27 February 2014

Baying for more

With Beoir's Beer of the Year for 2014 and a gold medal at Alltech under their belt, Galway Bay Brewery is not exactly short on laurels, but they certainly haven't been resting on them. This last few weeks has seen a new pub, Alfie Byrne's next to the Conrad Hotel in Dublin, bringing the estate to nine. And there have been several new beers.

It was at the opening night in Alfie Byrne's that I met Galway Bay American Amber Ale -- as a child of the pilot brewery it doesn't appear to get a proper nautical name like its full siblings. It's a little on the pale side for the style, more a dark orange than properly red, and it smells of... swimming pools? One mouthful in and my pint was confiscated by the management. Incomplete line-cleaning, it seems. A replacement was immediately provided. This had significantly less chlorine and a lot more mango in the aroma. At its heart is the big illicit buzz of dank hops: funky, oily and all-pervading. It gradually fades to a pine bitterness with a spike of gunpowder spice. This is a serious beer for serious hopheads but its dark malts make it approachable for normal people too. The biggest surprise came some days later when I discovered it's 7.4% ABV. It really doesn't taste as strong as that. Highly enjoyable, but handle with care.

Before the Amber arrived, the Next Big Thing in Irish beer was Two Hundred Fathoms, a 10% ABV imperial stout aged in Yellow Spot whiskey barrels and released in a limited run of just 900 bottles. I'm not familiar with Yellow Spot though am a big fan of its Green brother so this, coupled with rave reviews from other drinkers, had me very keen to get the waxed cap off. (A word to brewers on waxed caps, though: don't). Gloopy is the first impression, pouring like some diabolical combination of Tia Maria topped by Baileys. When the foam subsided I got in for a sniff, finding dry cocoa powder and a non-specific spirituous vapour. The first pull was hard work, intense viscosity meant a beer which put up a fight leaving the glass. Once in the mouth it explodes in several directions at once: there's the definite burnt-toast dryness of classic Irish stout, then the harsh ball-of-malt burn from the whiskey. More comforting dark chocolate follows and is the lasting impression, simultaneously bitter and sweet. My preference would be for some softer floral or fruit notes, but perhaps these will develop with age. More than anything, I'm reminded of Brooklyn Brewery's Black Chocolate Stout. That's the sort of league we're in. For all the weight, heat and complexity, it's actually pretty easy drinking, another feature it shares with Brooklyn Black Chocolate. It lures the drinker in to its dark world, hence the name, I guess.

Alfie Byrne's has dedicated a tap for special edition beers, named "The Vernon", after the pub Alfie himself ran, down on Talbot Street. That'll be the first place I look on future visits.

24 February 2014

Divine uninspiration

This pair of Belgian abbey beers, brewed under licence at Brunehaut, sat in my fridge a few months longer than they should have, largely because the label is so dull. I reckon my eye just slid over them every time I opened the door.

Ramée Blonde is a 7.5% ABV tripel. It's a pale orange colour and quite clear, probably from sitting in the cold so long. Still, there's a honeydew freshness in the aroma which is encouraging. On tasting there's no trace of staleness, thankfully, and it leans very much towards the sweet rather than the spicy side. I get honey and brown sugar, golden syrup and fruit cocktail. The texture is nicely light and the fizz busy enough to prevent the sugar building up unpleasantly. Received wisdom is that tripels should be consumed young but I'm really not seeing how this one would be any different at an earlier stage in its life.

Now here's an odd thing: the sister beer, Ramée Ambrée, is also badged as a tripel. An amber tripel? Messing with the style purists' heads? Or not really caring about such things? This is rather murkier, perhaps because it's two months less out-of-date than the blonde, and definitely brown rather than amber. It smells like a dubbel, with prunes, figs and a touch of marker-pen high alcohols. These elements blend together quite nicely on tasting, the rougher edges softened by a dusting of muscovado and a subtle touch of ripe banana. The texture is nicely soft as well, the bubbles providing a gentle mouth massage rather than a full-on pummelling.

I enjoyed these much more than I thought I would. There's a lesson here about not judging a beer by its label, I guess.

