26 June 2017

Ireland goes indie

For the first time ever it's Indie Beer Week in Ireland. It has been since Friday but it only occurred to me yesterday to dedicate a week of blog posts to the vibrant independent beer scene in this country. To begin with, a hasty spin around the Republic to look at new releases from various Irish breweries, some of whom are participating in the week's events.

And starting at a brand new brewery very close to home. Priory in Tallaght opened its doors last month. The first beer is a 5.3% ABV IPA called Original Sin. The thick layer of sediment in the bottom of the bottle concerned me a little but I did manage to pour it fairly clearly, giving me a deep orange-amber glassful with a well-retained white head. The aroma is quite muted with just a very faint orange cookie smell. The texture is light and smooth, almost cask-like, which is always pleasing in a bottle-conditioned beer. The flavour, perhaps unsurprisingly from the colour, is quite malt-forward, with a rich and wholesome breadiness and a mostly unobtrusive dash of yeast. Mosaic and Citra are the principal hops and the latter gives it a sharp limey pinch, though this does tend to fade as the beer warms. The hops also get their final say in the long bitter finish which scours the palate pleasingly at the end. Not a bad beer, overall, though very much in the traditional, somewhat English, style of IPA. A bit of a hop boost would do the flavour no harm but maybe they're aiming at accessibility. I look forward to what Priory does next.

One of Dublin's other new breweries for 2017, Third Barrel, is beginning to hit its stride, with a re-release of one Stone Barrel first brewed in its gypsy days. It's an amber ale called Sundown: 4.5% ABV and pretty much down the line for the style. You get a weighty sweet toffee base and a quick burst of citrus spritz. That's about it, but then this style tends to be quite two-dimensional in this way. A hop boost would be of benefit, but it's perfectly fine in its own understated way.

A little further west brings us to Trouble Brewing who had two new ones, both of them similarly amber coloured.

Stagediver is formally badged as an amber ale, though bigger than Sundown at 5.6% ABV. And this delivered what I spoke about above, the smooth caramel malt present but very much in second place to a punchy hop bitterness which settles after a moment and integrates with the malt to form a pleasant red fruit profile, all sweet cherry and raspberry sauce. While I'd have no problem ordering a second Sundown after the first, I might leave this one and come back to it after a more cleansing alternative, if I were the sort of person to drink the same beer twice in one session.

The other was called Tasty McDole Collaboration and is described as a "west coast session IPA", though is a little on the strong side at 5.2% ABV. As I say, it's amber coloured, which is not something I'd associate with the US west coast. And nor is the savoury caraway flavour. The only citrus bitterness present is tiny and at the very end. It's very bland drinking otherwise, certainly not the sort of thing one would expect from a collaboration with a celebrity home brewer.

Galway Bay have managed to pop out two new beers recently and I found Croozer, a session IPA, at The Brew Dock. I've long been a fan of their "table beer", the 3.5% ABV Via Maris, and this had a lot to live up to, being just a bit stronger but considerably more expensive. It arrived an unattractive opaque yellow colour, and I was expecting gritty yeast bitterness, but no! The texture is beautifully creamy and there's a very modern combination of fresh tropical fruit -- pineapple in particular -- and savoury spring onion. There's a touch of oily herb too, and a lacing of coconut to add to the tropicality. It's very nicely done, and ranks with many of the hoppy and murky beers that the UK's most-hyped breweries are producing (it's no coincidence that a sister company of Galway Bay Brewery brings in Cloudwater and Northern Monk), but that €6-a-pint price tag for a beer at 3.9% ABV make it more a sipper than a sessioner.

Then over at The Black Sheep they had the new Galway Bay black IPA: Rando Calrissian. As is often the case with this style it's more dark brown than black. The hop fruit is worn at the front: an initial burst of raspberry sherbet, bitter and tangy. After that it takes a turn for the tarry, a rising roast drowning the hops and leaving it rather acrid. It offers the drinker a flash of spritzy fun but takes it away far too quickly. The finish is heavy, funky and serious. The frivolous name belies a far less than frivolous beer.

