17 August 2017

Berlin vs. London

Events Week on The Beer Nut rolls on, and I have two for you today. Both were arranged under the auspices of high-end beer importer Four Corners, a company that enjoys getting Ireland's beer geeks excited about their promotional events.

The first was a visitation from Der Bier-Jesus aus Amerika himself, Greg Koch of Stone Brewing, who arrived into The Porterhouse and preached from a barstool. He didn't say anything you haven't already read on a Stone beer label, however. Two beers from Stone Berlin's pilot series were on tap, as well as a rebrew of the 2002 "Vertical Epic". Amazing to think that the word Epic didn't sound horribly hackneyed back in 2002.

Anyway, that's where I'll start. 02.02.02 was the first in an annual series of Belgian strong ales that Stone brewed up until 2012. It's a clear gold colour and, soon after pouring, quite headless, in a very unBelgian way. The ABV is a modest 7.5%. There's definite Belgian spice to the aroma, however, as well as a wholesome grainy waft. The flavour tips over heavily into weissbier territory: those big esters are the most prominent feature. The spice does come back after a moment, bringing ripe fruit with it, and the overall effect is of something not dissimilar to Duvel or a clean and clear tripel. Perfectly fine drinking, but very unexciting, even for 15 years ago.

First from the pilot series was Stone Pale Ale, a big enough beast at 5.9% ABV. The texture matches that and more, being very dense, the perception heightened by the dark copper colour. Free-wheelin' California-style this ain't. The flavour is also strange and unsettling, starting out on a savoury meaty note and running past marker pens, pears and tea brack. It's not pleasant. The nearest style of beer to this profile is probably twiggy brown bitter, but it tastes far more like homebrew gone wrong.

Last of the new ones to me was Stone Imperial Amber Ale, strongest of the lot at 7.9% ABV. It's another thick one, but handles itself rather better than the Pale Ale. Jam is the principal element in the flavour, and raspberry jam in particular. There's a touch of roast as well, which helps dry it and balance it out, but I was expecting more hops. I was expecting some hops, but they're absent. A touch of autolytic savouriness on the end tilts it out of "only OK" into "needs improvement".

Stone Berlin seems to have got the fundamentals down at this stage -- the complimentary glass of Go To IPA we got on arrival was the best beer of the day -- but that pilot kit needs a firmer hand on the flight controls.

A short few days later the party moved to the Tap House and here the guest was Beavertown. Adam and his crew laid on a fantastic evening's entertainment and it was sometimes hard to prevent the snacks, games and whatnot from distracting my attention away from the beer. I persevered, however. I've had very mixed experiences with small-batch Beavertown beers, but the selection this time was fairly on-point.

To begin, Goslar Dreamin', a gose with added rhubarb. This is as pale and hazy as might be expected, and I wasn't keen on the aroma: a dry and musty crêpe paper thing, smelling like the box where my parents keep their Christmas decorations. It's a lot more fun to drink, however. At 3.5% ABV it's understandably light and thin, but the flavour is light too, and well balanced, with just enough refreshing tartness and no more than a shake of salt. The rhubarb still manages to get somewhat lost in this: some fruit is apparent but I don't think I'd be able to say which one. I suspect the tartness of the rhubarb gets camouflaged by the beer's base acidity. No matter; it's simple and thirst-quenching, well-made and not trying to show off.

I gave the side-eye to the next beer when I saw it on the menu. Moonshiner is a bourbon-aged Berliner weisse, which definitely does not sound like a recipe for success to me. In fact it doesn't really taste like wood, or Berliner weisse, or even beer. My first impression on tasting was of a Jack Daniel's and Coke. There's a definite sweetness next to the limey sour flavour. That lime built quite quickly, so a few sips in I was finding it tasting more like a margarita. The final stop of the cocktail train was when Dave and Manus insisted it tasted like a whisky sour and would brook no dissent, so a whisky sour it is. I really wanted to dislike its complete non-beeriness, but it's absolutely lovely to drink: refreshing, complex and properly balanced. I've certainly never encountered a beer that tastes anything like it.

Too much pondering meant I missed the next beer altogether, the 20L keg having kicked by the time I ordered it. Mercifully, Dorothy came to my rescue and I got a taste of her glass of Wit or Wheatout You. Witbier isn't usually a style to excite, but with this one Beavertown has stripped it down to its essence and rebuilt it using superior parts. The coriander seeds are toasted, the lemon zest is hand-picked Sicilian, and in keeping with the style's origins, a degree of lacto sourness has been introduced. All the effort has been rewarded and the end result is immensely complex: dry yet fruity like a quality Sauvignon Blanc; bitter like grapefruit yet sweet and juicy like pineapple. Pure quality all the way through. At 5.6% ABV it's a little overclocked for a wit, but I'd still like to drink more of it.

