20 April 2018

Hi Sierra!

There was a veritable cascade of new Sierra Nevada beers in mid-March. It took me a while to pick my way through.

From the 4-Way IPA pack, we begin with No Middle Ground, claiming to be a fruity-hopped IPA with added cold-brewed coffee. It doesn't look great: a sickly, murky, orange-ochre. The aroma gives a sweaty stale coffee effect plus harsher more acidic hop bittering. Could the flavour save it? A little. The coffee turns fresher and the hops calm down, but neither really excels. That it was a November release suddenly makes sense as it's quite warming, plenty strong at 6.9% ABV, showing a thick toffee malt base, and then with the added creamy, oily coffee. That finishes quickly, however, and there's only a very mild twang of citrus after it. This isn't the crazy brew I expected it to be, but it's not terribly interesting either. I've tasted much more enjoyable coffee IPAs, and they usually throw balance to the wind and pump everything up more powerfully than Sierra Nevada has. Consider it a beginner's version of the style.

The other is Know Good IPA, one which claims no gimmicks or special features, just perfect straightforward US IPA flavours. It's 6.2% ABV, clear pale gold and has a gentle stonefruit aroma, showing apricot and plum. There's a quick bitter kick in the foretaste, chalk and grapefruit, but it fades quickly leaving a candy sweetness behind. Like the previous beer it lacks distinguishing features. Yes, it's balanced, and pleasant, and even moreish, but where is the Sierra Nevada razzle-dazzle, the one that made their Pale Ale so talked-about? I'd definitely swap it for a Torpedo.

Hop Bullet double IPA isn't part of the set, and though there's no packaged-on or best-before date, it's marked as a spring seasonal so I'm guessing it's fresher than the previous two. It pours an innocent clear pale orange and smells sweet and sugary. The flavour continues that theme, but adds a gentle spritz of orange zest too, finishing on a drier lemon bitterness. It's still quite light and plain, which is not what one expects from a Sierra Nevada DIPA, especially one with such an openly aggressive name, and 8% ABV too. It's a bit of a damp squib. Looking for answers on the label, it turns out the science part is the use of lupulin dust. Call me old fashioned but I think I prefer my US IPAs brewed with hops.

We're a long way from the finish and there has been no wow factor as yet, which is frankly astonishing. We move next into a quartet of beers using experimental hops. They don't have names yet, and we're not even given their code numbers. I can't help feeling I'm paying money to do the brewery's and grower's product development for them.

First out is Experimental Hop Pilsner, pale yellow at 5.5% ABV. I'm not at all sure that pilsner, of all styles, lends itself to experimentation. I'm happy with Saaz, thanks. This one smells properly grassy, with a touch of bread or cake, like a classic Czech version. The carbonation is low and the flavour offers that fresh-mown grass accompanied by a lemon-rind sharpness. There's plenty of light lager malt to buoy that up, and it does taste like a proper pils. But there's that lack of oomph again. It's not particularly hop-forward and doesn't offer much of a twist on the basics.

Experimental Hop Session IPA brings the ABV down a notch to 4.6%. It looks similar to the pils: just as pale with a little more haze. The aroma is mild but what's there is worryingly plasticky. The flavour, however, is massive coconut, almost exactly like Sorachi Ace but without the token orange pith. At least this one is easy to describe, and to be honest I'm glad to have something to hang on to. It is a little watery, though, and I'd never have described it as a session IPA without prompting: this hop, like Sorachi, will just make everything taste like itself and nothing else. At least we know that they're not using the same hops all the way through. Time to ramp up the strength.

The IPA was the best of last year's Fresh Hop set, so I was similarly optimistic this time round for Experimental Hop IPA. The aroma is an odd mix of the floral and citrus, like grapefruit handsoap. My optimism wilted a little. The flavour is bolder, but its first offering is a harshly savoury Mosaic-gone-wrong whack of caraway seeds. Behind it is a very strong sweet and oily blend of chocolate and orange oils: experimental in the hallucinogenic sense. There's even a slight curl of sweet and savoury smoke. The thick texture rescues it from too much weirdness, and there's a chompable chewy character, getting full value from its 6.7% ABV. The comedown is a far more normal punchy grapefruit finish. This was definitely the most interesting of the set so far. Would they double down for the double?