Staying in Connacht for one more, a swift taster of a new IPA from Carrig Brewing: Afternoon Delight. It's no great shakes, being another one of those beers that does savoury yeasty vegetal flavours where there should be proper hops. There's a harsh pithy bitterness but the flavour is sorely lacking. No delight whatsoever in this.

Heading south and the most recent beer from Eight Degrees is a collaboration with Californian brewery Drake's. It's called Spruce Juice, made with real spruce tips from trees close to the brewery. Stylewise it's another amber ale, and the glass I was served at The Porterhouse was a gorgeous clear mahogany red colour. It's a bit basic after that, the old amber ale problem, I guess. There's a mild hop bitterness, the Nugget in particular giving it a sharp greenness which I'm sure is accentuated by the spruce. There's slight sticky resin finish too, which may be related. In between it's mostly about the simple flat toffee sweetness. Like the Sundown above, it was fine but left me wanting more flavour, more character.

Last time I was at The Beerhouse there was a new addition to Black's of Kinsale's single hop series: El Dorado Oatmeal IPA. It's quite a dry beastie, and pleasantly so, tasting clean with a texture that's light and effervescent. The flavour is perhaps a little one-dimensional, being mostly a refreshing orangeade, though it's a good dimension. I got just a small waft of onion as my glass began to warm. It's an accessible 5% ABV and is definitely the sort of simple, well-made IPA one could slip into for an evening, much like the brewery's flagship, in fact.

Dungarvan's latest limited edition, their third this year, is Turning Tide, a wheat beer with lemon peel. I liked the idea of Hoegaarden with the slice of fruit built in, and that's what I was expecting. There was a lot of yeast in the bottle -- some fairly coagulated gobbets flopped into my glass towards the end, but I figured it was safe enough given the style. I think I was wrong. While there is a very nice zesty lemon aroma, the first flavour is a harsh, concentrated savouriness with a tang of burnt rubber off it. I found it very difficult to get past that. There is a fresh lemon flavour buried deep in it, but I only caught a flash of it in between the acrid opening and the long rough finish. I've little doubt that it's a good recipe but it has been let down by the technicals. My cack-handed pouring should not be enough to ruin the taste of a beer completely.

And a final bottle for dessert, bringing the tour back home to Leinster. Ultimate Revenge is new from Kelly's Mountain in Clane. It's a souped-up version of their ruby porter, the strength increased from 4.5% ABV to 7%. It is still ruby, however: a lustrous dark garnet colour topped by a head of dense foam the colour of old ivory. The flavour delivers a veritable basket of ripe summer fruits, with mushy strawberries to the fore, plus soft cherries and juicy plums. A more autumnal tartness follows next: blackcurrants and damsons. This bitterness keeps rising and is joined by a burnt roastiness, more coal and turf than coffee. It's an intense experience and I think the name was aptly chosen: I don't know where you would go from here. Once you get used to the busy flavours it becomes a smooth and satisfying pintful.

There's a full list of events on the Indie Beer Week website, and more independent Irish beer reviews from me in the next couple of posts.

23 June 2017

Something out of the ordinary

One-offs, oddities and suchlike is the loose theme for this the second blog post from the 2017 Killarney Beer Festival.

A new beer from Kinnegar always gets my attention, and this was their first time at the festival, having picked up the grand prize in the beer competition last year. Making its début this time was Great Arch, which is a blonde beer broadly in the Cologne style but dry-hopped. There's a quite a bitter aroma, acidic and sickish, but that's the only bum note. The flavour is perfectly fresh and clean, showing juicy peach at the front and a more serious oily hop resin rising up behind. It's only 4.9% ABV so gets the job of refreshment done, aided by a light body, soft carbonation and a quick finish on the flavour. Summer is written all over this one.

