29 September 2017

Well I never!

It started with a tweet from business journo John West: where is local Sapporo lager brewed? I know that Asahi is brewed at Shepherd Neame in Kent; I noted more recently that cans of Kirin Ichiban come from Weihenstephaner in Bavaria, of all places; but Sapporo was not on my radar. And indeed has never featured on this blog. Asking around finally yielded an answer from local distributor David of Noreast: Europe's Sapporo is brewed at the Guinness brewery in Dublin. Cor!

As it happened I had a bottle in the fridge, so took it out to toast my new-found knowledge. Sapporo is a handsome deep gold colour. It smells boringly sweet, like a million other mass-produced ersatz pilsners. But the flavour does have something going for it. There's a classic central-European grassy hop bite, which was a very pleasant surprise. It also has the full and soft texture of a decent helles making it a lot more satisfying to drink than stereotypical dry and gassy mainstream Japanese-style lager. A decent crunch of malt husk finishes it off.

While I'm on the subject of Asian lager, I lunched in Arisu Korean barbecue on Capel Street recently (highly recommended) and was bemused to see they stocked imported Hite lager. I explored the beer of Korea in Seoul a couple of years prior to starting this blog and Hite wasn't a particularly fond memory, though neither were Cass or OB for that matter. Still, here it was: man up and give it a go. Straight from the bottle, of course.

On this occasion it reminded me a lot of Tiger: it has that horribly thick and estery banana flavour I always get from Singapore's flagship beer. It's barely tolerable when ice cold, but any degree of warmth at all turns it sickly and difficult, in a way that this sort of chugging lager shouldn't be. If you can't create the complexity of Sapporo, at least make it dry.

All of these macro meanderings were enough to guilt me into getting some proper Asian craft beer. That involved another tasty lunch, this time at Yamamori's restaurant on Ormond Quay. It has been far too long since I last tried any Kiuchi beers, which the chain imports into Ireland. The Hitachino Nest Lager was entirely new to me and happily fitted the theme of this post.

I was expecting something exceedingly average, but this it an absolute beaut. It's a plain yellow colour topped by a fine white foam, and at 5.5% ABV is a little stronger than the norm, but that's very much in its favour when it comes to accompanying food -- once again the body is wonderfully full and satisfying. The first sip provided a juicy burst of melon rind, turning to bitterer orange pith on the end. I don't know how this was done, but I suspect it may be down to the judicious addition of Sorachi Ace hops: enough to give it a very distinctive taste but without drowning the consumer in coconut oil. Amazingly, this bright and zingy flavour was still present even as my bottle was coming up hard on the stated best-before date. It's a robust little owl.

Given some of the rubbish that gets sold in Asian restaurants around here, and Yamamori's exclusive hold on Kiuchi, it's a shame Sapporo isn't more prevalent. Its weight would make it a much better counterbalance to spicy food, for one thing. I can understand why they don't sell it at Arisu, however, and I still wouldn't swap the Hitachino Lager for it.

27 September 2017

Endangered kiwi

...flavours of citrus, pine & tropical fruit... says the label on Mac's Green Beret, an IPA from a New Zealand brewery that's been off my radar for a while. I picked up the bottle in The Wine Centre on my way home from Kilkenny during the summer.

It's 5.4% ABV and an attractive gold colour. The flavour wasn't doing it for me, which is the point I looked at the best-before and discovered it was over two months past the date.

Tropical fruit? Not so much. The signature Kiwi bitter grassy thing is still there, and there's a solid big malt base, all golden syrup and light toffee. Beyond that, however, this beer is sadly dead. The absence of hop has caused it to fall out of balance. Letting something like this rot on the shelves so far from home does nobody any favours.

I'd have poured one out for it but y'know, I'm writing here.

25 September 2017

UK hun?

British craft beer is unavoidable these days. Most of the handful of talked-about producers have a presence here, though I can't help noticing prices have stayed buoyant as sterling tanks. Anyway, here's a few that I've tried recently.

London is the hub of the British new wave and Bermondsey's FourPure is one of the most solidly reliable of the capital's brewers. Its Southern Latitude, which showed up on the taps at 57 The Headline, is in the daring style of New England session IPA. It's 4.4% ABV and a not terribly sessionable €6 for a 400ml glass. It doesn't look very New Englandy either: quite dark and almost completely clear. The flavours are clear too: juicy peach and then a double dryness from high carbonation and a slightly aspirin tang. It's refreshing, though, which does meet the session IPA requirement of the spec. Not FourPure's best work, however.

