30 December 2013

Time gentlemen

It's hard to believe we're already on year five of Messrs Mogg and Dredge's annual round-robin beer awards thingy, The Golden Pints. As with all regular awards programmes, it's hard work striking a balance between the same parties getting the nod every year and the pass-the-parcel effect where taking the gold is just a matter of waiting until everyone else has already had it. In past years I've tried to avoid these pitfalls but it has reached the point where it's making the whole thing awkward, so for 2013 I'm paying no attention at all to what has gone before and writing down my gut instinct answers to this year's categories.

To assist me in composing my justifications for each winner I'm joined by a large bottle of Kerkom Winterkoninkske, which has been sitting in my stash for a couple of  years now, awaiting its moment to shine. At 13% ABV it's strictly for the darkest depths of winter, and the stiff rubber cork really makes you work for your beer. When I eventually got it open, what poured out is a flat and slightly syrupy-looking dense black beer, briefly forming a loose head which disappears before I can even raise the glass. There's a savoury, autolytic quality to the aroma: the teriyaki glaze effect familiar to fans of Samuel Adams Triple Bock. It's all about chocolate in the flavour, of the top-notch milk variety, accentuated by the silky smooth texture. There's alcoholic heat and no rough edges at all, just a tiny metallic ping from a molasses taste at the finish. For all its strength and sophisticated presentation it's not actually all that complex, but it's just the liqueur substitute I'm after for some end-of-year musings.

The Golden Pint Awards 2013

Best Irish Cask Beer: Moonbeam.
A tough one to kick off. I loved Hilden Number Four when I found it at the Irish Craft Beer & Cider Festival: it's a beer that showcases the richness and depth of flavour that comes with cask dispense. But then so does Moonbeam, and this dark ale by Metalman does it with hops too. Ordering a repeat pint at the Bull & Castle is a rarity for me, but sinkable Moonbeam made me do it, so is my Irish cask choice for 2013.

Best Irish Keg Beer: Of Foam and Fury
Well duh! Galway Bay's 8.5% ABV hop explosion is the beer everyone's been talking about, because it's the beer everyone's been waiting for. I've just got over the novelty at this stage and am actually able to order other things in Galway Bay pubs, but it was a real desert island job for a while there: all the complex subtlety and all the loud brashness you need from a beer, in a single glass.

Best Irish Bottled or Canned Beer: Amber Ella
This pale ale from Eight Degrees impressed at the ICBCF in September when it made its draught début but I didn't go chasing the bottled version until it popped up on special at 57 The Headline. All that mango and mandarin  freshness is still present in the bottle and makes for a magnificently invigorating zing-filled experience.

Best Overseas Draught Beer: Edelstoff
A big shout-out for Sharp's Panzerfaust here, which quietly appeared at the Franciscan Well Easter Beer Festival but hasn't been seen since, alas. But while that's a fun novelty, my top foreign draught experience this year was an old favourite: the inhaleably smooth Edelstoff at the Augustiner Keller in Munich last March. Great beer enhanced by excellent company in wonderful surrounds.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer: Quetsche
Having missed it at the Zythos beer festival I was overjoyed to find Tilquin's plum lambic afterwards in Moeder Lambic Fontainas. The way it stimulates one's salivary glands to create a genuine taste explosion brought me back to my early lambic experiences and a reminder of why this sort of beer is for me. That it's the dearest beer I've ever had (€30 a 75cl bottle) is neither here or there.

Best Collaboration Brew: Adnams Supremely Self-Conscious
This was also a contender for Best Overseas Draught, though it's hard to do any sort of meaningful comparison between it and Edelstoff. A session-strength dark ale brewed at Adnams in collaboration with Stone and served at JD Wetherspoon in the autumn. Crazily hoppy yet exceptionally drinkable, Moonbeam turned up to 11; a masterpiece.

Best Overall Beer: Quetsche
Flavour, aroma and texture are all well and good, but for its sheer physiological impact, my favourite beer of 2013 was Tilquin Quetsche.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label: Otterbank Brewing
I was about to troop after everyone else who nominated Partizan -- their graphics are endlessly entertaining -- but a late Irish entrant shades it for me. This Golden Pint goes to new gypsy brewing operation Otterbank, and their all-business mascot, designed by Twisted Doodles (aka Maria). I wear ties that way too.

Best Irish Brewery: Eight Degrees
Where output, innovation and distribution are concerned, Eight Degrees were first rate this year, and the quality of their products was pretty damn good too. Putting out three simultaneous winter seasonals was a ballsy move, and that deserves credit.

Best Overseas Brewery: The Kernel
2013 was the year I finally "got" hoppy Kernel beer. I don't know if they just happened to be using varieties I like when I drank them, or if it's personal lupulin threshold shift going on, but I really enjoyed the Kernel IPAs I had this year; their dark beers are as consistently brilliant as always; and then there's London Sour.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013: JW Sweetman
Technically I think this was a late 2012 opening, but it was definitely 2013 when Dublin's one and only brewpub made its presence felt. First and foremost, the product quality under brewmaster Rob has been exceptional. In a Dublin pub scene where prices appear to be spiralling insanely upwards it offers easily the best value around. And there's a real sense that the serving staff actually give a shit about the product, which was rarely the case in its previous incarnation. So three cheers for Barry, Dave, Rob and all the team at JWS, and somebody please steal their business model: Dublin needs at least three more of these.

Pub/Bar of the Year: The Bull & Castle
There are many contenders for this, but I can't go past the Bull & Castle. Literally, in fact. The range of Irish beers and the turnover of specials and seasonals has been phenomenal. It remains the best venue to get a handle on what's happening on the national scene.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013: 57 The Headline
And hot on the B&C's heels is Geoff's new venture on Leonard's Corner. A solid core of quality beers plus ample space given over to rotationals, with a suburban local feel which is conveniently in my end of town. Having only opened in October it's still finding its feet so we can expect the offer to improve even further in 2014.

