26 April 2017

The naughty step

For over a year now The Fine Ale Countdown podcast has been assessing the relative merits of the world's beers, one at a time. Each beer gets a numerical score, resulting in a league table, and attention tends to be paid more to the upper end of it, especially the hallowed top five. But every league table has to have an arse end and I don't know exactly what's in the lower reaches of this one (update: now I do), although two beers do get mentioned regularly as being especially unpleasant, and they're two I had never tasted until I went out and made a point of finding them.

One is Wolf Rock, from Molson Coors's craftish sub-brand Sharp's, which the guys reviewed back in their first ever episode. It's a red IPA and widely available in supermarkets, which is where I found mine. "Sharp's, Rock, Cornwall" says the label, along with an explanation of where in Cornwall Wolf Rock is, and the small print that says it's actually brewed up north in Cheshire. I'm not predisposed to liking red IPAs and that bit of flim-flam didn't help.

It's a dark mahogany colour, the head not sticking around for long and giving off a harshly metallic aroma, like aspirin. Again: not looking good. But the flavour isn't as bad as expected. The texture helps enormously: it's full and smooth and round, helping it slip down your gullet before your brain has registered what's happening. What's happening is a toffee sweetness rubbing indecently up against a tart fruit flavour, a bit like a toffee apple, but with the elements more blended into each other. That metallic aspirin twang is still there, and there's a raspberryade artificial fruit sweetness. All of this should be clanging together madly but it just about manages to harmonise. It's still not pleasant, though, There's a total lack of distinct hop freshness which means the letters "IPA" no more belong on the label than the word "Cornwall". The FAC guys were more than fair in their slating of this.

The other whipping boy is Siren's Pompelmocello, and I was a little surprised that this didn't go down well as the brewery generally turns out great beers. It's a bit of a confection, being a soured, fruited IPA with added lactose. I made a special trip to Alfie Byrne's to give it a go.

For some reason I was expecting it to be cloudy but it's actually a clear and innocent orange-gold colour. There's a lightly funky aroma and on tasting the sourness is definitely understated. Instead of being the main event, the acidic tartness helps accentuate the juiciness of the fruit, and I got fresh ripe mandarin flesh as the centrepiece. Behind this is a veritable fruit salad with sweet pineapple and white grape, plus a certain syrupyiness which I'm guessing is the lactose at work, and it does start to get a little sticky as it warms up. Overall, though, I absolutely loved it: it's a very good example of the sort of clean and hoppy sour beer I like. That the podcast team do not was made apparent in their round-up of the Alltech Brews festival where Eight Degrees's sublime Wayfarer sour IPA came in for a bit of stick. Each to his own, I guess.

As it happened, while I was in Alfie's they had another Siren fruit IPA on: VIPA. This one is not soured but oaked, fermented with a Belgian yeast and with added blackcurrant, raspberry and hibiscus. All that for just €6.30 a glass. None of the elements really jump out from it. It smells like a forest fruit yoghurt and the flavour has a harsh and sticky jammy quality, with a bitter metallic edge on it. There's no proper beer character anywhere, which is especially surprising given the use of Belgian yeast and the distinctive flavours that that tends to bring. Some cleaning sourness would really improve this picture, I reckon.

It turns out, then, that Siren is quite capable of taking mis-steps. Pompelmocello is definitely not one of them, however. Don't believe everything you hear on the Internet.

24 April 2017

Belgian purge

All going well I should be just back from Belgium when this gets posted. It'll take a while to process through what I found to drink there so while I'm stringing those words together I thought I'd clear the Belgian beers that had been hanging around the house before I left. I'd built up quite a backlog of them, thanks to the good offices of my other half.

I started with Sheldebrouwerij's Hop Ruiter. It's a few years since I last had anything from them. This one is described as an "IPA tripel" and they're far from the first brewery to have elided those two styles -- I believe that honour belongs to La Chouffe. Appearance-wise, this could pass as either, being a hazy orange-ochre colour. 8% ABV and an aroma full of bright incense spices definitely say "tripel" to me. The flavours tilt the balance back again with mouth-watering honeydew and nectarine, fresh and juicy as you like. The quintessential spicy Belgian yeast is still there in the background, and builds towards the finish, but it definitely does a complementary job rather than conflicting. There's no real hop bitterness, nor big alcohol heat, making for a smooth and well-integrated experience. My balanced assessment is that it's a tripel wearing an IPA hat for marketing purposes, but that's allowed when it's this tasty.