Derbyshire's Buxton is a rare sighting in this part of the country and we owe the presence of Myrcia IPA to The Headline's management relentlessly pursuing it. This is another session IPA, 4% and claiming to be hop bursted. What's not to like? The aroma starts it off well, bright and lemony, but the flavour is very muted and consists predominantly of yeast. It ends up tasting as mucky and dreggy as it looks. Searching desperately for a lighter point I found a slight lemon buzz but no freshness and no real hop character. I guess the lesson is that you need a clean beer to get the benefit of loading all the hops into the end phase of brewing. As is, this was a huge disappointment.

Scotland is inevitably represented here by BrewDog. Their latest "India Pale Weizen" Nine To Five Wizard warranted a special daytime launch event in UnderDog. That was all quite jolly, and proof that BrewDog can still draw a crowd in this town. The beer itself wasn't all that impressive, offering little more than you'd get from a standard weissbier -- banana, cloves -- just given a little extra poke at 7.5% ABV. The lovely smooth texture is perhaps its best feature, coming with a very mild burn, hops or alcohol, at the end. I'm chalking it up as a definite positive that the extra hopping has not been allowed to interfere with the classic flavours as so often happens in poorly conceived hybrid styles like these.

Seemingly the only Welsh brewery that counts in craft circles these days (where did Otley disappear to?) is Newport's Tiny Rebel. Two of theirs came my way lately. One was a can I drank in Brewery Corner in Kilkenny: Clwb Tropicana. This is a fruited IPA, or "tropical" IPA, as the branding insists. It's pale yellow and smells of Lilt. The texture is sticky; the flavour is sickly, and there's no real beer character going on. I have now witnessed a pub customer working along the fruit IPA selections on a particular bar, so it seems beers like this are answering a market demand. This specific one, however, demonstrates clearly to me what's wrong with the whole segment.

Meanwhile, on draught, over at The Headline was Cali American Pale Ale. It's quite a severe beer: a chalky asparagus bitterness being the main feature, and all at the front. I waited for the middle to happen but it didn't really. It feels like there should be a sudden inrush of tangerine or something, but nope. I couldn't stay cross with it for long, however. That one punchy mineral feature is something I enjoyed coming back to sip after sip. This is a no-nonsense beer, take it or leave it, and I'd happily have another.

Dessert, then, and the dark side begins at Wild Beer's Millionaire stout. "Salted caramel" is your Brucie bonus in this one. And yes, it's a little bit sticky, though not overly so. Really it's just a typical, ungimmicky, sweet-ish stout, tarry of texture but with light easy-going flavours of vanilla and honey, as well as a proper hop bitterness. I was genuinely convinced it was a strong one so was very pleasantly surprised to discover it's only 4.7% ABV. I could have handled a pint of this no problem, though maybe just the one.

My nightcap is Eldon, an oak-aged imperial stout from Thornbridge. A modest one, though, at just 8% ABV. It smells enticingly of rich and thick churro sauce and lays on the cocoa heavily in the flavour too. The oak (chips, I assume) has been used previously for Bourbon but I wouldn't have guessed it: no sickly vanilla or heavy booze, a honeycomb sweetness being the only possible nod to the liquor. There is, however, a dry sawdust taste that doesn't add anything positive. With every sip I get the impression of a very well-made strong stout which would be a better beer with less done to it. It's still pretty good, though, getting rounder and smoother as it warms. Definitely a good one to finish on.

I'll have been in and out of London on a flying visit by the time this gets posted, so expect a report on further British craft experiences in the near future.

22 September 2017

Taking the Mikkel

I have to admit, I'm surprised that Mikkeller still generates a buzz. The Danish gypsy brewer is a veteran at this stage, and in the highly fickle world of "craft" beer few brands generate enthusiasm for so long. Mikkellermania may have peaked some years ago, but when UnderDog dedicated a swathe of their taps to the beer, excitement ensued.

I stuck my head in on a Friday afternoon to see what was what. Tap 1, and beer of the moment, was SpontanDoubleBlueberry. This is an attempt to recreate the lambic brewing process, with mixed results in this drinker's opinion. It looks dark and tarry in the glass, the deepest of purple with a shock of violet foam on top. The first flavour to come through isn't sourness, nor fruit, but bitterness: the tannic bite of berry skins. A harsh Bretty funk follows, rough and uncouth. I was expecting some fruit flavour but that didn't really emerge until the beer had warmed up a ways, and was heavy and jammy, perhaps reflecting the weighty 7.7% ABV. And sourness? It's buried in there but it's not a central feature. There was the saltpetre spark of proper geuze, doing little other than reminding me I'd rather be drinking a proper geuze. There's certainly a lot going on in this one, but I definitely preferred the lighter and cleaner beers I've had from the Spontan series.

