25 May 2016

The one and the zero

Digital IPA is the first Yeastie Boys beer I've ever had. It has been popping up in lots of places around Dublin lately and I caught up with it at Alfie Byrne's.

5.7% ABV and a perfectly clear gold colour, this stuff is New Zealand in a glass. It has all of that spicy, peppery hop blast that switches over into ripe mango mid-sip and continues in this binary fashion -- spicy and juicy -- all the way along. The firm body helps the hop flavours do their thing, but it's so clean it could still pass for being a much lower-strength beer. I got a tiny touch of butane or diesel in the finish, those crazy kiwi hops again.

More than anything this is an entertaining beer. I'm guessing from the supreme freshness it was actually brewed somewhat closer to home than Wellington -- I understand some of that work happens in the UK these days. But it certainly does a great job as an ambassador for its purported country. I'd love it if a beer could taste so unmistakeably of Ireland as this does of New Zealand.

23 May 2016

Black hops

There's a bit of a buzz going round about the "Discovery IPA Series" recently released by Black's of Kinsale. You'll find glowing reviews from Simon, Reuben and Wayne, so I was sufficiently convinced to go and get some myself.

It did help that there's a Mosaic IPA in the set. Mosaic can do no wrong. This is 6.5% ABV and slightly hazy. There is a bee-yootiful juicy aroma, all satsuma, tangerine, mango and possibly a variety of other good things. It's hoppy. It smells hoppy. The flavour is a bit more savory: there's a touch of spring onion and spiced red cabbage, but the juice is there in the finish, albeit in a slightly muted form. This is a superbly complex number, firmly giving the lie to notions of single hop beers being one-dimensional. There's something in here for everyone, assuming they aren't averse to lovely hops.

A notch down from there is Exp 439 IPA, a light 4.3% ABV job, looking lovely and clear and warmly golden, like a beautiful classic lager. Lacking even a proper name, it's hard to know what to expect from hop variety Exp 439, but dank appears to be a big part of it: this smells thickly resinous with lots of herbal grassy tones. It's not so interesting to taste, however. There's a wateriness at the core of this beer which suggests Black's hasn't quite got the hang of the session IPA thing. It's like the hops are present but there's nothing for them latch on to and they just slide sideways off the palate as a result. I get what this beer is trying to be, but more substance is required.

So just as well I get to follow it with Overkill, a 9.5% ABV imperial black IPA. It's certainly black, with a healthy layer of white bubbles on top. The aroma is muted, to the point of being barely-there, just a little mild roastiness. And, a bit like the main Black's Black IPA, this tastes much more stout-like than IPA-ish. The flavour is very smooth and has a lovely gentle citric tang which lasts long into the finish overlaid with dark roast and a slightly metallic aspirin bitterness. I was expecting a much more aggressive beer -- I guess it's the name -- so it's an odd mix of disappointment and relief that it isn't that. Overkill is relaxing drinking and you need a lot of reminders that it's as strong as it is: there's absolutely no sign of all that alcohol in either the flavour or the texture.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it looks like Mosaic wins again.

20 May 2016

Chasing Trouble

Lately I've been all over the southside, looking for Trouble. It started with the grand re-opening of Ranelagh's The Hill as a craft beer bar. I lived around the corner when I first moved to Dublin so remember this as a dark and slightly down-at-heel football pub. Darragh (pictured, right) and Derek from Ugly Duckling have taken it on, brightened it up, and installed a wide selection of good draught beers.

Opening night saw the début of the first of this set of new Trouble offerings: Stakeout, described as an "American Wheat Ale". I was sceptical: in my head, that combination of words means a wheat beer fermented with a neutral ale yeast and sorely lacking in character. Early American craft brewing seemed to be awash with them but you don't see them as much any more. In 2016, "American" seems to have become a signal that we are to expect citric hops, and so it goes with this. The wheat is still a big part of what it does: the haze is that of a wheat beer, as is the soft pillowy weissbier texture. Then there's a quenching tropical juiciness from the hops, guava and papaya flavours assertively refreshing, though perhaps turning a little too bitter on the finish. At 5.4% ABV it's substantial without being unsessionable. Another welcome addition to the Trouble pantheon of hop-forward delights.