Dessert was Gondoila, a chocolate and raspberry imperial stout. It's a pretty straightforward rendering of these elements, with a big and creamy body supporting cakey chocolate flavours and a tart jammy raspberry bite. I got a real feel of liquid Black Forest gateau from it. There aren't any imperial stout tricks or complexities, which would be reasonable to expect at 11% ABV: everything it does happens at the first sip. I'm not complaining, though. It made an excellent finisher for the night.

A special shout-out to the Four Corners crew for arranging both events. They don't have to do this sort of thing but it makes the beer experience much more interesting.

16 August 2017

The Kilkenny Strategem

Early July saw the third iteration of the Kilkenny Craft Beer Festival, spread across five days and multiple sub-events during the week. It's the brainchild of Kilkenny brewer Ger Costello and serves a higher purpose than simply creating an occasion for lots more beers than usual to be available to the drinking public. Threaded through the schedule and forming the backbone of the whole thing is the Kilkenny Ale Trail. Here, a number of pubs and restaurants in the city -- ones that so far haven't been too concerned with the independent brewers' wares -- have been paired with a Leinster brewery which doesn't routinely distribute locally. A leaflet allows locals and visitors to follow the trail throughout the week, bringing footfall to pubs that wouldn't otherwise get it, and additional share-of-throat for the brewers. It's a clever and noble idea, and Ger very much intends it to act as the thin end of a beery wedge, aiming to make the local outlets think more about the beers they're offering and perhaps making the arrangement permanent. In that sense, it's perhaps more appropriate to think of Kilkenny Craft Beer Festival as "Kilkenny Craft Beer Week", and there's a good model there, if any other towns would care to adopt it.

There was a festival in the traditional sense in the line-up, held in the spacious and comfortable beer garden of Billy Byrne's pub on the Saturday afternoon. Ger very kindly invited me to come along for a looksee. All of the participating Ale Trail brewers had beers on offer: Trouble, Rascals, Stone Barrel, O Brother and Hope. Costellos had a couple of taps on the board as well, of course, and with a brand new brewkit to play with, had even produced a special for the occasion.

Costellos Coconut IPA was the offering in question. It's not a style one sees a lot of, to say the least, so I was sceptical. It's not quite a brand new recipe either, having been constructed from Costellos' Beyond A Pale IPA with added toasted coconut, and then blended back with more of the beer until the desired level of coconuttiness was achieved. It looks like the base beer, being a bright and hazy orange colour. And it still smells like a hoppy pale ale. The coconut aroma sits comfortably beside the beer one, neither integrating nor interfering with it. The extra addition really makes itself felt on tasting, giving so much of the classic oily sweet Bounty-bar flavour that I'd probably have mistaken this for a dark beer if I hadn't seen it already. It does largely drown out the hop flavour, which is unfortunate, leaving just a pithy bitterness in the finish. For all that, I enjoyed the beer. It's certainly novel, and I can tolerate the gimmickry when the end result is perfectly pleasant to drink, like this was.

A big congratulations to Ger and the team. The Ale Trail is still up on the website, if you want to call in to the participants and see if they're still stocking the independents.

15 August 2017

The Third space

Day two of Events Week and we go all the way back to early July when 57 The Headline hosted the sort-of launch for a sort-of new brewery. Stone Barrel and Third Circle have both been on the Irish scene for a couple of years as client brewers. Early in 2017 production began at their jointly owned standalone brewery which they've named Third Barrel. The Headline had beers from both, but also a selection of tiny-batch collaborations released under the Third Barrel brand, something they say they're going to continue. There's a tendency in collaborative brewing to realise way-out recipes that neither partner would do by themselves. One might have thought that this would be toned down when the other brewer is under the same roof and you see them every day but, well, see below.

Stone Barrel only had a couple from their core range on offer but Third Circle had a brand new Coffee Rye Stout. Three words, three elements, and each of them meticulously and unambiguously delivered to the palate. At 5.5% ABV it's within the normal bounds of Irish stout, and it's appropriately dry and roasty -- there's no mistaking the style. But there's an extra green bitterness which I'm taking for the rye, an outlying and complementary flavour next to the base beer. Meanwhile all of this is enveloped in an oily blanket of fresh coffee which again manages to taste separate from the other parts. I've no idea how this sort of multi-layered complexity is achieved, but I approve.