Hallo Ich Bin Berliner Weisse Mango has been around in cans for a while. I just had a quick taster as a contrast with the Spontan. It's a bright pale yellow, thin and clean, and with a sharp, slightly metallic, sour bite. I could barely taste the mango at all: there's certainly no fruit-pulp thickness. It's simple and refreshing fare and for the price usually demanded it ought to be offering more.

It's hops from here on in. I had not realised that the Mikkeller Single Hop Series, which I started drinking in 2008 and last encountered back in 2010, is still running. The beers are all 6.9% ABV and they seem to have acquired double IPA siblings now.

There were two varieties available: Citra and Mosaic in both single and double versions. As a fully-certified Mosaic hound I asked for a taster of the Mikkeller Mosaic IPA first. I was not expecting the aroma of toffee. The hop flavour struggles to come through the heavy malt sweetness, and manages to bring only the savoury side of Mosaic when it does, and none of the fun fruit. I decided not to struggle through a full glass of that.

So instead I surprised myself by opting for Mikkeller Citra IPA instead. Unsurprisingly it's sweet again, though the aroma does include plenty of fresh grapefruit to help cover the caramel. The texture is thick and this helps the hops do their thing: a lovely oily lemon and lime flavour, coating the palate at first, while building to a bitter crescendo. A juicy counter-melody of mandarin adds a tasty extra dimension, though I also detected a burr of yeast bite spoiling things ever so slightly. But overall an excellent performance.

How would that stack up in a double IPA? Remarkably well. Again just a taster, but Mikkeller Citra Double IPA really emphasises the tropicality, piling in mango (more than in the Berliner weisse) and cantaloupe. It doesn't have the whole toffee thing, leaving more room for hop fun, and there's no trace of alcohol heat; an amazing achievement at 8.9% ABV.

With thoughts that I should have given the Mosaic Double IPA a chance too, I headed off. I suppose it should be of comfort that Mikkeller is still doing the Spontans and the single hop IPAs after all these years, and that people are still enjoying them. Perhaps even craft beer radicals settle down at some point.

20 September 2017

In for a Treaty

The Beoir AGM happened in Limerick last month. It's the first year that my attendance was not compulsory, but I had never been to the city, nor experienced its beer scene, so there was no way I was going to miss it. The meeting was kindly hosted by The Wickham Tap, Galway Bay Brewery's new pub and their first outside Galway or Dublin (Kilkenny will follow next month). We also dropped by the handsome Smyth's, the cosy Nancy Blake's and the very handsome Mother Mac's.

The latter three were all pouring The Market Quarter, a new pale lager that was being launched that weekend. In total a group of twelve pubs in that area are carrying it on draught, having commissioned it from local brewery Treaty City to be, according to the Leader, "for traditional drinkers and craft beer enthusiasts alike". I like to think I can speak for both of those demographics and I reckon they've nailed it. It's a light 4.2% ABV and an approachable medium-gold. The flavour bursts with fresh tropical flavours, mango and pineapple in particular, before finishing clean. There's a palate-scrubbing fizz to please the mainstream lager drinkers, but it's not thin or overcarbonated, just great session drinking. I would worry about how well the fruit will hold up if it has to spend more than a short time sitting in the keg, but hopefully that won't be an issue. Well done to all concerned.

Our guide for the day, the redoubtable Cyril, had arranged for us to visit Treaty City Brewing itself, where we got a guided tour by the enthusiastic proprietor Stephen Cuneen. Local, local, local is the mantra. I always feel better about not being able to get my hands on a beer when I learn it's deliberate. I hadn't tasted any of the core beers so happily there was a table of sample bottles. Yes, I brought my bottle opener.

Harris Pale Ale is the one that's been around longest, named after Limerick's most legendary drinker. This is quite a dark amber colour and dry tasting, mixing up metallic aspirin bite with a touch of roasted grain. It's reminiscent of decent dark English bitter and is similarly moreish, despite a sizeable ABV of 5%.

The lightest of the set is Hells Gate Lager at 4.2% ABV. I think there's a sneaky reference to the intended style in the name (don't tell AB-InBev) as it's quite sweet and softly textured, with elements of candyfloss and spongecake. This is balanced with a few sprigs of fresh spinach leaves: no doubt a German noble variety or two at work. It's maybe just a little too sweet for my taste, even for a helles, but it's perfectly well made.

Treaty City hasn't turned out a porter yet so Thomond Red is as dark as it gets. And its pretty dark for a red: a cola brown colour with an almost dunkel-like sticky treacle aroma. The caramel arrives to the party early and I was fully expecting it to talk loudly over the top of the other guests. However it leaves room for some clean, green celery hops, a smattering of ripe summer fruit and a roasty finish that prevents it from getting all sticky in the end. Irish red full house then, pretty much, and probably the most complex offering of the set.