To The Beer Market a week later, and a pint of Last Crash, a passionfruit lager, of all things. This had been pouring in a few places around the country -- cheers to Liam for the heads-up that it had made it to Dublin at last. And it's hard to think of anything to write, beyond the brewery's own description. It's got passionfruit and it's a lager. The former is a huge and rather sickly hit, on both the aroma and right through the flavour. It smells and tastes pink, with a fleshy fruit softness up front and then a harder twangy bitterness at the end. There's a certain syrupyness to the effect, as though the passionfruit were the tinned variety rather than fresh. Behind this sits the lager itself, and I got the impression it's a rather good one: crisp and husky, while the post-gulp burps brought a waft of grassy Saaz to the palate, as well as the fruit flavour add-on. I drank this quickly but couldn't help wondering how it would have turned out without being, erm, "enhanced".

Last Crash is fun for one, but the novelty wears off quickly. Should you find yourself ordering a second it's possible that you don't like drinking beer. Have a word with yourself.

Beer three landed at 57 the Headline following a world première at the Belfast Craft Beer Festival in late April. Owl Day is a pale stout at 6.1% ABV. Yellow Belly has been twiddling with this style for a while now, and they have a bottled version knocking around now. Trouble's attempt is definitely pale, a clear orange-gold behind the condensation on that glass. The aroma is low: just a touch of green-veg old-world hops. The illusion is all accomplished in the flavour: a big and crunchy Irish stout roast opens it up, followed by a rather forced-tasting chocolate and coffee. The finish is dry but it still leaves a bit of a sickly impression from the chocolate. So, yes, this beer does successfully achieve what it's trying to do -- it really is a pale beer that has the assorted flavour characteristics of a dry stout -- but it's not a dry stout and, beyond the gimmicky giggles, isn't something I'd be interested in drinking again. Where black IPAs brought something new and thought-provoking to the beer world, pale stout, in my opinion, does not.

And finally it's back to The Hill for a fourth beer: Amber Avenger. Sorachi Ace hops loom large in this, producing big, big coconut flavours with just a slightly more severe acidic burn coming in behind that. I was fairly convinced that it was a single-hop job, but a glance at the Trouble website tells me there's Wakatu and Mosaic in it as well. They have been thoroughly bullied into submission by their loud Japanese colleague, however. As befits an amber ale there's a strong contribution from the malt, but here it's more texture than flavour: it's a heavy and filling beer, tasting stronger than its 5.5% ABV. There's maybe a slight crystal malt sweatiness, but not so much that it interferes with the hops.

Stakeout and Amber Avenger are my top picks out of this lot, which leaves me wondering if Trouble Brewing's hop mastery is leaving it at risk of being a one-note operation. Probably not. I'm just a bit intolerant of gimmicky recipes, unless they taste better than the middle two here.

18 May 2016

On a promise

I like Mosaic hops. I like Founders brewery. I'm... fairly indifferent to Golden Promise malt, but the joining up of the first two was enough to pique my interest when Founders Mosaic Promise rolled into view. This is 5.5% ABV and a pale gold colour. I noticed a lot of gunk sloshing around in the bottom of the bottle so I poured carefully and got a clear glassful for my troubles.

There's a lovely spicy aroma. I've heard Mosaic described as having a garlic quality and I get a bit of that here: savoury, but fun. No garlic on tasting, though. The flavour hits that perfect sweet spot on the American hop flavour spectrum: a bit of sharp pine, some mouthwatering citrus, quenching peach and passionfruit and a subtle white pepper or rocket finish. And yet none of those elements dominate or unbalance the flavour. It's nearly perfect except... the malt lets the side down. The body is thin and the finish on tasting is unpleasantly watery, unexpectedly so for a beer of this strength. Can I forgive it? Yes. Ignore the ABV and pretend it's a point or two weaker. Call it an imperial session IPA: I don't care. It's damn decent drinking and another high-five to lovely Mosaic.

16 May 2016

What a con!

