06 July 2015

Northern brewers

You'll only find one entry on RateBeer for my home town of Armagh. Hardly surprising as whatever the opposite of a beer Mecca is, Armagh is one. There isn't even a brewery in the county, though quite rightly its cider industry appears to be thriving and on my last trip I was very pleased to see MacIvor's making great in-roads to the on-trade.

That solitary beacon of hope on RateBeer is The Wine Store, an off licence attached to the sprawling Emerson's supermarket. I rarely get a chance to drop in but did so on my last visit, grabbing everything I'd never had before from the considerable selection of Northern Irish beers.

I opened the Hopburst IPA from Farmageddon almost immediately. This is 6.2% ABV and a nice clear dark orange, despite the cheeky advice on the label that "it may be cloudy - harden up - it's craft beer." There's a certain tart sourness in the aroma, redolent of lime marmalade. Malt drives the flavour but there's more of that lime too, all sharp and rather oily. I guess it's really a classic English-style IPA at heart, reminding me of the marmalade-on-wholegrain-toast effect I always enjoy in White Shield, but it's been given just an extra citrus twist in line with modern tastes and it all works rather well. The last Farmageddon beer I encountered was undrinkable so Hopburst has gone a long way to restore my faith in the brewery.

Next up, Crann, the first in a collaboration series between west Ulster breweries Poker Tree and Inishmacsaint with the former doing the brewing while the latter handled the bottling process. It's a 6.6% ABV bière de garde, pouring a gorgeous clear honey colour and smelling crisp, sherbety, and with maybe just a mild sourness too. A look at the label tells me that cranberries, raisins and spruce tips have been added to the recipe, and it's the first of these which really shines out: that refreshing tartness combined with sweet juicy fruit is a winning combination. There's a slightly harsh and vegetal bitterness in the finish, which could be either the hops or the spruce, or a combination of both, but it doesn't interfere with the main act. They've marketed this as a winter beer, but I found it worked just as well on a warm day. It's a wonderful accomplishment and I look forward to many more daring collaborations like it.

Hillstown is a brand new brewery to me, based on a farm in Co. Antrim. First up, a red ale with the suitably farm-y name of Massey Red. The label makes claims of sessionability but at 5.2% ABV we're dealing with a bit more booze than is usual for the style. It's a relatively clear copper colour, which is a pleasant surprise, and the texture is light and the carbonation low. Flavourwise I get a generous dose of milk chocolate, a decent amount of roast cereal, and then lots and lots of balsamic strawberries. Strawberry isn't unknown in the Irish red flavour profile, but the balsamic bit suggests to me that this hasn't turned out quite as the brewer intended. The acid sourness is very apparent in the aroma too, adding an unpleasant gastric tang. Homebrewish and all that it is, it's still drinkable. I doubt I'd be on for a session, however, especially not if letting it get any way warm is on the cards.

We move to smaller bottles for the next ones. Horny Bull stout is 7% ABV and looks handsome in a half pint glass, topped by a rock-steady tan-coloured head. There's more of that balsamic in the aroma plus the promise of lots of dark malt. There's a lot of vinegar in the flavour. "Fruity hops," says the label, "chocolate and coffee": no, not really. There's a strong Flemish Oud Bruin vibe, the heavier sort with those HP Sauce molasses and tamarind qualities. It's tough going to drink and again I don't think this is how it's meant to taste. These two bottles suggest to me that the brewery doesn't have its hygiene protocols nailed down. So how about a third, then?

Last up from Hillstown is The Goat's Butt, a wheat beer with added rye. It's certainly carbonated in keeping with the style spec, ie up the wazoo. The first pour gave me a lightly hazy pale yellow glassful, made only slightly more opaque when I topped it off after the foam subsided. There's a farty sulphurous aroma which I've encountered in microbrewed wheat beers before, generally when they're very young and I suspect that's the case with this one. It's not off-putting, though. Beneath it there's a rather crisp and plain witbier, the light texture hiding 5.3% ABV very well indeed. I get a touch of juicy jaffa, though from the hops I assume, as no orange is listed in the ingredients. This is simple, refreshing and, gloriously, not infected.