The IPA, Shannon River, was a bit of a let-down after that. They've gone too sweet in this one, resulting in a dark orange colour and buckets of orange candy all through the flavour. There's a certain minerally dry bitterness quality too, but it fights with the sticky malt rather than complementing or balancing it. The whole thing is just discordant, rendered extra loud with the volume turned up to 5.8% ABV.

There's a definite sweet theme running through the range, which is perhaps why the red ale is the best of the lot. This may be to do with local tastes so it's very promising that the newest beer, Market Quarter, doesn't have it. Turn your treacle to tropical fruit, Limerick, and embrace the 21st century.

18 September 2017

Getting Lough'd

I had somewhat lost track of Lough Gill Brewery since the beginning of the year, having last tried a new beer from them just before the Alltech festival in February. So when I made enquiries in DrinkStore I ended up coming away with three cans from the Sligo brewery I'd never tasted before.

First to get opened was the Sour Wheat Ale. I was hoping for something light and refreshing, but the 5.7% ABV suggested otherwise, as did the dark and murky appearance. I had plenty of time to contemplate that as I waited for the foam to subside sufficiently to allow me a sip. It's as heavy as I expected, with a slick and briney salinity. There's a touch of lemon behind this which, combined with a grainy crunch, calls witbier to mind. Overall I'm not keen on it. The sourness is too strongly lactic, more like something gone off than deliberately inoculated, and the grain tastes stale and husky, possibly as a result. It's doesn't compare well with the cleaner and lighter Irish sour beers out there.

Time for a complete contrast: 'Round the Clock is a coffee and oatmeal stout, a path that has been trod by many breweries previously. It's 5.2% ABV and a rich chocolate brown colour. They've gone all-out for the coffee here, and there's a lot of dark roasted, even gritty, espresso in the flavour and aroma. The harsh bitterness isn't helped by the thin texture and if that's all there was I'd be giving it up as a bad job. But! This beer does have a redeeming feature in a floral complexity that runs backwards and forwards through it. It's a meadowy sweetness that doesn't quite take the edge off the sharp roast but does manage to distract my attention from its worst excesses. It's still some fairly tough drinking, lacking smoothness. You'd really want to be into your coffee, or at least your beer that tastes of coffee, to enjoy it fully.

Finally for now, Lough Gill's Irish Sloe Barley Wine, the first in a series of strong beers, and at 9.5% ABV it definitely qualifies. I was struck by the colour of this: after two cans of murk it's a gorgeous crystalline garnet. On sticking the nose in I'm met with typical barley wine characteristics: heavy slabs of alcoholic toffee, but there's a cheeky sour twang suggesting the sloes are mixing right in the middle. And so it proves on tasting: there's a chocolatey syrupy sweet thickness that would be cloying if left to its own devices, and where a classic US barley wine (hi Bigfoot!) would lash in a load of big citric hops, this utilises the fruit to give it a tangy edge that cleans up the malty excesses and renders it drinkable, while also giving it a uniquely complex flavour. It's almost plummy, like you might find in a Belgian dubbel, but lighter, spritzier, and altogether cleaner -- think cranberries. For a high-gravity palate-thumper this has been carefully and subtly put together. It's not often you encounter an Irish beer that isn't just slavish copying the way they do things abroad but this expresses a terroir all its own.

So, one super-impressive beer out of three. Not bad. There'll be more from Lough Gill in my round-up of the Irish Craft Beer Festival in a few weeks.

15 September 2017

Shropshire citrus

A couple of beers from top Shropshire brewers Salopian today, kindly muled over to my parents' house by my sister over the summer.

First to be opened was Lemon Dream, after a long walk on a warm June afternoon. I was so thirsty I almost didn't stop to take notes. It's a 4.5% ABV pale ale and a bright clear lemon-yellow. There are real lemons in it, and they really make their presence felt in the aroma: an oily citrus perfume, akin to air freshener or washing up liquid but with none of the negative connotations. Crisp cookie malt gives this a base and ensures the body is full enough for it to be satisfying to drink. The bitterness is surprisingly low, meaning it's more like a golden ale than any hop-forward style, but it's literally and figuratively refreshing to find that the added fruit hasn't been overdone. So, an excellent subtle twist on quality golden ale, keeping the good bits while banishing boredom.

I followed that with a bottle of Bulletproof, from Salopian's craftish range with the uninformative labels. It's bottle-conditioned, 5.8% ABV and turns out to be an IPA. This is even more citrusy than the beer with actual lemons in it. The aroma promises a sharp bitterness while first sip delivers a huge blast of lime: fresh, bitter and invigorating. That's followed by a softer and juicier passionfruit and mango flavour. A deposit of greasy hop resins on the tongue make the finish very good value for money. On the down side the body is a little thin, especially for the strength, and it risks accusations of unbalance as a result. That doesn't bother me, however, I could frolic in its hoppy wonderland forever.

