26 February 2015

Imperial realm

Two imperial stouts from the realm of New Zealand today.

Moa Imperial Stout has some classy presentation, though the black-on-black label is quite difficult to photograph. This is 10.2% ABV and, enticingly, is aged in Pinot Noir barrels. The flavour begins with quite orthodox coffee and sweet caramel -- all very pleasant. But soon afterwards, the barrel drops into the middle of it all, adding a massive, jarring, sap-and-sawdust effect. Behind this lurks the wine, distinctively grapey and adding a sickly sweetness that doesn't fit at all well with the residual sugars from the malt. It's frustrating and tantalising to be able to taste a superb imperial stout utterly ruined by poor secondary brewing techniques.

This bottle of Epic's Epicurean Coffee & Fig Imperial Oatmeal Stout arrived courtesy of Reuben's deep pockets (€25!). A modest 8% ABV and it does pretty much what it would say on the tin, if there was a tin. Figs? Yes, a generous sweet dark fruit element infuses the whole thing. Coffee? Definitely present, though not overpowering -- it's still the dark malts which provide the roastiness and warmth. And oatmeal? That's there too, adding a richness and smoothness. Everything melds together quite beautifully into a gemstone-like perfection. The only thing that's missing is the wow factor. Like other expensive drinks -- wine and whiskey, for instance -- balanced smoothness is where your money is going, not distinctive flavours.

It's clear that a lot of skill, imagination and hard graft went into creating both of these, but tastewise I don't think it pays off in either.

23 February 2015

England streaming

I've no idea why I've been dodging Thornbridge on this blog, but it seems I have. A notebook clear-out revealed a string of their beers that I'd drank on draught in Dublin over the last seven months but never got round to scribbling about. This post is for putting that right.

Puja first, a 6.4% ABV pale ale found on keg at The Black Sheep. The odd ingredient is what attracted me: Puja is a jasmine IPA. It presents as a middling shade of orange, maybe towards red gold, and slightly hazy with it. There's a huge amount of complexity in the flavour but it's also extremely drinkable, given the strength. Its secret, I reckon, is the tannins: a crisp, dry refreshing quality that allows for big quenching gulps. Each gulp brings an explosion of fruitcake fruits: sultana, orange peel, lemon zest. There's a lot of Earl Grey about it as well, plus a more intense frankincense spicing. Overall very balanced but nicely weird as well.

Big things were expected a few weeks later when Twin Peaks showed up in Alfie Byrne's. This one is Thornbridge's collaboration with Sierra Nevada, and I've rarely seen the Californian pioneers collaborate with anybody. It poured a worryingly pale shade of yellow and keeps things light and breezy in the flavour: some lemon sherbet and chew-sweet, plus a bonus burst of mandarin. The finish brings a slightly more assertive pithy bitterness and maybe even some naughty dankness, but not enough to turn it from a casual quaffer to a more serious beery experience. Maybe it's just the mood I was in on the day but I was a bit disappointed with it. It didn't taste like a joint effort of two such high-calibre breweries.

Still, there I was back in Alfie's a little later asking for a glass of Topaz from the beer engine. Another golden one: this time perfectly clear once it had settled. Maybe it's the dispense method smoothing out the complexities, but I found this to be a rather simplistic beer: a light dusting of orange sherbet, rising to a mild and tangy tangerine bitterness with perhaps just a frisson of spicy sulphur. Though strong for an English cask ale there's no malt action and very little weight to it. Enjoyable, sure, but not the sort of beer on which brewery reputations are built.

And if you don't mind I'll just wedge in another English cask while I'm clearing the notebook. This is Loddon's Hullabaloo, served in L. Mulligan Grocer. It was a warm summer's evening so I welcomed the refreshing aroma of pear juice, strange and all that I found it. Underneath that it's a sweet beer with lots of tangy orange candy. There's a little bit of the peary, almost nail-varnish-like, acetyl in the flavour, but it's mostly kept in check. Best of all there's more of those classic English tannins providing a dry finish. Tannin really is the key to drinkability in a bitter, if I'm the one doing the drinking anyway.

Puja excepted, I can kinda see why most of these slipped my attention for so long.

And since this post keeps getting kicked back in the publishing schedule for no good reason, I may as well bring it up-to-date with a couple more English draught beers I've encountered more recently.

Vigilante, from Beerd Brewery in Bristol (seemingly an offshoot of Bath Ales), was a surprise when it showed up on the taps at Bierhaus in Galway last month. It's a pale ale at an approachable 4.5% ABV, coloured a bright and attractive gold. And the flavour is very approachable too, all mandarin sweetness and light, laced with a fresh and zesty bitterness. An unfussy beer, simple, but brimming with understated quality.