Experimental Hop Double IPA is an even 8% ABV and a pale copper colour. I wonder are the hops the same as in the session IPA because there's that coconut again, though sharp and spicy rather than rich and oily. It's properly heavy without turning hot, cementing the hop kick in a solid malt base. That said, I expected more complexity in a beer with this sort of poke. It's all rather one dimensional, bringing us back to the decent-but-unexciting earlier beers in the series.

Obviously nobody wants an experimental beer that tastes terrible. This lot, however, could have done with being a little more out-there.

The special bonus round is Braupakt, not actually a Sierra Nevada beer at all but brewed at their Bavarian collaborators' place in Weihenstephan. Broadly, it's a weissbier, though a big lad at 6% ABV. It's a murky and boorish creature, topped with a thick and awkward pillar of foam, though one which fades quickly. The aroma is a little harsh, blending banana with the strongly artificial citrus of toilet duck. Its flavour is a little cleaner, offering more crusty bread than fruity esters. The hops are mixing it in there, but as a thumping California bitterness rather than any depth of hop flavour. There are echoes of Schneider and Brooklyn's magnificent Hopfen Weisse, but only echoes: it falls a long way short. As a beer, overall, it's only OK, showing the features of its dual aspect but never managing to blend them into a greater whole.

Not much impact in this lot. I can't imagine any of these beers will be cited as life-changing the way Sierra Nevada Pale Ale frequently is. But there was one final shot at redemption, landing just a couple of weeks ago. Hazy Little Thing is Sierra's take on New England IPA, which in and of itself is fascinating. The style gets brickbats for being brewed in a slipshod fashion. How would it fare at the hands of a large brewer as experienced and fastidious as this?

It's certainly not as murky as a typical NEIPA, cloudy and translucent rather than soupy opaque. There's plenty of juice in the aroma: sweet cantaloupe and mango, with an underlying grassy spice. The texture is remarkably light for 6.7% ABV, with none of the milkshake gumminess I associate with the style, and don't miss in the slightest. The spicy bitterness is to the fore of the flavour, as well as a zesty citrus. There's not so much room for the juice here, the finish offering little more than a sharp metallic tang. It's still very tasty, and very easy to drink: I polished my can off in short order and was ready for another straight afterwards. This won't replace the murkbomb du jour in any haze-chaser's affection, but it's a damn fine beer and that's all that matters.

18 April 2018

Doing the rounds

Seems I now have two kinds of Irish beer round-ups to do every few weeks: the regular one and the Dublin brewpubs dispatch. We'll start this one at Open Gate.

I've said multiple times that lager is the Diageo microbrewery's principal strong point and I'm always pleased to see a new one. Open Gate Vienna Lager came my way on a visit to the bar last month. And it's absolutely proper in every respect: clear copper coloured, with a sweet-yet-crisp dark biscuit grain character, overlaid with green celery noble hop flavours which build pleasingly to a grassy bite in the finish. The carbonation level is quite high but the body is so clean that it gets away with it, scrubbing the palate without scouring it. At 5.5% ABV it's maybe a bit too full-on to be a true session lager, but a couple of pints is just the ticket.

Open Gate IPAs I have been less on board with. I missed the prequel to today's one, No Limits. This is called Double the Limits, 7.2% ABV, and in a New England kind of style. For all that, it's a clear lager-yellow colour. The texture is properly thick, however, and this helps feed a strong resinous hop character, leafy at first, before easing off to gentler lemon and lime notes. There's a certain cheesy funk in the aroma, and this side gives a mildly sour edge to the flavour which is quite out of keeping with the rest. Overall it's not bad; the flavour does manage to hang together coherently, the mouthfeel is lovely and fluffy and the big strength is well hidden. It's still not a great IPA though, whether double, New England, or however else you slice it.

Eastbound and down, to Urban Brewing. Last month I mentioned that JT from Gipsy Hill had done a collaboration beer here, and lo it arrived on the taps, the cheerily-titled Spring Break, a sour saison of 5.3% ABV with peach and apricot. It's a sunny shade of pale yellow and smells like a fruit sponge. The peach juice leaps out of the flavour first thing, and just when I thought it was going to build to a cloying sugariness, the tartness sweeps in and cuts it off deftly. The finish is merely mildly fruity, showing the melon rinds often found in unadorned saisons, plus a satisfying spark of jasmine perfume. The fruit element does come on a little strong in it, though is entirely in keeping with the beer's mission to be fun and carefree. I liked that it was tempered with the more serious soured and saison sides and would perhaps have preferred more from this. As is, though, it's a great offering.