21 February 2014

The Brewgrass State

To round off this week's posts on the Alltech Brews and Food 2014 event, we turn to the beers from Alltech's home country of the USA. In fact, the emphasis was on the company's home state of Kentucky and they'd brought along some Kentucky beers to put on a rotating tap.

Venerable Louisville brand Falls City is still finding its feet under new ownership and much of its beer is produced out of state. As far as I can tell, however, the Black IPA they were pouring in Dublin came from the pilot plant in Louisville itself. It's a lovely example of the hoppy-porter sub-genre, with a gorgeous contrast of bitter treacle and liquorice on one side and then light flowery hopping on the other. Sinner and saint in one glass.

Against the Grain, also in Louisville, produces a dizzying array of beers, most with silly names. I don't know which of the many was pouring (Rico Sauvin? Citra Ass Down?), only that it was a light and enjoyable pale ale with fresh and simple mandarin vibe. I'd be up for trying more from this operation, even if titles like "Noble Flops" and "Munichaulay Dunkulkin" are cringeworthy.

Lastly, a beer from Alltech's own brewery in Lexington. To give it its full and legally mandated name, Kentucky Kölsch Style is 4.3% ABV and definitely has the look of Cologne's signature beer: a perfectly limpid pale yellow. The flavour doesn't quiiite hang together: there's a decent crispness but the aley fruit is a smidge overdone and, like most kölsches, it's too fizzy. A pleasant change from mainstream lager is about the height of its charms.

And that's it for Alltech Brews and Food 2014, with the usual thanks to Maeve, Tracey, Aisling and the team for putting on a hell of a show and providing the opportunity to get up close and personal with quite a few beers I'd never get to meet otherwise.

19 February 2014

What the continentals brought to the party

One of the highlights of the Alltech festival is always (ie twice so far) the beers from abroad that we don't normally see here. Ticker heaven. Lots of unfamiliar European breweries had either sent beer along or showed up in person.

Most enthusiastic was the Valencia-based Italian-themed restaurant-brewery Birra & Blues whose Jon Lovitz lookalike owner was pouring beers and shaking every hand offered. Endearing. Amongst the line-up was La Negra, a murky brown pumpkin ale of 5.8% ABV. As per, there's not a whole lot of pumpkin going on but the spices are nice and the dark malt adds a pleasant sweetness. The brewery's Tostada is a warming Belgiany affair with the expected yeasty esters as well as a sharper tang on the end. It felt a little unfinished and homebrewish overall. John Lee Blues is a more polished version of the same thing, still with the Belgian heat but there are some actual fruit flavours discernible: plum and even a little bit of juicy peach. Lots of my fellow attendees had good things to say about the Spaghetti & Blues 25° Aniversario. I thought it was awful. Strong, and beefed up with time in Scotch whisky barrels, it's hot and heavy while also grainy like an unpleasant wheat beer. Not for me.

Next door was the Catalan brewery Espiga. They had just the one beer pouring: Bruna. It's red-gold and tastes powerfully of dusty grain sack. A layer of candy store hops and just a tiny touch of weedy dank rescues it, but doesn't bring it any higher up my approval scale than "acceptable".

One that immediately caught my eye when I spotted it in the press room fridge was from BrauKunstKeller. One does not pass up beer from the German new wave when it appears in Dublin, though I admit I had completely forgotten I hated the only other beer of theirs I've tried. Amarsi is 7.1% ABV though tastes stronger, hopped with a combination of Amarillo and Simcoe for some lovely tangerine and nectarine, but the booziness kind of interferes with the fresh fruitiness. A lighter touch is needed, I think.

While we're on hot and Teutonic, a sample of Salm's Burning Hell was secured by Reuben after one of the formal tastings. It's a chilli-infused pale lager, pouring hazy yellow and reeking of vinegary sourness. The chilli element is sharp and long, dominating the flavour all the way to a dry chilli-skin finish. It's pretty disgusting, but I reckon that's more to do with the quality of the base lager than what's been done to it.

To the Netherlands next and Stoute Liefde, an imperial stout. A fairly simple offering, dry with some treacle and liquorice. Evil Twin's Even More Jesus (kindly supplied by Simon) took it to school, exhibiting a sumptuous silkiness underlying warming satisfying cocoa. A real comfy armchair of a beer.