To the Third Barrel specials, then. As Yet Untitled was the natural starting point, a strawberry and black pepper grisette of 4.2% ABV. Expecting pink I got a surprisingly golden glassful, though there was no mistaking the strawberries in the aroma. There isn't much beyond that, unfortunately: a nondescript yoghurt sweetness, the tiniest pinch of pepper oils, but very little by way of real fruit flavour and absolutely no Belgian-style saison characteristics. Watery, inoffensive, and not really making good use of its constituent parts.

The other OTT novelty was called Drop It Like It's Hot, described as a bourbon, chilli and vanilla porter. I think something genuinely went wrong here because it was completely uncarbonated, like it had just come from the fermenter. There's an overpowering sickly sweetness, the vanilla dominating the whole thing and burying the other flavours. I can't say if this was a good idea to start with, but the finished beer was definitely not a success.

It's also pleasing when a guest brewer sets up a cask engine on the bar at 57 and Third Barrel had brought Gordon to run through it, an English-style bitter at 4.4% ABV. They seem to have opted for a northern angle with this, given that it's pale yellow and centres around a lemony flavour. It veers a little bit too close to washing up liquid for complete comfort, though there's enough quality old-fashioned lemonade in there to keep it in my good books. For all the flat-cap traditionalism, the hops are a strangely mongrel mix of East Kent Goldings, Willamette and Mandarina Bavaria. Not a combination that usually springs to mind when formulating a cask bitter.

The promised double IPA didn't make it as far as a tap so the "German/American wheat beer" Ich Bin Ein HOPaddict was as hoppy as it got. This is 5.7% ABV and presents like a very modern hazy IPA. The texture and flavour match that too: a creamy milkshake mouthfeel and softly luscious pineapple in the flavour. But there's an old-school bitter streak in here too, hiding at first, but building gradually until it transforms the beer into something much more grown up. A fascinating process to watch, and a way to experience the benefits of both schools of IPA thought without having to go back to the bar.

I'm finishing on a stout, Third Barrel's Black Bretty. Funny how I'd automatically expect a Bretted stout to be strong, but this is only 4.8% ABV. It damn well doesn't taste it, though: it tastes huge. I don't think I'd guess there was Brett in it: there's none of the typical funk or ripe fruit or the rest of the Brett portfolio. Instead there's a massive dark chocolate bitterness and heavy-roasted coffee. Fortunately a lighter, floral, lavender and violet complexity helps soften it and keep any harshness at bay. The bigness is achieved, I'm told, by a high starting gravity with a high finishing gravity, ending on 1.019 to give that imperial stout sensation. For me, this beer expresses the very essence of stout; it's the stoutiest stout I have ever encountered, and if you'd told it was an historical recreation of something from early 19th century London I'd have well believed it.

Aside from everything else that evening, I got an interesting cross-sectional look at experimental small-batch brewing. The good stuff definitely outweighs the poor and mediocre in this lot, and perhaps some of it will be put to good use in regular production beers. I'll definitely be front and centre the next time a Third Barrel joint effort is on offer. More stout please.

14 August 2017

How's it hanging?

Meat! That was the theme of the Meatopia event which set up at Open Gate in early July; meat and smoke -- I came home reeking of both. The event has been running for some years now, in New York and then London, and this was its first time in Dublin, invited by Diageo to take over the yard outside their experimental brewery and brewpub for two days.

The format involved six barbecue stalls, managed by people whose names may or may not be recognisable to those who move in foodie circles, each with a single signature dish and a matched sample of beer. Admission (Diageo's PR folk kindly comped mine) got you one of each pairing, plus a bonus pint from the bars: as well as the Open Gate's current selection, The Porterhouse, 5 Lamps, DOT and London's 40FT were also pouring.

We'll begin with the beer created especially for the event: Open Gate's own Meatopia Smoked Lager, a 6% ABV pale bock, created with the assistance of Melissa Cole, who also ably MC'd the beery-talky bit of the event. This is yet another classically-styled down-the-line lager from Open Gate. It shows absolutely the right balance between golden syrup sweetness and a green celery bite, set on a body that's chewy and substantial without being thick. The smoke is deliberately (sez Melissa) subtle: just a small phenolic burr at the back. I don't know that it contributed a great deal to the picture, but it does no harm either. I'm not the person to ask about the beer's suitability for pairing with barbecued meat, but I have no complaints in that department. The greasy lens through which the subsequent photos were taken is a testament to my not letting the beer get in the way of the grub.

