24 March 2017

What Touken do

My experience with Breton beers hasn't been great, so when a new set arrived courtesy of my father-in-law last year I didn't exactly lamp into them straight away. They ended up sitting in the back of the fridge an indecently long time and I was surprised when I finally got round to drinking them to find that there was still quite a few months to go on the expiry date. How considerate of Brasserie Artisanale Touken to give their beers such generous lifespans.

I started with Philomenn Blonde and got a nice clear glass of it, the sediment having had time to settle neatly to the bottom of the bottle. There's a bit of an appley tang in the aroma, and that's one of the features of the flavour, but it fits into a matrix of other fruit and spice notes in a complementary way. There's a honeyish base, and then a sprinkling of cinnamon. A light texture and a cleansing fizz make for easy drinking and none of the cloying stickiness these sorts of beers often have. 5.6% ABV is an eminently sensible strength, it turns out. All-in-all, rather well put-together.

To follow, Philomenn Blanche, again at 5.6% ABV. It was a little enthusiastic to get out of the bottle and poured me another clear glassful. With it being a witbier and all I took the risk of clouding it up with some of the lees from the bottom of the bottle. It was worth doing too: without them it's sharply acidic -- dem apples again -- but it softens and rounds out with the yeast in. Still not great, though, in fairness. There's a husky dryness that tastes of wheat all right, but lacks the herbs, spices and fruits that are usually included in the witbier profile to keep it interesting. While the Blonde is clean, the Blanche is dull and stuffy. A dash of coriander and a squeeze of lemon would do it the power of good.

Philomenn Rouse is the prettiest of the lot, and the gushiest too: I'm glad I was prepared. The ABV gets a boost to 6% here. Apples again in the aroma, this time soft brown ones. The flavour is a rather bland mix of light caramel, woody nutmeg and the vaguest hop bitterness. I let it warm up to see if anything else was going to happen, but that's it. Enjoy the alcohol boost as that's the only favour this one offers to its customers.

I feel I got off lightly with this lot, for all their shortcomings. While not terribly exciting, there are no serious faults in the way they've been brewed nor any prominent off flavours. If I were stranded in their native land with nothing else to drink I think I'd get by OK. For a while.

22 March 2017

Stranger in a strange land

I found this bottle of Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale in Bucharest, of all places, on the beer shelves in a supermarket. Odd, but presumably related to Boulevard of Missouri being, since 2013, a subsidiary of Belgian giant Duvel-Moortgat, and the supermarket a local manifestation of Belgium's ubiquitous Delhaize chain.

Like the flagship beer at the mothership, Tank 7 is 8.5% ABV and a clear golden hue, big fizz giving it a substantial head. It smells a bit like Duvel too, though sweeter, with a fruity mix of lemon sherbet and melon rind, plus a menthol and eucalyptus herbal spice. And that spice is the headline in the flavour: clean and minty at the front of the palate. Behind this is a quite sticky boiled sweet flavour, all oranges and lemons. This, too, reminds me of Duvel, but a bargain-basement version: louder, much less subtle. A bitter acid tang is its parting shot.

What's really missing from this is any sort of saison character. I suppose it doesn't claim to be a saison, but the word "farmhouse" suggests that more than it suggests a strong Belgian blonde ale.

Maybe I'm taking this beer too seriously. It's fun and frivolous: a bigger, brasher, American take on the more quietly spoken beer of Belgium. I can appreciate that, but it doesn't half make me want a bottle of Duvel.

The text above was written a few months ago and had been waiting its turn in my scheduled posts ever since. Then last weekend I was in Utrecht where I spotted Boulevard's double IPA, The Calling, on the shelves of Albert Heijn, Delhaize's outpost in the Netherlands. I felt it needed to be included here with its farther-flung sibling.

I'm guessing they aren't shifting much of this as the best-before is only two months away. Yet it tastes perfectly fresh, with a lovely tropical pineapple and guava foretaste, fading to a thicker, heavier marmalade shred bitterness; sufficiently bitter to qualify as lime marmalade, I think. There's a belly-sticking warmth in the finish as a reminder that this, too, is 8.5% ABV, but it doesn't cloy, or spoil the hop fun with toffee or unnecessary booziness. While maybe just a little syrupy, it's still a classically constructed double IPA with all of the features to show why this became such a popular style in the first place.

Welcome to Europe, Boulevard. It's nice to see your Belgian owners letting you out and about.

20 March 2017

In a black mood

A couple of recently-encountered dark beers today, though their colour is pretty much all they have in common.

