08 October 2015

Press pass pilsners

Camden Exchange has been open since the beginning of the summer. It's the latest addition to the strip of bars running down Camden Street in central Dublin, already known for its late-night pack-'em-in superpubs. It's big but not huge (have a walk round) and a bit of money has been spent on the faux-industrial interior. The best feature is probably the generous beer garden out back. The food is good and the beer choice extensive, with a mix of craft and macro, Irish and imported, spread across 20 or so taps. But, on my first visit, a €6.50 pint of Metalman Pale Ale left a bitterness that had nothing to do with Summit or Cascade and meant I wasn't in a rush to go back.

In August, Camden Exchange held its gala opening and the management kindly invited me along. The beer was free and the food was free so it was all rather jolly. I started with a beautifully refreshing pint of Camden Hells and left on a fabulously juicy Punk IPA, but in between, in the hope of getting a blog post out of the freebie, I scoured the taps for something I'd never reviewed before. There was just one: Birra Moretti. I'll have a pint of that, so. Stick it on the boss's tab.

Heineken's headline Italian offering is definitely doing its job up against arch-rival Peroni: it has the same watery core and the same unpleasant metallic tang, though is perhaps not quite as gassily vapid. It's still pretty terrible and certainly a totally different species to the Hells which preceded it.

If you're going to Camden Exchange on your own dime -- and do give the food menu a go -- it's probably best to pick your beer a bit more carefully than I did here. Cheers to the team for inviting me.

More recently, I was invited out to a launch evening at Box Burger in Bray. This venue, from the owners of Platform Pizza next door and the Harbour Bar across the way, is situated in part of what was once Bray railway station and has been lovingly stripped out to reveal lots of the original brickwork. The burgers are damn decent and there's a distinct Wicklow tilt to the drinks offer, with beer from Wicklow Wolf and O Brother plus cider by Cragie's. But there are imports too, so my tick of the evening was Camden Town Pils. As I mentioned on Monday, straight-up good-quality lager is something of a stock-in-trade at Camden Town so I was expecting a sharp and refreshing pint here, but that's not what I got. For one thing it was hazy, looking an unhealthy wan yellow, though thankfully the taste was not upset by any yeast interference. But its flavour isn't exactly the profile I associate with pils, being full of soft lemon sherbet rather than grass or herbs. It's smooth and very tasty, just not especially pils-like in my estimation.

Thanks to all the Box Burger crew for the evening's hospitality. It's well worth checking out if you're down Bray way, and that's not just the free truffle-oil-and-parmesan burger talking.

05 October 2015

Under the influence

For all that the UK has its own distinctive beer vernacular, UK brewers in recent years have increasingly taken on influences from abroad. This post looks at a few examples of that in action.

Among those making use of the marketing potential are London's Fourpure, whose beers are now available in Marks & Spencer. Fourpure Pils is 4.7% ABV and badged as "inspired by Munich". Not a city I'd have automatically associated with this style, but they do have pils there so fair enough. It poured a worrying hazy yellow but smelled reassuringly fresh and clean: some light crisp cereals overlaid with new-mown grass and softer stonefruit. There's a lovely smooth texture making it extremely sinkable. The fruit element is lost but the fresh grass effect infuses the whole flavour, mossy and moist to begin, with a harder acidic kick on the finish. Yes there's a slight savoury yeast buzz in there too but it doesn't spoil what's otherwise a damn decent session lager, one which I think would pass muster in Germany.

For their next trick, Fourpure has taken on New York, of all places, with Fourpure Session IPA, light even for this style at 4.2% ABV. It's murky as hell but smells gorgeous, popping with grapefruit and pineapple. And that's there in the flavour too but only fleetingly as a hollow watery character brings the hop fun to an abrupt close. The malt base peeps out a little as it warms, toffee and candyfloss, but not providing enough body to dispel the wateriness. And while I'm kicking it, there's a distinct yeast bite, adding the wrong sort of bitterness to the finish. It's not a bad beer: the attractive shapes thrown by the hops inspire a lot of forgiveness in me, but with a bit more body and a lot less yeast it could be a whole lot better, in this drinker's opinion.

Staying in M&S but switching to their own brands, I picked up this bottle of Greenwich Black IPA, brewed by Meantime "inspired by American craft beers". Hey: I like American craft beers! Maybe this will do what they do. It's 5.7% ABV and a dense, opaque black. It smells wholesome and portery: very English. And that's equally true on tasting. The hops are English hops, vegetal and metallic, balanced against dark toffee and liquorice on a creamy body. Lovely drinking but not even remotely like an American IPA. I'm happy to forgive that, though, and just settle into a pleasant traditional-style pint.