And there was a new bonus Open Gate lager pouring inside: Helles Yeah. The 5.8% ABV gave me momentary pause: that's a bit more welly than helles is supposed to have. However, it seems that they've used this additional heft to ramp up the other elements too: it still has the smoothness and cleanness that make helles such a great beer. The grassy noble hops are fresh-tasting and even a little spicy, and then there's a crunch of dry grain as well. It does lack the quaffability of good helles -- one pint was plenty -- but here again I can't argue with the taste.

Finally from the house, Open Gate's West Coast IPA. Unlike lager, the brewery's record with IPA has been pretty poor. I blame the yeast: there's a tendency to use the Guinness strain, and the esters it produces just aren't compatible with clean-and-hoppy. So sticking the words "west coast" in there is just asking for trouble. And yet... It is only 5.2% ABV, which means points off for style accuracy, but it is properly pale and clear. And the opening sip delivered a bright and ringing hit of bitter grapefruit. That the first beer to spring to mind was the style-defining west-coaster Ballast Point Sculpin speaks in its favour; that I've never really liked Sculpin probably doesn't. There isn't much behind that initial blast of citrus. While the body is indeed heavy, it's not as greasy as the other Open Gate IPAs and I did begin to enjoy it once I got used to the bitterness. More importantly, perhaps, the brewery is starting to get the hang of IPA. I won't be as apprehensive about the next one.

40FT Brewery of Dalston had been guests at James's Gate before but this was the first time trying their beers for me. I started with Street Weiss, a densely opaque and luridly orange weissbier. It's nerve-janglingly sweet, tasting almost as much like a smoothie as it looks. The flavour shows more summer fruit -- strawberry and raspberry -- than standard weizen banana. By way of balance there's a harsh plasticky bitterness in the finish which is completely out of place for the profile, as well as being unpleasant in itself. Maybe they're trying to be creative with a staid old German style, but it really hasn't worked.

On my way out I nabbed a quickie pint of 40FT's Hoppy Pale Ale. On a different day, I'd have been quite happy with this. It's fairly inoffensive; 4.1% ABV with a flavour profile that leans more towards the savoury than the fruity, again with the sharp bitter kick in the finish. But after a couple of decent lagers and a super-citric IPA, it just felt like a regression, like this brewery didn't have their recipe game quite as together as the Open Gate did. Maybe there's an observation to be made about the relative merits of craft vs. macro brewing, I dunno. But on the day it was a second thumbs-down for 40FT from me.

Meatopia was a hugely fun event. When in non-ticking mode I got reacquainted with DOT's delicious summer saison and applauded the first time I've seen Porterhouse Wrassler's out at an event. The food was great and, unlike several other food festivals, you got a very solid feed from the admission tokens alone. The theatricality of the cooking and the serving added to the joyous caveman feel of the whole gig. And it was particularly good to see the space outside Open Gate, narrow as it is, made use of this way.

Cheers to the organisers and promoters, and congratulations on a job well done.

11 August 2017

The Brussels Brewing Projects

The missus is moving jobs, which seems likely to bring an end to the regular supply of odd beers from the off licences of Brussels. Today's post concerns the final three, all from companies based within the city itself, where brewing is very gradually starting to become a local industry again.

¡Déu N'Hi Do! is a hell of a name for a beer, and I'll leave it up to you to pronounce. It's a collaboration between Brussels Beer Project and La Pirata in Barcelona, a 5.6% ABV brown ale with added cascara, the cherry from the coffee plant. It's a pleasant dark red colour,  though rather light of body. I found it to be far more like a red ale than a brown one, being malt-sweet with a lacing of strawberry. After a second there's coffee and a drier roast, but that all ends very quickly without any of the characteristics making much of an impact. Red ale blandness rules and it really doesn't make the best use of its ingredients.

Next up on the collaboration roster is Churchill's Delusion, brewed with Weird Beard of London and described as a "cigar mild ale". A glance at the back of the bottle reveals that, yes, they've used actual cigars, as well as smoked malt. It's a dark garnet colour and muddy with haze, smelling of sticky liquorice and coffee. The flavour is very sweet, that liquorice turning to red liquorice rope, and adding a few toffees from the next jar along the candystore shelf. I don't get any smoke flavour as such, just a hard acrid bitterness, which I guess is the smoke and tobacco's contribution. This harsh and sticky offering really didn't sit well with me. It's certainly not what I look for in a mild, or a smoked beer.