Moving on to a set from Brussels Beer Project, another operation I haven't written about in a while. First up is Black Bird, a "black rye saison" brewed in collaboration with London's Ansbach & Hobday. I wasn't sure what to expect with this and, after the first sip, I wasn't sure what I'd got. It's 6.1% ABV and as well as the rye, Carafa Special I and II and other malts, it has a suite of big-hitting US hops including Chinook, Centennial and Colombus. The aroma is a bittersweet mix of forest fruits and the flavour starts rather plainly with a porter-like creaminess, then dries off the palate very suddenly before the arrival of jammy strawberry and a green rye-grass rasp. The complexity is a little like that found in O Brother's amazing black IPA Bonita, though much toned-down by comparison. I had to work to find the various flavours and if I were drinking it without paying close attention it would probably end up seeming quite dull. Though there are of course elements of saison and rye ale and black IPA and porter in there, it doesn't really make much use of any of them.

The next beer is a double IPA though I'm immediately questioning its credentials at only 7.7% ABV. The name is I Like It Bitter and it backs that up with a claim of one hundred IBUs. This is the "Mosaic & Equinox Edition", which implies that there are or will be others. It seemed a bit flat on pouring, while also looking pleasingly gloopy. There's bit of a mouthfeel all right, though it avoids being unpleasantly hot and heavy: just filling enough. Both the aroma and the flavour tantalise more than they satisfy. The former has a mandarin flesh juiciness and gunpowder spice buried deep within, and I found myself inhaling great draughts of it to try and get the full effect, to no avail. Savoury yeast burr fuzzes out a lot of the same fresh orange-tropical notes in the flavour, and there's a sickly tramps'-beer sweetness that slows down the appreciation of it. I can sense those top-notch hops at work, but big, strong and yeasty is not an environment that suits them. Were White Hag ever tempted to make an imperial Little Fawn, this beer is a clear indication of why that's a bad idea. You want a clean light base for your spritzy tropical hops. This tries to supercharge them with malt and fails miserably. It's not even especially bitter.

I did a bit of a double take when I read the details on the back of Stereo Lips. On the front they call it a "hot rye IPA" and turning the bottle around this is unpacked, revealing rye, smoked malt, smoked chilli, vanilla and a combination of Cascade, Chinook and Sorachi Ace hops. That's a daunting line-up of potential flavours, though in a Twitter poll, 52% of you deemed it "not scary". It looks innocent enough, a deep orange colour with lots of fine fizz and a big fluffy head. Sorachi wins the aroma, pumping out its signature oily citrus peel vapours. This is a major component in the flavour, but it's matched by a hard plasticky taste which I think may be down to the chilli: I've encountered it in badly-made chilli beers before, though this time there's not even any heat. The smoked malt, rye and vanilla are AWOL as well. When the bitterness subsides there is a soft grape and elderflower fruitiness which is the saving of the beer. It's not bad, overall, but I think it could have been achieved with a much simpler recipe. That it's a three-way collaboration is possibly not unrelated to this.

With my appetite for smoke unsated, I looked forward to something more forthcoming from Smokey Li, brewed by Préaris and using Lapsang Souchong tea instead of your actual smoked malt. It's pretty convincing too, golden and sweet with a distinct and fresh tang of smoke. I'm reminded a lot of the classic clean stylings of Bamberg's finest. Rather than smoked ham it tastes of very crisp bacon, the flavour tailing off with a pleasing dryness. The amazing bit is that it's a gigantic 8% ABV and there's not an ounce of heat or malt weight to it. I could drink this all day, but that's probably not a good idea.

The next beer is tantalisingly one of a set. There's a tripel and a blond which I don't have, but this is La Corne du Bois des Pendus Black: 8% ABV and declining to give itself a style, other than, well, "black". It's not even black, either, more a reddish brown. The topping is a steady mousse, not dissimilar to the head on a stout, and it has the same sort of dense creaminess. The flavour is in that direction too, though very much on the sweet side, with milk chocolate and rosewater, building to a heavy perfume that sits uncomfortably on the palate. The sweetness increases as the beer goes, turning to saccharine, aftershave and some half-memory of lurid milkshakes from my childhood, made from chemicals that are doubtless illegal now. Anyway, it's not great. More than anything, I kept thinking it's unBelgian: this is not how Belgians normally make beer.

Moving on to a handful of beers from Caulier, a Wallonese client brewer which confusingly shares its name with an unrelated Wallonese brewery. I hadn't encountered many of their beers before and they only came to my attention now when they opened what is apparently a rather grand bar in Brussels Central Station. Hopefully by the time you read this I'll have been in for a gander myself, but I directed the missus to it a while back and she picked these up for me therein.

Caulier Brune makes much of its "low carb" credentials, which is a bit worrying as Belgian brune is supposed to be heavy and sweet, isn't it? This one is a rather pale red-amber, though smells fun: all wintery roast chestnuts, sweetmeat and treacle. It's not as busy on tasty but is perfectly palateable, and not far from an Irish red ale really: lots of fizz, some candy sugar, summer fruit and woody maple syrup. I was happily slurping it back and letting it quench my thirst when I noticed it was 6.8% ABV. Yikes! It doesn't taste anything like that powerful. I suppose this one should also get a ding for lacking Belgian yeast esters, but to be honest I really didn't miss them and was happy for the bonus cleanness instead.