To begin, a new dunkel lager from White Gypsy called Dark Lady. I think the Irish beer market has been crying out for a decent dark lager. Could this be our saviour? I thought the fill on the bottle was a little shy but there was no shortage of carbonation, a big meringue of foam forming as it poured. It's an attractive, and authentic, chestnut brown colour and smells classically of hazelnuts and roast. That nuttiness is the first thing to hit the palate on tasting, backed by mild chocolate and caramel smoothness, a touch of bitter blackcurrant and then a razor-sharp clean lager finish. This is a beautifully executed example of Munich's sweet dunkel style. It did leave me hankering for something drier, however, but at least I know which brewer to badger for a proper Irish schwarzbier.

Funnily enough, shortly afterwards, I encountered an Irish beer that did have something of the schwarzbier about it. It was the rare appearance of a product from Donegal Brewing Company on tap in Dublin, at 57 the Headline. The beer was Espresso Stout, one which does indeed smell and taste of coffee but not as strongly as others of the genre. I've come to expect (and rather enjoy) big oily creamy tastes and textures in coffee beers, but this is lighter with only a vague roasty smell, a mild coffee flavour and, most surprising of all, quite a thin texture. The carbonation is high too which pummels the palate before it all cleans quickly away. Like I say, there's more than a hint of schwarzbier in the way this stout goes about its business. It's off-kilter for a coffee stout but still makes for enjoyable drinking.

If there's a lesson here it's that trueness to style is no guarantor of anything. Dark Lady hits all the attributes square-on while the Espresso Stout takes a more unorthodox route, but both lead to a decent glass of beer at the end. Make of that what you will.

17 March 2017

Gas crack

Happy St. Patrick's Day, readers. I'm celebrating it with all due reverence by getting out of the country for a couple of days, but before I left I made sure to wrap the green flag around me by opening the special commemorative beer that The White Hag has released for the occasion. Naturally it's a stout, 4% ABV, and titled Snakes & Scholars.

They've done that nitrogenated-in-the-bottle thing. Or at least attempted to. I think Irish breweries must just buy bottles of Left Hand Milk Stout, think "We could do that", and not realise that they actually can't. So, following instructions to open the cap and upend the bottle, I got a glass of dead-looking, almost flat stout. Breweries: please do not try and nitrogenate your beer in the bottle. It won't work and it's not worth it.

The flatness really makes it difficult to give this a fair assessment. It just feels limp and unfinished without carbonation. Though the aroma is pleasantly chocolatey, the first flavour I get is a bleachy twang. The beer behind it is dry, with somewhat astringent dark roast and a subtle vegetal bitterness. But that's it. It slinks weakly off the palate leaving nothing behind.

This beer simply does not work. A bigger body; more chocolate sweetness; proper fizz: the lack of all of them is painfully apparent all the way through. If you have a few in the fridge for today, have a couple of other beers beforehand.

15 March 2017

Tidefail

To be honest I wasn't in a big rush to try the third beer from Clearsky, the cuckoo brewery that works (still, I think) out of Hilden in Co. Antrim. The IPA was OK, the weissbier was somewhat ropey, so how would they fare with a lager? I suppose we'd better find out.

Tidefall is 4.5% and a lovely medium gold, though shot through with a slightly worrying haze. I left a centimetre of dregs in the bottom of the bottle but even that didn't guarantee me a clean pour. The body is very thin and there's an unfortunate tang of white malt vinegar in the aroma, but especially in its flavour. Even more unfortunately there's pretty much nothing behind this: no malt substance and no hop complexity, just a very vague and barely-noticeable grain husk. That old saw about brewing flaws having nowhere to hide in pale lager has rarely been truer.

I turned to the label for help on what this was meant to be. "an authentic premium lager that surges with flavour," it says, "an exceptionally clean flavoursome taste experience." Perhaps author and brewer had never tasted a lager before; they certainly seem to have no idea what makes a good one.

I'm always a little saddened to see lager treated this way. I'd much rather breweries left it out of their portfolios instead of doing it badly.

13 March 2017

Put up your dukes

Late last year, Eight Degrees announced that their winter trilogy would be a bit different this time out. The three new beers would all be released in large-format bottles, each a different style but all aged in Burgundy wine barrels. "The Three Dukes of Burgundy" they've called them, and the first two arrived in late November. Duke the third, a barley wine, was due in January but has now been pushed to even later in 2017 so I've decided not to wait for him and open the first two.

First up is The Fearless, a 6.4% ABV pale "farmhouse ale". The barrels used for this were Chardonnay ones and there's definitely a hint of dry white grape in here. Not for the first time I'm finding the wine character in a Chardonnay-aged beer to be more like Sauvignon Blanc than Chardonnay. There's a woody edge too, though more dry and splintery than the usual oaky vanilla. At its heart, however, it is a straight-up saison: lightly textured, gently spicy and with a generous helping of succulent soft fruit -- peaches and lychee in particular, to my mind. There's a bit of a rasp to its dry finish making me wish it were a little softer, but I'm thankful that as a saison on the stronger side of the style spec it's not overly estery or in any way hot. That I got through the whole bottle by myself in one sitting is a testament to its cleanness and drinkability and nothing else.