Best City for Beer in Ireland: Kilkenny
Yes, I'm overlooking Dublin, Cork and Belfast -- all of which I enjoyed drinking in this year. But the most fun was a summer weekend in the Marble City, centred on the fabulous Brewery Corner pub.

Beer Festival of the Year: Borefts
BräuKunst Live! in Munich was certainly educational, but my other half didn't attend, which immediately means it wasn't as enjoyable as it could have been. Borefts, then, takes the prize for beer quality, atmosphere and company -- plus a greatly enhanced food offer this year.

Supermarket of the Year: Fresh, Smithfield Square, Dublin 7
They accidentally underpriced a shipment of Moor beers this year, and Alex didn't manage to snaffle all of them before I got in.

Independent Retailer of the Year: DrinkStore
I actually have to make a concerted, conscious effort to go to other off licences now. DrinkStore is there, and has everything. Job done. They're the reason I'm not giving out a Golden Pint for online retailer of the year, and if I were they'd probably get that too.

Best Beer Book or Magazine: None
Books? Sure haven't we the Internet?

Best Beer Blog or Website: Zak Avery.
Because this.

Best Beer App: Janetter
It's just a general-purpose Twitter client, but it has a mute-by-app function which means I can switch off other people's Untappd updates. This has massively enhanced the quality of my Twitter experience.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer: @Thirsty_Pilgrim
So many great Twitterers out there, local and international, but I'm a particular fan of the window on the world of beer revealed by Joe.

Best Brewery Website/Social media: Galway Bay Brewery
A slick new website, and regular Twitter updates from both owner and head brewer. Real engagement too -- not just an endless retweeting of praise. If your business Twitter account is in the habit of retweeting other people saying nice things about you: Fucking. Stop.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year: Bourbon Barrel Ale with Bellingham Blue
The beer's pretty poor and the massive sweet oak totally overpowered the excellent steak it was supposed to be paired with at Alltech's reception launching their festival next February. But the acidity of the cheese really put manners on it.

A big thanks to everyone who nominated me for Golden Pints. There'll be more drinking beers and then writing down what they taste like next year.

26 December 2013

The Four Pubs and One Offie of Christmas

The 2013 amateur drinking season has been somewhat ameliorated by the arrival of some new seasonal Irish beers. Only one of them has gone all-out Christmassy in its branding, and that's St Cuilan's Christmas Ale by White Gypsy. It is left to the drinker to decide whether this 8% ABV Belgian-style warmer is named after the 7th century founder of Glenkeen monastery, or its brewer the beatific Mr Loughnane. The name is recycled, having previously been used by White Gypsy Ruby at the family pub. Anyway: bananas. Big bananas, ripe bananas, sweet bananas are what characterise this beer. There's no mistaking the strength either: these are warm bananas too. Behind them you'll find some brown sugar and a little manadrin zest. Plain fare, all in all, but clean and not a spiced-up mess.

Recently arrived at JW Sweetman is the 4.6% ABV Sorachi Zuki. Aren't Sorachi Ace hops more of a summer thing? Not really, I was surprised to discover. This is a dark beer, for one thing: almost black. Its aroma is toasty and crisp, like a plain porter or dark ale and the generous addition of coconut means there's a kind of macaroon biscuit opening to the flavour. This is quickly followed by a wall of hops: a wave of pine bitterness first, settling to the signature orange and lemon taste from the Sorachi Ace. As with the St Cuilan, it manages to be festive without any cinnamon sickliness, calling to mind more old fashioned Christmas fare: nuts and satsumas. Err... and coconuts. Anyway, fans of Sorachi Ace will enjoy it; and there's enough other stuff happening for sceptics of the Japanese variety to like it too.

The wintery themes end here, in favour of good quality year-round beer that just happens to have been released recently. Like Farami, a strong coffee and vanilla oatmeal stout produced at the Brú Brewery by Otterbank, a new gypsy brewing operation. I found it on tap at 57 The Headline. The name comes from the type of coffee used, carefully chosen with the assistance of experts at Dublin's top coffee hole 3FE, and it's present in a big way, with the cherry complexity from the coffee actually coming out in the beer. There's even a hint of quality custard from the vanilla as well. 6% ABV and you get the full benefit of that: a massively rich and silky body and beautifully warming. It does a lot of the things that Carlow's excellent Leann Folláin does, but is that bit more complex. A magnificent début.

Sticking with the gypsies, Stone Barrel released their second beer -- the first to be brewed in Ireland -- at WJ Kavanagh's last weekend. C No Evil is a 5% ABV pale ale brewed with Cascade, Centennial and Citra. They had been disappointed with the aroma element in their first beer, but there are no such reservations here: you can smell the pine and eucalyptus from this a mile off. The bitterness is huge and grapefruity, set on a low carbonation for a puckering sherbet effect. Just a tiny hint of digestive biscuit peeks through to make an effort at balance, but really this beer belongs to the American hops and is strictly for their fans.

We finish at home, with a bottle of the new one from The Porterhouse, acquired at DrinkStore. The Devil's Half Acre (a nickname for Dublin Castle) started as an 11% ABV double IPA, boosted by time in a Kilbeggan whiskey barrel to 13.5%, making it possibly the strongest Irish beer in recent years. It pours dark garnet with a healthy ivory head and smells of the world's best cough mixture: bright and sweet, intense unctuous raspberry and cherry. There's a definite wood character in the flavour, dark chocolate, rosewater, and all those cherries again. The ghost bitterness from the double IPA base is still in there in the finish, but the transformation to barrel aged barley wine is pretty much complete. Too hot and heavy to drink in quantity but up there with Thomas Hardy's Ale and Rochefort 10 in the complex strong beer stakes.