The brewery's "premium" range all have a big 28 on the label. 28 Imperial Stout was next, an even bigger hitter at 12% ABV. It even smells heavy, a frightening mix of burnt toast, molasses, rubber and tar. Like the beer that preceded it, it's calmer when tasted. Not sweetness-and-light by any means but a more integrated blend of plums, tawny port, treacle and pipe smoke (Latakia, specifically, pipe fans). According to the label this was all achieved with nothing more than water, malt, hops and yeast, but the Caulier website says that this one also includes chilli and coffee: naughty to not say so on the bottle. Though I don't detect coffee notes beyond what's normal in a big imperial stout, there's is a growing heat in the pit of my stomach suggesting the warming caress of the chilli pepper. It's perhaps a little over-boozed but is great as a slow sipper. Pair with a decent cigar.

You didn't think this post was going to end, did you? I certainly had my doubts. But here's the last beer for today: 28 Brett, the 2013 edition, if that's relevant. It's 7.5% ABV and, when I finally wrenched the cork out, an ochre red-brown. The Brettanomyces yeast hasn't been too overworked in there over the last four years as it's still very sweet, tasting of hard orange candy and fruitcake in particular, with a pinch of oily coconut as well. The earthy funk is more present in the aroma than the flavour and from the initial sniff I thought I was in for something very like Orval, but that resemblance goes no further than the vapours. There is a faint Brett tang in the finish but it's more sour than farmyard, giving the beer a Flemish-red edge. Overall it's a bit of a bruiser: the substantial quantity of residual sugar means it's another one to take time over and share. On balance, though, I think I'd like my Brett beer to be Brettier than this.

That concludes the Belgian beers for now. There's plenty more where they came from, however. There always is.

21 April 2017

Well again

After a year's absence, I returned to Cork for the Easter Beer Festival at Franciscan Well last Saturday. I got an early bus down so had time to pop by Rising Sons to see if there was anything new on the taps. Of course there was; it's an essential part of the deal with brewpubs.

I began on Dark Matter, which must be about the sixth beer I've encountered using that name, and the second Irish one in 2017 alone. This is a porter of 4.3% ABV and, in defiance of its name, is not very dark at all, more a garnet red colour. It's quite thin and sharply fizzy and the flavour veers between super-sweet caramel and drily bitter roasted grain. I could detect a certain element of smooth chocolate buried deep within, but it never really gets the chance to shine, battered down by the overactive carbonation. I think this beer needs to be bulked up and calmed down.

On the opposite bank of taps was Rising Sons's Vienna lager Pull Like A Dog (which was also pouring at the festival under the less topical name of "For Vienna"). It's 5% ABV and a hazy dark gold colour. The body is full and the texture smooth, entirely in keeping with the Vienna style, but the flavour is something else entirely. There's a lovely sweet orangey fruit punch which turns oily and spicy towards the end, bringing in elements of incense or sandalwood. It's perhaps not as elegantly simple as one might expect a Vienna lager to be, but it's a lovely beer however you look at it.

On then to the festival for opening time at 1pm. A major revision of the layout has helped get rid of the crampedness and dead corners of previous years. Now there were two bars, facing each other across the yard. I began with the beers on offer on the left, and stayed on my lager buzz.

First call was Port Lager by Metalman, made for their local market in Waterford and using one of the best multilingual puns I've seen in a while. It's a light 4.1% ABV but is no lowest-common-denominator basic commodity lager. This is a proper big-bodied helles with as assertive noble hop green-celery bite. The balance between the two is bang on and the result is extremely drinkable. I'd love to have something like this as the local beer in my town.

White Gypsy had a new (to me) lager as well: Viktor. It's even softer than Port Lager, placing to the fore the Bavarian malt which the brewery swears by, giving it a pillowy candyfloss softness. The hops are relegated far to the back, bringing only a very mild bitterness, and there's also a whisper of sulphur in the mix as well. Really, though, it's not a beer for standing around sipping and writing notes about. Great draughts are encouraged, nay required, by that texture and cleanness.

The day's first IPA was the new one from 9 White Deer: 5 Stags, here making its first outing on cask. The festival being of the plug-and-play variety, the beer wasn't quite presented the way it deserved, showing up murky and thick with a substantial yeast bite overriding the flavour. But what's beneath that is excellent. The hops are all American classics: Cascade, Centennial, Willamette, and Chinook for dry hopping. They start by giving it a soft and peachy fruit flavour which builds gradually as it goes along into a sharper lime bitterness. It'll be interesting to compare the more processed bottled version, but I'd really love to try a cask of it that's been let settle out properly.