I couldn't help wondering if anyone pointed out to Danish contract brewers Coisbo that their name translates as "FootCow" in Irish. They have some very stylish minimalist branding, alluring beer names, and ended up taking the top prize in the professionally judged competition for their Four imperial stout. I was surprised when I heard. I mean, it's nice, but my notes say it was rather light and plain for a 10% ABV beer, never mind for an international award winner.

I had high hopes for their Urban Haze, a 5.3% ABV golden ale with elderflower. I do like a bit of elderflower in a beer. This didn't have much of that, or much else really. What should have been bursting with summery fun was all a bit wet bank holiday Monday. Harlem Break brown ale was also rather two-dimensional: some nice milky coffee but that's about it. I'd expect more at 5.3% ABV. About the best of them was the pale ale Manhattan Dawn: orange barley sweets up front and a solid background bitterness. Just what you'd want from a 6.5% ABV semi-session ale.

A handful of Americans to finish us off, in the next post.

17 February 2014

Close to home

The weekend before last saw the return of Alltech's beer and food extravaganza to the Convention Centre in Dublin. It was a two-strand operation: upstairs in the sessions for the trade, publicans were subjected to a sequence of tirades on how they need to be upping their collective games beerwise, and how to do that; while downstairs it was a fully fledged beer festival with a couple of dozen beer stands, largely staffed by the brewers themselves.

The most interesting part for me was the first opportunity to try some new beers from new Irish brewers. First point of call was N17, a massively ambitious project based out of Tuam, though the first pair of beers were brewed at Black's brewery in Kinsale. What makes the N17 business model different from everyone else is the intention to use as much of the brewery by-product as possible and create a sheltered employment operation next to the brewery. Sarah had the spent grain granola and dog biscuits on the stand, but that's just for starters. Two beers form the initial line-up: N17 Rye uses a modest amount of the eponymous grain, just 8%, and comes out at an approachable 5% ABV. It's very much malt forward, with the hops putting a mere citric twist on what's otherwise a decent but unexciting Irish red. N17 Oatmeal Stout is a different story: 6% ABV and beautifully dense, showing off coffee, chocolate and a marvellously complex floral rosewater effect. A dry and gently roasty finish brings it in. This was my favourite beer of the whole festival and I look forward to seeing more of it around.

Over at Hilden, Owen was pouring a brand new IPA, called Mill Street. It's an innocent looking pale gold but packs a serious 6.1% ABV. A pleasant sharp hop burn kicks things off and a resinous residue bookends that at the finish but in between it's nicely drinkable with some lovely tangerine and lime notes. Your mileage may vary, however, as I'm told this first-cut recipe is likely to be changed for future outings. I've just noticed, for instance, that the sign in the background describes it as an Irish red, which it most definitely isn't. If that's what it is by the time you get to drink it, don't blame my notes.

White Gypsy has two new ones on draught, both close relations of existing bottled beers. Puck is a doppelbock, 7.5% ABV but fantastically light on its feet for all that. Sure, you get bourbon biscuits and brown sugar, but it totally avoids any heaviness or overpowering sweetness. Instead it has a wonderful lager cleanness that makes it easy drinking. If it's weight and/or heat you're after, Obelix fits the bill better. This strong blonde is all about the Belgian yeast flavours, presenting a reliable amount of banana-ish esters and bittersweet meadow flora.

Finally for the Irish, Kinnegar had a Valentine's offering in the form of Maddyroe, a "burnt red IPA" of 5.7% ABV. This starts off nicely roasty and warming and then follows it with a long pine finish. The caramel malt sweetness sits side-by-side with the bitterness offering contrast without conflict. A nicely put-together combination of flavours here.

The UK was well represented at the festival, including an entire bar of Welsh offerings. I enjoyed the lightly porterish chocolate-and-hops of Llangollen Welsh Black Bitter, and found Brecon's Three Beacons to be incredibly good value, serving up bags of fresh orange flavours at just 3% ABV.

I missed out on Black Paw's cask beers but caught up with the bottled version of their Archbishop's Ale later on in the cosy surrounds of the festival press room. My fellow liggers legitimate members of the media found this mid-brown 4.1%-er to be peaty but I can't say I detected that myself. Instead it's all about smooth and mild milk chocolate to me. Pleasant, but fairly forgettable.