The middle child is The Bold, an imperial stout aged in Pinot Noir barrels and chalking up 9.9% on the ABV scale. It's thick: glugging out of a bottle filled almost to the brim, forming a café crème coloured head which builds dramatically before fading to a much more reasonable level. With all that drama, and the name, I was expecting a big hit from the first taste but this duke is actually quite restrained. The aroma is coffee, though of the fruitier sort, and the flavour carries that as well: glimpses of cherry and redcurrant amongst the sharper spikes of burnt grain. It's not terribly complex for all of that, the dense creamy texture buoying the flavour but what you get on the front is the complete picture, with no added side flavours unfolding in the wings. There's substance enough to remind me somewhat of top-level Dutch and Danish imperial stouts, but it just doesn't operate on that level. I suspect that the wine barrels weren't ballsy enough to make an impact on the big beer which went into them: there's a reason that whiskey casks are de rigueur for this sort of project. The end result is an understated barrel-aged imperial stout, delivering the chocolate and coffee you would expect with little by way of vinous decoration.

Both beers were perhaps less impactful than I'd been expecting. They lacked the bells and whistles that breweries in this game tend to attach. But both are solid examples of their style: workmanlike quality and very enjoyable to drink. That they set off my novelty sensors without delivering actual novelties is probably the beer world's fault, not theirs.

10 March 2017

Distinguished guests

Concluding this week's run through the beers of Alltech Brews & Food 2017 with the ones from abroad and afar. The centrepiece of the weekend is the Dublin Craft Cup, where a champion beer and cider are crowned following two days of judging by an experienced tasting panel earlier in the week. The winning cider was Rochdale Pear Cider from McCashin's in New Zealand. I had a sample and thought it a bit too syrupy for my taste, but what do I know from cider?

The top beer prize went to Hungarian outfit Horizont and their Saison Witbier. Horizont didn't have beer on sale at the festival but a bottle of this one found its way to the Trouble Brewing bar and thence into my beaker. Thanks guys! It's 6% ABV and a pale opaque orange colour. The aroma deserves an award by itself: a beautifully juicy peach-pineapple combo. On tasting it's more wit than saison, dominated by fresh lemon and smooth fluffy wheat. Only a hint of mild pepper in the finish indicates that there's some saison activity happening in parallel. I liked it; it would make for a fantastic summer refresher even at that sizable strength; but I definitely tasted plenty better than it from the festival bars.

Some leftovers from the competition found their way into the fridge in the media room, and out again, unsurprisingly. One I had was Amor Fati by WhiteFrontier, the Swiss brewery best known in Irish beer circles as the current workplace of Chris Treanor, formerly of Galway Bay. It's a 6.5% ABV IPA, hazy gold in colour and smelling enticingly of watermelon. The flavour is sweeter than I like my IPAs to be, though nicely complex, with notes of honeydew and nectarine. There's bitter kick too, but it feels a little tacked-on; I didn't quite believe it. Much as I wanted to like this, its flavours just didn't gel together well for me.

Also not at the festival in an official capacity was Portrush's Lacada Brewery but thankfully its unofficial brand ambassador Simon was on-hand with a few sample bottles for sharing.

We started on A Portly Stout, a 5.8% ABV limited-edition beer with a frankly worrying sharp acidic aroma. The moment of fear passes with the first sip however, and the underlying beer is smooth and creamy with a clean dark roast almost reminiscent of a Baltic porter.

Also in this series is the Whiskey Barrel Aged Stout, one which received the benefit of 6 months in a cask from local distillery Bushmills. Oak dominates the aroma, freshly sappy with a touch of dry sawdust. The flavour is all about the whiskey, however: warming and honeyish. It's a bit too much about the whiskey really, and I found myself searching for some proper stoutiness, a reasonable expectation for a 7.4% ABV beer. A dollop of roasty coffee or sweet chocolate would really help balance this one better.

And finally Devil's Washtub, amusingly badged as a "North Coast IPA". It's a very dark red colour and has a lovely well-balanced, well-integrated fruit-and-nut flavour. There's just enough of an edge to the blackberry element, peeking over the chocolate, to pass it broadly as a black IPA, but really this is a beer for drinking, not quibbling over styles. It's 5.2% ABV so not rocket fuel, and has a perfect silky texture. I'm reminded a little of Clotworthy Dobbin at the height of its pomp. A small sample of this was nowhere near enough.

