperary's newest brewery, Canvas. Raspberella was where I began, being a 4.6% ABV amber ale with brewery-grown raspberries. The fruit gets straight to work in the aroma, exuding the crunchy woody character of raspberry seeds. In the flavour it's thick and sweet, like raspberry ice cream sauce, boosted by quite a dense treacle-like malt base. It might have become difficult and cloying were it not for the drying balance of burnt roast on the end. This is an unusual concoction, but by no means unpleasant.

Alas I can't say the same about Road Not Taken, described as a "west Cork porter" and 7.5% ABV. They've gone for smoky here, but have ended up with a beer that tastes acridly of iodine and musty old oak. It's all a bit rough and severe. Perhaps ageing would help round it out, though it could be that the whole recipe needs redrawing.

DOT rolled out the barrel with Mother Mezcal, an IPA aged in a mezcal cask. There's lots of wood here too: a dry splintery effect in the aroma which transfers into the flavour as well. But there are plenty of hops: green and quite herbal, ensuring it still comes across as an IPA first and foremost. A relatively modest 6.5% ABV means it's not boozy, and I got no trace of the spirit that was in the barrel previously, although that said I don't think I've ever tasted mezcal. This is perhaps not as exciting as the name implies, but it's still a jolly good, clean, IPA.

Boundary's Double Screwball ice cream IPA was brought to the table by my wife: it's not the sort of thing I'd have chosen off my own bat. And more fool me, because it was really nice. It's 8.7% ABV and lurid pink with lots of raspberry in the aroma. The flavour isn't too sweet, with a certain jammyness and a creamy vanilla element, but also a significant citric hop kick. I was reminded more of a classy lemon and raspberry torte than a kiddies' ice cream cup.

One last beer before legging it for the train, and it's a big one: High Viscosity from Galway Bay, a 10% ABV bourbon-barrel stout which they brewed as a collaboration with Uiltje and which includes stroopwafel in the ingredients. Full craft points, there. It smells sweet and treacly but tastes bitterer, thankfully: a kick of herbal liquorice offsets the sugar, and there's an espresso roast finish. The name isn't lying: it is incredibly thick and this makes it satisfying and sippable. It's definitely not as much of a novelty as the description implies, being instead simply a well-made big stout.

With my remaining tokens I purchased a bottle of White Gypsy Vintage for the train. This beer has been a long time in development -- the process got its first mention on this blog in 2010 -- and is an attempt to produce Irish stout in the traditional way: wood aged and naturally soured. This particular batch was brewed in 2016 then left for two years before bottling. It came out at 6% ABV and I was first struck by the poor head retention. It has a savoury aroma, crisp like actual crisps, and the flavour continues that theme: soy sauce and MSG; all the umami. It is still a stout, though, and there's a dry roasted edge on it too. While fine, it didn't taste like anything special to me, and certainly not worth the €8 it set me back. Lambic pricing should mean lambic quality.

The day's final beer, as our train lumbered back east across the midlands, came via Ronan's generosity. He shipped Henderson's Beast over from Toronto. It's an imperial amber ale, bourbon aged to 11% ABV. The whisky cask is very much in charge of the flavour, from the lime-like sourness to the smooth and heavy vanilla, this is bourbon all the way. It's good though: like the High Viscosity it's calm and relaxing with no sharp edges or difficult parts. Cheers Ronan.

And cheers to The White Hag for running another excellent show, and for the complementary tickets. Even when ticking beers against the clock it was a fantastic day out.


20 August 2018

From far and wide

The White Hag Brewery in Ballymote Co. Sligo celebrated its fourth birthday at the end of July with the second outing of the Hagstravaganza festival. Like last year I was up and back on the same day so had to make the most of the available drinking time. I think I did. You're getting two posts this year.

From the pre-published list, the brewery that particularly struck me as of interest was Berlin's Schneeeule as I've heard good things about their Berliner weisse. My first call, then, was Otto, a weisse with elderflower at only 3% ABV. I was astounded. It's wheaty and mildly sour, and the elderflower adds a fresh and fruity complexity, but it lacks anything distinctive. I guess I just thought it would be sourer.

I was on firmer ground when I spotted Dutch brewery Nevel on the board, having really enjoyed one of theirs at the Leuven Innovation Festival earlier this year. The first to pass my way this time was Gulzig, described as a "New England wild ale". This is a massive Brettanomyces party: the purest form of funky horse blanket, illuminated by a lighter and sweeter peach. All of the wonders of Brett are present and loud in larger-than-life 3D Technicolor. If you like that sort of thing, this one is near perfection.

That got followed quickly by Borderless, another wild one, this time with pineapple, ginger and habanero chilli. The aroma is probably its best feature, being clean, spicy and tart, much like a real Belgian lambic. Pineapple dominates the taste, in that sort of sweaty stringy way you get with real fibrous pineapple. There's no juice and no spicing either, surprisingly. Still, there's nothing wrong with the taste, and that fabulous smell would let me forgive a lot.