Despite the bright-sounding name, A New Dawn from St Mel's is anything but. This is a new black IPA, modestly strong at 5.5% ABV, and properly black too. It hits the style points incredibly well, with a heady red cabbage spice in the aroma and then a flavour which blends citrus zest and dark roast. This is another beer which clears off the palate quickly and cleanly, though it rounds out nicely as it warms, showing more of its porter characteristics. A bit more hoppy punchiness would be nice, but it works very well as-is.

Late last year James Brown Brews produced Wayward Sun rye pale ale as an exclusive for the Carry Out off licence chain. I don't have one anywhere near me so missed it, but was glad to see it on his bar at Killarney. It's 4.5% ABV and a striking pinkish colour. Thanks to the rye it's mostly quite dry, with a particularly acidic burn in the finish and an aspirin tang in the aroma. But this is balanced by ripe tangerine notes, rounding off the edges and aiding its drinkability. It's a simple and unfussy beer, complex without demanding too much from the drinker.

I wish I could say the same for Arthurstown Grapefruit Pale Ale: it also goes for that sharply acidic angle. It doesn't balance it properly, however, and the result is astringent, overly bitter and just difficult to drink. They can't be blamed for skimping on the grapefruit juice: that's present, front and centre, loud and clear, but the rest of the package isn't up to the job of taming it, unfortunately.

Last of the new Irish was Wild Bat Hefeweisen [sic] from Corrib Brewing, the latest in their series of specials I last met back at Alltech in February. I was a little suspicious of the low 4.5% ABV but it makes good use of what it has, aiming for light and crisp instead of heavy and fruity. There is a major banana element to the profile, but it's not overly sweet or cloying. This isn't a style we see a lot of among Irish brewers so it's refreshing to see one turned out in solid workmanlike fashion.

For a footnote, Steve was sharing bottles from his stash again. This time it was 2014 Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien, a mixed-fermentation barrel-aged bière de garde, though tasting far more like a Flemish red, by Swiss brewery BFM. "Bon-Chien" was the name of the brewery's cat. This probably passes as next-level humour in Switzerland.

Perhaps there's something to be said for leaving this sort of thing to the Belgians because this really wasn't good. It looked fine: a pinkish-red shade, and the aroma starts out OK with an earthy funky waft. It all goes a bit opening-the-Ark-of-the-Covenant after that, the vapours suddenly turning powerfully acidic, though merely burning the nose hairs rather than melting one's face off. The flavour is extremely balsamic, all resins and retsina, given extra concentrated power at 11% ABV. That's at the front of the palate anyway; at the back of the throat it's just pure acrid burning with no complexity, certainly no subtlety, and frankly not an ounce of fun. Cheers for the experience, Steve, but I think I might give the other vintages a swerve.

Just as well there were plenty of palate cleansers out on the festival floor. Particular shout-out to the long-awaited return of YellowBelly Summer Ale, twisting classic English hops into a new-world-style pale ale. Perfect refreshment as the sun sets on Killarney for another year.

21 June 2017

Bring in the new

As in previous years, twenty Irish breweries took stands at the Killarney Beer Festival. This year, unfortunately for my ticking predilection, the line-up veered a little away from the local breweries -- no West Kerry, no Eight Degrees, no Black's of Kinsale -- and in favour of breweries I meet all the time in Dublin: Wicklow Wolf, Boyne Brewhouse and The Porterhouse were among the first-timers for 2017.

Anyway, there was still enough to keep me occupied for the weekend. Of particular interest was a slew of new specials from Manor Brewing but before that, a bit of pre-festival research revealed that I'd never written about their flagship lager Mont, even though I've always enjoyed it. It's not a beer of bells and whistles, just a superbly produced pilsner, well balanced between the light (yet not thin) malt body and a waxy kick of classic noble hops. The carbonation is low enough for easy quaffing too. An all-round class act, basically. So what about the newbies?