Irish Altbier seems to be having something of a moment right now, and here was Alt Bier by Urban Brewing. There wasn't much going on in this, which I guess is perfectly on-point for the style, especially the more industrial big-name variants. It's the appropriate rusty colour and tastes dry and crisp. It took me a while to find anything else. A late-rising bitterness was the first distinguishing feature, followed by softer toffee malt as it warmed. Both of these are slight and not terribly distinguished. I was underwhelmed but unoffended by the whole thing.

Not long after, the venue played host to the National Homebrew Club's national championship. I took a quick break from judging there to sample a new offering just arrived on tap: Pan Am, an IPA with added grapefruit and yerba mate. It's a murky red-brown colour and, presumably because of the mate, is absolutely roaring with phenolic smokiness, tasting very similar to a strong cup of lapsang souchong. A tiny spark of citrus begins it, but followed swiftly by a long blast of stale smoke and old rubber, finishing dry and harsh. A noble experiment perhaps, but one that very much didn't suit me. I wouldn't be able to swear that the taste wasn't down to an infection of some sort.

I couldn't leave this post on that bum note, so thankfully was rescued by the next release: Bière de Table. This is broadly a saison, though is stronger than a typical bière de table at 4.9% ABV. It has the proper look, however: a pale and hazy yellow. And it definitely has the flavour, presenting beautiful perfume and spices right from the start. I got jasmine, lavender and incense all the way through, adding a slightly sticky peach nectar to the picture late on, before the long herbal finish. Its farmhouse credentials are present and correct and all the features gel together well. I genuinely got a vibe of Bermondsey from this; the nearest you'll find to The Kernel's version of the style in these parts.

I don't have a new one from JW Sweetman for this round but I'll let Kildare Brewing step in as a surrogate. Late last year, Sweetman ran a homebrew competition and the winner was Brian McSorley's stout Black Ó Lantern. Kildare subsequently brewed it up and sent a keg (the keg, I believe) to JW Sweetman where I got hold of a pint. This is Irish dry stout writ large: a huge dry and bitter hit up front, all black toast and sharply metallic hops. And yet it's not at all harsh, carried by a big and thick treacle base. That treacle brings a certain amount of sweetness into the flavour late on, and then the burnt roast comes back in the finish. It's an absolute beaut and up with the best of the genre, like Wrasslers and Leann Folláin. A repeat brew would be no harm at all.

I'm sure I'm already far behind on what these breweries have released more recently. If you want to find out what they have now it's best to just call in.

16 April 2018

More more more!

I genuinely had only closed off my last Irish beer round-up, and was some way from publishing it, when I started work on this next one. Kinnegar was first to pop into view, with a pair of new additions.

And when I say new, I mean new. Merrytiller dry-hopped saison had been bottled the day before I bought it in the Mace on South Circular. Foolishly I put it in a glass with an etched base, meaning I immediately had a cascade of foam to contend with. When that subsided a little, I was able to get a proper sniff and found a pleasing, easy-breezy, lemon aroma. There's the standard crisp grain of a saison, tasting not overly heavy despite the substantial 5.2% ABV. On top of the malt there's sharp melon rind and soft elderflower -- not unusual for the style -- but then a harsh, bitter soap-like twang which I'm blaming on the dry-hopping and really drains the merriness from the Merrytiller. I thought I might get used to it, that the initial shock would fade, but even at the end of the glass, the twang remained.

Cinch is number seven in the Kinnegar sour series and it's back to basics here. This is the unadorned base beer that they use for the various other versions, and I was keen to try it. It pours quite a dense milky orange-yellow shade, with only a brief head. The texture is light and thirst-quenching and the flavour mixes chalky minerals, light fruit candy and some thicker vanilla and banana. A spark of fresh pineapple twinkles sweetly at the front, while a buzz of rocky nitre hangs around in the finish. There are echoes of lambic, gose, Berliner weisse and various other sour cousins, and it definitely shares the clean and invigorating qualities that have made people want to produce these beers down through the ages. It's an ur-sour, so to speak, and very refreshing to boot.

Beer 5 in the O'Hara's Hop Adventure Series arrived and the brewery kindly sent me a bottle. Hop Adventure Eureka brings us to the US for the first time. It's the normal clear gold colour and the usual 5% ABV, though the lacklustre head makes it seem a little flat. There's not much of an aroma, just a mild grain husk. The flavour... well, there's not much fresh hop. My first and lasting impression is of cheese and onion crisps: the same mix of salt, fried onion and funky mature cheddar. It's not awful, just... weird. Citrus, stone fruit and pine are the claims made on the label. I don't get those at all. As usual for the series, this one is light-bodied and easy-going, but it really lacks hop distinctiveness beyond the weird Tayto thing.

