24 July 2014

Lotta bottle

Some recent bottled additions to the Irish craft beer scene today, starting with two from Mayo brewery Mescan. I'd had their blonde previously but so far missed its companion beer until now. It's a red tripel. In fact, it's probably the Red Tripel as I don't think I've seen the style designation before, in Belgium or beyond. It's a bit of a misnomer, though, pouring more of a garnet-amber than the bright red I was half-expecting. Lots of very typical Belgian fruity esters in the nose, plummy like a dubbel rather than spicy like a tripel. All of the 8% ABV can be tasted: it's hot and fruity, in a sherryish kind of way. The darker malt really does bend its flavour profile more towards the darker Belgian monastic styles and there's none of the spice or honey of tripel to redress the balance. I like it; it's warming and very flavourful, but I'm not sure I'd put the T-word on the label.

The previous two Mescan beers are unmistakably Belgian-influenced in their taste and style. So I was highly curious when it came to Westporter Stout: a more Irish than Belgian 5% ABV. There's a slight yeast whiff, and lots of foam, which add to its Belgian credentials, but underneath it's all Irish. The texture is light and very sessionable and the flavour is dry, with the little sparks of gunpowder spice you sometimes get from roasted barley or black malt. Some lovely coffee and caramel finishes it off, and I'm reminded of both Dungarvan's Black Rock and Carlow's Leann Folláin, which is to say a thumbs-up from me. Those Belgian beehive bottles are very pretty and all, but I'd appreciate a pint of this.

Dungarvan's summer seasonal for 2014 is Mine Head, a 5.5% ABV American-style pale ale. It has been dry hopped with Cascade and there's loads of lovely juicy peach and passionfruit in the flavours, complemented by a sweet, but not sugary, nectarine aroma and finishing on a sharper bite of lime zest and orange pith. Where I think it falls down, however, is in the bottle-conditioning.  For one thing it's very fizzy, and the carbonic bite is one element interfering with those delicate hops. The yeast is another: I poured as carefully as I could and left a couple of fingers in the bottle but still got a hazy glassful and a definite earthy cheese-rind tang right in the middle of the taste. It's a good effort, but you'd need to be a sucker for natural conditioning to rank it above most of the other beers of its style sold in Ireland.

To Kerry next, and the spring and summer specials from Beoir Chorca Duibhne, which I drank in reverse chronological order. Riasc Gold is very much a rose-gold colour rather than yellow, deriving its colour, I'm guessing, from the addition of rosehips. There's an earthy, yeasty aroma plus an underlying promise of fruity bubblegum malt. The first hit on tasting, however, is a lovely peppery spice, like fresh rocket. This is followed by mild floral notes and a crisp, wholesome grain husk character. It's very much not the wan, insipid golden summer quaffer I was expecting. At 5.5% it's an ale to take a bit of time over. There's maybe a hint of oxidation, but not enough to spoil the experience.


If the Gold is nearly red, Riasc Red is almost brown. This spring seasonal is also 5.5% ABV and has yet more rosehips in the mix. A comforting waft of milk chocolate and Turkish delight comes from the aroma. Despite busy fizz at the beginning, it settles down into a smooth weighty red with lots of cuddly caramel, more milk chocolate, and a more assertive herbal bitterness. While technically an Irish red I suppose, if a little strong for the style, there are lovely elements of porter and brown ale in the flavour profile. All-in-all a class act from the guys in Dingle.

I've just noticed that all of this week's bottles have been bottle-conditioned. While I appreciate the wholesome, down home qualities it imparts, I think all that fizz and that yeast does have a tendency to cover the more subtle elements of the flavour. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

21 July 2014

The week that's in it

We had a couple of goings-on of beery significance in Dublin last week. Thursday saw 57 The Headline host the local launch of St. Mel's Brewing. St. Mel's in Longford Town may be a very new operation but it's helmed by Liam Hanlon, previously the head brewer at Carlow and the creator of the beers that went on to become O'Hara's IPA and Leann Folláin. He's operating on a 15hL Irish-built brewkit now, producing three bottle-conditioned beers to begin with.