There was the Belgian-style dark ale which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, and also a dark lager, infused with oranges, plus extra Seville orange soakage at the point of dispense. The name: Black Is The New Orange. I'll confess it took a while for the orange side of it to open up for me. To begin with it was just sweet and roasty black molasses and treacle, tasting a little heavier than 5% ABV would suggest. Then the fruit kicked in, giving a pleasant, but mild, zesty punch in the finish, and a sweet aroma of chocolate and marmalade that's disturbingly close to a freshly opened pack of jaffa cakes. It's a fun beer overall, and I like how it didn't lay on the novelty too heavily.

Two new IPAs from Manor were on tap as well. Triumph & Disaster is the regular one at 5.7% ABV. I was surprised, though charmed, by the highly malt-forward aroma, full of rich and calorific cake and biscuit. The flavour serves up the hops old-school: earthy Cascade dominating, but balanced nicely by the crystal malt behind. It's not a complete '90s throwback, however, there's a spark of modern complexity in the pear and white peach juiciness that runs through it. Not a world-shaker, but nicely put together.

Its companion imperial IPA is called Bigger Than Ben Hur and at 9.2% ABV has clearly been designed to shake something. (Excuse the terrible picture: it was understandably late by the time I got to this.) The hops this time are Amarillo and Wai-iti but to me it bore a strong resemblance to its little brother. There's that cake thing again, as well as the peach and pear. It's perhaps not as hoppily punchy as the best DIPAs but it does lack any cloying sickly heat or sharpness, which is definitely in its favour. Fans of the style may find it lacks impact for them, despite going all-out with the ABV.

Also working the multiple-new-beer angle for me was Boyne Brewhouse. I had missed their Oatmeal Stout at the Alltech festival back in February but it made a reappearance on the bar here. This one certainly gets its money's worth out of the porridge bag: it's massively thick and gloopy, despite a quite reasonable 6.2% ABV. It uses that extra heft to add complexity to the flavour, and as well as the standard roast coffee and chocolate I got sweet ripe strawberries and a heady spicy aftershave note. Very much a beer for sipping, this, for reasons both of texture and flavour.

And brand new on the Boyne roster was an Imperial Saison. I keep saying how strong saison isn't my thing but I've now met three badged as "imperial" (including Stone's last week) which I've found highly enjoyable. This one is 7.8% ABV, a pale milky colour and arrived without much by way of a head. It smells of pear, which put me on high alert for acetone solvent flavours, but there aren't any. Instead it's amazingly crisp and clean, refreshing even, without an ounce of heat or excess fruit. It is, in short, everything a saison is supposed to be except for the percentage number on the tap badge.

Finally for today to local boys Torc and a couple of new offerings. They actually had three but I only spotted their new red as I left to get my train on the last day. Neither of the other two really floated my boat, however. There was a Barrel-Aged Porter at just 4.6% ABV which I suspect just didn't have enough beer substance to balance the barrel. The end result tasted of butter, vanilla and sawdust.

5% ABV Kingdom IPA was also new to me, and also lacked the desired cleanness. It's a strange purple-ish colour and is extremely sweet, showing the synthetic fruit characteristics of red lemonade. I'm afraid I can't help you with this analogy if you've never tasted red lemonade, but suffice it to say that lemons do not feature. There's a certain red fruit purée element as well and a slick, almost sticky, body. Perhaps this has been constructed to suit local tastes but it wasn't my sort of IPA at all.

More from the festival later this week, with some more rapid flitting between the bars. It's good to get a bit of exercise.


19 June 2017

Rail ale

The 2017 Killarney Beerfest kicked off on a sunny Friday at the end of May. As per, I headed down on the train and used the spare couple of hours to catch up on a few bottles that had been sitting in my fridge a little too long.

First up, as we pulled out of Heuston, was White Gypsy's Toasted Special. No style is specified, only that it's dark and leans heavily on its Munich malt. And so it proved. It's rather muddy in the glass and smells rich and wholesome. The flavour is milk chocolate first, backed by a drier balancing roast. The sweetness builds as it warms up, bringing in a slight metallic tang. I reckon this is one for drinking cold, though it's a shame that 5.8% ABV precludes session drinking unless you're a card-carrying Maß-toting Bavarian. I don't know whether it's top or bottom fermented, but if you're looking for the Munich dunkel experience without too much bitterness, this is the best way to get it from an Irish brewery.