Something for everyone in that lot, I think. Unless you like boring beers, obviously.

23 December 2013


I swiped these three from Hardknotts Dave and Ann when they were in Dublin last summer and I've been feeling guilty about them ever since. Not because of the theft, but because I haven't taken the time to drink them and they weren't getting any fresher in my fridge. So, by way of absolution...

Continuum is a 4% ABV session pale ale so immediately invites comparison with our native hoppy 4%er Green Bullet. This is a darker, heavier offering, and while Green Bullet is all pointy, spiky refreshment, this is mellower, with a bigger mouthfeel, lower carbonation (despite appearances) and a sweet juicy mandarin flavour at its core. There's a little bit of brown sugar and some slight pine resin at the finish. Only the limited complexity suggests the low strength: everything else you get in a stronger pale IPA is pretty much here. I didn't feel shortchanged by the 33cl bottle but would very happily sink a few pints of this.

Azimuth IPA is almost half as strong again but shows a wonderful lightness of touch. The aroma is all summer meadow grass and clover, and I detect an antipodean influence in the flavour: pineapple, mango and the like, with a waxy finish dragging us back to the old world. The drinkability is improved by a very slight sourness and some saisonesque pepperiness. Nothing heavy or sticky here, meaning it's possibly a bit dangerous in quantity. Overall a nicely zesty IPA and a great example of how British breweries are tinkering with the style.

The big guns come out last: Queboid at 8% ABV. While the previous two are on the fizzy side, this poured almost flat, the token foam dissipating quickly. My soupiness alarm began beeping. It's a dark shade of orange and smells of concentrated boiled sweets: an intense sugariness and just a hint of spices behind it. While it's certainly heavy and sweet it's not sticky, hot or especially difficult drinking. The texture is smooth and slick and I don't miss the carbonation at all. If anything it's a little understated for such a big beer: the hops provide only a hint of orange and there's none of the promised Belgian fruitiness; nor does the spice re-materialise. It's the first beer I've encountered that might be improved by a bit more heat or toffee.

The common factor with all these three is their approachability: they're simple beers but brewed from exceptional ingredients put together in interesting ways. It's a refreshing mid-point between tradition-following British beer and simply aping the Americans.

19 December 2013

Rule Bretagne

I've not had the best of luck with Breton beers, and the cartoony packaging of this mixed sixpack from La Coreffe in Carhaix had me expecting more murky crap. Best to get it over with.

I started with Coreff Blonde: very pale for the style, and quite weak too at just 4.2% ABV. There was a healthy layer of bright white foam on top as it poured, and quite a sweet perfume aroma but it's not at all a heavy beer. There's a light lageryness, with mild effervescence rather than proper fizz. Alongside the crispness sits a breezy violets-and-clover meadow quality. Not the sticky mess I anticipated and actually quite deftly put together.

La Blanche adds a touch of apprehension to this philosophy of cleanness, pouring a perfectly limpid yellow with masses of gas. While the fizz provides a certain dryness, this is much sweeter than the blonde and the floral flavour shades towards sickly. A mild pepperiness in the aroma is the only real nod towards witbier. It's not often that the ideal aperitif in a French line-up is the blonde, but that appears to be the case with Coreff.

Lastly, Coreff Ambrée pours quite flat and is a dark honey colour. The aroma is caramel and chocolate and it tastes like a good Irish red: toasted grain, brown sugar and a touch of treacle bitterness. Some nice milk chocolate starts to come through as it warms. Another one that there's nothing wrong with, but something a bit more interesting would be appreciated.

These are accomplished, experienced beers, showing a competence and confidence unusual in French artisan beer. I wouldn't object to them as my local fare.

Thanks to Pádraig for the bottles.

16 December 2013

Horses for courses

The Alltech beer and whiskey extravaganza will be returning to the Convention Centre in Dublin this February. The American multinational specialises in animal nutrition but runs a brewery and bourbon distillery on the side as pet projects of the owner Dr Lyons.

I wasn't much of a fan of the flagship bourbon barrel aged ale when I first encountered it last year: there's more than a hint of Innis & Gunn sickliness about it, so I was apprehensive when approaching its stablemates. Kentucky IPA is 6.5% ABV and a very slightly hazy orange-gold. The aroma is pithy with a hint of boiled sweets and the carbonation light and prickly. That candysugar flashes briefly at the start but an assertive bitterness swings in quickly behind it, sharp and mouthwatering, if a little metallic. There are notes of beeswax which make it seem more English than American, despite the strength, and while it lacks fruity freshness or hop complexity, I rather liked its straightforward, plain speaking bitter bite.

To accompany the barrel-aged ale, there's a Bourbon Barrel Stout too, also 8% ABV but this time the beer is robust enough to stand up to the spirit. Not that the two complement each other, just that the beer isn't ruined: what you get is a sticky sweet stout with lots of caramel plus a background buzz of woody bourbon and a pleasant alcoholic heat. I'm reminded a lot of the Innis & Gunn stout, one of the very few palateable beers they've made. This too is palateable but not a patch on the kind of barrel aged stouts produced by breweries of De Molen's calibre, for instance.

By way of disclaimer, both these beers were freebies at the July Alltech event and there was more corporate hospitality at the launch last week of the February event. Thanks once again to the Alltech crew for their generosity.

12 December 2013

The wild geese

As the Irish beer market continues to grow, it's inevitable that contract brewing forms a big part of it. Of the Irish breweries who facilitate other brands, Eight Degrees in Co. Cork and Hilden in Co. Antrim are probably the most prolific. A few brands have opted to look outside Ireland altogether, either for reasons of cost and convenience or to avail of the expertise abroad. I'm looking at two of those today.