Finally to Beerstorming, which as far as I'm aware is the newest brewery in Brussels. It's a sort of a white label affair, a tiny operation designed to give small groups of outsiders free rein to make whatever kind of beer they want. That's certainly the spiel on the website so I guess the beers released under their own name are kind of adverts for the service. There are over 100 of them now but the one that crossed my path recently was number BS #0028 - GMGK, dating back to January of last year. Interestingly it wasn't even brewed at Beerstorming but at Brassserie Deseveaux in western Wallonia. It's a blonde ale of 6% ABV and includes tea, lemon peel and kaffir lime leaf. Sounds interesting but the taste says otherwise. It's very sweet with a granular sugar edge like, well, sweetened tea. The citrus doesn't put in much of an appearance and it all slinks off the palate shamefully quickly. This beer definitely promises more excitement than it's able to deliver.

Perhaps it's just as well that there won't be any more selections like this overly sweet trilogy for a while. This experimental and collaborative side of Belgian craft brewing would do well to go back to basics.

09 August 2017

Achill: sound?

A little background before I start in on today's reviews. There has been a brewery on Achill Island in Co. Mayo since last year. Its beers don't get very far from it so I hadn't had a chance to try them when one showed up on The Fine Ale Countdown podcast recently. The guys didn't log a formal review because the bottles they had were considerably less than fresh, but they were not fans of what they found, to say the least. For my part, I doubt that a good beer will magically transform into a bad one in a matter of months: it should still be possible to discern its original nature regardless, so I did not have high expectations for Achill Brewery's work after listening.

And then came the Killarney Beer Festival in May. Achill had entered two beers and collected a medal for both of them. Medals are not given out like sweeties in Killarney so both must have been beers of real merit. My curiosity piqued, I secured a bottle of each from the competition leftovers (cheers Kellie!). Unlabelled, of course, which is why my pictures today don't have bottles in them.

To begin, after all that, Achill Sláinte, 4.4% ABV and described by the brewery as a lagered ale. It's a medium gold colour with just a very slight haze. The crackling white head doesn't remain in place for very long. Its aroma is sweet and quite fruity, which doesn't bode well, though there are no real off flavours on tasting. The problem is there isn't much else, however. It's crisp and grainy, with maybe a tiny hint of bubblegum in the background and minimal green noble hop bitterness. There's a lot of the feel of German brewpub lager about it: it has that raw and rustic simplicity. It's inoffensive, though. Like with German brewpub lager, I would happily drink it if it's the beer available in the place where I'm drinking. And I think that's the point of Achill beer.

Second of the pair is Achill Dearg, a red ale at a very traditional 4% ABV, though in a not-so-traditional 33cl bottle. It's a handsome clear dark copper colour, the head generous to begin with but fading fast. Given the ABV I guess I shouldn't be suprised by the thin mouthfeel, but there's also a sourness to this that suggests all is not as it should be. That turns the red ale fruit, usually all summer strawberry, into a tart brambley mix of blackberry and redcurrant. This recedes a little as it warms, and a more typical roasted grain flavour emerges from the background, but Dearg isn't a good example of an Irish red ale. It needs more body, and dare I say more sweetness.

While better than expected, and relatively technically proficient, neither of these would be on my awards platform when put next to other Irish beers. There are definitely much better lagers and even reds out there.

07 August 2017

The styles for summer

Saisons, lagers, wheat beers, and the inevitable IPAs: it's been a busy couple of months on the Irish beer scene, from festival to pub to beer launch. Here's what I've been drinking lately, in my attempt to keep up with it all.

There wasn't a huge amount of fuss about Marching Powder, perhaps surprisingly. This new IPA from Black's of Kinsale is the first in the country brewed with lupulin powder, the next stage in ingredient evolution, past whole hops and pellets. They've badged it as a "cryo IPA", and I guess we'll see if that catches on. The pint I got in 57 The Headline was a vibrant orange colour, and almost completely clear, which is noteworthy itself in these hazy days. The texture is pleasantly soft and fluffy, with no yeast interference in the flavour. Instead there's an odd mix of savoury and citrus, opening with spring onion before moving on to more tropical mango and mandarin. A slight perfume spice is the only real bitterness, and I kind miss the kick of proper hops, but I suppose that's not part of the programme when you go cryo. The onion quality grows as it goes, leaving the fruit very much in second place. I think I get what it's trying to be, and it's a good beer, but the novelty aspect of it doesn't do much for me.