Funny thing, bottle conditioning. Staff at The Headline were handing out the half-litre bottles with a 33cl glass -- perfectly normal practice in the Irish pub, but not ideal when you have beers that work best in a single careful pour. The samples at the event were in small tasters and after the first round I thought somebody might have to take the brewmaster aside for a talk about quality control. It seems just to have been an unlucky pour of concentrated dregs, however. Another taster later on was much better, and enough to convince me to trade up to drinking entire bottles. So what's in the range?

Interestingly, St. Mel's have opted for a Brown Ale over a red or stout, possibly the only one in permanent production in the country. It's a substantial 5.2% ABV though the texture is light and the taste crisp, prickled by quite a busy fizz. The centre is all chocolate, of the dry cocoa-powder variety. It's also dry-hopped, which lends it not so much a fruitiness as a green vegetal bitterness which lasts long into the finish. St. Mel's Brown one of those quite serious, solid beers, but very enjoyable for all that.

St. Mel's Pale Ale is a little lighter at 4.8% ABV and pours a clear shade of deep orange-gold. Cascade hops are doing the heavy lifting here, imparting a gentle flavour of ripe juicy peaches and some light herbal grassy spicing. Its best feature is the texture: a pillowy softness with a sherbet effervescence which leaves it exceedingly drinkable. Overall a well put-together and accessible pale ale.

Finally for the first round of releases there's St. Mel's Helles Lager. Not exactly Munich-grade, but there's a wholesome grainy flavour and some pleasant fruit ester sweetness. Plenty for lager drinkers to enjoy here.

Liam says that distribution of draught beer is likely to remain mostly local once that's up and running, but bottles should hopefully be easy enough to get hold of all around the country.

Also on Thursday, The Porterhouse kicked off a ten-day festival of pale ales across the chain. The line-up includes much to like from British and American luminaries Thornbridge, Camden, Founders, Sierra Nevada, and the promised first appearance of Magic Rock beer in this country. The centrepiece, however, is a new permanent addition to the Porterhouse range: Dublin Pale Ale, essentially a re-working of last year's Pale Face special edition brew. (I'm probably the only one sad enough to note that the name "Dublin Pale" has been used previously, being the cask bitter produced briefly by Messrs Maguire in the late '90s). Dublin Pale is on keg, at least for now, and is 4.2% ABV, hopped with Admiral and Styrian Goldings. The flavour is unsurprisingly very English: big thirst-quenching tannins at the front and a coppery tang in the finish. The crisp bitterness reminds me a lot of its cask sibling TSB. For those occasions when TSB is absent and Hop Head would be just a hop too far, this is a welcome addition.

Among the early guest beers in Porterhouse Temple Bar was the new black IPA from Eight Degrees. It's named after the single variety of Australian hop it uses, Vic Secret, and is 6% ABV. It arrived a dense black colour, showing hints of red at the edges, and density is a theme. It's very thick and extremely tarry, with lots of bitter roast coating the palate. Set against this is a gaudy galah of bright tropical flavours, starting with mango and pineapple in the aroma, bursting out into bitter grapefruit and concentrated peach nectar on tasting. It's an incredible experience and it's hard to believe that all that colour comes from just one hop variety. The finish is long and bitter, and I honestly couldn't say if that's a result of the big hops or the roasted grains, or both. Either way, it's another hoppy winner from the Mitchelstown brewery.

And there's yet more new Irish beer to come later in the week.

17 July 2014

Downsizing flavour

In general, I'm quite well-disposed to the craftification of the English regional breweries. It gave us Shepherd Neame in brown glass bottles and the lovely looking Revisionist range by Marston's. But I was disappointed to see Thwaites brewery being a casualty of the upheaval, shutting down its main operation and effectively becoming a microbrewery, with the main range of beers contracted out, for a while at least. I wasn't the only one to regard it as a poor decision.