Boring old regional English beer in half-litre bottles, eh? Not so much with Salopian.

13 September 2017

A drop of the black stuff

I laughed when I saw that Grand Cru Beers had put a stock of Oude Geuze Boon Black Label on the shelf in my local SuperValu. Every week, doing the grocery shopping, I'd pass by it and think "Haha, I mean who's going to buy that in Dublin 12? For €11 a bottle?" It took a couple of months to realise that it was me.

There's a whiff of the US about its English-language label and imperial units. I guess it's intended more for there than Sundrive Road. There's also the claim to be "the driest geuze we make", because those Americans love a superlative. I did precede it with a standard Oude Geuze Boon, for calibration. Any excuse, really. And yes, while the basic one has a lovely stonefruit juiciness, that's missing from this. Instead there's a mouth-puckering edge and a hit of bricky nitre. It's not overdone, however, keeping everything very classy and classic. There's a real invigorating quality, helped by the busy palate-scrubbing fizz.

While highly enjoyable, I do think some of the complexity is missing compared to the standard. It's less rounded, going all-out for big sour. Just as well the Boon blending skill kicks in and insists on still making a superb, properly balanced, geuze. €11 well spent.

With a taste for geuze in my mouth I decided to open the freebie bottle I picked up at the Mort Subite brewery back in May. They've called it Bubbles from Brussels, which is slightly odd as Mort Subite isn't in Brussels: the nearest large town is called Asse. Maybe a rebrand is in order.

I wasn't expecting much from it, but it's not half bad. Not first-tier geueze by any stretch, but neither is it an oversweetened nerve-jangler. Instead it's right in the middle ground: tangy and earthy without going for full-on wince-inducing sourness. There's a waxy bitterness, some citrus peel, and a mild gunpowder spice: the core elements of really good geuze, but dialled back, as though the brewers weren't sure if people would like them. The biggest surprise is that this light-touch lambic is a whopping 7% ABV. It really doesn't taste it. Much like the Mort Subite tour itself, it's far from unmissable but not bad for free.

It must be nearly time to go to Belgium again.

11 September 2017

Flame on

The Big Grill Festival turned four last month, returning to Herbert Park for four more days of barbecue-based entertainment. It was the best year yet for beer, with a second long bar added to the field, lots of new beers, and even one brand new brewer.

But my first port of call was to the standalone tent (hut? lodge?) of Franciscan Well, since they were nice enough to send me the tickets and a few beer vouchers. Their new offer was called Shoot the Breeze and it's a California Common. It's a pretty ugly looking one too: these are supposed to be clear, aren't they? This is a grim murky ochre. There's lots of crunchy roast immediately on tasting and then these strange sweet esters that seem very out of place: it's much too fruity for a style which should by dry and crisp. The hops are decent, bringing a grassy bite late in the flavour that helps reset the balance. The end result is an OK brown beer just misses being a good California Common.

Over to the main bars, then, and this was the first festival outing for Hopfully Brewing of north Dublin. They've launched with three core beers and one special, and some very distinctive artwork. I covered the fabulous beetroot saison here and it's joined in the line-up by a pale ale and an IPA. Lovemaker is the former, a quite dark and spicy number which incorporates rye with its Summit and Cascade hops. It's only 4.8% ABV though big-bodied and surprisingly dry. While it opens with quite a perfumed flavour, the finish is classically bitter. Overall a very grown-up no-nonsense sort of beer, high quality but with no fancy bells or whistles.

The IPA, Graciosa, is bright and pale and boasts a massive tropical aroma of mango and peach. The flavour is dank and dry, yet still fruit-forward, with a perfect clean finish. Citra and Chinook is the power couple that made this possible, and they put in one hell of a performance in a beer that's only 5.3% ABV. I think this one will turn a few heads, especially when the canned version starts getting out and about.

The initial limited-run beer in the Hopfully range is another California Common, but one with a distinct twist. Sakura is absolutely loaded with Sorachi Ace hops and uses that clean crispness I spoke of earlier to launch a massive hit of greasy coconut oils. It's a surprise attack too, because the aroma does not foreshadow it, nonchalantly wafting light coconut but no more. There's quite an intense bitterness too, making for an invigorating and stimulating experience. If you don't like Sorachi Ace, however, this is probably not going to be the beer to cure you of that affliction.