I was even more underwhelmed by Bullet Proof IPA, though pleased to find this beer from Galway-based Limerick-brewing Soulwater on tap at The Headline: their beers rarely seem to come this far east. This is 5.7% ABV, presenting pale and hazy, and clocking up an eye-watering €8.50 a pint, pro rata. At that price I think it's reasonable to expect a clean beer, but it's not: a nasty yeast bite pervades it and all but covers any hop fruit character. The savouriness survives and I got a sizeable dose of onions right up front, alongside bathsalt minerals. From the residual orangey flavours I picked up an impression that there's a good IPA buried under here somewhere, but it's in need of a major cleaning up.

I had a lot more fun with the beer I followed it with: Old English IPA from Boyne Brewhouse's pilot brew series. This is a serious dark orange colour, with a serious ABV of 7.5%. None of your modern pine or mango flavours here, it opens instead on a heavy incense and cedarwood spicing. Citrus fruit does enter the picture later, mixed with dry and bitter herbs, creating a Camapri or Aperol sort of effect. And like those liqueurs it's wonderfully dry, with no booze or stickiness from the high gravity. This beer manages to be fun and interesting, while also offering very grown-up beer flavours. And depsite everything going on, it's all integrated masterfully into a single coherent whole. Well played, Boyne Brewhouse.

The first run of Indie Beer Week happened around the country in late June. I only made it to one event: the launch of Weisse Guys, a collaboration between Rascals and the client brewers they usually host, Brewtonic. It's a hopfenweisse, which is a style I don't often enjoy, much like its twin, white IPA. This one's pretty good, however. It's an extremely opaque yellow colour and with that comes a slick and creamy mouthfeel. The hops aren't overdone, having been all added in the whirlpool, and just imparting a gentle citrus. In defiance of the style's Bavarian roots there's added lemon peel, and this winds up being the dominant flavour, coupled with a mild peppery bite. 6% ABV means it's a big beast, but the texture is smooth enough and the flavour subtle enough to keep it refreshing and drinkable. I had it on draught at The Back Page where a couple of pints slipped back easily, and the can presentation will doubtless make it an outdoor favourite this summer.

Brewed under Brewtonic's own steam, but still at Rascals, is Nautical Boogie IPA which I caught up with on my first visit to MVP,  their outlet by the canal on Clanbrassil Street. It's a golden amber colour and smells rich and malty, not far off a red ale, with just a hint of hop spice. The hops are in control of the flavour, however, driving a blend of dry savoury onion powder and naughty resinous dankness. Fruit does not feature, making this an IPA for the grown-ups: a bittering punch up front, a long oily finish, and home to bed with no supper.  I liked it, though would prefer a slightly lower ABV than the 6% here. It tastes sessionable but it really isn't.

For the first time ever I got an actual press release about a new release from 5 Lamps, which was welcome: more breweries should do this. It's a classic pale bock, called Bang Bang, and once again 57 The Headline was where it showed up first. This pours a flawless clear gold and leads with green and spinachy noble hops. They're balanced perfectly with a weighty malt, showing all of the 5.7% ABV but not claggy or hot, as can sometimes happen in this style. I only had a half pint at the end of a long night's tasting, but it was a real breath of fresh air and I fully intend to come back for more.

The Headline's own brewing subsidiary Two Sides celebrated the summer, and the return of a certain TV series, by bringing out a pink grapefruit witbier called Little Finger. It's a middle-of-the-road 5% ABV and offers a simple flavour profile on a light body. There's the dry crunch of wheaty grain husk plus a spicy and herbal complexity. A vague breakfast-juice fruitiness comes from the grapefruit, but no real bitterness. This is a solidly-built, if unexciting, summer refresher, ideal for the tables outside The Headline and T.O. Brennan's where most of it will be served.

To UnderDog next, and that's where I encountered the new session IPA from YellowBelly The Imposter. I suspect this has been rushed out of the brewery too quickly because it's full-on murky and the yeast has a strong influence on the flavour and texture. It's slick and gloopy, with kind of a meringue feel. The flavour, meanwhile, is a dessertish mix of lemon and vanilla, making it taste more like ice cream than beer. An interesting effort, but not what I'm looking for in a session IPA.

On UnderDog's opening night, as well as the collection of Lervig beers I mentioned here, they were also pouring's YellowBelly's new saison Get the Table. As the name sort-of hints, this is low-strength: a mere 4.5% ABV. It possesses a lovely balance between the earthy, gritty Belgian farmhouse flavours and lighter, fruitier melon and peach notes. An odd, but not unpleasant, sour tang sparks off in the background, adding further complexity. Interestingly, it doesn't taste or feel any way weak, the body having a proper heft. Overall it's a nicely refreshing beer with plenty of classic saison character.