Hillstown's heart seems to be in the right place with these recipes but the execution needs a bit of polishing. Mind you, the same could once be said of every other brewery featured here so there's good reason to be hopeful.

03 July 2015

All about the content

Session logoEverything but the beer is the preferred topic for The Session this month. Host Jack is asking us to look at the odds and ends that go with: beermats, bottle caps and the like. One brewery with a very distinctive look to its packaged beers is Stone of San Diego and it's one of theirs that's the subject of my contribution.

This bottle of Xocoveza was kindly donated by Chris and Merideth on their recent visit to Ireland. There's nothing too unusual about the shape of the bottle: it's your standard American 650ml bomber. But they've made great use of the space it affords to tell the convoluted story of this beer.

Its roots lie in Stone's annual home brewing competition which in 2014 was won by Chris Banker, so that's his name you see emblazoned across the top of the main printed space. His recipe is an 8.1% ABV milk stout brewed with added coffee and spices, intended to recreate the effect of Mexican hot chocolate. The dense wording on the back introduces the drinker to everything they're about to experience, with quotes from the creator as well as Mitch Steele from Stone and the brewer at Cerveceria Insurgente, the Tijuana outfit which also participated in the brew.

The beer itself is heavy on the nutmeg, with a real Christmas-cookie effect, made extra sweet by the lactose sugar. Bitterness from the dark chocolate and strong coffee is fleetingly perceptible behind it. The only other pieces of entertainment it affords are the luxuriously smooth texture and a cheeky pinch of chilli in the aroma. It's not a subtle beer, nor as multifaceted as the list of additional ingredients on the front might imply, but it's fun to drink if you don't take the grimacing gargoyle on the neck too seriously.

And if you have a complaint, you'll find ways to contact the brewery on the underside of the bottle cap:

01 July 2015

Double Scotch

Scotch ales (by which I mean nothing more than beers designated as such by their brewers) are rare in Ireland. I guess the standard Irish red already covers a lot of what Scotch ale is meant to do. It just so happens that two Irish breweries have recently launched beers they're calling Scotch ales so I think a bit of side-by-side is in order. Though since both are confined to their breweries' tied houses it'll have to be a virtual one.

JW Sweetman Scotch Ale is the younger of the two having been out only a few weeks and receiving its official launch last Thursday. It's 5.6% ABV -- strong enough for the brewery to describe it as a "wee heavy" -- and appropriately dark red. It's very sweet: laying on the toffee in a big way, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Probing my palate for a second sentence to write about the flavour, I found maybe a hint of ripe strawberry and a lightly acidic finish, but that's your lot. I thought it was going to be a hard one to finish but a second freebie pint at the launch event disappeared much faster than the first, so maybe it's the sort of beer one can settle into.

The second one has been available for several months now: Galway Bay's Respect Yer Elders. A cask version does the rounds occasionally but it was on keg when I found it at The Beer Market. It's a similar red-brown to the Sweetman one, though rather lighter in alcohol at 4.5%. And while still very much malt-forward it's nowhere near as sweet, showing lots of quite dry grain husk and then chocolatey bourbon biscuit at the centre. The best feature is a subtle metallic hop tang right on the finish, adding hugely to its drinkability. I'm still not sure it's one I'd drink a lot of, but cold from the keg it proved a lot more approachable than I expected. I can imagine it being a bit much on cask, though.

Neither of these has turned me into an avowed Scotch ale fanatic, but a bit of variety is always nice.

29 June 2015

Next to godliness

This was intended to be a general round-up of some recently-released Irish beers, but as I've put the notes together I've noticed an unfortunate theme linking them. Folks, we need to talk about yeast bite.

The first offender was the much-anticipated new one from N17, Summer Ale, brewed at Reel Deel in Mayo. Oddly, the dark-amber beer was perfectly clear but the yeast twang was unmistakeable: a big savoury earthy thing spreading itself indecently over everything else. There are hops just about perceptible inside, tiny sparks of citrus, but really it's a weighty, flabby beast of a beer, not the light summer refresher I was expecting. Oh well, these things happen, I thought. I'm sure the next beer will suit me better.