Hopfully's next appearance will be at the Brewtonic Beer Festival in the Bernard Shaw at the end of next week. Rascals will also be there, launching the second edition of their urban crowd-sourced hop beer. At Big Grill it was the turn of a fruited New England-style pale ale, Planet of the Apricots. It's an interesting phenomenon. The fruit seems to latch on to the dense and fluffy beer, intensifying its flavour as a result, meaning this thing really tasted of apricots. There's enough citrus bitterness to twist it towards tropical breakfast juice, which is also how it looks, and there's a memory of peach schnapps and orange from my misspent youth as well. But is it any good? Maybe it was the good weather but I kinda liked it. It doesn't fall into the usual fruit IPA trap of trying to copy the hop flavours: there's a proper contrast here. The end result is a fun, if silly, sunny delight.

Less fun was Park Life (not to be confused with the recent Trouble lager of the same name), a festival special from Brewtonic. This was badged as an American wheat ale and was just too harsh for me, all savoury caraway and a hard bitterness. Moving on...

Hope was next door, with cans of numbers 6 and 7 in its limited edition series. Nut-watchers will of course remember that 1 and 2 were my top picks of last year's festival. They are, respectively, Tropical Sour and Tropical IPA. I think (somebody please correct me if I'm wrong*) they're both flavoured the same way, with Citra, Azacca, Mandarina Bavaria and Simcoe hops, plus pineapple, passionfruit, lime and mango.
(*edit: they did! said hops are just in the IPA; the sour one is 100% Lemondrop. while the fruit list is the same in both, the IPA has more mango while the other has more fruit overall, and particularly passionfruit and pineapple. thanks Mark!)

I started with the IPA and found it surprisingly hop-forward for everything that's in there. There's a serious heavy dank bitterness, roaring with pine, and an accompanying resinous mouthfeel. The fruit barely gets a look-in, cowering behind the hop onslaught.

The sour one also asserts its identity in no uncertain terms, including an eye-wateringly sharp aroma. The flavour is strongly sour too, but still provides a firm base for the various fruits to work out of, a lot like its cousin, YellowBelly's Castaway, though bitterer and more complex. Much like the IPA it's still highly enjoyable for all its seriousness, being properly sour while also properly tropical. What more could you want?

And that was just one bar finished. Thankfully there wasn't so much new stuff over on the remaining side.

As if the phabulous Phunk Bucket wasn't enough, Kinnegar had another new release on their bar: Freak Show. This is a cream ale of 5% ABV with added orange. Cream ale has never been my thing and this is a classic demonstration of why: it has that unpleasant sweetcorn rasp that comes of putting maize at the centre of the recipe. The orange, though very obviously present, does nothing to improve the picture, giving the beer an over-the-top cordial sugariness. I genuinely don't get the point of this beer, or what it's meant to be. It's definitely not up to Kinnegar's usual standard. Momma, don't let your children grow up to brew cream ales.

Obliquity is the portentously-titled new special from Metalman, created in collaboration with Solvay Society brewery of London. It's a pale lager, enhanced with a dose of saison yeast. And it makes good use of both sides. There's a fundamentally solid clean and easy-drinking lager here, very accessible despite a substantial 5.8% ABV. And then there's an extra layer of spicy saison fun: white pepper in particular, and a gentle puff of banana esters. An interesting experiment, and a successful one.

The nightcap was Chocolate & Coconut Extra Stout, presumably one of the last beers brewed at Wicklow Brewery by departing head brewer Jason. And it's a hell of a finish. 8.5% ABV and every bit as rich as most imperial stouts, it's jet black and sumptuously smooth, exuding an aroma of iced latte. This turns darker on tasting, all mocha and espresso, with merely a dusting of coconut on top. I got a slight buzz of higher alcohol heat on the finish, but nothing that really throws it off balance. It's very clean and sinkable overall.

And that was my Big Grill for 2017. Thanks again to Franciscan Well for the tickets, and to all the brewers who tolerated my sleeve-tugging: you're always the star of the show, more than the pigeon-butchery classes or any number of flayed goats.

08 September 2017

New in town

The arrival of a new showpiece brewpub to Dublin ought really to be headline news on this blog. Brewpubs are my thang, and for the previous 17 years my hometown city centre has had just the one. I've been to the newcomer, Urban Brewing, twice now, at launch events, but even now I'm not sure if I should be writing about it yet.

There's no doubt that Urban Brewing is spectacular. It occupies a portion of the CHQ Building, originally a wine and tobacco warehouse in the docklands. It was meticulously restored during the boom years but never really took off as a shopping centre as intended. In 2013 the Docklands Development Authority sold the building to businessman Neville Isdell and it now hosts an exhibition, event space and a tech start-up facility. Isdell co-owns Urban Brewing with Ireland's largest microbrewer Carlow Brewing, and though it's not explicitly Carlow-branded, the mother brewery is very definitely present: most of the guest taps pour O'Hara's beer and the head brewer, Mickey Lynch, was seconded from Carlow.