The new Thwaites brand has been given the cringeworthy name of "Crafty Dan". There are three in the initial range. The first I tried is 13 Guns, 5.5% ABV: a US-style IPA bragging of "an intense hit of hops". Quite a big promise there. It pours dark amber with very little head and smells pleasantly of grapefruit and toffee. So far so unintense. It's very fizzy, a busy insistent sparkle and despite what the label says, the malt is driving the flavour: fruitcake and sherbet with maybe a little bit of an acidic burn. Even if it wasn't for the outrageous claim on the label I doubt I'd like this much.

Putting that disappointment aside, we turn to Triple C, a golden ale of 5.3% ABV boasting of Chinook, Citra and Centennial "for hop heads only". What could possibly go wrong with that? It's darker than I'd expect from something labelled a golden ale, but that's OK, and even pouring at arm's length I can smell the familiar herbal piquancy of Citra hops. A closer sniff confirms it but adds a distinct underlying whiff of toffeeish crystal malt too. And once again it's the malt in control: caramel and a bit of milk chocolate given little more than a spicing from the high-alpha hops. The flavour profile is probably closer to what you'd expect from an American amber ale, which again is no bad thing, but some distance from the promises made on that label. By the time it warms any way the hops have faded completely.

I took it as a relief that the final one of the set doesn't brag about how hoppy it is. Big Ben is a 5.8% ABV brown ale, and a rather pale one at that, showing distinctly red around the edges. "A bitter-sweet resonance" reads the strapline, and yes, I can detect the presence of a decent amount of hops in the aroma: some bitter citrus is mixed in with the caramel. The carbonation is pleasantly gentle and it's not overwhelmingly sweet or any way sticky. Instead there's a kind of candystore sherbet and fruit chews, with a slightly metallic dryness in the finish being the only grown-up feature. It's a little thin, especially given the strength, but overall it's decently drinkable in the way a brown ale should be.

Viewed from the front, you can't tell these beers come from Thwaites at all. Since none of them have the beatings of, say, Indus or Lancaster Bomber I do hope this all-craft-and-no-trousers model isn't going to be adopted by other English breweries currently turning out beers with not a damn thing wrong with them.

14 July 2014

Going solo

Today's beers answer a question that I've been vaguely curious about for a long time but have never taken the time to research. Belgian brewery De Proef is most famous as a contractor, making beers which are sold under dozens of different brands, including luminaries such as Mikkeller, 3 Fonteinen and BrewDog. But where are their own beers? How come you never see an actual Proef-branded beer? Turns out that you do, except the house brand is Reinaert, with its stark but classy label.

Reinaert Amber is 7% ABV and a little pale for its name: a sort of dark orange where I'd be expecting a deep garnet. There's a strong sweetness in the aroma, like being too close to an overly-perfumed fellow commuter. Who is also wafting a lit thurible. Behind the smells, there's lots of wholesome grain, like crusty brown bread, and also plenty of chewy buttery toffee as well as a generous dose of brown sugar. The hopping contributes nothing more than a very vague pithiness, barely audible over the rest of the din. A bad start, then: this is just too heavy and too weird to be actually enjoyable.

I hoped for something a bit cleaner from Reinaert Tripel, setting a low bar, I guess. It's a foamer from the get-go and it was a race to get all of it into the glass. After all that excitement, it was a little on the dull side which, following the Amber, is a bit of a relief. There are subtle jaffa notes at the centre, more crusty bread and a modest amount of alcoholic warmth, considering the ABV is 9%. No interesting spices, however. None of the flourishes that make good or interesting tripels stand out. Overall, it's very drinkable, in a plain and understated way.

