20 November 2014

Gone wild

Fuller's Wild River was introduced as the brewery's summer seasonal in 2012, pitched at the whitewater rafters of Chiswick. A batch of just-past-date bottles showed up at DrinkStore a while back and as I'd never tasted it before at all I grabbed one for the princely sum of €1.

"Zesty" and "bursting with citrus flavours" promises the label, though the cap sent a more disturbing message: something very unhelpful appears to have been growing under there. Still, nothing off about the aroma, and yes there's citrus even if it's more casually dropping in than bursting -- a mannerly mild lemon and grapefruit pithiness. The hop flavour is a tang rather than anything more involved: gentle citrus sets the mouth watering, there's some rounded orange, and finishing on a slightly off-putting metallic note. Under this there's a lot of sugary malt, putting the whole thing much more in the English golden ale category than US-style pale ale.

And the significantly-less-than-a-million dollar question: worth a quid? Yes, I think so.

17 November 2014

Gearing up

Alltech's beery foody extravaganza is coming back to Convention Centre Dublin for the third time at the end of February. To mark the beginning of the end of the planning phase, the company held a launch event a couple of weeks ago at Sam's Bar on Dawson Street. Two beers from Alltech's Kentucky-based brewing arm were doing the rounds and new to me.

The first was Kentucky Peach Barrel Wheat Ale which has been available since the summer. It's a starkly pale yellow colour and smells very sweet and quite sickly. It's not so bad to drink but it really doesn't taste like beer: there's the intense sugary peach effect of peach schnapps, amplified by a whopping 8% ABV. I almost went looking for some orange juice to add to it. The texture is mercifully light but it's still far more of an alcopop than a proper beer.

Rather better suited to the season was Kentucky Pumpkin Barrel Ale, a 10% ABV monster, orange coloured, and smelling strongly of the oak barrels it has been matured in plus a tiny whiff of autumnal spicing. The roles are reversed in the flavour: all the cinnamon, nutmeg and the like take over with just a trace of sour mash bourbon hovering in the background. There's absolutely no sign of all that alcohol, which is probably a good thing: the vital statistics suggest this could have been a sticky mess with added oak honk, but it's not. If anything it errs on the side of being a little characterless. Pumpkin beer for people who don't really like pumpkin beer, perhaps?

They put on a good show, do Alltech, and if past years are anything to go by Brews and Food 2015 promises to be a great event. Registration for both the exhibition and the Dublin Craft Beer Cup is currently open to breweries worldwide. If you're looking for a bit of international attention for your beer I strongly recommend considering it. It means I may get to have a go at your beer too: win-win.

13 November 2014

New pubs for old

Dublin city centre is hardly saturated with good drinking opportunities though you don't need to look as hard as you once did for something decent on draught. We're not quite at the stage where you can walk in anywhere and find a good beer, but I also don't think we're far off it. Meanwhile, the hoppy fingers of independent brewing are reaching into the suburbs and providing more options to the thirsty people there.

The newest addition to the craft beer scene beyond the canals is The 108 in leafy Rathgar. Once a pleasantly shabby corner bar, this was demolished some years back and rebuilt with apartments on top. The pub returned as The Rathgar and retained its shape though I can't say if the atmosphere came back too as I never visited it in this incarnation. As of the beginning of this month it has been re-re-branded and is called The 108 once more, this time as part of the Galway Bay Brewery chain, the tenth in its estate and the sixth in Dublin.

As it happens the brewery had a brand new beer ready on opening night, an amber lager called Steam Boat. I confess I wasn't expecting a whole lot from it but brewer Chris has definitely worked his magic on it. His magic and a whole heap of Galena, Columbus and Citra. It's a murky red-brown colour showing the rawness that Galway Bay likes to present in its beers: no filter, no fining, no mucking about. The aroma is sharp yet fruity, all peach skins and grapefruit. While properly bitter to taste there's a lovely hop complexity, with mango flesh and a touch of the medicine cabinet -- eucalyptus in particular -- too. Best of all the lager yeast gives it a lovely clean finish, making way for the next mouthful. My only real beef with this beer is that the strength is a little high at 5.4% ABV. I'd prefer something I could tear through at a percentage point or so lower, and Galway Bay lacks anything hoppy in this area. That said it's nice to have something with all the character of the house IPA Full Sail with just a little less alcohol.

Meanwhile on the northside the former Red Windmill pub on Phibsborough Road has been acquired by the Bodytonic group, best known for the likes of The Twisted Pepper and Bernard Shaw. The new sign over the door proclaims it to be The Back Page and it is that rarity: a craft beer sports pub. The refurbishment has been done sympathetically and the front bar retains its cosy pubby feel while the bright back room is where the big screen action takes place. There's even a games room upstairs for those more interested in participating than spectating.