At ground level it's a glass-fronted café bar with a generous west-facing terrace for catching the evening sun. On a gantry above the counter sits the brewhouse and the serving vessels, making it the only brewpub in Ireland where beer is served directly from the tanks rather than kegged. Stairs lead down to the vaults beneath, atmospherically lit and mostly dedicated to dining space, with room for a fully stocked basement bar and the fermenting tanks. The menu is all very high-end and cheffy, with tapas being the centrepiece of the offer.

But what about the beer? Well. That's where the reluctance comes in. I don't think the beer is quite ready. I'm not even sure any of it is fully sale-grade. But the place is open, pints are a reasonable €5.50-€6 and I think I'm within my rights to review them, even though -- disclosure -- I didn't pay for any of these as they were at events.

Back in the middle of August there was a Raspberry Wheat Beer. Its hazy greenish-yellow colour was entirely within the spec of a witbier, and the raspberry aroma was clear, clean and fun. And while it didn't look pink it definitely tasted pink, with lots of sweet raspberry. Except possibly too much: there wasn't a lot going on past the fruit, the base beer seeming very plain and watery. Still, not a bad start.

The other launch beer was an elderflower saison, later titled Forager's Wife. Originally this was a dense eggy yellow (pictured), the image of one of those fancy opaque New England IPAs. Banana esters featured big in the aroma, while the flavour began crisply but quickly turned overly sweet. The elderflower makes it taste of concentrated cordial, and then there's a nasty, but predictable, yeast bite on the finish. "Needs time" say my notes. Two weeks later I was back and it was still on. It had brightened a little, looking less outrageously soupy now, but it still tasted far more like a weissbier than a saison, all butane and bananas. Curiously, what little elderflower flavour there was previously had vanished completely. Maybe more time still is required, but I'm not so sure now. It could be just that the whole brewing system is not yet bedded in.

And that seems to be borne out by the other beers that were pouring at the grand opening last week. One was Urban Wit, a light and clovey offering once again full of esters, this time tasting specifically of green banana. It was perfectly drinkable but I missed the herbal flavours and dryness that witbier ought to have.

The other two were IPAs. Deanli IPA, presumably made wth the titular hop, did have a fun spicy green taste but it was buried under a snow-capped mountain of yeast and fruity esters. The flavour careens through weissbier, witbier and saison without coming anywhere close to American IPA. It was drinkable, but what bugged me about it wasn't the flavour but the wasted potential: I really wanted to taste the IPA underneath, but couldn't because of all that interfering goop in the way.

Its companion was an orange fellow called Paradisi. Cloudy again, but happily this time without the plague of bananas. Instead it's weirdly tangy, with almost a sour tint. There are sparks of orange and grapefruit citrus, but not up to the recommended level for a decent new world IPA. With these two they have attempted beer styles that require a clean flavour profile but have turned out results that very definitely don't have it.

I sincerely hope that there isn't a systemic flaw in the way beer is produced at Urban Brewing, and that once the rush of launch events goes away Mickey can get everything running the way it ought to, turning out beers with somewhat more polish to them. There will most definitely be more to come from Urban Brewing here, but maybe not immediately.

06 September 2017

Black Hook down

Mooching around the judging room after the Killarney Beer Festival awards had been decided, back in May, I spotted a pair of tall handsome swingtop bottles among the leftovers. Hook Baltic said the label, a Baltic porter from Arthurstown Brewing in Wexford. I was intrigued, and a little excited: Baltic porter is not a style that gets sold much in Ireland, never mind brewed here, and this strong black lager popular in Poland can be absolutely delicious when done well. Chief steward Kellie had deservedly earmarked both bottles for herself but very kindly yielded one to me, for which I am extremely grateful.

When I finally got around to pouring it a couple of months later, I found a dense jet-black and thickly textured beer. The head is a dark tan colour but I kept having to top my glass up to get it in the photo at all: head retention is not a strong point here. It tastes sweeter than I'd expect from a Baltic porter, full of rich chocolate and wholesome cereal, missing the bitter liquorice that often features and getting no more herbal than a touch of cola nut. I'm not bothered about authenticity, however: this Irish iteration of the style is beautiful. The chewy and filling quality of Baltic porter is present, as well as the intrinsic cleanness, so even though you're feeling everything that a dark beer brings to the table at 8% ABV, it doesn't clag up the palate as you go through. I've no idea what the availability of this is -- I've certainly never seen it for sale -- but it deserves to be more widely enjoyed.