Elgood's had brought some interesting things over and set them up on stillage at their bar. Among them was Coolship, their new lambic (thanks to drumswan off of Boards.ie for pointing me in the direction of this). 6.7% ABV and a muddy brown colour, it's very nearly true to style -- certainly the mouthwatering sourness that kicks in at the start  leaves no doubt as to what kind of beer it's meant to be. But I could also detect a distinct residual sweetness, resembling what you'd get from a Belgian faro. The absence of any mature wood smoothness also left it lacking the refinement of the real thing, something I'm guessing comes from the art of maturing and blending. Served a little warm from the cask didn't help things either, but overall I think this has the power to be an excellent refresher if served a little bit colder. Next to it was Black Eagle, an imperial stout. Clear red-brown rather than black, and heavy with diacetyl, adding a buttery richness. Boozy warmth and dark fruit combine to create a kind of slivovitz or kirschwasser effect which I rather enjoyed and which suggested much more than its mere 8.7% ABV.

The last three English breweries were huddled together in one corner of the hall. Windsor & Eton flew the flag for cask down here, serving their famous Conqueror black IPA. There's some great use of Summit in here for a heavy dankness plus some more innocent sherbet notes, with the dark malts adding a mere touch of roast to the picture. Its big brother Conqueror 1075 was very different: all about the heavy liqueurishness, coffee upon port upon something sticky and chocolately for dessert. Luxurious. I was less convinced by Kohinoor a novelty IPA with extra India via the addition of jaggery, coriander and cardamom. The end result is a vaguely spicy marmalade effect which doesn't seem worth the effort that went into it.

Dave and Ann from Hardknott were back for a second year, bringing Dark Energy with them, an interestingly sour and fruity dark ale with blackcurrant elements against a light roast. Next to them were newcomers Redwell whose Pils was a shocking pale yellow and very thin. This allowed for some enjoyable crispness but there was a hint of vinegar about it too. I wouldn't be rushing back for it. Redwell IPA on keg was a much better proposition: screamingly fresh and oily Simcoe dank from a perfectly clear medium-orange body to add some semblance of balance. I'm on record as not the world's biggest fan of Simcoe, but when given free rein like this it really can be sublime.

Next up, what the continentals brought to the party.

13 February 2014

Standing alone

Among the first of the new Irish breweries to release beer into the wild in 2014 was the Independent Brewing Company, based in the Connemara Gaeltacht village of Carraroe, running a 10hL kit with all brewing and bottling -- refreshingly -- happening on site. The plan is for three beers, of which two had emerged at time of writing.

I opened Independent Gold Ale first: 4.5% ABV and, according to the nicely informative label brewed with Magnum, Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, and Chinook. An odd combination, but there's nothing wrong with any of those hops per se. It presents as a very dark gold, heading towards amber even, with enthusiastic carbonation forming a pile of loose white bubbles on top. The aroma offers a kind of spiced golden syrup effect, as often found in the heavier sort of Czech lager, with some sweeter perfume behind it. This perfume dominates the taste: intense floweriness at first then a jolt of metallic tang, a bitter bite and finally an astringent (oxidised?) grainy finish. As they unfolded I found myself making a series of faces and resembling a page from Juffage's blog as a result. I'm not sure what to make of this beer: it's technically proficient, full-flavoured, but there's something just not right about the flavour, or maybe it's just not to my taste. There's not much like it already brewed in Ireland, that's for sure.

With curiosity and a little trepidation I approached the Independent Pale Ale. This is a stonking 6% ABV and a shade or two darker, bringing it into more orange-amber territory. Same busy carbonation, mind. Magnum, Columbus and Chinook hops this time, and nicely fresh if the aroma is anything to go by: there's a piercing note of grapefruit juice and pine there, but a staleness too, which leaves me increasingly wondering about the possibility of oxidation. It tastes solidly, unapologetically bitter: waxy, mouthwatering and perhaps even a little harsh, but not too harsh. There's just a flash of citrus fruit at the end as a nod to the lighter side of C-hops, but mostly this is a businesslike and serious strong ale.