The National Homebrew Club held its second annual Brewing Convention in Dublin last month. El Presidente Thomas invited me to the after party in the neo-Gothic splendour of Smock Alley Theatre's Banquet Hall. Yellow Belly had brewed a beer especially for the day. As a non-member of the NHC, I can't comment on the appropriateness of its name: Keyboard Warrior. Declan is manning the taps there and he cheekily described it as a 6% ABV session IPA. It's certainly sessionable in the sense that the flavours are a little muted. I found it quite English-tasting, with subtle notes of orange blossom and a light pithiness. A dry, tannic centre ensures drinkability. If I were making IPA for an assembled mass of home brewers I'd probably have gone more for the hop wow factor, but maybe that's the point.

Back from travels in Spain and England, Steve came bearing bottles he had picked up along the way. The first being passed around was The Matador from Flying Monkeys brewery in Ontario. It's a deep red colour, rather murky, and both smells and tastes like a bathroom cabinet circa 1978. The Great Smell of Brut™ is hardwired into my brain, and those wires lit up with just a smell of this. For the record, it's a dark rye ale, aged on cedar, coming out at 10.1% ABV, but all you need to know is that it tastes like stale cheap cologne, is napalm-thick and damn near undrinkable.

This was followed by yet more cedar, in the form of El Cedro, described by brewers Jester King as a "hoppy cedar-aged ale with brettanomyces". Now this is more like it. The brett aroma is huge and stinkily beautiful, the honking funk just pitching slightly towards tropical fruit, before going full-on peach and pineapple when tasted. The cedar gives it just a gentle and complementary pepper buzz. And the slightly sour (but not tart) brett farmyard character is there too. All big flavours, but popping together in sublime harmony. Beautiful, and fun to boot.

Last of the big bottles in circulation was Wild Beer Co.'s Beyond Modus II (The Blend, Winter 2015), offering yet more barrels and brettanomyces. The base beer is a mixed fermentation sour ale, and that is still very much what it's doing. I was reminded a lot of Rodenbach, though it's bigger and chewier than Rodenbach classic while not as aggressively vinegary as Grand Cru. There's a wonderful balsamic cherry effect, as well as a heady dose of earthy brett. The biggest surprise is that it's only 6% ABV -- it's so complex I was expecting a few points more. But I'm not complaining: this is fine drinking and another lovely example of the sour and the funky performing well together.

We finish on a beer Thomas himself brought to the party, BrewDog's AB:13, a cherry imperial stout brewed in 2013. I got massive autolysis from this: soy sauce in spades, alongside cocoa powder, raisins and chocolate syrup. There's quite a sherry buzz as well, the grapes turning a bit Pedro Ximinez on it. More than anything it reminded me of Samuel Adams Triple Bock, though thinner and less coherent. Perhaps this was better when fresher but I don't think it has aged well.

And then it was back to the homebrews: Brendan's rauch märzen was my favourite of the day. We're in for a treat when that guy goes commercial.

Thanks to all who brought beer on the day, and to the hospitable organisers who put on a very impressive event. Plans have been hatched for 2017 and it sounds like it'll be even better.

13 May 2016

Any given Friday

When I first visited The Open Gate Brewery, Diageo's Dublin brewpub, I expressed some concern about its lack of, well, openness: that you need to plan forward and book in advance to visit, and how this is likely to keep the masses away from what is intended as a reaching-out gesture. I've been back in a few times over the intervening months, though always as part of invitation-only events and I was very curious to see what The Open Gate is like on a typical Friday evening. So, having waited for the brewing roster to turn out some new stuff, I made arrangements a few weeks ago and headed in.

Pleasingly, the system does seem to be working. It was a mixed crowd, including the inevitable tourists, though very much of the prior beer-enthusiast persuasion. And then groups of locals: either workplace groups or friends using it as somewhere to congregate before moving on to the rest of the evening. And the spirit of the venue was also being observed: folk leaned in as the bar staff explained the beers, others wandered from table to table, inspecting and sniffing the jars of assorted hop pellets. It was a bar themed around beer the way almost no Dublin bar is. Score one for the geeks.