But that's all there was, so back down to the floor late on the last day, to catch up with the beers I didn't want to miss. BrewDog's Strawberry Vanilla Blitz had come on, and since Saison Blitz was one of my beery highlights last year I made sure to give this one a go. It's properly tart: the Berliner weisse sourness given an extra acidic kick from the very real strawberry flavour. It certainly doesn't taste pink. The vanilla just got in the way, depositing a greasy dollop of soft-serve ice cream in the middle of a classy sorbet. It doesn't ruin it, but it definitely takes away from the enjoyment.

Barcelona Beer Company has been knocking around the taps of Dublin bars since last year, with their Nicotto Japanese-style pale ale. Japanese-style here means it includes green tea, jasmine, tangerine peel and Sorachi Ace hops, and boy is that a combination that doesn't work. It tastes incredibly harsh, like burnt plastic. I blame the jasmine for that, figuring it's a perfume effect gone way overboard. There are some pleasant tannins in the finish but I found this next to undrinkable.

La Niña Barbuda brown ale restored my faith in the brewery straight after. It's a strong one at 7% ABV, but perfectly balanced, and with a beautifully juicy raisin fruit flavour, laced with chocolate and finishing on a dry roasty bite. Some green vegetal hops are thrown in for good measure. I could happily quaff this serially, or sip it seriously: a great all-rounder.

A few punters had been suggesting La Bella Lola blonde ale as the best on the Barcelona bar. I only had a very small taster but it didn't impress me particularly. It's grand, like: there's a fun and easy-going peachiness, achieved by a combination of Mittelfrüh and Citra, but it's a bit thin-bodied at 4% ABV and lacks distinguishing features. A step up from lawnmower beer, for sure, but still something that's going to be of most value when quenching thirst.

Last of this set is the ginger wheat beer Piquenbauer. I wasn't able to identify the ginger in this: it doesn't have that sweet candied effect that ginger in beer usually produces. Instead there's a serious, and very enjoyable, saison-like pepperiness, which allies with a tropical fruit element to make a highly unusual and fun overall flavour profile.

Barcelona Beer's importer, James, sent me away with an armful of the company's other beers so expect reviews of them here in due course.

My last port of call before the lights went up in the hall, and down in my brain, was St. Austell. When I first saw them listed as an exhibitor I began entertaining comforting thoughts of lovely great pints of cask Tribute, but alas the selection was keg only.

I started with Under Dog, a session IPA at a very English 3.5% ABV, and an extremely English ability to brew a beer at that strength with a properly full body. It's very much configured for the sessioning, being dry with a slight mineral or soda complexity. I detected a touch of coconut in it and asked if Sorachi Ace hops had been used, to be told that it's actually Styrian Wolf, which makes me two for two on that particular mistake (see my review of O'Hara's Styrian Wolf single-hopper here). Overall this is a very decent and nicely complex quaffer.

Moving up to the American-style pale ale, the single-hopped Eureka. Though all of 4.9% ABV I thought this had less going on in it than Under Dog, and what was there wasn't great. I got onion, some celery and bitterer spinach, but no real US hop action. The volume could do with being turned up significantly on this one.

St. Austell's flagship stout, Mena Dhu, was next. It's quite sweet but there's more than just simple caramel in the dense depths of this black beastie. There's lots of balancing roast, for one thing, and an old-fashioned liquorice bitterness. I swear I could detect a curl of smoke in it as well. I was impressed, especially since it's only 4.3% ABV. It's one of those beers I really need to go back to and explore properly.

There was more liquorice flavour in Proper Black, a 6% ABV black IPA which St Austell introduced back in 2011 but which had hitherto escaped my notice. The yang to that dark herbal bitterness's yin is a bright effervescent lemonade and sherbet sweetness, plus a typically American pine edge. I hope this one escapes the overall decline of black IPA as it's a lovely example of the fun to be had with the style.

But that was it for another year. Thanks once again to the fantastic Alltech crew who put on such a great show, and to all the brewers who put up with my bothering them and asking silly questions (like this) over the weekend. While it was, of course, over far too soon, part of me (mostly the feet) was glad there was no Sunday session this year. Five posts' worth of beer is enough, as I'm sure you'll agree if you've read this far.


09 March 2017

In the mix

Today it's the last of the Irish beers I tried during the Alltech Brews & Food festival in Dublin a couple of weeks ago. There really was something for everyone in the range presented.

Witbier fans were well served by the new one from Clonakilty Brewing, their third. They've called it Inchydoney Blond but, while it does have a touch of the phenols you find in Belgian blonde ale, it's only 4.5% ABV and has a lovely refreshing lemon edge, some herbal complexity and a touch of soft peach. It's easy-drinking and very refreshing with it.