Portlaoise approaches and it's on to Humdinger, hazy again but pale this time, 5% ABV, brewed with a lager yeast and using Cascade hops. It's still pretty sweet but there's a beautiful peachy complexity on top of the biscuit. Again I think it would have benefited from a lower serving temperature than was practicable on the 11am to Cork. There's an almost jasmine perfume spice but also a pleasantly drying tannic tea effect. The body is heavier than a typical lager but still allows it to be thirst-quenching: think good English bitter, with a similar soft and easy-going texture. I'm of the opinion that both these White Gypsy beers would be amazing on cask. If a pallet is being put together for the Irish bar at this year's Great British Beer Festival they'd be excellent additions.

Northbound's convention of naming their beers after the IBU quotient meant that I left 60 to last, popping the cap somewhere around Thurles. It's a bit rough if I'm honest; there's a homebrewish vibe about it. The style designation is "Crystal Amber", and yes I know what Crystal malt is, but the word does create a certain expectation of clarity which this murky brown number definitely does not have. Brown bread and yeast spice are the long and the short of it. I say "spice" rather than "bite" because it's still smooth and surprisingly unbitter, given that weighty IBU measure. I did enjoy its crusty, savoury stylings: there are no jarring off-flavours, but one expects a degree of cleanliness from a beer in the ~€4 bracket and this really has an amatuerish feel to it. I'm not sure if that's a criticism or not.

Mallow approaches, and the change for the Killarney train, followed by a cavalcade of new beers.

16 June 2017

The Stone inversion

The beer that held the record (until today) of languishing longest in my drafts folder without a proper write-up is Stone Imperial Saison. That picture there was date stamped 12th March last, taken in The Tap House in the aftermath of their White Hag event. I feel terribly guilty about not getting to it sooner because it definitely deserves a recommendation. Normally I'd run a mile from saison at 9.4% ABV but it was the end of the night and my guard was down: you know how that works. This does have a thick and heavy texture, but that's as far as the imperialisation goes. The flavour is clean and still quite crisp, with an assertive but not overblown level of white pepper and a wisp of mint humbug on the end. Best of all there's no hot and sickly fruit which is always the danger when saison gets notions. Although it's a sipper -- in defiance of proper saison rules -- it's still a very nicely put-together beer.

And from a strong version of a normally weak style to a weak version of a strong beer. Little Bastard is a brand extension from Stone's long-established strong ale Arrogant Bastard. This is 4.7% ABV and a coppery brown colour. It's a very old-fashioned flavour, reminding me of typical salt-of-the-earth English brown bitters. There's bags of tannin, to the point of astringency, but not much by way of malty substance. Bookending the flavour is a vegetal bitterness at the front and a sugary caramel aftertaste. If you'd told me this was a bottled bitter from a Victorian family brewery in the home counties, I'd have believed you. If you'd told me it was McMullen's AK I'd probably have nodded along. Arrogant Bastard famously boasted of its depth and complexity, but this variant seems to have stripped both those things out leaving a decidedly anodyne red ale.

A one-all draw for Stone Berlin, after considerable extra time and one golden goal.

14 June 2017

The Austrian succession

Today's beers were picked at random from an off licence shelf in Utrecht. It wasn't until I got them home that I noticed they're from Austria. The branding is very different from my pre-conceptions of sturdy traditional Austrian brewing, but then I suppose it must have an awesomely epic craft beer scene these days, same as everywhere else. Both are by Bevog brewery, founded in 2013 in the far south east of the country, hard by the border with Slovenia.