Independent has definitely not chosen the safe path for its first beers, though I think there may be a bit of tweaking required in the bottling process to get rid of that slightly stale note.

More posts from the new new wave of Irish brewing are on their way.

10 February 2014

Hawaii Fido

Of all the beers in the Kona range, Pipeline Porter is the one which came particularly recommended to me. Though brewed at Craft Brew Alliance headquarters in, presumably, Oregon, this one gets an extra point of authenticity for the inclusion of genuine Hawaiian coffee. It smells pleasantly of creamy coffee with perhaps an additional Tia Maria-esque liqueur whiff. The texture is as smooth as you'd want for a coffee porter and the flavour, too, is an easy-listening blend of sweet dark malts, toasted grains and no-nonsense, cuppa-joe coffee. It doesn't do much, this beer, but it does it well.

From the breezy 5.2% ABV of Pipeline we move up to 8.9% and Flying Dog's Kujo Coffee Imperial Stout. A different sort of beast altogether, this is viscous and heavy and carries more than a hint of cold espresso about it, or the scrapings from the bottom of the coffee machine. There's an unpleasant putty flavour as well which doesn't help things. While it avoids being hot despite the strength, and isn't sticky the way some dense flavoured stouts can be, the recipe just doesn't gel together well. Whether that's because there's not enough coffee in it, or the base beer isn't good enough, I wouldn't like to speculate.

Less is more with these two Americans, it seems.

07 February 2014

Beers among the berbers

(Photo by Bryce Edwards, from Flickr Creative Commons)
The Grand Hotel Tazi is a bit of a misnomer. It's actually quite an inauspicious-looking premises in the heart of old Marrakesh, aiming perhaps for a kind of faded grandeur, only without the grandeur. Its claim to fame is that the bar was once the only place in the medina where one could get a drink, and although several of the touristy restaurants will surreptitiously offer a carte du vins to any customers who look like they wouldn't be offended by such a thing, the Tazi remains about the only "proper" bar within the walls.

Inside it feels more like a down-at-heel canteen or café than an hotel bar, however lacking in swank said hotel may be. The furniture is shabby and mismatched, the lighting severe and the walls in serious need of a coat or two of paint. Threadbare curtains are kept drawn lest the decent citizens outside be scandalised by what goes on within. There's a distinct feel of speakeasy about the clientèle: a few young chancers here to catch the TV football results, and an ever-changing group of elderly gents, coming and going, exchanging gossip and tutting at the general ways of the world. All have Flag Spéciale in front of them, paying no attention to the little green bottles until a hand darts in and a swig is taken, then quickly back to the table as though nothing has happened. Drinking? Me? Heaven forbid!

As tourists, we were served our Spéciales in posh wine glasses, along with a fiery bowl of harissa-laced olives and shredded pickled carrot. How was the beer? It was beer, and that was enough.

As far as I can determine there is just one brewing company in the country, Heineken-owned Société des Brasseries du Maroc, operating three breweries around the country. One occasionally glimpses expensive imported Leffe and Hoegaarden, but otherwise it's Heineken products all the way.

Apart from the eponymous Dutch pilsner, a couple of foreign brands are produced under licence, including Castel, originally from Bordeaux. It's a not as commonplace as the other beers and is a little more expensive than most but I was glad to find it on the rare occasions that I did, just to add some semblance of variety to my all-lager diet.

Heineken's bog-standard French lager 33 Export is also brewed locally and represents the only draught beer I found over the fortnight I was in Morocco. This was at The Chesterfield, a rather fun low-ceilinged, wood and leather-lined bar, secluded on a hidden mezzanine within the walls of the Hotel Nassim in Marrakesh's new town. Again, perfectly acceptable, but the novelty of taking pulls from a half-litre mug was almost thrilling.

Back to the domestic beer names, and there is a lower-rent option available under the Flag, er flag: Flag Pils. This was my regular tipple, coming in at around €1.50 for a 500ml can, and only a little more for the 330ml bottles in hotel bars.

Flag Pils is the epitome of beer that's OK to drink and quite refreshing on a warm January afternoon when served sufficiently cold. I reckon the branding could do with an update, though. It's a few decades since anyone thought "I'll choose this one; it's beige".