Another IPA to follow: Lost Weekend is a rye and wheat one, brewed by Kinnegar as a collaboration with their distributor Grand Cru Beers. It's another dark and murky ochre-coloured beastie and this time the hops include Columbus, Amarillo and Vic Secret. 6.5% ABV gives it a very chewy texture and there's a lot of savoury yeast covering up where the hop brightness ought to be. The spice from the rye comes through well, as does the heavier, danker side of the hop equation. But I missed the sharper, bitterer notes that I think ought to be on show if, once again, the beer was given the time to drop brighter. Without cleaning up it's a bit of a chore to get through.

As always, UCC Pilot Brewery had brought a few beers to show, staying in the vein of way-out recipes that they've been pursuing in recent years. Two lagers and a wheat beer show that they're still in touch with their German roots, if not the actual Reinheitsgebot.

The first lager is called Basil Instinct, and though basil features in the recipe, the name, and on that distinctly undergraduate tap badge, it's the other ingredient that defines the flavour profile of this beer: juniper. It's a peppery spice that calls good gin to mind, without tasting directly like it. The basil is mild and imparts a general sort of herbiness rather than fresh green basil in particular, reminding me of the old-fashioned medicine cabinet flavours you get in root beer and Euthymol toothpaste. I don't think anyone else in the place liked it but I thought it was great fun, compromised only by an almost total lack of carbonation.

The next hazy yellow lager was called Noot Noot and is a single-hop Polaris job. This one is very herbal indeed, to the point of getting difficult to drink. While there is a decent clean graininess underneath, it mostly tasted like I'd imagine a shot of neat pine floor cleaner would. Polaris is supposed to provide a mint flavour, but I think it only does if used at low enough levels, and possibly at lower strengths than this one's substantial 5.4% ABV.

Finally from UCC was Crimson Cassis, a wheat beer with added blackcurrants. They really went overboard with the fruit here, maybe to achieve that handsome bright purple colouring, but rather than any kind of beer it tastes like the sort of super-cheap rustic red wine you accidentally order on holidays. It has that harsh grapeskin bitterness, the dry tannins and the sickly residual sugar. Hooray for experimentation and all that, but this didn't work.

That finished off the first bar for me and I took a quick break inside the pub before starting the second half. Here they were pouring a brand new Franciscan Well beer: Crafty Cuckoo, a 4.5% ABV blonde ale. It's super pale, a flawless crystalline yellow. The flavour, such as there is, is crisp with grain husk and a touch of some very light nonspecific fruit sweetness, a part that grows in prominence as the beer warms but never really goes anywhere. It's inoffensive but I really don't see the point of it as a limited edition. The brewery already has a blonde ale and this one is not exactly pushing boundaries.

Back out to the yard and at the top of bar 2 there was Black's of Kinsale's inevitable New England-style IPA, Ace of Haze. It's hazy, but far from opaque, and dark orange in colour like Carlow Brewing's 51st State which I reviewed back here. There's a fun spiciness to it but it's not terribly complex and certainly isn't laden down with hops the way these often are. It also hasn't quite mastered the fluffiness that's part of the spec. But these are just stylistic quibbles, not really material to anything. It's a jolly nice US-style IPA at a reasonable 5.1% ABV and very nice to drink it is too.

Cotton Ball's latest celebrates 45 years of Cascade hops with a single-hop pale ale called, funnily enough, Cascade 45 yrs. They've really done it justice too: this has all of the light and spicy Cascade fruit quality and there's plenty of body for a beer of just 3.8% ABV. It's simple, in the way single-hop ones tend to be, but still has plenty of flavour.

JJ's was next in line. I'd been seeing a few of their beers in bottles in supermarkets but hadn't taken the time to try them. First up was Balbec, an IPA. It's strong and sweet, 6% ABV and tasting of orange cordial first, before a slightly harsh aspirin metallic bitterness comes in behind. It's quite old-fashioned in its way, eschewing the clean and bright stylings of modern IPA in favour of a heavy earthy funk. As a result it's tough going to drink.

Next to it was Bill's Red Ale and this was much better. Maybe I'm getting old but I'm finding Irish reds much more palatable these days. This one is immensely complex, having the summer fruit and dry roast that are the basics for doing the style well, but also adds an exotic lightly spicy perfume of rosewater and cedarwood. It's all of 5% ABV so there's plenty of heft to the body as well. I imagine it would really come into its own at wintertime.

Down in the far corner, opposite where I started, was Black Donkey Brewery, who had their first IPA on tap. It's called TKO and, like Balbec, is another heavy earthy beast, sacrificing citrus zing for an almost savoury, meaty flavour. The bitterness provided by the American hops is dry and calm but it's hard to pick out any specific flavours; everything is kind of blended together. If "Farmhouse IPA" were a thing, I think it would taste like this.