Brown Paper Bag Project have been going a couple of years now and Trinity is their fourth beer, and the third to be brewed in Belgium. The 75cl bottle badges it a tripel, and it's appropriately strong and golden, though rather brighter and clearer than most tripels I've met, with lower carbonation: all points in its favour. The aroma is more about fresh tropical fruits than yeasty spices and it tastes distinctly of pineapple juice. There's almost none of the complex earthy murk one often finds in tripels, nor the alcoholic heat, nor the golden syrup sweetness. Only a hint of cereals, hop bitterness and a very light spiciness in the finish hints at the style. As a frivolous, fun, cartoon version of a tripel I loved it. It's the sort of thing that would set Brouwer Van Klomp's teeth on edge, however.

One of the newest brands around is Stone Barrel, based in Dublin though the first batch of the first beer was brewed in the UK. It's called Boom and is badged as a "session IPA". It's not just the modest 5% ABV which backs up this designation: the carbonation is low, adding to the drinkability, and the flavours are a little muted too. The brewers were somewhat disappointed in how it came out, wanting more late-hop impact from the Simcoe, but it's perfectly decent as-is: there's a kind of herbal green flavour in the middle, backed by light biscuit malt. On the Irish hoppy beer scale it falls somewhere north of Galway Hooker but beneath O'Hara's IPA. It's a good first effort and I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with next. Anything that gets more hops onto the Irish beer market is all right by me.

09 December 2013

Ten beers and four provinces

We're travelling the country but mostly staying in for this new Irish beer round-up. Galway Bay are, of course, an exception, with their Chinook Pale Ale arriving on keg in the tied pubs. From the swift half I had one idle half hour in Against the Grain, this -- the second runnings from Of Foam and Fury -- appears to be a bit of a rush job. It's disturbingly opaque, for one thing, and lacks any kind of subtlety or finesse. The harshly spicy Chinook is laid on thick and is big on hard acidic bitterness. The finish is quick, hastened by a lack of body or malt character. Like Full Sail and Voyager, it's refreshing in its own slightly watery way, but otherwise unremarkable.

I had high hopes for Trouble Brewing's new Galaxy Pale Ale which appeared on cask in The Brew Dock last week. Now it wasn't by any means my first beer of the evening so I may not be giving it a fair shake but I was underwhelmed. Another cloudy one, it lacked the punch I enjoy from Galaxy hops. It's smooth, there's some light orange notes, but not much else. I should probably come back to it on a clean palate.

I paid my first visit to The Beerhouse in Dublin recently, which is situated on a corner-of-death by Bolton Street College. I hope the current incarnation does better than the predecessors as it has quite a fun bohemian vibe, with a decent beer selection at reasonable prices.

The attraction was Blackpitts Porter, the first dark beer from C&C-owned Five Lamps Brewery in Dublin 8. A big yay for the lack of nitro in this, though it is somewhat overgassed and it took me a while to punch through the ivory afro to the beer beneath. The dryness from all that fizz actually performs a useful task in counteracting some uncompromising chocolate and treacle notes, backed up by a vaguely lactic tang. More than anything it reminded me of Czech dark lager, balancing the sweet molasses against a bitter bite. I liked it, though I can't imagine drinking a lot without bloating up.

We continue the Five Lamping at home with Honor Bright, a red ale. More garnet than red, if you ask me, not that that's any sort of real criticism. There's an attractive candy-caramel aroma with enticing fruit chew hops in the background. And it's that candystore sweetness that is the centre of the flavour, a combination of mildly citric hops and crystal malt, plus an odd sort of acidic apple tang. Interesting hops notwithstanding, it was quite true to its stylistic roots by being a little watery and somewhat overcarbonated -- forgiveable in the likes of Smithwick's at 3.8% ABV but not what I'd expect at the full 5% ABV we have here. The story behind the name, incidentally, can be read here.

Kinnegar Brewing have eschewed their usual bright and cheery branding for this intriguing special edition: Long Tongue. It's a pumpkin and ginger rye ale: don't they know pumpkins are exclusively an October ingredient? Cuh! It's an appropriately autumnal dark amber but smells much more Christmassy: figs and plums; cinnamon and clove. It's the sort of thing that could easily be a spicy mess but is actually beautifully smooth while getting full value out of the ginger and allowing the dry rasp of the rye do its thing too. 5.3% ABV gives it enough of a fullness to be warming and satisfying to drink but without any trace of overdone heat or stickiness: a refreshingly balanced winter warmer.

Its companion beer is called Yannaroddy and is a coconut porter. It pours an opaque dark brown and smells crisp and roasty: the dry crunch of raw black malt. Dryness is the main feature of the flavour too, making it a simple, straightforward example of a porter. Only at the very end is there a hint of unctuous coconut flesh. If it's unorthodox flavours you're after it's probably best to stick with the Long Tongue.

And while that's what's on offer from breweries in Connacht, Leinster and Ulster, we have to move to Munster, the crucible of Irish microbrewing, to find a brewery that's really pulled the stops out this season.

Eight Degrees has had a winter seasonal for the last two years, but it didn't come back for 2013, replaced instead by three winter seasonals grouped under the "Back to Black" series.

The first is Zeus Black IPA. It's a black IPA, hopped with Zeus and seems to have skipped past the Imaginative Naming Department at the brewery. It took a bit of coaxing to get a head on this, pouring flat black and just foaming desultorily at the end. The aroma is fresh, but hard and bitter, like a noseful of raw hop pellets giving an intense mown grass smell. The low fizz translates into a beautiful smoothness in the mouth, and there's plenty of opportunity to enjoy the texture as there's very little by way of forward flavour, just a light kind of spiciness. That grassy character from the aroma looms large in the finish, blooming dramatically in the mouth and producing a bitterness that's powerful without being acrid or harsh. On fading there's a little hint of treacle as the sole nod to the dark malt. Very drinkable, despite the 7% ABV. This is worth the price of admission for the nose, but could stand to be more complex flavourwise in the bottle. Just a taste of the draught version showed it to be a much better beer, with all the resinous dank that's missing from the bottle present in full force.