And I was hugely looking forward to the third in Trouble Brewing's series of SMASH beers: the first two having been among my favourite offerings of the year to date. Vic Secret SMASH (co-starring Vienna malt) could only be a hit. But no. Now, maybe it's the bitterness that's bothering me most here: it is very sharply acidic, to the point of acridity. There's some pleasant spicy oranges in the aroma, but seconds after the first sip I found the harsh yeast flavour rising to dominate everything else, killing the nuances and leaving just the savoury fuzz and acid burn. I brought these observations to the attention of my peers in the pub last week and the consensus was that I'm talking through my hole as regards yeast bite in this beer. Seemingly it's a veritable hoppy delight as far as everyone else concerned. Yeast bitten or not, it's not a beer for me.

Until this theme emerged I wasn't planning to even write about Voyager US, a new IPA from Galway Bay. I didn't enjoy the glass of it I had and I thought I'd let it pass as I've written about the original Voyager before. And the fault, once again, was that gritty yeast effect. I see that a dissenting opinion was offered by the Destrier who found perfumey tropical fruit in there, but I didn't.

Buttinski yeast was something I also found in Kinnegar's Hilly Head Belgian-inspired "Farmhouse Red Ale". I guess I was expecting something clean, sharp and Rodenbach-like, even at 6.5% ABV, but what I got instead was a dense, warming beer closer to a dubbel with its plums and blackcurrants, but with interference from the earthy yeast as well. I like the aroma, though: an autumnal waft of damp orchards and ripe red berries, but you just don't get the same delicacy and nuance on tasting and I blame the yeast for that. Centrifuges for all!

I'm seeking redemption, finally, in a new Irish beer that tastes of yeast and means it: RadikAles's second offering Rubenesque Dubbel, bottle kindly supplied by the real-life Belgian Alain who brewed it at 9 White Deer. It's pale for the style, a clear garnet rather than brown, and the head doesn't hang about long. But visuals aside, this is bang-on perfect. There's a veritable old-fashioned sweetshop in the flavour, all liquorice, butterscotch and kola nut with a pinch of menthol, then liberally coated in unctuous yeast esters adding mushy banana and similar heady ripe fruit. I was skeptical of the decision to package it in a half litre bottle but the lightness of the body and perfectly balanced flavours make it surprisingly pintable, even if the carbonation is a tad high. Fans of the figgier, plummier sort of dubbel may be disappointed but it still hits plenty of classic abbey notes.

Returning to the main gripe of this post, am I wrong that too many Irish breweries are letting yeast get in the way of their beers' better features? Is it just a sensitivity of mine, or perhaps an over-sensitivity caused by too many Lilt-a-like juicy pale ales? I'm definitely not one of the Death To Murk brigade, but if you're going release your beer au naturel I'd prefer something to cover up that yeasty soupiness.

26 June 2015

Another look

It's three and half hours on the train from Dublin to Killarney. For the journey I brought some beers that had been sitting neglected in my fridge, to combine leisurely train-drinking with putting a dent in my review backlog. Win-win. All three are from the range Marston's produces for Tesco.

First up, Revisionist Pacific Hop Red Ale, 4.2% ABV and promising Waimea and Pacific Gem hops. It's more copper than gold. Maybe rose gold if you're feeling charitable. There's a waft of vegetal hops on the nose suggesting the Kiwi varieties are a bit of a token effort but really this is an English ale to the bone. My theory is borne up by the flavour too. An assertive metallic bitterness opens its account, seguing swiftly to a dry tannic finish. I wasn't expecting a brown bitter but having been presented with one I quite enjoyed it, though I'll admit I shed a tear for what those New Zealand hops could have been in a different recipe.