More recently I had my first ever beer by Bermondsey's Brew By Numbers, on keg at Alfie Byrne's. 11|07 describes itself as a "session ale" and is 3.9% ABV, which is fair enough. No London murk here, just a scattering of bits floating in a clear gold body, though rather decapitated. The mild aroma of tinned fruit salad did not prepare me for the fresh dank hop hit at the front of the flavour. It's intensely acidic at first, then calms down a little, but only as far as grapefruit and no further. The texture is light, reflecting the ABV, but it's not watery and those hops -- Chinook and Centennial, apparently -- just keep on delivering. I really could drink a lot of this, but the 33cl serving at €5 a glass does not do it any favours. Via Maris, a few taps over, is a much more attractive proposition.

19 February 2015

Bad hatter

From the people who brought us that weird but strangely pleasant pineapple lambic, a banana lambic. Chapeau Banana is 3.5% ABV and the label admits to 20% of it being banana flavouring. I was expecting something hazy and fluffy so was surprised when it poured clear and almost totally flat. The aroma pushes out a bright and busy foam banana sweet effect but also an underlying grumpy sour lambic tang: a real odd couple. A vinegary sourness dominates the flavour and the first sip brings a sense that maybe this is all going to be OK. But the banana candy is not to be outdone and leaps into shot soon after like an annoying little brother. Thankfully the finish is quick and the taste doesn't linger, so it has that going for it. The brewery's switch to 250ml bottles from the old 375s also limits the damage, but there's something wrong when a beer's good point is that there's not as much of it as there could be.

I know you weren't going to anyway, but don't drink this.

16 February 2015

Let's get this party started

The Irish beer festival calendar got officially under way at the weekend with the Winter & Cask Ales Festival at Franciscan Well in Cork, now in its 5th year. I travelled down a little earlier than usual to check out the Rising Sons brewpub which opened last summer. The management had kindly laid on some pizza for the visitors, and Shane the brewer brought us around behind the scenes.

It's an impressive set-up, the German-built brewkit gleaming in pride of place over the bar. The customers are so close to the action it must smell amazing on brewing days. The 20hL system makes a range of standard and special beers, now sold in over a dozen pubs around Cork, most of them under the same ownership as the brewery.

Mi Daza stout and Sunbeam pils pre-date the brewery but are now produced on site. My first beer on Saturday afternoon was Grainú Ale and the tap badge is highly uninformative about what this is. Turns out it's a witbier, and a good one too, perfect for clearing the travel dust from my throat. It's an orthodox pale hazy blonde and very much at the dry end of the style, low on fruit but compensating with extra spices and quite an assertive waxy bitterness. Once you get used to that you have an ideal quaffing refresher on your hands.

I followed it with Steeple (formerly known as "Steeple Hemp" but recently re-named due to confusion). I'd say this has knocked a few red ale drinkers off their stools. It's big on hops, starting out with a strange bitter chocolate-orange effect, with a touch of coffee roast as well. It's the sort of thing I would expect to be badged as a US-style amber rather than an Irish red, in this drinker's opinion. While I enjoyed the absence of sticky toffee flavours I think I would have preferred something a little smoother.

The house IPA is a 5%-er called Handsum, employing Columbus, Chinook and Vic Secret hops. Dark gold in colour it's surprisingly English-tasting, I thought, going for a dry, sharp and almost metallic bitter tang as its signature flavour. It's certainly invigorating but a little more fruit would have been nice.

For that sort of flavour profile one has to turn to the special editions and Shane gave everyone a taste of Survivor, a rye pale ale that's still in the conditioning tanks. This one is super-citric, packed full of delicious orange and lemon notes. I asked warily if they filter their beers and the answer is no (apart from the pils), so this hazy orange little stunner should remain stunning once it moves the four or five metres to a tap on the bar (edit: from 5th March).

Also in the tanks was Divil-a-Bit, a 1.064 blonde ale made using La Chouffe yeast. It's not too hot 'n' heavy and has some wonderful spicy flavours: I picked out cinnamon and aniseed in particular.

For actual spices, the tail end of Rising Sons's Christmas seasonal was on tap. Sleigh'R is 5% ABV and a predictable dark red-brown colour. I don't know exactly what blend went in here, but I got suggestions of clove, ginger and nutmeg: the usual sort of stuff. What sets this one apart, however, is that the body is light, not heavy or sugary, which leaves it easy to drink and really quite refreshing, odd as that may sound. The malt provides a kind of Christmas cookies effect but knows when to stop, which is good.