I'm not sure what to make of Haus Party by Camden Town Brewery which I found on draught at The Beer Market recently. This London brewery normally does very clean bright lagers and pale ales, and this is a murky red-brown amber ale in a vaguely American style despite the half-German name. The taste pulls in all manner of different directions at once: toffee over here, lavender this way, meadow flowers on another side. The aroma, meanwhile is an unrelated mix of spicy sherbet and citrus. A lot going on, and when it settles, a few sips in, it seems to me the lavender and sherbet which coalesce, resulting in a bathsalts effect. Very unusual and I'm not quite sure it works. Certainly the first beer of this kind that I've tasted from Camden Town.

Bringing up the rear, and taking us out of London, another US-influenced one. Bear State is an IPA from Thornbridge and was also found at The Beer Market. I came to it a little wary, having been disappointed by previous American-influenced Thornbridge beers, but this is a beaut. It arrived a perfect clear gold colour and sets up its stall with a fantastic fresh and juicy aroma, all apricot and honeydew. A pithy bitterness kicks off the flavour and then steps aside to allow the more subtle grapefruit and peach through. Above all it's light and clean -- almost lagery, in fact -- which is extra amazing given it's a massive 7% ABV. I could drink a lot of it and not be sorry. For a while.

Some really well done beers here, and the faithfulness to their origins matters not a jot. It's better than five boring takes on brown bitter, for sure.

01 October 2015

Next in line

You're not a proper craft brewer unless you do one-off beers in a sequence of related recipes or themes. Two such are the subject of today's post.

Simcoe SMASH is the fourth and allegedly final in Trouble Brewing's series of single-malt, single-hop pale ales and had been out a while before I chanced upon it one evening in 57 The Headline. Like its predecessors it's a nicely sessionable 4.8% ABV and this time the malt is Propino, the first of the series to utilise Irish grain. But the malt doesn't contribute very much to it: the colour is very pale, though beautifully clear. There's a gentle lemon sherbet aroma at first, turning to richer sweet stonefruit once the beer has warmed up a little. The first sip reveals an intensely sharp lemon tart bitterness with a strong perfume aftertaste. I'll be honest: it's not what I expected from Simcoe -- no heavy dank or resinous funk -- but I think it's a better beer for that, loud and rudely bitter, but great fun to drink.

Over at Galway Bay, meanwhile, they've brewed a sequel to their collaboration with Chicago's Begyle, Goodbye Blue Monday. But while that was a hefty IPA (and a rather good one at that), Maybe Next Monday is a dry-hopped low-strength sour beer. €6.75 a pint was the asking price and, haha, obviously I'm not paying that, so settled for a €3.90 33cl serving. The sour bits and the hoppy bits both come on very strong and obvious in this, with an end result that tastes like a soured fruit cocktail. There's an unpleasant, out-of-character, stickiness to the whole thing which, allied with the hops, makes it taste like Um Bongo or similar children's tropical juice drink, with an added lactic tang and then an oxidised cardboard twang on the end. Barry, sitting next to me, nailed the yoghurt-and-fruit effect as like a peach-flavoured Petits Filous. This is a very silly beer, and might make for a fun novelty if it wasn't for the po-faced pricetag. It definitely shouldn't command the same sort of money as a properly-made lambic.

I'll miss the Trouble SMASH series, it was a great idea and yielded some excellent results. And the growth of nouveau-sour in Ireland and abroad? I look forward to that getting better. The next one from Galway Bay, Godspeed, arrives in their pubs today.

28 September 2015

On the downlow

Careful what you wish for. I complained about how palate-clogging the beers were at The Irish Craft Beer Festival and then the next two Irish ones to come my way were, well, not exactly flavour powerhouses.

The Thursday after the festival saw the launch of JW Sweetman's latest: Indian Summer. It came with zero explanation of its style or strength, but that's always fun. If I had to guess I'd be calling it an English-style bitter: clear copper in colour, light of texture and of flavour. There's a hint of strawberry, as is often found in decent Irish red, and more English tannins and metallic hop notes. Nothing else really distinguishes it and it ends up rather forgettable. There's nothing wrong with this beer, it just doesn't sit at all comfortably next to Sweetman's excellent Porter and Pale Ale.

This freebie bottle of 9 White Deer's Saor was handed to me by the brewer with a warning that it's not for the likes of me. It's Ireland's first purpose-brewed gluten-free beer and designed to be accessible, for those who just want a beer and not be challenged by it. And non-challenging it is: dry, fizzy, with a Ryvita graininess and just a slight bubblegum fruitiness by way of balance. The haze is probably its most interesting feature. Nothing wrong with it, but not one to choose if your intestinal villi are fully functional.