Bodytonic's brewing arm has a new beer out to mark the opening, created at Rascal's Brewery with recipe design by homebrew virtuoso Rossa O'Neill. It's badged as a dark mild, is 4.5% ABV and goes by the name Whopper. It's a simple but high quality beer with lots of silky milk chocolate at the centre of the flavour and some chalky mineral dryness around the edges. Maybe it's just because they've decided to call it a mild instead of a brown ale but I couldn't help wondering if there might be more complexity in a cask version of it. Certainly the coldness and fizzyness of keg dispense did it few favours on a rainy November evening.

It's great to see both the Galway Bay and Bodytonic empires expanding, and bringing damn good beer with them as they do. The revolution will not be centralised.

10 November 2014

Dark days

Winter is nearly upon us, so time to look at a few of the recent additions to the Irish beer scene, released to tide us over until the brightness returns.

Brú are newcomers to the seasonal circuit and I was pleased to find their Autumn Ale on cask in The Brew Dock last month. It's a dark red-brown colour and is all about the seasonal spices. Well, not all about them: at its heart this is a solid dark malt-forward ale, full-bodied with warming elements of toffee and caramel. The spicing is at level where it's still the main act, but not overdone. Nutmeg would be my best guess for the principal one, but it could easily be cinnamon, cloves or any combination thereof. You get the picture. It's heartening to see both a brewery resisting the urge to throw the whole spice rack at a beer, and a Dublin pub getting cask dispense absolutely spot-on -- the prickly fizz in this really livened it up in a way that's not often enough the case with this sort of dark heavy beer.

The latest in Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne's range of seasonals is Riasc Black, a 6.1% ABV dark ale with added blackberries. It pours densely black, topped by a thick layer of head, the colour of old ivory. Though no official style is given, the smell reminds me of porter: lightly chocolatey with traces of plummy dark fruit. The texture is one of its best features, being full and creamy with only a subtle effervescence. Flavourwise it has a lot in common with Irish dry stout. There's some roast and hints of mocha, but also a fascinating mild sourness which I'm guessing is the blackberries at work. It doesn't taste at all like a fruit beer, or at least it's a long way from the sticky syrupy nightmares they can sometimes be. Instead here is a beautiful balanced and subtly complex full-bodied dark beer. Perfect winter fare.

I don't know if it actually counts as a seasonal, but Carrig Brewing launched a new black IPA at the end of October: 5.5% ABV and named Coalface. My half pint at the Bull & Castle arrived looking very stoutish: proper black with a creamy white head on top. It smelled quite stouty too, having a lot of the vegetal bitter tang that makes Porterhouse Wrassler's such a classic. I was braced for another bitter Irish stout so was quite shocked to get a hit of sweet sherbet lemons on the first sip. The zingy hop fruit is matched with a smooth dry cocoa flavour and I'm really not sure whether this should be classed in the "hoppy porter" sub-sub-genre of black IPA, or as a proper "IPA-in-all-but-colour". The lasting bitterness on which the flavour finishes could be at home in either, but that juicy lemony centre is the sort of thing only really found in the new wave of American and American-style pale ales. Concerns about taxonomy aside, Coalface is a gorgeous smooth and quaffable beer, not massively full-flavoured, but it does what it does in a really interesting way.

Looks like we're all sorted for the winter then.

07 November 2014

A salutary lesson

It's one of my hobby-horse topics on The Session this month: beer travel. But Brian isn't letting us just drone on about where we went on our holidays, and there's certainly been enough of that on this blog lately. No, we're asked specifically to consider the beer pilgrimage, the brewery visit, the drinking-at-source. Do we do it to enhance our sensory experience by seeking the optimum condition for our beer, or is it more of an abstract thing -- a quest for understanding? I'm pretty much in the latter camp: I like drinking in breweries more to see the context and culture that gave rise to the beer than to try and get the best version of it. I wouldn't be entirely sure that the quality thing always stands up, as neatly illustrated by the last brewery I visited: De Prael in Amsterdam.

I've been before, several times, but it had been a while and options for early Sunday drinking in the city centre are a little on the thin side. It was all go in the roomy bar behind the brewery when we got in -- an energetic jazz band was playing up a storm to a crowd of early Sunday-lunchers. From the bar, three unfamiliar beers. Well, the wife and I got grown-up beers; our companion Zak opted for a flight.

Good man Zak.

First the positive news: Rubberen Robbie is a 6.7% ABV smoked porter brewed at De Prael in collaboration with under-construction Amsterdam brewery Oedipus. It gets just the right balance of strong flavours, matching the heavy chocolate from the base beer with big meaty smoked bacon notes. Some fruity pipesmoke provides complexity and there's a surprise pleasing bitter finish. Nicely done and hats off to both brewers.