To follow, Revisionist American Hop Rye Pale Ale. This time the claim is that Amarillo and Citra are the signature aroma hops but there's more of an earthy Cascade smell I reckon. Not that that's a bad thing. Crystal malt toffee looms large in the flavour though the body is light and it stays drinkable, which is appropriate at 4.3% ABV. But the hops are right at the centre of the taste, albeit in an understated, mannerly way. There's more of that metallic bitterness but some brighter peach and mandarin notes too. Overall a rather simple, fun and undemanding session pale ale.

Transferring at Mallow and on to Revisionist Dark India Pale Ale. It's not quite pure black, but close, with just a reddish cast to it. The aroma isn't up to much but there's a nice balance in the flavour between mild grapefruit hops (Chinook and Citra, says the label) and chocolate and caramel dark malt. The bitterness is low, but no harm. Simple, smooth, sweet and rather tasty. Full bodied too, for just 4.8% ABV.

I liked these. There are no flaws in their construction and a definite effort has been made both at offering something different to the supermarket shopper and explaining to them what makes it different. Dark IPAs and rye pale ales suggest that gateway beers are coming along in leaps and bounds.

24 June 2015

Birthday treats

My previous post covered the new (to me) beers available at the Killarney Beer Festival at the beginning of the month. But obviously any big international gathering of beer nerds like this is going to include the occasional sideshow. This post is about a handful of other beers that I encountered that weekend.

It started on the train down where the redoubtable Mr Lamond was passing around a bomber of Southern Tier's Mokah, a 10% ABV chocolate/coffee imperial stout. It was pretty hard going: extremely sweet and with that slightly sweaty taste you get from elderly lukewarm filter coffee, plus nasty wet cardboard. The flatness and massive hot booze effect did nothing for its drinkability either. Maybe the serving conditions weren't ideal for a fair assessment but I doubt I'd be running back to it again. Still, thanks for the tick Steve!

For my part I was carrying a beer that sometime visitor to Ireland from Israel Mr Tom Lahav had brought particularly for Steve's attention. I opened it on one of the festival evenings as things were winding down. It appears not to even have a name on it but seems to mostly go by Tuborg 6.7%. This was brewed by Carlsberg's Israeli arm in Ashkelon to celebrate 67 years of Israeli independence in 2014. And it's a pretty decent malt-forward alt-like dark lager: bourbon biscuit as the main flavour feature, a very slight burnt roast dryness and a nicely crisp finish. Maybe it's just the name, but it does remind me a little of Tuborg's classic Julebryg, though perhaps a little less sweet. Cheers Tom!

On the roster of official festival business was Beoir's commemoration of the European Beer Consumers Union's 25th birthday. EBCU headquarters has issued a 3L jeroboam of St Feuillien Tripel to each of the 13 member organisations, to open at an event of their choosing during 2015. I was there when Poland popped the cork on its bottle last April in Łódź but only realised after the event that I had no notes on the actual beer. I wasn't going to miss out in Ireland. And it's an absolute classic of a Belgian tripel: that perfect combination of floral honey sweetness and piquant yeast spicing with no trace of heat even at 9% ABV and served at ambient temperature. Those who look deep in search of complexity will find traces of aniseed and coconut oils too. It's a great beer for celebrating the drinkers who celebrate the brewer's art.

The Mokah wasn't the only beer I drank on the train to Killarney, however...

Carl Kins (EBCU Executive) pours for Reuben Gray (Beoir Chairman)

22 June 2015

To the Kingdom

Ireland got a major new addition to its beer calendar this month with the first Killarney Beerfest, staged by the experienced events organisers of the Irish National Entertainment Centre at the Gleneagle Hotel. The sun mostly shone, trade was quite brisk among the tents and the live entertainment was excellent. Saturday saw an all-star team of international judges put 81 of Ireland's microbrewed beers through a rigorous judging process, with young James Brown taking the grand prize for his Chocolate Orange Stout. But I did a bit of unofficial judging myself too...