Aztec Stout is the second in the series, another reluctant head, and one which sank without trace almost instantly. The spec makes big promises: 5.5% ABV and brewed with chilli and cocoa nibs. And vanilla. And cinnamon. The aroma has a latent spice in with the roast that I recognise from my own chilli stout experiments which is rather enticing, but it falls a bit flat after that. Literally flat, for one thing: barely a pulse of gas about it, and rather thin of texture. There's a mild tingle from the chillis, and a nice back-of-the-throat dryness. I get a bit of powdery cocoa, but not full-on chocolate, while the vanilla and cinnamon completely passed me by. I'm not complaining that the chilli is the most noticeable of the special effects in here, and the base oatmeal stout is pretty decent, but I think it's another underperformer, certainly compared to the last two years' Eight Degrees Winter's Ales it has displaced.

Last of the set is their Russian Imperial Stout, a style that's known to improve with age so I may not have done this one any favours by drinking it after just two days in the bottle. The aroma is powerful, with an alcoholic heat suggesting all of its 9% ABV and more plus a distinct smell of winegums. This artificial fruitiness leads the flavour, and is followed quickly by a putty taste I associate most with oatmeal in stout (though it's absent from the Aztec) and together they add up to an odd but not unpleasant medicinal flavour. There's a more typical imperial stout finish: mocha, treacle and a little honey too. On the whole it's an odd sort of a beast: bitter hoppy imperial stouts are something I'm well used to, but one that's seemingly late hopped with fruit-forward antipodean varieties is an entirely new experience. While it's probably best consumed young I'll be interested to find out what happens to it after a year or two of cellaring.

We nip back to the pub -- Farrington's this time -- for one last pint: the first beer from the newly-formed Rascal's Brewing Company, a Ginger Porter brewed at Brú in Meath. It pours out very dark and thick, with a thin tan-coloured head. The ginger leaps out immediately on tasting but it's not at all overdone: there's just enough spice to lend a Christmassy feel to the beer but behind there's a very solid unfussy porter, heavy and smooth with some old-fashioned, slightly metallic, molasses flavour and the accompanying stickiness. My biggest criticism is that it was served far too cold in Farrington's, so I'd recommend sitting over it a while and letting it warm up to get the full benefit.

It looks like we're well sorted for dark and spicy warmers in Ireland this winter.

06 December 2013

Tall tales

Steve is hosting The Session this month and has picked Beery Yarns as the topic. I'm by no means averse to a long and rambling anecdote and could easily qualify for the national Pub Bores team, but it's not just back-packing, pint-swilling transcontinental scoopers like me who get a kick out of being the centre of attention, whether anyone's paying attention or not: there are more than a few beer makers who like spinning yarns as well, sometimes with a distinct whiff of brett aroma about them too.

As Exhibit A, I present a new range of beers recently arrived in Ireland: McGargle's. Behind the ubertweeness is the more prosaic Rye River Brewing Company of Kilcock, Co. Kildare, who appear to have eschewed all the troublesome mashtun and fermenter business for now in favour of a licence to distribute San Miguel, an energy drink, and these three beers -- commissioned from the Thomas Hardy contract brewery in the UK, pending the alleged construction of a real live brewery in Ireland.

The McGargle's website is long on story and short on content. Each of the three beers is associated with a cartoon character, though we're not told trivia like where they're made or from what. There's barely even any tasting notes. Whatever they teach at beer marketing college these days, I guess it's not about customers like me. Geoff at 57 The Headline was kind enough to provide me with a tasting tray of all three a couple of weeks ago and this is what I found in it:

I started with the lager, called Gravy Maevey's Pilsner, and pilsner it is not. The brewer definitely had the book open at the right page when picking and adding the hops -- there's a solidly big grassy bitterness in the middle of it -- but they must have been looking somewhere else later in the process: it smells buttery, the texture is thick and slick, and the finish is 100% Kerrygold. On the plus side it puts paid to any suggestion that this is a big industrial brewery's lager re-badged, since most of them would have process controls to prevent lager coming out packed with diacetyl. Drinkers who choose lager because it's bland may be pleasantly surprised by this, but it's not likely to win over any Urquell fans any time soon.

Moving right, to Granny Mary's Red: a dark chestnut red with just a thin skim of foam. It arrived very cold from the tap so it first tasted of nothing, but as it warmed it began tasting of... something very very slightly more than nothing. It's another heavy one, but while it feels like it should be abundant with caramel flavours, there's only the merest hint of caramel and a very slight suggestion of coffee too, but no more than that. Even by Irish red standards, this is all-out full-spectrum high-calibre boring.

And so to the inevitable pale ale, which Rye River have called Knock Knock Ned's India Pale Ale, though I doubt anyone else ever will. The theme of under-attenuation continues -- heavy, sticky -- in a pleasant-looking clear red-gold package. It tastes bizarre, with a kind of accidentally-tasted-aftershave chemical intensity. The big sweetness grinds up against a big artificial-tasting bitterness in a way that's probably supposed to be balanced but is all wrong. One of those beers that makes you want to sit the brewer down and ask what they were trying to achieve, out of sheer morbid curiosity.

I genuinely would love to know more about these beers, what the specification was and what's going on in them. Conversely, I am not on the edge of my seat waiting to meet the newest kerrr-azy member of the McGargle family.