The new beers complete I spent my last few tokens on some cider and a couple of old favourites, before starting the trek back home. It's great to see how this festival has continued to evolve yet still retains its essential intimate atmosphere. Thanks to the management, staff and guest brewers who make that possible.

19 April 2017

A few social beers

My Easter weekend began last Thursday afternoon with leaving work and heading straight for the Open Gate Brewery at St James's Gate. I'd been invited, with Will from 5 Lamps Brewery, to talk to staff about beer and brewing. With that out of the way it was over to the bar to see what was new on the roster.

They've added two new lagers to the line-up. From the in-house brewery there's Amarillo Pilsner which, as the name suggests, is a pilsner using Amarillo hops. Not too many of them, mind. It has that same soft whisper of new world varieties that you find in the likes of Smithwick's Pale Ale and Hop House 13. It's not an exciting beer (and I am the sort that can get excited by really good pils) but it's clean, crisp, refreshing and decent.

Its twin is one for the "outreach" taps -- the Open Gate branded beer lines that have cropped up in pubs around the country. Like all such beers, it isn't brewed at Open Gate at all but at the main brewhouse at the north end of the campus. Open Gate Pilsner is the name and this time the hops are Cascade and Citra. The volume knob has been turned up a lot louder in this one, with a heavy, greasy dank funk on top of the light and clean malt base. It's certainly more characterful than the Amarillo Pilsner which I drank alongside it, but didn't meet my requirements for the style quite as well.

The latest stout is the portmaneau'd NitrOatmeal, which looks innocent and creamy but packs 8.4% ABV in there. That's not immediately apparent on tasting. It's smooth, obviously enough, and also sweet, with a big hit of ripe strawberries front and centre. Only after swallowing does the reality of the strength kick in, with a sharp and hot alcohol burn which is shocking at first but becomes more pleasingly warming as it goes down. While enjoyable, it's still a beer to have just the one of, I think.

The Open Gate IPA series, with its now de rigueur "v" numbering sequence, continues with number four: Pretty Citrusy. This is a heavy beast, amber coloured and 6.4% ABV. The citrus is the olde worlde sort, more oranges and lemons than lime or grapefruit. The hops are more than balanced by a heavy biscuit malt making an IPA that straddles the Atlantic, too zesty to be English style but with a bready weight you rarely find in an American. It's nice though, but not exactly thrilling.

My one for the road was the brand-new Open Gate Ginger Beer. I confess I didn't detect the ginger straight away but felt silly for it because the ginger is really obvious. What I did notice is its beautiful refreshment powers, akin to an ice-cold bitter lemonade. The ginger doesn't give it heat; it's gentler than that, flavoured like a ginger biscuit or cake. The big fizz adds to its cleansing qualities and tie off a light package which provides everything required of summery ginger beer.

I said my goodbyes and made for the second engagement of the evening, 57 The Headline where a Rascals Brewing tap takeover was in full swing.

The main act here was the release of Project Sour #4: Blood Orange Sour. It's a sour beer with added blood oranges. Rather than spritzy tartness, it's quite heavy and savoury, giving an almost gose-like saltiness. The oranges give it their flavour but not really their juice. It's fine, but I think I'd prefer if it were tuned a bit higher, with either more fruit or a punchier sourness. No pleasing some people.

Though not part of The Project, I guess, there was another sour beer on tap: Pilot Brew Sour with strawberry and black pepper. They've gone soft and heavy again, though it's less surprising in this one, with its 7% ABV. The strawberry is laid on jammy and thick, then spiced, quite beautifully, with coarse and oily black pepper. It's a strange combination and it works really well, though more cleansing sourness would be an improvement, as I think lowering the ABV would be as well.

Last of the the new ones, for me, was Pilot Lager: only 3.9% ABV and once again infused with oranges. It's a very pale yellow shade and nicely crisp with the orange coming through subtly on a low carbonation. It's clean, refreshing and just flavourful enough, reminding me of an evening drinking Bavaria lager with a dash of Pisco, once the house special at The Abbot's Ale House bar in Cork. Unorthodox, perhaps, but a great way to jazz up an unremarkable pale lager.

So endeth my evening. Cheers to all at Open Gate, The Headline and Rascals for the entertainment. After the Good Friday hiatus -- hopefully the last -- Easter's festivities continued on Saturday down in Cork...

17 April 2017

Easter parade

I haven't done one of these Irish beer round-ups for a while and the note pile has been building. With the Easter weekend nearly over, here is a selection from breweries around the country and pubs around Dublin.