By the time I'd got through all that it was gone 2pm and time to head for the festival. As it happened there was another Rising Sons beer on the line-up there. Changeling is a name the brewery will be using for a sequence of one-offs: not a very consumer-friendly practice, but there you go. This Changeling was a pale ale, and a very good one at that. Lots of fresh, spicy and dank herbal hops bursting out from a lightly effervescent body, all sherbet and baking soda. The malt didn't have much to say for itself here, but I wasn't really listening.

A couple of new breweries made their festival début at the event. I missed the red ale from West Cork Brewery but did catch the 5 Malt Dark Ale by Torc Brewing out of Killarney. It's 4.5% ABV and poured a hazy shade of ochre. There's a lovely mix of jaffa orange, milk chocolate, a little caramel and a slight metallic bitterness, all set on a light body, though not at all watery. The combination of flavours shouldn't really work and from the description seems like it would end up as an overly sweet mess but it's really rather charming and very drinkable.

Our hosts rolled out a Vanilla & Pistachio Brown Ale, the sort of concoction that would turn Alan's knuckles white, and this time his rage would be justified. It's very sugary: thick and soupy though only 4.8% ABV. There's lots of vanilla and maybe a trace of nuttiness, but mostly wave upon wave of jarring caramel candybars. It had its fans on the day but I was not among them.

I had a much better time with the stouts on offer. White Gypsy's Pearl, which I'm guessing is a close relation of this, is a classic cream-and-chocolate Irish stout. Served on nitro it's smooth, but not bland, and satisfyingly sinkable. From the casks there was Independent Strong Porter, a 7% ABV job, massively roasty, especially in the aroma. The texture is very heavy and I got a slight, but not unpleasant, beefy autolytic tang from it. A lovely warmer in a cold winter's beer garden, this.

Stag Rua by 9 White Deer had hitherto eluded me, but here it was, along with its creator. At a meet-the-brewer event, Gordon explained that its roots lie in stout and a need to create a beer that the stout drinkers of west Cork will convert to in the summer. That certainly explains the refreshing absence of sweet crystal malt flavours here. Instead it's relatively dry with a little bit of roasted grain and some mild strawberry fruit sweetness. Most of all though it's thirst-quenching with lots of lovely English-bitter tannins. We're seeing red ales being taken in all sorts of directions by Irish brewers at the moment, but this is my favourite approach so far.

Brewery-mate of Stag Rua is Mountain Man's Sneaky Owl, an English-style dark ale done using Admiral and Bramling Cross hops. There's certainly that signature blackberry flavour from the latter, adding a mouthwatering tart balance to the silky milk chocolate from the dark malt. It's a light and easy-going beer and I rather enjoyed it, a bit like Hobgoblin on a really good day.

I left the powerhouse beers to the end. First up Hi-Viz from Black's of Kinsale. This 8.5% ABV double IPA reminded me a lot of Beoir#1, the 9% ABV double IPA that Black's brewed a year ago as part of a crowd-funding initiative. It has the same luxurious boozy weight and similar tasty spicy orange notes. Of course it doesn't matter whether or not it's a reboot, but it is great to have another double IPA of this quality knocking around. I hope we'll be seeing more of it.

And speaking of beers crowd-sourced from the drinkers, the festival saw the world premiere of Beoir#2, brewed by Trouble to a recipe put together by Reuben. I even threw a pot of hops into this myself back in January. The end result is 7.8% ABV and a beautiful chestnut red, warming and welcoming the drinker with juicy summer fruit and sharper caramelised onions. It certainly tastes the strength but wears it well, remaining perfectly drinkable throughout. I could have handled more than a half but time was marching on and the train home beckoned.

Cheers to all the team at Rising Sons and Franciscan Well for the day out. I'll be back for the Easter Festival, but before that it's Alltech Brews & Food in less than a fortnight.

12 February 2015

Head 'em off

The annual Cask & Winter Ale Festival at Franciscan Well in Cork kicks off tomorrow. It's a few years since I've been, but I'm travelling down on Saturday to see what's what.  Limited time means limited drinking opportunities so I've been going out of my way lately to try some new Irish specials on tap in Dublin which I'm expecting to be on the festival list, just so I don't feel obliged to drink them on the day if there's other stuff I want. It's all about choice.

A cask of the new stout from Black's of Kinsale appeared in Porterhouse Temple Bar yesterday. Model T is 6.5% ABV and I was smitten from the first sip. It has all the ultra-smooth, yet slightly dry, chocolate-cocoa of the best strong stouts, with that extra dimension of spice that only seems to come with cask serve, and even then not always. The ace in the hole is its hopping: fresh and green; gunpowder and sherbet; strawberries and spinach; all blended together beautifully with a mellow maturity. It tastes like a beer that has not been rushed at any stage of production. While I don't want to come over all Don Draper, Model T will make you fall in love with stout again.