For the next-level witbier enthusiast there was Something Witty, a collaboration between Rascals Brewing and Trouble. They've added ginger, lemongrass, black lime and pear into the recipe, and seemed to have got the full benefit of all of them. The aroma was a little off-putting: harshly woody, like the rough skin of a ginger root. Thankfully that doesn't follow through to the flavour which begins with a bright, sharp citrus note but then settles down to a gently exotic citrus perfume. There's a pleasant crunchy grain base as well, to remind you that despite all the decoration there's still a very decent well-made wheat beer under it all. You won't find much by way of ginger heat, however. I think I'd have liked more of that.

Trouble's other strange concoction was called Hard Candy. This time the base beer is a cream ale, which is not a style we see much of brewed in Ireland. In an attempt to make it taste like rhubarb-and-custard sweets, they've added rhubarb, vanilla and lactose. It doesn't really work. Yes, it's sweet, but it tastes more like a blancmange to me, all pink and gooey. If the rhubarb was supposed to add a balancing tartness it's definitely slacking on the job. The vanilla is very busy, however, giving it a strong candied popcorn aroma. Though only 4.88% ABV this beer is hard work to drink. Obviously it's designed as a fun novelty for festivals rather than an every-day beer, and I'm sure it will have its fans, perhaps among those who get dragged to beer festivals and are trying to make the best of it, but it wasn't for me.

The palate-cleanser after that was Foxes Rock Gluten Free Lager, which came my way via a media tasting hosted by Alltech's chief beer guy Gearóid Cahill. I was poised ready for the diacetyl onslaught that seems to have become the Station Works signature style, but it didn't arrive. The lager still isn't great — there's a bit of a farty aroma and a harshly metallic bitterness — but it's definitely not a total disaster. Hooray! I was chatting to one of the guys working at the Station Works R&D division and he said that, as well as some interesting experiments they're doing at the moment, the quality of their core beers has improved as well. I might even go back to drinking them voluntarily now.

Back down to the festival floor, and the unofficial centrepiece of the event was the long bar shared by north-western brewers The White Hag and Kinnegar. Naturally they had a collaboration beer on, a coffee, whiskey and oatmeal stout called The Hare and the Hag, and there was a real buzz around the room about it. Rightly so, in this punter's opinion. I was sceptical about the nitro dipense but it manages to harness all of the textural advantages of the gas while still holding on to masses of flavour. It's smooth and warming, with the coffee and whiskey notes clearly and distinctly pronounced. It's pretty sweet, though: the aroma has a whack of almost sickly banoffi and the whole thing is quite heavy going: it tastes and feels much stronger than 6.5% ABV. It's out now in 33cl bottles and I think that's about the right amount for an after-dinner snifter.

White Hag's other collaboration was a strange coupage they've produced in association with Armagh cider-maker MacIvor's. The story goes that a batch of MacIvor's cider became inadvertently infected with Brettanomyces rendering it unfit for use under the mainstream label, but also very interesting. White Hag stepped in with a simple golden ale brewed with its house souring culture and the two were combined in a 45%-55% ratio to create a 4.5% ABV "apple sour" called Silver Branch. The Brett makes its presence felt most in the aroma: it's all heavy farmyard funk and I braced myself for more of the same on tasting. But no! The tartness pulls a major switcheroo and takes over the flavour entirely, producing a sharply acidic kick at the front of the mouth and then an almost smooth clean quick finish. I think I'd like a bit more apple flavour, but it's very refreshing, and offers a distinctly different sour beer experience. A few months in a white wine barrel would do it the power of good.

A plethora of new beers were pouring at Independent's bar, not least among them Independent Coconut Porter, which was my pick of the whole festival. I drank a fair bit of it and was never not amazed that it's only 3.9% ABV. It has a gorgeously full body, supremely smooth and packed with rich dark chocolate flavours. Over the top of these, however, it simply roars coconut in all its unctuous greasy glory. It is not a subtle beer by any means but it really delivers what it says, and doesn't slam your blood alcohol level while it does it.

On a more restrained note, there was also Connemara Bock at Independent's stand. This one is 6.2% ABV and a clear dark copper colour. It's a particularly heavy example of the style, sticky of texture and full of apple, raisin and toffee notes, building to a kind of burnt brown sugar finish. I think you'd want to be a real bock purist to enjoy this one. It's very proficiently brewed, but just not for me.

Much more in my line was Currach Dubh, an oatmeal stout Independent made in collaboration with Italian brewery Opperbacco. It's 7.5% ABV and full of very old-fashioned stout flavours: a lot of bitter dry roast, rendered extra bitter by a green cabbagey hop hit. The oatmeal smooths everything out and it doesn't taste as strong as it is. Highly enjoyable, in a very serious and grown-up way.