But starting at home, I'm already two Dungarvan seasonals in arrears so began with Curious Orange, another saison, following on from their popular seaweed one. It looks lovely: a rich orange colour and carefully poured for clarity. 6.9% ABV gave me a scare when I saw it advertised on the label but thankfully it's not one of those hot and thick saisons, being clean and attenuated instead, with pepper rather than fruit as the main feature. The added ingredients are sweet orange peel and thyme and it's the second one of these that shouts loudest. In the aroma it's a lovely oily winter herb thing, like a decongestant rub or the garnish on a roast. In the flavour, however, it gets a bit harsh, creating a deafening klaxon of bitterness that all but drowns out everything else. Thankfully the base saison is robust enough to just about survive the onslaught but the poor orange peel doesn't stand a chance. It's a bit of a workout to drink and I think could be as good as the Seaweed Saison if the thyme were dialled back a few notches.

No sooner had I put that away than Magic Road rye IPA had appeared. It poured a bit flat but did manage a head, while also pumping out a heavy grass and citrus aroma familiar from Kinnegar's classic Rustbucket. A sip revealed the carbonation to be as low as expected. I appreciated the gentle sparkle, reminiscent of many a cask ale; doubtless there are others who would just describe it as flat. The dominant aspect of the flavour is bitterness, backed by a distinct bitterness, rising to become bitter before leaving a long bitter residue in its wake. This beer is bitter. There isn't much room for nuance in that: I couldn't say it's grapefruit bitter, or cabbage bitter or rye-grass bitter. If anything, I get the harsh tang of a metal pencil sharpener from it. A bit more cleansing fizz would probably help fix the severity, and perhaps that will develop when the beer gets longer to condition than this one did at a mere two weeks in the bottle. At least there's no risk of it losing its subtleties with age.

Finally for the home set, King's Bay Maple Ale from Arthurstown, picked up in SuperValu. It's a mild mannered 4.4% ABV and a pale amber colour. The aroma is sweet and grainy leading me to expect something weighty and sugar-filled on tasting but it manages to keep matters light and clean. There's nothing I'd specifically cite as maple, but there is a vague woodiness and an unanticipated waft of autumnal smoke. If I'm finding faults it's that it's all a bit boring. I miss the days when a brewery would totally mess up a beer spectacularly by whacking a load of syrup into it, but this isn't that. It's easy to sling back and fits into the space that Irish red occupies best: have it at the barbecue; drink it with your fry-up; meat meat meat, you know the drill.

Back to the fruit beer next. YellowBelly's Juice Wayne is a double IPA brewed to a recipe designed by my fellow blogger Irish Beer Snob. It was produced especially for the Beer Now conference in Sheffield last month but has been making appearances around Dublin, Cork and Galway too. Lemon and lime zest are the bonus ingredients here and they make a big impact on the bitterness. It's quite severe to start with, a citrus intensity that has a spark of the bathroom cabinet about it. After a moment or two it calms down a little, reaching the level of an old-fashioned gritty lemonade. As an IPA it's a bit of a bust: the hops are absent, or drowned, from the flavour and there's basically no aroma, nor indeed any of the titular juice. It's perfectly refreshing though, once you're used to that bitterness it's complemented well by a light texture which is very unusual for a 7.1% ABV beer. An extra little complexity creeps in as it warms with a whisper of sandalwood spicing, but it doesn't go quite far enough to fix the intensely harsh pith.

That was in The Taphouse in Ranelagh, and was followed by a visit to The Hill to try their wonderful new dim sum pop-up, Lucky Tortoise. As an aperitif I chose High Cotton, the new one from Whiplash, brewed as a collaboration with Max Lager's of Atlanta. "Belgian single" is the style designation in scare-quotes, dry-hopped and with added grapefruit. It tasted like a witbier to me, and not an especially good one. There's a major soapy twang of the sort you get when a wit has over-done the fruit and herbs. I wasn't able to pick out the grapefruit, finding it tasted more like lemon: refreshingly bitter, like the beer before it. A decent burst of oily green peppercorns adds a little bit of a counterpoint, but again this beer just tastes too harsh for my poor delicate palate.

Just one other beer in this set gets an added flavouring and that's In Cahoots, a elderflower-infused sour beer brewed by The White Hag for the Brewtonic project and available in all the Bodytonic pubs. White Hag's head brewer Joe would like it made very clear that this is the only kettle-soured beer the brewery has made: all the other sour ones are mixed-fermentation beers, using the house culture. With that disclaimer out of the way, I get to explore a pint of it in The Back Page. It's a bright pale gold colour, almost green, and a very pintable 4.8% ABV. Concentrated honeydew melon is the first flavour I noticed, mellowing to a kind of botrytised Sauternes sticky sweetness. Then it suddenly turns a corner leading to an abrupt tart finish. While great fun at first, it does struggle to hold one's interest after the first few gulps and I found myself getting a bit bored of it by the second half. As a low-ish ABV house beer, it's probably not meant to be anything more than decent and quaffable, which it definitely is, but that tantalising complexity feels like something they should be doing more with. Just don't ask me what.