For all the drama on the printed can of Kramah IPA, there was no action when I pulled the tab. It poured out thick and lazy, with little sparkle, a desultory head and lots of yeasty goop at the bottom which I just avoided getting in my glass. The aroma is a rather plain oily jaffa thing -- Slovenian hops at work? -- and the flavour is much more about the biscuity malt than anything else. There's a strong pithy bitterness at the back, running long into the aftertaste, but no fresh top notes at all. This dullness is accentuated by the lack of sparkle and a body which feels much heavier than 6.5% ABV. There were four months to go on the best-before so it could be that this is simply past its best, but it wasn't at all as thrilling as its artwork.

We move up from there to an 8.2% ABV double IPA called Shower Beer (bathroom photo location purely for comic effect) which had a longer date on it though didn't smell any fresher. Despite the clean-looking golden colour there's a stale, almost lactic, aroma. They've gone all-out for savoury in the flavour, with a big hit of garlic and onions right from the start. It's not unpleasant, and the big malt-laden double IPA body provides a sweetness that helps offset the harsher aspects of the savoury. There's a very slight citrus tang -- more of those jaffa oranges -- just on the finish to further balance it, while the finish is a waxy flavour that belongs more in a bock more than anything in a new world style. It's a bit all over the place, really. It passes muster as a double IPA but really lacks the fresh and bright hop characteristics which make the style worthwhile. I'm less inclined to believe the freshness excuse this time round.

Hurrah for diversity and all that, but a decent helles or dunkel would definitely be my preference to either of these.

12 June 2017

Will I, won't I?

I always have a bit of back and forth when new Cloudwater beer lands. I know everyone will be talking about it and I'd like to be part of the conversation, but the beers are terribly expensive and too many of them aren't any good. The phrase "sucker juice" always jumps to the front of my mind when I'm looking at those arty cans in the off licence fridge. This time I thought I'd just go for the cheaper ones: a fiver a can, which is still pretty steep for low to medium strength beer.

Cloudwater Seville Orange Sour is certainly low-wattage, at just 3.5% ABV. A dark orange colour, opaque and headless, it looks like Fanta in the glass. And it tastes like... Diet Fanta. There's lots of unmistakable orange flavour, but there's very little else other than water and fizz. It's certainly not very sour. While this is far from unpleasant, I don't really see the point of it. It's thirst-quenching, I guess, but it's too thin, too one-dimensional and definitely not a fiver's worth of beer.

Higher hopes, then, for Session IPA Citra Mosaic. It looks similar, mind: hazy and orange. The aroma is fabulously juicy with just a slight edge of red cabbage spice. The texture is fantastically smooth and carries a magnificent soft hop flavour, with the tropical mango and apricot of Mosaic and the lemon zest of Citra but only minimal bitterness. It's one of the most sessionable session IPAs I've ever tasted, the softness making it highly gluggable. Classic stuff, and about the only session IPA that gives Little Fawn a run for its money, even if it does cost as much from the supermarket as Little Fawn does in the pub. It would need to be cleaner to compete fully, though.

That gave me the confidence to go shopping again and shell out the whopping €7.50 for NW DIPA Citra. This seems to be the end point of Cloudwater's numbered double IPA sequence that's been running for the last year and a bit. Yeast from JW Lees has been used again and the poured beer looks like elderly custard: a dull yellowy beige. The aroma is fully in keeping with the New England style: sweet in two ways, with sticky mango juice and stickier clove rock. It smells like it's going to be hard work. It's not though. There's not a trace of heat, despite an unreasonable 9% ABV. And it's not especially sweet either. It's savoury in an alium sort of way, with the burn of raw garlic, and then a spicing of nutmeg and clove, leaving a residue of citric lime. Confused by how Citra was doing all of that I turned to the back of the can to discover that Hüll Melon, Mosaic and Simcoe are also involved. Well that makes a lot more sense. What amazes me most is the subtlety. It's so smooth and unbitter it's almost sessionable, though at near-wine strength that obviously would not be a good idea. Part of me thinks I should be getting more flavour for my money but another recognises the technical achievement of making a double IPA with this lightness of touch. It's still too much money for one beer, though. I might leave it a while before my next one of these from Cloudwater.