The Drumlin series by Brehon Brewhouse has been confusing me since it appeared. At first I thought it was a straight re-branding of the red and blonde and left them alone, but the originals haven't gone away and now there's Drumlin Irish Pale Ale which doesn't have a parallel in the main range, as far as I know. This is an approachable 4.6% ABV and a slightly murky pale copper colour. The aroma is interesting: sharp orange zest, leafy green bitterness, but also a worrying stale burr. There's a certain juiciness in the taste, but not a lot, and not enough to cover a stuffy, dry, cotton-wool fuzz from oxidation, and a substantial yeast bite too. There's a good beer in here, but the drinker doesn't get to see it. Brehon has made some excellent strong beers but I don't think they've quite got the quality under control for the session-strength ones.

And finally a look-in for the macros. C&C quietly launched the second beer from their new Clonmel brewery, a red ale called Roundstone. I found it on tap when I visited Bodytonic's new sports and games pub, The Square Ball, on Grand Canal Street where it was the cheapest pint on the blackboard at €4.80 a throw. For some reason I was expecting nitrokeg, but it's served on CO2 and it was immediately obvious from the first look and taste that they're chasing the Smithwick's market here. There's the same slightly sweet red fruit with a mild toastiness, the same thin body and a very similar metallic hop tang in the finish. And, like Smithwick's, it's not really good enough to even be a distress purchase. Oddly enough, the last beer to really remind me of Smithwick's was Heineken's Cute Hoor. It seems very strange that the Big Three are slugging it out on this minority-interest style. And with precisely zero marketing being done for C&C and Heineken's offerings, you have to wonder how they hope to gain any market traction.

Anyway, enough blandness. I'll cover some more interesting Irish beers on Thursday.

24 September 2015

Weird Spain

Or perhaps "Creative Spain" would have been a better title. Two beers from the east of the country today, both making use of out-of-the-ordinary ingredients.

You have to know how most of the world pronounces IPA to get the pun in Espiga's Papr'IPA. It's 7% ABV and I found it on tap in Alfie Byrne's. The colour is a clear red, atypical for an IPA perhaps, but there's no mistaking the paprika in the aroma, all smoky and earthy. And, unsurprisingly, this is very prominent in the flavour. There's a slightly plasticky element to it but it's not artificial, with a genuine green chilli skin character. And eepa? Yes! There's a proper grapefruit bite underneath the pepperiness. It's a fun beer with big flavours and delivers everything it promises.

This bottle of Er Boquerón I've had sitting at the back of the fridge for a long time. I wasn't expecting much of it, which is probably how it got forgotten. The gimmick here is the use of seawater in the brew, for health reasons, apparently, but it turned out to be nothing like the salty beer style of the moment, Leipzig gose. It's more subtle than that, maybe even boring. The salt is little more than a mild spritz in the aroma and a tang at the back of the flavour. Otherwise for the most part it's a simple and refreshing blonde ale, with some slight yeast-derived spices leaning it towards witbier. At 4.8% ABV it's a perfectly decent sunny day thirst-quencher, but no more than that.

Connoisseurs of beery weirdness won't find much to impress them in Er Boquerón, but smoked chilli IPA is something to look out for if the whole concept isn't too scary in the first place.

21 September 2015

Lowering the veil

I've written before about the inscrutable way Diageo conducts its beer business, with particular recent reference to the series of seemingly similar pale beers they've produced separately for different jurisdictions. Well, last week they joined up two of the dots and released Guinness Golden Ale in Ireland, having previously only made it available in the UK. And their PR folk sent me a bottle.

As many have remarked before me, it's not really gold: more a dark copper sort of colour, though perfectly clear, of course. It smells of straw putting me immediately in mind of traditional saison. There's lots of cereal in the flavour, and a richer crusty brown bread effect. Behind this there are some light spices, almost incense-like, and some of the warmth you find in Belgian blonde ale, despite a very modest ABV of 4.5%. What bitterness is present is provided by light tannins but nothing even hints at the use of hops in this flavour. The finish is dry, much like Guinness Stout, especially in its bottled form. And, like bottled Guinness, this beer has some small measure of complexity but is ultimately rather bland.

The Brewers Project has passed its one year anniversary and is still running, though it has yet to turn out any genuinely worthwhile beers. However, two recent Diageo initiatives offer hope that the company is heading in the right direction here, by utilising its 10hL pilot brewkit for actual beer production rather than just testing, the first time they've done this since the late 1990s. First there's the Smithwick's Homebrew Challenge: a competition organised in association with the National Homebrew Club which will see two finalists making small-batch Christmas ales in St. James Gate, to be distributed to pubs for a customer vote on the supreme champion.

