29 July 2016

Draught picks

Time for an overdue look at some of the random stuff showing up on tap around Dublin in recent months.

We'll start with Galway Bay, and their Solemn Black double black IPA has been at large for a couple of months now. I found it when it was still brand new, in The Beer Market. 8.5% ABV and €5.40 for a 33cl glass are your vital statistics. The aroma is convincingly zesty for such a dark powerhouse of a beer: there's a citrus quality which is lighter than grapefruit, offering more of a lemon and lime thing. On tasting, perhaps unsurprisingly, it's sweet at first, the dark malts infused with lemon sherbet. Then there's a rush of harder bitterness: the tar, cabbage and molasses that are standard issue for beers like this. Amazingly, despite the resinousness of its hop bittering, none of it sticks to the palate and the aftertaste returns to that light and effervescent sherbet effect. It's a very impressive beer: super-serious but with a lovely spark of fun to it.

Galway Bay's subsequent release was Acid Mother, billed as a lime gose, and quite substantial at 5.4% ABV. It arrived looking forlorn and headless, a moody dark gold colour. Perhaps in keeping with the name, the first sip gave me a vivid and unsettling flashback: Rose's Lime Cordial, the sticky green stuff that used to come in the glass bottle with the embossed lime leaves on it. That. It's not subtle and comes through so loud and brash it almost doesn't taste like it's part of the beer; like it was squirted in as an afterthought. I got a rough, papery, oxidised twang in the finish, while in the middle a massive punchy sourness. A token saltiness is barely present and you can cancel any plans you had to taste coriander. This rather severe and unrefined beer doesn't meet the stylistic points for gose for me, nor is it relaxing or particularly enjoyable to drink. Loud and spiky, my time with it was spent wishing it would calm down.

Moving away from the brewery, but staying in its pubs, a pint of Trouble Brewing's Hello Sunshine session IPA in Against the Grain. Though a mere 3.7% ABV this is a deep and rather lurid Lucozade orange. As usual when trying a new Irish pale ale I made the correct incantations to appease the beer gods and ward off yeast bite but I must have got the words wrong because -- bleuh! -- yeast bite. And it's one of those beers which is a real shame to find pouring dirty, because behind it there's a lovely balance of sweet mandarin juice and invigorating grapefruit and lime bitterness. It's not thin or watery either, which is all to the good. But that raw savoury overcoat in which the whole thing is wrapped really spoiled it for me. There was very little sunshine in evidence on my barstool.

White Gypsy also had a new one on tap at AtG recently, a 7% ABV stout called Old Smoke. When the pub tweeted it was on I made a beeline. I have very fond memories of the supremely peaty stout that Cuilán brewed at Messrs Maguire in 2007 and I harboured a flickering hope that this might be a recreation. But it's not; it's much more subtle and mature and I doubt any peated malt was used. The base is a very good, full-bodied, export-style stout -- soft, comfortable and rounded, even on keg. Smoke wafts around the edges of this, grazing the lips and sides of the tongue. Some sweeter caramel and molasses are present and just a tiny hint of Laphroaigish phenols. Though not hot, it's plenty warming but in such a way that isn't too much, even in a busy pub on a summer afternoon. Overall, Old Smoke is balanced, complex and drinkable: an all-round class act.

The final two beers for now are parts two and three of Eight Degrees's latest Single Hop Series, following on from the Citra one I mentioned back here. Representing Europe in the sequence is Mandarina Bavaria, arriving across the counter in 57 The Headline disguised as a Rascal's beer. Like the others in the series it's 5.7% ABV and, unsurprisingly, orange features big in this beer, starting with the colour. It's quite sticky with hop resins and a lot of the flavour coming out of that is intensely oily orange skin. As this builds I found it shifting sideways into the coconut flavour more usually associated with Sorachi Ace hops. There's a reminder of Mandarina's German roots too, in a very noble herbal flavour as well. That sticky quality means that the finish is a long one, the exotic oranginess hanging around on the palate for ages. For all its foghorn loudness it's a lovely beer and you come away from it with a very clear grasp of what this hop variety is and does.