The evening wears on and a festival-goer starts looking speculatively at the double-digit ABV tap badges. One of my closers was The Irish Giant, a barley wine by Black's of Kinsale which has been out for a while now but had escaped my notice. This was the barrel-aged version: the same strength as the original at 11% ABV but given time in white wine casks. I can't say I noticed much of a wine or oak character in the flavour, but it is delightfully smooth and rich. The aroma is a calorific mix of warm toffee and milk chocolate, and this comes through in the flavour as well, accompanied by a subtle hint of summer fruit and raisins. It manages that rare trick of being heavy and warming without getting cloying or boozy. Just the thing before heading out into a February night.

Tomorrow it's the last post of the festival, and I'll be looking at the foreign beers, plus those that arrived by less conventional means.

08 March 2017

Expanding horizons

We're hitting the half-way point of my Alltech Brews & Food 2017 round-up, and a few new releases from established breweries to begin with.

I don't think Aidan from Galway Hooker took well to me pointing out that his was the most-established Irish brewery in the room. It's coming up for ten years since I first tasted the flagship pale ale, which is eons in Irish brewing time. The range has expanded somewhat since then and the Hooker bar was pouring two new limited editions. Well, new-ish, in one case. Alt Fact is a variation on the dark wheat beer which first appeared in 2009, and was later revived as Opus II around 2012. And the new one? Not bad at all. Your standard dunkelweisse caramel and brown banana notes are present and correct and they're balanced against quite an old-fashioned herbal liquorice bitterness. Not world-shakingly exciting or anything but decent drinking.

Next to it was Galway Hooker Rye Ale. It's a bit of an experiment, this one: unfiltered, which is unusual if not unique for the brewery, and utilising HopShot™ extract in the conditioning tank. An opaque dark orange colour, it smells funkily acidic, like a ripe squashy grapefruit, and grapefruit is doing the business right at the front of the flavour too. A rye sharpness swings in behind it, doubling down on the dry, squeaky character, almost like green beans, but fruitier. Despite the haze, that dryness equates to cleanness, and the overall beer, at 5.5% ABV, is exceedingly moreish.

Two dark additions to brewery ranges next. I don't know how long Wild Bat's Dark Matter stout has been around, but it has found its way into bottles with a label and everything. At 4.2% ABV it's pretty much your classic, or indeed standard, dry Irish stout. Maybe a bit drier than most, the roast soaking up moisture from the palate with all of the chocolate complexities confined to its aroma. There's a bit of a putty note in the midst of it which I didn't care for but otherwise it's grand.

And Rye River also had a stout: McGargle's Extra Stout, no less. This starts as a quite a plain version of the style: 6.5% ABV, robust of body and clean and dry in its flavour. But after a second or two there's a new complexity which unfolds, a sweetish floral perfume effect. It's not dissimilar to the hop spicing found in O Brother's Bonita, but is calmer. This is a thought-provoking stout, and one I'd like to spend more time with.

But that's not how the festival works, so on to the brand new exhibitors, the companies whose beer I'd never tried before.

Irishtown Brewing has been on the scene for a few months now, with their flagship lager Dublin Blonde appearing as the craft option in many non-beer-specialist pubs around town. The recipe was designed by Cuilán Loughnane of White Gypsy and the beer itself was brewed at Hope. I wasn't expecting any crazy flavour somersaults from this one, but it definitely does what's asked of it, being a squeaky clean pale lager with a soft texture and just enough of a celery noble hop bite to keep it interesting. Irishtown had also brought along their Dublin Red pale ale, which was brand new. It's not quite right, however, with a serious smack of butter in the aroma and a flavour which allies this with coppery metal. I understand the recipe is up for revision so maybe give it a while before you try it.

And finally to Bridewell Brewery. This brand new micro, opened last year in Clifden Co. Galway, has been a long time coming. It's a joint venture by husband and wife team Harry Joyce and Barbara-Anne McCabe, and I'd seen Barbara-Anne's name associated with Irish brewing for ten years or more, while the brewery's name has cropped up in various places as well, so it was great to actually get a hold of its beer. Interestingly, their brew kit is the original one from The Porterhouse in Temple Bar so it's good to know that that piece of Irish brewing history is still operational.

Bridewell Blond is the one and only beer so far. It's a session-strength blond ale made for the local market. A bit like Dublin Blonde above, it's clean and quenching, though the combination of Polish and Slovenian hops give it a serious bite, reminding me a lot of my grassy friend Saaz. There's enough weight in the malt base to keep those hop flavours afloat for a long sharply bitter finish. This is one of those beers that you'd find yourself very glad of if in a rural pub out west with otherwise-terrible beer options.