Speaking of brewery/pub tie-ins, the Licensed Vintner's Association, which represents Dublin's publicans, turned 200 years old this year. To celebrate, Diageo brewed a special beer for them. There can be no better indication of the close and long-standing ties between the two organisations than the fact that I paid €7.25 for a pint of it in The Temple Bar. Guinness Dublin Amber is the name, and it's a 4.5% ABV ale, served nitrogenated. The first sip stayed my cynicism somewhat. There's an inarguably good fresh citrus spritz, a puff of lemon sherbet to the back of the tongue. Proper hops. I'm not sure of the mechanics of what happens next, but that all just... goes away. It could be the nitro, because the next dominant feature is the claggy creamy viscosity, doing a foam fire extinguisher on the palate and covering up the action. A bland stale-biscuit taste is all that remains, familiar from many a low-grade nitro Irish red. I expected that the lost lemons would re-materialise at the beginning of the next mouthful, but they don't. This is a pint of pure bait-and-switch and really best avoided, at any price. It'll be around all summer but if you miss the limited edition you can probably recreate it by leaving a pinetree-shaped car air-freshener to soak in a pint of Kilkenny.

Just down the street, I dropped by The Norseman for the first time in ages, to try the latest from Carlow Brewing: 51st State New England IPA. The idea of such a long-established microbrewery producing this cutting-edge on-trend beer style seems faintly ridiculous. Mind your hip jumping on that bandwagon, granddad. And the pint I was served in The Norseman did little to dissuade me of this prejudice: dark amber and brilliantly clear, it's almost the direct opposite of what NE IPA is supposed to look like. But again the first mouthful stopped my guffaws, a little bit at least. Yes, it's properly -- deliciously -- bitter, which the style shouldn't be. But there's a beautiful bouncy softness to the texture which is entirely appropriate. The fresh hops lend it a kind of lemon sorbet or lime milkshake sort of effect and the combination of citrus and softness works rather well. Nearly as enjoyable as the indignant howls of the style purists. Well played, Carlow Brewing.

A few days later I was further along the street again, at The Porterhouse where they were pouring Retribution, a new black IPA from Eight Degrees, brewed with input from Terrapin of Georgia, USA. It's a dark red colour and comes in hard and heavy with a punchy green-cabbage bitterness. There's rye in mix and the spicing it brings is the next noticeable element, turning that leafy green cabbage into a spicier red one. A lightly roasty dryness adds a certain stout-like quality, but really it's all about the big green. I was surprised to find myself enjoying the way the veg from the hops combines with the grass from the rye. It's not harsh or any way overdone and the beer is refreshing and remarkably easy drinking, even at 6.2% ABV.

That's enough Temple Bar boozing; turning south next, and up Camden Street to Bourke's. This is a tiny stand-up bar at the front of Whelan's music venue, occupying the space that used to be their off licence. The beer selection is mostly from the independents though it's definitely going more for an old-fashioned pub vibe than a trendy craft beer bar. Maybe that's even more trendy. Like I would know. They've made a feature of their cask offer though I didn't try that on my brief visit, captivated instead by the house lager. Whelan's is brewed at Brú and it was the second version of the recipe that was pouring when I visited. Mine host explained that the first version was deemed "too malty" so that was dialled back for this one. Too far, I think. The body is decently full but there's a weird savoury umami flavour, like shiitake mushroom, and then a nasty plastic or pasteboard twang. It still manages to be pretty bland, though: those off-flavours don't jump out the way they do in some wonky lagers. I was given a bottle of version one to try at home, which I did, and it was much better. I can see where the "too malty" argument comes from: it's big and chewy, with a weighty melanoidin cookie and golden syrup vibe, but it's characterful and quite tasty with it. Maybe there's a sweet spot to be found between the two recipes but personally I'd just run with the first one again.

Journey's end for this virtual meander is 57 The Headline. Landing in in search of something else I was struck by the neon stylings of Eighties Baby, badged as being from "The Beer Council", I'm told it's brewed at Carrig. The badge also tells us that this IPA has been dry-hopped with 7.5g per litre of Summer and Ahtanum hops, which sounds like it should be plenty but my tastebuds thought otherwise. There's a soft mineral texture and a very vague nectarine sweetness, but not much beyond this, just a slightly sweaty sharp tang. Maybe it's because the branding reminded me of the excellent Vacuum Boogie IPA from Rascals Brewing, but I was left rather forlorn and disappointed by this one.

A new Irish dark lager always brings an air of excitement for me and 57 was the first place I found Wicklow Wolf's Brayvarian Dunkel. It's the correct shade of cola-brown, with a very Mitteleuropa thick pillow of froth on top. Chocolate and caramel opens the flavour but it quickly turns dry and gritty. Green leafy hops swing in next, giving it a blackstrap or liquorice herbal bitterness. While 100% in keeping with the style, this was a little bit overdone for my tastes. I'd prefer more of that milk chocolate smoothness and lower bitterness, but fans of the more grown-up dunkel flavour profile will doubtless enjoy it. I give it a polite round of applause for at least giving us more local dark lager, but I'd pick White Gypsy's Dark Lady over this.