Unsurprisingly, many of the same qualities can be found in Eight Degrees Galaxy which I located at Bar Rua a few weeks ago. Galaxy is another hop I'd tend to associate with juicy orange fruit, but seemingly not when it's ramped up to the intensity that the brewers have here. This guy is supremely dank, so thick with resins you could tapdance across the surface, creating a bitterness that sucked the malt out of my neighbours' pint glasses. This is a hoppy beer. When some flavour eventually emerges from under the bitterness it's grassy green at first, and then a zesty pith which lasts long, once again, into the aftertaste.

Part of me was disappointed that it didn't really taste of Galaxy, the way that the previous two, intense as they also were, tasted very much of their signature hop. At the same time, however, this edgy and uncompromising IPA stands on its own feet as a beautifully rendered face-stripping hop bomb, and it's nice to give one's palate the occasional shock.

27 July 2016

Out for the count

Derry's Northbound Brewery names most of its beers after their International Bittering Unit levels. I've never been a fan of IBUs as a useful measure of anything you can taste, but I suppose it does give some sort of prior impression of a beer.

70 is the highest they've gone so far and, unsurprisingly, is the name of an IPA, hopped with Magnum, no less. Despite the implied power it's just 5.5% ABV and bottle conditioned so pouring out a hazy orange. The aroma is an alluring mix of sweet orange flesh and herbal bathsalts but it's not quite as interesting to taste. Those 70 IBUs are definitely present: sharp and acidic. The orange zest manifests after a moment or two, an intensely serious citrus spritz, burning the tongue slightly. But the finish is a long and dirty yeast burr, something that doesn't exactly spoil the beer but does put a dampener on the more fun new world hop flavours.

Cleaned up this would be a zesty beaut but it's hard to love in bottle-conditioned form.

25 July 2016

Solo treat

I made it my new year resolution to make more use of Pifko, the Czech pub on Dublin's south quays, a place which has been quietly stocking more interesting Czech beers alongside the Urquell, Herold and Kozel. I recently found myself with a bit of time on my hands and a need for some hearty food so I dropped in for some roast pork on bramboráky and a nosy at the taps.

Three beers were advertised from the "Slaný Brewery" which, following subsequent research, turned out to be Pivovar Antoš, a brewpub in the north-western Czech Republic. It produces a broad range of beers in both Czech and foreign styles.

With my starter I got a mug of Bohemia Pale Ale, a darkish gold and looking for all the world like a classic světlý ležák. And the first taste goes along with this for a moment or two, a rich golden syrup malt character, enough to make me wait for the grassy burst of Saaz hops. But grass came there none and instead the hop contingent is an odd, harshly bitter, lemon rind twang. This becomes unpleasantly metallic as it fades out. But good brewing practice covers its faults: there's a clean finish and a soft texture, both working to make it a drinkable, enjoyable beer overall. I get the impression of a lager brewer trying to be clever and not quite managing to pull it off. But if you want a pale ale whose best bits are like pilsner, this is your man.

My pork arrived, and with it the beer advertised as  "Slaný Amber Ale", a 6%-er which I think is Antošův Amber Ale. Going on the previous I was expecting some sort of hacked polotmavý but it's not that. There's a big Cascade aroma, full of the earthy, spicy pine of that hop, while the flavour is convincingly American. It has that sweet fusion of fudge and marzipan typical of the style, spiced up with citrus trills and dank bass notes. There's definitely no quick finish here: this time the metallic bitterness hangs around on the palate for ages. Overall, it is a little harshly hopped, and rather heavy going to drink, but it's wholesome, filling, and complex, and pairs quite adequately with a big chunk of Czech meat, mushrooms and deliciously over-garlicked potato pancakes.

Dessert was Choo Choo, which I lazily assumed to be some sort of chocolate porter but is in fact a beast of a black IPA. It's 7.8% ABV, black as sin and with a very burnt bitter flavour. There's more than a hint of tmavé about it: it has the same sort of liquorice bitterness you find in many Czech dark lagers, just concentrated intensely. Extra bitterness comes from a quadruple-espresso roast edge. There's no fruit character coming from the hops and the end result is a beer that's very big, grown-up and a little bit of a chore to drink even a small glass of. But if you're looking for a challenge and are bored of a million IBUs of grapefruit, this certainly offers something different.