Please, brewers: concentrate on the product quality and leave the beery yarns to the drinkers.

04 December 2013

Abbey Lite

Keyte Oosténdse Tripel is a bit of a misnomer as it comes from Brouwerij Strubbe in Ichtegem, some way south of Ostend. The strength is low for the style at 7.7% ABV and it's a little bit past the drink-by date. I'm not sure if it's the latter that adds a sourness to the taste. Unsurprisingly it's lighter and less boozy than most tripels but most of the typical flavours are there in miniature: the honey, the cereals and the spicing. The light texture and acidity adds a pleasant white wine element as well. Tripels tend not to be known for their refreshment power, but this one does a pretty good job of it.

The dark 9.2% ABV beer in the series is called Keyte Oosténdse Dobbel-Tripel, the brewery seeming to want no truck with those heretical Dutch monks and their so-called "quadrupel" style. It's a lovely clear dark mahogany with just a skim of off-white head. The flavour? Well, "sweet" doesn't begin to describe it. It delivers an assault of plum and fig but while most beers of this type have a big bready texture to offset the sweetness, this is actually quite light of texture, perhaps even watery, which gives the sweet fruit licence to run rampant. The alcohol is fairly assertive as well, so once you've recovered from the jarring sugar, there's a blast of heat singeing the sinuses. Hard work, this stuff, and not the sort of strong dark beer one can get comfortable with.

Strubbe seem to have mastered the art of giving a light texture to strong complex beer but I'm not at all sure that this is a useful talent.

02 December 2013

Found art

Three pale ales from Michigan brewery Founders today. I'll get to the more usual styles, but first up is something called All Day IPA: 4.7% ABV and proclaiming itself a "session ale". I'm immediately wondering what the point of this is, as distinct from the regular non-India pale ale. It's a darkish gold colour and smells heavenly: ripe mango, pine resin and a little bit of toffee. The flavour is quite straightforward, showing a light acrid dankness, fading to grapefruit and then tailing off, leaving a dry and slightly metallic green aftertaste. There's a certain wateryness behind the hop wallop which I guess helps to take the sharper edges off and which, coupled with the light carbonation, makes it sessionable. I could certainly drink this all day. But I still don't know what makes it an IPA rather than a non-I PA. We have to go deeper.

Founders Pale Ale is paler, for one thing, and also a fair whack stronger at 5.4% ABV. The aroma is quite minerally and little carbonic, with no sign of the dry hopping. Nicely smooth again, but the flavours are extremely muted, showing just a little bit of waxy bitterness and candy caramel. It doesn't stack up at all well next to the All Day IPA and I really can't see why they make it, when they can turn out an infinitely better pale ale at a lower strength.

Could it be that the Centennial IPA is just as pointless at a higher strength point? It's a familiar orangey gold and the aroma speaks more of toffee than hops. While it's certainly sweet and sugary, there's a decent hit of pith and peach amongst the toffee, and even some friendlier pineapple high notes. Best of all there's no harshness, no strong bitterness: just enough to balance the big malt. It's damn drinkable for 7.2% ABV, but in terms of flavour intensity it's not a patch on the All Day IPA: more a slow smoulderer than a quick exciting fling.

Founders, it seems, appear to reckon that as long as it's hoppy enough it's fair game to call it an IPA. This backseat brewery manager would be badging the All Day as a pale ale, and probably abandoning the Centennial hops for something more complex in the IPA. And it would definitely be a case of All Day in my back seat going home from work each evening.

28 November 2013

Seems legit

I had the beer poured and was preparing to take the first sip when the question struck me. Spearhead Hawaiian Style Pale Ale is brewed in Toronto: some distance from Hawaii, I believe. But... what makes it "Hawaiian style"? I'm not aware of any particular local brewing practice that marks the pale ales of Hawaii as distinct from those of anywhere else. Maybe they're just going for a tropical fruit vibe from the hop profile, I thought. But lots of beers do that and no brewer describes them as "Hawaiian style". I had to go to the brewery website and look it up. Turns out, this beer is brewed with actual pineapple. You know, like they do in Hawaii. Or like Hawaiians tell Torontonians they do, because they think it's funny. Anyway, fruited pale ales are something of a rarity, so this should be interesting.

It's a medium orange-amber colour and starts with a wonderful heady aroma which mixes candied mangoes with a more astringent vegetal tang. The hops seem to be missing at first and it starts quite bready, with a viscous, sticky texture showing off every degree of that 6% ABV. It seems like there's no middle, just a pause before the acidic bitterness tramples the palate, but this subsides quickly and is followed by a soothing waft of mandarins and nectarines.

It's a pretty decent pale ale, though nowhere near as odd as the brewer's description makes it out to be. I think if I wanted to inject some Hawaiian sunshine into a beer I made on a cold Ontario morning, I'd do it with Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin.

25 November 2013

Keepy uppy

New Irish beers have been coming in so thick and fast lately that I think I'll just have to do occasional round-ups, of those that I actually manage to catch. Chief among the culprits is Galway Bay Brewery, with its talented brewer, chain of tied pubs and resultant love of experimentation.

For Halloween there was a pumpkin and chilli ale from the pilot plant (picture, right) which I don't think got any more elaborate name than Pilot 003 -- the handpump in Against The Grain just had a stock cartoon pumpkin clipped to it. It wasn't as out there as the description suggested, a murky brown with just the standard nutmeg and clove spices and no sign of the chilli. It was preceded by Pilot 002 (picture, left), a 7.8% ABV "imperial brown ale". A weird one this: immensely roasty to begin with and finishing with lighter café crème brown malt notes, but the hops were powerfully bitter in the waxy old-world way. A very oddly constructed flavour profile, I thought. I genuinely couldn't tell you if I liked it or not.