That's enough beer for this post. We'll take a look at some of the more outré offerings tomorrow.

07 March 2017

A new dawn

It was a dark and frosty midwinter morning when I arrived in Andrew Jorgensen's car to Boyne Brewhouse. Andrew is head brewer at the brewery outside Drogheda and he had invited me along to witness a special moment in Irish brewing that totally wasn't just yet another beer being created out of the usual stuff. The plan was what we believe to be Ireland's first, and still only, decoction-mashed lager. This slow process is commonplace in Czech and German brewing and involves taking small volumes of wort out of the mash tun, boiling it, and putting it back in as the mash progresses. The idea is to maximise the efficiency of the grain but in doing so it's also said to alter the beer's texture and flavour and is what gives Czech lagers in particular their famous character. (If you want to read more on the technicalities, and words like "betaglucans", Andrew's account of the brewday is here.) In order to use up some Vienna malt that was lying around, the recipe was for what became Boyne Brewhouse Vienna Lager rather than something pils-y. And at the Alltech Brews & Food festival at the end of February it went out to meet its public.

I only had a little taste of it at the festival, which isn't the best way to test out a 5% ABV lager, but I definitely got a sense of central Europe from it. In particular it's the body and the sweetness, the big fluffy candyfloss roundness I associate most with Pilsner Urquell. The flavour has a golden syrup quality, more like Budvar, given a strong greenly bitter kick from the Tettnang hops. What did surprise me, however, was the colour: it's a clear bright gold, as best I could tell through the awful festival beaker. I'd have expected redder for a Vienna lager, and a touch of toffee in the flavour too, but that wasn't there either. No matter. It's a very nice pale lager and a sign that maybe there is something to this decoction business after all.

That was one of a number of new releases from Boyne Brewhouse at Alltech. Up until now, in 17 months of operation, they've only been brewing their core range under their own brand. Now those three have been rebadged, with the names Born In A Day, Long Arm and Pagan's Pillar consigned to the same retirement home as the McGargle family. Born In A Day, now "Boyne Brewhouse Pale Ale", has been reformulated somewhat to be smoother and less bitter. And joining them we had...

Boyne Brewhouse Imperial Stout, available in a number of barrel-aged iterations. I only had a taste of the raw oak one, the barrel presumably a bonus from the company's nascent whiskey-making project. It's 10.8% ABV and very much down-the-line for the style, lots of sticky brown sugar and a serious grown-up bitterness to balance. There were no madly loud oaky flavours, indeed it tasted less oaky than many a bourbon-aged stout I've met, but there was vanilla: balanced, well-behaved vanilla. I'm sure this stout is a great base for all sorts of projects but it works just as well by itself.

I mentioned the brewery's IPA yesterday, leaving just Boyne Brewhouse Saison as the other new one I got to try. No surprises that it's a bang-on, true-to-style iteration of saison, though in the stronger sub-bracket, despite a modest 5% ABV. What I mean is it's big on fruit, with the classic strong-saison melon rind and concentrated peach nectar. There's a definite alcohol heat to all this which makes it a bit tougher to drink than I'd like and which isn't properly held in check by the bitter hop bite or white pepper spicing. It does all the things saison is meant to but I'd prefer if it did them more quietly.

Boyne Brewhouse wasn't the only brewery with new beers to show off at the festival. Tomorrow I'll have a look at some from the other bars, plus some brand new brewers as well.

06 March 2017

The Full Vermonty

New Englandish IPA. It's the style of the moment, though in the fast-moving world of beer fashion it may well have fallen out of favour in the handful of days between this post being written and published. It was almost a theme of the Alltech Brews & Food festival which returned to Dublin for a fifth run the week before last. Several stall-holders had brought along beers which purported to be in the style, though annoyingly I left things too late to try the one from Wicklow Brewery.

The first one I got hold of was Big Bunny by Kinnegar. It's 6% ABV but quite thin, which is definitely not part of the spec. Even through the foggy plastic festival cup I could tell that, while hazy, its appearance is far from the orange-juice opaqueness that's one of the style's hallmarks. And it's bitter too. This I enjoyed, finding that it added balancing pith to the beer's juicy fruit, giving an overall effect similar to Orangina, with an extra smidge of dankness. It's a good IPA but it needs feeding up if it's to be worthy of the style badge.

Wild Bat New England IPA was different but similar, going for spritzy mandarin in both aroma and flavour, and incorporating a solid dose of pith and spice into the latter. The appearance is a little hazier than Big Bunny: a bright orange shade. There was also a fresh and leafy green hop flavour which again I don't know is supposed to be part of the spec but makes for very tasty drinking.