Staying on the malty side of the house, Doemaar is a scotch ale, laying on the alcohol at 7.7% ABV and ending up incredibly hot which doesn't help the intense sugary sweetness. This is further topped by lots of brown banana esters for a gloopy, burny, teeth-rotting, heart-palpitating mess of a beer. But even it tasted like Pliny the bleedin' Elder compared to...

Nick & Simon. A 6.5% ABV IPA, arriving hazy and pale yellow, like a witbier, but that's rarely any harm. I didn't get it at first, finding it a simple if rather waxy beer, but both my drinking companions looked like they were being asphyxiated after one sip of it so I took my time to try and find what they were tasting. Oh, there it is now, just as the beer starts to warm. And it gets bigger. And it doesn't stop. Arrgh! Diacetyl is the first deadly sin: big butterscotch on an otherwise quite light texture is horrible. Then there's a nasty sourness, in both the aroma and flavour: lactic, turning towards... cheese. The stinky feety cheesy guff of hops that were not fit for use in beer (isovaleric acid, if I'm not mistaken, chemistry fans). The whole is a bit of a perfect storm of off flavours and is one of the worst beers I've had the misfortune to taste. I drank it less than 10 metres from where it was produced and it should never have got even that far.

I like to think that, out in the wild, any sensible speciality beer bar manager would not have deemed Nick & Simon fit for sale and sent it straight back. But maybe that isn't an option at the brewery bar. Whether it be group-think, palate acclimatisation, economic concerns or fear of the owner's wrath, it's conceivably more likely that you'll get bad pints, wonky batches, at the source than out where the product is subject to beer peer review.

For me, having the experience trumps any individual bad beer episode. Visiting a brewery is always, foremost, an opportunity for learning, not a quest for objective beery perfection. The city which is home to Prael and Bierfabriek teaches us that better than most.

05 November 2014

Sunday stroll

This blog left the Borefts beer festival in Bodegraven last week, though there was one other beer I drank there which wasn't part of the line-up. Mirjam Red Ale is brewed at De Molen however, and Mirjam herself was presenting it to festival-goers, on behalf of her and the husband's Bier de Rie operation. She describes it as a beer "for beer geeks to drink when they're not rating": high quality, but not overly complex, by design. And so it is. A mix of Mosaic, Amarillo and Simcoe hops create a beer with just enough bitterness to be properly interesting, but also smooth and juicy too. My only quibble is that 6.2% ABV is a little on the high side to be properly downable.

As always, the Sunday after Borefts meant a morning of beering around Amsterdam before the evening flight home. This year the wife and I were joined by beer writer, seller and opinion-holder Zak Avery who also had nothing better to do. First stop was Gollem, one of the earliest good beer bars to open its doors on a Sunday, and it doesn't hurt that it's one of the nicest too.

Round one featured a new house beer: Gollem's Precious, a pretty full-on IPA from those geniuses The Musketeers, best known for the Troubadour series. It's only 5.9% ABV but could pass for more, its heavy and slightly sticky body supporting a sprawling edifice of hop complexity: pithy bitterness, grassy weed, herbs, resin and spritzy orange, all packaged under a heady perfume aroma yet somehow staying beautifully drinkable. Local brewing company Oedipus's Thai Thai Tripel was also included. I'd been expecting an exotic oriental twist on standard tripel but this dark orange affair is fairly down-the-line for the style, with maybe just a little bit of extra ginger spicing amongst the hot and heavy Christmassy citrus. It's a nicely sippable tripel but no more or less than that.

Another round? Oh go on then. First up, a new one from Belgian artistes De Dochter van de Korenaar, an "internationally-styled wheat IPA" (huh?) called Crime Passionnel. This is 7.5% ABV and a hazy amber colour. The dominant flavour is a strange mix of dry tart fruits: cranberry, pomegranate and passionfruit. It took me a while to dredge what it reminded me of from the depths of my subconscious but I eventually arrived at Campari. If you've been looking for a beer that tastes of Campari, here it is.

't IJ's Session IPA was sadly out of stock, but two more new ones were available. 't IJ Barleywine is an especially heavy and warming example of the style, in a good way, showing dubbelish notes of prune and fig on a chewy bourbon biscuit base. Meanwhile 't IJ Motueka does quite a decent job with what isn't a favourite hop of mine. It's a 5.6% ABV pale ale, a brownish-orange colour, starting with a fresh honeydew melon aroma and incorporating a mix of fruit juices in the flavour. Simple but tasty.

I'll save what happened next for Friday's post, but it was inevitable that we would end up sitting outside Arendsnest. It wasn't too busy either. A diversionary beer festival was happening down in Rotterdam so I'd say a lot of the usual post-Borefts nest-hoggers were at that.