Staying with the old guard of Irish independents, The Porterhouse followed up its Winter Stout with Porterhouse Plain Export. The ABV is identical, at 6.5% ABV, but I don't think it's a straightforward rebadge. While the Winter Stout was all dark fruit and chocolate, this one is harder and bitterer, with a perfume twang on the end. It pulls off the classic Porterhouse trick of brewing in enough flavour to punch through the dulling effects of nitrogenation. The result is a thumping beast of stout, uncompromising and flavourful.

The Taphouse Celebrates series had its first beer event of the year just before Easter when Rascals brought a selection of their wares to Ranelagh for the night. I was there for a second go at the Chardonnay Sparkling Ale, which is still magnificent, and to catch up with Rascals Imperial Stout which I missed at the Alltech festival. The brewery is quite fashion-conscious when it comes to styles and recipes, so it was a surprise to find that this is a dead straight, well-rendered, modestly strong (9% ABV) imperial stout. Coffee roast is the main feature, all freshly brewed filter in the aroma, turning to stronger and bitterer ristretto in the flavour. It has the slick feel of a concentrated coffee too, and the bitterness fades just enough to allow softer high-cocoa dark chocolate notes creep through. This is novelty-free, serious and delicious. It would fit well into their core line-up.

Obviously the lack of gimmickry couldn't last, and the night also featured their 2018 Easter special Chocolate Marshmallow Stout, served with real marshmallows floating in it. Though a lighter 7.5% ABV and including chocolate in the recipe, this had a lot in common with the Imperial. There's a dry coffee roast mixed in with the milky sweetness that does a great job balancing it. The floating confections were entirely uncalled-for, however. I have my limits.

To YellowBelly next, and three new releases landing in quick succession in recent weeks. The first was Now In Session, a session IPA at 4.6% ABV. It's a dense-looking deep orange colour, and features orange in a big way in the flavour. I got candied peel first, followed by a sweet and fruity Fanta vibe. Flowers and spices, rather than true bitterness, back this up: jasmine and honeysuckle. Though it can't be accused of being thin or watery, I found it leaning a little too much the other way: heavy, and increasingly so as it warms. I'm certainly not the first to point out that designing "session beer" isn't just about the strength.

The others I picked up in canned form, starting with Kottbusser, a Kotbusser. The recipe was adapted from Ron Pattinson's Home Brewer's Guide to Vintage Beer and it was brewed as a collaboration with BrewDog, the previous owner of the YellowBelly brew kit. The style is a sour wheat beer and they've stamped their terroir on it by adding local blackcurrants and Scottish heather honey. From the bright purple colour I expected the fruit to be fully in charge of the flavour, but strangely it's the honey that comes first, tasting very floral and very real and adding a waxy quality to the aroma. The sour wheat base kicks in next, not that different from a straight-up Berliner weisse, the light and quenching texture providing no indication that it's 6.2% ABV. The currants are barely noticeable, adding only a tiny bit of their flavour to the finish. It's a fun beer, and worth it for the honey richness alone. Pairing that with a lactic sour bite was inspired. I'm not sure how relevant the historical German style is to the whole picture, but I guess it's another point of interest. I'd like to see more commercial brewers making use of Ron's work -- just don't forget to drop him a few quid for his trouble.

Its companion is another 4.6% ABV session IPA, called It's Elementary, promising Chinook and Simcoe. It popped with tropical hops as soon as the can was opened, though it took me a while to pour because of the hyperactive foam. A similar hazy orange colour as Now In Session, it shares its big body and candy sweetness. However, the hops do a much better job of balancing this one: it's bitterer, with a generous lacing of sharp citrus in with the fresh and fleshy ripe tropical fruit. It's also cleaner, and doesn't clag the way the other one did. A refreshing and breezy floral waft finishes it off. This one is definitely sessionable, being nicely balanced and showing an interesting variety of flavours in a modestly strong package.