But I wasn't there just to look round me. There was beer to be evaluated. The headline draw was 1516 Anniversary Pilsner, created by ex-Alpirsbacher brewer Jasmin Winterer as the Guinness tribute to 500 years of Reinheitsgebot. The sample I got in my introductory flight looked a bit sad: the perfect clear shade of spun gold, but lacking any sort of head. I traded up to a pint before leaving and that's really how this beer needs to be enjoyed. And enjoy you will: a classically grassy noble hop aroma starts it off, as well as a soft rub of light diacetyl. On taste it's perfectly crisp with a light green Saaz bite, gentle white pepper and a mild baked-cookie malt note. The only fly in this ointment is a tiny one: a finish that's just too abrupt, leaving this drinker hankering for more of a bitter smack on the end, where there's only mineral water fizz. But otherwise it's an extremely well executed pils and a beer I would happily drain many pints of were it more widely available.

A tough act to follow, and next along was Offset Rye IPA, launched in association with the Offset design festival a few months back and causing a storm of controversy after the organisers cancelled a previous sponsorship arrangement they'd had with Kinnegar Brewing. Well, as far as the liquid is concerned, the brewers of Rustbucket have no cause for concern. While Offset does contain enough rye and hops for both to be tastable, it's dominated by a sweet toffee flavour which belongs in a red ale, not here. There's a mild rasping rye grassiness and a token tang of generic citrus but not enough of either to make the beer worthwhile. If you came to Open Gate to learn about IPA, this will leave you with a false impression, even if you enjoy the beer, as some people apparently do.

Last of the new ones is a Chocolate & Vanilla Stout, bearing some resemblance to the Milk Stout they were serving at the opening, in strength at least, at 6.3% ABV. I wasn't quite sure what it was trying to achieve. Yes, there is both chocolate and vanilla in the flavour, and it is predominantly sweet, but I think there's been an effort made to avoid cloying sickliness and this has toned things down to the point where the beer lacks distinguishing features. It's quite bland, in other words, and I ended up hankering after the mild sour twang that defines Guinness stout. The body is lacking as well, and the sweetness grows while it warms. Brewing a beer that's both overly sweet and overly thin is definitely a mortaller.

Antwerpen, the microbrewed version of Special Export Stout, was still on tap and I filled out my flight with one of those: and there's that sour twang. I got it to compare with some that they've been ageing in a rum barrel for a few weeks. It's made a huge difference as well: the sap and sawdust of the wood is very apparent, and there's a little of the sugary spirit as well, but what really interested me is how much has been lost: all the lactic elements, and the smooth creaminess is stripped out. The end result is still weighty and warming but the flavour just isn't as complex. It has been dumbed down. I've occasionally suspected that barrel ageing isn't always in the beer's best interests and this is very much an example of when it's not.

So, pilsner aside, I'm coming out of The Open Gate yet again rather disappointed by the quality of the beers. But chalked up on the blackboard was a forthcoming "Tropical IPA". Nothing can possibly go wrong with that, right?

11 May 2016

Blonde porter?

I don't know anything about Hertalse Poorter, though judging from the label it appears to be endorsed by Renaissance Donald Trump. I do know that, despite the name, it's not a porter, the paleness visible through the brown glass of the bottle and pouring revealing it to be a very light shade of Budweiser yellow. Originally the glassful was perfectly clear but I got greedy and topped it up after the head settled, landing a pinch or two of yeast into the rest. Maybe it'll add character.

It smells pleasant: lightly peachy with a hint of pear. Getting to the flavour was harder work, however, due to the heavy fizz, its overactive bubbles jamming the taste signals initially. The beer underneath is fairly plain: a crisp and grainy blonde ale that's almost lagerlike. What rescues it from mediocrity is that fruit character I identified in the aroma, coming through here as lychee and hondeydew. The label mentions that it's brewed with spices local to Herentals (near Antwerp) but elaborates no further. Maybe they have something to do with the flavour, in which case, well done them. Despite it being a 6.5% ABV Belgian blonde it has no headachey esters or cloying residual sugars and I don't miss them one bit.

This was a pleasant surprise and a beer I'd be happy to drink again some sunny day.