Another one whose packaging doesn't seem to have received any attention since the French left Morocco is Stork. Like Flag Pils, it's cheap and not particularly cheerful, and it's hard to imagine that the words "Bière De Luxe" are meant as anything other than irony. From what I could gather hanging around in the dens of iniquity that are supermarket off licences (hidden in a corner, with a dedicated check-out for sinners -- it reminded me of beer shopping in Northern Ireland), this is Morocco's old man beer. I opted for a can when I tried it, but the preferred format is a 330ml bottle made from inch-thick green glass and weighing significantly more than the beer inside.

I've had it before, in a Moroccan restaurant in Brussels, but I can't leave without mentioning the national icon which is Casablanca beer. Well, I assume it's iconic: they certainly charge enough for it as it's 50% dearer than most of the other beers and I can't say I detected anything in the flavour to justify that. As well as the 330ml cans and bottles, this also comes in a weird energy-drink-sized 250ml can. Maybe God doesn't object to those quite as much.

And that's where we leave Morocco. If you'd like tasting notes on any of these beers you'll have to look elsewhere, I'm afraid. The Session this month is under the aegis of Oliver at Literature & Libation, and descriptions are verboten. Trust me: you're not missing much.

05 February 2014

A nod and a wink

There's a definite air of retro about the label of Seef. The reassuringly brylcreemed man sends the message that this is reliable, trustworthy beer. It's a 6.5% ABV blonde and a darker shade than most, a clear old gold colour. The aroma entices with cinnamon spicing but I definitely didn't expect the flavour. Sour. Just gently, mind: more Berlinerwiesse than gueuze, and with a similar wheatiness in the background. The texture is quite light and the carbonation low, which makes it wonderfully drinkable.

Anyone expecting something along the lines of Leffe Blonde will get a terrible shock from this, but I really enjoyed it.

03 February 2014

Three pints of lager and an absence of crispness

Andy Murray was still half an hour away from winning Wimbledon and I was sitting at the bar of the Prince of Wales pub in East Molsey with one eye on the game and another on my watch. We had a flight to catch and two train journeys to make before that, so it was debatable how much drinking and tennis time there was left. One half wouldn't hurt though, and I'd spotted a particularly intriguing keg font on the bar: Noble English Craft Lager -- not merely a beer, but a sign of profound change in English drinking culture. Or something. I ordered a glass. It was terrible; a mess of slick buttery yuck, lacking even enough fizz to lend it even a semblance of refreshment. This lot, whoever they are, won't be in business long turning out travesties like that, I thought, and was highly surprised to learn subsequently that it's an undercover Greene King product. Is the Bury St Edmunds ale behemoth ashamed of making a lager? Or just this particular one? The cause of British craft lager, if such a thing exists, is being done no favours here.

A few days earlier I was down in Brighton, ploughing workmanlike through the taps at The Craft Beer Co. over a couple of sessions (I covered most of what I drank in both pubs in this post last year) and I had set fairly high expectations for Leodis, a pale lager from the Leeds Brewery, an operation whose ales I normally enjoy. Alas Leodis doesn't get it right either. When I asked the barman what it was like he said "malty", but that didn't cover half of what was going on. It's a medium gold and again offers a soft effervescence in place of full-on fizz. The malt manifests in a sweet aroma but transforms into a bizarre smokiness on tasting: a bit of kipper and perhaps some melted plastic. It's not exactly unpleasant, but at the same time too strange to be really enjoyable, especially on a warm afternoon by the seaside.

I had to come home to find an English lager that really hit the spot. The late lamented WJ Kavanagh of Dorset Street had St Austell's Korev on tap for a spell last summer, a beer which proves that large regional English breweries can do lager well. As with the other two, the hopping takes a back seat in favour of smooth malt sweetness on a mildly carbonated base, but this time it's all light fluffy candyfloss and exotic brown sugar. Not at all a million miles from the golden syrup flavour one finds in good Czech světlý ležák, in fact.

Of course, one does not go to England for the lager, but if there's going to be more of it about from a greater variety of producers it's well worth knowing which are the good ones and which to avoid.