Whiplash has been busy on the international circuit lately. I find out about its new beers via bars and festivals in the UK, France and the Netherlands. It's a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. Swoon double IPA eventually made it to DrinkStore whence I acquired a can. In keeping with modern fashion, it pours an opaque orangey-beige and smells juicy and spicy. Between this and the 8% ABV I was anticipating one of those garlic-and-booze bombs, but it's not. Chinook and Vic Secret are the hops involved, and the latter's signature mix of tropical fruit and liquorice is the centrepiece. Juice isn't really a part of the picture and there's a proper hit of grapefruit bitterness in the finish. I also picked up a savoury, dreggy yeast bite in the aftertaste, but this is a very minor bug in the system. This tastes fresh, bright and bold, making excellent use of the substantial hop charge while hiding its strength well. A reminder that those awful-looking beers frequently taste delicious.

Also on a double IPA kick was O Brother, with the release of The Mad Hatter, another 8%-er. It's an innocent orange-gold colour, but thickly textured and syrupy, without the booze heat. The flavour leans heavily to the savoury side, beginning on tangy red onion but turning rawer and harsher as it goes, adding caraway seed and tahini. I get what they're trying to do, and this is all probably as the brewery intended, but the recipe is screaming out for either some tropical fruit to liven it or a sharper bitterness to counteract the syrup.

And finally, The White Hag added a mid-strength IPA to their line-up in the form of Ninth Wave, 5.4% ABV, which I found on draught at P. Mac's. Right from the first sip it has a lot in common with the brewery's iconic Little Fawn, and I suspect that the same Mosaic magic has been wrought over it. A massive juicy outpouring of mango and mandarin opens it, and then keeps going. It's bright, clean and thirst-quenching, though does show a slightly chemical fabric-softener perfume on the end if you look for it. While I really enjoyed my pint, I couldn't help wonder what  the point of this is when Little Fawn already exists.

I think I may have been mistaken when I suggested there wouldn't be as many new Irish beers this year...

13 April 2018

All over the shop

I'm giving up any semblance of order in this final post from Alltech Brews & Food 2018. It's just stuff I found to drink.

Some of it came via Simon, who brought along a selection from Lacada, as is his wont. First out was a brand new sour beer called Oonagh's Secret. Though a little on the strong side at 5.5% ABV, it's pale and clean with just enough of a tart and fruity punch to hold your attention, while still being light and refreshing. It's the sort of thing that ought to be in every brewery's core range.

That was followed by Zostera, a black IPA. This is a meaty 6.4% ABV and pumps out all the taste and aroma in an assertive, confident way. It smells spicy, of nutmeg or allspice, and tastes bitter and tarry. The creamy texture helps offset the more severe side of that, and while the hop flavours don't pop with complexity like in some black IPAs, it's still a solid version.

Half Hung rye IPA has been around since the autumn but this was my first chance to try it. The colour is murky brown and the flavour matches it with a sludgy, dreggy yeast flavour. Neither the hops nor the rye make much contribution. It's certainly no Rustbucket, and at 6.2% ABV it definitely should have more to offer.

New from Hopfully was Baniwa Chilli, a saison that takes its name from the added ingredient (with pineapple and mint) and the Amazon tribe that grows it. It looks like pineapple juice, all murky and white. The flavour is surprisingly dry for all that, true to its saison roots: crisp cereal and a hint of banana ester. It takes a moment to unfold, but the pineapple and mint arrive eventually, adding a note of summery fruit punch, and then there's just a subtle scorch of chilli on the end. At a mere 3.8% ABV it's more a beer for drinking than sipping, built to quench a thirst rather than for considered analysis.

Foreign beer wasn't at all a priority for me, but I did nab a quick (generous!) half of Stone Brewing's Ripper pale ale. It's a bit of an odd one, I thought, beginning with the sugary, syrupy aroma. The flavour brings a rapid burst of zesty grapefruit before turning sweet again. There's a thick and gummy texture making the weedy hops extra resinous. For an American pale ale, albeit one at a biggish 5.7% ABV, it's quite intense and involved. I think I liked it though, for all its show-off acrobatics.

Tallaght's finest, Priory Brewing, was offering two new additions to its core IPA range. From the standard Original Sin, we go down first to Venial Sin session IPA (pictured). I wasn't impressed at first, finding it thin, which isn't terribly surprising at 3.8% ABV. It improves as it warms, with emerging flavours of spiced red cabbage and black pepper. There are no sensory loop-the-loops here, but I can see it working very well for a pint or several.

Up the other end of the peccatorial scale is, obviously, Mortal Sin, at 8% ABV. It's every bit as serious as the name suggests: heavily textured yet similarly spicy, and packed with funky hop resins. A real old-school job, it has no truck with fruity high notes, going all out for that bitter bite. After a few pints of Venial, this is one to finish your night on, but be sure to go to confession in the morning.