UnderDog was also the first pub to serve Silk Road, a new saison from Trouble Brewing. It's quite a big one at 5.8% ABV, and there's lots happening in the flavour. A sharp spice dominates proceedings, backed by ripe apple and soft apricot. A herbal aniseed element adds further to the complexity. It all makes for a very pleasant sipper with none of the heat or cloying esters that often come with stronger saisons. Very nicely put together, all told.

Completing the trilogy, Galway Bay, too, have a new saison on rotation in their bars: Subsolar. This one is only 5% ABV and gets a lot of its character from some very generous dry hopping. There's a beautifully summery mix of peach pith and melon rind making for superb refreshment. I thought that was going to fade after the first few sips but it keeps going all the way through, bright and fresh. The countermelody is a gritty bitterness from the yeast but one gets used to that. It's very different from both Silk Road and Get The Table, but just as enjoyable. Saison is the beer style that keeps on giving.

The Black Sheep played host to the first tapping of Eight Degrees Berliner Weisse, an especially light one at 3.1% ABV, though with a substantial €6.75 a pint price tag. Redcurrant and rhubarb are the beer's embellishments and they're responsible for the cheeky, cheery blushing pink colour. There's an invigorating up-front sour bite though I think this slightly drowns out or assimilates the rhubarb as I could detect very little of it in the flavour. The redcurrant is a different sort of tartness, more fruity, and it complements the harder acidity well. Unsurprisingly, the texture is extremely thin but I think that actually helps boost the refreshment power here, as does a carbonation which is sparkly without being fizzy. As hacked Berliner weisse goes, this is one of the less busy ones, letting the beer speak for itself.

Wicklow Wolf has optimistically titled its summer beer The Sun Machine though I opened it on a drizzly July evening. It's a 6% ABV wheat beer, brewed with Meyer lemon, a citrus fruit I last encountered in Deschutes's session IPA Hop Slice. The fruit is playing second fiddle to the malt here, however, and it's very grainy, with a dry and dusty porridge oats effect. The lemons offset this somewhat, but there's a definite twang of soap about it, and quite a lot of sickly sweetness. It took about half of the 33cl can for me to decide this one isn't for me, neither as a wheat beer nor as a fruit beer.

It's been a while since there's been a new one from Brehon, but here's Fiesta, behind a suitably garish label and representing the Monaghan brewery's first foray into 33cl bottles. It's a 4.7% ABV pale ale, a clear coppery amber colour. "Dry-hopped with Simcoe" they say on the label. I wouldn't have guessed it. There's a bit of jaffa and maybe grapefruit, but mostly it's a smoky phenolic taste that suggests an infection to me. I don't think this has turned out as the brewer intended. A squirt of spritzy citrus at the end hints at the beer it could be, but that middle is pure dirty.

Dublin's shiniest new brewery Hopfully hasn't fully emerged from its chrysalis yet, but I thought I'd include this bottle from its planned first run: Beetjuice beetroot saison. In with the headline root veg there's sage and lemon thyme, and though it's as purple as might be expected from a 4.2% ABV beetroot beer, the herb garden contributes most to the flavour: I get sweet ginger and cinnamon right up front. Behind it there's the pleasing earthy complexity of the beetroot, playing a solid bassline to the herbs' main riff. The saison element is a little lost in all this, but it's there if you look: a dry kick, and some mild pepper spice. The oily winter greenness of the sage is the last survivor of an otherwise very clean profile. Overall it's a beautifully constructed beer that's very different from anything else on the market. I hope it gets to meet the public properly soon.

And finally Finally, the first ever lager from Kinnegar. It's in the Dortmunder style but unfiltered, so presents as quite a murky orange colour. There was a lot of foam as it poured and I got a slightly disconcerting whiff of vinegar from it. That was only momentary, however: the full glass smells like proper central-European lager, all fresh grass and clean golden syrup. For all the bubbles it's surprisingly full-bodied, though maybe not quite as substantially bready as one would expect from a Dortmunder, or anything at 5.5% ABV. Though there's a touch of dry cracker in the finish, the hops are leading the flavour, floral and perfumey at first, given a complementary spark of spice from the yeast. The finish is a proper noble-hop wax bitterness, though not as long-lasting as I'd like. This performs well the task of being an accessible-yet-complex lager; perhaps missing a trick on the cleanness front because it's unfiltered, but it's still properly refreshing and very well-designed.

That's probably enough to be getting on with for this post. Even now the next tranche of new Irish beers is starting to pile up. If you haven't had JW Sweetman's New England IPA yet, go and do that. It'll be gone by the time I get around to reviewing it.