And the other is the opening of a working brewpub in St James's Gate, utilising that same pilot plant. We've seen some great small-batch specials from Franciscan Well's Cork brewpub since Molson Coors took over and began producing the core Franciscan Well range in the UK. I'm hopeful that similarly interesting recipes will be produced at Guinness, and don't mind if I actually have to go on-site to drink them. The structural work required by the conversion looks minimal so I doubt it will be long before the new operation is up and running. Watch this space.

18 September 2015

Last round

A final loop around the RDS at the Irish Craft Beer Festival, looking at new, and new-ish, breweries.

Only one brand was completely unknown to me: Hope. A brewery-restaurant is in the planning for north county Dublin but in the meantime the brand is all designed and the first three beers have been produced at Craftworks. They have a saison called Grunt (see website for story; they're big on story) and it's pleasingly light and crisp, and only 4.7% ABV. The IPA, Handsome Jack, is a beast of 7.4% ABV and offers an unusual, but not at all unpleasant, mix of flowers and citrus. At the centre is that off-kilter Japanese hop Sorachi Ace, but not so much of it that the Citra and Cascade flavours don't make a contribution too. And their work-in-progress is a blonde ale called Passifyoucan -- it didn't taste of anything much, but I'm sure that'll change in later versions.

While we're at Craftworks, in-house brand Postcard had a new one out, a "strong IPA" (6.7% ABV) called Silicon Docks - apparently that's a place in Dublin. News to me. Anyway, this is a dark reddish beer with a significant amount of the toasted caramel more typical of an amber ale, alongside the fruit candy hops. There's something quite English about its power and restraint.

Cork-based gypsy brewer Radik Ale, meanwhile, was also pouring a new beer made at Craftworks. Initially badged as "Curious Brew", I understand it has been subsequently been re-named Radical Brew, and the (fairly) radical thing about it is the use of gin botanicals in place of all hop additions after the initial bittering one. The base beer is an amber-coloured rye ale and the herbal blend is apparently exactly the same one used in Blackwater Distillery's fantastic gin. It smells like posh sausages and tastes savoury, not like gin, but the spices and herbs really do leap out of the flavour. I reckon there's a little too much going on to drink lots -- a bit like most neat gins, really -- but a tasty and fascinating experiment in small quantities.

The brewers of County Wicklow were certainly giving the public what they want: pale ales and plenty of them. Wicklow Wolf launched Freeranger at the festival, a 6.3% ABV IPA that takes unmistakable cues from the US, with its heavy and dense fresh-hop bitterness. Falconer's Flight is doing the heavy lifting here, I believe. And for the less hop-inclined there was Elevation (left), a lovely light and zesty thirst-quenching pale ale of 4.8% ABV. O Brother also had a new American-style pale ale, called The Sinner. This leans more towards the tropical fruit end of the fresh hop spectrum and, saving only the late great Bonita, is my favourite of their beers so far. I certainly preferred it to Bonita's new boyfriend, Brutus double IPA: a 9.1% ABV thug, far too thick and boozy for my liking.

Derry's Northbound Brewery made its festival début and definitely got the hang of things straight away by bringing two brand new beers. The IPA was Unnamed, which I find downright weird for a brewery which calls everything it makes by a two-digit number. How hard is it to think of a number? Anyway, it's a balanced and easy-drinking chappie, dry, with a kind of green-bean squeaky vegetable quality. Beside it was 33, a sticke alt, though a light one at just 5.5% ABV. It's appropriately brown and has all the classic bourbon biscuit sweetness of an alt, and a modest nettley noble hop bitterness. An elegantly put-together beer in an effortlessly classy style.

Also on board for the first time was Yellow Belly, borrowing a bar from Rye River, and some of their daring as well. There was a Black Tea Porter made using lapsang souchong for a tasty and complex twist on all those other, straighter, smoked porters you've had. And they also did a Pale Stout (left): an attempt to recreate stout flavours in a pale beer. It was fun, and genuinely nice to drink, but ultimately unconvincing: the coffee they've added makes it taste of fresh coffee, not of dark roasted grains. For something a little bit more ordinary, there was the Yellow Belly collaboration with Stone Barrel: Stone Belly IPA. It was just 13 days old so rather yeasty but the pale body and soft juicy hops suggest it'll be great when it's dropped a bit. I hope I'll see it again.

By midnight on Saturday my feet were screaming and my palate was crippled, but there was room for just one more beer, though not from a new brewery, nor even an Irish one. Lagunitas Fusion was pouring at Grand Cru's stand, near where I was pulling Northbound beers. Fusion is a juicy beast of a beer, packed with apricot and mango but, crucially, missing the syrupyness that has spoiled several other Lagunitas beers on me. Irish brewers may be making some amazing things at the moment but there's always more to learn.

Thanks as always to the festival organisers, brewers and attendees for what turned out to be a wonderful weekend, at least after I'd had a sit down.