That leaves just our hosts to round things out. Of course Alltech's own beer was a major part of the offer at the festival, and as usual the Kentucky Ales bar was the centrepiece. Tucked away in a corner, however, there was another bar for the pilot-batch beers from Alltech's Irish brewing arm, Station Works.

The way-out experimental recipes on offer included, er, Station Works Lager. It was lovely, though. A middle-of-the-road 4.5% ABV, opening on fresh lemons and based on a super-clean base of crusty white bread, The hops reassert at the end of a bitter finish. A classical rendering of all that's good and holy about German helles and pilsner.

For something with a bit more wahey!, here's a Sherry Cask Red Ale. It didn't taste to me of sherry, exactly, but more a mélange of red wine and sweet liqueurs, showing notes of chocolate, vanilla, cherry and raspberry. The oak brings a little harshness, so perhaps longer ageing is required. Overall it's pretty good, for a taster of a novelty. I don't think I'd object if it showed up for sale in small bottles.

Next is Damien's Peanut Porter. I was sceptical, to say the least. It's a tough beer to be angry with, however, offering freshly-baked cookies as well as some properly grown-up bitter roast. The balance is excellent and, unlike so many pastry stouts, the ABV is modest at 5%. It's another one I probably wouldn't drink a lot of, but one sample clearly showed the brewer's skill.

It's back to the press room for the last one, which conversely was the first beer I had at the festival. Station Works Imperial Stout is 10.5% ABV and barrel-aged. I got lots of red wine from it: tannic and fruity. There's a thick layer of very strong coffee and an umami element suggesting that this one probably got quite enough time in the barrel, if not too long. An almost total lack of carbonation let it down, so it wasn't quite as enjoyable as the others, but still pretty decent for a big stout of this kind.

That's Alltech done for another year. Well done to all involved. Beer festivals are getting thinner on the ground in these parts, so I for one am happy that this fixture is here every spring. Long may it continue.


11 April 2018

Still rolling

The middle post from Alltech Brews & Food concerns the more familiar brewers, the ones I drink a lot, and now just happen to be drinking them here.

On the first evening there was a tasting for media types where a selection of brewers (and distillers) brought samples to talk about. Aidan from Galway Hooker opened the proceedings with the new Galway Hooker Honey Beer, brewed with locally sourced honey. Though presented as a brown ale it didn't look very brown to me, more a medium amber colour. The aroma was similar to that of a quality pilsner, grassy and floral, making me wonder if that's attributable to the special ingredient. It turns into more of a brown ale on tasting: thickly textured and leading with toffee, followed by wheaty cereal and a crisp roast finish. There are no way-out bells and whistles, and the honey is easily missed, but it's still solid, and doubtless deserving of a bigger sample than I had.

Not to be outdone, Wicklow Wolf also had a honey beer at the gig, this one with added elderflower and brewed with international brewing celebrity Anders Kissmeyer. Wolf Kiss is the name: 6% ABV and a clear darkish gold colour. The aroma was a little off-putting, being funky, with an edge of ammonia or even urine about it. The texture is thin and the flavour intensely sweet, adding up to something that reminded me of plain, straight, white lemonade. A mild peppercorn spice offers some contrast, but overall it just didn't work for me, on any level.

That didn't stop me from heading straight to the Wicklow Wolf bar first thing on the Saturday afternoon. They were also pouring a new-release coffee porter called Black Gold, the fourth beer of that name to feature on this blog, fact fans. This is a bit of a stonker at 7.8% ABV. I'm usually fairly well-disposed to coffee as an ingredient in dark beers, but this takes the complementary flavours to a whole new level. There's a beautiful melding of the two kinds of roast, plus the chocolate from the beer meeting the sweet and oily coffee beans. That leaves a long finish, aided by a gorgeous creamy texture, as well as providing an invigorating pure coffee aroma. Great stuff.

Black's of Kinsale had an impressively long bar, featuring two new sour beers. Both were 4% ABV and, tasting side-by-side, I couldn't pick much difference between them. Solero Passion Fruit should have had a sweet fruit character, but didn't, turning out quite savoury with lots of chalky minerals. Wild Thing, then, tasted like a very basic Berliner weisse, dry and plain, and while perfectly thirst-quenching it has little character beyond that.