That leaves just one final beer, and it's a biggie. The Fresh Prince of Kildare is a 9% ABV New England-style double IPA and it's one which believes its own hype. I was mistakenly given a pint of the custard-yellow substance, very nearly boss-poured to the brim. There's still space for an aroma of fruit candy to waft out and I was all set for a mouthful of bubblegum, candyfloss and pink unicorn farts. Nope. This stuff is bitter as hell, with a lot of the spicy red cabbage kick found in the very different Retribution black IPA above. When the intense acidity subsides there's a more orthodox grapefruit and pine aftertaste, which is still pretty damn punchy. Amazingly it manages to avoid tasting harsh, which I'm guessing is down to the texture, and that miracle Vermont yeast that creates it. So, this isn't the true New England effect any more than 51st State is, but it's a beautifully made clean-tasting hop-bursting moreish double IPA, deserving a place at the end of everyone's drinking session.

And this is the end of mine, for now. I'll try not to leave it so long until the next one.

14 April 2017

Sour in all directions

Rounding off this week of posts from the Utrecht beer scene with a look at a handful of imported beers I tried.

Of course, most of the beer imported into the Netherlands is from neighbouring Belgium and all the flagship brands are available where beer is sold. Le Clochard was a case in point. We landed up to this restaurant one evening, where I intended to indulge my penchant for cheese fondue. It was busy and we were escorted to the cosy fireside for pre-dinner beers while we waited. The substantial beer menu is big on solid Belgian ales, though without anything especially exciting. With my dinner I picked Hapkin, one of the few on the list unfamiliar to me.

This strong blonde ale comes from Heineken's giant Alken-Maes brewery in Mechelen. It seems to be a very obvious go at cloning Duvel, something I've seen attempted many times but rarely this successfully. The cleanness, the herbal bitterness and the boozy candycane punch: all present and absolutely correct.

For the rest, all sour, we return to Utrecht's top craft beer bar DeRat, which I wrote about at length on Monday. They were very excited about the arrival of Sang Noir, all the way from Cascade Brewing in Oregon. Personally I didn't get quite why it was so interesting in the context of a drinking environment where Rodenbach is cheap and plentiful. It's very much in that style: dark red-brown with a balsamic resiny sourness. Yes, it's a stonking 9.2% ABV, which does give it an extra forest-fruit complexity, showing blackberry and blackcurrant in particular; and while the body is light enough to keep it drinkable there's an extra greasy intensity, a depth to the sourness incorporating a tasty liquorice bitterness. It's very nice, but mostly it kept reminding me of what a fantastic beer Rodenbach is, at a fraction of the price.

It was great to see a beer from Sweden's Brewski in the line-up, even if it did have the cringeworthy name of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Buckthorn Band. What? It's a Berliner weisse they've brewed as a collaboration with Late Start Brewing in Florida and is just 3.7% ABV. It looks like orange juice. It tastes like orange juice too, specifically the rougher sort with the bits still in, giving you popping packets of sweet juiciness in amongst the tart acidity. The alleged white pepper made no impact on my palate, and neither did the buckthorn, though I'm not at all sure what that's supposed to taste like. Anyway, this is pleasant and refreshing, blending fruit and sourness in a way I approve of.

Keeping it Nordic, we turn next to Estonia and the unEstonian-sounding Anderson's Craft Beer, a client brewer based in Tartu. Sour Park is described as a "session ale", though strong enough at 5% ABV. Celebrity hops Citra and Nelson Sauvin have been employed and the Nelson gives it a lovely moist white grape aroma, though there's also a more serious sweaty funk going on as well. Citra takes over in the flavour, combining with surprise tannins to give a lemon tea effect. It's another one of those sour beers that isn't really very sour. Though the hops are bright and fun, and it's ages since I last met that lovely Nelson Sauvin vibe, the base beer could do with being cleaner: the flavours would benefit immensely from it.

That just leaves Sky Mountain Sour, a collaboration between Danish gypsies To Øl and Derbyshire's Buxton. It's 4.9% ABV and an attractive clear copper colour. The added strawberries don't make an appearance until the aftertaste, where their contribution is a mild one. Before that it has the wholesome wheatiness of an unadorned Berliner weisse: plain and easy-going. The advertised sourness is once again low-level, coming out in the aroma more than the flavour. A bit more everything would have been nice in this one. A dramatic name requires a dramatic beer.

That's it from this trip. Good night Utrecht, and do check out Café DeRat and say hi to the cats if you're passing.