A tough act to follow, so just as well Metalman Heat Sink got in before it. Wait, that sounds unkind. Heat Sink is a good beer, a smoked chilli porter they were pouring on cask in L. Mulligan Grocer when I dropped in last Friday. I confess the smoke passed me by completely, though Tim assured me there's plenty of smoked malt in here. The chilli is little more than a tingle on the palate and a catch in the throat, but it builds nicely if you take the beer in big gulps, something the clean and simple dry porter base makes very easy.

Possibly not at this weekend's festival, but also on tap at Mulligan's on Friday, was The Piper: the second beer from Four Provinces, brewing at Trouble. It's not all that different in colour to its predecessor, The Hurler, being rose-gold rather than copper. It arrived very cold from the keg and I initially found it rather dull for something claiming to be an IPA, the flavour made off with by crystal malt and carbon dioxide banditos. But peep behind the toffee and the fizz and there's definitely a proper fresh-hop resinousness in the background. Only in the background, unfortunately. I kept waiting for the hops to open out and really make their presence felt, but they never become more than decoration in what ends up being quite a plain, thin and fizzy reddish keg ale. The Piper is a bit of a tease.

So that's my pre-festival homework done. See you in Cork.

09 February 2015

More than just IPA! (but mostly IPA)

This poor tasting note on Odell's Tree Fort tripel has sat alone and unloved in my notebook since the middle of last year. Today I'm sending it off into the world with a couple of its compatriots. Tree Fort is an interesting one: 8.2% ABV and showing all the heat and density that normally comes with the style, though substituting a dry chalkiness and floral lavender where the yeast spices might normally be. But then the Odell house flavours set up stall: an intense satsuma zestiness, fading slightly to let pineapple and mango flood past. It's an immensely satisfying sipper and kudos to L. Mulligan Grocer for getting hold of a keg. I understand it was a one-off so if there's something I can sign to get them to make it again I will gladly do so.

And so to the IPA. First up is Finestkind by New Hampshire's Smuttynose brewery. The thick layer of sediment at the bottom of the bottle worried me so I poured very carefully and I think I got away with it -- only a very fine haze showing in the golden glassful. It smells of hard orange candy and while that's a part of the flavour too, there's also an intense lime and grapefruit bitterness sitting alongside it, spritzed with some spicy and floral perfume. The texture is light and the finish pleasingly quick with no lingering residual sugars. I was finding it all nicely downable when I realised I had no idea of the ABV -- it's not printed on the label and the naughty importer hasn't brought it into compliance with local law. Research shows it to be 6.9% ABV, though so hop-dominated is it that I would well believe it to be considerably weaker or stronger. Overall, a classic US-style IPA and definitely one to give to anyone wondering what all the fuss is about when it comes to this style of beer.

Upping the ante next with a bottle of Brooklyn Blast: 8.4% ABV and "a decidedly robust IPA" according to the label. It's very cloudy, a bright orange colour but barely translucent. The hops are a blend of American and British and they create a strange earthy, herbal flavour typical of neither country's hoppy beer, plus a distinct coconut hit reminiscent of Sorachi Ace, suggesting we've passed British and US hop country and come out the other side of the Pacific. The aroma is a little more orthodox: orange pith and and a yeasty spiciness but there's also a waft of medicinal wintergreen. I was halfway down the glass before I could make up my mind on whether I liked it or not, and eventually came out in its favour. The odd tastes just eventually lock into place with each other, clean and clear, untroubled by malt interference. It's not at all what I was expecting when I took the cap off but it's certainly not boring or bland.

We conclude this round with a new one (to me) from Founders: their imperial black IPA, sententiously titled Dark Penance. Its ABV is actually a relatively modest 8.9% and it smells fresh and zippy: cut grass, citrus juice but nothing more serious than that. The colour is a very dark red, topped by a pillow of off-white foam that doesn't hang around long. I got a lot of toast on the first sip when the beer was still cold, an ashen sort of bitterness which I didn't really enjoy. The cut grass I first sniffed grows into a heavy resinous dank in the flavour, cabbagey and vegetal at the back of the palate; more spicy at the front with prickles of white pepper and nutmeg. And all of it squatting determinedly on the tongue: it doesn't care if you like it or not, this flavour is staying with you until it's done and the texture, while not unctuous, is heavy enough to allow that. As it warmed I became accustomed to its weighty green charms and relaxed into it. I've certainly had more intensely hot, thick and cabbagey versions of the style (looking at you, Revelation Cat's Bombay Cat), but this one has what passes for balance and nuanced complexity in the IBIPA sub-genre.