That must have left me in the mood for something else sour because my notes go straight to Lough Gill next, and their Sligose oyster and seaweed beer. Top marks, first of all, for a "gose" pun that actually works. It's as pale yellow as one might expect, 5.6% ABV and tasting very witbier-like at first, going big on bittersweet herbs and crunchy wheat. I waited for the sourness to kick in but it never happened, the herbs intensifying to a kind of minty humbug flavour. It's a lovely beer, complex, engaging and tremendous fun. I missed the gose element of the taste, however.

Something more down to earth from the same bar next: Lost Armada, a pale ale. I don't know what hops they used in this but it must have been a lot. It has that raw and leafy quality of pure hops, beyond citrus fruit and into crunchy green veg; al dente sprouts and broccoli. And yet it's not harsh or acidic, showing a balanced bitterness and no more. You can forget about malt though: what's there is purely structural.

I saved the 9.5% ABV barrel-aged barley wine until the end of this visit. Old Coot served its time in a Speyside whisky barrel but to me it tasted of wine: dark and fruity, like black cherries in particular. The aroma is tart and the flavour dry, so no malt-driven sugar-bomb here. The texture, however, is appropriately heavy without turning cloying. A proper Bigfoot-like hop bitterness forms the finish. It's a beer of contrasts, immensely complex and rewarding of considered sipping. Not that that was likely to happen in the midst of a festival like this.

Moving on, I noticed Carrig had a poster up for its Cael & Crede red ale which it bottles for the US market. It's a blousy 6.5% ABV but that's probably the most interesting thing about it. Beyond that it's a fairly simple sweet and sticky, toffee-laden Irish red. I wouldn't be too offended if that's what its demographic thinks Irish people drink.

From the hoppier side of the brewery's whiteboard comes Alexanderplatz, a mid-strength IPA (5.5% ABV) showcasing Mandarina Bavaria hops. It arrived lovely and clear, though the aroma was a little sweaty, giving off the expected oranges but a bit of a funk as well. Unlike most recent Carrig offerings it tastes quite sweet, with a fair whack of gummy vanilla and a lacing of coconut. Thankfully there's just enough bitterness to cover it and the end result is decent and modern, if a little lacking in old-fashioned punch.

A year after their first appearance in Dublin, Bridewell of Cliden were back with a third beer: Festus. The slightly odd formula here is a dark lager recipe brewed with an ale yeast and carrying elements from both. It has the crisp and clean roast of a schwarzbier, and some funky hop resins: Mandarina at work again. The ale side of the equation is in the texture, a certain greasy fullness as you'd find in some English dark ales. It's pleasant and would certainly do in a pinch if one is stuck in Connemara craving mid-European black beer.

The other western brewery with a new beer with a short name was Reel Deel, bringing Recon. This is a brown ale (fashionably unfashionable!), all of 6.5% ABV, due in some part at least to time spent in Connemara Whiskey barrels. It really blends the two sides beautifully: all the sumptuous chocolate of a smooth and chewy brown ale overlaid with the bright meadow honey of good Irish whiskey. The texture is suitably thick and the finish long and warming. A gorgeous celebration of malt, all-in-all.

I think Boyne Raspberry Sour is my first sour beer from the Drogheda brewery. It's 4.9% ABV, bright pink and going all out for the fruit, very much at the expense of the sourness. "Hot jam" say my notes, meaning it has all the taste of the sugar and the raspberry seeds. I'm reminded of the fruit-heavy sour beers Open Gate has been brewing. Maybe there's a market for this sort of thing -- all those Belgian brewers can't be wrong -- but I can't help feeling nobody wants to actually brew beer like this.

Between Black Gold and Recon I thought I had picked my top beers of the gig, but on one of my last circuits I noticed the Chardonnay Sparkling Ale, tucked away at a right angle on the Rascals bar. Wow. I found it hard to believe this started out as Happy Days session IPA: the barrel really did a number on it, beginning at the striking champagne aroma, all light toast and dry white grapes. The flavour is a bit more lary, bringing floral bathroom-cabinet lavender, chamomile and jasmine, though there's also more subtle and classy wine tannin too. Despite the big flavours it's very refined, reminding me in particular of DOT Brew's magnificent Champagne Beer from 2016. And like that one, it seems like a beer that won't be around long. Grab it while you can -- this Saturday at UnderDog would be a start.

One more spin around the Convention Centre to come on Friday.

