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.

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.


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