Conclusion: the latter two beers have me worried that US brewers might be a bit bored of making ones like the second. They're interesting, but there's a lot to be said for the basic style that made American brewing famous. Here's hoping for balance across styles as well as in flavour.

06 February 2015

The third way

Joan from Barcelona-based Blog Birraire is at the helm for this month's Session, seeking opinions on the purpose of beer festivals: "geek gathering or beer dissemination?"

There's no doubt that both are the case in Ireland. The Irish beer festival calendar is becoming quite established now, starting next weekend with the Cask & Winter Ales fest at Franciscan Well and moving through the grand shows of Alltech Brews & Food and the Irish Craft Beer & Cider Festival taking in plenty more intimate gigs along the way. We the geeks know the when and where and show up without fail, especially when the exhibitors have something new to show us. It's good to catch up with fellow drinkers from around the country whom one might not normally meet down the pub.

Yet even at the most specialised and out-of-the-way beer event, the insiders are still very much a minority. I'm always amazed, though I shouldn't be, at the huge numbers of visitors at all sorts of events all through the year who had no awareness of beer beyond the big brands. Here it's the job of the festival to create or boost that awareness, and hopefully carry it out of the refined festival atmosphere and into the shops and pubs to make the newcomers aware that choice exists, if they choose to exercise it. It's a battle which I think is gradually being won. At Septemberfest in 2009 I was massively sceptical about the possibility of any of the thousands of punters continuing to drink independent Irish beer and cider after the big tent in the Phoenix Park came down. Today, thanks to the growth in the number of breweries and their reach, the non-obsessives are more likely to come to a festival with at least some familiarity and can be sent away with their horizons broadened.

But I reckon as well that festivals have a third purpose beyond Joan's two. I've found them to be a great way of learning about any particular country's brewing. And I'm not just talking about the formal national festivals like GBBF or Zythos. Even smaller ones like Borefts or Quartiere In Fermento, in my experience, really help with understanding what's happening with beer in other places. Several other places, in the case of Borefts. Much as I love trawling around pubs and breweries it's nice, just occasionally, to have the local beer scene entirely encapsulated under one roof. Certainly anyone looking for easy access to a broad sweep of Irish beer would do well to come to the RDS in September.

And when I can't go to the festival, the next best thing is for the festival to come to me. Today's beers are all from Brazil and arrived courtesy of a visitor (hi Tiago!). Pleasingly, they cover a range of styles and come from different places along Brazil's extensive Atlantic coast, which is just what I'd choose if I were wandering around a Brazilian beer festival wondering what to have next.

Amazon Red Ale is from Belém in the north, 6% ABV and brewed using priprioca, a local herb. "British school with terroir of the Amazon" is the stated aim. It certainly smells exotic: a pleasant air of cedar and sandalwood. While the heavy use of crystal malt makes it quite sticky with big toffee notes, it remains clean and quite refreshing through the offices of the herb, giving it a peppery incense spiciness. I liked it.

It's down to São Paolo next, for Trem Bão by Blondine brewery. This is intriguingly described as a "session IPA saison", which is a lot to squeeze into a 4% ABV  package. To further confuse things it looks and tastes like a witbier: a hazy pale yellow and with lots of sweet lemon candy, though minus the spices. I got a little bit of saison-like zest in the aroma but that's it as far as that claim goes. However, there's nothing to suggest IPA anywhere in the deal, neither bitterness nor hop flavour nor hop aroma. It's still a pleasant and refreshing beer, just think of it as a witbier radler rather than any more serious styles.

We go further south still for the last of the three. Way Beer is based in Pinhais, and this is its Irish Red. I feel a slight twinge of national embarrassment that a brewer all the way down there, below the Tropic of Capricorn, would attempt this most uninspiring of styles. Still, it's 5.8% ABV so at least it's not going to be an accurate rendition. It looks the part, however: properly coppery. There's a sweetness at its heart, with toffee and chocolate coming through in particular. But mostly it tastes oxidised: stale and even a little funky. It's not a great beer and is a good lesson in how big hops can help cover up some shortcomings in the brewing and packaging process, and that without bold flavours there's nowhere for the naughty flavours to hide.

Obviously I'm not going to be making any pronouncements on the state of Brazilian brewing based on these few examples. But it certainly seems to be the case that the drinker isn't stuck for variety. And that's something for the geeks and the neophytes to celebrate.