We turn up the heat and turn down the light for the last one: Reinaert Grand Cru. This is 9.5% ABV and just the dark red colour I was expecting from the amber. The aroma is pure heat, almost oloroso-like, though I'm fairly sure it's not oxidised. The flavour is more subtle: a toffee apple balance of sweet candy and more tart fruit acidity. The texture is surprisingly light and, aroma apart, one might be hard pressed to guess the strength.

There's nothing here to indicate that the Proef boffins have been sneaking notes while Mikkel is in doing his thing. The Amber may be odd, but not that kind of odd. They may be the life force of some of the world's great beers, but when it comes to their own recipes, Proef do things their way, take it or leave it.

10 July 2014

The urge

The European Beer Bloggers Conference came to Dublin a couple of weeks ago and I tagged along on the first night's pub crawl, an east-to-west trek from The Brew Dock to the far west end of Temple Bar. The route got edited a little on the way but there was no question of skipping The Norseman, probably the best bar for Irish craft beer in the city centre. I was determined to be sociable, casual: all pints and chat and no ticking. But The Norseman's blackboards got the better of me. There's a handful of new Irish beers I'd been meaning to try for ages and there they all were. Out with the notebook and down to business...

The long-anticipated second and third releases from Donegal Brewing were both on tap. Sea Sessions is a very pale ale and has a fair bit in common with older sibling Donegal Blonde, being very clean and crisp, with just enough of a pils-like hop buzz to make it worthwhile. Not a stand-out given what else it shared bar space with, but I'd be very happy with this if I were on its own turf in Ballyshannon. Atlantic Amber offers more understated quality, this time with light toffee malt and a dry roast barley bite. "Amber" is a little bit ambitious if taken as the purported style: what we have here is a solid, full-bodied, Irish red ale.

Continuing the summer theme, Eight Degrees's World Cup offering is Olé Olé, a 5% ABV witbier. Surprisingly, given the brewery's recent stellar form, there's not a whole to this. It's maybe a little bit pithier than your average witbier but is lacking in both spice and fruit. You can't argue with its refreshment power or drinkability, however. I guess it's designed to not distract from the football, in which case it works. Dublin brewery Five Lamps also has a summer seasonal out: Summer Steam Beer. The brewery, as far as I'm aware, isn't set up for lager and has its own produced at Eight Degrees. Part of me wondered if this steam beer (lager yeast with ale methodology) was an experiment to see if they could take the lager in house. And I have to say, I'm convinced. It's perfectly clear and possesses that beautiful crispness of well-made lager. The hopping is generous too, with all the waxy bitterness of a quality German pils.

Elsewhere in Dublin, I found the revamped Kill Lager by Trouble Brewing on tap in L. Mulligan Grocer. No longer a rebadged pils, this is now a proper Vienna lager. Very proper, in fact. Well... it's maybe a teeny bit pale in colour, more of a Lucozade orange than the traditional red-brown. But there's all of those lovely chewy melanoidin cake-and-biscuit malt notes with extra raisin and candy sweetness, all set on the sort of flawlessly clean base that cool fermenting provides. The finish is a very central-European grassy flavour, plus a carbonic bite from the high-ish carbonation. We don't get enough of the darker lager styles around here so it's nice to have this bit of variety, especially at the reasonable 4.9% ABV strength point.

Not one to be left out of a new Irish beer round-up, Galway Bay released a Table Beer last week: 3.5% ABV, produced from the second runnings of their stonking double IPA Of Foam & Fury and hopped with Amarillo, Citra and Wai-iti, in a big big way. It arrived an opaque pale orange, looking unattractively soupy with a very short-lived head. The aroma isn't massive, but there's a generous slug of grapefruit zest in there. The flavour is lots of dank followed by loads of pith: brick-subtle. Somewhere buried deep beneath the alpha acid action there's a tiny malt backbone propping the whole thing up, but it's struggling and certainly not making much of a contribution to the very thin texture. For all its palate-stripping burn, I rather liked it and had very little to complain about at €4 a pint -- over 20% cheaper than any other house beer -- but I imagine it will split the drinkers into the bargain-hunters and hop-heads on one side and the balance and subtlety fans on the other. I know which side I'm on.