The nearest offering to the real thing came via Four Corners, who were representing for BrewDog and brought along a keg of that brewery's BrewDog vs. Cloudwater New England IPA. It smells like any normal US-style IPA, all pine and grapefruit, even though it looks like a glass of custard. The main distinguishing feature is that texture: it's dense and fluffy, almost chewy but without the heat that that word sometimes implies. This creamy effect allows the mandarin candy flavour to spread across the tongue in a leisurely fashion and end up coating the mouth entirely. There are no sharp edges here at all: it's all hop with none of the bite. I rather enjoyed it.

There were plenty of other IPAs on the go as well: that's one general fashion that isn't showing much sign of subsiding. Rye River had two, launched under their McGargle's brand which has recently had a bit of a spruce-up. Both are named after the brewery's now-iconic Big Bangin' IPA (formerly "Francis' Big Bangin'", before the McGargle family were all moved to backroom jobs) though apparently the recipes have next to nothing in common. Which shows my crappy tasting abilities because I thought they were both rather similar.

Little Bangin' IPA holds the record for the most expensive beer the brewery has produced so far, something company owner Alan is begrudgingly proud of. It's 3.8% ABV and has an off-putting buttery aroma which, I am told, is a side-effect of the massive dose of Simcoe it got, and is not diacetyl. Either way, it will be addressed in future batches. The body offers no clue to its strength being perfectly full and round, something which allows it to carry the intense herbal and resinous hop flavours: no butter here, though a distinct pinch of savoury onion. This lacks the elegance of benchmark Little Fawn but, aroma apart, is a highly enjoyable session IPA.

And up the other end there's Double Bangin' IPA, double in the sense of being almost 1.13 times stronger than the original. This has the same buttery aroma as the little fella, and a similar onion cast as both its siblings, but there's an extra dimension of soft fruit that the others lack, a caress of peach and tangerine. That really rounds it out beautifully and does wonders to aid its drinkability. Once again the real ABV is well disguised, though this time in the opposite direction.

Keeping it double, the next beer was Unto the Breach, brewed at YellowBelly (who didn't attend) but served at the Hope bar. It's a collaboration between the two, if that wasn't totally obvious. To an almost 9% ABV double IPA they've added pineapple juice, and that's exactly how it tastes. There's a big, blousey, hard bitterness followed by a shockingly sweet jolt of real pineapple juice. And that's it. There's no particular hop complexity, nor any harsh heat, which makes it quite a simple offering and enjoyable as a novelty. No more than that, though.

Ireland's IPA maestros Eight Degrees had another one ready for release on their bar. Trans-Pacific seems almost old school these days, pale in the US West Coast style though clocking in at a modest 5% ABV. To Citra hops they have allied Aussie varieties Ella and Vic Secret. To me, the Citra was very much in control of the whole thing, giving it that powerful punch of herbal dankness and spicy bitter grapefruit. Like I say, old school, but in a very enjoyable way.

Those other IPA gurus at Wicklow Wolf had an interesting new one as well. Zoso is a SMASH IPA, brewed with the titular hop -- a new variety they picked up in the US -- and German Red-X malt. All new to me so I was dying to try it. Turns out it's not great, and I put a lot of that blame down to the style: red IPA rarely floats my boat. Something about that combination of sugary malt and bitter hop tends to come across as harsh to me, and this is a prime example. There's a lot of toffee in the flavour to begin with. The hop intensity does help dry this out a little but the hops really lacked nuance for me, presenting instead a blast of metallic bitterness and just a scratch of vegetal greenness. It was missing the fireworks and fun found in good American-style IPA, not least its own fraternal twin Lobo.

The long-awaited (at least by me) first IPA from Wood Key brewing was on tap at the bar they were sharing with Jack Smyth's brewery. They've been brewing at Jack Smyth's too, though are about to return to their previous home at Independent in Connemara. The Hunted Deer, for such is the beer called, bears a remarkable similarity to Independent's own Connemara Pale Ale. It's a tiny bit stronger at 6.2% ABV but it also has that intense dry bitterness, one that almost touches on astringency, squealing with pithy grapefruit. There's a little fruit-chew sweetness running in parallel but I wouldn't say it balances the bitterness so much as distracts the drinker from it momentarily. Definitely an IPA for those who like theirs with a bit of a punch.

And one more first venture into IPA territory came with Boyne Brewhouse IPA. It's another dry and grapefruity one but lacks the intense astringency of the previous beer. Instead there's a fresh and cheery citrus aroma and a gently-carbonated smooth, sinkable texture. This is a real true-to-style classic of American IPA and altogether too easy going for its 6.8% ABV. Danger here.

It was far from the only new release at Boyne Brewhouse. I'll take a look at the others tomorrow.