Talk of the town at the moment is Of Foam & Fury, Galway Bay's new 8.5% ABV double IPA. It arrives a bright hazy orange colour and gives off a chilly brewery floor aroma of intense oily hops. The flavour starts with pleasant toffee though avoids being overly sweet, and while the texture is a little sticky it complements rather than counteracts the hops, adding a napalm quality to their power. A rising pepperiness heralds their arrival, then sharp mouthwatering citrus, rolling into heavy, funky dank. It avoids being overpowering by being served very cool and with enough fizz to give the palate a good scrubbing even as it lays down more resins. By no means a subtle beer, it does have just enough burn, just enough warmth and just enough toffee to be an excellent example of strong and hoppy beer.

Trouble Brewing have just launched a session-strength Galaxy Pale Ale which I'm dying to get stuck into, but in the meantime had a special called Rising Tide on cask in the Bull & Castle. It's a murky orange brown colour and rather heavy and filling, making me wonder immediately if it's any relation to Trouble's permanent IPA Sabotage. As well as the texture, the flavour and aroma are similarly orangey, though it tastes more orange-cream biscuit than fresh jaffa, and with a background heat that puts me in mind of winter beers like Young's Special London Ale. There was a very slight sour buzz to it as well which actually helped offset the heaviness although, like the murkiness, I don't know whether that was down to the beer itself or how it was handled. It could stand to be cleaner-tasting, but was a fairly decent cuddly warmer as found.

Black's Brewery of Kinsale brought the first beer from their new brewkit to Dublin recently: Kinsale Black IPA, on tap in Brewery Lane and priced for the ticker connoisseur at €6.50 per pint. It looks like a stout: black body, creamy nitro head. It smells mostly like a stout: dry roast, light bitterness, with just a cheeky hint of spice and citrus to suggest something else is going on here. And it feels like a stout: the nitro giving it a familiar smoothness at a modest 5.5% ABV. There's lots of added hop fun in the flavour, however: lemon sherbet, in particular, and finishing on a very old fashioned bitterness of the sort found in Porterhouse Wrassler's XXXX. I'd definitely class this as a hybrid beer rather than a "proper" black IPA, but however you slice it stylistically it's delicious and very accessible.

To confuse matters, another Kinsale-branded beer arrived in Dublin around the same time. Williams Wheat Beer is from the people behind the former Kinsale Brewing Company, founded in the late 1990s but which shut up shop around six years ago. They're back on the scene and while I've not heard what their intentions are regarding re-establishment, the brand is alive again and their beer is being brewed on the original Kinsale brewkit which has been in operation at White Gypsy for some years. Williams, on tap at 57 The Headline, is a pale hazy yellow and though it kicks off with a blast of banana, this fades quickly to become a crisper, grainier beer with a thirst-quenching celery and clove complexity. Somewhat out of season, perhaps, but since draught White Gypsy beer is a rarity in the capital these days, I'm not complaining.

The next round of anticipated Irish beers include the aforementioned Galaxy Pale Ale, Eight Degrees's forthcoming black beer trilogy, the winter seasonal from JW Sweetman, a couple of new ones from Five Lamps. And all while keeping an eye out for Otterbank, Rascals and more besides. It's hard work.

22 November 2013

Drouthy neebors

It's the last lap of west Edinburgh pubs today, starting with a cheeky half pint of Nicholson's Porter grabbed at The Haymarket during a brief lull in EBCU proceedings. This is brewed by St Austell and is more ruby or brown than black. It drinks very easily, slipping down leaving a trail of dry roast and light chocolate, its gentleness belying a not inconsiderable 5% ABV.

Just up the street from The Haymarket is Thomson's Bar, an old-fashioned pub with a reputation for well-kept ales. I trooped in behind the chairman of CAMRA, so it would want to have. Oakham Green Hop Harvest was on the bar and one does not pass a new Oakham beer. Sadly this 3.6% ABV golden ale is a bit dull. There's some honey complexity but none of the big hop bang expected from a fresh hop beer, and especially from Oakham, an English brewery with no fear of the hop sack. I followed it with Tryst Carronade: another golden one, vaguely sweet but with nothing much else going on. Perhaps I should have just opted for the Fyne Ales Hurricane Jack everyone else was drinking.

Heading down towards the Caledonian Brewery, though apparently unconnected to it, is the Caley Sample Room, a wide oblong barroom with comfy leather couches and a well-chosen array of local and national beers. We made three visits here over the weekend, the first being when I mistook it for the Sample Cellar in the brewery: they shouldn't have places with such similar names so close to each other. Anyway, while Reuben figured out my error I caned a pint of A Bad Day At The Office by Alechemy. I liked it, with its assertive waxy bitterness and a mineral smoothness for ease of drinking, a feature especially appreciated when you realise, two mouthfuls in, that you're supposed to be somewhere else.

Later we followed the crowd to the brightly lit confines of The Digger's (right) where I had a rather tasty Kelburn Jaguar, all juicy summer fruit sweetness, and then it was back to the Caley.

Looking at my notes, I don't think I had a bad beer at the Caley: from the clean fresh peach and apricot of red-gold Mariana Trench by Weird Beard to the intriguing honey and pepper blend in Highland Pale Ale. The full and fruity Fresh by Wild Beer Co was a particular highlight, hitting the Belgian IPA flavour profile in all the right places, and one of my top beers of the whole weekend was the one I went out on: Alechemy's Black Aye PA: dark red with a powerful burst of mandarin and grapefruit, followed by just a whisper of sticky treacle in the finish.

It was a pleasant surprise to find a couple of lagers from West in Glasgow. Well, semi-pleasant. 4 was on tap in Ryrie's at Haymarket station and is a corker: gently carbonated for an ultra-smooth drinkability, with just its intense sweetness meaning it might not be to everyone's taste. For me it was a perfect reset button after several heavy ales. Its stablemate St Mungo (left) let the side down, however, being sweeter still and with the signature buttery off flavour of wonky lager. Not undrinkable by any means, but nor was it the crisp lager experience I was after.