Finally, a slightly off-kilter new cask ale from White Gypsy: King Cormac. I really can't fathom what existing style this is closest to, it being 5% ABV, dark brown-red and with a bizarre -- but entertaining -- spicy incense flavour. I suppose porter is the closest, though there's also a fair bit of brown-ale-style coffee and creaminess. In short, after two pints in The Brew Dock I still didn't know what it is, but I liked it. Lesser breweries describe their beer as iconoclastic but this is what iconoclastic tastes like.

07 July 2014

Danger: Rascals at work

Dublin has been a little left behind in the Irish craft beer revolution. While breweries are sprouting from the topsoil across Ulster, Connacht and especially Munster, the big smoke still mostly has only the old guard of 20th century micros, the one exception being Five Lamps, itself heavily aided by funds from multinational macrobrewer C&C. It's a rent thing, I assume: there are lots of places far more economical to perch your new manufacturing business than in the re-bubblising Dublin property scene.

Bucking that trend, and a few others, comes Rascal's Brewing, the first new independent Dublin microbrewery since 1998, if I'm not mistaken. Award-winning former home brewers Cathal and Emma created the brand last year, with a superb Ginger Porter produced at Brú. Now they have a standalone brewkit, just inside the Dublin county boundary in Rathcoole. The range has expanded to include two more beers and the official launch was held in Rathmines a couple of weeks ago, showcasing all three with pairings by renegade caterers #BrewsWePlate (goat and kimchi sliders: yum).

Brian from the NHC pitches in
It was a warm summer's evening so I made a beeline for Wit Woo, a Belgian-style witbier. There's a generous hand on the orange peel in this, though it's not at all sweet like certain US-brewed witbiers I could name. Instead there's a fantastic crispness and a mineral, even sulphurous, quality. It's an extremely refreshing version of one of the top thirst-quenching beer styles and has a joyously low ABV of just 4%.

So, just a taste of the other new beer and then back to Wit Woo for the rest of the sweltering evening, then? Wrong. Big Hop Red is the other debutante, a 5% ABV American-style amber ale. The brewers admit they've missed a little of the intended aromatic effect, to be rectified in a later batch, and it's not meant to be a high-octane hop-bomb on tasting. Instead, it introduces itself to the palate with a pop of pine and follows it with a long beautiful tannic peach tea effect. The texture is light considering the strength which, combined with that flavour, makes for a supreme summer cooler. This is what I stuck with for the duration of the event.

Although it would have been rude not give the Ginger Porter a once over. I didn't notice any significant difference from the Brú-brewed version -- the same full smooth porter, allowed to do its own portery thing without too much interference from the ginger piquancy. This was a version aged on cacao nibs and did nothing to dispel my theory that cacao nibs have very little effect on flavour: I could distinguish no chocolate element other than what you'd normally find in a porter.

A solid bunch of beers, then. And while the styles might appear radically novel at first glance, it occurred to me afterwards that they're not all that different from the mainstream styles that Carlow Brewing produced for their first decade or so: a stout, a red and a wheat beer. Irish brewing is definitely evolving, but it's nice to see it's not losing the run of itself.

Thanks to Cathal and Emma, Eric and Flo, and all the Rascals-for-a-day who were so generous at the event. Look out for Rascal's beer around Dublin in 57 The Headline, Blackbird, The Norseman, The Bernard Shaw and probably a few places on the Northside as well, if you dare.