With Uiltje being my Big Discovery of Borefts 2014, I was immediately drawn to one of theirs on the tap list, Black & Tan. It's actually a blend of an Uiltje IPA with a porter by Hague brewers Kompaan. The end result is chestnut red and smells beautifully of oranges and pine. The hops weigh heavily on the flavour too, all resinous and oily. Diluting it with porter turns it into something resembling an amber ale, but with extra chocolate and a good dose of roast too. Only 7% ABV, but with a rather vinous finish it's another one that tastes like it could be more.

And sitting to the left of it there is Eem Bockbier, a fruitier sort of dark Dutch bock, oily chocolate oranges, a waft of autumnal bonfire and a sharp dry finish where you might normally expect sticky caramel. I'd be tempted to ding it stylistically if it wasn't so much better than most bocks.

One thing I love about Arendsnest is the plethora of Dutch beer companies I've never heard of, available on tap. One such was Reuzenbieren, and I tried their Reuz CIPA: an 8.5% ABV US-style double IPA. Spiced mandarins are the hallmark left by plenty of Amarillo here, to the point that the beer offers very little else, other than increasing weight as it warms up. It's a simple profile for the style and strength, but no less enjoyable for that.

And a token dark beer to finish off: Leckere Schwarz, with its stylish art deco logo. It's a nicely clean black lager with some sour liquorice notes thrown in. A bit more crisp roastness might be nice but I don't object at all to the heavier porterish weight it delivers instead.

It's The Session on Friday and the questions on the table are:
Why is it important for us to visit the place the where our beers are made? Why does drinking from source always seem like a better and more valuable experience? Is it simply a matter of getting the beer at it’s freshest or is it more akin to pilgrimage to pay respect and understand the circumstances of the beer better?
I'll be retracing our steps and looking for some specifically Amsterdammish answers.

03 November 2014

Tottenham hops

These five beers from north London's Beavertown brewery have been around in Ireland for a few months now, causing a bit of a stir with their distinctive branding and bold flavours.

Neck Oil is a pale ale and shouldn't be confused with the much more famous Neck Oil bitter by The Whalebone brewpub in Hull. It presents as a rather sickly yellow colour, topped by a huge pillow of white foam. The aroma is quite severe: mostly pine and grapefruit though there's also the promise of some softer fruit behind it. The flavour is odd. First impression is very watery and metallic, like those low-ABV table beers that are all the rage these days, even though it's a full 4.3%. The malt is almost silent and the hops are of the intensely acidic sort, showing lots of dark green spinach and nettle. Searching hard for some lighter notes I got maybe a quiet kiss of peach or perhaps mango, but overall this is one for the IBU-chasers rather than the Lilt junkies. Sadly.

So I was apprehensive facing into Gamma Ray, another pale ale, this one slightly stronger at 5.4% ABV, with yet more busy foam wasting my time as I tried to get the bastard into a glass. It's a hazy orange colour and again smells bitter, though there's a richer dank quality to it. The flavour here is a powerful mix of spices and orange: clovey and pithy. It's better and more rounded than Neck Oil but I still get that harsh metallic edge spoiling my fun.

Pulling the tab on 8 Ball gave me a sudden blast of sweet meadow grass and flowers. It's a rye IPA and its texture is nicely full despite a mere 6.2%, with lots of wholesome haze and a respectable head over a garnet-coloured body. The hops are very much here for flavour rather than bitterness and there's a surprising amount of milk chocolate in with the caramel malt. On top of that you get sweet satsuma, floral orange blossom, and a greener weed and herb taste: fennel, eucalpytus. The balance here makes it much more to my taste than the previous two pale ales. Perhaps it's the darker beers where Beavertown really excels. Let's find out.

The inevitable black IPA is called Black Betty and I really should have learned my lesson by the time I got to it. A pyramid of ivory foam in my teku was my reward for pouring it at what I consider a normal pace. Still, the aroma went a long way to kiss and make up, being all luscious rosewater and a cheekier fresh cut-grass sharpness. Smooth milk chocolate is the centrepiece of the flavour, livened by bowers of flowers and then squirted liberally with grapefruit and lime juice. There's an odd savoury finish, a brief flash of soy sauce or shiitake. It's a fun experience, by turns soothing and invigorating. There's very little sign of the whopping 7.4% ABV and if it wasn't for the time it takes to pour I'd have been well up for another.

We finish with Smog Rocket, Beavertown's 5.4% ABV smoked porter. Nothing metallic in this black beastie. It smells of cocoa and iodine and is fabulously smooth textured. Lots of chocolate in its flavour, complemented by a powerful, but not overpowering, luxurious layer of smoke, like the pall in a Mayfair gentlemen's club. The taste isn't totally refined: there are a few bitter edges, but next to Neck Oil and Gamma Ray it's like drinking silk.

I'm surprised to find the darker, sweeter beers are my favourite out of this lot but at the same time I'm quite happy with my lupulin threshold where it is.