04 August 2017

Quantum juice

Session logoIt took Gail Ann Williams of the San Francisco-based Beer by BART blog to bring The Session around to the inevitable topic of New England IPA, a style which seems to be just clinging on as the current darling of the beer-geek-at-large. It is, of course, not without controversy, breaking many of the hard rules of brewing IPA in the American style, where cleanness was once king, and accepted as the best way to optimise quality hops. Now it's all about extreme late-hopping, getting the beer from the fermenter to the drinker in the shortest possible time, eschewing clarification, and the use of estery English ale yeasts to add body and mouthfeel.

I'm fairly agnostic on the merits of the whole process. When it works it makes wonderful-tasting (if butt-ugly) beer. But it seems that balancing the whole equation is a tough proposition and not every brewery is up to it. Often those fuzzy yeast and proteins will interrupt the delicate hop flavours; too much bitterness is another flaw that just throws the whole recipe out of whack. Juiciness is the name of the game, but it can be hard to pin down.

And then, sometimes, one encounters a New England IPA that does something completely out of the ordinary. With beers in the style coming thick (ha!) and fast, it's not difficult to sort them into the ones that get the formula right and the ones that don't. On a recent trip to Liverpool I encountered BrewDog's Hazy Jane, and from the first sip thought I knew which kind it was. It's typically unattractive, with a dense custard-like appearance topped by a desultory effort at a head, but the flavour immediately exploded outward in a riot of ripe tropical fruit: mango, pineapple, guava: all of that lot. I'm in for a good time here, I thought. The second taste introduced a seam of pine resin bitterness, still laying down those fresh hop vibes, but distinctly harsher and less New-Englandy. And that's where it settled. The only other complexity was a wisp of savoury yeast bite it would have been better off without.

It's entirely possible to appreciate this as a big West Coast hop-bomb, but just that tantalising flash of tropicality at the beginning had me expecting something more fun and fruity. I also have no idea why this strange phenomenon happened: was it just my sense of taste at fault, could I have imagined the mango? It's a beer of many questions, and maybe I need to give it another go. I leave it here as just another example of how diverse the New England IPA style can be, even within the flavour profile of individual beers. How Hazy Jane manages to exist in a state of both juiciness and bitterness is for better minds than mine to work out.

02 August 2017

Coq of the walk

It was a surprise to find beers from venerable Estonian brewery A. Le Coq on the shelves at SuperValu. I snapped them up, of course. It's not every day that beer by appointment to his imperial majesty shows up in suburban west Dublin. Am I supposed to curtsy?

First in the trilogy of lagers is Imperial Gold. This is 4.8% ABV and isn't really in any particular style: it's a flawlessly clear reddish gold, full bodied almost to the point of stickiness -- far more than one would expect for the strength -- with just a gentle herbal tang of liquorice bitterness, a little honeydew sweetness, and some other nondescript fruit candy, a bit like Lucozade. (What is Lucozade supposed to taste like?) That sticky fruit tang hits the back of the palate with every mouthful and manages, just, to keep the beer interesting. If called upon to designate a style I'd be calling it a Märzen, except the next one is a Märzen.

Imperial Märzen raises the ABV very slightly, to 5%. The sugar gets a bigger boost, seemingly. For though it actually looks paler, it tastes darker, of brown sugar and a sharp aspirin bitterness. It seems less coherent than the previous beer, which is not what I'd expected. Normally if you've deigned it good enough to have a specific German style appended to the label, it fits that style like a glove. This is just too simplistically sweet to be a proper Märzen. There's a bit of the dense fruitcake quality that goes with the style but it's an afterthought: you don't take a sip and say "mmm, cake" as one is supposed to with Märzen. Not true to style.

Finally Imperial Ale. Are we fermenting from the top now? It's anyone's guess. (edit: ah, it does say "Top fermenting" in teeny letters on the label) 5% ABV again and we have yet to escape from that coppery-gold thing. There seems to be more residual sugar in this, but otherwise it's not that different from what has gone before. The bitterness takes a bit more of a back seat while the sweetness leans more towards treacle or golden syrup. There is a little bit more to the fruit element in this one and I get properly juicy raisins, but there still isn't the body of an ale, and definitely nothing you'd call hop character.

With their 40cl bottles I'm wondering are these yet another attempt by a large purveyor of generic industrial beer to wiggle into the craft niche? I though Le Coq was above such things but it really looks like it. These aren't the classy classics I was expecting. I can think of a dozen German beers I'd recommend over any of them.