First and foremost, Black Donkey's Buck-It comes off the naughty step. This beer really rubbed me up the wrong way back in February, but a switch from a neutral American yeast to something a little more estery has taken those pointy, musty edges off it and given it a smooth rounded fruity character. Well worth a re-visit if you were similarly unimpressed previously. The Roscommon brewery was also pouring a new one: Scythe, a 4.6% ABV... er... well I'm not sure what style category it belongs in. I suppose pale ale is a start: it's a murky orange colour and the aroma is pure peach flesh. That fresh and zippy New World hop thing extends to the flavour but it's joined there by a very Belgian yeast spice. If I recall correctly, this uses the same yeast as Black Donkey's Sheep Stealer saison so possibly could count as the same style. Either way, it's a very fine hoppy sessioner.

Sticking with them peaches for a moment, Black's of Kinsale had a new Pils on tap: slightly hazy but still properly clean-tasting and with a subtle sprinkling of peach and mandarin flavours. It's done with US hops but really put me in mind of those mouthwatering Australian varieties they have now. Overall this is a decent, but not shocking, re-imagining of quaffing lager.

From lager to stout and a second beer from County Limerick's only brewery, JJ's. Abbey Stout is a roasty one, vaguely sweet but pouring on more of the dry notes. There's not much other complexity but then at 4.2% ABV I guess there's not supposed to be.

Jack Doyle's beer is rarely seen outside its native Wexford so I was delighted to find it at the festival. Jack Doyle's Premium Stout is another straightforward one: 4.2% ABV and served on nitro. Its special move is a lovely whack of chocolate and cocoa right in the heart of the soft, smooth texture. This is plainly designed to take the big boys on and I'd certainly pick it when faced with that choice. I'm a little less convinced by Proper Order, a pale ale at the same strength. Like the stout, it's simple and drinkable with no brewing flaws, but it's much more of an Irish red than a hop-forward pale ale. Sure, it's a pale amber colour rather than red, but the light body, the toffee, and the low-impact hops all say something other than pale ale to me. But again, in a pub with nothing better, I'd be content.

Local boys Killarney Brewing also malted up their Scarlet Pimpernel IPA. It's very nearly red and decidedly sweet, justified by a pleasant buzz of orange sherbet though let down in the finish by a harsher medicinal note. Some sort of phenolic invader, perhaps? Nothing like that in the stout though. Casey Brothers is yet another easy-going nitro job, though it does make good use of its extra strength at 5% ABV: there's a creamy richness plus a mild hint of blackcurrant right on the finish.

Neighbours Torc Brewing have been a little more adventurous with their newest offerings. Torc Wheat Beer doesn't sound that off-the-wall, especially at just 4.2% ABV, but they've used Cascade and Centennial hops to add a juicy citrus bang without losing the classic bubblegum sweetness. There's a decently full body for the lower strength too. Torc Amber Ale is a tiny bit stronger but less hoppy too. If Proper Order and Scarlet Pimpernel had Irish Red qualities, this tips over into that style fully. There's a dusting of red fruit, more than a hint of toffee, and a clean mineral quality that stops it from getting too sweet. But disappointingly little by way of hops.

Two pale ales to go out on. The first is The Dreamer, a summer seasonal from O Brother and based on their regular The Fixer, with the ABV dialled down a notch to 4.3%. It's pale and hazy, the Willamette hops imparting bright floral flavours but with a more punchy playful bitterness on the end. There is a bit of a bleachy bum note spoiling things a little: I guess something this light leaves no place for such off-flavours to hide, but at least the beer's merits aren't obscured by this flaw.

My beer of the weekend, however, was the new Eight Degrees summer seasonal Grand Stretch. Created with the needs of the brewery workers in mind, this is just (again!) 4.2% ABV but jam-packed with Vic Secret hops. A grassy, resinous spice bumps up against classic New World mango and nectarine leaving no doubt that this beer is all about the delicious, refreshing, fresh hops. Yet it's not overly bitter and nor is it thin: the body is full enough to carry everything that's happening. Complex hop-forward session beers of this quality are all too rare in Ireland. It's great to meet another one.

Killarney may not be the biggest or geekiest of beer festivals in Ireland but it's one of the most enjoyable I've ever attended (living on-site for the duration may have something to do with that) and the setting amid the majestic Kerry scenery really adds spectacle to it. Keep and eye out for the announcement of next year's dates.