04 July 2014

Drink the past

Bill asks us to make a connection to beers-gone-by for this round of The Session. With beer being a high-volume, rapid-turnover product its history is plentiful and varied. The contexts in which people have brewed and drunk beer, the types they made and the ingredients they used are manifold. In Dublin, porter looms over all. What Flann O'Brien aptly called "The Workman's Friend" was the first style to be made in industrial quantities to meet the needs of large urban population centres. And in maritime cities like London and Dublin, the plain people's drink went with the plain people's food: shellfish. Oysters, mussels, whelks and whatever else could be harvested from the shore in quantity and turned into food with minimal preparation. The Porterhouse has long commemorated this tradition in its Oyster Stout but more recently the Mourne Seafood restaurant chain commissioned one from the Whitewater Brewery in Co. Down. The company has just opened an outlet in the Dublin docklands, making Mourne Oyster Stout available south of the border for the first time.

It's a wonderfully velvety stout, smooth even by the standards of nitrogenated beer. Rich milk chocolate dominates the flavour but there's also a gentle green vegetal hop flavour in the background. A simple and pleasant beer overall, lacking the depth and complexity of the Porterhouse one, perhaps, but not likely to interfere with the taste of your seafood either. On the downside, a pint of this will set you back a whopping €6 so to get your money's worth you'd better enjoy the picturesque setting while you sup.

Porter spent almost two centuries as Dublin's beer of choice before its place was eventually taken by lager and, according to the most recent figures I've seen, two out of every three pints consumed in Ireland these days is lager. While Diageo and Heineken have most of that market sewn up between them, they weren't the first to produce golden cool-fermented beer for the Irish palate. That honour is normally accorded to the Dartry Brewery, in what's now a leafy residential suburb of south Dublin.

Reporting on this Teutonic curiosity while it was still under construction at the beginning of 1891, The Irish Times does note1 that the founder, Herr Stoer, is seeking to meet an already-existing local demand for lager. Much like the porter brewers over a century previously, in fact. The Dartry Brewery was in a converted mill by the River Dodder and utilised the millwheel to run its machinery. "One of the special features claimed for the new beer," says our Victorian churnalist, "will be its freedom from injurious clarifying ingredients which are so much used in many other beers". The reader is advised that it may be February by the time this slow-to-produce foreign style is available for drinking, and indeed it's May before an ad in the 'Times2 lists the nine Dublin pubs where it's available, including Neary's of Chatham Street, the only one still trading today under the same name. Also in the spring of 1891 The Whiskey Trade Review sent its reporter to Dartry3, who gushed "We have been Lager beer drinkers in many places and many climes, but never tasted a finer quality than the glass with which we toasted 'Success to the Dartry Lager Brewery' of Messrs. Stoer and Sons, Upper Rathmines, Dublin."

The fine tradition of riverside brewing in Dublin continues today at JW Sweetman on the Liffey quays, though they have yet to harness the free fluvial power that runs past the conditioning tanks in the basement every day. As it happens, they have a new lager on the taps: Maracanã, brewed for thirsty football fans in the pub for the World Cup. It passes the colour test for an accessible lager: perfectly clear and medium gold. I wish everything else about it were as clean. The hopping has been done generously so there's lots of wax and grass. But there's also a very high sweetness: spun sugar, caramel and a hint of butterscotch too. The effect isn't helped by a sweet-sour green apple aroma. It's back to lager school for Mr Sweetman, I'm afraid. A rare misstep, and it's just as well the whole brewery isn't dependent on this one brew for its success.

A little over two years after the Dartry Brewery began selling lager to the Dublin public, a terse notice appeared on the back page of the paper4:
FOR SALE: The Dublin Lager Beer Brewery, situated at Dartry, Rathmines, in full working order. An enterprising party with capital would find it a very good investment. 
And with that questionable claim, Ireland's first lager brewery vanished into history.

Notes:
1. The Irish Times, 8th January 1891, p.7
2. 26th May, p.7
3. Reproduced in The Weekly Irish Times, 28th March 1891, p.6
4.  The Irish Times, 12th August 1893, p.8