I look forward to the taps at Pifko rotating around to something else as interesting as this lot. It is very pleasant to get the cutting edge of Czech craft brewing delivered almost to my doorstep.

22 July 2016

How rude!

Three from Colorado's Ska Brewing today.

There's a certain sense of rush-job about the branding on the can of True Blonde, the stark canary yellow makes me feel that the brewers may be slightly ashamed of it; that the 5%-er is a commodity beer, designed for nothing more than to fill a space in the line-up. Which is a shame because it's really rather nice. It's nearly but not quite clear yellow and has a lovely soft easy-going texture. The flavour offers mild lemony bubblegum, a helles-like lagery grain, and a cheeky pinch of spicing right on the end: cedar, sandalwood or something similarly aftershave-ish. If it happens that you are just looking for a commodity quencher then this will fit the bill very nicely indeed, but it rewards more considered drinking as well.

I followed it with Rudie, a session IPA with a very modest 4.5% ABV. I think it suffers a little from the lack of malt gravity: the hops are harsh and grassy and the finish is an abrupt watery stop. The fun features of hops are all present: juicy mango and passionfruit, plus heavy oily dank, but you only get flashes before they're buried under the acidic burn. I appreciate the brewers' efforts at squeezing all the stonking hop flavours of a big IPA into a low-alcohol package, but it hasn't really worked. This needs more malt or a gentler hand on the bitterness dial.

Which brings us to Modus Mandarina. I'm on record as being basically against the fruited IPA trend but Ken in DrinkStore asserted that this one is worth trying. The can tells me it uses orange peel rather than the whole fruit or its juice and that's in its favour. It's a beautiful dark copper colour and smells faintly of old-fashioned orangeade, the lurid stuff we drank as children which had never had an orange anywhere near it. The peel really shows itself in the flavour: oily and waxy, but not unpleasant. And that's about all that happens. A burning bitterness finishes it off but there's not much flavour contribution from the Mandarina Bavaria hops. One-dimensional, perhaps, but it is enjoyable to drink. There's an uncomplicated richness to it, a luxurious quality that I found very relaxing. Most importantly it's not trying too hard to be an IPA.

20 July 2016

Colder days

I thought I'd missed out on Jack Cody's last-but-one beer completely for this year. There was none to be had at Bloom in the Park, nor any when I visited the brewery back in the spring. It's a neat little operation on the outskirts of Drogheda -- a 10hL system, doing a double brewday twice a week, employing solely whole leaf hops and shipping about 90% of its output in bottles. Thanks to Geoff for showing us around (and giving us a lift back to town).

The bottle I was looking for was Hibernicus IPA, first released last March and I finally captured one in my local SuperValu last month. 5.2% ABV and dry-hopped, boasts the label. It's kind of a dark orange colour and fairly hazy with it. The head dies down quickly after pouring leaving just a skim of bubbles on the top.

I get a heavy sweetness in the aroma, part of which is the malt, some is the fruity hops, but there's a high alcohol acetone element to it also, which doesn't bode well. The texture is surprisingly light, which is a good thing, but the first flavour to jump out is a rubbery note very similar to the one I found in their latest release, the English-style bitter Worcester Sauce, plus a dry papery oxidation twang. Some part of that production process is not doing what it's supposed to.

Peering around the wonky parts, there is a nice IPA in here: a malt/hop balance of the sort typically found in English versions of the style gives a kind of orangeade effect, and there's a cakey marzipan thing that might be more at home in an American amber ale but is quite welcome here. There's just enough bitterness in the finish to make the mouth water pleasantly.

Cleaned up it would be lovely, and I'd be interested in trying it on draught to see if it's the bottling process that's introducing whatever it is that's not sitting right with me here. Did anyone else taste the same thing I did in this?

18 July 2016

Double bubble

I only went looking for one Kinnegar special but came away with two. Win!

The bonus beer was the last bottle of Bucket & Spade on the shelves in Fresh in Smithfield. This is a session rye IPA, which is a new combo for me, at a bravely low 4% ABV. The appearance wasn't great: murky dark orange is rarely a good look for a beer. Its aroma makes up for it, though, bringing a heady and almost hot ripe mandarin with a touch of peppery spice in behind. Though there was enough of a stable head to lace the glass, the carbonation was low, making it extremely easy quaffing. It successfully avoids the session IPA thinness trap and tastes wonderfully full and rounded. Bitterness levels are also low and after the first mouthful I thought it was a little bland, but give it a moment and the mandarin and mango floods in and hangs around, deliciously unctuously. I got a bit of a yeast bite as the hops faded, but too little and too late to ruin a magnificent sessioner. Half a litre was gone in fifteen minutes and I wished I had another.