I found the St Mungo at The Cloisters which we got to late on the Friday when it was already quite busy. Also on the bar was Highland's A9, yet another golden job: nicely spicy though a bit too heavy and sticky for my liking. The same goes for Boggart Sundial, biscuity lager malts laid on too thickly, saved but only just by a crunchy green veg bitterness at the end. An award for the name goes to Elixir's Get It India pale ale, though no marks for taste as this is another butterbomb, drowning its hops in the sickly gloop.

I blinked a couple of times when I noticed Benedictine Groove on the bottle blackboard at The Cloisters. It's also from Elixir and the USP is the inclusion of "tablet and tonic wine". Buckfast beer! It had to be tried. And it's surprisingly decent. I'm guessing it's the wine which contributes the warming plumminess, and there's a lovely chocolate character too, creating an overall effect similar to English old ale or ruby porter: a balanced and complex winter beer, much mellower than one might expect, given what went into it.

All that was left was a couple of cheery halves at the airport Wetherspoon (Broughton Old Jock and Schiehallion, if you must know) and then home. Three days was enough to scratch the surface of Edinburgh, but I'm well aware that there's plenty more in the Scottish capital to be enjoyed beerwise.

20 November 2013


The Caledonian Brewery squats sulkily below Slateford Road in western Edinburgh. It's a mid-Victorian redbrick, now the property of Heineken UK and probably best known for its Deuchars IPA. Tradition looms large here, and they're fiercely proud of their copper kettles, open square fermenters and whole-leaf hops. The hops aren't even kept refrigerated, with a storeroom on the brewhouse roof deemed to do just as good a job. Quite a bit of this year's three-day EBCU autumn session was held there, affording the opportunity to drink freely at both of its hospitality bars. For a brewery famous for just a couple of beers, there's actually a sizeable range produced there. If you've ever encountered the Newcastle special editions in the US, this is where they came from, and it appears also to be the source of Britain and America's supply of Murphy's "Irish" Stout.

The beer that really caught my eye when I spotted it in the cellar bar fridge was Deuchars Imperial, a 5.5% ABV golden ale with a similar sort of buttery kick as standard Deuchars but with an added hop spice to it that makes it much more drinkable. Certainly much more drinkable than the brewery's other icon Caledonian 80/-. This dark red-brown beer came from the cask tasting like a kind of warm chocolate soup: a particularly heavy heavy and, as the brewery's guest, I'm glad I didn't have to put away more than a third of it.

Seasonal of the moment is Vienna Red, a dark amber lager, again from the cask. This has a much lighter touch than the 80/-, with lovely smooth and sweet caramel notes. It's far from complex but pretty decent for what it is. Just on its way out of the brewery, meanwhile, was San Diego Session IPA, a 4.5% ABV beer brought to life by Mike Richmond of Stone Brewing as another commission from JD Wetherspoon. There's more of that trademark butterscotch in here and lots of husky grain. The hops contribute no more than a light fruity tang and the whole is a lot less exciting than the Californian gargoyle might suggest.

Gold seems to be where Caledonian is hanging its hopes, so even though their Flying Scotsman is supposed to be a London Pride competitor it's definitely on the yellow side of the colour spectrum and very lagery with it, providing lots of biscuit sweetness and a smooth effervescence in lieu of full-on fizz. Another unchallenging and approachable beer, though very open to accusations of being boring. Golden XPA is sweeter again, laying on thick golden syrup for a sticky texture and a flavour that starts out a little cloying when freshly poured and just gets more sickly as it warms. The house keg lager is called Three Hop and there's more of the mineral soda effervescence found in the Flying Scotsman -- definitely not a keg beer that can be accused of over gassiness. Unfortunately there's not much else to it: the three German hop varieties which provide the name do little to enhance the taste.

To the south of the city sits the other brewery that offered to show us around and let us try their beers, and Stewart couldn't be more different. This largeish micro is on a major upswing at the moment and the brand new German brewkit is all shiny stainless and flashing lights. We arrived late on a Friday and the day's brewing was over, but a makeshift tasting bar had been set up in the corner.

Stewart's 80/- is far lighter than Caledonian's, and paler too: a clear dark garnet. There's a dusting of strawberries overlying the chewy caramel, and while it is sweet and full-bodied, it's also clean and cool, enhancing the drinkability. The other cask was pouring Stewart's Pumpkin Ale: the final cask of the 2013 vintage as Halloween was some days behind us. A deep orange colour, I found this to be quite lagery, but in a good way: the hops impart a grassy kind of bitterness and there's quite an assertive sparkle. Some light fruitiness, which may or may not be actual pumpkin flavour, hovers in the background and the inevitable spicing is very subtle, refreshingly so.

At the edge of the bar were two minikegs of Edinburgh Gold, a rather lumpy golden ale with disturbing clumps of yeast bobbling about in my glass. It's big on artificial fruit flavours -- Refresher chews and Lucozade -- and the whole is just a bit too sweet for my liking. Back in town later I encountered Stewart's Black IPA in a pub. More red than black, this, and liquorice is the main feature. The hops bring a pleasant sprinkling of bitterness, but not at the levels I'd expect for something calling itself a black IPA.

More Edinburgh pub action coming up as we round off the trip in the next post. I'll leave this one with the observation that Edinburgh's craft brewery is the one with the ultra-modern fully-automated brewkit, while the multinational industrial macro makes its beers on old-fashioned equipment entirely by hand. If you're hanging on to a definition of craft beer based on its method of production, here's a comparison to give you pause.