For good measure I also half-inched a small bottle of Hook Porter, seemingly a more commonly Irish sort of dark beer, although at 5% ABV it's perhaps a little bigger than the norm. It's a very dark brown colour with little by way of head so seems like it would be dense and chewy. It's not, however, proving surprisingly lightly textured. The flavour is unusually floral, presenting a bouquet of lavender, violet and rosewater up front. Some chocolate would be nice to balance that, but the thinness strikes and only a faint burnt and smoky roastiness answers back. In what I'm guessing is an attempt to make the beer sessionable, all the taste is at the front, with a very quick finish, leaving just water and a slightly stale oxidised burr on the end.

This is very nearly superb. The hallmarks of high-quality porter are there but there's a depth lacking, a heavier texture that should have been perfectly possible given the strength. Throw in some more silky chocolate and it would be a world-beater.

Nevertheless these are two very well-made dark beers. Arthurstown has tended to go in more for the pale ales, lagers and reds so far. A few more like this would keep me happier.

04 September 2017

Somewhere over the border

September already? Yikes! These notes have been sitting in my drafts since my last trip north in June. I did a swift run around McAnerney's supermarket and The Winestore, Armagh's top two off licences, for anything new from the Northern Ireland breweries. This is what I found.

Glens of Antrim Ales is entirely new to me, though they've been brewing up in Ballycastle since 2014. First from them is Fairhead Gold, a 4.4% ABV lager. To be specific, this is very much the sort of lager made by microbreweries who don't really know how to make lager, or else don't have the equipment for it. It's a cloudy pale yellow and horribly thin and astringent. The flavour is sharp yet watery, like a weak lemon drink, finishing on a rough husky note before curdling in the stomach. It's too harsh to even be refreshing and I refuse to believe it's anyone's idea of a good lager, or that it'll convert many Harp drinkers.

I figured they'd be on firmer ground with Lizzie's Ale, although it's a tricky blonde one rather than safely dark. No wateriness here, thankfully: smooth and full bodied instead. The lemons are back, but they're able to use that big malt base to spread out and provide a gentle citrusy buzz, starting on a sherbet effervescence, the bitterness building gradually to an altogether modern C-hop sharpness in the finish. Where I might expect some estery ripe fruit or spicy yeast flavours there's no further complexity, but these aren't really missed. This is a very capable blonde ale and I think shows that Glens of Antrim do know what they're doing after all and simply shouldn't have attempted a lager.

One of the most exciting of Northern Ireland's new wave breweries is Bullhouse and I've really enjoyed the handful of their beers I've had so far. Two new ones faced me in The Winestore, including the first canned beer I've seen in their line-up: Koko, a coconut porter at 5.5% ABV.

Unfortunately it's not a great coconut porter. The aroma is suitably Bounty-ful but the underlying beer is too thin and everything gets dialled back because of this. I kept expecting a luscious chocolate flavour but instead the dry roasted quality is allowed to dominate. The coconut isn't sufficiently present either, though perhaps I'm a bit greedy when it comes to this ingredient: other people may think there's value in being subtle with it; I don't. A pleasant floral rosewater complexity is another underused asset, one which is really crying out for a denser beer to augment.

A second flavoured porter follows: The Notorious PIG, an ambitiously-titled "maple bacon coffee porter", and yes, all three things are apparently really in there. It's jet black with a tan-coloured head, showing off its substantial 6.7% ABV right from the start. The aroma is smoky, slightly burnt even, and I suspect some good old smoked malt has been included in the grist -- surely that can't be from however they added the bacon? The texture is pleasantly creamy though there's a sharp bitterness in the foretaste which gradually calms down to become a coffee taste. This is very heavily roasted and dominates the whole thing, granted support from the smoke side. No sign of the maple, however, and a little softening sweetness would be good for it. Overall it's decent gut-sticking fare, though a bit more tweaking to bring out the constituent elements better might be beneficial. It's doesn't taste as complex as the label promises.

Mourne Mountains brewery had a Whiskey and Vanilla Barrel-Aged Stout on offer, a big fella at 8.2% ABV. The whiskey element is off the charts here, smelling exactly like a glass of Bushmills and giving a substantial throat-scorch when swallowed. It doesn't taste of pure whiskey because of the other ingredients: lots of very sweet vanilla and a hefty dollop of chocolate sauce. Amazingly these don't turn the beer sticky or cloying, but rather work to offset the more severe booziness. It's all very entertainingly put together, every inch a stout but with elements from delightfully silly chocolate-cream cocktails too. I got to wondering what would happen to it with age, even though it's a beer which is possibly just too much fun to not drink immediately.

There's certainly some interesting stuff coming from the Northern Irish micros. I just wish the shops in Armagh would stock more of them.