I didn't, so on to Sour Grapes, the one I'd been particularly looking forward to. It's another pale one, though clearer than the preceding beer and with a head that crackled itself to death soon after pouring. There's a distinct touch of sparkling wine about the aroma: the toasty richness of champagne and perhaps some sweeter prosecco fruit. That white grape element is very present on tasting as a subtle sort of sweetness. I was surprised to see no grapes listed on the ingredients so the effect is achieved with nothing other than barley, wheat, hops and yeast. The sour quality is secondary and it's little more than you'd find in a young acidic white wine. I've had Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs that were more tart than this. But, like the Bucket & Spade, it is very easy drinking, sharing the smoothness of champagne as well as its lightning-quick finish. With nothing weird or extreme going on, Sour Grapes exudes a genteel sort of class.

It's almost a shame that these two aren't part of the standard Kinnegar line-up. Sour Grapes in particular is the sort of thing we don't have enough of and would go just as well in a 75cl corked bottle as by the pint. But more Kinnegar specials are of course on the way and we must make room.

15 July 2016

Fail ale trail

They brew 'em strong at Nébuleuse in western Switzerland. I had three of their bottles in stock and deciding a drinking order was complicated by all of them claiming some palate-pounding heft. In the end I let hops call the shots so began with their saison.

Namur Express is no lightweight, however. 7% ABV and pouring the dark gold of apple juice. In defiance of the brewery's name, I managed to keep the lees out of the glass so perhaps that's why there wasn't much of a saison character to the aroma, just the hot esters you might find in a super strength tramps' lager. There's not much happening in the flavour either, to be honest. It could be that first impression of the colour, but I get apples again in the taste: grainy red ones. There's a bit of syrupy candy, and a thick texture to go with that, but none of what makes saison a distinctive style. While not flawed in any specific way, if you'd told me this was an industrial Belgian blonde I'd have nodded along and spent the time I was drinking it thinking about what's up next. Not an auspicious start.

What was up next was Shaddock, a "strong bitter". Strong, here, means 6% ABV. While the marketing speaks mostly of its malt pedigree, the hops are Chinook and there's added bonus grapefruit so citrus was expected. It wasn't found in the aroma: it doesn't smell of anything much, in fact. It looks like a brown bitter, though, the dark amber of strong black tea. And again, that appearance is affecting how it tastes, because the first flavour I get is the heavy tannins of over-stewed tea. It's not pleasant. Rather than adding zest, the hops and grapefruit produce an unpleasant soapy effect, so the last thing you need is the dry, stale, sweaty finish that follows it and the growing bilious acidity which creeps in as it warms. This is a disaster of a recipe, like Bombardier's even-more-evil twin.

So high hopes, then, when facing into Embuscade. While the others were reluctant to form a head on pouring there's no such shyness here. An awkward amount of foam had to be dealt with as I poured slowly, trying to keep the yeast dregs out of the glass. "Ambush" is an American-style IPA of 6.5% ABV and a wholesome, clear, west-coast gold. It definitely smells of citrus, which is in its favour, though it's a candy lemon-sherbet effect which suggests the hops are not going to have everything their own way. Sure enough, on tasting, the hops are damn near undetectable. There's a raw sweetness that tastes to me like dry malt extract, followed by an almost smoky savoury quality which could be yeast autolysis but either way is very out of place, accompanied by an unwelcome metallic aspirin tang. An acrid squirt of Jif lemon in the finish is all the hops get to say, and I don't blame them for being angry. I'm angry too.

It may be that Nébuleuse (est. 2014) is on a journey towards making good beer and these are just juvenilia -- baby steps on the way to proper brewing. But I'm slightly amazed that they're letting them out of the brewery. Clearly, the aim is to make beer as good as brewers do it in Belgium, Britain and the US, but on this showing they have a long way to go to get there.