09 April 2018

A fresh look

Alltech's beer extravaganza rolled into town in early March for its sixth annual outing. The untimely death of company founder Pearse Lyons on the day the gig opened failed to put a damper on things, and the show rolled on as a tribute to his memory. Exhibitor numbers were down, affording extra elbow room in the Convention Centre's main hall. And I still didn't get to try every beer on offer, so no complaints about the scope of the selection from me.

New breweries are always a major draw, so I made an early appearance at the Brewmaster beer stall. This range is produced by Dundalk Bay Brewery, itself a subsidiary of metal fabricator Spectac. I had assumed that the intention was to present the brewery as a showpiece for potential customers, and it may still be, but its primary purpose is as a white-label facility for contract brewing.

The three beers on offer weren't the most distinctive of styles: a lager, a red and an IPA. Brewmaster Lager is 4.2% ABV and surprisingly sweet, to the point of being almost syrupy. Brewmaster Red piles on the caramel, lacing it with chocolate in a complementary way. It's sweet again, but more manageable with it, tasting like it should be thick while staying light and drinkable. Lastly, Brewmaster IPA is simple and dry, easy-going with just an edge of grapefruit but nothing more intense than that. I expected a bigger kick from its 5.5% ABV.

Clearly there has been no attempt to blow socks off with this lot, but I can see how a publican, looking for something unchallenging for the regulars, might consider re-badging one or more of these.

It was my first time meeting the owner of Ballykilcavan Brewing, currently under construction in Laois, with beers brewed using their own malt at Kildare Brewing, for the moment. Brickyard Red is where I started, copper coloured and a light 4% ABV. It's fairly plain fare, leaning heavily on the dry and toasty-roasty side. New for the festival was Long Meadow IPA, with a candyfloss malt base and a certain lime sharpness -- balanced and easy-going. Pick of the lot was their Irish Hopped Pale Ale, brewed with a variety of varieties, also grown on their own farm. I got a feel of really good pale-and-hoppy English bitter from this: a clean and crisp grain crunch, lemon zest and a dry mineral finish. It's one I could drink a lot of so it's a shame it's so seasonal.

Finally for this opening post, The first set of core beers from Larkin's. I've been following this Wicklow brewery with interest since they first appeared at the RDS festival last autumn. Lager is a speciality and that's why there are four of them in the main six.

My journey started with Larkin's Märzen, which is quite a dark version of the style: a deep orange-amber, resembling an American Oktoberfestbier. It certainly gets its money's worth out of the extra malt, with a huge and sweet biscuit melanoidin foretaste. There's enough noble-hop spinach bitterness to counter it, resulting in a big and bruising, but highly enjoyable, chewer of a lager.

As a palate cleanser afterwards I went for Larkin's Helles. This didn't impress so much. Sure, it looks the part: as clear and gold as you like. The texture is decent, but lacks the soothing ultra-smoothness of really good helles; while the flavour lacks any kind of hop character, or cakey malt, giving just a mild crisp grain crunch. It's serviceable but rather plain: a lager for lager's sake.

I saved Larkin's Baltic Porter until quite late into the festival, even though it is a little weak for the style at 7% ABV.  It's still bang on where flavour is concerned, however: a big liquorice bitterness greets the palate, followed by strong dark chocolate notes. The cool fermentation gives it a superb cleanness and makes it a Baltic porter that's definitely drinkable by the pint, as they should be.

The strongest lager was Larkin's Doppelbock at 7.6% ABV, and this one I found a little too hot and heavy. The deep chestnut red colour is its best feature. The flavour begins on pleasant caramel and hazelnut but they're joined too quickly by hot and cloying esters, making for some tough drinking.

I left the ales to last, starting on Larkin's Pale Ale, which represents a major climbdown in strength at just 4.5% ABV. It's a pale and hazy bright orange colour and exudes a massive jaffa orange aroma. The bitterness is very low, its flavour going instead for a sherbet-like spritz and zest. It's very modern-tasting, though without resorting to sickly vanilla or leaving any nasty yeast residue in the taste. Perhaps most amazingly, it's all done with Cascade hops, I'm told.

Larkin's IPA brings us home. This has a pure haze-craze appearance: smoothie to the point of soupy. The aroma follows up this suggestion of New Englandism with a mix of juicy peach and acidic spinach. On tasting that becomes soft honeydew melon followed by a buzz of garlic or spring onion, set on a smooth body. Where one might expect the claggy sweetness to kick in there's just a long and satisfying proper hop bitterness, lasting late into the finish. These two are quite a switch from the super-traditional lagers, but also a very pleasant one.

More new beers from Alltech next, though this time from more familiar producers.